Tag Archives: India

India’s COVID Immunization Program is a Model for Democracies

This article is part of the opinion column – Beyond Occident – where we explore a native perspective on the Indian diaspora.

On October 2, 2021, on Mahatma Gandhi’s 152nd birth anniversary, India quietly reached a milestone in its fight against SARS-COV2 (COVID-19) pandemic. On that day, a country home to nearly 1.4 billion people, India administered its 900 millionth (100 millions on October 21) jab of COVID-19 vaccines. 

The most remarkable aspect of India’s immunization program has been the absence of governmental threats, coercion, mandates, and manipulations. This feat is a testament to India’s Pradhan Mantri (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi’s relentless and determined hard work and honest and trustworthy leadership.

India was hit by the Second Wave of the COVID-19 virus in May 2021. The country’s healthcare infrastructure was overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases. People were lining up outside hospitals. ICU beds, medical oxygen, ventilators, etc., were in short supply. Social media feeds were flooded with the request for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, and doses of therapeutic medicines.

Domestic and international media blamed Modi for mismanaging the pandemic. They also blamed Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) political rallies in West Bengal. The state was in the process of electing the new Vidhan Sabha, the state’s legislative assembly. All major political parties participated in electioneering. The Election Commission of India, an autonomous constitutional body, runs all elections in India under its strict guidelines. 

The partisan critics also blamed the Hindu festival of Kumbh for the Second Wave. Studies have shown no evidence of any significant spread of the aerosol-based virus in outdoor settings. In assigning blame, the critics ignored several outdoor mass protests, rioting, NFL and NBA victory celebrations, etc., in the US and elsewhere. None of them lead to an outbreak. 

PM Modi is known for his disaster management abilities. The 2001 earthquake in Gujarat’s Kutch region is an example of his management skills. BJP’s central leadership brought Modi in as Gujarat’s Mukhya Mantri (Chief Minister). Modi traveled extensively throughout the state and learned the workings of the state administration on the job.

To overcome vaccination bottlenecks, Modi’s federal government took over the purchase of vaccines from state governments. According to the Wall Street Journal report, many states had either failed or struggled to procure the required amount of vaccine doses. To meet the domestic demand, Modi also stopped the export of vaccines through its much-touted Vaccine-Maitri (Vaccine Friendship) program. Modi also made critical changes in his ministerial portfolios.

Soon, immunization picked up significantly, and India started administering 3 million doses of vaccines per day. By mid-September, according to NPR, India was jabbing up to 25 million doses of vaccine per day. 

To immunize more people with at least one dose of the vaccines, the Modi government strategically stretched the time required between two doses to 16 weeks. India’s healthcare workers have worked tirelessly, traveling treacherous hills and navigating rivers to inoculate citizens in remote areas. The government has used various methods — from performers  to drones — to achieve its inoculation goals.

PM Modi’s appeal has also helped the inoculation drive. Modi enjoys one of the highest approval ratings of a democratic leader. His trust quotient is very high among Indians. He comes from a non-aristocratic non-dynastic, humble background, much like a majority of aspirational Indians. In his 20 years in politics, there have been no corruption charges against him. He has been able to rally ordinary Indians with his slogan of ‘COVID-free nation.’ 

On the other hand, immunization drives have faltered in the US and become highly controversial due to mandates, threats, condescension, questions about efficacy & adverse events, etc. For example, Dr. Anthony Fauci’s flip-flop about the effectiveness of masks and WHO changing the definitions of ‘vaccine’ and ‘herd immunity’ has fuelled the mistrust in public health institutions and leadership.  

COVID-19 vaccines are a remarkable development in science. They are also considered the ‘safest’ available treatment against COVID-19. However, mandating vaccines as a condition for employment, travel,or  patronizing restaurants, without considering individual medical needs and concerns, raises questions about human rights and liberty. 

The mandates have created shortages of workers, including in healthcare. According to the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, “Biden’s needless order puts employers in a legal quandary. Whatever they do, they will be violating the law. This isn’t fair to businesses.” Many teachers, police, airline pilots’ unions have taken the government to courts to fight mandates. Citizens in France, Italy, Germany, Australia, and many other countries have protested these mandates.

“The idea that everybody needs to be vaccinated,” wrote Martin Kulldorff (a professor at Harvard Medical School) and Jay Bhattacharya (a professor at Stanford Medical School) in their op ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, “is as scientifically baseless as the idea that nobody does. Covid vaccines are essential for older, high-risk people and their caretakers and advisable for many others. But those who’ve been infected are already immune.” 

According to studies, COVID-19 vaccines provide a firewall against infections and protect us from severe illness and death. However, contrary to the earlier promises of the real-life efficacy of the vaccine, studies now show that COVID-19 vaccines’ effectiveness wanes over time, necessitating boosters. For example, the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness “fell to 90%, 85% and 78% after 30, 60 and 90 days, respectively.” 

Studies have suggested that vaccines do not stop the spread of the virus. “Vaccines reduce but don’t prevent transmission,” writes Joseph Ladapo in the Wall Street Journal. Ladapo is an associate professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.

Rare cases of heart inflammation, blood clots in young men after the second dose of the vaccine have been reported. UK’s medicine regulator body is also investigating more than 27,000 cases of period changes in the past nine months after the COVID-19 vaccination.  

Also, the singular focus on vaccines, denial of the robustness of natural immunity and alternative treatments (like the one President Trump received), and data manipulation and misrepresentation by public health institutions and leaders has created a trust deficit in science itself. The medical journal The Lancet (and the New England Journal of Medicine) retracted a study involving hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) after investigators discovered several inconsistencies in data. The study attempted to determine if the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, and its older version, chloroquine, could help treat patients with COVID-19. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) misrepresented the data “to cast an increase in teen hospitalization in the worst possible light,” wrote Monica Gandhi and Jeanne Noble, from the University of California, San Francisco, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. The most troubling aspect of the CDC data was a significant increase in “psychiatric emergencies, not Covid.” 

Many democracies have turned into authoritarian police states to achieve an untenable goal of ‘zero-covid.’ For example, some of the gravest human rights violations in COVID mitigation are occurring in Australia. Citizens have been put under strict lockdown and surveillance. 

From “bending the curve in 2 weeks” to almost 2 years into the pandemic, our public health leadership has failed to mitigate the situation. Lockdowns and mandates have not helped the UK, Israel, Australia, or New Zealand in containing the virus either. On the other hand, Florida has defied all Faucian diktats yet hasn’t done any worse comparatively. World democracies need a focussed and compassionate approach towards COVID mitigation. Threats and mandates are for tyrannical dictatorships.


