Thursday, January 31, 2008

Anna Hazare's Unique School

For the last few days, I have been reading a column titled “ Diary of Rajni Tuti” in the Indian Express. The diary has been chronicling the travails of a lady Rajni Tuti, who has been trying to get her children admitted to a nursery school. It is that time of the year when admission blues surface yet again and with the Supreme Court having decreed that schools can set their own criteria for admitting children, it is back to the rat race again. It is also that time of that year when the board examinations are back and bring with them the fear and dread that has made the counselor’s phone number such a sought after number for high school students and their parents. The tension is palpable in the air. The seats in the schools and colleges, especially the good and sought after ones are few and a few decimal points could mean make or break.

It is also the time of the year when my mind wanders to the village of Ralegan Siddhi, the village of the Gandhian, Anna Hazare and the school that he set up there which I had the opportunity to visit a couple of years ago. Tired of the apathy of the government run village school, they wanted to have an option. Although Anna Hazare went on a fast and exerted pressure to have the facilities and the running of the school improved, the villagers went ahead with their plans to build another school. So far so good, but what followed was quite different.

If it was like most places, the first thing operational in the school would have been the building fund, to collect hefty donations to help defray the costs of running the school. But not here. The entire school was built with donations collected locally and the costs were further kept down as the entire village performed voluntary labor and cut down the costs dramatically. What followed after the school was set up was even more dramatic. Although the school was meant mainly for local children (only a boys school though!), it had residential facilities and as it grew in reputation, demand also grew for boys from far away districts also to enroll.

Anna Hazare responded affirmatively but with a radical, upside down paradigm. The school would indeed open its doors to others, but to a rather different class of students - not the most meritorious, not the most able to pay, not the most influential, but the other kind. To get admission to this village school at Ralegan Siddhi, the conditions were a bit odd.

The unique feature about the school in Ralegan Siddhi is that it admits children who have poor academic records, who are truants, and who have gone astray.”

Effectively, the child has to be a juvenile delinquent with a police record and relevant papers or some one who has failed more than once in the same class. The idea is not that children who are excelling should be enrolled and the institution’s stature elevated but that children whom society in one way or the other has discarded should be taken in hand and reformed. This the school has effectively done and in fact perhaps drawing on Anna Hazare’s ex-army background has sent several into the army where they have further honed their discipline.

Anna Hazare’s village lives by five maxims – what they call the panchasutra. Interestingly enough, the whole village, the young and the old seem to know it and interpret it in their own vocabulary:

  • No stray grazing.
  • No liquor and other addictions.
  • No big families.
  • No cutting trees.
  • Preserving water bodies.

Although Anna Hazare is known for many things, primarily for the watershed development that he has done in Ralgan Siddhi, he fascinates me for the upside down values that he espouses in an increasingly meritocratic society. I wish that there were more such schools of the kind that Anna built in Delhi for Rajni Tuti and others like her to avail of. For those children who aren’t going to be making it to any merit list, Ralegan Siddhi may be no earthly paradise but the school that takes them in must rank pretty close.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The World of Global Conversations

A decade or two ago, the only mechanism that an ordinary man or woman to talk was to gossip in the neighborhood pub, coffee shop or chai shop and hope that the conversation would be carried away beyond the walls of the coffee tables. There was little other opportunity to be heard unless one was a celebrity or a public figure or a writer or journalist with a sizable brand recall and readership.

Today that is no longer the case and it is a privilege for ordinary people to set up blogs and write material that has potentially a global audience. Whether the audience is big or small, it is by no means a negligible number. More importantly, the audience is more than the gaggle gathering around your lunch table; people who read and listen, can and do span the globe.

So, can amateur writers and thinkers shape opinions or are they too insignificant in the overall scheme of things? The indications are however that while there is a free and vibrant mainstream press, other voices may get drowned out but in its absence these voices assume significance. Say, for instance China, where Wei Wenhua, a 41-year-old construction company executive became recently the first citizen journalist to be killed in China because of his activity.

