S/he leads change


For the past few weeks, I have been actively reading articles and updates on LinkedIn (not that I never did earlier, but maybe I wasn’t so observant). While it’s an interesting space for working and aspiring professionals to share, interact and learn (and I have gained some wonderful insights) I have also made some “not-so-wonderful” observations. I have seen, quite a few instances, where women and men while writing, attribute a “he” to leadership – “as a leader, he should….”, “his leadership qualities…”, and so on.

I have been thinking whether including an “s/” before “he” takes up a lot of time, is deliberately missed, or it doesn’t occur as an option, to the members. Whatever be the reason, all of them, hurt. Why is it so difficult to visualize women as leaders? Why does it pinch to accept women authority, not just for men, but for women too? How long will it take before the word “leader” evokes only positive and inspirational attributes, rather than a gender? Will the word ever truly become gender-neutral?

Also, if you search for quotes on leadership, you would mostly find, if it includes a gender, it is a “he”. One of my teammates once complimented me with a leadership quote (the one you see in the picture), that day I realized even more, how skewed the word is. In earlier days, it was difficult to imagine women in leadership roles. We were synonymous with being submissive, subservient, vulnerable and dependent. We were considered only followers and in textbooks, many noteworthy “women leaders” (unfortunately I am also having to use the gender to establish my point) were forgotten. Awkward as it may seem, such archaic beliefs still exist even today.

It is interesting to see, that despite the growing number of women in CXO positions and boardrooms, and efforts undertaken by corporations to create “Gender and Diversity” teams, the general mindset of many people still remains the same. I often attribute this failure, not just to the attitude of the top management but also the middle and junior levels. Often formulating gender inclusive policies aren’t sufficient, putting them into practice at each and every level and every step (including the loose talks and informal discussions) makes the real difference. When gender diversity becomes a company philosophy, a core value rather than just a mandate, only then will things truly change.

Someone once asked me, my views on the reservation of women in company boards. There are both pros and cons to this. If this mandate is not enforced, if it’s not made a compulsion, women will mostly not be chosen, they aren’t a priority. They mostly weren’t, until the mandate came in. Having more women in boards will ensure diversity and more gender sensitive policies. However, the flip side of this is, like the Parliament, powerless proxy women representatives are sometimes elected who are merely puppets in the hands of their male relatives. This further solidifies people’s notion that women get positions because of their gender and not because of their abilities (although, we are mostly at a disadvantage). This further defeats the bigger purpose of empowerment and greater participation of women in leadership roles.

However much I want a world where such reservations are not required, my present answer is affirmative, in favor of reservation for a few years at least. We as a country, still need to evolve, we need this positive discrimination, we need to think beyond procreating and nurturing as women’s life goals before we can do away with such reservations. Along with that, we need more supporting structures within organizations like flexi-timings, crèches, paid maternity and paternity leaves; to ensure more women stick around in their mid-careers and ensure a healthy pipeline for senior management positions.

I envision a world where one’s abilities, knowledge and hard work and not gender, determine one’s career path.  I aspire to have an inclusive, objective, compassionate and diverse work environment. I am reminded of what Drew Gilpin Faust, President, Harvard University once said – “I’m not the woman president of Harvard, I’m the president of Harvard.” I envision a world where there are just leaders – competent, knowledgeable and inspirational. Is that too much to ask for?



I plead “not guilty”

IMG_20160227_170302-2There are those numerous days of my life when I wake up and go to bed with guilt. This is true for most women; just that, the reason and the extent of that guilt varies.  Having had a working mother, I know the numerous times she felt guilty about not spending enough time with me, not being around when I came back home from school, not being able to miss office meetings at times when I was sick; and that’s a never ending list. However, I have never felt neglected, and neither have I seen my father complain. Although my mother is an extremely strong and rational person, this self-created guilt of hers has always tagged along.

My mother-in-law’s list is slightly different, today she feels guilty when she does not feel well enough to cook for the family, when she forgets to pack her son’s evening snack, when by mistake she misses the alarm and oversleeps on a Sunday morning. However, her quotient of guilt I think, has been much more, in the past, because it made her quit her teaching job. One day, she was late from school and returned home to see her 4 year old son waiting outside their locked house. One of her neighbors, an old lady, reprimanded her saying that she is not a good mother. Why, only because one day her son had to wait for 15 minutes outside? Her guilt was so strong that she could not go back to work ever again in life. Unfortunately, no one ever told her that it’s not her responsibility alone to take care of the child.

