Monday, 9 May 2011

Escape to the mountains

With the temperature in Delhi now over 40c we'd always planned to run to the hills when it got too hot. Both north east and north west India have fabulous scenery but we opted for the north east as we wanted to experience the influences of Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal in an isolated state called Sikkim.

Coming from the comparitive flatlands of Norfolk, we tend to excited over any land that rises higher than a farmer on a Massey Ferguson. So our breath was taken away by the stunning views of the mountains as well as the clean and cool air.

Driven skilfully on narrow mountainous roads by our local guide we've just returned from a beautiful week exploring Sikkim.The thumb-shaped state is characterized by wholly mountainous terrain. Almost the entire state is hilly, with an elevation ranging from 280 metres (920 ft) to 8,585 metres (28,000 ft) at Kanchenjunga - the third highest peak.

We visted Tibean Budism monastries - with their numerous fluttering prayer flags - feeling that really the prayers didn't have far to go to reach heaven! We visited small towns villages, with their houses set into the mountains and their village livestock in pens. We stayed in a selection of accomodation - a farm homestay - with excellent home cooking (but a rather large spider in the bathroom!) and larger hotels built in locations for their vista views. We arrived in Darjeeling for 2 nights- and went tea tasting (we are now experts in the 1st and 2nd flushes!!) and explored this bustling town. To Daniel's delight we went on the Toy Train - an old steam train which winds its way through the streets of Darjeeling and the hills. Our final stop was Glenburn Tea Plantation, for a day & night of secluded luxury!

Friday, 29 April 2011

We're off........

This blog post will be the last for a few weeks as we are heading off for a week into the far corner of north east India.

This is our first proper holiday for a while and we’d originally planned to go to the north-east and north-west on separate holidays…oh well!

If we have the chance, we’ll post some pictures of our trip into the Himalayas as we escape the Delhi heat (now above 40c) and take in the clean mountain air.
We fly out of Delhi on Monday to go to Gangtok. From there we’ll meander  through Sikkim – India’s smallest state which is slightly larger than the size as Norfolk but with a slightly smaller population. Our week long trip takes in Monasteries, learnings on Tibetology, a tea plantation in Darjeeling, and seeing the sun rise over Everest. We’ll be staying in a mix of ‘home-stays’ and hotels…including the Glenburn Tea Estate, where we’ll be pretending to live the life of a Tea Plantation Manager.

We fly back to Delhi the following Sunday before departing on the Monday back to England – with thanks to Mr B and Virgin for allowing us to double extra baggage allowance!

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Contrasts, Conundrums, Contradications

It's often been said that India is a country full of contrasts and contradictions. I'm not sure that there are really any more than any other Really Big Country and it maybe just that it's a combination of a different environment and taking life slower than usual that there's more to observe. So here are my top 5:

At number 5 - Cricket pitches
Cricket lovers will know that India have the best team in the world - and have had the best team for some years. They also have the world's best batsman - the legendary Sachin Tendulkar. So you might think that they have some great cricket facilities - or hoardes of cricket coaches - or millions of Rupees supporting the stream of world class players (I won't mention 'school sports partnerships'!)??

In fact it's none of the above. Instead it appears that every Indian boy just aspires to play for the national team and any piece of spare ground will serve the purpose well as a cricket pitch.

Just around the corner from my office is a case in point. By day, the cows and water buffalo stand and field - unaware that they've taken up a position at 2nd slip or silly mid-off.

At number 4 - Roads and speed humps
Many of Delhi's roads aren't in the best of shape, perhaps that's understandable given the weight of traffic. But really, there's no need to then place the harshest of harsh speed humps inserted indiscriminantly on these pot-holed strewn roads.

At number 3 - The Delhi Metro
Without doubt, all the people we've met in India are among the most helpful, supportive, thoughtful and caring people in the world. Nothing is too much trouble.

And then something happens to them when they enter the Metro system that makes them become the some of the most thoughtless, aggressive and uncaring people. Now I've been at busy train stations in the rush hour, including Shinjuku in Tokyo (the world's busiest), and nothing comes close to the terrifying prospect of having to exit a Metro train at Rajiv Chowk in the rush hour.

Although security guards are positioned at each of the doors as the train stops, they often stand helpless as what was a 'queue' (I use the term lightly) on the platform just a few moments previously, becomes a rowdy mass all desperate to board the train before others have disembarked.

             File picture of commuters boarding the Metro at Rajiov Chowk Station in Delhi. Photo: V. V. Krishnan

I could perhaps understand this if the trains were infrequent or unreliable but they aren't. The system is one of the best in the world - it's clean, punctual, cheap and reliable!

