A Stitch in Time Saves Nine

In Feb 2001, my sister from Vancouver called informing that my father, who happened to be visiting her, had fallen critically ill and was in hospital. For a man who had never taken seriously ill, and had never been admitted to a hospital, it was surprising that the pneumonia got the better of him and that he never came out of it. By the time I reached Vancouver, he was unconscious and remained so until his last breath. By sheer chance I discovered a book “Peace, Love and Healing”, authored by Dr Bernie Siegel M.D., lying on his bookshelf gifted to him by a man whose entire family had perished in the Air India explosion over Ireland in 1985.

At first, I did not see the connection between this person’s gift and my father’s illness. Obviously, the man who gifted him this book had been through awful trauma in his life and this book had touched him in some way and contributed to his healing. I started reading the book during my hospital visits but by the time I finished Chapter 1, my father passed away. On returning to Mumbai, I finished the book, from where my journey to embrace well-being began.

I started an in depth inquiry into the causes of illnesses and unravelling the path to well-being which has spanned almost two decades and I continue to gather insights often. I have read extensively; attended programs on wellness by different gurus and held lengthy discussions with friends and family. Although the world has no dearth of good doctors, I realised we need to take charge of our own lives. The authors I read were both contemporary and from eras gone by, some medical doctors and some wellness professionals. Below, I have attempted sharing my learnings and insights from this journey.

Understanding Illness and the True Interpretation of its Causes

Dr Bernie Siegel is a retired cancer surgeon who set up Exceptional Cancer Patients (ECAP) group in the U.S. According to Dr Siegel, “Illness is one of the ways we are reminded when we deviate from our personal blueprint and if we view disease this way we can open ourselves to resurrection for a disease may serve as a re-direction or a reset button.” However, I remained thirsty to understand the true causes of disease.

Fortunately, a cousin of mine shared a book called “Toxemia” written by Dr John Tilden, M.D. a doctor who passed away in 1940. I have never needed to look beyond Dr Tilden to understand the cause of dis-ease. In the latter half of his career, Dr Tilden turned his back on the medical profession and took a position opposing modern medicine. Although I do not accept Dr Tilden’s opposition to medical interventions, his work serves as a primer for prevention and seen through this lens, his work makes remarkable sense.

Dr Tilden was influenced by the Natural Hygiene movement led by Herbert Shelton at that time. He came up with a simple explanation for the cause of all disease. According to him, there is only one disease, which is “Toxemia”, and all illnesses be it a cold, constipation, arthritis or cancer are different manifestations of the same disease. What exactly is Toxemia?

Toxemia Tree

             The Tree of Toxemia Depicting the Causes and Manifestations of Illness

According to Dr Tilden, “In the process of tissue building – metabolism – there is cell building –anabolism– and cell destruction –catabolism-. The broken down tissue is toxic and in health, when nerve energy is normal, it is eliminated from the blood as fast as evolved. When nerve energy is dissipated from any cause, physical or mental or any bad habits, the body becomes enervated, when enervated (toxin) elimination is slowed or paused, causing a retention of toxin in the blood or Toxemia. This accumulation of toxin once established will continue until nerve energy is restored by removing the causes. So-called disease is nature’s effort at eliminating the toxin from the blood.

Healing versus Cure

For any normal person it is customary to have at least one attack of severe illness in his or her lifetime. Dr Siegel remained faithful to the medical profession but conceded that it represented just one-half of the response needed for a holistic approach to healing. He writes, “I have always made a distinction between healing and curing. To me, ‘healed’ represents a condition of one’s life, ‘cured’ relates strictly to one’s physical condition. In other words there may be healed quadriplegics and AIDS patients and cured cancer patients who are leading unhealthy lives.”

 Establishing the Body-Mind Connection

In building the case for healing, Dr Siegel suggests the need to view the body and mind as one integrated system. He provides research as well as anecdotal evidence on how the mind can contribute to the healing process. Citing the example of clinical trials, about 1/3rd or more of people treated with placebos show positive results. A placebo is just a sugar pill so how do they work? Placebos work because of a person’s will to live. According to Dr Siegel, any change would have to be precipitated by the mind. The placebo suggests to us that we may be able to change what takes place in our body by changing our state of mind. Dr Siegel provides scientific evidence to show that neuro peptides or messenger molecules functionally integrate cells of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems and these can be secreted by the brain to facilitate the movement of white blood cells (WBCs) to the immune system.

           Retired Cancer Surgeon Dr Bernie Siegel on his Life Story: Run time 3” 53’

Emperor of All Maladies

Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee  is a world famous oncologist and author of “Emperor of all Maladies”, a biography on cancer. In his book, he mentions that cancer is not one but several diseases all clubbed in a family.  What are the implications of cancer being a family of diseases rather than a single disease? What shifts in thinking does this cause? What this signifies is that the causes of cancer are several. If you dig deeper, the same causes of cancer overlap with causes for other diseases.  For instance, an unhealthy diet and excessive alcohol may contribute to either gastritis, hiatus hernia, diabetes, liver malfunction or cancer. This is synchronous with the “Tree of Toxemia” drawn by Dr Tilden who  writes, “From the first irritation, like a cold or gastritis, to extreme degeneration such as diabetes, syphilis or cancer, the whole pathologic panorama is one continuous evolution of intensifying effects (of toxin build-up). The pathology may be studied until doomsday without throwing any light on the cause.”

Cancer Quote

Notably, in his book, Dr Mukherjee devotes an entire section to “Prevention is the Cure.” He dwells on the preventable factors causing cancer. These include diet, obesity, sedentary lifestyles, smoking, alcohol, excess exposure to UV rays, ionizing radiation and to carcinogens at work and cancer linked viruses such as human papillomavirus, hepatitis B & C.

Medicine of the Future

From my own experience with illness, I find modern medicine super specialised in its outlook. We all know that tobacco causes lung cancer and excessive UV rays cause skin cancer. These are direct attributions of cause. What is less prominent is awareness on indirect attribution and the role of the immune system. Cancer, like psoriasis and arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. We must, therefore, inquire what lifestyle causes weakening of our immunity system. Chronic stress, stimulants, processed foods, lack of Vitamin D and immuno-suppressant drugs all lower immunity.

Dr Mukherjee builds the case for immune activation as a therapeutic tool. He goes on to say, “Immunologists have shown that reactivating the immune system can indeed have a therapeutic benefit in some cancers such as melanoma. The role of the immune system has emerged as a powerful new focus in cancer therapy.” Should we not then preserve our immunity system at all costs?

The timings is right for modern medicine to join hands with alternative therapies that could lead to an integrated form of medicine gravitating towards prevention.  Meditation, yoga, visualisation, music, hypnosis, prayer, psychotherapy are all mind-altering processes which have the potential to contribute to healing and well-being. A healthy diet and periodic fasting helps in avoidance of toxin build-up and toxin elimination. We may spend colossal dollars on health care, cures and newer treatments without understanding the implications or we could simply invoke prevention awareness in our lives, which comes practically free. This calls for imbibing the maxim a stitch in time saves nine or should I say nine hundred or nine thousand. But, then who said common sense is really common?


Shakti Saran is a Trustee on the Board of V Care Foundation, an NGO focusing on providing emotional and care giving support to cancer patients and is a Senior Fellow with PYXERA Global. All views expressed are personal

Featured image courtesy: http://www.yos.org

When गूँज (Goonj) Came Home

This took place in late Jan 2018. I was attending the inaugural cohort of the India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS) program at Sonipat and our program organisers got our entire cohort to pay a field visit to the headquarters of Goonj at New Delhi. Before we left Sonipat I had a token understanding of Goonj and its founder, the Magsaysay Award winner and Ashoka Fellow Anshu Gupta . Goonj, an NGO specialising in recycling clothes and used household or office articles is a bright spot in India’s social sector and celebrated its twentieth anniversary this month.

As part of our visit, we spent a half day at Goonj’s processing facility, which also included a lengthy conversation session with Anshu. The centre is organised very professionally and is designed to enable easy sorting and quick despatch of material to be re-used. Anshu, who is also known as India’s clothman, started his journey as a clothing provider for the poor and supporting menstrual hygiene for women who did not have the means. Says Anshu, “people don’t die because of (severe) cold; they die because of lack of clothing.” However, Goonj has come a long way since then and although clothing remains a crucial activity, it has diversified its efforts into building bridges, wells, canals, roads, drainage systems, rainwater-harvesting systems.


