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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Facebook phase begins

Time magazine Person of the Year for 2010 was Mark Zuckerberg, the most popular co-founder of Facebook.

Getting on Facebook has been a memorable part of my year also. While I have been on LinkedIn for longer, I feel that Facebook, which I started using on August 15, 2010 (Indian Independence Day), is the true beginning of my social e-networking journey. What a simple and significant phenomenon this Harvard drop-out and his friends have created! In my own field of work, I hope to create something as significant in my life time.

A compendium of all my FB status posts in 2010 is here, for what it's worth.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Inclusion a better option than choice?

Often in life, when we are sailing comfortably along one path, we bump into a starkly different yet attractive option. An alternative that in itself is attractive and makes sense, but just does not fit comfortably into your existing scheme of things. Examples?

  • You  are a youngster with supportive, loving, sensible family, who is helplessly charmed by someone whose background and views just don't gel with your family's. 
  • You are comfortably handling a successful business, and you encounter an opportunity that irrationally but strongly appeals to your gut, but all your supporters advise against it
What is the right thing to do when you encounter two paths in front of you, one of continuing what you have been doing comfortably, and one of switching to a wild and attractive new option?

There is a whole area of Decision Sciences that deals with making the right choice. Choices can be quantitatively weighted, scored, prioritized, optimized and selected in scientific ways. However, I recently began to wonder if this whole business of choice makes sense at all.

I encountered many forks in my own life. Looking back, the best decisions I took involved embracing both sides of the fork rather than choosing any one side. Including the new option into my existing life, so as not to destroy/lose what  is already there, but expand horizons to embrace the new, has always resulted in growth for all concerned, enriched perception, and made new opportunities available.

Making and sticking to a choice is far easier than inclusion. Hence it is the short-cut that people tend to prefer - just come to some conclusion quickly and simplify life. Hindu versus Muslim, urban versus rural, moral principles versus convenience, profit versus social service, parents versus friends, etc. However it seems to me that each choice we make is like a little wall we build between ourselves and the real, beautiful world out there. Choice breeds exclusion.

Inclusion is not easy to practice. Including some new thing as part of your current life is like becoming pregnant. Many existing parts of you will be forced to yield, many preferences get compromised, many allowances get made, many acclimatizations happen. But once the painful gestation is over, the end result is well-worth it. Your world definitely becomes richer.

In my personal & business life, I was fortunate to have encountered many situations where I was forced to choose between strong options. I feel grateful and gratified that something in me selected both options instead of only one. As an easy-to-understand example, my choice of a life partner was strongly objected to by my wonderful parents. I often felt cornered and forced to make a choice, but something within me adamantly stuck to "no I want both my parents AND my fiancĂ©e; all should be happy". It took time for a solution to naturally evolve, but when it did, the conclusion was more beautiful than any single choice could have been. There were many similar situations and learnings in the context of my business.

It will be wonderful if some Decision Sciences researcher takes up a scientific study of inclusion as a decision-making strategy, and evaluate its merits compared to choice.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Obesity & Undernutrition - two sides of the same economic coin?

To address India's dual health burden, Stanford researcher Jeremy Goldhaber-Fiebert, PhD, has joined forces with colleagues across disciplines to better understand the seemingly opposing issues of undernutrition and obesity and to develop nutrition policies aimed at reducing the public health concerns. According to a release:
Bringing his own expertise in mathematical modeling, Goldhaber-Fiebert is working with the group to consider the patterns of future illness and death due to undernutrition and obesity. The researchers would like to know how economic and demographic changes will impact these trends. Ultimately, broadly delivered nutrition policies will have to address undernutrition and obesity issues without exacerbating either one... Although currently focused on India, the research will have broad implications for many other countries that face the undernutrition/obesity dual burden.
The research is funded by a Woods Institute Environmental Venture Projects grant.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why worship feet?

The focus on worshiping the Guru's feet is unmistakable in Hinduism - the following are a few examples:
  • Saint Tulsidas starts his popular Hanuman Chalisa with "sri guru charana saroja raja nija mana mukura sudhar" (Having cleaned the mirror of my mind with the dust from the lotus feet of my Guru..)
  • Adi Shankaracharya wrote an entire Guru Paduka Stotram, a collection of eight slokas describing the greatness of the holy sandals of the Guru.
  • Seemingly unsatiated with this, Adi Shankara went on to write the Guru Ashtakam, another eight powerful slokas that ask "Of what consequence are any earthly possessions or achievements, if your mind is not riveted in devotion to the lotus feet of Guru". 
  • The Ramayana story of Bharata installing Sri Rama's sandals on the throne of Ayodhya for 14 years

I always wondered - why worship sandals, of all things, the dustiest, lowest part of the Guru? By looking at sandals or feet, it's hard to even tell who they belong to - how can they inspire devotion? Is sandal worship a conspiracy by Gurus to establish their unquestionable supremacy over the disciples? Why not worship the face of the Guru, the whole form, something the Guru created like a book, or an abstract symbol like Om? Of all things that can be worshiped, why feet / sandals? Why should educated people stoop so low just because they respect someone?

I wondered in this manner for several years.

Recently a series of events took place in my life, which made me experience the sensibility, the beauty in this mode of worship. I understood that just thinking of Someone's feet can move you to tears and untold joy. That you find it impossible to think of Them as a mere human form. The only way you experience Them is as an all-encompassing, all-powerful presence, truly one with the Universe, as Truth itself, and you feel blessed to be able to behold their footprints in this insignificant, transient lifespan of yours.

Every time you touch those Footprints, you feel your existence being cleaned up. You experience Them as truly formless - as the air that courses through your body, as the divine sound permeating creation, as Grace itself. Their current form is incidental and of little significance; They walked the earth much before you came and will walk it forever after you leave. So the most tangible thing about them that you can physically hang on to are their footprints.

