Monday, September 6, 2010

"What is India?"

Initial scene: a lavish buffet in Connaught Place
Current scene: a half-unpacked bedroom in Davis Square

Just before leaving Delhi, I met with one of my mentors who helped me wrap my head around my summer experience. Dr. Bobby John, an OB/GYN by training and a leading activist on public health around the world, said something to the effect of:
"After a week-long visit to India, people fly out thinking, 'Been there, done that... I know India.' After a few months in India, people fly out realizing that they know nothing about the country. After a lifetime in India, we're all left wondering, "What is India?"
I came to India with more humble intentions and leave with more humble questions.

First, I set out to experience and learn about rural sustainable development and women's empowerment. Most of the billions of people who live in abject poverty around the world do so in rural areas, not in the slums of cities or their outskirts. And, empowering women is widely regarded as one of the most effective strategies for reducing poverty and improving governance... and an end in its own right. That said, I had never really dug into either and was eager to immerse myself.

The verdict: thanks to PRADAN, I now have a deeper (yet still rudimentary) understanding of organizing's role in transforming women from voiceless shadows in their homes to the leaders of self-help groups and producer companies. Before this summer (and since Reagan?), I was deeply suspicious and therefore completely dismissive of markets and the private sector. Period/full stop. This summer, though, has helped me begin to develop a more holistic and nuanced (yet still critical) perspective about the potential and pitfalls of markets and entrepreneurship. Luckily I have two more semesters to continue exploring these issues through my coursework and consulting projects.

Secondly, I wanted to apply and test my skills and knowledge of advocacy with an organization whose mission and values I respect. One Microsoft Powerpoint presentation of 68 slides and 10 appendices later, we successfully developed a whole conceptual framework and operational plan for PRADAN to wade into advocacy. That process has raised some interesting questions for me about advocacy in different cultural and political contexts and the challenges of shifting mindsets toward advocacy and activism. Luckily I have the rest of my advocacy and perhaps policymaking career to continue exploring these ways of making change.

Lastly, I wanted to experience as much and as many Indian cultures as possible. Living with three young Indian professionals, working and traveling alongside my Indian colleagues, and visiting several remarkable places across north, west, and eastern India sure exposed me to.... well, a whole lot. Sufi musical tradition to Buddhist monasteries... Gorkaland independence to Naxalite movements... organic tea plantations to India/Pakistan pep rallies... Paneer butter masala in Punjab to soy-sauce soaked momo's in Sikkim... Yep, I got around, despite a few bodily hiccups. But, such is the country that I feel I could spend a lifetime there and still never know how to answer "What is India?" Luckily when I get back to India, I'll be better prepared to eat with my hands, haggle with my auto rickshaw driver, and nod my head the Indian-way.

And for all of this, I am incredibly grateful for the generous support of the Women in Public Policy Program and Roy Family Cultural Bridge Fellowship for making my experience and learning possible.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Living creatures

Despite six-day work weeks + Haiti business in the evenings, I've managed to get out of Delhi to breath slightly fresher air on a few more adventures this summer.

Khajuraho was only day 1 of a weekend trip last month. On our way home, we stopped in nearby Orchha. This very small town revolves around the tourists who pass through it to visit Hindu and Mughal palaces and temples that date back to the 16 to 1700s.

It's too bad Lonely Planet didn't worn us about:
  • aggressive baboons that guard the Jahangir Mahal (tip: don't run and scream);
  • bats that chill at the top of the Lakshmi temple (tip: don't run and scream); or
  • mango shakes at an open air restaurant (tip: run and scream).

Here are some photos for your visual entertainment...

My HKS travel companions and I scoping out the scene.

Artwork depicting scenes from Hindu mythology.

They looked nice...

Train food = another no-no.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is advocacy a dirty word?

Scene: Inside the heads and hearts of PRADANites.

I’m PRADAN’s “Advocacy Intern” for the summer. But “advocacy” at PRADAN seems to be a misnomer.

So, PRADAN’s been empowering poor and marginalized women for over 20 years. All along, PRADANites have regularly interacted with policymakers, elected officials, and financial institutions to help communities connect to the resources that they need – for example, to develop a watershed or buy better seeds or market their tasar silk.