Goonj Processing Centre at Sarita Vihar, New Delhi


Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Excerpted from “100 Stories of Change, by Goonj”

Goonj stands for dignity, equality, fairness and wisdom. Several NGOs offer relevant and useful programs in the areas of rural development and disaster relief. However, there are two attributes, which stand out in the case of Goonj. First, it does not believe in outright gifting of urban discarded material save in the case of disaster relief operations. Remember that famous adage “Give me a fish and I eat for a day; teach me to fish and I eat for a lifetime.” Goonj offers goods and material support to rural communities as a reward for undertaking rural development projects. Look at it another way, it is creating an alternative currency to sponsor rural initiatives. Second, very few NGOs can claim to create systems and cultural shifts the way Goonj does. It has been at the forefront of awareness campaigns such as moving “From Charity to Dignity”; moving from “Donor-beneficiary to Everyone a Stakeholder” from “Donation to Mindful Giving.” Goonj achieves this through conversations and talks; through print and social media campaigns, through summits and conclaves and through its recently introduced fellowship program.

Check out the video on “Contribute, Don’t Discard”

Goonj is pretty much a pan-India operation working in 23 of 29 states. It has collection centres in eight states covering Chandigarh, Chennai, Delhi, Hissar, Solan, Bangalore, Indore, Mumbai, Jalandhar, Jaipur, Rangareddy, Rishikesh, and Kolkata. In 2018, it ran a yearlong collection campaign in partnership with Marks & Spencer. Besides clothing Goonj works with shoes, household goods, dry rations, stationary, books, utensils, used office furniture.

The visit was a revelation and on my return to Mumbai, one of the first things I did was to reach out to my housing society and along with my collaborator and fellow resident, Nikita Patel, organise a collection drive. In about a month from now, we will be organising our third collection drive for Goonj. My building society has been very encouraging and all we needed to do was to broadcast a message on the building WhatsApp group. This served like a match strike and the response has been so positive that we are now looking at spreading the collection drive to the entire neighbourhood.


Along with building residents during Goonj collection drives

My learnings from Goonj have been several. First, when you declutter, you actually end up feeling lighter and better. I remember my friend Ulrich from Germany who narrated his experience living in Orange County in the U.S. where the norm is to buy and discard soon. Although this does not break the cycle of consumption, it prevents you from amassing.  Second, the wisdom of simplifying one’s needs although this might seem counter-intuitive because you would have less to discard. Finally, I remind myself frequently that discarding is not charity and my actions are serving my needs of inner wellbeing.

The literal meaning of Goonj in hindi is ‘echoes’ but Goonj is not just creating echoes of voices but also of echoes of efforts. It is doing ordinary things in extraordinary ways and is amplifying social impact. For me, Goonj has come home in more ways than one. Not only has it made an impact on my building and neighbourhood residents, its philosophy has found its way into several people’s hearts, mine included. That’s what I refer to when I say “Goonj has come home.”

Shakti Saran is a Senior Fellow with PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own

Photo & Video Credits: Goonj (feature image; image from 100 Stories of Change); Chris Chros Films (Youtube Video link)



If it’s Saturday it Must be Khanderi

Mumbai-Khandheri, December 29th-30th 2018

Saturday 29th December

Today is the day of the sailing cruise to Kanhoji Angre Island a.k.a. Khanderi, not to be mistaken with the uber-Mumbai suburb of Andheri. On the Saturday of Christmas week, three sailing clubs of Mumbai come together to host this annual event.  A thirty-some bunch of sailors assemble in the sailing room of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club at 7.30am. After a short debriefing by cruise leaders Bejon Madon and Deepak Shah, we are at mooring and all set to sail.

My crew consists of my cousin Pradeep; his son Siddhanth and Sid’s friend Sagar. Our course is to get to Sunk Rock and steer 190° south. We leave mooring at 8.30am and our aided by a steady breeze to get us out of the harbour. It’s a hazy day but not as hazy as my sail a month ago. The smudge of land is visible and we can see the lighthouse at Mandwa on our port side. Slowly, the island that is Khanderi appears and starts growing bigger and bigger but the next thing I realise is that our boat has stalled. We are in striking distance of Khanderi and its twin Undheri Island when the wind drops dead. We succumb to getting towed by another boat that has an outboard motor.

We reach Khanderi around noon. This is my second visit here although after a gap of sixteen years. Much has changed. The island hosts a solar farm and a spanking new modern jetty in anticipation of Maharashtra Government’s plans to promote it as a tourist spot. The island is most famous for its Shivaji-era fort. It’s incredible that this fort, built during 1660-78, is maintained in near perfect condition except for some of the cannons which have fallen by the wayside. But what’s alarming is that with the onset of tourists the pile of litter has grown by leaps and bounds.

Kandheri is also renowned for its mega lighthouse and its super powerful beam which directs shipping traffic hailing from the Arabian Sea to the port of Mumbai. The only people who reside on the island are the lighthouse keepers.  We spend the day exploring the island and the fort. We stumble upon several places of worship that include a Lord Shiva-offshoot temple, a Dargah (mosque), a Buddhist shrine and a Cross. Interesting that this relatively uninhabited island is so inclusive in its culture.

We spend the evening checking out the lighthouse -built by Barbier & Benard Constructeurs of Paris in 1866- and with friends who have brought their kites to fly. The cooks of the Yacht Club arrive in a separate motor powered boat with half-baked food, burners and utensils and we soon settle down to a sumptuous buffet dinner. Am feeling very spoiled. Post dinner, time flies singing in the company of stars and constellations and being wholly with nature, far from the excesses of civilization. Purvi, a fellow sailor described it so beautifully “Nobody can capture the sound of music of a dozen singing sailors belting out songs whose words they’ve long forgotten yet were sung uninhibitedly in a dozen different keys under a starry sky, those songs will reverberate forever in the wind and waves of Khanderi. They will always call out to happy sailors to return to Khanderi again and again”

It’s approaching midnight and my crew and I crash out in the open in our sleeping bags. It’s cold but warm enough to give us a good night’s sleep.


Our Contingent of Happy Sailors


Getting a feel of the Island


This 1866 Lighthouse doesn’t cease to impress


National Integration on Khanderi Island

Can someone please play the bugle with a discarded water pipe?

Sun 30th December

We are up before sunrise and Pradeep, Sagar and I decide to go for a walk on the eastern side of the island to catch the first rays of sun. The island has two watch towers that allow you to take a peep at the rising sun. The eastern side of the island is also endowed with groves of banyan trees.

Brunch follows and one again the Yacht Club cooks are out to please. My sailor buddy Sohrab delights us playing the bugle with a discarded water pipe and some of us sitting on a bench form a massage train with each person massaging the person-in-front’s shoulders.

It’s now 12 noon and we are back in our boats ready to sail back to Mumbai. The course to Mumbai is zig-zag as we are sailing on a reach* with the wind pretty much coming from the direction of our destination. We sail past Thal and nearing Mandwa the wind dies again. It’s flat but we are entertained by a flying fish which jumps into our boat. I am concerned about the fish but my crew is way too excited and squeeze in a short video before we release it some 30 seconds later. We are towed again till we pass Mandwa and enter the harbour limit. We get back to mooring around 5.30pm.

This has been an amazing weekend! I can hear the wind and waves of Khanderi beseeching us to get back as I step onshore. For all nature lovers, I suggest start by checking out what’s in your own backyard. And, for all readers of this blog, may your New Year be filled with Smooth Sailing and Fair Winds. Cheers to 2019!

* A sailing course which runs perpendicular to the direction from where the wind is hailing

Shakti Saran is a Senior Fellow with PYXERA Global. All views expressed are his own

Photo & Video Credits: Anand Halady, Deepa Nipane, Pradeep Saran, Siddhant Saran


To Be Or Not To Be Secular

In the history of human kind religion has ironically played the lead divisive role. More people have been killed in the name of religion than any other force. From the Crusades in the 11th Century to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 20th century and the blood filled partition of India, religion has played the demonic role that founders of faiths from the Buddha to the Prophet would never have blessed.  In many geographies secularism was a response to fundamentalist religious forces but it is also well established that “Man cannot live by bread alone”. People have spiritual needs besides physical wants and it has been observed in States of Peoples Republic of China and former Soviet Union that religious dispositions have only grown post periods of suppression.

