Wednesday, November 22, 2017

An experience unprecedented : NIRDPR Diaries Part I

From 12th November till 18th November 2017, I was at the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR), Hyderabad to attend a pre-conference workshop on "Approaches to Social Sciences Research" and the subsequent conference on "Health, Gender and Rural Development". Those seven days have become etched in my memory as the most beautiful, unforgettable and productive days at a conference. The conference was organized by Indian Association for Social Sciences and Health (IASSH) in collaboration with NIRDPR. 

I reached NIRDPR on 12th in the evening around 6pm. As soon as I reached the campus, I was bewitched by its vastness, cleanliness and beauty. (I have seen multiple IITs and my own institute (ABV IIITM, Gwalior) was extremely breathtaking, but NIRDPR stands alone, its campus is beyond comparison). Without much wastage of time, I quickly wore my track pant and went on my exploration in and around the campus. The campus was really sublime and its beauty was like those VIP areas in New Delhi or even better. Whenever I go to any place, there are always two things that I  look forward to eagerly: Library and Gym, NIRDPR offered both and on the top of that it proffered a sports complex which had badminton courts. What else could I seek for? The very first day  I played badminton for 90 minutes with people who would become my regular play mates in the evening.  First day went  peacefully and I slept with excitement anticipating the next three days of the pre-conference workshop and the prospect of meeting new people and new faces. 

I will write lessons from every single day of workshop in subsequent posts in a more elaborate manner for I believe that will do justice to the hardwork of the professors, organizing committee and will be useful for the readers who wish to know more about the workshop in detailed way. Here I  provide a brief glimpse into those three days of extreme intellectual sharing of knowledge,  informative and unconventional lectures, liberty to question and cross-question and most of all, the well-articulated topics for respective sessions.

On the first day, the senior professors and mentors of NIRDPR and IASSH addressed us in a conference hall. I vividly remember the words coming from them which were emblematic of their vast experiences in the field of social sciences research.  Prof. Gyan Mudra had very cogently pointed out that a good research work in the field of social sciences must lead to improvement in the Human Development Index (HDI); I had written this point in my diary and made a copy of it in my brain. As I am going ahead in this journey of research in public health I am learning that an important research work leads to emancipation of society, ushers meaningful and sustainable changes and creates some value and impacts the lives of people positively. Her address had a candor about it and you could make out that she wanted the attendees of the conference to understand the prime importance of research and the workshop, at the outset.

Dr. W.R.Reddy, Director General of NIRDPR was always a delight to hear to. He mentioned that there is a deficit in the field of social science research in India and an acute deficiency of body of knowledge in social science which plays an instrumental role in policy formulation. His words are all over my heart and mind. It was clear that he was trying to bring to table the exigency of quality research work for Indian context,  bring our attention to the plight of poor, uneducated and underprivileged masses that are waiting for resources to improve their situations. He continuously reminded us of the significance of focussed and passionate work. He had also mentioned the travesty  that as a research community, we are always in the post-mortem scenario and that we must go a step further to become better equipped to handle unexpected emergencies that project threat to our communities' well-being and progress. The immense sincerity that he exuded while speaking was extremely infectious and actually compelled me to look within and ask, "How am I serving my nation?". Overall, from the address of the guests at the inauguration ceremony of the conference it was evident that the conference was a neatly carved out strategy to help young researchers and budding investigators in the field of social science and to make them cognizant of the responsibilities that lay on their shoulders.

