Tuesday, December 3, 2013

'Rights' and Wrongs

One could have easily misconstrued him as a member of a rebel outfit. His olive green shirt recalled some memories from TV news telecasts with someone 'reporting from Chhatisgarh'. A small dose of fear mixed with some feeling of uncertainty arrived in my heart before I could take notice of it. I was sitting on a wooden jute cot with Subhash at its other end. Small piglets were being locked away in kennels. Almost every kid below 5 was draped in mud and was playing without pants. One may call the area congested but not dirty. One of the reasons may be that people would go distances to defecate, to keep their neighborhood clean.  

An old man and a few middle-aged women listened carefully to the results of oral test of their children. Subhash seemed positive, unlike the earlier visit when he found students performing quite bad on paragraph reading. Though Subhash says he struggled hard for making it to 'Pratham' and harder to be good at the job, he believes that efforts shall be made on 'fertile ground'. (Pratham is the largest NGO working on elementary education in India and Subhash is Pratham's District Coordinator for Rohtas.) Here, expectations are the precursors to frustrations. But today, the ‘fertility’ found glitters through his smile. 'Geeta', aged 9, a Class V student is able to read a paragraph nicely. Better than expected. Enough 'fertile' to justify to us the time and effort being put in. 

I and Subhash have teamed up to visit Mahadalit Tolas to promote the evening sitting for learning of kids. A young person from the Tola is selected and is made responsible for arranging sitting space and maintain discipline in the sitting classes. Out of the three places, we have been able to run it at two places. Subhash has learnt a number of tools to engage with kids by creating a playful atmosphere. He creates the amicable atmosphere and then we do the sense-talking with Tola people. The sense talking has already been done here. Classes stopped after they ran for three days. So, we are here to postmortem the past.

Golden paddy plants are down due to self-weight possibly singing "It's harvesting season". Almost everyone from this tola has been engaged in harvesting business since; since they don't remember. The old man saw his grandfather doing that and he handed over the torch to his grandson, Sonu, a 25 years-aged young man cradling his two kids. 

Poonam runs to see machine harvester. She is small enough to comprehend that the way of her happiness is a source of despair for her family. The Old man complaints the decrease in demand of Human harvesters. "With machine, the big farmers are able to harvest a bigha in two-three hours. Normally, one person would take two days to reap one bigha paddy field."

Kids climb over to the driver's cabin to see the features that they couldn't see till now owing to their short height. Four kids have lined up. One jumps from the top of the ladder after watching and checking carefully, allowing the one-in-waiting to follow the process. This is a circus. Probably, not a circus. A circus brings happiness to everyone but this harvester does't. I avoided falling in the trap of mental debate titled “lessened opportunities due to industrialization” and focused on the kids instead.

The ladies shout at the kids. Here parents don't coax kids like the parents of cities. Or if they do, it is a rare occasion-probably when the kids are grown-ups and it's a matter of marriage. It seems that their shouts have produced the same effect as a crow's caw, unpleasant to hear but bearable. 

Just few moments later, Sunil shouts at the kids. For kids, this is surely not the crow's caw. It's raw, tough and harsh. The last kid has not yet seen the driver's chamber, but he jumps off and runs to us. The four add up to make the group larger, about 10 kids. Presence of Sunil turned the atmosphere grave, but the tests and the instructions on education continued. The olive dress had stirred up our curiosity. Our eyes exchanged each other's faces once. He intervened to know who we were. It was annoying to ignore him, but we ignored. 

Normally, a village meeting gets swayed in an unwanted direction if an attention is paid to a single person. But then, he was not a single person. Not with this olive green uniform often used by paramilitary. We didn't answer; instead asked him a question. "Can you read this?" 
Pretty confident, he replied: " Yes."
But, he couldn't read beyond few words. The middle-aged ladies erupted in laughter. 
"I can read the whole passage if you give it to me tomorrow.", Sunil said.
The laughter continued in the background, this time more members joining already laughing ones. My cat of curiosity finally belled the dress question "Where did you get this dress from?",
He laughed, "From a friend in the police."

I looked at the old man to see his response to the answer. He smiled. The laughter of the people dispelled the smallest traces of fear. From my prior experiences of visits to remote villages which had a recent past of left extremism, I could say that extremism doesn't leave the soil of conversation fertile enough for laughter. The conversations there are barren with suspicion, fear, resentment and logic.

