Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Drops that make the Ocean

While I was finishing my masters professor Rajeev Gowda, well known in political circles, stated that in democratic self government, the polity only gets the level of governance that it deserves. I don't think I fully appreciated the import of what he meant then, almost a decade ago.

Whitefield, an erstwhile quiet suburb known as much for its early Christian settlement as the Sathya Sai Baba Ashram has transformed into a mini urban centre in the last 5 years. A friend asked me how I could live so far from the city - to which I said, Whitefield is the city! its an absolutely self-contained suburbia with everything from essentials to entertainment. A neighborhood with swanky restaurants, malls, apartments and gated communities with amenities upto date, international schools and the rest of it. 

Whitefield has its share of very severe challenges - From traffic snarls to pollution to garbage management on the streets to just the over-crowding. 

That's why Vikas's & Nallurahalli Rising's story quite remarkable - Vikas Chandra is a family man with a 7 year old daughter who works for a multi-national company. And much like many of us he is just as busy. He moved to Bangalore, again, like many of us due to work & recently moved to Borewell Road. He was watching the Whitefield Rising group on Social Media, following their activities. Vikas longed to contribute and had a group of his own for Nallurahalli which was mostly quiet. For a while he was a passive observer but all that changed when he attended a meeting with Whitefield Rising & met Nitya Ramakrishnan expressing his urge to get the Borewell Road rid of garbage. The meeting with Nitya proved to be the catalyst, a day was ear-marked and notes were exchanged on Social Media. 

Initiators in the Nallurahalli Rising movement
The turnout was surprisingly high with a number of adults, kids and builders in the neighborhood chipping in. A few spots that marred the road were ridden of garbage and Vikas's Facebook page rose in membership to a quick century over a few hours with more residents showing interest to participate in activities. The group was quickly christened Nallurahalli Rising a sub group within the larger Whitefield Rising; Vikas & Muruga becoming focal points within the community. They didn't stop there, they are also in the process are becoming Traffic Wardens for the area through the Traffic Warden Organization where citizens can qualify themselves to help control traffic problems in the city. Today 5 of them from Nallurahalli Rising are working between 8:00 AM through 11:00 AM Monday to Friday regulating traffic at the Borewell Road junction.

Spot on Borewell Road before the fix

Kids and adults enjoy beautifying their road & wall
 As the Nallurahalli Rising group works to solve their own problems, it has strengthened and inspired residents in the area to participate and contribute. For the shop keepers, the auto drivers, the milk-men, the domestic help, the mechanics, the traders process of integration and identification with their local community is happening. Vikas and many other recent entrants into the community also feel they are one among the locals. They have started discussing their problems within to propose and seek solutions through co-operation. Nallurahalli Rising is working hard to keep the momentum and table relevant community issues with the elected representatives and the corporators. Recently they met Arvind Limbavalli to discuss the Kavery water pipe and replacing of street lights in the locality.

Vikas has an ambitious goal of getting atleast 20 residents within the community being active participants. What drives him? He says local support makes a huge difference - He beams when he drives through the road but his inspiration is when when the painter from a nearby building joined him to clean garbage that was thrown after the spot was fixed. The feeling of community and shared goals inspires him.

Listening to him speak, I was reminded of what my professor had talked about almost a decade ago about active democracy. This is what our society that is growing at break-neck speed really needs, the will for people to act. Vikas did not ask another to clean the garbage, he did it himself allowing others to feel good about joining him and they did. He turned his disappointment into inspiration and started something positive and lasting that many of us long for - but do not 
As I turned the corner and drove through the Borewell Road, seeing for myself where the road looks remarkably clean, I thought perhaps that Borewell Road, had turned a corner too, quietly with Nallurahalli Rising.

And that should make us all happy! 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Rare Events & the Oscar Pistorius Verdict

My fascination with behavioral psychology continues with Daniel Kahneman's latest "Thinking Fast & Slow" - a great read. Every time I open this gem I can read from any chapter - the entire book is littered from cover to cover with such amazing insight on how fallible humans are and the actual fallacy of our decision making processes, that it's both brilliant and really hard to believe! 

There's a whole chapter dedicated to rare events and how we process rare but potentially dangerous events in our brain - Kahneman explains that in the case of rare events that are dangerous - more than the actual probability of the occurrence, the human mind treats it as a big risk with the mere possibility of that event's occurance. having followed my own rare event  - the Oscar Pistorius murder trial that was now a world-wide soap opera - it gave me almost a live example to consider. For the unlikely few that never heard of it - here's a place to get a quick synopsis  here Oscar Pistorius Trial

As I sat listening to the long and detailed explanations read out literally in slow motion by Judge Thokozile Masipa I felt cheated and numb at his murder aquittal - yes he was convicted of culpable homicide.

