Friday, September 12, 2014

मेरी मातृभाषा - Meri Matrabhasha

आज मैं तुम्हें लिखने में इस्तेमाल कर रहा हूँ. कई बरस बीत गए हैं.

बोलना सुनना तो बहुत होता है तुममें. पर उसमे भी कई शब्दों के लिए अंग्रेजी का सहारा लेना पड़ता है. ऐसा नहीं है कि तुम्हारे पास उन अर्थों के शब्द नहीं है पर न जाने क्यूँ साधारण से शब्द भी अब तुममे नहीं आते. तुममे लिखना-पढ़ना तो बिलकुल नहीं होता. जंग लग गया है दिमाग के उन कोनों में जहां तुम्हारे शब्द छुपे बैठे हैं. ये लिखते हुए भी मैं कई शब्दों के बारे में सोच में पड़ जाता हूँ. अनिश्चित सा हूँ तुम्हें लिखते हुए.

तुम्हें पढ़ना भी कम हो गया है. स्कूल के बाद तो कभी तुम्हारा कोई उपन्यास ही नहीं पढ़ा. बरसों से अंग्रेजी में ही पढ़ रहा हूँ. एक दूरी सी आ गयी है हमारे बीच. तुम्हें पढ़ना अजीब लगने लगा है. अंग्रेजी का सहारा लेना पढ़ता है. विज्ञान, कहानियां, उपन्यास, सब कुछ अंग्रेजी में ज्यादा अच्छे स्तर का मिलता है. ज्यादा मिलता है. (अब मुझे ‘स्तर’ ही ध्यान नहीं आया. क्वालिटी और स्टैण्डर्ड ज़रूर दिमाग में आये)


थोड़ा दुःख होता है कि मेरी अंग्रेजी का स्तर तुमसे अच्छा है. मुश्किल विचारों को मैं सिर्फ अंग्रेजी में ही प्रकट कर सकता हूँ. वाद विवाद में अपने आप उसकी तरफ मुड़ जाता हूँ. परायों से बात करने में सबसे पहले अंग्रेजी ही निकलती है. ‘छोटे’ आदमी से तुममे बात होती है. ‘बड़े’ आदमी से अंग्रेजी में.
पर अपनेपन का एहसास तभी होता है जब मैं तुम्हारा इस्तेमाल करता हूँ. विदेश में ज़रूर तुममे बात करता हूँ. अपनों से बात तुमसे ही की जाती है. अब जब भी तुममे कहानियां पढ़ता हूँ, दिल के उस तार को छू जाती हैं जो कोई अंग्रेजी कहानी नहीं छू पाई. अंग्रेजी पिक्चर में जब तक subtitles ना हों, तब तक मुझे पूरी तरह विश्वास नहीं आता कि मैंने सही समझा है कि नहीं. गानों के शब्द समझने के लिए काफी प्रयास करना पड़ता है.

ऐसा क्यूँ है? क्या ये ज़रूरी है कि अंग्रेजी के करीब आने के लिए तुम्हारा साथ छोड़ना पड़े.
इससे पहले तुम पराई हो जाओ, मैं तुम्हें अपना बनाए रखना चाहता हूँ. वापस पढ़ना चाहता हूँ. लिखना चाहता हूँ. और इसके लिए मुझे अंग्रेजी का साथ नहीं छोड़ना पड़ेगा. और न ही उन भाषा आंतंकवादियों के साथ मिलना पड़ेगा जो शुद्धता और संस्कृति के नाम पर तुम्हें और तुम्हारे चाहने वालों को सीमित रखना चाहते हैं. हो सकता है कि वर्तमान में तुम्हें कुछ शब्द दूसरी भाषाओं से उधार लेने पड़ें. पर वो स्वाभाविक है. उससे तुम्हारा स्तर और अपनापन कम नहीं होता. बढ़ जाता है. और कुछ समय में, वो अपने ही हो जाएंगे.

