Wednesday, July 03, 2013

"Managing" Expectations at Work

I am one of those people who will pretty much google anything and everything (Yes, I use ‘google’ as a verb). I had yet another dismal day at work today and it had a lot to do with “managing expectations” at work. So I got back home, googled this phrase and read the top few articles that showed up. Most articles spoke about communicating well with your boss to manage his/her expectations; to ensure that we performed exactly the way we are expected to...... Now all these are certainly important and some of those articles I did read with interest, but that is not what I was looking for. Today at the end of work, I was left wondering how to manage one’s own expectations from others – the team, the wider community, people you deal with during work etc.
I’ll tell you what triggered this post.  We are about to launch a new branch in a new rural/ semi-urban location and it is a very exciting time for my organisation and me. I booked a few pieces of furniture last week and today its delivery was due. When I inspected the piece of furniture I was about to buy, I noticed it had a few scratches on the top surface... I forced myself to look away. The shop owner read my mind and said that these things happen during transportation....Again I forced myself to agree with him. I looked in another direction but then noticed another scratch on the side. I diverted my gaze to ignore it. I looked in the downwards direction and noticed that the ply had chipped off on one of the doors. I couldn’t handle it anymore and I requested a replacement. I was told not to expect 100%. I agreed and thought to myself, probably 95% wasn’t too bad an expectation to keep. The shop owner was non-chalant. He knew he was the only furniture shop owner in a 10 km. radius and I would have to agree with him. I still stood my ground and refused to accept it. He refused to offer a replacement and the deal was off. I left with really mixed feelings. I was glad I refused to purchase the item, but somewhere I felt, what now? Where would I get the furniture and how would I set up the office? Two senior colleagues at work also inspected the table and while they agreed it was not perfect they did gently tell me to purchase it..... I held on to my stubborn demand to have a non-scratched, non-chipped office table. Later when I sat on the bus, I kept wondering if I had done the right thing.  Probably. Probably not.
Now that I am writing this post, I decided that I’d go back and well..... purchase it L . I fought hard with myself and accused myself of lowering my expectations. Then I weighed the options. If I didn’t get that table, I’d have to order one from Udaipur, 70 kms away and in all likelihood that would be scratched too, not to mention the additional costs involved in getting it transported here to Salumbar. That would mean no table for a week – a disorganised office for a week – a complete mess. I was given this feedback quite subtly earlier that given the context we operate in and its limitations one needs to set expectations accordingly and work around that. That doesn’t mean lowering one’s expectations, right? It probably means learning to manage them better. Managing expectations is TOUGH and I wouldn’t say I’ve done a very good job ..... but now I’m comfortable admitting it to myself, which for me is a big step, a difficult step. Hopefully I will ease into it over time. It will hopefully do a lot of good to my team management skills as well.

I wish there were an easy way to learn this. Having grown up in a big city and then having moved to work in a small semi-urban/rural town is not an easy transition. I thought I had made the transition 3 years ago, but apparently not. I’m still learning to. None of this stops me from dreaming though.....that how wonderful it would be if furniture shop owners cared for what they sold, that painters would give you a perfect finish, that the cleaner would dust a little better, that plumbers would fix your pipe on time and that someday expectations wouldn’t make you feel super-guilty. Some day..... 

Saturday, January 12, 2013


After two and half years of being in Gogunda, it is time to move to a new place, have a new experience, meet new people. I've moved 70 kms. south of Udaipur to a place called Salumbar. Like Gogunda, it is yet another "source" area - where men migrate in large numbers to Gujarat, Maharashtra and other affluent states in search of work. Unlike Gogunda however, Salumbar has relatively higher literacy levels and people are far more vocal about their rights here than in Gogunda.

