Friday, November 10, 2017

I was good at being a rat

I was 17. It was my first time travelling internationally and I was visibly excited! I felt proud because I had earned this trip. I was one of three young people selected to represent India at an international environmental program in South Africa for 10 days. I never imagined that this would turn into such a life changing experience (as clichéd as that sounds) and I must admit I never fully realized how much of an influence this experience has had on me until now. I was just another 17 year old, excited to travel abroad for the very first time in my life.

Entabeni, South Africa; 2004
Growing up, I was very nerdy, annoyingly competitive and very much keen on being the fastest rat in the rat race. I was good at being a rat ☺; I excelled at academics, ranked among the top three in almost every examination and did well in extra-curricular activities. Then, at 17 years, I met 50 other 16-18 year olds who helped me discover the meaning of true accomplishment. 51 young people, in the South African wilderness, without gadgets, computers, internet, phones or books for 10 days….. I think it was the first time in my life that I was focused on just getting to know people and reflecting on my own existence (not to mention enjoying the sounds of lions roar and beautiful sunrises by the watering hole)

No… I did not have an epiphany in the wilderness, but it did leave me with the desire to not be a rat anymore. I wanted to be more human. The wonders of the South African wilderness and the company of 50 inspiring young people infused me with a sense of curiosity and left me with an itch that I couldn’t fully identify back then. I spent the next few years of my life experimenting with multiple things, launching a mild rebellion against myself and my idea of accomplishment. I tried my hand at event management, volunteered with some NGOs, set up a small student volunteers run institution with friends on HIV/AIDS awareness, earned an internship in Malaysia to work with young people on environmental issues, learnt some French, did another internship in Mumbai on issues of water management, read as much as I could. Of course, to appear more normal, I appeared for all possible MBA entrance examinations in my final year of university, but never bothered looking at my score twice. I decided to take a year off and spent it experimenting more, reading more. This is a luxury that I am extremely grateful for.

When I was back in South Africa earlier in June this year as part of the VVLead fellowship and heard Alyse Nelson speak to us about our ‘driving force’, I was intrigued and started reading more about it.  I stumbled on an article that said that there are broadly two basic kinds of driving forces – one where you are running away from something and one where you are running towards something. While the former is important, the latter gives your life true meaning.
My experience at 17 in the South African wilderness nudged me and helped me ‘run away’. However, I do not remember the exact moment when I made the transition from ‘running away’ to ‘running towards’ something. Somewhere in between that year off after graduation, I instinctively knew I wanted to work in development. From that moment on, I never ever doubted or regretted this instinct.

With Dana in Pokuase, Ghana; 2010
I studied Development Studies at the London School of Economics on a scholarship for a year and began experimenting again, but this time, with a very clear purpose. I travelled to Mexico on a social fellowship, where I met Dana my ex-boss. Dana infected me with her passion for bottom-up development and introduced me to her impactful, honest work in Ghana. Working in Ghana helped me realize that I really wanted to work in India. I felt more connected to India spiritually and culturally and believed I personally would be more impactful in India. I must admit this wasn’t easy. I applied for jobs in the non-profit sector but was never offered a role that involved working directly with communities. 

When I look back, I realize that the development sector in India is a tough one to break into, especially if you have no prior background and no idea where to begin. I was slowly beginning to get restless and was on the brink of giving up when the ICICI fellowship happened just then in 2010, which assigns young people to rural grassroots organizations for a period of 2 years. This fellowship was perfect for someone like me.  
In rural Rajasthan; 2011

I was very fortunate to have been serendipitously placed in Shram Sarathi, a social business which I currently lead. For the next four years of my life (long after the fellowship was over) I lived and worked among tribal migrant communities in rural Rajasthan. The experience only reinforced my passion for development and really demonstrated how long term engagement and complete immersion in communities are so critical, both for creating social value and personal gain. But now that I think of it, the experience also played a significant role in shaping up my ‘driving force’ in life. My ‘driving force’ is still a work-in-progress, hard to articulate and I will write more about it as I reflect on it and debate with myself.

But for now, all I can say is this – I was good at being a rat, then life gave me the opportunity to be more human. Thank God!

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