Getting India subtitled

If I were to be given the choice to do just one thing for India’s development, then I would make it compulsory for every TV channel in India adopt same-language subtitling (SLS) for their shows. Live TV can be spared. This idea has compulsively played itself on a loop in my cranial development jukebox for the longest time now. Yes it sounds crazy but its ok. I had myself used SLS to learn French and had raved about its effectiveness on my old blog here. Having personally experienced the benefits of SLS, I have come to conclude that making SLS obligatory for TV channels will help India improve its HDI rank (136 out of 187 countries).

Dr. Brij Kothari, professor at IIM-Ahmedabad and an Ashoka Fellow, is the pioneer of Same Language Subtitling in India. He is the winner of the 1st Internation Literacy Prize of the Library of Congress that was announced last week. SLS was first used on the Gujarati programme Chitrageet in 1999. It immediately caught the fancy of the masses. Doordarshan being a laggard paid heed to Dr. Kothari’s patriotic idea only 4 years later in 2002.

The Problem.

  1. Officially, India is home to 778 million “literates” and 273 million illiterates, however an estimated 389 million “literates” are, at best early-literate.
  2. The results from the Programme for International Student Assessment of 2009 make experts estimate that an Indian class 8 student is at the same level as a …class 2 student from Shanghai when it comes to reading skills.
  3. The Education NGO Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report for 2011 found that in Class 5, 51.8% of the students could not read a Class 2 level text.
  4. Studies conducted at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, confirm that over 50% of ‘literates’ in India cannot read the headline of a newspaper.

See Mr. Kothari inform Mr. Shashi Tharoor about this on Twitter:

So what is functional literacy?

There are varying levels for being literate. Here are the 3 important ones.

  • Baseline literacy: the ability to read and write at a level that enables self-confidence and motivation for further development.
  • Functional literacy: the ability to read and write at a level that enables someone to develop and function in society, at home, in school and at work.
  • Multiple literacy: the ability to use reading and writing skills in order to produce, understand, interpret and critically evaluate texts received through a variety of media and in many forms (print, digital, audiovisual)


What does SLS offer?

While watching a subtitled show, the viewer subconsciously associates the spoken word with the words displayed on screen, thus practicing reading in an unobtrusive and hassle-free manner. It involves no extra cost or time investment for the viewer. This method effectively increases literacy levels even with just 30 minutes of exposure to such programs every week. SLS on television shows unobtrusively gets TV viewers to practice reading thus helping viewers who can’t read properly to become functionally literate.

Planet Read – Film Kyun Ho Gaya Na Image copyright: Eros Entertainment

Which sectors will benefit from SLS?

  • Literacy for the sake of literacy.

Nielsen-ORG survey, conducted in 2002 and 2007 to measure the influence of subtitling, showed that only 25% school children could read a simple paragraph in Hindi after 5 years of education. However, this touched 56% if they also watched subtitled songs for 30 minutes a week on Rangoli. Subtitles can even help children acquire reading skills before they start school. The Freakonomics reports that “In Finland, whose education system has been ranked the world’s best, most children do not begin school until age seven but have often learned to read on their own by watching American television with Finnish subtitles.” (What Makes a Perfect Parent? Freakonomics) Trust the Scandinavians to pull off something like this! 148 million of the 231 million households in Indian (2012 TAM data) stand to gain from SLS. Out of these, 79 million households are in rural India. During my stint in rural Madhya Pradesh (Indian state with the most severe level of hunger), I noticed that rural folks do not have the time to follow TV soaps due to the agrarian nature of their work. What they do watch on TV when they have time are channels that broadcast films, songs and of course satsaangs. So if we leave out the general entertainment segment and if only movie, music, children’s and religious channels were to start subtitling their shows, the benefits would still be enormous. Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Reports will finally start recording huge improvements instead of the status quo.

