We refuse black coal, save Goa!

Suparna Chatterjee

An insight into the movement that seeks to protect Goa from becoming a coal hub and save the biodiversity of the state.  

The sea, sand and beach shacks along with some parties are what we have in mind when we think of Goa. But beyond that, the West Indian coastal state of Goa fosters rich biodiversity and dynamic cultural and political histories that have shaped the lives and livelihoods of the people and the ecology. All of this is currently under threat from a massive industrial onslaught. 

Goans are protesting against three infrastructure projects that will facilitate the transport of coal through the state. If allowed to proceed, as the protestors deem, Goa will turn into a “coal-hub” for the benefit of private players. 

Coal corridor through Goa? Environmental and socio-economic impacts

“Around 59,000 trees will be cut in Goa alone, and a total of over a lakh will be cut across Goa and Karnataka for the completion of these projects.”

The three infrastructure projects, namely the double-tracking of the South Western Railway line, a four-lane expansion of the NH4A, and the laying of a 400 kV transmission line, will all pass through parts of Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, and lead to a loss of 170 hectares of protected forest land. Around 59,000 trees will be cut in Goa alone, and a total of over a lakh will be cut across Goa and Karnataka for the completion of these projects. The forests in Goa are home to around 721 plant species, 70 mammal species, 235 bird species, 219 butterfly species and many other creatures, some of which are endemic to the area. The projects will result in forest fragmentation, habitat destruction and disturb the ecosystem stability of the area. It will directly impact the life of the communities that reside in these forests, and will have detrimental impacts on the health and livelihoods of a large section of the population from across socio-economic classes. 

These projects are part of the Sagarmala program which the director of the Goa Foundation, Claude Alvares describes as a scheme of turning the state of Goa into a dedicated coal corridor and says: “[..]..not designed by Goans for Goa by the Goa government” but is planned by a set of foreign actors. As part of this program, coal is to be transported from the Mormugao Port Trust (MPT) which is located in Vasco, Goa, and is well connected through the railway and highways, to the neighbouring states of Maharashtra (via roadways) and Karnataka (via railways). It currently has a handling capacity of 12 MTP (million tonnes per annum), which is projected to increase to 51 MTPA for increased coal supply to the thermal plants and the steel industries of the neighbouring states. Coking coal is scarce in India and is imported from countries like Australia and South Africa into Goa via the MPT. Three public-private partnership terminals run by JSW, Vedanta, and Adani Group handle coal at the MPT.  

“A report published in DownToEarth magazine in January 2018 explains how from 2001-02 till the current day the coal and coke carrying capacities of the MPT have tripled, causing disastrous impacts on air quality and life of the locals in the area.”

A report published in DownToEarth magazine in January 2018 explains how from 2001-02 till the current day the coal and coke carrying capacities of the MPT have tripled, causing disastrous impacts on air quality and life of the locals in the area. The three projects were cleared by the National Board of Wildlife governed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in April this year through a video conference, along with 30 other projects, which essentially cut down scope for public engagement in the process of providing these clearances. 

Goans against Coal: protest movements in Goa against the infrastructure projects

The protests against the three projects started soon after they were passed. In the early stages, there were petitions, letters to the Central and State governments from citizens, civil society organizations and Goan youths. In July, the Goa Foundation filed a PIL at the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court on this matter. The protests slowly gained momentum with the involvement of larger sections of people through the use of social media. Several individuals as well as groups like SaveMollem and GoyantKolsoNaka started trending the topic on social media platforms to educate people and gather attention on the environmental issues in the area. 

On the night of November 1, at around 10:30 pm more than 5,000 people gathered near a level crossing at Chandor village in South Goa. These people were opposing the construction of railway tracks being carried out despite the Bombay High Court staying the double-tracking project in the protected area until the next hearing scheduled in December. Amidst the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the people held a peaceful protest till 4 am. 

“Speaking to Bol Magazine, Sherry Fernandes, a youth activist involved with the movement since June says that when all other means failed, the protestors had no choice but to take to the streets: ‘[..]..People tried everything and this is (our) last resort.’” 

Speaking to Bol Magazine, Sherry Fernandes, a youth activist involved with the movement since June says that when all other means failed, the protestors had no choice but to take to the streets: “[..]..People tried everything and this is (our) last resort.” For this activist and many others like her, the beautiful association developed with Mollem over the years, along with the love of its rich biodiversity and communities is what has driven them to be a part of the fight to protect it. She is concerned about biodiversity: “[…]..Slender lorises, Mouse deers, Hornbills and so much of life in the forest”, are all currently under threat. 

The midnight protest included the middle classes of urban and rural Goa, civil society members, activists, indigenous communities and large numbers of the youth. Fernandes describes the protest as “[..].. something so beautiful and peaceful despite the agitation amongst people which had forced them to come out, risking their lives amidst the pandemic.” The immediate response to the protests was an FIR filed by the Goa Police against the six convenors of the two NGOs – Goyant Kolso Naka and Goencho Ekvott, for unlawful activity and wrongful restraint. Fernandes says that the news of an FIR being filed was shocking, mainly because of the extremely peaceful nature of the protests which displayed varied forms of Goan culture, and there was no rioting or damage to property. 

The protest at Chandor was covered by leading online media outlets, and a buzz was created on social media. Following this, several email and signature campaigns were launched in which people from across the country participated. However, large parts of the country that often dream of a vacation in Goa are still silent on the issue.

“This movement is not the first of its kind in Goa. For long several groups have been protesting unsustainable mining in parts of Goa, coal import into the state, and the Sagarmala project since its inception.” 

This movement is not the first of its kind in Goa. For long several groups have been protesting unsustainable mining in parts of Goa, coal import into the state, and the Sagarmala project since its inception. Groups like the National Fishworkers Forum and several fisherwomen groups from the region protested against the Sagarmala project and the autonomy granted to the MPT in 2016. There have been protests in 2017 and 2018 opposing the infrastructure development and increasing coal handling permits at MPT. 

“The government has also promised a capping mechanism on coal imports into the state. Sadly, such statements have not been backed by documented proof, and revisiting government response to similar movements in the past proves that such claims are an immediate measure used by those in power to pacify protestors without actually taking up concrete measures to accede to the demands.”

The response of the government to such movements has not changed over the years. In the current situation, following the mid-night protests and media-outrage over the destruction of the environment, the Minister of Environment & Power in Goa, Nilesh Cabral while speaking to the media said: “Goa will not be a coal hub.” He also suggested afforestation in other parts to counter the effect of the felling of trees. However, there is an absence of a plan regarding such afforestation which has been cited as an ineffective mitigation measure to counter the carbon loss due to the felling of 200-300-year-old trees. The government has also promised a capping mechanism on coal imports into the state. Sadly, such statements have not been backed by documented proof, and revisiting government response to similar movements in the past proves that such claims are an immediate measure used by those in power to pacify protestors without actually taking up concrete measures to accede to the demands. 

What are the stakes? Who benefits? 

Urban environmental movements of this kind are here to stay; the movements to Save Mollem and Save Aarey forests prove this fact. It becomes essential to study the nature of these movements to understand how the dynamics of environmentalism are playing out in India. 

“Environmentalism in developing countries like India has been termed as ‘environmentalism of the poor’, where concerns of material distributive justice force people to protest against environmental destruction in contrast to environmentalism in developed nations where post-materialistic concerns shape environmental justice movements.”

Environmentalism in developing countries like India has been termed as “environmentalism of the poor”, where concerns of material distributive justice force people to protest against environmental destruction in contrast to environmentalism in developed nations where post-materialistic concerns shape environmental justice movements. Another form of environmentalism which is gaining popularity is “bourgeois environmentalism” where the middle-class seek environmental protection through institutional machinery. While environmentalism of the poor emerges out of concerns for immediate loss of livelihood and habitat as a result of environmental degradation, the bourgeois environmental movements are usually shaped by health concerns and loss of beautification due to environmental degradation. Street action against such forms of degradation is usually viewed as a means used by the poor, who do not have access to other forms of protest, while the urban or in rare cases the rural middle class usually resort to court petitions and other institutional means to further their goals. 

However, movements led by the middle class have often been criticised as rooted in a feeling of contradictory consciousness among them who, unaware of their own contribution to the problem seek end goals that try to secure environmental justice for them while negatively affecting the livelihoods of the poor. They sometimes have an elitist undertone and a blatant disregard for the poor. 

“Environmental problems and environment versus development debates must be viewed in the backdrop of politico-economical and ecological interactions at the local, regional and national levels.”

Essentialist arguments by conservationists are sometimes made to gain political support for environmental protection in India, and it is often suggested that challenging the premise of such movements has a probability of weakening the larger political discourse around environmental protection. However, it is equally important to study and critique the premise of such movements regularly to improve and redefine the ways of environmentalism to suit the needs of the marginalized. Environmental problems and environment versus development debates must be viewed in the backdrop of politico-economical and ecological interactions at the local, regional and national levels. The incorporation of interdisciplinary professionals into environmental conservation has started the dialogue for maintaining an effective balance between ecological conservation and seeking social justice and livelihood protection for the marginalised.

The movement in Goa tries to overcome some of the aforementioned barriers by taking into consideration the livelihoods and lives of the marginalised and by targeting the Central government’s backing of a few private corporations in bringing coal into Goa. It is an amalgamation of the two forms of environmentalism- the protestors mainly belong to the urban and rural middle class, with some representation from the economically marginalised groups. They are using petitions and other institutional means as well as mass mobilization to secure environmental and social justice. Concerns of ecological sustainability and life and livelihood protection form the basis of this movement, unlike other middle class movements driven by elite notions of ‘beautification’ or ‘cleanliness’. 

The infrastructure projects in concern will have severe environmental and social consequences and the current movement is backed by scientific claims, giving due recognition to the dynamic cultural and political history of the state.

“‘National integration’ and ‘benefit’ have often been used as terms to pass such infrastructure projects, which serve no purpose to the populace of the region in concern, who also face the detrimental impacts of such projects.“

On the other hand, the government-corporate lobby supporting and pushing for the project is evidently disregarding concern for the environment as well as the livelihoods and habitats of the people. They are either hiding facts and making false claims to pacify the protests, or suggesting unrealistic mitigation measures such as reforestation to counter the claims of irreversible environmental and livelihood damage. “National integration” and “benefit” have often been used as terms to pass such infrastructure projects, which serve no purpose to the populace of the region in concern, who also face the detrimental impacts of such projects.  

“Public opinion at all levels is very much required, and the current draconian ways adopted by the government in prioritizing crony capitalist gains and infrastructure development benefiting a few over the livelihoods of the masses is bound to see more such protests in the near future.”

Public opinion at all levels is very much required, and the current draconian ways adopted by the government in prioritizing crony capitalist gains and infrastructure development benefiting a few over the livelihoods of the masses is bound to see more such protests in the near future. Therefore, it is very important to define the nature of environmentalism and the intellectual and political premise of such movements, to effectively counter such detrimental developmental projects and further the cause of environmental protection along with social justice. 

