Roads alone dont mean Development

Roads and Connectvity alone may not deliver rural development.

Got 2 days to drive around in Rayagada district in Southern Orissa, amongst the poorest 3-4 districts in India. One could not but admire the great strides Roads have made in the region. Govt also seems to have made a lot of progress thru residential school for tribal children which seem well maintained (I saw 3 of them within 20 km stretch). A few takes and lessons.

1 Our first stop was a plantation nearby under the aegis of co-operative group. while the increase in tree growth was visible due to better farm practices, what was not visible was the government funding agencies which recoil at the first sign of trouble.  If risk aversion is the primary motive, development initiaves in such societies at the brink of economic existence will all fail. The Government has to take a more sanguine view – the farmers are never going to take advantage of legal loopholes a la a kingfisher nor dodge a bank manager, if he is solvent. if he has the money he will pay. counter party moral hazard is likely to be the lowest.

2 I met the farmers (slide 11) but it was a difficult conversation. My Hindi was not good currency; the accompanying colleagues’ local oriya was only a passable currency. Thank god we have one language across India. I asked the farmer in saffron T-shirt upto which class he has studied. He prevaricated but signalled something to the locals which was translated to Sixth Standard. (But barely convincing). The man in green T shirt seemed to own 2 plots. With some difficulty we could figure out it must have totalled 3 acres. I asked him what class he has been upto. He signalled to the first one and said something to the effect – to the same extent. (I couldn’t believe him either).

3 Visited the training centre of local SHG which had trained itself in book binding hoping to get some contract jobs in the local banks, factories and shops. (see the videos and the group conversation). We are not just short in financial inclusion alone. Of the sample of 20 i saw, none had been inside a train, only one had been upto class 10, 19 out of 20 did not know 3rd table, only one had gas. Surprisingly none of them had worked in NREGA.  2 claimed to own cell phones (but they all knew what i was talking about) and 2 others cycles. All had electricity and claimed that they toilets.

But i was deeply touched by their guilelessness and genuine warmth. The meeting had been arranged with just 15 minutes notice. They gave a locally made flower bouquet and coca cola (to everyone).

4 Many villages seem to be independent land locked republics within India. I could only with difficulty hold myself from asking if they knew that they belonged to a country called India or that it was once ruled by Moghuls or british and that it has got its freedom. (I did not know if it is lawful or will be deemed instigative; hence i stopped). But as you can see from the video they had very little to do with India or its development. The only ‘Indian’ they seemed to know was Naveen Patnaik.

Villagers (see slide 5) in this tiny hamlet had erected a bamboo toll gate and refused entry or exit unless we paid their toll. Toll collectors were 2 young girls of may be 9-10 yrs. There were chawls on the side each having rows of houses sharing walls with others on both sides. each such house would have been around 10ft by 10. I could see 3 or 4 ladies sitting inside and 1-2 hanging outside besides the children baking themselves in the sun. I could see a solitary hand pump, the cemented platform around which served as a open bathing spot for a village adult in full view of all those who cared to see.

5 We wanted to visit the solar pumpset which was to be inaugurated to supply water from below 200 ft to some 26 acre of land. we reached the spot at around 5 pm but found a group of people (nearly the population of the entire village) walking towards a spot very near the solar system, with 2-3 of them carrying what looked like spears. Later i learnt/saw that it was for the pre-marital prayer to thier chief temple/diety (see slide 3). After their modest prayers were over they perhaps ascertained from our guide the purpose of our visit. (Our guide knew the villagers since we had sponsored the project). There was quick confabulation amongst the villagers. They took some time off their routine to give me a ululating welcome (local custom) and performed an impromptu folk dance for me. (see video). Meaning i was told ‘bahooth dhoor se aaye hai our guest; lets welcome him’. Nice of them.

6 On the way we stopped by a hostel schooling tribal children. (see slide 4). I started asking the most grown up looking amongst them (the one to my right and the one in yellow T-shirt). But they were hardly able to speak but were stoic. the care taker intervened to say that it was their first day in the school and where they have come from and circumstances; I had difficulty preserving my tears within the countours of my eyes.

Some lessons:

1 The region is poor and crop mainly cotton, hurhur, millets and in some places Rice. Recently they have added tree plantation to their kitty. Area is rain fed which imposes its own limitations.

2 False pride is good: Although efforts from several CSR activities, govt initiatives, etc seem to be on the area is largely illeterate. You can get a sense of what they mean by literacy in the video of SHG group. The men in slide 11 claimed they had done upto class 6 or 7 before dropping out. I doubted both. But on reflection found that kind of ‘false pride’ a welcome sign. It only indicated that thay have accepted that education is a desirable end state and they are craving for a better end state than they currently were in; this desire and higher aspiration is a prime requirement for any development initiative to succeed.

3 Thank God for Hindi: The areas were hardly 12-30 kms from the district headquarters. Imagine that we had not integrated India with one language formula – with every district and sub district speaking different dialect or variations and so much time and effort lost in translation -it would have been a massive waste of national energy. (Thank God we have saved ourselves this much at least due to proper actions on independence). Our politicians have done somethings right.