Avatans Kumar is a columnist, public speaker, and activist. He frequently writes on the topics of language & linguistics, culture, religion, Indic knowledge, and current affairs in several media outlets.


 

Kolkata’s Chinese Kali Mandir Reminds Us to Have a Little Faith

Trending on the Internet, not too long ago, was the story of the 60-year-old Chinese Kali Mandir in Kolkata. The temple stands on the Matheswartala Road in Tangra. Nestled in East Kolkata, the Tangra region houses Chinese migrants who have made India their home. The 1930’s Civil War in China led to an influx of refugees who were looking for shelter.

If we were to peek into the corridors of history, we would get glimpses of China’s culture being shaped by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. So the worshipping of a Hindu goddess by the Chinese is news that invariably invites interest.

The Story behind the Chinese Kali Mandir

A story unfolds that locals in the Tangra region worshipped two granite stones smeared with vermillion beneath a tree for years. A 10-year-old Chinese boy had fallen seriously ill and doctors failed to cure him. As a last resort, the parents lay him in front of the stones and prayed for several days at a stretch. A miracle happened, and the boy recovered. This incident strengthened the faith of the people in the divine, and the Bengali and Chinese communities came together to build a shrine in honor of goddess Kali.

Goddess Kali (Image Source: Facebook page World of Kolkata)

What one witnesses in this famous temple in Tangra is a fusion of Indian and Chinese customs. As seen in other Kali temples, garlands of red hibiscus adorn the idol of the goddess. The evening aarti, however, incorporates a ritual that is seen in Chinese churches. Candles made of paper are used to ward off evil spirits. Chinese incense sticks are lighted, and the aroma is distinct from that which one senses in other temples or puja pandals.

Prasad, which is a religious offering, has a great significance in Hinduism. It is believed to be a gift given graciously and shared between the divine and the individual making the offering. The prasad that is distributed among devotees in the Chinese Kali Mandir will take you by surprise. In lieu of fruits or sweets, it’s an array of Chinese delicacies that include chop suey, noodles, stir fry vegetables, momos, and sticky rice. 

It is worth mentioning that the Indo-Chinese food, which is so popular among the Indian masses, is an outcome of the Chinese settlement in India. This creative cuisine emerged after the two cultures mingled. A desi twist is added while preparing Chinese dishes in order to appeal to the tastebuds of the Indian people.

Faith and acceptance bind humanity

This story of the Chinese Kali Mandir is unparalleled and opens the window for reflection. It is a testament to the fact that different religions and communities can coexist in harmony while maintaining their individuality. What comes to light is the truth that faith and religion can be at diametrically opposite poles yet meet at a mid-point.

Author and spiritual leader Ram Dass explains, “As we grow in our consciousness, there will be more compassion and more love, and then the barriers between people, between religions, between nations will begin to fall. Yes, we have to beat down the separateness.” This is indeed a brilliant interpretation of the philosophy of existence. To harness a free mind and not be blinded by prejudice should be the cornerstone of humanity.

Chinese Kali Mandir (Image Source: Facebook page World of Kolkata)

Born a Christian, Hollywood actor Julia Roberts embraced Hinduism later on in life. What is exemplary is the way the actor voiced her thoughts. She had emphasized: “I have no intention of demeaning any other religion simply because of my fondness for Hinduism. I don’t believe in comparing religions or human beings. A comparison is a very mean thing to do. I have received real spiritual satisfaction through Hinduism.” The secular mindset of my Hindu parents made me look at all religions with equal reverence which is why as an adult, I was drawn to the Catholic Novena prayer, which even now I seek refuge in during any crisis.

It is heartwarming to see how people, by forgetting the gulfs in caste, creed, color, and religion, unite under one roof to surrender themselves to the divine. There are three such monumental places of worship in India.

St. Michael’s Church in Mahim, Mumbai is one of the oldest Catholic churches built by the Portuguese in 1534. The place is flooded with people particularly on Wednesdays when prayers to Our Lady of Perpetual Help are held throughout the day. This is a place where people from all religions come to seek blessings. A belief exists that visiting the church for nine consecutive Wednesdays will grant devotees their wishes.

The Ajmer Sharif Dargah houses the tomb of Sufi saint Moinuddin Chisti and is a shrine that is visited by millions every year. The devotees include not just Muslims but people from all faiths.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar is one of the most iconic temples in the world and the holiest place of the Sikhs. The Gurudwara is famous for being an open house of worship for people from all walks of life and all faiths. An article from NDTV titled “The Golden Temple, where all may eat, and pitch in” beautifully describes how the temple operates: “Each visitor gets a wholesome vegetarian meal, served by volunteers who embody India’s religious and ethnic mosaic.”

The message that rings loud here is that faith transcends religion. It’s an affirmation that belief and devotion are the paradigms that lend an intrinsic value to human survival. We need to broaden our minds and spirit and understand that our strength lies in our differences and not in our similarities. The beauty of this world is enhanced by the heterogeneity that makes it richer and so colorful with its various shades and hues.  

All thanks to technology which has bridged physical distances, the present-day world has become a global village. So, why don’t we unite by accepting diversity and breaking free from the shackles of conservatism? In the wise words of Kofi Annan: “We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race.” 


Rashmi Bora Das is a freelance writer settled in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA.  She is the author of From Life’s Cove: Laughs, Musings, & More. You may visit her at www.rashmiwrites.com 


 

Ram Van Gaman Paryatan Paripath: Explore Forest Routes For Dussehra

The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.

A ten-day-long festival, Dussehra, traditionally represents the legend of Rama and Ravana. The demon king, Ravana, abducted the beloved Princess of India, Sita. Lord Rama rescued the Princess, proving victorious over the powerful and evil King Ravana. Twenty-five kilometers from Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, a small village named Chandkhuri launched the Ram Van Gaman Tourism Circuit project — a route Lord Ram, Sita, and Laxman traveled during their exile. 

Lord Ram During Exile

Lord Ram is in the heart and soul of the people of Chhattisgarh. “Lord Ram spent most of his time in Chhattisgarh during his exile from Ayodhya. To preserve the memories linked to Lord Ram and Mata Kaushalya, Ram Van Gaman Tourism Circuit project was initiated, so devotees and tourists will be able to feel the essence of divinity with every step,” explained Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel.

Chhattisgarh has many natural sites and waterfalls along with various places of historical, archaeological, religious, and cultural significance. Stories and songs inspired by Lord Ram have been narrated and sung in communities here and passed on through generations. Chhattisgarh is also the Nanihal (mother’s birth home) of Ram — the place where Prince Ram became Maryada Purushotam, carefully nurtured by his mother’s love.

