Brendan in India


I set up this blog as an alternative to clogging up the mail accounts of friends and family with frequent, lengthy emails documenting my adventures in India over the summer of 2005. In addition I felt it made sense to do this so that a wider number of people could get something out of my experiences if they so desired, because one of the objectives of the personal project I am engaged in is to give 'western' students interested in working in the international aid industry a different slant on what such work might entail.

Thursday, September 15, 2005


Arrived Heathrow 8pm 14th September.

Because I had been ill in Pune I finally decided it was time to stop suffering in India and changed my return flight from 21 September to the 14th. So now back in London. I'm at home, doing all the form-filling necessary to start my Masters course on the 26th. It's pretty boring, but such a relief after all the hassle of being an outsider in India. I went to the supermarket and found myself enjoying a totally mundane conversation with the guy at the checkout - because I was able to speak to him, because we both understood the same language. By the last week in India this was what I was hating most, the fact that the most basic tasks like using a payphone became impossibly difficult because of the language barrier. I lost my cool and shouted at a woman running a payphone shop, because she cut off my call as I was talking. "Why did you do that?" I asked, and she could only answer in Marathi; "WHY DID YOU DO THAT?" I shouted, and more Marathi followed. And then I apologised; but I apologised in English and she wouldn't have understood anyway. It was at that point that I thought, I've been in this country too long, I need to go home.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Pune, Fever, Political Correctness

(This entry is mainly aimed at the category of ‘concerned relatives’).

Left Mumbai on Friday 2 September, finally well enough to travel and ready to leave the chaotic city. Travelled to Pune by bus. Met Anisha, a coursemate from Warwick, on Friday, went sightseeing with one of S’s friends on Saturday, then S joined me in Pune and we met up with her brother (who studies at the University of Pune) for dinner. Around about this time, for no particular reason at all, I got a fever, so Sunday, Monday and today I rested and did very little. S has gone back to Mumbai and I am staying with her brother in his university hostel. I still have a mild fever; a doctor here said it is just influenza, and also told me he’d seen me on television during the Mumbai floods (apparently I was wading through the water and people around were cheering and clapping; I don’t remember seeing a camera, but remember people laughing at me).

Because of my continuing ill health and generally not 100% physical condition, my current future gameplan is as follows (although it may change). I will stay in Pune until Thursday evening when I will return to Mumbai. Tomorrow is the festival of Ganesh Chaturthi (according to my Rough Guide, though people here call it different names because Ganesh has many names), big in Pune. Thursday I will visit MASUM. Friday I may visit the office of an NGO in Mumbai. Saturday until Tuesday or Wednesday next week I will spend on a short holiday with S. I will visit the CEHAT office to wrap things up on Thursday. On Friday 16th I will go to S’s friend’s marriage. Sunday 18th I will go to a Public Enquiry about the Mumbai flooding that Doctor G has invited me to. I will leave India on Monday 19 September, two days ahead of schedule, to give myself a better chance of regaining my good health and physical wellbeing for the start of term on 26 September. This plan is provisional and I feel it may involve extending my stay in India too long to give a safe margin of time for recovery in England.

Anyway yes, I am eating well and healthily. I am treating my body with the utmost care and respect for the rest of time here, and forcing myself to become less ambitious in what I hope to achieve. At last I have realized how fragile it is. Is this what it means to become an adult, I wonder?

Oh, and political correctness. Just to prove that I’m still enjoying myself in India, a little story. I just ate 'afternoon tea' (about five dishes and three drinks) with S’s brother and friends at a restaurant down the road from the hostel. Between discussions of the value of Economics compared to the value of the other social sciences (they’re all studying for Economics Masters), of how Indian snacks are like American snacks (“but better. India good”), and of how all of them know more languages than I do, S’s brother challenged me to identify the origins of passing foreigners. After guessing a few but letting them pass without verification, he stopped a couple of young hairy student-types and asked if, as I suggested, they were English. They were. They smiled, confused, and turned to go on their way. I explained to them, straight-faced, that we were “playing spot the white people”. S’s brother and friends got decidedly embarrassed at this, but I explained (after the white kids had gone) that this may not have been politically correct but was just, given that everywhere I go in India people shout “Hello Jumbo! Where you from! How you like India?”, and I am sick of being a minority. I feel that this event convinced my companions that even if they attempt to rag me to death (as they have, very determinedly, been doing since my arrival at their hostel), I will not go down without a fight. Hopefully I will take some of them down with me, or at least wipe the cocky smiles off their faces. I mean, come on. Who honestly believes Economics is the best social science? Who are they trying to kid?

Thursday, August 25, 2005


After 11 days in hospital I'm now back into the non-A/C stinking filth of Bombay and liking it very much. I still don't quite know why I was in hospital, other than that a fever of 103F was deemed hospital-worthy; various tests showed malaria, no malaria, typhoid, no typhoid, gastroentritus and a urinary infection. While the nurses were lovely, all rather charmed by the cheerful white kid I think, the management are a bunch of feckin egits incapable of organising a piss-up in a brewery. Given that my insurance allowed me to take a single room at extortionate cost, I was somewhat disappointed by the service delivery. Every morning I would be woken up four times between 5.30am and breakfast at 8.30 by porters performing pointless tasks like bringing me tea at 6 (I'm sleeping, you schmuck, I don't need stimulants) and announcing the arrival of the Times of India in a loud voice at 7.30 (which I don't want to read anyway because every frontpage has headlines like 'Epidemics caused by flooding reach new levels in Bombay' and just makes me depressed). Trying to convince the staff I didn't want these cruel and unnecessary attacks on my sleeping patterns proved impossible; I told every nurse, the doctor, the hospital administrative staff, all of whom nodded solemnly and said it wouldn't happen again - every time I told them. So anyway I'm not bitter and certainly couldn't be classified as a whining, moaning, griping humbug who took every opportunity to complain. On the plus side I got to think deeply about my life, read Dubliners and the English Patient (making sure that anyone who came into my room saw the title on the cover, of course), and teach myself a couple of political songs by the Pogues on my new guitar.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

"You'll find out that it doesn't pay to work too fast"

India is not the first place in which I have come across this view among those in the NGO community. In the summer after my first year at university I 'worked' as a volunteer in the office of a small London-based NGO. The role of this NGO was to put together project proposals from information gathered by grass-roots NGOs and researchers in South Asia, and then apply for funding for these projects from national and international bodies, in particular DFID. (The impression I got during my month there was that a DFID funding package they had received for a project a couple of years previously was the sole reason they were still able to function: one of the 'jobs' I did in the office was open letters from benefactors, approximately five of which arrived in the week I was engaged in this, and of which the average donation was about ten pounds). In this office there were two paid employees and approximately 20 volunteers; by the time I left one of the paid employees had been made redundant due to the paucity of funds (and, I think, his incompetence).

