theindialog

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.

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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.

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

October 5, 2009

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.

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

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

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.

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 21, 2009

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 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.

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 5, 2009

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

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”.

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