A Voice For the Voiceless


The Advocacy Project (AP) recruits students to help marginalized communities tell their story and claim their rights.

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Do we need advocacy on behalf of activists?

Karie Cross | Posted July 12th, 2010 | India

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Well, it’s nearly mid-July and I’m still in the states.  I’m beginning to suspect that the Indian government simply doesn’t want me to come to Delhi.  Perhaps they’ll be accommodating enough to grant me a visa in another month or so, at which point I will have two weeks left until the second year of my Masters program begins at the University of Maryland.  Better late than never, Indian government!  (Not entirely true in this case, unfortunately.)

This visa snafu can be chalked up to three possibilities:

1) The requirements recently changed on unpaid internships, requiring employment rather than entry visas for the first time.  Changes in bureaucracy = delays, delays, delays.  This is just your run-of-the-mill, bureaucratic problem.

2) The Indian government has done an extensive background check on me, and they have come to the conclusion that I am up to no good.  Can’t be trusted.  Clearly a threat.  Notorious for:


And even:

Baking chocolate chip cookies
Baking chocolate chip cookies

3) This is merely indicative of much of the world’s changing attitude toward activists and the trouble they cause. 

Let’s explore option 3.  On July 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech in Krakow, Poland, about a “global activist crackdown.”  Clinton says that the “walls are closing in” on NGOs and non-profits that advocate on behalf of human rights.  She particularly cites Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Venezuela, China and Russia, but I have to wonder whether changing the visa requirements for volunteers headed to India should not add the sub-continent to her list.

Here’s an excerpt from Clinton’s admirable speech:

Too many governments are seeing civic activists as opponents, rather than partners. And as democracies, we must recognize that this trend is taking place against a broader backdrop.  In the 20th century, crackdowns against civil society frequently occurred under the guise of ideology. Since the demise of Communism, most crackdowns seem to be motivated instead by sheer power politics. But behind these actions, there is an idea, an alternative conception of how societies should be organized. And it is an idea that democracies must challenge. It is a belief that people are subservient to their government, rather than government being subservient to their people.

 Now, this idea does not necessarily preclude citizens from forming groups that help their communities or promote their culture, or even support political causes. But it requires these private organizations to seek the state’s approval, and to serve the states and the states’ leaderships’ larger agenda.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that this is all just conjecture on my part.  Perhaps India recognizes the need for activists who work to further develop human rights in its comparatively new and widely admired democratic society

OR…perhaps the Indian government is embarrassed by the way it deals with many of its poorest citizens, like the wastepickers of Delhi who try time and again to tell their government what they need to live a dignified, healthy life.  Rabble rousers like me can only make that worse.  No wonder you won’t let me in, India.

On My Best Laid Plans and Carbon Footprints

Karie Cross | Posted June 29th, 2010 | India

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Robert Burns warned me that this would happen.  Then, as if his glorious Scottish brogue weren’t enough, Steinbeck followed it up with a warning of his own in Of Mice and Men.  Bottom line: don’t make solid plans, especially where developing nations are concerned.  My passport and visa are inexplicably stuck somewhere among an embassy, a ministry of labor, and an outsourced visa servicing company.  Good-bye, hostel deposit.  So long, plane ticket reservations in June.  Namaste, emotional instability! 

Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to learn as much as I’d like about environmental issues in India.  Although I would dearly love to tell you more about the wastepickers in Delhi, I’ve very nearly exhausted my knowledge about their work until I am able to get out to the field.  But what’s the state of the environment in the U.S.?  What are some small things that we Americans can do to make this world a more live-able place?

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Forgive my blatant thievery, AA, but the first step to solving a problem is admitting that one exists.  Does America have an environmental problem?  Al Gore thinks so.   Rush Limbaugh doesn’t. 

I’m rather inclined to agree with Al, myself, so I’ll carry on with the radical assumption that most of us disagree with Rush: it’s not terribly ethical for us to set our air conditioners on 68 degrees fahrenheit.  (Am I the only one who gets cold if it’s less than 78 degrees, anyway?)  Still, even environmentally-conscious Americans contribute to our nation’s 20-ton carbon footprint, which is much, much higher than the world-wide average of 4 tons (courtesy of The Encyclopedia of Earth). 

 The average U.S. diet generates about 0.75  tons of CO2 annually, before accounting for food transportation.  But the average distance that food travels from its American source to its American market is 1,500 miles, so greenhouse gas emissions from food transportation are anything but negligible.  Meat eaters leave even bigger carbon footprints than vegetarians, generating about 1.5 more tons of CO2 per year. 

But is this really a problem?  Yes, when one considers how much Americans love eating meat.  About 30% of the world’s ice-free land is involved, at least indirectly, in raising livestock.  Meat production also accounts for about 20% of the world’s greenhouse gases.  This becomes more important when you begin to think about the links between personal meat consumption and world hunger.  People who are hungry on the other side of the world, or possibly in our backyards, could be eating the grain that’s currently feeding our food.  When we eat meat, we do not do so in isolation. 

