In the Sanctuary of Solitude

Pagoda at Dhammagiri

After 12 days in the sanctuary of Dhammagiri, my train is pulling out of Igatpuri station.

Nestled in the clouds of the Western Ghats, the Vipassana International Academy has been a mind bending experience in more ways than one.

You will have to observe complete silence; hand in all electronic and communication devices and all reading and writing material; gratefully accept whatever food is provided to you; rise at 4 am, sleep at 9.30 pm; observe strict discipline; practice meditation with an alert and attentive mind for 10 and a half hours each day…” the guidelines were clear and un-apologetic

Strangely, I had never heard about Vipassana before – or if I had, it had not registered. Nevertheless when it was suggested to me a few weeks ago, I felt drawn by a very strong urge to attend, notwithstanding the above strictures. Registration online at the website showed that the next available vacancies were several months away. The wait seemed too long, so after registration I put in a request to be considered for an earlier program should any last-minute vacancies arise. And 5 days before the current program  commenced, my request was granted.

As no rail bookings had previously been made, the journey from Mumbai was rushed and stressful. The combination of traffic and the compulsion to clear all pending matters and mails before loosing communication with the outside world, resulted in a typical work day – get as much done as possible and end with a headache. In many ways it was a relief to hand in laptop, mobile & blackberry and shut down.

Arya Maun or the time of noble silence commenced immediately thereafter, and we were instructed not to communicate even by way of gestures or smiles. Other than brief periods each day where one could ask questions or clarifications from our Acharyas, speaking with anyone else was strictly prohibited. So for the next several days, the sound of our thoughts was punctuated only by the voice of birds.

Daily instructions were communicated by notice boards which ended with the exhortation मंगल हो – Be happy ! Such as for instance : ” There will be no hot water today मंगल हो – Be happy 🙂

And in fact it was easy to be happy there. The campus of Dhammagiri was a balm to the mind. Centred around a Golden Pagoda and ensconced within a semi-circle of massive hills, we lived literally in the clouds. Drenched by torrential monsoon showers, the hills were a verdant green with beautiful waterfalls everywhere.

The campus was strictly segregated into male and female areas. Accommodation was spartan, but clean and functional. With 325 male students, 225 female students and 50 Teachers and Servers, the kitchens served 600 meals 3 times a day : breakfast at 6.30 am, lunch at 11 am and tea at 5 pm. Food was vegetarian, simple and wholesome.

In the ancient Indian tradition, that those who pursue the path of religion must do as mendicants, all students of Vipassana therefore live on the charity of those who have gone before and there is no charge for the teachings, accommodation or nourishment provided. At the end of the course, should one wish, one can make a donation, not as payment or in compensation for what has been received but as Dana : to make the gift of religion to others.

Greater than the gift of money, is the gift of service. Dhamma Sevaks and Sevikas, those who serve others on the path of religion, offered the service of their time during the course. Nameless and tranquil, they made our stay comfortable. The face of an elderly Sevika from Amravati, is etched in my mind for the love with which she served food every day and the selfless humility with which she cleaned up after all had left.

Greater even than service, is the gift of instruction by the Acharyas and Gurus. Inspired by his Guru, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, S N Goenka a householder and as he describes himself a Bania businessman who was born and brought up in Burma, brought Vipassana meditation back to India.

Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, is believed to be one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation. The practice of Vipassana is the process of self- purification by self-observation. It was taught in India more than 2500 years ago as a universal remedy for universal ills, i.e., an art of Living by Gautama Buddha. As Buddhism spread to India’s neighbours, this practice was carried overseas – and though with time it got forgotten in India, was kept alive in Buddhist monasteries in Burma, through the Guru Shishya tradition.

The Burmese believe that 2500 years after the death of Buddha, his teachings would return to the land of India and from there spread across the world. Reflecting on this idea, I was struck by the thought that both, through the presence of the Dalai Lama and the return of Vipassana through the efforts of Guru Goenka, the timing of the revival of Buddhist teachings in India seemed more than just a coincidence.

Notwithstanding its Buddhist origins, Guru Goenka stresses that the path of Dhamma and the teaching of Vipassana mediatation, has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism. For this reason, it can be freely practiced by everyone, at any time, in any place, without conflict due to race, community or religion.

