A Few Good Men (at the Wharton India Economic Forum)

I have often wondered what success is. Like many others, I have also thought about what matters most in life. This event brought the opportunity to interact with some very interesting and inspirational people.

We were at the desk for AID – Association for India’s Development. Speaking on one of the panels was Ravi Kuchimanchi, the founder of AID. For those who do not know, the tale of the film `Swadesh` is inspired by the story of Ravi Kuchimanchi and Aravinda Pillalamarri, the NRI couple. They returned to India and developed the pedal power generator to light remote, off-the-grid village schools. Ravi graduated from UMD with a PhD in Physics, produced significant research publications, and is now working at the grassroots with India’s poor in the villages. After speaking on the panel, he stood with us on the table, chatted about the daily struggles of rural India. How almost every woman spends hours collecting wood and straw, inhaling the smoke from burning it… all to cook a pot of rice! One of the things Ravi was excited about was a “haybox” they had made, which made it possible for food to be kept warm for 8 hours, without having to burn any wood or straw to produce heat. The ‘fireless cooking‘ saves time and energy for so many women, for whom hot-boxes were a luxury they couldn’t afford. Ravi also showed us a video of the reaction of women when they first saw the ‘haybox’ work. ‘Thrilled’ would be an understatement of that sentiment. I must mention that what struck me was that their daily struggles are efforts to obtain hundreds of those things which we take for granted, as our ‘basic rights’. One man has to walk miles to sell a few vegetables so he can buy some kerosene for his family, while another clicks a key on the computer to pay an electricity bill. The inequalities in the world couldn’t be clearer for observation…

I also enjoyed listening to Vikram Akula, Shanta Devarajan, and Vinod Dham.

They keynote speaker was former president Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. Hearing Kalam brought to life the words I had once read in his book ‘Wings of Fire’. Dr. Kalam has an almost child-like quality to him – the sometimes-embarrassing honesty, the ability to smile and and laugh upon himself. When the audience stood up and clapped to welcome him, he came to the stage and started clapping himself. He spoke about leadership, the importance of values, and making India a developed nation by 2020. After his speech, someone in the audience pointed out to Dr. Kalam “Your vision to try and make India a developed nation is laudable. But even if we had your optimistic version of 10% annual growth, one must be mindful of the 40% population that lives on less than a dollar-a-day. The average income might rise to 3 dollars, but even that…. ” Dr. Kalam smiled, and then paused to say “First of all, this dollar is very different in different places. What one dollar can buy here, is much less than what a dollar can buy in my country. And yes, it is always possible be skeptical and have doubts. But goals are not achieved that way. Goals are attained with strong efforts and faith.” The audience burst in to an applause.

Do I have an answer to my questions? Not yet. Do I have some lessons and insights? Yes.