Sunday, November 22, 2015

Like Nobody's Business

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Like nobody's business
Shefali Tripathi Mehta, November 22, 2015

The price of convenience

‘Clean my coach’ is a mobile app proposed by the Indian Railways which, according to news reports, will enable you to get your railway coach cleaned ‘in a matter of minutes’ (precisely 15 minutes, they specify). This is straight out of ‘I Dream of Jeanie’. 

Presumably, how this works is — a passenger logs an SMS complaint and their coach and berth number is forwarded to the train attendant who makes sure it is cleaned. How this doesn’t work is, if the attendant of the coach was doing his job in the first place, there was no need for this app. The rationale for this app is that there is housekeeping staff on the trains but the passengers aren’t able to ‘find’ them. Why should passengers have to find anyone to get them to do their jobs? If the attendant and the housekeeping staff are not doing their work, the question is, will an app make them do it? 

Then there is the job of the passengers. I got into a train at 11 pm for an overnight journey. The family that disembarked and whose place we occupied, left the berths filthy — sheets and blankets trailing on the dirty floor, empty packets of chips and mineral water bottles littered about.

How will an app make unwilling employees and callous passengers keep Bhartiya Rail ‘aapki apni sampatti’, clean? In the end, all one will have is another app on the phone that creates a false sense of control. If people refuse to work, technology at its best can be rendered ineffectual. 

Also, the use of technology has to be judicious. In our country of 1.2 billion people, around 40 million are unemployed. We have all the manpower to deal with all the work if people are willing to work and give it their best. But the will to work is missing in an environment that does not recognise or reward a job well done. “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.” (John W Gardner, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson)

Technology promises to put one in touch with modern day genies, but we all know that it’s easier to find a long-lost kindergarten back-bencher than to be able to get a service centre employee at the other end of the phone line to guide us in pulling the lint out of the washing machine.

Use & throw

We now have the convenience, at one tap of our smartphones, to have someone come home to pick our shoes to clean; to have special meals delivered for the family pet; to clean our bathrooms and fans; or to convert the minutest of our balconies into a haven of greenery. Yet, the more dependent we’re becoming on these services, the less dependable they seem to be. 

When it comes to quality and dependability of the new range of services being offered, we are always circumspect. We have learnt to keep our expectations low and are always prepared for the worst — there is a 50 per cent chance that the launderette will run a smouldering iron on the polyblend shirt giving it frown marks; and there is a 100 per cent chance that the hotel one checks into is a pidgin version of what one saw while booking it online.

In a mad rush to innovate, implement, digitise, automate we are expecting and demanding less from human skills. Organisations, governments and businesses do not grow in size or value with technology alone. Why then, when we think of growth and development, do we focus increasingly on automation and less on human intelligence and skills? Why is efficiency increasingly being attributed to technology and less to people? A recent Princeton University study about the American millennial generation found that they are among the world’s least-skilled workers and fall short, among other things, in ‘problem solving in technology-rich environments.’
 This is very telling of the times we live in. “This is solid, don’t replace it,” the washing machine service person told me every time I called him over to mend it. I was tired of it constantly breaking down, but he warned me that the newer ones would be less dependable. The life of everything we buy today is much shorter than it was earlier. 

When we were small, we heard googly-eyed of how ‘abroad’ household goods gone kaput were trashed and I still remember seeing pictures of mountains of used refrigerators and cars. Our humble iron box weighing one ton, the groaning refrigerator, the oven that sat on the gas stove and baked the most fragrant and moist cakes saw at least three generations around them as in bits, their parts were replaced or mended.

Getting a product serviced has become the greatest challenge of our times. Is it a wonder that so many gadgets and appliances are junked, more than ever before, in our relatively poor country?

Illusion of service

How easy is it to get a gadget repaired? From logging a service call the challenges are unforeseeable and frustrating. There is no guarantee of how well a product will be serviced and how much longer it will work. In this fast-paced life, where time is money, it makes better sense to trash, than to mend. The irony is that everything ‘seems’ so easy. Handymen may be a click away in the fuzzy app-world, yet getting a skilled worker is still ‘bhagwan bharose’. Just as the work skills are missing, so is the will to do a job well. Technology creates efficiency, but it cannot replace the human element in service business.

A decade ago, large chain bookstores came to our metros. It was an amazing experience exploring rows and rows of tidy bookshelves. But the charm wore off quickly. The smartly-dressed, English-speaking store attendants could not help locate books because they had no understanding of the business of books. It was frustrating when they could not even look up the online inventories properly to help. It wasn’t difficult to leave those brightly-lit, air-conditioned bookstores for the smaller, friendlier ones where one’s joy in the discovery of books is shared by the proprietor who thinks nothing of dropping everything to help locate a book or recommend one. Is it a wonder then that so many of those large bookstores have shrunk in size and opulence, or have had to close shop?

Recently, at a mall, after going through miles of shiny shoes, I selected one and showed it to the attendant, asking for my size. He was standing with other attendants in a group, chatting. He threw one cursory look at the shoe in my hand and said my size wasn’t available, returning to his conversation. Having come to understand the way this workforce functions, and not wanting to let go of a good shoe, I came back to the shoe aisles a little later and asked another attendant if I could have the shoe in my size. He immediately disappeared into the warehouse and bingo! there it was. This person even took the trouble to take it back to the warehouse to adjust the fitting for me. The second salesperson changed my shopping experience.

Advantage: no one

The superstores, megastores and hyperstores employ an army of shop attendants with little or no knowledge of the products they sell. Most times, when asked basic details about a product, they are unable to help the customer. Soft skills in interacting with customers and a will to genuinely assist them are missing, leading to unhappy customers.

So, who are these young men and women who control our buying or servicing experiences? Men on two-wheelers balancing oversized delivery bags, negotiating the impossible traffic, often taking calls or asking for directions on their mobile phones while driving are the commonest sight these days. We are promised delivery in half-hour when the traffic moves at 15 km per hour. How realistic are the expectations set by the service providers? The booming retail and service industry has created a huge job market. But in reality, they are offering work and not jobs or careers.
 The competition is cut-throat, costs have to be minimised and the return on investment in imparting skills and training is not great. Most of the delivery boy or shop floor attendant jobs that these markets demand are contractual, which means that this enormous workforce does not get employment benefits like provident fund, leaves or overtime; has no loyalty towards their company or brand; and lacks a sense of belonging. They switch jobs for a slight raise in salary because salary is all they get from a job. 