After the inauguration ceremony, we had back-to-back sessions till 5:30pm in the evening. The sessions were about the topics related to Social Sciences Research, Research design and Selection of Research Problem, Quantitative and Qualitative Research and Writing Research Proposal. I will elucidate lessons from them in my next posts. Immediately after the sessions got over, I rushed to my room and changed into my sports kit to play badminton! It reminded me of my college days, when be it winter, summer, autumn or monsoon, for all seasons of my life, I had one answer: badminton. How could I miss that in the state-of-art sports complex at NIRDPR? These were the days, when I just was in the moment, studying, deliberating, debating, questioning, exercising, playing, eating and JUST BEING- a luxury in this fast paced world where all of us our chasing our Northern Star Goals. The best part after dinner was the long sauntering in solitude, where I would just feel blessed to be a part of this elaborate event at a beautiful place. I would walk 2-3 kilometres every evening in addition to the morning runs and gym workouts - "When you get opportunity, you grab it will all your limbs". Normally, in Bangalore my daily average of steps as tracked by mobile-app based pedometer would be 5k-6k, but here at NIRDPR I was breaking all records with the highest steps recorded as 19k - I was indisputably loving every moment at NIRDPR. I must mention that I found the staff at NIRDPR very friendly, right from the janitors, to receptionists to sports officers, all of them respected the participants and understood all their problems and rectified them. Their demeanor warmed my heart and cleansed me from within. The charm of the campus was simply jaw-dropping. In the evening, I also spent some time in the library and it was then I realized that the bookshelves at NIRDPR were replete with seminal works on research in fields of social sciences and allied disciplines. I got one book issued to study with the help of a student of PGDRDM; she was generous in offering help, thank you Shefali. The more I explored the library, the more it stoked my hunger to read and learn and the more it made me realize that NIRDPR is the kind of place where I ought to be for more than just 7 days for my academic and spiritual growth both.

The next day of the workshop had an eclectic mix of topics for lecture: Relevance of Policy Research, Case Study Application: How and What to report, Qualitative Research Methods and Secondary Data Analysis. I really enjoyed all of these sessions and there was something to learn and remember from each of them. The presenters were very patient and responded in the best of spirits to the queries of students. Second day, got over around 5pm and I rushed to market to buy some fruits and dry fruits for myself. I enjoyed a good walk till the market and bought apples, bananas, almonds, cashewnuts and raisins to help me satiate during snack times. Immediately after returning, I rushed to the badminton court. Students at NIRDPR were friendly, I made friends on the court : Purari, Ram, Abnish, Mini: five of us used to play daily and enjoy together. They were welcoming of me and allowed me to participate in the games; the managing team at the sports complex was also very cordial in their mannerisms and ensured that I got equipment to play with. My special thanks to the gym trainer who very sincerely guided me in all my workouts.  Even now, as I write all this I am filled with nostalgia and my eyes brighten up reminiscing the beautiful time I got to spend at NIRDPR. Early morning and evening at NIRDPR converted it to some sort of heavenly abode; in mornings I could understand why the campus was so clean: its team which cleans the road was diligent, regular and very particular about keeping the cleanliness. On second day, I spent longer time in the library reading the book titled, "Osho on Woman" - a wonderful read. What really amazed me was the collection at NIRDPR library, how exhaustive it was in so many fields and issues related to the society. The section on women really impressed me - there is no wonder that NIRDPR library  is a cauldron of best books on social sciences research and issues related to society. The journals, magazines and most importantly the seating arrangement rendered such tranquility to the library that I could forever spend my lifetime there, being with the most companionable of friends : Books. 

On the third day of the workshop, we were enlightened on the Ethical Issues in Social Sciences Research, Quantitative Data Analysis - SPSS and Writing Thesis and Publication of Research Paper. In the end we had the valedictory ceremony and certificate distribution. On the third day, I along with my friends went to RTP since we had more time in the evening and RTP (Rural Technology Park) did not disappoint us. I, personally , am a big-time connoisseur of natural beauty and believe in the healing power of nature with its unvarnished beauty. I stood still when I reached at the peak point, not that I have not been to mountain peaks (my trekking adventures have led me to the most heavenly of locations) but this was different; it was in the campus, a place where one can come daily and just breathe for sometime mindfully, in his/her own personal solitude. In fact, I did see in the mornings people meditating there and chanting the "Om" sound : all this rendered so much peace to my mind and lifted my spirit in gratitude to the Lord. On third day also I went to play badminton after helping my friends in their visit to Charminar. 

As the workshop came to an end, there was an uncontrollable excitement at learning so much in a brief amount of time, in gathering ideas to conduct future research and to remember practices of research in future endeavors. The workshop was very well organized, time was paid heed to and the facilitators' (Rashmi, Apporva) efforts and hard work was conspicuous and is tremendously revered. With one phase over, I seemed all the more geared up for the conference which was to happen in the next three days. With speakers and presenters from all over India, this seemed like a giant "Boston Tea Party". 

