March 8th is observed as the International Women’s day and many organizations celebrate it in many different ways. From seminars, to newspaper articles, to public rallies and conferences, the celebrations differ but the theme is common. It is a day to remember and reflect on not only the contributions of women to society but to also explore how one can work towards a society that sees both men and women as equal partners in progress. But for me the month of March was different and special. It not only gave me the opportunity to interact with some extraordinary women, but also gave me insights in appreciating the many challenges that they still face in this journey towards equality and partnership.
A quiet revolution in India’s rural hinterland…
Early in the month, I had been to Hyderabad, Telangana State and rural areas of Andhra Pradesh visiting the offices of Tata Business Support Services and the BPO’s that they run. I had the privilege of interacting with some of their women employees both at their center in Hyderabad and at one of their rural locations in Ethakota in AP. What impressed me was the confidence with which the women spoke and interacted. Two women, Ms Malleswari and Ms Nagaveni particularly impressed me. Coming from very modest families, these women had joined the BPO many years ago. Their growth was not just in their careers, but was evident in the way they communicated, interacted and shared their stories. Marriage was not a deterrent and both of them continued in their jobs after finding understanding grooms. The difference that this job in such an interior rural location has made to their lives is something that is seen to be believed. What is truly impressive is the faith and trust that this Tata Company had in them and their capacities. It does take a lot of courage of conviction to set up a business entity in India’s rural hinterland. What left me wonder struck was also the fact that this center was not only profitable but also had very low error rates in their business transactions. I have repeatedly written about how rural India needs to jump onto the economic bandwagon that is urban driven and here was a real-life example of it not only working but also making a difference in the lives of hundreds of young men and women.
The next week was my visit to Tata Steel in Jamshedpur. Though the journey from Mysore was long, I was happy that I would be visiting a location that Mr J N Tata had conceived. The treat for me was to see a copy of the original letter written by J N Tata to Swami Vivekananda asking him to head the Indian Institute of Science. Though J N Tata had passed away before the first batch of steel could roll out of this mill, his dream of a world class Industry with a humane outlook towards all its stakeholders was made into a reality by his son Sir Dorabji. I was here to visit the social activities that the Tata Steel undertake in the area.
From a school dropout to a Education minister…
My visit to a rural bridge school stands out from amongst the many locations that I could visit. It was here that I met with 11-year-old Duli Besra, a Santhali tribal girl who impressed me with the quiet confidence with which she was engaging me in a conversation in English. And to think that this girl could hardly speak any Hindi just 6 months ago was indeed difficult to believe, but reflected the hard work of the 5 teachers, most of whom were young and educated tribal women from the same area. This little girl was telling me how she was one amongst 5 siblings, how she had to drop out of school in the second grade, and the problems faced by her family because of her alcoholic father. Her life after she grew up would have been no different from that of her mother but for the fact that the outreach staff of the CSR team of Tata Steel touched her life. They motivated her family to admit her to the residential bridge school for tribal school dropouts. She proudly told me that she was the ‘Education Minister’ for her school and was principally mandated to ensure that all the children learnt well. In her own sweet way she shared her dream of wanting to become a ‘wildlife biologist’ after she grew up. I was wondering if we would have noticed it or batted a eyelid if a urban child coming from a well endowed and educated family had said this; but for a child of the forest with no inter-generational equity or social capital to dream of, this was no mean feat. This clearly reflected the years of hard work that hundreds of committed people from Tata Steel had put in.
From Self Help to making a business of development…
I also met with around 20 women members of a federation of self help groups. These women were proudly sharing with me the fact that they were second-generation members of their groups and how their mother-in-laws would object if they did not participate and continue the tradition of self help and micro finance. One women whispered how she was now earning not less than Rs 15000 per month and how her children were being educated in a well known local private school. I asked another woman if her husband objected to her participating in the Groups activities and she very emphatically told me that he wouldn’t dare to, as she was now the principal wage earner for her family. They also explained how they had taken a contract from Tata Steel to develop 49 farm ponds in the area. These tribal women with hardly any formal schooling were explaining to me concepts that needed knowledge of basic engineering, measurements, costing, accounting and business management. This was empowered human capital that had also built up enormous social capital through the Self Help movement and the accumulated capital of the Tata’s. The economic consequences that they were reaping is astounding. The had now gone beyond making the traditional masala powders, papads and pickles (which they continue to do so) and had moved into the ‘business of development’ itself.
This opportunity to be a witness and to listen to the inspiring narratives of such extraordinary women was possibly the best way that i could celebrate not just the International Women’s day, but of womanhood in action itself. Now, i can see hope for not just Indian society, but for the world at large.