आधुनिक विज्ञान, विचार और शिक्षा तुम्हारे द्वारा नहीं हो सकती क्या? क्यूँ तुम्हारी किताबों का स्तर निचला रहे? जब हमारा समाचार, सिनेमा और अपनेपन की बातें तुममे हो सकती हैं तो क्या हम तुम्हारा दायरा बढ़ा कर दुनिया के ज्ञान और विज्ञान को व्यक्त नहीं कर सकते? क्या तुम्हारे ही माध्यम से दुनिया को तुम्हारे चाहने वालों के पास नहीं पहुंचा सकते?

कर सकते हैं. मैं प्रयास ज़रूर करूँगा. कुछ और न सही, वापस तुम्हारे करीब तो आऊंगा. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Will you beat me?

We have recently revamped our ‘basti’ library. Xook (pronounced zook) Books is its new name. We are trying everything to spread the word and get kids into the library. We are quite innovative about it too. Our strategy is that we stand on the road, stop kids walking on the road and ask them to come to the library. Does it actually work? Well, it does. A lot of them walk in after asking questions like – "What kind of books?" 
"Is there a fee?"

A few days back, my mother stopped a small boy and asked him to come and explore the library. 
"What's there?"
"It’s a place for you to read." 
The boy was a little skeptical. He asked – 
"I can read anything?!"
"Yes, you can read anything."
"If I don’t read, you will not beat me, will you?"

She was stunned. Speechless. She wanted to embrace him, comfort him and say – 'We will not beat you. Ever!'

Beating children is widespread in India. Everyone does it - parents, relatives, teachers, principals. This report, though slightly old, highlights the issue of corporal punishment. As this article mentions- 

"Despite being outlawed by the Right to Education Act in 2009, corporal punishment continues unabated in India’s schools. Just some headlines from the last few weeks. Jharkhand: "Teacher beats 8 year old to death." Ghaziabad: 6-Year-Old Allegedly Beaten by Teacher For Not Doing Homework. Howrah: "Class Eight Student Allegedly Beaten with Iron Chains by Teacher." One teacher in Kakinada did not even spare visually challenged students, beating them mercilessly."

A couple of days back, a new boy walked into the library. He looked a little lost so our librarian made him sit down and read him a story. After finishing the story, she told him to wander and explore the books. He went through multiple books before choosing one and sat down to read it. It appeared like he was struggling with it. Seeing him struggle, our librarian got up to help him. To get a better look at the book, she moved his hand. His hand automatically turned with palm facing up – prepared to be caned. He pleaded - 
"No. I am reading. Don’t hit me."


When I heard about it, I was disturbed and shocked at the instinctive sense of fear. Violence and fear is ingrained with reading and studying. However, what happened next gave me hope and belief to continue to do what we do. One of our 'Xook-ie' (yes, that's a word) kids looked at him and informed him – 
"Arey! Don’t be scared here. Nobody hits anyone here. You are safe here."

There is just joy of reading here!

This post has also been published on Indiateach - The Indian education blog.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Sustainable Political Engagement

Throughout my life, I have never followed politics. Political people, regions, parties, portfolios were alien to me. The only exception was during Obama's first election campaign. There was something about his oratory that captivated me (like a billion other people probably). I watched a lot of his speeches, sometimes multiple times. It was unfortunate that my political interest in US at that time was exponentially higher than it had ever been for Indian politics. This will not be true for everybody but I have not engaged, or seen a lot of people engage, in political debate and discussions a lot. I have mostly seen political discussion done by a handful of my friends.

There is widespread abandonment of public systems in our country, especially by the middle class - education, healthcare, urban spaces, environment, water, politics. As we have moved from a market economy to a market society, the basic public services are now privatized and intersection of different layers of society is decreasing. 

Still, things have changed quite dramatically in the past few months when it comes to political engagement. I have not seen an election where everybody is so passionate and worked up about the ideologies and people they support. Painstaking research is being done by individuals to validate their beliefs and claims. 

Let's take this incident. 

I post an article about a certain political candidate on my facebook wall. One my friends from IIT comments:

"There are bound to be separatist and sadist sections in every think tank, but does that affect the health of the country as a whole?" 
... And by saying that she was well dressed and all, is he saying that the poor need not have a sense of morality. Using nazi reference to sensationalize one's view is definitely the last straw, that too with complete disregard to the efforts that went in to ensure the riots from causing much more loss of life. A typical self righteous, bourgeois point of view from a half informed author."

