Saturday, July 10, 2010

Why do men drink so much ?

Recently while on a visit to our program in the slums of Chennai, i noticed that all our programs were structured around women. The program was a very successful one and the team had worked hard with the slum community as well as the local slum clearance board to make thinngs happen and very visibly, the impact was there for all to see. But no men. Of course it was day time and men might be at work; but still I asked. Any programs with men ? No. why ? Some whispers and murmurs, but no answers forthcoming. But curious , i keep probing. In a way, i know what the answer will be, over the years, I have worked with many slum communities and the work is always or almost always with women. So the answer , when it does come, does not surprise me. We do not have any program with the men in the slums because they are either at work or if not , they are drunk.

so why do men drink, I ask ? Well, another round of familiar answers follow. Men go to work and get tired and need a drink for recreation. Oh, they have lots of worries and tensions and alcohol helps them forget their worries and tensions for that period of time when they are drunk. And so they drink. I probe further – what do women do and why don't they drink ? Well, women don't go to work and are not involved in manual labor , so they do not have the compulsions that men have. But they do have their worries and fears don't they ? Oh, yes, I am told- the women have their own fears and worries. So what do they do ? .... well they throw the household utensils around and then go to the neighbour's house to gossip. So in the evening , all the slum women are huddled around gossiping , while the men are slumbering, dead drunk. Neat. Very neat.

For years, i have been observing programs planned with men almost always fail, despite the same dedicated staff, the same meticulous planning and the same effort put in. programs with women succeed; programs with men fail; and usually because nothing consistent can be planned with the menl because of this alcoholism problem among men in the slums. This is case with us in Oasis, it is often the case else where too. Alcohol seems to be the almost universal sopoforic of recreation in the slums and almost the only one it would seem. So can any thing be done for men or are all developmental programs in the slums destined to succeed with women ?

some thing about Oasis's programs among young men gives me a ray of hope. I don't know where we will ever be able to break the scourge of alcohol and its hold among rhe older men, although I should not be pessimistic. But our program with the young men form the slums and others on the verge of dropping out of society which focuses on sports as a tool might be the answer, at least for the younger people. Using football as a glue, Oasis is able to bring together young men who might all have gone their own separate and destructive ways. These young men learn the value and worth of discipline, sportsmanship, fairness and respect for rules and perhaps most importantly make lasting friendships and bondings that may, if they are lucky , last a life time.

The Oasis progam is only a few years old and it could be said that in many ways, it is in its infancy. There is very certainly a long way to ago, and it will be a long time , before we can draw any definitive conclusions. Perhaps , I am being a fool to anticipate so much , expect so much to happen from a program that is so new , so nascent. But even so..I dream that way. I dream that one day it will be possible to walk into a slum and ask the question – not “ why do men drink so much ?” but on the contrary “ why do men play so much ? ”. it will be the day when the brawls caused by drink wll be replaced by the laughter and the banter of sport. That would be change. That would be transformation. That would indeed be life.

Bored meetings or Board Meetings

My organization's Board meeting took place on Saturday. Though the meeting was planned as a whole day event, all business had been conducted by lunch time. There were several eminent people present, all spoke and shared their views articulately and freely. Yet it was still possible to have a vibrant discussion and still all the transactions could be completed earlier than what was anticipated. Every one found time to listen to each other and although by the end of the meeting, a lot of decisions had been, they had been made so collaboratively that it would be very difficult for any one person to have claimed credit for the decision.

The free afternoon time left with lots of time to think of other Board meetings where I have participated, usually as a member, but sometimes as a participant. I remembered meetings of different hues; but the most common memory is that of dull, listless meetings dominated by one person, usually a man, while others sat around with a bored look, wondering what they were really doing there. Some basic, legal requirements were hurriedly gone through monotonously and then the crowd quickly dispersed. They would gather together in a similar fashion in another 6 months or a year for a repetition of this mindless ritual.

Sadly, governance in India is not taken that seriously; at least not in the nonprofit sector where I have spent a lot of my life. It is assumed that because the organizations involved in charity work, are supposedly there with highly altruistic motives, everything is just fine with the way they are run and with the way they are governed. And so Boards and such, by whatever name called, are considered a necessary evil, thrust upon us by the nasty arm of the law. Governance thus is something that is considered an intrusion demanded and required by the law and not something to be pursued for its own intrinsic merit. And so a lot of boards and governing bodies are filled by sycophants and toadies- hangers on with nothing of worth to contribute. The worst case scenario – and yet not uncommon either, are boards staffed by family members and relatives of the founder or the CEO.

This of course is a pity. My own board meeting has impressed upon me the value of having caring, involved people of integrity on the Board. They perform all the necessary statutory duties of course; but go far beyond that limited statutory duty. By virtue of the eminence they have in different fields of occupation, they become helpful sources of information, guidance and most importantly – of advice. They do not intrude in the day to day running of the organization – an activity for which they are too busy any way; but remain available to advise, guide and provide valuable insights – something that only the foolish would overlook.

Although it would see that governance can fall by the way side even in the corporate sector as evidenced by the experience of Satyam, it is an unfortunate fact that in the NGO sector, we do not know enough to educate our board members on what their individual roles and responsibilities are and what they can and cannot do. The sad result is that often NGO boards are either complete rubber stamps nodding assent to everything that the Chief Executive does or at the other extreme, an over bearing, micro managing body, stifling every initiative.

