Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Return of the Jedi

A Two-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri

Introduction: Some of you know that I had recently spent three months as a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Rural Management (IRMA) in Anand, Gujarat. IRMA is an institution that I owe big time – for two wonderful football-filled years in the late 1980s, for a piece of paper that says that I am a post-graduate, for some lifelong friends, and for that lovely lady I met there who wakes up next to me every morning – yet I have been back only once since leaving and that was in 1999. And so, when Neelima Khetan (the Director of IRMA until very recently) popped the question, I agreed with an alacrity that must have made her think I was desperate. Luckily for me, she (and IRMA) followed through, my various bosses came around, and there I was with a car full of wife, children, maid, dog and 3 months necessities driving into the familiar campus in beginning November 2007. This paper looks to describe what it was like to return to the alma mater.

Jurassic Park: Early impressions were that not much had changed – the buildings and campus layout were the same except for an ugly monstrosity in front of the office building that belted out ‘Saare Jahaan se Achcha’ in chimes and, come sundown, transformed into a (very) poor man’s aurora borealis. The debates brought out a sense of déjà vu – I hadn’t heard ‘sector versus non-sector’ for 17 plus years, and it was nice to know that there is still a corner of the country where cooperatives are seen in a positive light. But – there were many more female students and ‘B’ block, where I stayed, is now a Ladies residence. And Jagnath is not a hub of activity any more – Dawoodbhai’s shop was burnt down in the 2002 riots, and there is now a shorter route into Anand town. And the students’ mess did not serve Kentucky Fried Chicken on Sunday nights.

The Students: As a student, I did not realise how central we were to IRMA. I came in this time when both batches were off campus – the senior batch was at their management-training segment and would return only in January, and the junior batch was at fieldwork and would return in December. Faculty and staff alike roamed around with long faces and desultory attitudes for my whole first month, brightening up only one Sunday late in November and saying ‘They’re back!!’ The whole place changed! It was almost like the relationship between the garden and the children in the old folk tale ‘The Selfish Giant’.

I have heard many people from the NGO sector, including IRMAns of my generation, bleating on about young people not being sufficiently dedicated, motivated and committed, blah, blah, blah, to make a career in development. My time spent with the students here was an eye-opener. They are completely different from our times, and they face different pressures. Most of them are older, and with work experience[1], and they don’t ask their parents to shell out the now considerable fees and living expenses – and so most of them have a never-never on their heads as soon as they walk out of the institute. The salary differentials between the development sector and the other places from where they get job offers is now huge, unlike the late 1980s when the starting differentials were minimal[2]. And the non-financial attractions of the development sector are not as apparent to current students as they were to us – they see NGOs as being unaccountable fiefdoms that do very little and spend a lot of aid money doing it, and their experiences during their fieldwork segment at IRMA do not contradict this viewpoint. Are they lacking in social values? No – the senior batch ran a slum development programme on their own time and money (both of which, as all postgraduate students in professional courses will know, are scarce commodities), the same slum outside the campus that our generation of students used to pass but chose not to notice. Current students are looking to make a difference to society through modern means, such as making the Internet work for the poor, or getting financial services to reach the needy, and not by joining NGOs and starving.

As I hope is obvious to the reader, I enjoyed my interaction with the students very much, both the formal interaction in the classrooms and the informal ones in my office, at the mess, and over cigarettes. They were challenging and stimulating and occasionally exasperating (especially so on Monday at 0900). I learnt a lot from them, and I will never listen to cribbing about young people’s lack of value systems and greed for money again.

The Faculty: IRMA was in a state of flux during my stay, mostly from the aftermath of an internecine struggle for control within the board of directors. One bunch of professors had just left the institute, another bunch was in the process of leaving, and there was a bit of an atmosphere of whispers, cliques and coteries that I wanted none of. I avoided the faculty lounges as a result, and had my tea, cigarettes and gossip sessions at the common facilities. I found, 3 months later, that I had really interacted with very few of my colleagues and, looking back, I wish that I had got to know some of them better.