  • Improved public health

A study conducted by the Department of Sociology of the University of Cambridge had found that the average income level is only a statistical red herring as an indicator of the state of public health. The literacy rate of a district was the truer indicator. Districts with lower average incomes but good levels of literacy tend to enjoy good health as compared to those with lower levels of literacy. The most significant impact of literacy is has been observed on the infant mortality rate (IMR). It is estimated that for a ‘typical’ Indian district in the early 2000s, a reduction of 25% in the poverty gap would have led  to the saving of 1 child per 1000 live births. The same effect could also have been achieved with only 4% increase in literacy rate! Even if one Hindi general entertainment channel (GEC) was to start SLS for its shows, it will lead to great improvements in functional literacy rates in the states of Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Punjab, Haryana & Himachal Pradesh which in turn can lead to a dip in the IMR of these states along with improvements on other indicators of public health as well. It must also be understood that SLS is not a panacea. IMR cannot touch a low of 2 per 1000 live births (Scandinavia, where else?) without significant investment and upgradation of neo-natal healthcare facilities across India and strong political will for the strict enforcement of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006. SLS will lead to higher levels of functional literacy, which in turn will lead to better public health. What more can we ask for? Apparently a lot more.

  • Easier TV viewing for the hard-of-hearing

The estimated 60 million hearing impaired people in India will without a doubt welcome this move (well those who have TVs at home) as already experienced by Zee Studios. The Zee folks received a letter from students of an institute for the deaf-mute thanking them for the subtitles as they don’t have to lip-read now. 

  • Crime fighting

This one can convince the reader that optimism has taken pathological proportions within the author’s head. I assure you, madness is my middle name. Jessica Aptman of the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention and Treatment writes on Good that “up to 80 percent of incarcerated individuals are functionally illiterate; studies show that if a child reads on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, there is a 99 percent certainty that child will never be incarcerated”. Thanks to Ms. Aptman’s article I did some cyber snooping on the link between functional literacy and crime and here is what Wikipedia served me:

According to the paper ‘The Health Literacy of America’s Adults‘ of the National Center for Educational Statistics in the United States:

  • Over 60% of adults in the US prison system read at or below the fourth grade level
  • 85% of US juvenile inmates are functionally illiterate
  • 43% of adults at the lowest level of literacy lived below the poverty line, as opposed to 4% of those with the highest levels of literacy.

According to ‘Literacy Statistics’ page of

  • Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.
  • Low literary costs $73 million per year in terms of direct health care costs. Pfizer puts the cost much higher.
  • 16-to-19-year-old girls at the poverty line and below with below-average reading skills are 6 times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than their more literate counterparts.

This data is based on the United States of America so may be the US can also benefit if more of its citizens watch TV with the sub-titles for the hearing imparied turned on when the children are around. What needs to be studied however is whether there exists a causal relationship between low levels of literacy and crime rates in India. In all probability it does. I shall leave this to the experts. If funtional literacy can indeed help prevent crime, then SLS can also make society safer by turning TV viewers into TV readers.

  • More revenues for channels

A conversation regarding the introduction of Hindi subtitles on a popular Hindi GEC with a TV executive of that channel had him asking, “It’s good for deaf people but what’s in it for us?” Well, more viewership. Almost every English language channel that airs in India has English subtitles. Viewership of  Star Movies saw a 12% increase after the channel started airing English movies with English subtitles. One might argue that an English language channel is bound to gain in India as English is not the mother tongue of most Indians. However, even Hindi music shows Chitrahaar and Rangoli on Doordarshan saw a jump of 10 to 15%.  Since the subtitles garner more eyeballs, it is bound to make the whole triad – audiences, advertisers and broadcasters – happier.

Can there still be inhibitions for implementing SLS?

Some people in the TV business might still harbour multiple reservations regarding the adoption of SLS. Some might say that it is not their job to make up for poor quality of education in public schools. Some viewers might themselves consider SLS to be an ‘insult to their intelligence‘. Subtitling takes time and this can prove to be a hindrance for daily soaps and others might simply complain that this will hurt their bottomline. More importantly, only people who have access to televisions stand to benefit.

How can politicians take an interest in this?

SLS needs political support for widespread adoption and important policy directives can benefit from the implementation of SLS. The Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, had stated in 2009 that literacy, especially female literacy,  was crucial for the successful implementation for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the National Rural Health Mission and the Right to Information Act that he had flagged off back then. In 2009, the UPA had aimed at achieving 100%literacy by the end of 2013. We stood at 73% according to census 2011 data and we plan to touch 80% by 2015. According to the 11th Five Year Plan, the literacy rate for persons of age 7 years or more was to have touched 85% by 2011-12.  However, this can change dramatically, even in a span of 6 months, if major GECs start subtitling all their shows or are made to adopt SLS.

