Harmony - Silverawards 2007 - The Winner

The Winner

AYESHA CHELEKKODAN

By Rajashree Balaram

When India revolted against British imperialism, millions shunned the education system in anger and defiance. The movement, both patriotic and self-flagellating at once, spread all over the country right down to its southern tip. Influenced by such national fervour of the 1920s, Moideen, a small-time shopkeeper from northern Kerala did not enrol any of his three children — two daughters and a son — in school. Of course, what Moideen didn’t know then was that 70 years later, his eldest daughter Ayesha would become the poster girl for Kerala’s literacy movement. In 2007, at the age of 87, Ayesha eventually completed her formal education, appearing for her Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) examination.

With six children, 18 grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren, Ayesha Chelekkodan is the last person you’d expect to see in school. “I had never been to school,” reminisces the octogenarian from picturesque Kavanoor village in Malappuram. “But I always wondered what it would be like to be able to read bus signs and newspapers and medical prescriptions. All my life, I had nurtured a dream to complete formal education. Her journey to literacy began in 1990, when at the age of 70, she enrolled in the government-sponsored literacy drive. “I remember the questions that the anganwadi teachers asked: ‘How many paise make a rupee?’ ‘How many grams of tea make one kilo of tea?’ I was always the first to answer; sometimes the teachers would ask me to shut up so others could have the chance.”

Ayesha’s sharp mind did not go unnoticed. In 1991, the State Literacy Commission chose her among thousands of candidates to declare Kerala’s 100 per cent literacy status in front of a huge crowd, which included top politicians and bureaucrats gathered in Mananchira Maidan in Kozhikode. “The place was packed with thousands of people but grandma did not show any nervousness or stage fright,” says her 26 year-old grandson Abdurahiman. Ayesha’s exemplary confidence won her a lifelong friend from the audience — E K Nayanar, then chief minister of Kerala. Nayanar regularly wrote to Ayesha till his death in 2004.

She went on to pass her Class IV and Class V exams with ease in 1995 and 1998 respectively. But political upheaval and the resulting change in government blunted the state’s thrust on literacy. Ayesha, however, was not one to give up. In 2006, encouraged by local panchayat president A Sreedharan, she wrote to the State Literacy Mission expressing her desire to appear for the SSLC examination. Though her enthusiasm was admirable, her financial status remained a major deterrent. Ayesha lives with her youngest daughter Khadeeja who works as domestic help. Her only son, Mohammed, who works as a loader with a local factory wasn’t earning enough to support her dream. As word got around, generous donors from Kerala and abroad supplied her with fees, books and stationery. Finally, in April this year, Ayesha appeared for her SSLC exam — the oldest among 700 candidates from the state.

Ayesha also completed a four-day basic course in computers in 2003, through Akshaya, the government-sponsored e-literacy programme. Though cataract has dimmed her vision, it has failed to dim her enthusiasm for life. Up at 5 am, she begins each day by sweeping the house clean, chatting with her assortment of hens and goats, and tending to the tapioca in the backyard. Her daughter’s home is a humble cottage surrounded by Kerala’s signature foliage — tall areca nut trees, plantains, scarlet hibiscus and coconut palms. Most of her children and grandchildren stay nearby and the family’s deep adoration for their matriarch is very obvious. “Today people know me as Ayesha Chelekkodan’s grandson and that makes me incredibly proud,” says Abdurahiman. “She has more fire in her than all of us put together.”

Though her arthritic joints don’t allow her to be as active as she wants to be, Ayesha is not ready to play docile granny yet. She scolds her grandson Mansoor for quitting college after HSC and is extremely proud of her 19 year-old granddaughter Khairunnisa who is pursuing her graduation through correspondence. Khairunnisa got married last year and has a three-month old son. When asked whether she would like to learn further, Ayesha says with a chuckle, “I wish I could but I cannot hold the pen properly anymore. The joints on my fingers have become painfully stiff. But I have never stopped learning. I still go through my great-grandchildren’s books. At the end of the day, I fully believe in what the scriptures say — that we are all learners right from our cradle to our deathbed.”
The world has a lot to learn from Ayesha Chelekkodan.

 

ARVIND GUPTA

By Meeta Bhatti

Arvind Gupta is a ‘backyardigan’ par excellence. Like the popular children’s animation series by the same name, he makes real the fantasy play that happens in every child’s mind. Surrounded by junk, the 54 year-old, in his corduroys and khadi kurta, walks around barefoot at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) at Pune University, creating teaching aids that he loves to call “toys” — the only time he wears chappal (that he has crafted himself) is when he goes to the canteen for lunch or back home on the campus. His office is littered with Gupta’s finds from the local bazaar, garbage cans or his own house. There are broken CDs, used Tetrapaks, bicycle valves and tubes, film rolls, magnets, plastic straws, used refills of ballpoint pens, all types of paper, worn-out bathroom slippers, pins, matchsticks and matchboxes, mirrors, bangles and combs. And hanging from soft-boards, wall nails, doorknobs and handles are Tetrapak butterflies, needle and thread acrobats, paper birds, spiders and skeletons.

