The Ambani-Adani alliance in Indian business

Chances are, you have read this already. If you haven’t, I would urge you to read this sharp piece by Andy Mukherjee. It’s an alarming tale, cautioning us of the monopoly India is poised to be heading towards. If privatisation has done any good, it has mostly done it for the capitalists, more recently in ownership of airports. Mukherjee puts it succinctly:

Airports are natural monopolies. To have one private owner controlling eight or more — a fresh batch of six will soon go under the hammer — can’t possibly be great news for airlines, fliers, or businesses operating from the premises. 
More worryingly, the concentration of economic power in aviation infrastructure is now symptomatic of a broader trend in India, particularly in businesses where the government supplies a key ingredient, such as telecom spectrum.

Further (packs a punch):

The worry is that dominance by a handful of capitalists may not leave enough space for others. But then, who’s even ready or willing to compete, especially in sectors where state policy has a big role in determining winners? Barring some notable exceptions, the Indian business class is overextended, trapped in the debris of assets created with the help of syndicated loans from pliant state-run banks. Politicians even have a name for it: phone banking, where they make the calls and tell bankers to whom to give loans. 

Extremely important piece on Indian business today. Must read. Go here.

Mercantile capitalism in a polycentric world

Interesting new paper on the evolution of Indian capitalism that challenges the age-old trope of exceptionalism of the West and Asia’s fall.

A little brief on the paper and full download can be found here,

Journal free access update, enjoy!

How businesses are innovating during Covid-19

“The Happiest Place on Earth” isn’t staying locked down any longer and it has spread the message far and wide with an ad campaign that is drawing mixed reactions. The visitors to the Walt Disney World in the ad face dozens of masked workers at the recreation center even as children dressed in Disney attire glide on freely without a care. The dystopian feels apart, the message is clear: the business is itching to be back and it’s innovating to put across the message of safety, precaution and “good” business in the best way it can.

Not just in ad campaigns, CEOs restricted by health complications or other issues too are finding ways to carry on with work. Those in the app stores have launched contactless apps to help customers feel comfortable shopping during the pandemic. Some businesses, seizing the opportunity for creating a hub around credible information, have pitched in with fiercer, hardworking products that focus on mitigating anxiety around Covid. Microsoft has launched virtual auditoriums, thank you from someone who hates zoom! Uber’s shift from a ride sharing company to a home delivery app has been fast, thanks to the pandemic.

This interview with retail expert Melissa Gonzalez sums up the crux of innovation needed: digital, fluid, flexible.

Who is WFH really hurting?

The poor, the young and the women – they are the worst affected when it comes to assessing the impact of remote work, this new IMF paper suggests.

Overall, workers in food and accommodation, and wholesale and retail trade, are the hardest hit for having the least “teleworkable” jobs at all. That means more than 20 million people in our sample who work in these sectors are at the highest risk of losing their jobs. Yet some are more vulnerable than others:
Young workers and those without university education are significantly less likely to work remotely. This higher risk is consistent with the age profiles of workers in the sectors hardest hit by lockdowns and social distancing policies. Worryingly, this suggests that the crisis could amplify intergenerational inequality.
Women could be particularly hit hard, threatening to undo some of the gains in gender equality made in recent decades. This is because women are disproportionately concentrated in the hardest-hit sectors like food service and accommodation. In addition, women carry a heavier burden of child care and domestic chores, while market provision of these services has been disrupted.
Part-time workers and employees of small and medium-sized firms face greater risk of job loss. Workers in part-time work are often the first to be let go when economic conditions deteriorate, and the last to be hired when conditions improve. They are also less likely to have access to health care and the formal insurance channels that can help them weather the crisis. In developing economies, in particular, part-time workers and those in informal work face a dramatically higher risk of falling into poverty.

Notes on Capitalism during Covid times

Let me tell you simple things. Covid 19 quarantine is helping me get this straight and simple: I like capital and those who aid capitalism. So this bothers me when capitalism is blamed for the mess we are in. This world is complex and I am someone who believes the right set of institutions hold the key to progress, human development, economic growth, sustainable development .. you name it.

Singling out capitalism for every evil or challenge we face is just missing the big picture. In the words of Joseph Schumpeter:

“Capitalism stands its trial before judges who have the sentence of death in their pockets.” 