I must admit, I was quite surprised. It was not because of that person's belief but because of the heavy language used. 'Sadist', 'self-righteous', 'bourgeois'! And not coming from a JNU or law student but from an IITian who I least expected it from. What happened to IITians not being able to understand political science and all of these 'intellectual' subjects? 

Another friend of mine (again IIT), posts these updates on his wall -  

Sample 1 - "BJP and Congress hid themselves behind the section 22 of the NCT act of Delhi. This section requires a prior assent/sanction of Central Government with respect to Finance bills to be introduced in Delhi assembly. 
First of all, the same NCT act says in the subsequent section 26, that even if the prior approval is not taken, if the LG and in some cases the President gives assent to the bill after the assembly passes it, the bill will be considered valid. 
Second of all, DLP is not a finance bill. The expenditure of running Lokpal in Delhi will come out to be 50-100 crores which the Delhi government can fund from its own budget."

Sample 2 - "Even the Rule 55(1-a) transaction of Business rules state that LG only needs to refer those bills to Centre which are passed by state assembly and are repugnant with the Central law. 
Delhi government or any state government does not work 'under the supervision' of Union government. Constitution provides for 3 separate lists namely the union list, state list and concurrent list. If the Home ministry denies permission for any bill on state/concurrent list to be tabled in a state assembly, it would mean an encroachment by the Centre on the rights of the State government. The state government is the supreme legislative body in the state."

I am shocked! This guy was posting troll pictures and love songs a few months back. Did he just finish a crash course under the Chief Justice? 

As long as the debates and arguments remain civilized and tolerant, all of this is amazing. People start participating in public affairs and politics becomes a service for the public once again, we might be able to say that we are a well-run democracy instead of just surviving. This is cannot happen only in this election. This engagement has to continue, irrespective of whoever gets elected. 

I saw this video today and it tells everything I want to and more. Millions like Shyam Negi - keeping democracy alive since 1951. 


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Mohtarma visits the library

Preeta finally visited the library after hearing about it for a year. On my request, she has penned down her experience there. This is the second guest-post on the blog, not counting the student writing posts, and as usual, the writing is much better than what is normally written on this blog. Hopefully, some of it will rub off on my writing too.

---- Mohtarma (Preeta) Speaks -----------------------

I was visiting Bombay in my first vacation in over a year, and I had this library on the list of places I had to visit. I had heard about it since the days of its inception – from stories of painting the walls to acquiring bookshelves. Finally, in January, I came around to visiting it. I had a couple of hours to myself before the children started coming in, which I spent browsing the books and revisiting the books that I had read when I was a kid like the Malory Towers books and the story about the enormous turnip. Before I realized it, the children started streaming in – some of them directly from school, without even having changed out of their uniforms or having lunch.

The curiosity about the new visitor, yours truly, spread like wildfire. “Nayi didi aayi hai”, the word went around. Soon, they took it upon themselves to show me around – where the library passes were kept, the balcony where they likes to read, where the fiction books were kept, where the science books were kept, and where the games were kept. The sense of pride and ownership they felt about this place was amazing.

They asked me about myself, and were eager to talk about their lives. When they heard that I was from Delhi, they even asked me about the jhadu party and how they won the elections.

My conversations with these kids were refreshingly honest – it took me a while to register how differently I was used to acting in a profession where every word is weighed to meet a certain purpose. When they asked me why I was visiting, I told them, “I love reading, and Prachur bhaiya told me about your library”. They told me about their favourite stories, or the homework assignment that they were working on and gossip about who got scolded in class for what mischief.

I read with some of the kids – watching their expressions change as they slowly moved from word to word. They took up books to satiate a curiosity, and not out of compulsion. To see them inspired by stories like Malala, to be scared of gruffalos, to be excited about the history of different countries reminded me of my own reasons why I enjoyed reading. Some of them played games. They involved me in their games, and they showed me how to play. Their acts of spontaneous kindness and unguarded friendships made me feel completely at home.