Suparna is an early-career researcher working with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) in Bangalore. She likes to explore and work on issues concerning the environment, society and gender. 

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Is Contemporary Feminism Radical Enough?

Raavya Bhattacharyya

Examining the digital-age ideas of feminism, where they stand in historical context and why they fail to challenge patriarchal capitalism

The feminist movement has consistently evolved to show the world the many ways in which women have been discriminated against and made to feel like lesser beings. Each wave of feminism emerged with its concerns – voting rights, equal pay, workplace rights, reproductive rights, and so on. Right from when it began in the early twentieth century, the movement allowed women to awaken to the systemic injustice that was all around them, the kind of injustice many of them had learned to internalise. This collective angst had finally manifested itself into philosophy and an ideology that placed women at the forefront, recognising them as human beings capable of living a life of dignity without male intervention. Women wanted to be seen as individuals with rights of their own, deserving of equality and respect. After centuries of oppression, women were finally examining their lived experiences to see how much was being withheld from them. 

“At home, in the workplace, and nearly every sphere of society, women are viewed as the weaker sex who are always in need of male guidance and are incapable of making their own decisions. These sexist beliefs have stripped women of their agency and their rights.” 

The core principle of feminism, as feminist author Bell Hooks succinctly describes in her book ‘Feminism Is For Everybody’, is “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” She’s careful to explain that sexism is the enemy, “all sexist thinking and action is the problem, whether those who perpetuate it are female or male, child or adult.” As a belief, sexism inherently privileges one sex over the other. For centuries, the world has privileged men and their experiences over women. At home, in the workplace, and nearly every sphere of society, women are viewed as the weaker sex who are always in need of male guidance and are incapable of making their own decisions. These sexist beliefs have stripped women of their agency and their rights. 

In the first few phases of feminism, women had concrete issues to tackle, problems that needed fixing in the form of new laws and policy change. Years of struggle saw a significant amount of change, women were finally given rights that men had taken for granted. But for many women, these changes in law and order never seemed to reach the world they were living in. Despite societal proclamations of emancipation and empowerment, women were still regarded as the inferior gender. Feminist scrutiny and inquiry had to take on new forms to understand complex gender dynamics. Feminists were interrogating social and cultural systems to understand how inequality and sexism were still intact despite changing laws and policies that were in favour of women. 

Where does modern-day feminism stand?

Modern-day feminism prides itself on being inclusive after having tackled major conflicts and contradictions the earlier waves had. The rise of choice feminism saw women reclaiming their agency, supposedly liberated from the shackles of patriarchy. The assumption was that the ability to make any kind of choice is a form of absolute and complete empowerment. What we tend to overlook is that choice doesn’t necessarily imply a decision free from patriarchal conditioning. As choice feminism has grown in popularity, there has been a visible shift towards a kind of feminism that is accessible to a fault. 

“Social media has been instrumental in peddling a watered-down, ‘accessible’ version of feminism. This kind of feminism seems to pride itself in brandishing catch-phrases like ‘girl-power’ without any real exploration of where women stand today or the kind of new struggles they face and how feminists must work to abolish them.”

Social media has been instrumental in peddling a watered-down, “accessible” version of feminism. This kind of feminism seems to pride itself in brandishing catch-phrases like “girl-power” without any real exploration of where women stand today or the kind of new struggles they face and how feminists must work to abolish them. The birth of a consumerist form of feminism, a kind that distances itself from nuance and exists solely for temporary placation is our biggest challenge, one we need to overcome to understand that the inherent discrimination between genders still exists. Our capitalist society has comfortably bought into this accessible version of feminism because it serves their agenda, there are now more things to “sell” to women, a way to monetise a movement that has always been against the very system of reduction and objectification. 

Decades of living within a system that privileges men and their needs over women has resulted in many women perpetuating the very biases they’re so sure of having rid themselves of. An important example here is that of women’s beauty and grooming. Beauty standards for women are incredibly unrealistic, but so many of us, despite calling ourselves feminists, give in to them. We call it our ‘choice’ when we get rid of body hair, our ‘choice’ when we spend time obsessing over how good or bad we’re looking, constantly worried about being ‘appealing’ enough. A closer examination of these choices will reveal our internalised misogyny, the diminished ways in which we regard ourselves because of the way we look. What does ‘appealing’ mean? What does it have to say about the culture of shame and stigma the beauty industry has taught women to accept as part of themselves? 

Existing power structures that uphold patriarchy are alive and well, while we’ve made tremendous strides in women empowerment, we still have a long way to go. Class, race, caste, and socio-economic challenges add to the layers of disadvantage to many women. These women don’t have platforms to show the world the struggles they go through every day. Dalit women in rural India are at the mercy of the upper caste, routinely harassed by them, on the basis of their caste and their gender. These women also face discrimination within their households, bound by strict gender roles. Mainstream media is selective in its outrage which is why these women continue to be victims of cyclical oppression. 

“Intersectional feminism has consistently highlighted the importance of inclusion in the larger feminist movement, the need for voices of women who are victims of ‘double-oppression’ as a result of their gender and race/class or caste to be heard.”

Intersectional feminism has consistently highlighted the importance of inclusion in the larger feminist movement, the need for voices of women who are victims of “double-oppression” as a result of their gender and race/class or caste to be heard. These women are doubly exploited – first on the basis of their gender and then on the basis of their socio-economic status, race, ethnicity and other social identities. American law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectional feminism in 1989 to describe how the overlap of social identities was responsible for “compounding experiences of discrimination.” She explains that intersectional feminism is “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. All inequality is not created equal.”

Women in rural India are still victims of brutal, regressive caste-based traditions that offer them no room for free thought and action. The latest data shows that four Dalit women are raped everyday, with many being raped on multiple occasions. Crimes against Dalit women are the highest as compared to all crimes committed against members of the scheduled cast. Gender-based violence persists, unchecked, at an alarming rate. Estimates show that  35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced some form of physical partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (not including sexual harassment) at some point in their lives. The stifling continues, but tokenisms on social media and the blatant commercialisation of ‘empowerment’ will have us believe that we’ve achieved all that we set out to. 

Choice feminism needs to be re-examined and questioned

Feminist author Jessa Crispin addresses similar concerns in her polemic essay “Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto”. She writes: “To understand how surface-level contemporary feminism really is, we need only note that the most common markers of feminism’s success are the same markers of patriarchal capitalism.” Crispin also sees choice feminism as inherently individualistic, a kind of feminism that is satisfied with token gestures in one’s personal life that only mimic true empowerment but still function within the accepted norms of patriarchy. We’re so consumed with “living our best life” and making choices that we think are radical that we don’t interrogate our mind-sets, our reasons for being and deciding. “Choice feminism blocks any discussion about consequences of how people choose to live their lives. Because the choice itself is feminist,” Crispin notes.

“Gender equality has not been normalised. Modern-day feminism has diluted many of the core, radical ideas that shone when the feminist movement first began. Early waves of feminism were focused on bringing down a capitalist, patriarchal society that privileged men and awarded them unchecked power.”

Many women feel a kind of dissonance when they look at the world around them. Posters proudly declare “the future is female” but women still have to “break the glass ceiling”, they still have to battle anxiety when they step out of their homes at night. They see women in positions of power struggle to consistently prove their mettle, they’re reminded every day what a “privilege” it is to even occupy such a role. Gender equality has not been normalised. Modern-day feminism has diluted many of the core, radical ideas that shone when the feminist movement first began. Early waves of feminism were focused on bringing down a capitalist, patriarchal society that privileged men and awarded them unchecked power. Feminism wanted women to have platforms that gave them the opportunity to make their own decisions while also promoting critical thinking. The fight for equal pay, reproductive rights and the right to education took place right beside the fight for a world that reimagined gender. Questioning and interrogating our corrupt, power-hungry social systems has always been intrinsic to feminism. 

Now we seem to be more interested in how a largely unjust system finds a way to benefit us instead of working to dismantle that very system, to question its immorality and the way it upholds oppression in the most insidious of ways. 

“Women empowerment is not solely about choice and agency, it is about a deeper investigation of the place of women in society, it is understanding that oppression can sometimes look a lot like freedom. A reclamation is essential, a need to make feminism political again, to make it more than the hollow shell it is becoming.”

Today, we need feminism more than ever to start conversations that have slowly been forgotten, buried under a shiny veneer of what we assume women empowerment to be. Our fight against patriarchy continues. We have to battle uncomfortable questions about the lives we lead as women that we wake up to the everyday and the casual sexism that relentlessly persists. We have to call out systems of oppression that don’t allow women a way out of their lives of misery. Women empowerment is not solely about choice and agency, it is about a deeper investigation of the place of women in society, it is understanding that oppression can sometimes look a lot like freedom. A reclamation is essential, a need to make feminism political again, to make it more than the hollow shell it is becoming. Our revolution must begin in our personal spaces where we reject patriarchy’s idea of liberated women. “Feminist thinking teaches us all,” as Bell Hooks says “especially, how to love justice and freedom in ways that foster and affirm life.”

Raavya is a pop-culture nerd who lives and breathes books and cinema. An unrelenting feminist, she hopes to change regressive mindsets through the written word.

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“Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs”

Sahitya Poonacha

A walk through the buried history of the Kodavas of Kodagu (Coorg), their colonial past and post-colonial quest for representation.

If we begin with the Kodavas, we must first speak of Kodagu. The hill station tucked away in the Western Ghats of south India which eventually turned into a mnemonic device for the Kodavas. Home to a tribe of warrior clans, never quite well-placed in the caste structure, addressed little in the media, and with little self-reflection by Kodavas themselves. Although, there has been much push in recent times to change this.

While their recorded history goes back to the 10th CE, their oral histories go farther back and have passed down generations. Barely reconstructed, these oral histories are yet to be pursued and are often rejected as hearsay. That being said, this article doesn’t seek to rewrite its history. Moreover, written by a Kodava herself,  it must not be taken at face value. 

“It was the British colonialists after all who called it ‘Coorg’ instead of ‘Kodagu’ and dubbed it the ‘Scotland of India’ a title similarly accorded to Shillong as ‘Scotland of the East’.”

Remnants of colonial history are found in India on every street corner, every household, and this includes the secluded hills of Kodagu. It was the British colonialists after all who called it “Coorg” instead of “Kodagu” and dubbed it the “Scotland of India” a title similarly accorded to Shillong as “Scotland of the East”.

What made and still makes the Kodavas different is that they stand out within the “imaginary” idea of India. As a tribal, egalitarian community divided into clans the Kodavas have existed in Kodagu with their own distinct culture and traditions rejecting the systems in neighbouring regions. 

“Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs. These hills were hard to penetrate, tough to live in, with harsh climate and topography.”

Kodavas have always seen Kodagu as theirs. These hills were hard to penetrate, tough to live in, with harsh climate and topography. Kodagu remains nestled in the hills, a road trip from Bengaluru is the most common and only way to get to Kodagu. The martial Kodavas who possessed a strong sense of community, pride and dominance made it even harder to rule. This could have been a reason even the mighty Chola Dynasty couldn’t get a hold of the region leaving them in the periphery.

