Surviving the Sundarbans: Tales of the Delta’s Climate Refugees

(Video Editor & Animator: Rahul Sanpui)

A plastic sheet tethered under a banyan tree is what Prashanto Mondol, his wife and two young daughters call home. Prashanto, a resident of Ghoramara Island in the Sundarban delta of West Bengal, was once a self-sufficient farmer. As cyclone Yass ravaged the eastern coast of India on 26 May 2020, it took with it Prashanto’s home, all his money and rice grains that could’ve fed his family for the next year. It also took with it, a part of Ghoramara, an island now a fraction of its actual size, as rising sea levels and calamitic weather events frequented the Sundarbans over the last few years.

Ghoramara and Mousuni, another island in the Sundarbans delta, is slated to go underwater in the next 6 years or even sooner. Research by climate scientists that dates back to the 1980s have predicted that if climate change continues unabated, then soon, all of Sundarbans will be underwater. And like, Prashanto, about 4.5 million people living in the delta, will be soon be homeless, with no mitigation plan in sight.

The Sinking Islands Of Sundarbans

The Sundarbans delta – formed by the confluence of the Ganga, Bharamputra and Meghna rivers, as they flow into the Bay of Bengal – is spread over 40,000 hectares across India and Bangladesh.

Of this, about 10,00 acres form the Sundarbans Forest, the largest mangrove habitation in the world. In 1987, the Sundarbans was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The delta consists of 200 islands of which 54 are inhabited.

The mangroves in the Sundarbans act as key balance between humans and nature. The roots of the mangrove trees hold on to the soil, preventing it from being washed away by tides. The mangrove cover also acts as an ecological barrier that breaks strong cyclonic winds and storms.

However, rampant deforestation, faulty planning and land-use patterns have destroyed the mangrove cover of the Sundarbans. At the same time, global warming caused by climate change has increased the intensity and frequency of calamitic cyclonic events. Since cyclone Aila in 2009, the Sundarbans has been hit by devastating cyclones one after the other.

The area has dealt with 13 of the 23 most devastating cyclones in the world.

A 2007 study by Jadavpur University said that just in the last 30 years, the Sundarbans have shrunk by 80 square kilometers.

While at the time it seemed like abstract statistics, weather events in the past years have proved otherwise. For the people of the Sundarbans, doomsday is here and it is real.

In Ghoramara, A Tale of Loss & Despair

The Quint visited Ghoramara and Mousuni about a month after cyclone Yass. Even then, the residents of both these islands, depended entirely of charity for food and even drinking water.

Ghormara once had a population of 40,000 people. Now, it houses just about 2,000 people, most of whom are on their way out.

The only way to get to both these islands is by ferries, which are timed according to high tide and weather conditions.

As we get off our ferry and onto Ghoramara, it looks like one has stepped into an apocalypse. A man, who looked like he was in his 40s, and a not in the best mental state, caught hold of us soon after, unable to control his emotions. He showed us sacks of rice grains that had been abandoned by those in Ghoramara.

The stinking rice sacks still contain the blackened rice that was destroyed as Yass hit the island and broke embankments, submerging everything.

It was this man who led us to Proshanto.

Proshanto’s family has been living in Ghoramara for three generations. He tells us how his ancestors accumulated 50 bighas of land over the years. Now, he has a little over 7 bighas left. The water has consumed all else.

“I can see that Ghoramara is shrinking”, he tells us.

Prashanto also says that nature, once their best friend, has changed over the years.

“We didn’t realise that Yass would be this bad”, says Proshanto. “We thought it’d bypass the area.”

“We were prepared for a small quall, but soon we saw that the water had breached the village boundary. Soon, everything was submerged. We didn’t even have time to reach the shelter. There was a temple on the way. We climbed atop a tree next to it and tied our goats to the roof of the temple. We spent the night on top of the tree.” – Prashanto Mondol, resident of Ghoramara

Like most residents of Ghoramara, Proshanto is trying to salvage what is left of his belongings. The plan is to now look for a job in a state like Kerala where most young men from the Sundarbans go in search of work.

“I will have to go find work somewhere. Obviously staying here is not an option. I don’t know what I’ll do. Maybe a hawker or a daily-wage labourer. I have two small kids. I don’t know what to do about them or their education. I don’t know to get the money to settle elsewhere. I really can’t think of anyway to get out of this situation”, rues Proshanto.

Hotels For The Homeless In Mousuni

The island of Mousuni is more populated than Ghoramara. It is also a popular tourist location in the Sundarbans. However, since cyclone Amphan hit the Sundarbans in 2020, the pristine beaches of Mousuni have been deserted.

When the seas were friendlier, makeshift huts along the beaches served as hotels for tourists, promising to give them the “rustic Sundarbans experience”.

Now, these huts lie destroyed and empty, but still serve a purpose. They give refuge to the homeless in Mousuni after cyclones like Yass.

Sheikh Shah Alam, who we met during our visit to Mousuni, is one such person.

Alam, like Proshanto, has two daughters. The eldest of them is in class 12. During Yass, all her books were washed away and her school doubled up as a refugee camp. When Alam and his family got back to where his hut used to be once the cyclone abated, they found nothing but rubble.

“We have no option but to live next to the broken embankments now. No one can live here like humans. We have to live like animals, scavengers.” – Sheikh Shah Alam, resident of Mousuni

Alam points out an interesting trend from all the times him and his family have endured cyclones. While evacuation are done, he says, rehabilitation is very shoddy and never a part of the plan.