Oscar Pistorius was convicted of culpable homicide - pending sentencing. He did not premeditate the murder - which seemed reasonable. But the fact that he shot four bullets into a tiny toilet cubicle, claiming (the defense even at the end - was still unclear) an intruder being adjudged only as an act of negligence by Masipa felt hollow in the end.

The judge accepts that "no one will ever know why he shot 4 instead of just 1 bullet; no one can tell why he did not check the whereabouts of his girlfriend; why he did not call security or police...." While this is a rare event, I wondered if my mind processing just the possibility of this, the brutality of it and judging the judge's verdict harshly rather than accounting for all of the evidence?

I looked back at the trial, the arguments, the forensics everything - the Judge discarded large parts of the neighbors' testimonies (and reasonably so) and relied heavily on the timeline - phone calls to establish that there was no evidence of a fight/argument - So far so good

But what does not seem to be seriously considered was why did Pistorius feel the need to shoot 4 times and is doing that just negligence? Is that not a huge error of judgement there for a person who is trained in firearms, who is still in the safety and comfort of his own home.

As per Judge Masipa, this guy shot because he thought his life was in danger, and the way it corroborates is only the open bathroom window.

So he shoots without really establishing that fact beyond reasonable doubt; Without ascertaining the basic circumstances of his surroundings, without calling security or police, without anyone threatening him from the bathroom; and worst of all without establishing the safety or whereabouts of his partner. He was so quick to fire, just as he was so quick to run on the field. 

On the stand, Oscar Pistorius in a demonstration takes less than a minute to put on his prosthetic limbs - How easily could he have done that and walked out the door with the lady?

The other aspect that is extremely worrisome is the fact that the Judge's ruling seems to think that 'Oscar Pistorius did not believe he would kill someone" and hence that excludes dolus - Which sane person just shoots out of negligence, that too 4 bullets into a locked small area? If he does not intend to kill, I need to know what the hell he was doing! 

Someone, somewhere needs to think calmly about what the verdict really means - and what laws are governing it - it is not correct. There's just one hope now - that Oscar Pistorius is put away for a good time and never allowed to hold a fire-arm in his life ever.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Stars that Shall Shine

As we entered the gates, we were transported into a Garden of Eden, only a garden not just with foliage and fruit but also replete with bikes, security and an intercom! Within the gates of EVOMA Business Centre, completely shaded with large leafy deciduous trees - the kind that dot nature resorts in Coorg or Wayanad, I could hear birds chirping & cooing - sparrows & mynahs twittering. A peaceful hum surrounded us. An extremely self assured Security person guided us to the reception having ascertained whom we were to meet.

We introduced ourselves (I had managed to drag a friend along in the hope to interest her in volunteering!) to Tharun and Safina of the LifeDream Foundation www.lifedreamfoundation.org. Anything to do with kids, young adults, education inspired me and I signed up to write about them. We sat on the lobby discussing how they ran their programs, their vision, what they stood for. We quickly learned that Tharun & company (lifedream.course@gmail.comdid multiple things to get kids, mostly drop-outs into the program - Listening to them talk, it felt more and more like a life skills program; intending to instill lost confidence, hope, a sense of personal pride - helping these children reclaim their place in our society and start contributing. They would strive to ensure that these young adults got employed. LifeDream was conducting this 12 week Program across multiple places in Bangalore – much like a travelling circus.

Inside there were about 20 kids all between 15 and 20, having dropped out at the 9th, 10th or PU levels and basically languishing their youth. Seeing the kids, my own youth flashed in images –reporting for the school magazine, shooting hoops in basket ball, carrying the Nehru house flag on Sports Day, studying science, English and math, surrounded by friends and truly believing that anything is possible. Of course, life replaced a lot of the naiveté and pure idealism with practical reality, but never hopelessness. What on earth would a 15 year old do if not in school I wondered why these kids dropped out?

But then history matters and background is everything - I recollected reading in my Social Entrepreneurship course paper that it takes nearly 3 generations to lift a person out of poverty and nullify the baggage of caste, oppression, race or any form of disadvantage. I managed to check myself.

Education seemed a not an affordable luxury. The same wretched reasons - unable to comprehend the teaching (not surprising), not enough hygienic toilets at schools, parental pressure. Looking at their backgrounds, they hailed mostly from the lower social strata with parents working in the unorganized labour markets and making an edgy living.

We were invited into the class just as a volunteer-teacher was finishing up. The volunteer worked with a multi-national company but had managed to take time to teach English Grammar – His eyes were smiling as he bid goodbye – it was a labour of love. The students looked so eager, their faces enrapt on every word the teacher was saying - They completed their introductions in English and I learnt a bit more about them, their families and their interests. We could see they were just happy to have people interested in them, listening to their small dreams.

