Community Building: Lessons Learned
March 29, 2011
Originally written February 10, 2011.
On the 23rd, Dharmadas and Nirmala [the spiritual directors of Ananda India —Editor] led our annual Christmas meditation at the community in Watunde Village, thirty kilometers outside of Pune. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but gaze from time to time out the window from Swami Kriyananda’s home to the hillside below. It’s changed so much from when I first arrived that it’s hard to believe it’s been only a little over two years. It seems much longer. There were no buildings when I came and now there is a cluster.
Seeing my fellow gurubhais sitting in Swami’s home affirmed that the seeds we’ve planted have taken root. A growing community has sprung up, ready to take another step, the building of guest accommodations and up to 32 residential flats. The guest space is already underway and we are in the process of soliciting bids from contractors with hope of beginning the flats next month.
Being part of a construction project in India has definitely been a “learning experience”. I used to joke with my co-workers about paying “fees” to attend the Indian school of hard knocks. “Just another tuition payment” I’d say after finding once again I’d overpaid or been mildly swindled. On the whole, my two years in Pune have been a marvelous (and mostly fun, with a few exceptions) experience of learning the ins and outs of doing business in village India, what to expect, what to avoid, when to be firm and when to keep quiet, when to bargain and when to simply walk away.
When I arrived, I hadn’t a clue about local protocols, but I learned the little things that make life smoother. Take time to try to know the person with whom you are dealing, have another cup of tea and make an effort to become friends. Business is more personal in India and if you are “inside” the circle of friendship of another, things will go better. I learned trivial customs too such as how to count money in a cash exchange, how Indians like all the bills to be neatly arranged and not upside down or back-to-front like they’d usually be when coming from me. I learned to check, check, check everything and to verify transactions or you will be disappointed before long.
In the building of the first cluster of homes, Swamiji’s included, we made many mistakes we hope to avoid in the next project such as how to plan properly and build more efficiently. Some of our troubles were simply due to Biraj’s and my unfamiliarity with local techniques and materials. In America, wood is used heavily and that is what I am familiar with, whereas in India, it is very expensive and used only for specific purposes only such as cabinets, doors, and decoration. Houses in India are built almost entirely of concrete, reinforcing steel, bricks, plaster, and decorative tile or stone.
Almost everything is done by hand with power tools used only for such things as cutting marble or an occasional drill. Mortar is mixed by hand and power concrete mixers are only used for the major pours. Big crews of unskilled labor are the norm, doing the work of machines you’d typically see in the West. As a “hands-on” American, I tended to get personally involved in the work I supervised but this often raised eyebrows. Supervisors here don’t dirty their hands and the pronounced consciousness of class and the attendant attitudes I found distasteful.
I was very impressed with how hard most of the daily laborers worked, men and women. Some were idlers, but most put in a hard day’s work of heavy labor for a very small wage. Indian crews are very good, or even excellent, with the rough work of reinforcing bar, concrete forming and pouring, and with all things masonry, but tend to be “slapdash” or “slipshod” with finished details. That was a disappointment which necessitated constant hectoring from me and Biraj to get jobs up to an acceptable standard.
Often we were forced to concede that the workers simply did not have the skill, tools, or training to do what we hoped, no matter how hard they tried or we badgered. They couldn’t understand “what’s the problem” when we complained and redoing brought no better results. I found this somewhat surprising because I’ve seen very high quality work in India and the best explanation I heard was that it just isn’t possible to get the quality we want in a remote location such as Watunde Village. What we viewed as substandard, they saw as perfectly fine. We would have had to import special workers from the city at a much higher price to get quality work but we didn’t have the time or experience to do that. We were also told that all the best workers were now working at Lavasa, the a modern, multibillion dollar hill station coming up 15 kilometers from us, where good workers were being paid handsomely.
Another lesson, subsequently confirmed by Indians with contracting experience, was learning how about the difficulty of getting subcontractors to coordinate with one another. It was maddening. Let’s say Mr. Plumber wants to install a “shutoff” valve for a house. Will he put it where it best serves the needs of the homeowner and doesn’t conflict with other jobs? Probably not. He’ll put it in a place most convenient to himself without thinking how it affects anyone else. If easiest, he’ll put it in the middle of a pathway to be tripped over or where another crew might be laying drain lines. They, in turn, will put the drains in too shallow without thinking of the needs of the following crew who want to place paving stones properly. I’d get so exasperated and ask, “What are you guys thinking?” Obviously, thinking ahead was not part of their job description. Where was the contractor who was supposed to be supervising? Absent as usual. Each crew had absolutely no concern for the others. If an electrician encounters a pipe blocking his wiring pathway, will he take a little extra time to go around it. Noooo! He’ll probably cut the pipe out and patch over the situation in some makeshift fashion without telling anyone!!! You’ll discover his little “fix” only later when you notice the wet spot on the wall.
The supposed solution to this madhouse approach is to have the architect draw precise details about every single pipe, wire and conduit and then have an army of supervisors checking everything, but of course, this doesn’t happen. We were thankful to receive plans at all, usually weeks late at best. A second approach is to hire a “Services Engineer” who will take the architectural plans and figure out every little detail for the workers. But that didn’t work either. I tried it for our drainage and water systems and received a set of plans entirely theoretical with little relationship to reality. The fellow didn’t bother to actually visit the site to look at what was being built. I quickly gave his plans the toss and improvised.