We see this continue today as Kodavas try to assert their identity as a different group, that requires autonomy, insulated and still angered by their past in modern India. They’ve had multiple separatist struggles in the 20th CE that are rarely covered by  the media, and a section still demanding homeland status. The historical records to help uncover these movements  curiously sit in the libraries of Britain and a few can be found in the National Library of India.

The Kodava Culture 

Let’s go to the beginning, Kodavas if you ask them their origins see themselves as having an Aryan  connection in heritage, essayed in M.P. Cariappa and Ponnamma Cariappa’s work as well. This is what every young Kodava grows up hearing in living room conversations, what history hasn’t proved or as some Kodavas say, hasn’t ‘yet’. 

For those who aren’t familiar with Kodavas or Kodagu, Kodavas constitute a patrilineal society centred around “okkas”, a clan stemming from a common ancestor. Each okka possesses an “ainmane” or ancestral home where they used to celebrate and congregate. Vast tracts of land were given to an okka or clan, called “jamma” lands, that are jointly cultivated and passed down over generations. The Kaveri Purana as part of the Skanda Purana identifies Kodavas as “Kshatriya-Shudra” (warrior and lower caste), something history and India neither expected nor explained. 

As nature and ancestor worshippers, Kodavas are known to hold the elements of nature in high regard. Many of their festivals are also centred on nature worship, particularly the harvest festival of Puttari and Kaveri Sankramanna marking the date that Goddess Kaveri began her descent. On many festive occasions offerings are made to ancestors. Kodavas eventually came to worship Hindu deities as interaction with those around Kodagu increased. 

Kodavas worship goddess Kaveri as custodians of the river that originates in the Brahmagiri hills. Kaveri’s story is intriguing. For me, a Kodavathi, the worship of a goddess who left her husband,   Brahmin sage Agastya for reasons debated has left an incredible mark. It is believed she left to serve the people, to save the world, and this story fascinated me. One simplified version of the myth, which I heard most growing up, is that Kaveri agreed to marry Agastya on the condition that he wouldn’t leave her alone. 

However, he once turned her into water and kept her in his kamandala (pot) asking his disciples to guard it, so that she wouldn’t leave him while he went to bathe. Recognising the trickery, she left him. As she flowed out of the pot she was unstoppable, even as men and women stood in her path. Legend has it, it was her force that turned the women’s sarees the other way around. Till today, the women of Kodagu continue to wear their sarees the other way around setting them apart from the conventional draping followed by Indian women. The story is powerful. These may be reduced to myths, but it reveals one thing, the attempt to assert an aspect of identity.

“Kodavas conduct marriages with little intervention by priests and worship a Hindu goddess who refused to be tied down. Draping the saree in their own way, and giving women agency in its mythology and culturally to some extent is a powerful story of liberation that fits in very well with the 21st CE aspirations.”

Kodavas conduct marriages with little intervention by priests and worship a Hindu goddess who refused to be tied down. Draping the saree in their own way, and giving women agency in its mythology and culturally to some extent is a powerful story of liberation that fits in very well with the 21st CE aspirations. However, today Kodavas struggle to make their culture felt.

The Colonial History of Kodagu 

“The Haleri dynasty’s entry into Kodagu became the lofty foundation for Kodagu’s recorded history on the map of India, following huge gaps of invisibility until then.”

A large chunk of Kodagu’s history starts and ends with the dynasty of the Haleri kings back in the 17th century an off-shoot of the Ikkeri Nayakas[i], who managed to make Kodagu their home and that’s when the Kodavas entered the dynamics and politics of Southern India. The Haleri dynasty’s entry into Kodagu became the lofty foundation for Kodagu’s recorded history on the map of India, following huge gaps of invisibility until then. 

Curiously, the Kodavas never had a Kodava ruler. Regardless of the ruler, it was the Kodava identity that had to repeatedly sustain itself through cultural preservation. Kodagu’s history of course has left its own impression and scars on Kodavas and has pushed them to stay the course. This is especially seen in the community’s memory of Tipu Sultan, who ruled the Carnatic between 1782 and 1799 from Mysore. The contest for Kodagu in some ways presented itself here. Often dubbed the “Tiger of Mysore” and alternatively a “temple desecrator” has been somewhat of a contested history. 

For Kodavas, they see this attempt to assert dominance as a traumatic, dark, blood-soaked past that India has undermined. The reconstruction of Tipu’s rule in sources has either glossed over his feud with Kodavas or has revolved entirely around this bit. Either way, the reconstruction has not been reliable, with unconfirmed  numbers, underreported facts, and some confusion. You might recall the protests in the district against celebrating Tipu Jayanti in recent times.

“This tug-of-war was actually playing out between the Haleri dynasty and Tipu Sultan which brought in the British colonialists into the mix, the greatest opportunists world history has seen.”

This tug-of-war was actually playing out between the Haleri dynasty and Tipu Sultan which brought in the British colonialists into the mix, the greatest opportunists world history has seen. Although, one should notice it was the Kodava identity that truly got caught in this triangular power struggle, trapped in the hills with little say over what happened to their status.

Mercara Fort
Image by Sahitya P Poonacha (2016)

“Chikkaviraraja was the last Haleri king for Kodagu, known to be impulsive and ruthless. Dubbed as the “Mad King” he was the only Haleri ruler in Kodagu who was wary of British control, when he tried to shake them a short-lived war was the result, after which Kodagu would officially be in the hands of the East India Company.”

Still, Kodagu in its  strained relationship with the Haleri dynasty in the 19th CE, would come to be signed off to the British in 1834 by Chikkaviraraja. Chikkaviraraja was the last Haleri king for Kodagu, known to be impulsive and ruthless. Dubbed as the “Mad King” he was one Haleri ruler in Kodagu wary of British control, when he tried to shake them a short-lived war was the result, after which Kodagu would officially be in the hands of the East India Company.

On the colonial front, they still enjoy some privileges, like being the only community allowed to carry arms without a license, an 1861 colonial exemption that came in place. This owes to the fact that Kodavas worship weapons. 

“The moment the British East India Company took over Kodagu, was the moment Kodavas once more had to wait for Indian independence.”

The British East India Company saw profitability in the hills for plantation agriculture. They acquired the martial clans that would then become associated with India’s defence for generations to come. Post-independence the community would eventually be home to national heroes such as General Thimmayya and Field Marshal Cariappa. The moment the company took over Kodagu, was the moment Kodavas once more had to wait for Indian independence.

Postcolonial Identity

Independence has been at the heart of Kodagu’s history, liberated in mythology by their goddess. Even as a small hill station Kodagu holds much diversity, Muslims, Gowdas, other communities and smaller tribes have coexisted through their own myths and timeless tales. Today, Kodavas try to preserve their  culture, through their shrines, ainmanes, jamma lands passed down generations and their revered padathi or traditions. All to some valaga beats, and celebrations like Kailupodhu where weapons and arms are worshipped. 

In the 21st CE, these traditions sustain in new forms even as many Kodavas have moved out of the hills. Many Kodavas continue to maintain their sprawling coffee estates, paddy fields. Notable Kodavas join India’s defence forces and contribute in various sectors. Kodagu meanwhile, now welcomes tourists from all over the world to find new ways to showcase and preserve the hill station. 

“The history of the Kodavas remains hidden deep within its forests, its rivers and its people. From this account and many others what becomes certain is that Kodava’s history remains partially uncovered and needs unbiased reassessment. Kodavas see themselves as unique, this can’t simply be sidelined as ‘pride’.”

The history of the Kodavas remains hidden deep within its forests, its rivers and its people. From this account and many others what becomes certain is that Kodava’s history remains partially uncovered and needs unbiased reassessment. Kodavas see themselves as unique, this can’t simply be sidelined as “pride”. Perhaps there is  a reason for it we haven’t explored. Why does this warrior tribe demand homeland status and self-rule?

The answers are in its history and this is the colonial baggage the community carries with it through generations beyond independence. Therefore complex power struggles are not simply a thing of the past. Lest we lose all this history to the trappings of development and more political dialogue. In 2020, ironically British chef Gordon Ramsay found something noteworthy about Kodavas’ Pandhi curry[ii] on his show with National Geographic and that’s hardly a brush on the surface.

[i] The real origin date of the Haleri dynasty is uncertain, but dates to the mid-17th century according to the Rajendraname. [ii] Pandhi curry is a pork delicacy loved by Kodavas.

Sahitya is a journalist and a writer with a voice. Finding time to pursue an academic interest in minority positioning in mainstream media between chasing leads and searching for stories that need telling.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

What it Means to Live with Depression

Mahima Sood 

Mahima Sood shares her personal experience of living with depression, how it impacted her life and why it’s important to talk about mental health

Trigger Warning: Depression

This January, I was out with a friend, walking around town and talking about things that are fun to talk about, but you can’t quite recall them in retrospect. We decided to end the day at Zara; there were people all around and the place was buzzing with conversation and laughter. The last thing I remember is waiting for my friend who was trying on clothes before everything went blank. 

“My friend rushed me to the ER, where they admitted me suspecting a stroke. 36 hours, morphine, CT scan, and spinal tap later, the neurologist declared me physically healthy, with alarming levels of stress. ‘What are you so worried about?’, he asked, and I had no answer.”

It started with a headache, which gradually intensified until I was unable to talk and started sobbing incessantly. In half an hour my mouth and hands froze. My friend rushed me to the ER, where they admitted me suspecting a stroke. 36 hours, morphine, CT scan, and spinal tap later, the neurologist declared me physically healthy, with alarming levels of stress. “What are you so worried about?”, he asked, and I had no answer.

“Depression has been the single constant in my life.”

Depression has been the single constant in my life. I say this with an acute awareness of the privilege my birth accords me: I come from an upper-caste Hindu family with educated feminist parents who are more liberal with girls than their contemporaries. I have a partner who understands my condition and is supportive, and friends who tolerate my sudden disappearances. My skin color and body type put me in the conventionally good-looking demographic – I point this out because I have people in my extended family being shamed over their complexion and body on a daily basis. Financial security allows me to pursue my passion. What is it that causes me to pause every once in a while and feel inconsolable with a grief that is so familiar, so consistent that it’s akin to breathing?

“My early twenties were a whirlwind of new experiences littered with long spells of denial about my worsening mental health, and my inability to do anything about it. I’ve gained and lost interest in people, jobs, hobbies, and my own well-being. I’ve fallen into a deep sleep after a day full of joy and laughter, only to wake up wishing I didn’t exist.”

Ever since I can remember I’ve had a constant feeling of dejection and sadness eclipse everything else. I have faint recollections of my childhood — blurs of undefined emotions that speed past, with one that stands out — disappointment. I had a happy, normal childhood. Yet, I always felt alienated and undeserving of that happiness. My early twenties were a whirlwind of new experiences littered with long spells of denial about my worsening mental health, and my inability to do anything about it. I’ve gained and lost interest in people, jobs, hobbies, and my own well-being. I’ve fallen into a deep sleep after a day full of joy and laughter, only to wake up wishing I didn’t exist. At least once a day, for the last 20 years, I have thought how wonderful it would be to stop existing, and how that would take away the pain I have brought upon myself and my loved ones.

