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Friday, 5 March 2010

Child Labour

Shaylar hill is a sloped paraglider take off site half way up a sharp black granite cliff. To get there you turn off the road at Kamshet, a small market village on the old road between Pune and Mumbai, and bounce along the rock road for 30 minutes. It gets its name from Mr Shaylar, a toothless granddaddy who dispenses shot glasses of sweet milky tea for 5 rupees, and dirty laughs for free to the elated pilots in the landing area.

The site starts “working” in the afternoon as the westerly wind starts hitting the ridge and is diverted vertically upwards. It’s usually too strong until about 15h30, until the first pilots feel confident enough to wrestle their wings over their heads getting lifted vertically off the take off area. From there it’s best to head to the right and do a few beats over the U-shaped dry waterfall which directs the wind upwards even if the direction varies a few degrees. Then with enough height you take the plunge to head all the way left, back over the take off site, now with 50m altitude above it, to the far end where the ridge forms a ‘V’. It’s like an elevator taking you up 50m. A flat weight shift turn and you won’t lose altitude before a beat close to the granite cliff face and you are up another 100m along it, and soon above it with the view over the agricultural plateau stretching out for 20 or 30 miles below you. Once you’re up there you can potter about in the sky for 2 or 3 hours, or practice wingovers or spiral dives down 200m, before working your way back up again.

At most sites the car drops you at the top and picks you up from the bottom, but at Shaylar the dirt track is 2km away from take off, and in the 30degree heat, the walk from where the cars park can’t fail to soak you in sweat. Fortunately a gang of village kids besiege the cars as they arrive. “Carry? Carry?” they ask pointing at their chests with cutely furrowed foreheads. A simple “No Thanks” is all it takes if you don’t want their services, but herein lays the Shaylar dilemma:

Do I engage this child labour for 50 ruppes (£0.60) to carry my 15kg wing and harness 2km across fields and then up the steep 10minute hike to the launch site, along with the clear message that they are wasting their time doing anything else, like say school, and are much better off hanging out here for half the year? Or do I succumb to my middle class guilt associated with paying poor people to do things I don’t like doing, and sweat it out myself depriving them of this meagre income?

I can’t help feeling that the village school is probably a waste of time for most of these kids anyway. T-J the head instructor with Temple Pilots flying club is originally from the village and he certainly doesn’t have anything positive to say about his school days. Luckily he got into flying and now is a formidable pilot and instructor, and has a respectable career teaching, while his counter parts are tending the sugar-cane fields.

I carry my own wing, mainly because I need the exercise, but secondly it makes me feel like I’ve earned the flight. The one time I let one of the kids carry my wing, the wind died just as I took off, and I missed any lift, so there’s a bit of superstition mixed in to my decision too. And then there is the ethical minefield over how much I should pay. The going rate is 40 or 50Rs from the car park to the launch site, but at first they’ll ask you for more, so should I haggle with these 14 year olds barely bigger or heavier than my pack, and maintain the price integrity, or should I just give them what they ask and introduce inflationary pressures to the incentive dynamic, and probably kill off the prospect of any future farming as well as any education. In the end I don’t give the kids any cash despite the fact I do think they are probably wasting their time at school.

Sure they need to learn to read, write and add up, but the best hope for the kids around Shaylar hill, is that paragliding develops more thoroughly; perhaps someone will set up a little bar serving cold cokes at the landing site, perhaps even a little hostel. A permanently tended landing site clear of shrubs and rivulets, with a fee for private pilots and schools wouldn’t be unreasonable. Nor would a smoothed gravel track to the site paid for with a parking fee. And how about a training academy via the local flying schools to help a handful of the kids become tandem pilots and instructors each year. It’s such an amazing site, pilots are getting a bargain flying there at the moment, and no one could complain if the village earned more than the random payments the flying schools make to the farmers every now and again. Happily, I think there’s a good chance that some of this will happen.

Everywhere I’ve flown, I’ve learnt a new way of packing my glider, Woldingham, Annecy, Olu-Deniz, Tehran, Yazd. In each place pilots are adamant that the origami they follow to fold the wing away is the only correct way to do it, and any other method is foolish heresy. In India there is a different technique again. You hand over 20Rs to one of the kids that come running as you land, calling “Packing? Packing?”. Again I’m paralysed by the guilt of exploiting of the economically vulnerable, whereas the Indian paragliders have no qualms about paying the youngsters to pack and carry their gliders back to the carpark. The transaction isn’t exploitation but part of greasing the big Indian wheel, redistributing wealth, filling in the rich-poor divide.

I like to pack my own glider. It gives me a warm glow, and a chance to check it over, but also it’s a good physical routine to go through while I come down from the mental high of flying. Another Zen-for-an-excuse reason not to support the local economy Andy? Yeah, these kids should be in business school, learning how to market T-shirts printed with “I flew Shaylar”. Some have already graduated, selling me and other dehydrated pilots premium priced bottles of water and battered fried vegetables, which perfectly compliment the sugary pick-me-up tea Mr Shaylar serves in his botulism glassware with a smile.

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