My name is Arundhati, and I stand for empathy, compassion and justice for myself and others.
To anyone reading the above line, the declaration may not make much sense. But I am sure it makes perfect sense to the 15 batchmates of mine at the ILSS – India Leaders For Social Sector program. What an experiential learning these 9 days provided! I am still in a daze.
The euphoria had started even before we landed in Delhi. When the ILSS core team first shared the names and profiles of the cohort participants, I went through each with great interest. What struck me was the diversity of the group, as well as the richness of experience. Then came the WhatsApp group where people started connecting with each other. The Delhi-ites graciously offered rides to the outstation participants to and from the Ashoka University campus in Sonepat, the venue of our cohort.
The ILSS core team headed by the Founder, Anu Prasad, greeted us with welcome kits and warm, affectionate smiles. For the next 9 days we were to be under their care. Right from the arrival to the departure – every single activity had been planned out in meticulous detail.
The tone was set on Day 1 at the inaugural session with Ravi Sreedharan, the founder of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM) and co-owner of the ILSS program when we discussed expectations from the program, and Ravi gave us a broad overview of social development. I will not go session by session, as it is too cumbersome to talk about all the 25 odd sessions. But it is to the organizers’ and program designers’ credit that they managed to fit in practically every aspect of development within the 9 days, and presented us with different perspectives to give us a holistic picture. Thus, we had bureaucrats come and address us, as well as politicians, policy makers, academicians, NGO owners, rights activists, social sector investors, and many others. A conscious effort seemed to have gone into bringing in crossovers – people who have moved over successfully from the corporate to the social sector. These people are role models for our lot.
Prof. A.K. Shivkumar’s talk on development, and what lies beneath – the dichotomy between the projected economic might of India vis-a-vis the reality of our crumbling health and education sectors leading to India being ranked amongst the lowest in the Human Development Index, struck a chord with us. What are the ends of development – to show the growth in GDP, or to enhance people’s capabilities, widen their choices, to ensure their freedom, and assure human rights? He asked. We wondered.
Nothing impacted me more in the 9 days of the ILSS program than Harsh Mander’s session, and Feisal Alkazi & Troupe’s theatrical adaptations of Harsh’s writings. In a calm, collected manner Harsh narrated to us one instance after another of the State’s apathy towards the common man, and its failure to protect its citizens. Being one of the foremost peace activists in the country, Harsh’s is the voice of dissent. A voice of concern, of anguish and hopelessness at the moral degradation of the Indian society demolishing all the core universal values that our Constitution embodies – liberty, fraternity, equality, justice. Each narration made me cry, and I vowed at that very moment to be a part of his movement for peace. Since then I have pledged my commitment to his cause.
The Radical Transformational Leadership course spread over two days helped us discover ourselves. The values we stand for, our innermost fears, the power of deep listening, the need to control one’s Baco (background conversations), the innate qualities of a true leader, etc. It dwelt, among other things, upon the fact that a true leader listens actively, speaks responsibly and manages conversations.
Over the course of the next few days, many interesting discourses took place. All the speakers were patient with our queries, receptive, and interacted freely. The field visit to different blocks in Sonepat and Panipat was another eye-opener. While I had a bit of prior experience of rural settings, it was still very interesting and insightful for me. Every place that we visited – the Anganwadi centre, the government-sponsored primary school, the community health centre – had some commonalities. The underlying theme was that a motley group of individuals are trying hard to make ends meet against all odds thrown at them. They are understaffed, unsupervised most of the time, ignored, ill-equipped. And yet, each stakeholder seems to take his/ her business seriously, without any hope of reward or recognition.
Time and again the topic of public versus private cropped up. Most of the speakers emphasized the fact that government or public intervention is much more powerful and effective if applied judiciously. Practically all developed nations in the world have robust public systems in place that take care of basic needs like healthcare and education. However, in India, these systems are archaic, non-inclusive and ineffective because the vested interest of private parties to control the market takes precedence over the government’s willingness to ensure general well-being.
From the factual, we moved to the spiritual when Prof. Puroshottam Agrawal spoke about the message of love spread by Kabir and Jayasi – two of the most widely acclaimed poets in Hindi. The entire discourse was deeply spiritual. No discussion on the social sector in the context of India can be complete without a reference to Gandhi. In an absolutely mesmerizing speech, Prof. Rudrangshu Mukherjee took us back to the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi, his concept of Swaraj, Satyagraha and Ahimsa. By the end of the session, we could barely speak. Such was the impact!
In between came Atishi Marlena, a young politician who has really been a changemaker by transforming Delhi government schools to the extent that many parents from low-income families who had taken great pains to put their wards in low-end English medium private schools are now feeling encouraged to move their kids to the newly refurbished, attractive looking government schools. Atishi’s efforts show that where there is a will, there is always a way.
Topics such as policy, advocacy, fundraising, waste management, civic reforms, gender sensitivity, innovation, impact assessment, etc. were covered by various speakers. The Reflections sessions with Ravi spread over the entire duration intermittently helped us with the recap, and somehow abated the fear of information overload. Personally, for me, the discussion on careers in the social sector was extremely useful, as I am currently in the transition mode.
Prof. Ashok Sircar’s riveting discourse on development was on a philosophical plane, and a befitting end to the 9-days of experiential learning. By drawing inferences from the world around us he questioned the basic premise of humanity vis a vis development.
On a lighter vein, the ILSS leaders were anything but a lazy lot. Even amidst all the heavy duty learning, we found time for fun and entertainment. While the classes would stretch on till 8 or 8-30 pm, post-dinner activities were aplenty. Some would go wandering about the campus, the fitness freaks would head to the indoor sports complex for a game of baddy or table tennis, while a couple of others would simply lounge around the student cafeterias sampling a mango lassi here, a “nariyal paani” there, and so on. Here was a bunch of mid-career professionals leading a perfect hostel life, and we couldn’t have been happier! The initial trepidation of having to share common bathrooms had evaporated, and one would find the camaraderie extended even to the bathrooms when people would chat up each other on their way.
Ashoka University was the ideal venue for a program like this. One felt a sense of freedom and enlightenment just by being on the campus, by being surrounded by students. It is very important to preserve the sanctity of this place when most State-run institutions of higher learning are facing the threat of extinction or tyrannical takeover.
My kudos to Anu and the rest of the ILSS core team – Snigdha, Pratyush, Anukti, Pragati, Nishant! Wish we had more people like them everywhere. Post ILSS, I feel a sense of purpose like I have never felt before. I feel a burning desire to make all wrongs right. I dream of a better world. As Lenon put it:
“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.”
Arundhati has over 20 years of experience in the IT industry. She has been working with Tata Consultancy Services in different areas such as innovation management, project management and delivery, and resourcing. She is proficient in German and has an M.A. from JNU, Delhi. Arundhati has been involved in rural development and has been running community development initiatives for tribal communities in Jharkhand.