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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Some great quotations from Mother Teresa

It is impossible to walk rapidly and be unhappy.
Peace begins with a smile.   
Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.

Do not think that love, in order to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.

Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.

Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.

God doesn't require us to succeed; he only requires that you try.

Good works are links that form a chain of love.

I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Hunger and Social Change

Purnima Menon, a Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, has written a nice article today in Foreign Policy, highlighting the role of empowering women and other excluded sections of the society in solving the hunger problem.

The article starts by saying "What India's starving children don't need is more blind handouts. What they do need is real social change", and it shows a photograph of school-going girls eating a government-sponsored midday meal.

I am a big supporter of the school midday meal programs in India. They have had a large positive impact. Nevertheless, I totally agree with Menon's sentiment that even school going children require more than "blind handouts" of food. A lasting solution for a hunger-free India won't come in the absence of basic social change.

This is precisely the reason Srishti Annam believes that community holds the key to hunger alleviation. Feeding the totally helpless is critical for their immediate survival, but real, sustainable change comes from sensitizing, inspiring and involving the community to solve its own hunger & nutrition problems.

Community involvement in Srishti Annam is much deeper than just volunteering to make or serve food. It involves repeatedly reinforcing messages that hunger is the root cause of many current and potential problems in their community; inspiring children from well-provided families to be compassionate; setting up a persistent example of the right way of treating the absolutely weak and helpless; supporting all able-bodied individuals to stand on their own feet; reaffirming that our universality as human beings goes well beyond the seemingly wide gap between the Hungry and the Satiated; and demonstrating a sustainable way in which the community can comfortably take care of all its hungry.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mother Teresa

Today is the birth centenary of Mother Teresa. Her phenomenal work has been extolled from many perspectives.

From my current perspective, the Mother's work is a great reassurance that non-developmental social service, especially feeding the destitute, is meaningful and necessary in the world that we live in.

Given below is a succinct article about the Mother's life and work, written by Navin Chawla, the former Chief Election Commissioner of India and a biographer of Mother Teresa. It appeared in The Hindu today.

This day marks the birth centenary of a simple nun who, through her work among the poorest of the poor, became the conscience-keeper of her century.

Today, August 26, 2010, the birth centenary of Mother Teresa will be marked with celebration and thanksgiving in many parts of the world. This simple nun with her unique brand of faith and compassion was able to alleviate loneliness, hunger and destitution by reaching out through a worldwide mission to millions of abandoned, homeless and dying destitutes, irrespective of their religion, caste, faith or denomination. In the process she became, indisputably, the conscience-keeper of her century.

As one who was associated with her for 23 years and became one of her biographers, it is not easy to encapsulate her remarkable journey. Born in Skopje, a city in the folds of the Balkans, then as now a crucible of many religions and races, she was the youngest of three children of deeply Catholic Albanian parents. Her father died when she was seven; her mother struggled to feed her family and turned increasingly to the local church for spiritual sustenance. Young Agnes (as she was then known) encountered uncertainty and adversity early in life. The lessons of diligence, discipline, frugality and kindness were imbibed in these early years.

Today, when teenagers often have difficulty making up their minds as to which course to study and where, Agnes had decided, at the age of 14, to serve as a missionary, not in her local church, but in faraway India, then a world apart, of which decision the only certainty was that she would never return home.

A new life opened in Calcutta in 1929. She had joined the Loreto Order as a novice aged 19. Here she would take her religious vows and teach for almost 20 years. In 1948, in an even more cataclysmic turn of events, again entirely of her own making, she left the convent doors behind her for a vision of the street. She had realised that this was where her true vocation lay, and she pursued this goal with diligence, even obstinacy. This she did till the Vatican made her its first exception in several hundred years, permitting her to step out of the Loreto Order, but with her vows intact. She would remain a nun but without belonging to an established Order of the Church. These were early signs of spirit and will power, together with prayerfulness and faith, laced with not inconsiderable charm, which would provide the propulsion for the quite incredible journey that lay ahead.