“No one will understand the plight of not having a home. We stay in one place for a few days, then another for a few days. People turn us away saying go back to your land. The schools we seek shelter in ask us to go away once the weather becomes clearer. But where do I go? There’s nothing to go back to”, says Alam.

“Cyclone Amphan ruined our home last year. We repaired it. Now its gone again”, he adds.

Sinking Sagar

As the islands in the Sundarbans were devastated by one cyclone after the other, a crucial policy question emerged. Where do the homeless go?

The answer, until now, was the Sagar Island.

Sagar is located higher from the sea than the other islands of the Sundarbans and has more jobs, better roads and a bustling economy. It also houses the famous Gangasagar Mela, a pligrimage festival that sees lakhs of devotees attend each year.

Those from Ghoramara, Mousuni and other such islands of the Sundarbans, once rendered homeless, move to Sagar. While some use their last chunk of wealth to make the move, others are rehabiliated by the government.

However, housing this refugee crisis has been expensive for Sagar, putting undue pressure on its land and resources. Since 2011, the population of Sagar has increased 20 percent and the island, in general, has suddenly become more vulnerable to natural calamities. After Yass, it was there for all to see – Sagar is sinking too.

This realisation has hit those like Sahadeb most.

Sahadeb was earlier a resident of Lohachura, an island in the Sundarbans which sank in 2006. It was the first human inhabited island in the world to go underwater. Sahadeb shifted to Sagar in 1977 after everything Lohachura was lost to the water.

Now Yass has destroyed Sahadeb’s second home too.

“We owned 55 bighas of land in Lohachura. Slowly, the river took everything. When we came here in 1977, we did odd jobs to make ends meet. We had a few years of happiness after we finally built our home. Now it’s all gone”, says Sahadeb, as he breaks down.

“Only God knows where we can go. If we can get some help, it will be great. Else, we are on our own. We have to survive. We are at the mercy of nature. We live with it. We will accept whatever good or bad it has to offer.” – Sahadeb, resident of Sagar

This story, originally published by The Quint, has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.


Saving the Arctic

This graphic story, originally published by Junior Lens, has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.

Special Report: Mountain of Masks (4)

India’s masks choke lakes and beaches as treatment facilities fall short

Since September last year, Mr Subhash Chandran, 32, has been diving off Rushikonda Beach to clean up its seabed in the coastal city of Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.

Last year, the scuba diving instructor and his friends removed over 21 tonnes of plastic in 61 four-hour-long dives.

Last month, when the volunteers did their first underwater clean-up during the pandemic, they found a jumble of masks, gloves and emptied medicine sachets.

“Normally we find a lot of plastic bottles and wrappers. After the pandemic we found 1,500kg of mostly N95 masks, surgical masks, tablet packets and gloves. I consider the ocean my second home but it is a Covid dump yard today,” Mr Chandran said.

Medical waste, already growing at a rate of 7 per cent annually pre-pandemic, has exploded with the profusion of plastic protective gear to battle coronavirus transmission.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board, India has generated 18,006 tonnes of biomedical waste from June to September. This includes personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, face masks, head covers, plastic coveralls and hazmat suits, as well as syringes and other items used by healthcare providers and patients.

On average, India generated about 101 tonnes of Covid-19 related bio-medical waste a day in June. This rose to 183 tonnes per day in September. This is in addition to 609 metric tonnes of regular bio-medical waste generated per day (as of June, 2020).

Experts say the rise in waste generation is directly related to the number of cases. India has recorded over 9.8 million Covid cases.

From 25 tonnes a day in May, Delhi generated 371 tonnes of biomedical waste per day in June – a 1,400 per cent increase.

During the elections held during the pandemic in October, polling personnel and voters in the northern state of Bihar generated nearly 160 tonnes of gloves, face masks and empty sanitiser bottles, poll authorities said.

In response to the pandemic, the environment ministry and pollution control departments published guidelines for the management of waste generated during treatment, diagnosis and quarantine of Covid-19 patients. They advocate using double layered bags for disposal, mandatory labelling of bags and containers as “Covid-19 waste”, regular disinfection of dedicated trolleys, and separate record keeping of waste generated from isolation wards.

These are in addition to existing rules for biomedical management from 2016, which mandate colour coded segregation of different medical waste. Covid waste is now supposed to go into yellow bins.

But few follow these rules. Waste management experts say that proper segregation and disposal has been seriously neglected in India.

“Used masks must be disinfected with sodium hypochlorite solution, left for 72 hours, mutilated (cut or torn), covered in a paper and then thrown in regular bins. Some hospitals and commercial establishments follow the rules somewhat, but households and clinics are quite lax,” said Ms Pinky Chandra, a member of citizen alliance Hasiru Dala that promotes waste segregation in Bangalore and works with city authorities to help dispose of waste.

While more Indians are using washable cloth masks, which “greatly reduces the waste generated”, she said each of Bangalore’s over 120 waste collection centres have been seeing at least 300 pieces of masks every day.

When admitted to a hospital for Covid treatment in Chennai, environmental engineer Prabhakaran V noticed that his used masks, bedspreads and gloves were disposed of as “Corona waste”, but the paper cups, plates and bottles patients used went into the regular bins.

His colleagues in the Chennai non-profit Poovulagin Nanbargal reported masks, syringes, blood bags and testing equipment dumped along the coast in parts of Chennai, and floating in lakes. They found mountains of untreated medical waste in landfills.

