Sunday, April 18, 2021

COVID #VaccinesSaveLives #VaccinesWork

In January, India started vaccinating frontline workers. My brother, a practising physician, told me that I only needed my medical council license to get the shot. After asking him to call me when he was going to get vaccinated I decided that I didn't need it on priority then. I was not at risk of serious disease because of my age and health and I always wear a mask.

In a few weeks, the misinformation on vaccination started. So did the jokes on the Prime Minister for not vaccinating himself. As a leader, PM Modi should have vaccinated himself first. I am sure his team must have evaluated the pros and cons. If he had vaccinated himself first he may have faced criticism for being selfish. But, the delay allowed political opponents to sow seeds of doubt that he was waiting due to fear.

Again, I evaluated, whether to get myself vaccinated and influence people around me. Or, to wait my turn. I felt conflicted about taking up someone else's turn. I was also confused about whether I was up in my head over-rating the influence I had. I decided to wait. In the meanwhile, my parents got vaccinated and the second wave started showing signs. I started urging people to go vaccinate themselves, their parents, and grandparents.

Recently I came to know I had to travel for work and went and got myself vaccinated immediately. I thought with over 10 crore people vaccinated in India there was no need to take a #VaccineSelfie. This morning, an alarmed friend pointed me to a series of posts by a former colleague. The posts reeked of irresponsible misinformation, conspiracy theories, and 'expert' opinions. I have been deeply troubled since.

In India, we know 1.5 crore people got affected by COVID-19 of whom over 1.77 lakh have lost their lives. At the end of March, there were 180 deaths due to AEFI Adverse Events Following Immunisation (AEFI). While India had vaccinated 6 crore people then, now it's at 12 crores. Do the math for yourself you are 4,000 more likely to die of COVID compared to vaccination. The benefits of vaccination greatly outweigh the risks, and many more illnesses and deaths would occur without vaccines.

In the next few weeks-months, vaccines may become more widely available. If you are lucky, you may come to know of vaccines available at the end of the day at a vaccination centre near you. Or if you live in a city that's silently vaccinating everyone (ref) go get yourself vaccinated.

Trust in science, don't believe in fake news. Be responsible, don't spread misinformation. I am #Covishielded. Get Vaccinated when your turn comes #VaccinesSaveLives #VaccinesWork

Also, you will find this short video informative on #Covid vaccines #MustWatch

If you are cynical about data from India, please do note that Covishield is manufactured in India under license from AstraZeneca. The vaccine is administered in other countries as well, I will be updating this post with further references

Canada has reported 2 AEFI after 700,000 injections - Reference

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Bhumi - Story of people - Part#1

Where Bhumi is today is the collaboration, care and ownership of thousands of volunteers and hundreds of others who shaped our destiny. Superficially, it's easy to look at Bhumi as having built by one person or just a handful of people. But that's very far from the truth.

When we start naming people, the risk of missing someone is always there. I acknowledge my memory isn't perfect and there was so much I didn't know because of the decentralised nature of our organisation and my own immaturity. Yet, to not give credit where it's due is unfair and I'm going to attempt it. If you do notice any mistakes, gaps it's not personal, please do point them out.

I've already shared a lot about Ayyanar, Gyan & Hari.

Anurag Shrivatsava who seeded the idea that led to us registering Bhumi was the oldest among us and Gyan had advised that it would be best if he were the founding president when we registered the organisation. Punit Vanjani used to work at an IT company and was associated until he left Chennai a year or two later.

Prakash Selvaraj was then a student, active member of Leo Club always brimming with passion, ideas and questions. When I took up national responsibilities. Prakash along with Hari took up the responsibility of coordinating the chapter. While Hari coordinated the Bala Mandir centre, Prakash used to coordinate Pudupettai. Much more about Prakash in the coming months.

Apart from Gyan, there were three others from IIT Madras. Manish Kumar Pathak, a UG student, was one of the coordinators of the group when I joined and used to host some of the meetings at IIT Madras. Swaminathan Subramanian was a PhD Scholar and Raghav Venkatesan a UG student were friends and were part of many of our activities including Pudupettai.

The ten of us were the founding signatories when we registered Bhumi as a non-profit society.

Purnendu Singh used to be very active online and helped recruited many volunteers. It's quite possible that he may have recruited me too :) Purnendu who was not in town when we registered Bhumi was part of projects like computer education, RTI and continues to play a small but significant role to this date

There were many others like Indumathi, Vasudha, Makarand, Karthikeyan, Badri, Arun, Karthik, Vijay

A favourite quote that used to be on my email signature for many years then sums it up "Never Doubt That A Small Group Of Thoughtful Committed Citizens Can Change The World: Indeed It'S The Only Thing That Ever Has" Margaret Mead. If anything, Bhumi is a story of people.


Have you done something with a group of people, all of you should be feeling proud of? Leave a comment.


