theindialog

February 26, 2010

Japan in India

Filed under: Economics,Industry,Politics — loggers @ 10:21 am

Amongst the several national themes that kept our minds busy, “Japan in India” is one that appeared consistently throughout legs 1 and 2, and would at times surface when we least expected it. Aside from the routine Honda car showroom, Sony outlets, and Yamaha motorcycles parked outside nearly every dhaba/tea vendor we visited, the presence of Japanese companies and culture in India is palpable.

During our visit to Ludhiana (India’s manufacturing hub) in Leg 1, we were fortunate to have visited the factory of Rajnish International, which specializes in the manufacturing and export of diesel fuel injection spares and other components for the auto industry. While Rajnish takes pride in having developed the vast majority of its production technology in-house, we were shown one Fanuc machine that performs an aspect of the steel cutting process that is too intricate for the domestic technology.

in-house technology at Rajnish Int'l

Fast forward to our trip to Kolkata, where we visited the manufacturing facility of formal menswear brand, Success, and learned that all of their polyester is imported from Teijin Fibers. The Japanese textile manufacturer’s product is described as superior to its cheaper Chinese counterparts in fabric quality and dye (particularly black), and this gives Teijin its edge. In Aizawl, we spotted DVD’s of Japanese soap operas being sold on the street (although Korean dramas were more popular) and L&T-Komatsu construction equipment at work on the road from the airport to the hotel. In Bodhgaya, we visited Japanese shrines and encountered several hotels and restaurants with signs catered to the hoards of Japanese tourists. Even at home in Mumbai, TATA Hitachi machinery can often be seen at construction sites and the annoyingly catchy tune of TATA DoCoMo ads has us reaching for our remotes during commercial breaks.

Japanese sign in Bodhgaya

Komatsu building Mizoram

Aside from private ventures, projects are being undertaken on a government-level to strengthen economic ties: the USD 90 billion Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor being in the spotlight. In September 2009, the Indian Union Cabinet approved an INR 17,700 crore (USD 3.7 billion) conditional loan from Japan to help build the western arm of the corridor. The condition is simple: give the biggest contracts to Japanese companies. As mint points out, the conditions officially state that 1/3 of the total contracts must go to Japanese firms. However, if India uses Japanese equipment to build a part of the corridor, chances are high that it will have to use Japanese equipment to build the whole thing.

Map of the DMIC, source: delhimumbaiindustrialcorridor.com

In Delhi, we were lucky to meet with Amitabh Kant, Principal Secretary & Special Commissioner, Industries (Government of Kerala) and CEO of the DMIC.  He articulated that the project will be managed by an entity resembling a private company, which will effectively streamline the entire investment process for Japanese companies looking to be a part of the project. This is comforting when picturing a scenario where Japanese delegates and their interpreters have to struggle with local agencies for land acquisition rights or a consistent supply of power and water.

The DMIC will certainly serve as a cornerstone of the economic relationship between the two countries, as mint anticipates it will attract new investments of ~USD 50 billion and create jobs along the corridor for several years. While it took slightly longer to hit news pages in Japan, the project finally received coverage in the Nikkei this month and is gradually gathering excitement in the Far East.

Yukio Hatoyama with Manmohan Singh in Dec. 2009, source: thehindu.com

As Japan copes with soon becoming the world’s number 3 economy, the need to maintain a close economic relationship with India will only get stronger. Demographically, India is the dream partner for a graying Japan who has slowly but surely been running out of gas. On the flip side, Japan has the organizational and technical expertise to create the infrastructural foundation that India needs to reach the next stage of its development. The hope is that more private ventures and projects like the DMIC are implemented and that politics do not get in the way of what can evolve into one of the world’s most powerful and lucrative economic partnerships.

Advertisements

February 24, 2010

Someone like us

Filed under: Uncategorized — loggers @ 9:16 am

A high school graduate from Britain is doing what we did. Except, his is a global venture.

January 20, 2010

And that’s that…

Filed under: Uncategorized — loggers @ 1:01 am

Dear Readers,

We have returned to Mumbai after an exhilarating tour of 21 states over 5 months. Adjusting to a normal, static life after an extraordinary, nomadic one is not easy especially when we are trying to internalize all that we experienced as part of our incredible journey.

theindialog has developed into a receptacle of stories and ideas that, we think, merit your consideration. Therefore, we will continue to give you a piece of our minds as at least 2 of the 3 loggers (Mihir & Naman) will travel (frequently, hopefully) as part of a common professional endeavor.

Over the past 150-odd days, we’ve tried to reproduce our encounters with different parts and people of India.With your regularity and encouragement, you often compelled us to take a closer look and make better sense of our surroundings. We sincerely hope that you enjoyed following us as much as we enjoyed writing for you.

Yours truly,

Loggers

P.S.: Continue to check this space as we hope to post brief notes on our macro-impressions of the country soon.

January 5, 2010

Coffee.com

Filed under: F&B,Pondicherry — loggers @ 12:10 am

Prior to exploring a new destination, we connect with family and friends (who have been to that particular city/town) for recommendations. A family friend recommended that we visit Coffee.com, a family-run eatery in Pondicherry. She also suggested that we call the proprietor, Mr. Khursheed Anwar, well in advance to ensure that he doesn’t run out of his signature vegetarian French Onion soup and baguettes.

When we arrived at the Tousklifo Hotel, Mr. Anwar’s latest 3-room offering with a lounge cum restaurant in the form of Coffee.com, we had already consumed a pre-dinner meal at Calve, a heritage hotel. Within the first few minutes of talking to the affable Mr. Anwar, we figured that we were on the verge of taking off on an unforgettable experience with this leather engineer turned chef – an intuition of sorts, abetted by Mr. Anwar’s passionate spiel on food. Before he began preparing the soup and baguettes, he guided us to his entertainment center which is a modest basement with a 60-inch screen, a powerful surround sound system, bean bags and couches. Watching a few minutes of football in that ‘den’ was an exhilarating experience; we can only imagine what watching a cricket match or a Formula 1 race would be like!

Mr. Anwar is a leather engineer by training. His arrival in Pondicherry was as unplanned as his foray into the F&B space. As a leather manufacturing consultant, he travelled to several European and Asian nations, before converting his passion to cook, into his profession. Back in 2000, Mr. Anwar opened a coffee cum internet lounge on Mission Street with the promise of offering 2 cornerstones of life to his patrons – food & beverage and the internet. The success of that outlet compelled him to embark on his second venture in the same space, this time with an added dimension of hospitality. Thus, Hotel Touskilfo was born.

It took Mr. Anwar 15 minutes to prepare the French Onion soup and took us one sip to declare that this culinary delight would get a 6/5 on our ratings page. In fact, rating an experience such as this was a futile exercise in quantifying nirvana. The freshly prepared baguettes were perfect accompaniments. During the course of our conversation with Khursheed bhai, we learned more about his penchant for cooking and discovered ours for eating. He openly declared that “if you like good food, you are my slave.” A poignant summary of what this chef can do to you. We were scheduled to depart for Chennai the morning after, but after Mr. Anwar promised us that he would prepare his own version of Dal Bukhara – a legendary lentil preparation, we postponed our departure.

Coffee.com at Hotel Touskilfo

The next day, we (and our appetites) checked in at Hotel Touskilfo for a dal and naan lunch. Chef Anwar’s legendary craftsmanship had manifested itself into a bowl of dal prepared overnight. We simply surrendered ourselves to the most memorable lunch of our excursion. The unexpected finale came in the form of hand-made ice creams. Each of the flavors – chocolate, strawberry, coconut and kesar pista, bowled us over as we struggled to absorb the richness of each preparation (how much we hated the tradeoffs!).

The impact of Coffee.com was total and long lasting in that we struggled to accommodate normal food for the next few days. We long to go back to Pondicherry, not for the beaches or for Auroville, but to be Mr. Anwar’s slaves.

December 24, 2009

Wind Farming

Filed under: Tamil Nadu — loggers @ 8:08 pm

In an earlier post, we had mentioned the power shortage that some states face, and the need to switch to alternative forms of energy. Tamil Nadu has been one of the pioneering states in the use of wind energy and this form currently constitutes ~10% of power generated. While in Kanyakumari, we could feel the intensity of wind blowing from all directions: both the south-westerly and north-easterly winds (at different times of the year) hit the region unabated. It only made sense that the country’s largest wind farms should be located here.

Windmill

Starting from a distance of 15km north of Kanyakumari lies probably the largest density of windmills anywhere in India. Manufacturers, shapes and sizes vary from one windmill to another, but the objective is common – to harness the wind speeds and convert it into energy. European manufacturers such as Vestas and Gamesa along with the Indian supplier Suzlon have a sizeable presence here, providing 750kw, 1.25MW and 1.65MW capacities. Subsidies by the Tamil Nadu government provided a little over a decade ago saw a spurt in growth due to the financial incentives given at that time, which included capital subsidies, income tax exemptions etc.

A view of the wind farm

Wind power constitutes the largest component of renewable energy capacity (70%) in India. The installed capacity is currently a fraction of the cumulative energy demands of the country (~6%[1]) and the potential remains substantial. The MNRE recently announced incentives for wind power generation and sale-back to the grid, on a national scale. Other states need to follow Tamil Nadu’s lead, in conducting research studies on the potential for wind power generation and providing incentives to promote the growth of this industry.

Inside a windmill


[1] Utilization is even lower, at 1.6%

December 16, 2009

Reliance Netconnect (Chennai)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Tamil Nadu,Technology — loggers @ 1:25 pm

100% coverage on the Nungambakkam High Road.

December 14, 2009

Reliance Netconnect (Pondicherry)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Pondicherry,Technology — loggers @ 3:06 pm

98% coverage at the Pondicherry bus station.

December 11, 2009

Connectivity

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Lessons,Technology — loggers @ 8:36 pm

All along this trip, technology has played an integral role in keeping us connected and more importantly, in updating the blog regularly. As mentioned earlier, the speed test comparison could not be carried because of dreadful customer service in order to get Mihir’s Photon working. Another incident that could be useful in making choices easier occurred with regards to cell-phone and tower connectivity, while in Tamil Nadu. To be clear, while roaming, connectivity can either be obtained through the home network or through agreements with other networks. E.g. Aircel can work either through its own network, or use the towers that have been setup by IDEA, assuming an agreement is in place to share their tower.

Vodafone consistently received EDGE/GPRS connectivity[1] throughout the state, through one of the two methods described above. Even at some of the remotest points in Rameswaram, close to land’s end and Sri Lanka’s border, connectivity was available. On the other hand, Loop Mobile’s data service has been dismal, with no service available anywhere. In addition to the absence of their own towers, the apparent agreements they have with Vodafone and Aircel count for nothing. After repeated complaints to the Loop technical team, there was still no rectification.

These two events seek to highlight the customer service and infrastructure deficiencies of TATA Photon and Loop Mobile respectively. Especially in the latter’s market, with MNP (Multiple Number Portability) coming early next year, serious improvements will need to be made to prevent an outflow of dissatisfied customers to other providers.


[1] Necessary for data transfers, i.e. email, internet, BlackBerry Messenger etc.

Reliance Netconnect (Rameswaram)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Tamil Nadu,Technology — loggers @ 7:25 pm

99% coverage at the railway station.

December 9, 2009

Closure

Filed under: Uncategorized — loggers @ 10:17 pm

One of the many reasons that compelled us to travel the country was the fact that we had not seen, or heard, enough of India and her people. Our understanding of the country was limited to theory, which just about begins to define this nation. Every destination we have covered and every conversation we have had has contributed to a more practical perception of India. Often, there have been moments of contentment as predetermined mandates have been fulfilled. Doing the Kashmir to Kanyakumari length was one such mission.

While in Kanyakumari, we watched the sun go down (picture). About 140 days ago we were in Kashmir, the northern frontier of India. We’ve already done Jamnagar, Gujarat — Namdhapa, Arunachal Pradesh. Having covered the length and breadth of the country, we are experiencing a certain sense of closure.

This is a memorable moment as we enter the last 10 days of our adventure!

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Technology — loggers @ 11:50 am

Dear Readers,

The speed and coverage tests between 2 wireless internet providers have been a highlight of this blog. Unfortunately, no more contests will be held. One of the original loggers, Alok (also the owner of the Photon stick), has not been able to join us for leg 3. Mihir tried to get a Photon but faced several issues with regards to activation, which are still to be resolved. The customer service guys at Tata have been extremely unresponsive. While you will continue to see Reliance Netconnect’s performance data, there will be no competition.

Apologies,

Loggers

Thus far, Reliance has emerged as a better service provider between the 2 nominees.

Fort Kochi

Filed under: Kerala,Leisure — loggers @ 11:01 am

Often times I (and others) forget that we had Western colonizers and settlers other than the British, dating back to the 15th century. The coastal regions were where most of this took place, and our exposure to those areas was limited in previous states. A visit to Fort Kochi, an island off the city Ernakulum and right next to the bustling Cochin Port, reminded me of that fact.

Vasco da Gama landed at Kozhikode back in 1498, and the church that was built[1] by the Portuguese soon after, still stands today. He was buried at that church, with the tombstone still present till date. In addition to the Portuguese, the Dutch also staked their claim to the port, with a palace and cemetery reflecting their past presence.

Dutch Cemetery

Chinese, Jews and Arabs were prominent traders[2] that came, and left their mark on the Malabar coast. Chinese fishing nets, so called because of their unique process as introduced by the Chinese, feature prominently along the shore. There is also a Jewish synagogue, supposed to be the oldest in the British Commonwealth, in an area of the island called Jew town.

Chinese fishing nets

Homestays are a very popular mode of accommodation on this island, where local families host tourists in their home for as little as Rs.400. Bicycles are the best mode of transport, which can be rented for Rs.50/day. Fort Kochi, with all its multicultural past, is definitely worth a visit prior to continuing further south towards the backwaters.

-Mihir


[1] St. Francis Church was the first European church to be built in India, in 1503

[2] Spices such as ginger, cardamom, cloves and pepper dominated trade then

December 7, 2009

Dogs

Filed under: Tamil Nadu,Tidbits — loggers @ 11:00 pm

Every so often we have come across stories that do not fall into any category or theme we are following, but still deserve to be mentioned due to their peculiarity in nature. Once such experience was during my stay in Coimbatore, which was due to host the largest dog show in south India. Dog-owners from all over the country come to show off their wares[1], with judges flown in from countries as far as Australia and New Zealand to adjudicate. The canine equivalent of a “Man Hunt” or “Miss India”, this show holds immense importance not only for reasons of pride for their owners, but also due to the prize money involved and subsequent market price in the event of success.

Parallels can be drawn to the rationale behind owning horses – apart from the personal attachment individuals have, they can be significant sources of income if looked after, trained to be fast and strong to win big derbies. Ego games between breeders have seen dogs being imported from countries such as Spain and the UK, specifically for dog shows and then sold on the market if they do well. This is an expensive passion, with maintenance costs considered to be as much as, if not more, than those associated with having an additional child.

There is even a sophisticated market for trading dogs, if your morals permit you to do so. For example, the pup that has been appearing in the Vodafone ads recently, has seen its market price shoot up from Rs. 1,500 to Rs.30,000-Rs.40,000. Talk about return on investment during a recession.

–Mihir


[1] An individual in Pune is known to own close to 550 dogs. Another in Karnataka supposedly hires A/C buses and bodyguards for his dogs

Technology In Education

Filed under: Education,Tamil Nadu,Technology — loggers @ 10:50 pm

Building a strong knowledge economy is a very important aspect of a developing nation. Hence, visiting educational institutions has been an important and frequent agenda of our travels. We have been attempting to understand some characteristics of the education (predominantly school) system across various states and identify shortfalls/possible lessons, if any. From Assam to Mizoram to UP, we have interacted with educators at institutions from a variety of backgrounds. The southern states have historically led the way in reducing illiteracy and providing quality schooling, and we embarked to try and find out why.

The use of technology in education is part of an explicit effort by the government to encourage schools to introduce such teaching methods. Educomp, one of the leading educational service providers in the country, identified this potential early and has experienced exponential growth as a result of schools increasing adopting these technologies. Adwaith Secondary School in Coimbatore is one such school that has taken this step, and reaped the rewards. Even though the equipment and maintenance costs are relatively expensive, the principal unequivocally pushed for its use in some of her classrooms. This was mainly due to the agreement of the management (trustees) of the school, who were willing to provide additional funding for this purpose. This was done without increasing student fees significantly since the students were mostly from lower to middle income families.

The setup itself consists of a central server that needs to be housed within the school premises, which is then connected to individual operating systems in each of the equipped classrooms. Each classroom has its own CPU, mouse, keyboard and LCD TV, with the help of which teachers can conduct lessons. The digitization of content and conversion into presentation material is done by Educomp, by sending them the relevant course material prior to the start of the academic year.

Equipment in the classroom

Initiatives such as these can go a long way in improving the quality of education at our schools. It is important to note here that this should be utilized as a compliment to teachers and not a substitute where students can simply learn from the material presented visually. To this end, teachers should also be adequately trained in these new technologies in order to make the delivery even more efficient.

December 5, 2009

Leg 3b – South India

Filed under: Uncategorized — loggers @ 3:30 am

Dear Readers,

Over the past 135 days, we’ve covered 19 states; all that remains of this trip is a fortnight in the southern part of the country. Through this blog we’ve given you a chance to travel vicariously. There is much that we have shared but there is so much more that we are still internalizing. For the remainder of this month we will upload posts from Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. At this point, we would like to express our deepest gratitude to our readers who have incentivized this form of documentation of our travels. As demanding as this exercise has been, we’ve enjoyed the process thoroughly.

Do stay tuned for exciting tales from down south!

Yours truly,

Loggers

November 19, 2009

Indore Chaat Trail

Filed under: F&B,Madhya Pradesh — loggers @ 6:23 pm

As a continuation of our culinary interests during our travels, we could not resist indulging in the chaats of Sarafa bazaar, in Indore. A maze of crowded by-lanes where even two-wheelers have trouble navigating through, this is home to jewelery stores and traders by day and mouth watering street food by night. A lot of the vendors have even trade-marked their products, so as to build their own brand.

Below is a list of the delicacies we treated ourselves to:

1) Tikiya chole with typical Indori sev on top

Tikiya chole

2) Bhutte ka khees

Bhutte ka khees

3) Garadu (with chaat masala and limbu)

Garadu

Our friendly companion on the street

Holy Cow

4) Saboodana khichdi

Khichdi

5) Gulab jamun

Gulab jamun

6) XL jalebis

Jalebi

7) Pav bhaji

8 ) Pani puri

9) Rasmalai

November 17, 2009

Power(less)

Filed under: Industry,Maharashtra — loggers @ 9:49 am

In addition to visiting an underground coal mine outside Chandrapur, we also had the opportunity to visit the more modern and less labor intensive open cast mines. Named so because they are carved out from the earth and left open to the skies, these mines can be blasted to a limit of a few tons, compared with only a 7kg blast that we experienced in the underground mine. These blasts take place once every 2-3 days as the coal mined per blast is much higher and it takes time to be removed by the trucks[1]. Licenses to operate these mines are only given to those companies who utilize the coal to generate power for the state grid.

Open Cast Mine

The Chandrapur Super Thermal Power Station (CSTPS) is one such plant that receives some of its coal supply directly from these mines, part of its daily requirement of 60,000 tons. Considered to be one of the largest power plants in Asia with an installed capacity of 2,340MW, it has also planned an expansion for additional 1,000MW of generation capability. With its (and the coal mines) location not very far from the city centre, it is not surprising that pollution levels are so dangerously high.