“Before Covid, a government hospital bed generated about half a kilo of medical waste a day. Now it is 3-5kg a day. Almost 75 per cent of biomedical waste in Chennai goes without treatment into landfills,” Mr Prabhakaran said.

Ms Chandra said: “Under Covid, we are seeing an expansion of our existing solid waste management problems: wasteful behaviour that generates a lot of garbage, and gaps in implementation of laws for collection and disposal.”

India has 198 Common Bio-medical Waste Treatment Facilities for treating and disposing Covid-19 bio-medical waste. But these are proving inadequate.

Tamil Nadu, for instance, has only eight common biomedical waste treatment facilities, with a capacity of 31 tonnes a day. The state, however, generated 47 tonnes a day, before the pandemic.

This piece was produced by The Straits Times and shared as part of the World News Day initiative

Sparkling teeth, cleaner planet

  • Meet the Indian teenager who has created a new kind of toothbrush that is designed to reduce plastic waste. Here, Saumya Chauhan, a student journalist for The Global Times at Amity International School in India, profiles the inventor, Dhruvi Gupta. The story is part of the World Teenage Reporting Project — Climate Champion Profiles.

Saumya Chauhan, currently a student at Amity International School, Pushp Vihar, is an avid writer and contributes regularly for The Global Times newspaper. A member of the school Student Council, Director of the school’s Interact (social wellness) club and an active environmentalist; she aspires to bring change in her community.

There is no planet B. And yet not many of us are walking the path that can help us save the planet we have. Dhruvi Gupta, a student of Class IX at Amity International School Vasundhara 6, is one of the select few who has chosen to walk the road less taken. With her innovation ‘Easy Brush’, she has not only rehashed the everyday task of brushing one’s teeth, but also minimising the waste that comes with using plastic toothbrushes. Dhruvi talks about how the idea of combining oral hygiene and concern for the environment took shape, the challenges, and what she hopes to see next both for herself and for the planet.

Toothbrush inventor Dhruvi Gupta

What inspired you to create a recyclable toothbrush?

I was travelling on a train when I noticed some vendors selling plastic toothbrush. As several people purchased the toothbrush, I pondered over the amount of plastic waste this single, frail-looking item would create. A little while later on the same journey as I used paper soap to wash my hands, I thought that if we could have an eco-friendly medium for a daily activity like washing hands, then why not use the same for brushing teeth.

Could you tell us how this toothbrush functions?

The toothbrush entails a very simple mechanism a paper strip that can be wrapped around one’s finger using an interlock system. One simply needs to dip this toothbrush in water and brush his/her teeth. Once used, it can easily be disposed of.

Why did you choose a toothbrush over other products?

600 million kg — that is the amount of plastic waste created every single year simply due to the disposal of plastic toothbrushes. This plastic can take almost 700 years to decompose as it is non-biodegradable. Since almost everyone uses toothbrushes on a daily basis, I thought of creating a biodegradable version to reduce waste.

Are these toothbrushes single use? If so, how can waste be reduced?

Yes, these toothbrushes are single-use, but the difference is that they are biodegradable and decompose after one or two weeks. These toothbrushes are also soluble in water which makes disposal easier. I have tested different kinds of paper to ensure durability and biodegradability, and reduce waste generation.

Can you walk us through the details of how this invention can save the planet?

This toothbrush is biodegradable; the components of the paste on the paper are herbal and the materials used to make the brush are herbal. The manufacturing would also be done in an eco-friendly manner. All these factors ensure that this product limits waste generation, thereby contributing to saving the planet.

Did you face any challenges while you were working on the toothbrush?

I faced a lot of challenges during this process. Creating a product that is meant for the masses means evaluating it on multiple criteria such as ease of usage, accessibility, cost and the like. At first, I was unsure as to how to go about it. But then, with the help of my school and teachers, I kept overcoming each challenge.

I created a survey that would help me understand the needs and expectations of my target audience. Ensuring that this survey is filled out by a significant number in itself was a task. The results of the survey helped me work on the problem of dispensing the product in a way that made it accessible and more eco-friendly.

Then there was the challenge of ensuring that people understand the concept of an unconventional toothbrush such as this and that it is just as effective. I also wanted the brush to reach all sections of society, which meant that I had to be mindful of the cost. Lastly, I also had to experiment with different recipes to make sure that the taste of the paste was appropriate for users.

In light of the current pandemic, we should be mindful of spreading infection. Since the toothbrush attaches to your finger, do you think that would be considered unsanitary? What precautions have been included in your design for the same, if any?

This product has been made under sterile conditions. After production, the pH levels of the brush were checked, and bacterial tests were also conducted. Since this product is related to health, I ensured that the hygiene aspect was taken care of. In India, people used daatun (tree twigs) that was held with fingers. This method has proven to be successful and if people wash their hands before use, there should be no problem.

Coming from your previous answer, traditionally in India, we used ‘daatun’/or dipped finger in toothpowder to clean. So how is this product different and better than that?

Daatuns are not used anymore as they are wooden and as a result, they wear off your gums and the skin of your cheeks. Tiny perforations on my toothbrush ensure that your teeth are cleaned without harm. Furthermore, herbal products which were not present in daatuns are used in the paste to ensure that the teeth become stronger.

Consumers often look for convenience, ignoring biodegradability. How would you convince people to use this eco-friendly alternative?

