Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Womb on Hire

After IT outsourcing, it’s now ‘pregnancy outsourcing’ which is on the rise in India. Childless couples and singles, especially from the US, Europe and south East Asia are looking to India in a hope — to become parents.

Indian surrogate mothers are in big demand. A surrogate mother is one who gets paid for carrying babies of other couples who can’t conceive on their own either due to health constraints or age. Surrogacy is the process where an embryo (fertilized egg and sperm of the couple) is transferred to the surrogate mother’s womb through in vitrofertilization or IVF.

There are others like working women who don’t have time or can’t afford to become mothers or who simply don’t want to go through physical changes and health issues that come with becoming pregnant but strongly want to have babies.

Single women and men are also finding surrogacy the best way to have their own children with the help of either a donated sperm or egg as the case would require.

Surrogacy is developing into a kind of profession albeit for a short term as no woman in India can opt to be a surrogate mother more than thrice in her lifetime. A surrogate must not be over 45 years and should test negative to life threatening and genetic diseases including, HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis B and C and thalassemia.

Mahua Dutta is a new entrant to surrogacy. The 33-three year-old from Delhi is helping a Frenchman by lending her womb to carry his child. Her baby bump has started showing. She is little over than two months pregnant and has come for a regular check up at Delhi IVF & Fertility Research Centre in a posh area of Indian capital New Delhi.
In this case, the parent-to-be is a single Frenchman. His sperm and a donated egg have been used to in the embryo which was planted in Dutta’s womb through IVF.
Dutta will receive minimum Rs 3.5 lakh for becoming a surrogate mother. But Dutta says she has not gone for surrogacy for an outright financial reason. For her, who has a nine-year-old son, surrogacy satisfies her emotional needs.

Her husband, who works in an IT company and at present is on a US trip, had straightaway said no to second child due to increasingly expensive lifestyle in Indian metro cities. “But the itch for becoming a mother was growing strong in me, especially when I came to know I had a bleak chance of conceiving after I went for a fibroid surgery in my uterus. By becoming a surrogate mother has reassured me that I’m not barren,” says Dutta.

Moreover, she feels second time pregnancy would make her feel important and get full attention and care of her husband as she got when she was expecting her first child. “Also, I’m bringing happiness to someone’s life,” quips she.

For Dutta opting for surrogacy maybe to quench her quirky maternal instincts, but for Preeti Singh (name changed on request) from a northern town of Allahabad it is a solution to lessen her poverty.

She delivered a child for a British couple in September last year. Six months after she had come to the IVF research centre again to donate her eggs that would fetch her Rs 25,000. She is thinking of going for surrogacy once again to ease her economic pressures and secure her children’s future.

Thirty-year-old petit Singh has two children. Her husband is a driver and earns Rs2,500 a month. “It was difficult to eke out two meals a day for the family,” quips Singh.

After delivering the baby when she was first handed in the cheque, it changed her life. It took care of all her pressing needs.
“Our worry to get the next meal for our children was solved immediately. Later, we built two small rooms, bought a bike and saved some money with a bank,” says Singh with a smile.

For her, earning Rs3.5 in nine months was a huge cache of money she could barely think of earning in her lifetime.
But for someone coming from the US or UK it’s a fraction of what they would have to pay in their own country.

“The cost of surrogacy in the US is about $80,000 whereas in India it’s only $18,000. The cost of IVF is $15,000 in the US and in India it’s $25,000,” said Dr Anoop Gupta, medical director Delhi IVF Research Centre.

It’s this relative cheap cost of medical treatment is what making India a hot spot for foreigners looking for fertility treatment or children through surrogacy.

Chui Sai Kit, 41, and his wife Zhang Zhenliang, 40, have come all the way from Hong Kong to this New Delhi clinic to have a baby through surrogacy.

Zhenliang has a history of abortions which she underwent while at the peak of her career. It was followed by multiple miscarriages. She can no longer conceive a baby. For them surrogacy is the only option left and coming to India is a “natural choice” for both of them.

“I looked up on the net and calculated the cost of surrogacy. India was comparatively cheaper than other countries and it’s nearby, just across the border,” says Kit.

The couple has already held a round of meetings with the surrogate mother. They will be at the clinic for three to four weeks until the healthy egg and sperms are extracted from them, fertilized and the embryo is transferred to the surrogate mother’s womb through IVF.

The couple is just one case. The clinic, which is always over packed with patients looking for fertility treatment, gets 20 clients on an average every month who want babies through surrogacy.