Chandrapur Super Thermal Power Station

Come January though, this plant could become a victim of the water shortages that have been affecting a large part of the Vidarbha region. With not enough rainfall this year, everything from farming to drinking water to power generation has been indirectly affected. However, completely shutting down this plant would amount to a power shortage catastrophe across a state that already has a deficit of 4,000MW[2]. Although private power generators such as KSK Energy and the Adani group have announced plans to install more capacity, these are not expected to be online within the next couple of years. The government is expected to tap its reserves by opening up one of its dams in order to prevent a complete shutdown, but at no point has our power deficiency been more glaring than here.


[1] These trucks can be used only on the roads around the mine, and not on public roads

 

[2] Power requirements of Maharashtra amount to 15,000MW, compared to installed capacity of 11,000MW

November 15, 2009

Red Alert

Filed under: Conversation,Maharashtra,National Security,Politics — loggers @ 11:09 pm

“The Naxal movement started out as part of a clear ideology back in 1968, but today the only thread that holds them together is violence”. These were the first words spoken by Dr. Chhering Dorje, the Superintendent of Police for Chandrapur district and a highly distinguished IPS officer. The troubles first began back in the 1980s but only since early 2008 have they been brought to light, in part due to increased media attention. Having proven to be very shrewd operators, with precise planning going into their attacks and sustainable sources of funding through the natural resources[1] they live over, this is a crisis that cannot be taken lightly.

One of the solutions that has been proposed is to bring development to the affected regions. In theory this would appear effective, but any efforts on the part of the locals themselves have been fiercely suppressed. One such case is representative of the scenario: a group of boys left their Naxal-controlled district to look for jobs elsewhere, but came back without finding employment and got shot for deserting the rebel cause. Educated and people with aspirations are dealt with particularly severely. There is also a surrender program, whereby anyone who gives up his/her arms can be integrated into mainstream society[2], but the numbers haven’t been very promising.

The Naxals have been slowly spreading their tentacles and are even present in urban centers such as Mumbai, Pune and Nashik, albeit in smaller numbers. Their approach is to create discontent and the need for an uprising in small pockets, wherever they can take advantage of economic inequalities and anti-establishment sentiments. A conversation we had with a shopkeeper in Gadchiroli put this into perspective: he was educated, but couldn’t get a job with the government (almost no private sector there) because he was not willing to give the INR 2-3 lac bribe required to seal the deal. Even though he himself resisted the urge to take up arms, the Naxals seize upon this opportunity to recruit new cadres by not only offering them an opportunity for retribution, but also a “stable job” in their hierarchy.

Arundhati Roy, in a stinging critique of the government’s close association with the big corporations, points out the injustices that they suffer from and sympathizes with the rationale behind bringing about social and economic justice. Even though we were able to hear only one side of the story, that from the pro-establishment viewpoint, the brutality with which this supposed ideological war is being fought and the terror that it has unleashed amongst the common man calls for some action. The principles behind the movement remain compelling and the government-corporate nexus needs to be broken soon, but the means need to be altered.

According to Dr. Dorje, the solution is a collective and strong political willpower. He cites the example of Andhra Pradesh for having taken a tough stance and suffered significant casualties, but succeeded in pushing them out of the state. Operation Green Hunt is the manifestation of this position of the government which is currently underway; expects significant collateral damage if this goes ahead full steam.


[1] Bamboo, teak and tendu (used for making bidis) leaves are some of resources they have access to

[2] This is similar to what has been happening with the separatist ULFA movement in Assam, with those who surrender being called SULFA.

Reliance Netconnect in Vidarbha

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Maharashtra,Technology — loggers @ 8:48 pm

Netconnect in Nagpur:

NS_Nagpur

Netconnect worked well in Chandrapur and Amravati as well. Speeds were ~256kbps (download) in both those cities. Unfortunately, we are not carrying the Photon stick on this leg. Comparisons will be back on Leg 3(b) when we cover the southern states.

November 14, 2009

Women Empowerment

Filed under: Maharashtra,Small Businesses — loggers @ 1:21 pm

As we were traversing through Mr. Rohit Rathi’s cotton ginning unit in Amravati, we happened to meet his mother Mrs. Kanta Rathi. Her firm, Rukmini Creations is a handicraft manufacturing unit run by her 50 employees and a sales team. It is an ordinary story until you discover that the organization is run wholly by women. This is a heartening tale in a patriarchal society and a showcase unit for aspiring self-help groups in rural and urban India. Mrs. Rathi is the kind of entrepreneur we look for as part of our travels.

The group has been operational since 1992, a result of Mrs. Kanta Rathi’s work and her mother-in-law, Mrs. Rukmini Rathi’s encouragement (hence, the name). This makes the story even more noteworthy as this narrative is a polar opposite of the stereotypical (Indian) mother-in-law who is an oppressive figure.

Rukmini Creations specializes in the manufacturing of utility kits (jewellery bags, prayer meeting kits, saree bags etc.) for women and also makes bathroom accessory kits and tie bags, among others, for men. The designs are quintessentially Indian with paisleys and bright colors merging to create the mithai-box effect. Most of the products are exported to countries such as the UAE and South Africa, as the demand and rewards tend to be more favorable abroad. Only a small fraction is reserved for exhibitions held in India.

gents kits

Rukmini Creations' products

While on our way out, the affable Mrs. Rathi showed us her feedback book which has remarks from several dignitaries. She proudly shared her picture with the President of India, who hails from Amravati and has appreciated Rukmini Creations’ work. Not only do such encounters make for good blog posts, they represent the much needed optimism to the otherwise bleak realities of women in business in India.

Mrs. Rathi with the current President

November 13, 2009

Fuel For Our Country

Filed under: Economics,Industry,Maharashtra — loggers @ 3:58 pm

The Vidarbha region in eastern Maharashtra, along with parts of Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Jharkhand, is extremely rich in natural resources, particularly coal and iron ore. Chandrapur, known as the “Black Diamond” city, has developed around these mines and is considered to be the most polluted city the world[1] – we could attest to that unenviable tag. We noticed the roads leading up to and from the city to be terrible, mainly a result of the umpteen trucks filled with coal, iron ore and timber (the Ballarpur paper mill is nearby) that ply these roads. Had rail connectivity been able to handle the volumes generated by these industries, maybe the situation wouldn’t have been so bad.

The underground coal mine we visited has been run by Coal India since 1968, which has confirmed reserves for the next 100 years. Most of the coal mined from here is used in the local industries and power plants. The site itself doesn’t seem to have changed in the last 40 years, and the elevator that took us down 170m wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Trolleys carrying the mined coal have dedicated tracks on both sides, with a narrow walking path through the middle. Communication with other workers on the site and managers above is done through an antiquated system (probably with some divine assistance, as shown below).

in spite of gods

In spite of the gods

The manager who took us around the mine declared that the quality of the coal was comparable to that mined in some of the best Australian sites, with high calorific content. However, the mine has been running losses for a few years now, mainly due to high operating costs. This can be attributed to lower productivity rates, both in labor and capital (limited technology use), essential components of the Solow growth model. We witnessed the laggard labor productivity first hand during the hour we spent in the mine, and the manager rightly lamented that the day’s tonnage target will probably not be met, yet again.

Coal mining is a very hazardous job and as a result daily wages can reach upto Rs.1000/day (compared to Rs.120/day for other labor). Health concerns such as asthma, bronchitis and life expectancy notwithstanding, this is a “get rich quickly” occupation, which was also apparent when we spoke with a young miner who said his life would be made after a few years. Incidentally, during our train ride to Patna this had come up in conversation with Chotey, and he mentioned that some of his friends work in these mines but he didn’t want to due to the health issues involved. India’s dependence on coal as a source of power[2] and the demands we will face is no secret. For the sake of uninterrupted industrialization, there is no knee-jerk solution to substituting this fossil fuel. However, this doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to develop clean, renewable fuels so that coal could one day join the club of “has beens”.


[1] Its ppm level is 924 micrograms, compared to a normal/healthy level of 100 worldwide

[2] Coal based power plants contribute ~63% of India’s power requirements

Sporting Ambitions

Filed under: Education,Maharashtra — loggers @ 2:27 pm

Amravati is home to one of India’s largest sports institutes, the Hanuman Vyayam Prasarak Mandal (HVPM). Founded in 1914 as a sports club, it initially served the dual purpose of uplifting the traditional system of exercise and instilling in the youth the spirit of the national freedom movement. It is now run as a public trust by members of the founding Vaidya family.

hvpm

Swimming pool at HVPM

Today spread over an area of 50 acres, the institute houses everything from an Olympic sized swimming pool to football grounds to a running track. Students from all over the country, including states as far away as Assam and Arunachal, come here to train and complete their studies. Currently supporting close to 5000 students, they are in the midst of expanding the campus to increase this figure. Over the years, the institute has produced a number of great athletes who have represented both state and country, across various disciplines such as badminton, track & field and wrestling. With regards to education opportunities, there is a degree college of physical education, college of engineering and technology and additional degree programs related to sports training available for the students.

Our parting thought: if scores of initiatives such as these spring up all over the country, where sports training and quality education are provided simultaneously, only then will we be capable of reaching the top rungs of an Olympics medals table.

Buoyant Benaras

Filed under: Leisure,Religion,Uttar Pradesh — loggers @ 10:01 am

Thus far, most places we have visited have beckoned us due to their explanatory power. In our attempt to avoid repetitions, we’ve selected villages, towns and cities which have a unique place on India’s economic, political or socio-cultural map. Benaras, and Uttar Pradesh, were chosen for their ability to augment the religious and political understanding of India.

As soon as we arrived in Benaras, we headed to the Dashashwamedh ghat (bank) to attend the evening Ganga aarti (prayer). This daily ritual, witnessed by hundreds of tourists, is a visual delight that is a mandatory stop for everybody visiting the city. In fact, many tourists are drawn to Benaras by the visuals of this ceremony. The practice captures the often inexplicable religiosity of a majority of Indians who worship a multitude of objects, living beings and geographical features. The Ganges is considered the lifeline of the north as it is credited with lending fertility to the lands of several states before it merges with the Bay of Bengal. However, this knowledge and the mere existence of the water body has become a curse for these states which take the flow of the river for granted and refuse to part with their lands for any activities, thereby not fully exploiting its fecundity.

GangaAarti

Preparations for the evening Ganga Aarti

On Diwali day we visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple, considered one of the most sacred spots in the country for Hindus. The compound surrounding the temple also contains a mosque, which is surrounded by barbed wire. The very existence of 2 different places of worship in the same complex is most telling. Not only does it reveal the coexistence of multiple communities in India, it is a comment on the insecurity of a mosque in a post-Babri India. That barbed wires have been erected to prevent another demolition is a worrying reality. The area is heavily guarded by security personnel, who themselves routinely jump queues to enter the temple in order to seek blessings. The line to enter the temple is quite heterogeneous by region, as patrons from across the country throng the site.

We proceeded to taste some Benarasi thandai, a milky concoction of saffron, almonds, peppermint and cream. These stalls are famous for their bhaang (marijuana) thandai. We stuck to the sober version which was quite a delight. We also checked in at a local chaat shop to sample various local delicacies. The tamatar (tomato) chaat is an idiosyncrasy and a must try. Another item not to be missed, which is unique to Benaras is Baati Chokha — a local favorite consisting of a coal baked wheat ball and a mixed vegetable made of potatoes, aubergine, tomato, garlic, onion and mustard oil.

Thandai

Thandai being prepared

baatichokha

Baati Chokha stalls

To truly explore Benaras you must get hold of a local, preferably with a motorbike as the alleys of the city house its most precious sites and practices. 2 loggers and our host (a local journalist) traversed Benaras on one motorbike — it was a workable exercise in addition to being a visual delight for bystanders. This is how we made our way to India’s biggest and most pious cremation ground. The banks also serve as burning grounds for bodies of the deceased which are brought in large numbers. It is said that the process is perpetual, and the practitioners believe that there is an expressway from this spot to heaven. In order to ensure that none of the souls go to hell, the orchestrators of the last rites pull out the spinal cord of the bodies – while they are burning – and throw them into the river for purification. Apparently, all sins are washed away by the receptacle of all living and non-living things — the Ganges.

Cremation Ground

During our stay in Benaras we visited the Benaras Hindu University, one of Asia’s largest educational institutions. The museum within the campus, Bharat Kala Bhawan, is remarkable as it houses a wide range of artifacts. The curator complained of insufficient funding and as a result, a deficiency of manpower and space. In fact, only 2 per cent of the collection has been displayed. Despite these constraints, the museum has been very well maintained. The University, with ~100 departments, is a wonder in itself.

BHU

Library at BHU

To conclude we would like to submit that a part of India’s pulse can be gauged in Benaras. Its narrow streets with countless people, order in that chaos and multiple shades of every color make for the right paraphernalia for one of the world’s oldest cities. It is a confluence of history, religion and spiritualism which questions the simplicity of frameworks usually deployed to understand India.

November 12, 2009

Leg 3a – Maharashtra/Madhya Pradesh

Filed under: Uncategorized — loggers @ 10:25 am

Dear Readers,

Sorry for the lull. After a 10 day hiatus in Mumbai we are back on the road, currently in eastern Maharashtra. In addition to some outstanding posts on Uttar Pradesh, we have some interesting stories to share from this leg already. We will post them up as soon as possible. In the interim, check the updated Maps and Itinerary pages.

Yours truly,

Loggers

Dear Readers,

Very sorry for the lull. We’ve been in the northeastern part of the country for the past week and have lots of stories to share. Though connectivity has been poor, we will post as soon as possible. Stay tuned…

Yours truly,

Loggers

October 23, 2009

Meeting the Bihar Government

Filed under: Bihar,Conversation,Economics,Education,NREGS,Politics — loggers @ 12:09 am

RCP Singh

Mr. Singh is the Principal Secretary of Bihar. He has immense responsibility on his shoulders as he is responsible for executing the state government’s plans. We met him at his chamber which is located next to the chief minister’s office.

When we walked into his office, Mr. Singh was sitting with members of a tribal group who had come in with a list of demands. The CM is due to visit their village in a month and is likely to announce a set of steps aimed at economically empowering the community. Listening to the conversation, we learnt about various interesting facets of the state and got a sense of the precepts of the Bihar government.

Cash Transfers

The government of Bihar believes in direct cash transfers to the beneficiaries of a proposed scheme. It trusts the people more than the bureaucracy and believes that leakage is minimized as a result of this practice. According to Mr. Singh, there is a 10-15% chance of misuse of funds when such transfers take place and this outcome is better than relying on governmental agencies for procurement or dissemination of goods. He highlighted the success of 2 schemes as a testament to his mantra – the ‘Bicycles for Girls’ scheme and the ‘Uniforms for Girls’ scheme. Girls aged 11 and upwards are given money for procurement of a bicycle and school uniforms. This has, apparently, reduced dropout rates among girls by alleviating the financial burden on their families.

How Footballs Are Changing Lives

According to the villagers and Mr. Singh, football has had a transformational impact on certain youngsters in the state. In Mr. Singh’s words, “1 football keeps 2 dozen young men busy.” In the absence of a recreational activity that keeps them gainfully occupied, these men would have been vulnerable to Naxalism – an epidemic in this part of the country. The game does a world of good to their stamina and induces them to apply for positions in the Indian Army and other security forces. A number of young tribals in the region have chosen law enforcement over agriculture as their profession. In fact, while we were in Kashmir, we had met a young tribal jawaan from Jharkhand. The government is planning to endow a number of villages with the necessary equipment for them to enjoy the game.

This, we think, is an amazing story of a small investment having a tremendous impact.   

NREGS

While in Punjab, we had heard industrialists lamenting the loss of cheap labor from states like Bihar and UP. They blamed NREGS for their loss. Accordingly, we were hoping to find NREGS eulogies in Bihar. To our surprise, we were told that NREGS has, in fact, not been as effective as it is made out to be, due to leakages in the elusive ‘system.’ Wage rates in Bihar are as high as INR 150, corroborated by our conversation with Chotey, our mason friend. Demand for labor – both skilled and unskilled – has risen in the recent past due to the infrastructural work in progress. Thus, the migrant labor pool has shrunk.

Law & Order

Mr. Singh also informed us about the CM’s Durbar, which has been a cornerstone initiative of the government led by Nitish Kumar. Every Monday, the chief minister meets citizens of his state and listens to their complaints. Each Monday has a different theme ranging from law and order to health to infrastructure. Officials from the concerned departments are encouraged to attend the durbar so that the process of resolution of matters is kick-started. It appears that this been a great learning exercise for the administration since it notifies the officials of the systemic issues that need attention.

According to Mr. Singh, the greatest numbers of grievances come in on the first Monday of every month when law and order problems are entertained. Hence, the government has focused on resolving issues related to law order ever since it came into power. It boasts of a robust speedy trial system which has convicted wrongdoers at a record pace. This seemed like a reasonable way to address the multifaceted problems of Bihar as sound law and order is a prerequisite to any sort of economic activity.

Nitish Kumar

We got a chance to meet the chief minister himself, albeit briefly. He beamed with avuncular pride as we explained our travels. He appreciated the initiative and spoke about the cultural affinity that Indians tend to have with the railways. As opposed to the ex-chief minister, Laloo Yadav, Mr. Kumar was genuinely interested in our story and gave us his undivided attention. He was very approving of our idea to blog our experiences. Here he cited the example of Xuanzang who recorded his visit to Nalanda. That account has been extremely helpful in understanding one of the world’s oldest universities. The chief minister urged us to visit the Patna museum and the Khuda Bakhsh library, 2 stellar monuments.

After meeting the 2 most important figures of the Bihar government, we certainly felt that they are sincere about fixing the state. It is difficult to ascertain the effectiveness of their actions. For that we’ll have to wait till the assembly elections which will be held next year.

October 22, 2009

Tryst With Lalooji

Filed under: Bihar,Conversation,Humour,Politics — loggers @ 11:46 pm

Over the past 3 months, we have had encounters when curtailing laughter has been extremely difficult. Our tryst with Lalooji was one such occasion when we struggled to maintain a straight face. His fortress at 10 Circular Road is over-guarded by sleepy sentry. It is always overcrowded as animated party workers throng their chief’s residence to get a glimpse of the man who has been one of the longest serving chief ministers of an Indian state and has, allegedly, transformed the Indian Railways. We arrived at his residence at noon but were told that we were late as Mr. Yadav had retired for his afternoon siesta. We were asked to return at 5pm.

Our excitement to see Lalooji ensured that we returned at 4.30pm, only to figure out that he was still asleep. Finally, at 4.50pm he emerged from his makeshift bedroom which is located adjacent to the waiting area. Half a dozen staff members emerged from nowhere and waited for orders as a sluggish Lalooji made his way to his throne-like chair which looked undersized compared to the silver spittoon abutting it. He rubbed his eyes and proceeded to scratch vigorously before he uttered his first word for the evening – chashma. One of his helps ran to procure his spectacles which were cleaned and presented to his highness. He proceeded to glance at the waiting area and asked everyone he didn’t know to present their case. A significant portion of this communication took place in sign language. As one of us began to explain our presence he proceeded to utter 2 other words, paani and khaini (tobacco mixture). Water was brought to the table and khaini was manually refined and offered to Lalooji who took a pinch of it and placed it strategically behind his lower denture. While all of this was happening, a poor logger was supposed to deliver an explanatory speech!

Finally, he delivered a whole sentence. It was not a response to our introduction. He spoke of the excruciating heat of the summer months and of the soporific lunch which compels him to sleep endlessly. 3 party-men seated beside him nodded passionately. Of course, they understood. Lalooji proceeded to acknowledge our presence and lauded our initiative before he asked us how long it would take for us to finish our excursion. We were just about getting into a conversation when one of his lackeys interrupted us to announce the arrival of another group which wanted to meet Lalooji. After a short, pointless debate on the duration of the proposed interaction the group was sent in. Lalooji looked at the obviously diverse group which had young and old, Hindu and Muslim members and said, “Right combination.” He turned to us and wished us the best for our future endeavors. We told him that we had a few questions for him and would be grateful if could answer them. He said, “Anytime. I am here now. Come in the morning.” Satisfied by his mannerisms, we made our way to the parking lot.