She spent her entire life taking care of her son, husband and the house. However, to get over one set of guilt, she ended up creating another. She feels equally guilty at times about giving up her career, and her passion (she is a trained classical singer). I think, this is true for a lot of women. The trade-offs we often make in life are not always the best choices and they end up haunting us forever. I know for sure, her story is not really different from that of a thousand mothers.

My reasons for guilt are again different, I feel guilty when my father-in-law prepares the morning tea because I am a late riser, when I spend more time at work than in the kitchen, or when I want my “me time” instead of watching TV together. Although no one has ever nitpicked, I find it quite difficult to avoid this self-created guilt, this unconstructive emotion, at most times. There are also instances when guilt is imposed upon me by the society (especially when they think I prioritize travel over having with a kid!). Another set of guilt occurs at workplace, when you have to take a leave due to an ailing child, when you need to ask for a raise, when you need to counter a colleague or even when you get a well-deserved promotion.

We, as women, have been hardwired, it’s in our DNA to feel guilty, to be apologetic and to regret bold decisions. The patriarchal society has engrained in us the value – “service before self”. As if we have been born to serve others, and if for once we prioritize ourselves (our likes, dislikes, dreams, or aspirations) over others, then this vicious circle of guilt creeps in. Often, not just our actions, even our thoughts make us guilt-ridden.

A lot has been researched and documented about dealing with this negative emotion; therapists have turned to cognitive behavior theory to challenge and alleviate guilt. In most cases it’s just us being hard on ourselves. We have built this imaginary expectation set – we are always expected to perform and outperform. What if we don’t? What if we do not pass on this “guilt gene” to our daughters? We have to stop parroting what our ancestors have passed down to us generations after generations. Also, it’s about time we create that support system that reassures us that there is no need to be so unforgiving to yourselves, it is acceptable if we do not meet expectations, and it’s okay to be imperfect.

I am making a strong effort to overcome this. It is like a courtroom drama that goes on in my mind every time; it’s like waiting for the verdict – guilty or not guilty. Every time the soul screams “I plead not guilty”, but who really listens? Am I the only one who goes through this dilemma every day, or do you relate with this too?

P.S.: I am still trying not to feel guilty writing this piece, while my mother-in-law is cooking in the kitchen

The delusion

A couple of years ago, when asked, what I truly want to do in life, I had replied that I want to work for the educated, independent women (including me) who believe that they are empowered, but are deluded because discrimination, abuse and misogyny are issues they experience (to some extent or the other) in their daily lives. Often issues like domestic violence, physical or verbal abuse, dowry or discrimination are attributed to a different socio-economic strata, but I strongly believe that such practices well exist within our homes and in most cases we choose to either deny or ignore them.

Recently, I read an article on social media on how a highly qualified, working woman tolerated domestic violence for 10 years before she finally spoke up against her husband. My heart goes out to the pain (I can’t even fathom) she endured, but the other pertinent question here is, why did it take her 10 years? Not just her, for many of us, why does it take time to voice our issues?

I would say, there are 3 kinds of women – one, those who understand the issues and immediately raise their voices (often termed as “home breakers”); second, who understand the problems but try to adjust till the end, to keep the family together (I would say, most of us fall in this category); and third, the ones who don’t even realize they are victims, they think women are meant to be treated with bias (similar to the “sati savitris” of our daily soaps).

The major problem is with this second lot – women who tolerate injustice (in whatever form or extent) for the sake of family peace, societal image or children’s future. Reflecting on this issue, I feel the major reason for this is the way we, as women, have been “conditioned” to think since childhood. Our families, our education system and the society at large, all have major roles to play in our conditioning.

First, we see our mothers and grandmothers continuously adjust to everything for the sake of peace within the family. Then at every instance we are told that girls should adjust, we are ones who keep families together, it is uncouth for girls to protest and fight, and the never ending list of things we cannot do because “we are girls”. Then as we grow up, and are about to be married, our parents teach us that we should learn to adjust to everything in our new home, never do anything that will cause them shame, this new home is our only address, and we should do everything to keep up the family name and pride. So, the bridge to our home, our very home where we spent so many years of our life, is suddenly broken and we realize that henceforth we are on our own. Even if some make an effort to share their problems, parents send them back asking them not to overreact, because these are trivial things and “sab thik ho jayega“.

If your look at our education system, most of us have been part of a structure, where questioning is unacceptable, where rote learning presides. It is unfortunate that our abilities to critically think and analyze situations are slaughtered. If our education system did not invest time and effort in teaching us self-worth and self-respect, then I am sorry, that is not education, that’s merely literacy. Our degrees do not hold any importance, if they have not taught us to question normality and aberrations, to stand up for our rights, or to value ourselves.