Perhaps , the trick is in having the right composition for your Board. In choosing people, who are eminent in their profession and are also adequately informed about the work of the organization. Individuals, who are committed without being too interfering or intimidating. When a bunch of such people gathers, animated conversation crystallizes into sagely counsel and wise decisions. And Board meetings are no longer bored meetings.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Stop chasing those numbers

A lot of this month seems to have been occupied by numbers – we were writing a proposal for one of donors and if the project were approved, it would mean that we could continue to do the good work that we do. The exercise involved a lot of wrestling with numbers. Numbers to be filled in the budget column ; numbers to be filled in explaining how many people would benefit from the grant and how to make sure that enough number of people had access to the program without us spreading ourselves so thin, that quality itself would be compromised.

Having worked for a funder before, I can understand their compulsions. Funders have to calculate hard data like cost per beneficiary and if that is too high, then the manner in which the program has been designed may not be feasible to run and fund; no matter how good the rationale, the bottom line is always economics – the final question before any funder will sign off – does it make economic sense to fund this program – will enough numbers of people benefit from the grant or a tiny number of them will? If the answer is not satisfactory enough, the application will not be accepted. Working for a donor, I used to examine those numbers and determine whether they were consistent with financial prudence. Today as someone who works for Oasis, an implementing agency, I have to supply those numbers and apply the same parameters.

But just how much should an organization be driven by numbers, is a question I still have not been able to resolve. Numbers are important I know. It costs a lot of effort to raise money and if it is not used in the most efficient and cost effective way, the donor is very likely to feel short changed. Yet as someone dealing with people and their suffering, just to what extent can this be quantified? and even if it can be , to what extent is it fair or right to measure the efficacy and success of our efforts through numbers alone.

At Oasis, a large part of our work is with victims off trafficking. Often they have suffered immensely and in a manner that we can hardly imagine or understand. They have been exploited, abused and brutalized in the most unimaginable ways possible. At Oasis, we try and restore to them some of the lost years of their lives, through a host of interventions. Those interventions are costly. That intervention s is intense. Those interventions take time to work. If at all they work. And sometimes, they don’t because some hurts and experiences human beings cannot deal with, no matter how proficient their methods and how professional their staff. Only God can heal every one, we at Oasis can only try and does our little bit as His agents and instruments.

So is it fair to always ask that question” How many”? How many women did you rescue from the brothels? And how many children? Why so many women? Why so few children? Why did only so many women enrol for your livelihoods program? Why did so few get successfully counselled and come to terms with their past? Why? Why? Why?

As a donor, I used to know how to ask the right questions, and I still do; but today I know how easy it is to ask questions than it is to provide the answers to some unfathomable mysteries. But one thing too I know, that numbers are one piece of the puzzle. Yes money is important, cost benefit ratios are important, effectiveness is important, professionalism is important. All of those things are important. But infinitely more important than all those numbers is the human spirit which we try to heal.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Why Prakash Jha should make another movie

I went to see Rajneeti over the weekend with my daughter. After all the press coverage about how the movie was largely based on the life of Sonia Gandhi and all that, one expected a lot of that, but unless the censors have completely distorted the film by cutting of big chunks of the film, one can hardly see evidence of that. Katrina Kaif for some moments in the film does play a widow and her mannerisms do like one of the Gandhis – could be Sonia or he daughter, the similarity about ends there. The movie is not anything about the Gandhis – Sonia or Priyanka. Rather the movie is about the lumpenization of Indian politics.

We have all grown up with the notion that politics is bad and politicians are the baddies. If one had somehow missed out this bit of a middle class Indian’s education, Prakash Jha can fill the gap. His depiction of Indian politicians – not the underground Maoist types; but the types that fight elections is such that one would come out of the theatre shuddering with horror at our plight as we think about how we are ruled and by whom. And that raises a question.

That politics and politicians are corrupt, inept and amoral has been taught to us from the time we learnt to listen to stories in our mother’s lap. It began with stories of wicked kings and as we grew older, began to be replaced with other people we recognized or knew. Eventually the media created bigger ogres of our ruler and politicians. But coming back to the question that arose after watching the film, I fail to understand one thing – if all our politicians are like the ones portrayed in “Rajneeti”, how are we surviving as a nation?

Rajneeeti’s political figures are barely human. Ranbir Kapoor is supposedly cast in the role analogous to Arjun (the film has shades of the Mahabharata in it), but could well have played the Biblical Satan with ease. Though there is a whole lot of dark side to the so-called democratic Indian political system, but murdering someone from the rival side at the broad daylight in front of masses as shown in the film is like a little too far stretched.

Of course, bad and even villainous politicians live and thrive; we all know that. But what about the good ones, they too exist, don’t they? they may not be saints, and possibly don’t even claim to be one, but they are the ones who ensure that anarchy doesn’t run amuck, and that there is at least some attempt at governance and the rule of law.

Take for example our freedom fighters- people whose birthdays we love to celebrate and whose statues and portraits adorn all public squares and several calendars all over the country. Bhagat Singh, Mahatma Gandhi, Veer Savarkar , Sardar Patel, Nehru... and many , many others. Weren’t they politicians of one hue or another, whose beliefs differed widely, usually vary widely, but because of that they wouldn’t kill each other and cause mayhem. They did give each other that space.

Even today such people exist; politicians who are quietly and silently burning the mid night oil so that they can serve the country as best as they can. They may not make it to the newspaper headlines because they are not looting the exchequer and amassing assets; neither are they plotting intrigue and communal violence in the dead of the night. Such people exist; and it is because of such politicians that the nation still runs and that we are not yet a failed state. Their story too deserves to be told. Prakash Jha ought to write the script of another movie. He has exposed the gory side of Indian politics. Now he ought to project its golden side.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Whores and Prostitutes : the baggage that words carry

One of my colleagues was orienting some newly inducted staff about our work among the prostitutes of Mumbai, when an indignant hand shot up to protest. “prostitute” was not a word to be used – especially by our kind of people who were involved in the development sector who ought to know better. After a sheepish apology, the session continued and eventually we proceeded to enumerate the number of "beneficiaries" whom we had rescued from the "flesh trade".