Nine Spots on a Forested Route 

Rajim Temple

It is believed that Lord Rama traveled through 75 places before reaching Ramaram, now in Sukma district from where he entered South India. Nine have been chosen as the Ram Van Gaman Tourism Circuit for development in phase-1. Apart from Chandkhuri and Sitamadi-Harchauka, the chosen sites are Ramgarh (Ambikapur), Shivrinarayan (Janjgir-Champa), Turturiya (Balodabazar), Rajim (Gariaband), Sihava-Saptrishi Ashram (Dhamtari), Jagdalpur (Bastar) Ramaram (Sukma).

The 17 chambers in the caves of Sitamadi-Harchauka are being developed as part of the project. This place is also known as Sita Ki Rasoi. From here, Lord Rama went to Sitamarhi-Ghaghra on the banks of Rapa river, and from there to Ramgarh hill in Sarguja district via Kotadola. Located 50 kms from what’s now Ambikapur town in Sarguja, Ramgarh is a site of immense historical, archaeological, and cultural importance. It is believed that Kalidas composed Meghdootam here. Located near the holy confluence of three rivers, Rajim is called the Town of Temples. Shivrinarayan is popular as a holy land where the Mother Shabari fed sweet Ber fruits to the Lord.  

Kaushalya Mata Mandir 

Kaushalya Mata Mandir

The first spot which is developed is Chandkhuri, where one can see the only temple dedicated to Lord Rama’s mother Kaushalya Mata. The Kaushalya Mata temple was been built in 1973 in Chandkhuri as this was the birthplace of Mother Kaushalya. 

I came across some beautiful reservoir called ‘Jalsen.’ It is believed to be the biggest pond in that particular region. Legend has it that there was a total of 126 ponds on all sides of Jalsen, but today only 26 of these remain. Right in the middle of this breathtakingly beautiful reservoir is the Kaushalya Mata Mandir. During the period of Ramayana, more than half of Chhattisgarh was covered by a dense forest called Dandakaranya.

The architectural style of this temple tells us that it belongs to the era of the Somvanshis between the 8-9th century AD. An ancient Shiva Temple located just a little ahead of Jalsen pond makes for another beautiful attraction at Chandkhuri. Inside the temple, the Garbha Grah of Kaushalya Mata temple boasts of an extremely adorable image that amuses tourists and pilgrims. 

51-ft-tall statue of Lord Rama 

Kaushalya Mata temple was renovated, retaining its old charm and a 51-ft-tall statue of Lord Rama was unveiled on this occasion. The 51-feet-tall statue has been established in the temple premise, along with a grand gate on the premises, beautification of the pond around the temple, and the development of attractive pathways and plantations. The temple is surrounded by beautiful gardens and in the middle of the pond, there is a statue of Goddess Lakshmi pressing the feet of Lord Vishnu on the Sheshnag bed. The sculpture depicting ‘Samudra Manthan’ is the main center of attraction for the devotees.

Visual Extravaganza

Performances on opening night in Chandkhuri.

The grand launch was a visual show combining music and dance that offered homage to Lord Ram, Mata Kaushalya, and the ancient civilization of Chhattisgarh. National Award-winning actor Ashish Vidyarthi took the stage as the anchor. The performance began with noted musician Padma Shri Bharti Bandhu and his group who set the spiritual mood for the event as they sang devotional songs in their distinct style of Kabir Gayan transporting the audiences to the beautiful world of the mystic poet-saint Kabir. This was followed by a performance from Kavita Vasnik who sang the state song in popular folk style, celebrating the rich cultural heritage of the state. Mumbai-based fusion music band Kabir Café presented their own artistic interpretations of Lord Ram and saint Kabir compositions that left me spellbound. Famous folk-rock band Indian Ocean performed a special theme song composed for Ram Van Gaman Tourism Circuit and Chhattisgarh. 

Keeping in mind the ongoing pandemic, special efforts are being made to motivate tourists towards domestic tourism and the Ram Van Gaman Path will be an immersive experience for tourists.


Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 12 books on different subjects and translated around 160 books from English to Hindi. 


 

Durga Puja Fervor: Bengal to Bay Area, Boston and Beyond!

The San Francisco Bay Area will come alive this weekend with the sound of Durga Puja’s dhak mixed with the melodious voice of Kavita Krishnamurthy and a performance by Bollywood actress Raveena Tandon. After a COVID-forced break last year, Bay Area Prabasi (BAP) – one of the oldest socio-cultural organisations of its sort in the USA – is organising this in their much-awaited annual Durga Puja and Dussera festivities from October 8-10 for the American Bengali community. 

To make it more special, BAP has got their tallest ever new Goddess Durga idol – a handsome 10 feet high made in fibre – shipped in from Kumartuli in Kolkata, India. “BAP’s Puja’s go back to 1971 when it was first started with a painting of the Goddess done by an IIT-Kharagpur architect and has found a place at the San Francisco Cultural Centre,” says Sudipto Mukhopadhyay, chairman of BAP, who is a full-time software and systems architect and settled in the SF Bay Area for 18 years.

“We wanted to give a big order to the Covid-hit potters in Kolkata. This is our way of helping them… and as of inviting Kavitaji and Raveen Tandon is concerned – well, people had been craving Bollywood entertainment. We managed to get Kavitaji after trying for two years!” adds Mukhopadhyay.  

Though according to the Bengali calendar Durga Puja falls between October 11 and 15 this year, the American Bengali community will celebrate it over the coming two weekends. “Our five days of Saptami to Dashmi are celebrated between Friday and Sunday as people want to be able to attend it fully, meet each other, spend time, enjoy. The fact that different Bengali clubs organize the Puja on different weekends in the US allows us to travel from one city to another, partly living the charm of hopping from one pandal to another in minutes in Kolkata during the Pujas!” says Tanuja, who asked her last name to be withheld, a homemaker who lives near Boston and has attended various big and small Pujas around the US in 8 years.

Tanuja at a Durga Puja in Boston in 2019.

Settled miles away from their birthplace in West Bengal, it is the Durga idol that has kept the bond strong in the American Bengali community in many ways. “This year, 32 Durga idols have been shipped from Kumartuli to various parts of America; some are yet to be delivered. Last year, due to Covid, only 22 had been shipped, but even in 2019, the number was 58. In the last 15-20 years, since the idols started getting made in fibre instead of delicate shola, the number of orders has steadily increased,” says Babu Pal, secretary, Kumartuli Mrit Shilpa Sanskriti Samiti (KMSSS), Kolkata. KMSSS is one of the two prominent potters associations in Kumartuli – perhaps the world’s largest one-of-its-kind clay idol-manufacturing hub. 

