Sunday, 7 September 2014

Internships : does it offer a level playing field to everyone?

 After completing my master’s degree from the Stirling University in Scotland in 2009, I applied for my first internship in some of the top public relations company in London. As an Indian graduate in the UK, I knew it was going to be difficult:  the recession was at its peak, jobs were drying and it was very competitive.

Fortunately, I was given an opportunity by the UK’s top ranked PR Company, Bell Pottinger for a month - it was without pay. The only incentive I received was expenses for lunch and the fare for the London underground. For me it wasn’t that difficult: my aunt lived in London so I had a place to stay.

All I wanted from the internship was to gain exposure and knowledge of the UK’s highly professional PR and media industry. I was convinced that such experience in a foreign country, even if it’s for a month, will enable me learn a lot of new things.

The internship helped me in many ways:  I was given interesting work from day one invited to the brainstorming and discussion sessions with the top managers and directors; I interacted with graduates from other universities and on Fridays, I met with other colleagues and MDs over drinks. Above all, I picked up valuable PR and creative writing skills something that you could possibly not learn in the university. 

And what else, by the end of the month, as luck would have it, I was taken in paid in position for a few months. When I finished my tenure, I was immediately offered a full time job by an upcoming PR agency in Wiltshire in South of England.

So the risk I had taken had paid off. I was bit privilege in the sense that I had place to say and didn’t have to worry about food and other expenses – in short I could afford the internship, which made a huge difference.

This year, I had an opportunity to facilitate internships for four British students with India’s largest and very reputed NGO Sulabh International. The NGO had made all arrangements for the students including free stay. The International development students to my knowledge had an enriching experience.  The students still had to pay for the airfare to come to India – they could once again afford it.

When it comes to internship and global exposure the balance is tilted more in favour of the students from the rich countries.  It’s cheap for  them to travel to the developing countries for work. For students from the developing world the scenario is way too different:  it’s very expensive to go abroad; most students rely on bank loans or scholarships for their degrees.  Getting an internship depends on ability to acquire work visa in additional to exceptional merit. The economic downturn has made it almost impossible for foreign students to get internship  at least  in the UK.

Doing internships can help in a number of ways: my exposure to the UK work culture helps me a lot while working for western media here in the subcontinent. I understand the expectations and am able to deliver accordingly. Also in an integrated global economy where the mobility of skilled labour is desired, exposure to global working environment can help in bringing fresh ideas, facilitate team work and help implement a more dynamic work culture.

The Economist this week in its in-depth report on internships says the trend is on the rise and has become “the first step to a white collar job”. The article mainly talks about the job market in the US, however refers that big companies even in India, China and Japan are coming up with innovative graduate internships schemes.

Internships, no doubt are valuable, but multinational companies and big corporates in countries that has a huge flow of foreign students could have a system so that talented graduates from all over the world gets an opportunity.  After all, the world economy needs diversity.

 It also mustn’t be only for those who can afford it- certainly it’s not a bad idea to offer at least the minimum wage.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

KBC: more than becoming a millionaire ....

Kaun Bangea Coreorpati (KBC), the Indian version of the popular television show Who Wants to be a Millionaire is back this season with more money and added glamour.

The host of the show, Mr Amitabh Bachchan, is a towering icon in India who has mesmerised Indians for almost four decades as a Bollywood super star.

Mr Bachchan, however, appears in a different avatar on the small screen. His sense of humour, humility and appreciation of the contestants and the audience at large makes him stand out as a truly inspirational ambassador of Indian ethos and values.

But the programme itself is great in many ways: over the years it has evolved in its style and content so much so that each new season is eagerly awaited. It provides a wholesome family entertainment and projects briefly stories from the lives of ordinary Indians.

Many of the contestants who participate in the programme narrate social issues that continue to haunt India. Dowry, child foeticide and infanticide, and abysmal state of education are some of the issues that have been referred in first week of the game.