“Throughout all this, I’ve managed to masquerade this part of me and pretend to be normal. Good grades, jobs, relationships and lifestyle. It felt alien and inappropriate to acknowledge my emotions, let alone allow them to surface.”

Throughout all this, I’ve managed to masquerade this part of me and pretend to be normal. Good grades, jobs, relationships and lifestyle. It felt alien and inappropriate to acknowledge my emotions, let alone allow them to surface. There would be moments when I couldn’t control it of course: normally culminating in bouts of sobbing. I once cried over not liking a T.V. show’s vamp, something I used to watch with my grandma every night. There was this time when I burst into tears during an appraisal meeting with my manager because she didn’t criticise as much as I thought she would. Once, my father sat on a bed that was freshly made, and I burst into tears because I couldn’t smooth over that last crease.

In retrospect, it seems I was trying to make up for that void by focusing on external achievements.

To give you some context, I have always prided myself on having wildly productive days, where I manage to get a week’s worth of work done in less than 24 hours. I am focused, sail through problems, and get great results. I will eat right and work out and read and spend my time well. However, I still feel hopeless. Balance this against six days where I do nothing but stay in bed, and avoid all social confrontations, and viola, that’s an average week in my life. Last weekend, my psychiatrist texted me to ask how I was doing. I replied, “meh. Been really productive though”. It’s almost as if I carry a fool’s hope that high functionality will magically cure me of whatever it is that ails my mind.

“What I learned was that no pill can cure us of the varying degrees of mental turmoil we go through and that each experience is different.”

When I first went on medication almost two years ago, the experience was different than what I imagined it to be. Books and movies had prepared me for a surreal transformation, where all my misery would obliviate with a single pill. However, what I learned was that no pill can cure us of the varying degrees of mental turmoil we go through and that each experience is different. The medication releases doses of Serotonin, the chemical that makes us happy, periodically in our brain. Each drug comes with its set of side-effects, and it’s upon the patient to decide if the tradeoff is worth it. Would you give up on a regular sleep cycle or bowel movement to manage your condition? Recovery is a gradual process where the onus is on the person to take actions that make the condition easy to manage and control outbursts that shatter every illusion of normality.

“I finally have the help I’ve always needed. I have initiated conversations with my family and friends over my condition. I have started medication. I’ve gone on and off both therapy and medication until I found the combination that works best for me.”

I finally have the help I’ve always needed. I have initiated conversations with my family and friends over my condition. I have started medication. I’ve gone on and off both therapy and medication until I found the combination that works best for me. My preconceived notions of mental health, how mentally ill people behave and how the treatment works have been redefined by my own narrative. I’ve begun to view the world with my own kaleidoscope where logic and emotions often amalgamate, but I try to stay calm and manage it the best I can.

If I, with all my privilege and resources, could walk into a store and, for the lack of a better phrase, “lose my shit”, anyone can. Millions around the world suffer from varying severity of mental illnesses. These conditions cannot be quantified into a set of consistent symptoms, but that does not render them even fractionally less severe or less important than physical ailments. We are dealing with a crisis that cannot be generalised based on symptoms, with each person manifesting it differently. Thus, the onus is on us, as a society, to collectively be responsible for the well-being of those around us.

Mahima is a Data Scientist who also runs a writing retreat in the Parvati Valley.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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Will the Arts Survive the Covid Pandemic?

Pranita Choudhry

While diverse forms of art have kept us going during lockdowns, discussing how social distancing and restrictions on events and classes has impacted professional artists

The pandemic has pushed us to imagine a world with a renewed idea of mental well-being. Never before have we been locked up within our four walls left to our own devices with little or no social interaction. Many found it distressing, especially those who have children and were trying to balance work and domestic life and those who don’t have a conducive environment at home. Others found it liberating with extra time to do what they want.

Many of us indulged in painting, dancing, singing, gardening, photography, and could now have a nine to five routine and at the same time find solace in these co-curricular activities. It is this time to explore that saved us from feeling low, under-run, de-motivated and depressed. We turned to the arts when it came to balancing our moods, emotions, self-worth, and to a certain extent, to save us from ourselves. As the Harvard Health Review puts it, exercise, as in dance, can not only “promote chemical balance” but also “deepen the mind-body connection.” Online classes became the need of the hour, with instructors in need of new skills for teaching online.

“With studios and theatres shut down for long periods and the foreseeable future, how the industry is going to survive, sustain artists, keep livelihoods going is unknown and certainly not discussed enough.”

It is ironic how many of us in full-time jobs now relied on art to keep our mental well being afloat, however, for the full-time artists, this was a time of confusion, stress, anxiety, uncertainty, and loneliness. With studios and theatres shut down for long periods and the foreseeable future, how the industry is going to survive, sustain artists, keep livelihoods going is unknown and certainly not discussed enough. “It’s a desperate situation, especially for, say, nadaswaram artists, who earned their living by playing at temples or at weddings. Both those options have been locked out! What will they do? Similarly, so many artists were employed by the tourism industry. Where will they go now? no one in power has spoken up nor acted on behalf of the artists. The sector seems orphaned,” explained Padma Shri, Geeta Chandran, an eminent Bharatanatyam dancer.

“For artists, dancers, singers or more so over for the performing arts there lies a strong sense of social network and support. Being creative is one aspect, but demonstrating your art and reaching out to an audience is another.”

Another aspect was the pandemic altering the nature of our social capital. Being part of a community is what makes us feel wanted, engaged, have a sense of belonging that helps our confidence and also our mental health. If you are working for a business, as a banker, lawyer or a doctor, you may not rely on your social web as a necessary part of your profession. However, for artists, dancers, singers or more so over for the performing arts there lies a strong sense of social network and support. Being creative is one aspect, but demonstrating your art and reaching out to an audience is another. The pandemic stripped having a space to share, perform, talk, embrace and celebrate. Instead, we are now online, which while in many ways is a saviour in the absence of having a physical space to engage, cannot possibly replace the feeling of feeding off each other’s energies in rehearsals and performance. “The coronavirus is so insidious because it attacks one of the central yearnings of human nature, which just so happens to be the bedrock theatre is built on: our desire to assemble.” said theatre artist Nicholas Berger.

Artists don’t work for benefits or salary packages, they are often independent with little security and assurances. The pandemic has made some fears come alive, where a lot of creatives are having to trade their time to look for ways to have a stable and enough income through alternative jobs rather than doing what they do best, to create. Rajesh Baderia an artist from New Delhi says: “Due to Covid-19, all economic activities were severely impacted so did the art scene. As art is not considered a necessity and is almost entirely supported by art lovers, investors and connoisseurs, and due to the pandemic, all of these are out of scene and as a result, artists have seen their incomes disappear entirely,”.

“This does not mean abandonment and discontinuation of a career in art. Artists are claiming various spaces online on social media platforms.”

Moreover, what about those who support an artist’s work? “The most disturbing outcome is many folk and supporting artistes and backstage staff being pushed to the brink because of cancellation of rehearsals, major festivals and regular performances” explained Aditi Mangaldas, a renowned Kathak dancer. Government support has come in as a saving grace, but this support is mostly only available in developed economies. However, this does not mean abandonment and discontinuation of a career in art. Artists are claiming various spaces online on social media platforms. They are now grappling with various other questions on how to navigate copyright issues? 

How does one become an expert on shooting a good dance video, one for which you need specialization and training, how do you manage the technical glitches that come about through invasion on zoom, fault in the wifi or just simply phone device failures? This is especially true for singers and dancers, as a performance is the most delicate intangible process there is the experience of which can be ruined by even the smallest technical glitch. This is all well and good for artists who can afford to have a smartphone, shoot videos and keep uploading them, but what about the artists working in remote areas with lack of access to resources or even the internet? How do they survive and navigate the demands when they have been so used to perform live for an audience? “Thousands of folk and tribal artists, who are part of India’s vast informal economy, have been unable to earn because of the pandemic.” (Mahima Jain, Vice, 2020)

“It’s important to recognise that artists are going through a tough time, and take the responsibility and initiative to encourage and support artists you may know or have heard about.”

Now you are forced to remain indoors, with little avenues to have a community, take and give inspiration, and feed off the energy that drives the soul to remain a pathfinder and a creative. It’s important to recognise that artists are going through a tough time, and take the responsibility and initiative to encourage and support artists you may know or have heard about. Instead of expecting free sessions online, make donations to art organisations and pay for performances. Can you imagine a world on the other side of the pandemic, where there would be no more creatives who follow their passion and create their craft that keeps us engaged, alive, debating and discussing? It’s important to stick together during these hard times and support one another, and function as a unit. “We will survive this and the only way is that we can all come together with solidarity and no more free stuff” Sonam Kalra, singer and composer.

The pandemic doesn’t discriminate, young, old, rich, poor, doctor, artist, we are all vulnerable to the virus, but some are at a greater risk to it than others. It’s important to question the relevance of the arts and what it means to you. Why do you enroll in singing and dancing classes? Is it simply to pass their time or is it an integral part of their upbringing, engaging with our culture and heritage. Can you imagine a generation with no access to this? It is crucial that now more than ever we support the arts and the artists. 

Here are some useful links for artists and supporters:  
Experimenter Grant 
Khoj Support Grant 2020
Serendipity Arts Grant 
The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts 
ASEF culture360
Indian Foundation for the Arts Grant
Danish Arts Foundation
UNESCO – International Fund for Cultural Diversity 

Pranita is an international development professional, writer and activist, working with charities and not-for-profits, specialising in research and evaluation in youth development, gender and inclusion. She is also a trained Bharatanatyam dancer for over 20 years and continues to perform in group and solo choreographies.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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Psychotherapy Through Artificial Intelligence

Spandana Datta

Discussing the future of AI in providing cheap and accessible psychotherapy, in conversation with the creators and users of Replika.

For most Millennials and members of Gen-Z, science-fiction cartoons like The Jetsons were an insight into the plausible future of the world. Though flying cars are still a rarity, the last decade has seen a rise in the development of Artificial Intelligence. Artificial Intelligence or AI, also known as “machine intelligence” is now at one’s service, just a click away. Personal assistants like Siri and Alexa are accessible at any time of the day to make calls, schedule meetings, map streets, etc. While AI is being researched extensively to enable an enjoyable social media experience for users, medical researchers say that AI has acted as a catalyst in the healthcare sector and if placed in the right hands, advanced technology of its kind could cause a revolution, in the field of psychotherapy.

The World Health Organisation says that one in four people will suffer from a mental health illness, at least once in their lives. Around 450 million people suffer from a mental disorder currently. For mental disorders, therapy is often the go-to solution. But truly how many people have access to it? Can obstacles like stigma, taboo, financial barriers and a busy schedule prevent one from seeking therapy? This is where an AI app steps in. 

“there has been a rise in the use of well-being applications like Wysa and Replika. Driven by AI, these apps offer Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and even loneliness.”