“This time, our total budget is about $120,000-130,000, down from $180,000 in 2019. Of the present current cost, about $12,000-13,000 is being spent on the purchase and transport of the deity from Kolkata,” shares Mukhopadhyay on Prabasi’s 2021 event, which is organised on a much larger scale compared to its counterparts around the country. Interestingly, while today one can easily seek Kumartuli artists online and arrange for shipment of the idols, some, like Mukhopadhyay, even visit the crowded narrow lanes of the potters’ hub to have a look at what is in the offing for them. 

The exported idols in fibre are of a finer quality, lighter in weight and more expensive than their traditional clay counterparts used in Bengal. “It took a team of about 12-14 men working systematically over two months to complete BAP’s idol. Once made, we pack them in ply boxes and send (via ship or air) so nicely that even a child will require only an hour to unpack and set it up for the big day,” says Kaushik Ghosh who has sculpted Prabasi’s idol this year. He laments that due to a Covid-related hike in freight charges – about 100% (for ship) and 300% (for air) – from India to America, many prospective orders didn’t materialise.

An expensive affair, a fibre idol is used for anything between 5-10 years by organisers, before being replaced by a new one. Idol old or new, every Durga Puja is looked forward to with vigour. “There is so much to look forward to – authentic Bengali cuisine, all the rituals being followed to the tee despite being performed by senior committee members who may not always be Brahmins, prasad, adda, entertainment by popular Bengali bands and Bollywood personalities and the Bengali language all around…When you enter the auditorium, it is mini-Bengal. Not for a second [would] you feel you are outside Kolkata,” beams Laha with pride. 

After every celebration, the non-profit associations safely pack and store the idol in garages or storehouses in the same way it came from Kolkata, to reuse next year. 

“Fibre idol doesn’t get damaged with time, requiring only minor maintenance in areas such as hair, ornaments and clothes,” says Prashanta Pal of Shilpa Kendra, whose Durga idol has been shipped to Jamaica, New York in September 2021 for a new community Puja. He has also sent a Kali idol, a new dhak and Bhagwat Gita in the consignment.

The annual celebration gives the community the environment they long for around the year. While last year most organisations organised the Pujas virtually, this year they are going back to in-person gatherings, making pre-registration on the website and vaccine certificates mandatory. Organisers are keen on keeping it safe instead of crowded this year. 

“There were a lot of visa restrictions this year for travelling artists. We started preparing 6 months ago and chased artists who had the requisite visas. We managed to rope in the famous Jatin of the Jatin-Lalit fame with his 5-member troupe among other prominent artists and performances for our cultural programmes from October 15-17,” says Anupom Saha, treasurer, Kallol, New Jersey. Kallol, like Prabasi, is among the biggest, popular and oldest Puja organisers on the other side of the US and is holding its Puja at the Ukranian Cultural Centre for many years now. Saha, 51, is otherwise a senior project manager with a construction company.  

“We even have the holy Ganges water…to carry out all the rituals of the Puja as they are done in Bengal. If any item gets finished, it is replenished from India by any of us travelling there,” adds Saha. 

Kallol Durga Puja in NJ

While the bigger organisers like Kallol and Prabasi are looking at a capping of about 600-800 participants for each day of celebration this year, many smaller ones are still sticking to the virtual platform like last year. Prantik, Bengali Association of Greater Baltimore Area is one such. “Our organisation has a more aged population… we would be having the virtual streaming. But we are sponsoring one of the five days of festivities at the Washington Kali Mandir – one of the most famous temples in this part of the world. About 3000 people visit the temple each day during Durga Puja,” says Sutapa Goswami, member of the executive team at Prantik. Goswami is a highway engineer manager with the Maryland Department of Transport for 17 years. 

Goswami, like all her brethren, shares that dressing up is an important part of the whole celebration. “Worshipping is important, but we crave for the environment to feel at home. Every Bengali in America dresses up to the occasion in his/her best notun (new) traditional attire. While the option to order online from Kolkata boutiques has become viable, in Edison at least – called mini-India – everything from ilish to sarees are available for us,” says Rajrupa Mukherjee, a data analyst who lives in Edison, New Jersey, and looks forward to this year’s celebrations too.

“But 2021 Pujas will be different as we meet each other after a gap of pandemic struck year. A sense of fear exists among many of us. We won’t be able to freely sit and enjoy the prasad like always. Food packets will be given out for the first time ever and there is a time limit for staying on the temple premises,” says Payal Banerjee, member of the prestigious Ananda Mandir in New Jersey, who’s living in the USA for 15 years. 

Armed with masks and vaccines, the American Bengali community is waiting for the Puja fervour to take them over as they pray for the safety of one and all. 


Suruchi Tulsyan is a homemaker and freelance journalist based in India.


 

San Jose Family Nonprofit Runs Marathons for Solar Energy In Rural India

Along the Gujarat and Maharashtra border in India, just about 50km from the Western Railway tracks, are tribal villages disconnected from the power grid and forgotten by modern-day India. Some towns have electricity but load shedding occurs many times a day, making it difficult for students to study and poses a security threat for girls and women. 

These villages are located not too far from my ancestral maternal town of Chinchani. Starting in 2009, Dr. Huzefa Mehta and Dr. Reena Mehta, my parents, started a San Jose-based non-profit called Grameen Pragati. Our family collects funds by running several marathons and half marathons for charity, raising a few thousand dollars a year to fund projects in the rural villages near Chinchani. I ran my first half marathon in 2011 and have done six half marathons and a full marathon since to support our efforts. To date, we have funded solar lanterns for two schools, solar electrified two villages, and installed a solar water filtration system, resulting in a total of 6 projects over 12 years. 

2012: We gave 37 solar lanterns to students at KD high school who did not have any electricity in their homes. One 10th standard girl mentioned that “everyday morning we have to get up, fetch water and go to school. A similar chores situation occurs in the evening. When we have time to study, there are no appropriate lights.” The solar lanterns allowed students to study and kept villagers safe at hours when electricity was not available. Solar lamps as opposed to kerosene lamps have no hazardous effect on health and the environment.

 

2014: A year and a half later, we installed ninety LED tube lights and fifteen-watt solar panels in seventy homes in the village Aine and six streetlights in a hostel seven kilometers outside of Aine. The money for this project came from our fundraiser where we ran the 200-mile Relay from Napa to Santa Cruz.

2017: For the next project, my brother Amal and I selected a remote village boarding school named Ranshet Ashramlaya in Tal Dahanu District, Palghar which houses 750 boys and girls. We installed 7W DC LED in each of the 8 girls’ and boys’ rooms, 14 feet tube lights in the common area, an 18 W tube light in the kitchen with a 12-hour backup, and solar tube lights to Rankhol Ashram and Nikne village.