Mr. Yadav can be moody. In Patna, we met a Lalooji who was distracted and tired, perhaps characteristic of a politician who has been out of power for a few months now.

The Bihar Buddha Trail

Filed under: Bihar,Leisure,Religion — loggers @ 11:23 pm

After a night in Patna, we pushed off for an excursion to the Nalanda and Gaya districts- centers of origin for Buddhist and Jain philosophies. Our first stop was the ancient Nalanda University, a monastery and educational institution, which dates back to the days of Buddha and Mahavir (6th century BC). The institution represented that of a modern-day liberal arts college as it offered courses ranging from Philosophy to Grammar to Astronomy. With living quarters for the monks and designated lecture grounds, and even had international students enrolled from China and Persia at its peak in 5th century AD. While the 5th, 6th and 7th levels have been excavated, much of the ruins remain underground and are yet to be seen dug up by archeologists.

Campus ruins

Campus ruins

Private monk-to-disciple teaching quarters

Private monk-to-disciple teaching quarters

From Nalanda University, we drove about 40kms to the city of Rajgir. One of the first things we noticed were signs pointing to a Japanese temple. We later found that the presence of East Asian countries with heavy Buddhist influence would only increase as we gained proximity to Bodhgaya, the city where Buddha attained enlightenment. We topped off the evening with a sunset ropeway ride down from the World Peace shrine (also built by the Japanese), which is perched upon a hill where Buddha spent time meditating.

The World Peace shrine

The World Peace shrine

PA130115

The following day, we took another short road trip to Bodhgaya, where Japan, Tibet, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Thailand have all erected their own respective Buddhist shrines with unique ethnic flavors. The town is also home to the sacred peepul tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment. As a result, the town is a hotbed of tourist activity, where you can also find travelers from all over the world crowded around a snake charmer outside a Japanese temple, before grabbing lunch at a Thai restaurant- something one may not expect from small-town India.

Thai shrine in Bodhgaya

Thai shrine in Bodhgaya

Local shop signs in Japanese 'katakana'

Just another shop sign in katakana

Abhayanand- Bihar’s Supercop

Filed under: Bihar,Conversation,Education — loggers @ 12:07 am

Background

Abhayanand is a senior IPS (Indian Police Service) officer based in Patna, Bihar. He serves as a policeman from 9am – 5pm, and spends the rest of his time teaching. At the age of 40, he decided that after having taken everything from Bihar, it was time to give back. So he started his version of the Super 30’s…the road to IIT for poor teenagers who can’t otherwise afford coaching.

Abhayanand

courtesy of abhay-anand.blogspot.com

Super 30’s

Through Super 30’s, Abhayanand provides coaching to underprivileged IIT aspirants in Bihar. Students are taught via video conference in classes of 30 or less, and Abhayanand has maintained a ~90% success rate in getting his students into IIT (which has an acceptance rate of ~2%). The programs, which after starting in Bihar have now expanded to new locations in Uttar Pradesh, are completely funded by the communities themselves. Formal social audit is conducted regularly to keep track of the students’ accounts, and the program sustains itself as long as the community sees it as a worthy investment.

Targeting the Poor

Abhayanand shared his thoughts with us as just after wrapping up an evening lesson at 6pm. An integral aspect of his philosophy is to target poor Muslim communities, which approached him some time ago saying that their education conditions were worse than those of shunned Dalit societies in Bihar. He finds that Muslim students are the most vulnerable to social evils, as misled youth have ample channels of fundamentalism and terrorist groups to turn to when deprived of opportunity. Abhayanand brushed off questions of social backlash due to segregation, stating that he will continue to do his work for the Muslim community and that people can criticize his philosophy all they want.

When asked how he manages to restrict admission to the poor, Abhayanand said that it is impractical and inefficient to use family income as part of his admission criteria. However, he also mentioned that the housing that he provides under the community-funding scheme serves as an effective weed-out mechanism. Rich kids in the area would find it near impossible to share a common toilet and put up with the living conditions, even if it gets them into IIT. This social segmentation, in addition to a highly competitive entrance exam, decides who gets a seat in Abhayanand’s Super 30.

Wrap-up

Abhayanand is a modern-day super hero. A senior police officer-by-day, he starts teaching as soon as he is off-duty to help underprivileged children, from a different social background than his own, get into IIT. It’s not every day that we find stories like this, but when we do find them, they are an important reminder of the innate goodness in people. We maintain that this upright minority is what can bring about the justice and development that India desperately needs at the moment.

Another Train Ride: A Microcosm of India

Filed under: Bihar,Conversation,Transport — loggers @ 12:06 am

To add to our previous mishap involving getting the Delhi stations confused, we recorded our second rail-related gaffe en route to Patna from Jamshedpur. While trying to find out whether our train was delayed through the railway hotline[i], we entered the train number of the ‘up’ train instead of the ‘down’ train. As a result, we thought that the train was running 3 hrs late. Upon reaching the station, the TC and police officer in charge couldn’t hold back their laughter when we told our story. No more trains were going to Patna that evening. Not wanting to lose any more time, we returned early the next morning and bought the first available tickets: unreserved seats in non-AC chair car.

Co-passenger Killing Time

Co-passenger Killing Time

What followed over the next 12 hours was one of the most exhilarating, educational and eventful trips we have taken thus far. The train turned out to be a ‘slow’ one, stopping at almost every station along the way. As a result, we encountered a variety of passengers who were on board for only brief periods. These ranged from sadhus to drunkards to laborers to farmers carrying produce (our seats were eventually taken up by sacks of grains). We couldn’t resist but to strike up conversations with some of them, to get a pulse on the lives of the ‘aam admi’.

Between the Bogeys: Reserved for the Aam Aadmi

Between the Bogeys: Reserved for the Aam Aadmi

Through a conversation with laborers from Jharkhand, we were able to get valuable anecdotes on one of our research topics, labor movement. In attempting to break the ice with the leader of the crew, it felt like a shy dance proposal from 7th grade. Once Chotey got talking, though, there was no looking back. He and his crew were contract laborers returning from Kharagpur, who had left their work because the company was paying them less (Rs.100/day) than what was originally promised (Rs.160/day), and because the accommodation provided was ‘not even fit for animals to live in’. As a result, work on the site had come to a complete halt, and the contractor was calling him endlessly to bring them back on the promised rate. They do this kind of work all over the country, from Orissa to U.P. to Kerala, sometimes for rates as high as Rs. 250/day in the metros. His family owned land and everyone except him were farmers, but he found it more lucrative to do this work and because there was already enough help. We exchanged numbers before parting, and I promised to inform him of any jobs I came across in Mumbai.

An exchange with a Bihari student who was studying in Patna gave an insight into the mindset of the locals, and a possible explanation for the lawlessness that has so often plagued the state. While we hesitated in sitting on the footstep of the door since there was a notice suggesting a fine of Rs.500 and or/imprisonment, he coolly sat there and stated that ‘rules don’t count for anything’. He also claimed that almost none of the locals on the train traveled with a ticket. The chain to stop the train, supposed to be used only in case of an emergency, is used frequently if the train is not expected to stop close to their village.

View From the Train

View From the Train

On the train we also met the underbelly of India in the form of a 10 year old beggar, Ajay. As he approached us, Ajay’s detached eyes provoked us to talk to him. Upon enquiry we learnt that various beggar mafias participate in an unofficial auction for deploying their kids on various rail routes. Railway police officials are bribed by various gangs for their tacit approval to conduct such an illegal and inhuman activity. Ajay accumulates approximately INR 200 daily, the majority of which goes to his supervisors. Whatever he saves is spent on whiteners, his preferred beverage. He told us that he despised schooling and that he does not intend to work in order to earn as he doesn’t mind the life he leads. This heartbreaking narrative prepared us for the many tales of suffering we heard in Bihar.

Ajay

Ajay


[i] Dial 139. We have used this service extensively and deem it to be excellent. Another feather in the railways’ cap

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Lucknow)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Technology,Uttar Pradesh — loggers @ 12:05 am

Location: Meerabai Marg

Netconnect takes Lucknow

Netconnect:

NS_Lucknow

Photon:

lucknow

October 18, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Varanasi)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Technology,Uttar Pradesh — loggers @ 11:25 pm

Netconnect takes Varanasi.

Location: Benaras Club

Netconnect:

NS_Benaras

Photon: Not working

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Patna)

Filed under: Bihar,Evdo.coverage,Technology — loggers @ 11:17 pm

Photon wins Patna.

Location: Nirvana Cottage, White House complex

Netconnect:

NS_Patna

Photon:

patna

October 14, 2009

The Power of Trump Cards

Filed under: Cricket,Leisure,Tidbits — loggers @ 10:47 pm

What has kept us busy during 300+ hours of train/car rides:

WWE

WWE

ODI & T20 Cricket

ODI & T20 Cricket

Wickets 479, clash.

October 13, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Rajgir)

Filed under: Bihar,Evdo.coverage,Technology — loggers @ 9:50 pm

Netconnect takes Rajgir.

Location: Circuit House

Netconnect:

NS_Rajgir

Photon: Not working

Jamshedpur

Filed under: Economics,Industry,Jharkhand — loggers @ 12:09 am

Jamshedpur, named after the scion of the Tata family Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, is the township created around their flagship TATA Steel factory in Jharkhand. Established in the early part of the 20th century after clearing out dense forest, this location provided easy access to the abundant iron ore deposits present in the nearby districts. The city is well endowed with a large public park, sprawling accommodations for its employees, a zoo and even an amusement park. Conversations with employees/affiliates reinforced our belief that the TATA management has taken great care in providing for its employees. Today, ~80% of the city’s population is connected to the steel works plant.

Our first stop in the city was the Russi Mody Center for Excellence. This serves as a center where professional institutions[i] from various business fields have their regional offices. The center has exhibition halls dedicated to J.N. and J.R.D Tata’s achievements, the former providing the foreground for India’s industrialization process. In addition, it also houses corporate India’s first business archives, right from the company registration documents in 1904. Designed by the well known architect Hafeez Contractor, this complex is supposed to be an elegant blend of international edifices such as the Colosseum and Hanging Gardens of Babylon, with a rare and enviable collection of paintings by M.F. Husain.

Registration document for TATA Steel

Registration document for TATA Steel

M.F. Husain's painting

M.F. Husain's painting

Next, we were given a brief tour of the steel plant, which covers an area of 24 square km and provides the city its skyline. Currently producing 6.5m tons of steel per annum, the plant employs a total of ~45,000[ii] employees. The environment lends itself as a city buzzing in activity with bikers, cyclists and cars moving from one part of the plant to the other. It also has its own locomotive tracks to transport slag and other materials. We observed three different parts of the process: a) Washing the iron ore and smelting it into slag b) hot pressing the slag and turning it into a coil and c) galvanizing and cold rolling, where elements such as zinc are added to prevent rusting. Among the many uses that steel produced in this factory has seen range from the Howrah bridge in Calcutta to that used in the construction of facilities for the Beijing Olympics. The plant was no doubt an exceptional industrial achievement and with the history that comes with it, makes for something we should be proud of.

Tribes form an important part of the Jharkhand economy, and it is predominantly in their surroundings that the abundant natural resources of the state are found. Even today, industrialists grapple with the government over land acquisition and rights of tribal populations. The TATA group has been doing its part in helping the tribal economy to develop and integrate with mainstream society. The Tribal Cultural Center was set up with this purpose in mind, and to help spread awareness of their way of life. Very professionally designed and informative, this is definitely a stop on the itinerary of visitors of the plant.

Tribal Cultural Centre

Tribal Cultural Centre

Recreation of tribal hut

Re-creation of tribal hut

Another aspect of TATA’s social action plan includes the Community Development Center, addressing social issues in urban areas. We met with Mr. Ranjit Bhattacharya, head of the center and a national level powerlifter (and self-proclaimed actor, director and songwriter). Among the activities conducted include vocational courses, skills development (e.g. computers) and socially relevant training. Himself a sportsman, he also places a large emphasis on sports such as volleyball, football, cricket, weightlifting and basketball. Apparently MS Dhoni[iii] has also used Jamshedpur’s extensive sports facilities for his training, which are considered second only to Calcutta in the East. Our conversation slowly drifted to the killing of other sports by cricket, to a torrent on Alok for not speaking Hindi to jokes on marriage (sprinkled with mimics of Japanese shop owners and Shammi Kapoor impersonations, and other highlights not suitable for this blog). One of the most colourful personalities on our travels so far, it is in search of people like him that we are exploring the country.


[i] E.g. Institute of Chartered Accountants, Indian Institute of Industrial Technology

 

[ii] This is down from 70,000 a few years back, mainly due to automated technologies

[iii] This anecdote had a clear tone of distaste to it, as Mr. Bhattacharya said “he (Dhoni) has forgotten his roots. You boys, on the other hand, should never forget your roots”

October 12, 2009

Temple Visits in Orissa

Filed under: Economics,Leisure,Orissa,Religion — loggers @ 12:52 am

To complete our visit to Orissa, we dedicated a day to visiting the Konark ruins and the Jagannath temple. The ruins of Konark, one of the 4 sun temples in India, are located ~65km outside of Bhubaneshwar on the road to Puri. While a guide is helpful for explaining the history behind the construction/destruction of the temple, this information can also be found easily on Wikipedia. What we found fascinating were the intricate, and graphic, carvings on the temple walls.

The Konark temple ruin

The Konark temple ruin

The enormous wheels that border the temple were geometrically designed as timetables- depicting what people should be doing at different times of the day under social norms. Most of the other 100’s of carvings on the walls had one defining feature in common- they were all depiction of the kama sutra. A barrage of positions will keep you engaged as you stroll around the main structure, and a guide would be able to provide interesting insight as some may be difficult to decipher. The morning, mid-day, and evening sun gods overlook the grounds, and each is given the spotlight during his respective hour while you find the others in the shade. The geometrical precision and cultural boldness in the carvings make for an eye-opening spiritual/historical experience.

Timetable wheel in the midday shadow

Konark wheel in midday shadow

Polygamy

Polygamy

The Jagannath temple, located in the city of Puri[1], is more aligned with what we are used to seeing in Hindu places of worship. We left our cameras and phones in the car, because photography is prohibited, and headed up the 2km road to the temple on rickshaws. The shrewd locals have capitalized on this being one of the most popular religious destinations in the world, erecting dharamsalas lining both sides of the road. Later that evening, the city market was buzzing with a peculiar energy. Fish vendors, local pujas, rickshaw wallahs and snack stalls were all in action, while an old-fashioned cremation was taking place just off the road. Everyone was spending money in some way or another and contributing to the unofficial “C” that is not reflected in India’s GDP. This sparked thoughts on the suffocating grip that religion holds over the Indian economy…

What would happen if a Prime Minister ever announced that s/he was an atheist?

Can the number of religious holidays/occasions ever be curbed in the interest of productivity?

What is the country’s ratio of temples to schools or hospitals?

…Just food for thought

Puri beach- the Goa of the East

Puri- the Goa of East India


[1] Puri is also home to one of India’s cleanest beaches (comparable to Goa), where dolphins are occasionally spotted.

October 10, 2009

Railways, Technology and Ethics

Filed under: Lessons,Technology,Transport — loggers @ 8:38 pm

Disclaimer: None of the brands mentioned have actually paid us. This is free advertising for them.

Railway ticket booking has become a lot easier these days, thanks to the IRCTC and websites such as Yatra. As a result we’ve relied on the railways to travel the eastern part of the country. Rail travel is also safer relative to roadways as local goons and Maoists/Naxalites often target vehicles on highways, especially in northern Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar. This strategy has allowed us to see a number of railway stations which we’ve found to be clean and well-equipped. However, major stations, such as Howrah, still suffer from heavy congestion (one of us remarked, “This resembles a refugee camp”) and security at all stations remains a major concern as they are extremely porous.

We took the Purshottam Express from Bhubaneswar to Jamshedpur. The train, which was supposed to leave Bhubaneswar at 11.30pm was delayed by an hour. Due to arrive at 6.30am, we only reached at 8am. The attendant, who had assured us that he would wake us up in time for Tatanagar station, seemed content in his sleep as we exited the train. Utterly disoriented, we searched for the exit. Meters before the exit, we were stopped by a drowsy railway official who wanted to see tickets of the journey we had just performed. We realized that after the 2am ticket check and due to the hasty exit in the morning, we had forgotten our tickets in the train.

When on the wrong side of the law, defense via reason is an ideal form of offense. We proceeded to explain to the uninterested official the circumstances under which we had exited the train. We also asked for his permission to show him the soft copy of our ticket on the mobile phone or the netbook but he refused citing the INR 300/person fine as the only acceptable settlement mechanism.

As is common in India, onlookers circumscribed us for their dose of early morning entertainment. Few of the gentlemen tried to negotiate on our behalf. We even suggested to the platform TC (Ticket Collector) that 2 of us would bond with him while the third would run to a nearby cyber café and print the ticket. He rejected this offer too and proposed that we pay INR 300 at least. For that sum, he would let us go. This was the loophole in his case. We demanded that we be taken to the station manager’s cabin for what would be a hearing of sorts.

Upon arrival at the cabin, we presented our case to the manager who deployed a third, apparently independent officer to examine our e-tickets. The netbook was pulled out. The Netconnect was plugged in. Now, only internet connectivity could save us from furthering the confrontation. Towers were on our side – the device worked. The officer looked at the ticket and recommended that we be set free.

Lesson: Requesting a transfer of proceedings to the station manager was a risk. Groupism (which would work against us) of railway officials was a strong possibility. Paying INR 300 and exiting the station was the easy option but we knew that our case was flawless. We decided to stick to the facts and emerged victorious on a high moral ground.

Many of our laws are archaic, and render such settlement impossible. Not too long ago, we succumbed to a similar temptation. An upright minority is the only hope for a nation where corruption is a social norm. Pontificating high horses are more comfortable than rocky rail rides.

October 9, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Jamshedpur)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Jharkhand,Technology — loggers @ 6:58 pm

Reliance wins Tatanagar.

Location: Hotel Nalanda, Jamshedpur.

Reliance Netconnect:

NS_Jamshedpur

Photon: No coverage

Raghurajpur — The Village of Artists

Filed under: Economics,Leisure,Orissa — loggers @ 6:55 pm

On our way back from Puri to Bhubaneshwar, we decided to take a short detour to Raghurajpur-known as the village of artists. Inspired by Dr. Jagannath Mohapatra, every household in the village is engaged in some form of craftsmanship. The vibrant colors and the laid-back atmosphere were inviting, and the villagers were eager to show us their work. As we sat down with the artists, they discussed the philosophy behind their art while also pushing their merchandise.

PA080176

PA080181

The villagers cultivate their innate interest in art from an early age in order to develop the handicraft economy and promote eco-tourism. Their materials are 100% organic as the colors used are extracted from sea shells, stones and plants, while the fabric is generally made of palm. In addition, each household holds expertise in a distinct art-form and has a unique style. For example, the first house we visited specializes in intricately designed bookmarks (which make for great gifts), while the last house offered an elaborate beer cooler made from the shell of a coconut. This distinctiveness has given birth to a healthy, competitive market.

PA080186

PA080190

At the conclusion of our visit, a local explained that during peak season, foreigners visit the village nearly every day. He has also set up accommodation for such tourists to immerse themselves in the “real” Orissa for a few days and interact with the villagers. This is a heartening example of a society that is capitalizing on their natural abilities to generate revenue for the state and promote a different form of tourism.

