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Ashwin Mahesh brings winds of change

Ashwin MaheshAshwin, an innovator and Public Policy professor at IIM Bangalore, believes that the value of one's thinking is best expressed by the service you render to others. In 1998, his exploration with social and development issues led him to co-found India Together, an online magazine that covers public affairs, policy and development in India.  After having spent many years in the US pursuing his PhD and then working with NASA, he decided to return to India for good in 2005. Ashwin discovered that most commercial technology companies fail to develop innovations that are affordable and accessible to the public sector. To address the need for technology to help the public with large scale and complex social challenges, he started Mapunity to deliver what the private sector did not. Regarded as an independent R&D entity, his company is reversing the trend of a government lagging behind technology.
Wired magazine has listed him as one of the smartest 50 people who will change the world. Some of his achievements include ABIDe Task Force, and co-author of PlanBengaluru 2020, which proposed a new road map for planning and development in the region of Bengaluru.
He is also associated with reforms in Traffic Police and MBTC including the Big10 bus system (an attempt to re-orient the bus routes along directional arteries, introduced in Feb 2009) and India's first Traffic Management Centre which is being replicated in other cities as well. He has also created a model for citizen led development  of Puttenhalli Lake which is now being applied to other lakes.

Ashwin is currently standing for MLC from Bangalore's Graduate Constituency as the Loksatta Party candidate. Pledge your support on his Facebook page

Ashwin Mahesh brings winds of change

Dahan - A Short Story

He was running as fast as he could. Jumping over heaps of trash, potholes and small walls. He was getting farther away from his pursuer but also from the mass of people around him. And just when he thought he had lost him and turns a corner, a fist smashes into him, knocking the wind out of him and splaying him on the ground. He coughs and grunts as he tries to get back on his feet. But a kick to his ribs sends him into a fetal position. And then he hears laughter. A maniacal sound. A pronouncement of sadistic glee. He is grabbed by the collar of his faded shirt and finds himself looking into the gleaming eyes of his assailant.

They were both breathing heavily as they looked at each other. The wisps of hot breath quickly disappearing into the city's polluted air. His captor spits and barks at him "Give it to me". It was always like this. Durga knew about his payday and made sure he got most of it. Granted it was not much, but it helped his mom bring food to the table. His little brothers depended on it. But such entreaties would not move Durga from being a brute. He was an animal. No strike that. Saying so would be rude to animals. He was a demon. Yes, that's what he was. Sauntering around the neighborhood. Picking on the weak to pay for his booze and women. He was big too. Feeding on the earnings of others had done well for him. Durga was at least a head taller than him. Fighting back was not an option. Durga reaches into  his pocket and grabs the crumpled notes. "Agle hafte phir huh?" he says as he winks and drops him to the ground.

He limps back home, beaten. What hurt more than the physical pain was the thought of seeing his siblings faces when he would tell them that there was no money today. It was close to festival season and they were hoping for treats. He seethes in rage and punches a nearby wall. This had to stop. Why was no one standing up to Durga? But then he remembered the stories he had heard floating around. About how deft Durga was with his switchblade. A few scars on the faces of people in his neighborhood was proof enough. And served as deterrence from any foolish bravery. With the patronage of the local politician, Durga seemed unstoppable. He leans back against a wall and catches his breath. What can I do? he thinks as he wipes away his tears from his dirt streaked face.

"Arrey Raghu" he hears his name being called. It was Saleem chacha hailing him over. He talked a lot, that Saleem chacha. But today, the distraction would help. He ambles over and sits down on a stone bench outside Saleem chacha's shop. The fire was burning hot in the smithy and chacha seemed to be working on a broken plow. He was good at fixing things. And he often fixed things for others for free. Having lived there for long, he had seen a lot. Between all the hammering chacha asks him if he's okay. He knows. He's heard the stories too. But he's too old to do anything about it. "Sab teek hai chacha" he says and looks away. "Lo, thoda paani lo" chacha says as he sits beside him. He gulps the water as chacha rambles on about what he's  heard lately. Then he tells him "You know, it's twenty five years today since I retired from the military. Oh what a time that was! I wonder where my comrades are. Mostly dead I presume." He chuckles.  "But Surya is still around I am sure. He was a scrappy one that chap. Never gave up on anything". Chacha looks at him square in the face as he says the last sentence. He knows what chacha is trying to do. Like it will do any good. He smiles nodding. Indulging chacha, he thanks him for the water and prepares to leave.