The word secular has its roots in both Latin and French. In Latin, the word saecularis refers to worldly or universal. In French seculer or séculier is used in the context of a state and connotes living in a world without belonging to a religious sect. To some, secularism is a political concept to keep religion away from state functions. In Immortale Dei, written in 1885, Pope Leo XIII declared the existence of two orders, the natural and the supernatural with the state best positioned to deal with the former while the Church was ordained with powers to deal with the latter. Modern day Europe is largely secular, owing its origins to state-Church conflict, where both remain distinct but co-exist.

Secularism is understood differently among different cultures. In Europe, where religion became institutionalised it was easy to delineate state and religion. In contrast, in the U.S, there was no Church-state conflict and most religious practitioners belonged to different sects of Christianity but the First Amendment spearheaded by Thomas Jefferson prevented Congress from making any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting free exercise of religion. In India a multitude of religions and sects abound and the State needs to manage communal harmony while guaranteeing religious liberties as much as the right to disbelief. In India the term secular works differently.  Dr S. Radhakrishnan, former President of India aptly stated “When India is said to be a secular it does not mean that we reject the reality of an unseen Spirit or the relevance of religion to life…we hold that no one religion should be given preferential status.” This stand of religious neutrality without negating religion can have positive national and global implications.

Can an individual be secular or is the term applicable only to a state? The term secular has been largely associated with a state and going by its narrow definition one may find it inappropriate to call an individual secular if she or he is practicing a religion. But the term has evolved to stand for plurality. It is now appropriate to refer to a person as having a secular outlook if she or he is tolerant of and in acceptance of other religions.  As stated by Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, “a secular way of life means a comprehensive and inclusive worldview… ‘Secular’ does not mean a denial of faith, but the decision to allow everyone the freedom to pursue well-being and emancipation through whatever means they choose.”

A truly secular state needs to ensure harmony among all religions including the right to reject it but that alone is not enough. Late Sophia Wadia, of The Theosophical Society of India, in her book Brotherhood of Religions wrote “The age of Spiritual Democracy is what we are working for. And it will not arise till religious competition and bigotry are killed…The source of all religions is one, which source is divine…All are true at the source; all are false at the surface.” It is pertinent to ask whether India is a secular country.   India’s secular claims are somewhat mixed. India is in fact neither a theocracy nor is she truly secular. The track record of all political parties is stained with acts of either marginalisation or appeasement. India lacks a uniform civil code and still has several laws that apply to different religions. The real challenge for India’s rulers is to ensure minorities feel good about themselves without giving the majority a minority complex.

In a world quite polarised by religion imbibing a sense of oneness calls for getting to the root of what separates us and fathoming what can truly unite us. What’s missing in this debate are discussions on spirituality and Being. Unfortunately many people are not able to distinguish between religion and spirituality. Religion is basically a belief system which spawns fragmentation whereas spirituality is guided by universal values and through practice can help transcend societal divisions to achieve real harmony. Stillness, inner-Being and life-energy are the domain of spirituality unlike belief systems and rituals which belong to the realm of religion.

Dr Monica Sharma, former U.N. Director of Leadership and Capacity Development has created a Conscious Full Spectrum Response approach to bring about systems shifts in society by directing inner capacities and wisdom. She feels it is in learning to be still in the moment, through deep listening, responsible speaking, among other attributes, that help one’s inner capacities grow and generate profuse, profound and positive energy.

Stillness, deep listening and responsibility can be inculcated in many ways. Two notable routes are yoga and meditation. In 2015, 177 countries of the U.N. voted in favour of establishing an International Day of Yoga. The system of yoga stands for being in union with the universe and offers infinitely more than the popular practice of stretches or asanas. Although yoga hails from India, its outlook is universal, and secular.

It is a lesser known fact that in 1957 the then Secretary General of the U.N. Dag Hammarskjöld commissioned the U.N. Meditation room, a small room dedicated to the purpose of stillness and silence at headquarters. This room is known as A Room of Quiet and at its entrance is a piece from which the following extract appears:

“We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence.  

This house, dedicated to work and debate in the service of peace, should have one room dedicated to silence in the outward sense and stillness in the inner sense.”

 What our world urgently needs is common ground between different religions or a universal space free of force and ideology and where human behaviour arises from universal qualities of inner-Being. This in other words is developing a spiritual quotient. Is this not the state of being truly secular?


Shakti Saran is a Senior Fellow at PYXERA Global. Views expressed in this piece are personal. He can be reached at saranshaks@gmail.com

Above picture shot by author on site at Maitri Mandir, Auroville, India


Experiencing Education

The notion of education conjures up images of class rooms, text books, tutorials and high-stress examinations in my mind but little did I realise that education can equally be a process of observation, discovery, self-learning, also associated with outdoors and a fun-filled experience. A few weeks ago, I was invited by Creya Learning, a Hyderabad based start-up that focuses primarily on tool kits and methods for experiential learning, to visit them. Creya had been mandated to run a summer camp being conducted by Telangana Social Welfare Residential Institutions Society (TSWREIS), an arm of the Telangana Government.

Establishing Context

To establish context, TSWREIS has been carrying out annual summer camps called Summer Samurai  across 70-80 locations in the state for the last seven to eight years. Basically, these are schools for children of Scheduled Tribes which means children are enrolled from the most backward districts and hail from the poorest families in the state. The students at camp are from secondary school, typically 5th to 12th graders. The highlight of my stay was a visit to this camp which took place a little ahead of Sangareddy town in rural Telangana.

Summer Samurai is the brain child of R S Praveen Kumar a retired Indian Police Services (IPS) officer. His vision is to provide world class experiential education to underprivileged kids. During my visit I was stunned to see the degree of English language fluency the children commanded and the constructibles they were working with. These included among many things working with robot and IOT kits. Kids were showing me see-saws they had made and were giving me a refresher on fulcrum and load. They were involved with story-boarding for movie creation and editing; outdoor survival; learning the knots; first aid classes through skit enactment and lots more. All of these I was a witness to. The joy, the excitement, the high fives and their warmth took me by surprise. This got me thinking and I spent several days reflecting on this visit.


Students with their See-saw Model



Story Boarding for Film Making and Editing



Interacting with Students


Two thoughts came to my mind. The first, a conversation I had had with the COO of a major NGO in the education space in India only a month before.  I was telling the COO about my daughter who had the privilege of going to J B Petit school, Mumbai and how as parents we could not have been more satisfied. Basically, we were discussing how I could bridge the gap between the exposure my daughter got and the girl child in the public school I had visited knowing very well that it could never be a perfectly level playing field. But my point to the COO was the need to at least narrow the gap between the privileged and non-privileged as much as possible. At that time, I only expressed an aspiration without knowing how this could be achieved. My visit to the Sangareddy school provided me the insight and clarity I was looking for.

The second was a conversation thread initiated by my colleague Unny Radhakrishnan from the first ILSS  cohort who put this post up recently in our WA group. To quote him “There are many non-profits in the education sector (including Central Square Foundation and the ones incubated by them). Most or all of them are focused on getting basic language, maths etc education fixed. Are there any initiatives in India where education is also encouraging children to think critically, question social practices etc and help them grow with a humanistic mindset? Otherwise aren’t all these efforts feeding into the same social/economic systems by providing more foot soldiers? The very same systems which development sector is questioning?”  I got the answer to this poser from my visit to the school in Sangareddy.

Answers and Conclusions

What Sangareddy taught me was whilst scale in education is crucial it should not be the most important dimension to the education challenge we are facing in India. The emphasis on churning out an army of foot soldiers just because it meets the demands of governments and donors may be adding to the development challenge rather than lessening it. A humanistic education calls for a significant enhancement of the experiential dimension in secondary education which is what is missing in our current system. Experiential education triggers a shift from studying to learning; from examinations to discovery and can supplement academics with a non-linear payoff.  It does not have to be restricted to an annual summer camp and in fact should be easy to instil in a student’s daily life. More than academic fluency, what we need is our children to acquire crucial 21st century skills of communication, collaboration and critical thinking. With the help of technology and with nominal investments in tablet devices one can bridge the gap between privileged and lesser privileged children.

