Most memorable moments for me…

June 1, 2017 2 comments

Something wonderful happened today as I was interacting with 3 students from the University of Iowa – Ashley, Isha and Sarah who were here for a program at our Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies.  Sarah wanted to know what was the most fulfilling achievement in the last 33 years since I founded SVYM.  Till yesterday, I had always thought that my most memorable achievement was taking the issue of improper rehabilitation of tribals to the National Human Rights Commission and getting the Government of Karnataka to rehabilitate these 154-aggrieved indigenous tribals families on 500 acres of land at Basavanagiri in HD Kote taluk.   But two very touching events happened yesterday that has left me overwhelmed and has made me revise my opinion.

                  With the Entrepreneurs                               The busy sales counter

I had gone to Jaganakotehadi to participate in the inauguration of Prakruthi Food Products.  This is a micro-enterprise that is part of the Social Business experiment that GRAAM is undertaking.  In association and with the support of SVYM, 20 women were locally mobilized and trained over the last 1 year in enterprise building, food technology and producing ragi-based food items.  They were also given inputs in basic accounting and working together as a team.  All these indigenous tribal women are in the age group of 20-35 and many of them are alumni of our tribal school at Hosahalli.  This unit has been registered as a separate independent company owned by these 20 women and the food products will be sold under the Health-Enrich brand.  What makes it special is that this unit is situated in a tribal colony and will be wholly owned and run by these women.  Much water has actually flowed under the bridge in our attempt at engaging women in economically productive activities.  We had earlier set up a bakery at Hosahalli and around 5 kadukuruba women from Kempanahadi led by Kali were employed here.  The moment we insisted on transferring the ownership of this unit to the women, they stopped coming to work and the unit collapsed.  A few years later, we made another attempt by setting up a garment unit.  This unit did very well as long as SVYM was running it.  It too collapsed the moment we transferred the responsibility of running it to the women themselves.  Having been bitten twice, I was unsure of indulging myself again till I could understand how to make such activities a success.  The last 20 years has also seen me evolve and my understanding of development has also matured. Today, I am confident that building human and social capital of people can lead to economic consequences.  The last many years has seen us do exactly this.  Slowly and deliberately the human and social capital of hundreds of tribal women was built and these chosen twenty women are from this cohort.  While SVYM took on the responsibility of mobilizing the women, GRAAM undertook setting up the actual business and building the entrepreneurial spirit in these women.  Despite all the challenges faced and negotiating the harsh realities of rural India and the barriers to business that it poses, we finally managed to have the unit inaugurated in the presence of hundreds of women representing several self-help groups.  Watching these confident women market their tasty and well packaged products left me inspired and overwhelmed.

With VTCL Mahadevi

With young Mahadevi, the proud Karnataka forest department employee

As I was processing all these emotions and thoughts, Puttamma mentioned to me that Mahadevi, a forest guard at the forest gate nearby was waiting to meet me.  I walked with her to meet Mahadevi who rushed out to greet me and gave me a very loving hug.  My mind raced several years into the past and I was reminded of how her father had come running to my residence at Brahmagiri and asked me to come help Mahadevamma, a local mid-wife to attend to the labour of his pregnant wife.  Taking this cute little bundle of joy in my arms and handing it to the nervous father is a sight that I can never forget.  This little child who literally grew in front of my eyes was today explaining proudly to me that her work was widely appreciated in the forest department and that she was now due for promotion.  She also told me how she was getting her sister trained in a beautician course in Mysore and how her younger brother was learning to drive a car.  And she proudly showed me the scooter that she owned and was driving around. As I wished her well and bid her goodbye, Mahadevi asked me in her own childish way if she could give me another hug.  That moment is something that I will cherish and remember for a long time

Development is indeed a long drawn and complex process and manifests itself in many ways.   On one side, the Prakruthi Food Products unit was the culmination of a 2-decade effort and the beginning of something extraordinary.  If this unit could survive and thrive, it could very well be the model that the Nation is looking for.  I believe that India’s growth need not necessarily be driven by large urban based corporates, but should be by small micro economic clusters in rural India.  Feeding the urban craze for millet based food products could very well be the driver of economic progress for rural India.  On the personal level, it is people like Mahadevi who symbolize the growing empowerment of rural women.  Not only was she moving up the socio-economic ladder, but was quietly participating in the larger construct of building a resurgent India.  What more could somebody like me ask for and what could be more memorable and fulfilling than this!

