‘I Am Battling Yogi Government Apathy’

Two years back, when Anshu Rajput, an acid attack survivor from Bijnore, Uttar Pradesh, found employment in Lucknow’s Sheroes Café, she saw light at the end of the tunnel. As she gradually restored her confidence and picked up the pieces, the café, her source of dignity and livelihood was served a notice to surrender the land. She now wants people to come forward and support her cause to keep the café running:   I am an acid attack survivor from Bijnore, Uttar Pradesh. In 2014, when I was 16, a 55-year-old man (my neighbour) poured acid on my face when I rejected his advances. Avoiding mirrors and hiding my disfigured face was something I had gotten used to. Loneliness was my only companion. But about two years ago, I was made to realise that my life too was worth something –I too could be a hero — a ‘Shero’ (a She-Hero). Two years ago, Chhanv Foundation started the SheRoes Hangout Cafe in Lucknow, opposite Ambedkar Memorial Park, with the aim to rehabilitate acid attack survivors. I joined the cafe. The cafe not just a source of employment, but a ray of hope for 20 other acid attack survivors like me. Working at the cafe, I began to imagine that despite my past, I too could lead a respectable and ‘normal’ life. Finally, I felt I was in a world, where I was not being judged; where people did not pass snide remarks just looking at me. In a very short time, SheRoes Hangout Cafe became a place where ideas could be discussed. People could talk of bringing about change. The survivors could engage in a normal conversation with society. The cafe organised hundreds of events that include debates, talk shows and workshops. Most importantly, the cafe managed to change mindsets of people and sensitised them about the issue of violence against women. People who visit are able to understand the plight and stigma attached to the disfigurement survivors. On September 22, 2018, our world came crashing. The state women’s welfare department sent us a notice to vacate the premises by September 29. There is a bit of a history to it. Earlier this year in March, the cafe’s two-year lease had come to an end. The Uttar Pradesh government then floated a tender inviting bids for taking over the premises. However, floating of a tender went against the MoU that was signed between the Chhanv Foundation and the state government. As per the MoU, a monitoring committee was to be formed that would have assessed the cafe’s management. After a lot of opposition, finally a committee was formed on September 6 and they blindly and arbitrarily decided that the cafe had no business to run. Chhanv Foundation challenged this at the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court and the bench gave us time till October 22 to vacate the premises. As far as rehabilitation of the acid attack survivors working at the cafe was concerned, they were ‘considerate’ enough to allow us to reside in a state-run women’s hostel free of cost and provide training in a skill of our choice. It is shocking how the committee did not see any merit in our work. At least 12 survivors who are permanent employees will be left jobless. In a short span of time SheRoes Hangout has not only empowered 25 survivors financially, but has also reached out to acid attack survivors all over India. More than 50 survivors have been provided with medical, financial and legal aid. Till now, SheRoes has hosted more than a 10,000 guests and added around a million supporters to the campaign on social media with a pledge to Stop Acid Attacks. The cafe is frequented by the likes of German First Lady Elke Büdenbender, Hollywood Actor Jason Isaacs; Bollywood actors such as, Sanjay Dutt, Rajkumar Rao, Dia Mirza, Swara Bhaskar, Divya Dutta, Zakir Khan, and Shatrughan Sinha. Widely covered by the mainstream media, more than 50 documentaries have been shot on the SheRoes Model of rehabilitation, which brought the issue of acid violence in public discourse. The rehabilitation project has been recognised internationally by the governments of the United States, Germany and Spain.  It has won several national awards which includes the Nari Shakti award that is conferred by the President of India. I remember when I first started work, I took baby steps to mingle with the guests. It took us a couple of days to get to know each other. Now, after almost 30 months, we have developed a connection with our clientele. The Uttar Pradesh government has only rebuffed the project. Negating all the efforts that we have put into this cafe is inhuman, disrespectful and humiliating! It is appalling how the state department for ‘women’s welfare’ have decided to discriminate against women acid survivors. Over the counter sale of acid was banned in India in 2013, but can we ban people from acidic mindsets? Our Constitution grants us Freedom of Speech and Expression, but sadly there doesn’t seem to be a place for a cafe like SheRoes –a place where people could speak out and express their thoughts freely. Note: Hours after this story going live on our website, the Supreme Court of India granted a stay to Sheroes against the eviction order and directed the Allahabad High Court to hear and dispose the matter within this period. Team Sheroes has expressed happiness at the apex court order.]]>

‘Tongas Will Become Dinosaurs Soon’

Every day, Chand Mohammad, 75, a tongawallah in Lucknow waits patiently for passengers. But the patrons are hard to come by. With the advent of cheaper e-rickshaws and quicker public transport, he tells LokMarg, Lucknow will quietly witness the extinction of our clan.   I was 15 when I took the seat alongside my father and started ferrying passengers on the roads of Lucknow. For 60 years, I have guided several thousands of tourists around the heritage sites of our historical city. Until the early 2000s, there was steady business for most of the tongawalahs. We never fell short of tourists and used to return home with a decent amount of money – enough to run our households and feed our horses. However, with the passage of time, things deteriorated drastically. Passengers hardly come by. And when someone chooses to take a tonga ride, it leads to a squabble among the tongawallahs, over who gets to ferry that lone passenger. The tonga was my bread and butter once; now it is a burden that I have chosen to carry to my grave. Earlier, the state government had chalked out a route, which was working well for us. We used to ply across the five-kilometer-long stretch between Chidiyaghar to the Chhota Imambara. It included all the historical sites such as, Bhoolbhulaiya, Bada Imambara, and Pukka Pul. But now our movement has been restricted. We can now ply only between Pukka Pul and the Unity College – a one-kilometer long stretch. During the Samajwadi Party regime, this one-kilometer stretch was declared the ‘heritage zone’. The road was even paved with old bricks to give it a ‘heritage’ look. The then chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav had promised that other vehicles will be banned from this stretch to give us the much-needed boost. But such promises are never kept – it is one lesson that I have learnt. The advent of e-rikshaws have proven to be the last nail on our coffins. They ferry across the city like bees, with no one to check them. Commuters too prefer e-rikshaws over tongas, since they are cheaper and can move around anywhere in the city as they have licenses. Till 10 years ago, we had licenses too. But the city administration has not renewed them. They are also waiting to quietly phase us out. Burdened with our set of problems, we have met the district magistrate several times, but to no avail. All we get is reassurances and no real action.  With no option left, most tongawalahs have shifted jobs. The tongas left can be counted on the fingers now. There are just eight to 10 tongas on the roads of Lucknow, with a daily income of a meagre Rs.50 to Rs 100 a day. I am old, and I have chosen to continue with the `legacy’ of my fore-fathers till the day I die. But my children have no interest in this profession. I have four sons and fortunately, all of them are fortunately in different professions. Once I die, I know for sure that my tonga will be either sold off or will be kept chained outside our house. The other tongawalahs await the same fate. An important part of the city’s heritage is on the verge of extinction, and no one seems to be bothered. Lucknow will quietly witness the extinction of our clan.]]>