So, I would advocate scale with quality. This will ensure not having to discard our current investments by undoing our education system a decade down the road. And it seems as if the likes of this wonderful IPS officer, the Government of Telangana and Creya Learning are showing us the way.


Shakti Saran is a Senior Fellow with PYXERA Global. Views expressed are personal.

Conquering Cancer: From Chaos to Control

“That’s the most interesting thing of all. The balance depends on the mans frame of mind! Understand? Which means that if he’s cheerful and firm in spirit, there will be more sodium in the barrier, and no sickness none whatever, will bring him to his death. But as soon as he loses heart, the potassium gains the upper hand and he might as well order himself a coffin…So I wouldn’t be surprised…if they discovered some sort of cesium salt…one that spread out in the organism if there was a clear conscience and didn’t if there wasn’t. And it will depend on that cesium salt whether the cells of the tumour will grow or whether the tumour will clear up.”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward


In Feb 2001, I got a call informing my father was admitted to a hospital in Vancouver B.C. and by the time I got there he was in an unconscious state after contracting a severe bout of pneumonia. Three days later he passed away. In those three days, I discovered a wonderful book on his bookshelf “Peace, Love & Healing” authored by Dr Bernie Siegel M.D. an accomplished cancer surgeon. The book was a gift to my father by a friend whose entire family had perished in the Air India bomb blast and crash that took place in Irish air space back in 1985.

My interest in cancer was by sheer chance of reading Dr Siegel’s book. What I learnt from Dr Siegel was completely unorthodox; that disease had a positive dimension and that it served as a reset button. Although he dwelt a lot on his experience as a cancer surgeon, he shared extensive insights showing that regardless of whether a person has cancer or arthritis or AIDS, the healing mechanisms are the same for all diseases and for all patients. Dr Siegel made me aware of the distinction between cure and healing and to be clear he was not advocating turning one’s back on modern medicine but instead using it in conjunction with alternatives for self-healing.

A decade later, in 2011, I happened to meet and spend a day with Vandana Gupta, founder of V Care Foundation . It so happened, my employer IBM was celebrating its centenary year and our then Chairman Sam Palmisano urged every IBMer to take a day off on IBM pay to undertake a day of service. IBM gave its employees a choice of several NGOs and I was drawn to V Care Foundation, a cancer care outfit, thanks to the interest that Dr Siegel’s book had aroused in cancer as well as what was common between cancer and other diseases. What was meant to be an 8-hour commitment eventually led to a larger and longer-term commitment. I was drawn to the work carried out by Vandana and her team of dedicated volunteers which made me keep coming back to V Care to volunteer.

Vandana Gupta is an Ashoka Fellow  and a person who, by Dr Siegel’s yardstick, is an Exceptional Cancer Survivor. Some 25 years ago, at the age of 40, Vandana was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. As an exceptional person with a steely resolve to live she floated the idea of setting up an NGO to help other cancer patients cope. What does Vandana Gupta stand for? In her own words “I care most about cancer patients and want to make sure that we are there for every patient when they are diagnosed through treatment and beyond. I care because my belief is that life with cancer is still life and all of us together should be able to help live it”.

From Chaos to Control

Over the years, Vandana and her team of volunteers have made a mark in cancer care.  This covers the spectrum starting from awareness to counseling; financial assistance for treatment and cures to emotional support for healing. Volunteers, many of whom are cancer survivors are caregivers and are the backbone of the foundation. The foundation supports whole range of programs that include providing medicines and finance; guidance on accommodation-for victims arriving from upcountry- and help in employment and livelihood for survivors. “Going forward”’ says Vandana, “we will continue to provide accessible range of personalized support for anyone affected by cancer and to continue to improve the reach of cancer services within the community. We would like to improve our geographical access get more funds for sustainable future for services, promote and increase awareness of our services through social media, website and printed publication. Research and advocacy will be the new area to enter into. Our staff and volunteers will be encouraged to receive relevant knowledge and learn more. We would like to build partnerships with public, private voluntary and community organizations to provide coordinated services to our beneficiaries in an effective and timely manner”.

V Care is one of only two NGOs to be chosen to participate in the National Cancer Grid and Vandana is now looking at growing V Care’s footprint in India. Unlike the growth of the cancer cell, V Care’s future growth is something to look forward to.

Shakti Saran is a former IBMer who volunteers for V Care Foundation

Of Education, Ethics and Enlightenment

“Education should not be a preparation for life; it should be life” Anthony de Mello in The Prayer of the Frog

Thomas Alva Edison the most prolific inventor since the first industrial revolution refused to go to school after the age of seven. In today’s parlance he was uneducated and yet he was more educated than most. In more recent times Steve Jobs, who went to create one of the most valuable corporations in modern times, was a high school dropout. Closer home Rabindranath Tagore, India’s lone Nobel laureate for literature despised classroom study; refused to go to school and was taught at home. And to add: if you have heard the contemporary Indian yogi Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev speak, he has often proclaimed that he has gone out of his way to remain uneducated. What do these cases tell us about education as a virtue?

What is Education?

A study of genius will reveal that true geniuses have, in the traditional sense of the word, been mostly uneducated. This can get confusing and I remind myself this piece is not on geniuses but on the larger section of humanity that is more commonplace. Given these vastly different attitudes towards education, we must therefore, first and foremost, ask ourselves this question “what is education and what are the end goals of education?” In a conventional sense, and the way United Nations addresses it, education refers to the process of learning from early childhood to primary, secondary, tertiary and even adult learning. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) # 4 also dwells on technical, vocational training and skills for work.  More importantly, SDG # 4, dwells on the goals of education which include poverty alleviation; gender equity; sustainable development and global citizenship among others.

U.N. SDG #4, as laudatory as it might be, however, does not fully address the case for values in education. Anthony de Mello says it eloquently “There are two educations: the one that teaches how to make a living and the one that teaches how to live”. I would say there is also a third, which brings both in balance.  I have to admit that I stand most influenced by author E.F. Schumacher and I have periodically turned to his book “Small is Beautiful-A Study of Economics as if People Mattered”.  In his essay “The Greatest Resource- Education”, Schumacher answers the question “What is Education?”. He says “It is the transmission of ideas which enable Man to choose between one thing and another or to live a life which is something above meaningless tragedy or inward disgrace”. Schumacher goes on to speak about how essential it is to have a metaphysical core in education and ensuring the light of consciousness falls on it. Observe the contrast in the above two descriptions of education.

But to even comprehend what Schumacher is saying in my view requires an advanced level of education. What about people who cannot read and write? What does Schumacher mean to them?   Literacy and numeracy are essential and are a stepping stone to poverty alleviation but they remain just a starting point. It is hard to escape the anomalies we find in the educated person. Educated people are largely responsible for the abysmal state of our planet. For instance, they contribute more to pollution than uneducated people. If you study financial crises that have rocked the globe over the last three decades you will find most of them having been precipitated by highly educated people, some of them from the top universities in the world.  

The Case for Ethics

Educated people as the source of our problems stirs the issue of the role of ethics in education or more so the lack of it.  Morality or ethics, in its raw form is unpalatable unless one is a student of Divinity or Philosophy. How do we then weave ethics into our education system without people raising their defences? For this we need to first understand the difference between convergent and divergent problems.

Convergent problems are those that rest on logic and analytical skills. They fundamentally manifest themselves in the natural sciences and mathematics. Convergent problems leverage our left brain and are such that each new generation can begin where the previous generation left off. Scientific education helps us address convergent problems. Divergent problems, on the other hand, are those that are centred around our daily lives and are prominently manifested in but not limited to the fields of economics and politics. They tap our right brain and are not typically solved through logic and reasoning. Divergent problems push us to strive for a higher level of love, beauty and goodness in our lives.

