Intergenerational transmission of poverty and escaping the poverty trap

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Last weekend I watched a delightful movie on something quite close to my heart. ‘Nil Battey Sannata’ depicted a mother and daughter’s journey through life. There were several moments which I could totally identify with. It was superb acting by a very able cast and although the subject was very down to earth, of a mother’s trials to provide a good future for her daughter, the cinema did do justice to balance all emotions very well. The teenage daughter had already resigned to the fact that her mother wouldn’t be able to put her through an expensive higher education, and had gone ahead and explored options of choosing a career as a nanny, something within her realms and ability.

A few days ago I was involved in a project dealing with intergenerational transmission of poverty and some of the dialogues in the movie brought back thoughts from work. The mother depicted in the movie was a daily wage earner, working in the informal sector. In India and many other lower and middle income countries, there is a huge section of population working in the informal sector and most survive on day to day earnings. Some don’t have enough to meet their daily needs and most do not have anything to save for the future. And this brings in another worry of a huge population of elderly people resulting from the same informal sector, without any sort of retirement savings.

I strongly feel that every human has a right to dream a rosy future and somewhere when one is consumed with thoughts solely of how they/their family can survive the next day, life is not completely justified. There is some information from research and mostly from the field of economics that intergenerational poverty is transmitted from parent to children especially in those living below the poverty line (BPL). Somewhere, there is a little mismatch, since the huge middle class strata of India, which extends from those just above the poverty line to those doing very well, often times demonstrate examples of children capable of attaining their dreams through hard work and education loans and scholarships and being able to climb from one strata to that higher. This is somehow extremely difficult for the poorest of the poor (BPL), even though many of the schools have very similar opportunities for growth. Additional aspects such as health and nutrition have been implied to add to lower school attendance in children and the reasons for being unable to escape the poverty trap become complex with multiple compounding factors.

What has been seen to work to some extent is conditional cash transfers (CCT). And more evidence from research is needed in this area. Pilot projects where cash transfers were made to the BPL families, tagged with compulsory school attendance, or availing government immunization/health programmes were seen to effect family nutrition and quality of life in a positive manner. School attendance also improved due to better nutrition and health. This would probably be a mechanism to escape the poverty trap. However, much more needs to be done in a proper structured manner. Also the process for CCT needs to be efficient without involving too many intermediaries that can raise avenues for corruption or bureaucracy or both (one stop mobile money transfer has worked well in Kenya). Community cooperatives also work to some extent, however, a strong community engagement, community participatory action methods are needed to be explored.

I am often frustrated that researchers do not come together to build sustainable projects. Grants are mostly driven with motivation for a few publications, or a PhD degree or obtaining a faculty position. Sustainable projects can be made possible only by a multidisciplinary team and until researchers stop working in silos where an economist only works with another economist and a qualitative researcher only with their own folks, it will be very difficult to achieve anything meaningful on the ground. One can generate multiple models of why things are not working, but ground level realities require tangible practical solutions and most importantly, ones which are sustainable in minimum resource settings.

Picture acknowledgement- Asian Development Bank


Serendipity- life’s little secret!

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Last month I met a friend after 23 years. And surprisingly, we picked ourselves up from where we had left, so many eons ago. We were in touch infrequently though, through these years, maybe once a year wishing ourselves a Happy New Year, and sometimes once in 3 years congratulating over a new job or a new turn in life. It was great to finally meet, and although we did not remember as many details of our past lives together, nor had a lot to discuss about what had happened in between, I felt at peace, from an inner knowing that someone’s there, and will always care. We were happy to be in the present, content both while talking, and the silence in between.