Rainer Zitelmann argues here:

Many intellectuals fail to understand the nature of capitalism as an economic order that emerges and grows spontaneously. Unlike socialism, capitalism isn’t a school of thought imposed on reality, free-market capitalism largely evolves spontaneously, growing from the bottom up rather than decreed from above. Capitalism has grown historically, in much the same way as languages have developed over time as the result of spontaneous and uncontrolled processes. Esperanto, invented in 1887 as a planned language, has now been around for over 130 years without gaining anything like the global acceptance its inventors were hoping for. Socialism shares some of the characteristics of a planned language in that it is a system devised by intellectuals.
Once we’ve grasped this essential difference between capitalism, as a spontaneously evolving order, and socialism, as a theoretical construct, the reasons why many intellectuals have a greater affinity for socialism (in whatever form) suddenly become obvious.

For something as natural as capitalism (it has thrived even in the most capital scarce regions throughout history), making it the villain of the piece requires a certain degree of immortality. After all, all capitalists may not be changing the world or developing products that could usher in social change, but then, not all capitalists are devils either.

Yet, in the context of our new Covid 19 world, all of this changes. The pandemic has forced us to confront many questions that have been building up for a while – mostly, how did we reach here? How can we fix this broken world with heightened economic, social and racial inequalities? The challenges take many forms and permeate every sphere sustained by capitalism. The latest criticism of venture capital by Tim O’Reilly, for one.

These challenges couldn’t simply be attributed to capitalism alone. We are living in an age of great technological transformation accentuated by policies that widen income and wealth inequalities. The last and perhaps the most baffling frontiers of inequality – lack of access to opportunity and regional inequality – have subsequently been breached.

In this scenario, being a capitalist almost sounds like white supremacy, or Brahmanical supremacy, depending on where you live. History proves how swiftly racism or discrimination or inequality in all its forms have swiftly been linked to capitalism.

Will capitalism survive then? My steadfast view is: yes, it will. I can say, like I often say, that history proves it would. But I would rather list these 5 👇 to indicate what lies ahead of us:

  • More creative destruction as J Schumpeter would have said
  • More regional integration
  • More social cohesion
  • Changing patterns of consumption
  • An altered future of work

Video lecture series on Inequality

Economics professors Arjun Jayadev and Branko Milanovic have collaborated on a video lecture series on Inequality – the five vidoes, free to watch, clearly and succinctly explain what Inequality is all about, why you should care and other fundamentals you have been wondering about for long. It’s cut-the-clutter stuff that you shouldn’t miss.

Watch here:

Happy birthday to Dietmar Rothermund!

For a budding economic historian, reading Dietmar Rothermund’s work on India can be an illuminating experience, given that apart from the works of Indian scholars on Indian economic history, Rothermund’s books provide a refreshing view of history. But what can be really special about this veteran historian is his extremely warm demeanour even to those decades junior to him in age and experience.

The first time I ever wrote to him, Dr Rothermund replied within a day, with generous praise for my ideas and thoughts. I didn’t expect this, given that my experience with academics in India has always been mixed. Some of them can really be unwelcoming of young scholars, with their tardy and brief responses, and this is where Rothermund stands out and makes it a humbling experience for someone like me.

Yesterday, Dr Rothermund turned 87 years old and continues writing. This year, two of his books have been released, and he has been kind enough to send a copy my way for the review. It will take a while, I guess, because the copy will come from Germany, but do look out for my review (reviewing these would be my privilege) when you can in a couple of weeks, hopefully.

A very happy birthday, sir. It’s wonderful to know you and read your work.

Should rich people pay more tax?

Second Richest Man Spouts Nonsense

Dalit Capitalism

I covered Dalit capitalism for Mint in its early days when DICCI as a chamber of commerce for the Dalit community had just come up. My boss at Mint, who is an economist, always felt proud of my work, especially on Dalit capitalism. Today, I spoke to Milind Kamble, founder and chairman of DICCI, in a decade and learned of the advances made by the community. This also prompted me to search for my stories on Dalit capitalism on the Mint website but a majority of them are missing! I am told that Mint had a website revamp which might have interfered with the articles. However, I found my report on a blog.