These were extremely smart, sensitive and impressionable children. They had a childhood very different from what I, or most people I know, had. And still, I could see in them the same excitement that I feel in turning the page of a book. Between long school hours, tuitions and work, the tiny room above the Mahalakshmi dairy in Kamraj Nagar was to these kids an alternative universe. A small space, and window of time, where the possibilities are endless. Everybody deserves that. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Burden of the Indian expectation for AAP

I confess that I am not a follower of politics at all. I don’t know the names of the parties, their ministers and much political history. However, there are moments of public interest when my easily distracted mind gets interested in the proceedings. Sadness at the fall of Vajpayee’s government and inspiration on hearing Obama’s oratory are previous instances that come to mind. Delhi elections this year will be another. Arvind Kejriwal has brought unimaginable interest in these elections. There is an interesting event unfolding daily. The underdog beating the giant. The hung assembly. Reluctance of the big-wig parties to form the government.

I personally think that Kejriwal has already done a fair bit. He has inspired countless people and tried to redeem their faith in politics. Hundreds if not thousands will join politics with purer motives in the years to come. They have an avenue. They have a precedent. They might not know the policies, administrative structures and many other things complicated things. But some of them will learn and try to make things better. Maybe some will form a separate party. In any case, all of them will be working for betterment in their own ways. Institutional ways. Not with hunger fasts like an attention seeking child or illogical, nonsense statements like our very own douchebag, Baba Ramdev. We need these motivated people in our political scene. And India might have a lot to thank Kejriwal for in the years to come.


I think Indians have a long history of suffering from the ‘too-many-expectations’ syndrome. We are so devoid of people to look up to that we want the single person, who we look up to, to do everything. It doesn’t matter if we don’t give them adequate support or training.
Sachin should win all our matches single-handedly. We will criticize him even though we can’t provide him 4 other half-decent batsmen who can provide him adequate support or 4 quality bowlers so that the poor guy doesn’t come out every time with a mountain to chase. IAS and other 1st tier officers should be able to solve all administrative problems of this country with a team of moronic and largely untrained 2nd and 3rd tier 'support' staff.



It is very hard to be a good son to this country. It is like the parents who have given up on the other children and accept their misdemeanors with a shrug saying ‘that’s how who they are’. But the good son must do everything. He must sacrifice, slog his ass off and not enjoy like the other children because that’s his moral duty. And he must remain committed to it in spite of the criticism that is deserved, of course, on not doing a good job. 

How is this relevant? Coming to our current scenario, AAP has been invited to form the government by the Delhi Lt. Governor. BJP, the party with the largest number of seats, has declined very nicely. AAP has asked for some time to make its decision. It has also asked clarification from the Congress and BJP party leaders on their stance on various issues.

Hindustan Times today (15th December), printed the results of its online poll -
Is Aam Aadmi Party running away from responsibility by not coming forward to form a government in Delhi?
Almost 50% of the people have said 'yes'. More than the people who have said 'no'.

I have been reading a few comments on various articles and posts. There are numerous comments condemning AAP for not taking the initiative to form the government. Comments such as these -

“Don't waste your time on AAP. I feel they have missed the bus. This is no way to negotiate. It is running away from responsibilities....”
“Arre bhai to form govt. to do all this naa... why all this drama... if they won't agree on some issue then expose them by being in govt. .. truth is AK is a big Phattu!!”

This post is not about the competency of AAP or Kejriwal. It's not about who should form the government. It's also not about Sachin's performance. It is about what people, who I will call langurs, think and expect.
The Indian Langur - no patience, no support, only result
 The langurs who are not involved except during their coffee chat discussions in which they pass judgments like veterans of the craft. And frankly, langurs do not really affect the proceedings. However, I still have a hard time grasping the langur's opinion. 

I don’t understand this. First of all, why are they, the langurs, not saying the same things for BJP? After all, BJP does have the highest number of seats. Why is BJP not taking the initiative to form the government? Hasn’t it made promises to people? Is it not supposed to work for the people and care for their well-being? Or have langurs already given up on it thinking – ‘Arey, wo to waise hi harami hain. Unse kya baat karni?’ AAP has not won majority. People have not given it that kind of support. But we seem to say to AAP - 

You have the second most seats as a sign of our support but you should take the initiative to form the government. We also want you to deliver on all your promises immediately. Never mind that the other parties have not done anything for 60 years. I know that your people are novices and these issues are deeply entrenched and not easy to solve. Yet you must do it. Without majority. ASAP. With the other parties providing obstacles in your path. And we don’t want you to be sure of the support that you get from the other parties because that’s their job of opposing you.

