Whilst India has developed rapidly in recent years, and a period of relative economic buoyancy has brought benefits to many within the population, the many daunting challenges that remain within the country are all too evident. High levels of pollution, traffic congestion, poor infrastructure and a vast number of people living in poverty all continue to blight the country and challenge progress. At times these difficulties appear overwhelming, and as is always the case, the majority of people look to those in positions of authority to bring about improvements. The ministers of successive governments of all political persuasions have made bold speeches promising to deliver radical change, but behind closed doors I suspect that many of them would admit that they have failed to find satisfactory solutions.
Perhaps the expectations surrounding politicians and their ability to manage change are too great. Whilst they look for solutions on a national and global level, this possibly means that they are too far removed from the local situations that require attention. It may also be that those in high office have become so imbued in their ways of working that they are no longer able to maintain the kind of creative thinking that can have an impact on the lives of the populous. Whilst the answers to major problems may not come easily, perhaps there are other individuals or groups who can bring progress.
This thought came to mind yesterday as I read an article in the Mumbai edition of the Hindu, under the headline Mumbai students offer solutions to global problems. This reported a competition held under the banner of Happy India, which encouraged school students to identify some of the most significant problems they thought their country faced, and invited them to come up with the means to address these. I was not really surprised that they rose to this challenge with great enthusiasm and have already put into place a number of initiatives that are improving the lives of people in their cities.
A group of students from Podar International School in Mumbai recognised that many people living in the poorest conditions in the city, were unable to provide their families with the kind of nutrition that could improve their health and lifestyles. Seeking a solution that would enable them to change this situation, they came up with a novel business initiative in which they purchased vegetables from a wholesale market, and then sold half these to affluent customers at a price that enabled them to make a profit. They then used the profit to subsidise the sale of vegetables to people living in the poorest communities in the city at half the normal market price for good quality vegetables.
Poonam, one of the students involved in this initiative commented:
“I got this idea as I used to walk past a slum while going to school. I saw that the people there were very lethargic. For them, eating was only meant to fill their stomachs. They have no concept of nutrition, because they cannot afford nutritious food. So we came up with a cross-subsidised model to provide cheap and good quality vegetables to them,”
In another example of enterprise, students from Ryan International School developed a system to use waste plastic, of which there is certainly no shortage in India, to repair potholes in roads. They have since taken this initiative forward and have gained local authority consent to experiment with the construction of a thirty metre length of experimental road using the technique they have developed.
In providing local solutions to problems that are pervasive across India, these enterprising students will have learned much. Not only have they been required to produce business plans and experiment with design and production, but they will also undoubtedly have discussed social issues, the reasons why problems such as those confronted persist, and what their responsibilities to their local communities might be.
It may also be that there is an educational opportunity to be grasped by politicians here. Whilst the impact of the initiatives taken by these students may be small in scale, and there will undoubtedly be issues surrounding sustainability, it is clear that they have both the understanding and desire to bring about change. If there are lessons to be learned from this competition on the part of the students, I suggest that there may equally be a justification for politicians to discuss how the enterprise of students such as these may be harnessed.
It has always seemed to me, that even in a democracy, the ability of politicians to bring about sustainable change is impeded by party politics and factional interests. The young people who have set an example in Mumbai, and elsewhere in India, are currently untainted by narrow minded politics, and have demonstrated how local understanding when embraced within an educational context can yield positive outcomes. I hope that if any of these young people become politicians in the future, they will remember the value of lessons learned through the Happy India competition.