And yet, nobody here identifies themselves as advocates or any part of their work as advocacy. In the first two weeks of my internship, I interviewed a few dozen PRADAN staff to help PRADAN reflect on its advocacy experience to date and to start generating a more focused mandate for impacting the context in which they work.

“So tell me a bit about your personal experiences in advocacy.” - Me
“You want to talk about advocacy? What do I know about it?” – PRADANite #1 or # 2 or #20
“We’re implementers with our focus on the field. We’re not advocates.” – PRADANite #___

A prominent Indian leader of an international research think tank here offered his explanation of this mindset: “Nobody wants to be considered an advocate, because it means you have a drum to beat. You are on one extreme or another, where knowledge and evidence have no place.”

Is this surprising in a place like India where Gandhiji and the civil resistance movement is the foundation of the country’s democracy and the inspiration of activists around the world? And more recently, where the Right to Information campaign has helped secure every Indian the right to ask questions and demand accountability of the government?

Trying to dig deeper, I asked PRADANites to walk me through their engagement with the government and other institutions. How do you interact? What are you trying to achieve? Do you think you’ve been successful and if so, what’s worked well? If not, what are the challenges or constraints you’ve faced?

“Here’s how we shifted the mindset and strategy of a district development officer…I helped a self help group present their proposals on how to improve their village to the Gram Sabha…I’m on the state government’s committee on women’s empowerment…” or “We’ve been trying for months to secure a meeting with a district collector without any luck…I can’t get invited to participate in the state government’s consultations…Even though the Sarpanch has seen our fields and came to the self help group's meetings, he still doesn’t get our approach and do what the women ask.”

Despite an aversion to the word advocacy (read it slowly for extra effect), PRADANites are doing it and want to be doing it more and doing it better. “Advocacy is essential. If the problems of the rural poor aren’t highlighted, our implementation in the field can only go so far.”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Guest Post: If I Only Had a Banana and Two Apples

Scene: the internet/the agribusiness world in India

Introducing Niyati, my friend and a joint degree student at the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard's Business School. Niyati, like me, is spending her summer interning in Delhi. Like me, she's...a woman.


Wow, my first blog entry. I feel super privileged to be a guest blogger for Ms. Melanie Vant. Who knew that 6 months ago when I barged into a Food and Agricultural Development Professional Interest Council meeting at Petsi's coffees, that we would find ourselves in Delhi on overnight trains to Punjab, dancing to Bollywood music and discussing rural development to no end. One recurring topic is the role of women in agribusiness, which inevitably turn into a narration of various obstacles I face in my daily work. So I thought I would use this guest blog to expound on a couple of these issues.

I am working for a fruit and vegetable procurement and distribution company, along with two other women – the boss’s secretary and the head of HR. Currently, there are hurdles at three levels. First – being a woman working in business in India. Second – being a woman working in agribusiness. Thirdly – being a (single) woman working in Delhi. As I’m sure Mel has lots to say about the third, I’ll stick to the first two.

Propriety, class structure and socio-economic status continue to dictate social norms in India. As such being a woman from a “good family” and having an education is actually considered a barrier to being able to converse with each part of the value chain – such as produce distributors, and fruit vendors. Aside from being externally perceived as improper (i.e., by your family) it may actually make other parties uncomfortable, and it is difficult to build the social connections and relationships that reign supreme in this business. On top of this the odd hours and extensive field work required all but makes it impossible for women to do this type of work.

I find the same network building challenges in business more generally in India (although I should caveat that I’m basing this off of Northern experiences). Staying in the company guesthouse a male colleague would use dinner time as an opportunity to network with other colleagues. A female colleague would eat on her own, the men waiting for her to finish before beginning or she would take the tray of food in her room separately. I have witnessed late night conference calls and management meetings with a few drinks and laughs, where the one or two senior women are rarely present – or take part in only the call and not the socializing. These issues of course are not unique to India, but given the importance of who you know in business here they are more detrimental to the career success of a woman. Moreover, the clearly demarcated gender roles in more traditional businesses leave little space for a woman to even imagine how they could fit in.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Hinduism. Rated NC 17.

