Each morning, Jon and I walk onto Baner Road, one of Pune’s major thoroughfares, and begin a search for an autorickshaw to take us to work some five kilometers away in central Pune. Sometimes we’re lucky and the driver will automatically switch on the meter and take us to Senapati Bhapat Rd, our destination. When we’re not lucky, some 50% of the time, the driver will either refuse to take us, saying he’s not going in that direction, or he will look at us and demand an two times the meter rate. By now, Jon and I have synchronized our reactions such that we often indignantly chuckle in unison and walk away, step-in-step. So begins the haggling. Typically though, the morning commute involves us trying various autorickshaws until one of them agrees to use the meter.
The journey itself is wonderful and never fails to excite me, even though by now we have traveled the road dozens upon dozens of times. Morning rush hour is incredible; the streets are completely packed tight with motorcyclists, rickshaws, and cars, all vying with each other in a vain attempt to progress six feet forward before they have to brake again. You see men wearing full suit and tie driving motorcycles, their dress shoes hanging a few inches above the monsoon muck. I sometimes imagine what it would be like in the States if morning commuters in Manhattan used motorcycles rather than taxis or public transportation.
Senapati Bhapat Rd. is a major street in Pune, host to a number of office towers and convention centers. It is a major traffic artery and in the morning, the traffic barrels towards you like a cannonball. So of course Jon and I have to cross the street to work every day. A major achievement for the both of us has been learning the incredibly vital but equally difficult art of crossing the street in an Indian city. Each one of us has at some point saved the other one from being run over by a car, motorcycle, or rickshaw.
After crossing the street, we march up a hill flanked by housing societies and businesses on both sides. Halfway up, there are a series of food carts and small grocery shops feeding the crowds around meal time. Finally, we turn a corner and walk onto the quiet street of bungalows which houses the Lend-A-Hand-India office.
(Celebrating our co-worker and great friend Priya’s birthday)
My major project has been an overhaul of the assessment system for Lend-A-Hand. At present, the way vocational training works in LAHI schools is that one day a week is devoted entirely to the Introduction to Basic Technology (IBT) curriculum. At the end of the year, a yearly examination is conducted to assess how well the students have taken in the information. My job is to create a workbook for the curriculum that will enable students to practice their skills and hone their knowledge at home, as well as show them connections between the skills they’re learning and real-life situations. I try to get the students to think more deeply about the questions: not just how to conduct a hemoglobin test, for example, but also to be able to identify foods that will increase iron which increases the hemoglobin count. If the students can analyze situations and apply the skillsets that they learn during their practicals in class, then they will not only retain the skills but will gain an understanding of how to use these skills in real-life situations. By expanding their analytical skills, the students can then expand the breadth of career options that are open to them, enabling them to look at careers as entrepreneurs or skilled craftsmen.
Having seen the training of instructors first-hand in rural Gujarat, I believe strongly in the work that we are doing. I have written of my dismay at my awkwardness with hand tools and basic agricultural techniques. These skills are imperative in rural India, but moreover, I have also written of my main question: where is India going? It is a country on the move, that much cannot be denied. LAHI in its own, small way (small in the grand scheme of India rather than in its actual successes) is enabling their students to view their future as one of many roads, some within the village and others on a broader scale. No doubt many of them will remain farmers, and I have rapidly come to realize that many students want to devote their lives to their farmwork in the tradition of their family, but many are now interested in going to vocational colleges and studying engineering or plumbing, nursing or botany. Each and every occupation I view as highly honorable and rewarding. There is an immense beauty to farm labor, I have found, that I had not really understood before, The sheer pride in being able to grow something, nurture it, protect it against the elements, and then sell the finished product is entirely palpable.
(The whole team, instructors, staff, and trainees at the training center in Mandi, Gujarat.)
When I was first going over the assessments that they already had, I looked over surveys conducted of students in Goa. These students wrote in their broken English about what they aspired to become. I will confess that I was nearly in tears by the end; it was so deeply inspirational. Some wrote of their desire to work on the farm or to open their own mechanic shop, others hoped to join the army or the navy. Many wrote that they wanted to be doctors or scientists, others wanted to join the police force. Yet, the profession that was most often recorded was a schoolteacher. I am not trying to suggest that they will all, 100% attain their dreams, I am grounded enough to accept that. Yet what inspires me, day and night in this country, what makes me believe that India is moving forward on all fronts, social and economic, is that two generations ago, these children would not have written these dream professions down; frankly, they would not have even have been asked what they would like to achieve in life. India does have a long way to go in achieving a level of education and stability that would enable these students to realize their dreams. Nevertheless, by enabling these children to dream and to aspire to careers that their grandfathers and grandmothers would have dismissed outright as unattainable, the seeds of success have already been planted. I believe firmly that once young people begin to yearn strongly enough for things they believe can be in their reach, not for their children but in their own lifetime, then the war is already one. It is this notion that is so inspirational and empowering. It is this notion itself that is enough to make me so happy and privileged to have come to India this summer.