Friday, January 13, 2006

Corruption Tales

Here are few interesting encounters I have had with everyday corruption.

1. This was about three years back at Bombay airport. I was coming to India from the US for vacation and was carrying gifts, the total value of which amounted to about Rs.20,000. I knew that the limit for import without customs duty was Rs.12,000, so I was expecting to pay duty for the extra Rs.8,000.

I stood in the “red line” which is the line for declaring the value of goods being imported. I presented the original receipts of the stuff I was importing to the officer. The officer said that I should pay Rs.2,000 (I don’t remember the exact amount now, but it was a couple of thousand). I said OK, took out the money and asked for the receipt.

The officer said that it would take too long to get a receipt and tried to reason with me that it would be of no use to me. I said that I was not in a hurry and was willing to wait for the receipt. This frustrated her. She spoke to another officer and then told me to go without paying anything.

I thought that this was peculiar – not having to pay if you ask for a receipt – but something similar was to happen again!

2. About a month back, I was driving in Bombay and took a right turn at an intersection where the green signal was only for going straight. I got pulled over by the waiting policemen.

A policeman after seeing my license said that I had to pay a fine for dangerous driving which was Rs.500. I explained to him, how I had misunderstood the signal but said that since I made a mistake I will pay the fine. Hearing this, the policeman became very considerate and said that “mistakes happen” and that I should pay only Rs.100. I was surprised at this sudden change, but in any case took out the money to pay and asked for the receipt.

He said, “Why get into this receipt business and put things on record? It is a small mistake so just pay hundred rupees and go”. I insisted saying that I don’t pay without getting a receipt. He said that for that we have to go to the police station and that would take time. I agreed to wait. This was apparently not what the policeman was expecting. After consulting with his partner, he asked me to just go without paying anything.

3. Some time back I was coming from Calcutta to Pune by train. It is a two night journey. For the second night, a person had boarded the sleeper class coach with an ordinary ticket and wanted reservation for the night. The rule is that if a berth is available, the traveling ticket examiner (TT) can allot it after taking the appropriate difference in fare.

In this case the berth opposite mine was empty and the TT allotted it to our friend. Our friend gave the money, a few hundred rupee notes to the TT. The TT took out his book to write a receipt and do his job. But our friend with a great sense of gratitude said that there was no need for a receipt and also that he was not expecting any change.

This kind of situation can make an honest official corrupt. Anyway, here is another anecdote which fits this pattern. It is actually my sister’s experience.

4. It happened that my sister and simultaneously her college-mate got a call from the local police station in Calcutta for identity verification while issuing a passport. They went together to the police station. The young officer looked at the forms and verified that everything was in order.

Now, it was a common practice that during this verification students paid the officer Rs.50 as a bribe, euphemistically a “goodwill gesture”. My sister did not pay. In fact she felt that the officer was upright and honest and did not give the slightest indication that he was expecting anything. My sister’s friend however paid the Rs.50. Both received their passports simultaneously.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Watershed Development at Surodi and Meeting with Anna Hazare

Some time ago my friend Ashok Rupner told me about watershed development work in his village Surodi located in Ahmednagar district in a dry region of Maharashtra. I was curious to see what exactly watershed development meant having heard a lot about it and told Ashok that I would love to visit his village sometime. Ashok cheerfully agreed to take me to Surodi and show me around. On 12th October, 2005, Dussera holiday, we went to Surodi. The day turned out to be very eventful and memorable.

The plan was to start out early and first visit Ralegan Siddhi, which is a village well known for pioneering watershed development work in Maharashtra and for being home to the noted social activist Anna Hazare. After seeing Ralegan Siddhi, we would go on to Surodi, look around, have lunch and return to Pune by evening.

We set out at 7:30 in the morning from Pune on Ashok's motorcycle going on Ahmednagar road (State Highway 60). The initial few kilometers of the road is new, has four lanes and is tolled. Beyond that, there are two lanes and work for widening the road is on. After riding for about two hours, we stopped briefly at Ranjangaon where one of the Astavinayak (eight Ganesh pilgrimage sites) temples is located. We then continued on to go to Ralegan Siddhi. At the intersection of the main road and the road leading to the village, there is a huge sign announcing Ralegan Siddhi as an "adarsh gaon" or model village. According to Ashok, this was put up by the state government (not the village).