Scene: Inappropriate?

I can’t claim to be a student of religion, but I have been trying to brush up on my Hinduism. India is home to about one billion Hindus, over 80% of the country’s population. There are temples just about everywhere – straddling highway dividers, sandwiched in between tea stalls, popping out of endless fields of rice paddy. Some new, others older than a millennium. Many people keep shrines in their homes and on the dashboards of whatever mode of transportation they access from public bus to auto rickshaw. During my trip out east for work, I nearly panicked when my taxi driver jumped out of the car in the middle of a congested intersection without saying a word… to realize a minute later that he was paying a quick visit to a roadside temple to pray for a safe journey. (This happened in Delhi once too with an auto driver, but he was just buying gutka, the local equivalent of chewing tobacco.)

When an HKS classmate proposed a weekend trip to Khajuraho to visit its famed temples, I jumped on the opportunity. What’s all the fuss? A World Heritage Site - 25 sandstone Hindu (and some Jain) temples, about a thousand years old, dotted with…erotic sculptures. Really? Here? Where I haven’t seen one public display of romantic affection. Where TV stations cut to commercial pre-kissing scenes in American movies. Where women riding on motorbikes drape their legs to one side rather than straddle the seat and the backs of their male drivers.

Yep. Surrounding these temples, among intricate carvings of Hindu mythology and everyday life circa the year 900 CE, there’s… ummm...this...

Pretty graphic, even for my American eyes. But look at those facial expressions! According to the audio tour, via a walkman without a rewind button, these sculptures trace back to tantric traditions. (BLOG COMMENT CONTEST: Post a line from the audio tour?) These images are but a tiny fraction, though, of the Badgujar tribe’s religious and architectural legacy.

Coming soon: bats and baboons in Orcha

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Your husband is going to love you very much.

Scene: The wedding of my lifetime

No, I didn’t get married. But I did go to a wedding…with another 10,000 people. To say that weddings here are a big deal is an understatement. But this one was extreme.

It all started with a mass email from an HKS classmate, who was writing on behalf of another HKS classmate, whose sister was getting married. “You’re all invited to Jaipur.” How could I turn down a trip to the Pink City (painted so to welcome the Prince of Wales during a visit in 1853) for my first Indian wedding?

Words and photos won’t do the experience justice, but here goes...

Think marathon. Weddings can be week-long affairs. We spent Saturday at the bride’s house for a series of rituals – religious offerings, jewelry adornment, gift giving, etc.

The bride and her parents with several priests, surrounded by female relatives and friends.

Suitcases of gifts from the groom’s family – a jewelry set to enrich each outfit.

My first and hopefully not my last "mehndi" experience. Every woman at work the next week took my hands into theirs exclaiming that such dark mehndi means that my husband is going to love me very much. Thank you?

After a group nap back at the hotel, the gang got gussied up. Two friends spent 20 minutes tucking and pleading my sari into all of the right places.

Post-photo shoot, we arrived at the reception - an open field fit for a carnival, framed by garlands and food stalls. First the groom’s entrance, preceded by a brass band and another of bagpipe players wearing kilts (???). With fireworks exploding overhead, the groom arrived atop a painted elephant and then a white horse, the standard limo of Indian weddings. The bride arrived on foot with just us humans in tow. Maybe I should have offered to carry her?

Next stop: this flower-adorned stage where the couple finally met. For the next five hours, they and their immediate families stood here to receive thousands of guests who literally pushed their way through the family-turned-security bouncers to bestow blessings.

Amidst this scene, we were treated like royalty. When the lines for plates and food got straight up unruly, we were assigned our own waitstaff and this absurd serving of ice cream.

At 1 am, when most of the guests had finally left and the couple exited the stage, I declared "We did it!"

Irony times two. "We" hadn't done anything...and the actual wedding hadn't happened yet. Rather than "stick" out the humidity until the final ceremony at dawn, we decided to head back to the hotel to rest our exhausted bodies in preparation for an ambitious day of sightseeing. I think I'll always regret that decision.

