As I curate the speakers for the TEDIndia conference, I have been keen to showcase the amazing array of Indian social entrepreneurs. The question is who and how? India is home to every possible problem that exists and the scale at which solutions have to be provided is so huge that every effort seems like a drop in the bucket. Despite these obstacles, there are many individuals who are doing an amazing job, dealing with a range of issues: education, AIDS prevention, environment and wildlife to name a few.
I have been approaching this issue as a “benefactor”. When we feel that we have arrived at a state when we want to “give back” to society, we take it upon ourselves to either make a difference by giving money or giving time. And we have pre-conceived notions of who these “underprivileged” people are and we almost certainly feel that we know what they must want. We don’t understand that the poor are not waiting there to get our handouts. That they are a very talented, proud, even happy bunch. All they need is an exposure to learning and an opportunity to succeed. And I found a great lesson in choosing a speaker from a person I met recently.
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During a recent stay in Delhi, I decided to go for a walk in Lodhi Gardens. Unfortunately, I forgot my walking shoes and all I had was a pair of old chappals, or flip flops. I told myself that there are many people in India who cannot afford to own a pair of chappals and this would be my attempt to literally “walk in their shoes”. I was unable to walk as fast as usual, but I was rather happy with my accomplishment. As I was completing my last round, a young man hopping on one leg whizzed past me. This young fellow, in tattered old pants and an oversized shirt, was hopping for over 10 minutes at such a fast pace that I could hardly keep up with him. Finally, I saw him stop inside one of the old mosques. I followed him and started a casual conversation. I had so many questions, but there was something so proud and private about his face that I could not pour out my thoughts. On the pretext of asking for directions, I chatted him up and found out that he sold tea at Gate A. I have not been to Lodhi Gardens since and have not checked out whether he was telling me the truth or not. It almost does not matter because I learnt what I needed to learn from him in my limited interaction.
Just when we “privileged” feel that we “walked in their shoes”, we find that “they” have outpaced us with a fraction of the resources and the capabilities that we possess. And “they” are not sitting at home waiting for our handouts. They are out there, working for a living. The best I can do is to have all the Delhiites who read this to go to Gate A and have a cup of tea and leave him a good tip. And let me know if he really works there.
And as far as TEDIndia goes, I have come to the conclusion that there is no way that I can do justice to the idea of showcasing the entire world of good being done in India. So we chose individuals who are turning their individual passions into institutions. And I believe their efforts would provide a peek into the future filled with hope—for the global audience as well as for those of us who live in India.
TED is a small non-profit devoted to ideas worth spreading. TEDIndia 2009 will be the first ever conference of TED in Asia. In these weekly chronicles, Lakshmi Pratury, co-host of TEDIndia, talks about her personal experiences with TED and provides a curtain-raiser for TEDIndia.
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