These form the bedrock of fundamentals in science for young students who visit IUCAA thrice a week in batches of 50, of which Gupta maintains a schedule on the Monaco Hindi calendar hanging in one corner by the window. Dr Jayant Narlikar, the famous astrophysicist who set up the centre, assigned the space at IUCAA to Gupta in 2004 (until then Gupta was a teacher on the move). This year, in celebration of completing three years here, Gupta has finished uploading over 700 books for children, parents and teachers on his website, www.arvinduptatoys.com. Inaugurated by former president A P J Abdul Kalam in June 2007, the website is a treasure-trove of rare books, also translated into Hindi and Marathi by Gupta and his friends. Soon the library will also benefit the visually impaired who can read books online using screen-reading software like JAWS.

“Only those teachers who punish kids by making them stand outside the class go to heaven,” quips Gupta. “After all, it’s outside the classroom that children learn the most.” His role model is Mahatma Gandhi’s contemporary Gijubhai Badheka, the teacher who broke all norms to sow the seeds of curiosity in his students. Badheka’s Divasvapna (Day Dreams), an account of the teacher’s experiment in Montessori education, is one of the books on Gupta’s website. First published in 1931, it went out of print before the National Book Trust printed it again in 1990 — since then it has seen five reprints. Some rare books on the site include the classic Totto-Chan stories, Isaac Asimov’s series of science facts and Irawati Karve’s Yuganata. And there are 18 books of architect Laurie Baker. Having briefly worked with Baker in his youth, Gupta met Baker again eight years ago and digitised all his books, even translating six of them in Marathi.

“It’s my dream to make this online library as big as www.gutenberg.com, the world’s largest online database of free books. Our focus will be on valuable literature that is out of print because publishers didn’t find it viable to print another edition,” says Gupta, who quit his job as an engineer at TELCO in the early 1970s to train rural teachers. Partners in project were experts who had quit their respective fields to reshape the educational milieu. “It was a time of intense political churn when a lot of social energy was released and a bunch of us decided to contribute to change,” recalls Gupta. “We believed that you couldn’t sit in an office and write curriculum for rural teachers. Our syllabus for children was 10 little fingers.” Gupta handed over the responsibility of earning to his teacher-wife Sunita to pursue his passion for making teaching aids, which remains an equally important component of his website.

Already up on the site are over 25 educational films, all of Gupta’s own books and over 250 teaching aids — Gupta’s beloved “toys”. Each is accompanied by an illustration and DIY details. There’s a pump to blow balloons, coke can airplane, three-blade paper fan, portable generator, windmill and floating forks, to name a few. In few easy steps, these explain the science behind centrifugal force, fiber optics and magnetic levitation. “The line between science and fun is very thin,” says Gupta. “It’s how you tread it [or not] that puts the joy back into learning.”

 

AVATAR KRISHNA HANGAL

By Arati Rajan Menon

Mashhoor Amrohi’s debut film Hum Laakh Chhupayein Pyaar Magar hits theatres this December with a rather unlikely opening cameo: “Hangal of the Jungle”. That’s how 25 year-old Amrohi, director, writer and actor of the film (and grandson of director Kamal Amrohi of Pakeezah fame), describes the appearance of 90 year-old A K Hangal as a power-driven rogue, frolicking at a nightclub with two young lovelies. “You’d never expect to see Hangal sahib in a role like this,” says Amrohi, writer, director and lead actor of the film. “But he plays it to perfection.”

Hangal knows he was — is — good. “It was a small role but at least I got the chance to show a different side,” he says tersely. “I want to keep trying different roles to test myself.” The statement is an unwitting metaphor for his life — from his adolescent days in Karachi as a revolutionary in Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan’s Red Shirt movement to his job as cloth-cutter to the well-heeled in Delhi and theatre activism with the left-wing Indian People’s Theatre Academy (IPTA) in Mumbai, Hangal has worn many hats, experienced highs and lows, laughter and tears.

“I have seen and suffered life,” he says. “I have used all these experiences, my feelings and sentiments in my acting.” That acting has won him the Padmabhushan (in 2006) and wide acclaim — seminal Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak once called him the greatest actor in the world, a fact he remembers with pride. Hangal ranks his roles as the blind father in Sholay and Sardar Patel in Mountbatten – The Last Viceroy, an English film, as his finest. There’s a touch of bitterness too at the undeniable (and unstated) fact that lesser actors (and men) have achieved far more monetary success. “Whatever money I earned, I spent for good causes and never spoke about it,” he says, taking in his unpretentious living room in a modest apartment in Santacruz in suburban Mumbai. “As you can see, I didn’t keep any for myself.”

