Thursday, March 27, 2008

Social initiatives & IITkgp

So many good things are happening! It is difficult not to take a note of it.

In the morning got a phone call. My ex-student Sid...- IIT, IIM, now MNC executive (Cadbury, gave lots of chocolates to my daughter. I am helping myself with some as I write this post) posted in Mumbai is on a KGP visit and there would be a get together in the evening. The last time we met was his marriage (the bride, Piy.. too was my student, she also works in Mumbai) and there were lot of stories to share. We three had a nice adda and besides many things we discussed how feasible is the idea if one batch of say 70 students from one branch of a IIT (say, IITkgp ECE) after passing out adopts one village in India. If not any other thing, helps to put few tubewells in one village, as many villages as yet do not have proper drinking water facility. Then it can be scaled up creating health, education and employment opportunities. In a batch of 70 students there must be at least one student who will have direct or indirect contact of such a village and there will be some working in India (even if most go abroad) and keep a track of the development. Others can take responsibilities of communicating to people, private trust or Government agencies who matter. Also one can help in donating themselves or collecting donations, visiting the village once a year and inspiring, motivating people who are doing field work. The aim is to turn it into a model village in 5-10 years. Thereafter, if they want the batch can take up another village. The good thing about this model is it can be scaled up easily and it has a cascading snow-ball like effect. From IITkgp itself, with 1000 students intake one may expect at least 10 new villages being adopted, cared each year. Think what will happen after 10 years and if other IITs, IIMs, NITs etc... too join. It will have a demonstrational effect and give a message to the public that the IITians also pay back. Though the public at large have high regard for IITians but somewhere in there mind they feel that we are selfish and it is easy to find there exists enormous negative sentiment from public statements made in different media. Sid... said if the executions are done properly the students will come forward e.g. their batch of IIM students donated approx. Rs. 3.5 lakhs for the underprivileged from the institute caution money returned to them. I said that since the focus will be on one village and there are NGOs of repute, the execution part can be worked out. Also the IIT, IIM students are smart enough to devise something new or can start a debate which will definitely lead a way. First of all what is needed in a batch passing out is the conviction that we can and we will do something together.

The day before yesterday stumbled on a notice posted by JAGRUTI, a social initiative at IITkgp calling all the different groups working in the campus for social causes. The aim is to develop awareness, exchange ideas and of course, creation of an organized platform. Their public post at said "There are at least nine social initiatives currently operating in Kharagpur under various names. However there is not much awareness about any of them in the Campus. While many people might be willing to help out with such projects, often they don't come into contact with the right people at the right time. As a result, most initiatives die out in the initial phases due to lack of work-force and excessive load placed on a few people."

To be honest, I didn't know that there were so many initiatives. We at were contemplating that we should start some activity to give members an opportunity to convert some of the theoretical things to practice, else our own training is not complete. Som... with some members has already started exploring some nearby underdeveloped areas. As soon as I saw the notice, I sent a message to VSC mailgroup if few members can attend the meet. Sai.., Kan.. and myself were there from VSC and approx. 50 students and few faculty members. I was so happy! We have had many occasions before where eminent speakers enlightened us on our social responsibilities. This is the first time I saw a student initiative of that scale aiming for sustainable developmental work. More interesting was the presence of one representative of a NGO, PRAJAK who are working together with Railway Police for upliftment of Railway platform kids. The lady, working in an MNC came all the way from Kolkata to support and encourage the activity. Wish we too had that spirit and that level of dedication!

JAGRUTI convenor narrated their experience on working with Rickshawpullers in the form of Rs. 100 a month saving at P.O. It worked well for few months but the student got busy with study and other things, followed by a lean season (student vacationing, not enough business) and drinking habits, that made them defaulters. Emphasis was then shifted to lady members of the family. A group is formed with them. The pickle making gave them some profit but it was not scalable. Now they are trying Sal leaf plate making. But raw material procurement as well as selling are to be done by students which is a tall task. Also 8 of the 9 member team will be passing out this year. Sustainability is an issue. They requested students to join them and their vision going forward is to have chapters of JAGRUTI at IITs, NITs etc. To end they showed a moving video (now in their blogspace) they have prepared to spread awareness.

