Srinivasan: Seeing People Beyond Numbers
One the face of it, Dr K. Srinivasan doesn't look the man he is--a famous demographer and academic with scores of papers and publications to his name. A typical Tambram with his mannerisms, dietary habits and razor sharp intellect, he was once the director of the International Institute of Population Studies in Mumbai... Some time after he retired as Director of IIPS he came to Delhi as the director of a reputed NGO and there was my boss for two years. By some coincidence, the day he retired from there after serving for close to six years, I too left the organization and moved on elsewhere.
It was Dr Srinivasan who showed that it was possible to combine the sharpest of intellects with the inquisitiveness of a child, the compassion of a saint and the kindness of an elder. Somewhat distant in at work but only just, in numerous railway stations, airport lounges and over innumerable coffees and teas, he talked about himself, his concerns and worries and his experiences from his life and living and asked questions to which I still seek answers. He talked often of his spiritual enquires and expressed the disappointment that at a particular point in his life, he had approached God in several ways prescribed by his as well as other religions but had not received the comfort he sought. Yet his attitude was not that of bitterness or betrayal but that of wistful nostalgia that perhaps his ways were not quite right and so he didn't get the results he was seeking.
As the head of an NGO, one would assume that he would be sharp, shrewd and astute. He was all of that but who would have guessed that behind his sharp mind, he cared about people in a way and manner that often humbled me.
One afternoon we were sitting and waiting in the Bangalore airport lounge for our flight to Delhi which was delayed. In these moments, Dr Srinivasan would usually think out aloud - sometimes general thoughts and sometimes his plans and vision for the organization which he headed and where I worked. The agency was a quaint, old fashioned corporate sponsored charity with old world culture, values and staffing where senior staff gave dictation to stenographers who took it all down in shorthand.
The need to professionalize NGOs was a subject I loved to speak on. It was some thing I was quite passionate about. I could speak for hours on how the world was changing and how even the charity business needed to change and allow the winds of change to blow. My vocabulary was all about performance, excellence, results based management and any other management jargon that I could understand and pick up. Usually when Dr Srinivasan and I were together, he would do most of the talking and I would listen deferentially, interjecting here and there. But on this occasion, sitting in the cool airport lounge, my tongue broke loose and I waxed eloquent on the subject of retooling our old and senior secretaries and stenographers who were getting obsolete in the PC driven work environment of the day.
Dr Srinivasan heard me out till I had exhausted my breath and had said all that I had to. I didn't realize then that in my enthusiasm, I had displayed my extreme insensitivity and callousness. Many people I was talking about had served the organization with distinction for a generation or more and here I was I talking about their competence, capability and contribution in an idiom that only the uncouth can. After I finished, there was a deathly silence - a hush perceptible even in the middle of the PA system announcements. Then Dr Srinivasan cleared his throat to speak, his voice as gentle and considerate as ever.
"Dr Dutta", he began..... You are right in stressing on excellence, performance and results in our organization... That is the way to go. That is the proper way to be accountable for the resources that are entrusted to us. But you know, some thing ... there will always be people in this world who will never be excellent, whose capacity to perform and deliver will always fall short of your expectations, who are by temperament slow, cautious and falling behind. Yes, I know, it is the way of things today to move fast, to keep to deadlines, to exceed expectations in the quality of work that you do and all that. Every body wants such people, chases them, they are the glamorous heroes who can always perform and you too be want be one of them and want such people in your midst.
But think for a moment.
There are these people who are always falling behind, never quite measuring up, always falling short - may be they are getting old, they can't pick up new skills and tricks any more. One day, you and I might be among them too. Is there any place in your world for them? Do they have a value, a place in your scheme of things or they are unwanted, obsolete creatures because they are not in your understanding and world view productive?
There was a hushed silence all around me as he finished speaking. It was as if we were the only people in the airport--as if all the arrival and departure announcements had ceased and there were just me and my boss with his kind face and even kinder eyes gently probing me to search, consider and reflect.
I cringed then.
You see, many years ago, I was in the Air Force as a doctor. Then when I left, we (my wife and I) chose to work in the NGO sector and that too not any NGO but a certain kind of NGO - the kind that genuinely did its bit to work for a just and compassionate world. What idealism I had then! But somewhere I had drifted off and had begun to lose my bearings. Now I realized that people mattered if only they were tools to achieving an output - and an outcome - and then an impact. If they didn't figure in this table, then they were not particularly important - they were supernumerary and sooner if not later they would no longer figure in my scheme of things and would be shunted out to obscurity or oblivion. That gentle voice which said nothing I did not know - that every man and woman was made in God's image and infinitely valuable was no longer an academic notion; it again became my compass.
And it took Dr Srinivasan, a demographer and statistician to whom people should be logically expressed in numerals and numbers, to stress for me that most basic of statements - that people with all their flaws matter. Always. Every time. They never, ever become obsolete.