I do not absolve myself from responsibility.  I’m in Arkansas right now, and it’s a typically muggy, late-June, Faulkneresque kind of day that requires air conditioning by most people’s standards.  I’ll be eating meat tonight when we make Greek wraps for friends who will drive an hour to join us for dinner.  AC, meat, gas— we cannot just give all of these things up all of the time.  But perhaps we can go without them more often.

Are we human?

Karie Cross | Posted June 18th, 2010 | India

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I’m supposed to leave for New Delhi in 22 hours.  Ordinarily, this circumstance would find me slipping 3 oz. bottles into ziploc bags, counting shirts, and making copies of my passport.  But alas, I’m sitting on my couch in Arkansas wondering whether India will ever decide to let me in!  My visa still hasn’t arrived.  I’ve called the embassy too many times to count, and IF I’m lucky enough to get through, they ask for my passport and application numbers instead of my name.  It’s enough to make anyone feel inhuman.

So I’m taking this opportunity of unexpected, extra summer couch-time to read everything I can get my hands on.  Here’s a passage from one of the India books I’ve been reading that really struck me:

In Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger, a lot of Indian drivers are parked outside a glittering shopping mall in New Delhi, waiting for their rich masters to emerge from the air conditioning.  As they wait, one poor man (distinguished by the sandals on his feet, as opposed to the real shoes of rich men) attempts to enter but is stopped by guards at the door. 

Instead of backing off and going away– as nine in ten in his place would have done– the man in the sandals exploded.  ‘Am I not a human being too?’

I imagine that this is how the wastepickers must feel sometimes, when the government disregards their rights and privatizes the very recycling services that the wastepickers have been performing for decades.  Are they not Indian citizens too?  Should not every citizen of the world’s largest democracy be able to speak freely about his or her rights?

Ghazipur landfill in Delhi

In an article published in 2009, Neha Sinha writes about the inherent dirtiness and subsequent discrimination that comes from a career in wastepicking.  Relying upon research done by Chintan, Sinha reports:

We [insert Indians, Westerners, government officials, whatever you like] think wastepickers take irreverent pride in being dirty, or do not care about being dirty.  But a study done by Chintan in Delhi shows that it is the “dirtiness” of the wastepickers which prevents them from finding a place in hospitals, toilets, public watering points, and society itself.  Further, the study shows that the dirt is not just a consequence of work conditions, but also wastepickers’ living conditions, with most of them simply not having access to facilities for cleanliness.  And finally: nearly 100 percent of the wastepickers say they aspire to be clean. 

Just because the wastepickers have grown used to their living conditions does not mean that those living conditions are acceptable.  Of course they aspire to be clean!  They are human beings too. 

Wastepickers, for what it’s worth, I’m coming as quickly as I can.  I can’t wait to meet you!  Here’s hoping the Indian embassy will let me.

Vaccinations and Ruminations

Karie Cross | Posted May 27th, 2010 | India

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It’s been tough to be in grad school and prepare for this summer at the same time.  There are so many things to do!  Visa applications, plane tickets, fundraising, finding a place to live, and visiting the doctor.  I got my pre-travel shots yesterday: tetanus, mmr, hepatitis b.  Nearly every American has had these vaccinations, since most public schools require them of their students.  With those boosters and the help of my new, anti-malarial prescription, I ought to be well-protected against the most prevalent diseases of New Delhi. 

This leads me to an inevitable question:  What medicines protect the New Delhi natives?  Have any of the waste-pickers been immunized?  Have any of them ever even visited a doctor?   In a report released last October, Chintan director Bharati states that 82% of the women and children who work as wastepickers are severely anemic because of malnutrition.  Most complain of fevers and nausea.  Many wastepickers suffer from respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases because of constant contact with such unsanitary conditions.  And for what?

Wastepicking in New Delhi

“I made 200 rupees yesterday, and father made 300,” said wastepicker Amir in October, 2009.  The current dollar/rupee exchange rate is about 1 to 46 right now.  So for sorting through a stinking, disease-festering heap of trash for 8+ hours, Amir made a little over $4.

Let’s put that into perspective.  The hostels I’m looking at for the duration of my stay in India this summer cost about 800-900 rupees/night.  So let’s say that I worked as a wastepicker: I could stay in a youth hostel for one night if I worked for four days.  And I haven’t even eaten anything or purchased clothing or medicine yet.

This is already blowing my mind, and I’m still in the states! 

Fellow: Karie Cross



Adiga advocacy Amartya Sen BASE capability approach carbon footprint child club Child Friendly Village child labor children's rights Delhi dhal bhat eating meat education environment HDCA health care human rights India international development Kamalari load shedding Nepal New Delhi vaccines wastepickers women's rights




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