Conflicting realities in rural India & the need for inclusive development- Oct 25, 2012

Watching Chakravyuh just after we came back from the village makes me wonder about how much a person’s point of view informs their own reality, how much realities differ from person to person and how confusing it is to unravel these multiple perspectives in an attempt to see things for what they really are. But that’s the thing, reality is not absolute.

In Chakravyuh, Prakash Jha exposes us to the multiple realities of Naxalism. The State perceives them as terrorists, while they believe they fight for the rights of the tribals. In a situation where the very meaning of the development is conflicting- with tribals rejecting any form of development that devours land and resources and the State believing that industrialization is the only viable form development can take- this is a fight in which it’s hard to even take sides. And that is brought out well in the film.

Back in Jalwara, we got disturbing feedback on local politics and economics and much of it conflicted with our urban perceptions of rural issues. As landowners, our family is finding it tough to find adequate labor to work in the fields. Apparently, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act or commonly known as NREGA incentivizes people to not work as they get paid a minimum number of hours whether or not they work. At crunch times, landowners have to request officials to delay NREGA payouts so that they get people to work the fields. Of course, the other point of view is that landowners can pay more than what the NREGA offers which is minimum wage and get around this. In fact, NREGA has been responsible for labor wages shooting up across the nation and in that sense, it has benefited the poor. Analysts have also proven that NREGA creating shortage of labor is simply a myth and that the rural poor would not logically opt to work for lesser wages paid weekly, fortnightly or even monthly by NREGA if better wages were paid daily by employers. I don’t understand the economics of this in detail, but this debate is another confirmation that we need better systems to manage, monitor and deliver subsidies so that people get paid for work they actually do. Plus, the gap between demand for labor and supply of workforce needs to be managed as well in some manner, though ideally the market should take care of this by itself.

Another disturbing piece of news was that the Naxals have tried to cross over from neighboring Madhya Pradesh into the Baran district in Rajasthan, hoping to recruit local tribals like the Sahariyas. Fortunately, these Sahariyas, as one landowner in Jalwara referred to caustically as the ‘tigers’ of Baran district, the hot shots, the guys who get all the resources. A recent editorial by Harsh Mander on this community highlights the fact that malnutrition and death by starvation continue to be a reality today, even though much less than before. Pretty much the only thing that keeps the Naxals out at this point is the special Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) that gives every Sahariya household 35 kgs of wheat a month and keeps them away from starvation. The same article reports, however, that these tribals gets only 10-25 days of work a year instead of the 200 days they are entitled to by the NREGA.

Coming back to Chakravyuh, effective governance in poverty struck areas of this country is critical. We don’t realize it, but as a nation we are very close to being in a situation of complete anarchy. Imagine a life when you will not be able to step out of your home without firearms, your children will lead a life of privilege and constant, unrelenting fear, fear of the poor who will strike back at every opportunity. The disparities are growing and we desperately need to innovate means to make development more inclusive. There is a big job out there. And unless we see inclusive growth as a real objective and not just a fancy word, we’re in trouble indeed!


Background shouldn’t matter for the brave and talented: Mohan’s inspirational story- May 3, 2012

I have met a few young people who came from impoverished backgrounds who have given me immense hope. Mohan, who came from his village in Orissa and then worked in Delhi and Gurgaon as a domestic help for 6-7 years (4 of them in our house; Udai is still terribly attached to him and at times spends time in his shop as sales boy….), decided to become an entrepreneur in Gurgaon. Its been four years and his business has grown, stabilized and he is able to financially support his aging parents back home in Orissa. How has he been able to do it?

A basic education, no English, but oodles and oodles of self-confidence, a willingness to take risk, learn from mistakes and not lose heart. He asks questions without hesitation, consults us and others before making investments or taking significant business decisions. He is scrupulously honest with money, taking care to return loans on or before time and building credibility and trust with his patrons (like us) and his customers (which we also sometimes are). In the beginning, he felt obliged to us for helping him out and being his general de facto family so far from home, there was a certain deference and distance. Stuff like refusing to take money for things we bought created some awkward moments.