It will be an interesting experience no doubt, but I do miss Gogunda. I miss the warmth, the familiarity and the memory of my time spent there. In the 'largeness' of Salumbar, I feel a bit lost. I remember my first day in Gogunda. I was excited, nervous, eager to please everyone I met and more talkative than I usually am. My first day in Salumbar, I feel a bit different. Sure there is excitement, but of a different kind - it has more to do with the work that I will be doing in Salumbar rather than simply the experience of living here. I know it will never be the same as Gogunda and it probably isn't fair to compare the two. I just hope that I can begin my life here in Salumbar with an open mind and who knows what might be in store next!

Monday, January 03, 2011

To New Beginnings...

As 2010 comes to an end, I can’t help but reflect back on how the past 12 months have been. Very clichéd, I know.... but such reflection is accompanied by a deeper understanding how I’ve changed in the past one year and if I was the driver of change elsewhere.
Needless to say, 2010 was largely defined by the last 5 months that I spent working in the southern tribal belt of Rajasthan. I must admit, for the first 3-4 months I felt like I was shooting in the dark, perplexed by the complexities involved in the work I was doing. But now after nearly 5 months of trying to find my way, I finally have greater clarity on my work and the direction it needs to take. This realisation comes at an apt juncture as we move into the New Year. While I do not have any big resolutions, my jingle for 2011 would be “To New Beginnings”..... to fill my year with the start of something new, something meaningful and something much larger than myself.
On December 15th, 2010, I piloted “Samruddhi” – a wealth management programme for migrant households in the block of Gogunda, 40 kilometres north-west of Udaipur. I feel excitement, enthusiasm, a tinge of naivety, idealism and nervous anticipation all at the same time. While it is too soon to assess whether Samruddhi is of sound design both on paper and on the ground, I feel content with the effort that has gone into conceptualising and initiating it. Clearly there are ‘miles to go before I sleep’ and I am wide awake as never before.

There have been a few challenges along the way. For instance, how do I help a family gain more lucidity on their own goals and their current financial reality? How do we rebuild trust after one has been through a bitter experience like insurance fraud or dealing with government bureaucracy? Are we capable of making them believe in a product/service/ scheme after they have been disappointed once? And if yes, how long will that take and at what cost will it happen? Anecdotes of bad experiences from the field fill my mind with doubts about how much value will I be able to add to these families. Will I always have an answer for every family’s problems? And if I do have an answer, how dependent is it on a third party? I suddenly realise that 2 years is hardly enough to do what I have in mind and 5 months have just whizzed past me.
I have incorporated a financial literacy programme both for our staff members and our beneficiaries within Samruddhi. As service providers, we realised that we ourselves do not possess the expertise to guide families on the right financial plan for them. So a key component of Samruddhi is to provide training to our field officers on financial concepts, products and services and the ability to understand a household’s financial needs, goals and aspirations. While I am able to train my staff, I wonder how I will be able to fill gaps in my understanding of financial services for low income households.
The financial literacy model for our beneficiaries is slowly shaping up. Thus far, I have developed and pilot tested two literacy tools with our beneficiaries. The first one called “Paison ka Ped” is an interactive tool that uses no text at all and hence well suited to our target audience. The second (for which I haven’t decided a name yet) is primarily for our female clients as well as female household members of male clients. This tool provides a simple way to track monthly household cash inflows and outflows, which requires the client to neither write anything nor maintain complex worksheets. As I test these tools on different groups, I make small modifications in its design and delivery and am hoping it will be perfected soon.I will share more details on these tools after testing them with a few more groups.
I am aware that there are a zillion things that I myself do not know about wealth management and I hope that the forthcoming training will help me gain clarity on at least some of those.
The past year has been different, in an exciting, instructive and transformative sense. I have done things that I could never have imagined doing and lived in ways that I never thought possible. For me the highlights would be living in a mud house in freezing cold, bathing in the open next to a well, sleeping in a stable with a very temperamental cow, nabbing thieves in the village during Diwali, working as a temporary conductor for a buswala so that I could earn my seat, living out of a suitcase, attempting to drive a tractor, harvesting corn, cultivating coriander and mint at home and so much more. I step into the new year with fond memories of 2010, a greater desire for adventure and a deeper commitment towards my work here in Rajasthan. Happy New Year everyone!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Chronicles of a 'Development Migrant' in Rajasthan

It’s been 4 months for me in Gogunda, Rajasthan now and I am filled with stories from the field. I’m presently working with the Rajasthan Shram Sarathi Association (RSSA) which is a section 25 company started by Aajeevika Bureau in 2006.

