Future shock

State of the World’s Children 2005 — Childhood Under Threat by UNICEF; Price: Rs.583; 151 pp

It’s a commonplace truism — indeed a cliché — that children are the future of a nation or society. Yet judging by the shoddy treatment and inadequate provision made for children, it’s painfully obvious that garrulous leaders of third world nations who yammer on about the north-south divide and injustices heaped upon developing countries by the richer industrial nations, either can’t visualise the future or more plausibly, are so preoccupied with political survival that they don’t realise that shocking and continuous injustice is being done to the most vulnerable and hapless members of their societies — children.

This is the disturbing conclusion one must derive after reading the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) report The State of the World’s Children 2005 — Childhood Under Threat released recently in India. Of the 2.2 billion children (under 18 years of age), 1.9 billion live in the developing countries where 1 billion live in poverty. And the utility of this commendable compendium of transnational research and scholarship is that it spells out the implications of the broad and over-used word ‘poverty’. "Children living in poverty experience deprivation of the material, spiritual and emotional resources needed to survive, develop and thrive, leaving them unable to enjoy their rights, achieve their full potential or participate as full and equal members of society". This is the "working definition" or premise adopted by the authors of this valuable work of scholarship.

And to measure the extent of poverty or deprivation suffered by children in the leaderless nations of the third world, Unicef commissioned teams from Bristol University and London School of Economics to research and compile data which should have, but has scarcely, troubled the hard consciences of establishments of developing nations, judging by the political and media indifference to this shocking report. According to the study conducted by the varsity teams, 33.9 percent or 640 million children in developing countries are severely deprived of shelter (more than five people per room or mud floor); 30.7 percent or 580 million are deprived of toilets of any kind; 21.1 percent or 399 million have to drink/ use unprotected surface water; 16.1 percent or 304 million have no access to the radio, telephone, newspapers or television; 16.1 percent (304 million) suffer "nutritional status far below the norm"; 14.2 percent or 269 million are not immunised or suffer from untreated diarrhoea and 13.1 percent or 247 million have never been to school.

Inevitably a major ‘contributor’ to these depressing statistics reflecting shocking neglect and abuse of children is the sovereign, secular, socialist and generally holier-than-thou Republic of India whose thick-skinned leaders tend to wax eloquent on the issue of human rights in international forums. No prizes for guessing that on all the criteria for measuring severe deprivation, post-independence India’s record is worse than the third world average.

Though the tables appended to the report do not provide data relating to shelter deprivation in the 192 countries researched by the Bristol University and LSE teams, it’s well known that in urban India almost half the population resides in slums and in rural India more than five people to a room and mud floors are the rule rather than exception. Therefore it’s safe to conclude that the percentage of Indian children severely deprived of shelter exceeds the third world average of 33.9 percent. Likewise against the third world average of 30.7 percent deprived of toilets and sanitation, the corresponding statistic for contemp-orary India is an appalling 70 percent.

In the matter of provision of safe drinking water, SWC 2005 indicates that India’s performance is better than the third world average. ‘Only’ 14 percent of the population (cf. 21.1 percent) has to make do without safe drinking water. But that adds up to 140 million people or 28 million households. Vis-a-vis access to radio, telephone, television and newspapers, given that almost 40 percent of the adult population is illiterate and only 53 percent of children who enroll in primary school make it into secondary education, it must be assumed that the percentage of informationally deprived children in India is greater than the third world average of 16.1. Ditto for nutrition: 30 percent of newborn Indian children are of low birth weight and a staggering 46 percent of them suffer moderate to severe stunting (cf. third world average of 16.1 percent). In terms of healthcare 40 million children under 5 are not immunised and only 22 percent suffering chronic diarrhoea receive oral rehydration treatment. Hardly surprising given that the annual public expenditure on health is less than 1 percent of GDP.

The consequence of this coalition of factors is that one-fifth of India’s 414 million children, i.e almost 100 million, have never been to school at all given that the ‘net primary school attendence ratio’ is 80 for boys and 73 for girls (cf. China 90 and 90). If these figures are accurate, it represents wastage of human resources on a scale unprecedented in human history.

Valuable and revealing as is the research input and analysis invested in SWC 2005, its most important contribution is that it highlights that severe deprivation of any one of these fundamental rights of children has a chain reaction effect upon the others. Thus deprivation of shelter affects children’s health, capacity to study. Likewise low birth weight and stunting, denial of safe drinking water and sanitation adversely affect health and study capability.

Consequently it is futile to address any of these severe child right deprivations in isolation and necessary to accept that the root cause is endemic poverty which is a defining feature of third world countries. "Poverty in childhood is the root cause of poverty in adulthood. Impoverished children often grow up to be impoverished parents who in turn bring up their own children in poverty. In order to break the generational cycle, poverty eradication must begin with children," say the authors of SWC 2005.