One begins the Vipassana meditation program by observing one’s natural breath to concentrate the mind. As the mind achieves a sharpened awareness, one proceeds to observe the changing nature of sensations experienced by body and mind and through this realises the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is believed to lead to the process of purification, and with continued practice to eventual salvation.

The many hours of meditation proved one thing – concentrating the mind was hard. All one’s self beliefs of focus and discipline, quickly crumbled…but the serene tranquility of a Dhamma Sevika who sat alongside me inspired me to continue to keep trying. There were days that were really disheartening and others where small steps of progress gave hope. Each evening a discourse by Guru Goenka (now taped on DVD due to his age and frail health) and guidance from our Acharyas, answered questions that had arisen during the day.

On the last day of the program, we were permitted to break the oath of silence. The noise suddenly seemed deafening ! Fellow participants who had so far been shadows, acquired a face. They came from all parts of the country, and many from abroad. Lananh a young MBA student from Vietnam studying; Seema a tax consultant from Khandwa in Madya Pradesh, Suneeta a home maker from Baroda, Maria a Dhamma Sevika from Argentina…each one in their own way delighted to have completed this journey and sharing what they felt it had brought them.

Given access to communication, I read with great sadness of the bomb blasts at the Maha-Bodhi temple at Bodh Gaya. The messages of compassion, peace and harmony that the very essence of every religion seem to be under relentless attack.

Nevertheless, as I leave Dhammagiri, it is with a sense of deep gratitude. This has been a period of deep inner peace with the space for reflection in silence and solitude. I am returning with a sense of balance and perspective and deeply refreshed in body, mind and spirit, for the journey that lies ahead.


Time for an Indian Monsoon to wash our politics clean

This has been an Indian summer filled with heat and dirt.

Every new scam, brings with it ever increasing disillusionment with the existing political establishment, cutting across party lines.

Evidence of rampant corruption to an extent never witnessed before, combined with the brazen disregard for public opinion and probity in public life and, have led India to a tipping point. As political parties trade charges, in an effort to gain political mileage from scandals in the other camp, both Government and Parliament have been paralysed. But for our Judiciary, things would be looking very bleak.

However there are two emerging trends that offer a ray of hope in this dis-heartening environment.

1. The Emergence of Citizen’s parties and candidates : Across the country, like minded citizen’s are coming together to create a new Political Order. There is a growing feeling that we must create a political alternative led by citizen politicians. The hope is that people with integrity, experience, competence, vision and humility will be willing to enter politics, not to serve themselves but to serve their country. Unburdened by the baggage of dynasty and criminals, politics in our country could be washed clean.

Over the past months, I have had discussions with many such groups and individuals. Hearteningly, what unites us is the understanding that bringing this change will take time, and the commitment to stay the course, until it does. As a wise elderly gentleman said “Change will come and we will win, but this is a race in which only the those with the stamina and courage for the long haul will survive. Hamein lambe race ke ghodon ki zaroorat hai !”

I am hopeful that many of these citizens groups will find it possible to rally around a common set of Principles, and agree on the priorities and policies that need to be focused on. If we do so, we can use this precious window of opportunity to create a viable Third alternative that this country so desperately needs.

2. The power of citizen’s participation, enabled by media and technology : It is clear that both media and social media have become game changers. Technology now makes it possible for citizens to actively participate in Governance – to share their views on-line, in real-time and for their voice to be heard. Increasingly our elected representatives are being held accountable, for doing the job they were elected to do, and for upholding moral and ethical values, that many have so far ignored.

Ours has always been a vibrant democracy with an electorate that does not hesitate to boot out incompetent and corrupt administrations. Regrettably these lessons are often forgotten by both incumbents and opposition, in the five-year long lead-up to the next elections.

Nevertheless, these two trends are encouraging signs for a truly representative and participative democracy. Thanks to them, we will hopefully have an Indian Monsoon, (rather than an Arab Spring), to wash away the dirt in Indian politics.

What I stand for

In 2009, I stood for the Lok Sabha, National Parliamentary election as an Independent Candidate for South Mumbai. Though I lost, I learnt a great deal about my city and the people at its heart. It was the beginning of a journey, and one that I knew, I would devote the rest of my life to.

