Thursday, October 25, 2012

India 23: Three Remarkable Indian Women


I’d like to introduce you to three eminent Indian women I met last week, another run of good luck.  For meeting two of the three I am grateful to friends in Idaho. 

Rohini Godbole—High Energy Physics


For five years while at the State University of New York at Stony Brook my Idaho Falls friends Catherine and Debu Majumdar befriended Rohini Godbole, like Debu a science graduate from India.  Both were in high energy physics which later sent the Majumdars to the Idaho National Laboratory and Godbole back to India.  She is today one of her country’s leading scientist and a member of its Academy of Science.

I was lucky she had time for dinner at her home because she’s in particularly high demand as a lecturer after the discovery of the Higgs boson.  She sits on the advisory committee which sets the research agenda of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland which verified the particle’s existence.   (I told the guy who named it the “God Particle,” Leon Lederman, who has a house in Driggs, Idaho, but she was unimpressed.)

Interviewers consistently comment on Godbole energy for her size, which are in inverse proportion to one another.  She stands 4’ 8”.  High energy describes not only her field of study but her personality and opinion.  At dinner with us are a retired professor of ecology and a videographer with an interest in Indian agriculture, past and present.  When the subject turns to genetically engineered food it is Godbole who has the strongest opinion.  She is still livid that a scientist who vouched for the safety of GMO seeds for the Academy of Science had taken money from Monsanto.

Her success is remarkable in light of a report released in Washington this week saying that among the sciences, women have been most discriminated against in physics.

Dinner, prepared by Rohini’s visiting mother, is typical of Western Maharashtra, where everyone at the table is from and looks plain to a visitor’s eye.  But that rice with bits of green has been marinated, not cooked, and rocks with flavor.  Plain looking balls of something must be eaten slowly to savor everything that is there.  Something that looks like a large, doughy clove of garlic is sweetly rich with cardemon. 

To repeat something I’ve written before, how can there be so many tastes I’ve never tasted before? And I thought my taste buds were over the hill.  Rohini is serving a special bottle of French red which ends up mostly inside me. 

She lives on the grounds of the Indian Institute of Science, a campus so large and leafy that for comparisons I can only think of an intact Spanish Land grant in California, like Orange County’s Irvine Ranch.   She laments how the neighborhood around the campus has become so inhospitable she no longer rides her bike to buy groceries.  But when would she have found time?  She’s recently back from a month of lecturing in Vietnam and will be off in two days for Geneva. 

The Majumdar’s have been fondly remembered and we are both eager to see that Debu—now retired and turned to writing—gets his novel published.  We have such a good time that we’ve promised to have another meal together before I head home. Physics has not been mentioned.  Next time.

Jyoti Tanna—Each One Teach One

Last Sunday I have lunch at the home of Jyoti Tanna thanks to my friend and neighbor in Boise, Catherine Scott, with whom she has shared a friendship and been guests in each other’s homes over 25 years.   Set in the middle of Mumbai, Jyodi’s home is modest by American standards but well staffed, including a chauffeur who will show me the city later.  “In India we live like kings,” she says, “but in America we must live like beggars.”  Her husband ran a successful company that makes boilers and highway equipment.

Jyoti is the founder and still responsible for an educational program called Each One Teach One.  She started out helping five students who were likely to fail in school.  Eighteen years later the organization she built supports 10,000 students at seven schools in Mumbai and two in the villages.  We watch a video she commissioned a couple years ago I’ve never seen a better one.

I visited an Each One Teach One School in Bangalore last week and 45 of its l0th Form students will come to Vindhya next week.  I tell the kids this is India’s time; that girls can now do anything they put their mind; to and that by learning a second language--English--they have expanded their brain capacity in a way that single-language speakers have not. 

 EOTO does not run schools itself, although its dozen patrons in Bangalore have raised large amounts of money and material such as computers for two private schools that receive partial government support.  Rather it provides out-of-classroom education, experiences, encouragement and life-coaching that can make the critical difference.  EOTO picks up the cost of uniforms, books, libraries and transportation and pays for the next step after l0th Form, which is usually a one or two year course in a profession, by which time the student is 18.

The genius of EOTO is what its name tells us:  students from upper grades tutor students in lower grades.  In similar fashion, those who have graduated continue to serve as tutors or adopt students financially, as I promise to do.   

“Jyoti is the most remarkable person I’ve known in my life,” says Catherine Scott and what is remarkable to me is how un-self important she is, seeing to it that I am okay while in Mumbai (which anyone who lived here before the politically-correct name change still calls Bombay, which has a better ring to it but which, as a foreigner, I avoid.)   Her driver picks me up at my hotel and spends four hours taking me to the museum and sites that have captivated visitors from early days.  (See an upcoming post called Mumbai III)  She lends me a camera.  She calls twice to see if all is well.  It is.

Veena Mankar--Swadhaar


Mankar is a banker and has a good banker’s demeanor, rectitude, credibility and attention to the facts.  Her career led her through commercial real estate banking and banking in the Middle East and to founding a firm which pioneered “factoring” in Mumbai—the sale of one company’s accounts receivable to provide ready credit.  She does not have an Idaho connection, poor thing.

We meet in her modest office at Swadhaar, a financial organization providing “reliable, efficient financial services to the vulnerable urban poor."  She started it and ACCION  invested in it. I’m in Mumbai to video a  story about a loan to one of her clients.  She too started small six years ago with pilot projects.  She twice thought they wouldn’t prove out but ACCION’s advice was that it would work if she kept going.  Today Swadhaar has 85,000 loans in the cities of two states and a staff of 400. 

The acuity of her mind and her directness leads me to believe what she says which is that microfinance cannot lead people out of poverty without more emphasis on the quality of individual, direct loans, in larger amounts.  Poverty, I would add, is alleviated most immediately by the conditioned, direct payments such as the Bolsa Familia program in Brazil and Oportunidades in Mexico; by lift--all--boats; economic development as in China; and through education and training.

She is determined to build Swadhaar’s loan portfolio to 150,000 in fairly short order and launch an individual loan program of a kind not encouraged now under Indian regulations.  She will also push hard for electronic money transfer for her clients, thereby reducing her costs and enabling the poor to save, buy health and medical insurance and participate in the market of the future like everyone else.

I would expect her to succeed. 







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