Tuesday, September 20, 2011

R & R & R & ‘R

I just finished a 10 day retreat at Mahatma Gandhi’s Sevagram Ashram, near Wardha in Maharashtra State. I was there for Rest & Reflection & Reading & ‘Riting. It was a much needed respite in what is proving to be an intense Fulbright fellowship.

Sevagram means “Village of Service” and this is where Gandhi spent much of the last 12 years of his life, which was the height of the Freedom Struggle. It was chosen because it was in a remote village and Gandhi wanted to live like a villager; it is situated near the geographic center of India so people from all over could reach him for consultation; and, it was a gift to Gandhi from his disciple, the industrialist and philanthropist, Jamnalal Bajaj.

Unlike the more popular and much more visited Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat State, which is more a museum to and research center on the Mahatma, Sevagram is still a working Ashram. Followers come and go for various stays, meetings or conferences. About 15 hardcore Gandhi followers live there regularly and run the Ashram operations. Many villagers work there in related industries.

One of the core concepts of Gandhian philosophy is swadeshi. This means local self-sufficiency and indicates an economy that does not need outside support. I saw this in action. The vegetarian meals we ate were prepared in a common kitchen from plants and grains all grown on the Ashram’s organic farm. We took meals in silence, seated cross-legged on the floor just outside the kitchen. After we washed our own dishes, we all sorted wheat or rice harvested on the farm, separating the grains from other particles that got in the bags. I sometimes helped make chapatti, the Indian flatbread made of wheat and water, which was served with every meal.

Swedeshi also includes a number of local Gandhian industries: composting and organic farming; beekeeping and honey; papermaking; building materials made of local clay; sandal making; and, most famous of all, spinning locally grown cotton and making khadi, the clothing all true Gandhians wear which is made from this simple handspun thread. The original idea was that India would not have to be dependent on any foreign products, especially not clothes made in England, but Gandhi honed his concept of swedeshi into a more and more robust local economy.

Touring these various Gandhian industries made me appreciate the vision of living totally self-sufficiently. However, I came away thinking that if these businesses would ever realize the dream of Gandhi for employing the rural masses in living wage and non-exploitative jobs, they would need to scale up the production and open up distribution channels in order to take products to larger markets. This is, no doubt, antithetical to a “real” Gandhian to whom “small is beautiful,” but I was left feeling that this experiment with off-the-grid enterprises would remain just that, a small-scale experiment, unless the Ashramites and others would allowed for a bit of entrepreneurism and marketing (or maybe more palatably put “sharing of Gandhi”).

I met some fascinating characters while staying at the Ashram:
  • ·         Shailender – The 36 year old architect who gave up his practice two years ago “to go on a search” for living more harmoniously with nature. After the interfaith evening prayer service each night, we would take long walks on village roads discussing Gandhi philosophy and life.  
  • ·         Pramkrishna – The 96 year old Freedom Fighter who was at Gandhi’s side during the famous Salt March which was the formal beginning of the Independence Struggle. I asked what was his sweetest memory of Gandhi? He answer, “When Gandhiji ordered me to go to Andhra Pradesh to work with the tribals. I have spent the rest of my life doing that.”
  • ·         Hannah – The 19 year old German who is doing a gap-year between high school and college interning at Sevagram and helping to develop a website.
  • ·         Steffan – The 23 year old German who is studying organic farming at university and is doing a summer in India.
  • ·         Sureshbhai – The murderer and rapist who “found Gandhi” during his 11 years in solitary confinement in prison and now dedicates his time to teaching young people the philosophy that turned his life around.
  • ·         Chouby – The resident artist who plays music, paints and sculpts all in order to glorify the message of Gandhi.

While I had a wonderful time at Sevagram Ashram, the rustic charm of my Guest House bungalow began to (literally) wear thin when a third night of a leaking roof dripped rain on my floor. The morning of the ninth day at 8:30 a.m., I was sitting on the small porch of the bungalow watching monsoon rains pour, when a deafening clap of thunder and simultaneous lightening shook the ground. That afternoon, I learned my friend Sachin, the computer and logistics guy at the Sarva Seva Sangh office which administers the various Gandhian organizations, stood only feet away from a friend who was hit by that very bolt of lightening, suffering burns over his upper body and presently in the local hospital’s intensive care unit, at his home 500 meters from the Ashram.