The ‘Easy Brush’ is easy to use, convenient and portable, which are all factors a consumer looks for in a product. I will make sure that this product is as accessible and cost-effective as a regular toothbrush. The herbal component will also attract consumers who are interested in natural ways to improve oral hygiene.

Do you have plans to expand this idea to other products in order to reduce plastic usage?

At present, I am focusing on creating a dispensing method for the brush so that it can reach all sections of society. I want to send this product to space and military agencies for testing as this is something that would be useful to them. I have also filed for a patent of this project. In the future, I would be working on other eco-friendly alternatives as well.

Do you think teens today are becoming more conscious of saving their environment? Being ‘just teens’, can they be as effective as adults?

I believe that irrespective of your age if you have dedication towards something, you can surely achieve it. Having said that, problems like global warming and climate change are more prevalent than ever today. Our earlier generations have lived in a world where it was not as relevant. Teens, on the other hand, are experiencing these problems and the following repercussions first-hand. Thus, they fully realise the impact these problems can have on their future. As a result, I feel the dedication of teens towards solving these issues is bound to be higher.

What are your hopes and fears regarding our environment?

Over the past few years, our environment has severely degraded. Renewable resources like air and water, of which we thought we would have an endless supply, are rapidly diminishing. Since teens, and others too, are becoming more aware of the situation, it makes me hopeful for our planet. A self-sufficient society is being created gradually and so many programmes are being launched in favour of the climate. Each citizen needs to be aware of their responsibility towards our planet in order to truly save it.

Who is your role model?

My mentor teacher and my mother have been my role models along this journey because they have helped me immensely and I have learnt so much from them. Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, a renowned Indian physicist, inspires me to overcome my struggles and achieve my goals. I also look up to Greta Thunberg as well because she has motivated me and millions of other teens to act for our climate. I believe that if everyone has a good role model, then we can truly make a difference in this world.

This story, first published by The Global Times, has been shared as part of World News Day 2021, a global campaign to highlight the critical role of fact-based journalism in providing trustworthy news and information in service of humanity. #JournalismMatters.

Predators Around Us

Policing and courts alone can’t counter sexual harassment and abuse. The emotional complexity of such experiences as well as the family’s reluctance to discuss abuse make it hard for survivors, male or female, to speak up.

Yet an increasing number of survivors now want to put their experiences out in public – as long as their identity is not disclosed. This is their way of owning their experiences which, they say, helps to heal.

When Times of India’s Ambika Pandit started the series of first person accounts, she was flooded with responses from readers and motivated survivors to come forward to share their experiences buried for years.

This series of 10 survivor accounts shows that the trauma stays for years and often affects other relationships. Some of the survivors have not even been able to open up to their families.

In the first part of this series, a successful career woman in her early 40s explains that her confident facade hides scars of being harassed by an uncle, victimised by an alcoholic husband and raped by a stranger.

She tried to numb the pain with alcohol and drugs, but then chose to fight back. Now sober for nearly eight years, she says she still struggles for a life that’s ‘normal’.


Years ago, a man raped me as his friends stood guard at what looked like a construction site near Dwarka. I was terrified. I was sure I would be killed.

As I waited in fear, another man threw my clothes at me, and said, “The man who raped you is the son of a politician from another state and he has a gun. He will kill you and I don’t want to be embroiled in a murder case so I have decided to help you escape.”

Rape was normal for these men.

He dropped me off where I lived. I dragged myself to the police station to lodge an FIR. A cop heard my story. He went on to ask me my name, address and father’s name.

The last (piece of information) made me back out. I realised that I could not tell my parents all this. They would not be able to take it.

My identity became my biggest challenge as I had a successful career as a communications professional. I was a single woman, a divorcee, 28 years old at that time, living alone in an upscale neighbourhood.

The stakes were high, so I chose silence over legal recourse. My rape is still a secret.

“Tu hi galat hogi (you must have done something wrong)”

Years later, I have forgotten the faces of those men in the SUV but when I hear of a rape case, I am unable to take it. Something inside me breaks every time.

There’s more. To this day I remember an uncle shutting the dressing room door to fiddle with my skirt. I was 12. I shouted. He let me go, but never let me be.

Every time we visited his house, he would hold me tight, touch me inappropriately, or switch to a porn movie if I was in the room. I was too scared to speak. In my late 30s, when I finally told my mother, her response shocked me.

She said: “Tu hi galat hogi (you must have done something wrong)”. This changed everything between us. I still love her but it was a turning point in our relationship.

I was not always an alcoholic. I married when I was 23, only to realise I was stuck with an alcoholic and a drug addict. I started drinking with him.

He beat me, I drank more; substance abuse became a way of life. I always wonder how such an educated man could beat such an educated woman. We divorced a year later.

When Times of India’s Ambika Pandit started the series of first person accounts, she was flooded with responses from readers and motivated survivors to come forward to share their experiences buried for years. Source: Times of India

I focused on my career but being single is not easy. I worked for a top corporate, and one day my boss asked for the keys to my house.

He said he wanted to rest and I could join him. Stunned by this open assault on my dignity, I threatened to go to the HR department. He said he’d give me a bad appraisal. I decided to be quiet. That was the biggest mistake.

He ruined my career anyway, and it was too late to go to HR. I wish I had acted earlier.

I hope my story will help others find their way. I was lucky to find help to battle alcoholism, the coping mechanism I’d fallen back on to deal with years of abuse.

