Saturday, September 15, 2007

A Letter to My Unborn Children

As the final installment of this summer’s blog, I thought it best to end with a reflective piece. This has been a life-changing summer for me on many levels; a roller coaster ride of ups and downs with lifetime experiences sprinkled in. I met new and wonderful people, did new and wonderful (to me) things, and did the type of work I was hoping to have the opportunity to do when I decided to come to grad school. At the same time there were (and are) a bunch of things I’ve been juggling mentally with family and personal life which have made things pretty tough. But I really learned a lot about myself this summer, and in many ways crossed some thresholds from kid to adult. You know how they say writers “find their voice” after years spent refining their craft? I think this summer I began the process of finding my voice as a human being.

To spice up the format, I thought I’d one-up Tupac and write this post as a letter to all of my future children. Here goes:


Dear Kids,

You are really lucky to have a Dad like me for doing something like this. If you’re anything like me (and you have to be, you have 50% of my blood!) you are probably really excited to be reading this letter. It’s like a time capsule of thoughts and feelings and reflections and it really gives you a sense of what I was like when I was younger. In fact, if I have stuck to the plan I have in mind, you are probably reading this at around the same age as I am now, 25.

Before I get started with what I wanted to tell you, I also wanted to make clear that despite what you might think, your Dad was really a cool guy when he was young. I mean really cool. Ask your Jay Kaka and he will concur; your mom might be too jealous to admit it though. For example, what did you think about that Tupac reference? I’ll bet you didn’t think I listened to rap. And shame on you if you don’t know who Tupac is; if you don’t, look him up on the handheld computer you keep in your back pocket. But probably at the time that you’re reading this rap is considered only for old timers and cool music to you is some sort of robot instrumental and nonsensical vocals set over tribal drumbeats sped up 3x. Just a guess.

Anyway, I wanted to write this letter to give you a couple lessons learned from this summer, which may be handy for you at this time in your lives. I’m assuming you’ve read the rest of the blog and/or asked me about my experiences, so you have the background. In many ways this summer was a turning point for my life and so I think some of the things I have to say may be worth keeping in mind.

1. Cultivate your Inner Voice

Besides what you may think your parents want or what you think you wanted during college or even what you think you want now, there is a voice deep inside of you that should really be driving what you should do with your life, who you are, etc. My point is societal and family pressures often cloak your real inclinations and suppress who you really are. I think I’m still battling that now, but my experiences so far have shown me that you really are best off going with the inner voice. And if there are doubters (even yourself), you are probably on the right track because it means you are pushing the boundaries.

2. Value Stillness

If you haven’t already started incorporating silence and stillness into your daily life, not only are you behind the times, but you should take immediate action steps to do so. There is an incalculable value to silence and calmness of mind; it will enable you to be a better person during those times of intense activity. Focus, concentration, even-mindedness… these are skills that need to be cultivated, and they are best acquired through regular practice of silence. While we’re here, you should also be exercising regularly.

3. Don’t Be Afraid

This summer was a first step for me in breaking some barriers between my life trajectory and what really makes me come alive. It’s a scary process, and honestly I’m not sure how things are going to turn out. How do you balance service to society and personal needs? How much faith do you put in the universe to provide? What type of lifestyle in terms of personal comforts are you willing to accept or can handle? How flexible are you to change? How resilient can you be to mental adversity? How do you develop as a leader? These are some questions going through my mind after this summer, and for most I don’t have good answers. But I do have some ideas and I am resolved to not be scared about it. Fear is your enemy, because fear comes from ignorance.

4. Have Fun

Don’t be so serious in life, or take yourself so seriously. Take time to laugh and crack jokes. Be a friendly person, it really goes a long way. Value your family, and look after them. Multiply in love, and share your joy and triumphs with those who have indirectly played a part in them.

You can read all the other stuff in this blog and my other writings about my work these past three months, but I would say the important stuff is all here. Actually it isn’t all here because a lot of it is inexpressible and also caught between the lines. But if I had to sum it up to a one-liner, I would have to say my main message to you is this: Have faith in yourself.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Sampat visits the Ashram

I was really excited when Sameer confirmed that he would be able to spare a day or so and come visit me at the Ashram. He was just getting off a killer trip in North India touring around with his family. I was looking forward to introducing him to everyone and to talk to him about what I've been up to and get his feedback.

