Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Unity in Adversity

“Don’t go the way life takes you… Take life the way you want to go. Remember, you are born to live and not living because you are born”. This quote on the bulletin board of Support, a center for AIDS victims’ in Summanhalli sums up the spirit infused in its inmates. Summanahalli has transformed itself into a social hub in Bangalore where different socially committed groups work for marginalized people under the umbrella of Sumanahalli Society. The 50 acre campus has an orphanage for girls (predominantly those with a leprosy background), a center for people suffering from HIV, a home for juvenile delinquents, a home for street children and a leprosy home. Set in a serene and soothing environment amidst lush greenery, the campus is equipped with infrastructure for rehabilitation of the affected.
In 1944, the Maharaja of Mysore is said to have gathered about 365 acres of land from farmers to set up a colony for beggars. This land was then utilized by the Central Relief Committee (CRC) operating under the aegis of the Department of Social Welfare to establish a shelter for rehabilitation of beggars. In 1977, Devaraj Urs, the then Chief Minister of Karnataka requested Dr. P. Arokiaswamy, the then archbishop of Bangalore to set up a leprosarium at Summanahalli. For about twenty years, the work of Summanahalli Society revolved around leprosy. Over the last decade, the services have been expanded to reach out to the homeless, the differently-abled, the ailing and the destitute.
People inflicted with diseases like leprosy and AIDS are often abandoned by their families due to the social stigma associated with their ailments. With nowhere to go and no one to look up to, their life and death matters to none. Heartrending stories of undying hope amidst pain and suffering pour out from all quarters. Among the many success stories that have emerged from the philanthropic work at Summahalli is that of a couple united by adversity. Vijay is visually impaired and Revathi has suffered severe burns. She was a social outcast and was forced to wear a burqa to conceal her distorted appearance. Both of them are employed at the garments factory where Vijay works on thread sucking machine and Revathi is in housekeeping. Together they are striving to make ends meet and have even moved out of their respective shelters to set up their family. Another inspiring story is that of Ranga who came to Summanahalli as a homeless child suffering from leprosy. Cured by the dreadful disease, he is now pursuing his studies in law and is also a budding artist and a talented dancer. About 500 people have managed to land government jobs. Community weddings are conducted at Summanahalli where some are between induviduals who are HIV positive.
Medical treatment combined with sessions in counseling, occupational therapy and vocational training has given a ray of hope to the downtrodden. The government recognized St Joseph’s School at Summanahalli educates about 200 under-privileged children, 60 of whom are directly or indirectly affected by leprosy.
Training in printing, book binding, carpentry, welding and tailoring have enabled school drop-outs to earn a living. Ahalli, the garments manufacturing unit at Summanahalli has provided employment for several people who are physically challenged. At the candle making unit, it was heartening to see colourful candles made by people suffering from AIDS and leprosy.The work begins with identifying the needy and continues as long as they require a support system. The infected are not only given treatment but also encouraged to grow in their own right. Their families are also looked after. Children of leprosy patients are highly susceptible to the infection and are kept away to prevent infection. The young ones go to school, the grown up are given vocational training, the elderly are looked after. Counseling and tips for prevention of contagious diseases are part of the awareness initiatives. Some people are placed in jobs outside while the others work at the campus.
Over the years the Summanahalli Society has developed its campus which includes a school, shelters and training centers in the fifty acres of land leased by the Government of Karnataka. However, dark clouds have been hovering over Summanahalli for the past few months. Bangalore City is constantly expanding and the government is now eyeing the land at Summanahalli which is estimated to be valued at 500 crores. The foundation of the social set up at Summahalli where the homeless and hopeless thrive has been shaken by the decision taken by the State Cabinet on July 7th 2009 in which they propose to reclaim the land. There has been stiff resistance from the Summanahalli Society supported by leading NGOs in Bangalore to prevent this land grab. “We have not gone to the city, the city has come to us”, says Fr. George Kananthanam, the Director of Summanahalli Society. Why should the sick and needy always be thrown outside the city? Aren’t they the ones who need to be within the city so that immediate medical assistance is accessible to them?

Quick Facts:
Summanahalli Society has won 11 National Awards and 7 State Awards including the prestigious Rajyotsava Award.

The Government of Karnataka leased 63 acres of land to Summanahalli Society for a period of 30 years starting from the 30th of December 1977. The campus of Summanahalli Society occupies 50 acres and 13 acres have been used for the construction of roads.

Over 700 people are making use of the campus and about 360 are residing in the campus.

