Saturday 27 February 2010

Local hero series

Shameer at the foot print workshop at the Institute of palliative care, Calicut

The Blue Yonder is starting a series of stories from destinations that have inspired us, stories of local heroes who fought against all odds. We introduce you to Shameer.

Shameer was a young and vibrant high school student enjoying his life when fate intervened to change his life forever. Whilst climbing an aracanut palm tree, Shameer fell to the ground and was never the same again.

Shameer had been living in one of the most picturesque villages of Kerala, Mukkom in the Kozhikode district, with his mother, sister and grandmother. The family had great expectations for him as he was the sole male member of a traditional Muslim family. He was supposed to lead the family financially and emotionally. However, following the accident, the family had to face the reality that Shameer had lost his mobility and he needed support to live. This came as a complete shock to him as well as his family members.

' I managed to survive! I don’t know. The courage and support provided by palliative care people really helped me to survive,”' Shameer.

Even during his most difficult initial years, Shameer tried hard to survive and take care of his family. He engaged in many vocations, such as making hand made products, copying music CDs according to the requirements of the local people and earning a little bit of money.

However, the needs of his family were greater than what he could provide them with. Even in her old age, Shameer's grandmother was forced to work as a domestic servant in nearby houses in order to feed the family.

Thirteen years have passed since the accident, and now Shameer has only his grandmother at home. She is now more than eighty years old, neither able to look after herself nor Shameer.

Now, however, circumstances have changed a great deal. We find a cheerful Shameer surrounded by young intelligent friends, sharing stories, debating issues, leading an active social life, working to finish projects and earning enough to live and care for his grandmother. His strong will power helped him get to where he is today.

These days, Shameer works with the community based rehabilitation project 'Foot Prints', a project by the Institute of Palliative Medicine, Kozhikode. Now he is a trained person in different vocations such as paper bag making, eco-friendly bamboo pen production, artificial jewellery making and more. He also finds the time to engage in two of his favourite hobbies: painting and photography. He has many friends like Aayaz, a college student and his neighbour who regularly visits him. Athira, Aswathi, Junaiz, Althaf, Babin... the list is long. He met these students at Footprints camps, and even though many of them are residing or studying far away from his village, they somehow find time to visit him at least once in a week.

'Now I do not consider myself a disabled person. I am earning,occupied and I have a social life. I have participated in some of the programmes held in Kozhikode last year with the help of my friends like the musical programme by A R Rahman and the talk by former president Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam. I have friends always ready to help me and I talk to them whenever I want. My mobile phone helps me to keep contacts and I don’t have to depend on anyone now to meet the expense to charge my mobile and other expenses because I am earning just like others,' says a proud Shameer, clutching a mobile phone in his hands.

His future looks bright.
The Blue Yonder is partnering with Palliative care movement in Calicut to set up another unit of travellers' forest in the Calicut campus and also to bring in interested travelling volunteers to work in foot print workshop. The first step of planting by travellers will be inaugurated on the 5th of June 2010, which also happens to be the world environment day.

Thursday 25 February 2010

Doing good and doing well conference- Barcelona

The Blue Yonder will be featured at the Doing Good Doing Well conference in Barcelona 26-27 Feb 2010. The theme of the conference this year is 'From niche to mass market:taking responsibile business to next level'.

The Doing Good Doing Well conference is a two-day event with an interactive panel discussions on major opportunities and challenges faced by responsible businesses and organisations. The conference organised by IESE's Responsible Business Club, attracts, proffesionals and students from around the globe. By challenging participants to consider the potential for sustainable development, the DGDW conference helps develop innovative new strategies and business models, as well as foster meaningful relationships between industry professionals and graduate students. IESE is one of the top ranked management school in the world.

We will be presenting our case in a panel titled, 'CSR in service sector'. As in previous seminars, TBY will be sharing its opinion on how responsibility should be a main stay of any business and not as a CSR initiative to be part of a 'go-green-agenda'. We are humbled to be invited for this prestigous conference where more than 100 speakers from various sectors and different parts of the world are attending.

Saturday 20 February 2010

Cigar makers of Badagara

No.1 Basar Churuttugal (Cigars) / pic Xavier Muhlethaler

It's not that every day you run into Cigar makers in Kerala. There are still six workers who are actively involved in cigar making in the once communist bastion of Bagadara town. According to them, there are about thirty workers still engaged in the trade in North Kerala, but all of them aged and not in a position to work any more, so they roll the cigars whenever they can from their home.