At the time, my step was considered quixotic by many, who regarded it as tilting at the windmills of the powerful Indian political establishment. Yet, in the four years since then, I have been delighted to see a rising wave of other independent citizen candidates and newly formed political parties, start to contest local and state elections.

It is as if the floodgates have opened, and the common citizen, the Aam Janta have said “Enough”. The initial reluctance of our generation, to participate in a political process widely regarded as venal and corrupt, has given away to the realisation that Politics matters. We can no longer abdicate the space of Governing our nation to the lowest common denominator. We can and must participate constructively, not just in the political debate, but in the process itself.

In the past four years I have been asked repeatedly if I would stand again; from which constituency and what my campaign strategy would be. Friends and well wishers have been generous with advice and offers of support, that I greatly value.

But it was a simple question from a child that has dominated my thoughts over the past four years.  “Why are you standing” she asked, “and what do you stand for ?”

To answer this question, I started to undertake a series of exploratory journeys. The first into the issues that our country grapples with. The problems of education and health; of law and order and human rights; of poverty and corruption; of water, energy and food security…and of the best practices and policies that India could adopt, to address these challenges.

But it soon became evident that my ideas were shaped by my own background and perspectives – that of a banker who had grown up in urban India. In my years of banking I had learnt one thing – if you make the wrong assumptions, you make the wrong decisions – and such mistakes can be very expensive. There is no better way to understand the business and prospects of clients than to spend time with them in the field and understand the dynamics and drivers of their business.

Since India lives in her villages, it became clear to me, that this is where I would have to go. So in the summer of 2012, I embarked on a journey to the villages of India. During the course of the year I visited 15 states and spent time in over 120 villages. For the most part I traveled by public transport and lived in the homes, for a day and a night, with the women beneficiaries of my bank’s foundation.

Some of the stories of the journey have been shared with you through this blog and posts on Face book and twitter, and much of it still remains to be told. But the thread that ran through each and every step of this path, was that despite all the cynicism and sense of hopelessness that we experience when we watch TV or read the papers, the heart of India beats strongly.

The dignity and generosity with which I was welcomed into the homes, of women who had very little, will stay with me for ever.

In home after home, my hostesses refused to take any compensation for the hospitality they provided me. The true meaning of “Atithi Devo Bhava” came home to me when in one instance my gift of a saree was gracefully accepted and then in return I was presented her “shaadi ka joda”. Despite the  hard physical labour which they put in over long hours (women everywhere in our country rise at dawn and work till late at night), there was always time for the sharing of stories and for the gift of laughter. It became abundantly clear to me that the women of our country have very big hearts and very broad shoulders.

But it also became clear to me, that we are eroding this moral fibre of our people with the policy of hand-outs and give-aways that every political party is adopting for short-term electoral gains.

In Gram Sabhas, I was often asked aggressively by male villagers, as to what I had come to give them. The plethora of Government schemes driven by electoral promises, delivered inefficiently and with innumerable leakages, is creating a climate of entitlement. This is worsened by well-meaning NGO’s who see development through the lens of charity.

In other villages I was asked for help in accessing bank loans. Initially very pleased at this request, I was distressed to learn the reason bank loans were preferred to all other forms of credit was that “they never had to be repaid – as they were invariably written off before the next election.”

Flag ship schemes such as MGNREGS, which if well executed can transform districts (ref my blog on the Bankura experiment) are in general so poorly implemented that they are becoming major vehicles for corruption and theft. Villagers across the country confided how they had received money despite doing no work, but also shared that they did so in the knowledge that everyone up the chain had taken a much larger cut. “Is it not fair that we should get our share ?” was the simple question.

So we have embarked on a path, where policies that ostensibly aim to provide social justice and inclusion are becoming ruinous. From the recent experience of some countries in Europe, it is clear that such policies are not financially sustainable in the long run and result in the impoverishment of the finances of a nation. What is worse, is that through the collateral damage they create, they impoverish the soul of a nation.

We are converting a proud and dignified people into those who are dependant on hand-outs. This will destroy the future of our children.

The second major concern that I gathered on this journey, was the erosion of faith in our Institutions. The common man has begun to doubt the pillars that are the very foundation of this country – the police, the judiciary, the CBI, various constitutional bodies, and even the Armed Forces.