Today, I have been sober for nearly eight years. I am in the midst of setting up a business. The wounds are healing. Normal feels good.

I have started writing and share my experience on various platforms, keeping my identity anonymous.

I speak here hoping that this coming out will help other women and girls. I want them to stand up for themselves and not suffer alone.

Caption: Survivors of sexual violence share their stories to help others open up, own and heal their trauma.
Source: Times of India

In the second account of the series, this 19-year-old Delhi University student speaks of repeated sexual assault she ensured from a cousin- an experience she still hasn’t been able to tell her parents about.


I was too young to know how to protest, how to make my parents understand that I was being raped, again and again.

In villages, everyone knows everyone else, in fact most of us are related. My rapist was a distant cousin. He was in college; I wasn’t even 10 years old. I called him ‘bhaiya’ (brother), yet he raped me each time I went to his house in our village in Haryana.

My mother would send me to his house to buy milk. That’s when he’d rape me. At that age, I couldn’t understand what was happening but I knew it was not right.

I would protest when my mother asked me to get milk, but couldn’t muster the courage to tell her what was happening to me. Every time I refused to go she asked me why. Finally, she started going to get the milk herself.

My parents are still unaware of what I’ve faced. I know the consequences of having this conversation but I want to share my real name soon.

The abuse stopped when we moved to the city. A few years later, that cousin came visiting. He was married. I turned and ran to my room, and refused to come out. My parents scolded me for behaving badly.

My heart yearned to tell them but courage failed me again. I was around 12 at that time. I never saw him again.

Last year, after I joined college, I heard about a voluntary organisation that encouraged people to break their silence around sexual abuse and harassment. I joined the group.

Just being part of the group has made me realise that there are more people who have been sexually assaulted than I ever imagined.

In the group, I gained the confidence to speak, and with that came the conviction to question all that was wrong around me. Now, if I see someone staring, pushing or trying to grope someone, I shout at him to stop.

The sad part is that others don’t come forward to help or support. They just watch; this needs to change. Only if we rise collectively, can we hope to instil fear in the hearts and minds of those who sexually harass women.

We need to have these conversations not only to heal ourselves but also warn others of the dangers they face, and the action to take in such circumstances.

My parents are still unaware of what I’ve faced. I know the consequences of having this conversation but I want to share my real name soon. A beginning has to be made.

This story is a compilation of a series of articles published by the Times of India from July 2018 to Aug 2018. To read more click here

A girl’s journey from slavery to activism

For 25-year-old Pachayammal, freedom tastes like biryani. That’s the dish she first ate after being rescued from six years of bonded labour in Tamil Nadu. “We were finally able to eat a meal in peace,” she said.

Now a feisty activist, Pachayammal, along with her husband Arul, has rescued over 100 people from slavery, advocated for homes and work for them, and has rehabilitated them.

Pachayammal’s story is one of ten first-time women voters featured as a part of The Quint’s “Me, the Change” campaign. The campaign, presented by Facebook, sought to put focus on a demographic usually ignored by mainstream media — the first-time woman voter. Launched in October 2018, the campaign highlighted the issues and aspirations of the first-time woman voter in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Pachayammal married Arul when she was barely sixteen years old. She married willingly, for love. But little did she know that she married into slavery. The days would be hard and long, breaking and carrying rock from 4.30 am to 9.00 pm. There would be only one meal a day, of watery rice gruel.

Speaking of her ordeal, Pachayammal says, “My husband’s parents had a debt, which he had to repay. The ‘owner’ decided to get me married to him so that we form a ‘pair’(easy to manage, won’t run off, lower pay). We didn’t know this. I too really liked my husband, so I married him.” They faced physical, verbal and sexual abuse daily. Paid 200 rupees(US$2.79) a week, Pachayammal slaved for the quarry owner with more than 25 bonded labourers for six years.

“At 4 am every day, the owner would call us to break rock. Some days, the men would have to work till midnight”, Pachayammal says.

Until, she was rescued.

According to The Quint, over 1 million people were bonded labourers in Tamil Nadu, India in 2018. After Pachayammal was rescued at the age of 23, she turned to activism. She draws from an unending well of self-confidence, to seek out from the government basic rights (homes, electricity, work) for rescued bonded labourers.

And she rescues those still under the throes of slavery. She stakes out quarries, brick kilns, carpentry units for months on end. She goes in to work in those units, to get close to the bonded labourers to ascertain the truth, ropes in government officials and organises a raid.
Pachayammal is now part of the SRLM (State Rural Livelihoods Mission) and gets a steady monthly income. Occasionally, she does daily wage work. Her husband, Arul, earns a living by driving an auto-rickshaw he received from a corporation as part of their CSR. Both of them are doing very well today.

This story by Vikram Venkateswaran was originally published by the Quint on Nov 30, 2018.