The T. P Mahamood, 'Tobacco Dealer and Cigar Merchant' runs the only surviving cigar brand in Kerala by the name of 'Superior Dasar' cigars. Every time we went to visit them, we realised that the time paused when they talk. However, when their memories go back to their life as young-passionate-communist party workers, it is as if we are on a time-machine. Rajan Vadakkayil, 63 emotionally went back and forth to the days when cigar workers were the back-bone of the leftist movements in Kerala.

22 pieces in one packet and sold at Rs 10 per packet! pic Prakash WK

Paralla Parambathu Chaathu, 70, reminded us that there was a time in the late 40's when many people left their teaching job to roll cigars in Kannur district as they earned more! Still an ardent follower of left ideologies and communism (as he knew it), Chaathu is at pain hearing his colleagues criticising the trade unions and political parties that they once were part of. It was only when our colleague Mohammed wished him 'Laal Salaam' (Red Salute), that he giggled. Till then we didn't know that he was suffocated for the last couple of hours listening to our discussions on the value-erosion of left politics in Kerala and how the communist leaders who once built a movement of workers and farmers don't even know that these cigar manufactures still exist!

'Do you know that one of MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) exclaimed after watching a documentary on us in a local Television channel, 'Really? There are still cigar workers in Kerala'. Chandran continued, 'We are glad that someone noticed us through that documentary. Her statement hurt us a lot though, because her father was a cigar roller and now a famous politician of the left. This is where the left movement has dived into, this is where we have ended up as well'.

From 7.30 am till late evening, they sit in this yogic posture rolling one cigar after the other. pic Prakash WK

They earn a maximum of 60 Rs (less than a Euro) per day depending on the number of cigars they can roll. Gopalan, another cigar maker ( who prefers to smoke only Beedi!), said that with their age, on an average they earn about 50 Rs out of which they have to find money for their tea and lunch!, When I asked them why they don't go home to eat (so as to save some money) he said that they will lose that much more time to roll and earn even less.

A packet consisting of 22 cigars are sold in the market for less than 10 Rs! Certainly, we are not talking about elite Cuban cigars here!

When asked why they continue to do this tiring, low income ( where is the income anyway!) job, Chandran retorted, 'Son, what else do you think we know to do? We are all above 60 now. We started at the age of 14 and this is the only skill we have! Our kids have grown up and luckily they earn enough to support their family by driving autos and similar jobs and what we are earning right now is just for our basic need. If we think about taking a break, we go crazy, so for the peace of our mind, we come here every day at 7.30am and reflect on our lives and past. Then, once in a while, people like you come hearing about these 'lost-souls' and we feel good to know that we are actually 'alive'.

These cigar workers in yogic postures gets 200 Rs (less than 4 Euros) per month as a social security support, which apparently has not been paid for last 8 months! These are the same workers who used to organise rallies for fair wages and human rights and to support the struggles of the fellow proletarians of the world. Ramakrishnan, who was silent till the end of our discussions laughed at this memory and said, 'we used to run to various parts of the town to organise rallies and protests at the cost of losing the 'per-cigar-pay, whenever we get a note from our leaders who were under-ground (hiding from Police). For us it was the proletarian movement that came first, not even our hunger'.

A daily worker in Kerala who earns about 250-400 Rs depending on trade / skills is considered to be rich compared to workers in many other parts of India. In the same Kerala, we have these workers who are rolling cigars to complete their cycle of life and death.

As one of them sighed, 'Janichu poyille'!

Friday 19 February 2010

Folk expressions by Vayali in Bangalore

The Blue Yonder is partnering with Maraa to organise folk expressions from Vayali. Part of the 'Near the river ' series, the evening is a continuation of show casing the unique culture and civilisation of River Nila in Kerala (Bharathapuzha).

The performance is held at JAAGA, near hockey stadium in Shantinagar, Bangalore.
Date 21 Jan 2010
Time: 17.30-20.30
More details check out the site

Saturday 13 February 2010

eco-tourism to eco-disaster?

If not taken care of immediately, such newly opened destinations will turn into eco-disasters

Ill-planned, half-baked and funding dependent tourism projects can turn disastrous than achieve sustainable tourism. Yesterday afternoon our team went to scout for new tracks and ended up at the valley of Western Ghats in North Kerala. We entered a pristine length of the forest only to be welcomed by plastics strewn all around. 'Ever since we opened up this region for tourism, we see far too much waste that we don't know what to do. They haven't even appointed anyone on a salary to support the 'eco-tourism' initiatives. Worse, when we appointed two women to collect waste, the committee in-charge of the eco-tourism refused to pay wages to them as they thought it was waste of money!'. One of the locals lamented.

