A Tale of Airplanes, Alphonsos and Annoyance to Focus Your Attention on an Urgent Aid Effort

So as is now well-documented, my law school class (the Class of 2000 of the National Law School, Bangalore, India), together with the support of our larger Alumni network has pulled off a seemingly impossible feat-Flying a plane-load of migrant workers in dire financial straits back to their home towns in the comfort of a privately-funded charter plane. Not just that but this has turned out to be just a prequel -in a short space of the week that followed, we launched an even more ambitious project to crowdfund for more such transport initiatives — an initiative now called Mission Aahan Vahan meaning Vehicle of Dawn.

I have had a very small part to play in this effort myself -primarily, assisting with fundraising and supporting the last-mile flight logistics effort but even this small participation has struck a deep chord somewhere as has the whirlwind of subsequent events that have unfolded once the news hit the press.

Above all, this participation has left me with a spring in my step -at being part of something that has overwhelmingly improved another human being’s life and basking in the glow of watching something that seemed like a small and stand-alone initiative become the starting point for a movement both literally and metaphorically.

[If you’ve been living under a rock and have missed the “movement” I’m talking about, you can read more about it in the links below:

https://mumbaimirror.indiatimes.com/coronavirus/news/ascend-school-parents-help-180-migrants-fly-home/articleshow/76183840.cms https://www.livemint.com/mint-lounge/features/nlsiu-alumni-plans-second-flight-for-migrants-to-jharkhand-on-sunday-11590841891436.html

https://www.edexlive.com/news/2020/jun/05/nlsius-alumni-group-and-other-individuals-have-sent-more-than-900-migrant-workers-to-home-heres-h-12449.html ]

Needless to say our efforts, both past and present, are a mere drop in the ocean of what needs to be done. But I did want to take a pause and use this “feel good” for a broader purpose. The meanderings in this note have been swirling around my head for a while — and putting it down in electronic posterity is my way of searing the experience and learnings from it in my own brain — through this somewhat public catharsis, I hope to ensure that I remain accountable to myself for “doing more” long after the current crisis has passed.

As an aside, following a certain milesteone birthday, I’ve found that books on personal development have somehow sneaked their way into my reading list- Books by Susan David, Shonda Rhimes, Angela Duckworth and Marianne Williamson to name a few. For me, being a part of this initiative has been a practical, real-life validation of how the many life lessons set out in those books are actually true- the importance of surrounding yourself with inspirational people, how not to get too much inside your own head, how teamwork and a shared vision can reduce the pain of the perspiration needed to execute the inspiration and indeed (for most of us) recognizing and being grateful for one’s life as one of privilege and not one of want. I hope that my own validation experience can go at least a tiny way in being useful to you readers as well.

And finally, if you’ve been moved by the suffering of the less fortunate in this lockdown but been unsure about what you can do to help, I offer a very tangible route to turn these feelings into action.

TAKEAWAY 1 : THE IMPORTANCE OF SURROUNDING YOURSELF WITH INSPIRATION

As someone wisely said, (with some paraphrasing) you are the average of the people that you surround yourself with.

In my case I’ve (somewhat reluctantly) conceded mindspace to my classmates by staying (sometimes against my better judgment!) on the fairly active class WhatsApp group where many heated debates occur on issues at the intersection of law and policy and in the energetic way that is only possible when a bunch of opinionated, legally trained folks are involved.

And even as I remained a fairly inactive member (confession: occasionally fighting my annoyance at the serial happy birthday messages and at waking up to 50+ messages in an already-crowded WhatsApp inbox and having to compartmentalize those from urgent chasers from clients!), the group has gently but firmly kept me grounded and attuned to developments that would not otherwise directly enter the orbit of my rather cushy day-to-day life as a transactional lawyer based in Singapore.

Separate from the debates and discussions, many of my law school classmates are also personally inspirational in that they’ve forged their own unique paths in so many different ways. That was reinforced when I reconnected with many of them at our 20th year reunion in Goa in January this year.

