Unplugged: Director's Reflections

Unplugged: Director's Reflections is a page where the SLI Director records his reflections. It is not official or academic, but, fully based on official engagements, thoughts, encounters and reflections on the same. This page may soon have others in SLI also joining apart from the Director. 

Uneasy Moment...

recording another engagement with the 'rural development' official

"You know, we cannot keep sending people to only your institution for training,so, you need to ensure that they can continue whatever they have learnt in their place", said the RD officer with lot of self-importance and virtue. "Yes Sir, we not only ensure that they don't have to come to us, we also ensure that they don't have to come to you, we believe that ultimately self-reliance is the best form of sustainability", i answered. There was an uneasy moment as the officer wondered whether this is what he desired when he made his self-important comment. 

People in the 'development' sector often cannot think that the ultimate goal of development is their own destruction. As long as there is a 'development' department, you need clients to develop, as long as there are 'philanthropic' institutions, you need poor to reach out to, as long as there are 'emancipating' faiths you need 'blind faiths' to convert. A developed conscience, community, society or nation needs institutions that perform other forms of functioning, not going with outdated and meaningless existence. Sustainability is a paradigm shift that challenges not merely our language,but, also our behaviour. It will not be easy moments encountering people, ideas or processes of sustainability. There will be many uneasy moments. 

Ram, 2nd Aug 2018

"How do we make Sustainable ventures 'replicable'"?

Analyzing the language of the SYSTEM.
31st July 2018

Discussing yet another month's programme with the Government official who has to grant approval for our programmes and our budgets, this is a repeated question. Other questions are, "Why don't we see (immediate) impact of your programmes?", "How can we 'scale up' your efforts across the State?", etc.,

I am convinced that Government's all over don't have a language of their own. The language of Governance is the language of conditioning, convenience and co-option. 

The conditioning part of the language comes out of self-protection, all government departments have a first skin of self-protection. This creates a conditioning of sorts in terms of language permitted, with superiors you "submit", with subordinates, you "order". With colleagues you "discuss" whereas you can seek "speak" from subordinates and choose never to listen to them otherwise. No one asked them to follow these rules, however, these are part of the conditioning of self-protection. It is not individual, it is the systemic self-protection. The indoctrination of the government department machinery that goes on without being explicitly stated is that, "we are the GOVERNMENT, we are important, we need to preserve a way of working that we have always preserved". It only takes one person to ask the question, 'why should we follow these rules?' and the entire edifice will crumble, there are officials who do it sometimes, but, the majority just allow themselves to be indoctrinated and then become the SYSTEM.

Then comes the convenient part, this part of the language is adopting whatever is seen to be convenient to the government mechanism in implementing their programmes. Some of the most cliched terms endlessly adopted within the government falls into this category. Not many government officials know where does the word, "scaling up" or "replicability" come from. Most of them just borrowed these terms from either multi-lateral agencies or consultants and adopted them with their own interpretation or meaning. Much of the terms that are part 'technical' in the government lexicon have appeared in this manner. 

Then there is the language co-option. This is where political intent is bent to suit status quo through a bandage of co-opted terms that are borrowed from the general usage. One instance is "organic farming", not many government officials know the meaning for "organic farming" or its full import, but, it is rather loosely adopted within their circle to mean usage of vermicompost, panchagavya and a few other such practices. Adopting practices is easy for governments, these practices can be adopted in large scale, they can be learnt and taught easily, they can be 'replicated', etc., there are adequate arguments that the system builds within its own mind. 

Believe me, there are people with very good intentions behind all this language, these are gentle, careful, sensitive parents, children, friends, siblings, etc., in their regular course of life. But, the SYSTEM has to talk this language through them because as I mentioned earlier, the SYSTEM doesn't care for sensitivity or gentleness. It cares for itself alone. 


