Saturday, 15 December 2012

A love story

Just after the millennium I worked with a foundation which supported social entrepreneurs. This is an fashionable term for individuals who have the ideas and energy to develop services based on business principles for the benefit of society rather than for personal profit.
One day I got a letter from a young man called Richard. He explained that he was a manager with a multinational computing company but he wanted to do something more value-based with his life. He had heard about our work, “could I come and work with you?” he asked. Intrigued I met him. I explained that any salary we might offer would be a fraction of what he was earning in the private sector. “I’ve considered this” he replied, “and I still want to do it, if you’ll have me.”  We did and Richard started work supporting people with fledgling ideas and projects. He was good at it and became enormously popular with the rest of the team.One day I was wandering round the second floor of the HQ in London. There was someone working at a desk I hadn’t seen before. This was a new intern called Pooja. She explained she was from India and was working in the UK for a year.
To cut a long story short Pooja and Richard fell head over heels in love. All went well until the time came for Pooja to return to India. Richard was crestfallen.  I thought there was only one solution to the problem. Richard should follow Pooja to India if he wanted. We also had the idea that perhaps they could both start to work with social entrepreneurs in India based on the same methods and philosophy we had developed in the UK. They both leapt at the chance. The foundation gave them a small grant to get them started and off they went.

I’ve kept in touch with them on and off over the last 6 years and they’ve kept me posted about their romance and also their journey in setting up an organisation aimed at the changing the entire country! The name says it all: UnltdIndia. As this new own organisation approached its 5th birthday last month I went over with two friends to visit Richard and Pooja in Mumbai, to see their new organisation and to meet the people they are supporting. This was like the grandfather visiting his children and meeting the grandchildren for the first time.
I wasn’t disappointed. Brimming over with pride is more like the emotion I felt. These two have founded an organisation, secured funds and already have a strong track record of supporting people who have developed innovative projects over a vast array of social activities. In the short time I had with them I met 7 of their “investees” – people in whom they had invested time and money. I met Krishna who like Richard has given up an excellent job with a major consultancy to develop on-line education for the most promising children from the most deprived backgrounds. I met Khusboo who having been brought up in an orphanage decided to play her part by taking education to orphans and destitute girls. I met the irrepressible Ashok who has developed sports projects to reach out to school drop outs to help them re-engage with the education system.  Successful? Well the International Football Federation thinks so and have given him full backing.
Some social projects have taken off and are now employing staff and generating  profits which are ploughed back into the communities they serve. When Pooja explained that we were visiting a project which organises visit for tourist around one of India’s biggest slums we didn’t know what to expect. At the appointed hour our uniformed tour guide picked us up. We could have been going on safari. Down town we met up with other tourists at a centre where there were 5 or 6 other groups with their own guides.  These were the guides from Reality Tours, a social business set up to provide visits to Dharavi a huge slum housing 1 million people who exist through their own efforts at recycling plastic and tin cans, collecting scrap metal and making simple pottery. As we picked our way through narrow lanes reeking of  poverty we passed barefoot children who all asked in perfect English, “what is your name?” Our tour guide Nilesh piled on the depressing facts – the slum is about 150 years old, it houses 1 million people, there are 700 toilets – that’s 1 for every 1500 people...”  Yet we also saw signs of hope. The profits generated by the tours have funded a school, sports teams, out of school classes, a cricket team with more plans for the future. But as we visited the “businesses” seeing people dressed in rags crushing plastic with machinery which would be condemned as an outrageous health risk in other countries or scrubbing tens of thousands of tin cans with their bare hands so they could be sold to be used again I was left with only one thought – someone is making a lot of money out of this and it isn't the good people of Dharavi.
Two nights later I went back to school. After driving almost 2 hours into the suburbs accompanied by Roshan from UnltdIndia I found myself sitting at a desk, in a classroom full of pupils at 8pm in the evening. The desk could have been the very desk I sat at in Scotland 50 years ago. Initials were carved into it. The surface covered in a tartan of long dried ink stains. The teacher was lively and demanding of the pupils. They were fresh faced and answered his questions eagerly with not a hint of tiredness you might expect from children who had been working all day long.
We were visiting Masoom Night School which provides education for children who to support their families have to work all day. One of them wrote this verse which describes it better than I can:
They work in the day
They study at night
They are tea stall boys
They are domestic workers
They are courier boys
They are sweepers
But they have the hope
and the determination
to someday make it right.
- Priti J Nair

I met Nikita the organiser, brains, energy and sheer inspiration behind the project. She explained that for over 100 years there have been night schools in India but they have become moribund attracting tired and motiveless teachers with no resources and less energy. The children who attend do not improve let alone pass their exams.  Nikita who had no background in education decided to do something about this. She gave up her job as an administrator and planned her first night school. A night school with a difference – where the children were given a hot meal after their days work before they went into the classroom, where Nikita assembled modern educational resources, where she went and talked to the teachers to give them encouragement and support.  Now she runs 15 schools with 850 pupils attending every day. “Has their educational performance improved? ” I asked. “We have every pupil independently tested at the beginning of our courses, at the end they sit the public exams. Our pupils have improved by 36% compared to others”.  In that run down school with its old school desks were worker children being given a chance to pass exams that would be a vital milestone in improving their lives. Inspiring doesn’t describe it.
As for the love story between Richard and Pooja. They aren’t pursuing that for the moment rather they are focussing their efforts and love on all of these projects they are helping to support.

“And what about the camino John?” I hear you say. “You said this blog would only be about camino related things”. And so I did. That’s where the magic of the camino comes in.
On that long journey from the centre of Mumbai out to the suburbs, thousands of miles away from Spain and Santiago, Roshan and I got chatting about religion, Hinduism, the temples we’d visited. “Where do you live?” he asked. “In Santiago de Compostela” I explained, “There are pilgrimages routes to there, have you heard of it?” “I’ve read Paul Cohelo’s book the Pilgrimage twice and I hope to walk to Santiago in the Spring...I can’t stop thinking about you know what I mean?”
Oh yes Roshan, I know what you mean. That’s another love story.


  1. Thanks J. It is lovely to read of the wonderful people of India in your account, and seeing that the poor fight so hard to advance, held back by the corruption and billionaires which infest the land.

    It is an uplifting and also a depressing country. There's a last crane remaining on the Clyde, a monument to Empire now pleasingly gone, where locomotives were shipped to India. Your "school desk" made me think of this.

    There's nowhere quite like India, and its friendly people as you found are its greatest resource. I hope Roshan will walk a camino, especially as he comes from a land which is replete with pilgrimage. They were walking pilgrimages there when Skara Brae was a living community.

  2. John, there is another connection between el Camino de Santiago and India. Last year I met a lady in the Tourist Office in Estella who has been supporting the victims of the 2004 Tsunami through the project. Pilgrims passing through Estella are able to collect a little Tsunamkia doll to pin on their hats for a small donation. In 2005 she was able to take €500 to India.