Soon other hands had shot up. The word “ beneficiary” was too patronizing – who did we think we were any way.... and “flesh trade” .... well wasn't the word so coarse and harsh and how could we even think of using such a word, didn't we have any sensitivity at all or what ? I began to have deep sympathies for our communications manager , who presumably has to learn to walk around with a lot of dictionaries and thesauruses to avoid tripping over a charge about the wrong use of words. I was thrilled that I didn't have her role.

Later that day, I was leaving to board a flight. The weather was wet and it had been raining heavily causing traffic jams all the way from my home to the airport. The humidity and the rain had ensured that all all my clothes were soaked to the bone. As the taxi entered the crowded and disorderly airport terminal, i spotted a relatively empty gate meant for “ persons with special needs”. I immediately cataloged all my special needs – I was occasionally breathless, more often than not short tempered and hot headed,m terribly impatient too. Some minor medical ailments were accompaniments too. But the CISF jawan at the gate wouldn't let me in.stripping aside jargon, he told me that the gate was meant for “apang log”, the disabled”. Special needs was an euphemism for disability.

Since then i have been wondering a lot about the words we use. A lot of them have become so much a part of common usage that we use them without thinking and without intending any harm. Yet words carry a lot of weight, can be stigmatizing and devastating for the self esteem. But we seldom know, because we live and breathe in a different world. As a child , I was taught , never , ever to use the word” leper” because it had a certain connotation of exclusion, isolation and neglect. On street corners and traffic signals , I have seen plenty of people who would qualify for the use of the word in its classical sense, but so ingrained is the lesson, that perhaps this is one word that I am most unlikely to use.

Some of course can of course can so completely swing the other way, that they are more concerned about the correctness of their jargon than sensitivity to the person. Indeed it is possible that the people most busy in serving those in need have the least time to update their vocabulary , while those who are right in their nuances of speech are the most indifferent when it comes to doing things that really matter.

So which way does one turn ? While it is perhaps correct to say that one should not be unduly obsessed with words and phrases and that the motive of the heart is far more important than the utterances of the tongue, we should never forget though that words carry a lot of weight and a stray word spoken out of turn and without the slightest ill will intended, can cause paralyzing harm and trauma which we may neither see nor recognize. So let us weigh our words wisely and choose our phrases carefully , in as much as we are able. There is enough hurt in the world, without we needing to add unwittingly, an extra ton.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Volunteers : The silent worker bee

Volunteers are one of the most valuable resources and a voluntary organization can have, especially today when a lot or most voluntary organizations are largely staffed by paid professionals who work for a salary. While the changing nature of the sector and the increasing demands and scrutiny made by government, donors and funders and even the general public may mean that this shift is largely inevitable, volunteers still help to remind us of our roots.
At Oasis, we have been fortunate in being blessed by many volunteers – short term and long term. Some of them have been around for years and while having cost the organization next to nothing, have enriched Oasis in ways that might be difficult to quantify. The other day, we were trying to calculate in monetary terms what the worth of a few specific volunteers with their particular skills and experience might be. I do not know what figure was finally arrived at, but we agreed that if we had to hire all those people and pay them the salaries that they could command, it could hit the organisational balance sheet quite badly.
But money and salaries are one thing. Often volunteers bring with them skills and experiences that are not readily available in the market place. It is not a matter of being able to pay the salaries, often the right people with a suitable combination of commitment and skill are just not around.
When volunteers come from another culture or country, they also enrich local staff in providing them a platform to work in a multi ethnic and multi cultural environment. They usually bring perspectives on a particular situation or a way of doing things that are fresh and new and can help challenge existing notions of how business has always been conducted. More importantly, by their very presence and the dedication they display, they may end up challenging or changing local work culture and practice.
It is worth considering why volunteerism, even for a short spell is not at all entrenched in India. The concept of the ‘gap year’ is not prevalent in India at all unfortunately. It is one straight and long ride from school to college and university and then onto your first job. In most situations, a gap in the resume that does not follow this beaten track would raise eye brows in most interview situation. The concept of taking some time off now and then and follow the call of the heart is not too well understood or accepted in India.
Of course there is also an economic dimension to this that must not be missed. Volunteerism costs. It may not cost the receiving organisation like Oasis directly, but some one obviously is paying the bills that the volunteer worker is incurring in the country- their housing, their grocery bills, utility bills and others. Depending on organisational policy, possibly the office may absorb some bills, but that still leaves a substantial chunk that the volunteer ultimately is responsible for.
We at the receiving end of a volunteer's untainted service are often unaware of what it takes to raise that sort of money that would pay your bills, no matter how frugally you ultimately choose to live. Occasionally mid career professionals have worked long enough and saved enough to manage their own finances, but ever so often we get younger people who are not likely to have reached that stage and need to reach out to friends and family to raise the necessary resources to come.
Volunteers are the silent worker bees that often quietly and unobtrusively keep the bee hive of activity running. More importantly perhaps they keep a much needed notion alive; that in a materialistic society where every one seemingly works for money- not every one really is.
Volunteers represent the incarnational model that often enough it is more blessed to give than to receive and enough people still exist who believe that and live by that.

A new kind of business

Corporate Social responsibility has been around as a concept for some time. It has been increasingly picking up momentum and allowing corporate bodies, hitherto focused only on making profits for shareholders and promoters to look beyond these horizons. CSR initiatives are now in place in many business entities and can take many forms – from simply writing a cheque and funding a favourite charity to encouraging employees to get involved in specific tasks that encourage more than just passive fund giving. CSR has in certain situations got to the point where business entities have set up non profit organizations which operate within the overall ambit off the corporate brand but with their own mandate.