Today, he no longer shies from taking his payments, shares a cup of tea with us when he visits as an equal; its a remarkable change. He hasn’t needed any English to achieve it, but he has needed trusted English speaking people to step in for him now and then to buy a vehicle, do bank work, etc. I do see him struggle with doctors though, a bunch of educated professionals who specialize in fleecing the poor (harsh, but true!).

The point I am making is that people like Mohan should be encouraged, not tied down. If we can create systems where language and background are not huge barriers, this country has immense potential because entrepreneurship and innovations are built into our DNA!

A vibrant construction industry based on shoddy treatment of laborers? Shame! 1 May, 2012

At work, I’m part of a team working to set up a system for certifying affordable housing projects. The initiative is that of the Ashoka Innovators for the Public and we at mHS are working on the aspects of the rating system that would impact the low-income community.

Anyway, during our discussions, we often come to the point where we wonder if the rating should consider whether the contractor uses ethical and legal practices for treatment and payment meted out to labor working on the project. If they use child labor, for instance, or use sub-standard shelter to house their labor, they should drop lower in the ratings, we think.

Today, on the occasion of Labor Day, The Hindu carried an excellent editorial written by Moushumi Basu on the subject. She spells out clearly the Acts contractors and construction companies violate when they pay lower wages, do not build decent shelter, do not ensure safe conditions for work, etc. Moreover, developers and construction companies who have ridden the wave of India’s GDP growth (and continue to do so despite slower growth) have no business to do this at the cost of the labor that works for them. It is a sad tale of mistreatment of those who have no voice. Besides the legality, where’s the humanity here? Would it really hurt to pass on a tiny bit of your profits towards improving the lives of those that made your projects possible, often risking their lives, migrating far from their homes?

So in our ratings projects, we’re really wondering….how do we factor in the humanity/ethics (or lack of these) of developers into ratings for affordable housing, where profit margins are lower than regular projects, when they fail to factor in regular projects where profit margins are decent?

What I learnt from conversations with the youth in urban slums: They crave opportunity and deserve support- April 9, 2012

A few of us friends met up for lunch yesterday. Randomly, someone observed that one can experience kindness from the most obscure sources, describing an incident when an auto driver was sympathetic and understanding, willing to forego his payment when she misplaced her wallet (he needed to wait a while and eventually got paid). Another friend remarked that kindness and understanding often came most spontaneously from those who themselves have so little to lose.

In my work with slum dwellers in the past year or so, I have often noticed the warmth with which we (who go in to research and sometimes help them) are treated, despite the fact that it is hard for them to trust people who come with promises to help, having experienced disappointments before. I am specially touched by my interactions with children and young people. These kids are usually bright, cheerful and enthusiastic, despite the harsh conditions of their life. In the urban slums I am referring to (specifically in Sundernagari in East Delhi and in the slums in Gurgaon), food may not be available to kids in plenty, but they show no signs of serious malnutrition.

Education is another story, however. In the slums of Delhi, kids do attend government school, but the quality of education is nothing to write home about and young people feel complexed and frustrated as they reach their teens, many dropping out in secondary school to seek domestic work and other forms of informal employment. In Gurgaon, slum children do not go to school at all and they sort of resent the fact that their parents make no effort at all!

When asked why they drop out, slum kids express a lack of confidence in being able to find employment. They are convinced that they will find it difficult to succeed in a world that gives opportunity only to those who speak English. It always seems strange they think like this, because I can think of a zillion types of jobs that require intelligence and hard work, not super fabulous communication skills and certainly not in English! I wonder if this is a BPO/KPO driven hype where poor urban youth sees thousands working in such set ups and see that as the modern form of white-collared mass employment? But seriously, it is a challenge for these young people to reconcile their very basic levels of education with available opportunities; and then put these in context of their aspirations, which in a world influenced by media and mobile technology, have changed considerably as well! In this scenario, I was pleased to read some NGOs making an effort to help slum youth find jobs. A lot more such initiatives would be needed, with counseling efforts to help these young people fit into modern working environments, develop a basic understanding of work ethics, rights and responsibilities, avenues for growth, etc.