On Impacts and Inspirations: The Story of Mr. Kalaimani

"Impact" is an engineering term of specific response, that is predictable and recreated under conditioned spaces. It is often inadequately and without much thought applied in social actions and projects to measure how humans have been affected. People don't live in conditioned environment, it is impossible to predict human action unless you are excessively intrusive (as some of the technology gadgets and their producers increasingly want to do) and thereby create political and rights issues for oneself and responses are not often measurable in concrete immediate terms. I prefer the term "influence" or in cases "inspire" rather than impact to measure human exchanges and responses.

At SLI, we provide training programme sponsored by the government.  "What is the impact of your programme?" we get often asked by some people. We are sometimes at a loss to explain the details to them - that we are bound by the efficiency of the government official who is supposed to choose the right kind of candidates for the training programme, that the officials should have been given adequate and timely information by other officials for him to do a good job of it, that he / she should have already well established knowledge of the region and / or community to know whether this programme is relevant to them or not (in government often officials are transferred before they can get to know a place better), and, after all this candidate selection, we are left with the interest levels, priority, need, changing pressure situations and level of knowledge of the candidate. And all of these before they arrive to our Institute for the training programme. There are several more steps dependent on many more people after the candidate leaves the programme that are unpredictable. If this is the case of the rural community, when it comes to officials who attend our programmes,it gets even more so.

So, 'Impact' of any programme is well nigh impossible as there is no prediction of any of these parameters. That's why I prefer to use the terms that we 'influence' or 'inspire' actions among people that are driven by their own needs and priorities and personal orientations. It is also more humbling to acknowledge that people are already in a path and our intervention can only be partly responsible for their actions if at all. 

It is with this understanding that I want to present the  work of Mr. Kalaimani of Thiruvarur. Kalai, as he is referred to had attended our Stewardship programme about a couple of years ago. He was an Assistant Project Manager in the Pudhu Vazhvu Project at that time. This world bank funded poverty alleviation project aimed to supplement the government efforts through localized micro finance and supplementary income generation programmes. In his first visit itself he made a significant impression on everyone as he spoke about having a passion for planting trees and was greatly inspired by the afforestation efforts and diversity he saw in Auroville whenever he visited one of the forests or farms.

Subsequently, we found that, there was a surge of rightly chosen candidates coming from his district for several training programmes as he realized the value of what we provide from our institution (this actually is a generic trend, whenever the officials and the community are aligned to local needs the changes of creating successful local initiatives are rather high). We also found that he himself had increased his tree planting activities and propagating local flora within the local community. He is one of the few officials that made it to the level 3 in the Stewardship programme, learning designing sustainable livelihood tools and methods as well. With each visit, we also noticed that his own convictions and actions to promote local flora and spread the tree planting drive in his region growing.

The  Pudhu Vazhvu Project ended in 2017 June and almost all employees were hopeful of being absorbed into the new project funded by the World Bank, the Rural Transformation Project that was launched subsequently by the government. But not Kalai. He wanted to launch his own organization and make his ambition of spreading the message to children in particular through the organization. Vanam, his organization was born through these efforts. 

A government job is a middle class Indian dream, it means secure salary, perhaps a good pension after several years, and, access to power, which is any day important to get any work done. So, it is not every day that someone decides to quit a government job and start something that he is passionate about and risks his livelihood and security for the same. Kalai stands as an unique example on that front. 

Today SLI often invites Kalai as a faculty to share his inspiring story. He is part of the core team that is involved in evolving an Orientation programme for the same Rural Transformation Project that some of his erstwhile colleagues aspire to be part of. 

Kalai has often mentioned how visiting Auroville was inspiring for him the first time, today, his work is an inspiration for us and many more. It is such stories that are sustainable and sustained in the long run rather than short lived 'impact' stories. 

I will be participating in his next event in Kumbakonam on 17th of July 2018. Here is wishing him strength and support in all his endeavors.

Ramasubramanian, Director, SLI
14th July 2018

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