The most memorable moment of the entire weekend was the next night. After we briefly welcomed the new couple back in to the bride's house, it was time for her to literally leave her family to join her groom's at his house where she would now live. As an outsider wholly unfamiliar with this culture, I might attribute the lack of American-style wedding emotion displayed up until this moment to the business and the piety of the affair, the anxieties of marrying a near stranger, chaos and orderliness, exhaustion and expectations. But the feelings poured out of everyone's eyeballs when the front door opened and closed. We all wept and wept and wept.

The only appropriate ending to such an intense weekend: Parminder with our gift to the new couple, signed “Best Wishes from Harvard University friends.”

PS. I've been trying for days to upload videos without any success, so will keep you posted of any e-progress.

Monday, June 28, 2010

From Thumbprints to Signatures

Scene: Belagara Village, 20 kilometers from Khunti in the state of Jharkhand

I covered a lot of ground last week: a 26-hour train ride to Jamdshedpur or “Steel City,” long but surprisingly smooth car rides to PRADAN field teams in Karanjia and Khunti and the Jharkhand state office in Ranchi, an overnight train to Kolkata (Calcutta), and a flight home to Delhi.

No offense, Tata, but the women of Belagara Village left the most lasting impression. I spent my birthday learning from them what a difference a bell can make.

First, meet Sailaballa and Imtiyaz, two “PRADANites” who each enable 1,000 tribal women and their families in villages around Khunti to transform their own lives.

PRADANites start their work by finding the poorest villages and initiating self-help groups (SGHs) of 10-15 women. The women reflect upon their current knowledge, resources, agency, and collaboration. They generate and commit to a common vision for their desired state of the world and then come up with and implement a plan of action. All the while, PRADAN trains Community Resource Persons (CRPs) and Community Service Providers (CSPs), whom the SHG selects, pays, and monitors, to steward this process. Together, they figure out what the community can do on their own, what help they need from the CRPs and CSPs, and what additional support they want from PRADANites. They build lasting institutions and their own assets so that PRADAN can begin to “withdraw” after a few years.

In Belegara, the sound of this bell brought several members of a self-help group together for my visit, as it does for their weekly meetings.

Asha Purty, the SHG’s accountant, recounted life before the SHG and PRADAN. Each day, she and others would scrounge up one rupee (about two cents) to buy whatever that could get them from the distant market; they rarely spoke to anyone outside of their home and had never visited an office; they couldn’t afford to send their children to school.

Through the SHG, the village came up with a development plan, started harvesting crops, managing their natural resources, saving money, and accessing credit. Now, the village is food secure for eight months of the year through their own production and families are generating enough income to send their children to school. “There is no difference between girl and boy children,” Asha declared emphatically. “Before we’d only leave our thumbprints for any business. Now we sign our names at the bank.”

Asha is charged with keeping weekly accounts of the SHG’s money and tracking the loans taken by members. One woman takes minutes of weekly meetings, another woman keeps the moneybox, another the key to it.

Armed with umbrellas to shield us from the midday sun, the women walked me through their plots of land. Before, no food could be grown here because the land wasn’t flat, the soil was infertile, and there wasn't water. Here's one field that had just been leveled and planted.

This is one well and one of five water-harvesting structures built in the last three months alone. Now these farmers can capture rainwater during the monsoon in this otherwise dry environment.

PRADAN helped the community access funding through a government program called "SGSY" for this nursery that supplies 4-5 SHGs. PRADANites worked with the government over a decade ago to develop this program and now its transition into an expanded (and hopefully more effective) National Rural Livelihoods Mission.

This self-help group selected Magdali Nag to represent them in the governing board of a local horticulture cooperative of 4,000 women that they had started with PRADAN’s help. (300 women have also formed a poultry cooperative that supplies 80% of the local market.) When asked what this experience has meant for her, Magdali said a feeling of ownership. “This is our business and we have to take it to a better position.”

This is Magdali and her husband Samuel in their field of young mango trees. Samuel is one of the PRADAN-trained Community Resource Persons in the area who helps the self-help group carry out their business. When I asked him about his ambitions, he said, “I’ll be doing this work so long as I have strength in my body.”