Dr Anoop has seen the trend increasing manifold in the last few years. The IVF clinic facilitated the first surrogate child in 1997. “In the beginning we did 2-3 cases a year. Now we are doing over 50 surrogacy cases a year,” says Dr Gupta

So far, the clinic has helped parents to have 4000 babies through IVF and over 400 babies through surrogacy.
About 90 percent of their clients are foreigners, including Hollywood personalities. Even though in India commercial surrogacy is legal they do surrogacy on case by case basis.

“We make our decision after talking to the expectant parents and observing their behaviour whether they would be able to take care of their babies or not. And if we feel that they won’t, we refuse them. Recently we refused a gay couple as we thought both partners didn’t fit the criteria of caring parents. Though, we do do surrogacy for gays, lesbians, single men and women apart from straight couples,” said Dr Gupta.

Apart from Delhi, Mumbai in Maharashtra and Anand in Gujarat are fast emerging as hubs for surrogate mother agencies and IVF clinics in India. The reasons for India emerging as a faourite destination for surrogacy are many.

The country boasts of best IVF services in the world and its English speaking nation makes it easy for foreigners to avail of the medical services. Moreover, it costs almost one fifth of what it would cost them in their own countries. This is giving a boost to medical tourism in India wherein foreigners can come here see around the places and can benefit from low-cost and world-class medical.

According to Indian Council of Medical Research commercial surrogacy will grow into $US 6 billion per-year-industry from its present $445 million-a-year business
The latest add-on to medical tourism, surrogacy seems to benefit all the parties involved in it—the childless gets parenthood, the surrogate gets financial benefits and the medical industry booms.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The chaiwallah writer

Brewing steaming hot cup of tea by roadside is what he does for earning his livelihood. But writing books is his passion he lives for. This writer-cum-tea-seller, 55-year old Laxman Rao, is a unique story in himself.

A graduate from Delhi University, he rides to his shop everyday on a bicycle carrying his professional and literary world together. A bag hanging would carry the copies of books authored by him and another bag would contain a saucepan, tealeaves, sugar, milk and plastic cups. Yet another bag hanging on the cycle handle would have his lunchbox.

Everyday, 1 pm is when he reaches Digambar road, near ITO in the heart of Delhi where some of India’s major English newspaper houses are located, and sets up his shop by the road under the canopy of an old banyan tree.

Untill a few days ago he would set up his makeshift stall just under the tree but now he has been shoved out to the margins of the road in the midst of piled up debris as a new sewer line is being laid.

The stall comprises a stove, a stone slate to sit on and a plastic sheet to spread his book titles on. For his customers, he would quickly make a sitting bench by placing a wooden plank on two bricks each on either ends.

Rao is a multi-tasking man. While preparing milky tea, he engages his customers by his jovial talks and tells them about his books on display and the ones in the offing.

He says he has written 21 books so far. But on display there are a few copies of eight titles which he himself published as no publisher agreed to take his work.

His first title ‘Nayi Duniya Ki Nayi Kahani’, written in 1979, narrates his early days struggle as a labourer or working as a waiter in a tea stall. It took him two years to write this book. It was followed by a play “Pradhanmantri” (Prime minister) in 1984. The book was an outcome of his meeting with the then prime minister late Indira Gandhi.

“It’s one of the most memorable days of my life. I wanted to write a book on Indira Gandhi but she said many books had been written on her and he should rather write on administration. So “‘Pradhanmantri’ came into being highlighting the corrupt administration surrounding a prime minister,” quips Rao.

Soon other books, including ‘Ramdas’, ‘Narmada’ ‘Renu’ and ‘Abhvyakti’, came out.

All his books are based on real life stories — what he sees around him. It was one such incident that shook the writer in him in his childhood. A young boy, Ramdas, was drowned while taking a bath. The shock was overpowering and could be dealt with only when he expressed himself through pen and paper.

“My moving story on Ramdas was liked by everyone,” says he.

It was his first brush with literary writing but reading literary works was not new to him. He was quite fond of reading while he was in school and had read already many books in Hindi literature though he had Marathi language background.

Born on July 22, 1954 in a family of farmers at a village in Amravati district of Maharashtra state, he had to leave study after 10th standard in 1973 and work in a local spinning mill and after its closure switched to farming to help his father.

But this did not last long. “This was not what I was inclined and perhaps destined to do. There was something more compelling to be done,” reminisces Rao.