The early milestones lay in recognition within her adopted country – first by the legendary Chief Minister of West Bengal Dr. B.C. Roy, to be followed by national recognition when Jawaharlal Nehru was instrumental in India awarding her the Padma Shri in 1962. Later, another redoubtable Chief Minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, was to provide her his unstinted support.

By 1965, she had set up a vast network of service across India. The time had come for her to move her mission overseas. She saw need everywhere; there were plenty of the poor and hungry in divisive societies in each continent, in desperately poor and prosperous societies alike. And so she set up feeding centres and leprosy stations in Africa, AIDS hospices in North America, community programmers in the Australian outback, and a host of services that helped lift the most marginalised, hungry and lonely from a desolate life in streets and slums of Africa, Asia and the West.

“God loves a cheerful giver” was a refrain I would often hear as I walked with the smiling Sisters of her Order among sullen faces under London's Waterloo Bridge, serving them their only hot meal on a wintry night; in the process I saw where they spent their nights: coffin-sized cardboard boxes, their only homes. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, I talked to young AIDS sufferers in her hospices, knowing that I would never see them again. In Madrid, I met the aged and the destitute, wracked by a disease called loneliness, which Mother Teresa called the “leprosy of the West”. And then the final triumph, a centre carved in the heart of Catholicism itself, in the shadow of St. Peter's in the Vatican, handed over by a Polish Pope to an obedient but persistent nun. She appeared a frail figure against the rigid hierarchy of the Church, some of whose members frowned in private that the Vatican had hardly any space let alone for a soup kitchen. Yet, in my eyes, Mother Teresa and John Paul II had, at one stroke, demystified a thousand years of sometimes rigid Papal tradition, in an understanding of the deepest Christian ethic that they shared.

Although she herself remained fiercely Catholic, her brand of faith was not exclusive. Convinced that each person she ministered to was Christ in suffering, she reached out to people of all religions. The very faith that sustained her infuriated her detractors, who saw her as a symbol of a right-wing conspiracy and, worse, the principal mouthpiece of the Vatican's well-known views against abortion. Interestingly, such criticism went largely unnoticed in India, where she was widely revered.

She was criticised for conversion. Yet in all the 23 years I knew her she never once whispered a suggestion regarding conversion. However, I asked her if she did convert. Without a moment's hesitation, she said, “I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, a better Muslim, a better Protestant, and a better Sikh. Once you have found God, it is up to you to do with him as you wish.” While she never deviated an inch from her path and was a religious, not a social worker, she was quick to realise that in India, Catholicism was practised by a small segment, and the 19th century proselytising approach could not be sustained.

From her humblest beginning in the slums and streets, she reached out to alleviate the problem she encountered by the simplest and most straightforward means available to her. Her thinking was both simple and complex: when asked how she could touch a leprosy sufferer and clean his sores, she said she could do it because for her that man was the suffering Jesus. “I would not clean him for all the money in the world,” said an observer. “Nor would I,” Mother Teresa replied, “but I would do it for love of Him.”

She could multi-task. She had to be a administrator par excellence to set up a multinational organisation that spread to 123 countries by the time she died, with the help of about 5,000 members of her Order, and countless millions volunteers. Her hands were always full, but comforting one individual at a time was more important than “getting lost in numbers”; it had to be that way, because each individual was a divine manifestation, each to be comforted, held, rescued, fed and not allowed to die alone.

I once called her the most powerful woman in the world. Mother Teresa replied: “Where? If I was, I would bring peace in the world.” I asked her why she did not use her undeniable influence to lessen war. She replied: “War is the fruit of politics. If I get stuck in politics, I will stop loving because I will have to stand by one, not by all.”

She had her critics. There was criticism about her taking money from dubious sources. I once asked her about it. She said without a moment's hesitation. “I accept no salary, no government grant, no Church assistance, nothing. But how can I refuse anyone who chooses to give money in an act of charity. How is this different from the thousands of people who each day feed the poor? My task is to give peace to people. I would never refuse.” Yet she never asked for funds or even permitted fund-raising. Mother Teresa depended on providence. She believed if the work was intended, the money would come. If money did not come, the reverse held true.