These are institutions that we look up to, to uphold our rights as free citizens – no matter what our social status or incomes, no matter what our gender, community, caste or religion. We can only be equal in the eyes of the law if there are institutions that defend and uphold our rights, not just in letter but in spirit.

But sadly, whether this is justified or not, the people of India have begun to feel that the integrity of these important institutions have been compromised. This will erode the faith of citizens in the state and the very basis of our democracy.

We are at a tipping point.

Ours is a nation of hard-working, innovative, entrepreneurial people who are decent, God-fearing and honest. Our people have no need for charity, nor is it in their nature to cheat or defraud anyone. We are not a corrupt nation but sadly some of our leaders are. It is not the people of India who have let our country down, but regrettably much of our political leadership has.

It is time for all of us to take a position in defending what we believe to be right. And so, this is why I stand.

And this is what I stand for :

I stand for the soul of India.

I stand to uphold the integrity of our institutions.

And I stand for the dream of every mother who believes that the future of her child will be bright – based on his/her own hard work and because she/he had no more, but also no less, than a fair and equal opportunity.

In search of Dignity – Jagriti Yatra III


Today is the 2nd day of 2013 and the 9th day of the Jagriti Yatra.

The train has acquired the familiarity of a home and co-yatris feel like family. In queues waiting for water, or for a turn to use the facilities, one comes across really interesting stories.

Elizabeth the spider scholar from Kochi, researching the medical potential of spider webs; Shadab who has set up a school for 500 under privileged children in Ranchi; Manish the engineering student in Gauhati who has set up an on line travel agency specialising in tours of the North East…this is an incredibly bright and enterprising group of young people.

Our role is to act as Resource persons and provide perspective and context. Increasingly however, it is clear that it is we, who have much to learn from these youngsters ! Our visits to the Role models over the past three days has also provided much food for thought.

Day 6 was spent in Vishakapatnam. Our first destination was Naandi, where the graceful Leena Joseph shared the story of Naandi’s journey to providing over a million mid-day meals a day. The spotless kitchens and precise supply chain logistics are impressive – but what is most touching is the care and thought that goes into the preparation of the meals. As someone who started the Naandi mid-day meal project by boiling 500 eggs each morning at her home, Leena is a very inspiring role model.

That afternoon we visited the Naval base at Vishakapatnam, and were privileged to be invited on board some of the Navy’s finest ships. As the daughter of a naval officer, being in a naval establishment was a nostalgic experience for me. For many of the Yatris this was their first experience on board a naval vessel and the delight on their faces was a treat to watch !

On December 31st, Day 7 we broke journey at Behrampur in Odisha. The artistry of the people of this state, was immediately evident from the beautiful mosaic work on the walls and facade of the station. We spent the day with Joe Madiath of Gram Vikas, in the campus at Mohuda, and at their project villages of Batapali & Sindurapur in the Ganjam district.

On my journey through the villages of India this year, I have found that the solution to every problem one encounters, is to be found somewhere else in the country. However, despite journeying through almost 120 villages across 12 states, I had been unable to find a practical and affordable solution to providing a toilet and tap water to each home.

At Gram Vikas I was delighted to find a team of people with a simple mission and the solution to this problem. In Joe’s words “In the 21st century no woman should have to walk more than 10 steps for water, and every home should be a House of Dignity“.

The House of Dignity, is the name that Joe gives to a simple two room structure, built behind each hut, comprising of a bathroom and a toilet. Each is supplied with a tap with running water (the Gram Vikas solution comprises an integrated water supply solution based on local water sources).

Behind the House of Dignity, two septic tanks connected by a Y valve are constructed. The toilet drains into a single tank with the Y valve closed. The villagers are encouraged to plant fruit-bearing trees like coconut, banana, lemon etc. around the tanks. Through the process of leaching, the surrounding soil is fertilised, as is evident from the rich crop of fruit. On average it takes about 5-6 years for one septic tank to fill to capacity. The Y valve is then turned to allow the other tank to fill. Within a year the material in the first tank gets converted into humus and can be used as manure. This provides a permanent and hygienic sanitary solution.

The cost of construction including the water supply solution currently averages Rs 20,000 per household. Gram Vikas helps villagers to utilise funds from Government schemes, provides some grant funding but also insists on individual contributions. Another mandatory condition : the entire village has to adopt the water & sanitation solution, which ensures good Hygeine and dignity for all.

