Sukracharjya Rabha – a tribute!

“Manjit, once this guest house completes, I want to start the residential academic course in theatre with any state university; the ultimate aim is to have one full-fledged Badungduppa Art and Theatre university. Kene hobo?”

“Bhale ase? I am calling to give update on land buying thing for our Art & Theatre village. Bharat Da has also agreed to sell his land. I am talking to a local micro finance for immediate money. Hopefully, we will lay the foundation pillar when you come next”

“In this year’s Sal Tree festival, I will focus on high quality. I will select all the plays only after careful investigation and collective feedback. The nature aspect must come up prominently. Majority teams will be from outside India. You travel with them from Delhi itself; I will book the tickets”

“Manjit, let’s do a career counseling workshop for the 10th and 12th students of Agia. I will arrange everything, you bring the Xomidhan experts. Come with some time in hand, will take lunch together and then talk”

“I and Rahul Da will visit Delhi next month and stay at your place. I have to talk with Sangeet Natak Academy and Cultural ministry regarding pending funds. Also, we will have one small meet-up to take feedback how to take theatre movement forward. Apuni arrange koribo lagibo”

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Dream, hope, vision, efficiency, optimism – it is very hard to find one person who constantly talks about these words in a remote village of Assam. As I entered adulthood, I had the good fortune of finding one in my neighborhood. Sukracharjya Rabha, a remarkable genius of Indian theatre, a student activist turned theatre director, recipient of Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar from the president of India, founder-director of Badungduppa Kala Kendra and curator of Under the Sal Tree International theatre festival. He was an artist, change maker,  philosopher, visionary, social worker, play-writer, teacher and many more. Unfortunately on 8 June, he left us for heavenly abode at a very early age. For several minutes, I kept telling myself ‘this is false news, this has to be false news’. Time can’t be so cruel. We have so many dreams to accomplish. Death – why have you become so cheap and readily available? Can’t you see a whole society was dependent on one young person? Do you have an issue on prioritization?

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During Under the Sal Tree Festival 2017

I am finding it difficult to express my emotion; it has created such a void within myself. Personally, he was my neighbour, school senior, pride of my native village/district/state, partner in exploring new things, philosopher bondhu and a co-dreamer. One Last Question wouldn’t have been possible without Sukra Da. In fact, through that movie I came in close contact with him. In my volunteering days post Oxford, I got the opportunity to involve myself with the ‘Under the Sal Tree festival’ and his visions for the community and Indian theatre.

For those who don’t know Sukra Da well, he was born on 10 April 1977 at Rampur village in the district of Goalpara, Assam. He learnt the first steps of theatre direction and design in Guwahati. He further trained under Padmashri awardee H. Kanhailal and H. Sabitri at Kalakshetra Imphal, Manipur for two years. Upon returning to Assam, he founded Badungduppa Kala Kendra, a rural base theatre centre at his village in 1998. He has directed more than 25 plays in Rabha, Bodo, Nepali & Assamese languages. Some of his plays are Rupalim, Madaiah Muchi, To’ Poidam, Labhita, Hati Aru Fandi, Dangai, Dumukchi and Rather Rashi. His plays have been performed widely in national and international theatre festivals. Off late, Sukra Da was trying to promote the cultural heritage of Rabha community as well as other ethnic groups of North East India through theatre. He was member of Sankardeva Kala Kendra and was recipient of many national and international honours including “Aditya Bikram Birla Kala Kiran Puruskar” from Sangit Kala Kendra, Mumbai for his outstanding performance in the field of theatre.

Going beyond this high profile identity, Sukra Da maintained a very humble lifestyle in our village. One can spot him sitting at a corner shop of Agia market, reciting a poetry and humming a Bhupendra sangeet. The other day you will spot him fishing in a nearby pond wearing a gamocha. One can always find ‘sadha’ in his pocket, which he always hidden from seniors and juniors. On dress, the iconic black half jacket and the blue jeans dominated most occasions.

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Team Badungduppa after the performance of “Echo of Life”

But Sukra Da’s dreams were never simple. He was focused on institution building and thereby leaving a permanent legacy. He spent lot of time with the PhD scholars who chose his methodology as subject of research. “Academia is the most important stakeholder”, he often said. For inaugurating 2017 version of Sal Tree festival, he invited the Vice Chancellor of Gauhati University. He was hopeful that the coming generation would be able to understand the actual form of theatre that needs to be communicated loud. For JNU Delhi, IIT Guwahati, Gauhati University etc, Sukra Da often took classes on contemporary art and theatre.

Sukra Da frequently lectured on theatre – how fun component is integrated in certain characters, why Macbeth’s adopted version must reflect Assamese sentiment, how choice of language is just a metaphor, how body expression is far superior than choice of words, why open theatre is not restrictive compared to proscenium and mobile theatre- endless debate and discussion. Every day he invested minimum two hours on inventing and experimenting on theatre in natural setting. For theatre enthusiasts around the world, Badungduppa was like a pilgrimage centre. Thanks to him, I got introduced to a different world which none of friends from technology and policy background are aware. Sukra Da also ensured I apply my new found knowledge in moderating a play critic analysis session during last year festival.

