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No Big Picture! Hoping the short-term targets will take me through…Jan 18, 2012

I drove home with a friend last evening; we were catching up after a long time. As it happens with people you have known for long, the discussion journeyed from comparing jobs, kids and hobbies to ambition. Something Maneck said during the course of the evening said struck me. He said he wanted to change the world!

Change the world, make a difference, leave a legacy…. Now I haven’t had that kind of grand, sweeping, idealistic thought in a long, long time! Maybe I have succumbed to the humdrum routine of day-to-day living or maybe nirvana has not happened to me yet.

Thinking it through, I realize that every time I have tried to set myself such any long-term goals, it has been a disaster of an exercise. When I set short-term targets that span 6-12 months, I find I am much more focused and geared towards fulfilling these. Of course, as it happens in life, sometimes you change direction as well, but its possible to look back and view your achievements in the light of what your expectations were, in the short-term.

Yet, the general message we get from the world around us (parents, teachers, peers, all play a role in getting this through) is that it is important to have a plan in life, a general direction in which we move and its best to have a burning, higher ambition. The sub-text is always that this will help us achieve success, which in itself is a super -loaded concept (I could go on and on about what success even means, but that’s for another day!).

For most people, ambition is interpreted as a more practical set of broad rules to live life by–like ‘I want to get rich’, ‘I want to save enough to buy a home’,  ‘I want to see my children settled’ or ‘I want to perform on stage some day’. But to leave a legacy, in my view, it is important to look beyond the self-centered, material perspective and examine how your plans will change the lives of other people. For those burning to become successful entrepreneurs, this may be about introducing new products and services that impact people, or about building a successful corporation and benefiting future shareholders. For creative people, it could be about bringing audiences pleasure through music, dance, theatre, film, art….. For architects, it’s about creating spaces that are functionally or aesthetically excellent or innovative. Increasingly, many of us are highly motivated to impact what the economists call the ‘bottom of the pyramid’; find solutions to improve the lives of the poor.

Whatever it is that pushes your buttons, drives you, its impossible without the counterpart of the ‘ambition’- the action plan! It’s a bit like cities that want to become ‘world-class’ but have no short-term action-oriented guidelines to achieve that long-term vision. Sometimes, the vision itself is also not crystal clear and motivated by a competitive streak and not really by a desire to improve the lives of citizens (I’m wondering if Kamal Nath’s dream of a high-rise Delhi considers how this will impact the man on the street, for instance!).

For those of you who do have a driving ambition, I’m sure you are already on your way to translating this into reality through shorter-term targets. As for me, I don’t have the big picture yet, but I’m happy setting short-term targets and ‘going with the flow’. It’s hard, but I tell myself everyday that I am destined for greatness, and focus myself on the week, month and quarter ahead. Stick around for another ten years and I’ll tell you if it worked 🙂

Housing the homeless, and beyond- Jan 10, 2012

Almost as I was writing yesterday’s post about beggars, the Supreme Court was rapping state governments on their knuckles for neglecting the needs of the homeless (see news report). Every year when the cold wave strikes, the Supreme Court starts feeling terribly protective about the homeless people, orders reports on homeless shelters, orders governments to rebuild and repair these, etc.

What interested me though, is that this time, the Court specifically pointed out that the government was making no efforts to “encourage homeless persons to stay in shelter homes”, and also directed governments to “ensure that the night shelters were provided with basic facilities such as drinking water, heating, separate toilets for men and women, beds, and medical facilities.”

At micro Home Solutions (mHS), where I now work, we have been involved peripherally with night shelters as part of our larger work on low-income housing. A few years ago, mHS built two bamboo night shelters in Delhi with NGO partners, one of these is still standing on the banks of the Yamuna.

mHS' bamboo night shelter in Delhi; Image courtesy- mHS

Partly because of the court’s seasonal reaction, night shelters wax and wane in this city, increasing in number once the rap comes in wake of the cold wave! The biggest problem is offering a sustained shelter option, though, is that of maintenance. Once the cold season goes, they fall out of repair and the homeless go back to the streets….therefore, these homeless (beggars included) can never really be rehabilitated because they cannot afford to pay rents and there is simply nowhere else to go!

Legally, the poor cannot be charged for these night shelters. We fail to understand why they cannot be charged for services, though. Many of the homeless are daily wage workers, rickshaw pullers, rag pickers, etc who cannot afford to pay rents, but are also not exactly sans income. They would benefit from clean toilets, health facilities, lockers for their belongings, clean bedding, etc. The nutritional needs of the homeless are also critical. The shelters would very much benefit from soup kitchens, so the poor get a healthy square meal a day, saving them from starvation and death.  A holistic approach as opposed to simply putting a roof over the heads of the homeless is certainly warranted.

The other side of this picture is a concerted effort to address the supply of low-income housing, especially rental housing (and dormitories) that has recently re-entered the policy discussion after years of being shunned. Here too, how to and who would maintain and organize these is a barrier that needs to be addressed. If rental housing is created, at least the homeless with income would have an option for shelter. Of course, those without income would need a different approach entirely, something that incentivizes them to enter the workforce as well, and provides some opportunity to do so.

Essentially, it’s not just about solving the problem of housing the homeless. Its also about providing that opportunity to progress to the next level, and then beyond, and so on and so forth. That upward mobility that even the US has been criticized in a recent Time survey for not being able to adequately provide for marginalized populations. In offering a slim chance for upward mobility to these people, we would be building the future of the city and the nation in the best way possible, from the bottom up!

Is it possible to rehabilite beggars? Anecdotes from Delhi- Jan 9, 2012

One of winter’s most heart-wrenching sights is to see under clad children begging on the streets, shivering and asking for money. The reactions of us folks sitting inside the vehicles at traffic lights is a tad more pathetic though. Most studiously ignore, others actively chase away and those whose hearts melt, reach out for a few coins and move on when the light turns green.

A few years ago, on a particularly cold, foggy night, I was driving to a friends place for dinner. Near the Ber Sarai traffic light near JNU there were a few kids doing their begging routine, when I saw a lady pull down her window and talk to them! She sounded quite stern, asking the kids where their parents were!

My first reaction was to laugh out loud. What kind of question is that to begging kids? But soon enough, I shut up and watched intently, for the lady proceeded to pile the kids up in her car and drive away. Consumed with curiosity, I followed….underneath the nearby flyover, we found the street-dwellers family (group may be more appropriate). The lady, who I realized was familiar with these people yelled at the parents of the kids, asking them to give them sweaters! Turns out her NGO works with these kids and they had been given woollies a few days ago. The parents had taken the woollies off and sent the kids begging bare-chested to spark pity and hopefully get some alms out of the rich people in the cars!

I was aghast, first at the cruelty that these parents were inflicting on their own kids, but more at the extreme poverty that drove people to this. Recently, there was a news item that described an attempt the Delhi government has made to rehabilitate beggars into beggar homes (three of these exist at Seemapuri, Jail Road and Lampur). As per the HT article, about 600 beggars currently live in these homes, where they get food and are taught some skills as well. Apparently, those who enrolled got a small stipend per day. The government had increased this daily stipend to Rs 30 this year, but beggars are demanding Rs 80 per day saying its more lucrative for them to beg rather than accept such terms. Beggars claim that Rs 30 isn’t sufficient for them to support themselves anyway to fulfill their needs beyond food and shelter.

The positive strain here is that the authorities are still trying to find a solution to rehabilitate beggars (as opposed to the crazy idea to throw them out before the Commonwealth Games in 2010, only to let them back in post-Games!), but to me the problem appears more complex that offering them shelter and food. What is the guarantee that the skills imparted to them will convert into jobs? Is there some sort of employment guarantee? What other measures can we take to ensure better rehabilitation so that these people don’t go back to begging, which has become a way of life for them? Also, the solutions would need to cater to the over 60,000 beggars in Delhi (number estimated by Action Aid in 2004, which means there are lot more today), which is a huge challenge.

Coming back to my little story. The incident changed my perspective forever. Now I try and carry biscuits or bananas when I am going to areas frequented by beggars and simply distribute food, hoping to in some way alleviate their suffering (Dear reader, do share stuff you do to give me some ideas on how else to help). Money, I know, will find its way into the parents’ pockets and expenditure may not benefit the children directly. Though I don’t think ALL street dwellers are drug junkies or alcoholics, I know its a real problem and why not just give the children something they can use immediately? I also roll down the window and talk to them like they are normal people, smile at the babies and ask about their age, gender, etc. It doesn’t hurt to be human, does it? Yesterday, on Lodi Road, I was rewarded with a huge toothless smile as the little one chewed away on a Monaco biscuit, holding the rest of the packet firmly in her grip!

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