The team of Gram Vikas has done yeoman work in Odisha since 1971 in a variety of areas. For Joe and his team this has now become a Mantra : literally the Movement & Action for Transformation of Rural Areas.

For me their work in Water & Sanitation was most impressive – but I was also captivated by the aesthetics of their work, as evident from their beautiful campus. In a state where most tribal homes are a work of art, Gram Vikas fits in seamlessly.

That evening we celebrated New Year’s Eve on the train. Alcohol and tobacco are strictly forbidden for obvious reasons, but this was not the reason for the subdued spirits. The tragic death of another young person hung over the train, and has been the subject of many conversations over the past days.

We spent New Year’s Day in the train, traveling without breaking journey, across the country. This provided the opportunity to reflect on all we had seen so far and to catch up on incomplete conversations !

This morning we arrived in Patna. Anticipating cold wave conditions the Yatris were bundled up in woollens, but were pleasantly surprised at the moderate temperature.

We spent the day with Arbind Singh and his team at Nidan. A student of sociology and law, Arbind returned after his studies to Bihar, and made a simple observation. Most NGO’s had offices in cities and projects in remote rural areas. They somehow forgot to notice the poverty and problems that existed right around them. He therefore started Nidan to focus on the urban poor. Their support to Street vendors, Rickshaw pullers, rag pickers, domestic workers and slum dwellers is legendary and has now expanded to several other states.

After spending the morning with the Nidan team, we split into smaller groups to visit their projects. I spent the afternoon with 3 young girls in the Yarpur Ambedkar colony. Nidan has contracted with the Bihar Government and DFID UK, for the development of this slum, that borders the main railway line from Howrah to Delhi.

The friendship between these three young girls and the way they showed me around their colony and shared their dreams touched me deeply. Ujala Praveen a young 15 year old is the daughter of a sweeper earning Rs 4000 a month. Her mother is a housewife and is constrained by a conservative and much older husband, from working outside the house. But their home is beautifully decorated and she shares and encourages her daughter’s dream of becoming a teacher.

Ujala’s best friend is Gunja Kumari, the 16 year old daughter of a rickshaw puller. One of 5 children she dropped out of school early. Ujala shares her lessons with her, encouraging her friend to study. Tagging along behind them, is 11 year old Nasreen, who lost her mother at the age of 4. The child of an alcoholic father she is protected by her grandmother, but school is not an option as she has to take care of two younger siblings.

Theirs is not an easy life. Of all their travails, the hardest is the lack of toilet facilities. There is one Sulabh Sauchalay for the entire basti, and it is in a very poor shape. The destination for daily ablutions is therefore the adjoining railway track. We listen with horror as people recount the number of victims run over on the tracks.

As the train pulls out of Patna, I reflect on the thread that connects the role models we have recently visited. Each of them has converted their concern for others, into tangible actions that give others both hope and dignity. There can be no better way to start the new year than to spend it in the company of such people.



Timelines, Lifelines & Lifetimes : Jagriti Yatra II


Today is Day 6 of our journey. Over the past three days we have interacted with a number of Role Model Institutions in Bangalore, Madurai and on the outskirts of Chennai.

The Yatris use an interesting Ice breaker to get to know other participants. Through a process called Timeline, each individual describes on a graph, the highs and lows of their lives so far.

Not surprisingly, given how bright (and young !) they are, most define their achievements and disappointments in academic terms. However there are others who seem to have lived a lifetime in their short timelines.

I listened with horror to the young engineer who described how he was called in to identify a friend who had succumbed to family pressure to excel in studies, and laid himself down on a railway track. Many of the young Yatris share heart breaking stories of the loss of a beloved parent. And there are the uplifting stories of those who have contributed in break through ways to their colleges, communities and villages.

The sharing of stories builds a bond that grows closer in the confines of our moving home. Time and space are both limited and the schedule is a tight one. The train has been chartered from the Indian Railways and slots on the destination Railway platforms have a precise and finite time limit. Miss them and there are not just financial penalties – but a cascading effect on the entire schedule.