Unfortunately, most of our education systems are long on solving convergent problems and sadly short on solving divergent problems. Education systems that are oriented towards solving divergent problems are naturally capable of imparting ethics and the simple way of solving divergent problems is through liberal education. The pill of ethics can dissolve easily in a liberal form of education making it easier to swallow. For example, ethics can be instilled by raising a person’s Eco-consciousness through courses on the environment. Ethics thrive on a right-brain disposition and liberal education strengthens a person’s right-brain or at least brings both into balance. Of late, there has been some talk about-left brain vs right-brain approaches to education. A blog piece in HuffPost questions the need for left-brain schools in a right-brain world 

A New Paradigm for Education

As a student, I loved learning but hated examinations. In India, we inherited the British system of education and despite many reforms the hangover still persists. This system focuses dominantly on academics and its biggest drawback is its overwhelmingly regimented approach and being short on divergent education.  It is, in fact, a typical manifestation of convergent education. It fails when we try and address the aspirations of students who want to make a career in sports, music, drama, literature or the arts and it reminds me of Anthony de Mello who wrote “People don’t need to be taught how to look. They merely need to be saved from schools that blind them”.

Should education be liberal or scientific or vocational? I want to clear the air by asserting that am not opposed to education that helps us address convergent problems.  In fact, personally speaking I topped my class in math in the Board exams and loved physics.  I would say we need a combination of all kinds of education but proportions will vary from person to person and the imperative is one of choice being available. What is also clear is that education cannot afford to be short on building right-brain potential and for this we need a minimum dose of liberal education. For example, in choosing a core subject, wouldn’t a course in preventive health or environmental rejuvenation provide greater value than say a class in physics or anatomy?   

To give you some examples of divergent education or values-based education, the foremost one that comes to mind is the one initiated by A. S. Neill. Neill, interestingly of British origin, founded a novel way of education by making it democratic and giving the option of the student to attend classes or not. Neill set up his own school Summerhill along these lines. Tagore set up Santiniketan where students would be taught outdoors in the lap of nature. Sadhguru has set up IshaSamskriti which prepares children for the universe instead of the university. Whilst these examples are innovative they have one thing in common as in they have not been replicated in a widespread manner.

India’s teeming population requires that we look at education at scale. What we need is a new paradigm of education; a system which balances the need for imparting a liberal education and scientific discipline. More importantly, our system of education needs to impart flexibility and provide students a choice such that education happens more naturally and becomes a joy. What would this new paradigm of flexible/divergent education look like? Here are a few pointers:

  • It is crucial to have an education system that demonstrates universal values and ethics. The more woven and integrated these are the more people will be receptive to them. Story telling is a great way of making this happen.
  • Education should promote natural learning and not be lopsidedly focused on academics and examinations. Classroom study should be at best half of the learning experience and the rest should be experiential. For example, learning from field visits and outdoors needs to be stepped-up.
  • It should bring out the creative potential of each child or adult. How come we see only a small set of scientists who are accomplished in say painting or playing the piano?
  • Education should raise consciousness about the environment and ecology and the imminent need to save the planet.
  • It should provide liberal doses of trial-and-error activities such as dismantling an automobile and then putting it back together.
  • It is essential that students be given a choice or a range of electives to pursue their natural preferences.
  • A stitch in time saves nine or maybe ninety-nine. We need to include courses on health and prevention
  • Just as we have Model U.N. in a few schools, we should introduce Model Panchayat sessions in all schools.
  • There is a need to encourage self-learning through access to libraries and e-books.
  • Education should leverage technology, but more significantly help bridge the digital divide. Although technology can play an enhanced role in pedagogy, we should make sure that tech is used as a tool and not an end-goal.
  • Systems need to be designed to keep our natural faculties alive. Have you heard of the term cow sense? It is the faculty to handle cows, or animals, by being able to anticipate their next move, something which most educated people will fail at.
  • All MBA students should be encouraged to take a case-study course on ethics.
  • Graduating medical doctors should be required to serve a one-year rural term.
  • Student exchanges, both physical and virtual need to be encouraged. This can be done through partnerships with NGOs and educational affiliates such that children in rural India can interact both virtually and physically say with counterparts in the U.S.
  • Students need to be motivated and incentivised to support social sector entities as part of summer internships.

Education and Enlightenment

Noam Chomsky, the noted American linguist, philosopher and scientist once said “education is a system of imposed ignorance”. It doesn’t matter if a person is a genius or not but education for a living and education to resolve divergent problems as vital as they may be still don’t make a person complete.  As Schumacher stresses, education in the final analysis needs to be a form of awakening and ought to lead to a higher level of Being and also be the vehicle for the transmission of values and ideas that lead to the inner development of Man.  S N Goenka, who founded the Dhamma movement taught the imperative of self-responsibility and spreading of wisdom through Vipassana meditation. Goenka’s mission is in synch with Schumacher’s outlook on education but education is rarely seen the way Schumacher speaks about it.  For most people, education conveys a blind paper chase; a chase of degrees and certificates. You should now understand why Sadhguru chooses to call himself uneducated.


Shakti is an ex-banker, management consultant and IT professional. He has recently crossed-over to the impact sector after working in the corporate sector for over three decades. He can be reached at saranshaks@gmail.com

Featured image courtesy Isha Foundation

Rhyme & Rhythm in Morocco

Total read time of 10 minutes with videos.

In a few days from today, it will be one year since I set foot on Moroccan soil to join 14 other IBM colleagues, from across the globe, to participate in what was the tenth edition of IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC) mission in Morocco. Fondly known as Morocco10, we were a motley bunch of explorers committed to strengthening our leadership skills and creating a better world.

Professionally speaking, Morocco10 was the trigger to my taking to the social sector post-retirement from IBM. Whilst we absorbed an awful lot in terms of skill building and expertise, what struck me the most was the multicultural environment and the soft skills that one got exposed to. Among several takeaways, the one that lingered a lot was my new-found appreciation of Moroccan culture and the upping of global fluency.

As I look back, the one reminiscence that dominates was the consistent exposure to Moroccan music and dance through the five weeks that I was there. I think Moroccans have music in their blood and break out into dance at the slightest excuse. Whether you go hiking or picnicking; whether you head to a night market or to a famous landmark, people are willing to get into the song and dance act at the drop of a hat.

Here are some videos of the several encounters I had.

At the Medina in Rabat, 22 Secs

Notice the old man playing the gimbri.  Interestingly, the three-stringed instrument is also used to play percussion


Whilst Hiking in the Rif Mountains, 25 Secs

We saw hikers taking a break enroute to the Cascade (waterfall). They couldn’t wait to get to the peak and instead broke into dance with their tambourines.


At the Night Market at Marrakech, 59 Secs

This is perhaps the most touristy of all spots in all of Morocco and where the music is adapted to synthesise with the backgrounds of tourists across the world.


At a Camp in the Moroccan Sahara (Merzouga), 2 mins 25 secs

This was almost at midnight and in the company of sand dunes and a flock of tourists from Paraguay. Notice, how the number starts; slows down to accommodate the Paraguayan tourists; then gets into full rhythm. And the grand finale! Moroccan percussions rock!!!


At the Todgha Canyon, 39 secs

On our way back from Merzouga to Ourzazette, we made a pit-stop at Todgha, a smaller version of the Grand Canyon. Were surprised to see hordes of domestic tourists and several groups performing their own renditions.


At the Atlas Studio, Ourzazette, 35 Secs

This world-famous Atlas Studio is not in Hollywood but in small town Ourzazette in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It has produced all-time greats such as Lawrence of Arabia, Patton and Gladiator. Here is a group of people getting into dance with a simple pair of tambourines. Observe the shrill sound at the end of the video


At the Radisson Hotel, Ourzazette, 1 min 10 Secs

Perhaps it was the best for the last. Our hotel had organised a troupe of traditional folk dancers for guests and most of them were drawn into. The ambience was extraordinary.


In the five weeks that I spent in Morocco, I observed their music has more rhythm than rhyme.  But five weeks is too short a period for a culture whose music roots run deep and which is blessed with several genres of music, Andalusian, Berber, Chaabi/Griha, Gnawa, Malhun, Ra’l and Sephardic to name a few. And am not surprised that the culture possesses far more string instruments than I thought, for instance, the oud, qanun, kamenjah.

One year after CSC, I realise my thinking has undergone such a change and my thoughts have drifted to whether we can apply blockchain to create a repository of world music. I also wonder, can we not use design thinking to design a life; an aggregation of experiences and not merely focus on one-off experiences through consuming a service or buying a product.  The world of  citizen diplomacy and global fluency can help in breaking down narrow domestic walls. And an appreciation of world music, rhyme or rhythm or both, can play a central role.

