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9 November , 2009

6th November 2009, Mysore

Brutal bootcamp for the brain.

Sleep less than a handful of hours, minds spinning with ideas, wake up with black coffee, too early for breakfast, meet several new strangers as you wander through the lawns (“though don’t walk on the grass”) campus and get thrown in straight at the deep end with another ten hour day of talks. Some more inspiring than others, some more relevant than others.

It is always easy to find a negative, the speakers you liked less, the styles of presentation or the ideas which strike one, perhaps, as rather ordinary. So, in my write-up of today’s TED India, I venture to take the lesson which many of the speakers gave us in their presentations. The positives of negative.

Sex trafficking and one woman’s straight-down-the-line lecture

No doubt about it, one speaker today ripped out the hearts of the auditorium with her unemotional, straight-down-the-line explanation of how she came to be a passionate advocate for the cause of women whose lives are devastated by commercial sexual exploitation through trafficking. In a society where the emotional and physical trauma of rape is compounded by society’s ostracisation of the victims, Sunita Krishnan stood before a mixed Indian and international audience and told of how her gang rape by eight men at age fifteen led her, after years of isolation and social exclusion, to found her centre Prajwala (Eternal Flame) where victims of trafficking are brought after being rescued, in order to rehabilitate them psychologically, physically and economically and in order to prevent second generation prostitution. Many such survivors of these disgusting ordeals have been forcibly hardened to the worst of male excesses so that they find it comparatively easy to work in traditionally male domains such as plumbing, masonry and carpentry, following training. This is an avenue which Sunita’s centre will explore in order to re-validate women in society.

Many women and children, both boys and girls, are brutalised to a horrific degree. She spoke of young girls aged under five being found by the side of railway tracks with their intestines hanging out as a result of the damage done to them. Who are these men without humanity, you may ask? Her stark response was brothers, uncles, fathers, friends. An equally serious question hangs over everyone. What kind of society excludes women and children who are the victims of its own blindness and brutality, who choose to ignore or prefer not to see? The same society which may donate money to the centre, but prefer that the rehabilitated and re-trained women are not brought into their homes and workplaces. A society which prefers to validate the perpetrators than the victims?

That is why what most impressed me today, beyond anything else, was not necessarily the $100,000 dollars which was raised in about five minutes at the end of Sunita’s lecture, by members of the audience who simply stood up and offered money to help the Centre which is about to be evicted because nobody wants them in their space even at exorbitant rental prices, but by Google, who offered jobs to the Centre’s top students, a gesture that was directed straight into the heart of the problem.

The utility of Google Maps 

Google, often criticised, but who were praised by another short speaker on the use of Google Maps to draw areas in Burma which had been effectively closed to post-cyclone Nargis relief since the UN had no co-ordinates until many volunteers used Google maps to change the environment.

“The last mile problem”

“The last mile problem”, that was another topic tackled by the first speaker of the day, Sendhil Mullainathan, as he showed the need for lateral thinking and the employment of psychology, marketing and science in confronting some of the most basic, but endemic problems which perpeutuate poverty. What are the choices which people make which keep them at the bottom of the pile, or under it?  He described oral rehydration sachets as being potentially the most important medical advance of the century in a country where child mortality has been brought down from 24% to 6.5% but where nevertheless there remain 400,000 diarrhoea-related deaths every year. And yet, why do women not re-hydrate their children when they suffer from diarrheoa, he asks?  Using an example of a leaky bucket, he thinks abotu why one would not necessarily keep re-filling it with water and spoke eloquently about the persuasion challenge which needs to be overcome in order to get over that last mile hurdle. Working out how to persuade women to rehydrate their children who are suffering from diarrhoea could be turned into a new positive social science, allowing the community to turn the last mile problem into a last-line opportunity. Positive from negative.

The battle for hearts and minds, Indo-Pak style

Another major positive from this conference, politically perhaps the most important, has been the dogged determination of the organisers to ensure there is representation from across the South Asian continent. About eight Pakistanis, working in different fields from banking to writing to micro-finance and the Acumen Fund, overcame bureaucratic hurdles and long hours at the local police station in order to attend TED, and their presence apparently warmly embraced by the crowd. Of course, the battle is often at the wider end of the social pyramid – how do we dispel rumours rife in both countries that attempt to displace the humanity of the Other? That is a theme to which I will return in another article, but one that strikes me strongly as a Punjabi whose state was split in 1947 and whose history and ties inevitably straddle one of the most highly militarised borders in the world – a border, I should add, where the soldiers on both sides can be seen to make cups of tea or have a chat when the full regalia of military venom is not on display for two war-hungry publics.

As a North Indian in South India, where it is very easy to notice the considerable differences between North and South, in physique, language, food and customs, it is a cruel reality that the people straddling a northern border literally come from the same stock.

Honey bees and cross-pollen

Enough politics and back to the wider parameters of the social network. Anil Gupta illuminated the afternoon with a lecture on why “minds on the margin are not marginalised minds”. The Honey Bee network seeks to ensure that society can learn from grassroots innovators, giving examples of 70-year old Saidullah who developed an amphibious bicycle so he can cross the lake to meet his love, a two wheeler washing machine that can be brought to people’s doors to help women with their heavy domestic tasks and illustrated how these local solutions fit downwards, creating a place for small scale solutions in a globalised world.

Lighten up people 

There was some light-heartedness in the day’s intensity too. Electronica with kalaripyat, an ancient martial arts dance in Mukul Deora. An advocate of the “fun theory” who made us laugh with a video of how enterprising social planners, trying to make Stockholm’s population walk rather than take the stairs, created a sound piano on the staircase leading out of Odenplan metro station leading to a significant number of people walking, dancing and attempting to play music instead! Or the entirely mad but incredible invention of Ramachandran Budihal’s team who have digitalised ancient Hampi using “Imagineering” allowing a 3D guided tour to pull you back centuries, conjuring up ancient kings and gods in 3D vision in front of you as you walk through protected sites, and even allowing scribbling hands to grafiiti in 3D rather than ruin heritage monuments. Incredible.

And then to Bollywood

The entertainment world was brought in to the day with Abhay Deol, an upcoming Bollywood star, talking about how he can use film to develop social issues – telling us about the Association of the Dead with its 10,000 members being people who are certified legally dead, but in fact remain alive and nobody will acknowledge them! Or Shekhar Kapur, the illustrious film director, who frankly made little sense when he spoke but who cared because he was just so damn good looking!

The day ended with a party that turned into mad dancing and singing, with the last buses heading back overcrowded to double their capacity with Indians and westerners joining forces to sing and dance on seats and safety rails rather precariously, proving Bollywood truly has the capacity to bond nations.

And on that very aerated note, it is certainly time for bed. Three more hours sleep again. We are heading to delirium, dhoom-dhamaka style.

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