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)

India’s Culture Boast tries to hide serious shortcomings


This is rather bashful and may sound offensive to some of you; so please exercise discretion to read or reject. But pl feel free to be copious in criticism , in case you read it:  I will know if my line of thought is directionally correct or i need to relook.  Thanks.

From time to time there are whatsapp waves or internet deluges claiming or implying India’s Culture is the Best and that it can teach so much to the West but India has itself nothing much to learn from the rest. (if You don’t agree? – you can trawl internet. Or give up reading further). Sure any ancient civilization like India’s must be having something great to give others. The things cited in favour are the family values, mohella culture, way we come to others’ rescue during crises, our everlasting marriages, and of course West’s flippant marriages and divorce rates of 43%, 67%, 97% whichever way the tongue twists[1] and as soon as this trump card is dealt … if you are sensible you are supposed to concede defeat and shut up.

Without perfecting the art of Match making, to expect marriage that last a life time seems rather naive to me. This threat to quit I think is essential for both sides … for the men folks to defend excessive hen pecking and domineering and for the women folk against abuse and philandering by their men. Otherwise it will become like a football match where the referee has no powers of yellow or Red cards. I am within striking distance of kissing death with my first marriage intact … so i can say this without guilt of justification.

First the West, then the East

A few years back, I was escorting the CEO of the 2nd largest paper company in Europe after a day long discussions in our office. The first thing he  told me on entering the lift was that he had a 21 year daughter and that his concerns regarding her were she does not take to wrong husband or go lesbo since that seemed to be the  fashion. “i am sure she is not into drugs or other addiction”. I naively asked him if she was his daughter. “why you ask? This is my only marriage and only daughter”.

At another time the chief of Business Development of the largest European player, while on a drive to their plant, started lamenting that his daughter of 19 was not coming with them for vacations, participating in family get togethers etc. ‘We have even told her to take her separate room and otherwise offered incentives … but then you know we are clueless’. I have had a middle aged German PhD telling me once over phone on a holiday (i dialled without knowing it) that he was busy cutting trees in his father in laws farm since his FIL was too old to handle it and that he would dial once done.

I have not often come across those who are into 2nd and 3rd marriage.  I don’t go about doing a survey and hence it will be foolish of me to be conclusive. So I would rather reserve my judgement. The images I carried till i started interacting with them closely and frequently is vastly at variance with I have heard from others.

When the Vietnam Cabinet had come to India, since we were pursuing some project there we were asked to see them. We were seated and the person from their delegation who was to be seated opposite me came in and even while pulling the chair and trying to sit, shot straight as an arrow …”how many children you have”. My neighbour who was more in tune with their culture whispered ‘its normal for them’.  He enquired what my daughter was doing and i said engineering. He shared his sons plans and said ‘he is Ok, I have discussed and let him have his choice but my daughter i am confused and i will suggest engineering  to her after your daughter’.  All these even without shaking hands or introduction. I later came to know he was their Industries Minister.

So howsoever high may you be, concern for the family and sons and daughters run deep even in permissive societies.

So much for my boast about high profile meetings…now some show off about my rub with other cultures.

Whether it is our cultural shortcoming  or otherwise, we have a lot to learn where it concerns treatment of women, children and the old and underprivileged … in public and in private, collectively and individually. Without substantive correctives on this, we would continue to be a Banana republic reporting and reading daily doses of gruesome acts of murders, rapes, ragging deaths, bullying, eve teasing, lewd looks and violative abuses.

The kind of eve teasing or unsavoury remarks (even if the target of comments is out of earshot) i see on the Indian roads is aweful. A feudal mindset …as if God has created their targets for the exclusive comfort of the commentator. The same thing is the base for rampant ragging on campuses (you accept my/our superiority and we will take you under our wings). Lewd looks and cheapness of comments is something unique to India – at least the market share it enjoys in this is far disproportionate to its population. As a society and more as Individuals we show the least sensitivity to others rights, conveniences, and dignity.

Our Hindi movies peddle eve teasing and molestations as Romance. The more bizarre the Gender abuse, the better the justification for concocted heroism and chances of coffers hitting high numbers. Tell me the last time we evaluated any cinema by the social changes that they helped bring  about? But minute to minute updates on the amount grossed by each cinema are available on the internet. They have a decisive negative influence on our next generation and are my prime suspects for the increasing crimes against women.The worst of photo journalism in recent years is the wordrobe malfunction.

Give up wants and expectations and embrace Happiness

I don’t subscribe to the Western notions of women’s rights and gender equality. The fight for right itself recognises someone else’ superiority. True equality will be achieved only when people don’t even have to think about it. That I would say has been achieved in some East Asian Buddhist societies. In Vietnam, Bhutan and Myanmar there is such a high degree of respect for each other that its almost like there is only one sex where both recognise that they are designed to perform different biological functions and there is nothing more to it. I haven’t read or heard of any rapes or molestations in their societies, don’t see people teasing girls or women. During formal or informal dinners and sit ins, I see them cut even crasser jokes (enough to make me blush profusely) but its both ways. They get very explicit (like a girl about 27 years who i had known hardly for 90 secs till then once informed me that although she has a secure job and wealth she didn’t have assets in the right place and hence not able to get married). But its never with any sense of deriving cheap feudal satisfaction at being able to impose abuse and or inflict insult on the unfortunate recipients – present on the scene or otherwise: can’t be called ridicule by any stretch of imagination.