The vegetation changed as soon as we entered the approach road to Ralegan Siddhi. So far the vegetation consisted mainly of short grass, different varieties of babul and a shrub with compound leaves, yellow flowers and a bean like fruit (Interesting this shrub is untouched by grazing goats and cattle). In contrast, the road to Ralegan Siddhi was dotted with different kinds of trees on both sides. These were obviously planted. After riding for a few minutes, and passing some farms, houses and streams on the way we reached the main village square. There, Ashok asked a shopkeeper if Anna (Hazare) was around and we learned that Anna had just walked past and gone to the village temple. We went straight to the temple, which besides having space for devotees, has a few rooms in one of which Anna stays.

Anna and Ralegan Siddhi have been big inspirations for Ashok. Ashok had met Anna several times before and deeply reveres him. He wanted me to meet Anna and I was excited about the meeting. But the way this was to happen was not entirely what I had expected. I was thinking that since Anna is such a big public figure, who regularly brushes shoulders with ministers and such, we would not disturb him and would rather just wait for him to emerge from his room to catch a glimpse of him. But Ashok did not seem to think that way. Without the slightest hesitation he went and knocked on Anna's door. After a few seconds, sure enough, the small man in a white shirt and dhoti emerged. We stepped into the small room, which had simple furniture - there was a cot, shelves with papers, two suitcases, a phone, TV and water container. Ashok introduced himself and me and I said how I was interested in looking at the variety of development work happening in different parts of India and have been traveling around. I did not have much to say and was hoping that Anna would just do the talking so that I could listen. Fortunately, right then the phone rang and Anna got busy answering it.

The phone conversation was about the Right to Information Act, which was passed by parliament and was going to become law soon. It seemed to be from some media person. Anna has played a big role in drafting the act for the state of Maharashtra and this had inspired the national act to a large extent. Anna was saying how this Act should have come 50 years ago because it is based on what our constitution guarantees us -- the right to examine documents, records and accounts of public work kept by officials. Anna said that the act has the potential to cut down corruption by 60%. The important thing that must be done now he said was to ensure that leaflets written in Marathi explaining the Act and the procedure to file an application was made and distributed to all villages.

Meanwhile some other visitors had come and were waiting outside the door. After finishing on the phone, Anna seeing the crowd asked everyone to step into another room where there was an arrangement to sit facing each other on the floor. Anna spoke about the importance of watershed development work in the region and the dramatic economic returns obtained by people of Ralegan Siddhi by doing it. He also explained that the people of the village have followed five principles, which have been responsible for their prosperity. They are prohibition (no sale and consumption of liquor), no cutting of trees, no uncontrolled grazing of cattle, not more than two children per couple, and shramdaan (volunteerism). Anna then said that he had to be at a meeting at 11 am and asked us to look around the village and said that he would be available again in the evening if we wanted to talk to him.

Ashok then gave me a tour of the village. We first went to the primary school. The campus was beautiful with enough open space shaded by trees. There were toilets and a hand pump and a stage for functions. The school, and this goes for everything in the village, was remarkably clean. There is no plastic and other junk strewed around which is a common eyesore in many public places in our country today. Next we went to the training center for watershed development where we saw a library and also in that campus, a residential school for school dropouts from outside the village. Ashok said that these school dropouts go on to achieve very high academic distinctions after going through this school. We saw the secondary school which also looked very nice with lot of trees and lot of young boys and girls sitting under the trees and reading. Finally, we stopped at the visitors center where I bought a book by Anna Hazare called My Village - My Sacred Land and a video CD. We also saw a room full of awards that Anna had received including the Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri. There was a nice picture exhibit explaining different technical aspects of watershed development, village activities and some pictures from Anna's life.