"Come here and sit with your books.", Sunil commanded. Then he ran to his house to bring a plastic sheet for kids to sit. Kids went to their homes and brought books and a dibiya. Few minutes later, they were studying and the Olive green-clad boy was the disciplinarian. Sunil promised to make kids study daily in the evening. Sunil is a resource, even if he cannot read or write. What is required in kids' routine is someone to enforce evening-studying habit and a disciplinarian would be a perfect match. This kind of solution seems sustainable and impact-promising. Two days later, Sunil is still making kids sit and study.  

After spending one more hour, we returned. In the midway, I saw some kids running on roads with gunny bags in hand. I stopped one kid and asked "From where are you coming?"
"Khet been ke
I turned my head a bit backward to seek its meaning from Subhash. 
"They are coming back after collecting the leftovers of the Harvester Machine." Subhash said with a calculated smile.
"And no one objects?"
"No, the big farmers burn the fields after harvest. Also, the amount is very feeble. The kids would sell the paddy at shops to buy something for their pleasure: chocolates, may be biscuits."

This was not considered as theft. It was like the act of collecting mangoes when there was a wind. Nature’s gift bestowed. Like millions of other kids, my house was also near to a small mango orchard that would keep us calling, sometimes in our dreams. In my family and neighborhood, even collecting the fallen mangoes was considered bad, but I and my brothers rarely submitted to those beliefs of our parents and elders at that age. Well, who first spoke the word "theft"? And who firstly said, that stealing is wrong? ‘Theft’ is defined differently in different social groups depending on their value system. Even in our childhood, we must be having something coded in back of our minds, something pure (If children are considered to be) that made the act of mango-stealing justified in our eyes. It was probably, the “right to possess mangoes”. It was foolish like “right to love and seek love.” Even throwing pebbles to collect mangoes was in accordance with our “right to possess mangoes” which my neighbors considered ‘theft’.

For a moment, I felt the “right to possess mangoes” true to the core, coming directly from the heart. Then the mind reasoned, "Does every ‘theft’ have to be balanced with a ‘right to possess’? Does against every 'wrong', there are few 'rights'? Does there have to be a boundary? And what that boundary would be? Is the "right to possess" morally strong enough to justify the "idea of theft" on grounds of creating a society that seems to move toward equality?"

Sunday, November 10, 2013

6 reasons why you should join Prime Minister's Rural Development Fellowship (PMRDF) Scheme

PMRDF has been in news for quite a time and many people have mailed me and phoned me to know more about the opportunity. From this batch, the fellows would get a degree in Masters in Development Practice from Tata Institute of Social Sciences.  Apart from the stipend and degree there are other aspects of the fellowship prospective fellows want to know. This is a small effort to sum up the answers in few bullet points.

  • An opportunity to get connected to a vast network of people who think like you. 

    If you don't feel good about the current state of country and
    have a desire to do something about it, you are looking at the right opportunity. The very first thing you can get confirmed by getting into this fellowship is that there are thousands of young people like you who are sensitive, desirous and able to devote their two years to make the face of rural landscape better. Meeting a huge number of young people who want India to change for good helps you get reinforced in your ideas and gives you an opportunity to be linked to people from diverse backgrounds (Agriculture, Engineering, Medicine, Law, Social Sciences, Economics etc.). The vast network may help you while helping others in the fellowship to realize yourself and your life goals. I consider the peer learning the best part of fellowship. After you get into the fellowship, the peer learning would be the best platform to get new ideas and support for your ideas.  

    For example: I assisted my district administration to implement SMS based monitoring system in Public Distribution System. Though my Collector had some previous idea about it, but most of the support on idea came from Jehanabad fellow. I discussed the idea with him and even visited him to see how that system works in his district. We are about to be done with the implementation. 
    There are numerous such examples where fellows have poured in ideas and they have been realized in other districts or other states.
  • Freedom to choose the area you want to work in

    If you ask a fellow about his/her role in district, you will get different answers. The reason: fellows are handling different roles, handling different tasks and working with several agencies. The freedom will allow you to choose the sector (Education, livelihood, health etc.) and agency you want to work with, provided your district magistrate agrees with it (he agrees in most of the cases.) Some fellows might be monitoring Flagship schemes in their district, some are busy converging departments at district level, some are working with NGOs to help them do their work effectively while some are working directly with community and government. Yet the inevitable role of reflecting and highlighting people's need to the district officials is being played by almost 90% of the fellows.
  • An opportunity to understand India's problems

    After spending two to three months in the field, you will get your answers why India is not doing what you think it should be doing? Why so many poverty-alleviation programs have not been able to eliminate poverty till now? How government sets priority for its projects/schemes and what kind of management practices are used in decision making in the government? What are the factors that are pulling back the process of much talked decentralization and participation in decision making? All these questions would automatically get answered within your three months in the field.