But the room is rich in memory and emotion — plaques commemorating his films, the citation for his Padmabhushan and a picture of him receiving it, a framed poem by his 70 year-old son Vijay congratulating him, a triptych by M F Husain (gifted to him by theatre actor Nadira Babbar) and a small desk that holds an inordinate number of letters, newspaper cuttings, cards and an impressive amount of fan mail he waves in your face with evident delight. In the corner, a TV plays NDTV, literally 24/7 — news is pretty much all that Hangal watches — “but these media people have turned mere actors into gods”, he grunts, referring to the Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan prison episodes. For company, he has Vijay, his only child — a widower like Hangal, he lives next door.

Although he is still recovering from a recent fall, Hangal is remarkably agile and independent, and credits his good health to a life well led — although he doesn’t exercise any more, he played hockey, football and volleyball in his youth. He watches what he eats, drinks moderately (whisky, Indian) and assures you he’s happy because he’s lived life “without making compromises”. However, he doesn’t feel India is as happy. “We are constantly craving what we cannot have. As a freedom fighter I wonder, is this what we fought so hard for?”

 

DEEP JOSHI

By Teena Baruah

Engineers and management students from institutes like IIM and IIT occupy a large utilitarian hall with rows of bamboo partitions forming cubicles at the Delhi office of Pradan, an NGO headed by former MIT management expert Deep Joshi. Called the ‘patron saint of rural development’, 61 year-old Joshi has proved that development is both a challenging and noble choice — and in no way inferior intellectually to high science, industry and diplomacy.

Hot on the list of achievements of Pradan is a dairy revolution in Jharkhand. In December 2005, Pradan began a campaign to convince tribal women in the state to take up dairy as a commercial venture. “They considered it a sin to deprive a calf of its mother’s milk,” recalls Joshi, who with his team worked with 80 women from remote Kudu and Sneha, two blocks in the backward Lohardaga district. “We challenged their conventional wisdom, helped them form self-help groups to raise funds to buy superior crossbred cows, trained them in veterinary care, introduced them to farmers already doing it, and imparted skills to form a milk cooperative modeled on AMUL.” They also set up a processing plant with the capacity to process 10,000 litres milk. This year, the cooperative has grown enough to supply 6,000 litres of milk to the plant — last year, they only managed 1,200 litres. The number of members of the cooperative has also grown dramatically — 600 women are part of the movement now.

What’s more, women managing the cooperative can maintain their accounts with user-friendly software called Computer Munshi that keeps a tab on credits and debits and issues passbooks. “Our idea was to pull these families above the poverty line,” says Joshi. “While their annual income was about Rs 24,000 earlier, now they make Rs 10,000 more. And the cooperative ensures they will earn this amount year after year. I am happy the institution will now perpetuate itself.”

Joshi was born in a family of farmers in Pithoragarh, Uttaranchal. In 1977, he did his PhD from Sloan School of Management, MIT. After returning to India he initially worked with the Systems Research Institute in Pune and then the Ford Foundation to study successful community projects in rural India. “I realised that most NGOs are run by people with huge hearts, but often they were not the people who had the knowledge and skills to make a difference at the grassroots,” recalls Joshi. Armed with this knowledge and a grant of $ 150,000 from Ford, Joshi instituted Pradan in 1983 to promote self-help groups of poor women to leverage finance to invest in livelihood opportunities.

Pradan works with IIT and IIM students and puts their expertise to work on projects to enhance agricultural productivity and promote rural livelihood, through animal husbandry, dairy farming and sericulture. It currently has 450 such experts pursuing full-time careers in rural development in the remotest pockets of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, supervising over Rs 100 crore worth of newly created economic activity, transforming lives of 70,000 families. “Orientation is the toughest phase when almost 80 per cent of these young people quit,” says Joshi. “They never forget the shock when they first see poverty up close.”

Joshi was repelled too, but he stayed. And while he remained busy finding ways to improve quality of life in villages, his wife Sheela brought home “the monthly cheque”. “She is fine with my being a jholawala,” he says with a chuckle.

 

RAVINDER KUMAR

By Teena Baruah

“Would you like to test-drive my vehicle?” Ravinder Kumar is on the phone, sounding every bit an enthusiastic car salesman giving customers his spiel. The difference: his ‘vehicle’ is Angad 240, India’s cheapest low-capacity farm tractor, and his clients are India’s debt-ridden farmers with small land holdings. Introduced in the Indian market in 2004, the 22 horsepower (HP) Angad 240 has a load-carrying capacity of over 3 tonne; is 25 per cent more fuel efficient than any other tractor in the Indian market; and costs 60 per cent less to maintain than any comparable product. All this comes at a price of Rs 99,000, one-third the price of an ordinary tractor. And from January 2007, Angad has become even more accessible, with major banks such as State Bank of India, Punjab National Bank, Allahabad Bank, Oriental Bank of Commerce and Bank of India approving it for retail financing. This year, 54 year-old Kumar also established the Angad Seva Kendra in Pune where village boys are being trained to repair and service tractors.