What would happen to her mission when she passed on, I once asked her. She did not answer but instead only pointed her finger towards heaven. But I persisted. She laughed and said: “Let me go first.”

I asked her the third time and this time she replied: “You have been to so many of our missions in India and abroad. Everywhere our Sisters wear the same saris, eat the same kind of food, do the same kind of work. But Mother Teresa is not everywhere. Yet the work goes on.” Then she added: “As long as we remain committed to the poorest of the poor and do not end up serving the rich, the work will prosper.”

Guest Consciousness

Read the following lines this morning. They made sense to me. For the mix to be complete however, I think the ingredients of responsibility and purpose should be added in:
Have you ever noticed (that) one of the delights of going on holiday is the temporariness of everything? Wherever you go you are a guest, you are just passing through and therefore your relationship with everyone and everything is more relaxed and easy. Nothing is precious. Nothing needs to be guarded. Nothing around us is used as a measure of our self worth. Everyone you meet is just passing through your life so that while you thoroughly enjoy their company you don’t try to hang on to them, even in your head, when its time to go. You move smoothly from one scene to another, releasing the last scene quickly and easily, thus remaining free and light.

Such is the consciousness of being a guest. Could it be possible to bring that same consciousness, that same lightness and freedom to our life as a whole?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On the practical use of Sixth Sense

Pranav Mistry, of IIT Mumbai and MIT Media Lab, made significant waves with his invention Sixth Sense (TED video1, video2).

There is tremendous potential to superimposing information on the real world. Over 80% of the population, at least once the "computing adolescence" passes on this planet, is likely to be involved in non-computer-centric jobs. If information, knowledge and wisdom pertinent to their jobs can be supplied to them in time, on demand, superimposed seamlessly upon their physical world, they will have no reason to actually dirty their hands with information technology.

This is akin to very few of us having to learn electric circuitry or plumbing (or agriculture) today. Electricity and plumbing happen in the background, with a small percentage of the population being experts in those specializations. Those guys work the pipes and tubes in the basement, to get the technology to work seamlessly for the rest of us. When we need to plug-in or flush-out something, it works as expected (most of the time). Once it is mature, information technology also is likely to become a utility like this. IT is adolescent now because everyone needs to know about browsers, anti-virus and plug-ins. But this will pass.

Mistry's invention is a step towards this goal. There is a tremendous amount of computation behind every little "utility" he is demonstrating - e.g., dialing phone numbers from his palm, manipulating photographs on a (physical) wall, playing a video game on a plain piece of paper. But all this computation is moved totally into the background, and happens silently, seamlessly. The wearers of the Sixth Sense pendents ideally need not know anything about how it does what it does. They can simply go about their lives, relying on the fact that the information they need will be there when they need it, where they need it.

But that is the ideal situation. What about today? The common question I encounter when I speak to people about Sixth Sense is "so, what is the killer app?". The technology is cool, no doubt, but is there a cool, practically useful application in the near future?

It is possible that we will see cool edutainment apps that ipod-wearing youth worldwide could go crazy about. But I am interested in a different killer app for Sixth Sense.

I believe that training vocational skills is a huge potential application. Apprenticeship, over-the-shoulder-mentoring, big-brother-mentoring - these concepts have proven to be highly effective in skilling people. It is well-known that no amount of classroom or computer-based training can be a substitute for these. If you are a novice electrician or a plumber, and if your more experienced colleague looks over your shoulder when you are doing a certain job, to practically correct you, guide you, alert you & educate you, your learning is bound to be significantly accelerated. This is true of most other vocations also.

With appropriate adaptation, we believe that Sixth Sense can very effectively take the place of a big-brother mentor, potentially revolutionizing the vocational skills training market place. We are actively exploring this possibility.

(If interested, please write to me for further discussion. - SM)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Feeding is not CSR-worthy?

We often encounter the comment that free feeding of helpless destitute is not suitable for corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds from companies.

The common argument is that you should teach one to fish, not hand out fish to them.

I of course agree with the crux of this argument. Who wouldn’t? But when you look a little closer at the issue, you soon realize that there are situations where one must hand out fish first. There are also situations where one simply cannot teach to fish .