My Organisation

RSSA primarily provides general purpose loans and emergency loans to migrant households in the rural tribal belt of southern Rajasthan and destination centers of migrant workers in Gujarat. Other services include linking migrant families with insurance and pension plans provided by the state government and other private entities. There is a general perception here that RSSA is only a loan provider, but part of my role here is to change that image by popularizing financial products like insurance and pension as well as moving towards a ‘wealth management’ approach in our services. My main task is to create a financial literacy model, pilot test it in a few treatment villages and evaluate its impact. The idea is to create a model that can easily be adopted by organizations elsewhere with a few modifications here and there. Furthermore, during the course of my work I am required to identify gaps in financial services for migrant families and if necessary design new financial products and services that are relevant for migrant workers and their families.

What I’ve been upto

In the first few months, I’ve literally been in the field almost every day, with very little time in the office. It has been amazing sitting down with migrant families and understanding their lives and their money management strategies. Every migrant family has a different story and this makes my task seem all the more challenging. How do we reach as many households as possible without running the risk of falling into a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach?

What’s more fascinating are the savings mechanisms that exist here in the villages of Gogunda and Kelwara blocks. Gullak Bachat is a common savings tool here. I will put up pictures soon. What RSSA does is provide a Galla or a tin piggy box with a lock. We lock it up and give it to each loan client so that they can save regularly. However, the key is kept with us. On the day of collection, the loan installment is usually adjusted from the savings made by the client in the Galla. It hasn’t benefited all families, but overall it seems to have become an effective tool to not only save but also pay loan installments on time. We are further exploring how we can further use the Galla to encourage better wealth management strategies by households.

Local moneylenders are also considered an effective savings avenue. In the past 2 weeks, the biggest lesson I’ve learnt from the local staff is that a huge process of unlearning is so very essential if I have to understand financial behaviour of households here. For example, I was told that often people save Rs. 1000 with a local sahukar (moneylender) and then receive Rs. 900 at the end of one month. This may seem really stupid to an outsider (just as it did to me), but on closer scrutiny, it was found that the family valued 900 Rs. a month later when they had a baby due than 1000 Rs. today…because they knew if they had the money today they would spend it on unnecessary luxuries. This weird sort of saving mechanism takes quite a lot of time to digest (and I still haven’t been able to do so entirely).

I am the first female member of the RSSA staff and they’re quite thrilled about that. Most of the data that they have gathered in the past few years about financial behaviour of migrant households has mainly been sourced from male members. My role here is to actively involve women and even children in the wealth management process. The women here aren’t as passive as we think. They may be shy and quiet and docile, but they do have some smart ways of saving up cash in the home. Some of the women I spoke to hide money with wheat and corn, between saris, in small cracks in the walls, in earthen pots, in between photographs and where not. Understanding this in my opinion is crucial to developing the financial literacy model.

How can you help?
Please keep forwarding useful literature on financial literacy and financial behaviour of migrant households. I am still taking time to understand the financial dynamics of migrant households and the more I learn, the more complex it seems.

Also I would really appreciate any help on available insurance and pension products, particularly life insurance, personal accident insurance and health insurance for rural masses. I am already exploring the options available here such as RSBY, Rajasthan Vishwakarma Anshdai Pension Yojana, United India Insurance and Birla Kavach scheme. Any more schemes would obviously be useful to know.