So with just Rs40 in his pocket he ran away from home at the age of 21 to explore the outer world. He boarded a train but with that money could barely reach till Bhopal in central India. There he worked as a labourer without ceasing his “sharp observation of his surroundings and its people. It was his observation here of a poor girl adopted by a rich family upon the death of her parents became the subject matter of his book ‘Narmada’, which has gone for a reprint of 500 copies. In three months he had saved enough to continue his journey, now this time to Delhi.

Upon reaching the capital he survived by cleaning dishes in restaurants. “After saving a decent amount I started selling cigarettes and beetle nut leaves before I opened a tea stall in 1985,” recalls Rao.

During this period he passed his 12 class exams from Open School and graduated from the School of Correspondence from Delhi University. It’s been 25 years since he has been selling tea by the roadside during the day, writing books by night and promoting and distributing them to schools in the morning.

Money earned through the sale of books Rs300 each but given in 50 per cent discount goes into paying the cost of reprinting old books and publishing new ones through his own publishing house Bharatiya Sahitya Kala Prakashan.

The sale of his books was not very encouraging earlier. But now everyday he is able to sell at least four copies of his books in school libraries and a book a day at his roadside book ‘caffe’.

Now he has enough money to publish two more books “Ahankar” and “Gandhi”. He may not be making big money like other successful writers, but he is getting enough recognition.

A fact he is quite happy about. “All these years I was just struggling to keep my passion alive to establish myself as a writer. I think I have reached the milestone and can call myself a writer and just not a chaiwallah (tea seller),” says Rao.

After a day full of running around and work, he peddles home to be with his wife and two doting sons—the elder one is doing Chartered Accountancy and the younger son is pursuing Bcom.

With a happy family by his side, he has no qualms with life. But he does occasionally dream of having a little better and smooth life if not those of successful writers’ without having to think where his next meal would come from if he doesn’t sell tea.

Untill he strikes gold, he is determined to nurse his hobby by writing, publishing, promoting and distributing—all by himself and on his cycle.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Singing voices of the gramophone era

Gramophone did it what kings and patrons could not do to promote melodious ‘baiji’ or ‘gaanewali’, also known as ‘tawaifs’ and give them the due credit of respectable and professional women singers.
That was the era of early 20th century.
Listening to public women singers in their places known as ‘jalsaghar’ or ‘kotha’ was considered ‘debauchery’ a practice of ‘morally low and corrupt’ male offspring of riches and aristocracy or, at best, it was a privilege of nawabs (ruler) or royals to have them as courtesan singers.
But the advent of the gramophone and its launch in India in the late 19th century was set to change the way ‘tawaif’s music was perceived and heard. It liberated their music from the four walls of ‘kothas’ or ‘jalsaghar’ and brought it into the drawing rooms of the middle class.
“Gramophone democratised baijis’ music. Anyone could listen to them anywhere. Anyone who had little money could buy it like a typewriter or a sewing machine. Gramophone gave the singers an opportunity to reach tens and thousands of people at once. They became an inseparable part of the middle class. Thus, earning them the respectability if the middle class,” said photographer Parthiv Shah.
Shah, along with his classical musician wife Vidya, has put an exhibition “Women on Record” at Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts in New Delhi. The exhibition, a result of one-and-half-year’s hard work, gives a glimpse of the lives of these professional singers and their quick transition into ‘gramophone celebrities’ over a century ago.
With gramophones housewives too could listen and sing along with “disembodied voices” who otherwise could never dare “to attend their soiress to their salons,” read a panel at the exhibition. Visiting a ‘kotha’ was a taboo for a respectable person.
Gramophone widened the reach of singers by manifold and became instrumental in generating middle class’s appreciation for them.

The exhibition, which is on till April 13, takes one back to late 19th century when gramophone recording companies saw a big market in India. Heading to ‘gaanewalis’ was a natural choice.
“The engineers of these companies would come to India for talent hunt, to get these singers to record and scale their lengthy ragas to one to three minutes,” said Shah, adding, “these immensely talented women were famous in certain quarters for their singing repertoire but certainly they were not widely known women. But gramophone did them this favour.”
The exhibition showcases the singers who stood out amongst hundreds of women artistes who recorded at the turn of the century.

In 1901 Gramophone and Typewriter Ltd set up its first branch outside the UK in Kolkata then known as Calcutta and a year later Gauhar Jan became the first lady singer to cut her album and become the superstar of the new century.

“She successfully adapted to the difficult task of recording for gramophone discs. Through her gramophone records, Gauhar became a legendary figure all over India. She had earned fame and fortune far beyond the reach of any other artiste of her day,” reads a panel at the exhibition.