CSR of course means many things to many people. Some entities genuinely pursue it with a passion. In India, the Tatas have traditionally been known to have been those who have promoted CSR initiatives from long before the term itself was coined --- from the early 20th century in fact, when the town of Jamshedpur was being planned and built. Today there are several others like Infosys, Wipro and others who have their own CSR initiatives. An offshoot of CSR perhaps is when individuals associated with corporates, with their own private wealth set up funds and ventures and become philanthropists. A well known example would example would be Bill Gates or Warren Buffett.

But like every paradigm, this one too is changing. Charities are evolving too like everyone else. If businesses are becoming altruistic and looking at more than just their balance sheet , charities are also looking at more innovative ways to raise money than continually wait at funder’s doorsteps and dance in tandem to a donor’s footsteps. Donor fatigue may ensure that yesterday’s need has become today’s burden and no longer do fundable; but human needs not just fade away like the last season’s autumnal dress selection. Needs remain, require to be addressed and no responsible agency can walk away because yesterday’s fad is no longer fashionable to fund and resources therefore are beginning to dry up. So why not set up your own business and do what the corporates are doing – generate profits and generate them ethically with a framework of values underpinning the whole enterprise and then send the profits back to fund the core charitable activities.

The Jacobs Well project of Oasis is one such model; where the core charitable activities of Oasis remain the focus and yet the entity is run as a viable business with fair trade practices and the ethos of Oasis guiding it in what it will and will not do and how it will do them. Legally and in terms of its identity and branding, it is a separate entity doing business, striving to compete aggressively but fairly in the marketplace and make money and as much of it as possible. And when money is made, after retaining enough for ongoing business expansion and consolidation, the surplus is handed over to fund charity.

So it is a classic case of reverse engineering. Typically NGOs and charities have gone to big businesses and asked for money to sustain themselves and their work. Often they have to constantly keep tweaking their work to make sure it meets donor requirements and preferences. It is not unusual for an organization’s work to be diluted or affected in the process; after all, money is a big influencer. Jacobs Well attempts to keep Oasis’ core charitable focus and activities at its heart , even while it ventures to a competitive market place and remain a viable and sustainable business entity that is not just selling its products to a captive charity market , but out there in the more demanding public bazaar.

Friday, June 18, 2010

This word called sustainabilty

One very common word in the charity sector is the word “sustainable”. We are constantly asked by various well wishers, donors and others about the sustainability of our work. Often, after a visitor has had a long tour of the work being done and the change that is happening in peoples’ lives, in the final debriefing session, the question inevitably gets asked.... “but is your work sustainable ?. What is your outcome? What has been your impact so far? What are your goals for the next three to five years and how much will it cost to achieve these goals?”

All of the above are valid questions, but I can never respond to these questions without relating an incident that occurred long ago, but which still plays on my mind. I was attending a conference where the subject of discussion was that institutional and residential care was costly and not sustainable in the long run and needed to be weeded out. Many arguments were presented by speakers from different disciplines with irrefutable facts and figures. Near the end, a diminutive figure stood up to speak. He introduced himself as a consultant to the World Bank on urban planning and began by saying that in his infancy, he had been abandoned outside a hospital, in a garbage bin, presumably by his parents. He was then picked up from there and taken to a children’s’ home where he received his education.

After he finished his schooling, he chose to become a priest and joined the Jesuit order. The Jesuits then furthered his education and sent him to study urban infrastructure planning and he became a person of such rare distinction that the World Bank picked him to advise governments around the world so that they could contain unplanned urban growth in the world’s growing mega cities. He summed up his talk by saying that although there was great merit in all these debates, a wholesome human being who was given the opportunity to realize his gifts and who then in turn used his vocation to serve his generation was the greatest definition of sustainability and something whose worth could never be factored in financial terms.

For the last few months, those thoughts have been constantly resonating in my mind. For indeed the cost of restoring broken lives and restoring them to a point where people are no longer “beneficiaries” of aid, but active and empowered participants in society is huge. When we talk of costs, bills and finances are the imagery that most commonly come to mind, but I am not just talking about the money involved here. The human cost involved and the sheer diversity of people and skills needed at different stages in a person’s transition to wholeness is immense and the task can seem daunting.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Human Trafficking : What Can I do ?

In the movie "The Verdict", Paul Newman plays am alcoholic down and out lawyer who has hardly any clients and is yet some how moved to take on the case of a woman who is paralysed and rendered comatose during surgery as a result of medical negligience. he takes on a very powerful medical and social establishment armed with powerful, well connected judges and lots of money. he fumbles , despairs and often is on the verge of giving up , but perseveres and wins the case and erven greater damages than what he had asked for.

Lawyers involved in cases dealing with human trafiicking , perhaps often feel the same way, puny pygmies fighting a powerful, well entrenched set up whose tentacles seemingly reach every where. And even the puny pygmies are few. In a field dominated by corporate law, taxation law, property law and criminal law and the incredible wealth associated with them, human rights lawyers are not easy to come by and the field itself can get immensely politicized with a lot of negative fallout for all concerned.

It is in that context that the judgment of the 3rd of May, 2010 in Kolkata where two men and one woman were sentenced to 10 years in prison for the trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of three minor girls must be seen. The girls, 12, 14 and 16 years old, had been lured by traffickers from their rural villages in Nepal and West Bengal with the prospect of legitimate work in Kolkata. Instead, they were “sold” to the accused persons, who in turn forced them to provide sexual services to as many as 12 customers a day.