Summanahalli Society is a non-profit organization and the land has never been used for commercial purposes over the past 30 years. The recent decision of the government to reclaim control for the land and use it for commercial activities violates the original purpose and intention of use of this property.

This article was published in Deccan Herald on the 29th of September 2009. Below is the link to the online version of the article.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Bus on the Railroad...

The old often makes way for the new. Vintage modes of transport are losing out to newer and faster means of conveyance. As the years roll on, it is inevitable that these timeless treasures make their way into museums and become chapters in history. Since the experience is elusive, some innovative inventions come to life only through stories of the past.
Railcars and railbuses feature among the unique carriers in the ranks of the Indian Railways. During a joyride that lasted for thirty-five minutes, I savoured sights and sounds aboard the only operational railbus in Karnataka. The railbus was on its routine daily round trip between Bangarpet and Kolar. Kids were quick to seize the seats on the first row which offer a good view of the track ahead. Youngsters were hanging by the poles at the door, sticking their heads out. I sat right behind the loco pilot to watch him effortlessly manouver the railbus. While some sneaked a short nap, it was time to read the newspaper for others. For me, it was an opportunity to watch the operation of the railbus from close quarters and to interact with the crew.

Chugging Along
The railbus offers a rare personal touch to its passengers. It has driving cabins at either end with two seats on one side and one seat on the other. During the journey from Bangarpet to Kolar, the assistant loco pilot Shashi found a place amidst the passengers in a coach that was packed to capacity. The wave of a hand made the loco pilot, Madhi halt for someone to get on as the railbus made its way out of the Kolar station. “It is a service in public interest and the railbus is a boon for around 65 government employees who travel from Bangalore to Kolar every day,” said a frequent commuter.
Bangarpet is a junction along the Bangalore-Chennai rail line. Passengers can board Chennai bound trains to reach Bangarpet and proceed to Kolar on the railbus. The departure of the railbus is linked to the arrival of the connecting train from Bangalore which makes it convenient for passengers. While a bus ride from Bangarpet to Kolar would cost Rs 10, the railbus fare is just Rs 3.
As the railbus pulled into the Kolar railway station, the rumble of the carriage ruffled the serenity of the quaint, colonial station. The loco pilot and assistant loco pilot, who were the last to disembark, obliged to be captured on my camera. After the riveting journey, I soaked in the rustic charm of the station, the operations of which are managed by just one person, the station master.

Stop and Go

A single rail line connects the Kolar and Bangarpet stations. In this section the “one train only token system” is used for controlling inbound and outbound rail traffic. The possession of a baton with the names of the two stations etched on it authorises a train to pass between them. One also gets to see the antiquated semaphore arm signal. When the semaphore arm is at a 180 degree angle, it indicates that the train should stop. When the arm is at a 90 degree angle, it implies that the signal is green and the train can pass through. A 45 degree inclination is a signal of caution.

Innovation Meets Simplicity
Innovative engineering, ease of maintenance and simple operation are some of the features of the Bangarpet-Kolar broad gauge (BG) railbus which was designed and developed indigenously by Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML). The four-wheeled single unit self-propelled diesel locomotive combines the simplicity of bus engineering with the comfort of a rail coach. Older models of railcars and railbuses had only one driving cabin and the locomotive was manually rotated on a turntable. This BG railbus manufactured in 1997 has a driving cabin at either end eliminating the need for a turntable.
Railbuses were in vogue a few decades ago but are now on the verge of being wiped out. Although railbuses are not profitable, they continue to function on certain routes for the benefit of the people. The number of round trips of the railbus between Bangarpet and Kolar has been reduced from three to two. How long will it be before Karnataka’s only operational railbus becomes an artifact in a museum?

Quick Facts:

The railbus operates on all days except Sundays.
It departs from Bangarpet at 9:40 am and 4:30 pm.
It departs from Kolar at 11:10 am and 5:15 pm.
The distance between Bangarpet and Kolar is 18 Kms.
The estimated journey time is 35 minutes.
The seating capacity is 72.

Connecting Trains

The Bangalore-Chennai, Chennai Express (2610) is the link to the railbus departing from Bangarpet at 9:40 am.
The Chennai-Bangalore Brindavan Express (2639) is the link for the railbus departing from Kolar at 11:10 am.
The Bangalore-Marikuppam Passenger (514) is the link for the railbus departing from Bangarpet at 4:30pm.
The Chennai-Bangalore, Bangalore Express (2609) is the link for the railbus departing from Kolar at 5:15 pm.