Are we reinforcing inequality in our homes? Examining my attitudes towards my domestic help- Feb 02, 2012

Hindu’s op-ed about domestic help makes a few hard-hitting points that forced me to examine the following questions for myself:

Why do I employ domestic help? Is it because of what the article suggests- I need to work outside the house, so in employing domestic servants, am I using my class advantage to minimize my gender disadvantage? In my case, the latter isn’t so much about my husband not being willing to be a caregiver to my children or taking on housekeeping responsibilities (which is what the article outlines as the typical situation), but simply because of the nature of his job, when he may not be in town for long periods of time!

Do I think its unskilled labor and do I devalue it? Certainly not. I have gone with little or no domestic help for short periods of time and I think I (and most of us) employ domestic help because housework is tedious work and not intellectually stimulating, NOT because we think it is unskilled work. In fact, many domestic workers have excellent skills and many more need training, which unfortunately needs to be given by us who are relatively unskilled in this department!

What is my attitude towards my domestic help? Do I treat them with dignity? How does my behavior towards them affect my children?

Now this these are tough questions to answer honestly. Let me say I try and be fair to my help, in exchange for a sense of responsibility from their side. I do not go as far as asking them to sit and dine with me. To that extent, the class differences are ingrained, on both sides. But I do not ask them to constantly run errands for my children and certainly not my son, who is old enough to clear his toys and get himself a glass of water. My help eats what we eat and participates normally in conversations between us as far as it involves her. Fortunately, I haven’t needed full time domestic help in the past several months, so we have adequate privacy once the maids leave. Yes, I think I treat them with dignity. They get pulled up for mistakes, just like any team worker at work would get, though I admit I do raise my voice with my help, which I would never do at work.

What are my children learning? Here, I’m thinking back to an incident from my childhood. The only time by father hit me in my life was when I mistakenly said something rude to our domestic help Manda, who I treated as family and very much still keep in touch with. I must have been seven or eight, about as old as Udai is now. My father’s reaction taught me to measure my attitude towards those who help us early in life. I urge my children to form a bond of some sort with anyone who works at my place. Often that does not happen because the domestic worker rejects their affection and I have seen how deeply that affects the kids. Sometimes the kids tend to get violent, over criticize and tattle on the help. I treat that the same way I treat their friendships with their peers- ignore and intervene when I must.

I hope these are the right things to do. Undoubtedly, our children lead a life of privilege and class distinctions are deeply ingrained. I can only hope to teach them to be empathetic, by example. Even in that, I can only try!

Always on a deadline? My list of excuses and a desire to crack the problem! – Jan 17, 2012

So the office day began with a serious introspection into why we (which could mean architects, the office people specifically, Indians or the world in general) work through the night till 6AM in the morning whenever we have a project deadline! Marco, Founder mHS and holder of the marker was positioned in front of the white board, with all of us listening to him in rapt attention. “For once,” he says, “I’d like to leave office at 6PM the day before the deadline!”

So why exactly do we push ourselves dead to meet (and sometimes overshoot) deadlines? A number of reasons come to mind.

First, the projects we work on have completely unrealistic deadlines. Ridiculously, these are sometimes set by us and not by the clients or the boss, so we have noone to blame but us. Its great fun when you can blame the ‘other’ though!

Second, we try to do an exceedingly excellent job and spend far too much time on the details, completely losing sight of the whole. When we do get to the wrapping up bit, we realize everything is falling apart and we are left with many excellent parts that refuse to come together. By this time, we don’t have enough time to make that mammoth effort of pulling it all together!

Third, we just don’t love the work at hand enough, or the ideas are simply eluding us.  We indulge in the sheer pleasure of whiling away our time with a deadline sitting on our head (to borrow from the Hindi phrase ‘sar par baitha hai!’). Its called procrastination and the guilty pleasure is fun while it lasts and turns to panic the night before the deadline!

In most cases, however, none of the above are true. Most of us lead crazy lives with multiple activities and responsibilities. We are singularly ill equipped to plan our schedules in a sensible manner. We expect too much of ourselves, we’re scared to say ‘no’ to superfluous work and we don’t respect ourselves enough to draw the line when the mind no longer works and the head throbs! It’s all fair in the name of personal development, career growth and ambition; all of which would be right on track if we were able to crack the right process to meet the deadline in the first place!