What did the 20 volunteers do? My point is that the answer is: not a lot. We were of course split into teams covering marketing, projects, accounting, etc. But of the five or six project proposals being put together by the project team while I was there, the likelihood of even one receiving funding from DFID was small, when so many similarly organised UK-based NGOs were al chasing the same pot of money. And because of the gap between each round of proposal submissions, once a number of proposals had been put together there was very little else for the project team to do. And so the options for the volunteers was to either 'hurry up and wait', or to drag out the process of writing each proposal as long as possible - in order to continue the pretence that they, as individual interns, were adding something tangible to the output of the NGO.

In Mumbai I heard this same perspective from a Canadian student involved in a two-month internship with an NGO. "You'll find," she said to me with an air of experience and understanding resulting from the fact that I had only recently arrived in India and she was soon to leave, "that it doesn't pay to work too fast. Lots of interns work themselves out of an internship".

I thought I'd include this because it presents a different spin on exactly the same tendency I noted in an earlier entry about the aid industry as a whole; development practitioners of all hues should be aiming to work themselves out of a job, but the majority are not engaged in doing so.

White boy

In Mumbai I am learning how to be a minority. This is only the second time in my life I have experienced this; the first was on a bus in Baltimore, MD when I was 18 and my friend and I were the only whites on the bus, because the only people who use the bus service in Baltimore (insofar as I am able to assume a norm from that one instance) are working-class blacks. It’s a scary and horrible feeling at times, but what is worse is knowing that because I am a white, western, heterosexual, middle-class male, I do not fall within hardly any groups who can be classified as ‘minorities’ in the west.

There are two distinct ways that the local people here respond to my difference. One occurs in the downtown area, one in the uptown area. Downtown whites are visible walking along many streets. The locals understand us as tourists regardless of the reasons for our presence on their streets, and try to encourage us to part with our western cash in a variety of ingenious ways. Uptown, on the other hand, whites are a rarity. Tourists don’t go to the suburbs of Bandra and Santa Cruz. Why should they? There are no temples or British architectural monstrosities to be found there. So uptown I get a rather different response: blank incomprehension of why I am there, and the experience of a dozen eyes watching my every move at all times I am in public. And the thing about being an alien is that it’s often hard to tell whether the staring is just curious or is hostile; that’s what’s scary about being a minority. The fact is people stare, not so much because I am white, but because I am white and I am doing things that white boys in India don’t do. White men don’t spend time with local women. They do not travel by bus or by train. They do not stay at Kalina campus in ICSSR hostel, they stay in the Taj downtown at one end of the spectrum and in the guesthouse at Kalina campus at the other. So when I walk into the lobby area of ICSSR hostel, of course the men there will stop talking and stare at me. I am out of place, out of my place. And understandably punished with stares and silence.

There is a further way that I am adapting to my difference, which I have already mentioned in earlier entries: my health. I need to stop thinking I can do things here just like I can do in England. I cannot go with less sleep, because to do so is to seriously increase my vulnerability to infection. I cannot do without food because the strain of Mumbai means my body needs all the energy I can feed it with. I should not, should not assume that because I feel no pain in my stomach that a stomach ailment is past; I learnt this lesson through further pain a few weeks back, after turning down ‘boring’ curdrice (good for stomach infections) for very tasty food cooked by P, that turned out to be too rich for my unsettled belly. But this is a hard lesson to learn because while I am here I want to do everything, so I tend to push myself.

Anyway now I’m going to have an afternoon nap because my girlfriend just told me to, on the basis that I still have a fever. Which is a fair point.

Western Interns

I am, no matter who I get a chance to speak to and who I do not, getting a different perspective on India and on westerners in India than the western students and graduates engaged in internships or structured work placements with NGOs. The perspective I am getting is from outside that system, and so I am in a position to observe it in certain ways that I could not have done if I was in it. Having a girlfriend who is Indian and has a lot of experience of NGOs contributes a lot to what I am able to see. We had a conversation recently about the US interns who work at her NGO’s office. Most of them stay in Colaba (i.e. in the touristified and relatively sanitized downtown area), eat at the finest restaurants, and travel by rickshaw and taxi only. And I turn up my nose at this because this is not what I do (one result of which is that I get sick more often, but on the plus side when I get back to Britain I’ll have the toughest immune system of any white boy at Warwick) – but that is not even the point, the point is: what service are these interns rendering, what value are they adding to the work of her office, that offsets their cost?

Let me clarify what I mean by ‘cost’. I am not referring to a cost to the office, because their volunteers, or to the Indian economy, which they are contributing to with monthly spending accounts that equal the annual spending of several Indian families put together. The cost is rather some kind of generalized cost to the world economy as a whole. I think that what I’m really getting at is what economists call opportunity cost: the cost of employing the resources that the interns have to offer in a Mumbai NGO is the benefit that would have been gained if those resources had been employed elsewhere, for example the UN HQ in New York. Because the intern can’t be in two places at once it stands to reason that the benefit that might have been derived if the intern was at the UN HQ is foregone. So the question is: are the resources the interns have to offer best employed in Mumbai or in New York?

Even if the UN is a bad counterfactual example because so many people have huge doubts about the value it adds, and even if a better example is chosen, the answer to this question will probably still be that the western interns shouldn’t be in Indian NGOs. It may be the case that their research and writing skills are superior to those of their Indian counter-parts as a result of studying MAs, MScs and MPhils at Harvard and Yale rather than MSWs in Delhi or Mumbai. But how is their Hindi, or their Urdu, or their Marathi? It is true that quite a few of the western interns I’ve met have actually had the kind of mastery of these languages that make me green with envy as I am still stuck with a limited repertoire of terms of endearment and instructions to shout at a rickshaw driver who is taking me in the wrong direction. But even so: who are they in the best position to communicate with, and so most likely to communicate with? The English-speaking elite. Because language is not the only barrier to speaking to ‘the people’, who don’t speak English. Because why would the people want to explain their issues, and their perspectives on solving those issues, with a white westerner who can’t even get to grips with the cultural norms of liberal middle-class life in Mumbai, let alone lower middle-class norms like using buses and trains rather than ricks, let alone the slums, the caste system, police brutality or the poverty of the inland rural areas?

Annotated Bibliography

Books I have read/am reading/have skimmed through while in India.

Albom, M (1999) Tuesdays with Morrie
A book on one’s man’s understanding of the Meaning of Life from the perspective of his deathbed. I read it while convalescing.