Anyway, I found this one (unedited) on my drive today. This report is a minefield for researchers (so proud to have written this story):

The rise of Dalit Entrepreneurship
Posted: Mon, Dec 27 2010. 1:00 AM IST

The community has found an escape both from the demeaning tasks
assigned to them by the caste system and the stigma of being branded
as non-meritorious beneficiaries of reservations in India
Pallavi Singh,

Around 40 years ago, huddled among a group of hungry children in his
native village of Vadgaon Budruk in Maharashtra, Rajendra Gaikwad had
an epiphany about how there was discrimination in a simple seating

It was a mass lunch thrown by upper-caste Marathas and the
nine-year-old was seated along with his mother in a corner of the
temple where Dalits of the village ate. “We were segregated from the
upper-caste Hindus, which was very humiliating. Even as a child, I
felt insulted and would cry each time my parents would talk of
visiting the village. I didn’t return after that,” he says.

Gaikwad is today based in Pune and runs a pest-control firm with
operations in India and Singapore. He is also a member of a growing
band of Dalit entrepreneurs who have eagerly grabbed the opportunities
offered by a booming Indian economy to break the occupational shackles
imposed on their community for centuries.

Atin Kamble is a third-generation Dalit entrepreneur from Mumbai who
has none of Gaikwad’s bitter childhood tales to tell. After eight
years in the business of marketing edible goods in Mumbai shops
through his venture Arti Enterprises, 36-year-old Kamble is
ambitiously pitching for two power-generation projects in Arunanchal
Pradesh, which would need an investment of a minimum of Rs.15 crore

His grandfather began with a modest business of leather goods, a
vocation traditionally allocated to Dalits, in Mumbai’s crowded Dadar
area; his father expanded the family business but Kamble chose to
strike out on his own.

“I somehow found sitting in my grandfather’s leather business shop
infra dig. I mean, it’s a peon’s job, if you are ambitious. I wanted
to do something that would give our business the status of industry,”
he says. And adds: “Today I am dealing with distributors and local
shopkeepers in the food business. When my children take over, they
will be dealing with super stockists.”

As opposed to Kamble’s pedigree and Gaikwad’s fortunes, Dashrath
Singh, who uses a surname mostly used by upper-caste Rajputs in India,
is still struggling in the garments business he runs from a rundown
garage in the congested Om Nagar slum in Delhi. Yet, from where he
stands today, it isn’t just a matter of miles covered, but it’s a
significant leap from his native village of Vari in Uttar Pradesh’s
Bulandshahar district to Delhi.

Singh’s work over a decade has included a series of humble vocations,
among them a helper at a grocery shop, an autorickshaw driver, a
door-to-door salesman of clothes, and a conductor in private buses,
before the idea of entrepreneurship struck him. Three years into his
business, he sometimes “earns lakhs in a month and sometimes just a
paltry sum”. But he insists things couldn’t get better. “Whatever it
is, I am on my own. I seek no favours,” he explains.

Gaikwad, Kamble and Singh are three faces of an emerging Dalit
capitalism that allows them an escape both from the demeaning tasks
assigned to them by the caste system and the stigma of being branded
as non-meritorious beneficiaries of reservations in education and

D. Shyam Babu, a fellow of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary
Studies (RGICS) in New Delhi, says Dalit capitalism is still at a
nascent stage, but adds that it will help create a Dalit bourgeoisie.
“It has the seeds of transformation for Dalits—from the lower class to
the middle class and beyond,” says Babu, whose research on Dalits and
the new economic order has highlighted the social advance of the
community in the wake of globalization.

“I know Dalit entrepreneurs who manufacture copper wires and cables
for use by the Indian Railways and the Delhi Metro, which proves that
these businesses are competitive, quality-oriented and efficient. This
is what Dalits in business want to prove today: they are good as
everyone else,” says author and activist Chandra Bhan Prasad, who is
currently compiling a database of entrepreneurs in the community.

Though the rise of the market economy has helped break many old social
barriers, Dalit businessmen still have to deal with several hurdles on
their chosen road.

