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)

Rats and the Bureauc’rats’

Rats and the Bureauc’rats’

This is not a fib. Shows me in an awkward light. But it is OK.

I have been living in a flat in the 4th floor which belongs to a MP, in a fairly decent locality of East Delhi for the last almost 10 years now. His wife in whose name the flat stands has visited our house 3-4 times in the last 10 years and he – never. I have attended his Iftars a couple of times and met him once in his office. Very decently behaved.

The first 9 years we have not had much problems with the flat – no problems from cockroaches and other insects or rats. In the last year or so a lot of people have started remodeling their kitchen or bed or toilets and have had to work upon the pipelines and drainages. And suddenly rats started invading our house about 4-5 months ago. From being an occasional visitor to weekly to daily their familiarity with us seemed to improve with time.

My wife is mortally afraid of them and exhibits a near phobic reaction seeing them. The store is somewhat tucked in and I don’t need to go there for my daily routines. So whenever my wife used to complain or start discussing their presence or disgust I will simply bark back at her and put her down or somehow make it out that she is more of a problem than the rats. From being a weekly routine, it sort of became a daily scene – with the watchman coming to take the trap and leave them in the nearby park. The more frequent their visits, the more frequent my wife’s screams for help and more intense my reaction. But apart from the occasional help with setting the trap – grumpy and grumbling – not much of an intervention from me -at least they were not crawling on our dining table or bed or drawing room.

And suddenly one Wednesday about a month ago my wife had to leave for Chennai for some urgent work.

I prefer to cook my own food whenever she is out. I sort of like it for its meditative value. I need to concentrate to get it right, mixing or clubbing various activities so as to optimize time, scheduling them etc. and during that time, normally I don’t think of thinking about my boss or meddlesome colleagues or irksome tax authorities or Kejriwals or Arnab Goswami or the plethora of scarecrows and demons in our daily life. The 40-45 minutes is a pure yoga for me.

I was greeted by our esteemed visitor when I was preparing to cook that evening. Seeing one run to hiding in the store …I was overtaken by a sort of hesitation… in opening the doors or store, drawers or even the Microwave as if one will jump out at me. From thinking of my cooking routine most of my time went in thinking about my ‘athithi’. After dinner, set the trap and caught one and handed it to the watchmen. Not that they fall for whatever you bait. They have their own taste (hope it does not differ from one to the next) and are highly choosy. But from my wife’s harangues I had learnt some tricks about what gels with them.

The overhang of thoughts about coming face to face him made me lose some sleep. And it sort of visited my thoughts during the office hours next day. Thursday the problem persisted … looming larger. Half the sleep gone and torments from pure imagination invaded me during much of those wakeful hours in bed. Rats had become my new source of meditation.

Friday morning … and evening… it was sort of I had to do something about it kind of situation. I called my driver and society’s plumber on Saturday morning to see how to resolve the issue. Both of them were kind of amused, suppressed though since they may have learnt to live with the problem.

We searched all the possible openings in the house, the drains, the inlets of water, the electrical lines, those which had been recently re-done by others… The plumber was smirking half the time. My driver is a sort of serious but irresponsible kind of fellow. No smirks from him but blindly followed instructions…the plumber became an expert of sorts offering his own logic (mostly counters) to whatever I suggested. He kept saying where there are no droppings there is least likelihood that it may have been a point of entry. (makes sense but to me it did only in retrospect; not then). ‘Do as you are told’ was my shout and refrain and insisted on his plastering or filling whatever it was under scanner. I guess both of them must have been pretty exasperated with me.

My driver pointed to a small gap in the junction box of electricals high in the dining area. There indeed was a gap of may be one cm – good enough for a cockroach I thought but hardly could agree that a rat would be able to squeeze through. But not having made much headway, I told him to get the ladder, open it and see. He did and also saw their droppings. The ply board used as cover to the JB had wilted due to age and bent creating some gaps. I told him to put brown tape around its borders. I sealed the electrical switch box as well which was right inside the store.

Phew! For the rest of the day no rattling noise form kitchen store. Not in the night either. Not the whole of Sunday … and then Monday. I asked the plumber to seal and do up all the damage done during our investigation. And there has been no visitor since then…in fact for the last whole month.


My wife of last 25 years was not able to get my attention at such close quarters what a 48 hrs direct encounter did. I am sure most men of my age around the world would behave similarly (at least to their wives I guess!). Unless regulated by rules, social values, culture, policing and punishment, peer pressure, etc. our reaction to others problems are likely to be equally lethargic and insensitive.

Given the current level of insensitivity to others (my neighbors park their car sometimes in mine, in Delhi the whole road however wide is a parking lot, rickshaws can drop or pick up passengers any place – right in the middle of a road busy with vehicular traffic), moral degradation, lack of work and duty consciousness, dilution of values at least in India, our model of bureaucracy perhaps has run out of context.

I don’t see similar degradation in many other democracies, some military regime and communist countries. May be this is representative of countries where corruption is high or they are both two sides of the same coin. May be around independence our Bureaucratic model of governance was appropriate but the background assumptions have so changed that it no longer looks appropriate.

So you have a defence secretary who denies snow boots to Siachen soldiers, bullet proof vests to frontline armymen, and now a massive cumulative deficit of even basic ammunition; Judges and your own lawyer least concerned about administering justice in a hurry, regulators not deciding on price hikes for Delhi Metro (actually problem I am told is a little deeper) for the last 6 years.

Given this should we not insist that for anyone to be eligible to be defence secretary s/he should have spent at least one stint of 4 months in Nathu La pass eyeball to eyeball with Chinese soldiers, one winter in Siachen and at least 3 years with other stations taken together.

I am sure if a son or daughter of the then Cabinet Secretary was in IC 183, we would not have wasted precious 2 hours at Amritsar Airport and we may all be talking of a different scenario than Kandahar.

We should also provide for 10-15% lateral entry into our bureaucracy from end users so that they can sensitize our system.

People say that we should impose a hefty fine on people asking for stay orders in Courts. But me thinks it is a waste of time. People who can pay (the rich) will impose it on the other unfortunate side pining for justice. I think it is the decider whose shoes should be made to pinch. The decider of stay orders is the Judge and we should impose a fine (or fees) on him. Even in a corruption free environment, the day we say that judges will be allowed a quota of 12 in a year and every additional grant will come at the cost of his promotion and increments, he will think deeply before granting one. (or may be he will trade his quota also).