Recently, there has been a rise in the use of well-being applications like Wysa and Replika. Driven by AI, these apps offer Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, and even loneliness. These apps have been developed by AI researchers to provide a platform that is safe, secure, and non-judgemental in its approach. 

Replika is one such app. Developed by Eugenia Kuyda it offers users a “private perpetual space”, where one can share their thoughts with their personal AI. Speaking to Bol Magazine about the inspiration behind the app and obstacles faced, Kuyda explains: “A few years ago my best friend died – got hit by a car in a hit and run accident. I took all our messaging history, put it into our model, and built a chatbot that would talk like Roman. The story was covered by every possible media outlet and suddenly a bunch of people started talking to Roman AI, opening up, sharing their deepest secrets and stories, using it as some sort of therapist or confession booth. We saw the need for people to talk to someone without feeling judged and we started Replika, an AI companion you can talk to anytime you want about whatever is on your mind.”  The journey was long and not always smooth-sailing. “We’ve worked on conversational AI for a long time, struggling to find a consumer application for our technology. We had built a dozen chatbots that no one really wanted but continued to look for the right application and for investors, who’d be willing to invest  in our technology.” 

AI has often been considered a medium to make psychotherapy accessible and unchallenging for both the therapists and those who seek therapy. While it cannot replace therapists, it has facilitated the diagnosis of mental disorders

Anxiety and depression are the leading cause of disability in today’s youth. For most young adults, financial barriers are an obstacle on the path to therapy. Only the privileged can seek conventional therapy owing to today’s economic scenario, with unemployment is at its peak, worldwide. Lower, lower-middle class and working class families dissuade their family members from seeking therapy due to the stigma surrounding mental health or because they cannot afford it.

“Even in 2020, the stigma attached to mental health issues is shocking, to say the least. Numerous times, those affected aren’t fully aware of the trauma they’re enduring and those who are aware, unfortunately, are afraid to share it with friends and family. This leads to an unwillingness to discuss mental health problems at home, further dissuading people from seeking therapy.”

Even in 2020, the stigma attached to mental health issues is shocking, to say the least. Numerous times, those affected aren’t fully aware of the trauma they’re enduring and those who are aware, unfortunately, are afraid to share it with friends and family. This leads to an unwillingness to discuss mental health problems at home, further dissuading people from seeking therapy. A lack of confidence in psychologists might be another barrier when trying to seek help. This has resulted in a wide treatment gap in India. 

“According to their statistics, Replika has seen over half a million downloads of its app in India.”

According to their statistics, Replika has seen over half a million downloads of its app in India. Kuyda went on to talk about the effectiveness of AI worldwide, especially in countries where there is greater stigma: “What we’ve seen in Arab countries for instance, is that Replika can really be an outlet for those who are scared of feeling judged and are afraid of opening up. Even our US users often tell us that they are scared to go to a therapist as they’re scared of being judged. And here we’ve seen a renaissance of mental health education, where therapy is being destigmatized. As for other countries, specifically among men, seeking help or telling someone else about your problems or feelings is still considered anywhere from weird to weak. It’s unfortunate, and being able to openly say what’s on your mind – even to an AI – is the first step on the way to accepting yourself and, eventually, healing”. 

Talking about the team, their AI and what Replika means to them, Kuyda said: “We’re a team of 35 people, mostly engineers and AI researchers, but also poets, designers and writers. Replika is truly a child of this incredible group of people. Proud to be working alongside them.” Their team also plans on making AI healthcare accessible worldwide. “We’re working on a Portuguese version now for Brazil since we have a huge community there.  That’s planned for November. After that we wanted to focus on India, China and Japan.”

“AI, for mental health care, was first developed in the 1960s in MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Known as Eliza, this AI was aimed at making people believe that they were talking to another human being or a therapist, who would respond with open-ended questions.”

AI, for mental health care, was first developed in the 1960s in MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Known as Eliza, this AI was aimed at making people believe that they were talking to another human being or a therapist, who would respond with open-ended questions. Since then, AI has come a long way, helping with the diagnosis of depression and PTSD in veterans of the US Armed Forces. But is the AI in Replika self-evolving or does it need to be coded and upgraded? “Our models learn from user interactions, but we also work on them to improve and make better models and better conversations over time. Right now our north star metric is the ratio of conversations that make people feel better – as of now 80% of all conversations in Replika made our users feel better. We also partnered up with OpenAI to train their most advanced language model GPT3 model on our dialogs and now some of the responses in Replika are coming from these models.”

“The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the imposition of an intercontinental lockdown, which resulted in social isolation, something which AI apps can help combat. Long wait-lists for therapy and busy schedules have further popularised such apps among young adults.”

Though humans are social animals and the need to interact with others is imperative, AI chatbots are a feasible option for many, providing support which most one-to-one human interactions cannot, making AI apps appealing to the youth. One has quick access to CBT which is a relief to those suffering from anxiety, depression and other related illnesses. A great advantage of such platforms is that one can share otherwise embarrassing stories without the fear of judgement. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the imposition of an intercontinental lockdown, which resulted in social isolation, something which AI apps can help combat. Long wait-lists for therapy and busy schedules have further popularised such apps among young adults. Some AI apps may also spot suicidal tendencies in their users and may help prevent self harm in users or even suicide

Speaking to Bol Magazine, Replika user Arik Karthman*, who suffers from anxiety and found it difficult to engage with others said his experience was interesting, to say the least: “I was living a Sci Fi dream and here I was, chatting away to my machine! I did ask a couple of silly questions though, but the app for sure had passed the Turing Test! Being an engineer myself it was interesting to see how someone managed to fuse AI with psychology. Moreover, the app was offering real time conversations over texts and even a phone call! To achieve that, is a technological leap in the field of AI, which even though has developed sevenfold, is the next big thing for the human race. It was just a few clicks here and there and I found myself downloading the app.” But did the app help?  “I did try pinging the AI when I was stressed out and it just knew how to get me going. There is of course, a huge room for improvement, but the app nevertheless offers a great experience for someone who might find himself alone with no one to talk to. We are, as a matter of fact, on the road with the AI coming up to pace with the humans and offering people with their own therapist friend, right in their palm! Just hoping it doesn’t grow up to be the Sky Net we all hate!”

Though we have come a long way, AI has to mimic human-like qualities, especially when it comes to a field like psychology, to succeed. Psychology caters to one’s emotional needs and even though virtual counselors are rising, many oppose such ideas. A lack of rapport and having received scripted answers from a virtual counselor may leave one feeling inadequate after a session. Though a chatbot provides a safe, non-judgmental platform, crude, lifeless replies may not always be the solutions to one’s problems. Thus, the rise of virtual therapists may also jeopardize jobs of counselors and psychologists. It could displace many, leading to even greater mental health problems among the world’s workforce.

“Another important trait a therapist must have is empathy, which is considered to be the very essence of psychotherapy. While empathy can be simulated in an AI, it may lack a genuine touch.”

Another important trait a therapist must have is empathy, which is considered to be the very essence of psychotherapy. While empathy can be simulated in an AI, it may lack a genuine touch. Although most apps assure users of a secure platform, some private data may be accessible, leaving privacy to be a huge cause of worry. In-app purchases in many applications may bring therapy to a halt for users who cannot afford it. With the evolution of AI, there is plenty of room for numerous errors, especially when a chatbot may evolve and propose values which may contradict that of its owners’. Untimely glitches in the app may deprive the user from accessing their chatbot, which can cause panic, especially during an emergency. Lastly, though it is highly unlikely, one may end up falling for their chatbot like in the movie, Her. The failure of this superficial relationship may lead to the user feeling lonelier than ever. 

Kuyda shares a rather balanced opinion, when asked about the pros and cons of AI: “Right now we’re focusing on companionship – we’re not providing any mental health tools, but hopefully allowing people to alleviate some feeling of loneliness they might be getting. Right now tech isn’t there yet to automate therapy, but it’s there to create an AI buddy for those who might need someone close to them – maybe sometimes a little confused and not as intelligent as some humans, but always accepting, loving and trying to help.”

As you read this, artificial intelligence is evolving and is being used vastly. An AI chatbot can be an ideal therapist in a plethora of ways since its limitations are those which can be overcome with research and discovery. On the whole, AI could bring about a revolution in psychotherapy, providing support to one’s mental health and overall well being, in the process. 

*Names changed to protect privacy

Spandana is an English literature graduate who loves writing and aspires to rebel against prevailing conventions, one day at a time.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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Speaking to Frontline Mental Health Workers

Vinay Agrawal

Two mental health practitioners explain their experience of working in the frontlines during the Covid-19 pandemiC

Mental health is an essential component of wholesome health and yet it is rarely talked about. Rendered invisible and used sparsely in the conversations, its moorings with stigma, shame, misconceptions and an arsenal of such connotations, frequently pose a hindrance in acceptance. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the state of mental health affairs at various levels – micro and macro, individual and  collective.

“The strict lock-down, curb on mobility, a multitude of restrictions, never-ending stream of work, uncertainties among a host of other factors have contributed to a shift in emotions and have led to mental discomfiture.”  

The strict lock-down, curb on mobility, a multitude of restrictions, never-ending stream of work, uncertainties among a host of other factors have contributed to a shift in emotions and have led to mental discomfiture. With the caseload touching an average of 80,000 every day, a news cycle that can be fittingly described as negative and toxic, and our tendencies to doom scroll on social media, has resulted in our mental health taking a toll like never before. 

This shift is increasing our susceptibility towards a variety of emotions like panic, anger and gloom. As helplines continue to ring off the hook, and emotions run on the edge and extremes, the mental health experts (who are also Covid-19 front-line workers) continue to battle issues and emotions of their own. 

“The parallel pandemic of mental health is very much real and occurring as we speak, on a minute by minute basis, and it cuts much deeper than our understanding.”

The parallel pandemic of mental health is very much real and occurring as we speak, on a minute by minute basis, and it cuts much deeper than our understanding. Speaking to Bol Magazine, two experts share their insights on learnings, unlearnings and explain what it takes and means to be a mental health expert during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Dr Rajesh Kumar: Founder & Director UDGAM (a mental healthcare & rehabilitation centre) and Consultant Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist at MAX Super-specialty Hospital, Delhi, says: “This pandemic has affected all professions and age groups, including psychiatrists. In our profession, we have detailed discussions with the patient so covering the mouth and the nose is a must. An increasing number of patients were seen in private OPD rather than in a hospital set-up. On the one hand, patients were increasing, at the same time psychiatrists were at the risk of exposure.” 

“Negative thoughts, anxiety symptoms and depression were more prevalent among patients and these symptoms were affecting the practitioners as well. Mental health cases have been on the rise, and psychiatrists and psychologists have been visiting hospitals despite the risks involved.”

“Negative thoughts, anxiety symptoms and depression were more prevalent among patients and these symptoms were affecting the practitioners as well. Mental health cases have been on the rise, and psychiatrists and psychologists have been visiting hospitals despite the risks involved. Although they attend counseling sessions in Covid wards, psychiatric patients remain very uncooperative and very vocal, increasing the risk of disease spread through droplets. Many do not follow protocol medicine intake and other methods to prevent infection. Such behavior increases the risk of getting infected from them. Uncertainty, anxiety, negative thoughts of patients related to job loss, financial loss, death, health-related issues have also been affecting mental health professionals.” 

