The Unconference at Boston
(Written during the 6 week Eisenhower Fellowship in the U.S. in 2012)
We loved the fact that it was called ‘un’-conference. It was an occasion, perhaps, to figure out things (in continuum), to be happy (in continuum).
Purpose in life
Zeeshan set me thinking, when he asked me the other day, what was the purpose of my life. Did (? do) not know it. I had to think about it. When I looked back at life, I realised that someone else directs. Things have happened to me that I did not really plan. There were hardly options. (This is not necessarily bad!). Because we always saw parents (especially my mother) working very hard (she has travelled five hours each day, using state transport buses) to go and teach in a college 120 km from the place where we stayed), studying was the only option. And we were always the ‘toppers’ (a not-so-likeable creed). Because I was not good in Maths; and because I was good in cramming (how many chambers the hearts of animals have!), I became a doctor. The English language, debating, patience were inherited from my mother. I was the gold medallist in medical school as well. I liked surgery more than medicine. Towards the end of medical school, I had begun to kind of think- I would become a cardiac surgeon. Again, it was not something much from the heart, just a liking for precision.
Something happened just around that time; and I don’t know the answer till this date to this most asked question- why did I leave medicine and join civil service. Some influences around that time (why did they happen just around that time? He knows) made me take the decision to leave medicine (something that had taken hard work of 5 years!) and appear for the civil services exam. The reasons are unknown to me. I just took a decision, with a trust.
When I entered the ‘bureaucracy’, I gave it 100%. I remember someone telling me I would be very unfit for bureaucracy, because bureaucrats have to be very ‘shrewd’ and ‘clever’. I smeared the soil of Maharshtra, when I first landed there on my forehead, calling her my karma-bhoomi. Circumstances demanded that I concentrate more directly on ‘rural sanitation’, because my subordinate officer was transferred out, leaving me with no choice to pay more and direct attention to this (one of the fourteen subjects I was to handle) subject. Very soon, we found ourselves leading a movement, a social movement. It no longer remained a government programme. Government officials, elected officials, women, media, religious people all embraced and infused life into the movement. We travelled extensively in most of the 1000 villages where we worked, spending nights in the ‘clean’ villages (to spread the message of cleanliness). The villages became my home, and the villagers my family. The love of people was invaluable. I have never been richer.
Jalna became a name known nationally and internationally in sanitation. I got to learn facilitation techniques in sanitation (called community-led total sanitation) and applied those principles in our area. The learning was immense. I was hailed as a ‘sanitation champion’. Invitations came to us from Pakistan, UK. People from Bangladesh, Gates Foundation visited us. The Jalna story became a case study in many national/international sanitation seminars.
On a personal front, the love and blessings of people made us sail through difficult health times for Nidhi, my wife. We were blessed with Ram and Lakshman.
Jalna also proved a blessing for work in education and health. At the end of our three years in the district, we moved up in education from amongst the lowest in the State to the top (in 7th grade exams) and 3rd (in 4th grade exams). Many of our innovations were replicated at the State level. Our teachers devised a date wise home-work books for children. We sat with all the 5000 teachers in groups, holding day long discussions and motivation and cross learning sessions. We could instil pride in their hearts of being teachers. Their potential, unleashed was breath taking. They inspired me. The love for people also guided us towards innovations, public-private partnerships etc. in public health. UNICEF evaluated our work in the district and concluded that the infant mortality rate in the two blocks studied reduced by close to 50% in two years.
I moved to Raigad as Collector in 2008-09, where I found myself embroiled in what media termed as the ‘1st referendum of India’. In battles which were fought in Courts, government and streets, the people emerged victorious against one of the biggest Corporates of India, which was to do (if it happened) the biggest SEZ of India. I was a villain in the eyes of few, but a hero in the eyes of many. I was not biased; the satisfaction of having done what I felt legal is immense. The strength came from unknown source.
I was transferred to Mumbai prematurely. Mumbai seemed tough in the beginning. Being a field person, I was not too happy doing ‘files’. However, there were learnings, that helped me later in my work. Surprisingly, the situation which I felt was the most difficult for me earned me the best possible assessment from seniors! Realised, it is foolish to judge/pre-empt His plans.
Have worked thereafter in a city and am in Delhi now. Our city became the first city in India to try the CLTS approach for solid waste management. The slum dwellers did a ‘dharna’ against my transfer to Delhi. But someone told me, I had to move on.
When I look back, I feel I did nothing I had planned for, or had a vision for. I did things, opportunities which came my way (were sent my way). Hence, I am at a loss to have a vision/purpose for my life. The only purpose, I could think of was:
“God has some plans for me. I do not know what those plans are. The purpose of my life is not to resist those plans.’’
I also want to share the churning going on within me. I do not know if it is temporary or more significant. I do not know if it is pure romanticism or more substantial. I do not know if this is just a strong discomfort (of being away from field) or some voice. IAS has provided me the exposure, challenges and opportunities of public work, which Shrikar and I believe are unparalleled. Given that, it may be a phase (cooling off), before I can jump into something more meaningful direct action. However, there is also an irritation that any substantial change cannot be bound by time, procedures, and meetings. The freedom of decision making and prioritisation enjoyed in the earlier years of our service may (am not sure) diminish as we rise the ladder. And this scares me. Sometimes, I want to be free, do what I want, with and for the people. There is evidence however, that power facilitates your abilities to do good. And then there are arguments and counter arguments. For now, believing in my purpose of life (‘dharma’), I have managed to calm myself. Whatever has to happen will happen, anyway.
I must congratulate Eisenhower Fellowships for pushing collaborations and consequential outcomes. Boston provided a platform for ideas and convergence around ideas. Shrikar and I were kind of pleasantly surprised, because each one of those ideas fitted our job. Hence, the idea of an approach, a ‘happy living’ calming topic came to me. And we were ‘happy’ discussing it. The passion and ‘acceptance’ theory of happiness may seem contrary, but they may not be. I do not understand this enough.
I am very happy to take home few friendships. I am deeply impressed, inspired and amazed by knowing my co-fellows, some of them closely.
I have also been fortunate to meet some of my friends, with whom I studied 13 years ago in India, who resided in the cities where I had fellowship appointments. Knowing them now as successful Americans made me feel so proud.
I have also met some amazing people/organisations as part of fellowship appointments. Besides the general inspiration and reinforcement of beliefs, I gathered newer approaches, learning points, ideas; which at the right time shall be useful. They may call for collaborations, if required. That this will happen, if this has to, I am sure.
 The land of karma (your actions)
 Jalna stood amongst the lowest States as per the Human Development Index Report, 2002, Maharashtra
 Non-cooperation demonstration; earlier done by tribals in Raigad when I was transferred out