Ali, T (2002) The Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity

Bach, R (1994) Jonathan Livingstone Seagull

Baru, R (2002) Privatization of Health Care in India

Duggal, R (2000) The Private Health Sector in India: Nature, Trends and a Critique VHAI: New Delhi

Ferguson, J (1990) The Anti-Politics Machine
I read this as an undergraduate before coming to India, but I include it here because it shaped so many of my ideas about the aid industry. At the end of the book, after his in-depth critique of a development project in Lesotho, he offers his own views on ‘what is to be done’ given the inadequacies of the current set-up of the aid industry; I found this a very useful part of the book and wish more academics would publish similar accounts of their own stance on the issues they discuss elsewhere with such detached scholarly rigour. Be partisan. Take sides. Write manifestos.

Hemingway, E (2004) The Old Man And The Sea Arrow Books: London
At the end, a list and details of other books by him. Excerpt from Preface of The First 49 Stories: "In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and bend the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dulled and know I had put it on the grindstone and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothign to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, unused".

Joyce, J Dubliners

Kakar, S (2002) The Inner World: A Psycho-analytic Study of Childhood and Society in India

Kamat, S (2004) Development Hegemony

Nettli Rosa Luxemburg

Press Institute of India (2005) Directory of Development Journalists 2005
See also
I found the foreword, explaining the need for the directory, most interesting. It pointed to the role that development journalists play in making public the issues that the aid industry can then pick up and turn into ‘development’ projects. The aim of the directory is to facilitate new partnerships between journalists, NGOs and those working in the development sector.

Society for Public Health Awareness and Action (SPHAA) and Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (CEHAT) (2004) Market, Medicine and Malpractice
Provides case studies of medical malpractice and the legal cases that followed. Also provides a useful summary of the political economy of healthcare in India and how it has changed, particularly since the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the early 90s.

Sweezy, P (1972) Modern Capitalism and Other Essays
The title essay reminded me of Wallerstein’s ‘world-systems theory’, which I studied as an undegraduate, in its attempt to treat capitalism as a world system. There is great similarity between Wallerstein’s distinction between ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ countries and Sweezy’s ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ countries. I prepared to pass off Sweezy’s work as uninteresting, then read the second essay. Read it. READ IT.

Thompson, H.S. The Rum Diaries
I got more out of this than I did out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. About a young man gradually coming to hate the work he is doing, because although it grants him lots of opportunities for hedonistic adventure it also puts him in the position of a parasitic “suckerfish” continually in search of big fish to cling to.

A Fine Balance

Research Unit for Political Economy Aspects of India’s Economy
A periodical published by and for India’s activist community without foreign funding (which, they say, would influence content) and at a very low budget. No. 35 on the World Social Forum and its implications for the struggle against neoliberal economic globalization has changed my entire outlook. It is available online at and I advise everyone who reads this to read it.

(2003) The Best of Tehelka

Everybody Loves a Good Drought

India as a Global Leader
The blog of freelance journalist Steven Vincent recently murdered in Iraq.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005


It took a long time for me to come to understand how my experience of India and of Mumbai differs to that of many of the other Westerners here.

Sunday, after two weeks in India, I end up eating a lunch of curdrice in the Walk Inn, a restaurant across the road from the Kalina campus. (The reason I was only eating curdrice is a story in itself. That Sunday I was just recovering from my second bout of food poisoning in India, far worse than the first; this time I visibly lost weight. S's friends would ask me, How are you? . Well I'm ok now, I'd say, but I swear my ribs didn't show through my t-shirt before. Try the Mumbai diet, it's surely more effective than any of the ones promoted in the West.)

The student at the next table starts talking to me. Turns out he's a medical student ("Pre-med" - pre-medical school, so still undergraduate level in British terms, I guess) in Los Angeles (and although he doesn't use the word "dude" once, it's absence is noticeable in every sentence he drawls. I shouldn't be catty though. This guy ended up introducing me to the group of American students I mentioned in my journal entry on the flooding in Bombay; for that I am grateful to him and to the good fortune that meant we were sitting next to each other in the Walk Inn in the first place). What is he doing in Bombay? A month-long course, organised by an American organisation, for medical students to experience first-hand the tropical diseases that they will never come across in the First World. He is also staying on the campus, but in a guesthouse not my hostel (which I guess, correctly as it turns out, has a bathroom with both a working light and hot water).

Beyond this trivia, three things from the conversation stood out. One: what did he do last night? Went to a club downtown. Crowded, I wouldn't really recommend it, he said; I've been to most of the clubs downtown in my three weeks here. Two: he got food poisoning in the first week - "even though we only ate at the top restaurants downtown" - and since then he and most of the rest of the American medical students only eat 'western' food. At the Walk Inn he's eating a toasted cheese sandwich. Three: as we return to the campus after lunch, he invites me to join him that afternoon to do sightseeing downtown. He says "cheaper to split the taxi two ways". To which my immediate (unvoiced) response is: and the train would be cheaper still.

I can understand his preference for a taxi. After all, my travel guide warns against Mumbai trains. Overcrowded and dangerous, it says.

But what is this? I know I'm being high-and-mighty, holier-than-thou. Oh, I'm so at home here, you're just another westerner desperate to replicate the security of your native environment in this alien culture. Yet this view, I know, is naive. What is the actual difference between our experiences? It's this: that a lot of the other western students I've met here - mostly interns I've met, a couple of posturing, 'worldly wise' travelers on the plane, this guy - are having what seems to me to be an easier, more comfortable Indian experience for two reasons. First, because they are willing to pay more for it. In the end my stomach didn't allow me to go downtown with this guy. So he invited me to dinner at the Marriott instead. Very nice, I'm sure. And how much will that be? Rs200 or 300? Per head? Lunch at the Walk Inn cost Rs50. And another thing. Will you leave India knowing the difference between biryani and masala?

But second, and more importantly, because the other westerners I have met have not entered the scene through the same web of contacts that I have been lucky enough to begin with. In my own way I also have it easy: because I have S. Unlike the westerners I have met, my first port-of-call for companionship and moral support is a native of this land, not another clueless tourist. And so if I leave India knowing a biryani from a masala (which as of yet I don't), that will be why.

So what am I actually doing here?

Spending too much time on the computer today, evidently. But there’s a reason for this: a blood test on Saturday showed that I have the malarial virus in my blood, and consequently I am currently under observation (read: house-arrest) at S’s place (which is in any case no bad place to be). I’m not worrying too much yet. First of all, and most importantly, I have the virus but not the symptoms; the parasite can lay dormant – and so, harmless – in the blood for days or weeks before the illness takes hold. And the anti-malarial drugs are very good in India these days, so I should be clear from the parasites in a couple of days time. The only people who die from malaria are the rural poor who cannot afford treatment. All I have at present is a very mild fever, and something approaching a feeling of satisfaction that when I bump into those cocky western traveler-types in the future I’ll be able to say, “Well, in India I had malaria”.