“Most Dalit entrepreneurs face problems varying from difficulty in
getting enough supplies on credit, lack of social networks, absence of
kin groups in the business, and control of traditionally dominant
business-caste groups. These, along with other social variables such
as lack of social capital, make the Dalit situation in India more
complicated and vulnerable to homogeneous categorization,” says
Surinder S. Jodhka, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social
Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Jodhka’s paper, ‘Dalits in Business: Self-Employed Scheduled Castes in
Northwest India’, drew insight on the expansion of private capital in
India during the post-1991 period and highlighted the discrimination
faced by Dalit businesses. The marginal status of Dalits and their
continued discrimination in the urban labour market also find
recognition in the 11th Five Year Plan released in October 2008. The
paper notes that “in urban areas, too, there is prevalence of
discrimination by caste, particularly discrimination in employment,
which operates at least in part through traditional mechanisms; SCs
(scheduled castes) are disproportionately represented in poorly paid,
dead-end jobs. Further, there is a flawed preconceived notion that
they lack merit and are unsuitable for formal employment”.

A poor economic and social background thus makes the beginning
difficult—only to be eased by outside help, mostly from the community
or well-off upper-caste individuals. “Forty years ago, when I began, I
would go on a cycle in rain and sun to various places—from a poultry
farm to an army cantonment, to kill rats and do odd jobs. I slowly
learnt that businesses need hard work and professionalism,” Gaikwad
says. In almost an afterthought, he adds: “A gentlemen called Mr.
Deshpande helped me get a loan from a bank by agreeing to be a
guarantor. The fact that he was an upper-caste man did help in making
my application appear serious.”

S. Galab, a professor at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies in
Hyderabad, who carried out research on the role and effectiveness of
self-help groups run by Dalit women in Andhra Pradesh, says most Dalit
enterprises suffer because of social isolation and the lack of
cooperation, and get over the initial hiccups only with help from
upper-caste individuals, since Dalits haven’t had a strong footing in
the social and economic sphere for centuries. “However, the upper
caste help also, kind of, co-opts the Dalits into the overall existing
structures, which is why they find it difficult to think about giving
back to their community later,” he cautions.

Various economic fora have also emerged over the years to help Dalits
overcome initial hurdles in setting up businesses. At the Pune-based
Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, formed three years ago,
its chairman Milind Kamble not just works on a database of Dalit
businessmen, but also helps them find linkages in industry.

And yet, argues author and activist Prasad, the emerging
entrepreneurship will need government help to thrive. “The government
ought to constitute a body, say, the ‘National Scheduled Caste and
Scheduled Tribes Supplier Development Council’, which should identify
Dalit/tribal entrepreneurs who are already supplying goods and
services to the government through middlemen, and connecting them
directly to procurement departments,” he says, citing examples from
the US, where a national body connects minority entrepreneurs with
large American firms.

To those who say that such a practice goes against the spirit of a
free market, Prasad argues that the Indian bourgeoisie itself would
not have thrived without state support and protection till 1991.
“Dalit businesses particularly need help since most of these are
small-scale operations,” he adds.

Explaining that economic standing is the only way Dalits can redefine
themselves, RGICS’ Babu likens the trend to the wave of Black
Capitalism in the US in the 1970s and 1980s. “There are strong
similarities. Like the black capitalists of America, most of the Dalit
entrepreneurs are first-generation entrepreneurs, people who were
never into businesses but mostly relying on agricultural labour. To
get into serious business from agriculture is a paradigm shift. And,
in both cases, here as in the United States, even though there have
been state interventions to promote entrepreneurship, individual
motivation and community help have come first,” Babu says.

Photo credit:


‘Good research is vital’

This very interesting interview with Alpa Shah is a must-read for anyone aspiring to write narrative non-fiction. Shah, a professor of anthropology at my alma mater London School of Economics, speaks beautifully and honestly about her writing process while working on ‘Nightmarch’ and has great messages for both academics as well as writers of the non-fiction genre. Her photo is taken from her website,

Here is the piece on this blog as well:

Literature in narrative non-fiction is undergoing an academic shift, lending to works in the genre richness of ethnographic research and multi-layered narratives. From Pulitzer-winning author and academic Matthew Desmond to more recently, Alpa Shah, works of narrative non-fiction by academics in recent years have contributed remarkably to our understanding of the most critical challenges facing the world. Embedded research, which often accompanies work in the genre, creates an intimate view of communities caught in the midst of unfolding complexities, offering a rare and empathetic understanding of not just compelling issues but also the people at the crux of it all through masterful storytelling.