The numbers are important because convictions in instances of trafficking are few and far between thus discouraging investigators and agencies involved in anti trafficking work, work that is in any case, demanding, unrewarding and life threatening. According to an US State Department report released in late 2009, 1,970 traffickers had been arrested within the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Goa and West Bengal, resulting in just 30 convictions – a mere 1.5% of trafficking-related arrests.

Trafficking is not a priority for policing activity in most situations – short of manpower as well as equipment, the police are often required to deploy their limited resources according to the political priorities of the day – tackling terrorism, internal security issues and major economic offences are the big ticket concerns of the day. So anti human trafficking agencies often have to actively assist the police in arresting such traffickers, framing charges and making sure that adequate evidence is available for a conviction to occur. In the Kolkata cases, the agency involved was the International Justice Mission.

What can you and I do? Well a raid and rescue operations are complex processes and part of the reason that conviction rates are so low is that at the time of trial, very few witnesses are available and those that are usually turn hostile. church members as well as common citizens of integrity can come forward to accompany raiding parties and serve as credible witnesses when cases come up for trial. Although India has according to some estimates over a million lawyers and over 80,000 graduates every year, very few come forward to pursue careers in human rights law and trafficking related activities.

Then after the raids are over and done with, the long journey of rehabilitation and reintegration of the victims begins and there again there a dearth of resources and people. Counselors, half way homes, skilled wardens and care takers and a whole range of other professionals are needed. Of church congregations have an incredible amount of human resources avaailble in their pews , whch anti trafficking agencies like, IJM, Oasis and others could use. In all these areas more and more people are needed to be active and get involved and engaged and in the end, though the process is long and winding, persistence pays off as the Kolkata judgment proves.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Apna Asmaan : Be content with what you have

Propaganda films are easily recognizable. They mouth a cliché in a dry, ham handed and rather preachy manner and are generally boring to watch. Old timers will remember the newsreels that used to be compulsorily shown in the cinema halls before the main movie feature began. They used to beat the drum about the government of the day and its achievements in the most obvious way possible.

So I approached a film about an autistic child with some trepidation. The film being Apna Aasmaan released about three years ago and directed by Kausik Roy. It makes a point sure, it would have been criminal if a message had not been in built in to the movie given the topic that the subject is chosen is one that certainly needs a lot of social education and awareness.

Irfan Khan and Shobana are a typical middle class couple with an autistic child. The child has put a strain on their marriage for two reasons – the simple act of looking after such a child when all around people are ridiculing and laughing at the child is stressful enough. And then on top of that, the dreams that they had for their son that he would grow become a mathematician , they know are now never going to be realized. And the couple have been never been able to reconcile themselves to that. The husband busies himself in work and drink and the wife in the simple tasks that are involved in taking care of her son.

Several treatments are tried but nothing works till they run into a maverick scientist who claims to have a treatment that is quite off beat, has never been tested on humans but a treatment that the doctor claims will work. However the treatment doesn’t have a side effect; but the doctor does not elaborate except to say that should it be needed, an antidote is available. Much against the wishes of their family physician who has been encouraging the couple to stand with their son in all that he is gifted at – for instance sketching, they opt for the unconventional treatment.( the couple don’t see much use for their son’s paintings).

The treatment works apparently and almost overnight their son becomes “normal” and develops a gift in mathematics and music and becomes known as a prodigy. Meanwhile changes in the child’s personality are also noticed… the gentle, albeit different child now becomes rude, abrasive and insensitive. The family doctor informs that that he has noticed changes in the child’s brain’s limbic system which has shrunk- and the limbic system is the one that makes a person human by controlling the emotions. Meanwhile as the child becomes increasingly violent, the parents begin thinking as different as the child was in his pre treatment days, he was someone who could be loved and understood…. Their son was not the stranger that he had become. Eventually they have the treatment reversed and their son becomes the autistic child that they knew and loved.

As I said before, the film leaves you with a message but it is not a preachy film. But it does convey a very valuable truth – that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence and that in our quest for what looks more attractive, more desirable, we often devalue or not often even notice the gifts that are present among us; because we are seeking some other reward, some other prize. … That is just beyond the horizon, just beyond our reach….

Sunday, February 21, 2010

When roots die...

I have just returned from a place in Assam which is particularly notorious for its bandhs. The area is tribal and the tribes are forever fidgeting to preserve their language, culture and identity by calling strikes and bandhs and generally shutting normal life down. It seemed to be a big nuisance to us big city people bound by our deadlines and calendars, but preserving their uniqueness is a big ticket issue for the tribals. They are prepared to die for it. If needed, they are prepared to kill for it too.

In the jeep, pass through this bandh prone territory; we discovered a truth that is disturbing. And that is that the real reason why, we dwelling in big cities or something similar, find all this agitation about self identity, so very odd and parochial is that perhaps many of us have no identity left to talk about. People like me, who have largely lived in neutered cities all our lives, can probably with some minor hiccups adjust anywhere and live anywhere, but we don’t really belong anywhere in particular. Like the Bedouin nomad of yester years, we are the vagabonds of today. We can pitch our tent at any place that allows us to do so, that is to say, we can off load our back packs, charge up our lap tops and hook up our data cards and within minutes we are functional. We can live anywhere, sleep anywhere, work anywhere, but many of us just don’t belong anywhere and that is the plain truth. In the old days, when people asked you (as they still do), “where are you from”, they had an answer. Today many of us would be hard pressed to say where we are from because we aren’t from anywhere really.

