Saturday, 31 January 2009

Sam Pitroda's recipe for success

By Shree Venkatram

The message was clear: “You will have to help yourself if you want to change things. Nobody else will do it for you.” Sam Pitroda was interacting with a group of about 50 children from Delhi’s slums and surrounding villages who met him in his office at the Knowledge Commission at his invitation.

“Do not tell me the problems. We all know them,” he responded when a young girl said ‘corruption was a big problem’. “Tell me how can it be dealt with?”

“We have to tell people not to give bribes. We have to change them,” said a young voice.

“You cannot change others. You have to change yourself,” remarked the visionary who brought the telecom revolution to India.

“If 50 of us decide never to bribe anyone or to accept bribes, we would have made a beginning,” he told the group.

He told them about the time when he went to a village as Rajiv Gandhi’s special advisor. “The village pradhan had prepared a long list of things that were not available in the village and he proceeded to read them out in front of a large gathering, thinking I would be able to set them right.

“I said: ‘I can’t. It is in your hands. If the teacher does not come to the school, has any villager ever volunteered to teach the students?’”

“In villages where there is no school, does anyone say, ‘My house is available for three hours everyday to run the classes’?” he questioned.

He told the children the meeting with them was part of a consultative process to learn from them their views and goals which would feed into the recommendations made by the Knowledge Commission to the Prime Minister.

“How could one improve the education system,” he asked.

A teenaged boy replied: “Education should be based on practicals, and not be rote based as it is at present.”

“Good,” said Pitroda.

“When we ask questions to our teachers we are made to shut up with either ‘you ask too many questions’ or ‘there is no answer to why’,” the young ones were quick to point out.
“Parents should let us pick the courses of our choice,” said another.

Pitroda could not have agreed more. He said, “Parenting in India has to change. The Indian parents do not allow their children to explore. They are constantly giving instructions.”

“But Sir, you should be telling that to our parents,” they pointed out.

“Yes, my next meeting should be with parents,” he said.

The children were inquisitive about him. One little girl asked: “What was the toughest day of your life?” The man was stumped. “No one has ever asked me that before. It was when I had the surgery following my second heart attack. The doctors cut me up here, and here,” he said pointing to his body. “I thought I would never come out of it alive.”

At the end of the meeting, I seek out the little girl. She stands less than 4 feet tall and looks barely eight. Priyanka turns out to be 11 years old and is badly undernourished. Her father is a tailor. An NGO is financing her studies as her family is too poor to send her to school.

“What has been your toughest day?” I ask her. She gives me a dazzling smile. “I haven’t had any,” she says.

No wonder Pitroda has such faith in India’s children.

Great tumult in Little India

by Shree Venkatram
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: May 17, 2003
Ladnun is a small town one of the most backward districts of Rajasthan. A serpentine road from Ratangarh railway station through parched land takes you there. If you are lucky you would have passed a truck or two, for on this road you travel for miles without seeing a human or an animal. The drought for the fifth year running has left the ground cracked.

Ladnun has quaint Jain havelis, but their occupants have left to make crores in big cities. Some of them maintain caretakers, who keep the haveli clean for the sheth’s annual visit. At the end of one Jain street is the Jain Vishwa Bharti Institute (JVBI), a little university. On its campus rainwater is harvested, bougainvillaea bloom and peacocks strut about.

Sixty bright-eyed girls are doing their first year BA in Political Science. It is the first undergraduate course thrown open for girls. Most of them are first-generation women to receive higher education. Were it not for the bus that the institute runs, which brings them to their college on the JVBI campus and takes them back, many of them would have been unable to attend. The new vice-chancellor of the university knows that and when she threw open the institute’s gates, acquiring a bus was a priority.

The girls revel in the joy higher education brings. When asked what was the first word that came to their mind when they were given the term ‘‘college”, unhesitatingly one of them replied: ‘‘mauj-masti’’. It is like being let out of a prison. And as the girls make friends, explore the university, attend classes, discover the library, try out the latest fashions, the parents look around for grooms. But will these girls marry the first suitable boy?

Unlikely. All of them want to work, to be economically independent. And most of them know what they want to do — law, journalism, teaching, business management and even flying! They are finding out how to get there.

How would a traditional society react to these girls? Would it force them to conform — put them behind the ghunghat or the burkha — or would the force of their collective spirit crumble the small-town middle class bastions and set them free? The tide is strong, and there is no holding back. They want to have control over their lives. Who would know this better than the boys on the campus? Among them is a palpable apprehension of the changing equations. She is different from the women they have known so far. Would they be able to handle this creature who wants to be an equal, have a career and an opinion? Would she respect her in-laws and be god-fearing, cook and wait for them like they have seen the women do? Would they have to share the household chores? And would entering the kitchen be a reflection on manhood? ‘‘Manhood’’ here is waiting for a new definition.

In nearby Koel village, people have turned out in full strength and in their best — from the old bent man to the baby wide-eyed on her mother’s shoulder. The village has no health centre and only a primary school. Its fragile economy couldn’t be worse. But they are celebrating the opening of a bridge school for those girls who have passed out of primary school but could not continue their education because there was nowhere to go.