After that remote village experience – which was either sweaty hot or pouring monsoon rains – I needed a change of pace. So, I am briefly stopping on the island of Diu for some sun and sand on my way to study water conflicts in Gujarat. This is a welcome stop before immersing myself in a case study of conflict that pits farmers against industrialists over the priority use of scarce water. Should be an interesting next stage of the journey. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Different Education

In this entry, I reflect on four very different educational institutions with which I have affiliated here in India. From each I have learned a great deal and with each I hope to nurture some continuing relationships. My education on this Fulbright fellowship has inspired deep self-reflection, as well as knowledge acquisition. As with any adventurous journey, there is a sense that traveling far somehow brings one closer to true self, finding that the treasure one seeks is buried right under one’s own home.

Gujarat Vidyapith, Gandhi’s University
I write from Ahmedabad in Gujarat State. I am staying at Gujarat Vidyapith, a university started by Mahatma Gandhi in 1921 and which he served as Chancellor from its inception until his death. All classes are in Gujarati language. This is the heart of Gandhian scholarship and I am here to learn, although I’ve also presented a couple of short talks while here. The original building of this historic university is stately with a grand gate, pillars that stretch up three stories and a big courtyard that is still used for commencement ceremonies just as it was when Gandhi presided over them.

Upon arriving by taxi from the airport, I went to the Vidyapith “hostel” rather than the “guest house.” I heard a group of 20-somethings speaking with American accents, but they all looked distinctly Indian. An older guy with a beard approached me and told me that this was the IndiCorps Fellows training and directed me to the correct place, then added that I should come back later to talk. Dev, the lead trainer for IndiCorps, said that the 18 Fellows were mostly American non-resident Indians – plus one from the U.K., one from Australia and one from India – who, after a training course here at Vidyapith, commit a year to living with villagers and doing some service project. I have had the opportunity to interact with these amazingly bright, talented and committed recent graduates from top colleges and am sure that these folks are going to make a positive contribution to their native land.

The Gujarat Vidyapith campus is peaceful, if dated, with the feeling of a balance between buildings and nature. Monkeys sit on the fences and swing in the trees. Peacocks wander freely. Chipmunks come up to the tables on the outdoor patio of the “canteen” where I enjoy tea and biscuits in the mornings. Like all of India, stray dogs are seen sleeping and there is construction going on here. The big project is the rebuilding of the Prayer Hall, where the faculty and students all meet at 11:00 a.m. to chant prayers and spin cotton into yarn to make khadi, the homespun cloth that Gandhi promoted as central to his local economic empowerment program called swadeshi.

My host is Prasad Gollanapalli, the Head of Training and International Relations for the Sarvodya movement, the apex national Gandhian organization. I met him in Omaha, where his daughter was a student at University of Nebraska at Omaha, and we became fast friends. He is a Gandhi scholar and activist and knows all the leaders in the movement.

Yesterday, I visited Sabarmati Ashram. From 1915 to 1930, Gandhi and a growing group of his followers lived at this ashram on banks of the Sabarmati River outside Ahmedabad and it was from here that Gandhi launched the Independence Movement. Today, this inspirational place is both museum and research center. Many international scholars come to the library here. The General Secretary of the Sabarmati Ashram Trust, Amrut Modi, told me that many people use Gandhi without understanding the real meaning of his words. “Out of context, do not quote Gandhi,” his assistant frankly told me. Then Modi added, lamenting the commercialization of this great thinker and activist, “Today we are selling Gandhi not sharing Gandhi.”

I met with a 94-year old Gandhian icon named Chunnibhai Vaidya in his home across the street from Sabarmati Ashram in a complex originally built for the families of weavers who made fabric of khadi. Chunnibhai has dedicated his life to putting into action the teaching of the Mahatma. Later I was told by an insider in the movement that Chunnibhai was the first Gandhian to be asked to fast against corruption, but after saying no because of his poor health, Anna Hazare was asked. It is interesting how every Gandhian I spoke to was divided about Anna’s fast. On the one hand all agreed that corruption was an important issue to fight against, but all also shared some variation of what I was told by the scholarly authority on Gandhi’s Collected Works, “Gandhiji would never use a fast to pressure his opponents. A coercive fast is unethical!”

Chunnibhai spoke to me at length about the work he has done over many decades on the issue of water. In particular, he has worked to help farmers with irrigation, most recently getting involved in a major water conflict between agriculture and industry that I will research later in September. “It is generally believed that government owns natural resources, but who really owns the water?” Chunnibhai provocatively asked. After a pause, he dramatically answered, “It is society.”  