As for customers, it is ironical that when every product is designed around ‘user experience’, so little is the user accounted for when it comes to buying or servicing. Customers can cry hoarse about call centre complaints being ‘closed’ without resolution, redress is rare.

Many start-ups and new entrepreneurs, in their enthusiasm of the vast playing field that has opened out to them online, have created business facades and illusion of services that do not exist. A latest mobile app that promises handymen for all jobs has none of these on their rolls, nor is the workforce that they promise authenticated by them for workmanship or trust — the app owners work as middlemen, albeit in a virtual world where the customer as well as the service provider is faceless. Having the power of an app may make us feel ‘empowered’, but in reality, it is superficial. Our personal details flash on the mobile phones of cab drivers engaged by companies that have no physical presence and take no accountability for the person or service they supply. The consumers are so addicted to convenience that we don’t think twice before compromising our personal safety.

Focus India

It is the people who must fill the lacuna that technology creates. Technology cannot be adopted in standalone environments. People and processes have to be aligned to technological advancement so as to achieve optimal advantage. Presumably, the Railways will spend Rs 700 crore from the Nirbhaya Fund to install CCTV cameras in trains for security. A June news report from Bangalore tells us that 500 BMTC buses were outfitted with two cameras per bus for women’s safety. It solves little as the process of retrieving CCTV footage is marred by red tape; footage is preserved for only 15 days; there is no real time monitoring; the CCTV cameras cover only the front and back of the bus and cannot effectively monitor rush hour. At best, this step may act as a deterrent for these crimes. But if people decided to not be mute spectators of harassment, the problem would not exist. Life today has been simplified by digital, automated solutions. The commonest being the booking of an LPG cylinder. It takes a minute to book if the phone number is aligned to the consumer number. There is an app developed in Telangana by the transport department, designed for parents of children using school buses. On keying in the registration number of the bus, a parent can access all details, including the names of the driver and conductor; the condition of the bus — whether the bus has a fire extinguisher and first aid kit; as well as track its route on the Global Positioning System (GPS). Fifteen-year-old Trisha Prabhu, angered by the suicide of another young girl due to cyber-bullying, has developed a software program that through text recognition, prompts a potential bully, if they want to send the message. It makes them think it over. New-age problems need new-age solutions. There has to be a breakthrough in our thinking, in our prioritising to keep the humaneness alive in our technology-driven lives.

Our local radio ran a story for days that shook the conscience of the city — of a young man narrating his harrowing experience of taking his unconscious father to hospital in an ambulance. People did not give way to the ambulance and his father could not be saved. Doctors said he was late by just five minutes. Yes, we have become self-centred and apathetic. But it is also true that we are confined by very trying circumstances of our super-crowded metros. Most times there is no place on the road for vehicles to move and give way. Among the well-known corruption practices is the way driving licenses are issued. How many drivers know what they should do when they hear an ambulance or fire engine stuck behind their vehicle? Are the traffic cops doing what they should in these situations? Very rarely have I seen a traffic cop help clear way for an ambulance. But I have once seen on M G Road, a group of young boys who swung into action, stopping the traffic instantaneously and moving the barricades to allow an ambulance to drive away, finding its way on the other side. Tech is for us, not we for tech. We’re increasingly adopting technology without embracing a culture of working, of thinking as humans. Digitisation has to come in where people cannot. It must enhance the value of our lives — to help create way for an ambulance, to stop rail accidents.

Friday, October 09, 2015

*Friends in small places: Allaudin

Taak-tak, taak-tak... the afternoon sound in the quiet college lobby comes from the post office. If I step in, I will find the lanky Allaudin bent over stacks of letters, thumping the stamp in his hand first on the ink pad and then on the letters one by one. He will then proceed to toss them into the sorting frame. 
I can smell the place now – of new paper and post office glue. Later in the afternoon, Allaudin can be seen making the rounds of the campus on his old Atlas bicycle dropping off our letters from his worn canvas bag. He doesn’t drop all in the letter boxes but stops when he sees someone whose letters he knows are in his bag -  I see him tilt his bike and rest his right leg on the road to stop. 

The climb to our house is steep, he must get down and walk his cycle. I spot him and run, ‘Allaudin Uncle, hamara letter hai?’ ‘Papa ka hai’, he hands me a clutch of Inland letters, postcards, envelopes and newsletters – they come every day. I look for stamps.  I wait for the SPAN magazine to look at the glossy pictures first and then read some. Sometimes there are letters addressed to me, ‘Miss’ they say. Once as I waited to buy stamps, the men at the counters were talking of Allaudin, of his Ramzaan rozas. It was the first time I had heard of someone going without water the entire day. I craned my neck and stood on toes to look at Allaudin sitting inside. Taak-tak, taak-tak...his hands were stamping the letters.  

Today, October 9 is World Post Day.

*The title, ‘Friends in small places’ is from a Ruskin Bond collection inspired by people who have left a lasting impression on him’. 

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

My reading list in the Times of India, Bangalore today.
There's no direct link but it’s on page 8 if you want to read it in the epaper.

Margins to mainstream

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Shefali Tripathi Mehta, August 2, 2015, DHNS

A friend posted an update about a milkman’s daughter getting 93 per cent marks in Class 12 board exams and someone responded by saying, “What does the parents’ profession have to do with their children’s marks?” 

A great deal, really.

The country was still not done lauding the amazing feat of the brothers, Raju (18) and Brajesh (19), sons of a daily wage worker, who made it to the prestigious IITs with ranks 167 and 410 respectively, when the details of how they were continually harassed for going to school and college, and dreaming of more, began appearing in the media. Belonging to a lower class, the boys faced blatant discrimination, not unknown in this country, but prevailed. Such stories of those who defy the odds of social alienation and economic deprivation are few and far between. Thousands of first-generation learners, that is, those whose parents have received little or no formal education, still sieve through the harsh social realities and retreat to the margins.