For example, take the target segments of Srishti Annam. Our mandate is to give the gift of life to people who have absolutely no other means of sustaining themselves.

Over 70% our "special guests" are above 60 years of age, typically very frail, with ailments, illiterate - your typical road side aged beggars in India. When one lived like they did, above 60 is equivalent to above 75 years for the fortunate few.

How do we "teach to fish" in this case? We must first feed, and for a large percentage of persons just continue to simply feed and take care of them. For those who can work, we do motivate them to commit to some non-strenuous work like gardening, washing dishes, etc.

The other segment is very young children aged 1-10. They are either orphaned or abandoned with grandparents.

Clearly we need to feed these kids before we tell them stories, teach them alphabet & numbers, make them play and convince grandparents to send them to a free Government school. All of these things we do, but it takes time, during which we must provide free food, for the kids and families to stay and listen to what we have to say.

Not being "attractive" to CSR grants is a severe limitation for a young charitable activity like Srishti Annam. But how can we fix this without altering our original objective of hunger mitigation for the utterly destitute?

Mature societies have long realized that it is the society / community’s responsibility to take care of certain people’s basic needs - for example spiritual aspirants, helpless old people, very young children, etc. By making it a social responsibility to feed these segments, compassion and care are nurtured not only the in the fed but also in the feeders. This is why annadanam (free feeding of the needy) has long been recognized as the highest of form of charity in India.

But how do we pitch that to corporate CSR committees?

(If you have suggestions, we would LOVE to hear from you.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Let them look afresh at the Mahatma

On the occasion of Indian independence day, Star Pix yesterday aired the 1982 movie "Gandhi" by Sir Richard Attenborough. I had an opportunity, after a long time, to see it end-to-end peacefully, at a friend's house, with their whole family.

It pains me greatly to see people enthusiastic to criticize and sensationalize Gandhiji, to rub their negative opinions on their children. I think the least we can do, for Bapu and for the Next Generation, is to let our kids learn all about Gandhiji objectively and make their own conclusions. We will be doing a disservice to both if we don't give the next generation this opportunity.

I believe that to truly understand the Mahatma, his words and actions takes a life time for most of us, because his focus was so internal. There are many intellectuals among us that specialize in parts of the external. But very few of us realize that all battles are truly fought within the mind and soul. To be able to recognize that, to fight those battles relentlessly and successfully, and then to apply lifelong the fruits of such battles for the betterment of other's lives, is a human achievement of the highest order. I feel proud to be born on the land that has produced the Mahatma.

To me, it is really not that important whether the political decisions Gandhiji arrived at were the optimal ones. That is a question pertinent of mere politicians and statesmen. Gandhiji's timeless contribution to the world is his amazing interiority - the values he stood, fought and died for, his deepest love for his people and country, and the strength of his soul.

Let us please give our children a chance to experience the Mahatma for themselves.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

We can win against hunger - ICRISAT Director

Dr. William D. Dar, director of ICRISAT, speaking on the occasion of MS Swaminathan's 85th birthday, said that it is possible to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of reducing the world’s 1020 million undernourished people by half between now and 2015.

A heartening statement, coming from people that know what is actually possible in agricultural production. Dr. Dar said that empowering women in agricultural ownership is a crucial part of this solution.

Agricultural production and market-oriented distribution alone, IMHO, cannot see us through to the final goal. There must be active community awareness and participation in hunger alleviation.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Old King of Trains

Do you like long-distance train travel? I do. More often than not, it gives quality time to ponder, read, write, work, see lovely landscape and meet people. I try to take trains wherever, whenever possible.

I never traveled by Rajdhani express, arguably the king of non-touring trains in India. Hence I grabbed an opportunity to travel from Delhi to Secunderabad in Bangalore Rajdhani. Points in favor of Rajdhani (as opposed to flying, the default mode of business travel) were (a) I can get nice, quiet time to think and work, (b) travel is 'only' 22 hours, (c) It has been so long since I did north-to-south travel in India, (d) I never experienced the so-much-hyped Rajdhani hospitality, and (e) even AC first class costs Rs. 2000 less than the flight ticket.

