The story so far...

This is my first ever blog, and what better place to start writing it than in OR2K, an Israeli restaurant in Kathmandu, Nepal. The food here is great, and comes highly recommended. All the tables are low (ideal for slouching), and there is a wide open window at the back which gives the illusion of clean air, away from the dirty streets of Thamel, the tourist hub of Kathmandu. (The streets are even dirtier elsewhere in the city.)

As I indulge in a plate of shakshuka (eggs cooked in tomato sauce), I'll start with my itinerary so far.

5th July: arrived in Bombay!

7th July - 28th August: internship at Tata Steel, Jamshedpur, Jharkhand as part of the Tata International Social Entrepreneurship Scheme (TISES) 2009

5th - 6th September: couchsurfing in Chennai, Tamil Nadu

7th - 22nd September: volunteering at Sadhana Forest, Auroville nr Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu

24th September: crossed the India-Nepal border... just in time!

25th September - present: Kathmandu, Nepal - including Jazzmandu Festival (8th - 14th October)

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

XLRI/TSAF Adventure Camp (24th - 26th July 2009)

This was one of my greatest, shiniest highlights from my time in Jamshedpur.

One weekend of adventure sports, 40 MBA students from XLRI (THE √©lite business school in India), a team of hardened Nepalese instructors... and one misfit, dastardly British lad, all white knobbly knees and no coordination. A televisual classic.
'The action and thrills of Gladiators set at the pace of One Man and His Dog.'
Here are some photos to prove that it actually happened. My abundant thanks go to the instructors and Rowdy* MBA students who took me under their wings, made me feel so welcome and shared so many good times with me. (*Quick Gun Murugun reference.)

Here I am... out of place as ever.

Me and the instructors

Alok and me

First two days
The wakeup was at 5am, with a consolatory chai if you made it in time, which I never did. But the views over the paddy fields in the morning mist were spectacular.

The views in the daytime were amazing too.

On the first day, we faced a series of teamwork/leadership exercises, at which we failed abundantly...
The following day brought and assault course, rockclimbing, abseiling and orienteering.

Our rocky playground

My team

Final day: improvised rafting
And on the final day, improvised rafting on the nearby Dimna Lake. The challenge was simple*: the teams of 8 were to construct a vessel from an inventory comprising 5 large inflatable tyres, a set of bamboo poles and some twine, cross to the other side of the lake (with only 6 men rowing; the other 2 were essentially), touch the flag and return triumphantly to the starting point.

[*The obvious qualification being that the instructions were in garbled Hindi, of which I understood little, perhaps to the ultimate demise of my team.]

My team took a rather novel approach to the speed-vs-stability balance, tying the 5 tyres in a line. The resulting canoe was was a masterpiece in streamlining.

And so the race proceeded. Our opponents' pentagonal tyre design required less time to assemble than our agile beast of a vessel, permitting them to take to the water earlier. Yet, once on the water, we surpassed our opponents, reaching the other side first.

The other teams, doing it properly

However, at the crucial turnover point, three - yes, three! (myself included) - of our team disembarked, and the result was a catastrophe. The sudden instability caused the front portion of our vessel to capsize, pivoting at the point where we had joined the bamboo poles (an oversight in design, no less). The damage proved ultimately irreparable: after two valiant attempts to reconstruct the raft and continue our path, we finally conceded our defeat halfway across the lake.

And to add to the indignity, when our raft partially capsized for the last time, I was caught with at the point of torsion, with my legs straddling the ruptured bamboo joint.
'My shouts of "Don't move - the bamboo will rip my balls off!" echoed eerily across the Dimna valley.'

Sunday, 4 October 2009

What is TISES?

Here’s some info on the scheme that brought me to India. I hope it’s not too dry. I promise the next post will be juicier (with photos)!

The Tata International Social Entrepreneurship Scheme (TISES) is an internship programme organised between Tata Group and (presently) two universities, the University of Cambridge, UK and the University of California, Berkeley, USA. That’s the ‘International’ part; the ‘Social Entrepreneurship’ part refers to the subject matter of the internships: Tata’s ‘corporate sustainability’ projects, i.e. its work with local communities.

I was one of five students selected from Cambridge and was posted to work at Tata Steel in Jamshedpur, an industrial city in Jharkhand, one of the poorest states in India (until August 2000, it was part of Bihar, the poorest and (reputedly) most lawless state).

My project was an impact assessment of a four year agricultural project, a series of interventions across 16 villages in the Sareikela-Kharsawan District. The interventions included:

  1. Installing irrigation and water harvesting structures;
  2. Providing agricultural training and other capacity building – such as the use of high yielding seeds, more productive cultivation methods, and other income generating activities (e.g. livestock, fish, etc.);
  3. Establishing village-level institutions to oversee the new developments and maintain dialogue between TSRDS and the village communities; and
  4. Environmental projects – such as plantation of wasteland areas and the provision of renewable energy sources (solar panels and biofuel).

In short, the project aimed at stabilising agriculture across the year (reducing rainfall-dependence), increasing productivity, diversifying rural income generating activities, and ensuring personal, economic and environmental sustainability.

The experience was a first for me in many ways. It was my first time:

  • in India
  • in a developing country
  • doing field-based research (collecting personal information… from Indian farmers… who do not speak English… and then trying to analyse that data… was a steep learning curve!)
  • doing anything vaguely scientific or numerate
  • studying agricultural development
  • writing a scientific-ish report and presenting it in a seminar…

But, despite - or, rather, because of - that, it was an amazing experience.