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Archive for the ‘Industries’ Category

I’ve now experienced what I had only heard about from friends: extortion by transvestites. Armed with two first hand experiences (one in Delhi and one in Bombay), I can confirm that these were two of the less expected encounters I’ve had here. While I’ve already had to pay a number of bribes to the entrepreneurial police officer or government employee, I wasn’t expecting to encounter this extortion racket during a nice brunch in Bombay.

Let me first open with a caveat. The plight of sexual minorities in India is terrible. Discrimination is aggressive and overt. Transvestites (or Hirja / Aravani) are not respected in Indian society, by and large, and are generally viewed as harbingers of bad omens. Fortunately, some groups are working to reduce this stigma and provide health care resources.

So, while my story is light-hearted, I understand the underlying desperation that might make someone go to these lengths. A few Aravani have found ways to celebrate their identity and advocated for change. Now, my empathy for societal outcasts does not extend to the small number of people within these groups that extort others. One of my friends had an experience where two transvestites threatened to forcibly shut down the opening of her maternal health care hospital for poor urban women and cast hexes on the facility, unless they were not paid an outrageous sum of money (in the multiple lakh (a lakh being 100,000 ruppees or now, sadly, USD 2,000 at the current exchange rates)). That is outrageous, selfish, and terrible. Fortunately, my friend and her colleagues managed to defuse the situation, before it went nuclear.

Here’s my tale:

I was sitting having brunch with a few friends in Mumbai last month. Our tranquil, upper-class dining adventure was abruptly shattered. Two very masculine looking women had strode into the restaurant and were shouting at the unassuming European owner. The owner’s hostess immediately got up and started pushing these women back to the door. At this point, I broke out laughing. It finally had become obvious that these were two transvestites and this seemed hysterically out of place in prudish, “cover-up-your-goddamn-ankles” India. My friends shot me glances that suggested I should loose the sense of humor. I obliged. They quietly explained to me that new establishments in this area get shaken down by these transvestites. Apparently, Indians are very superstitious about transvestites and always give them money, if demanded, because otherwise they risk having a hex put on them. And you know what happened to the last person who had a transvestite put a hex on them – theft, deviance, and kidnapping.

Just as the Sicilians start breaking knee-caps and skulls, if people don’t respond to verbal shake downs, these transvestite extorters had their own “nucular” option. I wasn’t quite prepared for this twist in the plot.

As the hostess forcibly pushed one of the transvestites out the door (which is a no-no from the more superstitious Indian’s perspective), their life-partner-in-crime sprung out the “nucular” button and hit detonate…

BBBBOOOOOOOMMMMMMMM….OUT IT COMES. It’s flying around outside of the 2mm of fabric that had protected us from nuclear war. My friends explained that this was the extortionists back up option, if more direct argumentation fails. Though, the absurdity of seeing two people debate over paying this bribe reminded me of high school debate hypotheticals that seem unmoored from reality.

There is really no other way to make a crepe, covered in sugary sauce, look so unappetizing as when a transvestite’s business is in full view (I suspect this would apply to any one’s business flying around while I am trying to enjoy what should have been a fantastic crepe).

Sadly, the owner pushed this “business person” out of our line of vision, before I could see if he ended up paying off these entrepreneurs.

Looks like I’ve got a backup career of shaking down new establishments, if this microfinance thing gets crushed underneath the implosion of the world banking system. There’s few better ways to ensure a livelihood then preying upon people’s superstitions and unfounded fears.

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I was speaking with a colleague of mine about some of the more misguided enterprises that “social entrepreneurs” have pursued in Hyderabad. We, both within our company and within the microfinance industry, tend to view ourselves as pragmatists seeking to have the most immediate, demonstrated impact. I think there are benefits and downsides to this. For me, the right area of focus is addressing fundamental challenges that support an increasing quality of life and standard of living, thus enabling people to meet additional needs.

Other folks might choose to pursue more exotic ideas. Some demonstrate a surprising amount of creativity and create a novel path towards poverty reduction. Most are largely tangential to the immediate needs of the poor. One example of mis-adventurism was of a person who came to intern at an MFI in Hyderabad. They quickly attempted to reorient their internship towards a rather hilarious idea. They had decided that the most important area of focus, for them, was in starting a trash collection program to harvest recyclable materials to create school backpacks for students.

At face value, one would certainly want to ensure that kids have the right tools for learning. But, this misses two issues. First, backpacks are cheap and easy to purchase. By my thinking, don’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up a trash recycling effort, design a bag, and create a manufacturing process, just buy the bags outright (you could buy millions of bags with that money and get them to children more quickly). Second, many people in Hyderabad (and throughout the world) make their livelihood, however meager, on the type of high value materials that would need to be collected to make the bags, which would be given away for free, so you could not empower, nor pay the trash pickers. All over the city, you see hundreds of people trudging through the streets carrying bulging sacks of materials culled from the waste bins throughout the city. It would seem that there is hardly a gram of usable waste that is not collected.

And so, a brief presentation on the trash collection industry as witnessed at the end of my street:

When I come home in the evening, these bins are completely full. By morning (and throughout the previous day), these have been completely picked through and the rest is cleared out by the “GHMC” – Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation.

And then there are the reinforcements we call in when we need extra (fillintheblank)power:

For the past few evenings, I have strolled home to find this horse helping with our trash collection needs. I have yet to meet the owner, but I suspect he is saving quite a bit of money on horse feed.

Finally, some groups have taken a different approach when it comes to helping the people involved in this industry. And, most significantly, some trash pickers have started to organize themselves to increase their strength, power, and training. It seems to me that this is the type of model that we should be pursuing for addressing, first, the needs of the people who feel compelled to make their livelihood in this manner, due to a lack of other options. After this, we can address issues of recycling.

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