In the inauguration function of the conference, I heard K.Sujatha Rao speak. I was super-excited to hear her words from the moment I  saw her gracing the dais. Her words on conducting evidence based research that informs policy making still reverberate in my mind. I have read her book, "Do we care?" and could make out that most of the content of her speech was like a brief summary of her book, not to say that it was not useful. It is always a pleasure to hear someone who has spent his/her life in service towards the nation. Dr. W.R.Reddy sir also addressed the gathering, and once again the tone of his voice expressed his sincerity and dedication towards the cause of societal emancipation. The next two and a half days were to become another set of memorable events of my life.

I took active participation in the oral presentations and in poster presentations, so much so that in one of the  poster presentations I saw myself becoming an activist who was vehemently yet respectfully disagreeing to the work presented (topic of my subsequent blog post). People had gathered around and were listening intently to the discussion. The presenter and I did not agree but I did give her a hug after the discussion, I know she has worked hard for the work and for that she is entitled to respect from my end: research, I am learning is not for the faint of the heart. Then I moved onto the next posters and very patiently listened to them and gave them suggestions. One of them even asked me if I was an evaluator (LOL!). I believe, interest follows passion and participation follows commitment when you know what you really want to study and make your career in; for me it is research in public health and everything that affects/influences public health. The situation is becoming clearer with time, as it always does; clarity is a journey. 

On 17th November I presented my work related to diabetes, mental health and health care affordability among sexual minorities. It went well, I responded to the questions posed and also took suggestions in a positive stride ( I believe so). I loved every moment of the conference, the informal discussions with professors (something which is not so readily available in the college premises) were wonderful, we talked more like fellow colleagues and fellow participants at the conference; this definitely was a good experience. I got to interact with many students and scholars from different parts of India under the umbrella of NIRDPR. We got to know each other, each other's work and area of interest. Some of the discussions which were impromptu were highly informative and source of multiple research ideas and had potential to become topics for further investigation. 

Who gets to have such infinite amount of exposure in such a finite time? It was a privilege to be a part of this entire event and a great experience being at NIRDPR. On the day when I was coming back, I was not in the best of my vibrant energy, separating from the "place where you belong to" is always bound to be painful and slightly difficult but as was the life's dictum I came back, had to. But at the airport I did fill pages of my diary describing how I was feeling after the workshop and conference got over; the 6 days of extensive interaction morphed into silent roads, silent corridors only to become active again with events which keep on happening at NIRDPR. I also got to know about the training that was being imparted to women Self-Help-Groups in production and manufacturing of Sanitary Products. Dr. T.Vijay Kumar led me to interact with the ladies on multiple occasions and I told women that the kind of project they were involved in was inextricably linked to the bigger direction of a healthier nation and they have my respect for their commitment and contribution towards it. Words can hardly do justice to my experience at NIRDPR, I never wanted to leave this place. It not only satiated me intellectually but also gave me a glimpse into my spiritual growth.

Who would not want to be a learner at NIRDPR? I have told about the institute to all my friends and they can discern from my excitement and energy about the impact the brief stay has caused on my psyche. I have been telling them, "That's the kind of place I belong to" and it does not tire me to talk about NIRDPR. It has definitely become one of my favorite academic institutions and the experience I gained from there is a real treasure. I will write about multiple sub-events during the conference in subsequent posts. Stay tuned!

PS: I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to IASSH and NIRDPR for coming together and organizing such a conference and knowledge extravaganza. It was an unprecedented learning experience and the efforts of the organizing committee and assisting hands was conspicuous. My sincere gratitude to Dr. Sucharita Pujari who ensured that everything went smoothly. Thank you for this wonderful experience, I look forward to spending more and extended time at NIRDPR to learn skills which will make me adept at action research, a more empathetic human being and a better scientific investigator. 

(This is the first in the series of posts that will talk about my experiences and ruminations at the conference which happened at NIRDPR)

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Born into Brothels : Documentary Afterthoughts

Sonagachi. A city , a 300 year old history, a dystopian existence, a veritable truth, an irrefragable reality of our times, South Asia’s largest red light district and hence India’s, a nine letter Proper Noun which I had never heard before July 2017 and a word which now I cannot stop thinking about. The first time I heard this name was in the book, “Do we care”, by Sujatha Rao. Sonagachi is a place notorious for sex-workers, it is located in Kolkata. Sex-work is actually a profession practiced openly in Sonagachi.