To find Pachayamal’s story, a team of three reporters at The Quint reached out to International Justice Mission, a global NGO, from where many case studies were sourced before zeroing in on her. Before The Quint’s video, Pachayammal, was a true inspiration, but her story wasn;t covered in mainstream media. The sight of a camera, or a journalist pushed her and the entire colony into what can only be described as the ‘camera effect’. All the responses were rehearsed and interactions were formal. Pachayammal, and the rest of the colony were expecting to be fed the words, which they would then rattle off. This had been their experience of journalists and the media and what had always happened. To tackle this, The Quint’s reporter Vikram Venkateswaran made several trips to Pachayammal’s village with a cameraperson; but without any equipment. The team got to know them, and spent time with Pachayammal, her husband and the children of the colony. It was only on the fourth visit that the reporter took a camera along. On the sixth visit to Ullavur village, which is a three-hour drive from Chennai, the camera was finally rolled. Over a kerosene stove, as Pachayammal prepared a ‘sambar’ (a local dish) for her husband and herself, the reporter started a conversation with her about food — what she liked to eat, and what she got to eat while a slave. And so, began a genuine retelling of Pachayammal’s inspirational story, which the team managed to capture on camera, minus the inhibition.

How Fear & Money Silenced A Murdered Journalist’s Family

In June 2015, journalist Jagendra Singh was set on fire by a minister’s henchmen in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh in India.

A week later, he died of his injuries.

The case never went to trial and none of the accused were punished.

Jagendra had been reporting on the corruption of several powerful ministers, including former minister Rammurti Singh Varma.

At the height of the protests following his death, Jagendra’s family met with then Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and received a monetary compensation of Rs 3 million (US$41,690) from the state government of Uttar Pradesh.

Their key demand, though – a CBI inquiry into his death – was not met by the state.

Barely six months later, the family mounted a sudden U-turn. Jagendra’s younger son, Rahul Singh, withdrew the petition that he had sent to the Supreme Court the night before it was heard, effectively ending any cases made on their behalf.

Senior journalist Mudit Mathur had impleaded himself in a Supreme Court PIL demanding a CBI probe into Jagendra’s death. Source: Sandhya Ravishankar

“He had been sending me messages that he was under immense pressure, that he was going into hiding, but I did not expect that he would suddenly withdraw at the last moment. The judge was predictably annoyed and we were left red-faced in court,” said Mudit Mathur, senior journalist with Tehelka, who impleaded himself in a similar petition before the court.

Mathur attempted to continue the second case in the Supreme Court in which he had impleaded himself. But with the family withdrawing the petition, that case too was dead, since Mathur had no locus standi.

For the first time, the facts of the case come tumbling out.

In Khutar, Rahul is pensive as he reminisces about that time.

The family, especially his mother, faced significant pressure from relatives, neighbours, friends and even some officials to move on from whatever had happened.

“They started to target mummy that whatever has happened has happened and to make a compromise. Mummy got scared that this is a small family and something might happen to her children. Due to pressure from mummy, we agreed to a compromise,” he said.

When they met Minister Rammurti Varma, the man claimed that he was framed.

Rahul said: “I told him in that case why don’t you let the enquiry take place? If you are innocent, then you will go free. But he said no, whatever has happened with your father has happened and I do not want your lives to be ruined. I will take responsibility for you. I will ensure that your sister is married well. As long as I am alive I will take good care of you.”

The minister then promised to be in their debt if the family forgave him.
When asked why Rammurti would still need to ask for forgiveness if he was innocent, Rahul laughed.

“Only he can answer this. I told him a number of times that at least the others who were involved should be caught – the ones who attacked my father, the ones who filed a false case against him. He said he would ensure a probe takes place and that he is innocent,” he said.

However, Rahul maintained that the minister was guilty “in one way or another” because the police would not have gone to his father’s house if a false case had not been made.

Before his death, Jagendra had a fake attempt to murder complaint registered against him. This would enable the police to arrest him and silence his reports on Rammurti’s corruption.

Ironically, a year after Jagendra’s death, the police acknowledged that the case filed against him was indeed false.

Instead of explaining why a false complaint had been lodged against Jagendra Singh, the minister asked the family to withdraw the First Information Report (FIR), that would have allowed the police to commence the investigation of the journalist’s death.

His brother and uncle signed some papers given to them by the minister and they left with Rs 3 million.


While the Singh family, on the surface, appears to have made their peace with the decision to make the compromise, all is not well.

Regret and unease is evident. Both brothers are married and the elder one is a father now.

The money from the state has been used to build a larger home and buy a small car.

“We were left with little choice. I was scared for the lives of both my grandsons. By then all our relatives and family members pushed us toward making a compromise and we were left with little choice. I want the killers of my son to get punishment.”

But the stain of guilt, of having betrayed a courageous father, is yet to be washed off.

“Sometimes I feel like we should have fought the whole fight to the end,” said Rahul Singh. “But at other times I feel whatever happened was a good thing. Because initially there were thousands of people standing with us, then slowly it became 500, then that became 150 and then 100. So in this fashion people left, they sold out, those who were with me too sold out. Those who were asking me to fight turned around and asked me to compromise with the Minister. Then finally the five to six people who were left standing beside me were putting pressure on me to compromise so I thought, what can one do when surrounded by traitors. Anything can happen to us. So when I think of that I feel what I did is right.”

Brother Rajan also feels pricked by his conscience. “Yes I do feel bad,” he said when asked about the compromise. “My Papa was a brave man and we let him down.”

Mother Suman Singh tells herself to be practical, for her children’s sake.
“The man of the house is no more, what can one do?” She asked. “I did not see any other option and I was very afraid for my children,” she said.

Sumer Singh, Jagendra’s father who passed away in January, told the collaboration in 2018 about the multiple threats issued to the family. “Even now I can’t sleep the entire night, with the fear, someone will come to take away or kill my family members. I told them, go sleep inside, let them kill me instead. They threatened us a lot, far too much. Even I was shaken,” he began to sob.

