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Rajiv Khandelwal : अंतर्यात्रा : राजीव खंडेलवाल
Blog : Migrant Worker & Me - A Conversation With Rajiv
Nuggets (and English translation) of Awakin Talk with Rajiv Khandelwal in conversation with Rajni Bakshi
(Bonus- for nuggets in Hindi by Smita Navare, see here; स्मिता नवारे द्वारा हिंदी में सारांश देखने के लिए यह खोले)
Pivotal moments of the formative years:
Rajiv : My father was very entrepreneurial and would start a new enterprise every 2-3 years. He wished that I would join him in his business ventures but my outlook was always to look beyond Delhi, and the limited canvas it offered to me.
While in school, I volunteered as a scribe for visually disabled students. If the students answered wrongly, out of sympathy, I would alter their answers and correct them. While doing that, I thought I was doing a service to them. When this became known to the person who ran that blind school, he gave me a hard scolding. My entire perspective shifted. I realised this man does not believe in charity, he believes in offering a level playing field. The biggest service was to offer an equal opportunity. Looking back, I think that may have been a defining moment for me. That may have played a role in my choice of joining IRMA - Although at that time, the wish to go far from Delhi and do something constructive in the areas where competitive forces of market had not found a hold, had taken root in me.
While studying at IRMA, my friend Abhijit and I went to rural Jodhpur on a field-work trip. Both of us were straight out of city life and had no idea of what the village was like. It was more like a camping trip. But that 2 ½ month where we had little work to do but it was more about living those 2 ½ months in a village. I did not know then but eventually that may have turned into a pivotal moment in my life. I got to see and experience first hand the people, the relationships in villages, the caste based distinctions and the poverty. I also experienced the spirit of altruism despite such poverty. I was very humbled. The family we were staying with hardly had any material possessions. But still for them we were ‘atithi devo bhava’ (Guest is God). A decade and half later, I visited this family again - I was shocked to know that a member of that family of my age, Prabhu passed away because of tuberculosis. I was aghast that in this modern age, someone had to die of TB.
Next, got a chance to work for about 2 ½ months with Mahiti on a project in Dholera, a very impoverished region in Gujarat at that time. This project was very important for that community, since it would help improve their economic conditions. I had the skills of marketing and finance which are typically taught in an MBA college. But the challenge was to adapt these skills to the realities of that community.
These two experiences at IRMA taught me that all the skills I learnt as a part of the MBA need not only be for the corporate mainstream but also be adapted in the social sector. It is definitely challenging to do that but somewhere it synched well with my temperament. I decided to dive into it if not for anything but to experience and understand it.
This started as an experiment, however at that I was not aware that this will further be a guiding light in my work ahead.
Rajni - A good friend Arun kumar also known as “pani baba” in early 1980s once shared that when there was drought in Jodhpur, people of rural Jodhpur who did not have enough to eat two square meals - but even then they upheld a tradition wherein people would keep aside some grains to feed the birds. What is this culture or rather a part of our DNA where there is such great level of oneness with nature on the one hand, and on the other hand we are seeing such discrimination and divides? This has been a great mystery for me.
Rajiv: I live in Udaipur and have worked in some of the tribal pockets here for the past three decades. The Southern belt which includes Udaipur is one of the poorest in Rajasthan. The people here have very few material possessions - you can count them on the digits of your fingers. Sometimes they do not have enough for two square meals. Yet I have witnessed their tradition of sharing whatever (little) they have without any expectations in return. Their DNA is rooted in the values of interdependence, as against capitalism. Capitalism will not understand this culture of seeing and valuing interconnections. These values are not transactional in nature; you cannot put a price to it - it is rooted in spiritual wisdom. It simply “is.”
And you are right when you say that this is in our DNA. However, expressing this interconnectedness is becoming more and more difficult for the marginalised communities. Their exposure to cities have created some dissonance but this sense of interconnectedness has not gone away for them. And one can see it clearly in the devotional and folk music of this land. I am always amazed by their depth of wisdom and it is also clear that philosophical wisdom is not the entitlement of the privileged. A lot of my friends would call this equanimity, this spiritualism of the poor as a denial, a resignation, a poison and keeps them away from rebelling against the unlevelled field. But I have not been able to reach a conclusion - in fact, personally I believe that these values that they live are very special. You must have read books by Anupam Mishra, “Aaj bhi khare hain Taalaab,” “Rajasthan ki rajat boondein,” et al which are a convergence of folk wisdom and technical wisdom (of building water conservation structure) prevalent during the past centuries. Even in the technical details of lake-building, one can see how community values were placed over individualism. And while these values are extinct, they are not dead - the seed is still there. We should try and not lose it altogether.
Rajni: Yes, these books have gained global patronage and I recall these are already translated in French.
That reminds me, modern economics tells us that whatever is scarce brings up the worst amongst people. But what we read from books by Anupam Mishra or the kindness stories of migrant workers walking back home during Covid19, we see that in times of crises and scarcity people have come together and eventually we have formed very healthy cultures around it. Take the case of Rajasthan - the scarcity of water brought about the technology of lake-building and the communal practices of conservation and optimal use. You are personally so sensitively aware about these wholesome cultural practices -- on the other hand you are also aware of the dictats of the capitalist mindset. Especially in the context of the migrant labour work you do, this work is deeply connected to urbanization which, in turn, is the child of modern economics and capitalism. So, when someone like you engages with the cause of migrant labour, you very well know this contrast - that their misery will know no end in this clash of the cultures underlying this interdependence-ism on one hand and capital-ism on the other. How do you manage to face this dissonance? And where do you get the strength to work through this dynamic?
Rajiv: I am in a bit of a dilemma these days. I do see these ancient values of interconnection and communal oneness as true wealth. But I also see that these are becoming mediums of exploitation. In most cultures, poverty leads to crime, as we see in North America. Our poor are not criminalized. In our country the first reaction of the marginalised is a numb acceptance of the ‘system’ - this silence may have been borne out of the caste system and their social conditioning. But this silence also persists when our poor are faced with the negative energies of capitalism. And that bothers me. Why are they silent when they are exploited? Why dont they rebel?
I still do not have answers to these questions. But I feel that our caste system makes an ideal vehicle for the capitalist forces to ride. This market economics have normalized this exploitation and made it kosher. I have been speaking to 70 to 80 migrant labourers who walked back 8 to 10 days from Gujarat to their homes in South Rajasthan. When one asks them how was their journey, one sees a certain stillness in them. They are not complaining because they have had no expectations from anyone (government etc). And, this bothers me, why do they not have the question that what happened with them was appropriate. Why doesn’t it bother them? They accept this as routine as this has been happening to them for ever. Its a part of the bad hand they have been dealt.
I am still holding this question - whether to see this as silence of the lambs? or the flowering of the culture of interdependence; the culture of generosity and the equanimity of the spirit cultivated over centuries?
Rajni : I am conversant with Ajeevika’s work. The workers live in extraordinary conditions in the cities where they work. - for example, shared congested accommodation (even the bedding is shared shift wise with two others). I am sure you are personally angered by this iniquity. How do you deal with it?
Rajiv: Ajeevika, and myself have been at it for a while as to what is the best way to constantly be engaged in finding solutions for retaining their dignity. See, the problem is that the migrants have separated their work life with their social life. So, they live their work life in the cities but their social and cultural life is in the villages - this wasn’t the case before. All three (social, cultural and economic lives) were interconnected in the villages but migration caused this separation. This separation is a reality now, which cannot be undone, as it is borne out of the brute force of urbanization. But at the least, they should have awareness of the legal laws and just/fair wages and the labour laws. It is easy for them to acquiesce to the system - this numb acceptance of the apathy they face from the privileged is an easy compromise. But instead, what Ajeevika attempts to do is create alternatives. Creative alternatives on how to make ends meet if minimum wages are not enough, how to form infrastructure for medical services if it is not possible for them to access the mainstream infrastructure, how to form a community (where a formal collective or union may not be possible), and so on. We keep constantly innovating and experimenting - which is how we believe we learn how to work with the existing system.
For example, for the migrant workers of the South Rajasthan region we are engaged with, it is routine that every 3 to 4 months of work, they are paid 15-20 days short - either the middleman who got them the work pockets it, or the owner of the enterprise who employed them pays less. Some of these are not wage laborers and may work on piece rate. The owners simply undercount their work. Over time, this has been accepted as a practice by the workers. They simply didn’t find it worthwhile to raise their voice against this. But if we create a system and spread awareness that this is a wrong practice which we did at Ajeevika, then the workers will demand their just and fair wages. Over the past decade, we have solved around 15,000 cases through mediation through which Rs 28 Crs have been recovered and distributed to the migrant workers in a fair way, without accessing the formal legal system purely by mediation. We created this new architecture in a society wherein exists a mentality that it is okay not to pay daily wagers or to conveniently rounddown their dues.
Rajni : But the people who perpetrate this unfair behaviour are not demons. They are fair otherwise. But they are okay to cut corners while paying the meagre workers, their due share. Is this apathy and our wilful participation in these practices, too a part of the DNA of our society?
Rajiv: I agree with you. There exists a deep complementarity between our caste system and capitalism. These go hand in hand. Capitalism has normalized caste system. Caste system has created a unique and blessed architecture for the marginalized to willingly accept their minor status in the society. Capitalism sits on top of this and miches it to the hilt. This is the broader explanation at the societal level. But it does not stop there - we see several individuals who are just otherwise, but in their work, they are exploitative. How do we allow such dissonant layers in our own lives? We dont have to go far - we can see it around us. I see it in my family too which belongs to the business class, where this divided morality comes alive. I think the solution for this is equality - in opportunities, in language, in work; and in educating the workers of their right to have counter parties follow the letter and spirit of law. For the moment, the iniquitous market realities are prevailing over fairness.
Rajni, you too talk about this book, “Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom” - as well as in your “Ahimsa Conversations” web channel. I especially loved the episode with P V Rajgopal.
Rajni : Thank you. You should also see the episode with Elango.
I have seen some of Ajeevika’s work - especially the community kitchens, the meetings - which evoke a collective energy among them. Thank you for that! I want to ask you - What are your personal disciplines - which help you deal with periods when you feel less optimistic?
Rajiv : One of my principles has been that whatever I do is not an individual effort but a collective one. So that people may join and get involved. It should not revolve around my personality. But one of the prime disciplines is to engage in collective efforts. Even at my work, and with the team of 10-15 years, the idea is how my questions/dilemmas and their questions/dilemmas merge to become our collective questions/dilemmas. We have tried to create an institution which is not centered around one person. I have seen the pitfalls of person-centric organizations wherein one person has the final word. My experience suggests that this mono-cultural design is not sustainable. This is my first discipline or principle. Of course, this is work in progress and I fail multiple times. Often I get impatient and think “its okay for me to take a call - I will get the others to come around later.” But the attempt is to bring in collective energies to the table.
My second principle has been that whatever I say or communicate, be so simple that it can be understood by all. I try that it is not codified or jargonised. My litmus test is can I communicate what I do in simple Hindi - in a way that my mummy can understand. I try and ensure that whatever I say is simple and easy to understand so that I don't move towards elitism or be viewed as elites.
And my other practice and my forever friend is my love for music. There is always a song going on in my head. I do not sing but I am always ruminating on a song. That keeps me centered. It is my tiger balm. One of my favorite shows is “Rhea’s Retro” anchored very well by Rhea Mukherjee on Gaana.com - its a high recommend from my side. One of the songs she played recently was “Gham ki andheri raat mein, dil ko na bekarar kar” - a dialogue between an optimist (sung by Rafi) and a pessimist (voiced by Talat Mahmood). My mind-states alternate between being Rafi and being Talat.
Rajni: There is a song we used to sing which goes, “aa chal ke tujhe main leke chaloo, ek aise gagan ke taley… jahaan gham bhi na ho, aansoo bhi na ho, bas pyaar hi pyaar paley” (please take me to a place where there is no sadness , no tears and there is only love). One of our elders used to say how can love ever manifest in a place where there is no sadness, and no tears? These are tied at their hip - tears and love. With this, I hand over to Rahul
Rahul: Mahatma Gandhiji spoke of gram swara, you yourself moved from Delhi to a smaller town Udaipur. Is the road to reverse migration closed?
Rajiv : We have moved very far - there is no going back to their fairytale of village life. The rural economy cannot support millions of labour at the current moment. It can be revived, given meaningful investment in this sector, but that will take time. Certain sectors do not even allow for a possible alternative for rural economy. Realistically we have to look at rural supporting the urban. I may morally support it or allow myself to be romanticised with this idea of rural revival but it is not happening. The urban system is very much ingrained in us and cannot be undone. The dignity, rights and entitlement of the migrants have to be ensured in the cities. The recent exodus from the cities presents a window of opportunity to relook at the meaningless migration that happens and provide an alternative to these on the fences. But this will be on a limited scale. Urbanization is a reality and we have to look at what can be done to do it in a just and equitable manner. It cannot be undone.
Rahul : I would switch track to a personal story. You spoke of your experience of volunteering at the blind school. We also heard another story from your friends Jyotsna and Sachin. Jyotsna spoke of her 3-year old Rohan (now a 26-year old) who liked a tee-shirt you were wearing (bought from the US) and asked you to get him one like that. You promised him to get it on your next US trip a few months away. Unfortunately, you could not locate one of Rohan’s size on your US trip. Years later, on Rohan’s 18th birthday, you gifted him the very same tee-shirt neatly folded, preserved for over 15 years in as-if-new condition. You waited for Rohan to grow to the size of the tee-shirt and set it aside to gift it to him on such an occasion.
I contrast the two stories of your volunteering at the blind school and this one. I see a beautiful difference. In the first story, it was asif you were deciding the outcome - and giving it away for immediate effect. In the tee-shirt incident, you are sitting their planting a seed, not bothered if it will blossom or not, instead internalizing the gift. We see this from a distance and it amazes us - the evolution from the haste of effect to the organic pace of gracious love. Would you like to reflect upon this?
Rajiv : I feel the loss of words. Also, how did this story reach you! The fact that you found it, and you saw depth in it - I am grateful for that.
I am not in a hurry anymore. There is no rush to results anymore. If at all, there is a longing for deep and timeless relationships in my personal and work life. On the tee-shirt, I spontaneously set it aside for Rohan for a day when he would be of the size of the tee-shirt. Every year I would take it out, wash it, iron it - to keep it in ship shape was a challenge for me! He would have a forgotten what tee-short he asked for - he was just 3 years then. But for me, it was deeply satisfying. I would say - how could we think timelessly in our relationships?
When a good deed is done in a hurry, it gets over in a hurry too, there will be no vision in it.. The impact also vanishes in a hurry.
Of course, it does not mean we do not act in emergencies. Emergency help has its own effect and it is as much required to be done. But that is not the only thing. And just to act with the urgency of the now, would be limiting. Immediate results are not as important to me as the process and the direction. Impact and effect has its place but to insist upon it constrains our ability to offer.
Rahul : What does scale - in terms of impact numbers or amount mean to you?
Rajiv : The donor community wants you to build a scalable prototype and ultimately scale up. Incidentally, we impact approximately 500,000 to 600,000 labourers in the Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan corridor - this is not small scale either. This is not national scale, not even close to the 12 crore migrant labourers we have in India. This scale is a canvas wide enough as a model and providing a proof-of-concept foundation for our practices to be replicate elsewhere. It is my belief that if we are able to build upon our research, our data, our advocacy arguments on the foundation of where we are already present and what we have already done - that will act both as a test of our scalability and a medium for our scale.I do not believe in haphazard multiplication of offices or partnerships across regions or avail of the huge funding that may come our way, that may give us false sense of achievement, without duly honouring the wisdom of our current experience. Personally it does not feel right to spread myself so thin that it will burn me out. Expansion would be mindless if we cannot consolidate our learnings where we are.
For instance, we have been running a labour toll-free helpline of Gujarat and Rajasthan. During lockdown, the calls multiplied to thousands and 3 to 4 organizations came forward to build a nation-wide labour line. We will fully support such efforts of a national helpline but we will most certainly not run it ourselves. We will incubate it if it needs to be.
If we are clear we will stay put where we are without being distracted, the word goes around. The donor community and the civil society respects that. Sometimes, it helps to be stubborn.
It makes immense sense to stand by what your research, what your community is saying. You have to be convinced, thats it. Then the rest will follow. Where the donors sense your indecisiveness, they are happy to decide for you and it is out of your hands from that point on. . . .
Rahul : The issues you (Ajeevika) handles are complex. There is a chance your blindspots play out. What are your blindspots?
Rajiv : One of my blindspots is my understanding of the urban youth or millennial generation - and I sense there is a breakdown - not just of language but of appreciation of each other’s point of view. It may have to do with the limited chances I have to interact with them - I stay and work primarily in a semi-urban setting and (may be) I hang out with people similar to me and that may form an echo chamber around me.
Another dilemma I constantly come face to face with is : Am I moving fast enough given the gravity of the issues we are facing? Or am I moving slow enough to honour the speed of the collective? I am often reminded by my team if I take a step that violates the community spirit around which we have built Ajeevika. And I am grateful for that. This anxiety of getting something done fast enough - may be this is the entitlement feeling that comes with age. This is despite knowing that I am not so much result-oriented; my preference clearly is the process over the product. But sometimes, the anxiety spills over to insist upon a speed up of the process! That is where relationships within family, with the workplace and the community help balance this narrative of anxiety. On this count, I am still a work in progress.
Again, my solace has been music. My questions dissolve in my monologue with my songs, ghazals, jazz - it is my sanctuary.
Rahul closed with a gratitude to all those who offered support for this conversation - including friends of Rajiv viz. Sandeep Virmani, Dr Pavitra Mohan, Jyotsna Lall and Sachin Sachdeva, Ravi Gulati and Rupal Kulkarni. Special thanks to Smitaben for having introduced Rajiv to us and to Rajni ji for readily accepting this invite to moderate the conversation.
Rahul invited Drishti Bhuva who is a medical student at Govt Medical College - she offered Tagore’s “Ekala Chalo re”
The gathering ended with a minute of silence
PS : The flipbook of the wisdom shared on this call is here
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