So we have not written in quite some time, but we assure all of our avid readers (not) that we will be “blogging” much more frequently from now on. Before we start, we apologize for the way that we must write this blog for it to make sense. Someone (Shelly Mintz, HC 2011) has informed us that our blog can at times be “creepy” due to it being written in 3rd person. For instance, writing “Nora saw a giant cockroach and lizard yesterday” when Nora herself is writing this passage. We have discussed ways around this, but since we write together, Nora and Mohenna have decided that writing in the 3rd person is inevitable and will continue to do so. ONWARD…
Last week was quite busy- we had to turn in a report on our research so far at Ashoka, and on Friday afternoon we went to Agra for the weekend. Last week at work, we continued to do research on agriculture in India, and there is not much to tell there. Anyway, on Friday we presented a 10 page report. It provided- a sketch of Indian agriculture and how it arrived at this point, the current challenges in India agriculture with a specific focus on the plight of the small farmer. We elaborated on the effects of the Green Revolution, irrigation issues, GM/GE seeds, low bureaucratic accountability, inefficient use of public funds, specifically farmers’ vulnerability to fluctuating markets, their lack of access to markets and credit, a lack of uniformity in policies amongst states, farmer suicides, shrinking land holdings, income, decreasing food security, lack of insurance, and finally perhaps the biggest problem- the loans, debt, and lack of credit that is connected to all of the above mentioned challenges and which makes the majority of small farmers’ lives hell. We then presented a layout of the various government schemes focusing on agricultural and rural development issues and the effectiveness of these schemes. This will help in understanding whether nominators or fellows’ work overlaps with the governmental sector. Finally, we suggested the main areas where change and innovation are necessary in the agricultural sector. We suggested projects to mainly make farming more profitable- a diversification of produce and initiatives to provide/teach farmers non-farm, economic livelihoods to sustain their families in addition to farming. We also suggested that there be increases in public investments and less emphasis on subsidies on such things as fertilizer and irrigation. We suggested areas where technological advances were necessary, how policy could aid in debt relief, and how methods of agriculture contribute to health and the quality of food. We concluded “As such, the miracle of the Green Revolution is unsustainable without major changes in the agricultural system and its methods. Ideally, there could be a sustainable, wide spread system under which farmers could protect the environment, produce high yields, and provide food to the market at average prices.” This is what we envision Ashoka fellows in agriculture as seeking to do. From here, we are going to do some more detailed research on what is going on in each of the 28 Indian states (and 7 territories) in agriculture, and after that, get started on the nominator database that we will be adding to.
Our bosses (they don’t like us to call them bosses, but partners in the Venture Team) are very encouraging, and during our meeting, Sid would respond to our answers to questions in a hilarious fashion. He is deeply impressed fairly easily, and it seems extremely genuine. When we answered simple questions such as “name the main nonfood agricultural products in India,” he responded to our answers with “WOWWW, if I was on the Nobel committee I would give you a prize!” At the end of our meeting, we told them we had really enjoyed working at Ashoka so far. Sid told us that we were wonderful people and he loved listening to our conversations- at this point, due to his inflection we were sure he was going to say something like, “but you are horrible employees!” But instead he said we had been very organized so far, and were doing great and valuable work for them. Dolon offered the same sentiments. Yay!
So far this week, this morning two Ashoka fellows came in and spoke to the Venture Team about flooding in India and the solutions to it. One fellow described in depth the different engineering methods used to prevent flooding of rivers and lakes onto people’s homes and land. He drew on the board diagrams of what happens when walls/embankments around lakes or alongside rivers, or even when people dredge (excavate) the bottom of lakes to make them deeper so they flood less. He described how for 9000 years, people had managed the floods locally, and in the past 300 years, technology came in attempting to limit the flooding but in turn caused more problems which are often of greater magnitudes. Seeing the diagrams he showed of the flow of water and where it goes when it is contained proved how no matter how one deals with the problem of flooding through engineering, they are always falling into the same traps. When a gate is built, water rises within that gate, a seemingly good solution. But water is actually seeping under the gate, or just flooding somewhere else. Also, due to the gate’s presence, sediment cannot escape and builds up quickly at the bottom of the lake, causing the lake’s non-flood level to rise dramatically each year. So, each year the gate is built higher and higher, causing more and more water to seep under it and raising the risk of the gate collapsing and the water column falling onto people’s homes. These same erroneous methods to deal with flooding are used worldwide. He explained that the future is bleak with the current amount of resources and the little progress we have made in actually stopping flooding. We hope that entertained everyone!