  •  An adventurous journey (#Metro and Urban cities Youth) 

    During this fellowship, you’ll spend your two years in most backward districts of India and some of them really very difficult and dangerous. If you feel you’re capable enough to get through the fellowship test this time (It was easier a bit last time), then you’ll probably would never get a chance to spend two years in Naxalite-affected part of Underdeveloped India in any other case. The long series of adventure will include living in a nondescript district headquarters, meeting various kinds of people and your constant struggle with heat, shortage of electricity, potable water. You will discover your own idea of India that has been unexplored and is likely to remain unexplored if you don’t spend considerable time here. You'll encounter an altogetherdifferent world of problems of unique kind. In your young age, you'll listen to hundreds of different stories of hope, struggle, survival and loss of life. It is entirely subjective to say what all this may imprint on your brain, but most of the fellows have said: it made them a better person.
  • Opportunity to work with District Administration (Collector and other district officials)   (#Rural and Sub-Urban Folks)

    We have heard of the powers of District Collector/ District Magistrate from our caring parents and blaring neighbor uncles all the time. Probably, they would have boasted of their meetings with District Collector and Collector's inspections in district offices. But they didn't tell you everything about District Collector. They didn't tell you how many servants they have, 
    what kind of powers they do have, how much committees they head and how much head-crushing pressure they handle. You get to spend good time with different IAS, this will open insights into the governance of the country. The insights will evolve at utmost pace and you’ll understand how the government thinks and acts.
  • A sense of satisfaction making differences in people's life

    There are very limited working opportunities in India that offer you a chance to work in 'rural India' for 'rural India' while being in government. Though most of ideas you’ll put in government would die after some time and you’ll have sleepless nights and depressing days, still you’ll love making small efforts that might have good and meaningful impacts on ground. 
    The joys of bringing smiles to some faces could not compare any amount of pleasure that you might derive from solving excel sheets for soap or biscuit companies. (puns intended :) Well selling biscuits and soaps are also important for the economy to run from where the fellowship has been funded.).

    To the prospective fellows: Thank you for reading this. I know you would be having a bundle of questions, I hope the FAQ section in PMRDF website may be of some help.

    Present fellows: Hello fellow 'Fellow'. :-) If you feel, I have missed something important to say or the post needs some changes, please let me know.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

पांच मिनट में अभी भी हजारों लम्हें बचे हैं

An 8 year old girl has tapped the window pane of the back seat.
"Madam, Ye phool le lo naa. Bas 10 Rs."
Both were beautiful, the girl and the flowers. A red-rose and lily packed for 10 Rs. I handed over her a new 10 Rs note and took that lily and rose, packed in aluminium foil. I rotated it holding the stem in my hand. It was beautiful, fresh and smelled like heaven. The smell reminded me of the first gifted roses and there I was, six years back. 
Vivek, the cute one who dared to gift me a red rose in college. A single rose mayn't win heart but several roses gifted regularly, often do. We became friends and then more than friends very shortly and relished beautiful moments of college life which I call 'golden moments'.

"5 minutes" denote more than mere connotation of time. Standing at park's gate in front of my hostel, he would ring. "Hey ya! Come soon. I am waiting for you for so long."
"Bas 5 minutes."
I'll take few looks in mirror and change my dress. The best defense is more offence. Sensing he might complaint for being late I would frown at him "I don't have much time. I am here for 5 minutes only."
He would glance at his watch and smile "Sorry madam. You've just 4 minutes 30 seconds left."
A sudden laughter would erupt lasting for some seconds and topic would change. We would walk on the pavement talking how the day went, the mess-food, sluts of college and our thoughts over Team Anna. The talks would finish with the colored canvass of our future plans. But a sense of uncertainty was there. And nothing drives a women crazy more than uncertainty, it stops them talking. 

"I am leaving!", I'd say with a serious expression.
"It's just 8:05. Let's take one more walk.", A begging face with sincere urge would say.
"No, I have to go back to hostel. I am leaving"
"What is wrong with you? I can't understand why your mind suddenly stops talking." He would say looking disappointed.
"Nothing wrong. This is me.", I'd smile.
"Please stay for five minutes." 
"Only five minutes. OK?"
"Yeah sure. Let's take a walk."