-Balu

Categories: Story of SVYM

My article on Gauging the Performance of our Civil Servants that appeared in the Deccan Herald dated 26th May 2017

May 29, 2017 Comments off

The Civil Services day is celebrated on the 20 and 21st of April and in this year’s celebration, the Prime Minister Sri Narendra Modi made an impassioned and articulate speech calling upon the bureaucrats to deliver on the mandate of governance.  His speech was practical, sometimes clothed in wit and sarcasm, and at the same time inspirational.  What stood out was his simplistic way of explaining how it was upto the political class to undertake ‘reforms’; how the bureaucrats had to ‘perform’ and how both working together could ‘transform’ the nation.  Beyond the semantics, this clearly meant that the civil services must deliver.  He gently pointed out how the civil servants need to go beyond mere ‘outputs’ and start to focus on the ‘outcomes’ of their actions.  He asked them to expand their sense of accountability from beyond the CAG and to include the common Indian citizen too.  He also mentioned how a few bureaucrats had limited the use of social media to mere self-aggrandisement and how it could be more efficiently and effectively used for doing public good.   When one goes deep into the Prime Minister’s speech and deconstructs it, one can recognize how emphatic he was in his demand for ‘performance’ from the bureaucracy.

The dictionary defines ‘Performance’ as an action, task or operation, seen in terms of how successfully it was performed and most of us have a tacit knowledge of Performance. We can recognize and understand that something is indeed working as it should be, and learn from a very young age to appreciate performance and quality. How does one translate this tacit understanding into something more structured and measurable? Can one measure performance in the public sector and of public functionaries? One can learn from the private sector that has taken the lead in measuring performances of individuals, teams and entire organizations. The public sector is very diverse in the context in which it operates, has egalitarian objectives and is funded by taxation revenues. Hence civil servants need to be more accountable and transparent but paradoxically one does not find these as the primary drivers of performance. By the very nature of having unlimited resources at its disposal, the public sector also tends to become inefficient and opaque over time.  This very complexity has incentivised the system into taking the easier approach of limiting the measurement to simpler variables like compliance to the instructions of the political bosses, absence of any controversial decision making, numerical achievements in terms of beneficiaries reached and budget expended.

Demanding performance of oneself and an organization is a very exacting process that requires discipline, determination and a strong political will to undertake. It requires not just managerial knowledge but a visionary leadership that is constantly evaluating, refining and improvising processes all the time. Performance processes normally fail because the required discipline and rigor wanes over time – one must have the patience and the perseverance to allow the system to mature for results to be produced. Measuring performance is not like instant coffee – made quickly and giving immediate gratification. These systems take time to initiate, evolve, mature, and become organizational culture. Leadership needs to be constant, consistent and serious till the entire cycle has taken root. It also needs mentoring support from experts who are willing to not only design a review process but also facilitate its implementation in the initial phases. The core leadership should take it as sacred responsibility and be willing to make public disclosure of achievements or variances. One must have public displays of the review process and all stakeholders should have a say in not just the design but also in the actual framing and implementation of the reviews.  Reward and punishment behaviours are indeed critical for human performance and public agencies should move away from not wanting to indulge in them. There is a normative feeling that public jobs are sort of permanent and career growth is not necessarily dependent on performance. One must communicate that ‘mediocrity’ need not necessarily be synonymous with ‘public agencies’ and a culture of valuing performance should be created. This can be done only when good performance is rewarded and poor one punished.

Moving towards more qualitative indicators in line with what the PM is demanding will necessitate major paradigm shifts in the mind-set of not just the bureaucrats and the political system but also in the way the common man views the civil servants and their performance.  Performance, when measured with the attitude of seeing the bureaucrat as a ‘public servant’ being paid out of taxation revenues will be totally different from that of seeing them as ‘elite officers’ overseeing service delivery functions. But can the officers of our civil services, who over the decades have got used to operating with neither the transparency nor public accountability be willing to subject themselves to a complete shift in mind set? Will the PM be able to push thru ‘reforms’ and make ‘social audits’ and ‘citizen initiated performance measurement’ of civil servants a norm rather than the exception?  If the PM and his intent can translate into concrete action and result in these paradigmatic shifts, then one can be sure that the much-touted reforms coupled with the performance of a vibrant and energetic bureaucracy will spear head the rising of a ‘New India’.