To study the contrast, look at Myanmar. "No one used the Internet to tell the story of 1988 Myanmarese uprising while it was happening. Ordinary Myanmarese didn’t have camera-equipped cell phones or handheld video cameras with which to record the violent crackdown that put a generation of student protesters in jail. The story was vastly different in 2007. Despite the fact that junta that runs Myanmar tightly controls Internet access, computer savvy exiles and activists are exploiting inherent weaknesses in those controls to get the word--and the pictures--out to the world"

But the global conversation is not all about politics and global statesmanship; it can be about carrying out meaningful conversations with people in a manner that would have never been possible a decade ago. Facebook for instance has an application called iThink where people express their opinions on any subject under the skin- these can be serious and have some gravitas attached like “Stalin was a worse killer than Hitler” or shallower ones like “Pepsi tastes better than Coke”

These innocuous opinions may look and appear inane but often many people find this application addictive. Opinions are expressed of course on the many thoughts that are expressed on this platform but space is provided for people to comment on why they agree or disagree with a particular opinion and often offer a perspective on why they hold the opinions they do. The fact that not a lengthy article in ‘The Guardian’ or ‘The New York Times’ or even a blog but a one line opinion attracts votes and opinions is indicative of the fact that people are hungry to extend the boundaries of their normal social rainbow and interact with if not meet with too, people from different countries and cultures.

A lot has been said about the dangers of cyber friendships and the stalking and the harassment that is possible and often happens. But it is nevertheless possible to form friendships with some level of depth on line and as opportunity allows, to perhaps cementing them off line. Global conversations carried out informally and with some level of internationality can provide us the opportunity to be part of conversations that span the globe and clear cobwebs about racial, religious and ethnic stereotypes. And in times like the one in which we live, if engaging in a border less conversation helps us to shake off some of the unease that we feel about others, it can only be to the good.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Are Our Call Centres Killing Initiative ?

A friend of mine who has typical middle class ambitions for his children was recently worried that his children might not choose to pursue them. Not that he wanted to impose his dreams or wishes on his children. He was happy for his children to do any thing they considered worthwhile, as long as they took up some thing that was honorable and respectable and made the maximum use of the skills and abilities they had.

His greatest worry was that his sons might be bitten by the call centre bug and might not even explore the boundaries of their potential. Instead of trying to explore what else they could do that might hone their god given gifts, they might just settle down into a mediocre routine that would make them relatively well paid but glorified clerks .His even bigger worry was that his son’s peer group and even his social mentors thought that this was fine. If you went down this route, you earned enough to get by and there was supposedly more time for leisure and recreation that most people living in the cities seem to miss out on.

There was a time in the not too distant past when the specter of the educated unemployed in India was huge. In a typically controlled economy, jobs were scarce as they were largely available in the government sector and the public sector companies. This led to the phenomenon of candidates paying several months of their salary to middle men to be assured of jobs. Justice Rajinder Sachar in an article written for the Hindu in 2001 bemoaned the fact that for recruitment to the lower constabulary, bribes up to a couple of lakhs of rupees per post have to be paid to political masters

In such a situation of course BPO emerged as the silver lining. Being a sunrise sector, jobs started shifting from the recession-hit industries, providing employment to a large number of youth entering the job market and ready to grasp new opportunities. The Hindu in another analysis says that Call Centers brought sizeable income to those who were worried about their careers and brought economic independence to many young people.

However the same analysis asks worrying questions to suggest that my friend’s worries about his sons are not unfounded. The article titled “BPO fallout: Youth shelving books for bucks” goes on to say that while Call Centers provided employment to those who did not have access to higher education owing to financial or other such constraints, The lure of big bucks offered by BPO units has seen a large number of students dropping out of colleges and opting for jobs instead. And eventually the sector may turn out to be a catchment area for all those who prefer money to education unwilling to give up a bright today for an unknown tomorrow.

As in any sunrise industry, the social dynamics of the sector are yet to be studied in depth though the stress and frustration associated with this line of work is beginning to be documented. Further a cultural divide between IT sector employees and local citizens is beginning to emerge and it seems that while economic prosperity might have reduced poverty levels, it has also widened inequalities, particularly in urban areas. Outlook magazine had documented some thing similar recently with respect to Bangalore.

According to an article on the Internet portal, It is a well-known fact that many call center executives today are expressing concern about their lifestyles and general health. The fact however remains that the lure of big money is irresistible to youngsters. However, the lure of the industry remains. No other industry offers freshers a pay of Rs 12,000 that too as soon as they have cleared Class XII. The perks are also awesome — pick-up and drop facilities, swanky offices, subsidized canteen facilities, regular parties, incentives and bonuses. And the only skill one needs to have is good communication and language skills. Some thing that all those working with young people and counseling youth should be tracking with concern.

