TOM PIETRASIK | Photographer

Archive for July 2009

SRI LANKAN EDUCATION

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Still in their uniforms, girls from the Muslim community of Akkarapattu on the beach close to their state-run school. Ampara District, Sri Lanka © Tom Pietrasik 2008

Still in their uniforms, girls from the Muslim community of Akkarapattu play on the beach close to their state-run school. Ampara District, Sri Lanka © Tom Pietrasik 2008

I have always been struck by the contrasts that exist between India and Sri Lanka. Arriving for the first time in Colombo in 2003, I noticed that Sri Lankan rickshaw drivers read newspapers. This might sound a rather trivial detail but it is such a rare sight in India – particularly in the north – that it was obvious there had to be an explanation.

Jayati Ghosh’s column in the current edition of Frontline magazine sheds some light on just why it is that Sri Lankan rickshaw drivers read and their Indian counterparts don’t. Under the headline Services for all, Ghosh explains that all Sri Lankan children between the ages of 5-14 are taught in state schools. Apparently Sri Lanka has for decades banned private schools from teaching students of Classes 1-9. This means of course that all of society has an interest in sustaining the quality of the public education system. I do know that private schools exist in Sri Lanka and I’m sure there is a constituent among the privileged that would like to weaken the state system. But the value Sri Lanka places on public education explains why it can boast a literacy level of 90 percent while the population of her huge neighbour to the north languishes around the 60 percent mark.

Pupils in their classroom at a state-run school in Akkarapattu. Ampara District, Sri Lanka © Tom Pietrasik 2008

Pupils in their classroom at a state-run school in Akkarapattu.
Ampara District, Sri Lanka © Tom Pietrasik 2008

Ghosh notes that in India,

“We are unwilling to shell out the money required to ensure that all children in the country get the kind of education that the children of our policymakers automatically receive.”

I would add to Ghosh’s policymakers, most of the Indian middle class and all of the upper class who have no immediate personal interest in the proper running of government schools. This is for the simple reason that they choose to send their children to private institutions instead. You can’t blame individuals for doing this in a country where, as Ghosh explains, the education budget allocates a paltry Rs.600 ($15) per student per year. It doesn’t take much to realise that this figure represents a huge loss of potential for India.

Pupils at Thalanguda government school listen to their teacher. Tamil Nadu, India © Tom Pietrasik 2008

Pupils at Thalanguda government school listen to their teacher.
Tamil Nadu, India © Tom Pietrasik 2008


Written by Tom Pietrasik

July 16, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A VICTORY FOR INDIA’S GAY COMMUNITY

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An Aravani or transgender woman makes adjustments to her sari. Transexuals are the most visible group within India's gay community. Tamil Nadu, India © Tom Pietrasik 2009

Transexuals are the most visible group within India’s gay community.
Tamil Nadu, India © Tom Pietrasik 2009

In a landmark ruling the Delhi High Court has decriminalised gay sex. This is the latest chapter in a long struggle by gay activists who rightly observe that Article 377 of the Indian constitution denies them basic human rights while legitimising discrimination and violence. The homophobic backlash has already begun with several commentators, among them India’s high-profile former-cabinet minister Lalu Prasad, condemning the High Court ruling.

There are several reasons for this gay victory but in my view HIV/AIDS and the disproportionate burden it places on gay men has been the most important. This may sound a paradox: surely a virus with such potentially devastating consequences could only undermine those unfortunate enough to be affected by it.

This would be true if HIV/AIDS affected only homosexual men. But HIV/AIDS is of course not confined to the gay community and can affect anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation. So wider society has been forced – for the benefit of it’s own survival – to acknowledge that the health of gay men matters to everyone. This simple and entirely logical point was made to me by Siddarth Dube, author of Sex Lies and AIDS, while I was working on the subject with him two years ago.

Because homosexual men are particularly susceptible to infection by the HIV/AIDS virus, intervention programs have channeled resources towards gay-rights groups and provided them a platform from which to campaign. Gay networks have been established and there is now a sense of solidarity and cautious optimism among a group that was once despairing and fractured. I have observed the same process of politicisation at work among other HIV/AIDS-affected communities while photographing them across India.

It is important to understand that legal recognition has not been bestowed upon India’s gay community. The Delhi High Court ruling is the result of long and ongoing struggle by those who have been brave enough to identify themselves as gay in what continues to be a deeply conservative society. Most gay men in India – quite understandably – choose to remain silent about their sexuality. I discovered this fact while working alongside my good friend Dilip D’Souza who writes an enlightening account of India’s hidden gay community here.

One group within gay society that are more visible than any other are India’s transexuals. The photograph above was taken while I was documenting the “Third Sex” Aravanis of Tamil Nadu state earlier this year. A string of recent legal victories for Aravanis mirrors the achievements of the wider Indian homosexual community. I will post more photographs from this series on the lives of Aravanis soon.

Written by Tom Pietrasik

July 5, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized