IT’S NOT JUST ALL ABOUT IDEAS!

How many ideas get implemented fully and successfully on a long-term basis? An overview of the 10th DD Kosambi Festival of Ideas

By Tara Narayan

THERE is no dearth of ideas in India that was arguably Bharatdesh or Bharamata once upon a time, seeing how much we’re harping on past glories – real and unreal – these days! Clever India is like the proverbial pot of milk brimming over, or a monster beanbag bursting with a whole host of ideas. India is a festival of ideas but how many take root and flower for the benefit of the many rather than the few?

Take the DD Kosambi Festival of Ideas that have gone with many distinguished speakers leaving a mark. We listened, asked questions, and left impressed. But were we inspired enough to walk in their footsteps? Aspirational speakers all, worth emulating! So it was with this year’s DD Kosambi Festival of Ideas organised by Goa’s Directorate of Art & Culture from February 13 to 17, 2017 at Kala Academy.

As usual, this year’s speakers too left a taste of déjà vu. They included wildlife photographer and activist Sandesh Kadur, neuroscientist Dr Shubha Tole, professor of educational technology Dr Sugata Mitra, mental health crusader Prof Vikram Patel and last but not least of all the indefatigable ‘Mr Toilet’ Prof Jack Sim. Eloquent speakers who have all walked the talk and were here to provoke, inspire and challenge a younger generation to be the change they want to see around them.

Speed up the right kind of development in the larger interests of India and we can be the No 1 country in the world, said the gregarious and passionate Prof Sim. As the last speaker he summed up what ails India in implementing ideas, some of which we are familiar with. “Don’t wait for the government,” he said, “It takes too long!”

He hinted that he is not over-fond of politicians, in India or elsewhere. Although as the founder of BoP HUB, World Toilet Organization, he has had to win over politicians for projects he wants successfully implemented. But in a country like India where the political and bureaucratic system is corruption ridden – even he has had to deal with it – it is difficult for anyone to walk in his footsteps to speed up the right development! This country is brimming with ideas; everyone can give you one. But we want somebody else to execute them and there’s a shortage of these people.

We wait for somebody else to bankroll and implement our ideas so that we may then share fame with them! Narendra Modi’s government too is a bit like us – ever since it occupied the hot seats, it has been waxing lyrical over ideas brilliant but executed in half-baked ways.

On the subject of Swacch Bharat, Prof Sim is only too aware of how 110 million sanctioned toilets may exist mostly on paper, and those built are not toilets but go-downs and offices for politicians or businessmen close to the ruling party.

He summed up: in India slum dwellers have mobile phones and borrow money to get their children married – but nobody thinks a toilet is important! Open defecation in rural and urban India continues, “90 per cent of all surface water in India is polluted by shit and your health bill is too high!” Make the connections. It’s anyone’s guess how disease takes a toll at the expense of never-ending squalor and a pathetic national healthcare budget of about one per cent or so. Politicians don’t offer toilets to people when asking for votes!

RAISED IN A SLUM

PROF SIM, who was raised in a slum, decided there was no point making more and more money. He had to do something to make his life worth living. “We talk about food all the time!” he exclaimed. “How come we never talk about shit and toilets!” Perhaps if we did, we would be better disposed to using toilets. He says, “All social problems have solutions. Don’t stop thinking, find answers.” You must make toilets so glamorous that even the poor would want a toilet of their own. “Make toilets a jealousy item!” Link the carnival in Goa to using a toilet at home, bring in the celebrities to endorse an exhibition of toilets, “Make toilets sexy!”  

He has travelled around India and in Bangalore’s Silicon Valley, and Orissa, and seen how people defecate in the open when it is still dark early in the morning; how vulnerable women are; how children suffer from diarrhoea. His mission is to break taboos around toilets and bring sanitation to the centre stage. He urges, one must bring a mix of irresistible humour and serious facts to the table and take it from there. People must be educated about how open defecation contributes to the proliferation of disease in their family and long-term environmental damage.

Look at Thailand, he says, “Today no matter where you go you will find a decent toilet facility when it was not so once upon a time).” India can do this too. The influential Rotary clubs of India can take up the promotion of toilets as the eradication of polio is already a success. In 2001, Prof Sim got World Toilet Day declared and this year on  November 19, 2017, he would like to see India put behind open defecation forever. He and his organisation are here to guide volunteers along the right path. It’s not just talk, he means business. He is an Ashoka Global Fellow and was named one of the Heroes of the Environment for 2008 by Time Magazine. From Gandhiji to Jack Sim is a long way to come, but in India we are still dragging our feet absurdly regarding something which has a bearing on us all when it comes to preventive healthcare.

GOVERNMENT PRIORITIES

SUCCESSIVE Indian governments have never put healthcare on their list of priorities. Prof Vikram Patel’s talk on “People’s Health in People’s Hands: Reimagining Health Care” on February 16 at the festival of ideas, once again focused on this. Mental health is a huge issue in India, he said, and 90 per cent of patients are not treated. A combination of medicine and counselling can transform this picture and for the last 15 years, Sangath, an NGO he co-founded, has been putting into place a system which re-imagines mental healthcare.

Many patients come to a primary health centre to be treated for one symptom or the other – such as a headache – but the underlying cause may well be depression, which is never taken cognizance of, although it has a bearing on physical illness.  In such cases counselling and medication can turn a patient’s life around and results can be dramatic. Sangath’s path-breaking work has been published in one of the world’s premier medical journals, the Lancet.  