Alpa Shah, author of Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas, spent 18 months in the forests of Jharkhand and Bihar between 2008 and 2010, living among the tribals in huts without electricity and water. Shah, who was raised in Nairobi, read Geography at Cambridge and is currently a professor of anthropology in London at the London School of Economics, sought to understand how and why the tribals—mostly belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, often neglected by the local administration and the state and central governments—were picking up arms to create a “different world”.

The book’s lucid prose sensitively straddles the world of Naxals to tell stories of conflict, hierarchies, inequality and inherent contradictions in the movement with compelling takeaways for everyone. Nightmarch is an insightful exploration of conflict and its origins, and how the understanding of both eludes politics and policies for tribals in India. The book has been shortlisted for the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Writing and the New India Foundation Book Prize. It was also on the longlist for the Tata Literature Live Nonfiction Award. Shah spent four and a half years doing anthropological fieldwork among Adivasis – one stint in 2008 to 2010 but also a longer one earlier – and draws on all of this experience for Nightmarch.

She is also the author of In the Shadows of the State’ and co-author of Ground Down by Growth.

In an email interview, Shah discusses her thoughts on writing non-fiction as an academic and whether she thinks the trend is going to catch on:

Pallavi Singh (PS): Your book has been acclaimed for its superlative craft in political writing. What are the key elements in your writing style that you think makes the book so immersive?

Alpa Shah (AS): Thank you. I’m not sure I have a style as such. I think most important (to the process) was a feeling, a compulsion if you like, of the need to share widely the knowledge I have been fortunate to attain. What was happening in the guerrilla strongholds had been silenced for the world outside. Meanwhile, a lot was being written on the Naxalites, which was either falling one way into those who radically opposed them, or the other, into those who tried to counter that position. This created polarising views. Adivasis were shown to be joining the rebels because they were forced to, because they were gaining utilitarian benefits, or because the insurgents addressed their grievances. My fieldwork had shown that the reality was more complex and that it was important for the world to understand that because so many lives were at stake. Many of the people I knew – those who lived in the jungles and those in the cities who could have brought light to their stories – were incarcerated if not killed. The responsibility of the uniqueness and significance of the stories I carried with me weighed heavily and I realised that I could not let the unexpected insights that I discovered through them be confined to the ivory towers of the university. I had to touch the hearts of people who read the book – as many as possible – in the way that the people I met, during the course of my research, had touched mine. I had to try to reach as wide an audience as I could, but without simplifying the analysis or dumbing down my scholarship. How to do this was the next question. I think a lot of my inspiration came from George Orwell, for whom the initial motivation for writing was similarly to get a hearing because there were lies to expose, facts to draw attention to, but to also make that process into an aesthetic experience. Writing, then, must be thought of as art.

PS: How different do you find narrative non-fiction from academic writing and in what ways?

AS: Academics these days are mainly trained to write for each other and not the general reader. It wasn’t always like this but over the years, there has been a kind of scholarly enclosure, especially in the West. It is partly to do with how neoliberalism has materialised itself in the university context. Austerity narratives have brought pervasive marketisation and the ethos of business into universities, determining how we monitor ourselves, bringing crude evaluation criterias of promotions rankings and research evaluation frameworks to bear on our writing. A kind of scholarly enclosure has advanced as academics are encouraged to address whatever conversation seems to be in vogue in a particular moment, and this is often the one that others can’t understand, and all of this becomes further validated through the inwardly looking practices we perpetuate of recognition, citation and promotion. Our writing is sapped off its vigour. Indeed, academics have increasingly ceased to be public intellectuals, the spaces of which are claimed mainly by people outside of the academy. So really, today, academics have a lot to learn from writers of narrative non-fiction, in finding ways of communicating the complexity of their scholarship to reach beyond elite audiences. I hope Nightmarch can create greater space for other scholars who want to make the wealth of their scholarship accessible to people outside the academy.