So got into Rajdhani AC first class last night at Hazrat Nizamuddin. I am still in train, will get off in 20 minutes or so. My key impressions?
  • The train is much worse maintained than I would have liked.
  • Maintenance of time is good. It reached every station before time.
  • Food is great. I was groaning under the weight of food served, by the time I came to the last meal
  • Service is, simply, not bad. All needs are taken care of, eventually. But, like in most other things in India, more people are thrown at a problem to solve it better. IMHO, fewer, better trained attendants would have done a much better job.
  • There are advertisements everywhere in the compartment. I wonder why the Railways is desperate for additional revenues from the Rajdhani; I would have thought that this activity is handsomely profitable already. Windows were hazy because of perforated flexi-sheet advertisements wrapped on them on the outside. I would have preferred larger, well-cleaned windows so travelers could drink in the lovely landscape in UP, MP, Maharashtra and Andhra.
  • The best thing about Indian trains, irrespective of the class of travel, are the acquaintances you make, especially if you enjoy meeting people. The acquaintance I forged with my wonderful 65-year old co-traveller, an ex-MLA from Maharashtra, will I am sure stay with me a lot longer than the relish of Rajdhani luxury.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Unequal Capital

I am in Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station at New Delhi. The facilities are so AWFUL here that I am baffled. The approach to the station is completely dirty and clogged with vehicles. Platforms, walking bridges look like they were swept and washed years ago. There is no separate waiting room for AC passengers. The only waiting rooms available are unregulated, over-crowded, hot, humid and partly flooded with leaking water from the bathrooms.

This is the situation at arguably one of the most important train stations in the country, from where Durontos & Rajdhanis (pride of Indian Railways) originate to most states.

Rest of Delhi, at least the airport, the main arteries through the city, the flyovers, the gardens, the footpaths seem to be so well maintained. Especially given the Commonwealth games. Traffic is more but the city in general seems very neat for an occasional visitor. Why do train and bus stations get such a step-motherly treatment?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Srishti Annam – Together, We Can.

Ever thought of what the largest killer of Indian people is? Road accidents? Heart diseases? Smoking? AIDS? Think again. These killers put together pale in front of the hunger problem. Every day, more than 7000 people directly die of hunger and malnutrition in India. This is about 5 deaths per minute. As per FAO's hunger report, 230 million people in India were undernourished as of 2005. And the numbers have gone up since. India’s Global Hunger Index (GHI) is calculated in 2009 as 23.9 (less than 5 is good, above 20 is alarming). Of the 84 countries that have GHI above 5, India is ranked 65th, i.e., only 19 other countries in the world are worse off than India. Many sub-Saharan African nations fare much better than India in terms of GHI. In terms of sheer numbers, India has the maximum number of hungry people in the world. About half of the hunger deaths are of children under the age of ten.

The first among the Millennium Development Goals set for India is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Since the country’s independence in 1947, there have been significant efforts to solve the hunger problem in India. Midday meals in thousands of government schools saved many a child from malnutrition. Places of worship of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, etc have been offering free food to their visitors for generations. The Green Revolution and other movements tremendously improved food production and distribution. Many welfare schemes established by central, state and local governments attempted to take food to the poorest sections of the society.

Several of these efforts have had impact, but clearly the problem is far from solved. The dismal statistics quoted above are of today, not the past. We believe that this failure is because the tools chosen by the governments, science & technology research, religious institutions and others to fight against hunger are not adequate and are marred by issues like corruption, a very leaky bucket, time delays and intolerance. Furthermore, hunger is the root of many other ills in the society, and few existing solutions holistically address this negative spiral of hunger.

We started the Srishti Annam project with the insight that a crucial component in the fight against hunger has been largely overlooked. This is the component of the Community. The byline of Srishti Annam is “Together, we can.” Srishti Annam is an innovative, community-centric solution to hunger alleviation that not only offers immediate relief to hungry people, but also a holistic, long-term and scalable means for reducing hunger in India.

