The moniker of "Crane Bedi" that I got during my stint with Delhi Traffic Police forms the essence of this blog. A crane clears the way and makes pathways. This is where I express my thoughts and share my experiences and concerns for a better world.
With Haryana panchayat elections around the corner, I decided to reach out to a few women sarpanches to know their experiences. I was curious to know how much they got to contribute in their respective villages? What was their experience like? What kind of response did they get from men and women? Was there a difference? How cooperative were government officials? What about resources? Were they reasonable? How did they meet their day-to-day expenses? Were there budget provisions to do so? Did the new elected women get any training? How did they manage as families in rural areas are mostly male-driven? Who was the real sarpanch in such cases?
The interaction brought me a lot of insights into things. I was amazed to see women so perceptive. They knew what was needed and what was wrong. They were the perfect faculty for rural management institutes. But did any institute ever think of co-opting them as faculty to share what worked and what did not and how they dealt with others to get results? Unfortunately, no one as they are not formal MBAs.
I found them the real practical managers who knew life through the challenges they survive through. I am saying challenges, because without water and electricity and with minimum resources keeping the family going is not easy; on top of it, with husbands controlling them and government officials almost ignoring them. My heart cries out for them. They are the real teachers who know what needs to be learnt and changed in rural India, which comprises two thirds of the population.
Startling revelations Here are some of their statements which will stay with me. "Ensure we have a cocktail dinner," said a rural official to a woman sarpanch, who had invited him for dinner as she wanted a road in her village to be widened. When I asked her from where did she get the money to serve the cocktail dinner, she said she got it from her husband, that is why he dictated the terms.
Every time one of them called up the local MLA or the minister concerned for the development work in their village, he would say, "Route your request via the CM". "But why should I, you are our representative," she would respond, and he would disconnect the phone.
There is a short induction programme for them, they said, but nothing about the likely challenges at work and how to cope with them. Also, no introduction to the officials they would be working with and no sharing of experience with past sarpanches.
On dealing with men and women of the village, they said, they delivered to the extent possible. Men, of course, did not accept them, while many women were jealous and did not cooperate. Most women said they would not like to contest the elections again, terming it as a horrid experience.
When asked if they thought men and women differed in their work as sarpanches, they said, "Women unite the village whereas men divide it." On how they met their travel and other expenses, they replied that they did it from their own pockets, which meant they tokk the money from their husbands. There is hardly a provision that recognises this need. Men completely control women's mobility in rural areas. They decide for them and even perform the duties in their name most of the time.
What needs to be done Having heard them, I deduce this: Women sarpanches need to be better empowered by resources and training. They must be introduced to key officials in the induction stage itself so that they are in the know and the need for cocktail dinners is eliminated.
An environment of handover and takeover must be held between the new incumbent and the past sarpanch. Government officials should play the connecting role. Perhaps a practice should be started and experimented with.
Also, the first-rank local officials in rural areas need to be overseen better by the district administration and the head offices, which appear to be rather weak or distant. My enquiries revealed absence of field visits and any worthwhile interactions with locals through rural tours and community interactions and dialogues with panchayats.
Unless the senior officials regularly visit villages, the situation would not change. Corruption and delays and cocktail dinners would prevail and women would remain an undermined potential in rural development.
During my interaction, there were two very telling statements. "Are villagers so worthless that they do not need electricity during the day? and "who could be a better manager than a woman, who manages her large family despite different constraints, yet becomes a sarpanch and struggles her way through again?
My key learning from this interaction is: unless the male-dominating mindset changes, women would not be able to contribute their full potential to society. And unless senior officials regularly visit villagers and connect with their residents, rural India would not change. And unless both these changes happen, India's development will remain urban-centric and migration from rural areas will continue to the detriment of overcrowded cities.
Solutions lie in the hands of self-driven field-oriented civil servants, better-quality politicians and progressive teachers sending out educated boys with inclusive mindsets and confident and informed girls.
As students, you build your own future; and education is your duty to acquire
"Remember to comb beneath the hair if you want it to stay recharged and keep your mind virus-free," was one of the several nuggets I gave to college students in Mumbai on the subject of early leadership.
I began by asking them if they had planned for the next one, two, or 60 years? "If all goes well health-wise, you will live up to be 90-plus, so have you prepared for the decades to come in the demanding circumstances ahead? Would you be self-reliant, managing relationships well, and fulfilling responsibilities? Are you preparing your toolkit for the long haul?" I asked them. Laying the foundations of life skills was the focus of my address.
I told them leadership was an expression of responses to situations in life, responses drawn from the toolkit of our character that we build consciously or subconsciously. I reminded them that time flies. Their mentors, parents or providers will pass away some day, and in the end, they will be left on their own. Will they be in good company of their own self when they are by themselves?
I told them they were gifted thrice more than they thought, with a healthy body, a young mind, and the capability to grab the opportunities before them. They need to use all these gifts, none at the cost of the other. They must be conscious of their every thought, word and deed, which is called being your own witness. It's not early to know.
Time is now, before habits harden and we learn at a huge price.
Without mentioning names, I asked them if they had learned anything from a high-profile murder case where it is alleged that a rich mother killed her daughter in pursuit of greed. I reminded them that life would give them many instances to learn from. Wise will be those who pick up the right things to learn.
Why must anyone remind you of your own responsibility at different stages of life? As students, you build your own future; and education - which is a combination of life skills, including professional ability - is your duty to acquire. The more attention you pay it, the securer you will be for the next 60 years.
Since youth indulge too long in social networking, it was natural to talk about this. "Why can't you be researchers? A world of knowledge is available at the press of a button, with search engines as your librarians. How much time do you spend on this, compared with the time you spend with friends on social-networking websites?" I asked them.
Don't wait for jobs
Your life will be built on the company you keep, the material you read, the experience you gain, and how you apply this experience in your day-to-day life. I was told the college had a department of entrepreneurship. I thought of asking the students how many of them had used their summer vacations to earn some money. In the audience of more than 650, only 30-odd hands went up. "Learn by doing, don't wait for jobs, that might come or not. Your self-confidence will be built by doing. The younger the stronger," I said.
When you give the attention-starved generation too much to absorb, they will pick and choose, even when all you said is vital. During the question time, a student was keen to know how the Indian youth could create a revolution of any kind. I replied: "If you care for your country, spare time to teach the illiterates and give skills to the poor, rural communities in particular."
India needs a million more schools. Why? Because we add another UAE or Australia each year to our population. Where will more resources come from?
The youth of this country need to be aware of their responsibilities as citizens and add "kindness quotient" to their IQ, EQ, and spiritual quotient. They could invest their summer vacations in doing internships or helping India become literate, skilled, and cleaner in the next five years. Independent women with earning ability would want to produce fewer children.
I was happy these graduate students heard me with respect. It was at Guru Nanak College of Arts, Science and Commerce. Built as a school in 1947 by the refugee Punjabi community, it has grown into an institution with own management institute. India's present and future were right there. I was the past, striving to remain in present and contribute to the future.