So not only does Sachin have an incompetent team, but the other batsmen are actively trying to get him run out. But he must lead India to victory because we langurs can have expectations only from Sachin. There is no hope from the rest so let them indulge. Many greats have failed and given up because of our attitude. It's alright. We will resign ourselves to our fate and go back to our original state.

Training the 'blue-collared' worker

Vocational education has been a poor orphan in our educational system. Only the ones who are deemed as incapable of doing well in our 'regular' education system turn towards vocational education. In the past one year working with Funfirst Global Skilllers, post-Teach For India, I have learnt quite a lot about the current vocational system. A small event happened in my early days at work that gave me hope and the belief that this work is worth it.

A few years ago, Government of India created Modular EmployableSkills (MES) framework with the aim to provide, improve and certify employable skills to school leavers, existing workers, ITI graduates etc. MES courses are demand driven, short term training courses identified in consultation with the industry. While there is a lot to be desired, these MES courses are a good attempt at outcome based vocational course design.

One of the first steps was registering Funfirst as a vocational training partner (VTP) and our Kolhapur site as a Vocational Training Center. Like all government processes in India, it was long and tedious. It took months and was very frustrating. So it was a big deal when we finally got the approval. We decided to start with Electronics 101 and Material Management 101 and chose 20 employees from our plant to be trained. We could start training!

Well, not really. We faced a challenge in the form of the Government web portal for this scheme. Long hours were spent registering our people and then enrolling them according to the planned training calendar. The servers were down most of the time. One of us had to spend the night in office to upload data on the server since it worked best at night. The battle against the portal’s vagaries took many days but we plodded on relentlessly. Finally, one sunny day (or a dark night), our course enrollment was complete. Now, I hoped we could start training!

This was our first time training so all of us were nervous and excited (understandably). Our new trainers spent hours planning their course and many more studying in preparation. After all, this was also their first time in training. Our trainees, who are existing plant workers, showed a lot of enthusiasm and grit, doing their best to balance their education and work at the plant. They regularly took small assessments and exceeded expectations.

All too soon, the course was completed and it was time for the final assessment by a third party assessor. While we were confident about our training we nervously asked our trainees about their performance on the assessment. The wait for the result seemed to last for eternity. One afternoon while checking the portal, as had been the hourly ritual, we noticed that the results had been uploaded and each one of our trainees had passed. We were overjoyed with our first batch.

However, we were not satisfied with just the results. Vocational education has always been short changed in our country and we wanted to find out if our trainees had really derived some benefit from the course. I personally spoke to more than half the students and their feedback was more than a little surprising.

Almost everyone felt that they understood most of their course. Some of them have worked for many years but they had only a superficial or mechanical understanding. For the first time, they realized how things were done. Even in cases when the courses were not immediately related to their field of work, all of them were happy that they gained some more knowledge. It enabled them to ask more questions, submit better reports and take initiative in doing simple tasks which earlier, they relegated to their colleagues and superiors. Couple of them said that they always had an interest in electronics but could never get trained in it. Now they have repaired small appliances in their own homes. All of them are eager to do more such courses in the future.


Drilling techniques in a Mumbai Training
For far too long, the ‘blue-collared’ workers have been marginalized and their careers have stagnated due to lack of advancement opportunities. They are treated as inefficient machines who should not have a career path. Professional development and work satisfaction is not even in the vocabulary. Good quality, sincere training leads to more productivity, efficiency, confidence and satisfaction at work.

And this is just the start. In India, there are many people waiting to have their story taken forward.