After this we set out towards Surodi. On the way, we made a brief stop to inspect a watershed structure, a small dam, which had been constructed by the government but which is useless presently because of lack of maintenance. There is a breach in the structure and so no water is being held by the dam. We finally reached Surodi around 1:30 pm. The last ten kilometers of road is not surfaced and is quite treacherous. On reaching Surodi, Ashok enthusiastically showed me the various watershed structures -- the earth, cement and stone bunds that he and the villagers had built over the past years since 2001. He explained what these structures were achieving. The basic idea is the following: During monsoons, rainwater drains along certain channels or streams depending on the natural slope and topology of the land. By constructing bunds or check dams across these channels this flow can be restricted and water can be held back from quickly draining out. By slowing down the flow of water, a significant part of it percolates into the ground and raises the level of groundwater. It also recharges aquifers and wells. Water seepage due to a bund can affect the level of groundwater a couple of kilometers away because of the underground streams connecting these areas. Thus a watershed development project needs a minimum size to be effective and necessarily is a cooperative endeavor.

There are a series of bunds across a particular stream or water drainage channel. The water collects behind each bund forming a pool and when full, the water in the pool can touch the previous (that is, upstream) bund. Thus the series of pools which are joined together contains lot of water and looks like a river. As the water table rises, water remains in the river for a longer time after monsoons are over.

According to Ashok, the cost of the dams has been a fraction of what the government spends. That is understandable because the money spent has been mainly for material like cement, which has to necessarily be brought from outside. The planning, management and construction has been carried out by the villagers. For building the bunds, villagers did shramdaan, that is contributed voluntary labor. Some technical expertise was provided from outside, but this was also voluntary. The total cost for around 20 dams was about 2.5 lakh (250 thousand) rupees, which according to Ashok is the amount of money the state government spends on a single dam of similar size. The money was provided partly by Association for India’s Development (AID).

The main challenge in this kind of constructive village level work is bringing the local people together and involving them. This requires credible, inspired and innovative leadership. Ashok and his friends have had a large role to play here. Ashok being from the village understands the local problems and is able to think in terms of solutions that are suitable for it. His fellow villagers are able to relate to him and discuss freely with him. He is financially independent (he has a job) and clearly does not have any personal stake in the money that come from outside for development of his village. In fact, he contributes to the village from his own modest income. This has helped build an impeccable reputation for him. Also, Ashok has a very likeable personality -- he is always cheerful, has an eagerness to learn and is bubbling with energy. He has passed his infectious enthusiasm to his friends and other fellow villagers. Having realized that villagers want to experience first-hand the effects of watershed development, he and his friends had organized to take them to Ralegan Siddhi where natural conditions are similar, but the villagers have taken things in their hands to made it prosperous.

While we were there, I saw Ashok in action deal with some local problems. There was one person who was concerned that the pool forming behind the bund would submerge his land. The bund was overflowing, so the pool behind was at its maximum capacity and the land was not yet submerged. His concern was that if the height of the bund was increased next year, his property would be submerged. Ashok assured him that the height would not be increased and emphasized on the positives of the watershed work -- how in nearby villages water tankers are having to be brought in to supply drinking water whereas in their village the wells were full. There was another group of people who complained that the village cremation place had to be shifted because of the pool of water and this was causing the smell of the burning bodies to come near their dwellings. Ashok explained to them that there are only a couple of cremations in a year (village strength around 700) and that too it is the direction of the wind which was making the smell come in their direction. In contrast to this inconvenience, the village was having so much water while the neighboring villages were already (not too much after the end of monsoon) struggling for drinking water. Wasn't this little inconvenience worth it?

I then met Ashok's family who were extremely warm and hospitable. After feeding me nicely, they packed a big bag full of fresh farm produce and country eggs to take home. It was a day I will remember. I learned a lot from the trip and continue to learn from Ashok.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Random thoughts on education

The discussion on school education in India continues perhaps as vibrantly as ever. Though, presumably, removed from the glare of mainstream media. Notwithstanding good intentions, I haven't really been able to follow this discussion all that well. The issues involved are complex and beset with confounding conundrums. (That's the disclaimer for the following, if you didn't realize.)

