Empowering rural / tribal / differently abled youth

Meera Shenoy works with rural, tribal and differently abled youth. She is founder of Youth4Jobs (www.youth4jobs.org) which helps companies build an inclusive workforce. She is known for her work in setting up the country’s first Jobs Mission for the poor in AP. She has consulted for World Bank, ILO and UNDP across South Asia. She is currently working on a book featuring entrepreneurs who have disability and businesses with disability as their core.

Meera’s Guest Post is the text of her Convocation Speech at Sadhana Centre for Management & Leadership Development, Pune (SCMLD) on May 01, 2011.

Seven years back I took a decision to work with youth – youth around 17-18 years old, full of hope, full of aspirations. But there is a difference – they all came from remote rural and tribal villages and now I work with youth who are differently abled. Their fathers are agricultural labourers. This means if there is no rain, there is only one meal. And if father or grandmother falls ill, you have to take a loan from a moneylender at high interest. So all are permanently in a debt trap and this in management terms is called “the vicious cycle of poverty”. And this is Bharat. And what do they see on TV. Shining India, youth like you with jeans, T-shirts, motorbikes and cars… and the frustration deepens. Thus you see newspaper headlines of the spread of the Naxal belt and rise of theft and crime.

I like telling stories; real stories. Ramiah painted walls. But what he wanted to do was study and get a different kind of job. His first attempt at writing the twelfth class exam never happened as the teacher ran away with the hall ticket money. Finally, with the paper certificate he knocked at several doors for a job. Six months later, not a penny in pocket, he was back to painting walls. He entered our short term training and at the end of three months, he became a white collar McDonald’s employee. When I go to his upmarket Banjara Hills outlet, he is teaching new alumni how to please the customer, giving some Hindi coaching and sending home Rs. 24,000 a year to educate his younger sister.

Then Rama. She was born normal like you and me. When she was two year old, with high fever, her father took her to the local doctor. The injection given paralysed her limbs. She came to our training class and refused to speak.
I found her singing softly in the garden (we have an open air classroom). Her story…her father wanted her to study since her legs did not work. So he carried her on his shoulder to the bus stop. She had to take two buses and sometimes only one came. Then her tricycle to go to college would get stuck in the mud and there was no one around to push it in the torrential rain. Years of sadness because, even after the struggle and a degree, she could not get a job. We showed her and others videos in the class room where disabled dance the Mahabaratha, told them nothing is impossible. We taught them English inspiration songs like “We can overcome.” It hardly sounds like the original singer but what happens is a shift takes place. “I cannot” shifts to “I can”. Today Rama works in HDB Finance, drawing Rs.96,000 a month. Recently a disabled youth from an MNC wrote to me if I could find him a girl like him. I told him I do not know any rich girls but poor yes. So we are match making…..And who knows, Rama may just reach Austrian soils.

In this journey, as initially head of a state government Jobs Mission for the underprivileged which I set up from scratch, we trained 280,000 youth linking 70% to organized sector jobs. I built an IT architecture for transparency so that the data could be seen by the villagers and the minister. We did many innovations because no one had looked at this space, six years ago. I set up the country’s first rural retail academy with the help of industry; then I set up the grassroots English, work-readiness and computer academy in the heart of the Naxal area. … short, market-linked trainings which close the loop giving them an organized sector job. And now, we are doing the same for the visually, hearing and orthopedically impaired. The transformation of the rural, tribal and disabled youth when they get a job and stand on their own two feet can only be described in one word, “Magic”. Caste is not important, they tell me stories of rich relatives calling them, of village landlord asking if his son can get a job, and thus social and economic equations change. Girls who taste the working world want a career; so child marriage goes out of the window. And yes, I find, in many places where my alumni stay, beauty parlours are springing up for this new customer.

And these boys and girls will bring up their children into a different world – a world with education and health – a world closer to us. So, when you all fly from this college, degree in hand, remember be in the attitude of gratitude that you have received so much – from the founder, teachers, friends, parents, grandparents…And we must Give as we Get. So look around you, wherever you are, in the workplace or at home, and experience the joy of giving…To remove this Bharat-India divide and help create a young vibrant tomorrow.