I feel that at this point I ought to make an effort to document how I am actually going about carrying out my ‘work’, my research project into the NGO scene in India. When I wrote my proposal for the Lord Rootes Memorial Fund I included a sample questionnaire that I envisaged presenting to my interviewees, who would be NGO staff and their beneficiaries. If I was conducting a quantitative survey this might have been adequate, but that isn’t what I’m interested in doing here. What I now intend to do, and what I have been doing so far, is to conduct my ‘research’ through informal, conversational interviews. I’ll give an example, which will also serve as a first taste of some of the issues I am trying to draw out.

On Saturday 30 July, S introduced me to a friend of her parents’ generation. For much of his adult life he worked as a political activist with tribal communities in Gujarat. The issues he was dealing with are the same ones I spoke about in my first journal entry: land rights in rural areas. S and I visited his home, actually because she wanted to introduce me to his wife who she refers to as her ‘surrogate mother’; while they were cooking and chatting in the kitchen he and I talked. At first I explained what I was doing in India, then asked him what he did. He said that at present he is a lawyer (and hating it) and also doing voluntary work with an NGO trying to find solutions to communal violence. And the conversation went on from there. What follows are the notes I later made; I didn’t make notes as we spoke because that would have intruded, as would the Dictaphone I eventually decided not to bring for this purpose.

First, the raison d’etre of the NGO community in India might be summed up in a remark made by Rajiv Gandhi that if the State provides the health service, 15% of each Rupee will go to the intended beneficiary, the rest to the State bureaucracy. The logic implied is that if instead the NGO community provides the health service this doesn’t happen because of the altruistic motives of the individuals involved in these operations. But actually it still happens: 85% of each Rupee will instead go on sustaining the NGO.

Activists that he worked alongside in Gujarat worked with Oxfam as a funder. He gave me an English translation of two songs they used to sing. The first went: doctors pray for epidemics, lawyers for murder and crime, politicians for corruption, NGOs for the marginalisation and oppression of minorities. The second went: first we had Mr Barley, now we have Mr Morley (the current Oxfam representative stationed with them in the field to monitor the use of funds), he drives in his jeep from village to village and does nothing. This song they actually sang in front of Mr Morley, but because he didn’t understand their Adivasi language he assumed they were singing his praise.

The current relation between international funders, the State and NGOs in India has been strongly affected by the passing of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA; 1976, see This act allows the Indian government to veto which NGOs get foreign funds, and thus enables them to prevent militant and radical NGOs from getting funds. Such organizations then have two choices: either they carry on their activities but hide the cost of their radical activities in the accounts (what the State and international funders would call ‘mismanagement of funds'), or they become people’s movements, sustained through the contributions of the people they are working for rather than outside support. This second idea was new to me. In actual fact this is how activists sustain themselves. They do not have a monetary income, so they have no property; they stay at the homes of well-wishers and are fed from what the family can afford to give, and are treated free of charge by doctors, on the basis that they are trying to do something good. How crazy that sounds to a boy brought up to see the possible position of any individual in the world of work as either financially-remunerated labour or unemployment. Obviously the activist’s existence is a precarious one, without security. Consequently it’s easier for a young man without family to follow this lifepath than someone married with children. Although he didn’t say it I think this may be one of the reasons he gave that life up and trained as a lawyer even though he hates the profession. The other reason, that he did give, was that repression eventually made it impossible for him to continue. The police came to know of him and the work he was doing; they arrested and jailed him many times, which he could deal with because it only affected him; then they started to threaten those whose contributions supported him, so his position became untenable and he was forced to enter paid employment.

The relation between international funders, the State and NGOs in India means that NGOs are doing work that the State should be doing, that is, providing for the basic needs of its people; further, NGOs do this work with foreign funds not money from the governmental budget; so the governmental budget continues to be spent on the urban elite, almost to the exclusion of the rural poor. Several people here have recommended to me a recently written book, “Everybody Loves a Good Drought”. The idea put forward is that all involved parties benefit from the current set-up of the international aid industry. The ruling party in the Indian government is happy, because they don’t need to spend money on the rural poor and as a result can lavish their budget on the urban elite which has the economic muscle to potentially destabilize the rule of their party. The staff of grassroots NGOs based in India are happy, because they have funding and a role. The staff of international funding bodies like Oxfam, UNICEF, and the World Bank are happy because they have a role and at the same time are quite able to cream off generous salaries for themselves from the funds flowing through them. Finally the intended beneficiary communities are happy because thanks to the work of the NGOs their quality of life is a little better than it would be if the system did not exist. It’s important to keep in mind the Rajiv Gandhi remark, and ask: is it worth it? Is this the way it has to be? If the system was changed, might it not be possible for the intended beneficiaries to get more than 15% of each Rupee?

Thanks to FCRA, there are severe limitations on the kind of work that NGOs can do. He suggested that at most they can raise awareness among the beneficiary communities of their rights under national and international law, so that they do not accept the status quo and instead engage in struggle for these rights themselves. But NGOs are restricted to working within, and advocating that the beneficiary communities work within, the existing legal framework to achieve these rights. If they advocate other means of achieving these rights – such as the strikes by the Honda workers in Gurgaon, which were going on at the same time as the Mumbai floods, but which probably didn’t make the international headlines – the NGOs will be starved of funding by the State. Probably his most cynical interpretation of what NGOs could offer was 'clarity': NGOs can collect information and present it to the people, but ultimately what they’re doing is telling people what they know, just worded better.

Given that it is my intention to return to the UK and write a PhD thesis in Political Science, which will build my competency for a career in academia and, unless I am proactive in shaping my future, reduce my eligibility for other types of job, I found his take on academia very interesting. He made a comparison between a world-famous Indian novelist, and a well-known Indian social scientist. The first wrote a novel about the plight of the Adivasis that reached an international audience. Then she went on to champion groups whose rights were being abused in India. She was labeled an eccentric by many. But she did something. The academic, on the other hand, writes reams of papers on Adivasis. But she has never spoken to an Adivasi, they don’t know who she is, and only other academics read her papers; it’s a closed loop. This comparison does not mean academia is useless. But if I go into academia my aim should not be objectivity. I should be partisan, I should say yes, I am supporting this cause over that cause, but not through my own self-interest but because I think this cause is right. Too many academics become obsessed with their career, and in this sense are the same as the NGOs that become obsessed with justifying their existence in order to sustain their existence, by engineering the situation in which they are working in order to maintain a role for themselves. The nature of the work that NGOs do is that they should be continually aiming to work themselves out of a job. But that’s not a career-wise move, is it. So it isn't what they do. Instead, they pour time, energy and funds into the business of securing funds, by producing glossy project reports, showing foreign funding representatives like Mr Morley round successful projects, etc.