The single thing that has been bothering me for the last two days – how to take forward the unfinished dreams of Sukra Da? Recently he bought several acres of land to build an ambitious ‘Art and Theatre village’ in the vicinity of Rampur. In my last visit to Assam, I and he sat together for hours on the proposed land, drew the rough architectural map and deliberated on probable financing options. He was very excited thinking how this theatre village will give employments to the elderly people who are expert in craft work which is slowly vanishing away from our daily lives. A sustainable business model without compromising the real essence of theatre, was something Sukra Da was always passionate about.

Sukra Da- whatever you have done for all of us in your short lifespan is huge. You are an inspiration for the generations to come. You have shown how determination and hard-work blended with humility can take someone so far. We will try to take forward your legacy. Stay well wherever you are, and keep blessing us.

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My first day at office

It’s been a while since I wrote my ‘first day’ blog post, the last one was at Oxford. I was engaged with an internship and two full time roles (one volunteering and other paid) in between. However, blame it on my laziness or the notion of ‘nothing exciting to write about’, I did not manage to write any post. This time, I decided to make an exception, rather, stick to the normal. One reason being, I am getting into a domain which I consider more important than health and education in Indian context.

Earlier, I wrote in multiple forums – one of the root causes of the prolonged insurgency in northeastern part of India is the lack of livelihood (I am not comfortable in using the term unemployment as I think that is a subset of livelihood). My volunteering period, post Oxford reaffirmed my conception. One of the factors leading to livelihood crisis is the lack of employable skills or adequate resources for generating self-employment.

The moment I use the word ‘skill’, many people brings out the words such as ITI, vocational, education-deprived, poverty etc. In my opinion, skill is still a taboo in India which is synonymous with ‘not good in academics’. What common mass of India wants are educational degrees. Whether the degrees have industrial acceptability or not, that is a different issue; but those certainly have lots of cultural and social acceptability, and we fall into that trap.

Shri Pranab Mukherji, ex-president and then finance minister, tried to break this taboo in the year 2009 by bringing the National Policy on Skill Development for the first time. Compared to other developed (and populous) countries, we were late by nearly 2 decades, I believe. But ‘der aaye durust aaye’! Since then the skill landscape has been undergoing a drastic makeover. To understand the complexity of this transformation, you may imagine of introducing a fresh education system in a newly born sovereign country where no education system existed. Curriculum, assessment, authority, standard, monitoring, knowledge, salary, infrastructure, teaching – the list seems endless. A similar ecosystem has been created (and still being challenged and modified) for skilling in India. Well, I would love to write a separate blog on this skill viz-a-viz education comparison matrix.

I wrote the above background to give justice in contextualizing my current employer. The organization which has been creating and transforming (and getting criticism as well) India’s skill landscape is National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC). This organization is very uniquely placed -you may call this a not-for-profit (a Section 8 entity), a private organization (private sector owns 51% of current equity base) or a government organization (setup by Ministry of Finance in 2009, runs primarily on government funding).

2 May 2018 –  I stepped out of my residence at 9-40 AM to reach the NSDC office at 9-52 AM on foot. I made a point to reduce my walking time between residence and office compared to the last employer and have been successful with a marginal gain of 3 minutes. The NSDC office has recently been shifted to Worldmark 1, an ambitious venture by Bharti Realty Ltd just near the IGI airport, New Delhi. Designed by renowned architect Kohn Pederson Fox, the three Worldmark buildings are LEED platinum pre-certified and consists of commercial space amounting to 1.5 million sq. ft (both retail and office spaces).

From the reception, I was taken to the HR wing. The day sets out with manual filling of several documents- 12 pages to be exact. For a change, I read every clause of the non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and tried to understand the style of the sentences. Interpretation is always a nightmare; I can only sympathize with the people trying to interpret Sharia law for good or bad. Meanwhile, I was feeling happy internally that some people were aware that someone named Manjit is joining the organization today. Previously, I had an experience where nobody had any clue that a new employee was coming, as written in this blogpost. After the documentation was done, I was introduced to my buddy for the first day.

The first day’s buddy system is something I really appreciate while joining any organization. I remember on my first day at the McKinsey office in Amsterdam, one lady accompanied me throughout the day. Without her, I am not sure how I would have managed the Dutch food, local transportation, washroom and the navigation inside office. Raktim (name changed on request) from my future team was assigned as buddy to me and he was kind enough to spend around 2 hours, mostly answering my questions that ranged from use of staircase to addressing the colleagues/managers, office dress code to the frequency of office parties. Raktim also explained the core functioning of the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) and Special Project teams under Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY), which was set to become my bread & butter. I was mostly on listening mode, with frequent queries that Raktim handled with quite enthusiasm. He also introduced me to the team members who were present on that day – young and energetic group of people! I was elated!