I have met other friends after a long gap and unfortunately did not connect with them in this way. Perhaps, life had taken us too far away from each other. I am not sure if animals have similar social behaviours and raise an eyebrow and go ‘How you doin?’ when they meet each other after a long gap. I am sure dogs can recognize people, mine did, when I was in and out of home during my education and would visit back once a year. I remember one winter morning, when I was several continents away, receiving the dreaded phone call about Pluto being no more. I had been expecting it since he was sick and ailing for some time. But the finality did hurt. Strangely, that night when I was alone in the apartment, tired and asleep, I was awaken by a sensation of something wet over my feet, very similar to when Pluto used to lick my feet at home when he needed me to wake up and attend to him.

As the world shrinks, we keep meeting and re-meeting people. During my stay in New York, I used to often see a person every morning, on my way to work. He would take an opposite route and we would meet at cross roads and smile courteously. To my amazement, when I relocated to India, he was sitting in my new office, as my colleague and with whom I had a good time working for the next few years. I had never imagined we would be in a similar profession and be colleagues in the same office!  What are the odds of that! Serendipity! One of life’s beautiful aspects.

Little things in life bring big surprises. Like when your brain tells you that you have devoured all the chocolates you left in a jar, but never the less, your hopeful fingers contact one final little dark delectable, sticking in one corner, away from the limelight, just so you can pick it up and be happy all over again!

At this time of the year, I wish everyone the same happiness, it is Christmas time after all….of warm glowing lights and hot cup of whatever your favorite beverage is. And in this time of demonetization, I am sure Santa has a debit card from the Bank of the North Pole!

Warm wishes everyone!

The Man-the Legend

13amitabh-bachchan3   bachchandeewaar  feat

I was watching the movie ‘Pink’ the other evening, and yet again, was wowed by Mr Bachchan’s effortless performance (though I must thank all actors of this movie for doing justice to their roles, however small). Although, the movie itself was more predictable and stuck to its mainstream roots, I enjoyed watching it, especially because after years, I could finally watch a full length uninterrupted movie on the television. Usually, the only thing running on the box now days is something Barbie or Doremon or Frozen. Though I like animations and Ratatouille, How to train your dragon, Bugs life are highly watchable, it is quite empowering to claim the TV remote for one evening and be its master. It did take some bartering with the remote’s seven year old owner, a few princess stickers, a bowl of her favorite ramen noodles and a promise that this Diwali, it would be alright to wear an electric magenta nail colour (eesh….absolutely petrificious!) but finally, the remote was mine.

To many belonging to my generation in India, we have grown old with AB’s movies being a part of our lives. He’s been an omnipresent force at every step of our growth.

I remember when I was in middle school, my mother meeting me halfway on my way back home from school, and us going together for early evening shows of Mr Bachchan’s films. My mother did introduce me to his movies and in those days, she was this energetic, vivacious woman full of life, running around the house and neighborhood, raising me. For most of my adult life, however, my mother has been confined to the walls of home, fighting her rheumatoid arthritis and leading a life of quite seclusion. Hence, the time we spent together laughing at the movies, at the wonderful, sometime witty and sometimes downright crass dialogues of ABs movies are very dear to me. These were the times, when I watched with joy, the sense of freedom and control my mother possessed. I hope I bond with my own daughter, the same way, and am able to make happy memories with her.

Mr Bachchan’s life in itself is very inspiring. It is true that when the mighty fall, they fall hard and the climb back to the top is steeper, second time. But he shows us that it is possible to collect oneself and reach an even higher peak through hard work, diligence and sheer strategic thinking. I do not think there is any role that he cannot portray. I often compare him with Robbin Williams and Kevin Spacey, although AB has embodied far greater versatile roles than either of the others.  His ability at seamlessly moving around from one accent/dialect to the other and his command over both Hindi and English is excellent. Paired with it is his sense of humility. Though we may be different in our private and professional lives, AB comes across as someone, who is aware of how a common man leads his life in modern day India, as much as someone who is higher up and makes decisions for the country and respects both as is very evident from his shows and interviews.

What impresses me most about him is his ability to change with the times. He has not only fit into the years well, but has contributed to every era he has been around. He influences everyone he works with, most of his costars respect him and those much younger look upto him as an idol to emulate, both in the acting profession and as a dignified public figure. His leadership skills, his talent and his life is a lesson for everyone.