This incident happened a few days ago. I was walking towards the Ramakrishna Ashram in Mysore and was waiting at a streetlight to cross the road. Being a 4-way junction, the wait seemed to be a long one. It was then that I noticed a middle-aged woman selling bananas by the street corner. Working with street vendors for a few years now, I had learnt that life was never easy for them. From meager profits, to haggling customers to corrupt civic and police officials – they had to deal with them all on an everyday basis. My intelligent guess was that this woman would possibly earn not more than Rs 40-50 as profits on a good day. Validating my thoughts, I found one customer haggling as though his entire future depended on it. And all this for an extra banana that he thought was his rightful due. Around the same time, I found a 4-5 year old girl standing and sobbing by the way side. She seemed to be hardly noticed by either the tens of pedestrians or the innumerable vehicles driving by. On hearing her sobs, this street vendor spontaneously reached out to her to inquire if she was lost and crying for her mother. The little girl pointed to the construction across the street and mentioned that her mother worked there. Her sobbing was due to her unbearable hunger and that her mother had nothing to give her. Without batting an eyelid, I found this women street-vendor tear out a couple of bananas and thrust them into the child’s hands. And then quietly returned back to her business…Not being able to contain myself, I asked her about what she had done…In her own characteristic way, she simply said that here was a poor hungry soul in need of help and she just did it. That was it – neither complex theories of development nor any high spiritual explanation. Just a simple humane response from one human being to another.
Finding her vending so close to the Ramakrishna Ashram, I enquired whether she had heard of either Sri Ramakrishna or Swami Vivekananda. While both these names meant nothing to her, here she was living their philosophy in the only way she understood it. Sri Ramakrishna’s exhortation of ‘Shiva Jnane, Jeeva Seva’ (Knowledge of God through the service of man) to his disciples came effortlessly to her. Swami Vivekananda had proclaimed ‘Darida narayano bhava’ (the poor are my gods) and here was this poor woman worshiping the only god she knew. It is no exaggeration to say that the poor are the ones who understand poverty and hunger the best. While the rest of us are more adept at intellectualizing and spending endless hours in debating poverty and hunger, here was this noble soul living the message of Swami Vivekananda without having heard of him even. This was truly Swami Vivekananda and his message in action.
Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (popularly known as J N Tata and who lived between 1839 to 1904) was one of India’s greatest business-industrialist icons. A patriot, philanthropist, and visionary, he is credited with laying the foundations and largely consolidating the position of Indian Industry and enterprise. It was in the year 1892 that he set up the JN Tata Endowment. The main objective of the endowment was to encourage young people to take up higher studies at some of the best universities in the world. It is the first Tata benefaction in the field of education, and possibly the first of its kind in the world. Persons receiving this loan scholarship are known as ‘Tata Scholars’ and more than 4700 people have been awarded this scholarship till date. It is a matter of pride that I also received this scholarship in 2009 to pursue my Master’s program at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University. Getting the scholarship was something that I can never forget. I had secured admission to Harvard in 2008 but could not go, as I did not have the required funds to do so. Disappointed, I had approached Justice M N Venkatachalliah to seek his advise and he was the one who mentioned to me about the Tata scholarship. It was then that I had applied to the J N Tata Endowment and was happy to learn after my interview with the committee at Mumbai that I had secured the maximum that the Trust gives out. Apart from a loan component, it also included a travel grant and this is what gave me the confidence to set sail to the US. Securing the scholarship was also a matter of joy for a very sentimental reason. It was in the year 1893 that Swami Vivekananda had met J N Tata and inspired him to build a school of science and technology in India. He had later asked the Maharajah of Mysore to grant land for this Center, which is today known as the Indian Institute of Science. Getting a scholarship from an endowment instituted by J N Tata was to me special and I felt that maybe it was pre-ordained too. This year is the 175th birth anniversary of J N Tata and the entire Tata group is celebrating the same. It was in this connection an alumnus meet was organized at Mumbai by the Endowment. This kind of meeting was being organized for the first time and nearly 162 people from around the world had gathered at the Crystal room at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel at Mumbai. This hotel was also another Institution set up by J N Tata and it was only fitting that the event was being held here. As part of the celebrations, the Endowment had prepared a video titled ‘Lasting Legacies’ and I felt happy that I was one of the six Tata scholars to have been featured on this video. The entire program was very well organized and the different events were seamlessly interspersed amidst a very sumptuous dinner that was served. I was truly overwhelmed and humbled to be here amidst the company of some extraordinary men and women. People who were not only highly qualified but with extraordinary achievements. People like Dr J J Irani, Dr Jayant Narlikar, Dr M R Srinviasan, Dr Renganathan, and Mr Ratan Tata . Being in the presence of and interacting with such extraordinary men and women, of great achievements in different spheres of human endeavour by itself was an intellectual treat. I was also deeply impressed with the humility, the quiet presence and the dignity with which Mr Ratan Tata carried himself. Such a charismatic and special person, that one felt very comfortable in his presence despite he being who he is. I was one of the few people who were asked to speak and share our stories. I spoke last and mentioned about the onerous responsibility of the Tata Scholars in making this world a better place and the speech was very well received and appreciated. It would be no understatement to mention that the 28th of February was not only a special day for me, but has left me with many fond memories of being in the company of truly great and extraordinary men and women. Now I understand that being a Tata scholar is not just a ‘brand’ or a tag that one carries, but the responsibility of being both a global citizen and a humanist in letter and spirit. -Balu
I am happy and excited to write about an upcoming book that I am authoring. Tentatively titled I, the Citizen, the book is based on articles on development and citizen engagement that I have posted on this blog, edited to present reflections and perspectives on development from the point of view of an engaged citizen.
