Brief: Development needs just a little push. The problems we need to look at aren’t huge, ambitious, or those that take an entire lifetime solving. Solving these problems won’t bring us fame, or awards or admiration. They may not even change lives drastically. But if some of us can make it a habit, to engage in community building we will be like silent warriors. We meet one of these silent warriors, Dr. Samadhan Patil.
At the stroke of midnight in 1947, when India made its tryst with destiny, I often wonder what was in Nehru’s mind. There is an India that is racing ahead on its way to Mars. There is another India where a poor farmer in Vidarbha can’t even make his way back home; he dies on his way, dehydrated and starved in his journey of 35 kms, just because he doesn’t have a penny to afford transport. Such a stark difference!
Is it even possible for some of us to live at the cusp of both realities? So, let’s meet Dr. Samadhan Patil, a scientist at the London Centre of Nanotechnology, a premier research institute in nanotechnology and a joint venture between London’s two research giants UCL and Imperial College London. An alumni of India’s prestigious Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, for the last 10 years he has lived in Lisbon and London, away from his small ancestral village, Ladli, in the Indian province of Maharashtra. Yet the distance hasn’t stopped him from being connected to his village.
Getting Down the Drain
Dr. Patil’s village isn’t very prosperous. When he was in primary school, he recollects there were only three teachers, and each teacher taught two classes simultaneously in the same room, as the school was made of just two rooms. In regions around Ladli, farmers committing suicide out of inability to pay debt is common. In spite of the limited resources, he says his village has supported him throughout his journey, in the good and the bad times, and it is where he feels relaxed and at ease. This is what drives him constantly, for the last twenty years and more, to be involved in big and small ways in developmental work in his village. His story tells us that change doesn’t need support of an institution.
Just a few years back, during a short visit home, he got down in the village’s drains to clean them up. He was fed up with all the dirt clogging the drains! Though he started alone with a friend, he was soon joined by small children, who were more than glad to get their hands dirty. Slowly more than 20 others joined him, and it ended up becoming a massive clean-up drive in his village of 1000 people. Today, thanks to greater awareness among villagers for cleanliness, and some help from the government, the village is much cleaner than it used to be. His little effort just got the ball rolling.
The Problem of Motivation
Some changes are harder to bring than others. Another time, Dr. Patil took the initiative of tree plantation. He says while once entire regions used to be covered with trees, he was very alarmed to see how rapidly the canopy had dwindled from the region. This time, as he was in London, he instead persuaded his friends in the village to take up tree plantation. After some initial hesitation, they were soon huddled together and he was hoping to see great enthusiasm. However, unlike cleanliness where results can be seen soon, tree plantation needs a much more farsighted commitment. To motivate villagers, he even volunteered to award around £50–100 from his own pocket to every villager who was successful in saving a sapling from dying for two years. Yet, only a few trees got saved. However, the lukewarm outcome hasn’t disappointed him. He says, “We as individuals might be motivated, but when working in groups, the magnitude of certain problems makes us feel paralysed. We have the means to bring about change but lack motivation.” This reminds me of Professor Teresa Amabile, a leading researcher at Harvard who has done some astonishing longitudinal studies documenting people’s work lives. She has something similar to say on how it is not big achievements but small wins that motivate people and push them to be creative. She calls it ‘The Progress Principle’
Dr. Patil’s successes and failures maybe point us towards a simple way towards social motivation- We need to start small, with small problems that can be tackled and won.
We often hear about big bang achievements of social workers, yet how many of us have the time and resources to leave our careers to start an NGO or to make a disruptive social innovation? But should this demotivate us from being agents of change? Maybe it is high time we stopped waiting to make the big splash. Can’t we be silent warriors?Dr. Samadhan makes use of his strong social networks in his village to persuade locals. Back in 2010, Dr. Samadhan’s persistence helped his village elect a leader by consensus saving the village from political factionalisation. While democracy is good and it is nice that his village has a colourful local democracy, too much competition in a democracy can often lead to polarisation. Unfortunately, sometimes such polarisation divides instead of unites people. Dr. Samadhan insists that what villages need first is unity. For the last few months, Dr. Samadhan has been spearheading a local water conservation project. He wants a small dam to be built from the local village funds. He says, the village has the money, however this money would be given to contractors for infrastructure projects, and he is not confident if all the money will be used effectively. He wants the village government to take on the task of building a dam all by itself. He says the dam isn’t too complicated to build, and he is willing to lend his engineering expertise. He says this project, while on one hand give good sustainable jobs to Ladli’s youngsters, will also create a sense of community and lift up village’s esteem and spirit.