It is true that many with talent, do not obtain opportunities to shine, but only a few utilize life’s opportunities and are able to maintain their hold on being at the top for more or less their entire lives.

Happy festival season!

Picture Acknowledgements:

Youthconnect, filmconnect and Rediff


Its Autumn!

Autumn is my favorite season. Not only does the temperature get to an optimum level, but people are more outdoorsy, enjoying the cooler evenings and breathing a crisp air and there is still time, till things get cold and grey and the air is heavy with particulates.

Nature goes through a transformation, more evident if you live in the hills in the tropics or in the Northern hemisphere. I read somewhere that fall shows us letting go is a part of life and nature makes it a colorful farewell while making space to usher in new happiness of the spring. I think winter is a period of contemplation, between the old and the new, necessary to absorb your learnings from the past while planning the next course of action. maple-leaf

Autumn is also the time for Durga Puja, when once a year, the Goddess Durga arrives at the mortal world, to be pampered by her worldly children. Bengalis all over the world celebrate this festival with great joy and fervor.

I have very fond memories of the Puja from childhood. Growing up in the southern part of India and studying in a school for children of predominantly defense personnel, I had a mix of friends from all across the country, from Jammu and Kashmir in the North, to Assam in the East, to children belonging to Rajasthan in the West and everyone from the South. Although my school was a mini India, my home was in a locality mainly inhabited by the Bengali community. This enabled me to absorb a little of my Bengali heritage, although, I can never compete with brethrens raised in Bengal, on any topic relating to Bengali culture, nor on Tagore and certainly never on politics and its repercussions on postcolonial Bengal.

durga-puja-photo-gallery-at-belur-math-on-saptami-2012-108During my school days, for the five main days of Puja, children performed cultural programmes every evening. SB, our community mentor would recruit us early, during the school summer vacation itself and start coaching us for these programmes in October. I am yet to come across someone as versatile as SB, having a day job as a Statistician in a National Research Center, SB was immensely talented in playing the flute and equally gifted in writing scripts for plays and musicals. After coming home from school, we used to rush to SBs house for the rehearsals. He helped us build camaraderie and made my childhood so much fun. For one hour of practice, SB gave us each a lemon candy, entirely from his own funds.

One year, when I was not serious about the practice and was constantly giggling over a particularly funny script, SB not only gave me an earful, but also told one of my friends to start laughing every time I had to speak my lines, so that I ‘get a feel of the real audience’. I was so annoyed after that, not only at SB, but more at my friend for taking it all so seriously and laughing like a hyena, every time I began my lines!

In later years, SB was upset with me for not choosing performing arts as a professional career and giving in to societal pressure or the ‘fad’ prevalent those days to choose subjects that promised a more secure future. Even though I may not have lived upto SBs hopes for me, I am truly grateful for him being a part of my childhood. He had not only opened his heart to all of us, but his home as well, with a wonderfully well stocked library and his own children too, who are good friends even today.

Pujas always bring back happy memories for me, and the realization that community mentors are so important for children. I wish every child has a SB in their life, to cheer them up and help them enjoy their childhood…..serious things can wait….for now, just live and laugh.


Pic 1: Fallfoliagerentals

Pic 2: Ramakrishna Mission Belur Math Durga Puja

Mentorship- why should we care?

“In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care.  You must care.  You don’t have to know how many square miles are in Idaho, you don’t need to know what is the chemical makeup of chemistry, or of blood or water. Know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with- Maya Angelou”

A bit of history-

It was in Homer’s Odyssey that the word Mentor first came up. Odyssey describes the ten year journey that the protagonist, Odysseus takes to reach home after the Trojan War. Before leaving home, Odysseus had requested Mentor, an older and wiser man to be in charge of his young son Telemachus. Additionally, the mentorship relationship is depicted once more in Odyssey, when understanding that Telemachus had begun to trust Mentor as a guide and trusted adviser, the goddess of wisdom and inspiration, Athena, disguises herself as Mentor and advises Telemachus to keep his focus on finding his father, instead of confusing himself with day to day trivialities of life.

Since mentorship is defined by the involvement of the mentor in the overall growth of the mentee, the word ‘Mentor’ was adopted by the English language from Odyssey at a later time, to signify the more accomplished and wiser, provider of advise in this unique but important relationship.

Why is it important?

  • Mentoring propels the mentor towards becoming a leader of their pack. No matter what a person leaves behind through their tangible accomplishments, people will always remember those who added value to their lives. A person with strong leadership qualities is oftentimes a good mentor.
  • It builds self worth and confidence in mentees and keeps them focused and aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Success of academic institutions, public or private organizations and all professional agencies depends on a mentally strong and driven workforce which can be achieved in one part, with mentorship.
  • Mentorship allows mentees to make informed choices in their personal and professional lives. They in turn make good mentors and inspire others.
  • Mentoring is especially relevant in our times, where the youth is emerging as a strong and powerful form, with a potential to change the course of our civilization, for the better or the worse.

What makes a balanced mentor-mentee relationship?

  • Mentor adopts the mentee– a mentor may have to give up their pride and acknowledge that their mentees are smarter than them. History as evidence, when GH Hardy, a mathematics stalwart, recognized the capability of a young self taught Ramanujan, instead of shunning him for fear of being overshadowed, took him under his wing and introduced him to the world. Geographical barriers, differences in upbringing, culture, and nationalities did not come in between the mentor and mentee. Hardy was himself an accomplished scientist but projected Ramanujan for the brilliance he deserved.
  • Mentor may not be from same field as the mentee but shares a common goal– A mentor and a mentee may not share the same threads of a common background and may not even agree on similar ideologies. For instance Gopal Krishna Gokhale, a revered Indian political leader who was trained to be analytical in his political views, took to mentoring and educating a young Sarojini Naidu in national politics. Naidu’s hopeful and poetic views of India’s future were farther from Gokhale’s astute thought process and vision. However, they still bonded because, although their means were different, they were united in their goal of bringing about major social reforms in India.
  • Mentee can and should seek out a mentor– Oftentimes; life may not bring your mentor in close proximity to your surroundings. It is then, important to seek out your mentor. In this case, common interests do help to bond. For instance, SN Bose, whose name is immortalized with the Boson particles, proactively approached Einstein and sent him his manuscript to review and publish. Good mentors always find time to provide advice. Einstein not only reviewed the manuscript and acknowledged its uniqueness; he took time to translate it into German and helped publish Bose’s seminal paper in a renowned German scientific journal. In quantum mechanics, particles that follow the Bose-Einstein statistics are known as Bosons.
  • Mentor helps to build a mentee’s professional focus and career– The mentor understands how to focus the mentee by firstly advising them on career goals after mutual discussions and then helping them build a road map to reach that goal. Sometimes, the mentor goes beyond and provides the mentee opportunities that can hasten the journey process towards achieving the career goal. CV Raman, a Physics Nobel Prize winner has had mentored an illustrious fleet of bright mentees who have gone on to contribute greatly in their fields. I would like to mention GN Ramachandran here, not only because he was one amongst the most promising of Raman’s mentees, but also since Raman recommended Ramachandran for possible career opportunities that could enable him to shine professionally in a very short time. No doubt Ramachandran was brilliant on his own, those in structural biology know about GNRs triple helix model for collagen and equally important Ramachandran Plot that helps understand peptide structure, but Raman’s mentorship helped him stay on the path leading to major contributions. Ramachandran was equally famous for his fluctuating temperament, however, a mentor has a responsibility to keep their mentees focused on their passion and perhaps Raman did just that. Ramachandran established the Molecular Biophysics Unit at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, one of the best biophysics division in India, today.
  • There is and should be no gender bias in selecting a mentor (any form of bias actually!)– Though it has been tough to find women mentors or mentees from India over internet (Sigh!), a mentee should approach anyone from whom they can learn about bettering their lives, irrespective of gender and any classifications that humans have created to divide each other. One example that was prominent was of Manoranjan Byapari and his delightful life story. Born in a poor household, Byapari did not have opportunities that many of us take for granted, example, a school education. However, he was driven to make a difference to his circumstances. While in prison, he taught himself to read, and having ‘discovered’ stories highlighting the plight of the poor from Bengal and topics dear to his heart like social reforms, written by an accomplished Bengali author Mahasweta Devi, suddenly developed an insatiable appetite for reading. Byapari got himself a job as a rickshaw puller and continued to read as much as he could. One day while driving a lady, he asked her the meaning of a word from a book he was struggling to understand. She explained him the meaning and he thanked her by showing her the book he was reading. It was Agnigarbha, a short story collection by Mahasweta Devi. While paying him for the ride, the woman asked Byapari if he would write something for her journal. Byapari agreed and asked her to give her contact details. The lady scribbled her name on a piece of paper ‘Mahasweta Devi’. Byapari’s life changed for the better after coming in contact with the seasoned author. Byapari has written 10 books and 100 essays till now and has been honored for his contribution to Bengali literature especially in depicting the struggles of Dalits in Bengal.

 Agencies building mentorship programs in India, outside of educational institutions and entrepreneurial start ups:



  2. Wikipedia

Anja and Hope

We are surrounded by it. No matter what steps we have taken, nationally, internationally, through government or through not for profit sectors, there has been no escape from it, nor will be for the next decade to come. Poverty will remain, so will the hunger in the emaciated bellies and eyes of little children and mothers will continue to weep, watching their conditions or abandon them out of sheer desperation and frustration of not being able to keep their promise to the little ones.


This picture is of a two year old Nigerian boy, abandoned by his family and of Anja Loven, a care worker. I am sure her profession would have presented her with many similar occasions to come in contact with undernourished and emaciated children. However, something about this particular boy was different. It’s the sixth sense we all have, of knowing that with a little care, sometimes, the cycle of life can be reversed.

Anja named him Hope, and she and her colleagues took care of the boy, sent him to a medical facility and helped him heal. Today Hope is better. One cannot distinguish him from other children his age (Pic 2).  It just took proper medical care and kind attention to reverse the child’s state within months. Anja’s plea over internet also allowed for 1 million USD in donations to take care of Hope’s expensive medical bills.

Instead of asking why there’s not enough being done for the many other little ones who need all our support, I would state that this beautiful story shows that one person can make a difference in one more person’s life. That’s all it takes. We don’t have to save the world, we can leave that to the others. What we can do is to help just one more life. Be it a human, a bird, a tree or an animal.


We do not have to provide monetary assistance always. A few students at my friend’s university campus got together to teach children of lesser salaried staff, during their free time. All it takes is time and a will to do something. The important thing is to make the effort. I am encouraged to see that the next generation of youngsters are immensely motivated and creative and moreover aware of their environment. They can design what’s best for the future of our country.

If we really cannot do much by ourselves, we should at least try and encourage those who are making a difference.



Of Mental Wellbeing

“Your job is not to judge.

Your job is not to figure out if someone deserves something.

Your job is to lift the fallen, to restore the broken,

And to heal the hurting.”

-Joel Osteen

I remember a college trip to Srisailam waterfalls. The monsoons had just passed and our group of jolly youngsters was greeted by the gorgeous, abundant gurgling falls. But perhaps what is etched in our memories even today, is a group of patients from a local mental health rehabilitation center, mostly elderly women, all squatting together, their legs chained and bound firmly, as though they would just spread their arms and fly, if freed. Their condition stopped us in our tracks. We could not appreciate the natural wealth posing a distorted, contrasting picture behind the queue of suffering, helpless people in need and most importantly, a humane understanding.