As he heads out, chacha calls "Listen, your mom was asking about a cooking knife and I think she could use this one that I forged out of the scrap metal I have lying around". He goes into the shop, rummages around a bit and comes out with a plastic bag. "I hope she likes it" chacha says. "Shukriya chacha" he says as he takes the bag and leaves. "Khuda hafeez beta", he hears chacha say in the background. He looks back and waves at him.

He makes his way home, dreading the thought of disappointing his brothers. Mom would understand. She knew he tried hard. Thanks to chacha, at least he had something for her. He opens the bag and takes out the knife. You couldn't really tell it was made from scrap. The sharp edge gleamed in the twilight. Chacha was good at what he did. He puts knife back in the bag. But he stops and his eyes widen in surprise.

He's almost home and he hears "bhaiya, bhaiya!" and finds himself surrounded by his little siblings. He can't help but smile. It even makes the pain go away momentarily.

One look and his mom knows. "Tu theek hai beta?" she asks as she runs her calloused hands gently over his face. He nods and gives her the knife. "It's for you". "Arrey wah!" she says as she runs her finger over the blade. "Haath mooh dholey, khaana leke aati hoon" she tells him with a big smile.

After supper he lies down on the charpoy grimacing in pain as his body reminds him of his misfortunes. His brothers come running to him asking him to play with them. But he shooes them away saying "kal". Slowly, as he relaxes, the look on his face changes to one of anger and fierce determination.


It's been a week and he heads out to work clutching his lunch sack in his hand. The bruises have mostly healed and he feels good. It's payday and he hopes Durga does not find him today. But that would mean someone else would have to pay. He shrugs off the thought and looks forward to the weekend's festivities.

At lunch he sits away from the others. Deep in thought as he chews the few pieces of bread. He has to take a different way back home he realizes. They would get a little extra today because of the festival and was determined to hang on to every paisa. The kids could have a great time at the fair tonight. The alternate route through the thicket of trees seemed the best bet. Not comfortable, but it was better than being handed a beating.

He hangs around the construction site while everyone heads home. When he sees them at a distance, he walks towards the trees. He feels good thinking of the fun time he will have with this brothers at the fair. He even begins to hum a tune. It's a little hard waking through the bushes. The setting sun and the trees do not provide much light. He is right in the middle of the woods when he hears that laugh. He freezes in horror when he looks ahead and sees Durga waiting for him. "Miss me?" he asks, grinning. This was not just about money. Durga really enjoyed tormenting him and must have been observing him at the site. "Please, not today Durga. It's a feast day. I need this money" He says. "So do I. So do I. It's my feast too" Durga replies as he comes closer with an outstretched hand.

He tries to back away in the hopes of running away. But Durga expects that. He swings his hand and catches him square on the face. The pain is blinding and he stumbles back and falls on some bushes. "I need to teach you a lesson so that you never try this again" Durga says as he slowly walks towards him flicking open his switchblade. What should have evoked fear seems to have calmed him. Things seem to move in slow motion. It had to come to this. In the distance, he could hear the fireworks boom as people began the celebrations. He matches Durga's gaze and slowly reaches into his lunch bag. A sudden bang and surprise registers on Durga's face as he clutches at this throat. Durga falls to his knees with a gurgling sound and topples over. Durga tries to focus on him one last time as the light fades from his eyes.

He comes rushing out of the woods and heads towards the fair where he would meet his brothers. He reaches just in time to see flaming arrows being shot at the huge effigies of Raavan and his cohorts. In the light of burning effigies, he spots his family. "Jai Shree Ram" he chants with the others as he runs and hugs the people he loves more than anything else in the world.

As the last rays of the sun hit the tops of the trees in the wood, they shed light on a small hole in the tree and something metallic glints. Many years later, when the trees are felled for new buildings, a worker would find something shiny on the ground. As he bends to pick it up, he would find etched on the object the words "Presented to Saleem Abdul Fayaz for your exemplary service in the Indian Army".

Dahan - A Short Story

Understanding our World

For a couple of years in the 1990s, I used to help run a Vietnamese restaurant. It was an interesting experience, which taught me a lot about how self-employed people and small businesses operate. In any economy, even in the West with its large multinationals omnipresent, the bulk of jobs are in middle and small size companies. To be economically strong, therefore, in addition to driving large business growth, every economy must create an environment for efficiency in smaller businesses too. Unfortunately, India is consistently ranked among the hardest places to do business in, and this is stifling our growth.