Then the SAMBHAB (mostly 2nd year students) spokesman said how they have started their work in a different village. Paper bag ('Thonga') making is what they are advocating. There too, selling is their responsibility.

Then PRAJAK representative spoke. She was happy to be proven wrong - once she observed that IITians does not care for social upliftment and do not shoulder any responsibility.

The third year ECE student Ku.. of Gopali Youth Welfare Society (GYWS) explained their work. Theirs is a registered Society at Gopali, 4 km from IITkgp campus. It appeared their work has matured a lot and they are starting an English medium school there, totally free of cost, to make children from backward area more competitive. They are collecting donations for the upcoming school. They agreed to help JAGRUTI if there is a shortage of manpower in their work.

Then spoke representative from KADAM that just started its journey. Representaive of other team were either not present or didn't spoke. Then the floor was open and Professors were asked to give their comments. One Prof. inquired why JAGRUTI failed to get new volunteers from junior batch, why so many organizations if GYWS is doing so well or if there is any ideological difference. The answer given was lack of awareness and there is no ideological difference as such. One student asked why they want to promote JAGRUTI as the common platform. The answer was, call it XYZ, call it 'Technolgy Social Initiative' under Gymkhana etc. Another question asked to GYWS was why not volunteers give some labour and earn money (through coaching affluent students) instead of collecting donations. The answer was - it remains an option but there are many difficulties to do that, mostly in the form of long term commitments required or students' desire to part with hard earned money. One comp. sc. senior students observed that since IIT students' strength is in academics they should do BTech projects which directly helps society at a large. He is part of a national initiative that shoots video to highlight the needs and promote awareness.

I congratulated all the groups for the starts they have made. In responding to some questions they sometimes appeared defensive or apologetic. I requested them not to be so. They are doing good work but it can be done in a better, more organized manner, considering where our strength lies (some sort of SWOT analysis). I requested JAGRUTI members to be more careful in selecting a project. It may be a learning experience for them but the lives that are affected may lose faith by repeated failures. The volunteers should do sufficient homework and also get trained in organizations (in Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore ...; in Kolkata, our alumnus started PARIVAAR can provide useful training) in the weekends or in vacations who already have great experience. Regarding common platform, I suggested 2-3 executive members of each team can sit together and chalk it out. It is for the executives of a group to decided whether to retain their identity or merge with someone. Merging should be a natural process and not forced. One should also address why the teams are around batchmates and why across the batch there is a noticeable communication gap. How the dynamics work.

Of course, one should lead by examples, one needs to take a stand. Our own lives should be exemplary. Without that it will be difficult to motivate, draw younger people. I know one IIT BTech in late eighties Patel Hall who refused to give proxy for his batchmate because it was unethical nd was ridiculed like anything in the mess and so many other things. But he stuck to his stand - Ask me any other help, but not this. Later his room at B 1st East used to be considered as temple and there was a handmade poster in his room quoting Vivekananda - "God helps those who do not help themselves".

I may be wrong, but I personally feel - ideology is an issue. Why we do, what we do. It will help us to rise above confusion and conflict which are so common in working for a common cause. It is to be clearly understood that we gain more by helping others (How is it so?), when we give (i.e. Daan) if it is not accompanied by respect (i.e. Maan) from our side it does not yield result, what is the strength of an organized work and what is organiztional discipline (Is it regimental?), how important is to stay away from politics, how important is to involve local youth etc. All these require deliberations of some kind and take leaves from lives and teachings of great social workers. I am happy that the organizers finally decided to meet at a regular interval. I believe there will be much bigger effect if all the groups work together but the model should be such that none feels constrained.

Finally, the caution ahead. (i) It is said - Fame is the last infirmity of noble mind. A social worker should ask periodically, what for he or she is into it and be honest about himself or herself. (ii) There should be proper time management so that the academics do not suffer. The seniors who inspired me a lot in my student days used to say categorically - If your academic performance is poor it will harm our work. People will say that the boy is spoiled by the seniors in the name of social work and that will send a negative message.

Be assured of our (the faculty members) commitment to help such initiatives. In our Dept. I know at least 5 faculty members are directly involved in such work at different places and in different capacities. Everybody would love to support initiatives of our own IIT students which is sincere, serious, non-political and for the good of many (the students themselves as well as the underprivileged people who gives the opportunity to serve). Our best wishes to you all. Please keep us updated about your work.