Manufacturing tractors seems an unlikely vocation for a man who graduated in history from Delhi’s elite St. Stephens’s College and did his MBA at Mumbai’s Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies. Kumar, though, hastens to explain that he has “reverence for agriculture”. “I was born in a family of mango and litchi farmers in Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh and our orchards have supported our family for 20 generations.” Still, Kumar took his time to establish himself before going back to his roots. In 1977, he formed SAS International in New Delhi (with a factory in Himachal Pradesh) to manufacture flexible foil-based packages. In 1985, Kumar switched track to manufacture and export leather garments and later diversified to producing and selling cashmere garments in the European market.

While SAS International grew more prosperous by the year, Kumar grew increasingly concerned at the collapse of the agrarian economy back home in Muzaffarnagar. From being India’s sugar bowl in the 1980s, generating the highest per capita income from its sugarcane produce, the district became a heartland of crime by 2000 owing to the spiralling costs of agricultural inputs like seeds, pesticides, diesel and fertilisers; the gradual withdrawal of government farm subsidies; fragmented land holdings; rising debt and frustration among villagers; and the rising cost of medical treatment. “An agrarian crisis was happening in our backyard,” recalls Shilu, Kumar’s 50 year-old wife. “We had hordes of unemployed farm hands turning up at our factory for work.” Thus, when Kumar read an article on the agrarian crisis in India in The New York Times, it served as a wakeup call. The article quoted a study conducted by Srijit Mishra, professor at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research in Mumbai, to investigate the reasons behind the suicide of 17,107 farmers in India — Mishra found that 86.3 per cent of these farmers were indebted and owned less than 5 acre of land.

The opportunity to do something about the crisis came in 2003 when Kumar was travelling through China to source high quality cashmere. While driving to Heibei province, he saw a compact 15 HP tractor; enquiries revealed that it cost as little as Rs 50,000. By contrast, in India, where average land holding size was less than 3 acre, 55 per cent of tractors sold were high-capacity 31-40 HP, which cost Rs 300,000-400,000. And while the actual demand for tractors was about 2-3 million units a year, owing to the cost barrier only 250,000 were being sold each year. (These statistics remain unchanged today.

Kumar had his big idea — he formed a new company, SAS Motors Ltd. “Fortunately, my flourishing business at SAS International [Rs 25 crore turnover in 2007] enabled me to put money aside for this venture,” he says. He then imported six models of the Chinese tractor and hired 40 engineers at his factory in Pune to modify them — they made the engine Euro 3 compliant (a requirement in India), introduced cheaper hand crank models (these start like generators, instead of ones with ignition start), and developed a range of matching farm implements like ploughs, harrows and trailers. The efficiency of the tractors was tested in different crop, soil and climate conditions. “It was a bit like designing a shoe that fits everybody,” says Kumar of the process.

Apart from Kumar’s native Muzaffarnagar, Angad’s target customers are farmers from Assam, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal who together own less tractors than farmers from one district in Ludhiana. “Every pair of bullocks you see on the road is a luxury we cannot afford,” explains Kumar. “It’s making our farmers poorer by Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 a month.” The solution: Angad, which has found endorsement from Dehradun-based agrarian scientist Anil Prakash Joshi, who was part of Harmony’s Hotlist in January 2007 for bringing electricity to the Himalayan hinterland. “A small, low-cost and efficient tractor like Angad is easy to maintain and can easily add Rs 80,000 to Rs 100,000 to the annual income of farmers,” says Joshi. “From a macro-perspective, this could have significant implications for the rural economy.”

Not everyone gets it though. Kumar rues the fact that the ‘China’ tag acts as a deterrent for many prospective buyers. “People presume that any product that was originally developed there is inferior and unreliable,” he says. “Our excessive reliance on western technology has made us blind to the possibilities of Asian or indigenous technologies.” Another stumbling block is Angad’s lack of brand equity. “Even poor farmers want bigger vehicles with fancy brand names,” he says. “For them, a tractor is not a farm implement, but a status symbol.”

Kumar has made it his mission to convince them otherwise. Apart from arranging financing from banks and microfinance institutes, he is cutting through intermediaries like dealers and going directly to farmers. “They don’t understand how much money they could save in just a year with Angad, enough to prevent their children from migrating to cities to become drivers and servants.” His own children Siddharth, 30, and Aman, 25, returned to work with him after studying abroad. “Both of us chose to come back to our family business in spite of our international exposure,” says Siddharth. “We hope that with the revival of the agrarian economy, our farmers’ children too will be able to stay back in their villages and prosper.”