#StartupStories #Bhumi #StartYourNGO

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Bhumi - Problems Galore, Connect the Dots

Taking a lot of people along towards a common goal is difficult, especially when ties are weak and communication is broken and you don't know who are all the people. Towards late 2006 - early 2007, from my perspective, it seemed, everything was going awry.

In BM, a few months earlier we had started drafting a 'constitution' to formalize a rule book for the informal group. Someone was na├»ve enough to think that we were the first such group to do so, I even remember picking up silly arguments over that… A lot of people started quitting for various reasons and I had a lot of trouble keeping up. When Santhosh (then employed at a PSU, now full-time AAP activist) who used to lead the drafting team quit, the mantle fell on Abhijit (then a civil services aspirant) and me. Everything seemed to be up for debate why the name Bhumi, why did we register Bhumi and in Chennai, specific clauses of the rules drafted several months before, our intent etc.


What made matters worse was a lack of clarity on who was raising questions and why. People who seemed to have become inactive were suddenly popping up to raise questions or share their thoughts. I seemed to be performing an important responsibility. But among a virtual, mixed age group of people without strong ties, I felt powerless and crawling in a minefield. Personally too, it was an extremely challenging time and it was quite a roller coaster going down. At times, I had self-doubt whether it was all worth it. During that period, Gyan who was already disillusioned with the national group urged me to focus only on the work we were doing in Chennai and the staunch practical support of my friend Abhijit kept me going.


When I look back at this phase and connect the dots, two aspects of the organisation and its culture stemmed from here. The youth-only age bar protected the fledgeling group as we matured on our own. A strong bias for action came out of an aversion from people who only gave ideas or raised questions.


Have often had you been grateful for the tough times when you connected the dots? Leave a comment.

#StartupStories #Bhumi #StartYourNGO

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Book Recco : A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

I had tears in my eyes when I finished this heartwarming, funny story about a grumpy old man and the community he lives in. #MustRead #5Stars Can't wait for the movie by #TomHanks

Some quotes that stayed with me

‘Loving someone is like moving into a house,’ Sonja used to say. ‘At first you fall in love with all the new things, amazed every morning that all this belongs to you, as if fearing that someone would suddenly come rushing in through the door to explain that a terrible mistake had been made, you weren’t actually supposed to live in a wonderful place like this. Then over the years the walls become weathered, the wood splinters here and there, and you start to love that house not so much because of all its perfection, but rather its imperfections. You get to know all the nooks and crannies. How to avoid getting the key caught in the lock when it’s cold outside. Which of the floorboards flex slightly when one steps on them or exactly how to open the wardrobe doors without their creaking. These are the little secrets that make it your home.’

Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the great motivations for living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of it that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury. Some need its constant presence to even be aware of its antithesis. Others become so preoccupied with it that they go into the waiting room long before it has announced its arrival. We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

What's the value of a Co-founder?

Sometime back a friend reached out to me for advice on how to handle challenges in another founder-led organisation. It was another occasion to reflect how Bhumi was a vastly different organisation primarily because we have active co-founders. 

In the early years, there were several key people and volunteers who played a role in bringing our informal group to the stage where we formed and grew Bhumi. While there were many 'founding members' (more about them in the coming months), there were just three co-founders. The value of an equal, active co-founder in the non-profit sector is hard to measure both within and outside the org.

We hardly did any conference calls then apart from our monthly meetings. Hari and I would connect often to align. Since Hari and Ayyanar were childhood friends, they used to discuss a lot and do things together. Hari played a significant role in the first few years until he left for the US. It was not until after that, I started working a lot more with Ayyanar directly.

While Ayyanar has largely focused on the programmes, I have largely focused on the organisation. Often Ayyanar shares how he has taken leadership learnings from Bhumi to his corporate job and vice versa, I have largely learnt a lot from/shared with the eco-system. While Ayyanar is more intuitive with people and connects more easily, he largely remains in the shadows and I have been the face of the organisation both externally and internally. While we do have long discussions, debates and disagreements, there has never been a major conflict in all these years.

But the most important thing is the hardest to see and is a culture that must be experienced. When there is not just a single 'founder' or 'leader', ownership is shared, which has then made it easier to create a culture of shared ownership with every Bhumian.

Thank you Ayyanar for being who you are, for all the shared moments, achievements, and learning. Wish you a very Happy Birthday!

From L>R I am standing with Hari, Malli and Ayyanar in this picture taken at Anbu Karangal in 2007

#StartupStories #Bhumi #StartYourNGO

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Bhumi - Failure#2 Hitting Rock Bottom

I came to know from Hari that the person in charge of the first shelter home where we taught had asked us for a report and since we were not able to provide the report, I had to go meet this person and sort things out … Little did I know how that meeting would change it all and I would also meet the third person who influenced and shaped Bhumi.

Because I was coordinating the Pudupettai Community centre, I had discontinued teaching at the first centre, Bala Mandir. There was a break in the classes because of some holidays and the children had some exams. When Hari went to seek permission to restart the classes, he was asked to submit a report on what impact our classes had on the children.