At number 2 - Pavement DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) compliancy 
I think the Delhi authorities are making good strides to improve accessability for persons with disabilities. For example, the Metro is fully compliant with the Indian equivalent of DDA. A lot of work has also been undertaken on the quality of the pavements. This includes textured paving for the visually impaired. Despite being in the Far East, this type of paving is in use on all our streets. The only issue is in the execution of the concept........


At number 1 - World Health Organisation vs Slum vs open sewer
On Delhi's ring road sits the Southern Asian headquarters of the WHO (The people who are the United Nations public health arm.....monitoring disease outbreaks and assessing the
performance of health systems around the globe).

Running adjacent behind the offices of WHO is an open sewer, which seperates that organisation from one of Delhi's slums.

Now I can't work out if the WHO use it as a daily reminder of their purpose or whether they've even noticed it....

Either way, something's not quite right.

Monday, 25 April 2011

So what have we been doing.....part 2

As Katie has said, a lot has been written in this blog about what we’ve been up to without too much of a mention about the focus of what we’ve been spending most of our time on!

Firstly, a bit about AFA – its history and philosophy:

AFA’s founder and Director, Merry Barua, started the autism movement in India as she was driven by the need for a diagnosis for her autistic son at a time when a lack of information and misconceptions about the disorder abounded. The focus for AFA is on "spreading the word" and enabling families to empower themselves. This has led to a growth in services and the formation of empowered parent groups, and in particular of parent-driven services. AFA is infused with a vision of an inclusive society that looks not merely at individuals with social and communication challenges but at all those who do not fit into society’s judgmental 'norms'.

In the 20 years since its creation, AFA has progressed from small beginnings. Many of the people working at AFA are volunteers, drawn together by a common thread and now the National Centre for Autism has become viewed as the central agency in India for the disorder. AFA’s work now extends to supporting organisations from across southern Asia, bringing together parents, professionals and trainers, while its website maps everything from legal updates to new books on the subject and information on local support groups. Its success has been in creating awareness amongst families and professionals. Consequently, this led to an increased need and demand for services and support, and so far, AFA has:

       Trained over 4000 persons
       Facilitated the startup of Parent organisations
       Facilitated the startup of schools across the sub-continent
       Brought autism into the mainstream
       Been recognised as a national centre of excellence

AFA’s focus is on empowering parents and has a philosophy of trying to change the feeling that their life is a ‘tragedy’ because of their child’ autism. The organisation works to help parents accept their children as human beings who are different, and not as a ‘problem’. Of course, parents cannot develop a positive attitude overnight but AFA’s philosophy is that they can work towards accepting their child with different ability rather than a disability, and for who they are, rather than wanting their child to be the way they would prefer them to be.

So what have I been up to? The first few weeks in my role as an organisation development advisor were about getting a better understanding of AFA; its work with people with autism, how it operates as an organisation and most importantly, the people that make it happen – the staff. After putting together a project plan (for the year ahead!), I was planning to work on human resources, management information systems, financial management and business processes.

However, as you will know, our time has been cut short and so I’ve focussed on the human resource issues. After carrying out an update of the personnel policies and procedures, I created a pc based induction programme. As there isn’t someone solely responsible for HR, I’ve produced the programme so that it can usedby the inductee with the minimum supervisory of input. My other main piece of HR work was to create job descriptions for all the roles. This required a couple of workshops with the staff to get their input into the process – and as part of this I’ve created a knowledge and skills framework for AFA which has identified the skill competencies required for the organisation now and into the future. And then tied it all together into a new performance management system!

Inbetween working on the above, I’ve put together some funding bids to some wealthy organisations and created an outline business plan for a new residential project AFA will soon be building.

Now that I’m in my final few days at AFA, I’m tidying up any loose ends before clearing my desk and saying farewell on Friday.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