My lunch was scheduled with my manager who currently heads the two teams of RPL and Special Projects, along with NSDC’s special initiatives for Northeast and Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) areas. Looking at his well-built physique, I was only thinking of my vanishing hairline and aggressive tummy for a while. The food court is situated in the second floor of Worldmark1. In the context of food, let me mention the business model of the Bharti Realty group. What I have been told, the group doesn’t allow any office tenants to have own caterers, which eventually forces everyone, who does not bring food from home, use the food court situated at the second floor. The food court hosts all the big food brands from the industry that common people like me don’t consider as destinations for staple food every day. Before stepping inside the food court, I just thought Bharti’s concept will change either my culinary skill or my food habits.

During the lunch, we discussed generic stuffs about NSDC, about the Skill India programme and bit about the team’s daily work schedule. The lunch with manager was pre-planned, which means NSDC did prepare my first day to an extent. The HR team also paid for my lunch on that day. Well, I really don’t mind if HR wants to repeat this in return of 12 new pages of documentation once a month 😊

After the lunch, I was handed over my official laptop. I was thinking inside – so soon? I wouldn’t have mind if they delayed this by a week- a world without laptop and cellphone is a bliss for me. My NSDC email ID was also configured and I was impressed by the swiftness of the IT team. A physical visit to a PMKVY training centre in NCR was planned in the second half, but later shifted to the next day. This centre visit, that happened on 3 May 2018 was a great experience, but I will skip that since I am only writing about my first day at office.

Soon after receiving the laptop, the HR gave me a list of uploaded videos and power-points describing different clusters and divisions inside the organization. It was a part of the induction process. I hope people will agree with me on this point- whenever anyone is provided with ‘stuffs to read/watch’ without any assessment module or any direct impact on one’s responsibilities, it is immensely difficult to bring the concentration. For one hour, I was in conundrum- what to do with the ‘moderately boring’ videos and PPTs? I had the option of ‘strategically misrepresent’ my facts about the assignment (in Public Policy world, we don’t use the word ‘lie’). But I awakened the ‘academic Manjit’ component of myself- I must understand whole institutional arrangement to suggest something meaningful; NSDC is just one small component of the huge skill ecosystem that I need to absorb. Winning against yourself is the job half done! For the next 1 and half days, I took 4 pages of notes and 1.5 pages of questions. The internal motivation that I brought on the first day at office is certainly going to help my understanding of skilling in India.

The rest of the day, I spent watching induction videos on the new laptop sitting near the HR team. Mr. Arjun, who heads the team, had given me a real life NSDC technical problem to think over during the interview. He implanted the issue inside my brain so strongly that even while watching Arjuna of Mahabharata, I kept remembering the probable technical solutions of the NSDC problem. We did manage to speak for a few minutes on the first day, although subsequent days witnessed intense discussions.

The clock was ticking 6-30 PM, but I hardly saw chairs becoming empty. For a strict disciplinarian like me with 8:30 AM – 5:30 PM time schedule for last 2.3 years, my conscious was not allowing me sticking to the chair. I went to the bay which will be my new workstation and spent some time sitting in a corner sofa watching the people around. Watching movement of unknown people has always been my hobby. Next, I wanted to catch hold of some important contemporary updates (Flipkart acquisition, Karnataka election, Hindu citizenship bill etc) and spent a few minutes reading newspapers near NSDC reception. The reception area is beautifully decorated with multiple branding of the Skill India initiative.

It wasn’t dark yet outside. Suddenly I remembered I need to make my newly shifted place livable with bed and kitchen to the least. The marginal gain of 3 minutes left me with household chores of 3 days. I packed my bag, bade goodbye to my neighbors and slowly came out of the office. Thus, my first day at office came to an end.

As I was walking on the road brooding over the day’s activities, a conversation in Assamese language broke my chain of thought. Two young men who worked as housekeeping boys in the Aerocity hotels were returning from work. I never miss an opportunity to initiate conversation with people from my native land; this time I couldn’t control myself from asking them about RPL. To my pleasant surprise, they have heard about the term- God bless NSDC! While listening to them, I was thinking whether skill can solve their challenges and help achieving their aspirations, which education (they think) couldn’t do! Is the notion of putting skill against education accurate? How big are we aiming actually in NSDC? I felt more responsible, as well as restless.

In the land of Arabs

I may be called an accidental traveler since I am not a travel enthusiast; however, circumstances and quest for knowledge often take me out to different places. For people living outside the native state where family still resides, traveling to visit the family 3-4 times every year itself consumes a lot of time, money and energy. Moreover, I don’t work for an organization or in a job profile that requires a lot of travel. You don’t need the last two reasons for a self-declared non-travel enthusiast, but you can surely imagine the impact of the combination of all the reasons on my overall travel experience.

Saudi Arabia (yes, the same country that has prohibited women from driving cars), since 1985, has been organizing an annual cultural and heritage festival called ‘Janadriyah’, where one country is chosen as the partner country. For 2018, India is the partner country. There is a separate India pavilion this year where ‘India story’ will be displayed, including the flagship government initiatives.  My ministry also got an official letter to participate to showcase the Digital India programme to the Saudis. I and my colleague Suraj Arora were selected to represent the ministry at Janadriyah, 50 KM from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. And hence, this blog-post -:)

I and Suraj left Delhi on 6 February IST night and returned on 11 February IST evening. Our schedule was quite packed and we could not manage to explore the city or the neighborhood. Hence, I am not going to write about the famous tourist spots or tips for future travelers. The purpose of this post is just to pen down a few experiences and observations.