On a Personal note…
Everything has been wonderful thus far !!!! I live in a small cozy room right next to the office. I have a wonderful family living downstairs who always have unlimited supplies of roti sabzi. That said, I cook every day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. I even wash my own clothes in the tiny little square that we call a bathroom and clean the place up whenever I find time.

Dhivya has been staying with me for a month because her room wasn’t available…but it is now and she will be moving in a day or two. I will certainly miss having her around and rambling about anything and everything late into the night…but I’m also looking forward to being a little more independent on the personal front.

When you look out my window, you will see corn fields encircled by the Aravalli mountains which are covered with a lush green carpet for now. I do have some rather friendly company in my room as well – two lizards, funny looking colourful insects from the corn fields and honey bees once in a while. I’ve become rather used to them now.

I love the people here. Everytime I go to buy vegetables or groceries I end up having tea with the chai wala or newspaper wala or the mithaiwala or bartanwala or people from the police force or anyone familiar whom I end up meeting. Even when I go for field visits, the villagers always forcefully stuff my bag with fresh vegetables from their fields. I am constantly touched by these little gestures that people here extend. Yesterday on my way back from a village, I met some one on the bus. Within a 30 minute bus ride she was so happy that she gave me a few wild bhindis and chillies that she had just plucked from here fields. Truly touched!

I am so thrilled to be here and spend the next 2 years working in such a warm, friendly environment and I can’t wait to have new adventures each day!!! I’ll just sign off with two lines from one of my favourite poets ‘Lord Byron’ in one of his poems called ‘The Dream’. It constantly reminds me that giving life to a dream is full of mixed experiences and the better prepared we are for it, the more we will enjoy the process!

And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

This be Ghana

Ghana?? Where exactly is that now? Not many of my relatives or friends know Ghana exists. “It’s in West Africa”, I say and then everyone goes “Ohhhh, okay”... The next question addressed to me with a genuinely concerned expression is – “So is it safe???” ... I say, “Why yes of course, one of the safest African countries actually”...At this point I get either one of two reactions or both: 1) Africa is a not a country?!?!?! And 2) How can Africa be safe????

I must admit, I wasn’t too familiar with the African continent myself until I went to South Africa and I too had misconceptions about Africa. It’s funny how we like to put the whole of Africa together and talk about it as one entity – Africa is not safe or Africa is so poor or Africa is so hot or there are so many wild animals n Africa... It is also strange that we let media images of a few places in Africa dictate our general mental image about the entire continent....and also how most media reports from the continent are always about something depressing and ominous.

After returning from Ghana, I had plenty of stories to convince people that there were many good things about Africa... or should I just say Ghana. I was working in Pokuase village, slightly over an hour from the capital city Accra and it was a huge learning experience. It had been 6 years since I went to South Africa, so just being back on the same continent made me feel happy. I always feel a great passion when I’m in Africa (I know I’m generalising again). It is just the energy and the people and the certain oomph that Africa embodies.

Ghana is possibly one of the friendliest countries I’ve ever been to. From the moment that I stepped into the country, I was greeted by smiling faces, and Akwaba’s all around. Akwaba is a Ghanaian word for ‘Welcome’. It’s a typical Ghanaian way of saying “Akwaba, You are welcome” infinite number of times. Even the village that I lived in was full of smiling faces. The walk to my workplace was about 20-25 minutes from where I lived. So each morning, during that 25 minute walk, every single person who walked past me would greet me with a “Good morning, how are you doing?” and a wide smile. The same happened on the walk back during the evenings. I was told by some of the locals that it was a good thing that I responded to their greetings because then I wouldn’t be considered an outsider. I would be a part of their community and so no one would mess with me and even if someone did the whole village would come to my rescue. Nice!