PA080187

PA080188

Calcutta’s Old World Charm

Filed under: F&B,Leisure,Politics,Transport,West Bengal — loggers @ 6:51 pm

If in Assam people are used to a lahe-lahe (slowly) culture, then West Bengal seems to run at an even more leisurely pace. Calcutta, which served as the capital of the British East India Company, felt like a city stuck in the 60s, resistant to change. For one, Ambassadors are the only taxis that are allowed to roam the streets – mainly because the Hindustan Motors plant that manufactures these cars is located in the state. Rickshaws pulled manually are still a common mode of transport around the city. The city’s tram line is the only one of its kind in India and apart from a few modern carriages that have been recently introduced, most look like they haven’t been replaced since the British left. However, one aspect of urban transportation that the city has been ahead of others is in the Metro system. We took a ride and found it very clean and punctual. The platform even had cable TV showing the latest EPL highlights.

The Ambassador Taxi in Calcutta

The Ambassador Taxi in Calcutta

Rickshaw puller

Rickshaw puller

The Calcutta Tram

The Calcutta Tram

Jute, a very lucrative cash crop and abundantly grown in Bengal, is one of the state’s largest exports. We visited the Howrah jute mill, which was set up during the British time and subsequently purchased by a Marwari businessman. The mill was large, producing 130 tons of jute every day and employing hundreds of workers. However, the machines and processes being used seemed ancient, as if no changes had taken place in the last 6 decades. Dust and dirt filled the air around us and the environment seemed to come across as a health hazard for the workers.

Jute Mill

Jute Mill

Every big city has its own colonial imprint – for Calcutta, this is the Victoria Memorial Hall (the most popular tourist attraction, after the food that is). This lavish monument comes across as a mix between St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Taj Mahal. Inside, there is an excellent collection of historical photographs and paintings depicting times gone by. There is also a well preserved exhibition hall (air-conditioned) with timelines, artifacts and even a showcase portraying village life.

Victoria Memorial Hall

Victoria Memorial Hall

Aside from visiting a couple of colleges, Presidency and Jadavpur, we stopped by the well-renowned Indian Coffee House. This is the place where the quintessential Bengali comes to debate and discuss anything from the weather to cricket to politics, over a cup of coffee. A very simplistic milieu where even bottled water is not available, this is where the philosophy of Marx and Lenin find their most vocal support.

Indian Coffee House

Indian Coffee House

Change (in governance) in West Bengal could well be around the corner. A number of individuals whom we spoke to mentioned the rising tide and influence of Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party. If victorious in the next election, it would be the first time a party other than the CPM would be in power over the last 3 decades. Maybe this is a sign of things to come.

The Loggers’ Calcutta Chaat Trail

Filed under: F&B,West Bengal — loggers @ 6:50 pm

The highlight of our visit to Calcutta was the comprehensive chaat (snack) trail through Camac street.  We covered traditional Bengali chaats as well as national favorites, and recommend that you allocate ~4 hours to this culinary expedition if you want to experience the Calcutta food scene in true fashion.

The trail we followed was:

1) Start with Chilla opposite Vardan market on Camac Street

Chilla

Chilla

2) Moong dal vada

Moong Dal Vada

Moong Dal Vada

3) Kachori chaat & Dahi vada

Kachori Chaat

Kachori Chaat

Dahi Vada

Dahi Vada

4) “Skinned” Sugarcane juice

Sugarcane Juice

Sugarcane Juice

5) Shibuji: Khas soda, Masala Thumsup, Soda Shikanji (lemonade), Rose soda

Shibuji Menu

Shibuji Menu

6) Sandesh

7) Rasgulla

8 ) Puchka

9) Churmur

10) Jhal moodie

11) Bhel Puri

12) Pav Bhaji

13) Orange Stuffed and Sitaphal (Custard Apple) Kulfi

Other spots to look out for:

Anamika Rolls in Alipore

– Rabindra Sarani for kachori subzi and jalebi

– Gundi and ice paan at any paan shop

October 8, 2009

Thoughts on NREGS

Filed under: Economics,NREGS,Politics — loggers @ 7:53 pm

One of the studies we’ve been performing nationally is a practical review of the implementation, and impact, of NREGS – considered the UPA’s flagship scheme. We’ve found that the plan has evoked all sorts of reactions: praise in Rajasthan, inapplicability in Gujarat, censure in Punjab and constructive criticism in Kashmir. Writing in the Indian Express, Ashwani Kumar avows:

The truth is that the fate of NREGA and democracy in India are intertwined. In fact, NREGA is locked in an eccentric paradox: its promise to secure rural livelihood is embedded in the decentralization of state power, but its implementation is unfortunately driven by a multilayered, centralized, bureaucratic mode of governance.

Dr. Kumar’s assertion is in line with our findings. After having toured 14 Indian states thus far, we are of the opinion that micromanagement of schemes such as this must be the district’s prerogative. The needs of every region are diverse and having a restrictive, centralized structure inhibits the right kind of realization. The difference between a relatively successful NRHM and an evolving NREGS is the manner in which it is executed.

The entrepreneurial energy of the districts must be given a chance to flourish. This necessitates a move from autocratic implementation to accountable allocation. What we are thinking is fundamental: more power to the people.

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Bhubaneswar)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Orissa,Technology — loggers @ 6:43 pm

Netconnect takes Bhubaneswar.

Netconnect:

NS_Bhubaneswar

Photon: No coverage

October 7, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Puri)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Orissa,Technology — loggers @ 10:15 pm

Netconnect wins Puri.

Netconnect:

NS_Puri

Photon: No coverage

October 5, 2009

Musings on Mizoram

Filed under: Education,Mizoram,Politics — loggers @ 8:26 pm

Our travels in the northeast could not have been complete sans a visit to the most literate[i] state in the country, Mizoram. Connectivity to Aizawl is limited to road and air, and we chose the latter on account of travel time. Similar to Arunachal Pradesh, we had to obtain an inner-line permit upon arrival at the airport, which was a lot less painful since we had come by air. Had we crossed the state border from Assam, obtaining this permit would have taken a day. Aizawl is nestled among the Lushai hills and seems to have grown beyond its means – narrow, windy roads with houses packed next to each other and a distinct air of smog held over the city during the day. Often referred to as the Switzerland of India, we, however were not able to observe any tangible development taking place in the city, which is home to more than 40% of the state’s population.

view from Hotel Royale in Aizawl

View from Hotel Royale in Aizawl

Predominantly a Christian society, Mizoram is a cultural anomaly compared to the other northeast states and the rest of India. Heavily influenced by western cultures, Mizo society is more liberal and egalitarian, with a particular emphasis on women empowerment. Due to the rocky relationship between the army and locals during the 2 decades of insurgency until statehood in 1987, Mizos did not identify themselves with the rest of the country. Having realized the political and economic dependence the state has on the center, this view is changing and more people now see themselves as Indian, and not just Mizo.

Congested street near Millenuim Mall, central Aizawl

Congested street near Millenuim Mall, downtown Aizawl

During our visit we met with Pu[ii] Silo, the principal at one of the best private schools in the state, who shared with us his thoughts on the education sector and Mizo society in general. The provision of basic literacy notwithstanding, [quality] higher educational institutions are lacking in this part of the country. As a result, students who have the financial means (25-30%) move out for further studies and tend to stay back in cities such as Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore and Mumbai to attain jobs. We were also able to interact with a few students (10th and 12th graders) from his school, who shared with us their ambitions. Interestingly, these ranged from becoming a doctor to a principal to an animation designer in Japan to becoming a hotel manager in Korea.

Fun fact: Korean drama (translated into Mizo) is the most popular form of entertainment in the state.

Korean dvds displayed on the sidewalk

Korean and American DVDs displayed on the sidewalk


[i] Officially this figure is slightly lower, because of migrant laborers from other states who now live in Mizoram. For locals, however, this is 100%

[ii] Pu is a prefix used for respect in Mizo, similar to ‘Mr.’ in English, ‘Pak’ in Bahasa and ‘Khun’ in Thai

Dinner with Himanta Biswa Sarma

Filed under: Assam,Conversation,Economics,National Security,Politics — loggers @ 8:20 pm

Upon arrival in Guwahati, we noticed a barrage of modern ambulances with NRHM (National Rural Health Mission) logos imprinted on their side. A drive through Assam also revealed that NRHM has been well advertised in the state. In Sibsagar, we visited the civil hospital and noticed that the scheme was also being effectively implemented. In addition to being one of the most hygienic and orderly hospitals we have seen, doctors were attending to patients and medicines were being provided free of cost. We learnt that all this was made possible by Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma, Assam’s Health, IT (Information Technology) and GMDA (Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority) Minister.

While in Tezpur, our local host thought that it would be a good idea for us to meet Dr. Sarma, who is considered Assam’s most dynamic young leader. We wrote to him, introducing ourselves as a group of students exploring the country. He responded within 48 hours, promising to meet us after returning to Guwahati. Such responsiveness is generally uncharacteristic of a politician.

We were invited to his residence for dinner which was preceded by a long conversation in his work chamber. We began by asking him about his role in implementing NRHM across Assam. He told us that the successful execution was a result of district level planning, an inherent feature of the policy. He talked about India’s heterogeneity and told us that in order for a scheme to be successful, mandates can be national but states must be given entrepreneurial leeway in execution[1]. He also credited his team for looking after the micromanagement of the program. Dr. Sarma stated that he provides the vision[2] but responsibility and accountability are shared by the team.

We proceeded to ask him about his role as the GDD Minister. Dr. Sarma is not in favor of urbanization at the cost of agriculture. He lamented that agriculture is losing its prestige/importance and that in order for India to embark on a path of sustainable economic development, more Green Revolutions are needed. He spoke of Punjab as a showcase state which had benefitted from the introduction of advanced agricultural techniques, and where farmers have social clout. He longs for a day when the agricultural domain is considered prestigious enough for a father to get his daughter married to an agriculturist.

We also asked Dr. Sarma to shed some light on the subject of illegal immigration from Bangladesh into India. He urged us to consider the social impact of such migration (in the form of religious imbalance) in the long run, as opposed to the short term economic impact. According to him, Assam needs labor from outside the state as there are not enough locals available for low-skill jobs. He also thinks that the issue is not limited to Assam anymore as Bangladeshis travel to other parts of the country for work.

Dr. Sarma concerns himself with the attitude of the Assamese people. His mission is to transform the lackadaisical mindset of the local into an energetic and optimistic one. He believes in youthful enthusiasm and sees it as a game-changer in contemporary India. He travels extensively in order to familiarize himself with best practices in other regions. The conversation also revealed that he surfs the internet regularly and is an avid reader, especially of his critics. Watch out for this young leader who lends the political class much needed positivity.


[1] Here he suggested that policymakers from the southern part of the country are better equipped to design policy due to their preference for a decentralized form of governance as opposed to an overarching federal structure.

[2] According to him, those below 40 are the doers while the 40 plus generation is responsible for leadership and vision.

October 3, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Calcutta)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Technology,West Bengal — loggers @ 12:46 am

Photon takes Calcutta.

Reliance Netconnect:

NS_Calcutta

Tata Photon:

kolkata

October 2, 2009

IIM-Shillong

Filed under: Education,Meghalaya — loggers @ 12:49 am

While in Shillong, we visited the Indian Institute of Management (IIM-S) – a new addition to India’s top breed of business schools, only recently started in March ‘08. The campus is located on what used to be Raja (King) Mayurbhanj’s palace area, with the main building furnished with rare and expensive Burmese teak. There are 2 classrooms, a learning resource center (sponsored by EXIM Bank) and administrative offices in the main wing. This area is currently on lease, and keeping in mind future expansion plans, IIM-S has already acquired land a few kilometers outside of Shillong for the construction of its new campus. The current establishment is apparently the technologically most advanced IIM due to the last mover advantage it had over its peers. It boasts of campus wide Wi-Fi connectivity and also offers classes via videoconferencing conducted by foreign faculty, such as from Drexel University.

The class of 2010 will be the first batch to graduate from this institution, with major banks and marketing companies expected to recruit in December. Each of the current batches has 60 students (note: sex ratio for first batch was 50:10) and there are a total of 15 full-time faculty members. With a student:faculty ratio of 8:1, IIM-S is comparable to the top global business schools. Two current students gave us a guided tour of the campus. The dorms were spacious and clean and located within comfortable walking distance. They seemed content with the setup and didn’t mind being in Shillong, often considered a remote location, as academic and extra-curricular commitments keep them busy. The location also has other advantages due to the surrounding hills for activities such as nature trails, hikes and a tranquil environment to work in.

The critical component for IIMs such as Shillong, which have a more remote location, going forward will be the ability to attract good quality permanent faculty members to be affiliated with this institution. Financial autonomy at the IIMs is one of the most important factors that could address this, something that was also highlighted during our conversation with Mr. Bakul Dholakia.

October 1, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Aizawl)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Mizoram,Technology — loggers @ 10:52 pm

Photon wins Aizawl

Reliance Netconnect:

No coverage

Tata Photon:

Aizawl, Mizoram

September 30, 2009

Maps Page

Filed under: Tidbits,Uncategorized — loggers @ 4:51 pm

We have added a Maps page for you to keep track of our locations

Bumla Border

Filed under: Arunachal,National Security — loggers @ 1:40 am

One of the main attractions of visiting Arunachal Pradesh is to go to the Indo-China (or Tibet, based on your stance) border, along the McMahon Line that was drawn up during the British Raj. The treaty that was signed between British India and Tibet has never been officially recognized by the Chinese on account of illegitimacy of the erstwhile Tibetan government. After India gave political asylum to the Dalai Lama in 1959[i], tensions between the two countries rose due to significant army movement on both sides, ultimately leading to the Indo-China war that took place in the winter of 1962. The Bumla border was one of the main battlegrounds of the war, through which the Chinese were able to enter India and capture territory right up to the Assamese town of Tezpur.

After a bumpy ride towards Bumla, we had to walk the last couple of km to the border as a result of our car not being able to traverse the difficult terrain. We were welcomed by a warm and hospitable army officer who showed us around the LAC (Line of Actual Control), and explained the territorial claims agreed upon between the two sides after the war as well as the flag handover ceremony[ii]. Through the jawaans’ binoculars, we were able to observe the Chinese building a two lane highway leading up to the border, an ominous sign in itself. However, no skirmishes have taken place and not a single shot has been fired since the war in 1962.

View of the Indo-China border from Bumla

View of the Indo-China border from Bumla

With the jawaans at Bumla

With the jawaans at Bumla

Inside the hospitality room, we were treated to some hot, sweet chai and given a background on the diplomatic procedure that takes place at this location when Chinese delegations arrive. This space also serves as a place to entertain army guests and government officials, many of which are known to visit Bumla.

Meeting room for delegations at Bumla

Meeting room for delegations at Bumla

We then visited the Shungatser lake on our way back to Tawang, a 20km drive from the border. This is now better known as Madhuri lake, after a song involving the effervescent Madhuri Dixit from the movie “Koyla” was shot there. We were treated to some hot coffee and bhajias by army officers who ran a canteen by the lake, a perfect respite from the cold weather outside.

Compared to the palpable tension noticed at the Indo-Pak border at Wagah, the China border effused a sense of calm. However, this could well be deceiving in light of the peace pact that was signed between the two nations, which ends in 2012.

Peace (?)

Peace (?)


[i] This year marks the 50th anniversary the Lama’s stay in India, and he is expected to visit Tawang in November

[ii] This ceremony occurs 4 times a year, with the next one to be held on Oct 1, to celebrate the Chinese National Day. Celebrations on this day include a flag exchange, cultural dances from each side and other similar events, which tourists are allowed to observe

Driving through Arunachal

Filed under: Arunachal,Transport — loggers @ 1:20 am

Since the northeastern part of the country has limited rail connectivity and expensive air transport, we decided to drive into Arunachal Pradesh via Tezpur. We halted in Tezpur as we had to get our innerline permits made to enter Arunachal. The DC’s (District Commissioner) office makes the passes upon the presentation of 2 passport photos, a photocopy of an address proof and a form with credentials. The fact that Indian citizens need a visa-like permit to enter an Indian state is vexing. Additionally, the processing is contingent on the officials’ mood and extraneous factors such as the magnitude of Durga pooja donations.

Tawang, a serene hill station, was our base in Arunachal. While on our way to Tawang, we halted at Bomdila for the night. The 160km drive took 8 hours as the state of the roads changed along with the topography as we left Assam for Arunachal. What was a concrete roadway became a dirt track and the lush green plains of Assam gave way to the denser rainforests among the hills of Arunachal. A punctured tire in the midst of the damp, dark forest made matters worse.  Our dawdling driver added to the woes by doing the unthinkable – he induced passenger road rage by consistently under-speeding. The 180km drive from Bomdila to Tawang took another 9 hours as the condition of the roads – or lack thereof – deteriorated. The bouncy traverse reminded us of the Leh – Manali drive.

While in Tawang, we visited the monastery – Dalai Lama’s first stop in the country when he left Tibet for India in 1959. Compared to the monasteries we saw in Ladakh, the Tawang monastery complex was grander as it had a learning center and a residence complex for the lamas. We also visited the Tawang War Memorial – a site which recounts the 1962 battle and commemorates the victims of the war. The town is an interesting milieu of local residents – Bihari laborers, Marwari shop-owners and diverse army regiments coexist peacefully. While we were there, Tawang was readying itself to welcome the influx of tourists from Bengal who prefer the calm of a hill station over the shrillness of pooja festivities.

Tawang Monastery

Tawang Monastery

Having covered the Indo-Pak border on the western front, we were keen to visit the Indo-China border at Bumla, 38km from Tawang in order to compare the two boundaries. We spent a day trying to secure the permits required to visit the border – shuttling between the DC office and the army verification center. Next morning, our hired Toyota Innova took a severe beating as it negotiated the uphill, rocky terrain while SUVs drove up relatively comfortably. The 3-hour drive was entertaining, thanks to BRO’s (Border Roads Organization) creativity.

On our way back to Tezpur we rested overnight at Dirang, a beautiful valley, about 140km or 6.5 hours from Tawang. The drive to Tezpur via Bomdila took another 7 hours drive as election campaign and army convoys joined the incompetent driver and the cruel paths to keep us on the road for a record time. The experience was also stressful for those trying to get in touch with us on our non-BSNL mobile phones.

View from lodge in Dirang

View from lodge in Dirang

That Arunachal follows a matrilineal system was conspicuous as we drove through the state. Women were performing labor intensive tasks such as road leveling and water collection while men were probably looking after domestic chores. Most villages we passed through had wooden residences, NREGS advertisements and a convenience store. Notorious kids with toy guns gesticulated at us at every turn. The toy guns were pooja gifts and, perhaps, symbols of aspiration in an area where armed sentry is ubiquitous. We passed by several functional army camps, setup after the 1962 defeat, which reminded us of the security cover we saw in Kashmir.

Women labourers on the road to Tawang

Women labourers on the road to Tawang

The tourism department markets the northeast – quite rightly – as “paradise unexplored.” In addition to incredible views, waterfalls greeted us every so often. The state was abuzz with political activity which manifested itself in the electoral paraphernalia that decorated the houses. We wondered if pre-poll promises included better roads and telecommunication.

A Night with the Singphos

Filed under: Assam,Leisure,Nature — loggers @ 12:21 am

After visiting Kaziranga, we left for Enthong- the village of the Singpho tribe in Assam. The Singpho were the first to discover the process of tea cultivation in India. They taught the process to the British, who then grew the Indian tea trade exponentially without giving the Singpho community their due credit. This has left a degree of resentment amongst the community, which until today sustains itself on tea farming (each household within the community maintains a plot of land for this). Today, the Singpho community in India is on the verge of extinction, with only ~25,000 remaining inhabitants. Other major Singpho hubs exist in China and Myanmar.