It was Dr. Vinod Raina's talk at Asha Princeton which sensitized me to the inappropriateness of the current school system which tries to train everyone for jobs in the "organized sector." The fact remains (according to Vinod) that the organized sector does not accommodate more than 10% of the Indian workforce. Clearly the same size shoe doesn't fit everyone. But the burning question is who will get the smaller sized shoes: the employment opportunities and life-styles promised by the organized sector is by and large universally more attractive. Almost everyone, given the choice, would pick the education for their children which can land them a white-collar job.

Neither the current system of a uniform curriculum across all segments of the society, nor a system which reinforces the segmentation or fragmentation of the society through separate curricula based on parents' background (separate for say, children of professors and children of illiterate migrant labourers) would be optimal or fair. The via media would probably be to offer multiple curriculum streams with a lot of inbuilt flexibility, which would let a child start off in any stream and to switch to other streams as his or her aptitude (and circumstances) develop. At least, then the blame of stymieing a child's growth wouldn't be so much on the education system as on the other "circumstances" (which we are not talking about here just now). One major problem with such higher flexibility would be that the educators need to be all the more available, qualified and willing to guide children through their options and opportunities. Given the number of children in question, training such a teaching force would be non-trivial.

While realistically there is no hope to completely solve the conundrum, there is ample room for improvement from the current situation. NCERT has been hard at work and has proposed a new National Curriculum Framework. However there is still some way to go.

In other news, the debate on the "Right to Education Bill" rages on.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Toys from trash

Can one learn science while playing and tinkering with toys? Is it possible to create toys and science activities from waste/throwaway material and thus be gentle to the environment? At the Muktangan science exploratorium, an activity and science center in Pune, one can see this happening.

This wonderful science center is located in the Pune University campus and is the brainchild of Dr. Jayant Narlikar, a person well known for popularizing science and reaching out to non-specialists. At the center, children learn to make toys, gadgets and paper foldings, and are able to freely tinker with interactive scientific demonstrations. The atmosphere is very friendly and the staff extremely enthusiastic. Mr. Arvind Gupta, an experienced toy maker and educationist along with two other instructors Ashok and Vidula, runs the center.

The unique thing about the toys and experiments is that they are often made from throwaway household things. Or if not throwaway, then very low cost material. A goal clearly is to design the toys and activities so that they can be accessible to the poorest of children and have minimal environmental impact. A few sentences from the preface of one of Arvind Gupta’s books will give you an idea of the underlying philosophy, “…we must not forget that each scrap of paper was once a living branch or a tree trunk. That each ballpen refill, broken pen and all other plastic comes from crude oil. The earth’s resources are limited and we must use them sparingly with love and care. Today’s throwaway culture offers new challenges for reuse, whether it is tetra packets, batteries, bottles or ballpens. So, don’t waste, don’t abuse; instead recycle, reuse. This is the only way of making simple and environmentally sustainable toys.”

The demonstrations encompass various scientific principles – air pressure, stability of objects, production of sound, moment of inertia, magnetism, eddy currents, current induction, etc. The ideas for toys are also innumerable and I will mention only a few. There is a pump which can be used to blow balloons which is made from two empty film roll boxes, a six inch piece of an old bicycle tube, a drinking straw and sticky tape. There is another pump, which is made from only an old toothpaste tube, a broken balloon and a piece of drinking straw. These pumps nicely demonstrate how valves work. There is a mecanno set which made from matchsticks and bicycle valve tube. And there is a small electric motor, the material for which costs Rs.10 including the cost of the battery! There is no exaggeration – I have made such a motor and it works!

Groups of school children, science teachers and general public visit the center and it is really wonderful observing the excitement they feel there. One can see here serious faced adults turn into playful children! The center also makes visits to schools and I had the chance to visit a municipal girl’s school with Ashok during one such visit. The children had a wonderful time.

Arvind Gupta has nicely documented this work and his books and writings are available at He does not believe in copyright and wants to share everything that he knows and has created.

