Friday, June 24, 2011

The Lake Placid Fiasco

I am time and today I am going to tell you a story. This is no ordinary story. This is a tale of four “great” men; four well educated, intelligent young blokes whose qualifications, put together, would place them at the top of any spectrum in the public eye. One is a post-doctoral research scholar and a respected author of scientific texts; another is a thought leader and a master in business administration; and yet another, an engineer, one whose expertise facilitates, without much ado, some of the comforts fellow human beings enjoy. This illustrious trio is accompanied by a doctoral student who aspires to be an established author of scientific and non-scientific texts. With no further introduction, I would like to take you to Troy, a beautiful Victorian town on the banks of the Hudson. Here, the protagonists are preparing for the misadventure of their lives.
(Intro style inspired by the Mahabharat series aired in Doordarshan (India) in the late 80s).

June 18th 2011
11:30 a.m.

It’s a beautiful Saturday. The Hudson sparkles in the late morning sunlight and showers downtown Troy with its warmth. Down by the banks the residents wallow in serenity, intoxicated as they are serenaded by the ebb and flow of the breeze through the leaves behind them. A little removed, up the hill, in the campus of Rensselaer the protagonists unaware of nature’s treat unfolding near the river banks decide to go somewhere; anywhere. They have been cooped up in this town for way too long.

Sid, Sandy, Raul and Kirk, [*] thus, set out for Lake Placid in Raul’s zebra striped Camaro. Lake Placid is a horseshoe shaped waterbody in the  Adirondack Mountains in northern New York. Spanning approximately 2,170 acres (8.8 km2) with an average depth of about 50 feet, Lake Placid is one of the most prominent lakes in the New England area.
[*] The names have been changed for no particular reason, and with not even one ounce of creativity.

It’s a two hour drive on I-87 North. A hassle free journey takes them to the village of Lake Placid. It’s a little after 2. It’s about time they had some lunch. Nothing fancy. Subs would have to do. Kirk gets his regular footlong tuna. Within fifteen minutes, having filled their stomachs, they head out to the lake for a strenuous kayaking experience.

Alas, they were plagued by one small problem. There was only one shop renting kayaks known to  most of the people around, and that was closed. It was nearing 3 and the protagonists were getting frustrated. They should probably have woken up earlier. They should have reached Lake Placid sooner. Would the long drive end up to be fruitless? I would have paused if I could, but then the universe would descend into chaos. However, the earth’s axial tilt was still in their favor. It’s nearing summer solstice and darkness engulfs the land no sooner than 9pm. Time was still in hand. I had given them a lifeline.

At quarter past 3 they find Eastern Mountain Sports. The protagonists head in. Yes, here EMS does rent kayaks. Kirk asks the lady behind the counter, “is there a dock nearby?” She replies, “We can set you up and you can get going from the one behind the shack.” They make no further enquiries. Raul and Kirk start off in a 12 foot regular kayak while Sid and Sandy are in the tandem. Sid hasn’t paddled before and it will take a while for him to be comfortable on water.

They head to a beach a quarter mile away. There are swimmers in lanes marked by buoys. Careful, they must be; not due the fear of hurting the swimmers but of toppling their own kayaks upon collision. Once on the beach Sandy and Kirk switch places and they head back out after a few minutes rest. They race to the diametrically opposite end of the lake roughly a mile away and hold a mid-water conference.

Sandy: Now, that didn’t seem so far.
Sid: It’s hardly deep too. Look, I can touch the bottom with this paddle.
Kirk: Come on, we are closer to the banks. What do you expect? It will be deeper further in. After all, this is Lake Placid.
Sid: I’ve heard they call this the Queen of Lakes**.
Sandy: Maybe it’s King George and his placid queen.
Raul: Ya, Lake George was huge. This looks more like a pool.
Kirk: A calm one nonetheless. Maybe this lake looks beautiful from atop the peaks. That could be the hype.
Raul: And, of course the winter olympics hoopla.
Sid: My friend was saying this lake is a must-see. Ya, right!!! Wait, did the 30-foot crocodile really live in this commode? ***
** Actually, Lake George is nicknamed the Queen of American Lakes.
*** Lake Placid is a 1999 American monster movie. Yes, it was filmed elsewhere.

They decide to paddle around till sunset. Anyway, they had paid for the kayaks and it looked like like they had most of the lake for themselves. “Where did everybody go? There were so many tourists on the streets.” These thoughts were shut out as the protagonists enjoyed the serenity that surrounded then.

At roughly half past 8 they head back to the EMS dock. Sid, Sandy and Raul return the gear and head into the shack to get their belongings. Kirk waits near the kayaks as an employee arrives for the routine inspection.

EMS Employee: So how was your day?
Kirk: It was great. Thank you.
EMS Employee: Did you carry your kayaks over to the horseshoe? It’s tougher to kayak there, you know, with the speedboats around.
Kirk: :-0

Kirk manages to hold a straight face trying very hard to hide his shock. He still catches a small glint in the employee’s eyes, the kind you get when you discover a new tale to share with your buddies; a tale of four “knowledgeable” dimwits. He heads back into the shack. “Guys, I have some bad news. This was not Lake Placid.”

Friday, June 10, 2011

Musings of a new AID volunteer

I hail from Kerala, a small bitter-gourd shaped state on the west coast of the southern Indian peninsula. Kerala is considered to be a socially well-developed state with close to 100% percent literacy [1]. The common man is well read of the world around him and also well aware of the broader political consequences of his seemingly innocuous day-to-day decisions. He understands his part in the electoral process and is well placed in demanding his right from an answerable government. Whether he acts on the power that this awareness bestows upon him is another matter altogether, but the point is that the awareness is there. This much is evident from Kerala’s social development index [2].