4 Can Roads and Connectivity alone achieve progress: I have been visiting nearby places for the last decade. The roads have come up very well. Most village roads are concretised. The times on most roads, district, sub district and state highways have become 1/3rd and it is much more certain and lot less damage on your spine and vehicle parts. Communication connectivity has also improved greatly. Most villages have someone or the other with cell phones. The progress in literacy and living standards seem nowhere commensurate with the progress in govt infrastructure. (guess not even 15-20%). We seem to be miscalculating the linkages between the 2. (I am not saying these are not important; but how much they are able to use them at this stage is questionable. Looks like a 25 terminal airport for 2 flight landings a day). Roads in most parts seem ready for the next 25 years. (see the photos).

Government may need to work on assessing the skill levels of each village and work on each village to boost their income. The focus has to be on increasing their ‘marketable surplus’. (elaborated later).

TV in each home (still a pipedream in many villages) and programmes for social change, advisories on agriculture, personal health and hygiene will all serve great purposes.

Gas seems economically misplaced. The payment for Gas goes out of the village system whereas the fire wood they were using was ‘manufactured inside’ the village boundaries. (this needs to be studied and validated)

5 There is great potential in increase in crop yields. Our scientst told me that soil should be so prepared that the loosened soil should just about envelope the aura of the root system. It will enable the root system in absorbing the nutrients and fertilisers without running off. Tight soil wastes them on top and loose ones enable run off. There is different requirements for different plant species but most places in India resort to uniform ploughing. Soil nutrients are different from place to place – may be even within the same village. Fertiliser and nutrients have to be adjusted accordingly. He claimed that such care alone can improve the crop yields (physical or financial) by about 60% in India.

The villagers also require better linkages to the markets (for many of them the universe ends at the village boundaries and their Government is the Village headman). Such increased linkages with partner end user corporates will bring them better technology, softer credit, better information, opportunity to add more value (like sorting and grading, washing and preparing them for markets and these can sometimes be significant 30-40% of mandi values) at village level itself. Government need not relax land ownership rights at all; just more facilitative of contract kind of farming will do.

6 Corruption to me seems a secondary issue in these places. For most of their transaction with the ‘outside’ world they need transactional interpretors who can (and do) take them for a ride in every possible way – be it in religious conversion, NREGA money distribution, freebees from government, etc. It is this that they have to be liberated from first even before corruption.

7 Trapping more income inside is essential at this stage: One of the  villages had an electrical repair shop repairing fans, TVs, motors and pumpsets, and lighting earning Rs 4-5k per month. In most other villages this amount is paid to external people. Govt has to analyse such possibilities of retention of income within village as well enhance values of what they sell outside and prepare them for newer activities like vegetable growing, fishing, water harvesting, solar panels, sanitary pads making (may be for a few villages in the nearby areas), poultry and milch cow raising. This requires external help and may be investments. Government can rope in retired civil servants, local students, corporate and wealthy individuals as Village development sponsors and draw up a village level development plans and guide these villages along the path of development. India has just 6,00,000 villages.

8 Compared to what the individuals, NGOs, judiciary and media and voluntary systems have achieved, the work of the government in these areas is so far starkly ahead, at least in the last 10 yrs. The remedy of our constant carp may be redesigning the election systems so that it becomes lot less expensive and faster administration of punishment for political misadvantures. What can u achieve from a justive system which passes judgement on disproportionate wealth accumulation after 20 years and after the person has died). If these 2 can be addressed and we give the politicians some space, perhaps we can make faster progress.

If judiciary and Lawyers can together ensure that delivery is not derailed and delivered within 2-3 months for cirmes, crimes and thefts etc might even vanish. Even Politics will become a lot cleaner. Will our Lawyers accept the challenge. In fact the media should also concentrate on exposing lawyers who delay justice infinitely by misuing their priveleges.

9 India should perhaps have gone for European type co-operative model of corporate existance than English and American type Limited liability company types. We are high social animals and more susceptible to social policing and peer pressures than top down relatively more impersonal legal governance, audit and rules based systems, court trial and punishment systems. social pressures would have achieved the end result at a far reduced cost. (may be, I am foolish, but when no one can prove it otherwise let me take some liberties in being expansive).

(Sorry no videos in this piece)

Responsible Recovery of NPAs

Treating all debtors the same, including those with scope for turnaround, is bad for banks and the economy

There can be no doubt that banks need to go after the non-performing assets (NPA) vigorously so that the moral hazard of wilful default does not get hard-coded into the DNA of borrowers.

Banking thrives on the delicate psychological infrastructure of public confidence. One should also bear in mind that one of the most essential ingredient of growth is risk-taking capacity and entrepreneurial zeal.

The current hysteria being created by media and the sudden near-choking actions of the RBI towards NPA recovery seem to overlook the fact that we need a balanced approach to recovery even while preserving the above two.

