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:

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:

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.


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.

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.   


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.

October 9, 2009

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.

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.

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.

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 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.


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.

August 16, 2009

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.

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?

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

August 5, 2009

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


-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”.

July 25, 2009

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.

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