I hope many more people can come to this center and also interact with Mr. Gupta.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Right to Information

Just got back from an AID screening of a documentary by MKSS on Right to Information. I had seen (parts of) it the first time when Aruna Roy was in LA last year (at an event organized by IFA). Vishal, a fellow Asha volunteer, who was present at the screening and is familiar with Mahadhikar (which works in Maharashtra where an RTI act has been in effect before an effective central law was passed recently) says however that without more judicial reforms the path to curbing corruption is not very easy.

In solidarity with all those tirelessly fighting heartless corruption...

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Ravi and Aravinda

Aravinda and Ravi (and little Khiyali) were at the AID meeting today. Very nice talk, new perspectives/thoughts, and of course very inspiring. And there was a larger crowd too.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Activist filmmaker with a difference: Shriprakash's visit to Princeton

Activist filmmaker Shriprakash based in Ranchi (Jharkhand, India) visited Princeton on November 21st, 2004. His film "Buddha Weeps in Jadugoda" on the effects of uranium mining and radioactive waste dumping on adivasi communities was screened [organized by Association for India's Development (AID)]. There was a discussion following the screening and after that, we went to Sujit's place and had the opportunity to talk to Shriprakash informally. I got a different and interesting perspective about grassroot activism from this discussion, which I would like to share.

I have said "different" perspective. So, I should first mention what I was expecting and why. During the past couple of years, I have got the opportunity to meet several social activists from India through talks/discussions organized by Asha for Education and AID. It has generally been that these activists look for greater involvement of people in the US with the struggles in India. They generally use their opportunity of visiting the US to build collaborations or support groups for the struggles in India. Given this background, I was expecting that Shriprakash too would appeal to AID and the Indians living in the US to get involved in the uranium mining issue in Jadugoda so that they could exert pressure on the local government and strengthen the protest movement on the ground. However, during the post-film discussion when we asked Shriprakash how AID could help the Jadugoda struggle, his answer was that the best thing we could do was to recognize and honor the local people on the ground who are involved in the grassroot movement. He did not want any other "help". This was not what I expected and I was curious to know more about where Shriprakash was coming from. Though I had earlier planned to leave soon after the post-film discussion, I now decided to go to Sujit's place where Shriprakash was going to stay for the night. There we got a chance to talk more with Shriprakash and get an answer to the question which was on my mind "Why wouldn't one want greater middle class/NRI involvement in the Jadugoda struggle?".

Shriprakash recited a poem, which eloquently captures some of the things that we talked about that evening. This poem called "Stage" is written by Dr. Waharu Sonavane and is from a collection called "Adivasi Swar Aur Nai Shatabdi". A few lines of the English translation are below. The poet, a victim, says:

We did not go on to the stage,
Neither were we called.
We were shown our places,
told to sit.
But they, sitting on the stage,
went on telling us of our sorrows,
our sorrows remained ours, they never became theirs.

Shriprakash told us that several grassroot struggles and movements are hijacked by middle class urban educated activists often to further their own ends (like gain fame, get awards). This may still be OK I argued if the cause of the struggle was fulfilled. There are some realities in India like access coming with being able to speak English and this might be a strength that the middle class activist brings to the movement. But Shriprakash clarified. Things on the ground are often not so simple as a politically motivated activist would like and it is often not easy to take a stand one way or another. For example, refering to the uranium mines as Jadugoda, Sriprakash said that it is not easy to make a blanket statement that immediate shutting down of the mines is what the adiviasi people there want. Though the mines and nuclear dumps may be causing disease and reducing the life a mine worker and his family due to radiation exposure, a job at the mine provides for their food so that they can survive.

A middle class activist often does not reflect this and in his own worldview might think of environmental degradation as the most important factor while taking a decision to support the cause of closing the mines. Shriprakash articulated about how for a middle class person survival is taken care of. What he/she is doing now is with that in mind. The choice of the adivasi however is between a slow and fast death.

There was a difference between Shriprakash and the other activists that I have mentioned before. All the other activists I have met so far have had an urban middle class upbringing. Shriprakash's parents on the other hand are farmers and his early life was in the village.

It was revealing discussion with Shriprakash. Sriprakash's simplicity, lack of veneer and ability to bluntly speak the truth has left an impression on me.