Myanmar Post

This is the first tree  (me with the tree) we planted in Myanmar in Jul 2015. The growth seems as good as the best in India – done on soil and with Tribals as virgin as God created them. A few lessons on the way.

1         The steel frame of bureaucracy may not be a British invention after all. The tribal societies seems to have as rigid a pecking order and rules and regulation and protocols within their small local communities of may be 40 or 10 families. Who takes the call at the community level and family level are well established and you bypass them at your own peril. How you initiate any communication and how it percolates are matters for curious study.

2         For those who have never seen much (or any) money in their lives beyond some basic food and shelter, one would have thought they would be keen to get some to secure their future. But they seem hardly to care. They just walk away from you at the slightest of pretexts; if they dont like something they just walk never to be contactable again – not even to collect their back period wages perhaps. Greed and a sense of security i thought were instincts. They seemed to assume that they will continue to survive the way they have. Savings and security does not seem to be established as even a ‘need’ with them.

3         If 1 X 1 X 1 = 1 what is 2X2X2? It is 2 for them. It might take you 3-4 months to convince them but it is more a matter of negotiation. When we had to dig pits and downsized the requirements from 2X2X2 feet to 1X1X1, wages were initially allowed to fall only by ½.

4         Communicating with them is an art and science of patience. Anger does no good. Communication is more than just about language and tongue. Facial expressions, tones, body language, respecting the hierarchy and pecking order and their esteem, patience… a whole range of things come into play, if you want to get anything done. Language and tongue become just delivery boys.

5         Indians might appear to be the most impatient and rude to them. quiet often you find them drifting away for finding us too rude. When an Indian knows something thats the matter of discussion in a meeting he just cant keep it with himself. He has to share/ impose it on the larger group. Sometimes it is a point of order even if contextually irrelevant, and if the Indian is too junior, it will take the form of an innocent question (actually an answer/prescription masquerading as a question).

Toilets

Toilets are a must, although in most cases it is some 50-100 feet away of vegetation from the hutment made of wood, which look solid. With snakes (ubiqutous), occasional porcupines and foxes and elephants … but they dont seem to worry too much.

Foot Volleyball – Buddhist Oneness (?) Vs Individualism

Most of them (as indeed in many parts of East Asia) play foot volleyball with a ball wowen of bamboo strips. Just foot and head used. Its a passion with them. Their skill levels and body fitness is amazing. Banana kicks to send the ball over the net or place them seem superior to World Cup footballers. And they do it even on concrete or metalled roads though usually on soil or grass field. I took the video of people playing near a toll gate on tarred surface and returned to my car.

I started admiring their skill, physical fitness and their courage (or stupidity) – a wrong landing and they might break their bones. But my host at the wheel said in a complianing tone: ‘but this is not the way it was played before. We all used to stand in a circle – young and old and the aim was to keep the ball up for as long as possible – longer than the last time, previous day, ever, etc. We had a lot more fun that way. Even today many of the interior areas or even the inner streets of here, you can see that’. His tone didn’t leave me in doubt that he longed for. ‘May be from about last 10-15 years they put a net in between and the fun element is gone’ May be this was what was cooking in his mind.

(these are my words). By creating this division they created competitive spirit instead of the oneness and team spirit. So one team (losing) had to go back home with a grumpy face and ruminate overnight or till they played next time on what might have been, copius well-spring of self examination and criticism etc. And another set walking home with a smile on their face instead of everyone walking home with a smile on their face. The oneness embodied by Budhism’s symbol replaced by Western individualism making at least one half unhappy.

But i did greatly admire the skill levels promoted by the net in between. I wonder if the very precise kicking over the net and placement would have happened without the net.

East Vs West

I have heard it from several people as gratuitous advice – that the Morning Sun is good for health and that Evening Sun is harmful. I have never appreciated the logic when the Sun is the same. Nobody has demonstrated it to me. There was a coffee plantation nearby where we made a short stop on two gentle slopes one side facing the East and another West and a road between. The plants on the side facing East looked 2-3 times as well grown and looked far more healthier than the ones facing the West. The planter explained that the Morning Sun is more of infra red rays and on balance more beneficial for plant health and the evening Sun has more of Ultra Violet rays which on balance is more harmful and one could see its demonstration right in front.

That’s commitment

Our Local partner (YA) is well known to our embassy staff in Myanmar who uses him to fix appointments with local businessmen, business assn. meetings for visiting dignitaries, arrange for functions in the embassy, etc. He is known to a few of our envoys in the region.