Reasons for bad loans

The current stock of NPAs is the result of court actions of cancellation of licences, government not keeping its word on contractual obligations, global commodity price movements, low equity base in India, irrational exuberance in sanctions and a lackadaisical approach in the past, free-trade agreements (FTA), a sudden sinking of the growth table from 8-9 per cent to 6-7 per cent with services taking a greater share, etc.

Of these, the Asean FTAs have played a large part in pushing many units to involuntary defaults. According to one estimate, when all ASEAN countries implement their FTA commitments with India, India’s exports to them are supposed to increase by 21 per cent while India’s imports from them was slated to increase by 59 per cent (C.Sikdar and B. Nag, 2011,Impact of India-ASEAN FTA).

Surprisingly, Asean FTA, effective January 2010, remained largely unnoticed till the last leg. When the import duties on many end products became zero per cent from 2.5 per cent in 2014, it became a tipping point for the media, traders, and even the overseas exporters.

The cumulative lag in its impact weighed in heavily all too suddenly. This put the domestic manufacturing industry’s prices on import parity and several industries became uncompetitive or saw their margins shrink. In any case their ability to pass on input cost inflation became restricted. Due to this, the growth rate in several Indian manufacturing sector has sharply come down from 7-9 per cent to 3-4 per cent. This has elongated the pay back of several projects from 6-7 years to 10-12 years.

A moderated approach

Banks should carefully segregate stressed credits into (a) where Return on Capital Employed (ROCE) is still more than Cost of Capital (COC). This would indicate that the credit is still viable but less liquid than earlier planned, and (b) where ROCE is less than COC, where the feasibility itself in question.

In case of (a) the RBI should allow one-time re-scheduling of loans in line with the revised economic assumptions and the elongated paybacks, with adjustments in credit spreads, but without strangulating either the clients or banks by provisioning.

Such cases should not be reckoned as NPA in view of the general objective of maintaining a conducive atmosphere for investment. They should not be allowed to erode the confidence in our banking system and preserve the capital base of banks.

Most of current stipulations seem more appropriate for Type (b) cases. The combined might of the legal system (with its slothful, apologetic approach) and existing regulations is the weakest in cases involving immoral and wilful defaults. Immediately after the crisis of 2008, it was found that the CEOs and traders of investment banks had appropriated for themselves huge bonuses from questionable practices and structures.

The Swiss and the Swedish authorities, instead of protracted legal battles, arm twisted them to pay up a substantial part of their ill gotten gains, threatening them with the might of the State which yielded optimum and quick results.

Given that the top 60-70 cases would cover nearly 80-85 per cent of our current NPAs, the regulator, the government and the banks might do well to take lessons from such an approach and jointly ‘arm twist’ a settlement.

This approach might involve transfer of ownership in Type (b) cases to others in the industry who have competitive strengths in manufacturing, technology or distribution to make a less viable unit to fully viable one. Central Banker should have ideally asked for easy exit norms including the court procedures, automatic transfer of licences and permits instead of just concentrating on provisioning alone.

Banks should also agree on norms for lending for takeovers and mergers which is taboo as of now at least for cases involving share purchase, even if the acquirer has to pay for liabilities simultaneously.

Overly cautious approach

The contrasting approaches of the Fed to 2008 crisis as against the current scene in India is interesting. The 2008 crisis was caused by individual excesses and born of instruments created by outlandish models.

Professional excesses were writ all over and unjustified transfers of wealth humongous. Yet their approach was to save the system and public confidence and many of the sins were forgiven or forgotten, despite the effectiveness of their legal system.

Our strangulating approach of ‘one prescription whatever the diagnosis’ seems destined to manufacture a crisis out of what is at worst a matter of serious concern. This, when an accommodative monetary policy is the need of the hour, with the bulk of the economy and manufacturing sector struggling and growth and employment addition far below potential.

The excesses of strangulation can be gauged in the light of the equity that RBI holds in relation to its total balance sheet size. RBI’s ratio in this regard is the second highest in the World at 32 per cent (next only to Norway at more than 40 per cent).

The same stands at a mere 2 per cent for the US and UK. There is a clear case for a more nuanced and segmented approach, appropriate solutions for each class of cases, besides of course a re-look at the real interest rates which are at historic highs for many sectors, stubbing out any entrepreneurial spurs in the affected sectors. The high equity component in the balance sheet should be a source of comfort and assurance of the system; unfortunately RBI does not seem to know its strengths.

An edited version of this was published on March 28, 2016 in The Hindu Businessline. Link:



Why not a safety net for the moneylender

May 9, 2006

The Hindu BusinessLine

Money-lenders perform an essential service. Commercial banks will never supplant them. Take the money-lender out of the rural areas, the rate of suicides and the degree of despair will only rise, not abate. The structure of their pricing (interest rates) is the irritant

Agriculture Credit – Let Banks lend at 36%

Business Standard