The society also plays a critical role in our decision making process. By the way, let us not forget that we form that very same society. We mostly behave in the same inquisitive, insensitive manner when it concerns others, but expect a “more compassionate and sensible” approach when it happens to us. Societal image and family name, come before our self-respect in these cases. Is our reputation and fabricated image making it difficult for us to break-free?

Also, isn’t the process of breaking free still far from conducive, for a woman in our country? The questions that she has to face, those strange looks, the fight with the judiciary system, and the time taken to get justice (if at all), are few of the added hassles in lieu of freedom. Even if some women come out of abusive relationships, they choose hibernation; they hesitate to share their past experience, and there is always a hush-hush factor. Why? That’s because the society labels them as losers.

Some women also attribute their silence to their children. They say, children need a complete and happy family for proper development, hence they tolerate everything. I would say, ask yourself, is your family truly complete, truly happy? What is the environment that the child is growing up in? If it’s your son, he will learn that women need to be treated with contempt; if it’s your daughter, she will believe that being disrespected is the norm. So, we need to think twice because we are defining the “new normal” for our children.

I strongly believe, things will change if we start with the family. I remember, just before my marriage rituals were about to begin, my mother walked up to me to say, “..love everyone, treat everyone with respect in your new family, but never compromise on your self-respect; we are there with you, you can return home any time if you are unhappy”. That’s been my biggest strength. How I wish, more parents told this to their daughters! It’s also heartening when in general discussions my mother-in-law emphasizes on taking a fair stand if ever conflicts arise between me and my husband. I wish parents told their sons to treat their wives with respect and love, to support their dreams and ambitions, and to value their individuality. Let children not grow up in environments of hatred, violence and disparity. Their impressionable minds carry forward what they experience at home.

This change will not take place overnight, but the process has to start. The seeds need to be sown now. My request to all of you, as parents (or would-be parents), give your child the right education (read, not literacy). Education is the biggest tool that can liberate us. Also, be the right example for your child. Let your child know that compromises, adjustments, tolerance, sacrifices at the cost of dignity, should not limit a woman’s world. More importantly, as women, let us garner courage to support ourselves and other women to stand up against disparity and injustice. Let us at least make a start – big or small. Remember, we are not empowered only if we have degrees and earn a salary. Let’s not live in our world of delusion, let’s us strive for true empowerment.

My life isn’t a saga of sacrifices

This year, on International Women’s Day, I was invited as a panelist at a renowned institution to talk on changing roles of women in society building. My excitement was not limited to the fact that I would get an opportunity to interact with young minds; I was more excited to see the names of the other panelists – eminent women leaders from the academia and law sorority. For me, this meant an opportunity to learn from informed, forward thinking industry stalwarts whose life stories and experiences are inspiration for fellow women (and men).

I was glad that we were not addressing a “women only” audience, because most organizations feel “gender inequality” is a women’s issue and hence such forums should be attended by women only. We received a warm welcome at the institute. Little did I realize what the day had in store for me.

The welcome note by the head of the institution set the tone for the discussion to follow. While she spoke of some achievements of women, she also spoke about the “boundaries” we need to operate within because we are women. Her entire emphasis was on moral policing and how important it is for young girls and women to behave in a certain fashion because that determines the respect we command in the society.  I was astonished that even her international exposure and education had not been able to alter her pre-historic outlook. While her emphasis should have been on what we as girls can do in life, and that nothing is impossible if we are determined and focused, her speech was aimed at highlighting what girls cannot do or should not do.

One of the panelists started with some narrations of her courtroom experiences and I was thrilled. But, in some time, her stories turned into chronicles of sacrifices rather than courage demonstrated by her female clients. She drew references from history, to establish how women have always been valued for their selflessness. She also mentioned that the litigation segment was still a male-dominated zone with very few women opting for it as a career choice. She stated with pride that the best compliment an eminent female lawyer (a role model for many, being the only female in the Bar Council) has ever received from the Bar Council President, was on her farewell, inside a room full of male colleagues and that was “there is only one man in this room today”. Seriously???? Is “being a man” a woman’s benchmark for success? I have heard many parents say, I have raised my daughter like a son (including my parents when I was quite young, but thankfully they now understand the problem with that statement). Many young girls say, I want to make my parents proud and be their son. About time, we redefine our own success parameters.

Another panelist went on to speak about the values that we as women stand for – sacrifice, care and selflessness. She said, our role as a mother is the most important aspect of our lives and how the sacrifices we make, make us strong women. She also stressed on the fact that she does not believe in all these “feminism” terminologies and how some women overdo it, but that she believes in equality. I am sure it would have helped if she would have just “Googled” (if not read some additional literature) on feminism before commenting. Unfortunately, there were quite a few people in the room who were nodding their heads in concurrence. Sadly, even today, among many erudite people, the word “feminism” evokes such strong negative feelings.