For generations we have seen children from families with limited means and the repressed follow their parents’ profession naturally. As naturally as slipping into their shoes, as it were. I don’t seem to have registered with much surprise in my childhood when the little boys who tagged along with their father, the dhobi, to collect clothes for washing, started coming in his place, or when the grocer in the 8x12 shop, the burly Uncle who seemed to have been permanently installed behind the big jars of boiled sugar treats, made way for his son; or when I opened the door for the old, bent sweeper and in walked her daughter to wash the toilets? These children too must’ve wished for a different future, but when the daily struggle is to feed and clothe the body, how much further could they have gone?  

But the proverbial winds of change are a-blowing. There is more public acceptance and sensitisation towards equality in society; role models and success stories for these children to emulate are real and believable; and many more of the generation that did not get education themselves realise its importance and are keen to have their kids educated.

Of courage
Our house-help’s children study in the same private college that our daughter attended. This is the story of every urban household. She, like thousands of her generation — maids, drivers, dhobis, security guards — work hard to provide the best they can to their children so the children do not get sucked into a life of manual work like them. These hardworking men and women take on extra work so they may be able to afford a private school/ college education, tuitions, transportation, good clothes and shoes, mobile phones and computers for their children. 

The obstacles these children face are not something we cannot guess. A large percentage of the very poor are unable to complete even the first five years of primary education. The cost of putting kids into school is high. Poverty pulls them back continually so they can do something ‘useful’. When a child as young as nine can earn, how easy is it to let them to not contribute to a meagre family income? 

What happens when the academic achievement is low? The reason may be uninspired teaching. The Right to Education does not guarantee good education. In towns and cities, parents forgo the ‘free’ education in favour of unregulated, arbitrarily steep-priced private English medium schools not just because these are a symbol of upward mobility, but also because parents want nothing to stall their kids’ career prospects. 

What about higher education? How are these kids helped to deal with the bureaucratic operations of higher education about which the other kids learn from family and their networks? More than five lakh students appear for the IIT-JEE each year. Most of them begin preparations as early as 12 years of age. That’s a preparation of six years. This is true for other entrance exams for admission into professional courses too. Where do these kids get the resources, help and guidance for such preparations?
In higher education, the medium of instruction is almost always English, a jump that many find daunting. Gandhi shared his experience of shifting from the vernacular to English. “Everything had to be learnt through English — Geometry, Algebra, Chemistry, Astronomy, History, Geography. ...If any boy spoke in the class in Gujarati, he was punished. It did not matter to the teacher if a boy spoke bad English which he could neither pronounce correctly nor understand fully... His own (the teacher’s) English was by no means without blemish... The result was chaos. We the boys had to learn many things by heart, though we could not understand them fully... I took four years to learn Arithmetic, Geometry, Algebra, Chemistry and Astronomy, (that) I should have learnt easily in one year, if I had not to learn them through English but Gujarati. My grasp of the subjects would have been easier and clearer... What happened to me ...was common to the majority.” 

Parents with little or no formal education fail to provide educational, vocational or personal guidance to their children. As part of the company’s CSR, we were conducting a career workshop for girls at an orphanage — introducing a wide-range of careers to teenagers. We began by asking them of their career goals. Most girls were attending regular school and many were very bright. Some wrote beautiful poems and stories and some were remarkable artists. But when it came to careers, they chose teaching or becoming a nun, the only two professions they had seen at close quarters. A couple of them, drawn to what they saw at a beauty parlour on the way to school, said they wanted to work there. Who bridges this information gap and provides them career guidance? 

There is also the issue of environment and peers. Many first-generation learners live in environments that do not encourage them to continue their education. With economic hardship comes the need to help with domestic chores. Tai ma, who cleans homes, was deserted along with her three sons by her husband. She worked hard to put them through school. While two of her boys managed high school and found respectable jobs, one dropped out as he could not shake off the company of boys given to drinking and gambling in the slums they live. The absence of role models and influencers within the family and neighbourhood is an immense disadvantage. Raju and Brajesh’s success will inspire many youngsters in their neighbourhood and community. But most of these children do not have a believable idol to identify with or emulate.

Besides, there is the matter of social adjustments. This takes more courage and determination than we care to admit. My friend Kempanna, who comes from a very humble background and is currently a visual designer with an Indian multinational, tells me that he never hides the reality of his modest beginnings; the tough life of his mother who worked in homes; and the humiliation the family faced — everything that made him resolve to change it for the better for himself and his family, because he believes it gives others like him the courage to aspire big. 

Of discrimination

Workplace discrimination is just as much a reality today as it was at the time of Independence, 68 years ago. But in today’s fast-paced, continually evolving, performance-based work culture, it is the non-performers, the misfits alone that can be discriminated against. A world obsessed with quick-turnarounds cannot be bothered with the social and economic backgrounds of a ‘valuable resource’. 

This brings up the debatable issue of reservations. We may not have got rid of our caste discriminations completely, but modern India has come a long way from when the Communal Award was instituted in 1932 by the British Prime Minister, Ramsay McDonald. Among other caste-based divisions it created, which not just Gandhi but Ambedkar too opposed, there was a provision for ‘reserved’ constituencies for the untouchables to contest from and for them alone to vote. Political representation is important, but the manner in which these have manifested into the clichéd ‘vote-bank’ politics to render much of our democratic process as well as reform and equality ineffectual, is shameful. Eight decades and much reservation reforms later, if reservations still need to be increased, there is something terribly wrong with this as a reform to uplift the repressed.