In Perspective Dec Herald 26 May 17

Categories: Articles in Press, Musings

Discontent with democracy and the AAP experiment…

May 3, 2017 2 comments

Towards the end of December 2014, a lot of people asked me if I would be joining  the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).  Having been a key person in Karnataka in the crusade against corruption that Anna Hazare had led, many had presumed that I would also automatically gravitate towards this newly formed political front. When Arvind had met me then in Bengaluru, he did talk about the need for people like me to be in active politics.  Yogendra Yadav and Prashanth Bhushan too had tried to impress on me the need to be actively engaged in AAP and contribute to fine tuning its ideological moorings.   A few newspapers had also announced that I would be their candidate for the Parliament elections that was held in May 2014.  It was around this time that I had posed a few questions to them about the political ideology of AAP; the intent of having structures that demonstrated inner party democracy; what was the governance model that their were having in mind and what economic theory of development that AAP subscribed to.   Though I did not get satisfactory answers, I decided to respectfully observe the growth and trajectory of AAP as I believed that this could possibly be the much-needed paradigm shift in the Indian political scene.  It was also the time that I decided not to associate with any political party but to closely observe how AAP’s existence would affect the quality of all the other political parties. I must confess that I was hopeful that this experiment of the Aam Aadmi Party will bode well not just for Indian politics but for the nation’s progress as well.

It is interesting to understand the underpinnings of what led to the mercurial growth of Arvind Kejriwal and the AAP.   What we saw from 2010 to 2014 in India was a collective expression of the restlessness of the Indian masses.  There was such a deep distrust of the political setup and the common man was desperately looking for a messiah.  Over the previous several decades especially after 1991, growth opportunities and investments in Infrastructure, education and health care seemed to benefit only one particular class of people.  The effects of distributional consequences were beginning to be seen and the social and economic inequities were becoming more and more stark.  State expenditures on health and education were being inconsistent and the private sector was encouraged to consider providing public services for a price.  Cutting of the social benefits was hurting the poor the most and International trade, market policies and technological change over the last many years were resulting in hurting the same people again and again.  There was widespread discontent with democracy and the electoral process due to rampant perversion of the system, use of money & muscle power and using identity politics for electoral benefit.  It was in this scenario, Arvind and company entered and convinced the Nation that corruption was the cause of all their sufferings and that he could provide them with a viable and a fresh alternative.  A nation hungry for change lapped up everything he said and he soon became the poster boy of not just AAP, but also of an emerging new political paradigm.

Arvind soon learnt that he could build political capital for AAP and deal with the pervasive cynicism by constantly pulling down the ‘establishment’ and everyone associated with it.  Little did he realize that it would soon become counter-productive once he became the establishment himself.  Even after being swept into power in Delhi, he continued to denigrate expertise, selectively use ‘filtered’ information and kept projecting himself as the helpless victim of the ‘establishment’, which he equated with the Central Government led by Modi.

Today he and his party are going thru a reality check.  The more he and AAP have become like others, he needs to understand that the people will treat him with the same disdain and distrust that they have treated all political parties and politicians till date.  Inner party democracy cannot just be a sledge hammer with which you beat up others.  One needs to role model it within AAP and then bandy it around.  He needs to not only encourage people to speak up, but he needs to learn to listen with patience, humility and serious intent.  Respect for colleagues cannot not be driven by political expediency and he needs to demonstrate authentic leadership now.  His government’s policies need to be administratively feasible, politically practical and financially viable.  No longer will the people tolerate his constant blaming of ‘others’ and AAP as a party has to learn that the metrics of performance in a democracy like India is electoral success.  Decisions have to be informed by the trade-offs that such decisions entail and he needs to prepare himself and his party to learn to absorb them.  Democracy was questioned and in helping vote the AAP to power in Delhi in 2015, the people saw a redeeming solution.  But today, one cannot fault the common man of Delhi for feeling let down and cheated.  And they responded in the only way that they could – not give AAP their trust as demonstrated in the recently held MCD elections.