Hope and Despair
In our conversation, we keep coming back to the same idea: the need for spirit and motivation. His words here remind me of Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen. In a lecture last year at LSE, he talked of the role played by Rabindranath Tagore, the legendary Bengali polymath and Nobel winner, in lifting the spirit of Asian nations in their fight for independence. Prof. Sen reminded us how many Asians in the late 19th and early 20thcentury used to feel humiliated by the vast disparities between them and Europeans. Europeans appeared to be like a superior civilisation that dominated the world. Was competing against them even worth the effort? Then Japan, as an exception in Asia, rapidly modernised itself, and Tagore was one of the first writers to write about this miracle. Prof. Sen writes “…he (Tagore) saw the need to build the self-confidence of a defeated and humiliated people, of people left behind by developments elsewhere, as was the case in Japan before its emergence during the nineteenth century.” Soon this story of Japan’s nation building was told and heard by many in Asia, and it fuelled a new spirit of nationalism.
An Army of Silent Warriors
The spirit people in our villages need isn’t to fight an aggressive invader. Dr. Patil is hopeful that development in India, and for that matter any nation, needs just a little push from people who are willing to give some of their passion and some of their time to solve problems around them. The problems we need to look at are not huge, ambitious, or those that take an entire lifetime to solve. Solving these problems won’t bring us fame, awards or admiration. They may not even change lives drastically. But then, if some of us can make it a habit to engage in community building in places that have been forgotten, which just need a little push, we will be like silent warriors. Our march towards development is long. If each one of us can commit to a village of a thousand people, then to cover the 7 billion of us we will need an army of 7 million silent warriors in the world!
Where do we find these 7 million warriors? Civic Engagement has been a tricky topic, as while some regions seem to have a lot of it, some others remain paralysed. This is very well described by Prof. Robert Putnam’s authoritative work on Civic Traditions. It is a vicious cycle: despair breeds distrust, which creates more despair breeding further distrust, such that some communities remain in a state of seeming paralysis. However there must be some self-starters in every place like Dr. Patil in Ladli, who keep engaging in some good work just out of habit of volunteerism. Such leaders (although with just a few followers!) have a vast bank of experiences and best practices they are willing to share. If we could bring volunteers like Dr. Patil together, and create a digital community where the best practices are shared, can’t we make a dent and create some impact? Possibly if we could make grassroots related communication (which usually gets eclipsed by political, sports, business or celebrity related news) more effective, we can reach a tipping point where more and more people are motivated to take up small community development projects, and which in return could push the locals to find a renewed spirit and to take development in their own hands.
An army of 7 million silent warriors for 7 billion of us… is that a lot in the cyber age? I leave the question to the august community.
Connecting the Grassroots
Let’s do a reality check. In villages like Ladli, Google may still be a novelty. Internet, let’s accept it, needs literacy, and the poorest of the world aren’t still so literate. Even if the local community leaders are literate, internet access is still either inconvenient or too slow to help us easily reach a critical mass of participation. So here is an idea. There are over 6 billion mobile phones today in the world, covering 87% of human population. While mobile penetration is still low at around 21.8 per 100 in some African countries like Ethiopia, larger developing countries like India (90.47) and China (89.2) are close to fully covered. We may have heard of astonishing innovation around mobile phones like the M-Pesa in Kenya. However it is time that the grassroots activists got connected. We need the mobile phone (not smartphone) to be the tool for social communication.
In developing countries, increasingly the mobile phone is being used as a tool for political participation, and its usage has been widely studied during Arab Spring. Startups like Text-to-Change are using the mobile phone to broadcast useful information to people in developing countries. While different innovations of mobiles have been tried and tested, a coordinated effort to channelize the voices coming from the world’s forgotten backyards, and to create an effective sharing platform is still missing. While Facebook connects today more than 1 billion people, the rest of the 6 billion are still not connected, and usually live in the remotest regions. We need a social network like Facebook that is so primal that it works via text messages, so that local community volunteers can stay connected and engage in a global conversation, highlighting their causes, supporting other’s and most importantly sharing good ideas. There are simple hacks for it that can be easily implemented. For example, Twitter provides tweeting via SMS, and if a convention of hashtags can be pushed, the hashtag can help collate massive development related tweets arising from forgotten hinterlands of the world, where cyber space still hasn’t penetrated. In fact, community volunteers do not even need to register on twitter. They can simply SMS their messages to a national number, which can then tweet these messages on twitter. The idea is to make communication as seamless and less complicated as possible, so that more and more community leaders can join, and we can start a serious and mainstream conversation on grassroots development.
Originally published at www.gsnetwork.org