Monday, July 27, 2009
Mirakles do happen!
A New Changemaker is born
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has - Margaret Mead, anthropologist.
I walked into Dhruv Lakra’s office in Churchgate, Mumbai, on the morning of March 20, 2009, but was not expecting to witness an unusually quiet courier agency room. Seconds later, I saw a rapid -- almost electric -- exchange of messages in sign language between Dhruv and his team. Yes, all the employees in Mirakle Couriers are deaf or have only partial hearing and are in the age-group of 20-30 years. Questions race in my head, and so does curiosity. The imagined boundaries of core qualifications or ‘essentials’ for a job suddenly start dissolving in front of my eyes.
Dhruv Lakra flagged off Mirakle Couriers with its tagline ‘Delivering possibilities’ with a single employee in November 2008. In just five months, he has a team of 19 employees — four women and 15 men— all of them hearing-impaired.
What prompted this Oxford MBA to pursue this unusual initiative? After his undergraduate studies in Mumbai, Dhruv worked in an international investment bank for some time, but says he did not enjoy the experience. A general interest in philanthropy and an introduction to social entrepreneurship while studying, he says, were the key to his new thinking. Dhruv came up with the idea of starting a courier agency with deaf persons.
He recruited his employees after visiting various ‘deaf clubs’ in Mumbai. Word was soon out that someone in town was hiring deaf people for a courier agency, and Dhruv found many aspirants. After careful scrutiny and background checks of those he found eligible, Dhruv hired 14 people, and now that number has gone up to 19. From his own savings, and from ‘angel capital’, he managed to get going.
Mirakle Couriers is run like any professional outfit – there is no scope or space for mediocrity out of pity or sympathy. Dhruv is very particular about whom he hires. Once they are in, they have to follow the rules of the company, from being punctual, wearing the right walking shoes and clean uniforms and reporting back in the office with their delivery receipts. Dhruv pays them well and is also big on incentives.
For every task done well, there is a bonus. The objective is clear: if you work hard and perform well, you will be rewarded; if not, you quit. Currently two big business houses are clients. Mirakle delivers only in Mumbai for now. Interestingly, the courier company sends a copy of some common greetings (Hello, Thank you, Sorry etc) in sign language along with each of their deliveries.
Women employees are not sent out as delivery agents but sort the mail according to pin-codes. It’s an important job in the courier business. “How you sort is how you deliver,” says Dhruv. Training the delivery men, Dhruv says, was challenging. They had to be shown their way around town, and most importantly had to be taught the skills of interpersonal communication, like the right body language, presentation and some do’s and don’ts. For example, they must make sure that when they exit a lift, they close the door properly because they cannot hear the chime that alerts one to an open door. Dhruv says that training one delivery agent takes him roughly 15 days. The entire team uses the SMS facility on their mobile phones to communicate their whereabouts.
The challenges that this young social entrepreneur faces today are diverse. For one, there is an issue of space. When Mirakle Couriers began operations in November 2008, they worked out of the office of a big company, which encouraged the idea. They had to move out after two months and now work from another company’s office, but they need a permanent office. Training, hiring and taking orders, finding clients and publicising the company is all done by Dhruv. He needs volunteers to help out as well as resources that would allow him to increase his clientele and spread to other cities.
Mirakle Couriers spotlights important issues for debate. Any debate on disability must start by asking some key questions. What is disability? What shapes public opinion about disability? What is the inner world of the disabled? What are the implications of our culturally shaped opinions for deaf people in particular and disability in general? Is there scope for the disabled to live a life of dignity? The issues are particularly important in India, home to the largest deaf population in the world.
Cultures all over the world have gone through exclusivist attitudes and policies towards the disabled. In the Western pre-industrialised era of the agrarian economy, myth and superstition dominated. Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) were believed to be ‘cursed’ or possessed by ‘evil spirits’. Later, with its focus on manual/physical labour, industrialisation in the 18th-19th century took this idea one step further, by stressing that only the able-bodied could perform productive roles in society and the economy. Obviously, the disabled were pushed out once again. Further, drawing on Darwin’s theory of evolution, Francis Galton in the 1880s was developing the ‘Eugenics’ school of thought which involved segregation of all those people who were perceived to be ‘abnormal’ and their subsequent elimination from society.
American functionalism and deviance theory was grounded in economics. Its foremost proponent, Talcott Parsons, argued in the late-1940s that “the normal state of being in Western developed societies is ‘good health’; consequently, sickness, and by implication impairments, are deviations from ‘normality’”. Those that are unfit to perform a function, implying those that cannot be productive, constitute deviant behaviour that needs to be corrected.
One can therefore infer that disability is a social construction. In a stratified society like India, social factors like poverty (read class), religion, region, caste and gender form the basis of this social construct—and can serve both as a reason and consequence of it. Therefore, one’s position in society, based on these social factors, determines to a large extent, the deprivation levels of the disabled.
Deafness, like any other disability in India, is often a matter of shame for families. The deaf who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds experience even more trying times throughout their lives. For one, they have one of the most clandestine and ‘invisible’ disabilities, in that no one can see a person and tell if s/he is deaf. As if the struggles at home were not enough, challenges begin at the level of schooling too— there is no sign language, only spoken medium of instruction. Further ahead, there are no deaf colleges in India (but for the plans of one that might be underway). As such, most deaf students manage to only complete their basic level of schooling in India.
There is very little access to information for most deaf persons despite computers and internet, which are out of the reach of many. This is a shameful irony given that India boasts of being a major IT hub. A large population of people with the capabilities to use these communication systems is excluded from them.
Dhruv Lakra says, “The attitude of the past 50 years or so has been closely linked to our insensitivity: for instance, it is common practice in many Indian families to go to a disability school on a child’s birthday and distribute sweets to the less fortunate.”
It is important to situate Dhruv’s entrepreneurial venture against this background. If disability is a social construct with strong economic undercurrents as illustrated above, Dhruv has set out to challenge this very foundation to build a new one based on the inherent capabilities of the disabled. The employees of Mirakle Couriers have, in their own words, “come a long way”. Ravindra, who engaged in intensive manual labour, carrying hundreds of kilos of foodgrain on his back, finds that the new job is like a new life. Vinod worked as a domestic help earlier, sweeping and cleaning to earn a livelihood. Reshma and Geeta both worked as jewellery designers for several years. They worked long hours, never saw an increase in salary, and frequently got yelled at by their employers.
Curiously, if we decide to measure the ‘Decent Work’ (1) conditions of the working deaf population in India (mostly engaged in home-based work, physical labour and domestic work), it would not be surprising to find a high level of ‘Decent Work deficit’. All of the employees of Mirakle felt that while their earlier jobs gave them money, there were high levels of discrimination, lower wages for a lot more work (as compared to not-disabled persons) and no dignity. According to them, this job makes them self-sufficient and independent, lets them use their critical faculties, gives them a sense of fulfilment and most importantly, gives them a life of dignity.
In step with the modern world
Globalisation has been truly emancipatory for persons with disability in India. Neha Trivedi of Xavier’s Resource Centre for the Visually Challenged (XRCVC) in Mumbai, says that the coming of MNCs to India after 1991 has been a welcome change for the Indian disabled population. For one, Western countries have stringent policies on inclusion of PWDs. Second, the new buzzword in human resources (HR) departments of many of these companies is ‘diversity’. So ‘diversity managers’ consciously encourage, promote and hire PWDs (in addition to persons with varied diverse associations based on sexuality, gender, race, religion, ethnicity and so on). A reputed German MNC has also reported that the attrition rates in their service/support centres in Chennai were lowest among PWDs. Diversity therefore, also makes business sense.
Disabled rights movements all over the West, starting with those in the US in the 1960s, have done much to bring positive change in the lives of disabled persons all over the world. Following numerous discussions, social movements and pressure from organisations working for the disabled and change in government policies over the years, the focus has shifted from rehabilitation to integration to inclusion/mainstreaming in most countries of the Western world. The question of rights of the disabled occupies a significant place in the public sphere today. There are discussions, public fora, university courses, conferences, media coverage on the one hand and mushrooming of multiple organisations working to bridge the gap on the other.
In India, however, we have only just begun. Not only is there need to expand the resource-base for the disabled and improve their access to these resources, but their issues need to be in the public sphere. For instance, sign language could be introduced in school syllabi as part of formal education, and it could help both those that need it given their disability and those able that are interested in learning it. Mass media has a major role to play. Sensitisation is required at all levels. The challenges are many and we have a long way to go. An organisation like Mirakle Couriers has shown the way.
By Indira Gartenberg is a research officer at the School of Management & Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India.
1.Decent Work refers to opportunities for women and men to obtain work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Decent Work involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organise and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.
Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.