So what have we been doing ……

Our blog has talked a lot about the places we have visited and our observations of India, but not much about what we have actually been doing with our organisations so……..
As mentioned in previous posts, I have been working with an NGO called Manovikas Charitable Society.
Manovikas runs a small special school, for children below the age of 14 with disabilities, with the aim of integrating them into mainstream schools. It’s current focus is developing education for students with developmental disabilities (an all-encompassing term in India for people with learning difficulties, autism, cerebral palsy) post 17 which will lead to employment in an mainstream environment. There are currently sporadic “vocational workshop” employment opportunities, however the Director of Manovikas has recognised that many people with developmental disabilities do not require sheltered employment, just specific training for mainstream workplace.
When I arrived outline programmes had been developed and Manovikas has just gain recognition as a Community College, of the Indira Ghandi National Open University – IGNOU, (the equivalent to the Open University in the UK) – meaning it could deliver courses for which students would be awarded a qualification from  IGNOU. My first task was to amend and develop the programmes in order to fit with IGNOU’s requirements.  We have developed 5 programmes, the teaching for which is a minimum of six-months but can be longer, depending on the student’s requirements. The five programmes are Personal Management – ensuring students have the underlying skills necessary for employment such as, travel skills, money management, interpersonal skills etc. The four other programmes are then Retail Assistant, Basic Business, Hospitality Training and Office Attendant – all of which include social communication and workplace readiness units and then specific units to their areas.
 At the end of the taught programme students will be found an internship placement, with a local company (we have just had a cohort of students in local restaurants etc.) and will then be provided assistance and support to find an maintain a job. The aim being that the programmes will enable the students to have long term, independent employment .                                                                    
I’ve been involved in writing the outline of all the programmes and summarising what the content of each unit will be and how this can be taught to students with learning difficulties.
In addition to the programmes for students with developmental disabilities Manovikas also run IGNOU courses for those working with people with disabilities. Three of these of been newly developed and one of them is “Occupational Therapy perspective to rehabilitation for children”. This course is aimed at teachers and carers for whom it would be useful for them to have an understanding of OT and strategies for them to incorporate into their work. I am currently trying desperately to finish writing the sessions and complete the presentations for this. It has been a really good exercise in remembering what OT really is and why I like being an OT!
In addition to these major pieces of work I have also completed a few business proposals, for additional funding and service development. The latest being a proposal to identify partner organisations across India, who would be supported to obtain Community College Status from IGNOU so that they can also run our five programmes for students with developmental disabilities. This afternoon I'm undertaking a workshop for the staff about Sensory Processing Disorder, which will hopefully go OK........
I'll leave Daniel to explain what he's been up to. 

Monday, 18 April 2011

A Little Treat

Now that our time in Delhi has been shortened somewhat, we are trying to ensure that we have visited all the places we especially wanted to. It was particular reassuring, when looking through our guide book the other evening, that we had visited the places described and a number of others!
One place that was still left on our (or my!) list to visit was to go and have Afternoon Tea at the Imperial Hotel. It is described at Delhi’s “classiest hotel” and is a 1933 Art Deco building, in centre if Delhi, it is an oasis. It is renowned for its Afternoon Tea .
We arrived at about 2pm, only to be told that tea wasn’t served until 3pm, but we were welcome to wait. So we took advantage of their air conditioning, comfortable settees and newspapers (well it would have been rude not too) for our “enforced” wait.
At 3.00 we retired to the Atrium, where we both choose our own preferences for tea ……

It was delicious – sandwiches, cakes and scone, with English Breakfast tea (with no sugar!) and no spice in sight!!!

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Election time

Just as in the UK, the world’s largest democracy is also gearing up for the state elections. But compared to my experiences at home and applying the usual conventions, it is a rather curious democracy…..
Firstly, socialism is written into the nation’s constitution but each party and state has its own take on what that actually means in practice. For example, in West Bengal there's a selection of Marxist/Communist/Socialist parties to choose from, each with a slightly different offer from the left-wing political spectrum. Meanwhile, and despite the constitutional necessities, the country’s Government actually embraces a form of free market Capitalism! (And it’s been that way since the current Prime Minister was the Finance Minister in the early 1990s when India was nearly bankrupt and could no longer depend on the Soviet Union for support).
Secondly, the election posters are somewhat more in-your-face than the rather comparatively more discrete A5 poster boards that are used in the UK – they tend to be 10’ x 20’ advertising hoardings or larger and where the face is the most prominent feature - and usually there seems to be a sort of sub-competition over who has the darkest glasses or largest moustache!

Thirdly, the bribes. Whereas in the UK, there are very clear rules about inducing voters and those rules are taken very seriously, here it is considered almost rude not to give some gift in return for your vote. So there is a great selection of gifts on offer: kettles, bikes, toasters and microwave ovens, etc to tempt voters to get their support. But in an attempt to overcome the law against gift giving, a Party in Tamil Nadu seems to have devised a new strategy to bribe voters and hoodwink the ever watchful eyes of the Election Commission. Voters there are being ‘showered’ with plastic tokens of various colours which can be exchanged in select shops for gifts and household articles. “We have seized several tokens from various places. The colours indicate the value of the tokens which range from Rs500 to Rs5,000,” the new district collector said.

And finally there’s the ruling political dynasty. The largest and most successful party, Congress, isn’t a meritocracy but selection is by birth. The Party has been led by Nehru….and then his daughter, Indira…….and then her son, Rajiv…….and then his wife, Sonia……and next will be their son, Rahul.