Okay, now I have a problem when people talk about “sacrifice” being the biggest virtue that women possess. What if I don’t sacrifice always? What if I choose to not sacrifice my career after marriage or motherhood? What if I don’t sacrifice the bigger piece of cake for my father, brother or husband? What if I choose myself over others? What if I care for my likes and dislikes more? Does that make me less of a woman? Do my abilities and attitude not define me?


The notion of women being the epitome of all things “pure and virtuous” is archaic. Yes, I can be wild, expressive, carefree, messy, disobedient, rebellious, selfish, bold, and bossy. I can be everything the society doesn’t associate with “womanly attributes”. We have sacrificed enough for generations, it about time we claim being ourselves. Today, I as a woman, stand for freedom, independence, determination, excellence and empathy. Today, even if I wish to make sacrifices, these are my choices, not compulsions. From this day onward, I want to be defined by my vices and virtues, my weaknesses and strengths, my vulnerabilities and securities, and my failures and achievements. My life isn’t a saga of sacrifices, but I am the woman I want to be, I am the woman I want you to see.

I am free only when….

The shift from corporate to the development sector was not exactly intentional. It was definitely not because I succumbed to the pressures of sales targets, or because the late working hours were affecting my “work-life balance” and hence a less demanding career in a nonprofit (yes, many feel nonprofits have a very relaxed schedule) was the easier solution for a married woman, living with in-laws. When I got the opportunity, the shift was more an experiment – a challenge I took, to tread a path less taken. I am glad I took that step, because it opened by a whole new world of possibilities for me. This new world, was “different” from my world, but never disconnected. It is true that a fast paced corporate career probably does not give us an opportunity otherwise to explore this different facet of reality, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, what’s bothersome is, being oblivious to the fact that this so-called “different world” exists and people of this world can aspire and demand a world “like ours”.

Recently, I attended an event which brought together eminent women authors to talk about pressing issues concerning women and brainstorm on possible solutions. One such discussion was on identifying why such alarming number of women are missing from the workforce. While, authors talked about mid-life career crisis, unfriendly work policies, workplace discrimination, challenges of balancing work and motherhood, as some of the possible reasons for such low numbers, I felt the panel never included those women in their discussion, who never made it to the workforce in the first place. This pool, I believe contributes significantly to the count of missing women, because our labor participation rates are at just 27% and hence I posed this question to the panel. It was shocking that not even one of them considered my point relevant enough to answer.

This once again validated my belief (which I hate believing in) that quite a few (not all, I am not generalizing) women in a position of power, those who have had access to resources, especially the so called “empowered working women” are unaware and unaccepting of this “different” yet very able world of voiceless women. Not because I work with them every day, their cause always has and always will be an agenda for me to voice. I think, people who are in a position to shape young minds, should be more mindful of their responsibilities while articulating issues and solutions. I am in no way contesting the challenges women face in the corporate, which are stressful and difficult; I have faced some myself. However, our challenges are fewer and less gruesome compared to those for whom survival is a question, basic necessities are luxuries and education and career are merely dreams. While women quitting mid-career is a challenge, isn’t women not having a career at all, the bigger challenge? If this is not an issue worth discussing, what is??

To such powerful yet unaware women, I would like to say, that empowerment does not mean empowerment of the self alone. It reminds me of a famous line of Audre Lorde, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own”. So, when we discuss missing women, and our issues, let’s also discuss about these 481 million women who lack basic literacy skills, let’s discuss child marriages, school dropouts and let’s discuss early pregnancies leading to death. If you and I can’t be their voice, can’t represent them at important forums, can’t pull them along with us in this journey of empowerment, we will never get our count of missing women right.

I am not asking these women to suddenly give up their high profile careers and join the development sector. Individuals find fulfillment in different arenas, and therefore it is important for all of us to co-exist. All I am asking for, is to be aware, to be connected and to be sensitive towards women from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. So when you talk about empowerment, change the dialogue to talk about inclusivity, diversity, and upward mobility for all women, not just a handful. Do remember, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

I am free when

Choose Well

Many years ago, I learnt that every individual has the right to act according to his or her own choices. I strongly believe that my life should not be dictated by others and unless I permit, no one has the right to choose for me. However, what I was also taught is that, an individual should take responsibility of the consequences of his or her decision and remember not to hurt people in the process. Also, choices need to be made keeping in mind “values” and “ethics” – words that have probably lost relevance in today’s result-oriented, performance-driven fast life.