One of the results of this is that the international funding agencies have too much influence on the content of projects. He gives an example from the time in the 80s when the international community was obsessed with AIDS (i.e. before it was brushed under the carpet in the media as 'old' news). The American funding representative sponsoring the NGO project he was working with asked if he could suggest to the co-ordinators of the NGO that they do more work on AIDS awareness. If you do more work on AIDS, the American reasoned, we can give you more funding and you'll be able to carry on your other activities as well. It makes sense. At this point in the conversation, S, who had come into the room, laughed: but if you had followed his advice you would have looked like a clown. Right, he says. Because the Adivasi communities he was working with at the time didn't have a problem with AIDS. So if he were to start lecturing them on the issue, or if he were to put on an AIDS awareness play, the Adivasis would laugh at him: because they know it's not relevant to them, and that he's only doing it to chase funds. And so they would come to respect him less, and his ability to move within their community and carry out relevant work would be reduced as a result. The funders, however, don't see this, don't see the importance of the activist or the NGO worker being trusted by the community in order to function successfully.

So what does the NGO community need to do to increase the percentage that the intended beneficiaries receive out of the aid industry? My interpretation of his verdict can be summed up in five words: humility, and accountability at all levels. First, he says at breakfast on Sunday, it is obvious I think there is a role for NGOs, otherwise I wouldn't be working with one. But what is key is that NGOs acknowledge their limitations. They cannot do anything without foreign funding. But thanks to FERA, funding goes through the State. So they cannot do anything that the State machinery understands to be against its interests. Thus their role is limited to doing what the State should do but doesn't. So first of all they need the humility to acknowledge this and not delude themselves that what they are doing is always the right thing. I want to expand on this. What I mean is, they need to recognise that they are necessarily limited to functioning within the existing socio-economic structure of national and international society; they cannot work against that system as NGOs, it is not in their capacity to do so, even where that structure is wrong and is, through its operations, working to oppress certain groups.

Second, the issue of accountability. NGOs are in the peculiar position of providing services equivalent to those provided by the welfare state system, that is rapidly fading in every part of the world except perhaps Scandinavia. They are providing the same services that a local government or council might provide in a welfare state system, but unlike the local government or council they are not accountable to an electorate. The right to vote continues to be one of the most important means of empowerment of the urban and rural poor in India's democracy, because of their sheer mass/number compared to that of the urban elite. But with NGOs providing these services rather than elected government representatives, they can only receive these services in the form chosen by the NGOs in collaboration with the State and their international funders. They have no power to change the way the services are produced. And consequently this is another reason the State is happy with the situation: they are absolved of responsibility. It's not our fault if it doesn't work, blame the NGOs and blame the evil western-run international agencies like the World Bank.

When I was on the TISS course I spoke to a woman working in an NGO in Rajasthan, who I hope to visit before leaving India. The gist of the story she told me was as follows. Each international funding body supports a number of NGOs. For example, CARE India, who supports the work of her NGO, support a large number of NGOs working in Rajasthan. Monitoring of the activities of these NGOs is inadequate and sometimes absent, and this makes it possible for enterprising individuals to siphon off funds by presenting themselves to the funders on paper as an NGO with 10 or 20 workers and requiring funds to support this many people - when actually the NGO doesn't exist at all. All the individual has to do is produce regular reports of the NGO's (non-existent) activities. My point in relaying this story is to emphasise why accountability at all levels is what is needed. The solution is not as 'simple' as making the NGOs accountable to the beneficiary communities. It is also the case that they need to be accountable to the State and the international funders. And likewise the State and the funders need to be accountable to the NGOs - for example, by not cutting off funds for a project before its completion when the NGO has complied with the conditions of that funding - and to the beneficiary communities, by granting funding to the projects that are needed, not those they think will be more financially lucrative for their own staff.


Second email update from India. Sent three weeks after the first not because of a shortage of happenings but because so much has happened I haven't had the time to write, and because for a week after the flooding began finding a working internet connection in Bombay was impossible.

On that Tuesday, designated in the Mumbai press as Terrible Tuesday, I was working in the CEHAT office until 5pm, when the power failed. By this time it had been raining since 10am, and raining more heavily than I have ever seen in England. Surveying the wall of water cascading outside the building with the fearless gaze of the intrepid globetrotter who knows very little about the land he is in and consequently doesn't realise that rain like this hasn't been seen in Mumbai for 100 years, I opened my umbrella at the entrance and, leaving behind the rest of the CEHAT staff who were standing there staring at the deluge in dismay, I boldly strode out into the elements. Within seconds my trousers were drenched. The backstreets of Vakola, where the CEHAT office is, were for the most part submerged under a foot of water. The surface of the water bubbled as the rain hit it so hard that it seemed to be boiling.

Dodging rickshaws, grinning Mumbaikars ("Hello, how you like Bombay rains?") and floating garbage, I managed to make it to the main road. No buses were running, and the road back to Kalina campus was littered with abandoned ricks and other vehicles. At times the water on that road was waist-deep; most people walking on it tried to stick to the central reservation where the water was only ankle-deep. (At this point I’m thinking I should have brought a boat with me to Mumbai, or failing that, a wetsuit). On the road I passed two army bases where water was pouring vigorously across wide expanses of water-logged earth onto the road, throwing sediment and stones at the feet of the column of people trying to get home. I saw a man in a house beside the road desperately trying to build a wall of rocks to prevent the water flooding in - an impossible task. Everyone was drenched to the bone. Umbrellas offered no protection at all.

I reached my hostel as an early dusk fell. The staff and other residents stood at the door, looking out without saying a word. The power was out and mobile network down so I went to bed.

Wednesday morning I awoke to the sound of continuing rainfall and began to realise the seriousness of the situation. I ventured out early to see what the street outside the campus looked. It seemed most of the other people in the hostel had stayed in the lobby all night trying to get radio reception for news and eagerly listening to the stories of people who occasionally wandered in having spent the night on the road. As I walked out I heard one man saying he had stayed at Santa Cruz train station (the nearest station to Kalina) until the water rose to the level of the platform in the early hours of the morning. The street was full of people, mostly crowded round the telephone shops, trying unsuccessfully to get through to family and friends. No cars. I bought water and biscuits, the only food available, and wondered what to do. I was supposed to be catching a train to Hyderabad at noon, but if the train stations were flooded it would be cancelled and in any case there was no way I could get to the station. A couple of days earlier I had made the acquaintance of a group of American medical students staying at another hostel at Kalina while on a month-long programme visiting infectious disease wards in Mumbai, so I made my way to their hostel so I would at least be with people I could talk to in English.