This article was published in Bangalore Mirror on the 6th of September 2009. Below is the link to the online version of the article.

Contours by the Sea

The quaint town of Gokarna is situated at the confluence of the Aghanashini and Gangavalli rivers in the Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka. With a prolific history, Gokarna abounds with mythical tales. Also known as the “Kashi of South India” it is also a premier holiday destination. The famed Om Beach, the lesser-known Kudle Beach, the quiet Half Moon Beach and the pristine Paradise Beach are four scenic, popular strips of sand sandwiched between the hills. There are many temples in the town and Lord Shiva is the main deity in most of them.
Gokarna is a town of stark contrasts. At one end of the spectrum are local tribals and at the other end are numerous foreign tourists. While some tourists visit Gokarna to seek divine blessings, others are there to have fun on the beach.

The crescent-shaped Kudle Beach is adjacent to the Gokarna Beach. Apart from a few shacks along the beach there is not much commercialisation. Tourists can stay at the sea-facing rooms or the beach-front shacks. The sun can be a bit harsh during the day but the heat is offset by the cool water and strong ocean breeze. As the sun ebbs into oblivion, its golden hues cast a spell over the shoreline. Sunset at the Kudle Beach is magical. After nightfall, one can enjoy gazing at the star-studded sky with the cadence of the waves in the backdrop. Kudle is a good choice for tourists who are looking to get away from the crowd. The beach is cut-off from the world outside with no mobile phone connectivity.

Tourist hub
Om Beach gets its name because of its shoreline which traces the sacred Hindu symbol. It is the largest of the four beaches and is the hub of tourist activities. Shacks and cafes line the beach. The colours, contours and contrasts are sure to strike the visitor to Om. The turquoise blue of the water stands out against the lush green flora. One can see vendors trying to sell a variety of paraphernalia to the tourists soaking in the sun. The commodities on sale range from freshly-cut fruits and colourful beads to musical instruments like drums and flutes. The beach gets crowded on holidays when people from neighbouring towns and villages come over to take a dip in the water. Restaurants on the beach offer a wide range of culinary delicacies of different cuisines. For the adventurous, Om Beach offers activities like banana boat rides, kayaking and wave rafting during the season when the sea is relatively calm.

Remote paradises
Half Moon and Paradise beaches are much smaller than Om and Kudle Beach. Although trekking is an option to reach these remote beaches, most people prefer to be ferried by a boat from Om Beach. For outdoor enthusiasts, these clean beaches are good camping sites. Food and accommodation options are limited to a couple of beach-side shacks. Tourists who want to hop from one beach to another can rent boats from Om Beach. Hiking to the beaches is a viable option in good weather.

The topography of Gokarna is unique. The shimmering water of the Arabian Sea, the lanky trees and the rocky cliffs seem to be in perfect harmony. The air brews a fragrance of freshness. The aerial views of the diverse landscape from the vista points in the hills are a sight to behold. From temple trails to the sun, sand and sea, Gokarna has something in it for people of all ages. With a unique blend of the ancient and the modern, Gokarna is a destination with a difference.

Quick facts

Getting There
Gokarna is about 470 km from Bangalore and is well connected by road to Bangalore, Mangalore and Goa.
Gokarna can be reached by train from Mangalore and Goa.
Dabolim in Goa is the nearest airport.

Season : The best time to visit Gokarna is between October and March.

Namaste Café is the most popular establishment on Om Beach. This resort has cottages, Internet connectivity and a beach-front restaurant.
Hotel Gokarna International on Kudle Beach has sea-facing rooms. Beach shacks provide accommodation at rates as low as Rs. 100/- per day for tourists on a shoe string budget. There are many restaurants on Om Beach and Kudle Beach.
Konkan style cottages were built on the slopes of a hill overlooking the valley. These cottages have now been converted into a resort. The Om Beach Resort is a joint venture by the government-owned Jungle Lodges and Resorts and the privately-run Kairali Group and provides comfortable accommodation and good facilities. Special tours to visit places in and around Gokarna are arranged on request.
For more information log on to www.ombeachresort.com

According to the locals there are many wild peacocks in the hills of Gokarna. If you are on a trek in Gokarna look out for peacocks and peahens.
Sunscreen lotion, caps and umbrellas will be useful on a hot day. Carry a torch if you want to venture out at night.

This article was published in The Hindu on the 6th of September 2009. Below is the link to the online version of the article.