Manjela and Alok outside the Eco Lodge

Manjela and Alok outside the Eco Lodge

In Enthong, we stayed at The Eco Lodge, which is run by a Singpho family. It is situated amidst the tea gardens and is entirely made of bamboo (hence the name)[i]. The manager, Manjela, plans to install solar panels to power the entire lodge over the next year, and is only using conventional electricity until the lodge raises enough funding to switch to green technology. We learned that the lodge is partly funded by the DS Group, which plans to leverage its relationship with the Singphos in its future endeavors within the hospitality space.

Manjela playing the guitar

Manjela playing the guitar

Our room in the Eco Lodge

Our room in the Eco Lodge

Food was most certainly a highlight. We were served an elaborate, yet organic and eco-friendly, Singpho dinner that consisted of delicacies such as rice steamed in bamboo sticks, spicy tomato chutney, fresh eggplant, greens and potato preparations, and yam soup. The next morning, we awoke to the sounds of a howling gibbon (an endangered animal) and Manjela playing the violin.

Our traditional Singpho meal

Our traditional Singpho meal

Anti-dandruff shampoo for Rishi

Anti-dandruff shampoo for Rishi

The Eco Lodge is in the district of Margarita in Upper Assam. It has 11 rooms, and while we were the only guests at the time, it is frequently visited by foreign tourists who have heard about it through word-of-mouth. However, it maintains strict rules regarding respect towards the Singpho way of life, and manages to retain a tranquil and serene atmosphere. Establishments such as these should be encouraged as they promote a healthy tourist lifestyle and open doors to relatively unexplored parts of the country.


[i] One of the reasons why eco lodges are prevalent in the northeast is because ~60% of India’s bamboo cultivation takes place here- resulting in cheap inputs.

After visiting Kaziranga, we left for Enthong- the village of the Singpho tribe in Assam. The Singpho were the first to discover the process of tea cultivation in India. They taught the process to the British, who then grew the Indian tea trade exponentially without giving the Singpho community their due credit. This has left a degree of resentment amongst the community, which until today sustains itself on tea farming (each household within the community maintains a plot of land for this). Today, the Singpho community in India is on the verge of extinction, with only ~25,000 remaining inhabitants. Other major Singpho hubs exist in China and Myanmar.

September 29, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Guwahati)

Filed under: Assam,Evdo.coverage,Technology — loggers @ 10:33 pm

Tata Photon wins the Guwahati round.
(Photon also had strong connectivity in Tezpur while Netconnect did not work…just wasn’t able to take the speedtest)

Reliance Netconnect:

No coverage

Tata Photon:

guwahati speed test

Comment of the Day

Filed under: F&B,Meghalaya,Tidbits — loggers @ 3:22 pm

The 4 of us visited Bombay Biites in Shillong.
Our order: crispy chilli babycorn, chinese bhel, veg. fried wonton, chilli cheese roll, chilli garlic chow, paneer shashlik, corn sheekh kebeb, cheese balls, cheese pizza, chocolate cake w/ choco sauce (x2)

“Food is life” -Mihir

September 28, 2009

Tawang — Bumla

Filed under: Arunachal,Humour,Tidbits — loggers @ 8:46 pm

As a follow-up to our Srinagar to Leh road sign post, we thought we would share the signs that kept us occupied on our way from Tawang to Bumla. The messages had a deeper and more patriotic tone this time around, which we thought was appropriate for a drive consisting of numerous military parks and security checkpoints leading up to the Indo-China border.

Here goes:

-Logic is the anatomy of thought

-Don’t worry, be happy

-Progress is like a wheelbarrow, if you don’t keep pushing, it stops

-Life is enjoyable

-Only those who dare to fail can achieve greatly

-Catch someone doing the right thing and say great job

-If you lead wisely, you’ll be obeyed cheerfully

-Visit Bumla, forget Shimla

-There is no substitute for hard work

-Hard work is equal to prayer

-Life is like a novel with the end ripped out

-Lord make me worthy of the men I serve

-Life is long if you know how to live it

-There is little difference between being lost and exploring

-Your world is as big as you make it

-Freedom without discipline leads to destruction

-Success without fulfillment is empty

-Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion, you must set yourself on fire

-The best of ideas will not work, unless you work the ideas

-You will be disappointed if you fail, but doomed if you don’t try

-Fear is only as deep as the mind allows

-Either lead, or follow, or get out of the way

-BSNL: Basic Social Need for Life

-Life is not too long, but there is always time for small courtesies

-One bullet, one enemy

And our personal favorite:

line

Tezpur Government School

Filed under: Assam,Education — loggers @ 8:30 pm

As part of the 2nd leg of our tour, we have decided to visit educational institutions (public and private), wherever possible. While in Tezpur, we dropped in at the Dulabari lower primary school (Kindergarten – Grade 4) in village teen mile. This Assamese medium school has 456 students and 7 teachers, putting the faculty-to-student ratio at 65:1, a depressing statistic. We learnt that a government school cannot specify its own admission criteria as it must admit every applicant under SSA (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan) – a central government scheme geared towards free and compulsory education for children upto the age of 14.

Lower Primary School, Teen Mile, Tezpur

Lower Primary School, Teen Mile, Tezpur

The faculty was convivial and responded enthusiastically to all of our queries – often synchronizing complaints with reactions. They were especially critical of the additional responsibilities that have been imposed on them, such as cooking for the mid-day meal scheme, as their resources were already stretched. The provision for a meal per child was just increased from INR2 to INR2.09, but this does not sufficiently cover costs in light of increasing input prices. When asked about the impact of the well-advertised SSA, the headmaster seemed to be pleased with the monetary assistance the school was receiving, with regards to infrastructure and maintenance expenses. However, we were also shown a big, locked steel box with TLMs (Teacher Learning Materials), whose contents seemed to be unused, thereby suggesting that the teachers were not properly trained on their use

The school had no boundary wall or playground and sanitation facilities were rudimentary. There was no electricity till the teachers decided to shell out the requisite amount for obtaining a connection, which took 6 months to get started. They had to charge the students INR10 per annum to cover these electricity costs, since the government did not agree to provide them with it. Most families in the district belong to a minority group and believe that the government is treating them like a “stepchild”. Thus, the government’s inaction is perpetuating an unfortunate confirmation bias in that a minority is feeling discriminated against when schools in many districts, irrespective of demographics, face similar problems.

After the recommendations of the 6th Pay Commission, public school teachers are among the best paid government employees. Yet attracting, and cultivating, good teachers remains a major problem for government (and private) schools. This, combined with implementation gaps and woefully inadequate infrastructure in most government schools leaves much to be desired and suggests that more work needs to be done.

Nezone Biscuit Factory

Filed under: Assam,Small Businesses — loggers @ 8:27 pm

On our way to Tawang and the Indo-China border, we passed through the town of Tezpur and paid a visit to the largest biscuit manufacturer in Assam, called Nezone (stands for North East Zone). Owned and operated by a Marwari family[i], Nezone produces more than 35 varieties of biscuits. In addition to producing biscuits under its own brand name, it also does so for major brands such as Britannia (India’s market leader in biscuits).

We were able to observe the entire production process, right from flour milling to mixing of the ingredients to baking. Apart from the two production lines present in this factory, Nezone also has another factory of the same capacity. Margins in the biscuit business have historically been very tight (~7%), and given the current environment of increasing input prices such as sugar, this has been reduced further to 2-3%. To maintain competitiveness in the volumes game, the factory runs 24 hours/day, 6 days/week. The supply of biscuits we were given at the conclusion of the visit served us well for our lengthy road trip ahead to Tawang..

Packing line at Nezone

Packing line at Nezone

[i] The prominent businessmen in the region are Marwaris and Biharis

Auctions in Assam — Crony Capitalism

Filed under: Assam,Economics,Small Businesses — loggers @ 8:15 pm

In Assam, business owners and traders have the option to participate in government auctions in order to source raw materials at a relatively low cost. Different government departments (army, railways, power, telecom etc.) hold these auctions to dispose off excess waste/scrap material, and for some, it turns out to be a significant source of revenue. For hazardous materials, the system requires participants to obtain certification from the central government in order to participate; i.e. only a registered lead smelter can bid for waste batteries from the government.

Auction Format

The format is that of an on-the-floor 1st-price auction, where a reserve price, R, is set by the hosting department. The highest bidder wins and pays a price, P, which is equal to his bid, given that the bid exceeds R. Officially, departments determine R by looking at market prices of the goods and set R < market price. However, since this can be tiresome for the government bodies when dealing with hundreds of goods, they often just determine R arbitrarily by gauging demand, using the previously held R as a benchmark. For example, if in the previous auction for the same good, R was INR30 and the good sold for INR50, the department is likely to set the next R > INR30 to take advantage of this demand.

Corruption in the System

While this system is designed to supply all business owners with cheap raw materials and to minimize waste amongst government departments, the local mafia groups (syndicates) are corrupting the system. Syndicates are groups of people with substantial influence in various departments of the government, who prevent the auctions from functioning fairly. These groups forcibly prevent local traders and business owners from participating in various auctions, and therefore, have control over the prices. With extensive experience they are able to estimate the reserve price before the auction is held, and then do not compete with each other during the official auction.

After the syndicate buys the goods, they meet privately to hold an unofficial auction. Here, members of the syndicate compete with each other, and then split the profits evenly after all the goods are exchanged. So technically, a syndicate member who does not actively participate in either auction will make money through this system. Finally, after the unofficial auction, the individual winners proceed to sell the goods in the market at a high price or use them in their independent scrap-dealing businesses.

Getting around the System

Our friend and local host, Rishi Todi, has a lead smelting business in Guwahati, Assam and has experienced this system first hand when trying to participate in an auction for waste batteries held by the railways department. Knowing that it was a complicated and risky process, Rishi visited a Railway official in Assam beforehand for advice on how to participate in such an auction. The official gave him a run-down of the system, and explained that the government is fully aware of the fact that syndicates are controlling the prices at departmental auctions. He then advised Rishi to meet privately with a member of the syndicate before the auction to reach an agreement to procure the batteries. The official even provided Rishi with a contact inside the syndicate. In making deal with a syndicate member before the auction, one would tell the member the maximum price at which he would buy the batteries. Then, the syndicate member would try to win the unofficial auction at a price lower than his buyer’s maximum price in order to sell it to him at a profit.

Rishi at his lead smelting factory

Rishi at his lead smelting factory

Conclusion

Auctions in Assam are a prime example of crony capitalism. They illustrate how intertwined bureaucracy, business and corruption are in India. In this case, both the government and the entrepreneurs are trying to create efficient markets, but independent syndicates are asserting their power over both entities. The tragedy is that either the government officials find themselves helpless in the face of these local gangsters, or that they are enjoying a mutually beneficial relationship with them under the table. In both cases, it is the entrepreneurs who are losing – the only group of people who have the ability to generate the employment and economic activity that the country needs.

Koliabor and Kaziranga

Filed under: Assam,Nature — loggers @ 7:57 pm

An exploration of the northeast is incomplete without an excursion to a tea estate. After southern China, Assam was only the second location in the world to produce tea on a commercial basis, beginning in the 19th century. In fact, southern China and Assam are the only two regions in the world with native tea plants. We decided to spend a night at Koliabor Manor, a “resort”, located off National Highway 37A The tea estate – Assam’s longest – belongs to the Williamson Magor Group and was set-up in 1925 near Silghat, Assam’s first declared town. It was a strategically sound decision as Silghat had a port which enabled easy transportation to Calcutta through the Brahmaputra, India’s widest river. Formerly, Koliabor Manor was the Bara Sahab’s (Manager’s) bungalow, which has now been converted into a spacious guesthouse to draw tourists. Positioned on a hilltop, it allows for marvelous views of the Brahmaputra on one side and the tea estate on the other.

Koliabor Manor

Koliabor Manor

We arrived at Koliabor at 10pm and were greeted by the amiable owner/manager of the resort, Mr. Prasanta Borgohain and his efficient service team. The bungalow had a very colonial feel to it, elegantly decorated with minimalist, Victorian interiors (armchairs, chandeliers) and pictures hanging on the wall reminding us of its previous residents. Prior to dinner, members of an indigenous tree tribe who work on the plantation performed a dance for us. The lyrics of the song they danced to aptly capture some of their difficulties – alcoholism and violence (~50% pick up arms to join ULFA, or similar separatist groups). We were then treated to a delicious vegetarian Assamese dinner consisting of pulses, rice (a staple of Assam), aloo pitikka (mashed potatoes garnished with raw onions, mustard oil, green chillies) and aubergine fritters, among others Tomato and onion chutneys (pickles) served as condiments.

Assamese dinner at Koliabor

Assamese dinner at Koliabor

To fully appreciate the topography, we woke up at 4.30am for a walk in the estate. Sunrise in the northeast induces sublime scenery as the region is cloud infested and hillocked. The frontage is a slope of well-combed tea plants and to the left of the mansion are an upcoming chalet area (to be fully equipped with swimming pool, spa and cottages) and a view point overlooking the Brahmaputra. The complex still has a functional sundial and an extra-grassy tennis court. This setup to draw tourists is part of an effort to increase “tea tourism”, which, when combined with a visit to the nearby Kaziranga National Park make for an even more attractive package. Our stay at Koliabor was topped off by a 6.3 earthquake that affected a large part of the northeast region.

Kaziranga is generally closed to tourists during this time of the year owing to the monsoon, opening only on November 1. However, we managed to convince a park ranger to take us for a short safari. After boarding an open jeep at the Rhino Gate of the park, we proceeded to pick up an armed guard at the security check-post. Kaziranga is famous for having the highest population of rhinos in the world (~2000). In fact, it has 2/3rds of the world’s one-horned rhinos. The park also has the highest number of tigers in a protected area. Naturally, we were excited to spot these endangered animals.

A few minutes into the safari, quarreling cows obliged us with their presence. Grazing wild elephants were next in line. Soon after, we jostled to stay onboard as the driver braked and pointed to deer right in front of our vehicle. Finally, we approached a vast clearing where rhinos were feeding or enjoying their afternoon naps. Although they were roughly 500 meters away, our guide provided binoculars that allowed us to see them very clearly. We were told that during peak-season, tourists can ride elephants into the park and get as close as a meter away from the rhinos. While we were on our way out, animated villagers told us that a tiger has been spotted half a kilometer away from where we were. As we approached the spot, bystanders confirmed that a tiger, albeit dead, was found earlier in the day. Upon inquiry, we learnt that the tiger had died a natural death, reducing the number of tigers in the reserve to 85. Two security guards had been deployed near the corpse till officials arrived to take the body for a post-mortem. Wild boars bid us farewell as we exited the park, quite satisfied with our off-season safari. We paid INR500 for the safari and during the peak season, the rates go up to INR1,200, still very reasonable by international standards.

Wild elephants grazing

Wild elephants grazing

Dead tiger in Kaziranga

Dead tiger in Kaziranga

Another interesting observation during our safari was the presence of a large number of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh (~5% of the population). They have occupied the land bordering and sometimes encroaching on the reserve, by cutting down forest cover in favor of cultivable land. Now constituting a sizeable vote bank for the local government and claiming ownership of the land not previously their own, they have taken advantage of our porous border and put a further strain on resources.

Vishvakarma Festival and Kamakhya Devi Temple

Filed under: Assam,Religion — namanpugalia @ 3:43 pm

Upon arrival in Guwahati, I noticed that all vehicles were sporting colorful ribbons on their bumpers and windscreens. Before I could request my friend, and host, to explain the significance of the paraphernalia, he told me that the city was celebrating the Vishvakarma festival. That also meant that Guwahati was observing an unofficial holiday. Informal local holidays and bandhs (quiet curfews) are regular features in this part of the country. Alacrity is not a virtue widely possessed  in Assam and the state prides itself on a lahe-lahe (slowly-slowly) culture, indicative of going about business in a sluggish manner.

Decorated rickshaw during Vishvakarma pooja

Decorated rickshaw during Vishvakarma pooja

Lord Vishvakarma is considered the divine engineer of the world. Every year, on September 17th, industrial houses, mechanics, artists, craftsmen, weavers and other professionals (workers) pray to the Lord, thanking him for all his creations. Demographics of a region seem to play an important role in determining religious practices, as is evident in Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand – eastern states which have a large number of industrial workers and, as a result, a vibrant Vishvakarma pooja (prayer). It is an occasion when industrial workers take over the streets, representing a coming out party of the poor.

Pooja stall during Vishvakarma festival

Pooja stall during Vishvakarma festival

Later in the day, I visited the Kamakhya Devi temple, an ancient reservoir perched on a hill with splendid views of Guwahati. It is believed that a piece of Goddess Sita’s abdomen was found at the site, rendering it to be one of 18 holy Maha-Shakti Peethas in India. Priests at the temple claim that everyone can find her/his origins at this temple and that by “touching the water in the reservoir, one will feel his/her roots.”

Kamakhya temple in Guwahati

Kamakhya temple in Guwahati

Different  beliefs can, and do, exist simultaneously and in close proximity in India. This very concurrence is often viewed as the secret behind India’s survival in spite of the rampant heterogeneity that is reflective of our society. Certain priests on a hill proclaimed that their Goddess is the creator of all, whereas down below workers chanted vociferously to thank their God for all that he has created. The creations are tangible; the creator is one’s own version.

September 26, 2009

Leg 2 — East/Northeast

Filed under: Uncategorized — loggers @ 7:58 pm

Dear Readers,

Very sorry for the lull. We’ve been in the northeastern part of the country for the past week and have lots of stories to share. Though connectivity has been poor, we will post as soon as possible. Stay tuned…

Yours truly,

Loggers

September 8, 2009

Paddy Cultivation Revisited: Drought-proofing

Filed under: Economics,Punjab,Technology — loggers @ 5:03 pm

After touring Punjab, we had written (1,2) about the negative externalities associated with paddy cultivation. Normally, 3,000 — 5,000 litres of water are needed to produce a kilogramme of rice. We inferred that this level of water usage is unsustainable (this is reflected by a depleting water table). In a column in the Business Standard, Surinder Sud covers a potential solution to the problem in the form of  “aerobic rice cultivation”.

This is exactly the kind of technological innovation that is needed to curb the painful wastage of water associated with growing rice in India. According to Sud, the water saved using this technique can equal a fourth of all the water used in Asia. It seems that China had the method figured out in 2002 and that Pakistan was contemplating a similar practice in 2005.

theindialog on Batchbuzz

Filed under: Uncategorized — loggers @ 1:25 pm

Our story is being covered by a user-generated online lifestyle magazine called batchbuzz.com.

September 4, 2009

Conversation with Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat

Filed under: Conversation,Economics,Gujarat,Politics,Technology,Transport — loggers @ 8:11 pm

We contacted Narendra Modi’s office on Monday, introducing ourselves as recent graduates from US colleges on an all-India tour. We received a meeting confirmation 2 days later. It was clear that Modi enjoys meeting young people, and the efficiency of his office was representative of the state of Gujarat as a whole.

What Sets Gujarat Apart?

The meeting began with Modi explaining what sets Gujarat apart from the rest of India. Firstly, his policy-driven approach to governance allows businesses to run with minimal interference, so long as they operate within the clearly prescribed rules and regulations set forth by the state government. Secondly, maintaining 24-hour power supply to every household and business across the state has always been a top priority (Gujarat was the only state where we didn’t experience a single power cut). He is also currently working on spreading broadband connectivity across the rural villages of the state. Thirdly, Gujarat’s implementation of the National Highway Authority of India’s (NHAI) schemes has been more effective than other states. These are some of the drivers behind Gujarat’s unrivaled intra-state road connectivity and infrastructure.

The DMIC and GIFT

The Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) is a large-scale national project which will likely shape the country’s economic future as it is implemented. Modi believes that Gujarat will be a key beneficiary of the project. He also holds a positive outlook on its feasibility- so much so that he has commissioned the erection of 9 state highways (which are already built) in support of the corridor.

Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT) is Modi’s baby. We were shown a premium quality coffee table book on the project as he explained its place in the future of Gujarat. His vision is to make a financial hub of international standards in India. Gujarat would be a natural birthplace for such a project as it houses the highest number of Chartered Accountants in the country and is a breeding ground for people who are interested in financial services. If all goes as planned, we envision GIFT turning into the financial hub of India, in spite of Mumbai being the official financial capital (like how Hong Kong is China’s financial hub, in spite of Shanghai being the official financial capital).

Graphic design of GIFT skyline

Graphic design of GIFT skyline

Constant Learning

When asked what the rest of India should learn from Gujarat, Modi instead chose to talk about what Gujarat learns from the rest of the country. He explained that if he notices anything working successfully in other states (be it in public works, the arts or education), he immediately sends a 10-person team there to understand the strategy. Modi also routinely dispatches all his MLA’s to different states to learn about those states’ best practices and adapt them to Gujarat’s growth model.

Wrapping-up…

Modi runs a tight ship, and this has allowed him to build a state with road connectivity, power supply and infrastructure that is superior to any of the states we have covered so far. It is a combination of the CM’s leadership and the enterprising nature of the Gujarati people that has made the state what it is today. With such large-scale economic and financial projects underway, we expect to see it develop into a major commercial hub of the country.

September 2, 2009

Notes From Israma: Mineral Water Plant & NREGS

Filed under: Economics,Gujarat,NREGS — loggers @ 5:08 pm

Reverse Osmosis Water Plant

After seeing the Amul operation at Israma, the sarpanch (head) of the village took us to a “mineral water plant” installed in the community. We learnt that an ex-resident of the village, who is now settled abroad, had donated an INR 250,000 reverse osmosis water plant to the community. Water from the plant is sold for INR 0.25/liter to the villagers who use it for all domestic purposes. Revenue generated from sales is used for maintenance. The low price makes clean water an affordable utility and reduces wastage of a precious resource. Moreover, the practice of making regular payments for utilities is a positive step towards good civic discipline. Lastly, clean water will reduce the incidence/spread of water-borne diseases. We thought this was a remarkable initiative which could be replicated in other villages across the country.

RO Plant Installed In Israma

RO Plant Installed In Israma

NREGS

We learnt that the NREGS has not taken off in Israma. The numbers confirm this fact. 3 factors explain this phenomenon:

  1. Literacy rates are high in the village and majority of the youth move to urban areas in search for skilled jobs.
  2. Physical infrastructure in Gujarat is much better relative to other states in the country. Therefore, there is little (if any) need for locals to work on infrastructure projects.
  3. Primary sector employment and opportunities to generate a supplementary income (think Amul) are abundant.

The Real Amul: Our Visit to Israma

Filed under: Conversation,Economics,F&B,Gujarat — loggers @ 5:05 pm

Politics is outside the door of this collection center. Inside, it’s just business.

— Amul Society Supervisor

In order to fully understand (and appreciate) the Amul model, we visited Israma, a village in the Anand district of Gujarat. Milk collection at the designated centers takes place twice daily, at 6am and at 5.30pm. An Amul tanker arrives at the village at 10am to gather milk collected that morning and the previous evening. This tanker takes the stock to the Amul factory in Anand for pasteurization.

Milk Storage Tank At the Collection Center

Milk Storage Tank At the Collection Center

We reached Israma at 6:30am and found that the collection process was under way. The fat content of the milk is checked by a masked officer who uses a digital instrument which is connected to a computer that runs Gujarati software. The villagers are paid every 5 days but have the option of taking daily payments. The center is supervised by a Society Chairman, elected at the local level by members of the co-operative. Israma has a total population of 2,500 and 360 co-operative members (nearly every family in the village is involved). Membership can be obtained by supplying 700 liters of milk or by contributing for 180 days (in addition to paying a fee of INR 10).

Collection Process

Collection Process

Villager pouring milk into collection bucket

Villager pouring milk into collection bucket

The Israma collection center was established in 1965. Last year, it generated profits of INR 900,000 which were re-distributed among the villagers in direct proportion to their contribution. This center has an ISO standard which is reviewed annually. In order to meet the requirements, the center maintains its own scorecard and updates it every month. The unit also has a cattle feed storage room where 17kg sacks of mixed grains are stored. These are sold to farmers at a discounted price.

The ISO Certificate

The ISO Certificate

Grain Storage At the Collection Center

Grain Storage At the Collection Center

1,100 such centers are spread across the Kaira and Anand districts of Gujarat. Most villagers in these districts are members of the co-operative as it is a robust secondary source of income. In times of drought, this option is no short of life-saving. Amul is working towards providing broadband internet to these centers.

This institution works on simple traits – trust and teamwork. The system is unique in that it provides incentive for each farmer to be diligent and maintain healthy cattle. The center is decorated with posters that educate villagers on how to provide optimal nutrition for their cows. It sets an example for efficiency, hygiene and solidarity. To see such a co-operative thrive was heartwarming, and we hope Amul’s presence in rural India continues to grow for years to come.

August 30, 2009

Science City and the Akshardham Temple

Filed under: Gujarat,Leisure — loggers @ 12:53 am

Ahmedabad is decorated with signboards pointing to Science City, home of the Vibrant Gujarat campaign. Eager to see what all the fuss was about, we visited the uniquely positioned theme park. After marveling at the aesthetically pleasing infrastructure and energy/space exhibits, we were hit by an overshadowing observation- the place was dead. Though elaborately designed, the science hall consisted mainly of satellite images of India (think Google Earth), and the energy park’s main feature was a pond where one can squirt water onto a tiny dancer to make her swivel around (this was actually quite fun).

It is disappointing to see such a large-scale project going down the drain- especially one that can have enormous relevance today, with energy being such a hot topic. The infrastructural foundation is set and the hardest part is over. Now, to bring in the crowds it just needs to be made more exciting.

Space Hall at Science City

Space Hall at Science City

Pathway to the giant globe

Pathway to the giant globe

A few features that we believe would increase footfall are solar-powered bumper cars, science-themed mini golf, and a more educational demonstration of how hydro-power is generated.

It was interesting to see that the Akshardam temple was more happening than Science City. We entered to the sounds of screaming uncles and aunties who were catching a quick TORATORA ride before their afternoon prayer session. The water slides, although not fully-functional at the time, supplemented the 8-9 amusement park rides to create a bewildering cross between Six Flags and Swaminarayan worship. Refreshments are served at numerous stalls and the screening of Mystic India in the temple theater is worth catching if you have the time.

Conversation with Dr. Bakul Dholakia, Ex-director, IIM-A

Filed under: Conversation,Education,Gujarat — loggers @ 12:45 am

We were fortunate to get an appointment with Dr. Bakul Dholakia, ex-director of IIM Ahmedabad, at his office in Adani House. He is currently a senior advisor on education to the Adani Group. We learned that during its inception, IIM-A entered a 5-year tie-up with Harvard Business School to formulate its case-oriented curriculum. It did not make a big deal out of this in order to invest in the longevity of its own brand, avoiding any short-term association with HBS.

Dholakia believes that the IIM model would be scalable if the institution had the autonomy it deserved. Since IIMs were first established as government-sponsored institutions, they face the shackles of governmental control till date. The government interferes in matters ranging from faculty pay-scales to admission criteria. As faculty must be PhDs with published research, industry expertise and international exposure, there is a miniscule population of capable professors in the country that fit the profile. Furthermore, consulting/corporate houses would stop at nothing to get their hands on these superstars – luring them with plush offices and packages. The only weapon an IIM has in the fight for faculty is money, and here the government places it in a chokehold. Since the institutions do not have control over how much faculty is paid, there is limited scope to expand to the size of top-tier business schools in the US.

Dholakia spent years fighting for IIM’s freedom from the government, but to no avail. He ultimately devised ways to expand under the conditions set by the authorities, i.e. by establishing foreign exchange programs and the exclusive 1-year course. However, this still does not allow IIM to achieve a fraction of its potential.

Our Solution: The government should provide assistance to educational institutes during their nascent stages, and then gradually provide autonomy as the institutions prove their success both economically and administratively. This would not only incentivize efficiency and independence on the part of these institutes, but it would also allow them to be competitive on a global scale.

In closing, we asked Dholakia to share his thoughts on the future of the Indian education sector. He stated that in management studies, the days of simple finance or marketing degrees are over, and that increased specialization will be the future of higher education in India.

Ahmedabad at the Forefront of India’s Education Story

Filed under: Education,Gujarat,National Security — loggers @ 12:33 am

The Gujarat Forensic Sciences University, the first of its kind in the world, was inaugurated on August 25, 2009. Narendra Modi (Chief Minister of Gujarat) and K.S. Radhakrishnan (Chief Justice of the High Court of Gujarat), along with other dignitaries, presided over the ceremony. The institution is a milestone for the Indian judicial system, where lack of evidence is cited as a critical issue impeding justice delivery. The crowd of 500+ students, parents, journalists and forensic scientists rose in unison and observed pin-drop silence as Modi entered the auditorium. After numerous eulogies, he was invited to address the audience.

Modi described the event as equally significant to Gujarat as the establishment of the Narmada dam. His excitement for putting Gujarat at the forefront of education and research in forensic science was evident. The one international (German) student was bombarded with cameramen, as this institution also aims to attract those looking for entries into foreign agencies such as the CIA, FBI, etc.

Modi swarmed by students and journalists after the ceremony

Modi swarmed by students and journalists after the ceremony

After witnessing history in the making, we left for the National Institute of Design (NID). We were welcomed by the post-modern architecture and displays of students’ 3D car models (Renault recently sponsored a competition to design an Indian coupe). The artsy student body strut the campus knowing they are the best of the best (think the MIT of design in India). There was arrogance in the air, and we loved it. The head of PR explained that as designing becomes an increasingly acceptable profession in India, the acceptance rate of <10% will only go lower. We are unanimously long on this institution.

August 27, 2009

Amul (Anand Milk Union Ltd.)

Filed under: Conversation,Economics,F&B,Gujarat — loggers @ 12:20 am

We visited the headquarters of Amul (Asia’s largest food products company) in Anand, Gujarat, and spoke to the MD after touring the milk factory. Unlike other dairy product companies, Amul is a co-operative, wholly owned by thousands of villagers who become members by paying a fee of INR 10. These members are also Amul’s milk suppliers, selling their cattle’s milk to the company. They are paid in cash based on the fat content of the milk they sell. They also receive training on animal husbandry from the company and other welfare benefits. They democratically elect local representatives, who in turn select the firm’s board of directors. The entire retained profits of the firm’s activities thus go back to the villagers, in the form of development aid and/or dividends.

Demonstration of tech infrastructure in Amul lobby

Demonstration of tech infrastructure in Amul lobby

The Amul initiative gives otherwise distressed farmers an opportunity to raise cash for daily sustenance. This cooperative has brought prosperity to the villages it operates in, and reduced farmer suicides, by providing them a second source of income. As advised by the MD of Amul, we plan to visit an ‘Amul village’ and get a true sense of the development that the organization has brought about on the ground level.

The Amul complex in Anand, Gujarat

The Amul complex in Anand, Gujarat

We expected this unusual structure to make the management of the firm a little more challenging. We found out however, that the Board (comprising of ‘illiterate’ villagers) interfered little with the top management. The MD had several opportunities to expand, take on debt and make investments in technology even though this meant lower returns to the cooperative members. Also, political corruption/interference within the electoral procedures of Amul was limited, especially when compared to labor unions, university student councils and other democratic bodies in India.

Cow and milkman figurines in the waiting room

Cow and milkman figurines in the waiting room

We were positively surprised by this level of efficiency, and walked out with a favorable impression of this ‘socialist’ organization, despite having been trained in America to think like die-hard capitalists.

August 24, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Ahmedabad)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Gujarat,Technology — loggers @ 11:31 pm

Netconnect wins Ahmedabad.

Netconnect:

NS_Ahmedabad

Photon:

ahmedabad

August 23, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Udaipur)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Rajasthan,Technology — loggers @ 2:58 pm

Netconnect wins Udaipur.

Netconnect:

NS_Udaipur

Photon:

No coverage.

August 22, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (NH112)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Rajasthan,Technology — loggers @ 3:53 pm

Netconnect has National Highway # 112 covered.

Netconnect:

NS_NH112

The connectivity is truly seamless. Depending on where you are on the highway, a notification box pops up at the bottom right corner of your screen telling you which tower has you covered:

Switching

Photon:

No coverage

August 21, 2009

Kota: The Cram Capital of India

Filed under: Economics,Education,Rajasthan — loggers @ 1:52 am

Because of its history as an industrial town with prominent factories, like JK Synthetics, Kota was an ideal breeding ground for IIT coaching classes. Engineering aspirants have always been abundant, and the city itself is conducive to study due to the lack of distractions relative to the metros. The market for IIT coaching classes thus developed and one Prof. Bansal soon began administering mathematics tuitions for the IIT-JEE. Soon after, Pramod Maheshwari of Career Point started physics coaching classes. In a matter of a few years, test training centers sprang up all over Kota. Bansal and Maheshwari had the first mover advantage and developed a brand which attracted IIT hopefuls from across the country because they maintained a robust success rate. Since the criteria for admission into these classes were strict, they attracted the best of the best and a sample selection bias perpetuated their distinction.

We met Mr. Pramod Maheshwari and Mr. Pramod Bansal, CEOs of Career Point and Bansal Classes respectively and sought their thoughts on the history and prospects of the test training industry.  Mr. Maheshwari explained to us that education cannot be tested like a product; as a result ‘believability’ drives a customer’s decision to enroll in coaching classes. According to him, it is an industry that runs on trust. Coaching centers in Kota have managed to build and retain this trust but the city faces the risk of losing its charm if other educationalists build similar ‘believability’ elsewhere.

For both promoters their selection policy of admitting the best performing applicants (on their own entrance tests) into their academies justifies their success rate. As both firms began growing their capacity, they automatically lowered the bar for admissions, resulting in lower success rates. This strategy helped them prevent their competitors from becoming cash rich. Surplus cash would enable competitors to poach faculty members, the firms’ most valuable assets. Therefore, it seems that this model is not very scalable. As larger number of admissions will lower performance rates and plateau the growth of these firms, their reputation for excellence will also diminish.

Our conclusion: Kota is not a knowledge-development center. It is a site for test-prep and assistance in gaining admission into top-tier engineering colleges. In most cases, IIT aspirants do not need to enroll in the coaching classes because the Bansals and Career Points only admit applicants who they believe would get into IIT anyway. To their advantage, they exploit the rigid Indian parental tendency towards pushing their children into engineering/medicine colleges.

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Beawar)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Rajasthan,Technology — loggers @ 1:00 am

Netconnect wins the Beawar round.

Netconnect:

NS_Beawar

Photon:

No coverage

Follow-up: Paddy Cultivation

Filed under: Economics,Haryana,Punjab — loggers @ 12:43 am

Previously, we wrote about the negative externality (in the form of water table depletion) associated with paddy cultivation in Punjab. Jyoti Kamal of CNN-IBN has covered the same story in Haryana.

Comment of the Day

Filed under: Conversation,Rajasthan,Tidbits — loggers @ 12:31 am

If you want to conduct jihad, conduct jihad on yourself. Conquer your ego.

-Syed Salman Chishty, Founding Member & Managing Trustee of the Chishty Foundation, in reference to Islamic extremism

August 20, 2009

Power to the Cyclists

Filed under: Delhi,Transport — loggers @ 12:37 am

Delhi roads are wider than most in India, with exclusive lanes for cars, buses and cyclists in certain areas. It was heartening to see two police officers guarding the bicycle path and redirecting unlawful motorcyclists to the motorists’ lane. This allowed school children and adults traveling for work/leisure to ride safely.

Marshals directing cyclists

Marshals directing cyclists in New Delhi

However, we were soon hit by an unpleasant reality when we saw the same motorcyclists trespass the boundary back onto the bike path after passing the police officers. We also noticed some not even slowing down under orders from the police, showing no regard for the law and risking injury. We were getting used to hearing the govt. being blamed for day-to-day problems. However, this was a case of the government trying to do the right thing and the people standing in the way. Not sure which is worse.

August 19, 2009

Comment of the Day

Filed under: Education,Rajasthan,Tidbits — loggers @ 12:50 am

[Going forward] the education sector will be about survival of the fittest. However, until we reach a 1:1 ratio of students to available seats, there will be opportunity.

-Pramod Maheshwari, CEO Career Point Infosystems Ltd.

August 18, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Jaipur)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Rajasthan,Technology — loggers @ 10:06 pm

Netconnect wins Jaipur

Netconnect:

NS_Jaipur

Photon:

jaipur

Train-ing

Filed under: Delhi,F&B,Lessons,Rajasthan,Transport — loggers @ 12:50 am

We booked our tickets on-line (Yatra) for a rail journey from Delhi to Kota. Our train, the Rajdhani Express was scheduled to depart at 4.30pm. We reached the station at 3.45pm and at 4.10pm we realized that we were at the wrong station – Nizamuddin instead of New Delhi. Now, it was impossible for us to transfer to the right station in time to catch the Rajdhani. Thus, we decided to cancel our booking, but found out that tickets booked on-line could only be cancelled on-line. A kind railway police official told us to speak to the TC (Ticket Collector), who would accommodate us if there were vacancies in the August Kranti Rajdhani which was to leave Nizamuddin station at 4.55pm.

We got a chance to speak to the TC 20 minutes before departure. He suggested that we get new tickets from the issuing authority at the station. Naman sprinted across the station to negotiate with the agents at the ticketing booth who refused to issue new tickets as the reservation lists had already been released. After pleading profusely for a few minutes, the officials decided to relent. Naman could afford only 2 tickets and did not have the time to run to the ATM for more cash. After purchasing the tickets he ran back to the platform to board the train.

We were in an AC 3-tier coach and were pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness of the compartment and the quality of service and food. Minutes after boarding we were served a snack tray and were given a bottle of water and a hand towel. When the TC arrived, we explained to him the circumstances under which we boarded the train and requested to pay for the 3rd ticket on the spot (TCs reserve the right to issue a ticket onboard). He refused and asked one of us to get off at the next station (Mathura) or pay a fine of INR 3000 upon arrival in Kota. Mathura came and went, we stayed put.

Tomato soup and breadsticks were served before the well-stocked vegetarian dinner trays and strawberry ice-creams arrived. Post-dinner, one of us was summoned by the TC. The negotiation was short and precise. The TC claimed to have helped us big time and proposed that he be treated “pyaar se” (with love). He demanded a sum equal to the price of the ticket plus a surcharge. The terms of the verbal contract also included a non-disclosure clause since the TC’s service was “special”. We reached Kota at 9.35pm (10 minutes before the scheduled time of arrival).

Moral: Read the particulars on your ticket. Services in the Indian Railways have improved significantly but macro issues such as corruption among officials remain.

Side-note: We have now officially used every available form of transport (road, rail, air and water).

August 17, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Kota)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Rajasthan,Technology — loggers @ 11:05 pm

This round goes to Netconnect (Photon not working)

Netconnect:

NS_Kota

Bus Rides in Punjab

Filed under: Lessons,Punjab,Transport — loggers @ 11:00 pm

In travelling between Chandigarh, Ludhiana and Amritsar, we made extensive use of inter-city buses, a mode of transport that we had seldom used in India prior to this trip. The bus terminals were well kept, and stocked with cafes, snack shops and bookstores. Bus entry points were numbered and organized according to destination, and makeshift ticket counters were maintained outside each bus.

The first bus we took (Chandigarh to Ludhiana) was air conditioned. The ticket vendor gave us three thin strips of paper with our seat numbers written on them. However, in the bus, we found that our seats were occupied so we just assumed random seats and settled in. Soon enough, our seats were challenged by their rightful patrons, and a massive re-shuffling of seats ensued. We found out that some seats were allocated by ticket issuers to multiple people, and some people were not allocated a seat at all. Everyone whose ticket had no seat number on it was forced to stand.