  1. The visa process– I can write on this at length, but don’t want to start this post with negativity. In summary, I and Suraj made to wait one full day in front of the rented house of the Saudi embassy in New Delhi, with no place to sit (or even to stand). After a lot of phone calls to Ministry of External Affairs and the Indian embassy in Saudi, when we got the visa at 6-00 PM, it was too late for us to reach the airport and we had to reschedule the flight for the next day. This all happened even after we had written clearance from the foreign ministries of Saudi Arabia and India well in advance.
  2. Travel– While traveling to Riyadh by the Jet Airways flight, not for a single minute, I felt like visiting a foreign country. The food was pathetic, no entertainment screen and leg space were even shorter (it seemed) than Delhi-Guwahati flights. I observed the presence of a large number of non-skilled working class personnel and absence (almost) of women. While coming back we took a SAUDIA flight (ring a bell -remember the infamous Charkhi Dadri head-on collision in 1996?). The flight infrastructure was much better; we were given special ‘Hindu Veg meal’ before the normal food distribution started. The one thing I and Suraj could not figure out was whether the air-hostesses were Indians or Saudis, since they spoke fluent Hindi.
  3. Janadriyah festival– For our entire stay duration, we used to spend around 9-10 hours on average at the Janadriyah festival. This was similar to Delhi’s India
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    The outside of the India pavillion at Janadriyah

    International Trade Fair, however, Saudis call this cultural and heritage fair. The area is humongous (just for information- from the first gate to India pavilion, the distance would be 3.4 KM); but the important point is that the parking space was almost equal or bigger than the main festival area. Apart from the business houses and the government initiatives, this was also an event to showcase the old cities and other regions of Saudi Arabia such as Makkah, Madinah, Tabuk, Jawf, Bahah, Dammam etc. Most pavilions had a stage made with seating arrangement and an occasional cultural programme was a norm. India, being a partner country was given a very prominent location inside the event. FICCI, along with Indian embassy there, was coordinating most of the During the Salah times (prayer), all shops and events used to shut down for around 20-30 minutes. Looking at the frequency of shutdowns, I think, apart from Zuhr, Asr, and Maghrib, there were some other types of prayers as well.

  4. Roaming in Riyadh: We managed to take out 3 hours on Saturday morning to explore the capital city. First, we bought a few necessary items including the
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    With Suraj in front of Kingdom Centre

    ‘must have’ dates, from Panda supermarket located at a walking distance from our hotel- Golden Tulip. Then I hired an Uber (first time for me outside India) to visit Kingdom Centre, the 99-storey skyscraper of Riyadh. The first three floors are reserved for shopping mall and entry is open to everyone. There is provision to go to the top floor at 60 Riyal (Saudi currency, INR 18 = 1 Riyal) per person. We neither had the time nor had converted currency. Since it was Saturday, almost all shops were closed. We walked around 2 KM on King Fahad Road, which is the wealthiest business place in Riyadh with headquarters of major companies and organizations located on both sides. The Sun was at its best; since there are no trees on road sides, the sun rays get reflected and attack the bare eyes very badly. None of us had goggles and we found much difficulty in coming out to open area. The roads were superb. I liked the way Saudis have designed the footbridges. However, we were the only two persons walking on the footbridge. There was absolutely no person walking on the streets.

  5. Getting fooled in Camel safari: In spite of time crunch, I and Suraj decided to take a camel safari during our stay. We booked a taxi at 100 Riyal which was supposed to take us from the hotel, make the safari and drop us at Janadriyah. A few minutes
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    Look at the background of the ‘desert’

    after boarding the taxi, I felt we have not been able to communicate our destination accurately. The driver was a Pakistani from Swat valley, living in Riyadh for years; from his limited understanding of Hindi (and probably my limited Hindi speaking ability) he understood the camel thing alright, but couldn’t distinguish between a desert safari and a camel ride. Eventually, we were taken to a place where there was a camel (yes, only one), not in a desert, but standing by the side of one highway. This is pretty much available even in Delhi, near my house, where one can sit for 5-10 minutes and take a ride.  That place, called Tumama is home to different fun sports activities such as horse riding, camel riding and quad (4-wheeler bike) riding. I sat on the back of the camel for 5 minutes, while Suraj preferred the quad bike. For information, my camel riding (~150 mtr ) took 15 Riyal and bike riding for half hour took 25 Riyal. Thus our expectation of viewing a Saudi desert was mercilessly destroyed by our own stupidity. The place of the actual desert was located around 40-50 KM from Janadriyah, a hilly terrain and takes around 4-5 hours to reach, we were told.