Further, you realize that your Guru is a continuity, not separate from the series of enlightened beings before them. It is as though a magnificent form, a coalescence of all Gurus since the beginning of time, the embodiment of all knowledge, love and compassion in creation, formless, limitless, and resplendent beyond imagination, stands on top of the two footprints that you worship. How can you dare to look up? It is not even the universe that stands on these footprints. The universe is a mere child's play for the Being, the Cosmic Energy that offered these footprints, with infinite compassion, to help an insignificant being like you dissolve. What pride can you have in front of that Being? Is your education, money, beauty, fame, intelligence, strength, or anything else pertinent in anyway before that Being? If your goal is to dissolve, and an invaluable opportunity to do so is being offered to you, is there anything more sensible to do than to shed all pretenses, all prejudices and offer yourself 100% at those feet?

Fortunate are those who naturally bow down at the Guru's feet with the necessary love, humbleness and awareness. But even for doubters like me, there is hope. Guru's grace can transcend doubt and bestow a beautiful experience on you. The following verse was born of Guru's grace and burst forth as a song.  
Guru paadam, ahamkaara naashakam
samsaara saagara tharaNOpaayam, sarva rOgaanthakam
manO-vaak-kaaya-karma puneetham, paramoushadham
Guru paadam, ahamkaara naashakam

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rotting an extremely serious matter - Supreme Court

Content from OUTLOOK India magazine
October 18, 2010

Ticking off the Centre for the rotting of huge quantities of foodgrains when people are dying of hunger, the Supreme Court today asked what action has been taken against officials responsible for it.

Terming the matter as "extremely serious", the apex asked the Centre to ensure no further wastage and gear up to meet the storage required for the ensuing kharif crops.

Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Mohan Parasaran drew flak for his argument that only 7000 tonnes of grains had got rotten in Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns and that 67,539 tonnes were wasted in the godowns owned by States of Haryana and Punjab.

"Even if it is 7,000 tonnes how can it happen? Then there is the wastage in two States. It is an extremely serious matter. You compare the wastage world over. The damage done in two States is very high. What action you have taken against the officials?

You are admitting 7000 tonnes have been damaged. People are dying of hunger. You are not providing them grain. This litigation has been going on for the past 10 years. Some evaluation should have been done by you by this time to prevent wastage and ensure proper distribution," a Bench of Justices Dalveer Bhandari and Deepak Verma told the ASG.

The apex court made the observation while dealing with the public interest litigation moved by Peoples Union for Civil Liberties's (PUCL) complaining about large scale corruption in the country's public distribution system (PDS) and rotting of food grains in government godowns.

The Bench had earlier ordered the Government to distribute food grains free of cost to the hungry poor, but the Centre had not given any commitment on the issue though Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Paward had orally assured that Government would implement the direction.

However, subsequently the Prime Minister joined the issue saying courts should not interfere in policy matters.

During today's arguments, the apex court asked the Government counsel as to what action was taken against the officials responsible for the rotten grains.

"From the first of October you will be getting more foodgrains from the kharif corps. Ensure it is properly distributed. Let it not go waste, "the Bench said.

Referring to the rotten foodgrains it said, "if it is not fit for human consumption we do not suggest that it should be given to them. It should not be given even to animals. Because you spend more on breeding them (animals)."

The apex court also wondered what was the difficulty for the Centre to allocate sufficient grains for the BPL/AAY families in States if they are seeking higher allocation.

"What is the difficulty? When they find it(allocation of foodgrains) is very short, what can they(States) do?" the Bench asked the counsel.

The PUCL had alleged that many States were not getting adequate stocks for distribution through PDS as the Centre was allocating only a limited stock for the distribution.

According to the organisation, presently apart from 22 million tonnes of buffer stock, the Centre has an additional 33 million tonnes of foodgrains in its godowns, but was allocating only a meagre 2.5 million tonnes for the PDS.

The ASG, however, said the distribution was being made on the basis of the BPL/AAY statistics relied upon by the Centre, though the States might have their own parameters in determining the number of such beneficiaries. The arguments will continue tomorrow.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Women needed to fix food security

"Women were, really, in my view, the ones who domesticated plants, created agriculture. And as long as women were controlling agriculture, agriculture produced real food. Agriculture was based on [women's learned and passed on] knowledge. A Women’s centered agriculture never created scarcity. As long as women controlled the food system you did not have a billion people going without food and you didn’t have 2 billion going obese and w/diabetes. This is the magic of patriarchy having taken over the food system. Earlier, patriarchy left food to women, modern patriarchy wants to control food . . . women’s knowledge has been removed from agriculture . . we can only have a secure food culture if women come back into agriculture.” Vandana Shiva

I recently came across the wonderful work that Dr. Vandana Shiva, physicist, winner of the Right Livelihood Award (the alternative Nobel Peace Prize) is doing for strengthening our society against industrial agriculture and in favor of women.

Here is a great, recent interview with her.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Ultimate Disconnect

My niece passed her tenth grade exams a few months ago. A couple of weeks before her exams, we got the shocking news that one of her friends, a girl whom we knew since childhood, jumped off a 6-story building on the artery leading to my house, and ended her life.

Sneha Sree, this unfortunate 15-year old, was externally bubbly, fun loving, well liked, and academically near the top of her class. She went to the same school that my son goes for years. We love the school for the individual attention and love that the teachers bestow on the kids. The hurt and grief of the teachers at what happened was as deep as that of the parents.

She apparently planned this closure for months, confiding in only one friend, who was also supposed to end his life along with her. On the eventful day, the two teenagers rode an auto at dusk to an under-construction building, comfortably climbed up to the terrace without being stopped by any watchman, and she took the leap first. The boy thankfully backed out at the last moment.

The reason for Sneha Sree's end is not falling in or out of love, monetary or other family difficulties, lack of well-wishers, lack of recognition, illness, failure, etc. It seems to be something deeper.