As it turned out I stayed with them for the next two days. Soon after I arrived a decision was made that a group of us would venture out to see what was happening; to view with our own eyes scenes that we would be able to tell people back home, as I am now doing. (On this subject I had a debate with Derik (a very engaging mid-westerner with three degrees, Nordic roots and a lot of stories about working in bars and ERs) about whether we should be taking photos, so people back home could see how it was, or whether doing so would be some kind of crass tourism with no respect for the immense damage the flooding was doing to the lives of people here who do not have the money to get them out of the mess the flood left the city in. Nina and I agreed he should take photos, on the condition that he made them publicly available on the internet for all to see). So we walked, and saw the state of the slum that lies in between the campus and the Grand Hyatt hotel.

There was no flooding on the campus or at the Hyatt, but the slum dwellings were in a bad way. As we walked along the main road through the slum we saw single-storey slum dwellings with two or three feet of water in them. We went further, and saw a big crowd gathered on one side of the road. The crowd were watching a group of men up to their necks in water, using an inflatable rubber ring to get women out of a two-storey building, the ground floor of which was entirely under water. Only after watching for a few minutes did I realize that it wasn’t just this building but a whole area of the slum that was submerged in this much water. Groups of people were standing on rooftops, waiting to be rescued. We asked if there was anything we could do to help, but short of getting into the water there wasn’t really. A couple of the American girls bought candy for the children. The rescue effort was carried out entirely by the slum dwellers, with rubber rings and with poles and ropes they fixed together and held out from the shallows for those in the submerged buildings to cling to as they made their escape. Just down the road was a fire brigade training school, where trainees were standing around outside, unconcerned and laughing. As we walked past on the way back they got into a bus and drove away; apparently the school was being evacuated. It obviously didn’t occur to them to use the equipment they had – including long ladders and ropes – to help the slum dwellers. We saw a truck drive along the road packed with bananas. A couple of slum dwellers jumped onto the back and stole branches laden with the fruit. It gladdened our hearts. When there is no justice forthcoming from the system, why shouldn’t the oppressed reject its laws in order to get by however they can?

In the evening, still with no electricity and also without tapwater to wash, a decision was made that we should go to the Hyatt. Walking past the submerged and dark slums we approached the towering edifice of the global elite. There we found air conditioning, soft lighting, working phonelines (which I used to make contact with an England still unaware of what was going on in this corner of the Outside World), and courteous waiters serving beer and snacks. The luxury of this marble-clad palace was totally unreal and I felt very uncomfortable, as I have so many times since being in India, at the brutality of the contrast between this scene and the one just outside.

Thursday was also declared a state holiday, as although the rains had ceased the city transport infrastructure was still in chaos, with abandoned vehicles littering roads and flyovers and floodwaters that had still not subsided because the need for adequate drainage systems was never considered by the planners who built this crazy metropolis on a tiny island. Bottled water was increasingly difficult to find because the causeways connecting the island to the mainland were flooded and preventing trucks with supplies getting through; I began contemplating using the iodine purification tablets I’d brought and never thought I’d have to use, because tapwater would be a sure recipe for diarrohea, or worse, dysentery or cholera. (Speaking to S’s father about this later, he told me a joke made by a visiting British official that the difference between London and Mumbai is that London has separate pipe systems for clean water and sewage). Still no tapwater or electricity; the Kalina area electricity grid (excluding the Hyatt which I think had its own power supply) was kept off for nearly three days because of the danger of electrocution, particularly in the slums where cables drawing power from the grid (illegally, of course, at the price of a few bribes to the appropriate goondas and officials) ran through the floodwaters. Without electricity, water pump motors didn’t work, so no water to wash. A bunch of grubby westerners stuck in a crisis in a foreign land, we stayed at the hostel, playing cards, monopoly and tabla, while the hostel staff continued to serve us food and generally cater to our every need.

In the evening S turned up unannounced (announcing herself would have been impossible as the mobile networks were still down), and the two of us got a rick to her place, past garbage trucks beginning the colossal task of moving all the rubbish swept into huge stinking piles on every street corner of Mumbai by the waters. Where are they moving it all too? Immediately next to the slum dwellings of course, where else? With any luck, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation must have reasoned, the bacteria festering and multiplying in the rubbish would kill off some of the slum dwellers and reduce Mumbai’s overcrowding problem.

I went to the CEHAT office on Friday, and heard others’ experiences. Many of the staff had stayed there on the Tuesday night, home being too far to walk (although I had heard of others who had walked up to 17 kilometres to get home, following the trainlines, soaked to the bone for the whole time). Some of S's friends had more cheerful stories; N spent Tuesday night at a friend’s house, sitting on a bed that gradually started to float and bob up and down, singing Bollywood tunes in the darkness. Ultimately I was lucky that Vakola was so close to Kalina, not too far to walk. I stayed at S’s place over the weekend. Her mother and father were very hospitable and friendly and welcomed me into their home; her mother threw books about American imperialism and marxist economics at me, while her father plied me with Johnny Walker Red Label and got me to explain to him how his new mobile worked. S danced around cooking and looking after me and playing the harmonium and showing me how to, and generally being happy at the situation. Sunday night it rained so much that the state declared another public holiday on Monday. Only on Tuesday, a week after it all began, did Mumbai’s hectic 24-hour non-stop roaring screeching buzzing fuming crazy mad addictive chaos gradually get back in motion.

The first week

Ok, first email update from India. I'm in a cybercafe across the road from the University of Mumbai Kalina Campus where I currently have a room; it's Monday morning before 9am and the traffic here is just beginning to start up; the A/C is on already but I am still sweating.

A lot of my experiences in my first week in India reminded me of the way that babies interact with the world: initially they don't understand anything, they just look around at everything with wide eyes trying to take it all in, and everything to them is just images, colours and shapes with no meaning, until the third or fourth time they see them, when patterns begin to emerge and they begin to make some sense of their surroundings. And when I reached that point I saw that actually Bombay isn't so totally alien and different; in so many ways it is just like London, it has the same combination of tasks and services it needs to fulfil in order to function, it's just that the tools used to fulfil those tasks and services look different and are hard to recognise at first. I arrived in India on Friday 8 July in the late afternoon, and was taken to meet my driver (provided by the hotel I was staying at on that first night) by the man who I'd been sitting next to on the plane from Abu Dhabi, a friendly civil servant who worked at the Indian Embassy in Dubai. Suddenly S emerged from the crowd outside the airport and so we went together to the hotel, she talking incessantly and me staring with total incomprehension at the passing scenery. The hotel was very westernised so the only thing I had to learn that night was how to use water rather than toilet paper as the Indians do.