If I have to be born a woman, my top choice will be one of the Buddhist countries except perhaps Thailand if I should heed the advice of a friend who has lived there.

“Give up wants and expectations and embrace Happiness” seems to be the signature line of Buddhism. It settles a lot of modern distress including inter-gender friction, inter-age friction, and breeds responsible child care and public behaviour.

Our Epics

Probably our cultural fault lines as far as shoddy treatment of women is reflected in our great epics. One leading Epic (MB) starts with shaming a women. What is even more demeaning is that the very group we worship today put her as the bait for their bets. The other (R) is about a hijacked women. Again after all the trauma his wife goes through, the man finds it necessary to defend personal honour above her travails – honour before responsibility of providing life along expected lines. I refrain from further elaboration due to fear of hurting religious sentiments. I am aware that these Epics have a great lot of lessons to teach. I am aware that the Epics may not be actual (but there are too many evidences at various places in India to indicate otherwise) but a mere metaphor. Even if it is, the authors could have chosen a more sensitive story line.  Sure even Greek Epics have Helen and Eurydice as the lead characters in their storyline. But as much as I have read it there is nothing crass or abusive about them.

The bogies about the Middle east

Much against prevailing wisdom, I would say that the next lesson in respectful treatment of women, children or underprivileged should be from the middle east Islamic countries. I know its not popular going by the image or false illusions that have been created by the media.

Four 4 marriages is the prime reason or target of attack as if that is where abuse starts and ends. Triple Talaks are the next reason, as if the Divorces these days take any longer in the West – just the decision on % share of spoils takes time in Courts but the physicality is as immediate as the time it takes to say Talaks in the Middle East. So who are we fooling? When the ratio of women to men develops as 4 : 1 due to internecine war between various nomadic societies or as in Vietnam when men were reduced to 65% of women due to the American War, social changes and marriage customs are bound to shape suitably. “1: 1 and let the rest go to hell” cannot be a responsible social answer. But whether such a ratio should be hard coded into religion or left to evolve with times may be a matter of debate.

Oman which has been rated as the Paradise on Earth by the Spice Jet in house travel magazine is exactly that. Although there is a slant of protection towards women there -be it in workplace or streets or I would reckon at home. But who is complaining? There is also a lot more sensitivity to treating their poor almost on socialistic lines than reliance on Fate or Karma have allowed our society. The serene face of women does not reveal any fault lines between gender or age.

Looking at some Syrian women and men and their serene faces can be an exercise in meditation by itself. Such serenity could only come out of inner beauty and happiness and peace with the World around, stability of relations, feeling of security around life. That this is my observation from my only trip there which was when the country was deeply in ‘Civil’ war should speak volumes. ( as I had cheekily written in one of my earlier posts, I would any day prefer Syrian type ‘Civil’ War to the ‘Uncivil’ violations against women in Delhi streets everyday and the mindless manner in which the Press tries to milk it).

The stories that my friends tell  about the courtesies at home (much of the hosting of business courtesy lunches and Dinners take place at home, I am told) about Iran and Iraq makes me believe that women are treated like Queens within; only they have to wear their Hijabs outside their house. The patience of Indonesia is awesome.

Whether these countries alone are representative of muslim world may be questionable. But why do we have to bother with their religion? If there is something to learn, why not?

I wouldn’t want to mix up with the debates in India/South Asia.

Repeating myself I don’t subscribe to the Western notions of women’s rights and gender equality. The fight for right itself recognises someone else’ superiority. But if we were given that scale of Income and social realities where both spouses work, stability of jobs is not a reality and there is need for frequent job switches across cities or even countries, I am sure basic instincts will overpower our values and Culture and make us behave much the same way. With our lack of respect for rules and regulations and irreverent mindset, we might even evolve rather crudely. Future alone can tell.

I don’t think our Culture and Values alone will overcome human instincts.

Lets both teach and learn

It is not just biological differences, but several things else – race, colour, income, caste, etc … we let them become permanent handicaps right through one’s life term from birth rather than be accidental co-ordinates at birth after which one is free to develop on equal terms.

I know there are a zillion other things that make upthe Culture than just the way we treat Children, a great lot of society (not all) look at women, spit on the road, defecate, jump queues even ahead of elders, break road rules, jump signals, ask for bribes and accept them, confer favours on the undeserving or have no qualms in seeking them. I am sure India can be great on all those other things … but on these things we smell foul and are way below qualifying marks.

I reckon India should market its Yoga, Ayurveda, Epics, or other aspects of its culture more aggressively for its own benefit.

In substance and summary, the boasts about our culture seems a surrogate swagger or justification for our inability to progress, a failing attempt to hide our shortcomings. (I think so). People who are at the top and truly belong there don’t go about proclaiming that they are the best. (unlike Tyson or Md Ali). If we have something great to offer others will sure learn it from us given the ways of internet. If we find nothing great about the West, we don’t have to learn from them but there are others out there who can offer lessons. But even if we consider we are 80% perfect, lets learn the balance from the rest.

(PS: God has been kind to provide lots of travel opportunities to me but also appears to have imposed the responsibility to find out more about many who are not in any way connected the underlying business purpose. Pl pardon the offshoot boasts).

[1][1] As per official reports Netherlands and Czech republic (or is it just Amsterdam and Prague) have the highest divorce rate of 52%; the highest for the balance is 1/3rd. That is in 2012 or 13. May be we have made perverse progress by leaps and bounds since then.