Comparing from my time as a student, the professors now were mostly PhD-types whereas in the 1980s they were mostly fellows from management institutes. There was the usual mix of those who were liked, those who were respected, and a few who were liked and respected. I didn’t get the impression that anybody was disliked and/or disrespected, unlike our time when there were candidates for both, including the combination. Though old timers said that the earlier interaction between professors and students was closer, I did not personally notice this.

What did I do? Looking back, I seem to have spent a lot of time during work hours smoking, drinking coffee and discussing life with Professors DPM and Jayapadma, who were great company. In between that, I managed to take a few sessions with the senior batch on looking at project proposals and setting up monitoring and evaluation systems.

One of the projects I initiated was to get IRMAns of 15-20 years vintage to come back to IRMA and talk to the current students about their own careers – this was to address common fears that an IRMA degree is not sufficient to make it in life, and to get students to look ahead and think careers rather than jobs. The key fringe benefit was that I met some old friends again, Sinha, Gouthami, Chadha. I did one of the talks myself. I was very happy to learn that IRMA is planning to continue the ‘Journeys’ project.

I also did a research on the sort of contact IRMA had with the organisations it interacts with. The conclusions provided a bit of shock value – IRMA had an all-round long-term relationship with few organisations and one-off contact with many. If IRMA were a woman, I would want to know her. I still wonder what the policy makers made of that.

There were other things. Some were hatchet jobs that were passed on to me, I suspect, because of the duration of my tenure and therefore my lack of a need to invest in the long-term goodwill of my colleagues in the faculty. Some were the tasks of sitting on committees of various sorts. I think I came away with an appreciation of the difficulties of getting work done in a flat organisation structure.

My Family: My family joined me for two of the three months. IRMA made us very welcome, and made it as easy as possible to adjust. Accommodation was ready and liveable upon our arrival, with even many of the small things (linen, towels, cutlery) provided for with care and thought. Everyone made allowances for my noisy children and boisterous dog. Washing, cleaning and cooking support was organised almost immediately. IRMA even provided my wife with ‘visiting scholar’ status, and with it an office, computer and Internet. We have much to be grateful for to Professor DPM, who was coordinating the visiting fellows programme, the administration team of Mr.s Patnaik and Solanki, and Mr. BC Patel from the estates department. If there were any cribs, it was that one toilet was too few for all of us (if any of you are planning something similar, negotiate a B-type residence), and that the local school (yes, the much acclaimed Anandalaya) was pathetic – we pulled the kids out in the second week.

The Highlights: Three months in Gujarat, no booze or football, not much flesh in the diet, not exactly an ornithologist’s paradise, how on earth did I survive?
· The students, and the interaction with them that I have already described.
· My colleagues Gazala and Akhil coming over from Ahmedabad on our first Sunday in Anand with two bottles of whisky and huge quantities of mutton.
· My Dad, sister, brother, brother-in-law and nephew congregating here from Bangalore and Delhi, all seeing IRMA for the first time. The accommodation at the guesthouse was great, and we had a wonderful time. We took an expedition to Lothal, the Indus valley civilisation site just about 100 km away.
· I finally managed to take my family to Kutch, and to see the bird sanctuary in the wetlands around the rann. Winter was the perfect time for this – we saw the cranes, and the staying facilities at the indigenous tourism project at Hodka were great.
· The students had a festival for the alumni towards the end of January. I got to hear Indian Ocean play live in a near-perfect setting – the IRMA lawns – and I participated in, completed, and finished creditably in the Anand Run (a 5 kilometre road race).
· Professor Jayapadma’s daughter, Karuna, who had my wife and me seeing first hand what we were missing by not having a little girl in the house.
[1] Though the admissions policy of having a few Delhi babes straight from university to brighten the place up continues.
[2] ITC and ICICI start people at Rs. 50,000 per month. NGOs start at about Rs. 12-15,000. In the late 1980s, the hot NDDB job started at Rs. 2,700 and the NGOs at about Rs. 2,000.

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