  6. Indians at Saudi Arabia– Indians are the largest community of expatriates in Saudi Arabia with estimated 30-40 Lakhs Indians living in the country. However, the situation of an average Indian expatriate really disturbed me. They are mostly into cleaning, washing and construction sites. The way these people are looked down upon and kept separated from the ‘saudi’ class, it is heartening to see. There are a lot of Pakistani and Bangladeshis too; but it seemed Pakistanis occupy slightly higher positions in Riyadh, such as the driver, shopkeepers etc. I talked to many of these Indians, mainly the cleaners at Janadriyah festival. The joy of earning more money was not there at all. There were fear and grief with circulating stories how some of his friends were exploited by Saudi owner. The need to send home money so that his children and family can have slightly better lives makes these men work under vulnerable conditions. Somehow I felt like going back to the black slavery period, with a slightly modified version.

However, there exists a different narrative about Indians at Saudi and that has been created by a small state of India- Kerala. That perception is so strong that many Saudis think India is synonymous with Kerala. My Pakistani driver said Keralites are ‘chalu’ and they own many businesses in Riyadh now. One prominent name is the owner of LULU group, Mr. Yusuff Ali M.A. 24th wealthiest India (as on August 2016) with a personal wealth of $5.3 billion. I am sure recognition of India as a festival partner has much to do with the growing influence of the Indian Diaspora. I simply wish more Yusuff Ali come out of all the ‘labour Indians’ and the image of our country changes. As a traveler, one positive fact about having so many Indians engaged in the non-skilled job is that you will not find any difficulty in roaming because you will find Indians almost in all public places- mall, airport, market, festival. I still remember the Bihari helper in a food shop at Janadriyah; he gave me a food packet of 10 Riyal free of cost while his Saudi owner was looking at the other side. I told I am ‘rich’ enough to pay for that. He told, “you are here for only a few days, whereas I am living here for ages. I can’t do much for you; please accept the packet as a gift from my side”.  I felt immensely happy by that ‘stealing’ act; somehow and somewhere we Indians connect going beyond the barriers of religion and region.

7. The aam Saudi– At my village in Assam everybody thinks every sheikh has crude oil, three wives and lions & tigers as pets. Observing the common Saudis (and

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Explaining Digital India to Saudis

obviously, I mean male) was one of my favorite tasks during my stay. Suraj observed that every Saudis own an iPhone. Free things do attract everyone on earth. In the festival, the sample packets of Indian tea and coffee boards were stolen by local people in the very next day. At times, some youth would budge into our Digital India stall and ask us to pose for photographs, the same way a brown Indian asks a white or black person for posing into photograph. At the hotel, I met a group of school kids who have come from outside Riyadh to participate in football tournament; all of them want to be Ronaldo or Neymar. I talked to a few parents who were concerend about the future of kids and asked me whether I can arrange IT skill training in Riyadh. I found most of the people were very hopeful about the new Prince, 32 year old Mohammad bin Salman who is seen as progressive thinker and may usher a new era in Saudi Arabia, both financially and socially.

 

8. Saudi women– So much have been written and told about the status of women in Saudi Arabia that I think my post will be incomplete without a few lines about them. During my post graduation in Oxford, I met some intelligent and beautiful women from the middle-east region. But my enthusiasm this time was totally curtailed by repeated warnings not to look at the eyes or feet of any Saudi women, the only two visible parts of the body. Even that option didn’t come because I can count on finger how many women I saw (yes, I am talking about seeing, not about meeting or chatting) during my entire stay. The first week of Janadriyah festival allowed only ‘gents’ and no adult women were allowed inside the gates. All the shopkeepers and stall representatives were males. Many mall and restaurants have two different entry gates- one for gents and the other for family. Woman of any religion or nationality must wear burka or niqab once they cross the airport gate, I am told. The only place I and Suraj saw some women was Tumama (during camel riding); however most of them were foreigners wearing hijab or shayla. The mindset of the local males is to be blamed too. We met one local guy at the hotel who was unhappy as women will be allowed to drive from the month of June this year. I just hope to allow women to drive acts as a big disruption and things change for a gender equal Saudi society.

I hope you have enjoyed reading! If you have really enjoyed reading, there is no need to like, share and comment. Just relax and take care !

 

A half written story

Nilaya always had this in her mind- going back to her country and contribute the little she has learned over the years. In the past, she had put multiple efforts towards achieving this in different capacities. However, the leaves haven’t turned grey yet. Recently, she meticulously prepared a dozen policy proposals and vision documents, bunked office to visit think-tanks for brainstorming, conceptualized evidence based implementable solutions for complex public issues,  waited hours after hours to have a 10 minutes appointment slot with her head-of-state; however, nothing concrete has come out so far.

Last August, Nilaya got an unexpected call from one associate of the head-of-state. She was invited for a talk in the capital and also verbally offered a probable position to come back and work in her native country. She was elated! In subsequent discussions, even the position and payroll were promised to be adjusted as per her convience. “I always thought politically appointed associates are narrow-minded and apprehensive of other talented individuals because of the sustainability issue of positional power; I am glad to have proved wrong”, she thought.

Nilaya is neither like a hard working programmer nor like a superficial intellectual. She is very well connected, pragmatic and a doer; her leadership skills have been appreciated in her social circle and working space. The policy inputs from Nilaya are accepted by political leaders across right or left ideologies. The two non-profits run by Nilaya have good reputation among civil society and academia. However, Nilaya always keeps poll politics at a safe distance.