Heroes : Higher than Mountains

The New York Times published a touching tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary titled” When A Mountaintop Might as Well Have Been the Moon” around the same time as articles began appearing in the Indian press about who should get the coveted Bharat Ratna this year. It started with Advani suggesting that the award be given to former Prime Minister Vajpayee. Other names soon tossed into the ring were those of Jyoti Basu, Kanshi Ram and Karunanidhi. Of course the name of Jyoti Basu soon dropped off because the communists it seems do not accept awards from the state. In the midst of all this Hillary’ legacy leaving foot prints all over the world about what it means to be a hero might have some thing to say.

India has awarded the Bharat Ratna to two non citizens – Badshah Khan, the Frontier Gandhi and Nelson Mandela and a naturalized citizen –Mother Teresa. Perhaps Hillary was not an apt candidate for the award as his life was more closely woven with the people of Nepal than India but his life provides us with indications about who makes a leader and who makes a hero. The words are not necessarily synonymous.

Hillary wasn’t just a mountaineer who got lucky and struck gold when others before him, just as skilled or more had failed. Expeditions to the Everest began in 1921 and obviously with each passing year, the topography was better known, knowledge of human behavior at high attitudes better understood and so if it is a matter of sheer bravery that we are talking about, we should salute the likes of George Mallory who came before. Mallory disappeared during a snow storm during the climb of 1924 and his body was discovered seventy five years later in 1999. Speculation continues to this day as to whether Mallory and his companion Irvine climbed the mountain before they died.

What made Sir Hillary an icon was that he was not just another daring man attempting to do what others had tried to do and failed and possibly died in the process though that itself might have been noteworthy enough. Hillary’s valor is not defined by that one victorious ascent but rather with what he did with his life thereafter. He was no sahib who came, conquered and left having had his adventure in the hills. He established and sustained a lasting bond with the Sherpa people of the Himalayas and through his Himalayan Trust was occupied in shaping the lives of Sherpas throughout Nepal. The trust was involved in the construction of several hospitals, schools, airfields and medical facilities over many decades. That it was not a one sided condescending white man dictated development is evident by the fact even in the midst of a very politically resurgent, nationalistic Nepal, Nepali Sherpas lit lamps and offered special Buddhist prayers in monasteries for his reincarnation. Hillary incidentally was knighted shortly after his climb in 1953 and 43 years later received, Britain’s highest award for chivalry, The Order of the Garter for not just that one climb but his enduring contribution to humanity. Members of the order are restricted to just 22 at any given time with vacancies occurring only by death and if comparisons are appropriate, more exclusive in its scope than the Bharat Ratna.

Coming back to the Bharat Ratna. I recently read about another candidate for the Bharat Ratna- Sachin Tendulkar, because he is a sports icon and is a legendary cricketer like or even better than Don Bradman and also a younger man compared to Vajpayee and Jyoti Basu and the others. Sachin surely is all that. But I think of Sir Edmund Hillary and pause. For it is not how high you climb or how many times you climb that really matters.

What matters is what you do with the rest of your life after you have reached the summit and come back to earth. What you do as you walk up is your achievement. What you do when you come down is your legacy. The same is true with sportsmen, politicians, and everybody.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Time Travel : Gurgaon in 1988

Exactly twenty years ago, my father died of a heart attack in a remote village in what was then the backwater town of Gurgaon and looking back at the past twenty years, one can only marvel at the change that has taken place. My father died some near the village of Manesar where today the facility of the National Security Guards (NSG) stands. The NSG was set up following the assassination of Indira Gandhi and in 1988 was still finding its feet.

I used to live in a remote village by the name of Muhammadpur which used to be served by two Haryana Roadways buses on a good day and the transportation to the nearest town of Tauru was very literally by a bullock cart. No buses plied on that route and the bullock cart took an hour to travel the 10 km distance and was an extremely enjoyable ride on a winter afternoon. Traveling from Delhi, to get to Muhammadpur, you had to first hop on to a bus at the Kashmere Gate ISBT or Dhaula Kuan, alight at Gurgaon and then change into the Haryana Roadways bus for Muhammadpur. If that bus was not running, then there were plenty plying down the National Highway 8, but they would drop you on the Highway and from there my village was a two hour long brisk walk. I remember making those treks often, usually after a Sunday spent in Delhi and then discovering in the evening that the Roadways bus wasn’t on road that particular day.