For the 10-19 year old segment, South India has been described as the suicide capital of the world. Kerala is the state with the highest suicide rate in India and Pondichery tops the list of union territories. The other south Indian states, Tamilnadu, AP, Karnaka are not far behind. (AP now ranks second in India.) All states are above Indian average, and significantly above the world average. The rate of suicide among young women is about three times as it is in young men, in south India. Worldwide, the reverse is true; many more men commit suicide than women. 

Interestingly, south India also happens to be ahead of much of India in terms of literacy, knowledge industries, law and order, international exposure, gender equality, availability of quality education and healthcare. None of this "development" has a positive impact on suicide rates; my worry is if the correlation is actually negative.

To me, the origin of suicides among youth from otherwise fortunate families seems to be a growing disconnect with people around them - with the family, with the community, with the society at large. A dissatisfaction, disinterest, boredom, a sense of pointlessness of the whole thing. The primary focus of upwardly mobile families, more often than not, seems to lie away from the children. Indirectly, most things we do are for our children, but my concern is about directly. Grown-ups and teenage children spend much less time together today than when I grew up - families are smaller, shared interests are fewer, distractions are many, and egos are so much more developed (on both sides). One sees a substantially wider disconnect between groups of youngsters and groups of 35-pluses in functions and gatherings today than we saw 20-30 years ago. There is much more loneliness today for teenagers (albeit under the anesthesia of cell phones, head phones, Internet , TV). Most teens that I know cannot relate to 75% of even the most youth-oriented newspaper - the politics, the strikes, the apparent priorities of elders just seem so unreal. The world is much more complex for a teenager to wade through today than it was a generation ago.

It will be a truism but a banality to say that the youth is our future, so I will instead say that, demographic dividend is India's primary passport to achieving great success. Nothing can be achieved if we, as families and as communities, do not learn to make our youngsters feel connected with us.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Gross National Happiness

It is nice to see Bhutan's initiative to advise the world, at the United Nations (see article below).  No one at UN was likely expecting any inputs from this tiny mountain kingdom. To propose a seemingly radical new goal to the hugely more powerful colleague nations, and to scoff at their current pursuits, takes courage, a certain depth of compassion and conviction. I appreciate this initiative.

In India, philosophically the goal has always been "sarve janah sukhino bhavanthu" (let everyone be happy and comfortable). I would think it is similar in other cultures and countries as well. The world's gap with Bhutan is not at a philosophical level; it is at intellectual and  implementation levels.

If Bhutan really wants the world to take its advise seriously and benefit from it, they should invest time and money to do some homework. They should put their advice in a language that the world can take seriously. They should form an international expert panel, and delegate to it the tasks of scientifically defining Gross National Happiness and connecting it to macro-economic indicators that the world-at-large can understand. If Bhutan can do this, the world can ever be grateful to this tiny nation.   

Bhutan proposes a new global goal
UNITED NATIONS — The introvert Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan on Monday urged the world to adopt a new Millennium Development Goal -- happiness -- if it really wants to end the scourge of poverty, hunger and disease.
Bhutan's Prime Minister, Jigmi Thinley, condemned the "dangerous and stupid" pursuit of wealth, even by some of his big and brash neighbours India and China, in a speech to the UN summit on reaching the MDGs.
The land of the Gross National Happiness index again sought to export its optimistic ideology, which the prime minister said encompassed all of the eight major goals set by the United Nations in 2000.
Aims which Thinley said Bhutan is on target to reach, while the rest of the world struggles.
Thinley said that as the eight existing goals are likely to remain after the target date of 2015 "my delegation would like to propose to this highest forum in the world that we include happiness as the ninth MDG."
"It is a goal that stands as a separate value while representing as well, the sum total outcome of the other eight. Its relevance goes beyond the poor and developing member states to bind all of humanity, rich and poor, to a timeless common vision."

Bhutan's Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley addresses the Millennium Development Goals Summit
Gross National Happiness was conceived by the father of Buddhist Bhutan's young monarch -- Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck -- and is firmly established as official government policy. Seeking a more holistic indicator of development that transcends the "materialism" of Gross Domestic Product, Gross National Happiness measures four criteria -- sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the environment, and good governance. It does not ignore economic growth, however. Bhutan, which has been slowly emerging from hundreds of years of isolation -- only allowing television in 1999 -- has clocked an annual average of about eight percent growth for the past few years.
Bhutan says it concentrates on the type of growth that is important. It has policies that provide free education and health care, a clean mountain environment and making sure the country's religious and cultural traditions remain intact.
"It does not demand much imagination intelligence," the prime minster told the summit, "to understand that endless pursuit of material growth in a world with limited natural resources within a delicately balanced ecology is just not sustainable -- that it is dangerous and stupid.
"One cannot imagine, even as China and India aspire to compete in consumption with the USA, what would become of Earth if every global citizen acquired the same voracious capacity."
According to the prime minister, "the evidence of the limited ability of nature to tolerate abuse is there for us to suffer in the rising frequency and fury of multiple calamities." He mentioned the Pakistan flood disaster as well as the huge oil slick which has hit the Gulf of Mexico this year.
Thinley said the global financial crisis was a reminder that much of the world's wealth is "illusory" and can quickly "disappear without a trace."
He said the current economic crisis could get worse and predicted "more, we can be certain, will strike to persuade us of the need to change our way of life."
The prime minister left the podium with a smile and to a strong if bemused ovation from world leaders.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The real Swadesis

While at Johns Hopkins University (1991-'95), I used to often see this young, pretty Indian girl on campus. With a strong accent typical of Indian American "kids", she used to talk about India with passion. While it was obvious that she was more intense than other youngsters, I honestly did not think much of her passion at that time. I had seen other kids of Indian origin go through a similar "phase" of love for India, which did not translate into much real benefit for India.

I got introduced to Aravinda Pillalamarri subsequently, through a common friend. I found out that she was interested in library sciences - a subject that did not mean much to me. We spent some nice times together, I found her thoughts intense always and her accented Telugu sort of funny.