 

SHIRISH NADKARNI

By Smita Deodhar

Don’t let Shirish Nadkarni’s laid back and affable exterior fool you. Inside this 57 year-old beats the heart (once mended) of a stubborn little boy who doesn’t understand the word ‘no’. Just ask his doctor. In 1994, arthroscopist Anant Joshi who also works with the Indian cricket team, told him to “drop badminton and switch to carrom, chess or billiards” after performing four operations on his knees. Turning a blind eye, Nadkarni plays on with a vengeance, adding to his kitty of titles on the national and international badminton circuit. In 2007, he approached The Guinness Book of World Records for recognition as “the only person to win a world championship with a replaced knee in a sport requiring running” — the claim is being assessed.

Nadkarni calls himself an “above average player” in youth; he graduated from “gulli badminton” to the real thing, playing at the school, college, district and state levels. However, this 57 year-old’s winning streak started when he turned ‘veteran’ in 1995, winning the national doubles titles in the 45+ (1999), 50+ (2001 and 2002) and 55+ (2007) age categories. At the prestigious 2002 World Masters’ Games in Melbourne (held every four years, and considered the Veterans’ Olympics), he won three gold and two silver medals; followed by a gold and two silvers in the 2005 Games in Edmonton, Canada. Nadkarni has now set his sights on retaining his 55+ doubles title in the 2009 World Masters Games in Sydney.

Nadkarni can only compete in doubles events because of his medical history. He has gone under the surgeon’s knife 10 times — four arthroscopies to repair damaged cartilage and ligaments in both knees (between 1981 and 1992), a torn Achilles tendon (1994), tennis elbow with severe bursitis in the playing hand (2002), total knee replacement (2003); acute heart attack followed by balloon angioplasty and the placement of a stent (2005); and laser surgery in both eyes following several bouts of retinal bleeding (from 2003 to 2006). “The only part of my body untouched by a surgeon is the space between the two ears,” he says with a chuckle. After each setback, Nadkarni struggled back to form with a bruising exercise regimen. And each time, within a couple of months, he was back on court.

Nadkarni’s stomping ground is the serene Bombay Gymkhana in South Mumbai. Every morning, after a round of stretches and muscle-strengthening exercises, he plays an hour-and-a-half of badminton here. Despite his restricted cross-court movement, Nadkarni is a showman with elegant shots and strategic play that converts the physicality of the game into mindsport. He rounds off the session with breakfast and banter with friends, before heading for his office in Fort, Mumbai.

He may live for badminton but Nadkarni, an MBA, earns his living through management consultancy — his firm Marco Incorporated advises clients on marketing and advertising strategy. He also writes on business, sports and travel for foreign magazines such as Lloyds List, Khaleej Times, South China Morning Post and Shipping and Trade News. Nadkarni’s spacious but simply decorated office is crammed with books and periodicals but pride of place goes to photographs of his three daughters, Geeta (27), Namrata (25) and Samira (23), whom he dotes on. He is even more proud when he tells you that his friends call him the “President of the Knee and Back Sufferers’ Club” — whenever any of them is diagnosed with a potentially debilitating condition, Nadkarni takes it upon himself to deliver a pep talk to the patient.

He knows the importance of motivation. “When I first faced the prospect of being disabled, my friend Amol Merchant kept me going,” he says. Nadkarni calls Merchant and Hubert Miranda (the other half of his doubles team) his sources of inspiration. And his personal cheerleading squad comprises his daughters — wife Kanchan, formerly an oncologist with Tata Memorial Hospital, has turned stoic after years of disapproval. Even the disapproving Dr Anant Joshi acknowledges his spirit. “Such driven people play on adrenalin, not their limbs,” says the arthroscopist, all the while insisting that he would never recommend such strenuous activity. But Nadkarni’s not going to start listening now. “I will never hang up my boots,” he insists. “If I were to choose the manner of my death, I would want to leap high in the air at match-point in the World Veterans’ Championship, hit a winning smash and collapse on court.”

 

CHEWANG NORPHEL

By Tashi Morup and Sharon Sonam

Chewang Norphel’s life is scripted on the handmade map of Ladakh in his office. Marked to indicate villages the 72 year-old has worked in and the lives he has touched, it is Norphel’s, as much as Ladakh’s, progress report. Nicked on it are roads to Zangskar that have cut days of treacherous treks, culverts from the violent Zangskar River to feed dry villages in the area, brick-and-log bridges over deep valleys and the river, canals on arid land, greenhouses that grow vegetables in winters, and sheds to breed sheep, food processing units and micro hydroelectric units that generate employment. And then there are water catchments (or artificial glaciers, as the world calls them) that have completely changed the face of this cold, mountainous desert, so much so that Norphel, after creating seven such glaciers, has come to be fondly called Ladakh’s ‘glacier man’. This year, he has presented the state government a new homegrown technology that can avert seepage in artificial glaciers, a huge problem that reduces the accumulated water by half. The technology is awaiting funds.

