Acknowledging Privileges: The “Air Conditioner” Blog

For the entirety of my childhood, I had been raised in a small township in the North Eastern state of Assam. The township is located in the Golaghat district of Assam – a small district in the state. A 40 kilometres drive from my home, and the world-famous Kaziranga National Park would be in our footsteps. While living in a township had many perks, it brought along many hindrances with it too. The most significant one being the lack of exposure to ideas, knowledge and opportunities – the four boundaries of the township made the to-and-fro flow of ideas, knowledge and opportunities an immense challenge. It was as if the boundaries were impermeable. Even the internet and its vast uses took a lot of time to penetrate through the borders. 

From the later half of my childhood and throughout my undergraduate days, the development sector and questions surrounding development work always interested me – I always felt deeply passionate about them. When I asked myself where this sense of passion came from, the answers would vary. However, I always knew that I hadn’t found “THE” answer to this query of mine. Henceforth, the search continued.

My search led me to the American India Foundation’s William J Clinton Fellowship for Service in India. As an AIF Fellow, I had been placed with Project Potential in the state of Bihar. Moving to Bihar was a massive cultural shift for me. It was also my first time working in the health sector. Stepping into a new sector while experiencing such a vast cultural shift was an immense challenge. Choosing to serve during a pandemic didn’t make things easier too. Apart from the professional challenges, the most significant one for me was to get used to the living conditions at my host location.  Thakurganj – the small town where I was placed in faced serious electricity issues. With the arrival of the summers and monsoons, the situation got all the more dark and grim. The electricity issues and the electricity cuts were much more prevalent in the interior parts of my host location. As I interacted with some of the locals and asked them if the frequent electricity cuts frustrated them – they said it did, but at the same time, they had also gotten used to the same. A day consisting of 3-4 hours of electricity cuts instead of 8-10 hours of electricity cuts would be filled with joy for the locals. Further interactions with other fellows and networks posted in rural areas revealed that the same situation existed in their areas of work too.

I have had to experience many sleepless nights because of electricity cuts and the subsequent heat. During all of those sleepless nights, the thought that would constantly keep running in my head is that of – “why is this affecting me so much’’? As time went by, I realised that it was because I never had to experience such nights. Even though a “township” life was challenging in many ways as I mentioned above, basic services like that of electricity, water supply, drainage, etc. were on point. By God’s grace, I never had to face any challenges involving these basic services throughout my childhood. Even when I had moved to New Delhi for my undergraduate studies, I didn’t have to experience the crunch of these basic services. 

Before my Clinton Fellowship experience, I had heard many talk/discuss about their “privileges”. Even I was one of them. However, the AIF Fellowship made me understand the meaning of this widely used term of “privilege”. The experience gave me a visual understanding of this otherwise abstract term. The fact that I can write about my lack of exposure to opportunities or ideas in my childhood as a challenge has “privilege” written all over it. Recently, as part of our Endpoint conference, a writing workshop was hosted by the AIF team. We had to choose an object in our room or surroundings during the workshop that we were the most grateful for and write a few lines on it. I had moved out of my host location and into the urban for the Endpoint conference. As a part of the exercise, the only object that caught my attention was the “air conditioner” in the room that I was living in. I was incredibly grateful for its presence. It circulated cool air for me to have a comfortable night’s sleep. Simultaneously, the realisation that so many don’t have access to such otherwise everyday objects for many makes me all the more grateful and humble. That is the power of the development sector – it makes you a grateful, humble, conscious being. It gives life to inanimate objects like that of an AC. In a world where everyone is striving and wanting to have more, we often tend to forget about the things, emotions and people that we already have. The development sector teaches one to be contempt with what one already has, while simultaneously acknowledging their value. Henceforth, I believe that everyone should experience the development sector, even if it’s a temporary experience, especially when one is young and at a beginning stage of their professional journey. The experience of it allows one to grow emotionally and find meaning in whatever one is doing or plans to do in the future. No wonder, I feel so passionately about development work and the sector. 

A screenshot from our writing workshop session with the AIF team. Here, everyone is showing an object that they are grateful for. The extreme right picture in the middle row was the object that I had chosen – the AC of my room. Picture Credits – Utsarga Mondal

The word “impact” is often associated with this sector. Different forms of media have also glorified the term to a large extent. I feel like everybody wants to be Mohan Bhargav from the Swades movie. I was one of them too. However, the AIF Clinton Fellowship has taught me that the definition of “impact” varies for everyone. Simultaneously, bringing “impact” also takes time. The key here is to find what defines “impact” for one. Impact for me is to work on improving the “privileges” of people and various communities. My definition of “impact” comes from my awareness of my “privileges”. Just like “impact”, “privilege” also varies for different people. Just being mindful and aware of one’s own set of ‘’privileges’’ has the potential to bring “impact”. Such awareness helps us be conscious about our everyday actions and take those small steps of saving water, switching off the lights when not required, etc. All such small steps, irrespective of one being in the development sector or not, adds up in bringing impact and improving someone else’s lives. 

As I reflect back, I have immense gratitude to my parents for giving me a life of many ‘’privileges’’. But, most importantly, I wholeheartedly thank the American India Foundation and its fellowship program for giving me a life-altering experience and helping me get to the bottom of the question that I had since childhood. The fellowship enabled me to “feel” – “feel” various emotions, challenges, privileges, and so much more. I will always be grateful for the same. After all, are we even humans if we lose the capacity to “feel”?

Tonmoy is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Project Potential in Kishanganj, Bihar. For his fellowship project, he is supporting and coordinating public health projects in four panchayats across Kishanganj. Tonmoy was raised in Numaligarh Refinery Township, a small township in Assam. Right since his childhood, he has been a firm believer in the concept of equity and thereby, equitable and sustainable policymaking has always interested him. With this in mind, he decided to pursue Political Science, with minors in Economics from Delhi University. Early in his undergraduate studies, he understood the power of learning by doing, which made him undertake his first internship at Child Rights and You in his second year of college. Here, he taught various subjects to slum kids along with being a part of their flash mob team. To understand policymaking, he worked as an intern at Niti Aayog, the government of India’s policy think tank, where he handled the partner management process at the Women Entrepreneurship Platform along with being a part of the organizing team of India’s first Global Mobility Summit – MOVE Summit. Later, he was appointed under the special secretary to Niti Aayog, as a research intern at CADFI (Center for Advancement in Digital Financial Inclusion). Apart from this, he has been volunteering in various capacities with other organizations in the development sector like Rural Changemakers in rural Madhya Pradesh, and Maati Community in Assam, exposing him to challenges faced by rural India while simultaneously motivating him to work on eliminating them. In his free time, Tonmoy likes to watch documentaries, read about human psychology, and go for runs. Tonmoy expects the AIF Clinton Fellowship to be a highly reflective experience for him. As an AIF Clinton Fellow, he aims to do better, be better and bring conversations surrounding the development sector, back to his hometown.

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