Let me end with an anecdote. To receive any award I always make the youth speak. So I had taken Shekhar, a tribal boy with me to receive a South Asian award. His father had drunk himself to death and four children were brought up by a mother who earned her living by sweeping the school. We put him in a telecom company. He taught himself the intricacies of the stock market and moved to a large financial company. Shekar was speechless when he saw all the video cameras and the huge auditorium. He forgot his speech and said something from the bottom of his heart, which I want all of you to remember, “I, Shekhar, do not want your money. You have been to better schools, colleges and countries. I need only your time to grow my knowledge.”

What did you do?

Please spare 9 minutes to watch this thought-provoking video.

What have you done on the various occasions when you saw somebody doing something that you thought was wrong?

On each occasion, did you do whatever you think you should have done?

Did you do whatever you think you should have done on some occasions, but not on other occasions? Why the difference in response?

WhatsApp, not WhatsCrap!

A few days back, I received the following WhatsApp message from a friend who is in her late forties:
In a few seconds, I’ll forward a ‘joke’ to you. The ‘joke’ itself is so disgusting, it makes my blood boil! What’s unbelievable is this ‘joke’ was sent to me and to other female friends of similar age by Sheila.
IMPORTANT: Please ensure Sheila doesn’t get to know that I sent you this crap and told you that she had sent it to me.

As promised, she forwarded the ‘joke’ to me a few seconds later:
Son: Dad, yesterday, I saved a girl from being raped. :-) :-)
Dad: Good! That’s my boy! How did you do that?
Son: I convinced her! ;-) ;-) ;-)

I was shocked! Sheila is the mother of a 22-year-old daughter. She had forwarded this ‘joke’ to women who are all in their forties or fifties and who have young daughters and/or daughters-in-law.

I don’t know whether the other recipients of this ‘joke’ enjoyed it or whether it made their blood boil. But I just couldn’t digest the fact that Sheila had forwarded it. I do not know her well, but I am acquainted with her. From my limited interaction with her, I had found her to be a sensible and well-mannered person, definitely not the kind of person who would have circulated this ‘joke’. I was itching to telephone her and ask her for an explanation, but I couldn’t do that due to the last line of my friend’s first message.

I think that Sheila either forwarded the ‘joke’ without really understanding it or without reading it, thinking she was doing something ‘cool’. In either case, she was being extremely irresponsible. Rape is definitely not a subject to be joked about.

A day later, I read this Firstpost report that “Karnataka Health Minister UT Khader has asked the District Health Officer of Dakshina Kannada to lodge a complaint with the cyber cell police in Bangalore against persons spreading rumours on social media claiming Ebola virus had entered the city.

Some people had spread a WhatsApp message last month that a student had died at the National Institute of Technology, Karnataka (NITK) at Suratkal, near Mangalore, after being infected with the Ebola virus, even after the doctors treating him confirmed that he died of lung disease.

Khader directed DHO HS Shivakumar to file a complaint to bring to book the pranksters who misused technology to create panic and confusion, officials here said.”

I completely support Mr. Khader’s action, provided it is not misused by the police or by politicians. In fact, I think concrete steps must be taken to control indiscriminate circulation of misinformation and/or insensitive ‘jokes’.

I believe in freedom of expression. I also believe that freedom of expression carries with it the responsibility to avoid creating problems for others.

The fact that it costs nothing to send a WhatsApp message doesn’t mean one can circulate any crap!

Let’s not forget the name is WhatsApp, not WhatsCrap!

Walking the HIV+ talk

1. Will you readily accept the admission of some HIV+ children in your child’s school?
2. Will you knowingly and willingly interact with HIV+ persons?
3. Will you knowingly and willingly share a meal with HIV+ persons, using common plates and spoons?

Most of us have probably never faced these situations before. Most of us would probably have to apply a lot of thought before replying truthfully to these questions. Most of us would probably answer, “I’m not sure” to all 3 questions.

Early in July 2014, the parents of children studying in a school in Goa threatened to withdraw their children from the school if the management went ahead with the admission of 13 HIV+ children into the school. For further information, please read this Firstpost report. A few days later, another report stated that the Parents Teachers Association (PTA) of the school had also demanded the removal of 23 non-HIV students because they live in the same Church-run children’s home along with the 13 HIV+ve students, claiming their presence in school too could put the safety of their wards at risk.