The rest of our buses were non-a/c, and more similar to the HRTC bus we took from Manali to Chandigarh. The bus made several unofficial stops, where hawkers would jump on to try and sell Fanda (fake Fanta) and other drinks/snacks. The Punjabi movie playing on the bus TV kept riders occupied. Not the most comfortable journey, but economical and educational nonetheless.

Making friends on the Chandigarh--Ludhiana bus

Making friends on the Chandigarh--Ludhiana bus

Entertainment in the Ludhiana--Amritsar bus

Entertainment in the Ludhiana--Amritsar bus

August 16, 2009

The Rajbhog Culture

Filed under: Conversation,Delhi,F&B,Lessons,Tidbits — loggers @ 7:25 pm

A conversation with the cook at our temporary residence in Delhi turned into a philosophical quest. He went on to articulate his existential view with the help of Rajbhog, an enlarged and enriched version of a rasgulla stuffed with dry fruits. It is a blend of milk, sugar, saffron, cardamom, rose water and pistachio. The word ‘Raj Bhog’ literally means ‘royal meal’.

Rajbhog

Rajbhog

Legend has it that rulers in India would squeeze the saccharine juice out of the Rajbhog before consuming it. The liquid would then be distributed to the masses for consumption. This was symbolic in that the royalty kept the best for itself and distributed the residue to the commoners. According to the cook, many in India still perpetuate the Rajbhog culture by exploiting those who are economically lesser and then rewarding them with leftovers of sorts. All this at a time when even Rajbhogs are colored artificially.

Profound, we think.

Kashmiri Kesar (Saffron)

Filed under: F&B,J&K,Lessons,Nature — loggers @ 7:16 pm

The one thing that all our moms asked us to bring home from Kashmir was the local saffron. We were told that the best place to procure this would be on the road from Srinagar to Pehelgam. We spotted the shop, located on the farm itself, and learned that 1 gram of saffron was priced at INR300. Suspicious of being taken for a ride, we tried to bargain and walked away when the shop-owner refused to negotiate. Little did we know, that this was the fixed price for saffron in Kashmir and that we had missed our chance to pick up fresh kesar from the farm.

threads of Kashmiri saffron

strands of Kashmiri saffron

Travel Tip: How to Test the Authenticity of Saffron

1)      Take a strand of saffron and place in a glass of lukewarm water

2)      Observe. Real saffron should give the water a yellow tinge

3)      Remove the strand and place on a piece of paper

4)      Rub the strand against the sheet. (If it dissolves, it’s real; if not, you are looking at nylon thread)

Paddy Cultivation in Punjab: An Alternative View

Filed under: Economics,Punjab — loggers @ 6:42 pm

Yesterday, an editorial in the Indian Express suggested that farmers in states like Punjab and Haryana have escaped the drought by switching to Basmati cultivation. It lauded the “foresight” of certain regional and national politicians who made strategic investments in irrigation and power. While it is true that these investments are now turning out to be nothing short of life-saving, the negative externalities associated with endowing every farmer with a water pumping set needs to be assessed. During our stay in Punjab, we found out that due to paddy cultivation, the water table in Punjab is falling by 20 feet every year. This is a major problem for a state whose residents rely on groundwater for drinking and whose industries are lamenting water shortage.

An Evening with the Zargars

Filed under: Conversation,Economics,J&K,NREGS,Politics — loggers @ 5:29 pm

Dr. Jaleel Ahsan Zargar, Lecturer in Philosophy at the Women’s College in Anantnag, hosted us during our trip to Salian in the Seer district of J&K. We discussed the Kashmir issue, topics on Islam, youth exposure to education, and NREGS.

Dr. Zargar and his brother, Qayoom Zargar, share their messages for us:

According to Mr. Qayoom Zargar:

  1. The cap on 100 days of employment per annum should be removed.
  2. Construction of sanitation facilities, bylanes should be part of the approved projects list.
  3. Construction of rain water harvesting facilities should be encouraged under the scheme.
  4. More than 1 member of every household should be allowed to work.
  5. The spend ratio, labour:equipment (60:40), is too restrictive.

Ludhiana, NREGS, Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia

Filed under: Conversation,Economics,NREGS,Punjab,Small Businesses — loggers @ 4:14 pm

Our stay in Ludhiana revolved around multiple factory visits. In the richest district and most populous city of Punjab, we toured a small (Rajnish International), a medium (Avon Cycles) and a large manufacturing unit (Vardhman Spinning). We were fortunate enough to meet the proprietors of 2 of the 3 factories and seek their thoughts on business conditions in India. Specifically, we asked them about the impact of NREGS on their concern.

The Chairman of Rajnish International (an automotive components manufacturer), Mr. Rajnish Ahuja, spoke candidly about the ramifications of NREGS. According to him, the scheme epitomizes “political corruption.” He lamented the inadequate supply of labor from states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which has led to a sharp escalation of wages. According to him, salaries for unskilled labour have gone up by 200-300% as a result of the scheme. This increase in labour costs has compelled him to consider a move towards a capital-intensive production chain. This was evident in the factory as we saw that most of the labour was employed for low skill jobs such as alignment, material moving or handling. Mr. Ahuja believes that the labour force has become lazy due to the availability of free money and has been given unfair bargaining power. For over a decade, he paid INR 2,000/month/head. Now, he must recalibrate that figure.

Outside almost every factory in Ludhiana, we saw ‘wanted’ posters soliciting skilled labour. Due to the pre-existing shortage of skilled manpower, coupled with consequences of NREGS, wages for skilled labour have also gone up. Since factories are cutting down on labour usage in production and are moving towards a more mechanized process, demand for skilled labour seems to have also increased. Again, business owners are slow, if not reluctant, to accept this change. This, we think, is neo-capitalism in India – labour is no longer inexpensive.

In Delhi, we met the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia, in order to seek his thoughts on NREGS. He sees the scheme as a “social security provision”, one that is not supposed to train people. When asked about the impact the scheme has had on the industrial sector in the form of a higher wage bill, he acknowledged that this was an intended, and even welcomed, consequence. He did acknowledge that the lack of long term skill development was a concern. About the restrictive approved projects list that NREGS beneficiaries and contractors have to abide by, Dr. Ahluwalia pointed to other public welfare schemes that address the relevant issues. Dr. Ahluwalia urged us to visit a dozen districts where the scheme is being implemented in order to check the actual progress of the programme. This, he felt, would be a meaningful study.

Conversation with Professor Nisar Ali

Filed under: Conversation,Economics,J&K — loggers @ 3:53 pm

Nisar Ali:

Chief coordinator, Post Graduate Centers, University of Kashmir

-Member of State Finance Commission

Professor Ali met with us for tea on a houseboat, where he discussed the economic history of Kashmir, as well as crises facing the region today. 2 important topics were inter-sectoral labour mobility and Kashmir’s inability to effectively tap its water resources for hydro-power.

Push Factors in the Labour Market:

Labour is divided into the primary, secondary and tertiary (services) sectors. Ali applied theories in conflict economics to show that push factors are leading the market towards crisis. Under healthy economic growth, labour generally transitions from the primary sector à secondary sector à services sector. However, Kashmir’s secondary sector has remained stagnant since the 1950s due to a lack of private investment (article 370 and political instability has limited Indian/foreign businesses from coming in). This results in labour getting pushed back from the secondary sector to the primary sector, which is already saturated with employment. Unemployment rises, workers lose bargaining power, wages fall, consumption decreases, prices suffer and so on.

Ali explained that if this first stage of crisis is not effectively addressed, the service sector will also fail to develop. This would result in a second push of labour from the services sector to the primary and secondary sectors. Ali refers to this second stage as explosive crisis, or “the point of no return.”

Water

Human capital and natural resources are abundant in Kashmir, but have not yet been tapped to reach a fraction of the region’s economic potential. There is enough Gypsum to supply all of Asia for 150 years. There is potential to generate 20,000MW of hydropower, enough to power the region and sell surplus to other countries for hefty returns. However, articles such as the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty are preventing such development from taking place. Under this international law, 6 river basins are divided between India and Pakistan. India was given rights over the Ravi, Beas and Satlug rivers (all run through Punjab), and Pakistan was given rights to the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus (all run through J&K). India has to seek Pakistani clearance for any infrastructural project involving the J&K rivers, and as a result, dams cannot be created to generate even 10% of the region’s potential in hydropower. A state that should be selling surplus power to neighboring regions is plagued by electricity shortages throughout the year.

The Rangarajan committee recommendations, if implemented, will end the Kashmir crisis. The Kashmir crisis stems from the power issue. –Professor Nisar Ali

A message to investors from Nisar Ali:

August 14, 2009

An interesting evening

Filed under: Delhi,Lessons,Politics — loggers @ 3:06 am
Loggers meet LK Advani

Loggers meet LK Advani

Wagah: The Indo-Pak Border

Filed under: Leisure,Politics,Punjab — loggers @ 3:00 am

We drove past a special security barricade at the Wagah border to enter a reserved seating zone, excited to witness the ‘Changing of the Guards’ ceremony.

loggers at wagah

loggers at wagah

It was a stadium setting where Indian stands were full (2,000+ spectators) 2 hours before the event, and Pakistani fans trickled in gradually. On the Indian side, women were given flags and were allowed to run ~20 meters up to the gate and back (foreign women got the loudest cheers). The countries created a competitive atmosphere by playing patriotic pop songs on their loudspeakers, and again, only the Indian women were permitted to dance freely to the tunes. On the Pakistani side, the men were doing the dancing. What transpires before the ceremony begins is a manifestation of Bharat Mata, the belief that India is a feminine entity.

women empowerment at the border

women empowerment at the border

Another aspect of Indian culture that is carried up to the border is accommodation for VIPs. Two rangers were deployed to monitor the reserved seating zone, and these rangers would not allow VIPs to participate in the ceremony because, according to a BSF jawaan, “Dehatis” (or villagers) would be given priority.

jawaans assemble before their marches

jawaans assemble before their marches

The ceremony began at 6:30pm, when 5 jawaans lined up to perform their individual marches. It was a powerful display of intimidation, where rangers pumped up the crowd with energetic kicks and stomps. Fans on both sides chanted patriotic slogans as the guards marched up to the border and stared each other down with their arms flared. Eventually, the gates were violently thrown open and we were able to gaze onto Pakistani soil. The guards on the other side were taller and clad in black uniforms with red waistbands (in our opinion they were more daunting than the Indian jawaans).

Indian jawaan strikes an intimidating pose

Indian jawaan strikes an intimidating pose

Clearly, Wagah embodies the political tension between India and Pakistan, and thereby makes for an exhilarating experience for tourists. It is essentially where 62 years of cross-border conflict meets T20 cricket. It would be nice to see both sides finding a way to popularize a quest for peace in the region for a change. After the stare-down between opposing guards, a friendly handshake may do the trick…or perhaps a hug?

Golden Temple & Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar

Filed under: Leisure,Punjab — loggers @ 2:58 am

Loggers at GT

We noticed that the complex was clean and peaceful despite being thronged by thousands of visitors. The walls were decorated by Omega and Baume & Mercier clocks. Bhajans were being played on dozens of strategically placed Bose speakers. After having visited other places of worship around the country, we were taken aback by the advanced technological infrastructure.

B&M at GT

The line to enter the main chamber, where the Guru Granth Sahib is kept, was 45 minutes long at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon. Unlike other queues, the path was lined with multiple fans which made the wait comfortable. As live bhajans (prayer songs) were being played on speakers on both sides of the line, people maintained silence and order. Women and men have to cover their heads before entering the premises. As the walk has to be done barefoot, avoid visiting the temple on a hot, sunny day.

Waiting at GT

Upon entering the chamber, we were blasted with cool air from the Daikin ACs. The main structure is divided into 2 floors and a terrace. We found mini-balconies where we sat individually and absorbed the lake view and the temple atmosphere. We would recommend spending some time in the main temple and also going up to the terrace for the views it offers. While exiting, do try the sheera served by the temple officials.

Terrace

The temple also has a museum, with paintings and relics depicting the history of the Sikh community. The paintings were surprisingly violent, depicting the murders of religious and political Sikh leaders. Interestingly, the so called ‘terrorists’ of the Blue Star operation of 1984 were classified as heroes by many of the writings alongside photos of the time. A particular caption under a post operation picture of the temple is paraphrased as:

“Thousands of Sikhs were attacked in a calculated move by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The event was a uniting force for all Sikhs, and the community soon had its vengeance” (with Indira Gandhi’s assassination)

Turbunator

Jallianwala Bagh, a garden infamous for the bloody incident that sparked an aggressive and urgent struggle for independence from British rule, is a few meters away from the Golden temple. Neat stone tablets at the entrance explained the significance of the area. We were impressed by the maintenance of the site by the Department of Tourism. Important historical landmarks were highlighted and the park, known for its gory past, was manicured to be aesthetically appealing, a great positive for the tourism sector as a whole.

Jallianwala Bagh

Jallianwala Bagh

Jallianwala

August 11, 2009

Comment of the Day

Filed under: Delhi,Politics,Tidbits — loggers @ 12:55 pm

“In India, the right wing goes beyond the pales of civilization…where murder and the elimination of groups of people is okay. At the moment, there is no doubt that this [left of center establishment] is the best deal.” – Dr. Aditya Mukherjee, Director, Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Study

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (New Delhi)

Filed under: Delhi,Evdo.coverage,Technology — loggers @ 2:25 am

New Delhi round goes to Photon

Netconnect:

 

 

 

NS_Delhi

 

 

 

Photon:

 

 

Signal Strength

August 9, 2009

Dachigam National Park

Filed under: J&K,Leisure,Nature — loggers @ 12:58 am

During our visit to the Dachigam National Park in Srinagar, the park Ranger allowed us to access a private area of the park. We bypassed a beautiful house[1] constructed by the Maharaja of Kashmir as a hunting lodge, and then trekked a few kilometers searching for black bears and endangered musk deers (hanguls).

Rest stop in Dachigam

Rest stop in Dachigam

Along the way, we were entertained by a guide, who bragged about his unparalleled knowledge of botany and zoology. To his dismay and ours though, we were unable to spot any of the endangered animals he promised to show us. We ended up seeing a lot of bear feces, and kept ourselves busy by making mating calls to Kashmiri wobblers.

All in all, it was a refreshing 3-hour walk through nature- a great change of pace from the rest of our appointments.


[1] The house is currently used by the Chief Minister of J&K as a holiday home

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Amritsar)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Punjab,Technology — loggers @ 12:38 am

Amritsar round goes to Netconnect.

Photon: No coverage

Netconnect:

NS_Amritsar

August 7, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Ludhiana)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Punjab,Technology — loggers @ 6:56 pm

Ludhiana round goes to Netconnect.

Photon: No coverage

Netconnect:

NS_Ludhiana

August 6, 2009

Tech updates

Filed under: Technology — loggers @ 11:31 pm
  1. Join the Facebook group
  2. Track us on Twitter
  3. Scroll down for a Platial map which will show you where we are

HRTC bus ride — Manali to Chandigarh

Filed under: Haryana,Himachal — loggers @ 2:05 am

At 8:30pm, just after our 17 hour car journey from Leh to Manali, we boarded a Himachal Road Transport Corporation bus for a 9 hour drive to Chandigarh. We paid INR 750 for seats 7, 8 and 9 (we were advised to stick to front seats to avoid motion sickness) but later realized that people were sitting wherever they wanted. Within the first 2 hours, the bus was full (70 men, 5 women) and we were forced to keep our bags on our laps because we didn’t want to place them on top of the bus.

While two loggers were cramped against each other, the third was stuck next to a highly inebriated and sleepy man who continued to breathe on him throughout the journey (despite being elbowed and scolded several times).

We arrived in Chandigarh at 5:30am and headed for the guest house where hot showers allowed us to look back at the 26 hour journey and smile.

Reliance Netconnect vs. Tata Photon (Chandigarh)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Haryana,Punjab,Technology — loggers @ 1:09 am

Chandigarh round goes to Netconnect.

Photon: No coverage

Netconnect:

NS_Chandigarh

Taken for a Ride — Leh to Manali

Filed under: Himachal,Lessons — loggers @ 12:49 am

Due to the existence of local taxi unions in both Leh and Manali (and many other towns in India), Manali taxi drivers are not permitted to solicit customers from Leh. The ones that do (also called ‘vaapsi cars’) must bribe certain ‘authorities’ and also offer customers a better price. For budgetary reasons, we chose to find such a taxi driver.

We were told of such a taxi by Vinod, a man we met at a restaurant in Leh. After serious negotiations, we booked the front and middle rows of a Mahindra Scorpio for INR 3300 total (much cheaper than the official rate of INR 6000), and even paid an INR 2000 advance. It turned out, though, that the person we dealt with was only a middle-man, who actually had booked us seats in the back row of the car (much more uncomfortable) instead of the middle row. We ended up having a very bumpy and painful journey, but somehow got to Manali in one piece.

At Manali, we learnt that Vinod had promised the taxi driver INR 4000 instead of INR 3300. We ended up in an unnecessary tussle at Manali. Throughout this mess, Vinod refused to entertain our calls, leaving us to fend for ourselves against an aggressive taxi driver.

We were taken for quite a ride, but it was worth it:

Where we screwed up:

  1. We made a reservation through a middleman (unknowingly) and paid a premium to fulfill his commission
  2. We paid INR 2000 as advance for a total payment of INR 3300, when the norm is to only pay 50% of the committed amount
  3. At the time of paying the advance, we did not take a written confirmation of the balance left to be paid, and of the seats we reserved in the car
  4. We did not confirm the total amount with the driver before boarding the car

What we learnt:

  1. Sitting in the back seat (third row) of a Mahindra Scorpio for a 17 hour journey across bumpy mountainous roads can be painful, especially when you are 6 feet and 2 inches tall
  2. Never take anything said during negotiations face value

What we recommend:

  1. When looking for ‘vaapsi’ taxis, check out bus stands – you are likely to find taxi drivers hanging around there
  2. Make sure you negotiate with the taxi driver directly, and not his ‘apparent’ friend or brother
  3. Take down any details negotiated in writing, with the name and phone number of the negotiator – more so if any cash payments have been made
  4. Confirm all details with the driver before departure
  5. Carry an inflatable neck-pillow for long car journeys- it will protect your head from slamming into the window

Comment of the day

Filed under: Humour,Tidbits — loggers @ 12:40 am

This one is for our regular readers:

Naman: Do you mind jhootha?

Alok: My jhootha is Japani anyway.

August 5, 2009

Srinagar — Leh

Filed under: Humour,J&K,Nature — loggers @ 9:18 pm

Under the sadness of leaving behind everything we had experienced in Srinagar, was our excitement to explore Leh. The ride began with an elaborate price negotiation process outside the tourist taxi center in Srinagar. While official taxi operators charged INR 9100 for the journey, we managed to strike a deal with a Leh taxi driver who was on his way back home. Interestingly, he is not allowed to solicit customers from Srinagar due to union politics, and was hence willing to give us a hefty discount (we paid INR 6500).

The non-air conditioned Toyota Innova picked us up at 8:30 am, and drove towards Leh after picking up the driver’s uncle and girlfriend. This company was certainly unexpected, and we regretted not having discussed these elements in our negotiation. After driving through Sonmarg, Drass and Kargil on a bumpy road (those with weak back, heart and respiratory conditions should not attempt this drive), we reached Leh at 10:00 pm. It was one of the most serene drives we’ve done.

Intangibly, Kashmiriyat is absorbed by the mountains and a different face of India in the form of Ladakhi lifestyle appears. This graceful transition is perhaps a chapter of Indian accommodation.