Saturday was when things started to get crazy. S hailed an autorickshaw (a three-wheeled motorbike with a cloth awning that is used in uptown Mumbai as a taxi) to take her home and me to Tata Institute of Social Sciences where I was to join a short course on Health and Human Rights in social work in India as an introduction to the field. She got out of the rick at her home and left me in the hands of the driver, who knew only a couple more words of English than I did of Marathi (the most commonly spoken language in the state of Maharashtra). The moment that she got out was one of the scariest moments of my life. The awning of the rick was so low that all I could see out of the open sides were wheels and feet, and the air around was thick with pollution and the throb of engines and the noise of hundreds of drivers hitting their horns. The second time I was in a rick by myself was more fun, like being on a rollercoaster as the driver dives through gaps between vehicles that don't look big enough; the only real downside is when you're at the rear of a lorry, where you're at exactly the right height for the exhaust fumes to pump straight into your face. But that first time I had no idea what was going on and was rather relieved when we arrived at the TISS campus, and I paid the driver and staggered out of the backseat.

Trying to find the conference hall where my course was taking place I was helped by a student (who I didn't catch the name of, as with so many other Indians with names I have never heard before) who became my New Best Friend #1, among other things helping me when I was ill and giving me a comprehensive lecture on the Indian economy in the 21st century over dinner one evening, in exchange for an account of England's relationship with Ireland over the past 600 years. At TISS over that first week I made a lot of New Best Friends, some on the course and some through NBF#1. It was a good place to start because I could acclimatise to the food, heat and mosquitos without having to worry too much about other new things, plus I learnt a huge amount through the course and through conversations with NBFs, plus many of the course participants - apart from me and one doctor working at a state hospital, they were all working in/with NGOs - invited me to visit their NGOs. I met up with S on the evening of Saturday the 9th, and only made it back to TISS on the following evening. We had dinner and got drunk with her close friends in a hotel restaurant on a terrace overlooking the city (at which I cursed myself for leaving my camera in my room; since then I carry it everywhere), then her best friend drove us to the house of his brother, with whom I carried on drinking (Indian whiskey, very nice) and talking until I fell asleep. When we got up the following afternoon we swam in his pool, ate, and sang songs on the backporch. Great fun, and lots of NBFs.

Monday afternoon I got sick. I felt slightly dodgy from the morning, ate only rice and kurd at lunch, then ran to the bathroom in the afternoon and vomited noisily and violently. I then went back to the course and stoically sat through the rest of the session, only to find that when I tried to move at the end I was too weak to stand up by myself. Two NBFs caught a rick with me to a doctor who prescribed various pills, one NBF bought these and electrolyte and water for me and the other helped me to my room. After a couple of bathroom sessions and a good night's sleep I was ok again, although still weak for a day or so. Since then I have been well; I think the problem was drinking water that had been filtered but not purified, but really I don't know what it was that did it.

Friday, at the end of the course, I performed what I still regard as a small miracle. After the course finished I sat for a while talking with my roommate Doctor P (a man with a warped sense of humour that reminded me of Aashek's, with whom I had lots of conversations about England, girlfriends, NGOs and alcohol) and Doctor G (a 25-year old girl who used to be a model, now working in a state hospital in Mumbai, with whom I talked about religion, girlfriends, abortion and fairies). Then by myself I managed to catch two buses across town to Kalina campus with all my luggage, almost falling off the second bus as it started moving before I had disembarked. I managed to communicate with the security guards on the gate of Kalina campus despite them not knowing any English, found my new room, showered in a room with no light (apparently they are currently "having problems" with the electricity, which seems inevitable given that they run wires across walls that get splashed with water from the shower), then caught a rick to a theatre to watch the Indian adaptation of the Vagina Monologues with S and her friends, arriving within ten minutes of when I was supposed to, even though I had been going flat-out for the past four hours since leaving TISS. The play was worth seeing - both because it is a good play and because it was interesting to see which parts of the American version had to be omitted (getting the audience to chant what is widely-accepted as the most offensive term for the female genitalia as a way of reclaiming the word, in particular) and where culturally-specific innuendo had been added to the play that had the rest of the audience roaring with laughter and me totally blank-faced.

Saturday I finally went to central Mumbai and did some sight-seeing and exploring with a Dutch lady currently working for the International Federation of Health and Human Rights Organisations, (IFHHRO, check them out at an NGO based in Holland but working with the UN and partners worldwide on international human rights law. She had come to India for the first time to present a lecture in the TISS course I was on, and K (the course organiser and my mentor while I am with CEHAT, the NGO I will be joining later today for a three-week internship) suggested we could do the tourism bit together. We managed to meet up even though I still have no mobile, then got food and walked around the Churchgate and Fort area. Really interesting/exciting/scary was when we tried to follow our various maps across town to meet S at Crawford market. We mainly stuck to main roads but eventually found ourselves in a street crowded on both sides with stalls and people, through which few vehicles were able to pass. I'd got used to people staring at me (because I'm white) the whole time anyway, but here it was particularly disconcerting because we had no idea whether we were in a part of town where it was 'ok to go' or not. At this moment an Imam in a nearby mosque began to chant through a speaker system that seemed to cover the whole area; the bustle and noise of the market hushed and I experienced another one of the scariest moments of my life. We were two aliens totally incapable of understanding whether the situation we were in was safe or about to turn hostile. Soon after we found ourselves on another main road and decided simultaneously that it was time to stop gallavanting around like a couple of colonial administrators on vacation, and also time to stop pretending we knew where we were, and catch a taxi.

With S and her friends we did a bit of shopping (S bought me a Kurta, a sort of shirt; pictures will follow), then the Dutch lady left and we went to a restaurant. After this we got a train from VT station to a station outside the city in the north. VT station is one of the great British monuments of the city, and architecturally very impressive. At the station I saw street children high on solvents. I used the toilet facilities and a man came to the urinal next to mine for the unconcealed purpose of having a good look. On the train our party of three girls (S, her friend P and her Canadian friend C who I met at Warwick and is currently working on a UNICEF project in nearby Pune and was visiting for the weekend) and one white guy attracted a lot of attention from the men in the carriage, who stared at us continuously throughout the two-hour journey.

At the end we were picked up by N and travelled through the country in the pitchblack of night to a large house where a gay party was in full swing. There was lots of very impressive Indian dancing (that I nonetheless feel I should have seen girls doing before I saw guys doing it), and the party only finished at sunrise. Sunday afternoon we drove back to Mumbai through the countryside that was swarming with weekend trekking parties out from Mumbai - literally the roads had cars on one side and a column of trekkers on the other.