We later met with Gujarat Vidyapith’s Vice Chancellor, the academic head, Sudarshan Iyengar, who is India’s foremost authority on Gandhian economics. We sat on cushions on the floor of his office where we sipped chai and dialogued for an hour. I asked him about Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship in which, after taking care of basic needs, one gives all of one’s wealth back to society. “Trusteeship is unique in all of Gandhi’s writings,” he said. “It is the exception to the Gandhi rule because he did not test this theory in practice. It is only a theoretical construct.” Given that it remained an untested theory, I asked if there were examples of trusteeship in action that he could cite. He said that very few have actually lived this theory of trusteeship, then unprompted he added, “I think Warren Buffett would be the nearest to this trusteeship construct in practice.”

My time with the Gandhians is only beginning. After another few days here at Gujarat Vidyapith, I will go to Sevegram Ashram, where Gandhi lived from 1936 onwards. Later I will return to Ahmedabad and head out to rural Gujarat with a young man, a recent Masters of Social Work graduate from Vidyapith, who will act as my translator from Gujarati to English. I plan to do a case study of a water conflict pitting farmers against industrialists.

Amity University, India’s #1 Private University
I spent a week one afternoon at Amity University in Noida. The impressive newly-built campus has 25,000 students, about 8,000 of them living in hostels there. Dr. Ashok K. Chauhan, the “Founder President,” has obviously spent a great amount of time and money on recruiting a world-class faculty, certainly some of the top academics in India, to teach and research there. In the category of private universities it is rated #1 overall, #1 business school, and #1 science school in India.  

When I arrived by a university car and driver sent to pick me up at my flat in Jangpura for the half-hour drive out to campus (two hours in rush hour traffic), Dr. Chauhan was addressing the closing session of a three-day training for port directors. He had me ushered up-front to sit next to him and his son Amul, a junior at Harvard studying engineering with an economics minor, and the Director of Port Authorities for India. Within five minutes of my arrival, Dr. Chauhan asked me to “spend two minutes addressing this group.”

I saw this as his first test of whether I was a guy he wanted on his team. Thinking back to the advice of my friend and mentor B.K. Goswami, who set up this visit and is on the Amity University Board of Directors, to emphasize my entrepreneurial experience I said after a short introduction that coming originally from PORTland, Oregon, I know how important ports can be. “India is the one of the fastest growing economies in the world. More and more of that depends on ports for export and import. You in this room are the key to India’s future. Thank you for what you do!” Dr. Chauhan seemed pleased that I kept it short and sweet, “Well said, Dr. Patrick!”

Then he did something that I watched him do a dozen more times throughout the next five hours: he closed the deal. Like the entrepreneur that he is, he had this group signed up for a five-day training course on a regular schedule offering an Amity University certificate at the end. He called in his deputies to write up the deal and 10 minutes later we were posing for pictures with the group in front of the building, me and Amul flanking Dr. Chauhan front and center.

Our entourage headed down the hall – Dr. Chauhan greeting people and making inquiries of them then delegating follow-up directions to his deputies all along the way – to the 6th annual case studies competition for Amity MBA students. Again, I sat with the Founder President on the front dais while a student finished her presentation on calculations about financing infrastructure development by industry. Dr. Chauhan then made a few congratulatory remarks to the students and faculty. We crossed the hall and he made appreciative remarks to the 250 corporate leaders assembled for this competition. Then we went back down the hall, stopped for some photos, attended to some questions, directed his underlings to follow-up, all the while checking to see “Is Dr. Patrick still with me?”

Our destination was a conference room with a huge table able to seat about 40 people. For the next couple hours, I watched an incredible businessman at work. He met with a woman whose father he knew many years ago in Germany. He met with a Justice of the Uttar Pradesh State Supreme Court to design an Alternative Dispute Resolution training for jurists and lawyers. He met with a group developing “Knowledge City” on 241 hectares of land in Madhya Pradesh. He met with faculty and administrators and occasionally students of Amity, a General of the Indian Army, and an author of a book on “Wisdom.” Dr. Chauhan would sometimes invite people to sit at the big conference table, where he wanted “Dr. Patrick” up front near him; sometimes invite them to a corner of the room and wheel a few chairs over from the table; and sometimes he would adjourn to a large waiting chamber which could accommodate 60 people on comfortable sofas. During these well-orchestrated proceedings, we were served fruit juice, tea and healthy nuts as snacks.