In America, when hiring a professional, licensed tradesman such as an electrician or plumber, it’s assumed he knows his craft and has experience to deal with whatever comes up. You shouldn’t need to tell him how to do his job and if he has a question, he usually can be counted upon to ask. He’ll know enough of the other trades to do his work in such a way as to coordinate with those who follow. I assumed things worked this way in India too. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Basic rule, “Assume nothing!” Especially in the villages.
“Professional” subcontractors may, or may not, know their trade. If they do, they probably know little of other tradesman’s jobs. In India, you will find contractors who have never touched a tool in their life. The concept of “working one’s way up the ladder” from apprentice to journeyman to contractor, so typical in the construction trades in the West, is not as common here.
I found one excellent electrician who had gone through this progression and he was a joy to work with, but generally, supervisors and contractors skip the step of “on-the-job” training and have little practical experience. The person left to do the job has little incentive to coordinate with the other tradesmen. His responsibility is not to the customer but to the man who pays him, and that guy wants him to finish as fast as possible and move on. If you ask him to do something out of the ordinary, he is likely to say, “Not my scope,” meaning it’s someone else’s job, certainly not his. Ah, how I came to loath that phrase. “When you leave, would you please clean up the mess you’ve left behind?” “Not my scope!” “Would you repair the pipes you’ve just broken when digging up the pathway?” “Not my scope!” I heard it so often, I found myself using it too, “Jaya, when passing through town next time, would you do the grocery shopping?” “Not my scope!”
How refreshing it was to find someone who really knew his trade, was particularly skilled or who was willing to take responsibility for doing a job well and right. Such people do exist, thank God, and we were lucky to find some. When we did find workers with good spirit and skill, we did our best to keep them on our crew.
Often though, working with the villagers was a challenge. I found many of their attitudes and behaviors pretty dark and came to realize why so many Indians want to get away from the villages and move to the cities. Theft is rampant. Anything of value must be locked up or it disappears, aggression and threats are often the first option when in a dispute, status is measured by how much power one has over other people, venality underlies transactions and goras (white people) are charged double. Because moving the work forward, settling disputes, and resolving a daily crisis was my task, I felt forced to act in ways I didn’t much like to get the job done. It’s hard to be totally non-attached.
We are now in the middle of building six guest apartments for our future retreat programs. These will be really nice and a big boost for events out on the land. Visitors will actually be able to stay out on the land in comfort whereas right now, it’s still pretty much camping. Amol, Sundeep and Dhruv (in the photo) are the Sangha members who are financing and coordinating this project and they’re doing a great job. They’ve been able to streamline the construction process and have found a good contractor/supervisor and architect with whom to work.
In another month or two, we’ll begin the building of a complex of residential flats for members who have already made down payments. For this we’ve hired a professional project manager from Delhi to supervise the work relieving Biraj and me of that duty. This time, we won’t be in such a rush and we are insisting upon plans before we begin… In other words, we’re trying to do it right and learn from what happened the last time. If all goes well, the guest house should be ready by March and the first homes by the end of 2011. (See the photo of where these homes will be built.)
Right now, Biraj, Dharmadas and Nirmala, along with a dozen other ashram members (six of whom are monks) live at the community in Watunde. There are another eight or nine staff of cooks, drivers, watchmen, spouses and maintenance men. About one dozen core members of our Sangha live in Pune, driving out on weekends to participate in community activities. Sadhana Devi and I continue to conduct classes, meditation groups, and satsangs in Pune city with the intent of building up a local congregation in the city to support the activities out on the land and eventually, when residential space is available, we hope some of these people will move out there.
Sadhana Devi’s and my job in Pune is just about done and soon we will move back to Gurgaon to help with the work in the Delhi region. When we came to Pune in 2008, almost half of our Gurgaon ashram also shifted shortly after, putting a strain on those left behind and last spring a number of Westerners in the ashram returned home, reducing the population even further and leaving the Gurgaon ashram short-handed. They’ve responded well with expansive energy by remodeling the ashram basement into a beautiful new temple/classroom and have begun to offer many more activities, drawing loads of new people. As a result, the place is now hopping but without enough experienced members to handle it all. Dhyana, leading the center, has done a fantastic job stirring up the energy and now needs help. So, to Gurgaon we go for our next assignment.
Sadhana Devi and I will miss Pune. It’s a much more livable city than Delhi or Gurgaon. The scale is smaller and the people seem friendlier. It’s a town of young people, colleges, neighborhoods, and motorbikes. The countryside is not far away, it’s green half the year, the air is clean, the weather mild and you see less disparity between rich and poor as evidenced in so many Indian cities. People are mostly employed and beggars are few. I think it fair to say it’s also more traditionally “Indian” than Delhi and certainly more so than Gurgaon which is a city of glass towers, fancy homes and shopping malls.
To be fair, Delhi too has its charms. Give me time and I’ll maybe think of one. (Just kidding.) As the national capitol, it’s important for us to have a dynamic work there and I expect us to expand our efforts even further. With a solid foundation of strong souls already in place, something special in Delhi will come up in the coming years. We’d love to have you visit and see for yourself. You are always welcome.