The associate did a sound job and the recruitment notice came up within 2 months. The fine positioning of the role obviously brought attention from various circles. Many applied and back channel talks also started. However, Nilaya’s profile was far better than that of other applicants and a fair assessment would anyway make her the successful applicant.

The offer letter came eventually and Nilaya resigned from her current job. Lot of dreams started blooming everywhere. Most people took Nilaya’s return as a positive step towards brain gain. Nilaya’s dream was also coming true- to serve her own people, to be with her family and to make a big impact in her native society. She was in the middle of writing an emotional blog post about the dreams for her country, when I met her last.

[2 months later]

Since I was traveling abroad, I could not be in touch with Nilaya for last one month. Yesterday, I happened to chair a meeting with a few officials from Nilaya’s country. I couldn’t resist asking whether they know my friend Nilaya. I was sure I would hear some bombastic appreciation about her work which might even make me jealous. But what I was told, completely shocked me.

Nilaya is a political bigot, conspiracy creator and inefficient person who might have put the whole government agency on a toss. She used a radical right wing political leader to put pressure on the government agency regarding her recruitment. She even complained to the head-of-state alleging corruption, although she was offered a transparent compensation package far better than her counterparts.  She was even caught lying about her qualification and profile details. Even though Nilaya was not issued any final appointment letter, she was putting pressure on the agency by declaring a joining date by her own. In summary, Nilaya’s actual plan was to throw out the associate (who helped her whole heartedly) and other bureaucrats from the system and become trusted lieutenant to the head-of-state.

“For how long have you known Nilaya? Is she like that always?”. I wanted to say “Absolutely No”, but I stopped my tongue. Here are four top policymakers and bureaucrats confirming their impression about a person with whom they had dealt on a professional level. No matter how much I know Nilaya personally and how ‘good’ she is, these people must have a point. I shouldn’t look foolish in front of these people. I said, “Nilaya is very ambitious. I will not be surprised if she has crossed some lines”.

I remained disturbed the whole evening. Were the officials right? But I know Nilaya for so long and I can’t be so awfully wrong about a person. On one hand, she has shaken the system such a way that the top guys of a country have to get involved in a simple recruitment. On the otherhand, her image has been completely destroyed to such an extent that I myself have a suspicion.

I decided to send a whatsapp text to Nilaya, “Can we meet for a cup of Assam tea tomorrow afternoon?”