More than a decade ago, while working as a civil engineer with the Jammu & Kashmir Rural Development Department, Norphel felt the need for a stronger agrarian policy for Ladakh. The region gets just about 7 cm of rain every year and water shortage is acute in the ‘window time’ between March and June when Ladakhi farmers sow wheat, barley and peas. But they have to wait for glaciers to melt, which happens only after July. Any delay in receiving water for the crops rules out the vital October harvest. At the time, Norphel was already making zings (small tanks fed by melting glaciers). One day he noticed a helper in his backyard leaving the tap open to prevent water from freezing in pipes. Seconds after flowing from the tap, water froze in the connected drain; frozen water kept getting pushed away with more water flowing into the drain. “The solution was on tap and I hadn’t thought about it,” Norphel recalls, adding, “It was simple. The melting water from glaciers simply needed to be brought closer to villages in the rain-shadow area.”

Norphel’s first project was in 1987 in Phugtse, at a height of about 14,760 ft. It cost Rs 90,000 to create and was funded by Ladakh’s Watershed Scheme. He laid half-inch pipes from a glacier higher up on the terrain and brought it down to a depression meant for trapping and freezing water in an area shaded from harsh mountain sun. As water seeped into the pipe, it froze. But as more water flowed, it pushed the frozen block forward, gradually creating an artificial glacier almost 30 km away.

Norphel’s average glacier is 600 ft long and 150 ft deep (the largest so far is the first one in Phugtse, which is 2 km long) and can collect 6 million gallons of water, enough to sustain four villages. Though half of it is lost to seepage and evaporation, it sustains four villages and 1,500 farmers. It also recharges local springs and replenishes ground water. Norphel handcrafted it by carrying the materials himself along with local villagers. By the end of it, simple technology seemed indistinguishable from magic.

Of the seven projects he has worked on, Norphel has created six after retiring as assistant engineer in 1995. In these years, the Leh Nutrition Project (LNP), a civil society organisation he joined full-time after retirement, has supported him. LNP is also supporting him to develop the technology to avert seepage. For this, Norphel is working on a 200 m cement chamber that will be connected to the artificial glacier with 10-15 ft long pipes. This will distribute and freeze sheets of water evenly in the artificial glacier as in a natural glacier. “Creating the first such chamber is difficult in terms of design and funding,” he says. “The rest will still be expensive but easy to replicate.”

In his soft laughter-filled voice, Norphel, using his hands animatedly, goes on to share some obvious geographical truths and fascinating data. “My medals are the rum bottles villagers gave me when I used to drink, and now that I have given up I decline, but I have accumulated a trunk full of khatag [ceremonial silk scarves],” says Norphel who besides respect has also earned the Far Eastern Economic Review’s prestigious Gold Asian Innovation Award in 1999, Asia’s premier honour for world-changing ideas from the backyard that can improve quality of life.

There are brickbats too. Recently, a partially funded and therefore unfinished pond project in his own village Skara overflowed and damaged a part of the surrounding area. “The censure it invited upset me,” says Norphel. “People don’t understand that it’s meant to save hundreds of households from flooding from the nearby streams and it can generate enough power for the village.” But he isn’t deterred. “If I can help farmers find prosperity here and not leave Ladakh to go elsewhere for employment, I would have achieved what I set out to do.” Someone who adds basic engineering to nature (Norphel has built a glass room on the first floor of his house to trap the heat during the day and release it at night to warm the room), he is otherwise untouched by technology. “I still love BBC Radio and the only TV programme I watch is Mega Structures on Discovery,” he admits.

Norphel’s ideas come from the roads and treks of Ladakh — if he is not walking, he is driving around in his jeep. “The promise of delivering so much to so many is not an easy one to fulfil. It keeps me on the move,” says Norphel who is supported by daughter Padma and son-in-law Skarma, both teachers at Ladakh Public School in Skara.

In fact, primary education is Norphel’s current ‘big idea’. For the past couple of years, in association with LNP, Norphel (he ran away from home at the age of 14 to go to school) is promoting the concept of workshops for training teachers and anganwadi workers. “A glacier can irrigate fields, but you need to irrigate young minds, too, and that’s why you can’t ignore basic hygiene and education.”

 

AZIM PREMJI

By Rajashree Balaram

Enough has been written about the technology titan with the silver hair and golden touch. By now, we already know how he shaped one of the world’s most formidable software empires — Wipro — from his father’s modest vegetable oil company; how his company headquarters in Bengaluru looks like it’s carved out of a dream; and how he is among the richest men on the planet. What you probably don’t know is that Azim Premji once aspired to become a teacher. Today, 62 year-old Premji has touched base with his childhood ambition and is out to change the face of education in India. In 2007, the Azim Premji Foundation launched a pilot project in Karnataka involving about 80 schools to understand the role of community in education. Efforts are also on to educate 53000 education functionaries in the next 18 months.