The goal of Srishti Annam project can be simply stated. Communities should be educated, inspired and assisted to take responsibility for their hungry, to say yes to a hunger-free India.

Our focus is the poorest of the poor in the community, people who simply have no means to feed themselves, e.g., destitute, old people, helpless children, physically and mentally challenged persons. Srishti Annam wants to make every community in India develop a deep awareness that this marginalized section’s hunger is everyone’s problem in the community, and the ill-effects of ignoring this are many.

Srishti Annam’s model is to work through a network of locally-managed Community Feeding Centers. The first Annam center has now been operational for 40 months, having served over 350,000 free meals, worked with the destitute, skilled many, and employed several of them. The model to scale has come from our immense hands-on experience in the last 40 months.

Imagine a small community of 10000-25000 people. Akin to a public library, we advocate the presence of a community feeding center that can serve 50-100 people. The center is a pleasant, welcoming place run by the community, for the community. It will lovingly serve free, sumptuous lunch to anyone that cannot fend for themselves in the community, without regard to religion, caste, gender, age, etc. It is open 365 days of the year. Volunteers from the local community, who are identified, trained, and managed by Srishti Annam, run the feeding centers. Nutritious, wholesome food is prepared in hygienic, low-cost kitchens run by Srishti Annam, typically one kitchen for every 10-50 feeding centers, and transported to feeding centers on time by Srishti Annam.

Srishti Annam feeding centers don’t just alleviate immediate hunger. They are, by design, a long-term, holistic and scalable solution to India’s hunger problem, because they address complex and subtle issues connected with hunger. They provide a place for the destitute and the local community to emotionally relate to each other, to establish trust, to reduce alienation and resentment that most destitute suffer from today. The centers create a time window to understand and transform. They act as hubs to connect the destitute with many service organizations for improving health (vaccinations), hygiene, substance abuse, courtesy, dignity, self-respect, literacy, gender empowerment, etc. For the community, especially the children, Srishti Annam feeding centers provide an excellent opportunity to develop compassion, responsibility & a service mentality. The community model of Srishti Annam solution leverages a strong cultural sentiment in India, that it is a privilege to feed the poor and hungry.

Our goal for scaling Srishti Annam is to reach 100,000 people being fed everyday across India in the next 5 years.

Nurturing Invention

Saw today the one-hour interview that Nathan Myhrvold gave for the Charie Rose show. Went to see it because Bill Gates said very nice things about the work that his ex-CTO's Intellectual Ventures (IV) is doing.

My take? Myrhvold is clearly a brilliant mind with an unusual breadth of interests. He is also very media-savvy, a rare trait among brilliant researchers. It is overall very good news that he and his team are building a business solely around supporting invention. I would like to see more such businesses and initiatives, locally. One also needs to talk to the other side - inventors who got benefited, to give full thumbs-up to IV.

Like Myrhvold says, there are certain inventions that can only be supported by Government. US is at such a great place today in computer technology because of the great initiatives of DARPA and other agencies in the 1960's. India can also be at the beginning of an invent-build-use-prosper cycle now, for "green" technologies, people-centric governance, technology-enabled quality education for all, affordable healthcare, etc. Problems here are different, unique; so should the solutions be. Borrowing inventions from elsewhere can only be a first-cut solution, not optimal. By providing the right environment and push for local, context-sensitive inventions, true inorganic growth is possible. This environment and support should be available, easily, not just to inventors in great academic institutions or in Government labs, but to anyone with worthy efforts. A culture of invention needs to be nurtured first by public, then public+private, eventually the private sector. One is staring to see similar support for young entrepreneurs in India, but not yet for young inventors.


I have been toying with idea of writing something regularly for months, it is happening today. Hope that what I fill here ends up not just being an honest rambling, but also of use to someone / many.

The posts are most likely going to be diverse, spanning technology, music, hunger, India, literature, business, people, India, and of course spirituality. It cannot be any other way, because I am like that. Is this mixed up? I think not. I believe there is a coherence underlying this mix. That's what the title tries to capture - Excellence Everywhere.

This can be called my debut attempt at general writing for the public. A hearty welcome and 'thank you' to everyone reading my blog!