If for some reason you got stuck in Gurgaon, there wasn’t a place to stay. Between the Maruti factory, land for which had been acquired way back in Sanjay Gandhi’s time but had just started functioning a few years earlier and the main town, which began a little before the bus stand, there was nothing but wilderness. The only lodging place I ever discovered was the Ex Serviceman’s Rest House set up by the Haryana Government to provide a facility for retired soldiers from the villages needing to come to town, usually to collect their monthly pension. If it was and it usually was, then for a nominal amount, the care taker would give you a charpoy and a razai and put you up in the dormitory. There were a couple of rooms meant for officers too, but you wouldn’t want to stay there. They would remain occupied for long periods, cost more but always had a lingering musty odor after the doors had been open. The dormitory only had the buzz of mosquitoes.

There were no shopping malls and the buzz of the town was the string of shops on Railway Road. Gurgaon has always had a railway station on the Delhi-Jaipur route but the station lay on the edge of the town and wasn’t very popular. The bus stand which had an appropriately named restaurant called” Wheels” was the hub of town and most of the important offices, banks and shops were in that area. There were no amentias like hospitals either. On the day of my father’s heart attack, I remember in a memorable experience, driving down all the way to Delhi, because the option in Gurgaon then that any one knew about was the local civil hospital an option of no one’s choice. He died on the way.

The Gurgaon I am writing of is the late eighties, when the labor pains that would eventually birth India’s release from socialism and the beginning of the transformation into a free market economy but it wasn’t there yet. More specifically, I am writing about a part of Gurgaon where I lived called Mewat and the story of Mewat and Gurgaon put together is the story of India that is half here and half still there. As I dodge the call centre vehicles screeching past my house, pass the shiny malls and the high rises and read pejorative comments about sleepy old Gurgaon town, I wonder at the Gurgaon of two decades ago and whose roots according to local lore went back to the Guru Dronacharya of the Mahabharata. Unfortunately the call centre vehicles don’t travel much further beyond the modern complexes developed by Unitech, DLF and the other builders. If they did, they would find that a couple of Kilometers off the National Highway 8, the description of the previous paragraphs still holds true. Bullock carts still ply between Muhammadpur and Tauru. As they do in many other places in India presenting the contrast between the eternal India and the emerging India. And that is Incredible India.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Tuning the Nation's Theme