Shakti is a former IBMer, management consultant and banker who is a crossover to the impact sector. He can be reached at saranshaks@gmail.com

The Evolution of Sail Boat Technology

The piece below was submitted as a paper during the class on ‘Management of Technology’, whilst pursuing my MBA degree at the Questrom School of Business, Boston University in the Fall of 1982. A post-script has been added to bring the topic up to date.



Some of Mankind’s greatest accomplishments have had, perhaps, the simplest of origins. About 6000 years ago, just about the time when Man was impelled to explore water-bodies to supplement his diminishing food supply, the realization that many natural things were buoyant had taken place. Though unquestionably simple today, “this principle was probably the hardest lesson of all to learn, for until it was learnt Man had no background or experience upon which to draw”.1

This principle of buoyancy gave birth to the boat in various corners of the globe and, interestingly, its early development was not dependent on the diffusion of its concept. Rather, the earliest boats that were made were influenced by, and differed, according to the economic resources and the development of tools in that geographical region. The shortage of long timber influenced early Egyptians to make boats out of (abundant) reed, and the presence of sophisticated tools and sewing techniques promoted the development of skin boats in Scandinavia.

The birth of the boat, for the first time, allowed Man to augment his marine food supply. It then, slowly, threw light on the tremendous potential it had in fulfilling some of Man’s greatest needs. That boats could be used for transportation of people and cargo was realized a few thousand years ago. This use required greater stability and supporting capacity of the boat. “Attempts to improve these qualities led to boats being broadened, raised and lengthened by dividing the hull into separately produced sections which were then joined together.”2

A factor which really influenced the development of boat technology was the cultural level of civilizations. The Australian Aborigines, in spite of having all the required materials, never took to the sea water due to a very low standard of culture, knowledge and experience. In Portugal, even after the developments which came about in the Mediterranean, construction of obsolete ‘Saveiro’ boats was carried out until very recently due to the preferred isolation of these people. However, the Egyptians developed advanced technology, but also retained cruder techniques for the burial voyages of less important people than the Pharaohs.

One of the most peculiar features in the development of boat technology has been the very strong conservation of shipwrights and sailors until recently. In support of tradition, the Egyptians developed a long *overhang fore and aft to simplify their loading and unloading on the banks of the Nile. The stern was deliberately made to curve forward to the bow as a protection whilst *running, before the wind. “Such is the conservatism of sailors and shipbuilders that this stern bent over towards the bow survived in the Mediterranean right through Greek and Roman times, and even in recent Venetian craft”3

The development and, later, the mass production of metal tools; the accidental discovery of the sail and subsequent changes in the design of boats led to the wide scale application of boat technology. The discovery of the sail is known to have occurred in ancient Egypt along the river Nile which flows North and where winds, for most of the year, blow South. Historians have suggested “that if a shield made of animal skin was set up like a banner on a pole in a boat during religious ceremonies, someone must have observed that it was helping to move the boat before the wind”4. The keel boat evolved to provide a natural mast-step, since supporting it with hands and knees was laborious.


                                   Ancient Egyptian Boats, Pic Credit: pngtree.com

The use of sail boats carried risks of tremendous magnitudes. Like the recent conquest of space, the use of sail boats was an encounter with the Unknown. Man’s obsession to fathom the sea resulted in the gradual accumulation of knowledge of tides and the moon, shallow water sounding and, much later the compass, navigation and oceanography. This must have encouraged people to make distant voyages and it lessened the possibility of accidental drifting. Without this knowledge, for example, the Arabs would never have made any significant  strides in their method of boat building. “It was said that the Arabs could not use nails in their ships because it was thought there were great magnets at the bottom of the sea that dragged all the iron out of passing ships.”5

Early diffusion of sail boat knowledge could have been due to accidental drifting. Gradual building up of maritime trade and the establishment of city states like Venice, Barcelona and Zara contributed to the sharing and diffusion of knowledge. Tales of travelers like Marco Polo were also a rich source of information. The development of political empires in the Mediterranean gave a spurt to rivalry amongst them. The marine battleground was, perhaps, the greatest medium of technology transfer. “In the civil war, Caesar, by ordering his troops to make *coracles like those he had seen in Britain some years before, was able to cross the river Sicoris near Lerida, when his enemies thought he was safely contained by its flooded waters”6

Coracle from Unstead book October 2012The Earliest Type of Vessels Were in the Form of Coracles  Pic Credit: Cranberry Morning

In the Medieval economy, technical change was made possible due to the enhanced sophistication of tools and the establishment of standards of  measurement.  Safety features and seaworthiness; speed and carrying capacity now dictated design. As merchant ships grew faster than warships, the profit motive in ship construction increased which led to the simplification of the boat rig. The simplification of daily tasks in the steering of the boat also meant that the demand for ship crew had reduced. “The reason for this simplicity was that the owners could not afford the size of crews carried in warships.”7

Sail boat technology was to take its sharpest turn after the invention of the steam engine in 1769. Although steam boats played a major role only after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the Panama Canal in 1914 – thus eliminating their disability to make lengthy voyages – they were to have a radical effect on sail boats. Strangely, this very victimization preceded the revolutionary changes that were to come, in sail boat technology.

The age of the pleasure yacht had dawned.



The adoption of steam had gradually reduced the use of sail power in merchant vessels and warships. Though *dhows existed and yet do, sailing vessels were to become either naval training ships or historical treasures. The one exception, that very soon became the rule, was the use of boats for pleasure or, in other words, the sport of yachting.

With commercial sailing craft having been relegated to a less important part in academic naval architecture, experimental work in boat design was affected. Yachts were large, signifying opulence, with non- *Bermudan *gaff rigs, and they sported sails that were made of cotton or flax. The yacht was not just a handicraft, but an object of beauty that involved the creative hands of the shipwright whose talents and methods were unique and comparable to an artist’s. The yachts also had deep drafts and were made of wood, as its only substitute, iron, could not be used in smaller size crafts.

index-non Bermudan Gaff rig

A Non-Bermudan Gaff Rig, Pic Credit: Yachting-Life.net

The sport of yachting and the science of yacht making are inextricably bound to each other.  Yachting includes racing and cruising. In the early 19th century,  yachting began as a gamble.  Yacht clubs were formed all over the U.S. and Britain, the most notable one being the New York Yacht Club. Cruising was given an impetus after successful long and short distance voyages which helped in softening the awe-struck feelings of the public. Appendix I mentions all the major yachting events and developments.

Racing has, more than cruising, contributed to the evolution of yacht technology. Competitions have precipitated radical changes in design and have made their adoption imperative. For example, Nathaniel Herreschof’s experiments in the U.S. produced the yacht ‘Gloriana’ whose revolutionary design (see Appendix II for major changes in yacht technology) was such that she was unbeaten in every race, as a result of which her design took America by storm.

index_Yacht Gloriana_longisland photography.net

An Image of Gloriana Yacht, 1891, Pic Credit: Longislandphotography.net

It is important to realize the depth of power and influence that yacht clubs and institutions commanded.  Prior to the First World War, they related measurement and classification to trends in design.  These specifications were such that hulls could not be driven efficiently at high speeds in spite of the know-how of rigs and sail designs that existed. “Yachting history proves that the evolution of yacht design has not been a logical and steady series of improvements.”8

The introduction of steam yachts resulted in the decline in the popularity of schooners, especially after the rig ceased to be used in the America’s Cup. Thus, the Bermudan rig came into being before World War I. The adverse effect of the war on the sport and the industry was eliminated after it ended.

The advent of sailing as an Olympic sport in 1908, and the various international competitions and conferences held by yachting institutions, were very helpful in the dissemination of yacht technology and these gatherings increased the sport’s popularity. During World War I, acute shortage of steel and successful experiments by H. J. Hayde, who developed the first commercially feasible aggregates, laid the path for ferro-cement construction.  The development of the cement industry and the availability of concrete adhesives were very conducive to this form of boat construction.

General climate conditions now began to influence yacht construction. British boats that were to compete in the America’s Cup were often designed according to Newport climatic and sea conditions.  The building up and the diffusion of  knowledge of navigation, and the progress in the science of seamanship, gave an added boost to pleasure cruising.