The need is for a level playing field for all; for extending financial support and quality education at the foundation level not based on caste but on economic condition. The ‘free and compulsory’ education under the RTE, envisaged to lead to a democratic and egalitarian society, is up to middle school. How far can a child go with middle school education? Also, when has the right to education guaranteed good education? We know the condition of government-run primary and middle schools. Much time and effort went into standardising the ‘Minimum Levels of Learning’ for each class at the primary level. But in the current system of uninspired teaching, who is going to implement and monitor this? Mid-day meals bring the kids to school, but are the schools good enough to ensure a different future for them? Does this education annul the opportunity cost? In the private sector where there is no reservation, people from humble backgrounds have risen exceptionally because reward and recognition is the motivation.

Of patrons & incentives

Indians, cutting across regional, caste and religious lines, have contributed generously towards the admission fee of the four boys from poor families who made it to the IITs this year. All four were coached at Anand Kumar’s Super 30 in Bihar. Anand Kumar, the man on a mission, runs Super 30 that selects 30 kids from very poor families and coaches them free for the prestigious IIT entrance exam. The Pratapgarh brothers’ (Raju and Brajesh) fee has been waived off; help and contributions from many including politicians, social workers and film stars have been promised. Not just the wealthy, but middle class Indians too contribute and help poor students in need. Sadly, patronage comes rarely to the average student who too must have a go at a better life.

Amit Shukla from Mumbai tells me that his house-help is forgetful, hard of hearing and slow, but they let it slide because in spite of a drunk and abusive husband, she has put her daughter through one of the best colleges in Mumbai and the daughter now works as ground staff for an airline.

These kids need guidance and mentoring as much as financial help. The wealthy couple who supported Kempanna asked him what he wanted to do after school. Kempanna being a brilliant artist, said he wanted to learn painting. He did not know what career options he had except that he could be a drawing teacher. 

Shanti, the daughter of construction worker, grew up in my parents’ home. She was bright and willing, but there was continual societal resistance my parents faced to enable her to study through school and college, earn a vocational degree and find a job. When she was married off to a less educated boy according to her parents’ wishes, she ended up supporting him and her two children. But as a Special Educator, Shanti is a shining example of the power of perseverance.    

I still remember how her old, illiterate father would sit by the dim light in their jhuggi at night and ask her to read from her English textbook. Often, not knowing much herself, she would repeat the same words in different sequences till the old man, warm in the thought of his little daughter speaking the sahab log’s tongue, fell asleep.
Will is the way

Radheshyam Panwariya is an assistant professor of Hindi in the Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh. At the age of eight, he was sent to a government-run hostel for the blind by parents both of who were illiterate. It was among peers that he realised that to gain independence, he would need to educate himself. After completing high school, he hit a dead end and did not know how and what to do with his life. He tells me he had Rs 600 left of his scholarship and nowhere to go. For almost three months, there was little to eat. When an NGO offered him help, he took it for his personal needs, but refused to latch on to them entirely and instead took up a job as a Shiksha Karmi. He studied in the mornings and worked in the afternoon to complete his studies. Many people he met motivated him. The lady who read lessons to him would know when he came hungry and offered food and milk. Whenever he lost sight of his dream of becoming a professor, she reminded him.

Radheshyam is a firm believer of the dictum that one must want to help oneself because he has a brother who too is blind and all his efforts to make the brother realise the value of educating himself and becoming independent, have failed. Kempanna echoes the same sentiment. He says a lot of kids from backgrounds such as his get opportunities but not everyone can go for the ‘kill’ that it requires. 

Professor Prabodh Kumar recognised the writer in his domestic help. He encouraged her, and today she’s known as the author, Baby Halder. Bigoted minds can cling to their insecurities, but the wise will give a hand where it is needed. I have just answered the door. It was the raddiwala who collects old newspapers from house to house. He has ignored my calls for the last two days. He smiles as I register displeasure and tells me in his broken Hindi, English and Tamil that his son has got admission into a medical college.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Good news is no news

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Good news is no news
Shefali Tripathi Mehta, June 7, 2015, DHNS

The elders’ reprimand to keep quiet if I spoke during the news on radio is an abiding childhood memory. News was timed — morning and evening on the radio; the local morning newspaper; and the national newspaper that came in the afternoon by train in the city I grew up. News was not as easily accessible as it is now. If one missed it, there was no way of checking it immediately. If ignorance wasn’t bliss, it was at least less overwhelming. Now it seems there’s no getting away. We are drowning in information.

Twelve-year old Sana was looking forward to visiting her grandparents in the summer vacations. When the family decided to do the long journey from Bangalore to Delhi by train, her first reaction was a worried, ‘What if the train meets with an accident?’ Train accidents were all she has seen and known of train journeys from watching news. That was her immediate recall. All around us there is news of corruption, scams, killings, abductions, rape, poverty, negligence, injustice. It does not help that news doesn’t ‘come to us’ like it did about two decades ago, but we ‘go’ to it. In our Internet-enabled, connected world, we are constantly being bombarded with news and very often rumour, scandal or expose in the garb of news.

Breaking news — and all of it is breaking — comes streaming to us as it is unfolding. If it does not update in two seconds on our phones and computers, we refresh and reboot, panicking about what we may be missing out — a catastrophe worse than any tragedy we may be following on news. The FOMO or fear of missing out makes us compulsive news seekers.

In the past few years, I have seen many friends trying to shut out news completely by not subscribing to newspapers or watching it on television. Though how one can insulate oneself thus in times when news has a way of getting to us and not the other way around, is a wonder. How are the readers and viewers coping? What keeps their hopes for a better world alive?

Choose & filter

Girish Ananth, a software professional, says he would gladly rid himself of the habit of reading news online and offline that lead to a nagging sense of despair and depression, but he is addicted. That his job keeps him in front of an Internet-connected computer at all times makes the escape impossible. But he has gradually learned to read between the lines and recognise at a glance whether a news item is sensationalist or agenda-driven or deserving of more attention.

Tisha Srivastav moderates a closed group called ‘Lifeistan’ on Facebook. In the group description she states, ‘I will delete pointlessly negative comments’. A former journalist, Tisha rejects opinionated accounts in favour of field reportage. She believes that people are cynical because they are passive receivers of news. People must exercise what she calls the ‘powerful choice of rejection’ of news. So does Varun Pai, interaction designer, who disregards stories that do not present the ‘other side’ that allow him to put things into perspective and form an independent opinion for himself.