Water in rural villages is sourced from local rivers or wells. Poor quality of water is a cause of frequent cases of gastroenteritis (stomach flu) in the villages. During this particular visit, we did our first solar filtration install in Aine village. 

We used a “point of use” light, compact, easy to use, and clean purifier consisting of a set of solar panels connected to a motor that pumps water out of a well into a large overhead tank in the village through a network of underground pipes. The 3 kW capacity solar panels attached to a 2 horsepower pump, lifts water from the well and fills the 5,000 liter overhead tank in the village. This water then passes through a membrane inside the filtration unit, providing clean drinking water. The system was installed with the help of local team members. The total cost of all the projects of this trip was Rs 225,000 ($3,491). Ranchet Ashram sent feedback on our efforts: “Since last Saturday there is absolutely no light at the Ashramshala and the Grameen Pragati Solar Lights have helped the kids and students feel secure, especially girls and helped them to have dinner instead of being in complete darkness or just with candles!”

2019: Seeing the successful implementation of the water filtration system, the Engineers without Borders (EWB) team from Rowan University, New Jersey reached out to work with Grameen Pragati to implement a triple sink for a cleaning vessels project. Under the direction of Daxa Lalsodagar, the EWB team conducted field trips to Ranshet Ashramalaya.

If you would like to learn more, check out Grameen Pragati’s website. If you would like to donate, email [email protected] or [email protected]. You can also call  +91 9672980150 (Daxa Lalsodagar) to donate!


Anav Mehta is a rising senior at Cupertino High School. Besides being actively involved in Grameen Pragati fundraisers and project implementation, he is an instructor and Eagle Scout in Troop 407.


 

SF-Based Nonprofit Advocates that Education Alone isn’t Enough for Himalayan Women

The mountain women of India do not have access to the right opportunities, though they have a passion to work and be independent. San Francisco-based Giri Foundation is a non-profit organization formed to help women get skilled, financed, and get sustainable and stable work or entrepreneurial opportunities. Its vision is to extend India’s mission of Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (save a girl, educate a girl) to include Beti Kamao (employ a woman), and provide employment to a million women in the mountains of India by 2025.

In this exclusive interview, we spoke to the Foundation’s Founder & President Megha B. Purohit, who spoke among other things about her personal journey from India to the US, how she is giving back to the mountain women of India, and her Foundation’s recent India chapter launch.

Tell us about your personal journey from India to the US.

Before leaving for the US, I was a practicing lawyer at the Supreme Court of India. Since I was born and raised in the Himalayas, my heart has always belonged to the hills. I first moved to New York and now live in San Francisco. I did a short course at Stanford. It was after moving to the US that I realized my extreme love for the Himalayas. I wanted to do something for my homeland and being an advocate of women’s equality from a very young age, I felt this is what needed support.

Activist Meghan B. Purohit

How did you decide to set up the Giri Foundation – your organization to help mountain women get skilled, financed, and sustainable work or entrepreneurial opportunities?

Mountain people rank among the most deprived sectors of the world’s population, and yet it is well recognized that their stewardship of mountain natural resources is closely linked to the sustainability of life in lowland areas. In mountain regions, as in the rest of the world, women, as a class, are more undernourished, more under-compensated for their labor, and more underrepresented in formal decision-making bodies. Giri Foundation, a non-profit organization, firmly believes that all women of the mountains should get an adequate opportunity to showcase their skills and earn their deserved percentage. It not only helps in empowering today’s women but also boosts their confidence, moreover benefits their skillset. It also overpowers the practice of disdain and despair inflicted on the women of our society.


Tell us how the Giri Foundation is working towards building one million jobs by 2025 for the mountain women of the Himalayan region through the different areas that you work in (textile, handicraft, pashmina, carpets, paintings, woodwork, cuisine, workshops, corporate brands, data entry, loans, etc.) as part of its mission of Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao and Beti Kamo.

Through ongoing years what has received less attention, however, is the dominant role that women in these mountain areas play in natural resource management, agricultural production, as well as the wellbeing and very survival of mountain families, including children. To cut it short, education and skill alone aren’t enough to get more women to work in the Himalayas. Our mission is to employ a million women in the mountains of India by 2025. We will ride on the infrastructure created by the Government of India on Skill India and Mudra Yojana (financial support), while heavily investing to find the right opportunities globally in the fields of textile, handicrafts, and crowdsourcing and help them microfinance their startup capital. As we all know, local ownership, alternative sources of income, women empowerment, and long-term sustainable livelihoods will help us evolve a change in the mountain womens lives towards a forthcoming future.

Give us an idea of the impact you have had so far.

So far, we have received a positive response from the people. We are really glad and appreciate the fact that we gained a good amount of supporters in a short period. We are privileged to have met the women working for us and to have them trust us and help us attain our desired goals with them. Due to Covid 19, the work has been a bit slow but we have connected with various existing NGOs in India and around 30,000 women in the hills. We are in the process of building more and more connections, which will soon lead to further project plans.

What are some of the challenges you have had to face in this journey?

As a community of women supporters, we have faced a lot of troubles, but we have conjured all the obstacles thrown our way through our team support and strategies. Though during our journey we have faced quite a few issues two of which being, convincing the mountain women to go with us and to have them build trust in our foundation for their empowerment and upliftment. The second was to convince their families to let them work to support them and give women financial independence.

How can one support the organization?

If you believe in women’s equality and independence for mountain women, then you can help either by donating on your own will or through consuming the handmade goods made by the women are available on the Foundation’s website. 

With the Foundation’s recent India Chapter launch, what are your plans for the future?

The main aim is to make mountain women essentially more skilled in the area of their expertise, financially stable to have sustainable, stable work, and the experience of entrepreneurial opportunities. Our vision, furthermore, extends to boosts Indias campaign of Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (save a girl, educate a girl) to include Beti Kamao (employ a woman). And to provide the mountain women of India with a possibility of access to an equal scope of employment, like urban women who have a passion to work and make a living independently.


Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 


 

Kitanu’s Use of Sarod, Guitar, & Drums Spawns a New Sound

Kitanu, a Delhi-based five-piece band comprised of Rohan Prasanna on Sarod, Siddhant Sarkar on vocals, Omkar Raghupatruni on guitar, Guru Ganapathi on drums, and Arman Handa on Bass Guitar, features a unique sound of merged styles. Their debut EP is filled with influences from Jazz, Funk, Rock & Roll, Blues, Metal, and Bossa Nova. The band’s aim with their debut was to make good music and have fun, and through these three tracks, they have conveyed their love for music and their joy in making it. In this interview, they talked about the process behind their songwriting, the Indian influences in their music, and more.

*****

How important was it to not define your music by genre, and do you define it by anything?