Kapilbhai has been really curious about what NRI kids like me are like in the U.S. and it's been hard for me to describe to him in what ways I am an exception and in what ways I am the norm. But with Maneka first and Sam now coming to meet him, I really feel he's getting a skewed perspective of what kids are like back at home. These are really special people, one in a million. I told Kapilbhai that 1 in 10 NRI kids end up doing meaningful work in India by my age, and about 1 in 6 travel to India regularly (anyone have better numbers?). But after Sam and Maneka passed through, I'm pretty sure he thinks those numbers are way low and I'm totally sandbagging him and that everyone's like these exceptional kids. He, as well as Bharatbhai and everyone at the ashram for that matter, were blown away by Sam and were really happy to get to meet him.

Unfortunately I was feeling sick for a good amount of the time he was here, so we didn't do a whole lot. But we did get a bunch of quality time talking with Kapilbhai and also Jagdishdada, who even broke out his stories about his social work with the Muslim community during the Godra riots, which are totally amazing. But Sam did manage to have an action packed day and a half. We started out with attempting to milk cows at 6am, which was an utter and complete failure. Neither of us could squeeze out any milk! I could not believe how hard it was, but there is a technique to how you squeeze the teat which we were clearly clueless about.

We also got in some good cricket matches with the ashram kids, which was funny because there were all kinds of hidden rules and boundaries like if the ball goes through the garden it's 4, but if it stops short of the fence it's out. Another one was if you hit the ball onto a building roof but it doesn't fall back, it's out, but if it clears the roof it's 6. Also you get out if your ball is caught off a bounce on a building wall. With all these rules games ended up 1-0 or 2-1 which is ridiculous for a cricket game.

Sam also did a good amount of work in the organic farm with Rameshbhai. But like me before him, he was feeling the pain afterwards. He said in the end that he worked at a 3:1 pace slower than Rameshbhai with planting seedlings, which says more about how hard it is to do farming than how slow Sam is. But the labor didn't stop there for Sam. It happened to be the day Kapilbhai's family was celebrating their son Tapas' birthday, and as the treat they were making hand cranked ice cream for everyone at the ashram. We used this rickety little hand-crank-powered machine that was made of wood (I forgot what it's called). Making ice cream as an activity for the kids was such a phenomenal idea. All the kids got involved with helping with the small tasks like breaking the ice and keeping the machine stocked with it, gathering salt, and holding down the machine while someone cranked. It was funny because although you would think there would be nothing that these kids would love more than to eat a lot of ice cream, when Kapilbhai suggested that they have an ice cream making program every weekend, they responded resoundingly with groans of anguish. All the hard work and time to make the ice cream outweighed the benefit. Kapilbhai was a genius for doing this; fat kids in America should all be required to make their own ice cream. Also funny about ice cream parties at the ashram is that you get ice cream overdose because you kept getting fed till your sick. I was actually sick so I escaped with only a few scoops after getting burned during my first ice cream party experience, but Sam got stuck with at least 5 bowels. I told him going in the key was to eat slow.

The cranking itself was done by the big boys because it was no joke to churn. Sam got involved and in the end he helped making like 5 batches, which took well into the night to finish. It was a really good bonding experience though. Sam and I discussed making this an event with friends back in the Bay. I plan on looking on eBay for a machine like the one we used.

Sam and I also got some really good quality time to talk while he was here. He gave me a lot to think about with respect to my state of affairs in life at the moment, particularly with where I am mentally. He really got me restless to challenge myself in a few personality aspects and to push my boundaries in some important ways. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to do so now. I'm really going to miss him these next 8 months while he's out here. Good luck Sam, come home soon!