Gems found along the way:

-Drive on road, drink on bed

-Pay attention to safety, so you can reach home for tea

-Drink and drive, you won’t survive

-If married, divorce speed

-Short cuts may short cut your life

-Better be Mr. Late than Late Mr.

-Live for your today, drive for your tomorrow

-Road is hilly, don’t drive silly

-A cat has nine lives, but not the one who drives

-If you sleep, your family will weep

-Don’t be Gama in the land of Lama

-On the bend, go slow friend

-Don’t race don’t rally, enjoy the valley

-This is a highway not a runway

-Speed is a knife that cuts life

-Love thy neighbor but not while driving

Conversation with Dr. Haseeb Drabu, Chairman of J&K Bank

Filed under: Conversation,J&K — loggers @ 9:09 pm

We were fortunate to get an appointment with Dr. Haseeb Drabu, Chairman of J&K Bank, during our stay in Srinagar. Upon entering his office space, we found him seated on a couch by the coffee table, browsing on his Sony netbook. He casually acknowledged us as we walked in.

We began the meeting by quizzing Dr. Drabu on Kashmiri affairs, using our meticulously prepared question sheet. He spoke about the economic stagnation that Kashmir is facing as a result of the political deadlock. After several interactions in Kashmir, we also found that the sheer number of stakeholders in this deadlock has resulted in a prolonged resolution-seeking process. He also talked about the importance of seeking resolutions for day-to-day problems, rather than tracing everything back to the larger “Kashmir issue.”

A major topic of discussion was cultural assimilation in India. As Drabu said, “We need to stop focusing on what’s tearing this country apart, and start focusing on what’s holding it together.” He was pointing out that India is a country of 18 languages, nearly every world religion and various shades of skin. He said that “assimilation should not result in homogenization”, and that this diversity must be respected in order for India to develop into a unified world power.

He also touched upon the short-sightedness among Kashmiris that plagues this region. The people are concerned for the immediate-run, like how to afford tonight’s dinner and this month’s cell-phone bill, and not the medium to long-run, like finding a high-paying job in the private sector that would help them buy a new house. The comfort in maintaining a government job creates the lethargy that hampers competitiveness and economic development. Further, he conveyed faith in the Kashmiri political establishment and the young leaders who are in charge (the majority of J&K’s political leadership is under 40). He sounded optimistic about the sincere effort from the government to engage the youth of Kashmir, which is currently cynical and disconnected from political affairs.

Soon into the discussion, we witnessed a candid Dr. Drabu whose raw vocabulary struck a chord. In short, he told us to chill out, enjoy our travels, and that the only thing left to be done is for businesses to spot the potential of investing in Kashmir.

There’s an old Wall Street saying that says, ‘Invest when there’s blood on the streets.’ There is blood on these streets, so do it. –Dr. Haseeb Drabu

Encounter with an Ex-militant

Filed under: Conversation,J&K,Politics — loggers @ 9:06 pm

We met Aftab (alias Shahidul Islam) and his 2 daughters beside the royal spring at Chashm-E-Shahi[1]. Aftab was a commander in Hizbullah (a Pan-Islamist militant outfit not to be confused with the Lebanese Hezbollah), who gave up the gun in favor of the separatist movement led by the Hurriyat Conference. His story has been well documented by David Devadas in In Search of a Future.

In sharp contrast to Haseeb Drabu, who generated excitement about investment prospects in Kashmir, Aftab took our meeting as an opportunity to instigate skepticism about the future of the region. We talked about the logic behind the separatist movement, and found several flaws in his reasoning. Firstly, he did not have anything to say about the administrative capabilities of the Hurriyat organization, which stands as a voice for Kashmiris wanting independence. Secondly, when questioned about the effectiveness of Indian security forces in Kashmir (who have been deployed in large numbers to combat militancy), he showed his contempt by asking us why he should be frisked by outsiders when moving within his home state. He said that the drastic reduction in militant presence over the past 10 years has nothing to do with Indian security, but is simply a result of political instability in Pakistan. In Aftab’s words, “Kashmir will burn again if Pakistan decides to give the signal.”

Clad in a Burberry t-shirt and Rayban sunglasses, Aftab juggled the responsibility of a father and a political spokesman. He shared a particularly grim anecdote involving his baby daughter, who once encouraged him to join a ragda (a demonstration) for azadi (independence). Even though he said that his ultimate goal was for his daughters to lead a life free from political struggle, he was also beaming with pride when describing his child’s politically charged gestures.

Before wrapping up, we asked why he spent so many years as a militant. Aftab smiled and pointed at a print of Che Guevara on one of our T-shirts and said, “I am doing what he did, we are all just freedom fighters.” Aftab then treated us to ice-cream and we sought his email address, which still consists of his militant name, Shahidul Islam. We appreciate his courage in parting from his violent past and sharing his thoughts with us. However, the inconsistency in his beliefs was troubling.


[1] A garden dating back to the Mughal period, from which Indira Gandhi apparently had a bottle of water flown to Delhi every evening.

July 29, 2009

Comment of the Day

Filed under: J&K,Tidbits — loggers @ 1:43 pm

“Maine army do karan join ki – pehle pet, doosra desh, kyunki pet ke bina desh ki sewa kaise karoon”

(I joined the army for two reasons, first to feed my stomach, and second to serve my country, because to serve the country I need to keep myself well fed)

– Jawaan (soldier) in Pehelgam

Travel Lesson #1

Filed under: F&B,J&K,Lessons,Tidbits — loggers @ 1:41 pm

We learnt that food in restaurants/dhabas is cooked with excessive amounts of oil (in Kashmir and perhaps other parts of India). Make sure you ask for less oil in your food.

Notes from our Conversation with Mushtaq Ahmed-Koka

Filed under: Conversation,National Security,Politics — loggers @ 1:33 pm

We met with members of Tarigami’s party (CPI-M) in his constituency. According to them:

-Floriculture/Agriculture can be developed in this region (we were shown Apple orchards)

-Young people prefer government jobs due to employment security

-There is lack of faith in judicial and electoral processes

-Learnt that there is an Entrepreneurial Development Institute in Srinagar

NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) has been a success in Kulgam in spite of wages being too low

PDS (Public Distribution System) has been a failure

Notes from our Conversation with Yusuf Tarigami

Filed under: Conversation,J&K,National Security,Politics — loggers @ 1:24 pm

About Yusuf Tarigami:

-3rd time MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) from Kulgam

-Head honcho, CPI-M (Communist Party of India- Marxist)

-Won his election seat by a 200-vote margin

Discussion:

-We addressed Tarigami by saying “a-salaam walakum.” This prompted his comments on how people’s mannerisms carry religious connotations, pointing out that even popular ringtones are increasingly religious in nature. He stated that religion, a force meant to unite people, has become a dividing force between the people of Kashmir.

– T drew similarities between quit Kashmir (National Conference movement) and Quit India (Indian National Congress movement) in 1947, in that they both had a plural agenda, and an ideological common ground.

– Biggest challenge before the region is saving the fragile unity from further disintegration. For this to happen, discontentment needs to be recognized (“Not communalism, but ‘majoritarianism’ in India, is the biggest issue”)

– According to T, Kashmiris have remained sensitive about their identity, due to their sense of insecurity, and their sense of belonging

– Militancy is now being seen as counterproductive by Kashmiris, and this is an opportunity to fix the trust deficit that exists between the various stakeholders involved in the Kashmir issue. “Kashmir cannot forever be on a hostile map”.

– Peace in Kashmir can only come after peace between India and Pakistan. However, T said that “Pakistani claim [on Kashmir] is contrary to our ethos and the emergence of Pakistan is a harsh reality”

– Democratizing existing political and administrative structures is important. The panchayati raj system for instance, is a bit autocratic.

– District development authorities that exist in Leh and Kargil may be models for replication in Kashmir and Jammu.

– Politics is a reflection of economics. Political and economic development can be simultaneous. However, economic development needs to be sensitive to the Kashmiri eco system, and agriculture based industries “can be worked out”

– On water resource division, T said that “We [in Kasmir] are not getting our dues”.

Reliance Netconnect vs. TATA Photon (Pehelgam, Anantnag, Seer)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,J&K,Technology — loggers @ 11:27 am

To our dismay, neither the Netconnect nor the Photon had connectivity in any of the three cities. It seems like Reliance NotConnect was just joined by Tata Photoff.

July 28, 2009

Sights and Bites in the Valley

Filed under: F&B,J&K — loggers @ 7:45 pm

We stopped at a village called Salian en route from Pehelgam to Shopian, where we were warmly hosted by Dr. Jaleel Ahsan, Professor of Philosophy at the Government College for Women in Anantnag. We traveled the locality with the professor, and were amazed by some of the things we saw.

Our first stop was Hutmurah, one of the few villages in Kashmir with a substantial Hindu population. Hindus here mingle actively with the Muslim and Sikh population. This is one of the only places in Kashmir where Hindu Brahmins did not flee for mainland India during the militancy of the early 1990’s. Symbolically, we visited a complex that housed a Temple, Gurudwara, and Mosque– a living example of communal harmony in Kashmir.

The second interesting stop was the ruins of a sun temple in the village of Kehribal in Martand district. This temple is known to have been built by the Pandava rulers, and dates back a couple of thousand years. Carvings on the wall are still visible, and speak greatly of the architecture of the time. Interestingly, none of us had heard about this place in our independent Kashmir research. Given the historic and possibly mythological significance of the site, we recommend every tourist to check it out.

The Pandava Temple Ruins

The Pandava Temple Ruins

We visited a second Temple-Mosque-Gurudwara complex in the town of Anantnag, before heading to Professor Ahsan’s house, where we were fortunate to experience true Kashmiri ‘mehman-nawazi’. We had our dinner in true Kashmiri fashion, and relished the richness of authentic Kashmiri food.

Typical Kashmiri Dinner

Typical Kashmiri Dinner

Kehwa (saffron tea) and Kulcha (flatbreads)

Kehwa (saffron tea) and Kulcha (flatbreads)

Batting on NH1

Filed under: Cricket,J&K,Small Businesses — loggers @ 7:43 pm

On NH1A (National Highway 1A), on our way from Srinagar to Pahalgam, we passed several Kashmiri Willow cricket bat stores. We stopped at one just before the “green tunnel,” a road completely enclosed by trees on both sides- so much so that the sky is invisible. At the shop, we learned that what costs INR2,500 in a sports shop in Mumbai is available here for INR250 pre-negotiation. The bats are categorized into “tennis-ball cricket” bats and “leather-ball cricket” bats. You can find every possible brand logo from Kookaburra to Reebok and sponsors stickers such as MRF.

In the absence of a leather ball, the shopowner tested the bat strength by clanging two bats together, clearing our minds of any doubt whatsoever:

Interestingly, we also stopped at a saffron vendor who quoted INR300 per gram despite being located at the farm itself. Unlike the cricket bat store, there was no arbitrage opportunity here! One explanation is that we were probably charged a tourist premium. Another is that cricket bats are harder to transport for a tourist, than a few grams of saffron. The price to incentivize tourists to buy cricket bats must thus be lowered significantly in order to convince tourists to carry the bats home.

Shikara Ride on the Dal

Filed under: J&K,Leisure,Small Businesses — loggers @ 7:41 pm

After a meeting with Nisar Ali, Chief Coordinator of Post-Graduate Studies, University of Kashmir and member of the state Finance Commission (more on that later), we sat down for nun-chai (salty Kashmiri tea) with a friendly houseboat owner.

nun-chai and Kashmiri bagels

nun-chai and Chochuru (Kashmiri bagels)

The octogenarian houseboat owner told us that this was his family business and that his father and he had managed the business for 2 generations. He introduced us to his son, Basheer, who, despite his mother’s reservations, migrated to the US to pursue a career in medical technology. Basheer is now based in Los Angeles where he works in the radiology department of a local hospital. He lives in Srinagar during the summer months and is in the process of building a house here. Since we are interested in unearthing evidence of intergenerational economic mobility, we found his story compelling. When asked about his family, Basheer mentioned that he wants his children (2 daughters) to pursue their education in Srinagar until they are 15 to instill local cultural values.

After our rendezvous with Basheer we boarded our Shikara on the Nageen Lake. The 1.5 hour ride took 5 of us from the New Majestic House Boat to the Dal lake gate for INR 500.

Common Shikara

Common Shikara

During the ride we saw an active lake-community , which included shops for vegetables, handicrafts, carpets, telecom and pharmaceuticals. The majority of the population belongs to the Shia sect of Islam. The market was open despite the city-wide strike. A large part of the community has been developed illegally. As the lake economy is thriving, the size of the Dal lake itself is decreasing- a negative externality for a state whose primary industry is tourism.

July 26, 2009

Reflections

Filed under: J&K,Nature — loggers @ 2:03 am

Dal Lake

July 25, 2009

Reliance Netconnect vs. TATA Photon (Srinagar)

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,J&K,Technology — loggers @ 2:10 am

Round 1 goes to TATA Photon!

Reliance Netconnect: No network coverage (more like reliance NOTconnect)

TATA Photon:
srinagar

Comment of the Day

Filed under: Humour — loggers @ 1:32 am

“Alok, you go find pulses in the Dal Lake.” -Naman

Day 1

Filed under: J&K,National Security,Politics — loggers @ 1:29 am

With tickets purchased on Yatra for INR 2791 (inclusive of taxes et cetera), we walked in to the low cost airline terminal of the CSA airport, Mumbai.  Upon arrival at 2pm (flight time 2.5 hrs) in Srinagar, we made our way to our local host and mentor, David Devadas residence in Rajbagh. David is the author of `In Search of a Future, the Story of Kashmir’. Over adrak chai, samosas and vegetable patties, we spoke about the ubiquitous security personnel in multiple shades of khaki and goodwill messages on barricades. We learnt that the security cover tends to be heavy on Fridays as Muslims gather at local mosques for jumma prayers. Today was the first peaceful Friday in 5 months.

After the intro to Kashmir talk by David, we headed to Lal Chowk (Srinagar’s city center) via streets sprayed with bunkers, Jammu & Kashmir’s only flyover anhd the outskirts of Bakhshi Stadium. As we drove through the city, we absorbed the mystic concept of Kashmiriyat evident in polite manners and eclectic architecture. Lal Chowk, up until now, had been part of unpleasant headlines in the news. Today we discovered gushtaba and rista (beaten, not minced meatballs) and tuj, bookstores and stock brokers on-looking a volatile crossroad.

Gushtaba & Rista at Lal Chowk

Gushtaba & Rista at Lal Chowk

We made an interesting discovery as we pondered over what we saw and heard. As visitors, we thought of every security checkpoint as a comforting factor that mitigated our preconceived fears about a region prone to violence. To understand the political turmoil that has come to define Kashmir over the years, we spoke to Shaukat Motta, editor of Conveyor who gave us a factual account of ideologies that have shaped the issues that plague this region. We realized during this interaction however, that even the most peace loving Kashmiris thought of security checkpoints as unnecessary intrusions. This discrepancy taught us something. It forced us to think of the root causes of this major difference in attitude towards the army, and thus towards the government it seeks to defend. We thought of, and discussed, the region’s political history, its economic profile, and the cultural influences that condition its people, realizing that there was no one root cause – but a combination of factors that account for such attitude. We hope to discover and understand more as we go along.

We walked most of the distance home from Lal Chowk, and crossed the Jhelum on a Shikara – an enamoring experience in itself. We came home with many of our presumptions shattered, and perhaps with many new ones developed. Importantly, we came home with many new unanswered questions.

July 24, 2009

Kashmir

Filed under: J&K — loggers @ 2:45 pm

IMG00153-20090724-1429

More pictures from Srinagar here.

July 22, 2009

Netconnect vs. Photon

Filed under: Evdo.coverage,Technology — namanpugalia @ 8:41 pm

One of the many ‘national’ experiments we will conduct is a coverage and speed contest between wireless broadband providers.

Naman will use the Reliance Netconnect Broadband+ and Alok will test the Tata Photon+. We will use the speed test tool available at Dslreports to check for speed.  The single transfer speed-test probes for maximum line speed, both upload and download. Almost everyday you will see images like the one below.

This is the result of a speed test conducted from Naman’s residence in south Mumbai. The download speed (in green) is 357 Kbps and the upload speed (in red) is 120 Kbps.

For network strength, we will rely on the service provider’s estimate indicated by the number of bars.

NS_Mumbai

This is a first for India. Nobody has tested 2 national wireless internet service providers as comprehensively as this.

July 5, 2009

Borivali and beyond

Filed under: F&B,Retail — loggers @ 10:30 pm

We were due to meet a seasoned traveler for advice on our itinerary. The venue was the Oberoi Mall in Goregaon, and we decided to write a post about it because…why not?

We started the day by surveying the mall. Conversations with a wine-shop salesman[i] and a retail clothing agent indicated an upbeat atmosphere, in that sales figures have remained strong over the past few months in spite of slower than average economic activity. At Globus Wines, we found that Pearly Bay (a personal favorite) sells for ~INR1,500 (US$30) versus US$10 in the states. Interesting because duty on alcohol hovers around 100% in India, but this leaves ~$10 unaccounted for in an apparently low profit-margin business.

The mall is busy on weekends, with the majority of the customers coming from south Mumbai. Upon enquiring about WiFi access, we found that connectivity is limited to 30 minutes/person per day for “security” purposes. Our state/government ID’s were scanned before we were given the network key. We think this was inefficient as we needed access for >1 hour.

We ate lunch at Spoon, the food court, and then headed to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Borivali. When we reached the park, we had 2 options: the Tiger & Lion Safari or the Caves. We were advised not to venture into the “safari” as it is poorly maintained and borders on animal cruelty.[ii] Ironic, for the park is named after late Sanjay Gandhi, whose wife, Maneka Gandhi is an animal welfare activist. We were charged INR110, covering expense for the car and admission for 3 into the park, and an additional INR5 per person (100 for foreigners) for entry to the caves.

SGNP

The Kanheri caves were built from 1B.C. to 11A.D. as part of a Buddhist mission. The cistern developed by the monks for water harvesting was the highlight of the trek.IMG00147-20090705-1500

Caves

The day was well worth it. The only hiccup was the 3 hour car ride back to south Mumbai due to congestion at both ends of the sea link.[iii] Fortunately, we topped it off with a 4-course meal at Kalpana.

More photos.


[i] We learned that sweeter wines are preferred, and that red wines (in general) are more popular, among the patrons of Globus Wines

[ii] Not to mention, there are officially no tigers in the Tiger & Lion safari

[iii] Today happens to be the last day of free access to the sea link

July 3, 2009

Welcome

Filed under: Uncategorized — loggers @ 10:45 pm

Welcome to theindialog.

In 20 days we depart for Srinagar and begin our exploration of India. We started drawing out an ambitious (yet hopefully feasible) itinerary last year, with the goal of applying our interest in economics and politics into a more accurate, relevant reading of the country.

Our plan has been broken down into 3 legs; July 24th onwards we will be touring 6 states of India (Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh, northern Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat) for a period of 1 month. In September we hit the South and in October the East and Northeast regions. We will be traveling by rail/roadways and we plan to accommodate ourselves in hotels, dharamshalas and, where possible, the residences of family and friends.

During the yatra, our intention is to build our knowledge bank and write as much as possible. We will be researching national themes we are naturally curious about, such as farm to non-farm labor movements in rural India and growth prospects of freight corridors, as well as a number of regional issues such as the Separatist movement in Kashmir and the IIT training industry in Kota. We will be logging in throughout the trip to upload thoughts, interviews and anecdotes. We’re each carrying the gadgets required to visually document conversations and sceneries, so net speed permitting, pictures and videos will find their way here on a regular basis.

Our project has evoked reactions ranging from encouragement to envy. We look forward to sharing our observations, and hearing from our followers through comments on theindialog. To our mentors, thank you.

Welcome to the “in” thing.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.