The Human Resources Development Minister M M Pallam Raju has stated that India plans to achieve 80% literacy rate in the period between 2013 to 2015. In order to touch 80% literacy in 2 years, the HRD ministry is also willing to  undertake requisite administrative and if required legislative measures to integrate formal, non-formal and informal learning and to formally recognize forms of education other than formal. The HRD Ministry is presently developing a Core Curriculum Framework for adult education and is willing to adopt ICTs as a medium of instruction. SLS definitely fits in with this measure.

Politicians can definitely choose to make SLS a part of public policy as they help fasten the race to meet many of the MDGs for 2015. Infact, the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Ministry of Rural Development, the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare ought to endore the implementation of SLS on Indian television. There really isn’t a need for endorsement from either Mr. Amitabh Bachhan or Mr. Shah Rukh Khan to popularize this as Mr. Kothari himself has regretted. 

Where will the money come from?

SLS is in itself a TRP boosting move and hence makes sense for the TV channel to invest in it. To make things easy, SLS can be woven in to the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy. The new Companies Bill recommends that companies with revenues exceeding INR 1,000 crore (roughly 117,658,130 Euros) spend up to 2 percent of their average net profits on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the funds spent on CSR are to be mandatorily reported in company balance sheets.  I do not know if it is legally acceptable to use CSR funds for an activity that will also lead to profits for the company. This suggestion is open for debate.

Implementing SLS across all channels will be in tune with the 12th target for achieving the Millenium Development Goals for 2015. It is “to make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communication, in cooperation with the private sector.” India is already on track for the achievement of this track. This move will only strengthen the current efforts.

Smaller channels can be given the option of accessing government funds if necessary. A part of the yearly allocation for capacity building and job-led education can be set aside for the implementation of SLS. For the financial year 2013-14, Rs.65,869 crores were earmarked for this sector.  The SLS is very cheap investment since reports that every US dollar spent on subtitling a nationally telecast program (Chitrahaar) of Hindi film songs, gives 30 minutes of weekly reading practice to 10,000 people, for a whole year which is the equivalent of one paisa per person per year in India. In specific states or languages, it would range from 5-20 paisa per person per year. Implementing sub-titles across most Indian TV channels will provide a great boost to the subtitling business which is estimated to be a Rs 100-crore industry in India.

What can we do?

Television addles our brains in many different ways but Professor Emily Oster found out that Ekta Kapoor turned the TV into the Empowerment Box for rural India. Implementing SLS on all Indian TV channels will fire up the television driven progress of Indian society. Write or Tweet to your favorite TV channel to subtitle your favorite shows if you agree. Cheers to armchair development practice and more power to Dr. Brij Kothari!

Clarification – added on December 3, 2013

Some readers asked me if I meant all shows should have subtitles in Hindi or in English. What I meant is that the subtitles should be in the same language as the speech. For example, Marathi television channels should have subtitles in Marathi, Gujarati channels in Gujarati, Kannada channels in Kannada and so on.

Petition for Subtitles:

Do sign this petition created for implementing subtitles on Indian TV:

The Government of India: Implement Same Language Subtitling on Music shows in India for higher functional literacy


The pros and cons of being a development professional in India

This could also have been titled: Things no one told you during your development studies degree’ or because you didn’t know other dev workers before you started working.


1.       Corruption

More often than not, you are surrounded by people who are out to make a quick buck. Most NGOs are created to siphon off funds. People blatantly report achievements of one project in another and ‘economize’ funds for themselves. You find yourself agreeing with the description of Greg Mortenson’s antics as using his NGO as his personal ATM. That’s what a lot of people do. You start resigning to the fact that a whole lot of old and respectable players are money launderers. To put this in French, ‘On dépense pas de l’argent, on le détourne.’ (We don’t spend funds, we siphon them off’.) Donor bodies have transparency and accountability last on their priority list. 11 out of 17 French NGOs refused to participate in a confidential study regarding corruption in 2008 so even if those posh white blokes have their hearts in the right place, their money definitely isn’t! Monitoring is deliberately loose so as to leave loopholes for exploitation. Suggest the emulation of the Ugandan government’s successful newspaper campaign to reduce corruption in the education department by publishing all details of funds in the newspapers and colleagues cribbing about corruption in the sector suddenly become ‘mañana mañana about it.