Divided into sections, the volume covers a range of topics from development perspectives and lessons learned from the indigenous communities in South India to development policy at a macro level, from personal and emotional reflections on ground realities to reason and evidence based perspectives on policy. The sections and the articles within the sections flow into each other giving the reader a sense of continuity of thoughts and issues, and yet a look at the broad spectrum of perspectives. Importantly, the belief, experience and the power of citizen engagement reverberates through the articles and the sections giving us the hope and conviction that common people can indeed make a difference.
GRAAM would be the primary publisher of this book. A unique feature of this endeavour is that we are hoping to crowd source the financial resources needed for producing and distributing the book along with good wishes and moral support of our well wishers.
I am absolutely sure of your support in this venture too and am hoping that you will make a generous contribution to enable the book to see the light of the day. For your reference, here’s the book proposal that details the sections containing the articles. Do feel free to write to me for more details or clarifications.
Thanking you, and with the best of my regards
Last month I had the privilege of running a leadership workshop for young people at Chennai. More than running the workshop, it was the location where it was being held that excited me. It was being hosted by the Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai and held at the Vivekanandar Illam (Vivekananda House, originally known as the Ice House). What would be so special in a building named after this great saint? After all, our country’s historical landscape is replete with memorials commemorating an extraordinary event or is associated with an outstanding personality in some way. This building overlooking the Marina beach in Chennai is also no different. It is not merely a building named after Swamiji but was something that invoked a special sense of awe and reverence for me.
Swamiji was a constant traveller and he visited Tamil Nadu twice – once in 1892 as a wandering monk and again in 1897 after his triumphal return from the West. He arrived at Pamban in Rameshwaram island on the 26th January 1897 and then travelled through Madurai, Trichy and other places to finally reach Madras (present Chennai). He received an unprecedented reception at the Egmore Railway station where he had reached by train and reached the Castle Kernan (as it was then known) the next day. It was here that he stayed for 9 days, from 6th to 15th of February 1897 and gave his popular talks on ‘My Plan of Campaign’ and ‘The Future of India’. These are two articles that have influenced my life and thinking enormously.
Castle Kernan was earlier known as the ‘Ice House’ where the Tudor Ice Company stored the ice it brought from the United States. The Ice house was built in 1842 by Fredric Tudor. Tudor who was known as the ‘Ice King’ had made his fortune by shipping ice to the Caribbean, Europe and India. He had struck on the idea of harvesting ice from frozen fresh water ponds in and around Boston, cut them into blocks and sold them around the world. He had built three Ice Houses in India – at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras where the ice could be stored for months. Amongst the three buildings, only the one at Madras stands today. Once people learnt to manufacture ice locally, the ice business of his shrank and eventually wound up in 1880. It was then an advocate, Biligiri Iyengar who originally hailed from Mysuru, bought the ‘Ice House’ and renamed it ‘Castle Kernan’ in honour of his good friend Justice Kernan. Biligiri Iyengar and his family lived here till 1906, when family circumstances including the demise of Biligiri in 1902 forced them to auction off the building.
It was also in this building that Swami Ramakrishnananda, another direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa set up the Ramakrishna Math and lived. The Government of Tamil Nadu has now given this building on a long lease to the Ramakrishna Math who have restored it to its original state. The restoration process also has a Mysuru connection with architect Mr. Ravi Gundu Rao overseeing the entire restoration process.
Sitting in the room where Vivekananda lived and spending some quiet moments there was what made the visit very special to me.