Anyway, back to the Vietnamese restaurant. Around the time I got to Seattle for my PhD, Luc Ta and his family had been resettled in the area from Vietnam. They were 'boat people', you might say, fleeing the war and its aftermath for ethnic Chinese in South Vietnam. He is a very smart man, but he had one obvious challenge in America - he couldn't speak English, and therefore he was at a big disadvantage. Plus, he had three very young children to support.

One day, I stumbled on his restaurant near the university. I was playing with the little one (she was only two years old then) while I was eating, and then started up a conversation with Luc, mostly in sign language !! However, one thing led to another, and I began to slowly help him with more and more of the business. Advertising, menu printing, design, etc. grew into purchase management, stocking, and more serious stuff. I couldn't cook - that remained Luc's dept, but I helped with the eating !! - but everything else that needed to be done, I tried to pitch in. Eventually the restaurant became more successful and he relocated to a nicer neighborhood a little after I graduated.

My friendship with Luc also helped me learn some things I would not have ever seen otherwise - I understood how poor, immigrant families get into microsystems of their own outside the mainstream, or eventually adapt to join it. We wandered around most parts of Chinatown and Luc explained to me the differences between Cambodian and Laotian food, I learned some things about Chinese festivals, and even worked with a few people to secure state support for their resettlement from Vietnam.

There was one other thing that I observed firsthand - the divergence between the children and the parents, as time passed in America. Luc's daughters were very bright kids - especially the older one, who topped every class she ever attended. But Luc was unable to interact with the school to help her select the right courses to take, to pick the right programs to apply to, etc. So, I became a kind of guardian for such 'English' things, as Luc called them :) The kids also went through an awkward period, where they obviously loved their parents, but were unable to bring together their school world and their home world. This is a challenge that is going on in India too, as we witness rapid cultural change, but for an non-English-speaking family in America, it was a massive change.

We really understand our worlds only by engaging with the lives of those who live very differently. In India, the most diverse nation on the planet, this is a useful thing to remember, always

Understanding our World

A Potential to be Special

Ashwin MaheshFor a few months in 2000, I used to live in Hampton, Virginia - original home of the great space missions of NASA. But apart from this, Hampton is famous for one other thing. In 1634, the first free public school in the United States was established in this town. When I discovered this, I spent a lot of time afterward trying to understand different approaches to universal education, in particular the education of children without parents, who face particularly severe difficulties.

In the course of this I learned about a very inspiring organization called the Big Brothers of America - which matches children in schools with adults who can be role models for them. Thinking I could make myself useful in this way, I applied to be a Big Brother, and after some weeks of background checks and other clearances, I was 'matched' with a young boy around 6 or 7 years of age - we'll call him Neil. He had no father, and his teacher told me to keep that in mind. I didn't quite understand how to keep that in mind, but at least I knew it.

He was a cheerful boy, and loved to play various games in the school yard. I wasn't really sure how to be a role model to him, to tell the truth, so I thought I would ask him directly if there was anything I can do to help him. After some amount of mumbling he managed to mutter that he was not doing particularly well in class, and that his teacher had told him to 'learn something from Dr Mahesh' and get up to speed with the rest of the class.

I thought about that for a while, and decided that since I didn't know much about role-modeling, I would keep things simple. He felt he didn't know anything, so I would try to get him to feel that he could learn things, and know them quite well. I would try to make him feel better about himself. So we made a deal. We agreed that when we meet, we would not say "Good Morning" to each other. Instead, I would ask him, "what is the secret password?" and he would say, "what I know will make me special".

It seemed like a silly game, but it caught on, maybe by fluke. He understood that I was trying to connect his learning to his self-esteem. And once he even blurted out something like "I wish I knew things like my friends in class do".

Finally, I had stumbled on a problem I could solve! So I taught him speed math - mainly how to calculate the hell out of double digit multiplications in your head without needing any pencil, paper etc. I used to do exponential in my head in high school and college, which impressed some people, so I figured in some nerdy way that must be cool in second grade too. It wasn't quite Shakuntala Devi, but at 7 years it would do.

And a remarkable thing happened. The next week when I met his teacher, she asked me, "what did you tell Neil?" I said, nothing in particular, I just taught him how to do sums quickly. It seems that thrice during her class that week, she had asked the class to do multiplication with double digit numbers, and for the first time that she could remember, Neil was the first to get the answers right, and was beaming from ear to ear. I was quite happy - for him and with myself! He started to do better in some classes, and felt more and more like he was with peers, rather than behind them. I hoped for the best.

I moved out of the area within weeks of the program starting, however, and Neil needed a different Big Brother. A few weeks later, visiting some of my friends in the area, I thought I would drop in on the school and see how he was doing. But he wasn't there. His mother had some problem, and he couldn't continue in the school as a result. The Dept of Child Services had placed him in a foster home in a different town.

