Sight-seeing in rural India

One seat away from me, sat a first-time flier. Mid-air, he asked the air hostess whether he could eat his own food, to which she replied “bilkul, kyu nahi kha sakte ho”. He removed a bunch of thick chapatis with vegetable pickle and ate it all really fast. The older me would have felt a feeling of pity for someone who looked helpless. Instead, I found myself simply thinking about wanting his food. It looked much better than my limp pesto sandwich.

It’s been over a year since I have made monthly visits to non profits a part of my regular work. Most of them have been to different parts of India and many of them, rural-based. Rural India to me meant poverty stricken villages, droughts, uneducated people, lack of electricity and rotis made on chulas. There are significant challenges that exist across the several villages in our country. However, I used to be awkward in my interactions with rural Indians because I felt we were different. Now, while I know that there are differences, I don’t feel like we are different people. The innate feeling that I must first learn to empathize, has given way to a desire to learn to accept. And for the development problems that exist, I feel a much more objective outlook towards thinking of ways to solve them.

Conversations about their children’s marriages, eating together, walking through their fields, driving on their roads, visiting many schools, health care facilities, eating at local joints and drinking the same water while understanding how to harvest rain-water…seeing and being a part of their world. Simply exposing myself to it. A few days ago, a group of teachers from a village in Maharashtra visited our office. Their first visit to a city. They were very shy, just like how a child is when it meets someone new. But after chatting for a while, looking around the office, understanding our work, the teachers became much more at ease and confident. Very importantly, they came into their own. Just like the child who now cannot stop running around the house with joyful glee. They exposed themselves to what was new to them, different for them, they learnt about the unknown and soon enough, they were thinking aloud about working in an office environment. Both sides stopped feeling like people from different planets.

More than any other learning, this has been my biggest one so far – to accept each other as equals. I don’t believe I would have felt this if I hadn’t stepped in to their lives. Today, I find myself even more excited about my next visit, because I don’t feel like it’s a novel thing to do anymore, and now that I’m here, I feel like this learning has paved the way for more definite work.


A fellow in Amravati

I went to Amravati, a district in Maharashtra, to visit an education related project which aims to strengthen government schooling. It is a multi-stakeholder initiative involving the state and district government, funders and implementing agencies. A common, pre-decided, government approved set of process and performance indicators forms the basis of action. One of the key implementation avenues is the positioning of a ‘fellow’ – a young boy or girl, average age early twenties, selected through a rigorous process, to be part of the school’s management and operations. These fellows represent different states of India and walks of life too, many of them from affording families. Their job is to work hand-in-hand with the school to ensure good attendance levels, improved teaching methods, availability of materials and resources, engagement of parents through the functioning of school management committees, and so on. But the essence of their work comes from their community immersion, wherein they live with a family in the village where the school is situated, for long and multiple stretches of time, eating their food, drinking their water, sleeping on their mat and integrating themselves with the local environment. They do so because differences exist, between those who are seeking to support and those who need support; and in the face of differences, there lies a need to understand each other. The fellows and the villagers. The urban and the rural. The rich and the poor. The upper caste and the lower caste. The English speaking and the non or broken English speaking. They strive to come as close to the problems and then think themselves capable of finding solutions. Some of the anecdotes below, captured during my conversation with these young and brave people, will speak to the living conditions in rural Maharashtra that exist, right now.

  • “The ground water levels are low and they are waiting for permission to dig deeper. Yes there are many days when there is no water. What do I do on those days? I don’t drink water, they don’t drink water”
  • “It felt so good didi to wash my face with a facewash because the soap there dries my skin. I don’t carry any of my products because I don’t want the girl living in the house I am staying in, to feel different from me”
  • “No, actually I haven’t tried much of their local food because they don’t have much to eat. So quite often, I tell them that I ate in school and came”
  • “I have a phone, but I have to go to that point right there to catch signal”
  • “The teachers are enthusiastic but there’s no one to appreciate them or their contributions”
  • “Yes the classrooms are quite big and the windows too; there’s no fan so it helps a lot”
  • “It takes us a long time to go from one school to another, the roads are quite windy. Now we all have bikes so we can get more work done”
  • “We have a first aid-box; if there’s an emergency it will take quite long for help to get here”
  • “Yes my parents do worry, but I am learning so much”
  • “Alcohol…it’s a really big problem, so many of them make it at home”
  • …and so on…

The above highlights everyday living challenges. Those related to the project will run into many more words.