Is the question about self identity and the isolation that inevitably follows when one becomes aware of it merely a philosophical question or is there more to it. And it is because there is a lot more to it than we care to understand or discern; that we skirt so uneasily around the subject. Choices for example. The choices that I make or I choose not to make are largely shaped by the way I have created my identity ; by the way I have chosen to see myself. If I see myself as an Indian, then all of my world view would be detrmined by that one lens – typically I would do all I can to further the interests of my country through my education, through my career choices, through whether I choose to emigrate to another country and many other such. If I see my identity reflected in my religion that would dictate my choices: religion would be the prism that would determine how I dress, what I eat, how I perceive people of other faiths who are “different”. And the same follows for distinctiveness that is centered around language, tribe, ethnicity or any other shared commonality among peoples.

Identify is important; no matter how deep we try to bury it deep within the layers of our consciousness. Without it we are nothing but dressed up mercenaries ; prepared to ship in and ship out depending on how green the grass is at any given point of time. Identity begets loyalty, commitment and passion. The challenge as always is finding the balance – oscillating between rootless drift and deep rooted intolerance.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

the Great Indian Nurse Drain

A big neighborhood hospital near my office is having a strike. The nurses are on strike. A whole bunch of them are sitting hunched up under a tree opposite the hospital gates with slogans and banners. There is shouting or sloganeering and a small posse of police women who have posted in the area are bored to death, because there is nothing happening that demands or needs their intervention. Inside, the hospital looks crowded as usual and I can see a few nurses in their uniforms rushing to and fro, busy as usual. The media has not taken too much note, though a local paper did publish a small column recently mentioning that the strike had entered the 8th day without any resolution in sight.

Come to think of it, in India’s hierarchical and rarefied medical fraternity, nurses don’t unfortunately figure very high for all the hard work they do and for all the skills that they possess. The glamour, the money and the recognition all go to the doctors alone, almost always. For instance, look at this year’s Padma awardees. The list contained the name of the doctor who treated the Prime Minister during his bye pass. The doctor is eminent in his field no doubt, but on his own he could have achieved little. Yet the entire Para medical team consisting of highly skilled technicians and nurses did not warrant any merit or attention.

Many countries now recognize the important role that nurses play and in fact in Europe where immigration rules are otherwise tightening, nurses are still being welcomed with open arms. But in India, there is little appreciation of the career of Nursing and also little effort has been made to challenge the stereotyped image of the servile and inferior position that nurses usually have in society. Though there is great disparity in the pay, position and benefits between the doctors and nurses, they are the key ingredients in the high tech health care world of today

One of the results of the way we treat our nurses is that many of them are migrating in droves to countries where they will be paid better and treated a lot better. The Times of India carried an article some time ago, where it quoted a nursing college principal as saying that 80%--yes, 80%--of her students apply to recruiters for foreign nations. For instance, although Filipinas traditionally filled many nursing vacancies in US hospitals, the trend is now moving toward Indian nurses. "Dr. Mark J. McKenney," a U.S. recruiter who directs Nurses for International Cooperative Exchange (NICE), notes that nurses can earn $50,000 per year in the U.S. according to the same article.

Speaking on the occasion of the National Florence Nightingale Awards last year (possibly the only day we pause for a day to remember nurses!)To mark the International Nurses Day, the President had remarked that it was a matter of pride that the quality and commitment of Indian nurses was getting recognition. She had also commented on the acute shortage of nurses in the country by pointing out that there are about 3.7 lakh nurses in India while the requirement is going to be about 10.5 lakh nurses by 2012. But dreaming of filling up this gap may be wishful thinking. While the shortage of nurses is a global phenomenon, most other countries have realized their worth and treat them well as pay them better. We are falling short on both counts.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Starvation or Death

Yesterday, the government of India made a decision, for the moment not to allow genetically modified Brinjals for sale in India. The decision that India has made will perhaps influence other countries. Particularly, a leading daily has reported that Bangladesh and Philippines are eagerly watching the course that India sets and that might guide them too.

Both Bangladesh and Philippines have large populations to feed and therein perhaps lays the commonality. And that too to a large measure will be the guiding factor in any decision that the government makes.

It is not that the dangers and the uncertainties of the genetically modified revolution driven by bio-technology and often called the second green revolution by its votaries are not known. They are known. The concept is new and no one knows fully the long term implications that going this route will have. And this is a fact. Those who love the hate the multi nationals talk of how a few giants will eventually come to monopolize seeds and then acting as a cartel control seed prices and threatening national food security, bring nations to their knees.

If OPEC countries can act as a cartel and to a large extent control global oil prices, why not seed companies? Multi nationals after all are beholden to no one but the balance sheet and the shareholders. This is true.

There are also environmental and health hazards up on the radar; some of them are known or can be predicted but there are many which may be totally unknown at the present time. All of this is known and it is true; but yet in this present day and time, there may be no other options but to go this route.

Looking back at history, at the time of the first green revolution when fertilizers, pesticides and hybrid seeds began to be used in a big way in the 60s, the dangers that could be posed were known then too. But again there was no alternative.
Traditionally practiced forms of farming had peaked in terms of what could be produced in terms of yields and the population was growing. India was literally surviving from “ship to mouth” as it was called then with food imports literally being rushed to ration shops to ward off impending starvation and the memories of the Great Bengal Famine of the 40s which killed close to 3 million people or more were still fresh.

And so the government of Indira Gandhi went ahead to back the efforts of MS Swaminathan and others. The dangers that fertilizers, chemical pesticides and such were not and could not be avoided but systemic famine and mass starvation became history. It is not that fertilizers and pesticides were good; it is just that the alternative is worse.

Today again, we are standing at just such a perch. According to the economist Yogendra Alagh, with the emphasis on infrastructure, SEZ and so on, and the resultant neglect of agriculture from the ’90s, the agricultural growth rate went down.

