A brighter Diwali!

(Earlier posted as ‘A brighter festival of lights’ on August 05, 2013 and on November 02, 2013 (Diwali). Re-posted on the request of a few friends who wanted this post to be a Diwali tradition!)

“How much will we be spending on fireworks this Diwali?” my 12 years old son asked me one evening over a decade back. “Last year, we got all that you wanted for about Rs. 1000. I suppose we’ll spend about Rs. 1,500 this year since prices would have increased, plus there will be some new fancy stuff that you guys will want. Anyway, why are you asking this now? Diwali’s over a month away,” I replied.

He explained that there had been a lot of discussion in school about the exploitation of child labour in the fireworks industry, as a result of which many students had decided to boycott fireworks as a mark of protest. He and his 9 years old brother had both decided to join the boycott. No, they did not want to buy anything for themselves instead of fireworks. They felt that would not be a genuine boycott. Instead, they wanted the ‘fireworks money’ to be donated to an orphanage near our house.

Both my spouse and I were delighted! At the same time, we wanted to be sure that our sons were not committing themselves to something that they would regret later when their high spirits had cooled down. After all, they were just 12 and 9 years old! We asked them a few questions to find out if they were fully aware of the implications of their decision.

Both brothers had discussed the matter threadbare before speaking with us. They had decided that, not only would they not buy fireworks, they would not join any Diwali celebrations involving fireworks. They planned to continue this boycott for subsequent years until they were completely convinced that exploitation of children in the fireworks industry had totally and genuinely stopped. They were not sure whether their friends were equally firm in their resolve to boycott fireworks, but for them there was no going back.

That year, we celebrated Diwali without any fireworks. We donated the ‘fireworks money’ to the orphanage. It was clear from the reduced sound levels that many other children had joined the boycott.

The next year, most children withdrew the boycott of fireworks, stating that they were buying fireworks manufactured by companies that did not use child labour. However, our sons continued their boycott because it was reported that, while some manufacturers had stopped employing children directly, their sub-contractors continued to exploit child labour. Our donation to the orphanage was suitably increased to match the expected increase in fireworks prices.

Our sons were aware that their continued boycott of fireworks invited disparaging comments from some of their peers, but they never went back on their decision. We continue to make a donation to the orphanage every Diwali, with the amount suitably increased every year.

Our sons’ compassion (towards the child labourers and the orphans) and integrity (in refusing to use the ‘fireworks money’ for themselves) enhanced the brightness of our Diwali, the ‘festival of lights’!

If you see a child crying on the road …

A few days back, the Principal of a leading girls’ school in our city sent the following letter to all parents:

Kindly note the following message from the Police Department.

This message is for girls/women who go alone to school, college or office. You may notice a child crying on the road and the child may request you to be taken to some address. Such a child shall be taken to the nearest police station and never to the address shown by the child.

This is a new technique adopted by criminal gangs who indulge in flesh trade, kidnapping and rapes. Do share this information with others. This may save someone from becoming victim of such gangs.

I was impressed by this message because:
1. In addition to telling the public what they should not do, the message suggests how such situations should be handled.
2. The Police Department has circulated this message through schools, not by the usual method of newspaper advertisements or press releases or posters. Obviously, almost all parents will read a communication from their child’s school principal and most will take it seriously.

I do hope people take the entire message seriously. I’m quite sure that most girls/women who have read this message would not take the child to the address given by him/her. However, given the number of highly publicized cases of policemen having misbehaved with women, how many girls/women would feel safe going alone to a police station? So, what will happen if any “girls/women who go alone to school, college or office notice a child crying on the road”? Do they just ignore the child?

The answer was provided by an incident that took place in the same area about 2 weeks back. A young woman saw a small boy, around 4 years old, crying just outside the bus terminus. The boy was too agitated to reply when the woman asked him his name, address, etc.. The woman was not a resident of that area, but had come there to attend an interview in an office there. She did not want to be late for her interview, but she did not want to leave the young boy stranded there. She took the boy to a newspaper/magazine shop nearby and explained the situation to the owner and requested him to handle the situation. Realizing that the shop owner may not believe a total stranger, she showed him her college Identity Card and the interview call letter. When the shop owner assured her that he would take care of the child, she proceeded for her interview. In about 10 minutes, the shop owner managed to calm down the boy sufficiently to be able to get some replies from him. The boy only knew his first name and the area where he lived, which was about 6 kilometers away. He could not provide his home address, parents’ names or telephone numbers, school name, etc.. The shop owner then decided to take the boy to the local police station. Coincidentally, the local police station had just received information about a missing boy from the same area mentioned by this boy. The boy was reunited with his parents an hour later.

If any girl/woman notices a child crying on the road and is reluctant to go alone to the police station or to even approach a policeman alone, she could/should take the help of local persons who appear trustworthy. It is always better to approach a shopkeeper, as the young woman did, instead of any random person on the road.

Another possibility, suggested by Simple Girl in her comment on my post Brave in thought and word, but not in deed? is to keep all the police emergency numbers stored in one’s mobile phone so that something like this can be reported to the police immediately.

The police and other government departments are all expected to help citizens. But citizens also have to do their bit.

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.”

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.