Deeply embedded in this observation is commonsense advice which post-independence India’s establishment — and society in general — has continuously ignored. At an incalculable cost to the nation’s children and its future.

Dilip Thakore

Thrilling mobike travelogue

Two Wheels Through Terror by Glen Heggstad; Whitehorse Press; Price: Rs.1,098; 275 pp

 Less than a decade ago one could see only rickety scooters and antiquated pre-World War II styled motorcycles such as Rajdoot, Vespa, Bajaj, Lambretta etc on Indian roads. But in the post-liberalisation era fast, fancy and custom-designed bikes from the stables of Yamaha, Suzuki, Honda jostle for space on jam-packed roads. According to the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM), annual motorcycle sales in India have risen from 430,000 in 1991 to 6 million in 2004. Fortunately never were so many automotive two-wheeler options available to Indian citizens, perennially short-changed by their pathetic public transport systems.

Not surprisingly the availability of vrooming nexgen motorcycles has incubated the phenomenon of biking holidays. In contemporary India it’s not uncommon for bike enthusiasts to strap up their saddlebags and hit the highways to exotic, off-the-beaten-track destinations ranging from the freezing heights of the Himalayas to the golden beaches of the Indian Ocean. Cashing in on this new fashion are smart two-wheeler marketers who have promoted motorcycle clubs in major cities across the country. These clubs with evocative names such as Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Club, Bangalore; Inde Thumpers, Pune; 60Kph, Mumbai; Indian Bikers, Kolkata, among others, are thronged by leather-clad, greasy-handed motorcycle buffs.

But the new-age Indian biker is hardly aware of the hazards of cross-country running on a two-wheel machine. He has to negotiate unruly truck drivers, bandits, vehicle snatchers, naxalites and terrorists among other perils on the nation’s unpoliced highways. In terms of books and journals there are no recallable works by Indian authors on the subject and most automobile magazines devote their columns to techno mumbo jumbo. Against this backdrop Two Wheels Through Terror by US-based adventure motorcyclist and traveller Glen Heggstad, is a boon even to sub-continental bike enthusiasts. The book is a first-hand account of an ambitious motorcycle journey through South America that gets horribly, and violently, detoured. It’s as much a travel diary of a motorcycle odyssey as a story about bravery in the face of terror and perseverance in adversity.

Heggstad aka ‘Striking Viking’ has driven custom-built Suzukis across the most rugged terrains worldwide and is a former member of Hell’s Angels — the largest motorcycle riders group in the US — apart form being a martial arts expert. His biking adventures have been featured on NPR and CBS’s 48 Hours. Currently in Asia on yet another round-the-world motorcycle tour, Heggstad has his permanent residence in Palm Springs, California, where he owns and operates a martial arts school.

Divided into four sections featuring maps and top-quality pictures of South American landscapes, the book begins with the profile of a confident man preparing to zoom away from the safe confines of his home to realise a dream and ends with a dazzling display of determination and courage. "Warriors claim that battles are won in the preparation. This is a personal battle for which I am preparing — a battle to survive the adventure through Mexico, Central America and the West Coast of South America to the tip, across the Straights of Magellan to the island of Tierra del Fuego, and back up the East Coast — on a 650 cc dual-sport motorcycle. A 25,000 mile ride through blazing deserts, freezing mountain passes, sub-Antarctic wilderness, and steaming tropical rainforests," writes Heggstad in his introduction.

Two Wheels Through Terror is perhaps the most thrilling and absorbing motorcycle adventure travelogue ever written. Both diary of a motorcycle pilgrim and survival guide, this book should be standard reading for any daredevil motorcyclist who plans to hit country roads, and especially for bikers planning cross-country travel in India, infested with militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, the naxalite-insurrectionary states of central India or the lawless BIMARU (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) jurisdictions. While biking through the rebels-dominated northern district of Columbia, Heggstad was kidnapped and held for ransom for five weeks by the rebel army Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN).

A compilation of events recorded by Heggstad during his journey, his capture, escape and eventual realisation of a dream, Two Wheels Through Terror is a gripping story of a bike adventurer robbed of all and frog-marched through fly-infested tropical jungles with assault rifles pointed into his back. But given his preparation in terms of proficiency in martial arts, unarmed hand-to-hand combat and shrewd thinking, he overcomes.

Once free, Heggstad does not return home. Not a bit bogged down by the violent torture he had to suffer, Heggstad arranges for another motorcycle to be despatched to him in Columbia to continue on the high road to adventure through Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. The rest is smooth riding, by his standards of adventure from which automotive two- wheeler enthusiasts worldwide can derive great inspiration and knowledge.

Srinidhi Raghavendra