Domestic help crisis and the perspective divide! Jan 11, 2012

Its a pet peeve…. servants! A few years ago, the trend was to criticize servants–they didn’t work hard enough, wanted too much money, they answered back, they weren’t honest, not loyal, etc etc. This sort of conversation was commonplace. But now, the trend has shifted to discussing the availability of domestic help. If someone has a servant who looks reasonably reliable and efficient, they are the object of fierce envy, getting constantly plagued by questions about how the help was sourced, how much are they paid, etc.

People who form the supply of the domestic workforce segment are usually migrants. Mostly women, they are wives and daughters of men who have made the journey into the city to work on construction sites, shops, offices, factories, etc. I have often observed that the women who do domestic work have the more stable, assured jobs and the menfolk wander from job to job, with income-less periods between these stints.

It’s an uncertain life on both sides of the picture. The employer who waits anxiously every morning for the domestic worker (cook, cleaner, baby sitter…) to turn up on one hand; and the worker who comes to work each day preoccupied with worries about her jhuggi burning or being bulldozed, someone robbing the tenement while they are at work, the kids getting sick or hurt, the menfolk losing their jobs or not getting paid, the price of rice, etc, on the other.

A few days ago, I caught my help (she stays with us through the day and returns to her parents at night) opening my wallet. She hadn’t stolen anything, was just staring at the money! Of course I reprimanded her, tried to explain that losing her honesty is not worth the money she would have stolen…all the stuff about reputation, trust, etc. She went home and confessed to her father, was even beaten for what she did!

This morning, when my mother in law had to leave town urgently, leaving me alone with the kids, this girl didn’t turn up for work despite knowing that we were in a tight situation. I was upset. For all the understanding and support we have given their family in times of need, I was aghast at the lack of gratitude or at least honesty in sending a message about her non-availability for work!

These two issues- trust and communication- are recurring themes in our interaction with domestic help. I’ve had the best and worst of experiences (haven’t we all!), but I do see that the problems exist on both sides. Huge cultural differences and a general sense of exploitation on both sides breed an environment of mistrust (or at best wariness). This is further exacerbated by a communication breakdown owing to language barriers and huge differences in perception about what the possible outcome of the communication will be? I have had umpteen maids up and leave because they are not confident about talking their problems though. Sometimes I have come to know later that the reasons were as minor as wanting warm water for bathing or rice instead of roti! I find myself wondering if I come across as a crazy brute that would deny someone these? But I realize that their attitude comes out of personal experiences with a previous employer or worse, from a general ingrained perception that employers are not sympathetic to the needs of domestic help!

Anyway, I had to act about today’s maid-less situation! I decided to visit her home. Asking around, I reached their dwelling, found her there, appealed to her humane side (was hoping fervently there was one!), asked her to pack her things and stay with me till my mom in law returns because I can’t manage without her, etc etc. All the way to her house, my mind was planning threats, abuses and other forms of aggression. When I saw the bare bone room in which the family of five lived, I didn’t have it in me to shout. I stated my case instead and asked her to be reasonable about things, promising to sort out her issues, if any. I was clearly the beggar, not the chooser and standing in that courtyard with the neighbors peering at us, little kids crawling around the floor, I felt very, very calm after a morning of craziness, uncertainty, helplessness and rage!

Let’s face it! The domestic help situation is going to continue to change dramatically. The demand is great, but willingness to pay for services is still low. On the supply side, fewer people are willing to work as domestic servants. Those who end up doing the work are unskilled or semi-skilled, not deserving the higher wages perhaps. Rising cost of living creates an endless cycle of higher expectations in terms of the pay scales, while the lack of training and subsequent inability to provide better service ensures the market is trapped in a frustrating low value cycle. How we can break out of this cycle, I have no clue! For now, I am glad my children are growing up and my dependence on domestic help is getting lower day by day. On the other hand, I worry about where we will get the support to look after older people- first grandparents and later, parents!

As I worry, I hope to continue working on enhancing the trust and the communication with those who work for (and with) me!