Change of scene to Princeton. I graduated from Hopkins, got married and took up a job in New Jersey. We got an unexpected call from Aravinda. She said that she was in Boston, and that the "thiruppavai" puja at the Bridgewater temple was done very traditionally (at 5am on shivering, icy winter mornings). The puja  happened throughout a particular month (dhanur-masam). Aravinda wanted to stay at Princeton and attend the puja on multiple days, so called to see if we wanted to join her. My wife and I like this kind of things, so we jumped at the opportunity.

Through the 45-minute early morning rides for thiruppavai, subsequent interactions, and eventually a wonderful Maha-Sivaratri celebration in 1996 for which she did not eat or sleep for 24 hours,  I discovered that Aravinda was made of a very different fiber than most other youngsters. Her intensity was on, throughout the day, whether it is in reading the Vishnu Sahasranamam, in enjoying music, in enjoying the beauty of winter, or in discussing library sciences. I felt very proud and protective about her.

When Aravinda told me some time later that she was getting married to a certain Ravi Kuchimanchi, I was very happy. I requested that the bride's party should use my house for the marriage. I did not know much about Ravi except that he did a PhD in Nuclear Physics at UMD and that he started a service organization named AID India. Throughout Aravinda and Ravi's marriage, I did not know a single person from both sides, but felt like it was my own younger sister's marriage. I was very happy to meet Ravi and see his intensity.

Since that time (1996 summer), I have had zero contact with Aravinda. I knew that AID was very active and that Aravinda and Ravi had moved back to India in 1998 for full-time village service. I fondly thought of them often, but never had a chance to get in touch.

Today morning, as I was leisurely browsing the Web, I saw this on Wikipedia: "Swades (the Shahrukh Khan starer) is inspired by the story of Aravinda Pillalamarri and Ravi Kuchimanchi, the NRI couple who returned to India and developed the pedal power generator to light remote, off-the-grid village schools." With a pleasant shock, a filled heart, I searched and found many more accolades for the great work this couple has rendered in the past 12 years.

I am honored to have had this personal perspective of Aravinda's development, from a passionate youngster to someone benefiting hundreds of thousands of lives in India. Aravinda and Ravi are indeed flaming examples of the love and dedication that each of us must shower on our motherland. Hats off to them!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Should knowledge be free?

To the best of my knowledge, MIT was the forerunner in making a bold statement that formal knowledge (i.e., university courses) should be free in the Internet age. MIT's Open Course ware project, announced in 2001, was instrumental in catalyzing the collective global academic consciousness in this direction, and was followed by many great Universities following suit with sharing their own courses. A notable example in India is the NPTEL project, a joint initiative of the IITs and the IISc. There are many others.

Now, after a decade, the grand dad of open course ware seems to be reconsidering the prudence of their decision. University World News reported yesterday that MIT is "considering putting lecture notes and other academic content behind a paywall to raise revenue and make up for funding shortfalls stemming from the global recession".

I believe this is an important, globally pertinent, decision point. In the age of Web 2.0, YouTube, social networks, etc it is simply impossible to keep knowledge locked up, especially after people have tasted it for free. Business model innovations are the need of the hour, to keep content available for free while making the initiatives sustainable. But the solution is not  to lock up. In fact, it seems to me that the natural movement should be in the opposite direction - formal knowledge organizations other than Universities, such as noteworthy schools, colleges, training bodies, government and corporate research labs, consultancy companies, etc need to open up their courses, publications and knowledge to the world. This is where both the good of the world and the long-term good of their brands lie.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Scores Are In.

Action Aid today released their research report titled "Who is Really Fighting Hunger?", analyzing how different countries are faring in terms of achieving the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger. Here are a few highlights, from an India perspective:

  • Out of 28 poor countries, India is ranked 21st (best to worst ranking). Our overall score is 30/100, and grade is D (best A - worst E).
  • The bottom 12 countries are going backwards on hunger fighting. i.e., More people are going hungry now than when the goals were conceived.
  • With the number of hungry people having increased between 1990 and 2005 by about 53 million, it is predicted that India will not have halved hunger until 2083 - nearly 70 years after the MDG target date.
Not everyone is like India, though. Malawi has reduced the number of people living on food handouts from 4.5 million to 150,000 in just five years. Brazil has halved the number of underweight children in less than 10 years. Our perceived-to-be-direct-competitor China will meet its hunger goal five years early. 

Agricultural reforms, support to the small farmer, better public distribution system, women empowerment in agriculture are some remedies that Action Aid suggests for India.

While these are certainly necessary, I believe that another absolutely critical component in succeeding in the fight against hunger is for the shining half of India to truly wake up to this mammoth problem and do whatever they can to lift off from hunger their not-so-shining, starving brethren.

Friday, September 10, 2010

First start caring

In year 2000, representatives from 189 countries welcomed the new millennium at the United Nations by endorsing a set of eight goals, known as Millennium Development Goals (MDG). They agreed on time-bound targets to address the developmental needs of the world at large. I am listing only the first of the eight MDGs below. The other MDGs focus on universal primary education, gender equality, infant mortality, maternal health, combating diseases, environmental sustainability and global partnership.
i. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  • Target 1.A: Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than one dollar a day
  • Target 1.B: Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people
  • Target 1.C: Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger
A couple of days ago, India released its 2000-2009 progress report with regard to MDGs. The report itself seems grossly behind schedule. While our status report is still for 2009, the 2010 report for the rest of the world came out three months ago.

We are alarmingly behind on the progress needed on the poverty and hunger indicators.
  • The current Planning Commission's estimates of poverty fix the poverty line at a per capita expenditure level of Rs.12 per day for rural areas and Rs.17 per day for urban areas. At this level, the percentage of poor in India is 27.5%.
  • The Tendulkar Committee in 2009 came up with a slightly altered methodology, defining the poverty line as a“starvation line”. At a per capita per day level of Rs.15 for rural areas and Rs.19 for urban areas, the poverty percentage is set at 37%.
  • Government of India's National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), by using 2004-05 National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) data, pegged the percentage of population living on a per capita per day expenditure of less than Rs.20 at an astounding 77%.