Reading news is part of her job as publication and advocacy officer with the World Health Organization, and Vismita Gupta Smith who was recently in Kathmandu to report the relief operations says depressing as it is, she cannot switch off from news because of her need to stay informed. Marzia Ibrahim, young student and staunch nationalist at heart, wonders how much news is too much. She supports the freedom of the media to report stories, but feels strongly about the ethics that they must follow so as to not infringe on the rights of the people who are part of their stories. Sensationalism and public shaming needs to stop, something that has spiralled out of control with the rise of social media, she rues.

Remedy & recourse

We are moved by make-believe; we cry and laugh while watching films. How is it possible that real life events that give rise to fear, anger, frustration or anxiety will not affect our moods and consequently our psychological health? Writer and life coach, Eshwar Sundaresan, says that negative news impacts those already depressed and he has sometimes advised depressed clients to avoid watching news or reading newspapers till they feel better about their own lives. 

I asked Sapna G K, a senior counsellor, how despairing news affects people’s overall perception of life. Her response was matter-of-fact, “If one cannot control the events that happen in the world, and if there are more bad things than good, then that is the reality of the situation, which we need to come to terms with.” She says, “If it bothers you to the extent that it’s affecting your personal life, you can choose how much news you want to take in or not at all. Otherwise, do something to make the world a better place in the ways you can — like volunteering and helping others.” 

Girish too believes that all sorts of unpleasant things happen over which we have no control, “The world is not a fair place, so why get involved emotionally? Why not just work on our own ‘circle of concern’?” He takes recourse in classical music.

Sandeep Bekal, entrepreneur, is a regular newspaper reader who tries not to get too perturbed over bad news because he believes there is a lot good happening too which does not get reported. Spiritualism helps him keep his hope that things will change for the better. Kahkashan Ahmad, mother of teenagers who works with an NGO that helps with the education of underprivileged children, comes across very inspiring stories of the potential and talents of these children, but regrets that such uplifting news has no takers. Volunteering keeps her hope alive.

Editor and translator, Keerti Ramachandra, often shares on Facebook stories of human kindness that she encounters — a passport officer or a cop who goes out of their way and sometimes beyond their call of duty to be helpful. She says that generally news makes her angry and frustrated by its content, but when some act of kindness, some generosity from an unexpected quarter comes by, she is moved enough to believe in the innate goodness of human beings and is immediately hopeful. 

Immediacy of sharing

The same items pop up on our newsfeeds again and again. We share easily on social media. Many-a-times it is not the need to inform, but a need to show our stand which drives this. In hindsight, a lot of what we share and say may seem unfair or reactionary. A lot of the sensational news on social media remains unauthenticated. Displaying poor taste and discretion, tragedies are laid threadbare for the sake of TRPs because we have become voyeurs of mourning. This adds to a sense of collective gloom and hopelessness. Tisha is very clear in her approach to news consumption — to witness and not react. She says she’s always careful while sharing — never sharing while witnessing, always later. But such a sagacious mindset is not easy to sustain on social media which comes with readers’ reactions. Everyone has a say and it is not always pleasant or thought out. Most responses are not just lacking in sensitivity, propriety and grace, but are often caustic and unfair.

Over the last two decades, the line between news and news features has blurred with news becoming not just emotionalised, but ‘tabloidised’. Our reaction to it is consequently, emotional. Lapses of judgement are not on the part of the media alone, it is a reflection of the reactionary mood of society today — our hurry, our frailty of speaking too soon. These are our failings. We have fed the monster.

Close to the immediacy of sharing comes what I call the ‘immediacy of caring’, an irrepressible phenomenon that has burgeoned out of the quick, cheap and easy means of communication — Internet and mobile phones. My daughter was at school during the serial bomb blasts of July 2008 in Bangalore. My phone began to ring within minutes of the news breaking on television and well-wishers from all parts of the country began to ask if I wasn’t going to fetch her. It wasn’t closing time yet, so I was sure she would be safe in school. I trusted the school authorities to ensure the students’ safety and had no reason to worry as long as she was inside the school with the rest. But pushed thus, I began to panic. The television news was showing the same clips over and over, there was fear of the phone lines getting jammed. Many in my situation would have felt compelled to venture out themselves and create more panic and confusion when there was absolutely no need.  

Exploitive and yellow journalism creates scaremongering in the most harmless situations. Film Editor Amitabh Shukla says his father calls him every time it rains in Mumbai. The TV shows everything in the city submerged, without clarifying that it is in pockets. His family’s entire perception of Mumbai floods is based not on what he tells them, but what the TV shows.

A paradigm shift

Sometime around the 2010s, some people began to feel strongly about showcasing positive, inspiring stories. These soup for soul stories quickly caught up the imagination of the readers who were desperate for stories of courage and motivation as a foil for all the depressing news they were surrounded with. The reach of digital media provided these new news websites a comfortable foothold, and gradually, mass following. These social media-supported news websites like the Better India and Love Hindustan were able to start an alternative news medium and stick their heads out of the media clutter by carrying positive stories alone. 

‘We feature positive news across India, celebrate the successes of unsung heroes and change makers, showcase the little known good things about our country...’ Better India declares. “We believed despairing news could not make people contribute and change,” says Dhimant Parekh, founder, the Better India, that started as a two-member team. They began by linking positive articles from various publications on a blog, but it was difficult because there were so few positive stories. Then they started covering feel-good and motivational news themselves and as more people joined and volunteered, the articles became more varied. Today, the Better India has more than 1,00,000 followers on Facebook and about 20,000 followers on Twitter.

Love Hindustan too is a news portal exclusively dedicated to giving readers ‘the other side of India that everyday newspapers and websites don’t’. They link positive news articles from other sources and do some stories themselves. The Logical Indian is another much-followed news website that focuses on bringing to its readers social issues that according to them ‘often miss the limelight in the traditional media’. They have a following of over two million. They have not limited their content to positive news stories alone and prefer to call their work, ‘efforts for good’.
Striking a balance

“We need the media to highlight failings of government bodies, injustices, wrong doings and social problems to create awareness and get people moving towards positive action and hold the government agencies accountable,” says Keerti. 