For nearly a decade, agricultural production had stagnated. The spectacular yield growth recorded in the post-Green Revolution years in Punjab and Haryana has receded into history. Of the multiple problems confronting agriculture, rapid fragmentation of land holdings is keeping pace with increasing population. In 1976-77, the average size of the holdings was estimated at 2 hectares, while in 1980-81, it came down to 1.8 hectares. Today, it stands at a mere 0.2 hectares.
The total number of land holdings in 1981 were around 89 million; today these have crossed 100 million. By the turn of the century, the average land holding will come down to 0.11 hectares. It is quite obvious that with such small land holdings, Indian agriculture cannot adopt high-tech farm practices. So in the long run , do we really have the choice to avoid genetically modified foods on our dining table? I think not. The choice it would seem is inevitable…. Tomorrow if not today.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Living in Debt

Recently I ran into a friend whom I had not met in some years. It turned out that like many who have been affected by the economic downturn, he too has been hit and has been out of a job for a year or more now. Having exhausted all his savings, he was in a situation where his children’s school was telling him that they would drop their names from the school register if he didn’t pay up their fees on which he had been defaulting for some months. After exploring all possible alternatives, he approached a kabuliwallah, the dreaded traditional money lender of Afghan origins immortalized in Tagore’s short story of the same name and its subsequent movie version.

The kabuliwallah lent him money at the horrific interest rate of 80 percent per month and fully aware that his client was unemployed and possibly unable to return his money immediately, further added a stipulation that if my friend failed to pay the interest at least, he would further pay a penalty of 60 percent per month on the interest. This left the family, already in considerable difficulty, in dire financial straits. Of course, the situation of my friend was not of his own making ; he was not spending or living ostentatiously; he was simply unemployed for so long that his savings ran out, pushing him into a corner. But around me, I do see people who seem to have control over their spending, live beyond their means and eventually get into a debt trap.

While the debate between living frugally (as our parents usually did) or the times today , where we often live to spend will always be debatable, going into a debt and then staying there is a point where surely a line has been crossed. And while living off credit cards and personal loans itself is a nightmare, taking loans at incredible rates from unorganized but dreaded money lenders like the kabuliwallahs is perhaps an inevitable step towards doom. And yet money lenders are an integral part of the Indian horizon and according to S. Parasuraman of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences Moneylenders are now an inextricable part of the rural economy," So much so the bank has become secondary, or even redundant in rural India."

And then for a picture of urban India, just look at this: Outstanding loans on credit cards reached $6 billion at the end of 2008, up 85 percent from the previous year, according to CRISIL, a ratings agency. In New Delhi alone, already overburdened courts are dealing with 400,000 cases of bounced checks, mostly payments for credit card purchases, according to government figures.India currently has 30 million credit card holders, triple the number half a decade ago. In the past two years, the average credit card spending by an Indian has jumped about 30 percent, to Rs 2,400 per month ($48). Indians took on credit-card debt worth $14 billion in 2008, three times higher than just four years ago.

Although slowly counseling facilities like DISHA and Debt doctor and others like them are beginning to emerge to provide advice, counseling and even debt negotiation with the organized sector like banks and other financial institutions, just how deep is their reach? And just exactly how many people actually know about their existence? Few? And how many of the clients of these credit counseling services are those who have borrowed money from money lenders? Probably none. And considering that Self help groups and cooperative societies where interest rates are more affordable are the fourth and fifth preferred choices for sourcing loans according to the Invest India Savings and Income survey for June 2007, and have a share of 9 per cent and 6 per cent respectively in unorganized sector, the demon of debt is not likely to go away any time soon.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

India’s Elderly: A long and lonely walk

Now that the political tributes to the late Jyoti Basu have sort of ceased, examining the last years of his life, highlights for me a concern that we in this country have largely neglected. The thought first came to mind when the outgoing west Bengal governor, Gopal Krishna Gandhi went to pay his farewell calls to the late Jyoti Basu. As a gift, Gandhi, brought along a stack of books for Basu.

Jyoti Basu accepted the gifts graciously but commented wryly through his aide, Jyoti Krishna Ghosh, that due to age, he could neither see, nor hear nor read properly and could even barely carry out a conversation. It would have been a difficult time for a man whose mind remained sharp to the end and who in his time led the state for over two decades to be reduced to such a sad state.

While India is often hailed as the land of young people, it is also a land with a significant number of elderly people. The number of people who are elderly in India was 77 million in 2001and it is anticipated that by 2021 it will reach 137 million. India now has the second largest aged population in the world. Yet while the young are hailed as the citizens and leaders of tomorrow and other such soubriquets, the elderly, the leader and builder of our yesterdays usually are left to live lonely and unfulfilled lives with little attention paid to their wants and needs.

Euthanasia or even assisted suicide is banned in India, although given the physical and emotional deprivation that many of our elderly population are forced to live in, many have from time to time opted for this. Some traditional practices like the Jain practice of Santhara or voluntary fasting to death when one believes that one’s life has served its purpose are tolerated; this is not a mainstream tradition. So given that advances in medical science usually now ensures a longer life span than was possible a generation ago and given that euthanasia and its likes are banned and rightly so, what is one to do? Is it fine to just consign the elderly to the pages of history and allow them to live physically but deprived of all that makes life meaningful.

The fact that Indian society is getting fragmented today has only added to the problem. Not only is the extended family passé, event the sense of community is fast disappearing. Elderly grandparents are now opening Facebook and Skype accounts to keep some semblance of family in a widely dispersed universe. We know, they know , everyone knows that a virtual community is just that “virtual” and it can never replace actual face to face human bonding , and neither do social networking sites have any such pretensions.