The AAP has to put its house in order not just to save their fledgling party, but to save this experiment in Indian democracy.  People are now no longer dissatisfied with AAP alone, but see a justification in their discontent with democracy itself.  The debate should not be whether elections are rigged but should be about whether the political process itself continues to be rigged.  If the evident skew in favour of the rich, the mighty and the powerful had to change, we needed this political experiment to have succeeded.  Questions that still lie unanswered are the challenges of Affluence vs Influence; Public opinion vs Public policy; Interests vs Positions, and Competence vs Values.  And one had hoped that the emergence of AAP on the political spectrum in India would have kick started the debate on finding the answers for these vexatious questions and Indian Democracy would become healthy and vibrant.

– Balu

Read this article that appeared in the Star of Mysore on 10th May 2017.

AAP experiment

Categories: General, Musings

Learning ‘fair & compassionate economics’ from a Jenukuruba Chieftain…

April 22, 2017 3 comments

It was the year 1989 and was around the time that I was slowly beginning to understand the indigenous way of life.  These were also some of the best years of my life and I cherish the memories of my association with some of the elderly tribal chieftains of Heggadadevanakote.  I was keen on learning how the Jenukurubas, an indigenous tribe with distinct anthropological features collected ‘Jenu’ (honey) from the forests.  Hostel Masthi (as he was popularly called) was the chieftain of the Jenukurubas living in Hosahalli and surrounding colonies and was a respected elder who used to be sober only when he ventured into the forest.  On learning that I was keen to understand how they collected wild honey, he invited me on his next trip.  Full of anticipation of the adventure ahead, I set out with him, his 10 year old son Mara and 3 other Jenukuruba tribals from the colony. After a walk of around 3-4 kms, Masthi spotted a large bee hive hanging high up on a tall tree.  He asked Kala who was accompanying him to quickly climb up the tree to cut the hive with the sickle that he was carrying.  Kala was a natural and watching him climb up the tree is something that I can never forget.  Within minutes he seemed to reach the hive and shouted out to Masthi to be ready below.  Not sure of what was happening, I stood a little distance away watching the whole scene unfold in front of me.  Masthi and another tribal Mahadeva spread out their towel and placed the broad leaves that they had freshly cut from a nearby teak-wood tree on it.  Holding each end of the towel, they stood underneath the tree in direct line of the hive.   The bees must have sensed Kala’s presence and started buzzing angrily around the hive.  In a split-second Kala seemed to put his hand into the hive and gently extracted out the ‘queen’ and placed it in the middle of his forearm.  All the bees followed the queen and quickly settled down on his forearm.  I stood transfixed staring at the hive that was forming on Kala’s forearm and was left wondering why Kala was not getting stung by these disturbed bees. With his other spare arm, Kala sliced the hive around 6-8 inches below where it was attached to the branch and the rest of the hive with the honey, wax, pupa and all came crashing down.  More adept than a determined fielder on a cricket field, Masthi and his mate caught the falling hive on the teak leaf bed and folded the cloth immediately around it.  Kala in the meanwhile pulled the queen again from the new hive on his hand and gently put her back on to the original base of the hive still hanging from the tree.  And within minutes, all the remaining bees flocked around their queen and the hive formed into the exact shape that it was before Kala had sliced it. Kala came down the tree as quickly as he had climbed it and everything seemed to happen within a few minutes and it looked as though nothing had really changed.