Siddhant: I think it is the very core of all of us as musicians to not be defined by a genre  – especially as we all evolve individually as musicians too and our own styles and inclinations keep developing, we plan to remain genre-fluid. We feel when you decide to stick to a genre, you limit yourselves, and we all view our music as an amalgamation of different sounds rather than something specific.  

Rohan: When we first decided to make music, we didn’t have any genre or deadline to commit to. The band just went with a style that merged widely varying styles of all five members, making each song sound unique.

Left to right: Omkar Raghupatruni, Siddhant Sarkar, Rohan Prasana

While there is an emphasis on the musicality of your work, what role does lyricism play in your music?  

Siddhant: I think the way we view our music, we view the vocals as an “instrument” too which has to lend to the rest of the music. That said, I believe lyrics play a very important part in music.

For instance, “Pebbles” is a jazz-inspired journey that celebrates one’s sorrows, the lyrics are about the chronology of heartbreak and really adds meaning to the song.

“Faith” in itself is the journey of a child trapped in an abusive environment with an alcoholic father and how he is hopeful that despite all of the misery of it all, he’ll get away from it and make a life for himself. How hope/faith is eternal, hence the name of the song. Personally too, this song is close to my heart.

“Vacation” is about how we try to mold ourselves so we can fit the narratives of someone else’s idea of us, just so we can be with them, yet, at the same time, we have the realization of how futile and desperate it is. It is also about how the other person in the relationship is full of fear and resistant to make the jump that we are willing to make. The song ends on that note and we “lyrically” don’t go further about what really happens in the end – but we let the guitar solo do the talking and I guess it is for the listener to decide how the story ends. Personally, I think I’d walk out and that is how the guitar solo resonates with me too. 

What did it mean to have the Sarod blend in with jazz, funk and soul, and the blues?

Rohan: When Kitanu was formed, I had just joined college and the college music society opened my mind to experimenting with genres other than my own (Indian classical). Because of this, I was very keen on experimenting with how the sarod would blend with other genres. It was a learning experience as I got to expand my own vision of “sarod”. 

Has your Indian background affected your work? How?

Siddhant: I haven’t really thought about it until now, I guess our cultural aspects obviously play a role in how we perceive life and how we subconsciously operate. Ideally, I would have said my “Indian-ness” has nothing to do with my work because even the music we are making is using “western instruments” but if I am being practical, I would say – it most definitely has. Not to mention, that we are using a “Sarod” which is an ancient Indian folk instrument.

Omkar: Well, India is a pretty diverse country and so is our music. Our parents were all from different cultures and that has, to some extent, been reflected in our music. All of our mother tongues are different (Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Tamil) so our approaches to music and life are also a little different and it blends whenever we jam and make music. Also, the fact that we are all very spiritual people so one can say that too stems from our “Indian-ness”.

The three tracks – Vacation, Pebbles, and Faith – are very distinct and flow from one to the other musically. What was the thought process behind the sequencing and making of this EP?

Omkar: If we are being completely honest, we just randomly picked 3 songs that we thought were similar yet different. “Vacation” was the song we put first because it has a great intro. “Faith’s” ending is pretty energetic and we thought this has to go last. We were left with “Pebbles” which then went in the middle. As it turned out, the songs just naturally flowed from one to the other like they were meant to be.

Rohan: We just wanted to make music while growing individually as musicians and that was the thought process behind the making of the EP, at least for me. 

*****

Listen to their debut EP on Spotify, Apple Music, Soundcloud, and Youtube.


Swati Ramaswamy is a recent graduate from UC Davis and an aspiring creative writer.  


 

Maheshwar: Soaked in Architecture and Spirituality

The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.

When I was planning to visit Indore, it was in my back of mind somewhere that I wanted to see the Narmada river. Maheshwar, a town situated on the banks of this holy river, lies at the Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh. From Indore, it takes merely 2 hours by car. Interestingly, this place attracts tourists as well as pilgrims. Pilgrims go for the spiritual search of Shivalingas, while tourists seek the remarkable history and exquisite architecture.

Abode of Lord Shiva 

The meaning of Maheshwar is the Abode of Lord Shiva. In ancient times, Maheshwar was known as Mahissati or Mahishamati and was the capital of Avanti under the rule of King Sahasrarjun. The story goes that once King Sahasrarjun, who had 500 wives, stopped the flow of River Narmada with his 1,000 arms to make a playfield for his wives. It was at this time when Ravana made a Shivalinga on the riverside. Sahasrarjun seeing that his wives had played and were now resting, allowed the river Narmada to flow again. The Shivalinga was washed away when water was released, which resulted in war between the King and Ravana. The King defeated Ravana and he placed ten lamps on Ravana’s head and one on his hand. At present, 11 lamps are lighted in the Sahasrarjun Temple that keeps the legend alive.

Hilyabai Holkar statue at the complex.

Forts Echoes Past Stories 

Although a sleepy old city, this place is a hidden gem. The 18th-century structure, Maheshwar Fort, is the main attraction here and was built by the famous Rani Ahilyabai Holkar. She ruled from 1765 to 1796 and built Ahilya Wada, her personal residences, offices, and a darbaar audience hall, within the fort. Undoubtedly, while walking through the grandeur of the fort, one realizes that life in Maheshwar revolves around the fort. This palace reflects the glory of Maratha architecture. What fascinated me most is that the palace has a weaver’s cooperative society in its premises, where I witnessed the weaving of world-famous Maheshwari sarees. 

Ahilya Fort, or Maheshwar fort, has arched windows all over, carved entrance doors, and intricate works. The fort walls stretch themselves on either side of the main entrance beyond the bastions. I saw various Chhatris and the seat of the Queen. The life-size statue of Rani Ahilyabai seated on the throne welcomes you with a calm smile. Display of antiques and different possessions of Holkar Dynasty, can be found in the archaeological museum, which is located in the fort. It also consists of temples dedicated to several incarnations of Lord Shiva.

In 2000, Prince Richard Holkar, her descendant, and son of the last Maharaja of Indore converted the Fort into a hotel. The Fort, which overlooks the Narmada River, was more like a Rajwada kind of a house. I cannot resist clicking pictures of the panoramic view of the Narmada River as well as the ghat from there. I walked down a few steps to reach the Narmada Ghat. You can really experience the real life of rural India, touching the clean and cold water of the river. 

Ghats Glory

The Narmada ghat is a wonder in itself. It was also built by Ahilya Bai Holkar in the 18th century. Narmada is considered the holiest of all the sacred rivers in India. Not only are there temples at the various points in the ghats, but I was also surprised to see big, small, of different sizes Shivalinga here. The legend goes that whenever Queen Ahilya bai went to bathe, Narmada River presented Shivalingas to her and these have been preserved at the palace temple where prayers are done every day. Even today, this practice has prevailed.