On our way back, after a relaxing swim in the stunningly beautiful river in the rain forest, three of us started collecting plastic wastes left behind by tourists, only to realise that our guide who was walking oblivion of the waste surrounding us started picking up one after the another. We didn't train him, we didn't request him, we didn't preach nature conservation. However, on seeing us collecting the plastic waste, he also joined us.

Seeing us collecting the picnic waste left behind by tourists, Matthai our guide joined us

We collected one large bag full of plastic wraps on our way back. Not knowing what to do with it, we took it along with us to the near by town and handed it over to the garbage collector the next day morning! What else do we do? What do we do with plastics? What will the garbage collector from Municipality do? They will burn it. By collecting it from forests, we can ensure that its' not eaten by animals or doesn't damage the immediate surrounding. However by not having a system of waste management, we are just doing a cosmetic cleaning, and nothing else.

Forest department in Kerala has done fantastic work in using tourism as a tool for conservation in places like Periyar, Chimmony and Chinnar regions. To develop sustainable tourism, the capacities of the local hosts including the tribes and those living on the fringes of the forests have to be developed. Thorough briefing on handling of the waste, importance of preserving forest land itself can bring about a change in tourist mind-set. The lack of infrastructure for waste management can to a large extend be minimised by proper behaviour. Quoting Mathai, our local guide, "Well, people tend to do same things as they do back where they live, look at our cities and villages, we throw things everywhere. They continue to do the same here as well".

When a new tourism initiative doesn't take care of basic infrastructure and capacity building of local hosts, why launch it in the first instance. Why name it as eco-tourism and green wash? If our guide Mathai was inspired to collect waste from the tracks, we believe there will be many such Mathai's around the world. Crying about the waste-strewn surroundings doesn't help; be the change! Though engaging Government and tourism industry is important, let us not waste our time thinking they will bring the change and find solutions.

Let us show that we can make the difference, like the way Mathai did.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Three people who inspired us today

Gandhian Krishnettan - 'I have a duty to be the change'
This morning we had gone to meet some wonderful people with whom we have decided to work together on our sustainable development initiatives in Kerala. By end of the evening we realised that all we did was to learn, to be inspired by what they were doing. It was a day that made all of us smile, because it was another day where we felt good that we didn't give up half-way when things were tough.

We spent the day with Gandhian Krishnettan, who has dedicated his whole life living and promoting Gandhian values. Though his face was familiar in newspapers, I was really surprised to see him walking around the village in a loin around his waist!

Binzy - the student leader is a 'health minister' in the school parliament

Later in the evening, by the river banks, he told us how disappointed he is about the way India is, 60 years after independence. He sounded like a man in hurry,who believes he has a duty to be 'the change', the man to bring changes to the society. He sounded desperate though he wouldn't admit it.

Krishnettan has finally decided to focus on a small village near Calicut,where he visits 50 house-holds every day to engage them on hygiene, health, education and nature conservation. He works with about 37 young students, who go around these houses twice a week with him to talk about the need for waste management, to avoid plastics etc. These students also have planted several trees within the small land holdings their parents have, and they were so proud to show us around! We were more surprised to see them growing a special variety of rice (njavara) known for its medicinal quality in small piece of land in the hillock.

on the right side of the kids are the saplings taken care of by individual house-holds for planting

What was more surprising to us was the trigger that prompted the Gandhian to focus on these 50 house-hold rather than attempting to change the whole world. The septuagenarian said that he had lost his conviction to change the society and had almost given up till he met Rajesh, a young boy who had come to meet him last year after reading about his attempts to make villages self-relliant and sustainable. Rajesh stressed the need for him to work with young students, than trying to change the whole world. This was an effective scaling down from global views to local views, which looked very effective.

Rajesh(L), the youngster who convinced the Gandian to work with the students.

The success of the student initiative was visible when one of the women from the village told us that they don't burn plastic waste anymore. She said with pride that it were"these kids" who told them to segregate waste at source and keep plastic separate. She lamented, "We don't know what to do with plastic though!". The girl who is responsible for the student group is just 14! (Binzy said that she is also "Health Minister" in the school parliament.).

The day couldn't have been any better. Meeting three gems in a day! Gandian Krishnettan who works in the grass-roots especially with the youth, Rajesh who inspired the Septuagenarian, and Binzy the student leader who inspires rest of the team! They will soon be attending an inter-region exchange we are planning to bring together various stake holders of The Blue Yonder to share their experiences in finding solutions to commonly seen issues related to water, waste, power and health.