2.       Lack of respect

Given the rampant corruption in the development sector, the public (middle aged and senior citizens mostly) outside the development world looks at you with such a suspicious eye , that it becomes difficult to hold ordinary, easily forgotten conversations in the most regular settings. Sample this:

Doctor: So what do you?

Me: I work for a NGO on an agricultural development project.

Doctor: Is there any meaning in all of this? All the good-for-nothing people that I know are running NGOs.

Her expression suggests that she would dearly love to whip one or two of those good-for-nothings.

Me: A simple nod and hectic cerebral activity to search for some other topic to chit-chat about during a very routine examination.

In fact, even within the development sector, there is a general agreement that this sector seems to attract the worst people from society or as one colleague unkindly put it, garbage!

3.       Wrongful respect-induced embarrassment

While I have whined about how this profession does not command respect, I also the feel the need to crib about how awe-struck some friends can be. While I do not share photos of the self with smiling children, I do at times share pictures with farmers. Here is how friends might comment on the photos you share about work.

Sample Facebook Comments of admirers

Sample Facebook Comments of admirers

Ok, attention is enjoyable and one does know that it is a rarity to see a city dweller leave the comforts of urban living and come work in a village. However, it is not flattering but embarrassing to be at the receiving end of blind praise. You feel grateful for all the appreciation and praise but since only you know how much you have truly achieved, beforehand praise makes you uncomfortable. Anyway, young people who praise blindly today will be hard core critics tomorrow. See point 2.

Good job, precious job, impressive job: Mr./Ms/Mrs. Outsider for the Dev Sector, you don’t know the findings and remarks of the monitoring and evaluation people from the donor body. You don’t know if we had bribed the monitoring guys to write a goody-goody report despite bad work. Many of the capacity building sessions i.e.trainings, often amount to nothing more than recording attendance and tea with snacks. You haven’t run into the cartoons who narrate stories from the Ramayana to explain sustainable agriculture with the effect of boring every beneficiary to day-dreamland. Despite all the sitting down that dev workers do with the farmers, the project may or may not have achieved its results and there may have been many discrepancies. One doesn’t become ‘great’ by choosing to be dev worker. There are men heading women’s empowerment projects who have been angered at the birth of their second daughters (but they do deserve thanks for not having checked the sex of the foetus and gotten it aborted). There are women working against domestic violence but who themselves are dating married men. There are social workers working ‘to end human trafficking’ but who actually prey on rescued children themselves. Don’t praise just like that. Many NGO founders believe that they are doing ‘good work’ and that by running a NGO they are ‘good human beings’ (why can’t a bank clerk be one too?). Worse, there are people who think that they are doing a favour to the people their project is targeting (WhyDev, I didn’t say ‘beneficiaries’) via their work. The general public’s gullibility and eagerness to praise development workers makes it easy for criminals amongst us to take a whole lot of people for a ride. Take a cue from Professor Alastor Moody’s book, constant vigilance while dealing with the ‘good human beings doing good work’!

4.       Lack of access to essentials

Working in remote locations exposes you to exactly the same problems that locals face. You face things that are only news items in your city life or were someone else’s problem from your development degree curriculum.  It hurts in a manner that I can’t put to words to have money to buy something but to find out that it is simply not available.

You have the money for certain medicines, but your local chemist does not stock them. He (always a ‘he’) might have something that you need but only the cheaper generic alternative that according to what some doctor friend has told you may not be viable.

Same for hospitals as the rural health center treats you for minor trouble but you might have to urgently drive out 150 kms to get treatment for excruciating abdominal pain. On reaching the hospital, you find out that it was a minor ailment that gets fixed in a matter of 2 hours without requiring hospitalization. How did it reach ‘excruciating’ levels? Because it started in such a minor manner that you didn’t consider it very serious, you procrastinated because you didn’t want to approach the local doctor because you assumed that he/she would be ineffective and you kept telling yourself that you would visit the closest city on the weekend having no clue that the ‘minor’ pain was going to seem life-threatening within the work week itself.