Sarees are Symbol of Culture

Rehwa Society Weaver

If Maheshwar means forts and ghats, then it also is the main center of the world-famous Maheshwari Sarees. These sarees have been created from the times of Ahilyabai but have been lately restored thanks to the Rehwa Society an NGO. It was an amazing experience to see the making of sarees on the looms. These bright color sarees are weaved with distinctive and intricate designs of stripes checks, and floral borders. If you have seen the movie Pad Man, then visualize the scene where Akshay Kumar was standing on the steps of some fort, romancing Radhika Apte. Yes, it is Ahilya fort at Maheshwar. 


Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 12 books on different subjects and translated around 160 books from English to Hindi. 


 

Prime Minister Modi Set to Visit USA for Quad Leaders’ Summit

Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi would be participating, along with Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan, and President Joseph R. Biden of USA, in the Leaders’ Summit of the Quadrilateral Framework in Washington D.C, USA, on 24 September 2021. The Leaders will review progress made since their first virtual Summit on 12 March 2021 and discuss regional issues of shared interest.

As part of their ongoing efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, they will review the Quad Vaccine initiative which was announced in March this year. They will also exchange views on contemporary global issues such as critical and emerging technologies, connectivity and infrastructure, cyber security, maritime security, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, climate change, and education. The Summit would provide a valuable opportunity for dialogue and interactions among the Leaders, anchored in their shared vision of ensuring a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.

Prime Minister is scheduled to address the General Debate of the High-Level Segment of the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on 25 September 2021 in New York. The theme for this year’s General Debate is ‘Building Resilience through hope to recover from COVID-19, rebuild sustainably, respond to the needs of the planet, respect the rights of people, and revitalize the United Nations’.


This is a republished press release from the Ministry of External Affairs – India.

Featured image under the CC 2.0 License.


 

Behind the Curtains of Virtual Classrooms Across Nations

It’s September and millions of students are meeting their teachers back in classrooms. This month is also special for teachers back in India as September 5 was fondly celebrated as Teachers Day.

India Currents spoke to teachers across the two countries to understand the challenges they have been facing since being forced into online classrooms in April 2020. While parents have been raising concerns and the government is busy formulating rules and policies on online teaching, the teaching fraternity has been stoically reinventing and upgrading themselves, notwithstanding personal hardships.

“First of all, the pandemic forced us, teachers, into technology. It was very difficult – especially for the senior ones – to take that path, but there was no choice,” says Mohua Gupta, primary school teacher, BD Memorial International School, Kolkata, India. 

Her peers agree. “It is one thing to know how to operate a computer and another to be able to systematically use it to teach an entire class of 25-45 students when you’ve never done it before,” shares Ms. Shobha Rani, a Biology teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, Greenbelt, Maryland. Ms. Rani has taught students of all grades for the last 21 years in America, and for 11 years in India before that.

18 months down the line, even senior teachers have become fluid on platforms like Google Classrooms, Zoom meetings, downloading and uploading images to mark corrections, making powerpoints and videos on all subject topics. They say it wasn’t as much the absence of chalk-and-blackboard or desk-and-chairs or pen-and-paper that caused the biggest difficulties in the first place.   

Ms. Mohua Gupta, a primary school teacher at BD International School

“I missed the children. The physical absence of children was a huge challenge because I was used to it for 24 years,” observes Ms. Gupta, with a hint of dejection. As if that wasn’t enough, many students couldn’t (and still cannot) attend online classes due to the unavailability of either device or internet connectivity issues. 

“Ma’am has become abracadabra!” exclaimed one child when the teacher lost connection during my daughter’s online class. She was explaining ‘magical mathematic tricks’ when the internet snag happened!

Carrying on, away from the tinkle of classrooms and beaming faces of students, teachers faced the double-edged sword of learning new e-tools for teaching age-old lessons online. They couldn’t share its emotional impact with their students or parents, but shockingly, grappled from within.

“Our lesson plans had to change suddenly to suit online teaching. It was a lot to learn in terms of online classroom tools and process everything quickly and impart students the same. I was not confident initially,” admits Ms. Rani, who at present is teaching Grades 9-12.

As large classrooms with expressive faces gave way to thumbnail size icons on gadgets during online classes, many students switched their videos off. Yet, others started chatting with peers on the classroom chat-box! Teachers wouldn’t understand whether their labored lessons are seeping in. 

“We cannot force students to keep their cameras on – County rules were passed against it, as some students feel conscious, or have backgrounds they don’t want to show… As a teacher, I had to encourage them, motivate them with games-oriented lessons, music, and even extra points,” says Ms. Rani.  

Navigating between classes is an enriching exercise for most during school hours. But online, it turned a woe. “From having anything between 5-7 hours of interaction time daily at school, now we had only 1.5 hours online for the primary children. Some children are extroverts, talking too much, while some are too shy to speak – I had to think about how to cope with them all. We cannot miss anyone,” shares Ms. Mukhopadhyay, primary school teacher of Mathematics from a reputable school in Kolkata, requesting anonymity. 

To tackle it all, teachers turned bedrooms/living into soundproof appealing virtual classrooms where concepts could be floated and shared. But is the child doing his bit of the work independently? “After getting the assignments, in many cases, teachers are left in the lurch to figure if parents have done the assignments, their tuition teacher or the child himself!” exclaims Ms. Mukhopadhyay. 

Grappling with these, on one hand, getting constructive feedback is what the teachers are longing for on the other. “It is demoralizing if you’ve worked hard and get negative feedback from students/parents. On the other hand, if there is no feedback, guilt sets in – maybe I’ve not done well enough to explain,” reflects Ms. Mukhopadhyay.

Ms. Mona Kothari, pre-primary teacher, Hitchcock School, Scarsdale, New York, had an experience of another kind since she taught online only for 3 months when the pandemic hit. “Fear wasn’t on my mind when we started in-person classes for our 2-5-year-old children from September 2020. Masks were mandatory for all and parents were not permitted at the school compound among other things. Surprisingly, all the children followed the rules. Not one child or staff fell ill during the entire session ending in June 2021,” she shares. She’s looking forward to the upcoming new session too thus, though many others fret of consequences otherwise.

But in the 3 months of her online classes, she also admits to having faced an immensely increased workload. A job that often started in the morning used to end by late afternoon in normal times. But now, has stolen precious hours of family and relaxation time. 

“Though we are not making as many videos compared to last year, we are regularly creating educative-cum-fun online quizzes for children to gauge how much of each topic have they understood. Numbers of online classes have increased this academic year starting in April 2021 (in India). There are reinforcement classes, query phone calls and assignments pouring in for correction after the classes are over. We are working from home for about 16-17 hours on every working day even now,” shares Ms. Mukhopadhyay. 