Did five minutes ever complete? The minute hand of clock would turn from 8:05 to 9:00, but the world seemed out of clocks, timeless. We would just walk and speak nothing. I would just feel his presence and take delight in knowing he was there for me. It was just the sense of being with him that gave me fulfillment. When there would be more silence, I would touch his hand to know if he is still here. I always sensed my world has a different meaning with him and particularly when we parted.

The nature would showcase her ordinary possessions in a beautiful way. Even chirping of birds would be able to arouse love and silence would sing thousand songs of love. It would turn 9:00 in zero time and we would have completed five rounds of the elliptical road.
"Ok Vivek. I am going back to hostel.", I'd say looking into his eyes.
"Or you can stay with me outside.We'll take a room in hotel.", He would wink and smile.
"Screw You." I'd shout with a shy smile and would return in the hostel.

Now there is one ground rule for girls hostel: Never ever mess with the guard at reception. I had received first hand experience of breaking this rule. I and Sumi were laughing over a lab-incident where Damru was caught by the professor for making a fake signature. The lady guard felt bad, probably because we didn't share our joke with her or she assumed herself to be joke's subject. 

I have always been a punctual girl. Though I reach classes late by 5 or 10 minutes but I have never broken the rule of 9, the entry time of girls hostel. When the clock struck 9 P.M, you shall find me there. But that night, the doors were closed 5 minutes before and also my watch and the hostel clock didn't match. It didn't take a second to realize this. Cruel whore! It took an hour to persuade her to let me enter the hostel.

Two days later, I befriended her with a sorry and two Haldirams Laddus. She was elated and asked me to get the recipe on how my mom has made laddus. The 'im-punctual' girls would bribe the guard by sharing eatables and bakshish. Sometimes a 5 minute call from mobile to her daughter would be enough.  

Our engineering session ended exactly two years back in  June. On 29th June, we both took same train. Vivek will get down at Allahabad and I'd go up to Delhi. We got seated and stared at each other. The eyes were heavy and words demanded efforts to come out.  Almost whole journey, he went on to make me realize that everything would turn normal after a few days. His efforts were aimed at making the last journey tear-free.

"We would keep in touch through phone and Skype. Now a days, it is not like before. We can always be in touch. I'd come to meet you in few months.", Vivek said.

I was in rapt attention and recorded his each word. It seemed that everything would fall back in place with right time. Then he started taking out his luggage from the berth below. "The train would reach Allahabad in few minutes."

A heavy cyclone begun to form in my heart and i grew stronger as he pulled out the luggage. I came taking his bag in my hand. We both looked in each other's eyes for few minutes silently, closely watching. For a moment, it seemed like a competition where the one who blinks first loses. The lips didn't move. Probably, we realized that in the 8 hours of travel we have spoken everything we wanted to or probably, we wanted to capture each other's glance for the last time as a memory that will pass the tests of time.

He looked grave. The sense of parting made him look the best male in this whole universe. Cute and extremely lovable. The train started slowing down and the loneliness started moving up, from heart to the throat.
"Sweetheart...We are meeting on 16th August.", Vivek said holding my chin with right palm.
"Okay. Now, the train has stopped Mister.", I tried to ease down the tensed romantic situation. We both pulled the luggage down on the platform.
He smiled "Give me a call after reaching Delhi."
"Take this as dinner.", He bought a food packet from the store and handed it to me.

Now, the lonely eons were to follow the small reunion of five minutes. We sat on a platform seat and hold each other knowing in our hearts that anyone may break into tears anytime. A random illogical fear entered into my heart if we are meeting last time. He always says "Life after college will change very fast, so plan it in advance." My heart always went to that statement.

He came closer to my face and kissed me on lips gently. I hugged him for few seconds and I said "I love you" slowly in his ears. The train started and his waving hand vanished with the train. But the life doesn't go as we have planned it.
The taxi-driver has managed to bring me station at right time. My cell-phone rings. It's Vivek on the other side.
"Hello! Vivek, I have just reached."
"Madam, Rush to the station. If you miss tomorrow's date, I am not going to marry you."
"Ha Ha. I am not worried. Who else is going to waste her life with you? It's only my bad fate.", I chuckled
" Come soon my Superwomen. Call me after taking your seat.", His words came along with small bits of laughter.

I have taken my seat in the train and possibly would get engaged to Vivek tomorrow. Our families had to agree with our decision and they have arranged for this engagement. I am getting engaged to him in a hope to re-live my life as countless packets of those 5 minutes. Still a thousands moments of life are left in those five minutes.

(As narrated by Akansha to me during my train journey from Delhi to Patna. She is getting married at end of this month.)