The common saying these days is that, when a woman can choose for herself, she is empowered. Unfortunately, a lot of people attribute those choices to just the ability to wear clothes of her choice, travel at wee hours of the night or choose her partner. As a feminist and someone who advocates “women empowerment” both personally and professionally, I feel “empowerment” is a lot more serious business. Celebrities and media in our country definitely need to be much more responsible in their communications. They set examples – examples of lives that the younger generation will aspire for. Heard someone say, being able to wear a bikini to office is empowerment. Even more unfortunate, thought-leaders are preaching such concepts to young minds. Can you tell me what role does the choice of clothing play in empowering someone for whom education after school may itself be a dubious proposition? She will be dependent for that piece of cloth on her father, brother or husband for the rest of her life, so where is empowerment? Does just being a rebel and breaking rules makes one empowered? Then what role does education and self-reliance play in the process of empowerment?

At work, every time I meet these really bright girls from indigent backgrounds, I feel scared for them. Unfortunately, the world they are living in today, is teaching them a completely different meaning of “empowerment” and I just hope they figure out how to make the right choices. Their parents are oblivious to a lot of challenges and if not guided well, these girls will just remain names with no identity. The role that media and technology (read, smart phones) are playing in shaping their lives is alarming. It is surprising to see how the questions these young girls ask, have started changing in the past 3 years at work – from career aspirations to carnal desires; I hope you see the variance. I agree, every individual has the right to choose; but one must choose right. By right, I don’t mean something that is socially acceptable, but something that your conscience will agree with. The problem is that, for a lot of people that conscience is nothing but a dumb spectator. Dishonesty, disrespect, infidelity, insurgence, are these the values that our girls need to inculcate to feel empowered? If so, I would like for them to stay disempowered.

Also, gender equality and women empowerment does not mean copying “men”. Women need to realize that they are different from men, not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. Aping their behavior and attributes in all spheres of life does not make women empowered; it means wasted potential. Men and women need to coexist; one cannot dominate the other. Many women activists, or “pseudo feminists” (as my husband refers) who fight for women-centric causes have actually taken the fight to a whole new level – the fight is now for supremacy not equality, and in the process have framed a whole new meaning of empowerment.

I firmly believe, the one true thing that can empower men and women alike, is education. Read, education, not literacy. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” We definitely have a task at hand – we ourselves need to first make the right choices in life – choose “Education”, choose “Values”, choose “Integrity”, choose “Respect” and choose “Tolerance”. To be truly empowered, we women not only need the ability to choose, but choose well.

Wings to fly


I have always believed – who I am, is only determined by me. Everything that I have done in life has been a reflection of this. However, the last few weeks have left a strong impression on my mind; I have realized even more that, this freedom of choosing to be you is a privilege that only few enjoy, especially among women.

As a young girl, Taslima Nasrin’s writings and the discussions that I had with my mom on women empowerment, inspired me. Yes, I am a feminist (don’t mistake that for “misandry”) and a firm believer in equal opportunities for women in education and employment.

Hence, I had never hesitated to climb a ladder, never complained about night-outs in office for bid submissions and have always enjoyed working with a screw driver at site. I have thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it. If you ask me if there were challenges, the answer is yes. I remember having just joined an organization and being sent to a client site to restore a control system. The entire workforce there, surrounded me as they had never seen a female engineer with a screw driver – their looks, their questions regarding my education, experience, etc., even before they allowed me to touch the system, were quite intimidating.

However, this one year in the development sector has actually made me realize that my journey has been rather smooth.  The grassroots level truths are actually daunting. The challenges that numerous adolescent girls (and specifically the underprivileged ones) face in our country even today, are beyond imagination. Gender disparity is still deep and persistent in India. Education, in the true sense, for them is a farfetched dream. Not only do they have limited resources and lack awareness, they are exploited.

I meet numerous bright, enthusiastic, adolescent girls of various marginalized communities almost every day and truly derive strength and inspiration from them. It will surprise you to know that most of them do not have any “aim” in life; they have no clue where they will be 5 years from now. No one around them has ever asked them about their dreams and aspirations, or what really makes them happy. If this is my experience in the capital of the country, I can’t begin to imagine the situation elsewhere.

Due to lack of financial resources, the families find it difficult to meet basic necessities, and one of the main motivations for sending the girls to school, is the mid-day meal. This ensures that the family does not have to arrange at least one meal in the day. The Ladli scheme (linking financial assistance to a girl’s education) whereby a girl gets a substantial amount after completing the senior secondary level, is utilized for her marriage – for buying the lehanga, jewellery and paying a part of the dowry, rather than for higher education or vocational training.