Sangath’s health workers are ordinary people trained to communicate and treat patients suffering from mental illnesses which may range from mild depression to severe schizophrenia. It has selected 10 primary health centres with the support of Goa’s Department of Health Services to study mental health. Asha workers or health workers are ordinary people from society trained by professionals like Dr Abhijit Nadkarni or Arpita Anand to care for the mentally ill, “and they too discover that caring for another is good for their wellbeing!”

In Goa, a lot of mental health issues have to do with alcoholism and drug abuse and there are options to benefit patients. Even when it comes to mental health, stressed Prof Vikram Patel, many taboos need to be broken. Unfortunately, it’s something largely ignored and neglected in India. “We need to break the stigma associated with mental illness. Don’t demonise it. Patients must be made to feel that it is okay to talk.” Sangath also has a website with more information.

Prof Vikram Patel is a Wellcome Trust principal research fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and will be joining Harvard Medical School as the Pershing Square Professor Global in April. He has a formidable reputation for raising awareness on the subject of mental health and how it impacts people. Sangath won the MacArthur Foundation’s International Prize for creative and effective institutions in 2008 and the WHO Public Health Champion of India award in 2016.

In his talk, Prof Patel also acknowledged the sorry state of healthcare in India because it is entrapped in a vicious syndrome binding medical fraternity and hospitals together. Not all doctors are on the ‘gifts roll’ of the powerful pharmaceutical industry but he is sorry that private healthcare is so expensive here and public healthcare so overburdened. He endorsed the truth of reports appearing in newspapers about patients being overbilled and how private healthcare is so greedy and unscrupulous that only the wealthier classes may access it.

Indeed, in this respect there are two countries in India – one for the rich and the other for the poor who are at the mercy of public hospitals which may leave a lot to be desired. It is not surprising that life is so stressful  that most folk neglect the mental health problems they suffer from, which take a toll on their general wellbeing.  

FUN SESSIONS

PERHAPS the most fun sessions belonged to Dr Shubha Tole, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, and Dr Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology in Newcastle University in the UK.

Dr Shubha Tole’s off-beat talk was titled “Wiring Up the Brain: Jab Yuvraj Singh Ne Stuart Broad ke Bowling Pe Che Chakke Mare, Tab Unke Dimaag Mein Kya Chal Raha Tha?” She had groups of school students performing, colour coded with ribbons and then taught to react with clapping, all to prove how fantastic the brain is and how it can be trained to respond to a gamut of seemingly automatic behaviour. Life, she said, has only one purpose, and that is to replicate itself. “All joys and sorrows interact for the purpose of creating more eggs!”

She showed how zebra fish developed from egg to a full fish in 24 hours. “You need maths in biology because science is so interrelated a discipline. Multiplicity and division is the same thing in biology.” She threw colourful balls at the audience and then commented on how everyone reacted differently – by catching, ducking or getting hit. Brain neurons wired together are all about learning and training, rhythms and patterns. ”The blueprint is in the interchange of gene progenitors and neurons are patterns of development. The blueprint is in the genome which sharpened by evolution.”

Of course, as we age, it’s like “your hard disc is being corrupted” which explains Alzheimer’s, of great concern today with more people seeking longevity. She said bio-engineering may lead us into a brave new world or mess us up real bad!

When we sleep it’s like our cells are putting the garbage out, so sleep is vital as that’s when we recharge. An animal deprived of sleep will die. We sleep to remember and to forget. Avoiding sleep is equivalent to driving while drunk! Dr Tole’s was an altogether fascinating insight into the pathways of the brain and how it works to regenerate or die and at what speed.

FUTURE LEARNING

DR SUGATA MITRA’S talk on The Future of Learning too kept everyone educated and entertained. He more or less said that give or take a few years both schools as we know them, and teachers, would give way to a far superior system of learning. Machines will be our teachers and they would do a better job of it. Children will learn in groups and go to ‘school’ whenever they wish. They will be driven or guided by a list of questions.

Exams will become a thing of the past for there will come a time when we will know everything or least 90 per cent of it! If there are exams, students will be able to consult the internet. After all we want happy children, not like today’s who must be dragged to school. The professor spoke of how he used his TED prize of a million dollars to create laboratories called “Schools in the Cloud” whereby education may further evolve.

It may be remembered that it was Dr Sugata Mitra’s early “hole in the wall” experiment which saw him fixing a computer in a slum wall for untutored children to learn. It subsequently led to Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup’s debut novel Q&A that inspired the making of Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. He proved that slum children may be educated through a gift of computers without having any formal training, and they did a good job of educating themselves too. This then is the future of education and society better make way for it. Our hitherto traditional system of education is already obsolete!

Both Dr Tole and Dr Mitra shared an irreverent sense of humour; the first a lively spontaneous one and the second a droll ironic one, which left many in the audience of schoolchildren and adults aghast or in splits.

Nobody is decrying the value of such festivals of ideas but then perhaps it could be enhanced if everyone got a hard copy of the talks to keep their memory refreshed, and perhaps to follow up on in the implementation at the individual or collective level. CDs of previous speakers’ talks were available for sale though out in the foyer of Kala Academy at `100 per CD.

Perhaps it is a good idea for the Department of Art and Culture to consider bringing  out a series of publications on the subject, for hardware is hardware and what’s in hand endures longer in the mind, no?

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