This is exactly what Satyen Bordoloi feels. And there are many like him who are okay with despairing news because it tells them how and where they can channelise their efforts. An activist and documentary filmmaker, Satyen does not want to receive only feel-good, uplifting news. If there is despairing news, it only means he needs to ‘pull up my sleeves to try and do something about it’. He considers all news positive because once reported, all misdeeds and malpractices, corruption and scams can only lead to corrective and positive changes in the society.

Also, news may be upsetting because distressful news sticks to us more easily and surely than feel-good news, says game developer Anando Banerjee. If there were two headlines, ‘India jumps up five places on the Global Happiness Index’ and ‘People die in wall collapse’, we are likely to read and remember the latter better. There is no doubt there is a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in others’ misfortunes, but there is also a sense of relief that ‘it didn’t happen to me’, he adds.
As with everything else in life, we need a balanced dose of news — with the not-so-good must come the good. News media should make a consistent effort to report uplifting news along with the disturbing headlines that cannot be ignored. Political analyst Prashanth Potluri is of the view that newspapers should ensure that at least the front page always has positive news so that people have a good start to their day. 

News media gives us what we sanction, it runs on our choices. We have to stop feeding the monster we have created by rejecting sensationalism. Mountain-out-of-molehill news would have to stop if we didn’t consume it. It will seem unthinkable today, but on April 18, 1930, the BBC had no news for the evening and it announced, “There is no news today.”  The announcement was followed by piano music.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Invisible Workforce

Shefali Tripathi Mehta, March 15, 2015, DHNS

A friend related how at a government-run health clinic where he was required to take shots before travelling abroad, he was exposed to untold risks at the hands of health workers who went to the extent of breaking open the injection vial with a scooter key lying about.

We can get angry, fight, complain, but why is it that these things never change? Why is it that the lady cleaning the corridors leaves patches of the floor unswept and dirt in corners? Why is it that the nurse is callous while doing a dressing? Why is the clerk in a government office unwilling to settle a small issue sending one into a spiral of red tape? 

They seem indifferent and difficult. But what about us who only notice them when they slip or are ‘absent’ from work? If the garbage collectors go off work for a day, we cannot breathe as rubbish piles up at street corners; in many metros, as in Bangalore, lives come to a standstill if the water tanker suppliers’ wilful demands are not met; in homes, we cannot seem to function without the help of maids, drivers and istriwalas. 

Yet, we look down upon their work; resist their assertion of rights, forming of unions, even a group to protect their rights; grudge them time-offs; expect them to wear our old clothes and shoes; buy off at half price our outdated appliances; and feel let down when they decide to move on in order to improve their station in life. 

We would like not to engage with them and yet want them to function with machine-like precision so our lives may run smoothly. They are the invisible people who we treat with apathy and often, much disdain, but whose services we cannot live without.

We may posture as liberal and unbiased, but we remain at core a classist society and whatever we may say to counter it, in our minds we still hold people in their ‘correct’ social places so that the jigsaw of our public life does not appear jumbled. So, when a street kid enters the world’s largest fast food chain, we don’t know what to do. 

The doorman, unsure of which side of the plate glass doors that he holds open, he himself belongs, scampers to save his job, and does what he thinks best to keep the area ‘sanitised’ for the privileged. Wasn’t that his job in the first place? The unspoken responsibility his duty demands? Why else do we have doormen if not to keep ‘certain’ people out? Isn’t that what ‘right to admission reserved’ really implies? 

When the woman who has accompanied the kid inside cries foul, the social media goes into hyper drive to roll eyes and condemn. Each one of us feels obliged to involve ourselves with the issue even though we know it is commonplace. Our five-minutes of dinner time eyebrow-raising changes nothing. Things stay as they were — status quo. Except, perhaps, the bewildered doorman may have been reprimanded or worse, shown the door.

Recognition & appreciation

I remember an incident from early childhood when a family friend visiting from the US was returning. She was leaving our small town by train and there was a gathering of people come to see her off. As the train began to chug away, she stood at the door waving at us.

Noticing the driver of the car that had brought her and some of the party to the station standing a little away, she waved out to him. I still remember the elders talking about it days later. They thought it amusing and somewhat wanton. Drivers are there to drive cars and not to ‘engage’ with the employers in other ways. Their presence need not be acknowledged.  

Studies show that it is not the fear of losing job but appreciation by the bosses that motivates employees to work harder and better. The top reasons why people are bored with their jobs are because their jobs are not challenging enough; they need more responsibility; and seek opportunities that will allow them to grow. So it is hardly surprising that this section of people have little motivation to do their work well when no one seems to recognise or appreciate their efforts.

When we see a garden blooming, lovingly cared for, we take pictures to share with friends — our friends, people in our social circle. Do we ever go to the gardener and tell him what a wonderful job he is doing? We only complain and report him when we think he is not. When do we send out a box of mithai to a clerk and not their boss when our important work comes through? When do we ever return to thank a nurse who has extended care beyond her call of duty during our time in hospital? Regrettably, we don’t even know them by their names. 

Most parents teach their kids to address elders with respect. So we have them call elders ‘uncle’ and ‘aunty’. But we never squirm when little children address this workforce around us as ‘watchman’, ‘driver’ or ‘maid’. When a plumber, electrician or carpenter is unable to fix our problem, we feel cheated and frustrated. Do we stop to consider that maybe the problem isn’t with them, but with us who want to pay these handymen as little as possible? For the money we are ready to part with, these workmen or the agencies that hire them for us do not find training economical. So we have an army of half-skilled, unmotivated workers that expose our lives to unnecessary hassles and risks. 

The rights of this section of workers are not protected by law and they are most often not entitled to any employment benefits like paid leaves for sickness or maternity, job security, pension, health insurance or opportunities to grow. It is not surprising that ‘trade/workers unions’ have become a frightening word for the people on the other side and there is resistance from the employers to let workers organise themselves thus. This makes them retaliate in ways big and small to wield their power when they can. When a clerk, frustrated with his job that neither fulfils his needs nor his heart, sees how we’re at the mercy of his assistance, he shows us who is in command by making things tough for us. 