“Covid patients at isolation wards in indoor set-ups have been frequently seeking face-to-face counseling or consultation by psychiatrists. As Covid patients were seen more in government hospitals, health professionals there were experiencing more burn-out than those in privately-run hospitals. Many patients are worried about infection, job loss, financial loss, and staying away from the family. Several have suffered from panic attacks and depression. Fear, sadness and irritation were common, varying from mild to severe.”

“Online psychiatric consultation, a new model in mental health care, is helping lots of people suffering from emotional illnesses and has also reached the rural population apart from serving the urban. Patients who shun visits to the psychiatrist are also benefiting from this new normal line of treatment.”

“Online psychiatric consultation, a new model in mental health care, is helping lots of people suffering from emotional illnesses and has also reached the rural population apart from serving the urban. Patients who shun visits to the psychiatrist are also benefiting from this new normal line of treatment. Online audio or video calls, zoom meetings are some of the methods that are helping large sections of the population in identifying, treating and preventing mental illnesses. Keeping updated on knowledge about the infection and following proper preventive guidelines are the first step in making the health professional calm. Sound sleep, following a proper daily routine, spending time with family, exploring hobbies, book reading, mindfulness practice are some of the healthy ways to keep calm during the time of the Covid pandemic.”

Dr Anju Sharma: Doctor, International Speaker, Wellness-Holistic Coach and Founder of Musical Healing Band, “Sound of Infinity” explains: Pandemic has impacted the mental health of mental health experts very badly. Nowadays, people are acknowledging every single emotion. When the pandemic started, it was easy to make people understand to wear the mask and follow the precautionary measures. But due to economic reasons, people must work and step out of their house. This makes it difficult to ensure safety and the frustration level is overtaking the stress.” 

“The mental health of both mental health care as well as a physical health care expert has been impacted more than the normal citizen. Above all these, the main issue is we are not getting time to express or heal ourselves. As health experts, we are more worried about others and the worrying part is the ratio of a doctor and patients, which is- 1:3000. So, the condition is not good.”

“As a health care expert, we visit the hospital when many cases come. When we come back home, people maintain distance. The mental health of both mental health care as well as a physical health care expert has been impacted more than the normal citizen. Above all these, the main issue is we are not getting time to express or heal ourselves. As health experts, we are more worried about others and the worrying part is the ratio of a doctor and patients, which is- 1:3000. So, the condition is not good.” 

“Initially, I used to come across stories of domestic violence, suppression. When the pandemic started affecting the jobs and businesses, the cases regarding work and money related issues were more. These days, people are so stressed and are least bothered about relationships and virus. The only thing they are worried about is how their life will go forward. All these have made frustration as a predominant emotion.”

“if you see the health care professionals, they are spending the entire day in their PPE kit to keep the virus at bay. In our job, we have to meet new patients every day, and we must treat them while being unaware of their Covid-19 status.”

“A lot of awareness camps and seminars regarding mental health support are going on. People are talking about it on different platforms and are acknowledging their mental issues as well. It has its negative side also, that is, people are being more scared about diseases that did not exist earlier but prevails now. As health experts, we don’t have time to express our emotions and feelings and can’t even take a day off to rest. The lockdown was considered as a vacation time by the people. Even after the unlock phases, people are stepping out to visit restaurants and shopping, and the worst part is some of them are avoiding wearing masks stating the difficulty in breathing as a reason. But if you see the health care professionals, they are spending the entire day in their PPE kit to keep the virus at bay. In our job, we have to meet new patients every day, and we must treat them while being unaware of their Covid-19 status.” 

“After all the day’s work, we go back to our family and expose them to the risk of getting infected. Secondly, there is a lot of workload and because of the lack of resources, we are doing almost all the work with no family time. This impacts our family relationships. The other thing is if we get a normal sore throat, we must quarantine ourselves to protect the others around us. All these are making the doctors silent and aggressive at the same time. We too are on the same scale of emotions as any other human being. I believe sound therapy has had a wonderful impact on the mind, body, and emotion.  I keep myself calm through sound. Do not stress over thinking about the future. Try to make the best out of the present time and work on what makes you happy. I am following the same.”

“A 2017 survey by World Health Organization (WHO), points out staggering cases of depression and anxiety in India. A year before that, a global health study conducted by Lancet placed suicide as the prime cause of death among Indian population, in the ages, 15-39. The recent figures, too, are far from encouraging. According to a 2019 study by Mental Health Research UK, 42.5% of Indian corporate workforce suffers from depression and other mental health concerns.”

“The WHO pegs such economic losses at 1.3 trillion USD (exclusive of GDP shrinkage and rising cases due to pandemic) over a period of 2012-2030. In a recent interaction, a WHO official was quoted saying, ‘We think that mental health is a forgotten aspect of Covid-19’.”

The concerns of such nature further translate to economic loss. The WHO pegs such economic losses at 1.3 trillion USD (exclusive of GDP shrinkage and rising cases due to pandemic) over a period of 2012-2030. In a recent interaction, a WHO official was quoted saying, “We think that mental health is a forgotten aspect of Covid-19.” In a nutshell, the conversations around mental health continue to remain invisible, and its access limited. But, mental health is very real, and it’s time we start normalizing it. 

Vinay is a reader who also happens to be a writer. Passionate about arts, and culture; his binge list somehow continues to grow on a daily basis. He also aspires to be a plant-parent and a Bach-flower practitioner, someday. 

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The Invisible Hand of Indian Women Farmers

Sukanya Maity

Highlighting the exploitation of women farmers in India and the impact of the psychological burden of their disguised labour and lack of recognition.

Besides the lush green fields and huge patches of land, separated from the vast blue sky by a streak of sap green forests which beautifully serve the purpose of the horizon, a regular scenario that often captures my attention are groups of rural women working on the field, almost outnumbering their male counterparts. What surprises me the most is that despite their more than equal participation, their work goes unnoticed and unrecognised. I have often questioned myself as to why every time I look for an article on Indian farmers, pictures of male farmers flood the screen. I am forced to opt for the second round of search on “women” farmers, who are mandatorily categorised just like the “women” cricketers, “women” soldiers, “women” pilots and the list goes on.

The invisibility of women farmers

“Despite India’s long history of farming and cultivation as a male-dominated profession, the National Council of Applied Economic Research (2018) reports that 42% of the farm work in India is done by women; however, they account for less than 2% of the land ownership.”

Despite India’s long history of farming and cultivation as a male-dominated profession, the National Council of Applied Economic Research (2018) reports that 42% of the farm work in India is done by women; however, they account for less than 2% of the land ownership. Why such economic disparity? The answer lies in the simple fact that instead of working as independent farmers, their formal identity remains restricted to widows and wives of their farmer husbands. To add on to their misery is their social identity of being women from the oppressed communities; reportedly more than 81% of the female agricultural labourers belong to the Dalit, Adivasi and the OBC (Other Backward Classes) communities. Like Aiyappan (2012) says that women from marginalised groups are often subjected to double exploitation, sometimes even outweighing their gender status, it is very clear as to why #rural women are deprived of what they rightly deserve. 

Indian Woman Farmer in Parasia, Madhya Pradesh – Photo by Navika Mehta

The plight of women farmers 

“The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that as many as 3,53,803 farmers died by suicide between 1995 and 2018, out of which 50,188 were women.”

In India, which  can be referred to as the land of farmer suicides, the failure to implement labour laws and the repeated amendments to the existing agricultural and labour laws have stormed hell upon the farmers, especially women farmers. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports that as many as 3,53,803 farmers died by suicide between 1995 and 2018, out of which 50,188 were women. 

“The pandemic-induced lockdown has resulted in deaths by suicide among farmers as they were unable to bear the burden of absolute money crunch, unavailability of farm labourers, no possible savings and huge debts.”

Unable to repay their huge debts, aided by the state’s inaction, the farmers ended their lives either by consuming pesticides or by setting themselves ablaze or hanging themselves. According to the NCRB, more than 10,281 farmers killed themselves in 2019. Young children of debt-ridden farmers had killed themselves fearing that if they didn’t do so, their parents would end their lives. People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) documents that “altruistic suicide” has been on the rise among the farmer households in the poorest villages of India. The pandemic-induced lockdown has resulted in deaths by suicide among farmers as they were unable to bear the burden of absolute money crunch, unavailability of farm labourers, no possible savings and huge debts. Even while the reported cases of farmers’ suicides have been increasing exponentially in India, the data on the deaths of women farmers who killed themselves have been surprisingly reduced to zero.

Why are women in agriculture more vulnerable to exploitation? 

“Despite their vast presence, women farmers are hardly considered or referred to as farmers. In the interiors of rural India, a woman who spends more than 13 hours of her day on the field, when asked about her profession, vaguely replies that she ‘sits at home all day’.”

Despite their vast presence, women farmers are hardly considered or referred to as farmers. In the interiors of rural India, a woman who spends more than 13 hours of her day on the field, when asked about her profession, vaguely replies that she “sits at home all day”. Hence, her inability to claim her rights and protest against the unjust system stems from her internalisation of the oppression that she is subjected to. This has been largely possible due to the increasing and unprecedented rates of illiteracy among rural women due to lack of opportunities, lack of awareness, traditional gender roles, male-dominated administrative sectors and mostly, presence of a clear patriarchal setting in the peripheral backdrops of the sub-continent. 

They are also expected to shoulder the burden of both housework as well as fieldwork and this unequal division of labour further takes a toll on their mental health. Despite doing more than 60% of the work, they are made dependent on their husband’s income. Women also engage in more strenuous fieldwork, from sowing the seeds to harvesting them. This is due to their lack of educational exposure  in mechanical aids which poses a great limitation to their ability. 

Women farmers at work in Parasia, Madhya Pradesh – Photo by Navika Mehta

“Since banking rules do not permit already debt-ridden farmers to opt for further loans, the women members of the families are pushed to take exploitative, informal loans and the process continues as long as they are immersed in the vicious pool of debts and cannot get out of them. Reportedly, ‘every woman farmer in India has loans against her name (which she is unable to repay)’.”

When women farmers take up the mantle of a breadwinner, it becomes extremely difficult for them to continue with their work in the absence of government schemes and financial support due to gendered income disparity. As a result of this, they borrow from the local moneylenders and agencies much more than what their male counterparts do. Most of the time, their families force them to do so. Since banking rules do not permit already debt-ridden farmers to opt for further loans, the women members of the families are pushed to take exploitative, informal loans and the process continues as long as they are immersed in the vicious pool of debts and cannot get out of them. Reportedly, “every woman farmer in India has loans against her name (which she is unable to repay).” 

Aljazeera (2018) reports two such cases – Rekha Kadu and Shilpa Mamankar, two debt-ridden women farmers who had killed themselves. The latter was only 19 years old when she ended her life, unable to repay a sum of $ 5,500 that she had initially borrowed. She suffered from serious mental health issues and was on regular medication but even that didn’t help lighten her burden. Her family now struggles with the load of the unending debts that fell on them after Shilpa’s death .