Rural India is not as enigmatic a visual anymore, or perhaps fantasized through the mustard fields I used to think of. In the observations and thoughts that followed this visit, I wanted to stop and be in awe of the fellows. Light years ahead in their understanding of life. The skills they will develop to implement products and services in complex environments riddled with lack of resources and entangled in a web of human behaviours will build sharp minds and evolved hearts. If 60-70% of your population lives in ‘rural’ India, then you’ve just been served a fabulous opportunity to understand a very large customer base. And yet, this is not their objective. In our conversations, they spoke of the schools they want to go back and build and of the dreams they want to fulfil for others. And there are many hundreds of them.



Maharogi Sewa Samiti

We (mom and I) made a three day trip to Maharogi Sewa Samiti in October 2016. Six months later, it is still difficult to articulate my observations; but I’m going to try, because I want you to feel the magic too.

  • Maharogi Sewa Samiti was started by a man called Baba Amte for the service of people afflicted with leprosy. In leprosy, you become disfigured because the disease eats away at your skin. You can’t undo the damage, but you can treat the disease to arrest it in its tracks. Amongst thick forest lands, Baba Amte, with support from his wife and some friends, set up a facility with bare necessities to treat the local tribal population for this disease.
  • The givers and receivers did not speak the same language. They learnt to understand and trust each other with time. Today, if you are driving towards any of the three places that collectively form Maharogi Sewa Samiti, and you are stopped en route by so called ‘naxals’ or ‘tribals’, they will do nothing to you. You are their friend.
  • Maharogi Sewa Samiti is constituted of Anandwan, Hemalkasa and Somnath. Anandwan is three hours by road from Nagpur and Hemalkasa, six hours further. Somnath lies in-between. The further we drove from Nagpur, the thicker the forests became. For kilometers on, it was quiet and dense. We came upon small villages at regular intervals; ponds with lotuses in full bloom dotted the dark greens with whites and pinks. Most of the people were chewing neem twigs.
  • Anandwan is run by Dr. Vikas Amte, Baba Amte’s older son. His home is situated there too, and every evening visitors can go and have a chat with him. He will give you books written by him on Anandwan. His children with their families live there too, and work for the people. They are encouraging their father to travel abroad and spread the word.
  • Anandwan has a hospital for lepers, it has a hostel for deaf and mute girls, it has a vocational centre where all inhabitants can learn a skill and produce objects – cards, linens, carpets, musical instruments, wood work, large cupboards, wheelchairs and some others. The workers chisel away with amputated fingers, feet, some blind, some with other handicaps. Young, middle-aged and old. They’ve formed an orchestra. Every evening they sing, and travel to perform in new places.
  • Everyone ate lunch in the common mess. This practice was followed in all three places we visited. Baba’s families ate the same food. Everyone contributed in the work needed to run Anandwan, Hemalkasa and Somnath – a practice known as shramdaan, even if you are at a physical disadvantage. The lepers built their own homes, brick by brick. Baba believed that the pain would only reduce or go-away if you did not indulge it further.
  • We received mixed information on the journey to Hemalkasa during dinner. The roads were meant to be bad or perhaps unsafe, we couldn’t tell. We were too intrigued, my mom nervous, but something felt okay. Our driver removed the Indian flag represented by a small metallic structure fixed on the car’s headboard. And we drove. As I close my eyes, I see the jungles, wide and deep in their expanse on both sides, far removed from the civilisation I know. Beautiful. Full of character.
  • Hemalkasa has a hospital for not just lepers but for those suffering with multiple ailments. Tribal looking men, women and children dotted the entrance and exit of the hospital. A modern and well equipped hospital. There is a large school, for girls and boys with residential facilities. Looking out of order is not acceptable. Well groomed, hair well kept, uniform clean and ironed, discipline in every hour. The future of India, there were so many of them. Connected to the world through a large computer lab as well, attempting to write their own blog too. Hemalkasa is run by Baba’s younger son, Dr. Prakash Amte. His wife, children and grand-children live there too, in the heart of it. A simple house with simple toys. All children go to the same school.
  • In the evening, we went to meet Dr. Prakash Amte. He was wearing a white banyaan with simple white shorts. This you are not going to believe. We turned the corner from his house and there they were. In their splendid beauty. The leopards, snakes, owls, deer, porcupines, bears…animals and birds of all shapes and sizes, from wild to wilder, all of them his friends and family. He kissed the owl on its mouth and played catch with the leopard in its cage. I feel the deep awe sinking in just about now. His grandson, the same age as my oldest nephew had water snakes for pets and he allowed me to hold them too. What is this life? We took photos, so many of them, but have been unable to share them perhaps for the fear of not being able to convey the magic they hold.
  • We spoke in the evening about a school they want to build, a few kilometers away from Hemalkasa because the people have come asking for it. The area is difficult to access and needs teachers and faculty to live there for longer stretches of time. The children are small and as eager to come to school as anywhere else. Uniforms will remain as important here they said.
  • In the evening, we drove to the nearby market. A once a week affair. On our way back, we saw Dr. Prakash and his wife on their evening walk, and their son with his family cycling close behind. The narrow road running through the forests was the same, the forests had however given way to a wider and more flat expanse on either side.
  • Our last stop was Somnath. The fields were sown with agricultural produce, the food that fed all those at Anandwan and Hemalkasa, surplus of which was sold in the markets. The toiling of the land was done by its inhabitants too, no matter how few limbs or faculties. The community was designed for individuals and families. Baba encouraged the people to marry, a chance to build their families because they had been shunned by their own, and their children, now out of these three circles of Maharogi Sewa Samiti had reached the worlds beyond. Our lunch here was most delicious. Fresh produce, flavour in the simplicity and love in the fingers all around, of those who cooked, those who served and those who ate with us.
  • When I sum up this time in my mind, it feels like a world which was different, unique and whole. It makes me happy because it din’t feel sad. It makes me sad because there is a road ahead as yet, and it is far from where I tread. It makes me angry because they built this road far away from me, I made them. The supporters are there, but few and far between, many of them from lands beyond India. I’m in awe because disease and disparity did not feel isolated here. I realise that often, I must be living in a silo, in my mind, because reaching this place was not as complicated as I had thought.

