It is maddening sometimes to make a choice. Values get in the way and complicates things. Before I became an India Fellow, I was working for a startup where we took the Clifton Strengths Finder test to analyze our top five strengths. One of mine turned out to be Individualization. Big word, isn’t it? It means the ability to see the unique qualities of each and every person and adapt my behaviour accordingly. More than my other strengths, this one kept me thinking. Was it really a strength?
In the social sector, everything is contextual and personal. It has to be that way. There is no one right way to do something. This kind of diversity leads to duality, and duality leads to dilemma. Rahul, the co-founder of India Fellow once casually asked me over lunch, “Do you think there is anything in this world that is objectively right or objectively wrong?” The conversation ended with the thought that there is no absolute right or wrong in this world and everything is subjective. This has created enough turmoil in me to say the least.
At Centre for Social Action, we work with Katkari self-help groups (SHGs) to create and promote sustainable livelihoods. The approach we take is that of people-led community development. We prefer working with SHGs rather than individuals when it comes to income generation activities. We prefer a rights based approach to a needs based approach. We encourage internal decision making over external inputs.
Over the past four months, working with various SHGs across Raigad, one woman from one of our centers stood out to me. Kala taai* displayed excellent confidence and was proactive in seeking out opportunities. She always spoke up when she wanted to make a point.
She was determined to improve her standard of living and would unquestionably be the first person to try out new things. She had the grit to take on challenges. I could clearly see the entrepreneurial qualities in her. She had also passed the 12th class. On an average, only five men and one woman are literate in each of the Katkari hamlets of three talukas1. She was the one from her hamlet.
But I suppose, my first impressions are ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. From observations, Kala taai was incapable of working in a group. In her own SHG, she was the dominating personality and would take up most of the major tasks. A month ago, I came to know that she was the only one in the SHG who knew how to make the food products while the other members would perform associated tasks such as cleaning, packing, weighing etc. (The SHG manufactures food products that our marketing enterprise sells in Mumbai).
Despite our gentle instructions to her to teach the skill to the rest of the group, she never did it. She was rude to her teammates when they didn’t perform their duties as expected. She was also known to break the rules from time to time such as preparing the food product at her home instead of the center or dispatching products without any communication to the center head. Course correction had to be done. We arranged for a meeting to discuss these aspects. She was baffled when she heard these comments from us. In her point of view, the business was going good. The food production demand was always met, quality was maintained, packing was sturdy, and delivery was done on time. So what was the problem?
She said that sometimes it was difficult to travel from her hamlet to the center, which was about ten kilometers away. She had to do the household chores and walk to the main road and wait for an auto-rickshaw that could take her. So she chose to prepare the products at her home when she was tired of traveling. When asked about including everyone in the group equally, she questioned how it could be her fault if other members were not involving themselves. She said that she had tried enough to make the group as active as herself but they’ve never cooperated. They’ve always been disinterested. How could she be responsible for others’ lack of intent? She suggested that she could make the food products alone and we rather work with her than the SHG. I sat there thinking!
Here is someone from the tribal community who is outspoken, fiercely passionate and rightfully self-centered. A welcome anomaly. What struck me was that these were the same qualities most startup CEOs were made of. My individualization shook me to see how we could turn her into a leader.
However, I did what I thought was best at that moment. I explained her how our organization works and how we believe in community development and facilitate the same instead of working with individuals. I requested her to work with the group. She was not satisfied and pointed out that we’re an organization that claims to work for the development of tribal people. And here she was, a tribal, who was determined to improve her life, who was ready to learn anything and yet, we were not willing to help her. It seemed like a logical flaw to her.
That day, I did not have any answers. Duality was ripe. Thoughts circled outward. I remembered our Director’s statement that we cannot entertain exceptions. “Once we make an exception, we will have to make it every time.” But in all fairness, an exception is to be treated as an exception, isn’t it? If only it was as simple as it sounded.
We made a difficult choice to discontinue working with Kala taai and the SHG citing disciplinary reasons as well as lack of cooperation. I felt things could have been different. We had to do what we thought was right in that moment. As Rahul says, there’s no absolute right or wrong, a perspective that I’m growing fond of.
*Names changed to protect identity
1. Buckles, D., & Khedkar, R. (2013). Fighting Eviction: Tribal Land Rights and Research-In-Action.