Now for BOOK GROUP TALK TIME: One of the fellows recommended a book to us called How the Other Half Dies, by Susan George (www.amazon.com/Other-Half-Dies-Susan-George/dp/0916672085). We have been going to bookstores and trying to find books on agriculture and other topics. Yesterday Nora bought Story of My Asssasins, which Dr. M.B. Sarkar highly recommends, and Interpreter of Maladies. We both just finished The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which was really good- Mohenna loved his extended and poignant metaphors and Nora loved his writing style. It is good exposure to life in India. Nora is now reading a book that has been mentioned in this blog before- How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the power of New Ideas by David Bornstein (www.amazon.com/How-Change-World-Social-Entrepreneurs/dp/0195138058). A lot of it is about Ashoka fellows and Ashoka’s founder, Bill Drayton. It gives good accounts of how social entrepreneurs get their projects off the ground and the stories behind them. Nora will tell you all more about how she feels about the book when she is done.
Now for THE NON-WORK SECTION OF THIS BLOG. We say this in capital letters because we have a sneaking suspicion (or confirmation) that certain friends of ours use the CTRL+F keys to search through our blog for the word “agriculture” and skip any paragraph containing this word, reading only the parts of our blog that they are interested in. We understand that our blog is long, but that is because it is also on the Haverford website and because we are using it as sort of a journal. Last week, nothing very exciting happened- we went to Mohenna’s aunt’s house for dinner in Gurgaon where we proceeded to have conversations, during which Nora (repeatedly) used the only three phrases she knew in Hindi, about the difference in pronunciations between American English (apparently the wrong kind) and British English (apparently the correct kind). While sleeping, we swear we heard the AC switch go off in the middle of the night AKA another haunted house (yes this one has stories too).
On Friday, we left work early and arrived home to leave for Agra to see the Taj Mahal! Mohenna’s family had rented a van, which actually turned out to be a 12 seat bus that we could stand up in! We looked as though we were traveling in a government vehicle. The trip, which was supposed to take three-four hours, took about six due to traffic and the fact that our bus driver could not drive more than 20 miles/hour. During the drive we did various things to take up our time, we chatted, slept, and ate, but soon realized that we needed to take full advantage of the fact that people were constantly staring into the huge windows during stoplights. So at the next light, Aeshna and Aman decided to attack/strangle Nora much to the bewilderment of the local onlookers… Finally we arrived in Agra late that night, and took a tour of our hotel (Jaypee Palace Hotel) which we highly recommended. The hotel was beautiful and looked like a fort from the outside. We were told that there was a big company party being thrown outside with dancers and singers (for some TV station)… so we decided to crash. As we were standing there awkwardly dancing, Nora snuck away to the food tent, which had about THIRTY Indian dishes and Nora’s favorite desert, gulab jamun As Nora was spooning ice cream and gulab jamun onto her plate, Mohenna found her there and was standing with her as she ate. Suddenly, Aman, the 12-year-old moral police officer came up and yelled at us that we were going to get kicked out the party, get in trouble, and go to jail due to our actions. He said that he was not allowed in the party (it was over 18 only) and that we were breaking the law by taking food. Since then, we have had to be careful about not breaking any laws around him since he is still salty towards us. This boy has the moral compass of a 50 year old or Garrett Vanacore (hi!). Nora actually broke on the next day, however, by taking a picture of the real tombs inside of the Taj by accident (she forgot the rules) while Mohenna videotaped (also prohibited).