Early morning starts ( typically 5.30 to 6 am) are followed by breakfast either on the train or platform. The group then heads to the Role Model Institution, for an on-site visit. On return to the train each evening, different groups present critiques of the Institution to the larger Group. Two chair cars linked back to back and connected by Video and Audio act as the Conference room for upto 200 Yatris ! Those who are unable to join the Chair car sessions, crtique the role models in smaller groups in Compartment sessions. Discussions are intense & critical. The quality of presentations is impressive, with an innovative use of music, poetry (Urdu shairi rules the day !) and drama, in addition to Power point presentations

The Role model Institutions have been well picked, reflecting the diversity of Social and Business enterprise across India.

In Bangalore, on Day 3 we camped at the Infosys campus in Electronic city. The iconic status of Infy and the strong foundation of values on which it is based is well known – but still very impressive for the Yatris to see and experience in person. The question that was raised, and on which we failed to find an answer on was why the Infy model ( a start-up collaborative, non-family dominated venture that grew to be a global giant) seems so unique and why it has not yet been replicated in India.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw of Biocon, also joined us at the Infosys campus. The simplicity with which she described her personal journey and how this intertwined with the story of Biocon captivated all of us. The female Yatris were particularly pleased to have the opportunity to interact with a lady who had built a globally recognised Pharmaceutical firm – a truly iconic role model for women in India.

The afternoon was spent with the Millennial entrepreneurs of India’s Silicon Valley – young Indians born in the decade preceding the new Millennium, who have built highly successful Internet companies. They shared their personal Timelines through the lifetime of their new companies, in a highly engaging Panel discussion.

Phani (Phanindra Sama) of Red Bus, shared how a personal pain point in 2005 led to the birth of his firm. Driven by the aim of creating a solution to reduce wasted opportunities (a trip for the customer, a seat for the bus operator, and a commission for the agent) he has set up India’s most efficient bus booking system.

Richa of Zivame, set up an online Lingerie portal, driven by the determination to make lingerie buying in India, a respectful, respectable and comfortable experience. Started in 2011, Zivame broke even in 4 months and is today the largest seller of Women’s inner wear in India – online or offline. Her mission : Every Indian woman will have the right to the right fit !

Mekin Maheshwari, Head of Engineering at Flipkart, shared his personal journey to joining the wildly successful portal. His simple insight into Flipkart’s philosophy : If you don’t take care of your customer, someone else will. More subtle and equally powerful was the insight his story provided into what it takes for a start up to attract the right talent, without whom an enterprise will remain a still-born dream.

We journeyed overnight to Madurai and spent Day 4 trying to understand the Vision of Aravind Eye Care and the process by which they go about accomplishing their mIssion of Eradicating needless blindness. The Yatris had the opportunity to interact with Doctors, nurses and patients; visit the hospital, village and community vision centres; and the Research Aurolab centre. The spirit of Dr Govindappa Venkatasamy (Dr V as he is still referred to) clearly permeates the entire organisation. A powerful example of how a business model driven by human welfare can be self sustaining and profitable.

Yesterday, on Day 5, we awoke on arrival, to the most beautiful railway station I have ever seen ! Chengalpattu station is situated on the edge of Lake Kolavai. The railway tracks lie adjacent to water hyacinths and migratory birds nesting on the fringes of a lovely lake, covered in mist, and bordered by hills in the distance…Am amazed and deeply grateful to the far sighted railway officials who have not obstructed this surreal view – and hope the station will continue to remain untouched.

We spent the day with R Elango, in Kuthambakkam village, about 30 kms from Chennai. Inspired by the 73rd amendment and the introduction of the Panchayati Raj Act, he was elected as the Gram Pradhan of his village in 1996. In his first term he addressed the infrastructure challenges of his village : roads, housing, schooling and water. Elected un- opposed for a second term in 2001, he started tackling social issues such as the ills of alcoholism and caste. The vehicle – Women’s empowerment through Self Help groups. His dream : Reconstruct India by reconstructing our villages.

As the train continues on its journey around India, the timelines and lifetimes of these Role models give us a sense of abiding hope…India and Indians will emerge stronger despite the cynicism and despair that presently seems to surround us.



In the Shadow of Dreams – Jagriti Yatra


A train journey of 9000 kilometres around India with 450 young aspiring entrepreneurs – the idea was intriguing…

My journey to the Jagriti Yatra started on Gandhi Jayanti this year. Invited to address the Yatris at a function on 2nd Oct, at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, I was captivated by the passion and energy of the young people who filled the room. Drawn from all over India, they shared how their experience on the Yatra had transformed their perspective and in some cases their lives.