The difference in the socially constructed gender roles lead to unequal treatment at home. These little girls help with household work after school, leaving very little time for self-study or any recreation. While the girls do all this, their brother being the “kul ka deepak”, is given more attention, enjoys the best food, is sent to a better school and is never asked to work at home. Well, this treatment is not too uncommon in privileged households also, but I will devote a separate blog for that!

I fondly remember my childhood days and realize the stark difference. For a lot of these girls, the only fate is marriage after school and every day they fight to convince their parents to allow them to study further. Even if a girl is able to convince her family, she is only allowed to pursue a correspondence course. Why? – Because there is a strong belief in the communities that when a girl goes to college, she is no more under the control of her parents. I know students who, despite having good grades, are pursing distance courses because they are not allowed to leave their homes (should I say, a new form of “Purdah system”). The son in the family however, is never questioned about his whereabouts.

My work gives me the opportunity to meet numerous parents and advocate girl child education. I make them realize the importance of educating their daughters and how this is no different than educating their sons. I do this not just as part of my job, but also because I am a woman. It really grieves me to see how girls are still considered a burden in the family.

I never realized that in the due course, I had actually touched someone’s life and made a sustainable impact. There was a girl whose father was not interested in allowing her to study after 12th grade (and mostly this is the situation), but the girl had a lot of potential. Eight months back I had spoken to her parents about her abilities and how she can one day be a support system for the family. Last week, the father and daughter visited me and what a pleasure it was to know that today, he is going out of his way to support his daughter’s education. They both were in tears and the father acknowledged the role I played in their lives. I did not know how to react, I was speechless – the feeling of being able to transform a life was unprecedented. On Teacher’s Day, the girl told me that I was her role model. I can’t express the feeling. I am actually no one, but she made me feel so special.  I just hope and pray that she achieves the best in life and realizes her true potential.

A lot has been said and written about women rights and equality and we often we read stories of  activist groups fighting hard to provide women their due societal equity. This one year has actually taught me that claiming to be a feminist by reading “Lean In” or “Lajja” is way different from practicing it in real life. My appeal to all those parents, who feel their daughters are a burden, who feel it is useless to educate them, who are in favor of early marriages – give them the wings to fly, support them in their endeavors, educate them enough to earn a living. They are not “paraya dhan”, but your own flesh and blood…just give them the wings to fly and let them lead the rest of their lives with their head held high.

The light in the tunnel

My last two blogs (The other extreme and Time to change-are government schools listening?) portrayed quite some negativity and kept me thinking whether “optimism” is a lost word in my dictionary. However, I couldn’t be more wrong – the world seems brighter today and I am feeling so positive! Why this sudden change? Well, last week I have had the most thought-provoking experience of my life.

Corporate workshops and seminars are always welcome as they call for some learning, some socializing and some change from the regular office environment. For me also this was no different. However, the summit I attended on 1st and 2nd July was quite different – different not because of what I learnt but because of the people I met. This was my second conference after becoming a part of the development sector and I must admit it stood out amongst all the conferences I have ever attended.

While there are numerous issues to be addressed in India and the world at large, we should not be dismayed, because there are thousands of people who are working hard to bring about some change. Yes, I had the opportunity to meet hundreds of changemakers who are working relentlessly over the years to solve problems related to children, women, poverty, hunger, environment, youth, economic development, disability, armed forces, human rights, governance, health, sanitation, animals and many more. Hearing about their journey, their challenges, their failures, their stories of transformations, their vision and above all, feeling their passion, was indeed a priceless experience.

Yes there is corruption, violence, dishonesty, greed, lust, anarchy, but on the other hand there are also people who have dedicated their lives for social good. Their inexorable efforts may never be recognized at the world forums or award ceremonies, or they may never earn the hefty pay packages that corporate employees draw, but that does not dissuade them from dedicating their entire lives to serving the society. For what they earn is incomparable – fulfillment, inner peace and good wishes of those thousands whose lives they touch daily. In my own little way, through this blog, I want to salute these unsung heroes for their never-daunting spirit and commitment to the cause. I feel really fortunate for being able to join their journey.

Many of my friends, on learning that I am working with a nonprofit, asked me “Why didn’t you join any corporate, NGOs don’t pay well. Or is it that you can’t cope with the pressure of sales targets anymore?” My answer to them is that a handsome pay package has never been my parameter for measuring success. I am not discounting my experience in the corporate world, that’s what makes me who I am today but I am more contented with my present job, not because there are no sales targets (there are targets of impacting “X” number of lives) but because I am able to see so closely the result of my hard work, because I am able to create change, because I am able to make a difference, because of all those smiles and because this is my life’s calling. In fact, I am the happiest person – can you believe I am getting paid to do social work!