Key takeways from my fulltime volunteering experience

  1. Distributing Free stuff is a chaotic concept- people just get crazy when they find something is coming without any strings attached. Among the free stuffs, ‘in cash’ is the most desirable option. If you say the ‘free stuff’ will be ‘in kind’ and a periodic inspection will be carried out every month, the enthusiasm seems to die down. It seems common citizens prefer one-shot & one-window transactions. You can understand why long duration Randomized Control Trial (RCT)s would be super difficult among these crowd.
  2. The war of quality versus quantity: in case of ‘free stuff’, quality does not matter; it is only about quantity. If you are giving seven things of low quality and four things of high quality, people would prefer the first. Quantity is preferred in case of selection of beneficiaries as well. If you are scoping in maximum number of families from one village as beneficiaries, people would make less chaos. The latter quantitative aspect is good for social cohesion, but worst if you are thinking in terms of true legitimacy on beneficiary selection.
  3. It is very difficult to create a new brand in a rural setup. For example, in giving way freebies, Government has already created a brand. Now, no matter how much you try with a separate identity (say private organization, NGO), government will get the automatic credit. This is a major issue and to solve this, the whole communication and branding strategy need a revamp.
  4. The concept of NGO is NOT “non-governmental” (at least in Assam). Rather NGO means the organization which can ‘manage’ some money out of government’s schemes and work in tandem. Hence, if you talk about an independent civil society type concept through NGOs, people have difficulty in understanding that notion.
  5. Providing rural livelihood is an amazingly complex endeavour. If you go to ten poor households in a village, you will be surprised how they are earning money and how they are making a living. There is no reason why Maoism, dacoity and insurgency won’t flourish in such an ecosystem.
  6. Lack of reliable data is a big bottleneck in project planning phase. In fact, more than that, the inconsistency of data is the biggest headache. The number of BPL families, IAY house beneficiaries, voter list, total number of self help groups, geographical area of a revenue village are very crucial data; but every ministries and non-profit organizations have different numbers.  The local narratives are different, government’s data is different; and when the primary data of the project execution team also differs, there occurs total chaos. The initiatives like AADHAR, Big Data, Geo-informatics, standardized protocols are essential.
  7. The number of mental patients, bed-ridden individuals suffering from critical diseases, unmarried old males and females, childless couples are very disturbing and vulnerable entities in a rural area. People look down upon these individuals as bad omen. These unfortunate numbers are quite staggering too. This is how pessimism starts taking over a society, leading the way for evil practices like witch-craft.
  8. The presence of VIP racism in Indian bureaucracy is immense. It has percolated down to the village level as well. The influence/power/respect/hatred for the government ‘entities’ such as Asha karmi, Panchayat secretary/president are beyond imagination. Since, the salary component is not attractive for these posts, the power component starts dominating. While interacting with a groups of villagers, when an Asha karmi starts speaking representing the crowd, I felt like, in the herd of foolish people, they are the self projected leader or that sort. These government people always scare the non-governmental entities with their ‘so-called’ power. But if you can ask one logical & knowledgeable question, they will start pleading you for not snatching their jobs. This is interesting example of  unproductive and inefficient ‘street level bureaucracy’.
  9. The aim for earning ‘something extra’ , particularly by the government employees or unemployed NGO workers, is very troublesome. Free social service is almost a myth. Motivating an unemployed youth for volunteering is a challenge and you need to devise ways for achieving that. By inserting little bit of allowances for tamul-paan or tea-samosa and petrol worth Rs 30/-, you can make most people work the way you want. Most of the NGOs are created to earn some forms of livelihood for the associated members. This is the bitterest truth in most places in India. But if you ask whether a youth should join an insurgent group or open an NGO where they will do only 10% social work, I would still go for the second option. <break>. Have you noticed- this is how we start compromising, because, we need to select the better from two worst options.
  10. We are all hypocrites ; and, to such a large extent that I suggest the literal meaning of hypocrisy should be changed, since the current meaning gives a ‘bad’ perception. In the continuously evolving dynamic world, where you leave trace for ‘almost everything’, you gain new knowledge, form new opinion and take new sides as you go along. Zing said, ‘Change is the only constant thing in the world’; then why are we so touchy about change? When you are doing something unconventional, the first title people will give you is ‘hypocrite’. The sooner you discover the genesis of the word, the more effective you will be.
  11. You perfectly realize the economic class division between the middle class and the lower class. We often hear the statement ‘Indian middle class is highly aspirant’ ; but I always wondered who on earth will not have aspiration? While working in the villages, I could easily find one set of non-aspirant people, since, I believe, resource availability directly impacts aspirations. For the people in lower economic strata, ‘money is everything’ concept is super powerful.
  12. I found one big hurdle in executing a voluntary project is the lack of consistency by all the stakeholders involved. As an example, for the NGO volunteers, the ambition to help the society come once in 3 months or when I speak about positivism enthusiastically or when somebody offers a financial help (the scenario is not much different for many professionals or office-goers). The moment you are out on street alone, the whole concept of altruism vanishes in a second. The other way of looking at this behavior- one can easily manipulate their emotion/priority and use for a brief period in the way you want. In fact, most political parties use this ploy, I believe.
  13. Technology is about empowering people to do their own jobs. But in a rural place like ours, technology means another computer shop to deal with customers. For example, when government of India brought the PAHAL scheme, the main idea was to enable every consumer manages her own LPG account, and thus prevent the leakage of subsidized cylinders. But, in reality, even a digitally literate consumer started looking for someone who could help her to do the job. After getting 2o requests, that ‘someone’ started a computer shop and that itself defeated the whole purpose of PAHAL.  So the problem is not the lack of technology or transparency, but the change of mindset.
  14. While running an organization(same for a country), you need two sets of people- doer and thinker. For the larger interest of the organization, they should work in tandem. Possessing ideology is not an exclusive right of thinkers, many doers do have strong ideology, but the ‘do’ part motivates her. Now, on the question of who should first lean to the other side, my personal opinion is that thinkers should try to lean towards the doer side. My belief is supported by the fact that many scholars have made their way to execution successfully (Kaushik Basu, Arvind Panagariya and many more), but few executioners are prominent in the intellectual circle. To start ‘thinking’ structurally and penning down in a language understood by all is difficult than trying to translate your thoughts of execution into tangible executed outcome.
  15. It is extremely difficult to do the trade-off between necessary help versus generic help. For example, during the Assam flood, a widow and her teenage daughter lost their only shelter, as well as the livestock-their only sources of earning livelihood. In our flood rehabilitation project, we decided to make an exception and provided both shelter and livelihood to that poor family. But our effort to solve a genuine case was severely criticized as discrimination based on race/gender/religion and what not. So, in mass relief project, I believe generic help is the better way. However, in such case, some beneficiaries will receive unwanted stuff and the genuine purpose night not be fulfilled. I don’t know what can be a mid way.
  16. Politics is an inherent component of social life. The sad part is that rural people relate politics only through religion, cast, region or for individual benefits. It is next to impossible for an electoral candidate to convince a voter with the promise of better world when the other candidate is offering one ten rupee note. This is the reason why most of these people are completely negative about the agenda of development or any long term vision of the government. In my assessment, there is no chance of this situation getting changed in next couple of decades. Does that mean government will remove long term development from its agenda? Absolutely no ! Negative atmosphere does not create a strong ideological base; the mindsets of these people have to be manipulated. And for state with such a huge resource base, this is a comparatively easier task.

Thoughts while reading ‘Freedom at Midnight’:

About the book:

“Freedom at Midnight” is a non-fiction written by Larry Collins, an American and Dominique Lapierre, a French in the year 1975. It depicts the major events happened around Indian independence movement from the day of appointment of Lord Mountbatten as the last Indian viceroy to the funeral day of late Mahatma Gandhi.