“They are kids, what all they had to undergo,” he said. “We were left with little choice. I was scared for the lives of both my grandsons. By then all our relatives and family members pushed us toward making a compromise and we were left with little choice. I want the killers of my son to get punishment. That is important,” he said.

Ajay Singh, Jagendra’s brother in law who organised the compromise with Minister Varma. Source: Sandhya Ravishankar

Jagendra’s sister’s husband Ajay Singh, who had fixed the meeting with the Minister, said that he was convinced there was no foul play in Jagendra’s death.

“The neighbours told us that the police never went inside his house,” Ajay said. “For whatever reasons or pressure, he (Jagendra) had set himself ablaze. From what information I got I felt there was no external hand in this, that it was a result of Jagendra’s anger.”

Ajay though admits that he organised a meeting with the Minister and was present at the “compromise” – although he repeatedly denied any money deal.
“No there was no talk of any money with the Minister,” he said. “But yes, I made a request to the Minister – these are very young children, you have to take care of them, you have to help them set their economic situation right and become stable,” he added.

Lovely Singh, Jagendra’s sister is convinced her brother was murdered. Source: Sandhya Ravishankar

His wife, Jagendra’s sister Lovely though is not as convinced as he is that the Minister is entirely innocent.

“The compromise was done under duress,” she said. “Now my brother is gone, we need our nephews and niece – what if they too get killed? That was my fear,” she said.


“She is not like us,” said Suman, waving in the direction of 23-year-old Diksha Singh, who sat silently in the house, preoccupied with her thoughts. “She is like her father. She wants to fight. She wants justice for him.”

Diksha is shy but ask her a question about her father and the angst comes tumbling out in a flood.

Diksha Singh wants justice for her father Jagendra. Source: Sandhya Ravishankar

“I was not aware of the compromise,” said Diksha. “Nobody told me or asked me about it.”

Diksha is speaking of the first meeting in Bareilly when Rahul Singh, Rajan Singh and their uncle met with Minister Varma to chalk out the details of the compromise.

“When I heard about it, I was furious. I did not talk to anyone for a few weeks. I just cried,” she said.

The family consoled the young girl, 19 years old at the time, explaining to her that many relatives had even scared her mother saying that anything could happen to her only daughter when she went out alone.

“I don’t want it (the money),” Diksha said, “I wish that not a single penny of that amount should be used for my marriage.”

Fear festered and eventually pulled an unwilling Diksha into the tight distraught circle.

“I went to the meeting at the Shahjahanpur residence of the Minister,” said Diksha. “He kept telling me he did not do it but I did not believe him.”
At this second meeting, the entire family, except for Diksha, signed an affidavit stating that Jagendra Singh had indeed committed suicide.

Upon their return to Khutar, their uncle placed a bag near his sister in law Suman and turned to Rahul and Rajan.

“He said this is for your younger sister, for her wedding,” recollected Rahul. “He said we will conduct her wedding in a grand manner and any further help also the Minister will do.”

Rs 3 million in cash had arrived in Khutar.

Diksha is vehement in her distaste over the whole deal. “I don’t want it (the money),” she said. “I wish that not a single penny of that amount should be used for my marriage.”

Diksha still has nightmares. “I dream someone is following me, catching me and leading me to a fire. I also feel as if I am seeing ghosts and every time I only see they all are trying to cause me harm, trying to kill me. And every time it is Papa who comes to save me. Every time someone is trying to cause me harm in the dream, he is the one to save me and only says one thing – So what if there was nobody to save me, I will always be there to save Rachna,” she says as she blinks back tears.

Another recurring nightmare is based on reality. “Another dream I have often – When I had gone there (hospital), Papa had asked me to give him some water. He said aloud – Rachna give me water. So I went to get him water and over there and I met his doctor.

He dissuaded me from giving him water. He said, his burn injuries are such, water acts like poison, so don’t feed him water. Do you want to kill your own father? I said, of course not, why are you talking like this? If say you say no, I will not give him.

Then I did not give him any water. He kept asking for water. My only regret is, he asked so often for water, in his last breath and I refused to give him, because the doctors said so. This will always remain etched in my mind.
He kept asking me, saying he is extremely thirsty because he said it was burning from inside. He kept saying please give me little, just a little water. And I did not give him any water, with the wish that he will get better soon and my giving water should not deteriorate his condition.
Because once he gets better soon, he can return home and have as much water as he wants.”


It was only after at least two personal interactions that the Singhs opened up enough to reveal another fact.

That the Minister they loathed was still in touch with them and continued to help them.

In late March, Rahul Singh fell off his motorbike and fractured his arm. His elder brother Rajan rushed him to the doctor who was not available.

“My brother called the Minister and asked him for help in organising a doctor,” admitted Rahul. “I did not know about this until we went in to meet the doctor. The doctor asked – oh so you are the ones sent by Mantriji (Minister). I asked him later if he had called the Minister for help. He said that he did,” said Rahul.

Rajan is a little unsure as to whether to discuss this aspect of their strange relationship with the Minister. “There was a friend who had cancer and needed admission in SGPGI (hospital) so the Minister helped with that,” he said.

On being pressed as to whether he had asked for help for any member of his family, he said – “Yeah, sometimes we ask. He helps us.”

“He talks to me sometimes, asks about work and asks how we are,” said Rajan. He currently lives in his father’s Shahjahanpur house and works nights as a security guard.