Your desire to give, may not convert into action.

A grave danger of living in a country known for its phenomenon of co-existence of the rich with the poor, is the resultant immunity we gain to the problems that stare us in the face everyday of our lives. This easily leads to apathy or complacency. The latter is worse because each time a child knocks on the car window, we will wish to do something, and then placate ourselves by saying that when we are rich enough or post retirement, we will dedicate ourselves to working for the poor. In the interim, we will give a small rupee note away and then, move on. Here is another truth. The heart wrenching situation of many millions of people in our country is not going to improve fast enough for you and me living today to see a better country. For all you know, it may become worse. The problems are large, many, and solutions are very complex. The government is one entity. And so, here is the thing –  if you feel the desire to give, then it’s not going to go away. And if your desire is true, then the only way is to start small and start now.

Because the power of a collective – a large, dynamic, vibrant pool of ideas, execution expertise, time and money, all from well meaning people – is the answer towards inching closer to a richer existence.

Start small

I recently visited an organisation called Sunday Friends. They started 35 years ago with one activity – to feed poor people living on the streets. Today they provide education support for children, medical aid including subsidised medication, blood, eye and skin donation camps and other critical activities such as repairing broken diagnostic machines in hospitals which lie unused because there wasn’t someone in-charge. Their latest activity is an information centre in a busy government hospital to guide the sick, illiterate and scared who come and don’t know where to go next. I can explain how this causes bottle-necks in the patient flow leading to inefficiencies but I really don’t need to. In fact I learnt that before this intervention, a group of senior citizens would stand and play the role of guides in the hospital. Sunday Friends is run by volunteers, who dedicate their Sunday mornings and other time as well in doing the work they do. They are professionals with day jobs, businessmen who run their own companies and family and friends to other people, just like you and me. This brings me to my point of ‘start small’, because when Sunday Friends started, they din’t have a plan. Neither did they have a large sum of money. But they had a desire. So they began with a textbook form of charity which led them to several new discoveries. “We started feeding poor people and realised that unless their children get a chance to study, they will be in the same place years from now”, said a volunteer. Today their annual expenditure is close to INR 5 crores (approx. USD 800,000). Within the social sector, just like in any industry, there is a spectrum of players. Sunday Friends may not be considered with the same diligence as a more structured non profit having a three year road map, but that is okay because they are contributing in a reliable, committed and honest way. They are not afraid to try.