Last week I was reading the business magazine, Money Today; it had summed up the year 2007. The columnist Dipen Sheth said that in the year gone by, you would have made a lot of money if you had invested in the market in tune with the national theme. He went on to say that the national theme in India in 2007 was “Build India” and so infrastructure was the key. So if you had invested in infrastructure-related companies, be it infrastructure financing, companies involved in construction of roads, bridges, airports, power plants, telecom, ship yards and what not, you would have made some money. He went on to say that the thing to do now was to see if the national theme for 2008 was going to be the same or different; but whatever the theme, hitch your wagon to it and you won’t lose out.
The columnist wasn’t wrong. Apart from the impressive gains I have made myself on my modest investment, the signs of nation-building are everywhere. The current ‘Building India’ is far removed from the abstract notions of nation-building you were taught earlier at school. This is an in-your-face experience - you cannot move around most of the country without seeing airports upgrading, railway stations modernising, highways widening and what not. The thrust on hard infrastructure is very important and rewarding, as a good and sound infrastructure is the foundation of all development.
After finishing the Money Today, I turned to a current affairs magazine which was doing its own summing up of the year. It talked about the jailbreak in Chhattisgarh, the escalating violence in Assam, the school shootout in Gurgaon and the Chartered Accountant who killed and stuffed his wife’s body into a suitcase.
The inescapable contradiction between a booming economy and a rotting society was too jarring to be missed. Is it possible that in the race to put the hard infrastructure on the fast track, we have forgotten to take cognisance of the nuances of the soft infrastructure that a nation needs to thrive? Is it enough to build roads and highways and put money into people’s pockets so more and more people buy cars without our simultaneously providing for educating people about driving norms? Is it enough to put money into people’s pockets without educating them about its proper use, so that someone uses it to buy guns and someone else uses it to kill? Simply put, is infrastructure without education an adequate enough national theme to sustain a nation?
If education is an important complement for the proper use and understanding of infrastructure, that it is not enough to have a road and a car but also the underlying understanding that I am not alone on the road, then whose job is it to educate and highlight these values?
There are three players who have typically and traditionally taught values and consideration to one’s fellowmen; because all these three are limping, may be they ought to come together. There is the family, the earliest educator, but often the influence of the family is waning. There is religion, the church, the mosque and the temple; but in a bizarre twist of tale, the religious establishment is the place, which is viewed with the most suspicion today. Then there is the State, which concerns itself with primary education, secondary education and higher education; but most of all, it is concerned with the conduct of examinations.
In the midst of all this, value education has taken a beating and has become an orphan. But a nation with dollops of hard infrastructure but only a few soft ones lacks the lodestar that may act as a compass. If this continues for long, the nation will eventually get shallower on the inside and that will be a colossal tragedy.
Meanwhile, I am reminded that ‘Building India’ will perhaps be the national theme this year too since we are dealing with decades of delay and backlog. The tack then is to be able to tweak the national theme of Building India so it is more inclusive – that it is not just about airports and bus-stands and railway stations though all these are important; it is also about the other building blocks - loving mercy, acting justly and walking humbly; in short, the ethics and values that shape people’s lives.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Sub Continent - No Place for Debate

In one of the life sketches of Benazir Bhutto that appeared in the media after her assassination, it was mentioned that Benazir happened to be the first Asian President of the Oxford Union, one of the world’s most distinguished debating societies. This is a bit ironic if you take into account that debating and rational arguments contributing to informed decision making is not a phenomenon existing any where in the sub continent.

Decisions are made here not based on sound reasoning but on the basis of display of brute force and muscle power. We are a living, breathing example of Mao’s axiom about power flowing out of the barrel of a gun. India and Sri Lanka are probably the only two nations in the sub-continent where there is some kind of democracy that is visible and when the benchmark is Myanmar or Nepal or Afghanistan or Bangladesh or Pakistan, there may be little reason for us to pat ourselves on the back. And any way, we all know how in India even though parliament may be in session from time to time laws are often passed with a handful of members present in the house and even fewer numbers actually speaking.

Maybe Bhutan which is slowly and quietly transiting into democracy and had its election to the upper house of its bicameral parliament recently will have a lesson or two in not just conducting elections but perhaps also in forming and shaping democratic institutions where opinions and counter opinions are provided and challenged in the context of debates and not bullets.

I remember the quaint debating clubs we had in schools and colleges. Grand sounding topics were given and then teams were formed – one team to speak for the motion and another to speak against. Those speaking for the motion had a second chance to rebut what those opposing had said. I remember participating in a couple of them and although I wasn’t very good at public speaking, there were still many things I learnt that I still continue to value. Among them are the virtues of being able to present your case rationally and cogently illustrating them with facts and figures, the ability to think on your feet if necessary as you can never predict what the opposing side will come up with and the necessity of research and preparation. Sarcasm was permitted and was indeed often a virtue as was dry and caustic humour but personal attacks, rudeness and incivility was a strict no no.

These debating clubs, though some what childish in their presentation, were also nevertheless the crucibles for the formation of the democratic process.

After we had also spoken, usually the student assembly would vote on the motion, either accepting or rejecting it. Although the voting wasn’t necessarily dictated by the strength and coherency of the arguments but by other extraneous considerations (pretty much like our parliamentarians voting along party lines irrespective of the force of the debate), the discussions weren’t all irrelevant and redundant.

If that was the standard of my modest high school debate, I can only wonder what the stature of the Oxford Union debates might be. But sadly enough, Benazir schooled herself in the use of a weapon that is best used in the mature democracies of the world and not in places like our subcontinent where matters are often decided by the thud of the bullet or the thrust of a bayonet and where in most countries, opinions, governments and leaders are thrust upon a people through varying shades of violence. And that is one course they do not teach in the Oxford Union!