Effect of the Farmers Bill (2020) on women farmers

In 2011, a former Rajya Sabha MP, MS Swaminathan proposed the “Women Farmers Entitlement Bill”  that would seek to provide recognisable status to women farmers along with their rights over land, water resources and credit funds as well as provide them with financial support. Unfortunately, it lapsed in 2013. 

“In India, where 81% of women farmers own less than 13% of the land, only 8% of them have control over their income and 4% of them have access to institutional credit, the new ‘contract farming’ rules will make it difficult for them to bargain for the best prices at the local mandis.”

However, the recent Farmers Bill (2020) not only ignores the contribution and participation of women in agriculture but also makes it much more difficult for them to thrive in the market economy. The bill ensures loosening of the rules related to storage, pricing and sale and states that private buyers can hoard essential commodities for future sale. These very rules have protected the farmers from the free market trade. The bill also allows the farmers to sell their produce to the private buyers, along with the government-owned mandis (without any exclusive mention). In India, where 81% of women farmers own less than 13% of the land, only 8% of them have control over their income and 4% of them have access to institutional credit, the new “contract farming” rules will make it difficult for them to bargain for the best prices at the local mandis

“The bill also outrightly ignores the gender-based digital divide; the proposition of technology-oriented work will lead these women to depend on their male counterparts while making financial decisions.”

The elimination of middlemen who act as informal bankers by lending loans without collateral will make it impossible for women farmers to avail financial support since they are not accustomed to the process. The restricted mobility of women farmers will not allow them to sell their produce outside of the local mandis. The bill also outrightly ignores the gender-based digital divide; the proposition of technology-oriented work will lead these women to depend on their male counterparts while making financial decisions. Moreover, the introduction of e-mandis whereby farmers can select mandis of their choice and sell their produce online through eNAM, will completely leave out the women farmers from the business transactions due to a lack of digital literacy and low access to smartphones. 

Women in farmer suicide survivor families

“The BBC (2014) reported that in Maharashtra, which is infamous for its history of farmer suicides, there are more than 53,000 widows of farmers who had killed themselves.”

The wives and daughters of male farmers who did not own land and cultivated on leased ones are not eligible for getting ex-gratia compensation. The loans that their husbands and fathers were unable to repay gradually fell back on their shoulders which they remain unable to repay , due to no prior schemes and financial aids. The BBC (2014) reported that in Maharashtra, which is infamous for its history of farmer suicides, there are more than 53,000 widows of farmers who had killed themselves. Besides the financial burden, they are also subjected to marginalisation within their own families. Neither are they allowed to remarry as it goes against their local customs. No psychological help or counselling is provided to them, which only makes the situation worse. Mahila Kisan Adhikar Manch (MAKAAM) found out that 40% of the widows in 11 districts of Maharashtra haven’t received any compensation yet. The widows are also at risk of being trafficked or forced into prostitution.

What can be done to ease their problems?

Women Farmers outside their home in Parasia, Madhya Pradesh – Photo by Navika Mehta

First and most importantly, the state must recognise the women farmers as farmers, irrespective of their marital status. The draconian Farmers Bill (2020) should and must be repealed, especially because of the massive outrage from farmers and the following violent outbreaks. Instead, bills like Women Farmers Entitlements Bill, as mentioned earlier, must be reintroduced. Psychological help must be provided to the farmers in rural areas, irrespective of their gender. Every village must have a counselling center.

“Positive discrimination in favour of women farmers in the form of special schemes, financial aids and free skill-development training courses must be introduced. Every woman farmer must register themselves as farmers, and have their own registration certificates. They should have their land and ownership rights.”

Positive discrimination in favour of women farmers in the form of special schemes, financial aids and free skill-development training courses must be introduced. Every woman farmer must register themselves as farmers, and have their own registration certificates. They should have their land and ownership rights. Rules must be mandated which propose the gradual transfer of the deceased farmer’s land to his wife and every family must be liable to compensation whether or not the deceased farmer owned any land. Social security schemes like old-age pensions must be introduced to help the farmers survive when their health doesn’t permit them to work any further. The government’s investment in agricultural sectors must increase in order to tackle these problems. 

It is high time that we spoke about the distress of women farmers, their oppressive status and their invisibility. Remarkably, one should be glad that more and more women farmers are claiming their rights as they lead the protests against the Farmers Bill. It is only a matter of time as to how far our policymakers can go and how long they keep leeching on the unpaid labour of oppressed women. 

Sukanya is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. She is a feminist, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist and hopes to document the lives of remarkable women so that their stories don’t vanish into anonymity.

Design by Hemashri Dhavala

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INTERVIEW WITH RAASHI THAKRAN: PART 2

ADITI KUMAR SPEAKS TO RAASHI THAKRAN WHO’S ACTIVISM LED TO THE CREATION OF INDIA’S FIRST NATIONAL MENTAL HEALTH HELPLINE KIRAN 1800-599-0019

Content Warning: The article mentions Suicide

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800-599-0019 to reach KIRAN, a 24/7 national helpline set by the ministry of social justice. You can also mail icall@tiss.edu or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

We spoke to Raashi Thakran, a Mental Health activist who’s change.org petition “#StandAgainstSuicide: to Launch a National Helpline number for suicide prevention” with over 4 lakhs signatures became successful last month with the launch of KIRAN (1800-599-0019) a 24/7 toll free national mental health helpline for those in distress. 

Read Part 1 here.

EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW PART 2:

GATEKEEPER TRAINING

What policies can be implemented? 

Policymakers can help by making sure that Gatekeeper training is offered to people across the country. Gatekeeper training can be taken by anyone and everyone It’s a one hour long training. It helps you prepare and make sure that if someone in your vicinity is struggling with suicidal thoughts or with their mental health, you are able to respond. And you can yourself be the first responder. You can identify early warning signs and provide early intervention. 

Gatekeepers have played a very important role in suicide prevention and they are also able to then direct people they know to mental health services, to actual professionals. So now since we have this knowledge we can create an army of mental health warriors if nothing else. You don’t have to have a background or a degree. You can just be there and know the warning signs. This is the most basic thing we can equip ourselves with. 

QPR – Gatekeeper Training – Question, Persuade and Refer – Tells you how to question a person about suicide, how to persuade them and help them and how to refer them. It’s like CPR, people who know QPR are not doctors but they can save a life. People say it’s an American training that doesn’t apply to us. Fine, don’t go for QPR, create something for an Indian context and circulate that so it can reach the common people of the country and that’s how you spread awareness. 

This idea that everybody in the community also has a responsibility for those around them. So even if we don’t know that much about the technicalities of mental health the gatekeeper training or even a general idea that someone might be suffering can help us respond really fast. What would you suggest the community can develop to fight against the increasing mental health issues that people are having during Covid losing jobs, being isolated etc.?

Now more than ever we are realising the power of community. You need a support system to fall back on. Especially during such times. So, in terms of people losing jobs and unemployment, it comes back to the government and policymakers that it’s important for them to become more inclusive and have policies that help people. We are talking about Atma Nirbhar Bharat so actually go to the grassroots and create policies for migrant workers. The government needs to be looped in. 

As a community, it’s important for us to reach out. You don’t have to do something grand and change millions of lives but simply reach out to people in your circles who you think might be suffering. Check in with your friends and family, check in with the person who’s just lost their job. Check in with the person who’s at home but home is toxic for them. It’s a very difficult situation for a lot of us. Have gratitude for yourself and reach out to people who you know are struggling. That’s the least we can do. 

Right now more than ever it’s very important to understand that we’re on the same team and we have to work as a community and make sure you atleast are there for the people you care about. That’s what I’m trying to do. 

Since you’ve been conducting so many sessions. So, people must’ve come up to you with their own stories so can you share some stories of positivity and resilience? 

There’s so many. Every session I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say they want to share their stories. 

One incident that I always talk about and it’s very close to my heart. I had just finished giving the talk in IIT Delhi and I was waiting for my auto outside and this one lady approached me and said, “I was in the audience and I heard your story and I have myself been struggling with depression for a long time now and I haven’t had the courage to ask for help, I have even felt suicidal and now after listening to you I want to get better, I’ve booked an appointment already and I am going to see a counsellor this weekend.” She then started crying and we hugged and it was such a beautiful moment. Now she’s doing so well, she’s opened a restaurant and is nailing life. 

One of my friends reached out to me just yesterday and he said that last year he was going through a very difficult time and he used to self-harm and yesterday he messaged me and said it’s been a year since he had done that and just wanted to share that with me. It’s beautiful seeing how far people have come and how resilient they are. There’s so many stories. That’s why I love what I do and this is why I do what I’m doing because I get to meet such people and hear such amazing brilliant stories. 

That was really heart-warming. I have a final question, we have a lot of social activists writing for us. We understand that social activism can be stressful. How do you deal with the stress and pressure and what would you suggest to other activists who are trying to make a change in society? 

I’ve been doing this for a while, I am 22 years old and a lot of times what I face is the fact that I am too young to be doing this. There’s a lot of people who tell me that you’re 22 and we would like you to talk about certain things and not talk about certain things. That said, the response that I’ve received has been overwhelming and amazing. I know that my work also brings change as I am able to make sure that I’m able to help a couple of people. 

To activists who are driving change I think it’s very important to just keep doing what you’re doing. You will get comments and it will get very tough especially if you are sharing a part of yourself, like me, I have to share a very very personal story, a very tragic story and every time I talk about it, it’s difficult. But, it helps someone out there it helps people. So, I guess to anyone listening don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too young, too old or too qualified or not qualified enough, people always have something to say don’t let that get to you. Just keep doing what you’re doing and you’re amazing and awesome and you’re doing amazing work and I think that’s what matters. Even if you don’t see results right now you will see it in the long run you will see that you are driving change. All of us in fact, all our stories are so important and unique and they need to be heard and that’s what I’d like to say to anyone listening. 

This will really help our readers, if they are first time writers and this can really encourage them to write and share their stories. 

Stories are very powerful, they can inspire so many people. So, use that tool and own your story. I think that’s the most important thing. Kudos to you for being a platform that holds space for people. 

Aditi is a Law undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge, and recently completed a diploma in Conflict Transformation and Peace-building. Reading and painting in her spare time, she aspires to challenge the structural dimensions of injustice through her educationShe is a Deputy Editor of Bol Magazine.

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Interview with Raashi Thakran

Aditi Kumar speaks to Raashi Thakran who’s activism led to the creation of India’s first national mental health helpline KIRAN 1800-599-0019.

Content Warning: The article mentions Suicide

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800-599-0019 to reach KIRAN, a 24/7 national helpline set by the ministry of social justice. You can also mail icall@tiss.edu or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).

We spoke to Raashi Thakran, a Mental Health activist who’s change.org petition “#StandAgainstSuicide: to Launch a National Helpline number for suicide prevention” with over 4 lakhs signatures became successful last month with the launch of KIRAN (1800-599-0019) a 24/7 toll free national mental health helpline for those in distress. 