Even access to certain food items is troublesome. Your location might not have a single dairy and there  may be no fruit bearing orchards in your area, yet.

While grains, pulses, vegetables, hens and eggs are not in short supply, for the past year, I haven’t purchased milk or fruits because they simply aren’t available for sale with vendors here. The only time I’ve had fruits here is when some woman farmer refused to send me back empty-handed from her home and gave me a papaya or a jackfruit (talk about hospitality) or when I bought mangoes during the summer when I would go 40 kms away to Mandla for some work or the other

5.       The Good life takes a backseat.

Your location has no libraries and no bookstores. Your area hasn’t seen an English newspaper yet and hence no Jug Suraiya and Aiyar or whoever your favorite columnists are. You can catch them online but that’s not the same thing as reading them in the newspaper.  You can’t buy good music (illegal downloads are an option but I choose to be holier than online pirates). There are no chamber music concerts to attend and absolutely no one shares your love for Raag Malkauns! Dark chocolate is unheard of and there is no cappuccino to accompany you on pensive evenings. They don’t store ice-creams outside of summer so no vanilla to satisfy your taste buds. You keep thanking engineers and tech startups for the internet, PCs and all wonderful things like YouTube, iTunes, GoodReads and plenty of other websites where you can get yourfix of culture. You shall remain eternally grateful to Flipkart and Landmark or the website you shop on for delivering books within a radius of 50 kms from your location. (Hey, you can cover the last miles, right?) Right now, Jeeves and Wooster keep me company in the evening.

6.       The Know-it-all

Development workers and even the government officials specifically involved in development work are more often than not, big time ‘Know-it-alls’. The worst offenders are the types who hold degrees in Sociology or Social Work (In the Indian context, alumni of TISS and Jamia Milia seem to be exceptions) and have inflicted themselves upon the development sector. Not all of them are unbearable creatures, but most of them are. Why? Because they mistakenly believe themselves perfectly capable of running any project irrespective of the problem it seeks to tackle, be it public health, agriculture, adolescent girls, sanitation or watershed management. The term ‘social worker’ starts sounding like an abuse. The blame cannot squarely be placed on their poor shoulders as they are given the responsibility to implement these projects. You start wondering what the HR guys were thinking before they hired them. Or on an even more serious note, whether the project implementing body even has a HR department. (Yup, there are bodies like that!) SEAWL tells us things are the same in that country called Africa.

While in certain contexts it is important to be a Jack of all trades, master of none i.e. a generalist, specialized fields need people with university degrees in those areas. The project management skills and experience of the MSW species is considerable but it is frankly as irritating as hearing a blackboard being scratched with nails to hear someone with a Bachelors of sociology and a Masters of Commerce and Social Work try and lecture you about correct fertilizer doses for a certain crop. One iodine deficient being had actually said, “We didn’t need degrees to learn agriculture, we learn’t it by practice.” Statements such as these make me want to throw the 1.5 kg each Handbooks of Agriculture, Horticulture and Animal Husbandry at their faces while the brain screams, “BUGGER OFF! BUGGER OFF!”

7.       Parental objection

A child always wants his/her parents’ appreciation and approval and choosing the development sector is a sure way to close the doors for that. Your mom fears that you aren’t interested in building a healthy bank balance and your father fears that you are out to become Mother Teresa. They worry with good reason that you might not get to hospital in time in case of a severe illness. They have nightmares that you may have simply decided to not get married at all! And given the fact that they have seen the ways of world far more than you have, they hate the fact that you are in sector “where 95% people are corrupt.” How they arrive at that figure is a mystery but they aren’t very far from the truth although I wouldn’t say 95%. Things aren’t that bad either.