We were thoroughly befuddled by the request. We had neither made a diagnostic baseline assessment, nor one at the end of our last class. Even though Hari had planned each class, we had never planned the programme to achieve a cumulative impact. After some weeks of being paralysed in inaction, we decided to go meet her and explain our predicament.


Hari fixed the meeting because it was on a weekday morning and he could not go, I went instead. Ms.Maya Gaitonde a trustee of the shelter home is an imposing person who manages almost everything at Bala Mandir even today. Imagine a Principal in a school and she would tick off all the checkboxes. The children loved her, but she could be strict; she has the best interests of the children in mind even if it meant being tough. I remember waiting on the bench outside her room and 'Hari from Bhumi' was called in for the meeting. She understood we had no impact report and gave me a thorough dressing down. I was prepared with detailed explanations on why we could not do what she was expecting us, but I hardly got out a word! She kept referring to me as Hari and I could not even open my mouth to correct her! The meeting ended with a stalemate, without a report, we could not restart classes!


From a seeming high, we had hit rock bottom.


Do you remember a time in life when you hit rock bottom? Leave a comment.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Bhumi - Failure#1

We seemed to be on a high, we had quickly started two centres, we had volunteers joining us almost every week, we had managed to register Bhumi. But things unravelled quite quickly …

At our second centre classes continued regularly, we even started weekday evening classes. In those days I used to study at the Library in the TN MGR Medical University, Guindy, Chennai. In the afternoon, I would make 20 KM trips to Pudupettai so that we would be there immediately after the children reached home from school. Within a few classes, we realised the children needed support with basic English. I was especially struggling and purchased some English books with alphabets and small words to teach.


First, it happened on & off, that the staff of the partner organisation would forget to come. Without their support there would be no room to teach, so we would sit on the floor and teach the children. The floor was made of terracotta tiles and was slightly hot from the afternoon sun. The kids never had a problem and were quite regular, so we trudged on. On some weeks, some other volunteers would join me too but mostly it was just me. Female volunteers who found the courage to walk into the community would gingerly stand as our classes happened on the floor. Volunteers were dropping off regularly and we realized that there was a gap between the idealism and optimism of the core team to take on the tougher challenge of directly working in a community and what the new volunteers were comfortable doing.


After some days the staff completely stopped turning up or answering my calls. One evening after walking up three floors through the dirt lined walls of the housing complex, I found the door to the rooftop locked and I was the only volunteer there. No reasons were given, we were simply shut off. At that time I thought maybe the organisation was wary that we were now 'registered NGO' sharing their space. Now I feel it could have also been that the staff simply did not like to spend the extra time there. I remember standing behind the shut door in the semi-darkness and dialling Hari (in the pic on an earlier occasion) to confer. We decided immediately.


I could have tried reviving the partnership, but we simply quit. This was the last time I would teach children for another decade, but I hadn't decided then.


Have there been times, when you suddenly gave up suddenly in frustration? Leave a comment

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Before Bhumi - Getting to Bhumi

While in Madurai Medical College I was part of a failed attempt to register the TN Medical Students Association. We formed an informal group and tried to formalise it to demand better learning and working conditions for the residents. Then, our registration was rejected on technical grounds …

I started making enquiries on how to register an NGO and understood there were two possible options, to register as a Society or a Trust (now I also know there is a third option of registering a Section 8 Company). While registering as a Trust seemed to have a lesser compliance burden, we chose to register as a Society because Gyan advised it would be better to have a system where we reported accounts etc. to the government annually. Even then the choice of transparency over convenience was clear.


I found the nearest registrar office and we submitted the application to register Bhumi. The registrar office is a tough place to navigate for a novice with 10-20 registries including marriages, property (more lucrative and hence a higher priority at the office). To avoid the pitfalls of the previous attempt I took the help of an agent Ms. Latha to complete the process. Watch the movie Indian where the young Kamal Haasan, how he's seated outside the RTO, much like that :)


Within a few days, Ms. Latha informed me that, the name "Bhumi" could not be accepted and that we had to re-submit an application with a more appropriate name like "Bhumi Educational Charitable Society" etc. When I refused to accept that and explained to her that the name "Bhumi" was important, she suggested I meet the registrar and appeal, if he agreed we could register as Bhumi itself.


Ms. Latha has a mobile phone but she hardly answers (even now!) so every day I would visit the registrar office to seek a meeting with the registrar. Either he would be busy, or travelling or someone in the team who has to get the file would be on leave. After seven, maybe ten attempts over a 2-3 week period I finally met him and pitched. I explained about our pan-India group and we wanted the name "Bhumi" because it meant the same in most Indian languages. He agreed and a few weeks later in November we were officially registered!


Several years later I learnt that an #Entrepreneur was someone who never took no for an answer.

Do you agree? Leave a comment


#StartupStories #Bhumi #StartYourNGO