Immediately after finishing off the chapter I Googled and read about Sonagachi. It led me to the Oscar winning documentary , “Born into Brothels” (available on Netflix) and a second documentary “Tales of the Night Fairies” (available on YouTube). Both the documentaries have very different themes; while the former talks about the lives of children born in Sonagachi, the later revolves around decriminalizing sex work (shocking!, right?). The documentaries were an assault on my small mind full of hubris at my education and a reminder of my ignorance of the brutal realities of our contemporary world.

In this post I will talk about the first documentary.

Brief Summary: The maker  of the documentary, Zana Briski,  (  tries to delve deeper into the lives of people in Sonagachi by providing the children she befriends a camera. She teaches them how to click photographs and analyses the photographs and they have discussions over it. She organizes photo exhibition in New York and India to create traction about the lives of children in Sonagachi. It wins recognition and also helps one of the children, Avijit, attend a Photo Workshop in Amsterdam. The maker of the documentary puts her heart, soul and sinew to get the children admitted in boarding schools but most of them choose to discontinue.

“Sex work” - the educated ones like us, the ones who work in cities in Multinational Companies, who are studying in the best of the best school grimace and feel disgusted when we hear that word and ask ourselves, “How can possible someone indulge in that?”. To say that poverty leads to this would be a very simplistic a reason. The reason behind sex-work is basically a cauldron of reasons, ranging from destitution, poverty, illiteracy, lack of resources, lack of political support, lack of awareness, lack of money to eat, clothe and live under a roof and the most insidious of all: lack of hope, lack of opportunities to create a better life. The documentary really opened a vast landscape in front of me - my safe and secure landscape, where I have a job, a DREAM, resources, opportunities and HOPE ! Here are the children whose normal childhood is but a gross reality for all of us. They grow up seeing women being hounded, overpowered, beaten, disrespected, slapped, threatened, killed at the hands of those cowards who exercise their powers over women. This is a typical life in Sonagachi for most if not all. The peril looming over a girl whose mother is a sex-worker is quite palpable, she knows that sooner or later she is going to become the same irrespective of how much she abhors it.  In the documentary the one thing that hit me hard was despair, paralysis of hope of a better life, imprisonment of those little ones who are born there and perpetuation of their histories in Sonagachi.

Walking to and fro between my life and their life which I can only imagine vicariously I am stunned to realize the degree of disparity. My eyes which have become blind towards such horrendous realities find it difficult to accept that such a place could ever exist. Sure, I have been to Dharavi and made a documentary on its mini-factories  but the thought of visiting Sonagachi sends a shiver down my spine. I am still fearful about a lot many things in life and this is one of them. I remember this incident: Once when I was walking at night near a flyover on my way to a friend’s place I saw just beneath the flyover someone who had put on a heavy makeup and was shining despite the darkness of the night- I was scared, very scared. I hurried off and took fast steps but till today I have not been able to evade that image from my eyes. In the midst of the busy city, I believe, she was someone who was looking for a client in the dark to earn some money.

What seems horrible to us is normal in Sonagachi. What we condemn in public is openly practiced in Sonagachi. Not that it does not happen in cities, but the stories get buried easily in the darkness of Cubbon Parks or beneath the flyovers. “Born into Brothels” is a documentary which chooses to look at the other aspect of life of sex-workers- the future of their children. And I believe that is a very significant aspect. If something is not done for these children, then Sonagachi will continue for another 300 years. At the same time, the inability of these innocent children to attend schools compels us to look deeper at what we are doing every single day with the education that we have received. It deeply hurts me to see that youngsters these days equate life’s purpose to the company they get placed in or how much their salary is, especially those who are newly graduated. Life is tough and it is tougher to know one’s calling, toughest to follow the road not taken in the direction of that calling, but in the headlong rush to gain instant gratification we are missing out on a beautiful journey that life is with its struggles, lessons, mistakes and experiments.

Education is a strong social weapon, which we can use to create meaningful difference in lives around us in ways we can. Instead of abusing our degrees and our education, it is time to realize that with great education comes great social responsibility and ask ourselves, “Am I contributing to the society?”

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