Tharun asked them to share their weekly SMART Goals - At LifeDream specific goals were crucial to making the students believe in themselves. One of the girls stood up and showed the beautiful blue bag she had made with lovely dark pink trimmings. We all let out a collective gasp – such a beautiful piece - And then all of a sudden I realized that anything is really possible. We just need to help them believe in themselves, a little more every-day – just like LifeDream was striving to.

We thanked the class and promised to be back soon. As I stepped out of the gates, back into the honking hustle I could see the bright eyes, earnest faces and the simple happiness of hope adorning their beautiful faces – and that hope shone like the stars on a clear blue summery night.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Teacher, Teacher Where Art Thou?

It was Sunday, the mood lazy and the sun out when we were looking for my son's basketball in a Whitefield shopping complex. I noticed a little girl playing in front, presumably a daughter or niece if the lady showing me the stuff. After a cursory examination of the bling bling I walked out of the store and noticed the girl walking with one of the men towards the far corner of the complex. Feeling uneasy I followed them - i guess i read too much reality stuff! I noticed he was holding the girl's hand leading her towards the stair-way. As he turned around & noticed me, did i imagine he was startled? I casually said "hey what's going on?" and he said she liked to play with him. I wondered loudly why he had to play under the stairs - if he could not play with her right there in the open. The exchange made him visibly uncomfortable and the mother, who was in the back of the store came over and asked the girl to return to the store and took charge of her ward. By now my husband was completely abashed by my direct exchange with a complete stranger and wanted to leave the scene.

I still remember the look on the man's face when he turned and how he walked towards the corner with a little girl. Where I come from, men do not take little girls under the stairs "for playing" and if I notice, I have to do what I have to - at the cost of embarrassment or a misunderstanding or someone labeling me a *&^%$. To me he had no business to, and that's that. 

The events over the last 2 weeks in what was considered a school of choice has been a telling blow to almost every Bangalorean. Many of my friends and colleagues that have kids going to the school are visibly shaken and are in a state of quandary. Many parents are genuinely contemplating moving kids to a different school - and the news bytes that come through about stuff that has happened in other schools, is not providing any relief to the parents.Most parents are disturbed and pursuing with various school managements the specific actions taken by them to ensure safety and security of their children. 

There have been calls for background checks, security beef-ups, norms for support staff and the like - but the story as it has been stated in the media just doesn't seem to hold out. There's been no real headway and something a lot more fundamental that seems to be missing.

The perpetrator is a habitual offender, and was rusticated by Deen's Academy in 2011. Within 3 months he secured a job with Vibgyor. That being the case, it would have been very hard for him to cover his tracks for 3 years in Vibgyor without incident - Its simple "man is a creature of habit" - he would have had to relapse into his old ways for sure - how is it possible that not one person in the school ever noticed anything fishy for the entire tenure of 3 years? that no teacher or student or ayah or whoever ever observed anything? 

Or having seen, did they think it was harmless or just decided to ignore?both extremely disturbing things. This to me is the biggest red flag - this is specific to those teachers of VIBGYOR? How did you all miss this? Its your job, and to me its unforgivable.

Teachers, especially the ones in the lower classes are expected to be extremely perceptive and are in loco parentis. They stand in for the parents in guarding their children when at school. I still remember Mrs Caesar (bless her soul), my KG 2 teacher who taught me how to spell but more importantly also taught me to be an example, my std 2 teacher Ms Mary who taught me beautiful cursive writing, but also to stand up to be myself, my Std 4 teacher Mrs Butch who taught me Art/Craft and everything creative but also taught me its more important to be unafraid than to be a class topper, my Std 6 Teacher Ms Uma who taught me History but the difference between right and wrong. 

For a Grade 1 child, her class teacher is the demi-godess of all that is right and powerful in her world. What happened at Vibgyor shatters everything I believe in about all a that a teacher is and should be. My teacher is kind, but also stern; my teacher is always right, even when she's wrong :); my teacher cares for me in sickness and health, my teacher shapes my moral compass and sharpens my intellect; but most importantly - my teacher never stands by when there's anything wrong happening around her. She is not an on-looker - she shapes things in the right direction.

Teacher(s) of Vibgyor; specifically the teacher of that little girl....that was so violated that day....Like many parents, my trust has taken a beating

That you did not notice that you had a shady character for a skating instructor?That you did not call for a parent teacher meeting or report the grave incident to the police, That you care more for the image of your school and management than the purpose of your role; that you have now ceased to be any kind of role model(s); that you have been lame by-standers when a small innocent child was actually traumatized; that you should never have become teachers in the first place....And somewhere in my heart I believe you are just as accountable as the perpetrator

What can we ever hope to inculcate in our kids today when teachers come to teach for want of a better idea? Without teachers standing up for their pupils, without teachers being upstanding citizens can we ever hope to get anywhere in building a better society?