The popularity of gramophone records can be gauzed by the fact that “over 500 artistes were recorded in different regional languages all over India. These artistes, mostly baijis, underwent received rigorous training from the great ustads (teachers) of those days.”

Artistes would record their name at the end of their songs to establish their authorship which would also help engineers to have the information about the artist and the song for publishing.
Like, Acchan Bai ended her recording with ‘Acchan Bai ka gaana, gramophone record.'
Recalling her experience with the recording industry, the Kirana exponent Gangubai has been quoted at the expo: “For my first recording when His Master’s Voice (HMV) invited me to Bombay I went because they were taking care of my journey and sight seeing. Later, they gave me Rs400 for my third recording but my family was annoyed as my name read Gandhari Hubai on the record.”

Recording in those would take place once a year when an engineer of a recording company would travel to India for two three months.

Jaddan Bai, a popular singer, music composer, actress and film maker of Bollywood and the mother of a well known actress, Nargis, was first to acknowledge and reap the benefits of the new technology.

Jaddan launched her own company, Sangeet Movietone, and in her very first film, Madam Fashion, she gave a role to her daughter Nargis, whom she had kept away from music and dance. A photograph of the mother-daughter duo makes a lovely sight at the exhibition.

“Jaddan always had great compassion for professional tawaifs and she expressed this through some of the films she produced under her own banner, including the autobiographical, “Jeevan Sapna”, “Darogaji” and “Talash-i-hak”,” reads another panel.

The exhibition is a treasure trove of many interesting stories regarding the women singers who stood out among the rest in the gramophone era. Like Janaki Bai, blessed with a terrific voice range, was once showered with 14,000 coins during her performance but her talent also earned her 56 knife scars from a jealous ruffian which got her the title of “chappan churi”.

These divas with their magical voices stole many hearts, turned many crazy.
Begum Akhtar, almost synonymous with ghazal singing, had to deal with her crazy fans. A story goes that when her song “diwana banana hai to deewanan bana de” (which can be loosely translated like “Turn me crazy if you want to) became hugely popular in 1933, a fan who after hearing the song wrote words “Hai Akhtari” (oh Akhtari) over and over again in front of her home for the distance of a furlong.
With fame and name came unprecedented money and these divas would strut their stuff.
Fred Gaisberg, the first representative of the Gramophone company who came to Calcutta in 1902, wrote an interesting account of Gauhar Jan.
“She was an Armenian Jewess who could sing in 20 languages and dialects. Her fee was Rs 300 per evening and she used to make a brave show when she drove at sundown on a ‘maidan’ (field) in a carriage, hers were among the 600 records which proved a firm foundation for our new enterprise… every time she came to record she amazed us by appearing in a new gown… each one more elaborate than the last. She never wore the same jewels twice. Strikingly effective were her delicate black gauze draperies embroidered with real gold lace, arranged so as to present a tempting view of bare leg and a naked navel. She was always bien soignée,” wrote Gaisberg.
Similarly, Bai Sundera Bai of Pune was fond of luxury. She, who had cut about 100 rpm gramophone records and awarded gold medal by HMV for highest sale of records, took two cars and hired top floor of empire hotel in Bombay. She later owned a record company, Nabharat.
Name, fame and money gradually paved the way for wide recognition and acceptance. And eventually Kesar Bai Kerkar (1892-1977), the singing star of her time, got top honour when her voice was sent to space by NASA in 197 7. She recorded 13 titles with HMV and four with Broadcast.
From ‘kotha’ to Nasa that was quite an upward journey. It must have given them more confidence and a sense of equality. Gauhar Jan singing Rabindran Nath Tagore’s songs, with his permission, and adapting to her tunes was a quite prestigious as it was considered a privilege which was not allowed to others till the recent ending of the copyright on Tagore’s composition.
These rising stars, singing a more ‘respectable tune’ for themselves, were the first women in the groove. Gramophone was the single instrument that catapulted them to name, fame and eventually social acceptance and respect.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Keying their way to self empowerment

STORY: Going to office and working on computers was once a distant dream for them. Now it’s a reality for hundreds of women in Tikli and Aklimpur villages in Haryana, the neighbouring state of Indian capital of Delhi.

Life until six months ago was one shared by millions of Indian rural women-- doing household chores, tending to cattle, milking cows, raising children and going to fields.
Their way of life is still the same but has got a new dimension to it. They have started working in a BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) right in the heart of their village. The women-only rural BPO in India was started by 'Harva' which stands for harnessing value of rural India.
From cutting fodder for their cattle, clearing cow dung and cooking food to typing on computers, they are doing it with élan.