Coming from such a background it was difficult for me to come to terms with the idea that political awareness, or rather the lack of it, is a major problem in India. I used to believe that most Indians are politically aware, but still are so stuck in their own cocoons and day-to-day battles that they do not really care about the long term consequences of their decisions. This, I attributed to our cultural tendency to not look beyond the low hanging fruit [3]. We work hard to satiate our immediate concerns and when it comes to the  remaining even harder challenges, we give up too easy. I believed that the root of all problems in India is, thus, that of inbred human nature which cannot be changed over one lifetime [4].

And so, it wasn’t natural for me to accept that the realities were far harsher in other parts of India; there are sections of the population who would sell their votes for money, without a knowledge of what the long term consequences of their actions would be on their own lives, and without realizing how damaging bad leadership could turn out to be for the nation as a whole. 

The obvious question, then, is whether a broad awareness campaign would be the solution or not? By focusing on the fundamental concerns of creating political awareness among the larger populace and spreading democracy at the grassroots, will the people of India truly be empowered? At an immediate glance that seems to be the case.

Some wonderful work has also been done by AID in this regard in the form of the Eureka SuperKidz campaign [5] in the state of Tamil Nadu. This is an interesting model. It starts with children’s education where learning centers are set up in multiple villages which offer after school tuition focusing on results/skills based teaching. The idea, however, is to expand into adult education, livelihood training and women empowerment [6] based on the foundation set up through the SuperKidz program, once at least 1000 centers are established. This seems to be a long term solution that is scalable and reproducible across different parts of the country.

However, the question persists. Is education the panacea to all problems [7]? Think about this. One can’t blame some marginalized sections of the population selling their votes for money. When you are struggling to have a proper day’s meal, it would be arrogant of other more fortunate sections to demand that you should be ready to suffer hunger in the short term to possibly have a rosier future. When the disadvantaged marginalized sections are thus suffering from a concern of their immediate survival, it is easy and also extremely haughty of others to just dismiss them with a wave of the hand or even blame it all on education, the lack thereof. 

Then, there is also the issue of corruption, that deep-rooted malaise that plagues India’s democracy. When some corrupt state governments with passive support from the Center use dubious land acquisition laws [8] to violently [9] affect the lives of some sections of the population, in the name of development, it is difficult to ask these marginalized sections to trust democracy and follow the appropriate redressal mechanisms. How do you spread democracy at the grassroots in such a circumstance; education? There are way too many variables at act here. India is a complex nation. A one-size-fits-all solution can probably never be found.

These thoughts have been swirling around inside me for a long while now. However, it was at the AID 2011 [10] conference in Boston that the turbulent waters came to settle thus giving me a clearer picture; or, maybe not. There are still more questions than answers.

Why is there a general middle and upper class apathy towards the concerns of the marginalized? Is it because of the belief that there is a temporary price to pay for the nation’s development and as the GDP rises the effects will eventually trickle down? Or is it just willful ignorance, one where we just do not want to tackle the harder problems?  

Will sustainable development balance the growth aspirations of the nation with concerns, both environmental and those of the marginalized; or is sustainable development an oxymoron?

Is civil activism a refuge of people who covet power sans responsibility; people who want the power to influence the lives of the “downtrodden” but do not want to take ownership of their actions? If so, shouldn’t concerned people try to effect change from within the political system? Will concerned, motivated and educated people entering the system be a solution or is the political system itself corrupt beyond repair?

These are tough questions to answer. As written earlier, there is probably no one-size-fits-all solution. Hence, an attempt has to be made to answer all these questions and more, simultaneously.

[1] Kerala literacy statistics:
  1. “The Kerala Paradox”, T. Venkatraman, George Mason University (2008).
  2. How almost everyone in Kerala learned to read”, N. Raman, The Christian Science Monitor (2005).
  3. Wikipedia - Kerala.
  4. Wikipedia - Kerala Model.
  5. - Total Literacy.
[2] Kerala’s social development index:
  1. “The Kerala Paradox”, T. Venkatraman, George Mason University (2008).
  2. Wikipedia - Kerala Model.
[3] Borrowed from a comment made by Pawan (AID Boston).

[4] It is debatable whether cultural tendencies developed in a community over many years are passed over to subsequent generations genetically, but for the sake of effect I will stick to the word ‘inbred’ here.

[5] Eureka SuperKidz:

[6] Women empowerment is important for broader political awareness among the civil population. Women’s political participation is a key component of democracy.

[7] Question asked by Alisha (AID Boston) in a casual conversation.

[8] “People who argue that the act is draconian claim that a number of projects with no public purpose attached, as in the case of SEZs, usurped land from property owners, with the help of the Land Acquisition Act, at what is claimed as, well below the market value of these properties. It is argued that, even in the case of projects that are genuinely for public purposes, there is a considerable difference between the market value of the property and the value that the land acquisition officer pays the land owners. It is also argued that the relocation and rehabilitation of land owners displaced by the actions of the act, is not followed up adequately, and that this is not covered comprehensively in the framework of the act. A notable instance of opposition to land acquisition, through the land acquisition act, is the  Nandigram violence incident.” - Wikipedia (Land Acquisition Act, 1894)

Land lost, Singur farmer said no to compensation, commits suicide -

“Over 80 per cent of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) population works in the primary sector, with 45 per cent being cultivators and 37 per cent agricultural labourers. Land represents the most important source of livelihood, emotional attachment and social stability in tribal communities. The alienation of tribal land is the single most important cause of pauperisation of tribals, rendering their vulnerable economic situation more precarious.” - The weapon of empowerment, M. Hamid Ansari, Vice President of India (2010).

[9] “The Adivasis of Chhatisgarh - Victims of the Naxalite movement and Salwa Judum campaign”, Asian Center for Human Rights (2006).

[10] Association for India’s Development: