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One of the best memories from the trip to India in February2011 was not just organising TEDx Shekhavati, but also to be in the presence of The Dalai Lama.

He was shorter than I had thought he would be; very jolly, many times sneezing and cleaning his nose against the Mic, leaving the audience smiling. The Dalai Lama spoke about compassion and emphasized on family values to raise ethical individuals.

“Science is not the problem. Lack of moral principles is the root problem. Terrorism stems from here. That is why, I promote human values; this is very different from religion.”

“I am committed to human values and religious harmony till my death. We want full guarantee of protecting Tibetan language, religion and land from the Chinese.”

“This body is a Tibetan body. This body is also an Indian body because it is fed by Indian chapatis and food.”

“Promotion of human values and religious harmony cannot be in the hands of government leaders.  It should be with people. Then we develop more concern for each other.”

TEDx Shekhavati 2011 took place on February 5, 2011 this year. I’ve
blogged a little late because of the lack of access to a proper net
connection. For those new to my blog, TEDx Shekhavati is the first
TEDx event of Rajasthan and India’s first rural TEDx event. It was
held the second time this year, after a dramatic first year! The event
is held in Fatehpur which is a village-turned-small town. It falls in
an area called Shekhavati (also written as ‘Shekhawati’) which is a
cluster of villages and small towns in Rajasthan, India. There is a
huge absence of public service and most people build great houses but
do not invest in schools, roads, hospitals or any other means to
improve standard of living here.

One of things I can never accurately predict about TEDxShekhavati is
the number of attendees. Last year, I had expected 300 people to
attend. With all the problems and controversies surrounding it, I had
thought that I’d be lucky if even 20 people show up. Imagine our
surprise when 1,200 people turned up!

With the success of last year, I allowed myself to be a little
optimistic and predicted 1500-2000 people will attend this year. Each
time my speakers would ask me how many people I expect to attend; I
always replied ‘1000-1500’. This time, we were shocked when more than
5,000 people turned up!

More than the big numbers, what makes me deeply happy is when the
speakers told me that they were approached by many people, asking them
how they can be part of their work and do great community change work
in Fatehpur! One of my speakers was supposed to return right after the
conference but ended up leaving Fatehpur the next day because of the
number of people who approached him and wanted to meet and know more
about his work.

There was so much community excitement this time. Of course, there was
the usual share of hassles but after the event, those problems seem so
trivial. Once again, getting a venue was a major problem because
nobody wanted to host the event! I must admit that I was very
disappointed when this problem started and especially when I reached a
point where I had started checking venue options in a nearby town. At
the last minute, I got a call from my father (who had gone to Fatehpur
to hunt for venues) saying that a low-caste school seems the best
option. I had never been to the school but I agreed because it was our
last option. When I finally reached Fatehpur on the 29th January, I
visited the school ‘Krishna Paathshala’ and was very surprised at the
state of the school. It was difficult to imagine that it’s a
functioning school. [See previous blogpost with venue photos].

The outcome of TEDx Shekhavati has been much stronger than last year.
My philosophy in organising this event is to make people responsible
for their own communities and for people around them. I tell them
repeatedly to use their education for the benefit of the society and
not for selfish reasons. Precisely for this reason, the TEDxShekhavati
event is about uplifting the community and playing a larger role in
community development. It’s not just another TEDx event; it’s not just
another conference. My team went house to house in Fatehpur and nearby
villages, talking to people about TED and TEDxShekhavati so that they
would attend. A few of the achievements of TEDxShekhavati that I am
particularly proud of are:

1. Grooming youth leadership by giving them a platform to meet
inspiring people and volunteer/work for an international event. I
delegated tasks but they got it done in their way. Last year, TEDx
Shekhavati groomed one person. This year, there was a volunteer group
of around 15 dedicated youth and I can see four people ready to lead
next time with others needing a little more training and by another
TEDx Shekhavati, they will be ready too!

2. The school (venue) is 80 years old and has been neglected for the
longest time. Due to TEDx Shekhavati, the school is finally getting
painted and finally, toilets have been constructed.

3. One of the guests at TEDx Shekhavati was a politician who is the
local representative for Fatehpur and he pledged INR500,000 to
construct two new classrooms for the school.

4. The District Head of Sikar (which Fatehpur is a part of) has
promised to send an inspection committee to decide if the school
deserves aid to get new furniture and to build a new playground. I met
her and she was very interested in making this happen.

5. This is the first time such a large gathering has been witnessed in
Fatehpur. Most remarkable achievement is that more than 2,000 women
attended the event. For Muslim women, this is an extremely rare
attendance.

I met volunteers on February 10 to hear their feedback and what the
word on the street was. One of them was a young boy called Toufiq, who
drives an auto-rickshaw. He had pasted a poster and a banner of TEDx
Shekhavati on his auto (‘tuk tuk’) and drove around Fatehpur to spread
the word. He also wore a TEDx Shekhavati T-shirt and when he dropped
me off after the event at my home, he proudly said: “I have been
wearing this for three days and I haven’t changed since.” At the
volunteers meet, he told me that he has attended many events but this
was the ‘best-ever’ event that he has attended. He says he wants to be
part of it next year too.

One of the volunteers, Khalid Sarkhel, said, “We wait for outsiders
and NGO representatives to come and give us information. Because we
are illiterate, we believe in anything they tell us. But now, with
TEDx Shekhavati, we feel that we can also learn so much more and learn
to identify what is good and bad for us. We don’t have to rely on
outsiders anymore. We can be self-reliant.”

Last year, there was a big issue when I delegated tasks: they never
got done. But I noticed that when my father or any other man delegated
work, it was immediately done. So this time, I appointed a Senior
Project Coordinator who was my 8-Day Academy student, Najmuddin. I
explained to him all the work that needs to be done and asked him to
form a committee of boys. Then, I spoke to another 8-Day Academy
student called Nasreen Qureshi and asked her to form a team
ofgirls/women. I gave them the tasks and they completed them in their
own way. Their leadership in executing and then managing responsibly
was such a bright example of the way TEDx can groom rural youth.

I am so humbled by all the attendees. I am also humbled by all my
family and friends who have helped out in fundraising and many other
ways. Pratham Books donated 6,000 children’s glossy story books with
great illustrations that the children devoured!

Mohammed Parham Al Awadhi ran 10km in Dubai Marathon and helped me
raise AED5000. Aljoud Lootah helped us do a Twitter auction of her tees and a shawl to raise more than AED4000. Baahar also auctioned some of her stuff. One of my star fundraisers is Naseem Faqihi who first fundraised USD750 and then contributed AED2700 towards the event. Sophia Ali and Manish Mundra, who are always present to help. Rahul Verma drove all the way from Delhi (6 hours!) to photograph the event. Ajay Kumar who I jokingly refer to as someone who lives in train stations because of the frequency of travel, was the micro-blogger for the event. He was tweeting from the account @TEDxShekhavati. All my speakers made the event what it was. So many, many people to thank!

A very special mention to my soulmate, my husband, Tauqeer Ahmed, who went out of his way during the event, multi-tasking! He always jokes with me how he cannot multi-task, so I think this was a revelation for him too. He was a true star at the event!

There will be hurdles but it’s worth all the hassle.

Tedx1Tedx2Tedx3

Yesterday was one of the best day I’ve had in a very long time. I’ve
been carrying a deep hurt for a long time. To see people who I had
taught to become the torch-bearers of progress, disinterested in
change, made me struggle to look for positives in social work.
Usually, people have a simplistic view towards social change; they
assume that the ‘poor’ are waiting to be rescued. This is why, one of
the harder lessons has been a realisation that poverty has become the
comfort zone for many. Dhaka trip compounded that belief.

Since I came to India, it’s been a busy trip trying to balance meeting
family for the first time after marriage and between handling
TEDxShekhavati work. Luckily, one of my 8-Day Academy student is the
brightest star in our little town and he is also spearheading the
execution of all my plans. He is Najmuddin.

Let’s come to the point now. I visited the TEDxShekhavati 2011 venue
yesterday. I think we couldn’t have been gifted with a better venue.
The school was in ruins and it was so hard to believe that it is a
functioning school! KIshan Paathshaala was built in the 1920s as a
school for Harijans (‘untouchables’) and since then it has evolved
into a school for less-fortunate children. These are children whose
fathers are donkey cart pullers, or children who are orphans or whose
fathers have left them and re-married, leaving them with their
grandparents who can barely take care of them. 200 such children go to
school here. There are eight teachers in the school.

Yesterday, I went to the school and they did an impromptu dance
performance for me. I was so touched by the sincereity of those
children and teachers. Then, one of the teachers told me that their
school is considered the lowest grade in Fatehpur and because of us
(our family), this school and the entire area around us has received a
‘lift’. The school—almost 80 years old—does not have toilets! But
because of TEDxShekhavati, toilets are now being built in the school
and will be completed before the event on February 5, 2011. The school
is finally being painted too!

There is so much excitement in the community. I have a team of more
than 20 volunteers which is a HUGE change compared to last year where
I was driven to frustration because nobody wanted to take work
delegated by me. This time, I have made Najmuddin in-charge of
delegating tasks and everything seems smooth so far 

Here are some photos of the school. There is a photo of the empty
ground which is the venue for TEDxShekhavati. The school uses this as
a playground for sports activities and it is right next to the school.
The small building (in the photos) is the school.

A big thank you to all those who contributed cash to make this event
happen. This is not just a conference or another TEDx event. This is a
movement from within the communities that is making great things
happen! A low caste school hosting such a big event…who could’ve
thought?

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