Hotel Haifa in Varanasi

Hotel Haifa is located near Assi ghat in Varanasi. They are recommended on several on online travel forum and have really good reputation in the market hence they are usually full. I also used to recommend their hotel but did not know about their strange business policy that they do not allow tourist guides inside their hotel. Actually I an American university ‘s student group was staying at Hotel Haifa and they wanted to meet me. They invited to their hotel and we were talking in the restaurant inside the hotel. Suddenly the owner of the hotel Mr. Ravi Mishra showed up to introduce himself to the group.

After talking with them he asked me how come I was there. I told him that the group had invited me because they wanted to talk with me and he seemed upset hearing this. He told me- Listen, I want to make this clear to you that I do not allow guides and outsiders to enter in my hotel. I was shocked to hear this. He said that he doesn’t allow tourist guides to enter in the hotel and talk with the clients. He asked me not to enter in his hotel again. After talking with me he told the same thing to the group. They were all looking at me with surprised face. They told me sorry for whatever happened.

I was really shocked and felt guilty for whatever happened with me. It was the first time when somebody insulted me. We stopped our meeting and left the hotel. I talked about it with a few people who had already stayed at the Hotel Haifa and one of them told me – The restaurant staff was eager to please, but I felt slightly intimidated by the demeanor of management. They do promote their own tour guides, money changing and travel agent services so that explains what they are doing to you. As an American traveling alone, I liked having one person I could count on and had developed a rapport with leading up to the trip. They want to be the guests’ primary resource or they have touts they want to network with.

I don’t know what to say about this but it is really strange if they do not allow locals or tourist guides to meet with their clients. I think they don’t want their clients to meet with locals so that their clients always hear them and finally they can be cheated easily. I had heard about British prohibiting Dogs and Indians at several places but it all happened in early 1900 and now I see the same thing happening in the 21st century even we are already independent and have our own government. Do you really think that you want to support such hotel by staying there? I am not going to work with anyone whoever stays there.

Child sponsorship in Varanasi

I came in contact with a Hungarian guy, Attila, who is a computer engineer in Hungary and volunteers for a Hungarian NGO (www.afroaid.hu). This NGO runs a child sponsorship program in Africa. Attila wanted to volunteer in Varanasi. He wanted to come to India next year with his wife for a year and was interested in the NGOs working with children. He was mostly interested in education programs for children. I took him to different NGOs and he was interested in working with few of them. I was already interested in working on the same kind of program so I just asked Attila if we could start our own program in Varanasi.

Attila liked this idea a lot. He said that he had very good experience of working with kids in Africa and would love to use his experience to establish the same kind of program in Varanasi. We talked about how we can start this program in Varanasi and decided to do some research first. We went to a few schools nearby to get an idea of estimated cost of the education fee for one child. Attila was interested in providing one meal everyday to the children so that they don’t have to waste time preparing their meal at home. We decided to start the program with 30 kids, 10 from the city area and 20 from the village area.

We visited Mehndiganj once because Lok Samiti has an education program and Attila wanted to see it. We visited Lok Samiti’s school and training centers. We talked with the kids and a few of them had terrible stories. Lok Samiti has a evening time classes for the day time child workers. I love this program, it is my favorite amongst all of their programs. Mehndiganj has a lot of child laborers and most of them are bonded laborers. It was really interesting to see the kids work for 12 hours a day but they still come for evening classes. I think there were more than 30 kids at the evening center.

The kids at the evening center were so innocent. They just did not know anything except what they had. They asked Attila if he had any goat at his home in Hungary, what did he grow up at his farms, how did he come to India, how much money does he make. The kids make about Rs. 1000 per month so it was very hard for Attila to answer this question. We visited a few of the training centers of Lok Samiti which is for the girls above 14 years of age. They get sewing, embroidery, dance and basic education training like reading and writing. The idea behind running such program is to make the girls self dependent.

We asked Nandlal Master, the president of Lok Samiti, to choose 20 kids from his education program who are poor but interested in continuing their education and whose parents are also supportive. We did the same thing in the city also. I knew of a few families who are really poor and want to send their kids to the school but they cannot afford it. We met twelve families and chose 10 kids who seemed interested in learning. We met a 12 year old girl who used to go a English medium private school but had to stop because of the financial problems.

I think she is the most impressive girl in our program. Her name is Rashmi and she went to the school up to 6th standard. My niece who also goes to the same school where Rashmi was going, told me about her. My niece told me that her teachers still talk about how smart Rashmi was and how she had to stop her education. We met her and I found her to be a really smart girl. She was the only girl who really knew what she wanted to become and she answered all the questions Attila asked her. Other kids also knew what they wanted to become but this girl was something different. Her mother was also very concerned about Rashmi’s education.

Attila asked her what she wanted to become and she said “engineer”. Attila asked what kind of engineer and Rashmi said “computer engineer”. Attila asked why and Rashmi said she wanted to develop some computer program that could help poor people. Neither Attila nor I were expecting that kind of answer from a 12 year old girl. All the kids whom we met were super interested in going to the schools but they were having problems. A few of them had already stopped going to school only because their parents could not afford it or there were a few kids who were smart enough to go to a good school but they were going to a government school which is just like passing time.

Finally we have chosen a few schools and we will send our kids to the nearest good school to their residence starting from March 2010. A few of the kids need basic English language training so that they don’t have any problem at English medium schools. We are working on organizing two hours of evening classes for the kids whom we have chosen for the program. Now thirty families have a hope from me because I was the local guy and I am completely dependent on Attila. Attila is back to Hungary now. He has already found few supporters and hopes to find supporters for all the kids.

We have decided to not have any office expenses until we have 50 kids. Attila will be living in Varanasi with his wife for one year and he will be managing the office work for the program. We have decided to not have an office so that all the money goes for the program. I feel so happy to be involved in this program and I am looking forward to work with Attila.