And now it is Monday and time for me to go to work. There are several other things I wanted to say. First, in relation particularly to the experience of Sunday but also to the slums in Mumbai that I have only so far caught glimpses of but will soon be visiting. It is very easy to understand why people are so more politicised in India, and also why so many more feel that socialism or marxist revolution is the answer to the problems here. Driving through the countryside in our air-conditioned land rover, everyone singing Bollywood tunes at the tops of their voices, and with middle-class city-folk crowding the roads on their weekend hikes, I could see people working in the afternoon sun in fields, and the difference between their experience and ours was painful. 60% of people living in Mumbai live in slums. They are not recognised by the State as people; they are living on land they have no right to and the State can - and does - throw them off it without notice, without recognition of their right to life. And yet this is the same State that is the reason they are living in the slums to begin with. Slum-dwellers have moved into the slums of Mumbai from elsewhere in India, from rural areas where they could at least grow enough crops to feed their families and live in their communities; they have moved because the State has reclaimed the land they lived on there for other purposes like mining bauxite or building factories - changing the local economy to maximise land productivity at the expense of the livelihoods of those living there. This is the ideology of the State, and of the world economic order; it is capitalism, and it is the reason these people are suffering in the slums of Mumbai. NGOs are working with the State on this, trying to fill the gaps in welfare provision for these people that the State does not provide because it does not recognise them as legal citizens of Mumbai. But the NGOs cannot give back to these people the land and communities that they have lost, because to try to do so would be to work against rather than with the State. Only the overthrow of the whole system would do that. At this point I am not saying this is what I feel should be done. I think marxist revolution is a dream that many people follow as a dream, as the only dream that seems to suggest that in the future things might be better for the poor of India. But I do not know whether it could ever become a reality; it seems so much more likely that revolution would simply result in a different social class taking power and, once again, exploiting the other social classes. What I am saying here is that being in India it is obvious why socialism and marxism has been and is so attractive to so many people, when you are constantly exposed to such extremes of wealth side-by-side.

And then one final point I'd like to make is that I am very glad that I have come to India. Being here is exhausting, especially whenever I am on the streets and travelling from one part of town to another - because all the time I am using my brain to try and work out how I can achieve what I need to do to make my journey given the capacities I have and the situation in which I am testing them. On my bus journey from TISS to Kalina I got off my first bus at Kurla bus station and then had to find the bus to Kalina. An NBF at TISS had drawn me a map of how to get across the railway bridge and to the bus stop for Kalina; on the ground it was a whole lot less obvious where a) the railway was, b) the railway bridge was, c) the bus stop for Kalina was. All the time I was being jostled and stared at by crowds of people, and dripping sweat, and blasted with pollution and the smells of the city - food, excrement, exhaust. To get to the Vagina Monologues the same evening required I catch a rick. But when I said "Prithvi Theatre" to rick drivers they didn't understand, and spoke back to me in Marathi and Hindi. I tried to call S from a payphone, but couldn't get through. Then I saw a student wearing a t-shirt that said "After College, Hell" - ah, he must know English, I thought. So I got out my Hindi phrasebook and asked if he spoke English in my best (i.e. terrible) Hindi; he said yes; I explained my situation and asked if he could put me on a rick to the theatre, which he did. And all this time I am looking at my watch and wondering if when I get there the play will have started and I will be refused entry. So what I am saying is I love the way India makes me use my brain, because it is so demanding but in a totally different way to the way my studies at Warwick were demanding; this is learning, and learning at a very fast rate, but it is a different kind of learning, and I am very glad to be here and doing it and seeing just how broad and diverse and different and colourful this world of ours is.


I am Brendan, a 2005 graduate of Economics, Politics and International Studies (BA) at Warwick University in the UK. This blog will provide an account of my time in India over the summer of 2005. I will be in India for 10 or 11 weeks (I have actualy already been here 4 weeks, which seems crazy now I think of it; I'll be back in England mid-September), spending my time here making and meeting contacts in the 'development' or 'civil society' or 'NGO' community, trying to learn from the experience and insights of the people I meet so that I might make more informed decisions about what I want out of my working life, that is, what I want to achieve and where I think my abilities could be put to best use.

I am currently enrolled to start a Masters course at Warwick in September, a programme providing research training so that I might begin a PhD (for which I have ESRC 1+3 funding) the following year. I am not 100% sure this is what I should be doing. I do not see this as a problem; after all, who really knows what they should be doing? But I want to make well-informed decisions about my path. That is why I am in India. I know I want to work to improve the quality of life of the world's marginalised communities. The question I am trying to find answers to is: in what capacity will I be able to contribute most to this end?

A little explanation about how I came to be in India. My trip has been funded by the Lord Rootes Memorial Fund of the University of Warwick. I found out about this Fund from a friend whose friend had also had a project funded by them; unfortunately for the majority of students at Warwick the Fund doesn't advertise itself very well and so most students are unaware of the really great opportunities it offers. I would urge Warwick students to look it up on the net. The proposal I submitted to the Fund back in January was titled "Evaluating the Impact of Grass-Roots NGOs in India" - a ridiculously broad scope, of course, but one which I think I have found a way of approaching in a satisfactory manner. What I am trying to understand, in order to make my evaluation, are the needs and issues faced by the NGO community in India. Doing this comprehensively in two and a half months is impossible, so what I am hoping to do is tease out from my experiences as many pieces of the puzzle as I can, for my own benefit and in order to present these 'findings' or 'data' to other Warwick students interested in the field upon my return.

Why India? There a number of reasons, though I don't pretend to know which is most important. I think the stories of my parents about their travels in India were one stimulus; another was that my first serious girlfriend was a British-born Indian and I got more interested in the cultural difference as a result; another is that my current girlfriend, who I met at Warwick, is from Mumbai (Bombay). Aside from those personal reasons, there is a utilitarian motive: there are more people living below the poverty line in the Indian sub-continent than in Africa, or in Latin America: i.e. more people in need of assistance in improving their quality of life.

A note on style. I think there will be a variety in the content of the blog entries to follow. Some will be accounts of particular events in my experience; others will be attempts at synthesising a number of experiences into a coherent statement/point. Some readers might find one type more interesting or useful than the other, but I include both because I think they're both useful in different ways.

And finally a few disclaimers that may or may not be necessary. Firstly, I may appear to have set myself rather unrealistically ambitious goals. I know this, and don't have a problem with it; the way I see it, young people are supposed to set themselves unrealistically ambitious goals. Secondly, I am aware that my writing style occasionaly (continually?) tends towards the pompous; for this I can only apologise, and suggest that like Kerouac it may take me time to find my voice as a writer, and that in the meantime get from this what you will and try to appreciate it for what it is.