“I never thought I would be able to work on a computer. It was a big thing for me. But now working on a keyboard feels like a cakewalk. We come here for eight hours and do our job. I’m so proud of myself,” says 18-year-old-Puja.

Bimla, 35, can now type 35-40 words in a minute. She can mine relevant pieces of information from a pool of data and can do data entry job. All this she learnt during three-four months training course.

However, getting these women to shun their veils and come to training centre was no mean task. It took a lot of persuasion and persistence to get them out of the confines of their houses, breaking rigid cultural and social traditions in a male dominated society.
Ajay Chaturvedi, a business management graduate from University of Pennsylvania, an engineer from BITS Pilani and a banker visualised and started the company of which the rural BPO is an important component. He said it was his conviction in what he was doing made villagers believe him and his conviction gave a ray of hope to these women..
“When we heard of Ajay’s proposal we were elated that we would be trained and get jobs,” said Puja.
So, it all began six months ago and 500 women were initially selected to be trained on computer basics.

“Irrespective of their formal educational, they were selected on their ability to read and write and some basic understanding of English language, apart from their willingness to learn, which played the determining factor,” said Chaturvedi.
They were trained for three-four months for free of cost. During the course they learnt about office culture, basic English, communication skills, apart from MS Office.
The beginning was not easy, recalled 29-year-old Archana. “We were shy, a bit hesitant and all of a sudden had to cope with machines and technology. But gradually with training and motivation we picked up fast” she said.

Their determination not only got them through the training but also rewarded them with short-term employment.

Out of 500 women, 200 actually completed the course and 50 got deployed on various projects. Twenty women are still working on some projects which involve data mining, 30 more women are likely to get work as new projects are coming in.

While opening of the BPO has created jobs for these rural women, this is no way an NGO (non-government-organisation) which just aims at social welfare and no accountability, said Chaturvedi. He believes that the only way to capture the rural India market is by “socio-capitalistic business models”.
“This is a business venture with a conscience and social responsibility. I am a capitalist who would see whether a business model is viable and profitable or not. After ensuring this, social cause can be served. If I create value, create business and opportunities, it will benefit everyone including the villagers," said he.
He is frank to admit that he did not employ women out of charity. "Women are overall superior beings, far more hardworking and serious. They can do a job in half of the time men can. They are multi-tasking and efficient and can work at a stretch without taking breaks, whereas men would take many small breaks during work hours," added Chaturvedi.
He gave an example of a 25-year-old woman with just class VIII education who crammed an entire computer keyboard in just three hours, “a thing which is not so easy even for people like him,” he admits.

He believed in women’s strength and enabled them to put their skills to use by opening a window of opportunity for them in form of a BPO centre.

This entrepreneur left his lucrative job with a bank to tap rural talent and opportunities.
He has already dabbled his hands in community farming for non-rain-dependent cash crop in Uttarakhand. He now wants to expand it to 10 thousand acres across the country benefiting 10,000 farmers in the next 4-5 years.Providing credit to rural people through micro-financing and waste management are his next upcoming dream projects.
Providing credit to rural people through micro-financing and waste management are his next upcoming dream projects.
But for now, he wants to take this BPO model to other villages after seeing its success in Tikli, Aklimpur and surrounding villages.
Working at the BPO centre has given a lift to women’s image and bought them a ticket to economic freedom, even though in a small way.

Bimla was over the moon when she received her first salary of little over Rs2000. “Whatever little amount I got, it was mine. It was a result of my hardwork and I realised its worth. I feel

“City people always think rural women are illiterate and uncultured. But now we have proven them wrong. We are educated and all we need is just an opportunity,” says Reena, the most vocal among the rest, adding, “Since the villagers know we are getting salaries every month, they too want to send their girls and daughters-in law over here.”

The last six months spent at the BPO have made them better with time management and multi-tasking.

“Earlier we used to spend the entire day in doing household chores. But after joining the BPO, we finish all our work by 10am, come to office, work here and go back for the evening chores,” said Bimla.

Apart from being a source of their financial independence, the centre has become a platform for these women to make friends. Now they have their own space amidst 20 computers in this two-room centre nestled in sprawling fields

“We have bonded really well. During our breaks we share our happiness and sorrows, married life, problems and issues at home or outside. It gives us a lot of emotional support,” said 25-year-old Manju with a smile.

All they want now is some sustainable long–term projects which would guarantee them regular work and income. But for the time being they are enjoying their new avatar, and ‘keying’ their success story.