Rahul, who was working in a private telecom firm, resigned in January after Jagendra’s father Sumer Singh passed away due to a heart attack. He now lives in Khutar with his wife, mother, Diksha and Rajan’s family.

With the grandfather’s pension of Rs 18,000 no longer coming in, both brothers are desperate for the once-promised government jobs.

This story by Sandhya Ravishankar was originally published by The Lede on June 21.

Published on June 21, The Lede journalist Sandhya Ravishankar wrote a four-part series that uncovered the true reason why none of Jagendra Singh’s attackers were ever brought to justice. In the first part, The Lede recounted the background that led to Jagendra Singh’s death in June 2015. The second part revealed why his family chose to stay silent. As part of a collaboration in the Green Blood Project, 60 publications across the world featured the story, which took the story from a small town in India’s most populous state and highlighted the dangerous conditions that journalists work under in India.

Why women in Beed district don’t have wombs

“You will hardly find women with wombs in these villages. These are villages of womb-less women,” says Manda Ugale, with gloom in her eyes.

Sitting in her tiny house in the Hajipur village within the drought-affected Beed district of Maharashtra’s Marath-wada region, she struggles to talk about the painful topic.

Women in Vanjarwadi say that it is the “norm” in villages to remove their uterus after having two or three children. 50 per cent have already had hysterectomies.

The majority of these women are cane cutters who migrate to the sugar belt of western Maharashtra during the cane cutting season. With the drought intensifying, the number of migrants multiplies.

“The mukadam (contractor) is keen to have women without wombs in his group of cane cutters,” says Satyabhama, another cane-cutter.

Hundreds of thousands of men and women from the region migrate to work as cane cutters between October and March.

Contractors draw up contracts with the husband and wife counted as one unit. Cane cutting is a rigorous process and if the husband or wife takes a break for a day, the couple has to pay a fine of 500 Rupees (US$6.99) per day to the contractor for every break.


Menstrual periods hinder work and attract fines. Thus, the answer, in Beed, is to go in for a hysterectomy so the women no longer have them.

“After a hysterectomy, there is no chance of menstrual periods. So, there is no question of taking a break during cane cutting. We cannot afford to lose even a rupee,” says Satya Bhama.

Contractors say that during menstrual periods, women want a break for a day or two and work is halted.

“We have a target to complete in a limited time frame and hence we don’t want women who would have periods during cane cutting,” said Dada Patil, a contractor.

The Ugale family in Beed. The family goes for cane-cutting every season as its members’ livelihood depends on it. Perennial drought and lack of work opportunities leave cane-cutters vulnerable to exploitation by cane contractors. Source: Vikas Ugale

Patil insists that he and other contractors don’t force the women to have a surgery; rather, it is a choice made by their families.

Interestingly, the women said that the contractors give them an advance for a surgery and that the money is recovered from their wages.

Achyut Borgaonkar of Tathapi, an organisation that has conducted a study on this issue, said: “In the cane cutter community, menstrual periods are considered a problem and they think surgery is the only option to get rid of it. But this has a serious impact on the health of the women as they develop a hormonal imbalance, mental health issues, gain weight etc. We observed that even young girls at the age of 25 have undergone this surgery.”

Menstrual periods hinder work and attract fines. Thus, the answer, in Beed, is to go in for a hysterectomy so the women no longer have them.

Bandu Ugale, Satyabhama’s husband and a cane cutter himself, explains the logic behind the practice.

“A couple gets about 250 Rupees after cutting a tonne of sugarcane. In a day, we cut about 3-4 tonnes of cane and in an entire season of 4-5 months a couple cuts about 300 tonnes of sugarcane. What we earn during the season is our yearly income as we don’t get

any work after we come back from cane cutting,” says Ugale.

“We can’t afford to take a break even for a day. We have to work even if we have health problems. There is no rest and women having periods is an additional problem,” he explains.

School girls in Beed. Child marriages are prevalent in drought areas. Girl children are married off even as young as age 14. By age 16 and 17 they have children, and then they undergo hysterectomy surgery so that menstrual periods don’t hinder cane-cutting work. Source: Radheshyam Jadhav

Septuagenarian Vilabai says that the life of a cane cutter woman is hellish.

She hints that there is repeated sexual exploitation of women by contractors and their men.

“Cane cutters have to live in cane fields or near sugar mills in a tent. There are no bathrooms and toilets. It becomes even more difficult for a woman if she has periods in these conditions,” says the old woman.

Many women in villages in this parched landscape said private medical practitioners prescribe a hysterectomy surgery even if they complain of normal abdominal pain or a white discharge.

This story by Radheshyam Jadhav was originally published by The Hindu Business Line on April 8.

The Hindu Business Line set out to provide in-depth coverage of the drought in large parts of India, given the fact that agriculture accounts for a substantial share of the Indian economy. While reporting on the crisis in Maharashtra, in western India, Deputy Editor Radheshyam Jadhav came across heart-rending narratives about women undergoing hysterectomy surgery – to remove their uterus – under duress, for fear of losing their jobs as sugarcane-cutters. After Business Line broke the story, it was picked up by other media groups and even the international press. Administrative action too soon followed. The National Commission of Women, a statutory body established by the Indian Government, which offers policy advisories on matters relating to women, issued a notice to the Maharashtra Chief Secretary UPS Madan asking for legal action to end the practice of womb removal by women working as sugarcane cutters.