In terms of development, Ghana definitely has a lot of catching up to do. While it has much better development indicators than a lot of other African countries, some things in Ghana still need to evolve and transform, particularly their political system. They do have a democratically elected government, however most political debates centre around the ‘character’ of the leadership rather than their take on social issues. It is not unusual to turn on the radio and listen to one politician talk about how many boyfriends the other politician has and hence she shouldn’t be favoured in the forthcoming election. These were brought up even during my discussions with some of the locals. The younger generation however definitely seems much more informed and concerned about government policies and their international image.
Yet another disappointment was the work culture. Punctuality has yet to become trendy in Ghana. It might seem trivial now, given the other issues that they face, but punctuality is so crucial at any stage of development. How do you get work done if people are never on time? I was told by a local that this (not being on time) is part of their culture and I should enjoy it while I’m there. Seriously ?!?! By making it ‘cultural’ she almost made tardiness a perpetual, everlasting component of Ghanaian life. Such defeatist attitudes must be removed if change has to happen. Not just that, often when things got difficult, the general response I got was “Don’t worry, leave it to God”. Sure, it’s good to have faith in God, but well you need to do something too. I also noticed that Ghana doesn’t have a strong domestic industry of the kind that we can boast about in India. Most of the big companies are foreign MNCs and a lot of the contracts go out to Chinese firms.

That said, Ghana presents so much opportunity because of its open-mindedness and tolerant attitude. The village that I worked in was so open to changes, particularly when they were explained about the possible benefits. I hate to generalise, but often in India, we face major roadblocks in development interventions, largely due to a more rigid mindset and way of living.

Ghana has its own little quirks like any other country and that’s what makes it so endearing. Travelling in tro-tros, cheering for the Black Stars, listening to sermons in the most random places, buying Chinese herbs from a wannabe priest, drinking ‘pure’ water from the roadside plastic bags, the plantain chips, fufu, banku, red red, tilapia, okro stews, having 100% pineapple flavoured alcohol, swimming at Kokorobite, getting soaked in sweat only to be covered by orange dust, having conversations with random people on the street – Ghana definitely has given me some amazing memories and lots of stories. I return from Ghana with fond recollections of Pokuase and working with some amazing women. Ghana has infected me with her energy, passion, open-mindedness and zest for life. Some day soon when I go back, hopefully there'll be a different Ghana waiting for me – progressive, livelier and always on time :)

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Quand j’était en Suisse

I was in Switzerland in August visiting my friend Shruti. It was the perfect opportunity to see her after so long and also take a much needed break from my dissertation. Lausanne is so different from London. It's more peaceful, but sleepier, with a zillion opportunities for nature lovers and those crazy about adventure sports. Oh and it is so French, only better (mainly because I could understand the Swiss French accent, unlike the French French accent).
Lausanne is also a city built on the slope of a hill, so the roads are quite steep in most places. You can even feel the inclination when you travel by the underground metro. The cutest part about the metro is that when a station approaches, there is a themed music that plays unique to that particular even if you miss the name of the station, the sound effect should be enough to tell you where you are.

I even went para gliding en Suisse, over the Valaisian Alps. It was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.

You glide through the air, over mountains, into clouds, staring down at corn fields and little chalets. The air ever so gently pushes you in different directions. You stare down and see your feet hanging miles away from land. The road is just a thin line, the houses look like a Monopoly board game and the magnificence of the mountains becomes clearer.

It is liberating, hanging from a few pieces of string, feeling the cool breeze and feeling nothingness beneath your feet, but at the same time feeling as though the entire landscape belongs to you. It gives you a strange sense of power and at the same time you're at the mercy of the wind.

Navigating myself

Christophe - my instructor

My instructor Christophe, taught me how to navigate myself and let me take control of the glider for a few minutes. Ahhhh, one can't imagine how that feels - Being in total control in mid air, knowing that you could lose that control just as easily. Adrenaline.....lots of it !!!

Of course, i even visited Geneva to see my very own south Indian super star Affan. Too bad we didn't get to spend a lot of time together, but he did take me the United Nations building in Geneva.

A Memorial to all those people who lost their limbs due to land mines, right outside the UN building.