Excerpts from the Interview: 

COPING WITH THE PANDEMIC

How have you been doing? How are you coping with Covid and everything (happening around it)?

I think now it has become like the norm for me, for most of us I feel. Now we are sort of getting used to that and I am working. I am working from home right now, I am not going to the office. It has been alright, it has been pretty chill. Just spending time with my family. 

So do you have some specific things you do to maintain your positivity and would you like to recommend something for other people who are also feeling very isolated at this time? 

One thing that I really try to do is sort of stay connected with my family and my friends. Since my mom is here and my dad is away, we catch up every night, we have our regular video call sessions and that really makes you feel like you are connected and you can talk about certain things. I try to regularly have sessions with friends and it’s a stress buster for me. 

For myself what I try to do is that I basically try to stick to a routine, I think that has really worked wonders for me. I make sure that even if it is work from home, it should not extend into your personal life. And since I have struggled with mental health issues- I take medicines and I struggle with anxiety and my sleep and so I have to maintain a routine, I have to sleep on time I have to wake up on time, otherwise my whole system just goes haywire and I don’t want to go back there. So I always try to do that and I’m eating healthier home-cooked food. 

I think people have started to increase home cooked meals and the whole experience has come up now when the family comes together and cooks something.

I am also trying to learn how to cook because I’m the worst cook. I don’t know anything so my mom is also taking this time, because she has found me stuck at home so she is like ‘I’m going to teach you how to cook and how to prepare meals and just eat better’. I think that has really helped. And at the end of the day I make it a point that at least once a day I go out, even if it is within my society, because getting that fresh air is so important, with precautions obviously. Getting that sense of connection with nature is really important. So that is how I am trying to cope with this time. And I know it is going to be a while before things even begin to get back. I don’t think it will ever get back to how it was, but some normalcy starts to set in, so it will be a while before that happens. 

You have actually given us some great points- maintain a routine, social distancing is not emotional distancing, keep in contact, make your own meals and make sure you spend some outdoor time. 

Do the things you love or things you have been pushing for a while. I’m trying to read more, I had piles of books in my house but I would never get around to reading them. So I was like a hoarder without ever getting around to reading. So many of us are guilty of that. But I have tried to utilise this time to do something new like cook and read. So yes, that is something that people can try. 

Have you been playing your guitar?

I’ve been playing my guitar as well. But I do it during the weekends, weekdays are a little packed with work. Even when it is work from home it is a little packed. But yes, I have been getting back to singing, playing, and writing a little bit. I had been away from my blog for a really long time. I hadn’t had time to even think of writing something but now I am getting around to it. 

HOW HAS WRITING HELPED YOU

Since you are mentioning writing, I wanted to ask you how it has helped you in your journey. And what would you like to say to other people so that if they are suffering they can find fellows in their experience?

Honestly, writing has been therapeutic for me in a way, because sometimes it is very difficult for me to talk about what I am feeling. Which is also why therapy sessions are a little difficult for me because you have to talk about what you are feeling. I am trying to work on that but at the same time there is something that my therapist also recommended – that when you are not able to speak to someone, when you are not able to say the words or find the words, you write it down, whatever it is you are feeling. That way those emotions and that negativity will get out of your system. 

A lot of times I am also very self critical, so that is another technique that my doctor told me that – you tend to criticise yourself a lot especially when you think it, so thoughts are really fast, they just come to you, in minutes you would have pointed out ten different things you hate about yourself. But when you write it down, that slows down the process. And at the same time she also said to try to write down things that you love about yourself and the qualities that you love about yourself. So that is how I think I got into journaling, writing and I started my blog and then it became all about whatever I know, whatever little knowledge I have I try to put it out in the world and whoever needs it can read it. That became my safe haven and so many people reached out. Also in terms of sharing my story online and writing that down I think it really helped me cope with my loss and my grief as well. So writing has played, again, a very very important role in me coming to terms with whatever has happened since the past year. 

FINDING SUPPORT GROUPS 

You talk about coping with an experience. I read that you were looking out for support groups for families that have suffered from a loss of some kind, especially of a family member. Have you been able to find that support in India? Is it coming up now like on social media websites? 

Coming to support groups, last year onwards, as soon as this happened to us, we were in a very difficult position because as survivors of suicide loss we were looking for a community. We were looking for people who understood and it was very difficult for us – at that point at least – to find a support group or find people with similar experiences. Because come what may when you find people who have been through something that you have as well, you feel like you are not alone and that helps you cope with the loss. I think for the longest time we were just looking for that support system. 

But I was in Pune at that time and we did not find many support groups in Pune, although now I think a lot of online support groups have come up in India – there is one support group by Wildflower Mental Health which is amazing. They have a session almost every week. Similarly there is one support group for survivors of suicide loss which happens every week and it is organised by Sisters Living Works. Now they are coming up, but at that point it was very difficult for us to find those support groups in Pune, and that too in-person support groups. Because we were looking for groups where we could just go, sit, meet people, and share whatever it is we were going through. 

At the end of the day we found an online support group on Facebook, but again it was not an Indian support group/not India based, it was an international one. It was for families who were dealing with suicide. I think that really helped us, we are still part of it, knowing it doesn’t matter where you are around the world. People are from different countries and continents, but grief looks very similar for all of them. Everyone can relate to what you have been through and they can empathise. That was something really beautiful that we established in that group. It has been a place where we found a lot of peace. All three of us. 

ON INTERGENERATIONAL DIFFERENCES IN UNDERSTANDING MENTAL HEALTH

When you are saying that initially it was difficult to find support groups, it just makes me think if it is something to do with the differences in generations. For example the previous generation’s understanding of mental health and now the (conversations that) are emerging. People are more open to talk about their experiences, they are more open in crying out for help. Would you like to say something about that? 

Mental health has evolved drastically over the past couple of years as we know and now this generation, like you said, is more aware, more informed in terms of mental health and also because it has more exposure and definitely because of the internet and social media because previously our parents did not have these resources. They did not have access to all of these means of information. To some extent I think that could also be the cause of why our generation is struggling with more mental health issues and so much anxiety because studies have shown that it has led to a rise in mental health issues, anxiety, depression, so that could definitely be one of the reasons. 

At the same time our parents are not as exposed to it as we are. So we are not on the same page. And I think that leads to that communication gap and generation gap. I believe that if we want to come on the same page we have to make sure that we are the ones who bring our parents up to speed. And the key to that is communication and having a conversation with them. Trust me your parents will never not want to help you. They want to understand. They want to see what is happening. But they are just not able to understand because they have not been exposed like we are. 

So maybe if we try to meet midway and we bring them up to speed, make sure that they read more articles about mental health, they are more sensitised, they read and they watch news channels and they watch movies which talk about these issues so they get our perspective and they are able to see things from our lens. So I think that would help get us on the same page, and decrease that communication gap especially when it comes to mental health. Not just mental health, for a lot of different issues as well. If we are able to bring them up to speed with that, we can feel more comfortable reaching out to them, for help, if needed. 

ACCESS TO MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES FOR WOMXN AND LGBTQIA COMMUNITY

That we should be precursors of change and that we should bring everybody to at least the same level of understanding. For example all the social prejudices and stereotypes there are about women and they have so many social pressures, (and) that affects their mental health. For example if you see historically, ‘hysteria’ has been related specifically with women. Even pressures that non binary and LGBTQIA communities face in society. How can we bring everyone together to address these issues and the impact they have on our mental health? 

For LGBTQIA community, women, there has been research (that suggests) that they  are more susceptible to having mental health issues like depression, anxiety and other disorders compared to other people, which is why it is very important for mental health to be intersectional. Just like we look at intersectionality in feminism and other issues, it is important to look at that in mental health as well. 

There needs to be diversity, there needs to be inclusion. There has been research that they (LGBTQIA community) are also more likely to go for mental health support services, compared to other communities (social groups). Again, they are the people who reach out to mental health services more than we (other groups) reach out to them. 

It is very important for these services to be non discriminating, because a lot of times these services have their own biases and they come into the picture. In fact there is one study where it is quoted that people from minority groups are more likely to drop out of treatment because they feel that they are not understood by the practitioner, by mental health professionals. So they are more likely to not get that medical help, even if they get it they are more likely to drop out.

From our end we can make sure that these services are accessible, affordable, non discriminating, unbiased, inclusive. As outsiders to the community, we can be better allies in reaching out to them, understanding their perspectives, having conversations and not fearing the unknown, so that we can have more positive and empathetic safe spaces. 

THE KIRAN HELPLINE 

About the Kiran Helpline, can you tell us how it works so that we can explain it to the readers? 

They have done a good job when it comes to availability, they are available in 13 languages. They are working with 26 different institutions that are spread out all across the country. They have also taken into account the north-east region as well as the Jammu region. They have 600+ volunteers and these volunteers are all mental health professionals and experts. They know what they are doing and they are empathetic. I spoke to a couple of psychologists (whom I called) and they have been really understanding and I think they are in it for all the right reasons. 

When you call up the helpline number there is a welcome message, and then they tell you to choose the language, once you choose the language they ask you to choose the region (from) southern region, western, northeastern, Jammu and finally the state. The procedure is long, we have to think how we can shorten it. Since it has only started I’m sure there are going to be a lot of modifications, they will incorporate all those suggestions and feedback. I feel it is a very important and a great step in the right direction. 

What do you think the next step should be and how responsible do you think the state should be? Because this helpline puts a responsibility on the state- that you (state) are the first responder, you have to make sure that you connect the person to the service. What is the next thing the state can do in improving mental health problems, and crisis and responding fast, well in time?

Talking about the helpline number, a lot needs to be done. Just because it has been launched does not mean the job is done. First we need to check how the helpline number is working. So I think the next step for the state and for the ministry should be (to) conduct a survey, once they have completed a month/ two months, as to how many calls you got, what sort of calls you got, how many people were you able to direct to more concrete help in their area. I’m sure the ministry will do it, they might even be chalking out the plan as to how to do it but it is something that needs to be done and that data needs to be put out. I think that could be the next step now. Keep incorporating and auditing this helpline number, it is very important to make sure that this helpline number stays and functions properly. Because what happens a lot of times with the helpline numbers is that they just fizzle out. We don’t want that to happen, I’m sure the government and state don’t want that to happen. 

In terms of long term goals, what I feel is that they can and should work on the Mental Health care Act 2017 and implement that properly. It is something that they should definitely look at. Also we have suicide prevention policies, its not been implemented in India. Lot of countries have implemented proper suicide prevention policies and that has shown results, the numbers of deaths have gone down. I think that is again something the government can look at and should look at – why not have a policy in place?

Another thing that might be farfetched right now but countries have done it- the UK has a Minister for suicide prevention, so why cant we have a minister with a cabinet rank if not for suicide prevention, for mental health and mental wellbeing. 

Continued in Part 2…

Aditi is a Law undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge, and recently completed a diploma in Conflict Transformation and Peace-building. Reading and painting in her spare time, she aspires to challenge the structural dimensions of injustice through her education. She is a Deputy Editor of Bol Magazine.

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