The Foundation, established in 2001, has collaborated efforts with 20,000 schools and 45,000 educators to make learning a more meaningful and creative experience for children across the country, particularly in rural areas where dropout rates are woefully high. The 1,200 professionals who work with the foundation focus on both academic content and delivery mechanism including curriculum, assessment, classroom practices, school and education management, and leadership development. They also develop multimedia learning tools and economically viable ideas for computer-assisted learning. The initiative, steadily gaining the girth of a revolution, has touched the lives of 2.5 million children in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and 14 other states. Premji in his trademark down-to-earth style is not ready to accept any kudos yet. “With 19 million children out of school in this country, I don’t think anyone can talk of achievements.”

Though the Stanford graduate admires Mahatma Gandhi and Jack Welch, he also finds inspirational facets in ordinary people. When he is not busy setting global benchmarks, Premji loves to go hiking in the hills. The perfect hobby for a man who pursues new heights of excellence every day.

 

REHMAN RAHI

By Akhter Kashmiri

On 28 September 2007, when Rehman Rahi was presented the Jnanpeeth Award 2004, the poet was in his element, reciting poetry, exuding the joy of fulfilment. “The honour is a recognition for Kashmiri and the people who speak the language,” he told Harmony on the blooming terrace-lawn of his house on the outskirts of Srinagar. In the bitterly polarised Valley, long characterised by unremitting separatist violence, it was a brief interlude of joy in a long narrative of pain. Spurred by the hope that happy days will soon return, Rahi recited: “Snows melt, winds blew and orchards blossomed; O, spring do affirm that this land too is witness to better days.”

It has been a long journey for Rahi, 82. Witness to an extended span of Kashmir’s troubled history, he has crafted a whole new narrative for Kashmir; one that embraces in its aesthetic sweep not only its folksy moorings but also larger spiritual and philosophical questions. “Kashmiri poetry has always been rich in mystic element but has modest intellectual content and modern sensibility,” says Rahi, who was the youngest Indian to receive Sahitya Akademi Award in 1961. “I try to make up for that deficiency.”

“He has not only composed great poetry but salvaged the language from the shadow of Persian and Urdu, which otherwise dominated the Valley’s literary scene,” says Professor Shafi Shauq, head of department of Kashmiri language at the University of Kashmir. But the poet is more modest. “I think I have only been able to realise a modicum of the boundless creative potential inherent in Kashmiri,” says Rahi. “And I am indebted to my language for this. The world will really be poorer without Kashmiri.”

And Kashmiri would be poorer without Rahi, whose poetry also reflects the loss of peace in his homeland. “Fork-tongued dread slithers through the land, smothering us; Even loonies look for cover, in grave and silence,” Rahi writes in Siyah Rood Jaren Manz (In Black Vernal Showers, 1996), the book that earned him the Padmashri in 1999. In it he observes Kashmir’s tragedy as part of the eternally unfolding historical process. This intellectual distance blends seamlessly with deep poetic spontaneity in which the poet becomes a participant. Steeped in nostalgia, he longs again for the “fresh dawn’s free twitter”.

Rahi’s panacea for his people is the mother tongue. “It (language) is the wellspring of a people’s unique outlook, sensibility and cultural orientation. Besides, it is the storehouse of the collective memory, which connects a community to its roots and helps it define itself.” He, however, bemoans the fact that Kashmiri has not been given the respect it deserves. “Except for a brief period in the 1950s, Kashmiri has never been a medium of instruction,” says Rahi. “This is dangerous. We are losing our own distinctive way of looking at the world, our myths and our story.” For his part, Rahi has retrieved the Kashmiri story from its reinterpretation in Urdu and Persian.

This accomplishment hasn’t come in a vacuum. Rahi has had to make stark choices. Orphaned at an early age and brought up by his maternal uncle, Rahi started out as a petty clerk in the Public Works Department — he quit it to edit a local Urdu daily Khidmat. Soon after he joined Kashmir University to teach Persian and later helped establish the department of Kashmiri language there.

“Between all this, he hasn’t had time for our children [three sons and a daughter],” says his wife Zareena, adding, “But I didn’t stop him from devoting all his time to academic pursuits.” Rahi smiles and credits her for moral support and then some — Zareena suggested the title Siyah Rood Jaren Manz. “While our children only received broad guidance from him, he finds more time to teach our grandchildren,” says Zareena. However, of his five grandchildren, only Farukh Faiza Mir is in Kashmir, doing her Masters in English from the University of Kashmir. Rahi’s other grandchildren are with his sons in the US and Saudi Arabia.

