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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.