Another reason why one should start small, is because doing social work is not an innate ability. If you think that you will be able to give to the social sector without having learnt how to, you are mistaken. It is an acquired skill. You will contribute with time and learn that while teaching English to a group of children, a significant challenge is their lack of motivation to attend the “free” class because of the onslaught of evening tuitions. You will contribute with money and learn that your donee doesn’t have a staff member to track the funds given and so there may be delays in sending you their expenses statement. You will contribute with ideas such as telling your house help to invest part of their earnings and realize they are afraid to approach a bank. You will contribute with knowledge stemming from newspaper columns or your own environments and observations such as the dangers of an alcohol ban in states or about why prostitution must not be legalised, but you will not be able to apply a real world solution because you have never spoken to those who face the perils of these social evils. It won’t matter that your very own maid of many years is a victim of domestic abuse because of her alcoholic husband, and she resorts to prostitution to fund her child’s education, and yet cannot stand up for her rights, with you, me or the courts of justice. All this, because we did not start small.

So stop thinking of charity of time, money, ideas as a natural consequence of when you are ready. Be humble enough to realize and accept that we cannot afford to wait. And if you decide to wait, then do not for once expect your world to become a better place without your support. Start now.

The avenues are more than what you can even imagine. 




Photos from a trip to Shirpur, Maharashtra. LeapForWord (LFW), started by Pranil Naik, an Ashoka fellow, is working its way up to crack the challenge that is English in our country. Their model is evolving each day – it accounts heavily for ground realities and aims to be self sustainable and scalable i.e. reachable to the many poor children across India’s villages in the years to come. The two big bottle-necks in learning English in our country are lack of an English speaking environment for most, and the lack of English speaking teachers. One can argue and say that intern at a Starbucks for six months, and you will pick up the language -the immersion method. How then do you take this solution to a very large population of young and energized youth, that is working very hard towards getting an education or learning a job skill, but falters in confidence and in climbing the work ladder as fast as his/her potential may allow, because of the inability to communicate well in English. Especially if you want to grow an organization that is self sustainable, hence needs to be cost effective.

A stat Pranil told me: an accountant who knows English in India gets paid approx. 24% higher than his peer who doesn’t.

The photos below are credited to my mom. They don’t speak about LFW’s model, but simply shine light on the curiosity that exists in the eyes and minds of children.

Manitham, dalits and differences

I struggled a lot to articulate my thoughts post my visit to Manitham, an NGO run by a dear friend in Manamadurai district of Tamil Nadu. This is my third attempt.

I visited Manitham in early May and only recently have I come to accept that it was my blissful ignorance combined with the absence of any form of marginalization in my life that led me to feel overwhelmed with my observations of the caste system and its manifestations in the everyday lives of people, those who are afflicted by it and those who afflict it too. A few months ago I argued with my sister who wrote an article on the caste system in India because I felt she painted a picture which was more negative than what it may be. When I went to Manamadurai, the idea was to understand the workings of Manitham, an organization which provides after school support to children from dalit communities (in Maths, English and Tamil specifically and also helps them complete their home work while engaging them in fun and play too). This is done through a community mentorship model, where young adults (called mentors) from the same villages as the children are selected, receive weekly training and in turn, teach the children on a daily basis for a small stipend. It was in the process of understanding Manitham’s systems that we had a chance to travel to the villages, engage with many children and their parents, community mentors, writers, local leaders, auditors and volunteers for the government’s livelihood program MGNREGA and school teachers.