I have classmates who have done ground-breaking work on promoting sports in India (particularly supporting underfunded, underprivileged sportpersons), contributed to policy development through research, provided “unglamorous” on-the-ground support through NGOs, successfully litigated the rights of the underprivileged (including recent path breaking judgments to secure back pay for migrant workers) and tirelessly advocated for entire national governments to be held accountable on the world stage for their actions using the lens of international law. In addition, there are the “entrepreneurs” both in the law and otherwise (the latter including within its ranks, former lawyers turned best-selling authours and the founder of India’s first comic book café) who have overcome, in many cases, their inherent aversion to risk to charter their own destiny. Finally, last but not the least, there are those who are in the more traditional law firm and in-house roles or indeed with non-law business careers and who are always generous with their time and/or their money and/or their “out-of-the-box” ideas (one of which played a key role in this initiative).

While I’m obviously closer to and/or connected with only some of my classmates just interacting with this eclectic, sometimes annoying but always inspirational group has been truly a privilege.

TAKEAWAY 2: THE IMPORTANCE OF GETTING OUT OF YOUR OWN HEAD

Someone on our group only as recently as 20th May proposed that we “do something for migrant workers”. The usual explosion of messages began as folks weighed in on the “why what when how” of manifesting our contribution. Even as the flight plan was presented as an alternative to the original bus transport plan, I remained what can only be described as a “detached skeptic” — I thought that the flight plan was just way too ambitious and that there wasn’t sufficient time to pull it off given a number of the last-minute logistics were yet to be worked out. Skepticism and the desire for perfection are indeed both a tool of trade and a curse for us lawyers.

I remember when the penny dropped for me- it was when someone suggested we explore the flight plan at a later stage (given its complexities) that my classmate Shyel (one of the true leaders behind this effort) stepped in and said (something on the lines of) “There is no later”. Unsaid in her simple statement was a recognition of how dire the situation was and the need for us to act quickly and decisively and not risk paralysis by analysis. The stark reality of the situation was also brought home to me when migrants from Jharkhand based in Mumbai were identified as being the most “needy” given the dearth of direct transport connections. As someone with family roots in Bihar, Jharkhand is very familiar territory- I have traveled through the region many times to visit family and indeed touched down and taken off several times from the very Ranchi airport that was the destination of our rescue mission.

Luckily, my misgivings about the plan didn’t manifest itself in an effort to actively block the plan as I was too busy with some other things- I must confess that I did nothing to support the cause actively in those initial stages other than raising and contributing money. Credit must go to the core team from my class and other alumni for steadfastly staying on course and focusing our collective, intangible will into a specific action point which led to the flight plan becoming a reality.

So the learning I have for you folks is as follows: skepticism, the desire for perfection and indeed the other attributes we often require to excel at work while great attributes in themselves have their limitations-they must be applied keeping the context in mind and the often imperfect judgments calls that need to be made in real-life situations.

And applying some dramatic license to this takeaway: I’m so glad to have not been the naysayer who nipped this plan in the bud because this bud has gone on to flower into a magnificent tree of such heart-warming and unimaginable proportions. Our initiative has fired people’s imagination and conscience like none of us could have ever imagined. So dear reader- when you are next thinking of shooting down or critiquing what may seem like a crazy idea, be mindful that it is these seemingly crazy but game-changing ideas that can go on to literally change the world and that too, for the better.

I’m so glad to have dodged that “naysayer” bullet myself: Even though it was really by being absent (from the metaphorical firing range) when I should have been present (read: a more active supporter).

TAKEAWAY 3: TEAMWORK AS AN UNEXPECTED FRINGE BENEFIT OF THE INSPIRATION: PERSPIRATION COMBO

Like any project, perspiration needs to accompany the inspiration and this project was no different. The night of 27–28 May was, for several of us, a long night of darkness before the dawn. A bunch of us spread across four different cities corralled together for the giant logistical effort that was getting migrant workers to and from the airport in the midst of a lockdown. Nothing in our careers so far had prepared us for a stint in pre-flight-ops but luckily our OCD lawyer skills came to the rescue as we tallied IDs with tickets and worked the phones to ensure everyone had transport coordinated.

It certainly helped to be part of a team that one had shared history with, which has given a comfort level that overrides the absence of sustained close contact with other team members in recent years. Humour was a key part of how we survived 5 years in a residential university that was practically in the middle-of-nowhere. And this last-mile all-nighter club was no different : as we bantered, conversed and even debated. We laughed about some non-native Hindi speakers amongst us struggling to communicate concepts such as quarantine, “relax, we will get you the e-tickets” and “are you too pregnant to fly”, I had a sidebar on the price of Alphonso mangoes in Singapore versus Bombay and we argued over whether pacifiers could be used on babies under 2 weeks old to soothe them during flights.

For me, this interaction with my fellow team members was a key part of the experience — And more so because the enjoyment from it was not something I had actively thought about or anticipated. Among other things, it made the all-nighter go by in no time.

As a larger point, I believe it goes to show that be it in the inspiration or the perspiration needed to get a project off the ground, any team project comes with unexpected and intangible fringe benefits which often don’t get factored into the mechanical decisions that have become a part of our daily lives -in my case, participating in this initiative re-affirmed the joys of true team work- Getting the “rush” of being part of a larger team working towards a collective common goal that was so unequivocally for the greater good. It also re-emphasized that working in a cohesive way usually results in a sum that is greater than the arithmetic aggregation of its component parts.

And, best of all, in our “digitally-enabled” lockdown world, you can now be part of wonderful team efforts in many different ways right from the comfort of your desk….

TAKEAWAY 4: “CHECKING ONE’S PRIVILEGE” IS A REAL THING

Having an inspirational and opinionated “bleeding heart” of a younger sister means that being reminded to “check my privilege” is a phrase that is already in my lexicon.

In a different but related context, participation in this initiative was a reminder of my own privilege as we learnt upfront the specifics of how desperate the life situation of several migrant workers was as a result of the lockdown which had deprived them of their jobs and/or their income.

It was particularly brought home to me as I played my small part in the co-ordination effort from the comfort of my study in Singapore. The sugar rush fuel required from the all-nighter came from a pistachio and apricot sourdough bread loaf hand-delivered to my doorstep by a home baker operating in my condo. Safely in my fridge were extra-special weekend treats that I was able to access BECAUSE OF (and not despite the) lockdown- Bottled cocktails from the world’s third (or fourth?) best bar that were now home-delivered on demand. And indeed there are many other examples that had pierced my conscience from a Singapore perspective as well which I was reminded of during that all-nighter: a particular story that had struck me was a Straits Time feature on a single mom who did food deliveries with her 2-year old and 6-year old strapped onto her bike (regrettably, I was unable to track her down personally to help her like I’d wanted to).

I would like to think that most of us well-heeled folks do carry some version of “guilt” around. In Singapore in particular, but for some hiccups in procuring grocery delivery slots, managing home-based learning and minor inconveniences around circuit-breaker restrictions, we have been truly lucky to lead an extraordinarily privileged lockdown life -in stark contrast to many.

Through the fundraising campaign referenced below, I offer you a very meaningful way to channel your desire to “do something” in a way that brings a meaningful and direct impact to the lives of many. Please consider donating generously- And just as a reminder, to borrow from the words of my classmate “There is no “later””.

PS: This piece is focused on my class: Separate from my own class, there are a number of my alumni who have done incredibly wonderful things with their lives including for the cause of migrant workers in India. A report on one such initiative is here: https://www.livelaw.in/news-updates/serving-the-shramiks-nlsiu-bits-pilani-partners-with-akshaya-patra-foundation-to-serve-food-and-water-to-100000-sharmik-train-passengers-157790

PS Part 2: Update as of 13 June:Quick note that fundraising for the Mission Aahan Vahaan and Serving the Shramiks initiative run by my law school alumni (chartering of planes and trains respectively to transport migrant workers) has now closed and we are in execution phase. And while these initiatives are of course fantastic (as indeed will be anything additional that comes out of the recent Supreme Court order directing governments to ‘do more’) there is still a LOT to be done to support migrant workers in India-transporting them ‘back home’ remains the urgent priority as many of them have been struggling to pay rents and feed themselves and their families in big cities minus any income.

Please refer to this for another wonderful initiative by a fellow alumni. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/join-me-my-hope-help-stranded-families-reach-homes-rohini/

For those who have asked, even with the lockdown in India partially lifting, economic activity still remains muted and many of their employers have had to shut down or, at best, expect to re-hire (in their words) ‘after September’ . As an example of their plight, the Mumbai Patna flight I assisted with last week included 8 infants with their anxious parents, a senior citizen cancer patient and one extremely stressed out lady in the 7th month of her pregnancy- all of whom have been desperate to get home for a couple of months now and who either don’t have the money for private transport or were unable to get a seat on the government-organised Shramik trains.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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Pooja Sinha

A global deal lawyer running her practice from Singapore. Recently caught the lockdown writing bug. LinkedIn: https://sg.linkedin.com/in/pooja-sinha-singapore.