India: Dying In The Heat & Pollution

I’m worried. It’s nearly 124 degrees Fahrenheit in parts of India, the highest temperature ever recorded. There’s a drought across much of the country. New Delhi is the most polluted city in the world according to the organizations tracking global air quality. Indians are dying from heat related illnesses and toxic air. These facts would normally become part of the gestalt of international environmental and humanitarian crisis media reports that seem so overwhelming it’s hard to know how an individual person can help. But it’s hard to ignore India these days. I sit on the board of a humanitarian project called The India Group who works with low caste families to provide medical care and education for their children. I was there the month of February. It’s not just a country but it’s individual children and families I know who are suffering.


I know in Khujaraho where she lives, the wells have dried up and drinking water comes in government trucks. Families line up with containers to get water. It’s so hot inside the small 6 x 6 concrete room her family calls home that family members get heat boils on their skin. And because she and the rest of her family are from the farming caste, their only source of income has withered and died in the heat. More than 400 farmers across India have committed suicide out of desperation since January.

I know the overcrowded New Delhi slum where they live is not only sweltering, but the air quality levels caused by heat and dust are severe and the accompanying toxic ozone gas levels are causing permanent lung damage in some people. Children and the elderly are most vulnerable.


It’s hard to fathom what conditions must be like in this Kolkata slum that sits on the city railroad tracks. On a good day conditions are miserable. It’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit there today. To deal with the crisis schools shut down in April until further notice.


I wonder how my Kolkata friend Roju is surviving. Is it even physically possible to hand pull a rickshaw on the Kolkata streets barefoot in blistering temperatures?

Two nights ago the Seattle local and national news featured distraught downtown Seattle workers who had been inconvenienced when a faulty mechanism shut down electricity to parts of the city for an hour on a day when the outside temperature was a comfortable 65 degrees. In India people died that day from the heat and toxic air. That crisis wasn’t covered by the media. In Seattle the espresso machines were silenced for an hour. That’s the “crisis” the media chose to cover.


Kolkata: Remnants of the British Raj at the Fairlawn Hotel

Arriving in a new city after dark always gives a surreal first impression that usually rights itself the next morning. When our taxi from the airport turned right onto Kolkata’s notorious Sudder Street, the narrow, pot holed road was ablaze with neon lights and crawling with international backpackers. It is lined with dark alleyways that house what guidebooks warn is the worst of Asia’s cheap accommodations: no running water, squat hole toilets, cockroaches and rats. I was relieved when the taxi pulled into a courtyard and the old two story structure inside glowed a brilliant nile green color under Christmas lights hung everywhere. Cartons of empty Kingfisher beer bottles stood next to wicker furniture,  and potted palms. In the crowded “beer garden” just off the lobby came the voices of Brits, Kiwis and Aussies. The Fairlawn Hotel‘s first impression never changed; it enlarged.


The building was constructed in 1781 on land bought by an Englishman from Sheik Ramjam and Bonay. It passed through several British owners before being purchased by British military commander, E.F. Smith and his Armenian wife, Violet in the early 1900s for use as a guesthouse and their private residence. Violet passed away two years ago but her personality and influence are everywhere in the Fairlawn. Guests, many who are regulars, still talk about her evening descent down the staircase in pearls, full make-up and a red haired wig for a nightly gin and tonic with guests.


The stairway to the second floor rooms is lined with family photos, portraits of British royalty and framed newspaper clippings about the Fairlawn and its famous guests. Multiple times a day staff polish the banisters to remove fingerprints.


The upstairs sitting room is a combination museum of English history in India and photograph album of Smith family vacation snapshots.

At breakfast the first morning I asked for a cup of milk tea, the traditional Indian drink we’d been served everywhere at all times of the day: sugar with tea and milk. The waiter looked appalled (the Fairlawn is a proper British establishment) and returned with a silver tray holding a bone china teacup and saucer, sugar bowl, silver creamer and a silver teapot covered with a tea cozy. Also the breakfast menu’s two choices: a proper English breakfast or porridge and toast with marmalade. No lassi. No pickled vegetables. No rice and curry sauce. Clearly inside the Fairlawn I was no longer in India’s India.