On the second day, two hours into an in-depth conversation with the mentors about improving their existing skill set, one girl brought up the challenge of addressing the negative effects some of her mentees undergo due to the caste bias they face. Is it a very big problem I asked? The response was tempered with one person mildly retorting that yes it is a problem but it is age old and widely accepted and hence not necessarily an urgent or pressing problem. Rohith Vemula’s death and the subsequent media frenzy were only a few weeks old, along with my sister’s voice in my head, and hence I pressed on with my questions. Having warmed up to each other already, the 12-15 people sitting in a closed circle proceeded to share their stories about the reality that is caste.

On the first day of school, a child is made to wear a coloured band one person said. They come in shades of red, green, yellow, saffron and more. The colour denotes caste. An article from The Telegraph, UK, goes on to mention how it extends to other apparel too. It says “although there was no suggestion in the Indian Express report that teachers were encouraging the system, one local school headmaster told the newspaper that the coloured vests come in handy during a game of basketball to draw up teams based on caste lines”. The mentors went on to explain that in spite of this constant reminder of identity, the children study and play together, but yes in the event of a fight, they very quickly form groups by colour. Children are too small to understand the meaning of differentiation, but during the initial days, a peon casually walks into the room and calls out for all the dalit children to stand up. They have to go and collect their special certificate. Neither does the child from the dalit community, nor does the child from the upper castes understand why a sense of resentment develops towards those who received “reservation”. Come to think of it, every village we visited was situated near a grave yard or away from the main market. In earlier days, untouchables and dalits were not meant to cross into the areas of those from higher castes. So when another story was shared, about a lady who walked into the dhobi walla’s village by mistake, consequent reactions leading to a local fight, the deeply rooted existence of the caste system started becoming plausible in my mind. An old lady from a higher caste village fell down in front of me but refused to take my helping hand, said one mentor. In another meeting, a person closely associated with MGNREGA said that we would be surprised to learn that out of 18% reservation in government jobs in Tamil Nadu, 2-4% has been filled each year for the last 20 years. The remaining quota, inspite of adequate availability of talent, was purposefully kept vacant. Progress of the backward classes may not work in favour of the government’s vote bank strategy. Job offers in the private sector for many students, with degrees in civil engineering or physics are yet governed by the caste of the firm’s owner. This reminds me of an evening conversation with a young girl who got divorced early into her marriage and faced many problems thereafter. A young man, also Tamilian and from the same caste, recently professed his love for her and inspite of her desire to be with him, her parents were unrelenting about her chance at a brighter future because within the same caste, he comes from a lower tier. Vana, Manitham’s founder showed me wedding cards which have the photo of the bride and groom alongside picture of their local community leader. These and many more noteworthy but shameful incidents and truths unfolded in the conversation about caste and in the following days in Manamadurai. So startled was I on hearing about the colour bands that I made sure to record on video the conversation that was to follow. Over 60 minutes of footage will remain my reminder of the things I choose not to see or understand further and even turn a blind eye towards.

With respect to the last point, I have walked away also realizing that caste is a synonym for other forms of inequality, of community, communal and class. I live in lovely suburb of Mumbai in a building which is very charming, but I am ashamed as well of this place which is home because we have two lifts. One is for those who look rich and one is for those who look poor. It has always bothered me but I have let it by, because I see it in many buildings (hence we allow ourselves to become accustomed to evils which should not be) and I’m afraid of the struggles I will have to endure and the disappointment I will feel when somebody contests this change. A few months ago an old man, outwardly poor, came to deliver food to me. On his way out he called for the wrong lift. The lift man did not take him in and told him to call for the other lift. I watched this unfold as I was closing my door and ofcourse I could have changed this particular situation, but it was the realization of how this ghastly act unfurls, and its perpetuation on a daily basis in a building inhabited by urban and educated people, that froze me in my tracks, heart and mind. I remember this old man very often, and I saw his face many times during my time with Manitham. So here’s the point of this write-up. Caste is an entrenched phenomenon. There will be many more debates on the topic of reservation and many more consequences we all will hear about and face, because of this out-dated (never should have been) system. But, if you find yourself in a situation where someone else may feel the bane of his identity, do something or then don’t partake in it. It is my objective now to change the system of two lifts in our building because I can’t go all the way to Tamil Nadu and not improve the situation in my very home.