Saturday, 22 March 2014

Conversations in the Hinterlands

By Azeez Gupta

A quick introduction – I have recently joined the Pratham Institute as part of a pursuit for happiness and meaning. The past 2 years spent working at a renowned consultancy saw me engage in stimulating work with fantastic minds – yet I could never escape the nagging feeling that I was coasting. I missed the violent single-minded passion I experienced during my most fulfilling college years, and hope that working for a cause again will help me re-discover those emotions.

Seeing as I came to Pratham as a relatively green, mostly city boy, who had grown up seeing the poor, but had never really interacted deeply with underprivileged people, I was promptly packed off to see all our programs and centers on the ground. The resulting 2 week trip through the hinterlands of Maharashtra was truly eye-opening. I met dozens of our students, learnt about their lives and heard their stories. In the process, I went from being an armchair intellectual to… well, definitely not an expert, but someone who’s starting to get a pulse of India today. The things we all pontificate about, but really know very little about. In this post, I will try to put down some of my observations, as I remember them. These are random and unstructured reflections, often mundane, and accompanied by my unsolicited comments – but may be interesting to my peers, as cossetted as I was.
  • I asked students what they liked best about their time at Pratham training centers. The quickest and most enthusiastic response – “Shaving”! Shaving?! Here we are, claiming to turn your lives around, give you opportunity and all that jazz, and what you like most is shaving?! It was very endearing – and jokes apart, the shaving was part of a broader theme of following rules and regulations and living a structured life. Concepts that we elites resist resolutely, but are both important for and attractive to these young people who’ve lived their lives in relative chaos.
  • The level of attention in classes and devotion to learning was extraordinary – it put me to shame, looking back at how many of my batch-mates and I went through our IIT education.
  • I heard the personal stories of many students – most were from villages and had absolutely no jobs available at their homes. They spent their times roaming around the fields aimlessly, with nothing to do, and occasionally working on the farms. It bought the scarcity of opportunities home to me very starkly, especially in contrast to the vast expanse of options I have been blessed with all my life.
  • The more things are different though, the more they remain the same When I asked what kids use the computer center for, after their daily studies are over, there was a lot of sniggering followed by the euphemism ‘watch videos of movie stars on the internet’. Young men are the same everywhere!
  • A very interesting thing to experience first hand was the Indian penchant for entrepreneurship. We read everywhere about how India is driven by its entrepreneurs – I saw it embodied in a sizeable number of these students who were keenly interested in opening up their own restaurants or garages, rather than work for someone else, and were supremely confident in their ability to do so. I have always thought that natural inclination for entrepreneurship comes from the sort of family that one comes from – whether a business or a service family. Given that a lot of our rural farmers are effectively small business owners, is there a bunch of untapped entrepreneurial energy in our hinterland, just waiting to explode?
  • I also heard first hand accounts of how corruption is a problem everywhere. There was an almost universal lament of how the few government jobs that exist in rural areas are unavailable, because of demands for large bribes. For me, this widespread low-level corruption is a far bigger issue than high-profile scams – I wonder how long it’ll take for technology and e-governance to cut through this and force a change?
  • While we’re thinking about technology – EVERYONE today has mobiles! Each and every student (and most of these are BPL) had their own basic cellphone and used India’s revolutionarily low call rates to connect back home and with each other. Our centers also have wifi – each kid used it to get on Whatsapp. Talk about technological leapfrogging!! Mobile internet connectivity really will change the world for everyone - Google and Facebook, get your balloons or satellites or whatever working ASAP!!
  • Information asymmetry is dying a quick death by technology. This is completely unrelated to our programs, but I was starkly reminded of it when I went to visit Ellora, which is very close to our Auragabad center. My auto driver wanted to take me to a few of the nearer caves and bring me back – my handy phone internet told me about the best caves and I convinced him to take me there. The Idea ‘No ullu banaoing’ ad really came alive to me then!
  • Many of our students are tribals from extremist areas in states like Maharashtra among others. Their stories finally gave me a real perspective on the issue. Their lives have been ravaged – there are absolutely no jobs there. I do believe that the state has failed these people – and development has to be the key to turning things around. I thought the same earlier as well, but talking to these students convinced me of it.
  • Many kids drop out of school after class 8 – supposedly because of the nominal amount of money they have to pay for schooling! I still don’t know what to make of this – it is probably true to some extent, but I think the biggest reason would be because they realize by then that education is not really helping them.
  • My point above seems to be borne out by some other stories I heard – in a small village, parents were willing to pay 1.5 lacs to an agent to get admitted to a private school. It seems the agent ran off with some crore rupees that he got by this route. The story was extremely sad in that it illustrated the desperate lack of quality education in India but was heartening in that it also showed that people really do realize the value of a good education – something that I have always seen first hand in cities as well.
  • At this point, I will also slip in a small ode to the institution I’ve just joined. I have been overwhelmed by the love and help that has been offered to me by everyone in Pratham, especially people who will never interact with me on a work basis. I was introduced to a Read India program coordinator – he not only explained the program to me in great detail but also got another coordinator to start some camps the next day and spend his morning taking me around on a motorbike to see the camps first hand in several villages. Multiple other program coordinators similarly spent hours explaining their program to me, despite my lack of any formal connection to their programs. This kind of culture in the organization left me totally humbled.
  • While I was on my motorbike visit to Read India camps, I was also treated to sugarcane juice and ‘gud’ straight from the fields of one of our trainers. It was not only delicious in taste and fascinating to watch, but also exponentially increased my confidence in my digestive capabilities!
  • On the subject of food, one slightly sad observation – it seems that decent paneer cannot be gotten for love or money in Maharashtra. For a Punjabi vegetarian, it seemed a fate worse than death, but I’ve mostly gotten used to the local food by now.
  • Back to Read India camps – I loved to see small school children were jumping up and down to participate. The pedagogy and method of teaching really does make a big difference, I think. I seem to remember our classrooms being much more somber in tone – I used to be the only one answering the teacher’s questions but that was because I was always this nerdy kid.
  • I’ll now slip in something on religious harmony, as that is always a favourite topic of mine – it made me happy to see little kids of different religions playing and learning together. I vividly remember a poignant image of a small boy in a skullcap yelling for his Hindu friend. I am probably romanticizing this unnecessarily, but I haven’t seen this much in the areas I’ve lived in, in the North, and it felt good.
  • I also keep coming across interesting religious legends. One example is of these sets of small mandirs that apparently survived the massive 1993 earthquake in Latur, while everything around them was razed to the ground.
Overall, I felt a lot of energy – our struggling majority is ready and aspiring to improve their lot. Meeting and talking to them was inspiring – I can see what Gandhiji me meant by that Talisman that was ever present in our NCERT books.

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