The villagers have contributed in cash and the labour to build the five-room school. The university helped in devising a curriculum, identifying the teachers and a women’s organisation in a neighbouring town donated a handsome amount that will go towards paying the teachers and buying basic equipment. Thirty enthusiastic girls cannot wait to begin.

The coordinator of this unique project has been covering the distance from Udaipur to check out her new assignment before she moves into the campus. She crosses the desert by bus, train, anything that moves. She is excited — and in the few meetings she has had with her to-be students she has already taught them a song and helped them prepare a skit for the inauguration.

In Sujangarh, a neighbouring town, waits a real surprise. Savita Rathi, a lawyer by training, a mother and a medical superintendent by choice. She switches among her roles with absolute ease and carries herself with supreme confidence. “Yes, it has been tough,” she admits. “Women have to struggle very hard to succeed especially in small towns like these.”

But that is the last thing that bothers these women. They want more from life and are prepared to travel, live alone, study and slog for it. They yearn for a life beyond home.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Mindset behind a bad ad
Mindset Behind a Bad Ad
by Shree Venkatram
Words are very powerful. They can maim and devastate, or they can enthuse and liberate. Just two words were the undoing in a TV commercial of financial company, ING Vysya Life Insurance, that recently drew flak from the Education Secretary to the Delhi government and left many women fuming.The ad for financial planning was taken off TV screens soon after protests. Those in the business of communicating with the masses need to be very conscious of the words they use.The ad was slick and technically sound. It had color and strong imagery, but socially it was all wrong. It fed into biases and promoted stereotypes, and at the root of it all were two Hindi words - 'bhaari' and 'bojh', which literally translate into 'heavy' and 'burden'. The words are synonymous with the female and the raising of the girl child in India, used to denote the great burden she is for the family, especially for the men - her father, her husband, never mind the fact that the reality is otherwise... but that is another story.For those who missed the commercial - the word 'bojh' was used just once towards the end, in the punch line that came as a nurse hands over a new born baby girl to the father... and the ground caves in under his feet, with 'kahin khushiyan bojh na ban jaiyein' (happiness should not become a burden).
The ad had a series of scenes showing men bearing the 'burden' of women. The first was a shot of a bridegroom at his wedding. He looks at his bride and the next frame shows him waving to a friend, and as the ground caves in, the words ring out, 'Dekhne mein toh pyaari hain, khushiyan thodi bhaari hain' (She is lovable, but the happiness is a little heavy).
The next scene shows a daughter rushing out to meet her father to give him a good news - she hands him a letter, which states she has been selected for the MBA course in a foreign university and the fee is Rs.15,00,000 (US$ 1= Rs 40).The line, 'dekhne mein to pyaari hai, khushiyan thodi bhaari hain', rings out again and the ground sinks beneath the father."Why wasn't a son shown? It is not like a son can study for free," the education secretary had asked. Someone who claimed to know the people who made the ad commented on a blog: "Funny enough, in the past another life insurance company showed the 'cost' for a daughter getting married and a son doing his MBA. Then the comments were 'why is there a boy shown? Like only boys study and girls just get married'."
But think. Would the word 'bojh', or for that matter 'bhaari', ever be used for a son? Never! Most Indian parents do their very best, even scrimp and scrounge, to give their son the best education they can afford. But it would be blasphemous to term him a 'burden'.When an ad goes retrograde on national networks, it is cause for serious concern. A medium that reaches out to the masses has to necessarily be both responsible and cautious. Words that condemn or derogate sections of the population must be avoided. For stereotypes harm, they limit and stunt human potential. Just ask the thousands of Indian women who have to overcome such stereotypes every day of their lives. The medium that reaches the masses has to liberate, help us out of the ghettos of our mind into a world where the human spirit and potential knows no shackles. Just imagine: What a powerful ad it would have been had the woman been shown buying a house for her parents, or her parents saving happily for the MBA course minus the 'bhaari' or 'bojh' factors.
Not so long ago, an ad taken off the networks argued that by using a fairness cream a girl could get the job of an airhostess and her parents, who have been bemoaning the fact that they do not have a son, are now proud of her achievement. In this case, the All India Democratic Women's Association had written to the multinational company in protest, but when it did not respond, appealed to the Human Rights Commission, which passed the complaint to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The government went on to issue a notice against it.The multinational in a PR damage control exercise then launched a scholarship scheme for Indian women who are economically disadvantaged. The ban did not help much. It could hardly influence popular mindsets, given the obsession Indians have with fair skin. The next few years saw a plethora of men's fairness creams being launched. It was easier to extend the stereotype than to fight it. The great King Khan himself appeared in a commercial advising a young man to switch to a man's whitening cream and not use his sister's! What a potent pitch. The market for men's bleaching creams is on the upswing, one learns.And now we hear that a certain dusky actress has been replaced with a fair-skinned one for a jewellery commercial. An apt commentary on the times.For once, let us take a lesson from the much-maligned cola companies, which had agreed not to use children in their commercials and have stuck to their decision. Let the media, especially ad and film-makers, be more discerning of the words they use. Regulation should come from within.
March 30, 2008
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