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Farmer's Meeting

I'm in catch-up mode with blog posting as it is actually my last day in India, so the quality of posts is going to suck, and you'll get a bunch of writing in succession, but here we go anyway. The farmer's meeting was the climax of the summer in terms of the work I did with Jatan. Kapilbhai arranged a meeting of 40 of Gujarat's most advanced organic farmers to come to a retreat where we would deliberate on the future of certification in Gujarat (from Jatan's perspective). The purpose of the meeting was to introduce a few certification systems (including the one we developed this summer), explain how they worked, and give the farmer's a choice on how Jatan should proceed (support one, some, all, or none of the certification systems presented... we were prepared for any of these options).

It was an action-packed meeting for the entire three days, and it was really amazing for me to see farmers from all over Gujarat spending time and effort with something I helped to make. It was really thrilling during the sessions where we introduced our system (JCS for Jatan Certification System... yea the name sucks so feel free to suggest a cool name in Gujarati to replace it), and watch the farmers really engage in the discussion and debates over aspects of the system. I was encouraged that all the feedback sessions for JCS ran over time. We even had mock farm appraisals (we call them appraisals to de-emphasize the connotation of policing in the term "inspection") for JCS where the farmers went to a nearby organic farm and used our system.

In the end the farmers decided that they wanted to go forward with JCS; it was the best fit for the realities of Gujarat. In fact, that was our main aim. The other systems may allow broader market reach and more recognition from buyers, but the standards and procedures were not sensitive to the organic farming context in Gujarat specifically. Our system offers a good fit, albeit with many limitations including lack of influence outside of Gujarat since the system is backed by Jatan which doesn't have much of an influence outside of the state. But Jatan as an organization has enough goodwill and credibility within Gujarat that a certificate issued by them would stand in local markets, which from my limited experience seems to be the first step for farmers to gain market advantages with organic.

I realize that this blog has lately been light on talking about my work and more on trying to sound smart and funny. This is mostly because I prepare weekly reports for my internship requirements and so I would get bored reusing material out of that stuff to create blog posts. But what that means is if you are interested in my work, definitely let me know and I can share all kinds of gory details with you which have already been recorded and are nicely formatted. But I will now, for the sake of completeness, write out a high-level outline of what I did this summer:

  • Arrived in Baroda and learned about how Jatan, an NGO promoting organic farming in Gujarat, works. Lived at the Vinoba Bhave Ashram, with Jatan
  • Learned through literature, discussions, conferences, etc. about organic farming, the state of marginal farmers in Gujarat, the Indian agriculture system, international and Indian organic certification systems (including strengths and weaknesses)
  • Hung out at organic retail outlets in Baroda to talk to consumers and learn about their experiences, motivations, feelings, etc. about organic
  • Hung out with farmers through farm visits; I now know most of the most experienced organic farmers throughout Gujarat.
  • Conceived of, designed, and iterated on JCS, a system (software, forms, processes) to certify farmers in Gujarat as "Sajiv Kheti", which literally means "living agriculture" and is roughly equivalent to organic farming. The certificate would be issued by Jatan and is based on the principles of openness, inclusiveness, and trust. The main unique components of JCS are that the appraisals are done by experienced organic farmers who serve more as mentors than inspectors; certification is based on quantitative evaluation of a piece of land through the "Sajiv Kheti Scorecard" which assigns points to criteria along the three categories of environment, health, and social considerations to produce a "Sajiv Kheti Index". Granting a certificate with an index indicator allows for more than a binary accept or reject scenario which is too limiting in Gujarat; An indicator of the degree to which the farmer is dependent on his land for his livelihood, a "Subsistence Index", is also included in the certification; and the system is mostly trust-based, run by volunteer farmers, and with minimal fees, which makes it a system of and by the farmers to a large extent.
  • Presented JCS to farmers and got validation on the system; plans to fully operationalize and certify farmers by the end of the year have been finalized. We recently got the news that in Kachchh, farmers are self-organizing to videotape meetings to introduce JCS to share with farmers across the region. The media may also be getting involved to spread the word to farmers that such a system is being offered, and to explain how it works.
  • Co-wrote a paper for the ICTD conference which surveys the information needs in "agriculture value chains" in developing regions and current successes, gaps, and opportunities in addressing those needs with appropriate information systems.
  • Wrapped up with more meetings in Delhi to present the work and discuss next steps