Sometime back our Ambassador in Singapore had called him and said that there was a leading Tamilian film producer (K for short) (whose wife was a leading actress) who is interested in investing $5 – $ 10 million in a Myanmar based story and that he would like YA to help Director K in his proposed visit to Myanmar.

YA: I was puzzled on what exactly was the help needed but Ambassadors request are generally treated as orders and we simply do what is requested.

‘I took K one night to the Night club below Hotel PR (actually a pick up joint) and he wanted to see a decent one. I took him to Fuse a well-known dance Bar where couples can jive to live music. I had known the owner and he had permitted us to be there 2 males.

‘We spotted a lovely looking single young lady about 20 yrs age cute and beautiful. It was clear after sometime she was alone and we struck a conversation with her. I inquired about her and how come single in there. This is what she related.

“I sometimes give company  to some people and do some odd work for the club in reciprocation…. go to tailoring and fashion stitching class during the day and the nights I spend here and some other clubs.

YA/K : But isn’t it too much work. how are u managing the load?

Girl: Oh yeah no … I make some $ 2000 to$ 2500 from per month from these and is very essential for me.

YA: Vow … that’s an awful lot of money – do you really need to work so hard?

Girl: I lost my father and have to spend $ 1000-1200 on my mother’s cancer treatment every month.  … when her cancer was detected I sold my virginity for $ 3000 to finance her operation and first level treatments. But the treatment is on-going and i have to continue with odd nights out and some soft nights in clubs like this to make ends meet.

YA: What do you plan to do with your fashion design lessons?

Girl: Oh that’s my passion and life dream. I will set up a fashion store first and later become a fashion designer myself.

YA: No marriage then?.

Girl: Of course I will marry – once my mother is through with her illness and my younger sister (whose education I am financing) is settled education wise. But before marriage i want to set up the store and stabilise my income at decent levels independently.

YA comments: There was fire in her voice and dreams and clear cut plan and a sense of determination about her responsibilities. We were taken by surprise about these in her given our general perception about people in similar profession, whom we tend to take lightly or even derisively. There was definitely a lesson for me that night. Its too condescending to say ‘wrong ways for a right cause’

If that’s the choice that a democratic laisse faire system has presented to her and she has had the freedom to choose, what can be our problem.

I admire her sense of duty and leadership to her family and the clear cut plan she has laid out for her life. I am sure she would do something great with her life.

I do not know whether this story interested Dir K.

The Smiling Traffic Cop

Delhi has had a dancing Cop and Myanmar has a national icon in the Smiling Cop who has featured in the front pages of New York Times for his adorable ways in his work – always similing, in directing the traffic, in resolving jams, catching people violating rules, educating them while reprimanding them but forever keeping his smile. Lots of foreigners offer him tips and take photos with him and he has been allowed by Government to take it tax free, which i learnt he contributes to charity. He has brought enormous respect for his profession and the often unappreciated tribe called the Traffic Cop.

The Truth about the Trouble in Rohingyas

 

This is about the international reports on Rohingyas problem in Myanmar.

Recent Reports seems to have got it as wrong as it can. Unfortunately reports in St Times or Bangkok posts seem a lot worse than one sided. I can sense that the reporters may not have moved an inch from their desk in filing their reports. The BP reporter wd hv had a tough time filling in the words for the 2nd half of his/her report.

Spoke to a Muslim (he is not one of the displaced or a Rohingya; he has lived 68 yrs since birth in the adjoining district) about the problem. Based on his version and local news versions … this is what seems to have happened.

ARSA is the terrorist group fighting for Rohingyas. Normally their fight is with the army. But this time they killed 4-6 Hindus, an equal number of Buddhists and attacked the local police posts. Hindus have had to keep quiet. Burmese Buddhists have no way of tracing the terrorists and have got into pitched battles with Rohingyas in retaliation. Local Police is bitten and you know where their sympathies would be.  Totally about 20 people may have died according to him.

The police has set up many check posts to curb infiltration all over the adjoining districts/states.  Some 13000 -odd Rohingyas have got displaced. but about 4600 Buddhists families have also been displaced and their monasteries are sheltering them.

The Government y’day arranged a trip for the media, whosoever cared -international and local – to the affected areas so that they can report facts. But you know the media and their opinion – they always run away when asked to prove their manhood. Lets see what comes out.

There is also inter govt conference against Fake news in Japan. Its high time the fake news, motivated news, and one sided news are put paid to. Its also time that they stop excessive interference with democratically elected govt beyond a point – they want to set the agenda without responsibility, report without verification.

There may be truth in outside media reports – but why are they afraid to present truth from both sides.

 

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)