Sushil Subramanian said...

Hi Sir,

I am Sushil Subramanian, your student from a long time ago. I was just wondering if social initiatives just makes our government become more and more backward. I mean... according to Wikipedia, India has one of the largest number of NGOs in the world. I believe that the mere existence of NGOs in India is giving our highly corrupt government an opportunity to slack off more. This results in a cascade: few NGOs, Govt. takes it more easy, more underdevelopment, more NGOs.... that eventually converges to a failed state. I don't blame an individual if he adopts a child or a village. But what happens in the future? The person donates, teaches and nurses the child indirectly... and ultimately gets something everyone takes for granted... satisfaction. Are we being selfish in attaining more and more satisfaction? When we save one village, the cascade created by our corrupt government is eventually resulting in more villages that need saving.

I think a true capitalist and broadminded individual should initiate government help, and not just donate or adopt. This way people know what development is... and will probably truly know what suffering is too.

gs said...

Thanks Sushil for your comments which definitely would make one think and look deep. Let me present my views here. Pls. feel free to critcise/accept/reject/... them.

On NGOs making government backward/slack : If NGOs stop working, I doubt, whether the government which is 'highly corrupt'(as pointed out by you) will become benovalent. Till the common man becomes educated, organized and assertive they will continue to be ignored. There are many Government schemes to help them but it goes to wrong person. Once Prime Minister of India said that a tiny fraction of Govt.spent money on social welfare reaches the target group. One of the activity of NGOs could be to bridge the gap between Govt. and people.

On donation/saving individual/village, deriving satisfaction and making Govt. corrupt/cascade effect : I think there is a very weak correlation, if any, in making Govt. corrupt while one helps distressed people. Can we do the same for anyone in our family? Do we sit idle and find out whether it is Govt. responsibility, or whether it will make the Govt. corrupt if I act? If NGOs or an individual rushes to help the distressed, couldn't it be their fellow feeling? For Govt. people it is mostly a job, for NGOs it is mostly a labour of love. One Ramakrishna Mission monk told me how they worked in recent flood affected villages of Midnapore where relief didn't reach even after weeks. Next issue is satisfaction. Should we stop somebody helping one who is suffering/oppressed because of this? I think what drives a person to come out of his personal comfort and help others is something bigger than 'selfish satsfaction'. A selfish person cannot serve people and satisfaction is only a by-product and nothing more than the feeling - Thank God, I could do my part of the duty! (Pls. don't consider some of your friends who do few months of social service only to add one more bullet in their resume and boost it, that is not only selfish - a kind of crime, impersonification, deceiving people)

On true capitalist and broadminded individual initiating Govt. help and not just donating - I fully agree with you on individual initiating Govt. help. besides coming forward on his own. I don't know much about capitalism/socialism etc. but I feel as a human being if one feels for the others he/she should try on his own as well as initiate Govt. help - the first one is immediate but short lived and the second requires more time but will be long term in nature. If there is a fire in a neighbour's house, you call fire service but before they arrive don't we try our bit?

I'll end the reply adding two more points here.
(1)Some NGOs are using the sentiments of people to amass fund and then misusing it. For some, it is a fashion. For some it is simply time-pass. Without the spirit of sacrifice and service of persons behind, it cannot function properly. Can a surgeon operate a person with instruments that are not sterilized? I know one NGO who refused a large donation from abroad saying - first we collect donation from members to the extent possible, then we go to neighbourhood people where we are taking up the project (that helps in social audit, whether we are actually doing the work or misusing the money) and this usually is sufficient for us. Pls. give the money to some other organization who needs it. I am now taking care of a NSS team( We have initaited many smal small things. But I categorically stated that there wont be any fund collection under any pretext. First let us do our part, give ourselves, earn the credibility and then people will come forward if we are found acceptable and finally, owned by the society. Till then serve silently.
(2)To start with one can forget about donation/helping others/Govt. responsibility etc. My simple suggestion is : Be true to youreself in every relation - family, professional, friend circle, your interface with the society and become a better man, that will do. Each of us has a sphere of influence where we can make things happen even at individual level. Let us play an active role there and earn some experience/credibility to create public opinion on Govt. policy changing/implementation etc.

We'll talk someday when we meet each other.