This post was originally written by me for Funfirst's blog which can be accessed hereIt has been edited and posted on this blog.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Problems with 'Smart' people in the social sector

Let me start by explaining my use of the word 'smart'. There are a lot of large and not-so-large social sector organizations that seek (and get) validation because they hire 'smart' people. Usually, this means that they have people from the urban upper middle class, having elite university education, who have (or could have) joined the traditional higher-paying corporate jobs. Even if we ignore the dubious quality of university education in India, we are still talking about people who have little experience with the problems at the grassroots - be it the urban slums or the rural poor. Normally, they also don't have the relevant experience and certification in the particular social sector field. This leads to a lot of problems and resource wastage.

The title is a little more provocative than what I really feel and the post is not a rant. There are a lot of really good people working in the social sector. They have adeptly avoided the issues that I am going to talk about. Also, I have mellowed down with age.

First of all, some people carry the their socioeconomic background and elite education with arrogance. I am sorry, but just because someone graduated from IIM Ahmedabad in finance and worked in Private Equity for 5 years does not make him/her an authority on maternity healthcare or low-cost housing or primary education.

Almost 3 years ago, I was visiting a slum in South Bombay with a bunch of graduate students from Harvard Design School. They were here to look at slums for a few hours for a few days and then present a design for restructuring housing construction of that area. We traveled through two slums, met a few people, went inside one house, saw a community toilet from the outside (they wouldn't go in) and asked about sewage. Towards the end of it, the problem they identified was the lack of drainage construction in the area. This prevented every household from having a bath and toilet. So drainage must be built. And then, people must invest a considerable sum of money in having their own bathrooms. Hence they were stuck since that could only be done by uprooting the whole area and digging drains in it first.

This is a good example of the lack of understanding of people disconnected from ground realities. I am not sure if people living there really thought about having their own toilets. Did they want private toilets? Is it a priority for them? Were their complaints about lack of hygiene of community toilets or lack of private ones? Could we not just focus on ensuring maintenance of existing community toilets and maybe build additional few of those so that accessibility and rush is improved?

That can be the problem with foreign experts and consultants. India is not Germany or Japan. Upper-class Indians also have the same problems. The class difference is so wide that a lot of us have no clue about life on the other side of the fence. A person working in the social sector needs to have expertise in the field as well as a thorough understanding of the people. The people that they are working for (sometimes with) have grown up differently with different mindsets.

Then there are the financial constraints. Normally, salaries will not match up to the salaries 'smart' people were previously getting or would have gotten. It translates to lowered earnings throughout their working period. This leads to a few problems -


One is the 'charity' feeling which leads to a sense of moral and intellectual superiority. 'Smart' people get accolades from friends in 'regular' jobs about their tremendous sacrifice. It almost feels like being a messiah to the people in need.
Mandatory Anurag Behar excerpt from another brilliant and polite article
"... but a significant minority seems to believe that they are doing a favour to society (or me) by even considering such a movement and the mere idea of the material sacrifices that they will make in such a transition entitles them to a “leadership” role. Do I need say more about such people?"

This 'charity' feeling gives rise to another problem. Some 'smart' people don't push themselves hard enough. After all, they are not getting paid as much and they can take it easy. They can work long days and weekends to draft that report selling underwear to partners but it's alright to give sub-excellent service to many children because they are doing this to feel good about themselves.

High attrition is the third problem. A lot of people think that they are not getting as much money as they can or deserve (very questionable). Some people think of it as time off to do something that makes them feel good. Young 'smart' people do this for the 'experience' before they can join the regular higher paying jobs. At some point of time, however, family and peer pressure gets to a lot of them. After all, who will marry you if you are not earning enough? Hence, these organizations struggle with retaining 'smart' people who go for greener pastures and MBAs.

The problem for organizations is getting the money. The donors are rich corporate businesses and the like. They like to give money to people like them and organizations who are hiring people like them ('smart' people). After all, 'smart' people need more money to work for these causes. Add in buzzwords like 'technology', 'measurable outcomes' and you have an entire fundraising campaign.

I strongly feel that people who have the problems should be involved in solving it. Instead of throwing money and hiring more 'smart' people to provide complete solutions, communities should be involved. 'Non-smart' people should be trained and empowered to make changes which they seem right. And if these people were given the same salaries and training, we would have 'smarter', purposeful and happier workers in place of the inexperienced 'smart' people who are 'compromising' on their lifestyles and careers.