Inspiring as the stories of the journey were, what was really interesting was the theme : Building India through Enterprise. This then, was more than just a fun exercise in experiential learning – Yatris were selected both on the basis of their ideals and their dreams – of a better India driven by entrepreneurship.

The idea of the trip was to provide an immersive learning experience (live in sleeper class compartments on a train for 15 days); visiting role model institutions (from Infosys in Bangalre to the Barefoot college in Tilonia Rajasthan); using Case study methodology (intensive Group discussions within Cohorts designed to be diverse) and building a support network of like minded individuals who care deeply about building a better India.

I was hooked ! This seemed a perfect continuum of the journey I had begun in April, to the villages of India. So I signed on to be a Resource person for the 2012 Yatra that commenced on December 24.

Through my blogs over the next 15 days, I would like to share some of the vignettes of this fascinating journey.

Today is Day 3 and we have covered about 800 kms.

We started on the Eve of Christmas from Lokmanya Tilak Terminus in Mumbai, after a day of orientation at TISS. Christmas Day was spent on the train, getting to know each other, and adjusting to our new home.

The Yatris are an interesting bunch : 375 aspiring entrepreneurs aged 20-25, and 75 slightly older participants who form the organising and facilitating team, many of whom are ex-Yatris themselves.

This year 18000 registrations were received for the Yatra, of whom 375 participants were finally selected. 35 are international participants representing 12 countries. The Indian participants are drawn from 24 Indian states. 39% are female and 57% come from semi urban and rural backgrounds.

The chemistry between Yatris is fun to watch – adjustments as people jostle for space : physical, mental and philosophical !

Yesterday we disembarked for the first time, and journeyed from Dharwad station in Karnataka to the small village of Kalkeri. There, at a unique residential school for children from the poorest families, we witnessed a modern day Gurukul.

It was started 10 years ago by a group of young Canadian, French and Indian musicians, united by a passion for music and for bringing about social change. Today the school houses 200 children, half of whom are girls, and many of whom come from single parent families or are orphans.

The children are taught classical Hindustani music, Bharat Natyam, and Drama, in addition to the regular school curriculum of the Karnataka state syllabus. The quality of education provided to the children was immediately evident as the young girls and boys, many no older than 5 or 6, came up to the Yatris and confidently start conversing in English. When they performed on stage – singing classical hymns; playing the tabla, harmonium or sitar; the performances were so professional that it was hard to believe they were just children.

The vision, that guides the teachers, is simple but beautiful : they believe that by providing opportunity you provide hope. So they try to create opportunities for these children to realise their musical dreams…

At the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya we met 2 role model institutions who shared their stories and their business model.

The first was SELCO, which has had unique success in carrying solar solutions to the remotest part of rural Karnataka. The second Toe Hold Artisans, a co- operative of Kolhapuri chappal manufacturers from the village of Athini in Karnataka – a wonderful example of how powerful transformational change can be driven at the grass roots.

The Yatris will discuss, critique and present these Case Studies over the next two days to the larger group. As we listen in to their discussions, their perspectives and conversations are fascinating and often unexpected !

But everywhere is a common thread – the thread of dreams that range from changing India and serving our people, to building businesses that will be global giants.

As I walk through the compartments, I feel as if I am walking in the shadow of these dreams…and as these young Yatris awake to their full potential, and start realising these dreams, India will be a better place.



Democracy in Motion : Sisters of Sampoorna


This article was published as part of Gateway House’s Democracy in Motion report on 9 AUGUST 2012.

In the summer of 2012, I took a journey through the villages of six states in India: Gujarat, Assam, Bengal, Odisha, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh.

It was a fascinating journey, and I returned full of hope. In our villages lives a vibrant India, and one where there are many fine examples of good governance driven by strong local grassroots participation.

I saw that in places where the people took active part in Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs are local governance bodies in rural India), government subsidies and schemes were more efficiently and honestly utilised. Consequently, these villages had noticeably higher development indicators.