 What is really commendable is the work and commitment of these unknown individuals who try to make a difference in their societies.  Mr Bachchan’s empathy with the causes gives these individuals a greater leverage to carry their mission forward.

 KBC also highlights the hardships of ordinary individuals for many of whom winning certain amount can make a huge difference to their lives. It also delves in the social fabric of the country knitting people from different regions and backgrounds.

The pulse of the programme is knowledge, but it also paints the essence of a multicultural society where it’s not the differences but the similarities of culture and value system that holds this massive nation together, and brings millions to watch this intelligent game show.

Indian television is often criticised for producing soaps that promote regressive values, KBC for once is a breather!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Resetting India - Nepal ties

You didn’t really need an expert to underline the special people –to- people relationship that India and Nepal enjoys. 

Even as a kid, growing up in an Anglo Indian boarding school in picturesque hill station of Kalimpong in 1990s, the relationship between the two countries was apparent.

Majority of the students in the hostel in my school, and a big number of boys and girls in other boarding schools were from Nepal.  We lived together, studied the same syllabus and shaped our goals based on a common value system.

This was further reinforced by a very liberal education that Victorian era schools of the region espoused. The Nepalese students who came to study were well off. They excelled academically and also in sports.

Apart from asserting supremacy of India and Nepal on each other over frivolous issues, which mostly stemmed from our immaturity in understanding international relations as children, there were no tensions as such.

Coming to study in that part of India, the Nepalese students felt at home. The language overwhelming spoken in the Darjeeling area and Sikkim is Nepali, and local cultural practices are akin to that in Nepal.

As Indian students, coming from other far-flung areas of India and abroad, we learnt to speak Nepali, lavished eating momos and Wai Wai, a popular Nepal made instant noodles. In 1990s momos (dimsums) were unheard in mainland India. Many of us fell in love with the pan – Nepali culture.

But we also understood there were some deep-rooted grievances against India – something systematically echoed by the Nepalese students.

As the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi travels to Nepal for a state visit – first bilateral visit by an Indian leader in seventeen years - the spectrum of issues defining the relationship between the two countries have come to the forefront. Experts on Indo–Nepal relations have pointed out what have gone wrong in the past, but also talk about the unbelievable potential of the bilateral ties between two countries if taken to a new trajectory.

Writing in The Hindu, Rakesh Sood, a former Indian Ambassador to Nepal says the 1950 India- Nepal treaty of Peace and Friendship, which allows Nepalese citizens to work in India and own property among many other things, has a clause, which required Nepal to consult India on its defence requirements.  The author says Nepalese see (this) as unfair and is  “used by politicians to whip up anti-India sentiment.”

There is also a bitter resentment in Nepal about India’s meddling in its domestic affairs, though Indian has played a role in ending the a decade old Maoist insurgency by signing a 12 point agreement in 2005.  A Joint Commission set up by two governments to review the relationship between the two nations remained defunct for 23 years.

As India’s economy took off recording impressive growth rates in the first decade of the 21st century, Nepal as a nation spluttered.  The Royal massacre in 2000, the coup by King Ganendra, the end of Maoist insurgency, restoration of what looks like a fragile and unstable democracy, and lack of consensus by Nepal’s political leaders to draft a constitution have brought the country to a standstill. But despite much lower per capita income than India, Nepal has done better than India on several Millennium Development Goals (MDG), including infant mortality, maternal health, and child malnutrition and poverty reduction rates.

Experts comment on the range of areas that India and Nepal can benefit if the relationship is put on the right track. Tourism and linking pilgrimages sites between the two countries is one of them, but what is striking is Nepal’s hydropower potential, which if harnessed to an optimum level can make Nepal one of the richest countries in the region.

Another former India ambassador to Nepal Jayant Prasad says, “if half of Nepal’s hydro potential was to be harnessed, annual revenues could top $40 billion, over $100 million a day.”