Strangely, the Depression was not a deterrent to yachting. Though the grim Thirties spelled the end of big yachts, the smaller *one-design boats grew rapidly and flourished.   Many of these one-design boats had a keel that was retractable (i.e. a centerboard). They were confined mostly to inland lakes due to their poor stability, although they had definite advantage in sailing upwind.


Seabird Class, One-Design Boats are still to be found in Mumbai Harbor

History is replete with inventions that have occurred by accident. Walter Von Hustler, a professional sailor, in his effort to reduce his boat’s weight, experimented with a hollow mast which had a smaller circumference.  It was a sheer coincidence that he observed that the mast was bent backwards at the top and that the mast’s erection increased the belly of the sail. The bending of the mast was what exactly needed to flatten a given sail in a freshening breeze.

This discovery was to lead later on to the introduction of aluminum alloy as a substitute for wood in the manufacture of spars.  Whilst this improvement was being demonstrated and questioned, more research was being carried out in the relation of rigs to aerodynamics.

In 1943, promising studies on ferro-cement construction, carried out by Prof. Luigi  Nervi,  demonstrated,  for  the  first  time,  that  thousands  of  yachts  were  now being made of concrete. This method of construction was adopted widely in the British Commonwealth, probably because “Dr. Nervi’s paper was translated into English by the Cement and Concrete Association, London”.9

concrete_side2_Ferro cement construction_ Bill's Log

                         A Ferro-Cement Boat Spotted at the Brandy Hole Yacht Club,                            Pic Credit: http://bills-log.blogspot.in/2009/09/ferro-cement-boat.html

To the shipwright, ferro-cement construction posed a great threat. Ferro-cement’s technology differed radically from traditional construction know-how. Concrete boat building, after all, involved different tools requiring a very low level of skills. It separated the planning and building of boats and it introduced standardization.  Ferro-cement construction also proved suitable to boat builders in the Third World, due to the simplicity of this technology. This technology, however, had its risks and limitations too. “Naval architects warn that ferro-concrete construction must be competently engineered and that there must be the highest quality control in production.”10



Every time the sport of yachting has suffered, it has recovered and leapt forward with gigantic strides. After World War II, many young Americans who had gone to sea, on duty, were bent on fulfilling their post war dreams of getting afloat under more pleasant circumstances.

The post war era saw rapid developments in areas like seamanship, navigation, oceanography and aerodynamics. Experiments by Ujja Fox11 on rig structures and determination of optimum *aspect ratios were encouraging. Prof. Kenneth Davidson’s pioneering work on model tank testing at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, U.S.A., and the enthusiastic sail boat research at the MIT, laid the ground work for the modifications that were to take place. Undoubtedly, this research was made possible only because of the marketing of advanced test measurement devices and electronic data processing machines.

After World War II, the ready availability of water resistant plywood resulted in molded techniques making way for mass construction. Many units could now be constructed from a single pair of tooling.

The decreasing number of shipwrights also contributed to the adoption of  molded construction methods. It had a devastating effect on the shipwright’s profession, but it made the construction of more complex hulls easy and, more than anything else, more people could enter what had once been a prohibitively expensive pastime.

After the war, aluminum construction materials surfaced in the market. Though this technology did increase the strength to weight ratio by reducing the *wetted area, its high costs restricted its adoption to larger yachts.  This construction required the use of more sophisticated tools, although it required skills that could be more easily obtained than those of shipwrights.

In March 1950, the dawn of fiberglass boat building had occurred. Research carried out by “Gibbs and Cox Inc. and the Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corporation produced an excellent treatise on glass reinforced plastic construction”.12 Glass was beginning to prey on yachtsmen’s obvious susceptibility to ease-of-maintenance marketing.

With the introduction of marine resins, fiberglass boats could be built to any shape.   Its technical superiority relative to its cost was the major factor in its wide scale adoption and diffusion. After the invention of fiberglass boats, other improved methods like form sandwich, cold molded laminates, etc., came into vogue.


 Contessa Fiberglass Boat Introduced in England in the ’60’s, Pic Credit: Boats.com

The Seventies witnessed major changes in sail and rig. Though intense competition among major custom sail makers of the world contributed to these changes, computerization had also begun to play a very large role. Sail and spar performance predictions were now being carried out by computer finite element analysis. The marketing of a new synthetic fabric, ‘Mylar’ by Dupont, had a strong impact on conventional cotton sails. The adoption of ‘Mylar’ was due to it being very cheap and for its speed enhancing features. These sails, however, could only be used in wind conditions of not more than 15-20 knots. Their initial ban by racing authorities also slowed their growth. The Seventies also witnessed the use of sophisticated gadgets and controls to enable greater command over the subtleties of sailing. Though these additions added dimension to the sport of sailing, they also served to intimidate sailors who were not accustomed to these controls.

images_Mylar Sails_Pinterest

Image of Mylar Sails, Pic Credit: Pinterest

It is interesting to conclude this chapter by relating developments in aircraft to those in yachts. Advanced wooden construction was incorporated by yacht builders from the design of the British fighter aircraft, ‘Mosquito’. In 1944, yacht builders were considering the potential of a new material called ‘Corolite’ used in fighter plane fuel jettison tanks. In the early Seventies, the adoption of miracle materials like Kevlar/Aramid by the aircraft industry also raised speculation over its adoption in the yacht industry and, since then, there has been aggressive monitoring of the evolving hi-technology nature of the aircraft industry.



The yachting industry as a whole is enormous. In 1981, this industry’s output was 8.25 billion U.S. Dollars.13 Yacht technology has been a derivative of the sport.  The drive for speed has been the most elastic factor with respect to technological innovations and changes.  Capt. William M. Nicholson, USN, Professor of Naval Construction at MIT, wrote, “The future of yacht technology lies not in the commercial world or in the design of warships, but in racing. Our national defense may not rest on the sail but a Russian challenge for the America’s Cup might well carry overtones of the race to the moon and put an even higher premium on scientific optimization and hull design”.

In the quest for speed, experiments are being carried out continuously in ‘composites’ – the ability to glue together dissimilar materials with epoxy resins to come out with the highest strength ratio. Tank and wind tunnel simulation tests are being carried out and an increasing spotlight is being cast upon a relatively neglected area, i.e. the keel.

Then, is there any limit to speed?  Yes, there is the hull speed or the maximum attainable speed of a boat which, under most wind conditions, cannot be obtained without perfections in the hull and the rig. “An improvement of as little as two percent in performance of speed made good to windward is tremendous since boats often lose or win on time margins of a few seconds.”14

By fanatically concentrating on speed, there is the growing risk of flouting basic factors like seaworthiness, stability, maneuverability and resistance to *rolling and *pitching. A lot of research is now being carried out on these factors. Recent experiments on hull dynamics, the solving of fabrication problems with robots, and process innovations in fiberglass are taking place.

Yacht technology, as far as it is applied to speed, has yet to mature. Other parts have aged like wood construction. But, as a sum of all its parts, this technology is bound to witness even brighter horizons.



Much water has flown under the bridge since the year 1982. In the 35+ years since this piece was first written, there have been several developments. The successful challenge by the Royal Perth Yacht Club of the America’s cup in 1983 saw the cup move away from the Unites States for the first time in 132 years. The much acclaimed Australian challenge was surrounded with controversy as they had introduced an innovative first-of-a-kind winged keel which was a key factor contributing to their success. This was a breakthrough of sorts and it also cleared the way for a spurt of innovations in the yachting world.


        The Famous Winged-Keel Used by Australia II in the 1983 America’s Cup Race,        Pic Credit: Wikipedia.org

The collapse of the Iron Curtain and the end of the bitter cold war in 1989 led to a global proliferation of the sport of yacht racing.  The America’s Cup, however, has resulted in ceaseless innovation in design of yachts. After wining the America’s Cup in 1987,  Dennis Conner was confronted by a hostile Deed-of-Gift challenge from Sir Michael Fay who fielded a single-masthead 27 meter yacht [previously America’s Cup races were fought using 12 meter boats] by correctly interpreting the rules. After much litigation, flabbergasted Connor decided to counter this threat by breaking tradition and fielding a twin hulled catamaran. This was the first time ever that an America’s Cup race fielded a catamaran. Under court appointed orders, the race was fought in 1988 which Conner easily won. It was indeed a most controversial time for the sport of yachting.

