Friday, December 14, 2007

A Fulfilled Life ?

Reading about Mark and Cathy Delaney made me think about Swades playing in reverse. In the movie, Shahrukh Khan, a rich Indian working for NASA returns to India, initially on a holiday but then stays on to pay what he considers his social debts. Mark and Cathy are a real life middle class couple hailing from Australia who live in a Delhi slum in a bid to understand the problems the urban poor face by actually enduring such problems physically. They then try to see how the problems- be they inclusion of names in the electoral rolls or non availability of rations in the public distribution system. The couple have two children who seem to have taken to this well too.

While a lot of NGOs work among the urban poor and do so by adopting a “9 to 5” system, coming to office in the morning, going and spending time in a slum and then returning back to the comfort zones of their homes before dark, this family has chosen to actually live in shanties where typically middle class families would avoid staying even out of compulsion. It is truly an interesting scenario because although this is exactly the kind of identification with the people that voluntary agencies were known for but have given up.

Of course while lauding the life style the family has adopted, a couple of things do need to be pointed out. Firstly, any time things get really difficult, the family has the option to opt out of the slum and move back to their home land, an option that their Indian slum dwellers do not have. Secondly, the article mentions that their expenses are underwritten by friends and supporters back in Australia and that means that although living expenses in a slum will not be high, they do have an assured source of income that allows them to live there and play Guru, a privilege that most others living there do not have.

As someone who has worked practically all his life in the development sector with the hope that my small efforts will make a small difference in the human development indices of India, I am often confused when I read stories like this as to which way is best. Mark Delaney’s route is quasi-Gandhian in its essence - I was just reading about the Harijan Basti close to Delhi’s Mandir Marg where Gandhiji lived close to a year hoping by his example to identify himself in some way with the plight of that class of people.

But was Gandhiji successful? The beloved Harijans of Gandhiji prefer to call themselves Dalits and are closer to Dr.Ambedkar than Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhiji is no doubt considered an iconic figure by most but most of his methods are considered quaint and dated except by the most die hard of his followers.

Meanwhile, the voluntary sector has mostly gone professional. Yes, the jhola chaaps still exist but that exists in most cases more as a statement of attire than a vocation that it once was. Mostly the voluntary sector has turned professional and is more tuned to 509 deliverables, results and evidence. Methodology doesn’t count for much but results do. And so NGO workers like me function in day to day life not with Khadi spinning charkhas but with e mail weaving lap tops.

I like to think that my methodology of doing things that scientifically work and are proven to make a difference is the way to go, never mind if I live in a middle class housing colony or a shanty with a tin roof. So who is on the right path? I guess, it is time or is it the folks living in the slum colonies keeping the Delaneys company who will pronounce the final verdict!

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