My point? There is no doubt an urgent need to substantially accelerate the efforts for hunger and poverty eradication in India. I believe this CANNOT be done unless a LARGE number of sensible, educated and "fortunate" people PERSONALLY and emotionally relate to this crisis. What exactly you can do at this time is less important. When you truly have sensitivity, concern and a knowledge of the ground realities, suitable action will automatically ensue. So, don' worry about what you can do. First start caring.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Happy Birthday Sadhguru

Today (September 3rd, 1957) is Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev's birthday.

I met Sadhguru five years ago, full of skepticism, alert with my reasoning, determined to see beyond his charisma and carefully crafted programs, completely conscious not to be drawn into a particular belief system.

Today all I am left with is gratitude, for Sadhguru. 

Gratitude for showing so many of us the Path - the wonderful self-development practices and programs that he has designed / taught. For exceeding every one of my expectations in the past five years, not 'just' in spiritual matters, but as a human being, in integrity, values, acumen, balance, humility, hard work, sense of humor, love for people, society and the nature. For his rare, all-round clarity. For his deep, compassionate answers to so many questions. For his untiring efforts to cultivate intense, compassionate human beings worldwide. For his wonderful social initiatives. For his love and patience for us, in spite of being so far ahead in life experience. 

Happy Birthday Sadhguru!  Aapko hamari umer lag jaaye.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Some great quotations from Mother Teresa

It is impossible to walk rapidly and be unhappy.
Peace begins with a smile.   
Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.

Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.

Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.

Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.

God doesn't require us to succeed; he only requires that you try.

Good works are links that form a chain of love.

I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hunger and Social Change

Purnima Menon, a Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, has written a nice article today in Foreign Policy, highlighting the role of empowering women and other excluded sections of the society in solving the hunger problem.

The article starts by saying "What India's starving children don't need is more blind handouts. What they do need is real social change", and it shows a photograph of school-going girls eating a government-sponsored midday meal.

I am a big supporter of the school midday meal programs in India. They have had a large positive impact. Nevertheless, I totally agree with Menon's sentiment that even school going children require more than "blind handouts" of food. A lasting solution for a hunger-free India won't come in the absence of basic social change.

This is precisely the reason Srishti Annam believes that community holds the key to hunger alleviation. Feeding the totally helpless is critical for their immediate survival, but real, sustainable change comes from sensitizing, inspiring and involving the community to solve its own hunger & nutrition problems.

Community involvement in Srishti Annam is much deeper than just volunteering to make or serve food. It involves repeatedly reinforcing messages that hunger is the root cause of many current and potential problems in their community; inspiring children from well-provided families to be compassionate; setting up a persistent example of the right way of treating the absolutely weak and helpless; supporting all able-bodied individuals to stand on their own feet; reaffirming that our universality as human beings goes well beyond the seemingly wide gap between the Hungry and the Satiated; and demonstrating a sustainable way in which the community can comfortably take care of all its hungry.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mother Teresa

Today is the birth centenary of Mother Teresa. Her phenomenal work has been extolled from many perspectives.

From my current perspective, the Mother's work is a great reassurance that non-developmental social service, especially feeding the destitute, is meaningful and necessary in the world that we live in.

Given below is a succinct article about the Mother's life and work, written by Navin Chawla, the former Chief Election Commissioner of India and a biographer of Mother Teresa. It appeared in The Hindu today.

This day marks the birth centenary of a simple nun who, through her work among the poorest of the poor, became the conscience-keeper of her century.

Today, August 26, 2010, the birth centenary of Mother Teresa will be marked with celebration and thanksgiving in many parts of the world. This simple nun with her unique brand of faith and compassion was able to alleviate loneliness, hunger and destitution by reaching out through a worldwide mission to millions of abandoned, homeless and dying destitutes, irrespective of their religion, caste, faith or denomination. In the process she became, indisputably, the conscience-keeper of her century.

As one who was associated with her for 23 years and became one of her biographers, it is not easy to encapsulate her remarkable journey. Born in Skopje, a city in the folds of the Balkans, then as now a crucible of many religions and races, she was the youngest of three children of deeply Catholic Albanian parents. Her father died when she was seven; her mother struggled to feed her family and turned increasingly to the local church for spiritual sustenance. Young Agnes (as she was then known) encountered uncertainty and adversity early in life. The lessons of diligence, discipline, frugality and kindness were imbibed in these early years.

Today, when teenagers often have difficulty making up their minds as to which course to study and where, Agnes had decided, at the age of 14, to serve as a missionary, not in her local church, but in faraway India, then a world apart, of which decision the only certainty was that she would never return home.

A new life opened in Calcutta in 1929. She had joined the Loreto Order as a novice aged 19. Here she would take her religious vows and teach for almost 20 years. In 1948, in an even more cataclysmic turn of events, again entirely of her own making, she left the convent doors behind her for a vision of the street. She had realised that this was where her true vocation lay, and she pursued this goal with diligence, even obstinacy. This she did till the Vatican made her its first exception in several hundred years, permitting her to step out of the Loreto Order, but with her vows intact. She would remain a nun but without belonging to an established Order of the Church. These were early signs of spirit and will power, together with prayerfulness and faith, laced with not inconsiderable charm, which would provide the propulsion for the quite incredible journey that lay ahead.

The early milestones lay in recognition within her adopted country – first by the legendary Chief Minister of West Bengal Dr. B.C. Roy, to be followed by national recognition when Jawaharlal Nehru was instrumental in India awarding her the Padma Shri in 1962. Later, another redoubtable Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, was to provide her his unstinted support.

By 1965, she had set up a vast network of service across India. The time had come for her to move her mission overseas. She saw need everywhere; there were plenty of the poor and hungry in divisive societies in each continent, in desperately poor and prosperous societies alike. And so she set up feeding centres and leprosy stations in Africa, AIDS hospices in North America, community programmers in the Australian outback, and a host of services that helped lift the most marginalised, hungry and lonely from a desolate life in streets and slums of Africa, Asia and the West.