Dignity & humility

On a sweltering summer afternoon, we were pulled over by a traffic cop. Irritated because we knew we had not broken any rule, I rolled the window down only to be asked if I could give him some water to drink. How we fume at the traffic policemen when they hold us up. We can never appreciate their tough working conditions — constantly on the alert in the midst of dust and smoke in harsh weather with no water or washroom facility for hours together. 

Many drivers and house maids have no washroom facilities in swank apartment, commercial and office complexes. The thought does not cross the minds of those that build nor those of us that live or work here. It is not economical to invest in such. Their everyday needs are beyond our reckoning. A house-help told me about how dirty the family she worked previously with left the dishes for her to wash. Smeared with gravies and leftovers that turned putrid by the time she cleaned, she was often left nauseated. Would we leave them so if one of us had to clean the dishes? These things happen all the time and we stay smug in our pocket of indifference. 

In any service or customer-facing enterprise, the customer’s feel-good factor is critical. It is the attention to detail that mainly this staff takes care of that makes all the difference to our experience. It is this workforce that creates the first impressions of a place — the house-help who opens the door to greet us, brings a glass of water with a smile; the obliging receptionist at an office or hospital; the attentive waiter at our restaurant table.

I was amused to see the remains of a price sticker clinging to the bottom of not one but two glasses at a luxury hotel. Millions can be spent on facilities, but the customer can be put off by ill-mannered, uninvolved, untrained and unskilled staff; by negligence in small places. To keep them motivated to do their jobs well, we need to treat them with dignity and humility.  

Every talk on dignity of work begins and ends with us citing Mahatma Gandhi’s advocacy to clean toilets. Those were the days of manual carrying away and cleaning of the chamber pots. Gandhiji advocated it because that one task that made a whole ‘class’ untouchable, strips one completely of the ego. Modern day flush toilets, quite often one per person, do not demand any such exertion of the ego.

In a more democratic set-up where the social lines are blurred on the surface although they may run deep in our minds, according dignity to each person doing any work that we may consider ‘lowly’, and treating each with humility, is how our egos will be kept in check. There are people trying to make a living at street corners by handing us pamphlets; asking us to fill questionnaires; or those that come knocking at the door at three in the afternoon selling four-for-the-price-of-one encyclopaedias; sanitary napkins; home-made pickles and hand-embroidered bed sheets. 

Most often, they are irritants in our ‘on demand’ living that stipulates that the service that we need reaches us when we want, and without-hassle. The ‘without-hassle’ would imply among other things that it should not involve dealing with people whom we consider below our station.

Treating the lowest labour at work with humility and allowing them to improve and acquire new skills and grow is according dignity to labour. The cook in the house wanted to learn to bake a cake, but the cautious neighbour sounded the bell, “Don’t teach her that! Next house she goes to work in, she’ll ask for more money saying she can also bake.” And, why not? Hasn’t she acquired a new skill? Doesn’t she deserve to do well? How can we deny them what we want for ourselves? 

Persistent paradoxes

‘Tolerance’ is a nasty word used most annoyingly to assert our liberal outlook. Why should we tolerate people, differences, new ideas, a fresh perspective or changes? We need to do better. We need to embrace and support these wholeheartedly. In a democratic society, everyone has the opportunity to thrive and succeed; and they have the right to not be judged poorly for what is beyond their control like their socio-economic background or status.

 “A daughter-in-law is to be treated as a member of the family with warmth and affection and not as a stranger with respectable and ignoble indifference. She should not be treated as a house maid. No impression should be given that she can be thrown out of her matrimonial home at any time...” This, according to media reports, was the observation made by the country’s top court while sentencing a man for torturing his wife which led her to commit suicide. 

What does it mean? How ‘can’ a house maid be treated? Can she be thrown out of the house anytime? This is the disadvantage they live with. Our prejudices run deep. We reveal our constricted mindset in subtle and not so subtle ways. In a face-off between a house maid and an envoy, is it a surprise that the nation sides with the envoy even before the details of the case are before us, even before the maid’s side of the story is heard? Our preoccupation with ‘our’ class has us fuming over the injustice done to ‘one of us’. 

The stereotypical mindset believes that the maid must be at fault because we have imbibed the notion that ‘these people’ are conniving and out to cheat us. Just as half-hearted and slipshod work is rejected with reprimand, every effort to improve and excel has to be recognised and appreciated. 

It may cause a slight societal still surface disturbance when we step out of our sanitised bubbles to tell the kitchen help that the cup of coffee is the best; thank the liftman and smile at the lady sweeping the corridor; reply to the doorman’s greeting; and ask the courier guy if he would like some water. It is time we started noticing those standing in the sidelines, those that we would rather not see or hear. It is time to feel with sincerity the work they do and accord them recognition and appreciation.

I’m still thinking of this piece as I step into the food court of an upmarket mall. Seated next to me is a family of four — young parents and teenage daughters. The girls are holding in their intricately nail-arted hands elaborate swirls of coned ice-creams and licking away nonchalantly as a maid — a girl also their age — sits a little away smiling away her awkwardness. No, she’s not having an ice cream. Should I take consolation in the fact that she’s allowed to sit at the same table?

Disclaimer: The paper chose to change my headline to: ‘They are one of us, too’ which goes against my arguments in the piece; completely defeats the objective of the piece; and is discriminatory.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Whose life is it anyway?

Shefali Tripathi Mehta, Jan 11, 2015, DHNS

When I gave my daughter, then ten years old, a cell phone hidden in a lunchbox (cell phones were forbidden) to carry to school each day because she was the first to get into the school bus and the last to get down, and no teacher or attendant’s presence was stipulated by the school, it was for her safety, so she could call us in an emergency.