Rahi has also been in the vanguard of artistic movements in Jammu & Kashmir, guiding the way — fighting his crusade with him is his youngest daughter, Mir Nausheen Nighat, who is associated with the state’s Academy of Art, Culture and Languages. The mission has in no way detracted from his mass appeal. Rahi’s ghazal and lyrics remain sought after for radio and television music programmes, making him a formidable cultural presence in the state. “Rahi today stands as the personification of genuine Kashmiri culture and its interface with the modern sensibility,” says Shauq. “In this sense, Kashmir owes a great debt to him.”

 

REHMAN RAHI

By Akhter Kashmiri

On 28 September 2007, when Rehman Rahi was presented the Jnanpeeth Award 2004, the poet was in his element, reciting poetry, exuding the joy of fulfilment. “The honour is a recognition for Kashmiri and the people who speak the language,” he told Harmony on the blooming terrace-lawn of his house on the outskirts of Srinagar. In the bitterly polarised Valley, long characterised by unremitting separatist violence, it was a brief interlude of joy in a long narrative of pain. Spurred by the hope that happy days will soon return, Rahi recited: “Snows melt, winds blew and orchards blossomed; O, spring do affirm that this land too is witness to better days.”

It has been a long journey for Rahi, 82. Witness to an extended span of Kashmir’s troubled history, he has crafted a whole new narrative for Kashmir; one that embraces in its aesthetic sweep not only its folksy moorings but also larger spiritual and philosophical questions. “Kashmiri poetry has always been rich in mystic element but has modest intellectual content and modern sensibility,” says Rahi, who was the youngest Indian to receive Sahitya Akademi Award in 1961. “I try to make up for that deficiency.”

“He has not only composed great poetry but salvaged the language from the shadow of Persian and Urdu, which otherwise dominated the Valley’s literary scene,” says Professor Shafi Shauq, head of department of Kashmiri language at the University of Kashmir. But the poet is more modest. “I think I have only been able to realise a modicum of the boundless creative potential inherent in Kashmiri,” says Rahi. “And I am indebted to my language for this. The world will really be poorer without Kashmiri.”

And Kashmiri would be poorer without Rahi, whose poetry also reflects the loss of peace in his homeland. “Fork-tongued dread slithers through the land, smothering us; Even loonies look for cover, in grave and silence,” Rahi writes in Siyah Rood Jaren Manz (In Black Vernal Showers, 1996), the book that earned him the Padmashri in 1999. In it he observes Kashmir’s tragedy as part of the eternally unfolding historical process. This intellectual distance blends seamlessly with deep poetic spontaneity in which the poet becomes a participant. Steeped in nostalgia, he longs again for the “fresh dawn’s free twitter”.

Rahi’s panacea for his people is the mother tongue. “It (language) is the wellspring of a people’s unique outlook, sensibility and cultural orientation. Besides, it is the storehouse of the collective memory, which connects a community to its roots and helps it define itself.” He, however, bemoans the fact that Kashmiri has not been given the respect it deserves. “Except for a brief period in the 1950s, Kashmiri has never been a medium of instruction,” says Rahi. “This is dangerous. We are losing our own distinctive way of looking at the world, our myths and our story.” For his part, Rahi has retrieved the Kashmiri story from its reinterpretation in Urdu and Persian.

This accomplishment hasn’t come in a vacuum. Rahi has had to make stark choices. Orphaned at an early age and brought up by his maternal uncle, Rahi started out as a petty clerk in the Public Works Department — he quit it to edit a local Urdu daily Khidmat. Soon after he joined Kashmir University to teach Persian and later helped establish the department of Kashmiri language there.

“Between all this, he hasn’t had time for our children [three sons and a daughter],” says his wife Zareena, adding, “But I didn’t stop him from devoting all his time to academic pursuits.” Rahi smiles and credits her for moral support and then some — Zareena suggested the title Siyah Rood Jaren Manz. “While our children only received broad guidance from him, he finds more time to teach our grandchildren,” says Zareena. However, of his five grandchildren, only Farukh Faiza Mir is in Kashmir, doing her Masters in English from the University of Kashmir. Rahi’s other grandchildren are with his sons in the US and Saudi Arabia.

Rahi has also been in the vanguard of artistic movements in Jammu & Kashmir, guiding the way — fighting his crusade with him is his youngest daughter, Mir Nausheen Nighat, who is associated with the state’s Academy of Art, Culture and Languages. The mission has in no way detracted from his mass appeal. Rahi’s ghazal and lyrics remain sought after for radio and television music programmes, making him a formidable cultural presence in the state. “Rahi today stands as the personification of genuine Kashmiri culture and its interface with the modern sensibility,” says Shauq. “In this sense, Kashmir owes a great debt to him.”

 

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