Equally interesting: where larger numbers of women were on the Panchayats, or more women were Pradhans (heads of the village governing council), the outcomes were better. For example, in Lobsan village in Sabarkantha district in Gujarat, where the Pradhan was Zahera Daruwalla, the village primary school was better staffed, facilities for drinking water were better, and the village was cleaner and more hygienic, than the other villages I visited in the same district.

To my pleasant surprise, very few of these women were regarded in their villages as proxies for the men in their families. While many had initially stood for elections on the quota reserved for women in PRIs, I was delighted to see that many women were also confident of standing and winning on merit.

The story of the Didis or Sisters of Sampoorna, in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, is one such amazing example.

The Karanjia block in this district is an area that has been historically characterised by high poverty levels and mass migration to cities. The population of this area is predominantly adivasi (tribal)—the Santhal, Munda, Bathudi and Kolha are the major tribes here. Villages are located in the fringe and buffer areas of the forests of Simlipal, and the adivasis are dependent on forest products.

The women of this district are artistic. Each home is beautifully decorated in colours and designs that could grace the museums of Paris. But their days are long and hard. Every morning, they rise at 4 a.m. and go in groups to the forest to gather sal leaves. When the day’s work is done, they sit until late at night weaving the leaves into plates and containers that are then picked up by middlemen and shipped to the temples of South India, for the distribution of prasadam to devotees. The selling price of these natural, eco-friendly and bio-degradable plates ranges from Rs. 60 to Rs. 100 per thousand—by any standards a pittance for the amount of effort put into making them, and indeed for their true value.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Pradan and foundations like the Royal Bank of Scotland Foundation, have worked successfully in Karanjia block to organise women into self-help groups (SHGs). These groups focus on economically empowering their members. They encourage savings, help in the formation of thrifts, enable micro-credit, and facilitate alternative livelihood options such as producing and packaging spices and rearing commercial poultry, so that women have access to supplementary sources of income.

In many parts of the country SHGs coalesce to form a federation that enhances the economic strength of the groups. One such, called Sampoorna, was formed in Karanjia comprising 400 SHGs and a membership of approximately 6,000 women drawn from 255 villages.

Unlike other federations, Sampoorna, guided by Sulakshana Pandit, a bright 28-year-old young lady who works with Pradan, decided to focus on political empowerment rather than on economic activities.

Funded by a United Nations programme for women’s rights, Sulakshana and her team started workshops for the members of Sampoorna, to create awareness about PRIs and their role in village and district governance. In February 2012, as the panchayat elections approached, Sulakshana asked the Sampoorna didis if any of them would stand for the 125 panchayat ward seats in the Karanjia block.

To her astonishment, 137 women said they would. Supported by members of their SHGs and their friends and families, the Sisters of Sampoorna formed a formidable group. Confronted by this development, the established political parties swung into action—intimidation, monetary clout, and other tactics came into the picture. The women stood their ground, the elections were keenly fought, and the outcome is a wonderful example of Democracy in Motion.

Of the 125 panchayat ward seats, Sampoorna candidates won 88. For the 13 posts of Gram Pradhan or Sarpanch (head of the village panchayat), 29 Sampoorna sisters contested and 7 were elected. For the 13 Panchayat Samiti seats (this tier is an administrative division comprising a group of villages), 33 Sampoorna candidates filed papers and 8 won, and for the Zilla Parishad (at the district level) 8 Sampoorna sisters filed nominations and 2 succeeded.

This is an impressive set of statistics. As I interacted with the didis of Sampoorna, I found that their spirit was even more impressive. Those who had won shared a clear and focused agenda of the changes they would like to bring about in their villages. Those who lost felt no sense of dejection—they were confident that by holding those who had won accountable, they could also make a significant contribution to improving the quality of life in their villages.

I believe the example set by the Sisters of Sampoorna in Karanjia will, in time, resonate through our country. They have shown what can be achieved when ordinary citizens have the courage to come forward and participate in the political process. More importantly, the villagers who voted for them have shown that democracy is a gift—but only if we chose to put cynicism aside and exercise our franchise wisely.

About the Author : Meera H Sanyal is the Country Executive and Chairperson of the Royal Bank of Scotland, in India. In 2009 she stood as an Independent candidate for the Lok Sabha elections from South Mumbai. In 2011 she was the only woman leader from India to be invited by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to join her International Council on Women’s Business Leadership.