Outside the courtyard of the Fairlawn and the window of my room, the poverty  of Kolkata was very real. Desperate locals and immigrants from surrounding regions live on the streets hoping to eke out some kind of basic existence from the backpacker crowd. You can buy anything on Sudder Street. Anything.

Inside the Fairlawn each day brought a new group of tourists. Some were researching English family roots of grandparents and uncles who had lived in Kolkata when it served as the capitol of the British Empire in India. Others were Fairlawn regulars who found Kolkata to be more interesting than India’s other cities. And some were there as I was to volunteer at one of Mother Theresa’s charity homes for the sick, disabled and dying. The Fairlawn staff have worked at the hotel through its generations of owners passing jobs down from father to son. They know the regular guests well. Which beer they prefer – Kingfisher regular or strong; at what time they like their afternoon tea; if they like the lobby air fan off or on while reading their morning India Times.


Crossing the courtyard threshold of the Fairlawn as I did multiple times daily became an exercise in attitude adjustment. Outside was the Mother Theresa home for disabled children where I volunteered, the hand push rickshaw drivers who labor hard to earn $1 USD per day and the extraordinary poverty of Kolkata. It’s both shocking and sad. Inside the ghost of Violet Smith still presides over polished banisters, proper tea and an evening gin and tonic.

India: The Rickshaw Pullers of Kolkata


“Didi, I am not ashamed to be a wallah. You should not be ashamed to ride in my rickshaw.” I stared at the man who had introduced himself as Roju. He was thin and barefoot. I am a tall, white woman perfectly capable of walking. The idea of being pulled through the streets in his hand rickshaw felt too colonial, too awful, too politically incorrect.


Viewed as an oppressive legacy of the British Raj era of India’s history, hand rickshaws were banned by the Indian government in 2006. The wallahs in Kolkata banned together in a union called the All Bengal Rickshaw Union conducting protests and strikes to preserve the only form of work many of them felt they could do. Kolkata is the only place in the country where hand rickshaws are allowed to operate, but no licenses for new drivers have been issued since 2006 effectively phasing out the profession.


Its incredibly hard work that makes very little money for the drivers as motorized tuk tuks and pedi-cabs have taken their place. Even in the busy tourist area of Sudder Street, rickshaw drivers only earn about 120 rupees a day (the equivalent of about $2.00 USD). Most of them rent their rickshaw for 60 rupees a day so they net $1.00 USD daily to support themselves and their families. Many of them left their families in impoverished villages and sleep in the streets of Kolkata in order to send money home. Roju wanted only 50 rupees (less than a dollar) for transporting me. I’d been regularly seeing well fed tourists negotiating with pullers to take them on the same route for half that amount and then piling two of them into the rickshaw.

I relented. How could I deny Roju an income? I insisted on paying far more than he wanted to take me to work each morning during my week of volunteering in Kolkata. Gradually I learned to be less terrified as he darted through the crush of traffic madly ringing the wallah tool of the trade, a small finger bell. How anyone could hear the bell tinkling over the incessant honking of car horns was a puzzle.


On my last day Roju insisted on a tour of the warren of tiny markets in central Kolkata. We passed through the meat butchering market, the art market and the fruit and vegetable market on roads so narrow I could touch the severed goat heads. He stopped to treat me to tea with his fellow wallahs. All of them said they’d never done any other kind of work. They’re afraid of losing the only source of income they have if the government continues to discourage the profession. They also serve as the only mode of transporation the people living in India’s slums can afford.


At the end of our tour, Roju presented me with his hand bell for riding with him each day. I had learned to not be ashamed of how it all looked and to keep my eyes open during those insanely chaotic intersection crossings. He had steady work for the week paid at far more than the going rate and served as tour guide to a world I would have missed. And more importantly we had each made a friend.