eyes on the U.S.

Say It Proud, Joe! Stutterers Of The World Will Be With Biden

Our New Delhi-based writer will be watching with pride as Kamala Harris becomes the first woman of Indian descent become vice president — but is also very much aware of the glass ceiling the incoming president is breaking.

Joe Biden campaigning in Scranton in November 2020
Joe Biden campaigning in Scranton in November 2020
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty


NEW DELHI — On January 20th, four glass ceilings will be shattered in Washington: the United States will have its first woman vice president, first vice president of color, first vice president of Indian origin… and first president with a stutter.

As an Indian woman, I will be watching with particular interest as Kamala Harris is sworn as Vice President of the United States. But it will be no less momentous for me personally to watch Joe Biden deliver his inaugural address as president.

The Mayo Clinic defines stuttering as "a speech disorder that involves frequent and significant problems with normal fluency and flow of speech. People who stutter know what they want to say, but have difficulty saying it." While research is not definitive, the cause of stuttering seems to have both neurological and genetic aspects. Scientists recently identified several gene mutations that may be associated with stuttering. Unlike most disabilities, it's invisible. Strangers don't know you're disabled until you start to talk – or try to.

Some three million Americans stutter, as do some 70 million people worldwide. Stuttering is often developmental and begins in childhood, but it can continue for a lifetime; estimates are that it affects some 10% of preschoolers and some 1% of adults. It crosses all boundaries of gender, color, race, ethnicity and IQ. It also crosses boundaries of fame and fortune to afflict literally kings and commoners.

VP-elect Kamala Harris at a drive-in rally in Georgia — Photo: Sue Dorfman/ZUMA Wire

Some stutterers choose occupations that are less demanding on their speech – like editors, artists, musicians, athletes, construction workers and computer programmers. Others grab the bull by the horns and become teachers, news readers, actors… and yes, politicians.

Joe Biden began stuttering as a child. And does so even to this day, when he's tired or talking impromptu. He's been very open about his stutter in interviews, in town halls and even in a letter to the Stuttering Foundation.

I too began stuttering as a child and it has remained with me. Over the decades, it has kept me more silent than I'd like to have been. We stutterers all know how it is to be bullied at school. We know the terror of spelling bees, and seemingly innocuous games like Trivial Pursuits and Battleship. We know the frustration of not always being able to say what we want to say. As adults, we know the absurdity of sounding unconvincing when truthfully giving verification information over the phone – and sensing the person on the other end getting more and more suspicious. We know the anxiety of foreseeing an upcoming killer word… and we know the agony of indeed getting stuck on that word. Once during a group introduction, I got royally stuck – only to hear someone laugh breezily and ask if I had forgotten my own name. I gave him a smile but would love to have given him a swift uppercut instead.

We know the frustration of not always being able to say what we want to say.

Recently, I've become more talkative – not because my stuttering has necessarily improved, but for other reasons. The first, to paraphrase Rhett Butler, "Frankly my dear, I no longer give a damn." Pushing 60, with my mortality becoming more evident, what other people may think of me if they hear me stutter doesn't seem so important anymore. Second, I've realized that no one can or will speak for me or represent my interests as well as I can. The third is a personal story. Once, during a particularly frustrating period with my speech, I vented to my sister – who in return gave me some wise words: "How you say something is not as important as what you say. And I think you have some valuable things to say." This is true for stutterers as much as anyone else.

Having a stutter shapes us. It makes us deeply appreciative of the understanding and support of our family, friends and enlightened strangers. It makes us more compassionate of others with disabilities. It teaches us humility, because we never know when the rug of language will be pulled out from under our feet. It forces us to be good listeners.

And this week in particular, it makes us view Joe Biden as more than just another president. We understand his hesitations, his search for easier words, his substitutions, his run-ups when approaching a tough but irreplaceable word, and his pauses to relax, regroup and literally catch his breath. Biden will serve as an inspiration for Brayden Harrington (the brave boy who spoke at the Democratic National Convention), for me and for the millions of others young and old who struggle daily with their speech.

So, on January 20, while part of me will be cheering for Kamala Harris, another part of me will be cheering for Joe Biden – wishing him well not only for his inauguration speech, but also for the fluency these next four years to say all the valuable things he needs to say.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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