Most men take more out of life than they give to it. A few give more to life than they take out of it. The world runs because of such men.

SUBROTO BAGCHI

PUBLIC SERVANT – AUTHOR - ENTREPRENEUR

A Bridge called Hope

A Bridge called Hope

India Today - December 06, 2014

In 1975, when India Today magazine was born, every elected member of the Indian Parliament had two special entitlements: a cooking gas connection and an additional telephone line at home. In a country of scarcity and regulation, hundreds of people queued up to the MP’s door to be given these from the “MP Quota” by trading some favor or the other or simply by exercising the right of proximity. It was roughly the time that I came to Delhi in search of work and it didn’t take me time to realize the impossibility of my breaking the glass ceiling to ever own a cooking gas connection or to get a “residential telephone” that would signal my personal success. Fortunately, upon marriage in 1980, my wife Susmita was gifted a gas connection by her mother but the so-called residential telephone didn’t happen for almost another decade and a half. Only in 1993, a time when I had moved to Bangalore, Wipro, my employer, got one installed because now running an independent line of business. A few years after, people started speaking about a new thing: the cell phone. In 1996, I remember, when a young employee brought a cellphone to office, purchased with his own money, he was seen as irreverent, brash and overspending; it was a matter of consternation at the corporate office as to how this may impact the frugal culture if the organization. Fast forward two decades. We live in a country where the cellphone penetration is the second highest in the world. According to the CIA (who else!) in 2013, for every 100 Indians, there were 74.16 cell phones in use. However, on a comparative scale, our Internet penetration remains low at 15.1% but it is growing at a healthy 26.1% CAGR over the last 5 years. The question that comes to mind, when we look at the cellular nation with rising Internet penetration is this: what does technology really do to people? The answer is simple: it transforms them, it empowers them in never before ways and it brings dignity.

To understand the import of that argument, simply visualize these use-cases: imagine a street-side vegetable seller in Malegaon without a cellphone. And then think of the same individual with a cellphone. Imagine a fisherman on a dhow off the Mangalore coast, with an impending cloud burst without a cellphone, and again, the same person with a cellphone. Finally, imagine a young Dalit woman somewhere on a dirt track in Kashipur, walking all by herself, without a cell phone, pause and then imagine her with one in her hand.  The vegetable seller with a cellphone is more likely to be a micro-finance borrower while the one without, is more likely to be beholden to a usurer. The fisherman with a cellphone is more likely to send his girl child to school than the one without. Finally, the Dalit woman with a cellphone is more likely to insist on a planned family than the one without; she is more likely to take her baby for polio drops than the one without and she is the one more likely to cast a vote than the one who does not have a cell phone. The transformative capacity of technology is generational but the question is, how far have we delivered on that possibility? How much more is left to be done for the 1.2 billion people who live in the penumbra of our consciousness? Over to flight 6E 491 from Bengaluru to Bhubaneswar.

At the on-time pushback I found myself thinking of our Mars probe for less than $450 million. Took off, I found myself I was thinking about our entrepreneurial surge, of Internet start-up Flipkart’s mind boggling valuation at $7billion. At cruise altitude, my mind glided to the amazing newspaper report that Amazon was going to deploy drones in Bengaluru very soon, experimenting the delivery of packages in densely populated areas. Soon I gathered myself. I thought of the purpose of my flight. Today my flight was taking me back to where I once came from: the state of Odisha where I was born the same year as the launch of the first manmade satellite, Sputnik. There, I was born in a place called Patnagarh, in a government quarter with no running water and electricity. The trip was significant for me in many ways. A child of the IT revolution of the last four decades, as someone who has seen the world, now I was on a quest to see the work of a little known eye-doctor who had done 50,000 cataract operations for the poorest of the poor in Bolangir and Sambalpur and Kalahandi, the last one invokes memories of starvation deaths and communal killing in the minds of educated, urban Indians. I was returning to my roots after four decades. These have been defining years for me but also for India’s journey from poverty to entering the G-20 Club. I had reasons to feel good. After all, India’s IT prowess has a big role to play in that journey. 

After the flight, a six hour train ride, and an overnight stay in Sambalpur and a car ride on a dusty road the next day, I finally arrived at my destination: a hamlet named Jamadarpalli where 200 poor people had been operated upon for cataract.

They were all crouched together in make-shift spaces, squatting on well-worn durries, their eyes bandaged, they were from a world that cannot be visualized when you mouth terms like “below the poverty line”. These elderly people were wearing the same kind of clothes, had the same frail figures that I had frozen in my own mind when I was in such places as a boy. But they sat there in hope; they would see light again, they will step out of the shadow.  These people had been herded form their villages and brought to the camp, fed, operated upon and after the bandages would be removed in a day, they would be bussed back to where they came from. The men and women cheered our arrival, the women ranted the air with their ulululu sound. Some of them prostrated without knowing who had come, anyone from afar was an angel to them and the doctor, an assuming, idealistic young man named Shivaprasad Sahoo, was God. I sat down and conversed with the villagers – thank God, I hadn’t forgotten the language in all these years. They clasped my hand in theirs, they narrated their stories and then from the crowd, came an old lady and she started crying. She was petitioning me that she had been set aside, the doctors did not do the operation, it was so unfair because all the others had been operated upon. I looked at Dr.  Sahoo who told me that she had high sugar and unless they brought it down, they could not do the surgery. Despite everyone telling her that she would be soon operated upon and that she need not be anxious, she was pensive. She had no idea she had sugar. She had no idea what it meant. I hugged her and told her that her turn would come, she would be operated upon for sure; that she would be able to see like the rest of her cohort and she will not be left behind. 

She held on to me, only half convinced. Dr. Sahoo explained to me in every batch, the story repeated itself. Then he narrated to me an instance where two old women had come for their cataract removal and both were given vials to collect their urine. The two went off for the samples and soon duly returned. The tests indicated they had sugar. As a result, they were taken off the day’s surgery list. At that point, one of the women protested vociferously. She had no sugar she insisted; how could Dr. Sahoo know she had sugar? It was her urine sample that had just been tested, the doctor explained to her. Afraid and anxious, now she blurted out the truth: it wasn’t her sample. How could that be, she was asked? Then she told the dumbfounded medical team that she hadn’t anything in her bladder, so she had borrowed some from her friend, thinking it was some kind of a ritual before the operation would take place! The medical team did not know now whether to cry or to laugh.

There are three Indias that concurrently engage my mind. There is Jamadarpali. Then there is the India that I live in, where Information Technology obliterates the distinction between the virtual and the real. And then, there is another India in which, one day, the old woman would not just be able to see but she live with dignity, be a part of a resurgence and not be a castaway;  an India where we don’t just give her the ability to see but make her a central part of our vison.  In the intersection of these three Indias, I see the pivotal role technology will play. Technology is not just about the utility it delivers, it has it has multiplicative powers, it is inherently transformational in nature. There is an alchemy to it. And yet, at its core, there is a void because it does not quite know the difference between greed and welfare. There is this India of wealth and power unbridled private ambition. Across its digital divide, there another India, one that is at risk because we could lack the empathy and the inclusion. But there is a bridge across. I can see it.  

 

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