The Pros

1.      You and your friends are hardy travelers

This applies to all expats and even domestic development workers. You have all at some point of time or the lived and not simply vacationed in different corners of the world. Your conversations can be full of experience from different parts of the world and you kind of try to live those experiences, albeit vicariously. Look at this:

  • You are friends with a French law graduate turned organic agriculture enthusiast who has interned in Denmark, Jerusalem and Panama, a French business administration graduate (degree from an Australian university) who had interned in Bangladesh before turning into a full time aid worker in Haiti, an American with a degree in tropical medicine who had been volunteer with you in Rome and is now volunteering in Guatemala, an Italian and a German vet who volunteered in Botswana, the list goes on… (By the way, 3 out of the 5 are girls.)
  • Two of your acquaintances had short stints in protected Indian Tiger reserves.
  • Another did his internship in a snow-capped Greater Himalayan village.
  • And you yourself had worked as project assistant for nuclear submarine construction project before doing a master in sustainable agriculture in Paris, volunteering in Rome and then taking the post of a project coordinator for sustainable agriculture programme in a Central Indian forest or something on similar lines.

 2.      Spectacular night sky

The city life offers us streets and the sky full of yellow street light. You do spot the moon and some bright stars and planets but that’s it. Living in a remote location, you can simply look up to find yourself under a breathtaking canopy of a thousand stars and you tell yourself, relish it till it lasts. My night sky isn’t as spectacular as the one in Patagonia but it sure makes me feel privileged as I had never seen a clear Milky Way in Bombay, Paris and Rome.

3.      Wildlife

While city life does not offer more than crows, dogs and cats, here is what  you can come across.

You may have picked up a snake because you thought it needed rescuing from vehicular traffic.

Rescued snake and me

Rescued snake and me

You might have spotted a vulture that is now a rarity in India.

Mummy vulture

Mummy vulture

You can come a across a 4 feet long Bengal monitor that will scamper off before you could get a photo.

Beautiful birds that you didn’t know exist like the racket tailed Drongo and the Neelkanth turn up every day in your office campus.

We were once very casually told (I won’t say warned because it did not sound like a warning) by Forest personnel that ‘there is a leopard that is in this range’. More fortunate colleagues have spotted pythons, the spotted deer and even a tiger in the jungle.  To flutter in and out of the National Geographic channel is a part of a regular work day you see.

4. Becoming a photographer

As it is highly important to properly document what you do and illustrate it with suitable photos, apart from the fact that you are an inveterate traveler, you get yourself a good if not the best camera and shoot to your heart’s content. Since you take photos practically every day, you decide you might actually refine this skill and start following some photography page on Facebook or elsewhere to keep getting your dose of tips and tricks. After all, if you have to capture breathtaking views, you better try and do it like a pro!

5. Adventure takes front seat

You’ve crossed rivers on foot when they were shallow enough. You had to row on a river to get to a village on the other bank.

A friend called me Indiana Jane.

A friend called me Indiana Jane.

100 km long bike rides within a day, 2 or 3 times a day are a part of your week. Trekking 16 to 20 km through a dense and hilly forest to get to your farthest beneficiaries is normal. As the closest movie theatre (no illegal downloads remember?) or some similar modern mode of entertainment is 150 kms away, you and your colleagues decide to chill-out by having barbeques on the bank of the Budner or swim in the Narmada for close to 5 hours on Sunday. In your case but not due to the lack of modernization, it might be the Lake Braccianno, La Gonave Bay beach, Koki beach or may be you lament the fact that you can’t swim in the Lake Victoria because of crocodiles.

6.      Unadulterated joy of sharing

There are many things that you may have  studied in college or may have learned in capacity building sessions for project implementation personnel that are of no practical use for yourself but are highly useful for the people whom you work with. Well you are supposed to be giving trainings with that knowledge anyway but here is something that no one ever told you about. It turned out to be pure joy to make a Zero Energy Cool Chamber (ZECC) with a farmer. The ZECC is a low cost technology for short term storage of fruits and vegetables. He was reluctant to construct what I had asked him to because he could not fathom how a brick structure could be created without cement but when it was finally ready on my insistence and when I explained how it was supposed to be used, that chap heartily thanked me for showing him how. He told me that he had lost count of how much of his stock goes waste every year due to lack of storage space. I had never imagined it could mean so much to someone. Ditto for telling someone that they could use mahua oil cakes instead of urea and then being told that they were looking for alternatives as urea was killing their lands (that is because they never have enough farmyard manure to add to their lands before urea application). I would dearly love to read other aid workers narrate similar experiences in different contexts.