Ms. Shobha Rani, a Biology teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School

“At a personal level, although we were all working from home, we were loud enough to shut our doors in different bedrooms. My husband thought I was over-working, not paying attention to the house… You get distracted a lot – something is on the stove… let’s take the dog out for 10 minutes… now we have got used to it,” shares Ms. Rani.

In America, like in India till recently, most teachers were exclusively in the online classroom until March 2021.  As schools in America started experimenting with the hybrid model in April 2021 – where parents had the choice of sending their children to school or opting for online classes only, the teaching scene became further complicated. 

“From April-June 2021, we had very few students coming to school on select days of the week in the hybrid model, while most chose to continue online. I was teaching virtually simultaneously from the school premises as I taught the students present in class. Concentrating on and managing both is a big challenge,” explains Ms. Rani. 

Commenting that the world has a lot to learn from Finland, where the teaching community enjoys high respect and status, Ms. Rani sums up: 

“What is a teacher feeling? We are the last ones to be worried about even though we voice ourselves the most… It would boost the morale of all teachers – the future makers – if parents and students speak up and share one good thing their teacher did for them during the pandemic.”


Suruchi Tulsyan is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, India.    


 

Students Walk A Tightrope To Stay On Track In Covid Times

In early September Kailash Kothari arrived from India to begin a graduate program in Supply Chain Management at the University of Maryland. But before he could start his fall semester on campus, Kailash first had to navigate his way to a student visa, through the roadblocks created by the pandemic as it spread infection and closed borders.

When the Delta variant swept across the subcontinent, causing a catastrophic fourth wave that pushed the death toll in India to well over 4 million by some estimates  the US shuttered its Indian embassy and consulates in Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. As  Covid-induced travel restrictions fell on students, Kailash scrambled to get an F1 student visa that would grant him entry into the US and to his master’s program.

Indian students constitute a large proportion (about 18%) of nearly 1.1 million international students currently enrolled at US universities. When the pandemic hit, it cut off the lucrative flow of cash from foreign students who were forced to return home or who deferred admissions to their chosen university. US educational institutions stand to lose billions of dollars in fees as foreign student enrollment declines. For students like Kailash, US-imposed travel restrictions from certain countries and a backlog in student visa processing made it both difficult and expensive to arrive in time for their 2021 Fall semesters.

Trying to get an F1 visa and a valid international flight was like walking a tightrope, but Kailash was fortunate to stay on track. In June, the US consulate in India announced special visa days for F1 students. Students had to submit paperwork, produce evidence of a double vaccination and participate in an in-person interview at an American consulate.

Kailash was granted an interview in two separate cities. He first presented himself for an initial review of his paperwork in Delhi and then made a crazy dash south to Mumbai for a follow up interview less than 24 hours later.

Once his visa was granted, Kailash was ready to board a flight to America. At the time however, the US had suspended flights from India, and from the EU and Britain, where Indians tend to make flight connections when traveling to the US. The US currently has travel restrictions in place for SCHENGEN countries among others, due to concerns over the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant.

Flights from India were banned until August 31 in order to contain the spread of the Delta variant, even though US student visa holders are exempted from the US-India travel ban.

Eventually Kailash secured a coveted but expensive seat on a flight from Qatar as flights from some Middle Eastern countries are allowed into the US. He had to present proof of a negative Covid test taken 72 hours before he boarded a plane, and provide evidence of vaccination or proof of recovery from the virus within the last 90 days, but did not have to quarantine once he arrived on American soil.

 

The Spread of the Delta Variant

The Delta variant first identified in India in December 2020, is now the predominant strain of the coronavirus in the US and several other countries. According to the CDC the Delta variant now accounts for 93% of all COVID cases and is more than twice as contagious as previous variants.

Dr. Peggy Honein, CDC

At a September 2 EMS briefing on the pandemic, the CDC’s Dr. Peggy Honein warned that the country was “unfortunately in the midst of a fairly large surge caused by the highly transmissible Delta variant.”  Despite the availability of proven mitigation measures and effective vaccines, she added, “the virus continues to take a major toll,” with the CDC reporting daily increases in cases, ER visits, hospital admissions, and deaths. At this time, just under 53% of overall US population is fully vaccinated.

Dr. Honein explained that in June the US had reached a low infection rate, with less than “12 thousand cases a day reported,” and the 7-day average climbing to nearly 150 thousand cases a day. The average number of new hospital admissions is at well over 12 thousand stated Dr. Honein, with 1000 deaths a day reported to CDC. In total, the US accounts for almost 640 thousand deaths and 40 million cases.

As expected, emerging trends indicate that states with higher vaccination coverage have lower hospitalizations and ER visits.

The surge in July and August tracked by hospitalizations and ER visits are starting to place a bigger Covid burden on children, said Dr. Honein, with the CDC noting an upward trend for children as the Delta variant rips through the country.

With the return to in-person education at schools and universities this fall, the CDC has announced recommendations to maximize protection from the Delta variant on campuses and prevent spreading it among students.

For students 12 and above who are eligible for vaccines, the CDC offers comprehensive guidelines for institutions of higher learning (IHEs) on how to implement measures to safeguard their staff and students.  Vaccines are free and available to everyone in the US regardless of immigration or health insurance status.

However, children up to the age of 11 who are back to school remain at risk, because vaccinations are not yet available for that age group. Dr. Honein, expressed concerns about the dangers of Covid transmission among students younger than 12. She said staff at schools could create safe environments for children under 12 who have no authorized vaccine, “by fully vaccinating and using protective measures like wearing masks so schools can open and stay open safely.”

Dr. Honein said that the community also can play a role in protecting children and reducing community transmission. The CDC recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status. They suggest that children “should return to full-time in-person learning in the fall with layered prevention strategies in place.”

Eleven-year-old  Sachin Heatherley just began 6th grade in San Antonio, and his mother eagerly awaits the release of a Covid19 vaccine for her son. “Thank you science and God,” she said, after learning of a recent announcement by Pfizer  that Covid vaccine data for 5-to -11 year-olds will be ready for submission to the FDA by end September, and clinical trial data on a vaccine for 6 month – 5 year-olds, will be released by end October.

Vaccines have opened up opportunities for international students like Kailash to pursue further education at an US university in the middle of a pandemic. But for Sachin and his peers who face the threat of Covid at school, the responsibility to provide safe, supportive learning environments for children and adolescents belongs to their communities (schools, parents, guardians, and caregivers ) until a vaccine is available to protect them in the classroom.


Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash