Berlin: Encounter with a street artist

I haven’t been open about this aspect of my life and this has been restricted mainly to my personal conversations with people who know me and are close to me. I have been in Europe now for around 6 years and people have asked me a lot of questions. If only I knew the answer, I am still figuring that out.

But here’s a story that might highlight the point I am trying to understand and express. This revolves around the words: dignity, humanity, charity, altruism, religion, faith. The three main points I want to communicate in this story are:

  1. I have seen two kinds of people doing charity. One who do it, but do it anonymously without showing it off or being visible. Other do it in a more visible way. Which one is the right way or the wrong way is not important here. We can’t judge, you choose what suits you best.
  2. Every human being has dignity. For the sake of simplicity, “Dignity is our inherent value and worth as human beings; everyone is born with it.”
  3. Every human being is capable of empathy.

It makes me very uncomfortable whenever I see someone trying to look down upon someone. So when I hear people talking about homeless people in the same way, I get irritated. But now I try not to react and care less.


Recently I visited Berlin in the quest of finding some answers and I had a random encounter. I was walking down the street alone and I heard someone playing the flute. I love the sound of flute so I slowed down to hear instead of walking away. Coincidentally, the guy was playing just outside an Indian restaurant. People walked past him and nobody was paying attention to him. When he finished playing, I walked up to him and said, “That was really nice. I stopped just to listen to you. I love the sound” He had a big smile on his face and said, “Are you from India?” I hoped the next words to be something stereotypical like I do Yoga Tantra too, or whatever version of India, Berlin is smoking. But thankfully, he said: “My guru who taught me flute was from India. Where in India are you from? Are you from Kolkata?” I said, “No. But close from Kolkata. Actually that’s the reference point I use to tell people here where I am from. I am from a city near to Kolkata. When I say near, I mean just 500 kilometres.”

Selfie - Tibetan Flute Performance by Street Artist, Berlin
Tibetan Flute Performance by Street Artist – He says Hello!

For the record, I didn’t think he was a homeless person, I just thought he was a street performer. So after our friendly chat, I asked him if he could play again and let me record. He happily obliged and put up a show for me. I got a solo performance, and he got a dedicated solo audience. Some people smiled as they saw me watching and listening to him as they walked past. He played a Tibetan Mantra that he loved, for me.

After the performance we talked a little more about him, his family, how he got into this whole music thing. He also knew how to play Tabla, and complained that he is unable to get the real deal here anymore. I said, well you can ask someone going to India to bring it for you. I asked to take a picture with him, and we had this photo together. After which he asked me, “Do you have one or two euros for me?” I handed him a few coins which I had in my pocket and we said goodbye.


So I was having this discussion last year with a student on a topic around homeless people. The topic was centred on, “Giving a Bag full of essentials to homeless people?” And I had a question for them: “Would you give a homeless person a mobile phone, if he/she asks for one?” My discussed also had follow up questions: “Why do you need a phone? Which phone do you have?” But the main point I was trying to communicate was, keeping in touch with family, friends or loved ones is an inherently human need. We all have that. So instead of food or medicine, if a homeless person asks for a mobile phone, many of us would respond like this student did. “Mobile phone is not a need, its luxury” Oh well. I will let the #CommIsAid people defend that.

I wanted to use this example of an alcohol smelling street artist to try and understand the points above. He could very well be mistaken as a homeless person, at least judging by the looks of people passing by and avoiding him. You could drop the coins, hand over your change and walk away. You could also stop by, talk, and listen. Or just, ask for their name and try to spend some time. Time and Attention are probably the only two valuable things we have. Money is probably something we created to make things easy or difficult or maintain order.

The other question I ask around people who feel sad about homeless or poor people is:

“Have you ever tried to talk to one? Or sit with one and chat, have tea or eat/share food with them?”

That’s where things get a little uncomfortable and people walk away.

The point is very simple, the ability to see the humanity in people is inherently human as well, I guess the word is empathy. When you make eye contact with a passer-by, you acknowledge the person’s existence. When you talk to the person beyond politeness and courtesy, you make a personal connection, which is an inherent human need as well.

These people have a name, a story, a family, their own life and circumstances. Just like you.

So my final question would be, “What’s the difference between you and a homeless person?” And once you have answered the What, dig into to the Why and keep looking. Don’t tell me, figure it out for yourself.

And then the next thing I need to work on is Dignity<->Money connection. But for now, here’s the flute performance video.

 

“Little children, let us love not in word and speech, but in action and truth.”

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We need plastic bans in villages to protect our agricultural infrastructure

During one of my fieldwork visits last year, I was doing a daylong interactive discussion with NGO staff and community representatives. At some point we had a tea break, and the tea arrived in plastic cups. Obviously, I was not an expert in how plastic can damage our environment and all the ill effects of having that around us so prominently, because as an Indian, I was accustomed to seeing plastic being used for everything. From protecting our TV remotes, to covering anything possible with plastic as a mechanism to protect it from dust. Then it hit me that, this is a sacred land. India is what it is today, primarily because of our agricultural revolution in part. The land is also sacred, because it is where our food comes from. Moreover, the farmers are the protectors of these lands and the caregivers, not just the caretakers, of our land. These lands are also the main source of income and livelihoods for our farmers, either who own these lands or are just working as labourers to feed their families on a daily basis.

The fact is that plastic waste is a known hazardous material not only for the health of humans and wildlife, but also nature in general; that includes our land, rivers, air etc. When I go out to buy food, vegetables or just have a cup of tea at the local tea-shop in the village, I see plastic everywhere. It is cheap, I get it, which is why it is very popular and the supporting industry around it goes well for the same reason. Local shop owners find it cheap to buy it and give it to their customers, and customers find it easy to dispose. Because you can just throw it anywhere and it automatically disappears. Maybe that is why India decided to ban plastics in its capital city of Delhi. However, my concern is to draw attention to the villages, and especially those agricultural lands that feed not just the people in the region but the whole nature. Then go a step further, in incorporating behavioural change in the use, disposal of plastic waste in the villages. When I walked around the people settled around the rivers that come down from Nepal to India, one could see disposed of plastic bottles or bags here and there. The amount of waste obviously increased the moment you went to the more populated areas, which was a bigger hub for everything from markets, to local bus stops to doctors. However, even in the remotest part of our civilisation, plastic made its way. I felt that our modern and developed lifestyle of the cities is corrupting the innocence and vitality of the villages. In addition, the recent ban in Delhi makes one applaud the move as it is a problem in the most polluted city of India, but what about the villages?

Earlier I was attending state of Bihar’s attempt of formalising the United Nation’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction into its state DRR strategy i.e. the DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 endorsed and formalised by the state government. If you look at the document, the section on “WASH & Waste Management” probably fits for the problem I am talking about. Also the recent national campaign for clean India drive i.e. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan compliments the commitment top this problem and raise awareness across the country talking about issues like open defecation which speaks to rural India too. So it was really nice to see the inclusion of this strategy in the DRR Roadmap of the state talking about implementing it down to the village (Gram Panchayat) level.

“Include the WASH and waste management related actions in the GP planning through the Standing Committee, Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Committee and partnership with civil society organizations.” (DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 pp. 78)

What I wanted to understand is that, “Can we consider agricultural land, rivers or our natural resources as part of critical infrastructure?”

Going back to one of the targets of the Sendai Framework,

“Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and educational facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030. ” (Sendai Framework – Targets)

and connecting it to the DRR Roadmap’s 10 point commitment #7:

“Resilience of critical infrastructure and delivery of essential services will be ensured, including restoration of functionality and continuity, in case of disruptions.” (DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 pp. 10)

I understand that conceptually the mention of critical infrastructure is not used in the same sense and context that I am proposing. What I am merely suggesting is that, maybe there is a need to address adequate attention to our natural resources as something critical, especially when it concerns with a multitude of problems that are man made. And when our government can take such measures like banning plastic in Delhi or other bold moves like banning currency or internet censorship, it shouldn’t be difficult for the government to make a blanket ban on plastics in villages too, to protect agricultural land? In disaster prone areas, especially in chronically flood prone areas like Bihar (multi hazardous pp. 47); havoc of nature can cause damages in a flash. Probably a small change like a plastic ban, would have large scale impact or at least not add to creating more hazards (Ref: Chennai Floods). Maybe this requires more thinking on my part.

“I thought this was expected of me” #IWD #IWD2017

This post is about something that happened in an email conversation with a work “hire” from India, that I started to take assistance from through an online platform over email. She was late in her work commitments and I was trying to remind her to look at her own communication and commitments, to point out her mistake. At some point, she started to refer me as “Sir.. Please” etc. I wrote back saying she shouldn’t refer to me as “Sir” and just keep it professional and address me with a Hi or Hi Ajay. Her response, “I dont know I felt obligated and thought this was expected of me.”

I responded again said, “I am a stranger for you, and I am just a work contact. You shouldn’t feel obligated or assume that a certain behaviour is expected of you. Just because I a man.”

That made me think of the word “Sir” we use in our culture, but most importantly it made me question, why she had to feel like that. I also remembered how my sister would talk about her frustrations of working in the male dominated IT industry, in India.

If I were to talk about this to my daughter, I would tell her:

The world might seem like a place designed by men, for the comfort and privilege of men. But do not let that bog you down, for that might be a reality you will need to fight for and prepare for. Do not feel obligated to feel threatened, or inferior to anyone, let alone people who would make you feel that you are expected to act and behave in a certain way in our society, just because you are a girl.

You will always have the power and control over what you want to do, and how you want to live your life. Do not let anyone talk you down, even if its a person who you love or adore. You have all the right to tell anyone on their face that it is none of their business to tell you how you should act or live your own life. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your life choices, how you dress, how you eat, how you love – because its your own life. You should never feel obligated to sacrifice your dreams, aspirations just because you are a girl. One day you would realise that when you walk with your head high, and back straight, the world would find it not easy to handle or accept. They would probably be puzzled, as to why your eyes are not lowered and your head down while you walk on the streets. They would be puzzled again, when you are able to speak your mind out confidently, and they’d expect you to not be so loud and bold, because they expect women to be submissive. Do not give in to the demands of the society, its a facade.

You should never feel obligated to justify or answer for your choices and decisions either. There will always be people around you, who care and love you for who you are. Be there for them, be with them. May your life be filled with such people.

More soon.

#InternationalWomensDay

Uttarakhand Government’s Operation Connect and How can you help!

As a part of the ongoing efforts by the government, the task of reaching out to families seeking information about their relatives has been on top priority by the government officials. I was amazed at the government’s quick deployment of the “people finder” on the Disaster Management portal of the Uttarakhand government which initially had information about tracking rescued people, since army was involved in evacuation or search & rescue. Progressively the site kept being updated with more information and data being gathered and managed by the Uttarakhand government. When I saw a lot of people online volunteering to help with data collection and putting everything at one place and have their own versions of the same task which was already done by the government round the clock, I was just worried about this whole duplication of effort as something that was adding to the chaos. While I was traveling back to India and was in London, I just called the District Information Officer of Rudra Prayag, to check information and convey that some of the documents of rescued people that was being uploaded on their website were actually printed and scanned documents (some word documents but still printed and scanned and some hand written, both in English and Hindi – ref: Screenshot) are not easy to search and ask them if they can upload at least in some searchable format. That is when he informed me that although some of the documents being collected at district offices are scans, there is a separate team that is also translating (from Hindi to English) all the data and putting it online on their own DMS site in searchable format. Now on the same website, you see all the information being managed by any of the offices being put at one place. Like the website says: “This search module has been provided to track a person as per the information provided by concerned District Administration. The original list provided by District Administration has been re-entered/converted in English at State control room to facilitate its users.Kindly refer original list of District Administration to confirm the information provided through this website.” Ref: Screenshot here & Direct website link here.

There is a lot of information coming in and the need to effectively communicate to the families any relevant news and update the status of missing or found people on the database regularly. One of the ways the government is doing it is by Operation Connect where they are reaching out to the general public through Facebook and Twitter and integrating all that information coming in from existing mechanisms like the phone helplines and feeding everything on the central DMS system. They are also reaching out to any organisations, NGOs working on ground who are helping affected people with relief materials to supply them with the information of the people they are taking care of and make use of the already available information.

Mediums – Phone, Fax, Email, Facebook, Twitter. So organisations or people can report or access information about missing or found people using any of the mediums. The team aggregates information from all sources and puts it into the centralised database and ensures any new information is instantly added to the database and made available.

The team designed a form that any organisation can use, they have the same form available on their Facebook page under and various other information being put up online which is also being fed to their twitter feed.

operation-connect-uttarkhand-facebook
Operation Connect – Missing Cell Uttarakhand Government – Facebook Page Features

The page has links to the following information and forms that you can access/fill up on the facebook page itself like the List of Missing People, Report Missing Person, Report Found Person, Request Supplies (for people/organisations on ground involved in relief), Sponsorship (for donations) and Operation Connect Found People (list of people found using this operation). You can visit their facebook page directly to check those forms or check their screenshots below or by clicking here.

http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=124984

How can you help?

  • Encourage people to use the government official site/tools in case they are looking for someone.
  • Spread the word. A lot of people are still missing and being found. Just by sharing a photograph of a missing person you might be able to connect missing families.
  • If you are involved in relief activities and are part of an organisation – provide them with any information you have over email or any other medium you have access to (refer contact information below). Help all information reach a central place, and prevent scattering of information everywhere.

Contact Information:

  • Official Site: http://dms.uk.gov.in/ (this website also has links & information on how you can donate directly)
  • Email: missingcell.uk@gmail.com
  • Phone: Missing Cell – 0135-2104175, 0135-2104176,0135-2104180, 0135-2104181 (more numbers on the site)
  • Facebook. Twitter.

If you look at the following images, you can see the team behind this is engaging and constantly updating information.
operation-connect-uttarakhand-united-10July

operation-connect-uttarakhand-1

operation-connect-uttarakhand-2

TEDxShekhavati – Bhawri Devi & Mishri Devi – The Illiterate Entrepreneurs

One of the privileges I have had while working at GDS was working with these women farmers as part of our project in Rajasthan. So when Masarat and me met, and she told me about her plans to do another event in 2011, I was excited and was able to invite Bhawri Devi & Mishri Devi (Founder/Directors) along with my dear friend and colleague Shivraj Vaishnav (CEO) of the company Grameen Aloe Vera Producer Company Ltd (GAPCL) to share their story.

Bhawri Devi and Mishri Devi belong to the Jawaja Block in Ajmer, Rajasthan. They own a company that makes aloe vera juice and accompanying them is Shivraj Vaishnav who is the CEO of their company. These women who can barely write their own name are an inspiration to everyone who think that lack of education is an obstacle to achieving their dreams. In this TEDxShekhavati 2011 talk, they share their story and inspire everyone else to follow their heart.

You can view their talk here (with English subtitles) on the official TEDx YouTube channel. The women also appear in the TEDx promo video by TED.

Other speakers at the event included Manpreet Kaur, Osama Manzar, Avika Gaur (Baalika Vadhu fame), Rajvardhan Rathore, Nusrat Naqwi, Omer Mewati and others. Pictures from my camera are here and the other official pictures from the event are here.

The event attracted a huge audience (5000+) and it was bigger than the last edition and it was organised against all odds. Read Masarat’s post on the event here and Chris Anderson’s (TED Founders) post on the story of the event here.

TEDxShekhavati, is an independently organised TEDx event curated by Masarat Daud-Jamadar which takes place in the Shekhavati region of Rajasthan. This event is attended by Shekhavati people: parents, children, school students and others who will be coming from different parts of Rajasthan and India. It’s the first TEDx in Rajasthan and also first TEDx in India for a largely-illiterate audience, which makes it even more interesting!