Everyone has their own set of expectations from life and there’s nothing wrong in wanting to lead a luxurious life. All my friends who know me will know what an avid shopper I am and that has not changed because I work for a nonprofit. All that has changed is that, I now value those things much more because I know for sure how privileged I am compared to those millions, I know the distinction between necessity and luxury and that makes me more humble every day. It is said that your experiences make you the person that you are and I have changed over the last one year because of my experiences. Societal recognition is no more a parameter for my success, societal good is.

The last week made me realize that when so many people are working selflessly for creating positive changes, the world will not remain in its current appalling state for long.  All of us can be those change agents. It is a request to all my friends, don’t just contribute monetarily for a cause (please continue to do that, because that’s what keeps the nonprofits going!) but to experience this pleasure first-hand, do some volunteering and you’ll see the difference in yourself, not just in the society. These nonprofits, these social workers are like those numerous candles burning in the tunnel trying to light up the path. It is not about seeking the light at the end of the tunnel, there is light in the tunnel, but ultimately it is up to all of us to keep them burning bright!

The other extreme

If some of my friends felt after reading my last blog that I am pro-privatization of schools, I wish to share some of my experiences “against the motion”. Back in 2011, I visited a very renowned private school in North West Delhi for a sales meeting. Since I am usually punctual, I reach places well ahead of time and this gives me an opportunity to observe things around me and form some preliminary opinion.  Here too, I reached ahead of my scheduled meeting time. Outside the school, I saw Mercs, BMWs, Skodas and countless such cars parked (and my driver felt quite embarrassed parking a Wagon R beside them); however there was only one school bus!

A well-dressed (with excessive unnecessary make-up) receptionist welcomed me with a plastic smile. The school premises instantly made me feel like I have entered a 5 star resort – centralized air-conditioning, automatic doors, CCTV, Fire Detection and Alarm system, Public Address (PA) system, motion sensors for lighting control- it just had everything. Being from an automation company I should have felt happy because this means the management is well-aware of the benefits and I need not use too many “FAB” statements for selling my product. However, I felt otherwise.

While I was waiting, a class got over – couldn’t hear the bell ring, instead there was an announcement on the PA system. The students rushed out of their classes, and I thought now it will feel like a school, but I was wrong. I overheard the conversation of two kids, might be of Grade 2 or 3. They were discussing a friend’s birthday party they attended at McDonald’s the night before and how bad it was compared to the party one of them had hosted at some well-known hotel. Not just that, some girl students had nail-polish and kajal applied, were wearing dangling earrings to school. I was completely shaken – this was also not the kind of school that I had been to!

A lot of my friends and colleagues of “my generation” will agree that for us birthday parties always meant cake, sweets and good home-made food cooked by mom. However, it has become a trend these days by parents to host lavish birthday parties in high-end restaurants and even if there are some who do not want to, they succumb to societal pressures and peer-pressure faced by kids.  There is nothing wrong with celebrations, but my concern is the mindset of the kids.  At such a young age, if they start deriving happiness only from materialistic pleasures, what will happen if they are deprived of something when they grow up? If they only travel in private high-end cars even to school since childhood, will they ever know how to board a bus or an auto? Will they ever appreciate or learn to value the comfort they get if they never face the realities of life?

The reason why students wear uniforms to schools is to create a feeling of equality and not promote discrimination based on socio-economic status. However, today, except for the uniforms, these elite private schools in all other ways create that sense of discrimination. The environment in the school is such that kids feel ashamed if they do not have a big car or do not travel abroad for vacations. They are ashamed to get their friends home if they do not have a great house. It’s a different competitive scenario in schools – it’s no more about me finishing 10 story books in vacations compared to your 8 or me painting 30 cards this New Year compared to 25 last year. It’s a whole new world and I sometimes feel I am probably a misfit because I would still want my kid to feel that way!

Another, new thing I learnt is that some schools even give a time table for the lunch that a child needs to carry to school and that’s quite elaborate and time consuming – aloo parantha, dosa, pulao , to name  a few. I pity the mothers and specially the working ones – if I have to prepare something like that every morning, I would have to quit my job. Hats off to all those mothers who diligently follow such a regime. Also, wouldn’t the parents know what’s best for their kid compared to that of the school teacher? However, there’s a reason too – it seems once a parent had forgotten to pack lunch for her kid and hence this rule! God !!

