TOM PIETRASIK | Photographer

ELA BHATT, SEWA AND THE RIGHTS OF INDIAN WORKERS

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Ela Bhatt responds to a cacophony of cheers as she arrives for a SEWA board meeting
at the union’s headquarters in Ahmedebad, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Ela Bhatt is founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA), a union which represents the rights of over one million workers. She lives in the west Indian city of Ahmedebad and while I was there to photograph her last month she took me to meet some of SEWA’s members among the vegetable vendors of the city. Thanks to SEWA, these women have secured legal protection for their trade and escaped the exploitation they once suffered at the hands of the police and money lenders.

Bhatt is a small woman with a gentle demeanor so I did not anticipate the enthusiasm with which she would be received as we entered the narrow lanes of Ahmedebad’s walled city. What I witnessed was not the shallow fawning of a deity or the self-aggrandising fanfare that so often greets political leaders. Instead, Bhatt was welcomed by a spontaneous and warm display of appreciation befitting a woman who has spent forty years helping to mobilize and bring justice to a once-marginalised and factious group of workers.

Ela Bhatt meets vegetable vendors in the city of Ahmedebad. Thanks to SEWA,
such workers have won legal protection for their trade. Ahmedebad, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Bhatt is a member of The Elders, a group of statesmen and social activists brought together by Nelson Mandela to promote peace building and human rights. In acknowledgement of her tireless campaign for worker recognition, establishing cooperatives and setting up credit unions, Bhatt has also received many honours including India’s Padma Bhushan and Japan’s Niwano Peace Prize.

This kind of establishment praise might have softened the stance of a less committed reformer, but it is clear that Bhatt remains an outspoken advocate for the kind of systemic change that is required to bring justice to the poor. Speaking to the UN two years ago, she wondered why the working poor still go hungry,

“We can blame today’s economic environment. It is indeed absurd and out of balance. It does not address simple human needs and rights like food, and water and shelter for all… Employers are constantly searching the globe for cheap labour; but the jobs they create abroad cannot build a society, or a sustainable economy. Special economic zones are nothing but glorified labour-camps that force migration and the break down of families and society. That is not nation building.”

SEWA’s grassroots membership continues to grow, reflecting a swelling of the ranks of India’s informal, or unorganised workforce. These wokers are bypassed by employment legislation because no contract exists between them and their employers.

It is a sad indictment of India’s brand of economic “modernisation” that, according to a 2009 Government report, all recent employment growth (1999-2000 & 2004-05) has occurred in the informal sector which now represents a staggering 92 percent of India’s workforce.

Those employed in brick kilns are not protected by employment legislation and form part of the
92 percent of India’s workforce known as the unorganised sector. Uttar Pradesh, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2006

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THE REALITY OF MINING IN INDIA

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Women wait for taxis to take them home after a day of scavenging for coal outside the Parej open cast mine.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

At the beginning of the year, while eating breakfast one morning in Ranchi, the capital of India’s Jharkhand state, I picked up a copy of the Hindustan Times newspaper. At the top of the front page, under a headline that read, “New Year’s gift for Bokaro: Second steel plant”, correspondent Sanjay Sahay wrote,

“Bokaro is a city, where a majority of the population, either directly or indirectly, depends on the Bokaro Steel Plant (BSL) for a living. Not surprising then that union Steel Minister Virbhadra Singh’s announcement on Friday that they would consider setting up a second steel plant in the city inspired a lot of enthusiasm and hope.”

As chance would have it, I visited Bokaro the day before Sahay’s article was published. I was there to photograph those living and working around the Tata open-cast coal mine that neighbours the steel plant mentioned in his report. According to Sahay then, I should have come across a lot of enthusiasm and hope among this population who either directly or indirectly [depend] on the Bokaro Steel Plant for a living.

Labourers ferry coke to a local distribution point outside an illegal mine in Hazaribagh district.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

But I didn’t. Instead I was confronted by a poor and dejected community, eking out a living on the fringes of a mine that employes few local residents. I saw women collecting coal as lumps of it toppled from the huge trucks exiting the mines. Close by, families living in grotty hovels, were selling plastic bottles of petrol to passing motor vehicles. This was trickle down economics at work, honouring those who’ve been forced to sacrifice their land in the name of growth.