Like the CEO of a multimillion dollar corporation that he is, this man was the very epitome decisive dealmaker. After taking a tour of the state-of-the-art labs and meeting with some of the impressive faculty, he sent me off with his Pro Vice Chancellor, Dr. Gurinder Singh, a stylishly dressed Sikh, to “draft an action plan for Amity and Dr. Patrick to work together.”

Before drafting the action plan, Dr. Singh and I went to the “Fresher’s Party” which welcomed the 400 new MBA students to campus. Amidst flashing strobe lights, a stage with students dancing to tightly choreographed tunes, and students (conservatively) dressed up for partying, we made our way to a couch where a few faculty and administrators watched the fun. After a brief welcome to the 600 students at the party, Dr. Singh handed me the microphone and asked me to address the group. “This is better than Bollywood!” I declared as the students roared their approval. Then, wanting to once again keep it short and sweet, I said with enthusiasm, “Today, just like the Freshers who are here, I have been welcomed into the Amity family. May our time together be educational, rewarding and fun!”

Dr. Singh and I returned to the big conference room to present our draft action plan to Dr. Chauhan. He revised a few things then proposed, “We’ll make Dr. Patrick the Chair-Professor of Success in Cross-Cultural Understanding in the new International Centre for Excellence in Cross-Cultural Management. We also want you to advise us on the Program for Diplomacy, Negotiation and Conflict Management. Will you accept?” To which I answered, “I’d be honored.”

My head is still spinning from this whirlwind afternoon. I am not quite sure what I got myself into because I left a day later to come to Gujarat. We have plans to meet again when I return to Delhi in September.

University of Delhi, Ramanujan College (formerly Deshbandhu College)
The University of Delhi has 70 different colleges. Deshbandhu is one of the oldest and best known. It has the look of an old campus, with buildings in need of repair and cramped lecture rooms where blackboards and chalk are the latest in technology. Thanks once again to my friend B.K. Goswami, who is on the University of Delhi Advisory Board, I gave a guest lecture on “Social Entrepreneurship” to Bachelor of Commerce – Honors students.

A panel of two senior professors and the Dean of Students for the University of Delhi, a political scientist who did his Ph.D. work on social movements, sat up front with me. My welcome by the head of Ramanujan College’s Commerce Department set up a debate about whether my ideas were legitimate, which I found a bit surprising in an introduction but treated it as a healthy intellectual exchange.

After a 20 minute lecture we had a nice back-and-forth with the faculty about whether social entrepreneurship was something worthy of academic attention. Then I purposefully turned to invite the students to ask questions, and they immediately went to the subject on all minds these days, Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign. One student talked about corruption at the universities. I riffed off a recent article I read in The Times of India about “reservations” being abused at University of Delhi. In this system, somewhat analogous to affirmative action, 22% of the student seats are reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (meaning those named in the Indian Constitution) and 27% are reserved for Other Backward Castes. So, only 51% of the students are “regular students,” as one administrator put it during a visit to campus the previous week, quickly adding as if I didn’t get the implication of his statement, “There’s only so much education you can do when you have that kind of a situation.” 

Sensing I had hit a sensitive topic, I punted to the Dean of Students. He gave a good educational administrator’s answer, like a politician who is playing to his constituents but still has some credibility because of his academic position and demeanor. It was a great exchange of ideas, if a bit emotional at times. My guest lecture ended with students wanting to snap mobile phone photos with me. I shared tea and cake with the faculty in the Principal’s office afterwards.

Jaypee University
This is the educational institution whose letter of invitation I used in the Fulbright application. I will maintain some ongoing relationships with friends and colleagues there. We are now engaged in a collaborative research project on social entrepreneurship.

While Jaypee is a private university with very nice and new facilities, it also has “deemed university” status meaning the government has approved the curriculum. The students are definitely from families that can afford the tuition. No reservations here. However, it is still a nice mix of caste, religion and type.

Each of these universities plays a role in the bigger quest to educate the mass of young people in India. I believe in school choice and would argue that students (and their parents) should be allowed and encouraged to choose the school that’s right for them, right for their pocketbooks and right for their values. I am proud to be associated with each institution and welcome the diversity.

Next, I am off to Sevegram Ashram where Gandhi spent the later years of his life. This will be a retreat in which I hope to do some reading, writing and reflecting.  I will be offline for a couple weeks. Hope your own journeys are rich, deep and life-changing. Peace!