I hope that we have come a long way from those days; however, I am certain that there is a longer way to proceed before we even start to manage mental well-being in our households, in our community; and understand the differences in the wide spectrum that constitutes mental health.

A review of the national report on Accidental Deaths and Suicides in India 2014 shows that 17% of suicides in the world occur in India. The biggest cause of suicide is illness and prolonged illness (aka health related issues). Probable reasons being, medical expenses, hospital expenses, lack of proper hospice care, societal/family alienation, compounded with physical inability at meeting basic day to day self care needs. How immensely sad it is for all of us that our own who are already suffering due to physical illnesses have to additionally undergo insurmountable mental stress.

A country of 1.25 billion people, of whom 83% are mentally and physically strong enough not to commit suicide, cannot take care of 17% of population who cross the bridge and push themselves to end their lives.

The World Mental Health Day will be celebrated on October 10. India has slowly begun to acknowledge that mental health as a key to wellbeing. We are slowly understanding the differences in mental health, mental health conditions, disorders and how these can be treated and overcome. We are also arriving at the knowing that a positive environment can build a positive life. Our schools and our offices are encouraging mental wellness programmes.  However, our homes, our communities are not doing enough. ‘Mental health begins with me’ is aptly the first mantra to mental wellness. Though unlike physical discomfort, which is easily sensed by an individual, mental discomfort is seldom acknowledged by our own self. Although with a strong family, community and social network, this can be easily identified and alleviated at very initial stages.

Families are the first line of social network and it is easy to identify sudden changes in behavior of family members. The key is to invest time in building an open communication channel with family members. In our race to meet deadlines, to showcase ourselves in the eyes of those we think are important, we turn our back on our most important allies, our silent supporters, our parents and our children. There is great power in observation, but we must give our own that much time and commitment.

Additionally the stigma attached to the word ‘mental’ deters even acknowledging that there may be issues amongst family members. Is our social status of being a ‘perfect family’ so important that it overrides our intelligence in disregarding obvious changes in behavior and attitude which can lead to a far greater problem for our loved ones leading to irreversible changes in our lives? Coping with suicide death of a family member is an even greater challenge.

Fortunately, there is help. Several not for profit organizations are diligently involved in community awareness programmes (listed at the end along with other resources). Representatives are trained in identifying symptoms and more importantly, to discuss with members of a locality on how to identify signs and symptoms of mental distress in their families and providing the first line of care. If you live in a society housing complex, you could ask the managing officials to call the NGO representatives to deliver lectures. If you live in an independent house, you could request lectures through your local clubs. It is also important to get everyone to these meetings, including those who support our households on all levels and belong to every economic background.

Equally important is to be vigilant and empathic to those we interact with on a daily basis who are outside of our family. Sometimes, it helps to be a patient listener with the local grocer, the domestic help or even the lucky neighbor whom you get to see only on weekends. Going by success stories from all other public health areas in both research and implementation, it will be actions taken at the community level, by the community that would be sustainable in the long run. No external resource, aid, or team can bring about a substantial prolonged difference, unless we at individual level are aware and accountable for our own and those around us.

The Mental Health Care Bill that was passed in the Rajya Sabha recently, demonstrates the initial shift in our mind set by acknowledging attempted suicide as caused by extreme stress and disassociating it from being a criminal offence. The government and not for profit sectors can help us capacity build a manpower trained to facilitate mental health awareness at a household level. Our capable and ever smiling front line health workers (ASHAs and ANMs) are often burdened with multiple responsibilities, compounded with a measly incentivization process. While we strengthen our communities, national and international resources could be channeled to create a stronger health system management process by training a large team of health workers who are motivated to put in their efforts. A large trained mentally happy workforce can care for a larger population needing good quality care and service.

That mental wellness is a key to overall good health is evident from the scriptures that helped us grow through ages. The past does hold solutions to our future. How else would have Arjuna won the battle against the Kauravas, without the constant mental support provided by his most experienced charioteer?