Sipping my morning tea and persevering with Sahay’s article, I glanced across to the sidebar that ran alongside his words. Beneath the lofty headline, “DEVELOPMENT KNOCKS ON BOKARO’S DOOR”, was a list of planned local education and health initiatives. Upon closer inspection it was apparent that there was no substance to any of these projects. The Hindustan Times had simply regurgitated aspirations that the Government “… would seriously consider starting a medical college in Bokaro” or “SAIL (a steel company) would take a decision on establishing another degree college here.”

A family sell petrol to motor vehicles on an approach road to the Tata coal mine at West Bokaro.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

When I mentioned the Hindustan Times article to Xavier Dias of BIRSA, an indigenous people’s group, a couple of days later, his rather bleak response was that, “The extraction of minerals is a guarantee that an area will never be developed.” The tragedy is that Jharkhand desperately needs development. With only a quarter of indigenous Adivasi women able to read and an annual per capita income of just $330, there is every need for investment in local communities.

For those that pull the strings of power however, talk of development is simply a means to an end. Health and education projects matter only to the extent that mentioning them helps placate the public. Development aspirations are a tool in much the same cynical way that the specter of a Maoist takeover can be used to justify the removal of obstinate communities from their land.

There are plenty of people with a personal interest in sustaining the injustice of mineral extraction in Jharkhand. Some of them are occasionally found out. Like Jharkhand’s former chief minister Madhu Koda who currently resides in jail, charged with laundering $1.2 billion from the granting of mining licenses. Despite evidence of such shocking abuse of power, disingenuous journalists like Sahay perpetuate a myth by presenting mining companies, their industry associates and their friends in government as as benevolent brokers, bestowing largess upon a grateful public.

An indigenous Adivasi woman outside the Tata coal mine at West Bokaro collects coal as it
falls from passing trucks.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Abroad too, newspapers sustain this fiction by failing to acknowledge the hopeless conditions forced on people like those I photographed in Bokaro. When Arundhati Roy considers the “genocidal potential” of mining, The Economist newspaper rebuts her by quoting an Indian finance ministry report that declares, “High growth is critical to generate the revenues needed for meeting our social welfare objectives.” This is a cynical and lazy response when the Indian Government’s meagre spending on health and education pales alongside burgeoning revenue.

If the wealth of mineral extraction is funding social welfare spending, The Economist should ask why ordinary rural communities, like those I met in Jharkhand’s Karanpura valley, persist in a six year struggle to keep coal mining companies and thermal power plants from their land. And too why resistance groups like Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee would sooner face imprisonment than capitulate to myths about development. People living in places like the Karanpura valley are not stupid. They have seen their mineral wealth shipped out to benefit others. They understand better than anyone else that local communities must be at the forefront of the decision making process if they are ever to challenge the powerful interests that exploit Jharkhand’s wealth and continue to deny human rights to those who are being forced from their land.

You can see more of my photographs of Jharkhand’s coalfields on my webstite here.

The Tata open cast coal mine at West Bokaro. Few of those employed at the mine are
from the locally displaced Adivasi community.
Jharkhand, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Of course exploitation in mining isn’t confined to India. Markus Bleasdale’s shocking photo essay, “The Rape of a Nation”, documenting how mining has shaped the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is displayed on the Burn website here.

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Written by Tom Pietrasik

March 7, 2010 at 3:30 pm

SERENDIPITY AND PHOTOGRAPHY

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Traders at a tea stall overlooking the Ganges river.
Varanasi, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

At the very beginning of the year, I saw an inspiring collection photographs from Cuba by by photography partners Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb at New York’s Ricco Maresca gallery. You can view a selection of these photographs on David Alan Harvey’s Burn site here. And Alex and Rebecca talk about their collaboration on their Two Looks blog here.