Jet d'eau (Jet of water)
Apparently there was a pipe burst long ago because of which the water shot out like a fountain...but because the people of Geneva liked it so much, they just kept it that way.

Now that I'm back home in India, I miss my life in London and my travels to Europe. I wonder what's next.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Interpreter

Thanks to Janice, this quote from the movie 'The Interpreter' has become one of my all time favourites:

" The gunfire around us makes it hard to hear.

But the human voice is different from other sounds.

It can be heard over noises that bury everything else.

Even when it's not shouting. Even if it's just a whisper.

Even the lowest whisper can be heard - over armies...

...when it's telling the truth."

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Enough with the Shah Rukh Khan thing

Alright, so the King Khan got stopped at Newark airport and got questioned. BIG DEAL !!!!! Who doesn't get frisked or questioned these days??? I don't understand why the media, the film industry, the government and Shah Rukh Khan himself are making a big fuss about it.

Yes, it is upsetting and yes at times embarassing. I have been stopped plenty of times at airports to be frisked and questioned. Initially I used to think it was some form of racial abuse, but now I understand why they do it. The fact that people stop me at the airport to ask questions makes me feel safer, it makes me feel that they're doing their job. I wouldn't deny that the colour of our skin, our names or the fact that we look South Asian has nothing to do with them stopping us. But I think it is necessary. Haven't most terrorist attacks originated from our part of the world lately? They have all the reason in the world to be suspicious and cautious. Blame your own fellow men who are involved in terrorist activities. Stop blaming the poor immigration officer who was only doing his job.

The thing is, I don't see why Shah Rukh Khan shouldn't have been stopped. A lot of people from the film industry have been found guilty of various offences, both minor and major. Besides, isn't Bollywood known to have close links with the underworld? Why then should Shah Rukh Khan make such a big fuss about being questioned? Why isn't this made a big issue when normal Indians, who do not have fame to come to their rescue, are frisked and questioned? I normally never agree with anything that Salman Khan says or does, but today he was absolutely right. Things like these are normal, given the current security concerns. There's nothing bizzare about it.

The West is no doubt more fearful of the Muslim world or even the 'Third world' than it has ever been in history and they have reason to be. Ambika Soni's version of 'tit-for-tat' by frisking American visitors just sounds ridiculous. Would you frisk someone only because they frisked your countrymen or would you frisk them because they posed a genuine security threat? Yes, there is a racist dimension to it, but the primary concern is security at the end of the day and I do not blame the airport officials. Get a life and move on.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;

Where knowledge is free;

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

by narrow domestic walls;

Where words come out from the depth of truth;

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;

Where the mind is led forward by thee

into ever-widening thought and action,

into that heaven of freedom, my Father,

let my country awake.

-Rabindranath Tagore

Its 7 am. Been studying since afternoon. This is possibly the only thing keeping me awake, other than the coffee of course.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Euro Trip

I’ve been travelling across Europe for the past 3 weeks. When I started the journey I didn’t realise how super duper fantastic it would turn out to be. Paris, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Krakow. 6 wonderful cities, 6 very unique cultures and languages. I must say I liked Vienna and Krakow the most. Vienna mostly because it was home to Gustav Klimt and the secessionist movement and to me it seemed like a wonderful place to live in........And Krakow because of its cultural charm, history and the fact that there is so much to do there. I did like Berlin, but the fact that I was always reminded of the holocaust or the wall wherever I went wasn’t very appealing. It seemed like an apologetic city. I understand why. It is important to remember history so that we don’t risk forgetting and repeating it again.....but then again, even though Krakow has an equally gory history, there were plenty of places I could go to where memories of the holocaust weren’t always in my face. This trip made history real for me. All the statistics came alive, all the sentences in history textbooks were translated into sentiments and the people and what they felt became a reality. I am definitely going back to some of these places to spend more time there, especially Austria and Poland. After graduation perhaps.....Pictures will be up soon :)