7.      Discovery of culture, heritage and even geography

Getting out of cities like Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Paris, Rome, New Orleans, Edinburgh, Washington or wherever you might be from and straight into some place that you didn’t even know existed before applying for the job helps you to discover cultures in a way that you can’t learn from books or documentaries. This is true for all people who travel and not just aid workers. While I love learning new things from books myself, I didn’t know the Gonds and the Baigas existed before I took up work here. I was blown away by the strong fragrance of Basmati rice in the kitchen of the palace of the Gond kings in Ramnagar even after 2 or 3 centuries of no cooking having taken place there. I had no clue about the effects of the Mughal invasion on the Gondwana. I found out about the Kanha, Pench and Bandhavgarh Tiger reserves only when I Googled about Mandla before arriving here. I had seen Bhedaghat in the movie Ashoka but didn’t know I was so close to it.  I understood what the lyrics ‘Mahua mahua, mehaka mehaka’ meant and the joy about it when I experienced the fragrance of Mahua blossom myself. An Italian male visitor told us that he found the Mahua derived alcoholic drink, sometimes referred to as ‘Mahuli’, to be better than grape wine. Keeping in mind the local culture, I’ve conveniently forgotten my love for wines and beers and have not yet tasted the ‘Mahuli’ as that can ‘give a girl a bad name’. Once while having jackfruit with a neighbor I surprised her when I mentioned that it can taste like fish if you fry it after it coating it with rice flour mixed with a little salt and chili powder. The herbivore absolutely loved this vegetarian fish dish. It’s fun to learn things from locals and to teach them stuff from back home.

8.      Firsthand experience of good change

On being asked whether the FAO did much in India, a senior (British) told me, ‘India does not need people like us. There are many people doing good work there.’ That was indeed a moment of pride. It was here on the field that I found out how true her statement was. Wi-fi networks are now available in villages, at least at the block level. Irrespective of how much I may grumble about corruption, the truth is that implementation is taking place. Government bodies, although slow, are doing their work. Good (read least corrupt) NGOs are delivering results. The middle class and the media are becoming more demanding. India is infamous for bad roads but that is changing fast. More and more villages (in Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh for sure) have excellent cement concrete roads. Many suburbs in Bombay don’t have such good roads as seen Ghughri and Dindori blocks for example. This is a result of work done by the State as well as the Central governments. The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana is bearing fruit. NGOs and government agricultural departments are doing visible work for the promotion of line sowing in nearly all crops and especially for the promotion of the System of Rice Intensification. And thanks to the success of the NABARD – WADI project, we can now enjoy mangoes at INR 50/ kg, something that was unimaginable about 5 to 7 years ago. The promotion of women’s self-help groups across India is helping more participation in democratic institutions, financial empowerment and more importantly, helping put an end to the ‘purdah tradition’ in many places.  NGOs and State Rural Livelihoods Missions are taking ICTs to villages and many semi-educated farmers are now using gadgets like pros. Check out the work of PRADAN, ASA, SERP and BRLPs with DigitalGreen.

9.      Gratitude

The life of a rural development worker has made me grateful for the following things:

  1. The privilege of having been born in a hospital.
  2. For parents who fussed over food, medicines, clothes and almost everything.
  3. For all the painful vaccination shots (I don’t remember the earliest ones  but I definitely remember that I feared injections when I was 5).
  4. Excellent food throughout my life.
  5. Stable government and functioning police. Yes there is corruption and inefficiency but what cannot be overlooked is the fact that most of rural India lives in peace and maintaining law and order is not difficult. The police is truly feared, in a good way. I was once searching for jobs in South America and a colleague who had worked there told me to never answer a phone call in the evening if I was out on the streets as I would get robbed and to never carry a laptop me as that would get me killed. No such problem in the motherland.
  6. For the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force’s rescue and rehabilitation work in cases of natural calamities. Thanks to them, the species that makes its living by moving from one emergency to another is not needed in India

There will definitely be additions to  both lists in the coming years. Till then, what’s your take?