I realized some thing through that spring which I've carried with me ever since. What you and I call 'merit' is often nothing more than the accumulation of opportunity. It wasn't Neil's fault that he didn't have a father. It wasn't his fault that his mother had problems. It wasn't his fault that he ended up on social services care. It was just his bad luck.

In each one of us, there is a potential to be special. A great society is one that tries to make this potential come true in all its citizens' lives, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. If we try, a few more people will make it out of the misfortune of their circumstances, and into the full bloom of their potential.

Ashwin is currently standing for MLC from Bangalore's Graduate Constituency as the Loksatta Party candidate. Pledge your support on his Facebook page

A Potential to be Special

Be Green - Celebrate Earth Day with not just 3-R but 5-R !!!

Be GreenEvery year as April approaches, I begin the spring cleaning…. of my home as well as my thought process. As I de-clutter my house and begin to weed out my garden, I begin to rethink some of my wish-list ranging from my love for a new Apple product bordering towards obsession to a simple bottle of hand soap. This rethinking goes on many levels and soon I find myself shuffling my priorities while sorting the clutter into “reuse”, “donate” and “recycle” boxes. A small pile of stuff gives me that nagging feeling of “why did I get it in the first place?” We all become victims of consumerism every now and then. This passion of having more “stuff” has not only social and economical, but ecological implications. Overuse of natural resources is pushing our planet to its carrying capacity. Unsustainable patterns of overconsumption have led us on the verge of tipping point.
It is a good time to rethink our own personal consumption patterns.  You have already mastered the 3 R’s of Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. You only buy what you need and use things over and over. You give new life to things around the house and engage your kids in reusing things in a fun way. You oversee the recycling bins for your family. You teach your children the mantra of “Waste not, Want less”. You follow the advice from the “10 ways to save the Earth” sort of articles and blogs. You educate yourself about “going green” and strive to make a difference. Yet you have the feeling that it hardly made any dent?

The 3 Rs’ are just not making enough impact to reduce environmental degradation. The 4R school of thought tells us to “Rethink” our actions beforehand. We need to think about our actions and their potential environmental, social, and economical impact. We need to corner ourselves by asking a bunch of questions before making our decisions. We need to minimize generating waste. As we head out to the store with our reusable bags, we need to be careful to read labels not only for their nutritional information, but also about the packaging. Is the packaging recyclable? Does it have recycled content? Things made with post-consumer recycled material save them from going towards the landfill. It takes a lot less energy to recycle and it saves the non-renewable resources.  Does your workplace have a recycling program in place? Do you take advantage of it? If there isn’t such a program, are you willing to initiate one? Do you know what to do if a CFL light bulb (it has small amount of mercury) gets broken? You replaced that primeval manual thermostat to the programmable, which is splendid. But how are you going to dispose it off? There are lot of seemingly innocent household products that fall into a category of “household hazardous products” that should not go into the waste stream as they can leach and contaminate. Moreover, many of those can be recycled.

The new philosophy is to practice the “5Rs - Respect-Rethink-Reduce-Reuse-Recycle”. It can sound overwhelming, but it actually helps simplify things. We take many things for granted that are being affected by the choices we make.  Over exploitation of Earth’s natural resources and climate change are destroying habitats, resulting into ocean acidification and jeopardizing biodiversity.  We need to respect the delicate balance between the ecosystems and the planet we merely share with other species. Greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all life forms. We need to change our mindset and our lifestyle, respect our environment, and reflect on our place in it. Originally inspired by Julia Hill, this concept urges us to rethink the ways we live and take responsibility for our actions. In her own words, “I wanted to find a way to encourage and even excite people into Re-examining our lives. My desire was to re-define our values, prioritizing holistic, healthy life over the mere accumulation and use of things.” You will find a lot of versions of 5 Rs circulating around using various terms ranging from Renew and Respect to Restore and Recover to Responsibility and Resourcefulness. You will also find Recreate, Re-purpose, and Restore among them. Whichever way we look at it, they are all saying the same thing.

Going green means different things to different people. To some it could mean being energy efficient and slowing climate change, to others it could be working on solutions for habitat loss and reducing pollution. My recent visit to a landfill for a project was a sort of eye-opener for me to think of waste management along with other things. This Earth Day you can take a few moments and do the “Spring cleaning”, sort and prioritize your decisions and start your own Regimen to protect our planet.

Be Green - Celebrate Earth Day with not just 3-R but 5-R !!!

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