As per usual, the two of us cannot go one day without having some sort of dramatic occurrence. Once back at the hotel, Mohenna went inside the bathroom, and bolted the door, all of a sudden the lights went off and being the masochist that she is, she said ‘Bloody Mary’ three times into the mirror, thinking that Nora would surely turn the lights back on because the bolt was too far up to unlock. But no. Mohenna screamed in the bathroom long enough for security guards to run over, but her mother found Nora, her dear friend, on the floor right outside the bathroom dying (of laughter) -but she didn’t know that – which caused a miniature panic attack. Wonderful.
We awoke at 5:30 am to leave for the Taj Mahal- it was going to be 115 degress that day so going in the morning was less hot and the Taj would be a lot less busy. We got a tour guide who smelled horrible(which caused Mohenna to run away from the tour about 3 minutes in), and followed his scent around the entrance and up to the Taj, showing us the beautiful marble work and inlay work (every single color on the Taj is anther stone perfectly laid into marble, there is no paint/coloring). It is unbelievable that people built it so symmetrically and perfectly. He told us the love story about how the Taj Mahal was built as a tomb by Shah Jahan for his wife. For being so beautiful and grand on the outside, the inside is small and not too exciting, with two tombs in the center of the room, although people need to remember it was a mausoleum and not a palace. When we left the Taj, we took a horse and buggy a few miles back to the hotel. We then ate an AMAZING brunch buffet with tons of South Indian and continental dishes and the best pineapple juice in the world. At breakfast, Nora learned one of the most insulting phrases in Hindi and screamed it accidentally/only realizing its impact at the breakfast table when the wait staff halted to a stop. That was interesting. Then we went shopping with Tanu and MB (Ma and Papa) at the market. We bought real marble, minature versions of the Taj Mahal that light up beautifully when you put a light under them. Nora bought a candle holder (for our room at school) made of marble that projects the beautiful flowery designs etched into the marble onto the walls.
Since Agra, we have been chilling at home. Sunday afternoon we went out to brunch with family, Mohenna’s aunt, and two nice boys that just graduated from Harvard. The entire meal Mohenna’s family was taking pictures of us all talking…while we consistently asked ‘if it was really necessary’ to which they replied back ‘yes’. After that, we went shopping with our friend Neha from work at the market. A man groped Mohenna in the market, and instead of running, she turned, grabbed him by the collar and smacked some sense into him. Yea Mohenna!
Oh, we have also joined a nearby gym! It is 1000 rupees/month ($20), and includes a gym trainer and everything. We go after work with Mohenna’s aunt. The gym is very dinky, just a few treadmills and a weight machine. Also, working out is very weight-loss oriented here. There are creepy “slimming” machines in the basement that look like electroshock therapy machines. The gym owner was also quite strange- she asked us if we had ever heard of a gym, been to one, and insisted that we use the trainer for the most weight loss. We declined- we are just looking to get a little exercise because sitting eight hours a day at work can make us restless.
On the way home from the gym, we saw another fight because the same Sikh man as before tried to steal another bike. A group of men were beating the Sikh and kicking him very hard and pulling his hair. It was really scary and there was nothing we could do about it.
Now, we are at work and have just had a meeting with an interesting candidate for Ashoka- he is working in Manipur, a state in Northeastern India with a lot of ethnic/political tension. He spoke of how 4-5 young people are killed every day and the people he has seen shot to death or bombed. His idea, which he has already begun, is to get young people involved with eco-adventure activities (rockclimbing, trekking, biking, high ropes), to get them to make constant, educated decisions when their own and other peoples lives are on the line, and to build teambuilding. It sounded like a really cool idea. We have plans to go to Bombay this coming weekend to stay with Sneha! –However we really would appreciate the floods/‘hurricanes’ (all referring to the Monsoon rains) to lift before we arrive…
Back to work!