“God loves a cheerful giver” was a refrain I would often hear as I walked with the smiling Sisters of her Order among sullen faces under London's Waterloo Bridge, serving them their only hot meal on a wintry night; in the process I saw where they spent their nights: coffin-sized cardboard boxes, their only homes. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, I talked to young AIDS sufferers in her hospices, knowing that I would never see them again. In Madrid, I met the aged and the destitute, wracked by a disease called loneliness, which Mother Teresa called the “leprosy of the West”. And then the final triumph, a centre carved in the heart of Catholicism itself, in the shadow of St. Peter's in the Vatican, handed over by a Polish Pope to an obedient but persistent nun. She appeared a frail figure against the rigid hierarchy of the Church, some of whose members frowned in private that the Vatican had hardly any space let alone for a soup kitchen. Yet, in my eyes, Mother Teresa and John Paul II had, at one stroke, demystified a thousand years of sometimes rigid Papal tradition, in an understanding of the deepest Christian ethic that they shared.

Although she herself remained fiercely Catholic, her brand of faith was not exclusive. Convinced that each person she ministered to was Christ in suffering, she reached out to people of all religions. The very faith that sustained her infuriated her detractors, who saw her as a symbol of a right-wing conspiracy and, worse, the principal mouthpiece of the Vatican's well-known views against abortion. Interestingly, such criticism went largely unnoticed in India, where she was widely revered.

She was criticised for conversion. Yet in all the 23 years I knew her she never once whispered a suggestion regarding conversion. However, I asked her if she did convert. Without a moment's hesitation, she said, “I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Protestant, and a better Sikh. Once you have found God, it is up to you to do with him as you wish.” While she never deviated an inch from her path and was a religious, not a social worker, she was quick to realise that in India, Catholicism was practised by a small segment, and the 19th century proselytising approach could not be sustained.

From her humblest beginning in the slums and streets, she reached out to alleviate the problem she encountered by the simplest and most straightforward means available to her. Her thinking was both simple and complex: when asked how she could touch a leprosy sufferer and clean his sores, she said she could do it because for her that man was the suffering Jesus. “I would not clean him for all the money in the world,” said an observer. “Nor would I,” Mother Teresa replied, “but I would do it for love of Him.”

She could multi-task. She had to be a administrator par excellence to set up a multinational organisation that spread to 123 countries by the time she died, with the help of about 5,000 members of her Order, and countless millions volunteers. Her hands were always full, but comforting one individual at a time was more important than “getting lost in numbers”; it had to be that way, because each individual was a divine manifestation, each to be comforted, held, rescued, fed and not allowed to die alone.

I once called her the most powerful woman in the world. Mother Teresa replied: “Where? If I was, I would bring peace in the world.” I asked her why she did not use her undeniable influence to lessen war. She replied: “War is the fruit of politics. If I get stuck in politics, I will stop loving because I will have to stand by one, not by all.”

She had her critics. There was criticism about her taking money from dubious sources. I once asked her about it. She said without a moment's hesitation. “I accept no salary, no government grant, no Church assistance, nothing. But how can I refuse anyone who chooses to give money in an act of charity. How is this different from the thousands of people who each day feed the poor? My task is to give peace to people. I would never refuse.” Yet she never asked for funds or even permitted fund-raising. Mother Teresa depended on providence. She believed if the work was intended, the money would come. If money did not come, the reverse held true.

What would happen to her mission when she passed on, I once asked her. She did not answer but instead only pointed her finger towards heaven. But I persisted. She laughed and said: “Let me go first.”

I asked her the third time and this time she replied: “You have been to so many of our missions in India and abroad. Everywhere our Sisters wear the same saris, eat the same kind of food, do the same kind of work. But Mother Teresa is not everywhere. Yet the work goes on.” Then she added: “As long as we remain committed to the poorest of the poor and do not end up serving the rich, the work will prosper.”

Guest Consciousness

Read the following lines this morning. They made sense to me. For the mix to be complete however, I think the ingredients of responsibility and purpose should be added in:
Have you ever noticed (that) one of the delights of going on holiday is the temporariness of everything? Wherever you go you are a guest, you are just passing through and therefore your relationship with everyone and everything is more relaxed and easy. Nothing is precious. Nothing needs to be guarded. Nothing around us is used as a measure of our self worth. Everyone you meet is just passing through your life so that while you thoroughly enjoy their company you don’t try to hang on to them, even in your head, when its time to go. You move smoothly from one scene to another, releasing the last scene quickly and easily, thus remaining free and light.

Such is the consciousness of being a guest. Could it be possible to bring that same consciousness, that same lightness and freedom to our life as a whole?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On the practical use of Sixth Sense

Pranav Mistry, of IIT Mumbai and MIT Media Lab, made significant waves with his invention Sixth Sense (TED video1, video2).

There is tremendous potential to superimposing information on the real world. Over 80% of the population, at least once the "computing adolescence" passes on this planet, is likely to be involved in non-computer-centric jobs. If information, knowledge and wisdom pertinent to their jobs can be supplied to them in time, on demand, superimposed seamlessly upon their physical world, they will have no reason to actually dirty their hands with information technology.

This is akin to very few of us having to learn electric circuitry or plumbing (or agriculture) today. Electricity and plumbing happen in the background, with a small percentage of the population being experts in those specializations. Those guys work the pipes and tubes in the basement, to get the technology to work seamlessly for the rest of us. When we need to plug-in or flush-out something, it works as expected (most of the time). Once it is mature, information technology also is likely to become a utility like this. IT is adolescent now because everyone needs to know about browsers, anti-virus and plug-ins. But this will pass.

Mistry's invention is a step towards this goal. There is a tremendous amount of computation behind every little "utility" he is demonstrating - e.g., dialing phone numbers from his palm, manipulating photographs on a (physical) wall, playing a video game on a plain piece of paper. But all this computation is moved totally into the background, and happens silently, seamlessly. The wearers of the Sixth Sense pendents ideally need not know anything about how it does what it does. They can simply go about their lives, relying on the fact that the information they need will be there when they need it, where they need it.