I was left spell bound and unsure of how to respond when Masthi offered me a dripping piece of the crushed hive – honey, wax and possibly some unlucky pupa and larva.  I had never tasted anything like this and it surely was finger licking good. Masthi felt that we had enough adventure for the day and we started to walk back to Hosahalli.   On the way back, I could not contain my curiosity any longer and was keen to know why Kala sliced the hive so low and had left most of the honey back in the hive itself. It seemed economically stupid that someone would leave behind much of the honey back in the hive and still feel that they had completed a good days job.  Masthi’s answer continues to resonate in my ears even today.  For him this was indeed a no-brainer.  He simplistically explained that the honey belonged to the bees and that they were actually thieves stealing it from them.  In fact, the song that they were singing was to seek the bees’ forgiveness for taking away what was rightfully theirs.  He said that since the bees had done all the hard work in collecting the honey, it was only more than fair that they left behind most of it for them to use during the difficult months ahead.   If he and his people did not have to use this part of the hive with the honey in it for food and preparing medicines, he would not even have taken this much too.   And Masthi and his fellow tribals were bringing back this hive not just for themselves but to be shared amongst all his clansmen.   For a person educated in a system that looks to maximizing profits and minimizing labour, this lesson in compassion, fairness and sharing seemed perplexing.  For a world that seems to be rapidly absorbing and celebrating the spirit of market economics and individual attainment, Masthi and his fellow tribals will seem unreal and this anecdote difficult to believe. Masthi and people of his generation are long dead now but along with them has also disappeared this sustainable and meaningful way of living too.  What is worrisome is not just the fact that this lifestyle sounds impractical and difficult to subscribe to for many of us, but is also no longer a part of the culture and life of our indigenous brethren too.  While one may feel that modern existence and the pressure of a consumer economy will neither slow down nor have the space for people like Masthi, we need to contemplate and think on how we can integrate this paradigm into our everyday lives.  For without it, sustainable development will only remain a slogan that is bandied about in international conferences and global summits.

-Balu

The same article appeared in the Star of Mysore dated 26th April 2017  & can be read here:SOM article 26 Apl 17

Water – whose business is it anyway?

April 10, 2017 6 comments

Last week on my early morning walk, I could not resist the temptation of walking up to a middle-aged woman washing the entrance to her house. She seemed to be oblivious to any concerns of water scarcity and was pouring large quantities of precious fresh water onto the concrete walkway leading to her house.  She also seemed unconcerned by the overflowing bucket she had kept under the tap from which she was drawing the water. I succumbed to the activist in me and I asked her if she could avoid wasting so much water.  And bang came her reply… ‘Who was I to even come up to her so early in the morning and give her this unsolicited advice?  Why was I not minding my own business?  And finally, she chided me saying that it was her family which paid the water bills and it should be no concern of mine if she wasted the water or saved it’.  My mind could not stop comparing this to an earlier sight that I saw of large water tankers supplying water to households in another residential of the city a few weeks ago.  I stopped to talk to a driver of the truck who mentioned to me that he was bringing the water from a tube well on the H.D. Kote road and that he made at least 8-10 trips each day.  His concern was that the bore-well was running out of water with the advancing summer and this would affect his daily business.  Another friend who hardly notices the weather was now joyously proclaiming how happy he was sitting out on his balcony at 11 in the night a few days ago watching the skies open up and the rains come pouring down.

While what I mention seems to be an everyday occurrence for most of us, it is painful that very few understand the challenging circumstances in which we are all living.  Our reservoirs are going dry, inter-state river disputes are on the rise, our forests are burning down or are chopped up by the timber mafia, the little water we have is wastefully used, and all the warning signs that nature is sending out is blissfully ignored.  And our Governments are busy not thinking through long term solutions but are satisfied with fighting for funds for drought relief and sinking more and more tube-wells which seem to go deeper every year. In fact, one officer confided in me that drought relief is good to have every year for some of our bureaucrats and politicians.  For, after all who keeps track of the tons of desilting that is done or the watershed projects that are undertaken or the millions of trees that are supposed to be planted year after year.