Between 1990 and 2017, there has been unending enhancements in yacht design, the most notable of these has been the introduction of hydrofoils; the inclusion of sensors and Human-Machine Interfaces (HMI). In the 2017 America’s Cup race, foils- which were previously the exception- became the rule. 2017 also saw the introduction of pedal powered boats.

Foiling Explained, Courtesy: YouTube, 1 Min 32 Seconds

The Art of Foils, Courtesy YouTube, 5 Minutes, 13 Seconds

So, what’s next?  Will it be boats with wings? Or rather, what remains? For one, there will be increasing focus on rudders, daggerboards (a retractable keel that can move sideways) and the Human-Machine Interface (HMI) which displays sensor information.  And, finally, in this era of Artificial Intelligence (AI), if autonomous driving is gaining ground, how far will we be from autonomous sailing ?

Can you imagine racing a boat in which the machine takes over or circumnavigating the globe in an autonomous boat? Well, it may be just around the corner.



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Shakti is a former banker, management consultant and I.T professional. He can be reached at saranshaks@gmail.com

Financial Literacy: Why it Matters

In 2015, the United Nations unleashed its ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) framework. Whilst financial literacy does not find an explicit mention, there are at least nine out of 17 SDGs which require a basic level of economic well-being. The absence of poverty; zero hunger; good health and well-being; quality education; gender equality; clean water and sanitation; affordable energy; decent work; reduced inequalities all require a certain degree of economic well-being. A common denominator in achieving economic well-being and thus a better quality of life, is financial literacy. Additionally, gender equality cannot be achieved if women do not have the means to being economically empowered.

The lack of financial literacy is a global problem although it is accentuated in lesser developed countries and is far more acute in the case of women world over. Globally, two in three adults are financially illiterate. World Bank; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) promoted International Network for Financial Education (INFE); United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); Mastercard Foundation and Financial Literacy Around the World (FLAT World) are actively involved in raising financial literacy and education internationally. These efforts are supplemented by central banks; country and region-specific NGOs and Foundations.



                                                  Figure 1: United Nation’s SDG Goals

 Different Shades of Financial Literacy

Financial literacy means different things to different people and these vary by geography and strata of society. In its most basic form, it requires imparting the fundamentals of opening and operating a bank account to people who are illiterate (often referred to as the “oral” segment). Its more advanced connotation would cover imparting knowledge of finance, banking, credit, investments and protection to people who are otherwise literate. The important point is that financial literacy has a range of applications that can vary from bringing marginalized communities into the mainstream in developing countries to removing gender disparities in affluent countries.

The FinLit Report

In 2014, Standard & Poors in partnership with Gallup World Poll conducted the FinLit global survey. The FinLit survey tested respondents on very basic concepts of risk diversification, inflation, numeracy and compound interest which required intuitive answers rather than computations.

The 2014 FinLit report surveyed about 150K individuals across 140 countries. The survey revealed that whilst the problem is universal, women, poor and lesser educated people suffer from greater gaps in financial knowledge. Country-level financial literacy rates range from 71% (Scandinavian countries) to 14% (Afghanistan, Albania) of the adult population. Only one in three adults, globally, are financially literate. Worldwide 35% of men are considered financially literate while 30% of women are considered financially literate leading to an average gender gap of 5%.

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                               Figure 2: Women Trail Men in Financial Literacy


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                                   Figure 3: Global Variations in Financial Literacy

The EU itself is divided with a big contrast between levels in North and South Europe. Financial literacy rates vary from 71% in Denmark to a low of 22% in Romania. Countries admitted to EU after 2004 are much lower on the scale. In the BRICS bloc, average financial literacy rates are 28% and varies from 42% in South Africa to 24% in India.

Countries enjoying highest financial literacy levels are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the U.K. In contrast, countries with the lowest rates are Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Armenia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Haiti, Nepal, Tajikistan, Somalia and Yemen.

Tackling Financial Illiteracy

The stakeholder system is vast, disparate and far-flung across the globe but there is adequate availability of resources.

Technology: There are several start-ups, consulting firms and quasi-governmental organizations that have developed low cost assets or solutions for financial literacy. For e.g., the start-up awaaz.de in partnership with Gates Foundation , has created mobile podcast videos focused on financial literacy. These efforts have been supplemented by Foundations such as CRISIL Foundation which runs a successful program called mein-pragati (literally “I Progress”). Similarly, MicroSave, a U.K. headquartered financial inclusion consulting firm has set up ePaathshala a digital library on financial literacy for agents and customers.

Funding: is coming from different sources, both government and non-government. The earliest champions of financial literacy, U.K.’s Department for International development (DFID) created the Financial Education Fund between 2008 and 2013 for promoting financial literacy in several countries in Africa. During the same period, we witnessed the prevalence of a highly successful run of mobile money in Africa, chief among them being mPesa in Kenya. In 2008, the Russian federation established a financial literacy program trust fund of $ 15 Million at the World Bank to support the topic.

Networks and Research: Ample research artifacts can be accessed through websites of World Bank, OECD and INFE. The list includes white papers and standards setting. World Bank has developed baseline information and analytics. Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) and Gates Foundation have devised criteria for impact evaluation of financial literacy and info exchange. In developed countries like the U.S. several initiatives have been taken. Chief among these are Women’s Institute for Financial Education (WIFE) and Financial Literacy Organization for Women and Girls  (FLOW).

Regulatory Push: In India, there has been a major regulatory push with all financial regulatory bodies joining hands to create a charter called National Strategy for Financial Education. India’s central bank, has directed banks to set up Financial Literacy Centers (FLCs). Currently, over 1500 FLCs have been commissioned across the country and over 2.3 million people have undergone financial education. In 2017, the Mongolian Banks Association and Central Bank of Mongolia unleashed a national program for financial literacy  

Measuring Impact

The simplest of the indicators are captured in the FinLit survey. These include the rate of literacy and gaps in literacy rates in terms of age, gender, nationality or income group. A higher financial literacy rate conveys a better grasp of understanding the basics of finance, credit, investments and protection. It includes fundamental knowledge of operating a bank account, ATM and on terms such as simple and compound interest; terms of a life policy etc.

In addition, one can rely on other indicators that show the levels of financial literacy improving. One such case study is of India’s Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (Prime Minister’s Peoples Economic Progress) bank accounts. In the last three years 300 million+ fresh bank accounts have been opened in the banking system. Most of these have been inactive and the average balance in these accounts have been nil or negligible. As and when financial literacy improves, we can expect these accounts to have larger balances and also greater activity. A sure measure of financial literacy is to observe, over a period of time, the increase in the average number of financial products in a household. For example, is there an increased off-take in credit or life, accident and health insurance policies? Is there an increase in the number of digital financial transactions?

From an advanced economy perspective, the indicators could include reduced gaps in financial literacy rates in women or reduced gaps among adults who are differentiated on the basis of their education i.e. primary/secondary/tertiary.

Overall, if the U.N. were to achieve its SDGs by 2030, it would only be accomplished by higher financial literacy and education measures.  

Need for Public Policy & Tri-Sector Partnerships

Progress is not entirely dependent on public policy but public policy can help make the problem much easier to take on. Sooner or later, 193 Governments that belong to the U.N. will realize, to achieve SDG’s, the degree of financial literacy needs to be sharpened. World Bank, OECD and others in many ways try and influence public policy. In some countries like India, financial literacy targets are being set-up and mandated by the banking regulator. Also, larger foundations like Gates Foundation have evolved to the extent of influencing public policy in addition to providing funding.

Lastly, there is common ground for public, private and social sectors in the pursuit of higher financial literacy rates. There are many organizations in the social sector, that have been championing financial literacy. The Institute of Financial Management and Research in India has conducted several pilot programs in this area. But it is a known fact that whilst the social sector can lead in terms of innovation, scaling up cannot be achieved without public sector support. In the case of financial literacy, the private sector is an equal partner in this exercise since it represents a strategic proposition. Banks and financial services providers are the biggest direct beneficiaries of higher financial literacy rates as it would result in widening the size of the market pie and eventually a higher off-take of financial products and services.

Shakti is a former banker, management consultant and I.T. professional who has crossed over to the development sector. He can be reached at saranshaks@gmail.com