But that is the ideal situation. What about today? The common question I encounter when I speak to people about Sixth Sense is "so, what is the killer app?". The technology is cool, no doubt, but is there a cool, practically useful application in the near future?

It is possible that we will see cool edutainment apps that ipod-wearing youth worldwide could go crazy about. But I am interested in a different killer app for Sixth Sense.

I believe that training vocational skills is a huge potential application. Apprenticeship, over-the-shoulder-mentoring, big-brother-mentoring - these concepts have proven to be highly effective in skilling people. It is well-known that no amount of classroom or computer-based training can be a substitute for these. If you are a novice electrician or a plumber, and if your more experienced colleague looks over your shoulder when you are doing a certain job, to practically correct you, guide you, alert you & educate you, your learning is bound to be significantly accelerated. This is true of most other vocations also.

With appropriate adaptation, we believe that Sixth Sense can very effectively take the place of a big-brother mentor, potentially revolutionizing the vocational skills training market place. We are actively exploring this possibility.

(If interested, please write to me for further discussion. - SM)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Feeding is not CSR-worthy?

We often encounter the comment that free feeding of helpless destitute is not suitable for corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds from companies.

The common argument is that you should teach one to fish, not hand out fish to them.

I of course agree with the crux of this argument. Who wouldn’t? But when you look a little closer at the issue, you soon realize that there are situations where one must hand out fish first. There are also situations where one simply cannot teach to fish .

For example, take the target segments of Srishti Annam. Our mandate is to give the gift of life to people who have absolutely no other means of sustaining themselves.

Over 70% our "special guests" are above 60 years of age, typically very frail, with ailments, illiterate - your typical road side aged beggars in India. When one lived like they did, above 60 is equivalent to above 75 years for the fortunate few.

How do we "teach to fish" in this case? We must first feed, and for a large percentage of persons just continue to simply feed and take care of them. For those who can work, we do motivate them to commit to some non-strenuous work like gardening, washing dishes, etc.

The other segment is very young children aged 1-10. They are either orphaned or abandoned with grandparents.

Clearly we need to feed these kids before we tell them stories, teach them alphabet & numbers, make them play and convince grandparents to send them to a free Government school. All of these things we do, but it takes time, during which we must provide free food, for the kids and families to stay and listen to what we have to say.

Not being "attractive" to CSR grants is a severe limitation for a young charitable activity like Srishti Annam. But how can we fix this without altering our original objective of hunger mitigation for the utterly destitute?

Mature societies have long realized that it is the society / community’s responsibility to take care of certain people’s basic needs - for example spiritual aspirants, helpless old people, very young children, etc. By making it a social responsibility to feed these segments, compassion and care are nurtured not only the in the fed but also in the feeders. This is why annadanam (free feeding of the needy) has long been recognized as the highest of form of charity in India.

But how do we pitch that to corporate CSR committees?

(If you have suggestions, we would LOVE to hear from you.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Let them look afresh at the Mahatma

On the occasion of Indian independence day, Star Pix yesterday aired the 1982 movie "Gandhi" by Sir Richard Attenborough. I had an opportunity, after a long time, to see it end-to-end peacefully, at a friend's house, with their whole family.

It pains me greatly to see people enthusiastic to criticize and sensationalize Gandhiji, to rub their negative opinions on their children. I think the least we can do, for Bapu and for the Next Generation, is to let our kids learn all about Gandhiji objectively and make their own conclusions. We will be doing a disservice to both if we don't give the next generation this opportunity.

I believe that to truly understand the Mahatma, his words and actions takes a life time for most of us, because his focus was so internal. There are many intellectuals among us that specialize in parts of the external. But very few of us realize that all battles are truly fought within the mind and soul. To be able to recognize that, to fight those battles relentlessly and successfully, and then to apply lifelong the fruits of such battles for the betterment of other's lives, is a human achievement of the highest order. I feel proud to be born on the land that has produced the Mahatma.

To me, it is really not that important whether the political decisions Gandhiji arrived at were the optimal ones. That is a question pertinent of mere politicians and statesmen. Gandhiji's timeless contribution to the world is his amazing interiority - the values he stood, fought and died for, his deepest love for his people and country, and the strength of his soul.

Let us please give our children a chance to experience the Mahatma for themselves.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

We can win against hunger - ICRISAT Director

Dr. William D. Dar, director of ICRISAT, speaking on the occasion of MS Swaminathan's 85th birthday, said that it is possible to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of reducing the world’s 1020 million undernourished people by half between now and 2015.

A heartening statement, coming from people that know what is actually possible in agricultural production. Dr. Dar said that empowering women in agricultural ownership is a crucial part of this solution.

Agricultural production and market-oriented distribution alone, IMHO, cannot see us through to the final goal. There must be active community awareness and participation in hunger alleviation.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Old King of Trains

Do you like long-distance train travel? I do. More often than not, it gives quality time to ponder, read, write, work, see lovely landscape and meet people. I try to take trains wherever, whenever possible.

I never traveled by Rajdhani express, arguably the king of non-touring trains in India. Hence I grabbed an opportunity to travel from Delhi to Secunderabad in Bangalore Rajdhani. Points in favor of Rajdhani (as opposed to flying, the default mode of business travel) were (a) I can get nice, quiet time to think and work, (b) travel is 'only' 22 hours, (c) It has been so long since I did north-to-south travel in India, (d) I never experienced the so-much-hyped Rajdhani hospitality, and (e) even AC first class costs Rs. 2000 less than the flight ticket.