The stakes in India- Nepal is much higher than any strategic relationship that governs bilateral ties between nations.  Indo-Nepal ties is all about common people : with open borders, cross-linking history, traditions and culture, a mutually beneficial relationship can have a direct impact on ordinary citizens.

India, on its part must educate the citizens of Nepal a lot of good things that it’s doing through its public diplomacy tools, and at the same time address the genuine grievances of the Nepalese people on day to day matters like paying in USD for healthcare and education in India, or bringing down the mobile phone tariff between the two countries. Both countries must explore trade facilitation for boosting growth and improving livelihoods at a local level.

India and Nepal are going to talk on host of issues like trade, hydropower, infrastructure and even building a cricket stadium at Pokhra, but one core issue that is missing or being not talked about is human trafficking. Thousands of Nepali women are trafficked into Indian cities and forced into sexual slavery on a systematic manner.

A concerted effort is required to address the issues of human rights, trafficking and cross border local trade. It’s only then the open border between the two countries can act as bridge in fostering a robust relationship based on mutual trust and economic gain – something that is strongly desired for the harmony, peace, prosperity and stability of two South Asian neighbours.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Gift toilets ... from Badaun

Badaun shows many problems that rural India faces- lack of toilets is one of them. 

Katra  Shadat Ganj in Badaun district in Uttar Pradesh is approximately 293 kilometres from New Delhi. 

The remote village sits in between sprawling green and yellow agricultural land. The area is known for its mangoes. It is here, a couple of months back two teenage girls were raped and hanged to a tree, when they went out to relieve themselves in the open.

54% households (408 out of 750 households) have never had toilets in this village.   According to the government census 2011, half of India’s population (around 600 million) don’t have toilets at home.

The incident had lead to a renewed global outcry over the growing incidents of rape in India. Two months down the line, the sleepy and poverty-ridden village is witnessing a flurry of construction work.  The village is getting toilets – thanks to Sulabh international that has decided to build toilets for every household following the horrific incident.

The toilets could soon act as one of the vital life-changing agent for the villagers.  Rushina Begum, 35 years, is a mother of three daughters. The eldest daughter, Chandi is 14 years old.  For Rushina, the biggest worry is the safety of her three daughters. “There is a fear in my heart following the incident; I personally take my daughters to the field”, she says.

The new toilet in their courtyard is going to change their lives. “We are vey happy, we can’t wait to use the toilet”, says Chandi.

The Sulabh toilets are sleek, concrete structures, finished with ceramic tiles, has waterproofing cement paints and aluminium doors.

The project engineer, Ramesh Misra explains that the $ 700 toilets that Sulabh is building suit the local conditions. “The soil is sandy and has high moisture”, he says.

Sulabh International is India’s largest NGO that has been working in the field of sanitation for over four decades.  Its founder Dr Bindeshwar Pathak pioneered a two- pit technology that is affordable, culturally acceptable and can be easily built under any conditions.  The technology can be further used to harness biogas and produce fertilizer from human excreta.

Sulabh expanded the concept of public toilets in India. Today, it maintains 8000 public toilets and constructed over1.3 million household toilets. Its ground-breaking innovation is seen as one of the biggest social movements in contemporary India. 

Sulabh, under the leadership of Dr Bindesheswar Pathak has a vision to provide toilets for every household by 2019, something shared by the newly elected prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, who during the election campaign echoed “ toilets first, temples later.”

However, dealing with India’s sanitation problem will require challenging the mind-set and changing social habits.

Dr Pathak says, “not having toilets in not directly linked with poverty. Lack of education for a vast majority of population means that people don’t have basic sense of sanitation, healthcare and hygiene.”

It’s true: across north India, where the problem of open defecation is rampant, some villagers have concrete and even big houses but the men running the household don’t feel that toilet is necessary.

Getting every household to use toilets will require motivation at one level, but more importantly this shameful habit speaks volumes how miserably India  has failed to educate its population.