With fresh water sources being less than 2% of the water available on our planet, can something be done to ensure that we have enough of it to go around and sustain life too.  And who should we hold responsible for mitigating the crisis that we have brought on ourselves.  This problem which seems insurmountable is not so difficult to tackle if we take earnest steps right away. The time to solve the crisis is now and the people to solve them are each one of us.  As a starter, we can all resolve not to use fresh water for cleaning our pavements and courtyards; have a bath from water in the bucket rather than take a shower; ensure all our taps are properly shut and are not dripping; use little or no water to clean our cars; to put up rain water harvesting structures in our homes; and to plant, protect and nurture at least 2 saplings around our house.  The Government also cannot be allowed to go unaccountable for what it is doing or not doing. We need to make sure that the forest department is held accountable not just for raising nurseries or planting trees but are measured by the 5-year survival rate of the trees that they plant. The bureaucrats and politicians need to come up with comprehensive policies that address multiple dimensions of the environment like increasing the green cover, protecting our water bodies, controlling pollution, managing waste, regulating sand mining, protecting our forests and controlling human-forest interactions.  They need to address the challenge of balancing the use of water for human & domestic consumption, agriculture & irrigation, power generation and industrial use.  More importantly the Government needs to think out of the box and explore possibilities of putting up desalination plants, setting up of recycling units for water re-usage and running campaigns for changing human behaviors, especially of people living in urban areas.  Finally, we need to remember that this battle cannot be fought alone.  No one individual or agency can do enough on their own. What we need is a concerted effort from an ecologically sensitive government, conscientious industries and a well informed and participatory citizenry.  Together, we can not only ensure we have enough water resources for ourselves but also for our future generations.  Let us start acting now!

– Balu

Read this article which appeared in the Star of Mysore on Wed, 12th April 2017  here:Water...SOM article

Categories: General, Musings

The transformation of Chikkaputti

April 5, 2017 7 comments

Many years ago, I ran chasing young Manjula (whom I used to fondly call Chikkaputti), a 7-year-old Jenukuruba tribal girl. She was determined to escape being caught and was trying her desperate best to avoid coming to our school.  Not someone who would give up easily, I went after her as she took flight into the forest by jumping over the shallow trench separating the school form the neighbouring Bandipur National Park. After 15 minutes of this cat and mouse game, Chikkaputti finally decided that she had troubled me enough and allowed herself to be caught and brought back to the school. I still vividly remember the many times we enacted this drama that would leave me bleeding from the many scratches and bruises that the local shrubs left me with.  Chikkaputti did go on to finish her schooling and outdid herself.  She was one of the first Jenukuruba (considered a Primitive and Vulnerable Tribal Group in India) persons to complete her 10th standard and was a natural artist.  She could paint and sketch astounding images, all from her memory. She decided to put on hold her studies for a few years and asked to work in our own school as a teacher.  I still remember her trying to convince me why it was important for her to work now rather than go on and study.  She wanted to take care of her single mother and her family and also save some money for her future educational needs.  After a few years, she wanted to study and we got her into a good art school in Mysore.  Dr Vasantha, one of SVYM’s friend and well-wisher agreed to play host and asked Chikkaputti to stay with her during her studies.  Chikkaputti not only went to acquire a professional qualification in art and painting but also did very well in her final exams at the state level.

Unlike many of her contemporaries who still sought the support and network of SVYM to find jobs, Chikkaputti went on to find a job as a teacher in a school in Mysuru city.  She also married a person of her choice and settled down in Mysuru itself.  It was a few days ago that she called me asking me for help. I was happy to learn that she now had 2 little children and was keen on getting her first child aged 6 years admitted to a good school in Mysuru.  Here was this young woman lecturing me on the importance of education and what a good school would mean to her child.  When I asked her to use the RTE and apply to neighborhood schools for free education, her spontaneous response was that she did not need any support or subsidy for her children and could afford to send them to school on her own. What a long way she had come indeed from her life as a rebellious young girl wanting to avoid school at any cost to finding a good school for her children, whatever the price it entailed. As I sat reflecting on her and how she had shaped her life, I was left wondering what had actually changed – was it her social and economic mobility that had changed her focus towards schooling and education? Or was it the peer pressure of her neighbors and friends who all lived in Mysore and for whom schooling was a natural step in the phase of growing up.  Or was she seeking a sense of security for her children that schooling usually brings along. Whatever the reasons may be, Chikkaputti is part of the new India that is rising.  She belongs to a generation that is no longer satisfied with the status quo and are constantly seeking to better their lives.  All people like her need are opportunities and not doles that the state thinks the poor and marginalized need.

-Balu

This article appeared in the Star of Mysore dated 24 05 17

Transf of Chikkaputti

Radio interview

April 2, 2017 Comments off

A friend sent me the link of this radio interview that I had given many years ago to Ms Indu Ramesh, a senior radio journalist, friend and well wisher.

Radio Interview given to Ms Indu Ramesh

-Balu

Categories: General, Musings
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