So got into Rajdhani AC first class last night at Hazrat Nizamuddin. I am still in train, will get off in 20 minutes or so. My key impressions?
  • The train is much worse maintained than I would have liked.
  • Maintenance of time is good. It reached every station before time.
  • Food is great. I was groaning under the weight of food served, by the time I came to the last meal
  • Service is, simply, not bad. All needs are taken care of, eventually. But, like in most other things in India, more people are thrown at a problem to solve it better. IMHO, fewer, better trained attendants would have done a much better job.
  • There are advertisements everywhere in the compartment. I wonder why the Railways is desperate for additional revenues from the Rajdhani; I would have thought that this activity is handsomely profitable already. Windows were hazy because of perforated flexi-sheet advertisements wrapped on them on the outside. I would have preferred larger, well-cleaned windows so travelers could drink in the lovely landscape in UP, MP, Maharashtra and Andhra.
  • The best thing about Indian trains, irrespective of the class of travel, are the acquaintances you make, especially if you enjoy meeting people. The acquaintance I forged with my wonderful 65-year old co-traveller, an ex-MLA from Maharashtra, will I am sure stay with me a lot longer than the relish of Rajdhani luxury.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Unequal Capital

I am in Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station at New Delhi. The facilities are so AWFUL here that I am baffled. The approach to the station is completely dirty and clogged with vehicles. Platforms, walking bridges look like they were swept and washed years ago. There is no separate waiting room for AC passengers. The only waiting rooms available are unregulated, over-crowded, hot, humid and partly flooded with leaking water from the bathrooms.

This is the situation at arguably one of the most important train stations in the country, from where Durontos & Rajdhanis (pride of Indian Railways) originate to most states.

Rest of Delhi, at least the airport, the main arteries through the city, the flyovers, the gardens, the footpaths seem to be so well maintained. Especially given the Commonwealth games. Traffic is more but the city in general seems very neat for an occasional visitor. Why do train and bus stations get such a step-motherly treatment?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Srishti Annam – Together, We Can.

Ever thought of what the largest killer of Indian people is? Road accidents? Heart diseases? Smoking? AIDS? Think again. These killers put together pale in front of the hunger problem. Every day, more than 7000 people directly die of hunger and malnutrition in India. This is about 5 deaths per minute. As per FAO's hunger report, 230 million people in India were undernourished as of 2005. And the numbers have gone up since. India’s Global Hunger Index (GHI) is calculated in 2009 as 23.9 (less than 5 is good, above 20 is alarming). Of the 84 countries that have GHI above 5, India is ranked 65th, i.e., only 19 other countries in the world are worse off than India. Many sub-Saharan African nations fare much better than India in terms of GHI. In terms of sheer numbers, India has the maximum number of hungry people in the world. About half of the hunger deaths are of children under the age of ten.

The first among the Millennium Development Goals set for India is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Since the country’s independence in 1947, there have been significant efforts to solve the hunger problem in India. Midday meals in thousands of government schools saved many a child from malnutrition. Places of worship of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, etc have been offering free food to their visitors for generations. The Green Revolution and other movements tremendously improved food production and distribution. Many welfare schemes established by central, state and local governments attempted to take food to the poorest sections of the society.

Several of these efforts have had impact, but clearly the problem is far from solved. The dismal statistics quoted above are of today, not the past. We believe that this failure is because the tools chosen by the governments, science & technology research, religious institutions and others to fight against hunger are not adequate and are marred by issues like corruption, a very leaky bucket, time delays and intolerance. Furthermore, hunger is the root of many other ills in the society, and few existing solutions holistically address this negative spiral of hunger.

We started the Srishti Annam project with the insight that a crucial component in the fight against hunger has been largely overlooked. This is the component of the Community. The byline of Srishti Annam is “Together, we can.” Srishti Annam is an innovative, community-centric solution to hunger alleviation that not only offers immediate relief to hungry people, but also a holistic, long-term and scalable means for reducing hunger in India.

The goal of Srishti Annam project can be simply stated. Communities should be educated, inspired and assisted to take responsibility for their hungry, to say yes to a hunger-free India.

Our focus is the poorest of the poor in the community, people who simply have no means to feed themselves, e.g., destitute, old people, helpless children, physically and mentally challenged persons. Srishti Annam wants to make every community in India develop a deep awareness that this marginalized section’s hunger is everyone’s problem in the community, and the ill-effects of ignoring this are many.

Srishti Annam’s model is to work through a network of locally-managed Community Feeding Centers. The first Annam center has now been operational for 40 months, having served over 350,000 free meals, worked with the destitute, skilled many, and employed several of them. The model to scale has come from our immense hands-on experience in the last 40 months.

Imagine a small community of 10000-25000 people. Akin to a public library, we advocate the presence of a community feeding center that can serve 50-100 people. The center is a pleasant, welcoming place run by the community, for the community. It will lovingly serve free, sumptuous lunch to anyone that cannot fend for themselves in the community, without regard to religion, caste, gender, age, etc. It is open 365 days of the year. Volunteers from the local community, who are identified, trained, and managed by Srishti Annam, run the feeding centers. Nutritious, wholesome food is prepared in hygienic, low-cost kitchens run by Srishti Annam, typically one kitchen for every 10-50 feeding centers, and transported to feeding centers on time by Srishti Annam.

Srishti Annam feeding centers don’t just alleviate immediate hunger. They are, by design, a long-term, holistic and scalable solution to India’s hunger problem, because they address complex and subtle issues connected with hunger. They provide a place for the destitute and the local community to emotionally relate to each other, to establish trust, to reduce alienation and resentment that most destitute suffer from today. The centers create a time window to understand and transform. They act as hubs to connect the destitute with many service organizations for improving health (vaccinations), hygiene, substance abuse, courtesy, dignity, self-respect, literacy, gender empowerment, etc. For the community, especially the children, Srishti Annam feeding centers provide an excellent opportunity to develop compassion, responsibility & a service mentality. The community model of Srishti Annam solution leverages a strong cultural sentiment in India, that it is a privilege to feed the poor and hungry.

Our goal for scaling Srishti Annam is to reach 100,000 people being fed everyday across India in the next 5 years.