A decade later, a mother who has just got her 14-year old a cell phone, is enquiring furiously of others on Facebook for recommendations for an app to monitor the kid’s cell phone activity. A cell phone is no longer a safety gadget; it has in itself become the source of anxiety for parents. Parenting grows tougher by the years. If you know how many times you have given in to an impetuous response on social media and have regretted it later, you will understand how easy it is to slip. How difficult it is to have the World Wide Web in the palm of your hand and not get sucked into the virtual world.

Of all the challenges that we face in our current expeditious, technology-driven lives, the challenge of bringing up children must be the toughest. Relationships have evolved with time and not necessarily deteriorated. It is imperative to embrace change. Those who refuse to move with the times will be left behind.

In simpler times, the foundation of family rested on a simple principle — parents and elders loved, cared and provided for the children; children in turn respected and observed complete obeisance to them and followed their wishes, demands and expectations. The world view was limited. All this has been radically updated. The process has been gradual and there is no reason for parents and elders to have not evolved with the times.

Last October, in a small town in Karnataka, a 14 year old girl died mysteriously. Whether it was a suicide or a killing is mired in uncomfortable questions with communal undertones. But the overwhelming question is why a life so young that is yet to attain fruition worth only this much — to live or to die to uphold a vague idea that societies impose mainly upon women — honour?

If reports are to be believed, is it fair that a child so young be sacrificed to save a family’s social face? Knowing that this is not a stray incident, the issue begs much soul searching. Why did the child have to die? Why parents who do much to bring a child up cannot tolerate the child’s fleeting impetuousness, a little veering off the toed-line? Why is it that they prefer to lose their child forever than to guide them gently through their tumultuous teenage and after? There has been an alarming rise in suicides among children.

Burden of expectations

The younger generation has discovered a completely new world of independent thinking, learning, living that they are covetous of. Their thinking and world view is being radically modified by the plenitude of information they receive and the awareness that comes with it. Parenting is no longer a one-way street. Parents cannot impose their ideas and decisions on their children without considering their point of view.

According to a United Nations report, about 5,000 women die every year in honour killings perpetuated by family members. Rigid, hollow and meaningless social norms are upheld, especially in smaller communities, for fear of social boycott, but they are not unheard of across all social classes and religious communities.

In December, according to media reports, a girl studying in class 4 left a suicide note in which she said, “Amma, I didn’t go to school for over a week. Please forgive me.” Bangalore hasn’t forgotten the horrific incident where a 13-year-old boy committed suicide because he was made fun of by classmates for failing to make it to the NCC. Earlier last year, a 16-year old girl who was allegedly reprimanded several times by her college principal for speaking with a boy, consumed pesticide and killed herself. Before she died, she wept and said sorry to her mother.

Why do children have to die over such trivial matters? Who are they shaming? They are shaming us as a society for our inability to reach out to them when they need us; for our lopsided view of what is important in life; for our failure to recognise that all children are not the same and do not have to be physically or intellectually on the top to matter; that they are good only if they obey elders unconditionally, unquestioningly.

It’s a tough life

Bullied or stressed; physically or emotionally abused, how is it that parents don’t come to know? There is brouhaha in support of quality time. Every difficult, hesitant conversation in the world needs time — no one begins to talk of their problems in measured hours. Children, with who we also have an age gap, have to be observed, their moods gauged, their problems coaxed out of them gently and with sensitivity.

On the one hand are parents reluctant to liberalise their parenting style, and on the other, those that think children these days are smart enough to ‘manage’ on their own. Parents and children live under one roof only so children can be provided for until they become financially independent and move out. It is a fact that children today are smarter and more ‘aware’, but there is a lot of learning that comes from life that they haven’t experienced. Also, knowing a lot has little to do with maturity of the mind. Haven’t we seen maturity elude older people? There are no cookie cutter minds — some children learn early and some late. It would be unwise to expect them to grow up without any guidance from elders. In fact, with the kind of challenges growing up demands today, gentle, non-intrusive counsel and direction from elders is imperative.

In a lot of cases the hurried, harried parents of today, when called upon to deal with a child’s problem, either over-react or slump into denial. When a child comes to them with a problem, parents either dismiss it as nothing, or provide a ready solution. In the first case, parents have lowered the child’s self-esteem, and in the latter, by failing to discuss it, they have left the child with unanswered questions. But parents seem to have neither the time nor the patience to discuss, gently guide, provide insight from experience and knowledge, listen to contrary points of view; and help children arrive at decisions that they find acceptable.

In these times of convenience-consumption where everything is just a click away, everything is also remote and distant. We lead private, lonely lives. Technology isn’t bringing people closer as we falsely believe. Buying online, learning online — everything is convenient, but has removed and minimised human interaction. Hyperconnectivity creates a sham of friendships. Children may find it easier to reach out to ‘friends’ on Facebook and unburden themselves of their worries than to ask their parents in the next room. What makes them trust a large network of shallow, superficial connections? Can these ‘social connections’ replace family and true friends? Living their lives as they are at breakneck speed, and consuming unprecedented volumes of information that children may falsely believe is crucial for them to keep up, the FOMO — fear of missing out, the virtual world begins to seem more real than the actual.

What happens when a child fails? On social media, everyone seems to be living a fairytale life — everyone is happy, excelling in studies and sports, getting awards and recognition. Anyone who is facing disappointment or frustration is bound to feel the pressure of having failed more keenly. Also, others can be rude and insensitive. It all makes coming to terms with one’s failures extremely difficult. It is the parents who have to take charge and stop making setbacks seem like catastrophes and help them build perspective.

There was a news report of how a 22-year old woman from Lucknow and a boy of the same age from a Punjab village became friends on Facebook and married in court without either family’s consent. Fearing family censure, they immediately filed a writ petition in the High Court demanding protection. When the boy was threatened by his family, he snapped ties with the girl. The girl tried remonstrating with the boy and his family, but failed. Rejected and humiliated, she hanged herself.

What are families for if not for offering unconditional love and support, especially when the going gets tough? Parents and families form a circle of protection and security within which a child is nurtured and nourished. There is much truth in Robert Frost’s words: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” If these children who chose to end their lives instead of seeking parental help were assured of their family’s support, would they have still chosen to die?