Research with laborers and construction workers

Now Adam wanted to talk with some labors who work at construction sites. He wanted to talk with different kind of labors like the one who work independently, the one work for some agency, the one who work under some contractor or the one who work for the government… I had seen a construction going on in my neighborhood and I thought it would be a good idea to talk with some labors there so I took Adam there and talked with two labors. Adam asked them several questions but something that was most interesting for me was the training for labors.

Adam asked them if they knew of some place where training is provided to labors or skilled labors in Benares and the labors said that there was a government training center for labors in Chunar. Adam asked them if they went there to learn and both of the labors said no. Adam asked would they like to go there and again both of them said no. Adam asked why people don’t go these training centers and they said since they are poor they can would not like to stay at some place and make nothing. It is better for them to work and learn so that they can make some money while learning.

Both of the labors said that all the labors, almost 99.9%, start working at a construction site where they carry the bricks or just help the skilled labors and someday they also become a skilled labor. None of the labors were happy with the money they were making. They said that labors make only Rs. 120 ($2.5) and skilled labors make only Rs. 200 ($4) per day which sounds terrible to me. India is also becoming an expensive place to live and I don’t understand how these people survive. �Sometimes when they are working under some contractor, they get less paid because contractor also gets a cut.

They said that most of the labors in Benares are Biharis or they come from nearby villages. Adam asked them what if they are injured while working, who pays for their medical bills? And they said that most of the time contractors make some pressure on the land owner and if the land owner agrees to pay, then they pay otherwise contractor takes care of it but usually they have to face trouble getting anything extra from the contractor or the land owner both. Something else that was very interesting to me was when they talked about why women are not skilled labors in India.

They said that skilled labor’s work is kind of risky sometimes because when they work on the outer walls, they have to climb up on the walls and there is only bamboos to support them. I think Indian women are more involved in risky activities than Indian men because it is women who cook on the kerosene�oil stove, I often hear about LPG cylinder blast in the kitchen and mostly women look after our kitchen, marrying an unknown person also seems risky to me… Women are often forcibly married to someone chosen by their parents and later they are harassed for dowry and in a lot of cases they are killed. I think these things are more riskier than climbing up on the wall.

Adam is looking for some contractors to talk with. I know few contractors in my are and I would ask them to talk with Adam. Adam was looking for a recommendation letter from VDA so that his grant could be easily passed by his university. We went to the VDA office and talked with a officer there and he asked us to meet with the Chairman of VDA. We met him next day and talked about Adam’s research. He said that VDA doesn’t do much construction because it doesn’t have much money. But he agreed to give a recommendation letter to Adam. He asked Adam to write the kind of letter he was supposed to give to Adam. Adam wrote the letter and the chairman asked his typist to type the same.

I don’t know what had happened but his typist took like more than an hour to type only one page. Finally we got the letter which was very valuable document for Adam’s research. VDA promised Adam to provide any kind of help Adam would like to have in the future, which sounded very strange to me because we Indians never hope for any kind of help from our government. Well, whatever, we got what we needed and that was the most important thing.

Sex workers bank and sanitary pad factory

Bank for sex workers

Bank for sex workers

Indian sex workers can’t open a bank account because they do not have any residential proof and there is no one who can be a guarantor for their bank account. It is a strange rule that I do not understand that Indian banks askall of their customersfor a guarantor and this guarantor could be anyone who already has a bank account with the same bank. In case if someone doesn’t know anyone who has already a account with the same bank, they can’t open a new bank account. Indian sex workers lack both things- a guarantor and residential proof.

Sanitary napkin factory

Sanitary napkin factory

So it used to be really hard for them to open a bank account. They were never ever able to save the money. Their savings were often looted, sometimes by the brothel owner and sometimes by their clients. Durbar wanted them to start saving and to do this they asked the Indian government and a few banks to let the sex workers open their bank accounts without bringing any guarantor or any proper residential proof but neither the government nor the banks agreed with it. Finally Durbar asked government to give them a license to start a co-operative society especially for sex workers and finally after a long struggle they got the consent.

A sex worker working with the napkin

A sex worker working with the napkin

Now Durbar has started a co-operative society only for sex workers and there are twelve-thousand sex workers saving their money with this society. This society works exactly as a bank- it provides loans and everything. A lot of sex workers are not allowed by brothel owners to go outside the brothels but they also wanted to have a saving account so for them Durbar’s workers go from one brothel to the next one to collect the money. I went to their bank also and saw a lot of sex workers coming to the bank in person and doing banking. Now the sex workers can save their money with this bank which is obviously a big help for them. And it’s only about saving, they can even take loans also whenever they need.

Bunch of napkins ready to be packed

Bunch of napkins ready to be packed

In the same bank building they have a small shop for sex workers where they sell all daily use stuffs for cheaper than the market rate. This shop is only for the sex workers. They have a section for out of the community people (not sex workers) also where they sell small stuffs like toys and clothes made by either sex workers, their children or someone from their family. We also did shopped there. I really loved this idea of a bank and shop for sex workers. Durbar has done awesome work. In the same way they have started a factory where they make sanitary pads and they have only and only sex workers as employees. This was also an amazing work.

The final product

The final product

They were very well organized. Durbar had hired an MBA professional to help them launch their product in the market. I went there with Seranna andthe camera crew and did some shooting also. This factory was just at the entrance of Sonagachi, the red light area. There were about ten women working there. They said that after a certain age they can’t make much money so they definitely needed a stable source of income and getting a job like this will help them a lot. Most of the workers there, maybe all of them, seemed like over 55 in age and I am sure they these aged people have hard time getting work in the sex industry. I really liked this project a lot.