I am new to the images of Rebecca Norris Webb but I have long admired Alex Webb’s photographs for their ambiguity and sense of mystery. Webb’s attention to colour and composition is fundamental to his work. But for me, most impressive is his ability to capture those moments when elements outside his control converge and lend real resonance to a scene. In Two Looks, Alex and Rebecca identify this notion, describing it as serendipity or the lucky chance.

Of course good fortune falls only upon those photographers who are prepared to wait, to look and to recognise the significance of a moment. Interviewed by the Foto Tapeta website, Webb describes the process involved when he photographs,

“When I am working, then I really have to work… I really have to stay attuned… It is really about walking and feeling the situation. How do you enter the situation? Some situations you get comfortable just walking right in. Others you have to sort of dance around the edge and come in here… What I want to experience is this sudden moment of visual insight.”

The cover of Alex Webb’s book on Istanbul

And it was a moment of visual insight that clearly struck Webb when two mysterious figures entered this scene in Istanbul which later became the cover for his book, “City of a Hundred Names”.

What makes this kind of photography exciting for me is the notion that these moments happen all the time. As Elliot Erwitt, Webb’s colleague at Magnum Photos, says, “You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them.” Of course for the most part, these “pictures” pass the world by because no one was there to capture them. Fate has intervened and occasionally presented pictures to me. Significantly it has always been during those moments when I have been patient and willing to wait, to watch and to identify a moment.

A labourer passes the memorial building in Ambedkar Park. The park was conceived by Chief Minister Mayawati as a tribute to the architect of the Indian constitution. In reality, the park exploits Ambedkar’s image.
Lucknow, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

So it was that a man, wearing a green shirt wondered past this scene of a building site in Lucknow while I was working on a story about Chief Minister Mayawati and her Ambedkar Park for the Financial Times Magazine.

Members of the low caste Saharia community challenge a Public Distribution System (PDS) employee about the failure to supply them with ration cards.Madhya Pradesh, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2007

Fate had a part to play when the elements of the picture above unfolded before me and it was only last week that I noticed the Varanasi tea-lady pictured at the top of this post adopting a posture that perfectly mirrored the statue of a deity standing above her. You can see more of my recent photographs of Varanasi, including the picture below, on my website here.

Hindu pilgrims dry their saris after bathing in the sacred Ganges river.
Varanasi, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Written by Tom Pietrasik

February 15, 2010 at 12:34 pm

PHOTOGRAPHING INDIA’S FOG

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Rickshaw drivers contend with the pre-dawn winter chill outside Moradabad station, Uttar Pradesh.
India ©Tom Pietrasik 2006

Northern India has been suffering unprecedented fog over the past couple of weeks. I had to contend with the frustration of air-traffic delays while stuck at Delhi airport for six hours last Friday waiting for visibility to improve sufficiently to allow my Mumbai-bound flight to take off. And peering through the doom and gloom of India’s Republic Day parade on Tuesday, you’d have been forgiven for wondering if the event were being hosted in northern Europe.

The fog is of course of far greater significance to those for whom flying is an unlikely prospect. The homeless of north India have a miserable time while they contend with the chilly temperatures that accompany excessive fog. The official death toll this season has already passed the 500 mark.

So I felt lucky to escape to the warmth of Mumbai last weekend. And now I’m enjoying moderate temperatures while working in Jharkhand where the nights are chilly but, thanks to a stubborn sun, the days warm to a very pleasant 25C. I do however have to admit to suffering a tinge of frustration because I’m missing out on the fog which, as all photographers know, can make for dramatic pictures. This photograph of rickshaw drivers grappling with the cold was taken before dawn while I waited for my Delhi-bound train to arrive at Moradabad station in northern India. I’d spent the previous week photographing a polio vaccination campaign for UNICEF and though this picture had nothing to do with the commissioned work, it was perhaps the most memorable image that I captured on that trip. As I find is so often the case in photography, it was the incidental moment, neither planned nor anticipated that yielded the most significant result.

Written by Tom Pietrasik

January 30, 2010 at 8:01 am

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