All I did during those few months was explore, try, fail, try again, and cultivate a ferocious appetite for learning everything I could about how the world worked within my area of interest. Every morning, I managed to bring a storm of enthusiasm to the grimy, hot, mosquito-infested flat that was our project office. Every day, I managed to bring together my tiny project team and people from our target slum community, start discussions, and generate a few tentative ideas to test. ... And then I got tired ...
Not disillusioned, just tired. I didn't have any illusions of grandeur about the project that I was doing: a test run of a slum development platform intending to experiment with new ideas, see if something clicked, analyse failures, and suggest ways forward. Disillusionment implies certainty in one's assumptions about how the world worked. I made no such assumptions. In fact I was excited about immersing myself in novel ground realities, curious even about roadblocks.
Every instance of harassment by the municipal corporation or a visit to a government clerk in the back corridors of the State secretariat made me feel like I was on a sting operation; I drank in the seamy details as if I were collecting the material required to be another Upamanyu Chatterjee. I amused myself by taking 'stealth' pictures of government offices, the legendary piles of paperwork, and the well known cliche of the constantly dozing government official - see left.
There are few in India that have faith in the efficiency or ethics of governments, NGOs, or even corporates. Indians are among the most cynical people I know, and most of us derive a perverse pleasure out of discovering and discussing exactly how messed up many of our social and political institutions are. This brand of humour that Indians direct at their own political mechanism through daily conversation, public debate, literature, film, and music, is cynical, bitter, dark, and thoroughly enjoyable; similar to that in Eastern Europe for example.
Hometruths: Looking back at 2013
Such absurd decision-making would be funny if I weren't a naive first-timer project director who threw herself passionately into building relationships with the community at large, and with urban poor women in particular. If I hadn't had long conversations about life's hardships with individual women in these slums, and spent long hours figuring out how to intervene intelligently given the scope of our project. If I had spent that time understanding that none of this mattered to anybody as much as did an aesthetically striking building next to the prominent city airport, a thick red ribbon to be cut by political dignitaries and witnessed by a noisy mob and an aggressive horde of press reporters.
If I had put my foot down and asked, "Shouldn't we be spending 50% of the grant on equipment that can help build micro-enterprise in slum communities rather than 85% of the grant on building a facility that is empty of both entrepreneurs and enterprise?"
But not one government representative has asked me what happened inside the building. Not one. Academics that I respect, have. Colleagues and friends involved in other social ventures that do amazing work, have. But not one person from the government has. That should matter, because the seed capital has come entirely from the government.
Not that there has been any cheating or fraudulent dealings, or siphoning away of the money. Honestly, there hasn't. But there has been a strange apathy to seriously planning effective interventions that do not result in showy, immediate, obvious, election-worthy outcomes.
And I haven't been able to assert my ideas enough, assert the need to implement these ideas and genuinely work to create a model that can help the huge numbers of entrepreneurs in the informal sector in this city and everywhere else in India. I wasn't able to figure out everything on my own, wasn't able to navigate the institutional context that I spent so much time analysing, wasn't able to understand a lot of the local political games.
But it hasn't been in vain. No, not at all. My own learning has been tremendous. Tremendous. I believe in my own capacity to strategise, operationalise, manage and lead, as I have never believed before. And I genuinely believe that the physical infrastructure that has been created can be put to amazingly effective use for slum development, if I can fix an inflow of grants from foundations and other sources. I have some very doable ideas for using what has been created, and I'll write about it next. So it really is on me. But do I want to continue battling on here, or take my ideas someplace else where I have greater agency, and work with like minded people who genuinely care about the people for whom they work?
I don't know whether other development sector professionals get fatigued over time, or if their tiredness takes the shape of a bell curve skewed more toward the first few years on ground. What I can say for myself is that the insane amount of learning and on-ground work that I have done in this past year has made me more determined to do what I want to do, made me far more competent and obviously practiced than I was at the beginning of my time here, and allowed me to get really, really focused about the problems I want to work on and the solutions I want to implement.
I'm not tired of doing things. I'm tired of not doing things. I'm tired of not working with people that have the same goals and drive, tired of working instead with people that use social sector projects to gain political leverage. I'm tired of cynicism, I'm tired of thinking honest things, but having to engage in games rather than honest action, tired of compromising my morals in small ways day in and day out, tired of being told, "be realistic, this is how the world works", tired of being forced to focus so much on marketing that there is no time left to focus on that thing which is being marketed.
Really tired of red ribbons and inaugurations.
Basically, I'm tired of bullshit. And I'm tired of trying to do what I can and getting frustrated in the process, rather than calling the bullshit out, packing my bags, and taking my services to places where I can make a genuine difference.
So I think that this year, I will do exactly that. Stop getting frustrated, and start doing what I believe in.
I may fail, but hopefully, not for lack of trying. Also, I'm hoping that I have gained enough in experience this past year to start writing with more clarity. I'm hoping I stay excited enough about my work so as to write from a place of productivity and achievement rather than from a place of frustration. And I'm hoping that through it all, I keep my humour intact.
Enjoy the following photographs of the political drama that I had the honour of staying up all night to organise - our project inauguration. What's a social sector career in India if you haven't been used as a pawn in at least one election time fiasco?!
After all, this is also political participation.