How I got the book:

It was given as donation to MN Memorial Library. After learning the comparative analysis by Oxford Asst. Professor Maya Tudor why democracy in India is still thriving while in Pakistan tumbled multiple times, I was looking for a good account to know more about India’s partition.

Thoughts while reading the book:

  1. The bookish description of a character is awesome when tremendous complexity surrounds that character, both in terms of thoughts and actions. Gandhi is such an example. As I consider myself one complex ‘entity’, I am super excited thinking how would someone describe my awesomely complex logic and thoughts. She would definitely misrepresent me (how am I so certain?) and, on that assumption,  isn’t that the single biggest drawback in writing historical texts about dead personalities?Book
  2. For me, the school book idea of reading history is like going through the major events and remembering time and place. Only when you read history as minutely as described in  ‘Freedom at Midnight’, you learn how events and individuals were so close to real life. Internal human emotions remain ‘almost’ the same, only the surrounding eco-system differs.
  3. A bird is born twice – once as egg, and then as ‘animal’.
  4. If Gandhi could have aroused so much hatred against himself in the minds of people like Godse and Apte, why, in the age of communication and information technology, someone is not getting aroused against people like Pappu Yadav or Rakesh Pal ? Is self- centricity the answer? In earlier days, even hatred had a significant portion of ‘public good’ from hater’s perspective. I believe this thought belongs to extreme right wing ideology, but, at least, there was ideology.
  5. Look at the irony- Gandhi who had been a devoted Hindu all his life including his efforts with celibacy , was killed by another who had been a devoted Hindu by himself throughout his life. So, there is no concept like ritual or religion, its all in the interpretation. And, interpretation is always been a ‘my thing’. The same argument is very much in use these days regarding the rise of Islamic fanatics and interpretation of Islam and Sharia law.
  6. The chapter on the lifestyle of the Raja/Maharajas answered some of my unanswered questions. There will always be an elite class who never bother what the historians will capture years later, in spite of their capacity to get involved. These people can even appoint another set of historians who would write the history in the way they want. The whole of concept ‘Bharat’ had been fragile since ages. In fact, British contributed significantly in building that ‘Akanda Bharat’ concept that RSS wants to achieve with pen and paper. Compared to those Raja/Maharajas, British rule was better, wasn’t it?
  7. Even though fantastic research is done by the authors of the book (they rented houses in India with family to do research, wow!), one can always find fault and biases in their writing (Eg- the way they have depicted nuclear testing in the land of ahimsa in the epilogue, I personally find hypocritical). Deciding to concentrate on a topic when there exists several other accounts already, will draw criticism and this is the essence of any writer’s life.
  8. In school book reading, we focus on a single story (have you seen the amazing TED talk by novelist Chimamanda Adichie? ). When I read  sentences like all Indians came out to participate in the freedom struggle movement, I was not allowed to think about the middle class Indians who went to Bengal to prepare for the Indian Civil Service under the British rule, or the middlemen who supplied girls to the the Maharajas. So, it is not logical to expect from someone to love her country, if you love your country. It is a matter of individual choice.

 

From Oxford to Agia

 

“Have you made a contract of going back, you have been insane and Oxford has made you super arrogant, are you incubating the most foolish desire of changing a broken nation, you are just slipping away from a superbly lucrative career; I guess you are doing the right thing, I know you want to get married to a girl in Assam only, the country needs some mad dogs like you, for a village boy like yours India is the best place to live”

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Last ride from High Street

Well, there is no dearth of comment/advice/wishes when you make a journey like Oxford to Agia. But for me, it was eighteen (18) well-thought-after reasons (pinned in my auto-bio blog) that made me on board the journey back to India. I didn’t mention one reason there though: I wanted to update this blog with the same title sentence from the last post, except changing the position of two words (pun intended, but of little quotient!). I sincerely believed, if life is a story, the story of my life would be super interesting only if I come back straight and there occurs something extreme on arrival (either good or bad).

It’s been over a year now, since I returned from Oxford, followed by an internship stint with the McKinsey Amsterdam office. Amidst all the things that kept my schedule super packed during the last year, I have been trying to nurture one concept – Fulltime Volunteering @ Home. It wasn’t any strategic post-Oxford career move, rather, consequential steps of  an extremity, almost the way I expected.

Now, let me not re-write what I have already written in the BSG Blog: Post BSG destination: Fulltime Volunteering @ Home. I have written about the concept and the extreme component in that post of the BSG Blog. It has been received well so far, and I am glad the Oxford to Agia voyage had been fruitful.

My last post ‘From Agia to Oxford’ opened a Pandora’s box and left many consequential endeavors including a short movie titled ‘One Last Question’. Now, I expect, this post logically closes the Pandora’s box on an optimistic note.

I will continue posting my thoughts and learning (that are suitable for public view) in this blog. In the time period between these two posts, I have opened the “most self deliberated” auto-bio blog and hope to make it public some day.

May optimism flourish in this planet !