Tuesday 9 February 2010

M.E.S college ponnani

Couple of weeks back, we got a phone call from a local college telling that they are organising a 'National Seminar on Responsible tourism', an event supported by University Grants Commission. It seems one of the speakers had suggested TBY name telling that Responsible tourism in Kerala was triggered by what we initiated based on River Nila fiver years back and will be able to give insights from a practitioners point of view.

The event till evening was a jumboorie of academic reading, reports tracing the RT movements across the world. Though well-attended, we were not really sure how much of this was of any use to the students attending the seminar. Till the last moment we were not sure what we should talk about or what angle of the business we should introduce them to. Especially since our sessions fell after a heavy lunch, we had to ensure the we showed them something that ensured students weren't falling asleep.

We spoke in Malayalam, which I guess helped to connect well with the crowd while rest of speakers all spoke in English, we told the background of how TBY was formed, and what we learnt in five years. We ran about 80 slides of pictures taken from less than 30 square kilometres of that college, and surprisingly there were far less than a quarter of the audience who knew what we were sharing. Almost all of them hadn't seen the cultural heritage of the region. However, when asked how many of them have planted at least one sapling in their entire life, there were quite many. Though when asked about the number of saplings that they have seen survived after the planting, as in many similar situations, the hands went down. Not surprisingly.

When we shared the details of our partnership with Palliative Care movement in Kerala linking nature conservation with rural health programs, almost every one had heard about palliative care clinics functioning in rural Malabar region. It took more than 5 years for us to stand in front of local boys and girls to show case and share what we have been doing so far. However, I have to admit that irrespective of all the conferences, seminars and trade shows The Blue Yonder attended across the world, this was the most fruitful, satisfying experience. To stand in-front of an audience of enthusiastic students, and talk to them in our colloquial language about approaches we have taken to find solutions to local issues through responsible tourism, felt so good.

The result of the 90-minute engagement was there to see by end of the day as the college principal invited us to his office to say how glad he was knowing about The Blue Yonder and how his institution is willing to keep apart one acre of land within the 26-acre campus for the traveller's forest! Though the practicalities of this partnership has to be worked out in detail, we hope this model will help our region regenerate at least some of its bio-diversity.

If only 10% of our school and college management decides to follow M.E.S Ponnani college, Kerala would be a better place to live in and visit!

Responsible tourism networking in New Delhi and Kathmandu

The last few weeks saw two unique events in Responsible tourism. Trend setting responsible tourism networking events were held during SATTE in New Delhi on 29th Jan and later on in Kathmandu on 2nd Feb 2010.Continuing the tradition of networking to bring together like-minded people in Responsible tourism to learn, share and inspire, both the event stood apart for its uniqueness.

Delhi event supported by SATTE, ITB-Berlin, The Blue Yonder ,Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT)and International Centre for Responsible Tourism - India (ICRT India) focused more on workshops this year, whereas the event in Nepal saw experienced practioners inspiring tourism students. New Delhi discussed the role of Media in responsible tourism in a panel moderated by Sankar Radhakrishan - Independent writer, editor and attended by Charles Kao - Chairman and Publisher - Travel Mole Media group, Kai Friese - Editor - Outlook Traveller and GEO and Sopan Joshi - Managing Editor - Down to earth Magazine.

The panel on responsibility on wildlife tourism was moderated by Julian Mathews: Chairman Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT)and well attended by Amit Shankala: Managing Director - Encounters Asia and Dr. Latika Nath Rana from Singinawa Lodge.

The discussions were concluded by a panel on Responsibility & Profitability exploring the business case for responsible tourism? The panel consisted of
Asit Biswas : Co-founder - Help Tourism, Charmarie Maalge: Founder Director / CEO - Responsible Tourism Partnership Sri Lanka, Major Murray Jones: Specialist travel advisor - Palaces and Tigers UK and Rakesh Mathur: President ITC Welcom Heritage. Panel was moderated by Lelei TuiSamoa LeLaulu: Co-Chair - Innovations for Sustainable Development Centre.

This was followed by networking event.

The Responsible Fringe Meeting held on 02 Feb 2010 at the Dechenling Garden Restaurant in Kathmandu was attended by over 50 individuals, including 17 students and faculty from three leading tourism institutes - SMSH, NCTTM and NATHM.The event was organized by travels and Silver Mountain Institute of Hotel Management, and sponsored by Everest Summit Lodges.