Although it looks for the moment that there is no way out of this one way ticket to gloom, it would be nice if gerontology had a higher profile in the country than it currently does. While geriatrics, while deals with the medical aspects of ageing has some visibility, there is very little going on in terms of the social, mental and other processes that have to do with ageing and tries to come up with solutions and options. Civil society responses to the elderly and their plight are limited in scope and number, although this is slowly changing. Meanwhile, denied death and also denied an abundant life, our senior citizens live in a perpetual twilight of despair.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Population and Identity

All this talk of Mumbai for Mumbaikars is making me very nervous. I don’t know to what part of the country I can lay claim to. As a man from Bengal, largely brought up in Delhi, partly educated in Pune and also owning a small flat there and further married to a lady from the Philippines, just who am I? The identity question is beginning to haunt me, for over years, having travelled to practically every part of India, I realize that I can largely live and adjust everywhere. I have no food fads, no clannish tendencies to hang out with my own kind (just who would they be any way?), or any other parochial tendencies that I am aware of or any one has pointed out. Further, having served a stint in the Armed Forces, I have imbibed the ideals of secularism and national integration to the brim. I am the living, walking and talking model of the Nehruvian cliché of “unity in diversity”.

But today I wonder where I belong. Do I belong to Bengal? May be because I speak, read and write the language. One good thing about the Left Front government is that it has been socially inclusive in keeping with its ideology and so linguistic and ethnic differentiations are rarely talked about or a matter of debate.

But identity is obviously something important to Indians and the Indian identity; notwithstanding the heroic efforts of the RSS and other nationalistic entities is clearly not enough. Although the RSS has mistakenly tried to propagate an idealistic myth that a common religion (read Hinduism) will automatically lead to a unifying pan Indian identity, this is clearly not the case. Religion is obviously not very unifying in Mumbai where the Shiv Sena and the RSS are speaking in a different tongue, even though they espouse the same faith and do so with passion and fervor.

So “mile sur mera tumhara” is out and linguistic and ethnic based xenophobia is in. Treading the fine line between being conscious of and being proud of one’s identity – be it ethnic, religious or linguistic on one hand and being intolerant of those who are different on the other is always a delicate matter , but we seem to be losing the battle here. Clearly the Indian identity is a tenuous one at best and dangerously at threat at its best.

At the root of all this battle for identity is some thing that was once recognized as a national priority ; but is now consigned to the dustbin of history. India’s family planning program , driven by its burgeoning population. In my childhood and youth, I lived through slogans like “do ya teen bus” and even later “ hum do, hamare do’, slogans, today’s population hasn’t heard of. As the population keeps growing, opportunities diminish – be it for education or jobs, or houses or basic civic amenities.

As these diminish, migration ensures that people move elsewhere in search of these opportunities and in the process swamp languages and cultures and ethnicities by the sheer power of numbers. If you need examples look at Tripura , once tribal dominated but today effectively controlled and even governed by Bengalis, the same with Silchar in Assam and of course – the much talked about Mumbai, the door to opportunity for supposedly all.

It is a pity that in today’s consumer driven market , high populations are an asset, though on the overall balance sheet , an exploding and uncontrolled population growth is really a liability , threatening life and livelihood in every possible way and thereby eventually beginning to threaten identities and nationhood as we have known and understood it. It is a pity that the Family Planning program is dead. We need it back and badly and soon.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Sunlight, shadows and Dhoop

Perhaps it was a matter of chance that I was watching the film Dhoop which deals with the subject of the family of a Kargil martyr on Republic Day. Perhaps it was incidental that the film has a shot of the ritual laying of the wreath at the Amar Jawan Jyoti by the Prime Minister as a sequence. Watching the movie raised two questions in my mind – the first perhaps has been addressed often enough though not remedied ; and the second question – well that is perhaps very little asked.

The story line is simple. There is a middle aged couple – Om Puri – who is a professor and his wife(Revathy) who is a librarian. Their only son (Sanjay Suri), initially somewhat against their wishes to join the Army and eventually does so. He is posted to Kargil as a Captain and in the 1999 hostiles is martyred. After the initial ceremony honoring the dead is over , the family including Sanjay’s fiancée (Gul Panang) begin moderating their grief and begin to pick up the pieces of their life.

It is at this time that a letter arrives from the government allotting the family with a petrol pump plot – apparently a routine bureaucratic gesture to the families of the martyred. The middle class family is initially reluctant to accept the offer – they are middle class professionals content with their jobs and salaries but are persuaded to accept the pump as a memorial to their dead son.

It is at this point that reality hit home . The harsh reality that after the garlanding of the body is done with and the Last Post has been played , the martyrs are just another statistic. As they begin the journey to take possession of the plot where the petrol pump is to be located , they encounter apathy, corruption and behavior of the vilest kid possible. One police man who(among others) has to give an NOC and needs a bribe to do so, gleefully informs the parents that is a windfall for him as so many people have been martyred from Haryana and each martyred family is a potential bribe giver.

Coming back to the two questions , I started this write up with. I have heard the first question posed often enough on television channels and a lot of breast beating at the apathetic treatment that is meted out to martyrs’ families. And this is a sad fact and must be deplored. But the other question that tormented me as I watched Om Puri on his scooter go from office to office and in almost every instance be confronted by the demand for a bribe was this : in the dance between the one who gives bribe and the one who takes it, who actually is the villain ? So often , we paint the giver and the taker with the same brush of criminality and sin when the one who empties out his pocket is often a victim of extortion and utter helplessness.

In the film , the grit and determination of Om Puri and Revathy, aided by the spunky Gul Panang is commendable , but how many people in real life can really sustain the pressure of being surrounded on every side by venal, greedy, vulture like people with no semblance of feeling except that of becoming richer at the hapless expense of the other. Can you ? Can I ? Every time I bribe, am I the sinner or sinned against ? Makes me wonder.