On July 31, 2014, while speaking on this subject in the Goa State Assembly, Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar had “said Goans needed to work overtime to eradicate the stigma surrounding AIDS. He also promised he will eat a meal with HIV+ve students to make a broader point about AIDS and the myths surrounding it.”

Firstpost reports that “while many dismissed Parrikar’s promise as mere rhetoric, the chief minister … made good his word” on August 16, 2014 by “keeping his lunch-date with the inmates of the church-run Nitya Seva Niketan orphanage, several of whom suffer from HIV/AIDS.”

Some highlights from the Firstpost report (all statements by local MLA Subhash Phaldessai):
“All the children there were thrilled to see the chief minister. They were jumping all over him.
All of us used common plates and spoons… We tried to make our visit appear as casual and normal as possible, lest they feel that the Chief Minister was here to meet them because of their condition.”
We did not allow photographers because we did not want the identity of the HIV+ve children be disclosed.
“The Chief Minister assured them all the help possible from the Goa government as well as personally too. He will be sending across a television set as well as some video players and entertainment (games and play-kits).”

Reading or hearing about Mr. Parrikar’s visit to Nitya Seva Niketan would definitely have made many people think deeply about their own attitude to HIV+ people. Probably, some people’s attitudes would have changed to some extent. Unfortunately, the print and electronic media has not given Mr. Parrikar’s visit the kind of coverage that was earlier given to the statements by some of his party’s ministers and MLAs about bikinis, beaches, casinos and that “all Indians in Hindustan are Hindus”.

I wonder why. Is it because negative news brings many more readers/viewers than positive news? Don’t the media have a role to play in bringing about social change?

Little gesture, huge impact!

Govind, who seemed to be in his sixties, was an uneducated man whose writing ability was limited to signing his name in the local language. He was employed by one of our customers, a medium-scale automotive ancillary. He had no designation and no fixed duties. He did whatever job was assigned to him by his employer. Whenever he had visited our office to take delivery of spare parts, he had worn a white half-sleeved shirt, knee-length khaki shorts and a smile!

Usually, Govind’s work in our office would be over in less than a minute. He would hand over the payment to our receptionist, who would then give him the package and the bill that had been kept ready in anticipation of his arrival.

One morning, Govind’s employer telephoned me. He needed a spare part urgently. Since the part number could not be found in the parts manual, he was sending Govind to our office with the damaged part. He wanted me to identify the part and to arrange to supply a new part as soon as possible, today if possible.

About an hour later, when I was told that Govind had reached our office, I asked our receptionist to send him in to meet me. He entered my room, greeted me and gave me the damaged part. I returned his greeting and requested him to sit, but he remained standing. After I insisted that he sit, he sat on the edge of the chair’s seat. He was clearly uncomfortable.

“Mr. Govind, would you like to have tea or coffee?” I asked. Looking shocked, he answered, “No, sir.”
“Mr. Govind, it is now tea time in our office. Do you normally drink tea, coffee, milk, or anything else?” I asked.
“Tea, sir,” he replied.
“With sugar?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
Over the intercom, I ordered 2 cups of tea.

I inspected the damaged part and identified it immediately. Fortunately, we had one part in stock. I telephoned Govind’s employer, who requested me to send one part and the bill along with Govind, who would pay in cash.

As I called our Accountant over the intercom and instructed him to prepare the bill, our Office Boy entered my room and served tea. I could see Govind was extremely uncomfortable, and I knew why! Saying, “Please have your tea,” I picked up my cup and started sipping.

After he had had his tea, I requested Govind to collect the spare part and bill from the receptionist. He stood up and said, “Sir, can I ask you something?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Sir, I was served tea in a cup identical to yours. When my Sahib comes here, is he served tea in the same cup?”

“Yes. Why do you ask that?” I asked.

“Sir, my Sahib and you are high-level people. I am a very low-level man. In our company, only Sahib and his guests have tea in nice cups like these. Everyone else has tea in ordinary glasses. I am confused, sir!”

I smiled and replied, “Mr. Govind, your Sahib is my customer. Since you work in your Sahib’s company, you are also my customer. That’s it!”

With tears in his eyes and his palms pressed together in a Namaste, Govind said, “Sir, today, for the first time in my life, a high-level man has given me so much respect. Thank you, sir!”

This post is in response to Indispire Edition 26. This post was a part of the post Little gestures, huge impact! originally published on November 18, 2013.