Should I mention the fee structure of these schools? I think it is better I leave it at that. Getting admission in a “good” school is tougher than clearing IIT and CAT these days and the parents are so stressed out. After all the pain and struggle if you have been lucky to get your child admitted in a good school, you still cannot rest in peace. The journey gets tougher thereafter, extra-curricular activities, summer camps, school outings, extra classes, school functions – everything comes for an extra price, not to forget the high tuition fees and admission fees that you have already paid. Even after you have done all these, you still can’t rest assured your child is learning well – you have to send them for private tuition to the same school teacher else they’ll not score well in exams.

Having a technology background, I am not against modernization of schools and the amenities they provide as long as the primary objective of “providing education” is achieved. There is a difference between literacy and education and a lot of schools have forgotten that. The values, perceptions, attitudes and norms that students are expected to learn during schooling form an important part of education which is missing these days. These so-called elite schools charge enormous fees to make your child literate by finishing the course curriculum but do little to educate them. As parents, our responsibility has increased even more today (compared to that of our parents) if we want our kids to first become good human beings before becoming doctors or engineers.

When I was starting my own business, someone advised me – “If you want to make good profit, you should start a school”. So true, private schools these days make unimaginable profits and hence a lot of business houses have started their own schools.

I am in favor of affordable quality education. It should not matter whether that’s offered by a government or a private school. I often wonder if there ever will be a solution…

Time to change – are government schools listening?

It was on my mind for quite some time now and this morning while reading an article in The Economic Times – “Privatise. Let Entrepreneurs run schools”, I felt that I should share my experience. My current stint at a nonprofit makes me visit government and government aided schools at least once every week if not more and every time I return with a heavy heart. These schools are definitely different from the schools that you and I have been to. Different in all aspects – infrastructure, discipline, cleanliness, teachers, administration, exams and above all “being a school”.

It was my first visit to a government school of South Delhi in August 2013 on a rainy day. My car couldn’t be parked within the school premises because of the water logging. I got out and stepped on a puddle and then looked up to see many more of those where the kids were playing. Lots of noise, no teachers around, not sure if any classes were being conducted, almost every student was outside playing in the rain. I couldn’t recall ever seeing something like this in my school. Broken doors, dilapidated window panes, lack of desks and chairs, no fans even in the scorching heat of Delhi, poor sanitation facilities – in a nutshell this explains the so-called “infrastructure” of these schools.

As a student, for me, school was a place of worship (and it still is), where every day I learnt something new and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I looked forward to being at school, but I am afraid that most students in these schools disagree with me.  In most of these schools, “discipline” is a word that the school administrators have never heard of, so probably implementing it is out of question. Most teachers are not bothered about conducting classes and students just loiter around, waste their time and disturb the other classes (if at all there are some classes going on). Students have not learnt the value of time, they never return to their classes as soon as the bell rings after a break. The teachers themselves never enter a class on time. The students’ role models themselves seldom practice the right virtues, so who should they emulate?

Why is there a lack of motivation in the teachers – is it low paying salaries, excessive work load, school administrators’ failure, or simply because of lack of knowledge? Does the government take enough measures to hire the right candidate? Does the teacher have adequate knowledge (not just degrees) to teach a particular subject? I am afraid, a lot of times the answer is “no”. I have myself seen notebooks of students of Grade 12 where they have received full marks for a wrong depiction of the “price elasticity curve”. These students again grow up to become teachers some day and pass on their incorrect learning. This is a vicious loop and if not corrected today, the future of our country is not in very safe hands.

The last government implemented the “no students fail- come what may” policy to prevent stress in kids but ended up causing more stress than ever. Every student is promoted till Grade 8, even if they are not eligible and all the students are aware of this. So why study? The foundation is so weak that when they reach Grade 11 & 12 (the most crucial years of one’s life that shapes your career) they fail to write simple words like –”we”, “she”, “their” correctly in English. Forget about English, Grade 12 students do not know the meaning of past, present and future tenses in Hindi and trust me, I speak from experience! Almost all the students cannot write grammatically correct sentences without making spelling mistakes in Hindi; English is a far stretched dream. How can we expect these students to do well in their graduation or post graduation when the textbooks are all in English?

I am not favoring the private schools and I do not own one. However, it grieves me to see such a condition of the government schools in Delhi. If this is the situation in the capital of the country, it scares me to think what it is in the Tier-II, III cities, not mentioning the rural areas. As a student, would I be keen and excited to attend a school like this? The answer is definitely “no”.  Despite this, there are students who have the potential and are fighting well to create a place for themselves in the mainstream education system. Whose prerogative is it to bridge the gap between equally able students from opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum? Does “right to education” of a child mean this? Is the education minister listening? It’s time to wake up and create some change; else all our generations to come will always be citizens of a “developing nation”.