PS: How long did you take to write Nightmarch? What were the key challenges before you as an academic as you set out to write a book focused on narrative non-fiction?

AS: A very long time! The fieldwork for Nightmarch ended in 2010 and the book was published eight years later. It took me all that time to figure out what the significance of the stories I carried were and then what to do with them. I had to rework much that I had learned, the habits I was trained into, the traps of mystification common in academic writing. New concerns filled my imagination. Character, dialogue, journey, cliff hangers, audience and how to show and not always tell. But at the same time, it wasn’t all just about telling a story but also about drawing out the complexities of the analyses, the contradictions and tensions, thinking through the lessons for different kinds of audiences, including the Naxalites themselves.

PS: Do you foresee possible shifts in academic writing so it could be made more approachable for the masses? A number of academics – right from Matthew Desmond to yourself – have now written award-winning books in narrative non-fiction.

AS: Yes, I do.

Change is enabled partly through continuity. Despite the overwhelming insularity of so much of academic writing, there have always been those who bucked the trend, tried to reach beyond to a wider audience. Change is also enabled by the fact that serious conversations about writing itself were kept alive in academia. And then, there are contradictions in the way the pressures from above work that can be utilized as a force for change. Today, top university presses are feeling the financial crunch; books need to sell. Editors are encouraging us to move beyond academic prose in favour of compelling, clear writing. Bringing about change is also helped by the fact that those who have taken the risks to write jargon free books engaging broad publics are being rewarded with prizes.

But also, change is coming from ‘below’. Perhaps, it is the very pressure of decades of professionalism, the knowledge that years of tenure criteria and academic ranking have dumbed potential brilliance into mediocrity in writing, that we feel the need to push back. Perhaps it is because in this era of rising inequality and authoritarianism, we feel Orwell’s sense of political and artistic purpose in writing more than ever to keep alive the spaces of democracy, hope of justice, and demands for a more equal world. I think a collective will, across generations, will be a force for overall change for giving more room for writing that matters, and matters beyond the academy.

PS: Nightmarch was not just a book of engaging narratives, it was also the result of years of research on the field. What is your advice to researchers and academics aspiring to write narrative non-fiction in future?

AS: I think there are no blueprints, no models, no prefigured ideals. But one question we should all ask ourselves, is the simple one, ‘Why Write?’

What is at stake? Who is our audience? What is our intent? What makes us tear up our pages and rebuild? What is our political purpose? Our historical impulse? Are we aware of it? Why, if at all, does it matter that we are writing as scholars and researchers? What are the consequences?

Another important issue to bear in mind is to first and foremost be committed to good research itself. Don’t go about the research just in order to write a good story, or with preconceived ideas of what you may find. Always challenge your own ideas, seek hidden truths and unexpected insights. Never forget to be critical, including, of yourself.

In terms of writing, I think it is important to be committed to the insights you have gained from the people you have been lucky to study. There’s also something very special about doing deep immersive field research in communities, which allow researchers to draw upon the affective resonances that are born of intimacy with the people we meet to make our writing more engaging and effective. Keeping the lives of those we have studied close to us at all times, including when we are back at our desks, will help us make our analysis in writing more compelling.

India’s Garbage and Cycle Industries Are Facing The Heat, Thanks To China

Two reports in the last couple of days underline the impact of movements and decisions in global trade. This NYT report focusses on the impact on the $25 billion garbage industry in India. The crash in the industry is the result of China’s surprise cut in garbage imports last year. China buys most of the world’s garbage, and US sells the most. In plain demand and supply logic, China’s action cut the demand for trash globally even as trash supply kept overflowing from the US. This has had a severe impact on India’s garbage industry, which is now dealing with low prices and weak demand. This would also have an impact on the environment, as much of the garbage contains plastic which if not disposed of, will be toxic.

From the report:

The type of trash evolved as more Indians could afford more stuff. Water bottles appeared, along with shopping bags, clothes, cardboard and motorcycle helmets. The latest tech, first piles of cassette tapes, then CDs and DVDs started showing up. And cellphones, smartphones and all their accessories.

As the mountain grew it became more exhausting to reach the peak, where the new stuff was dumped. The 10-minute trek grew to 20 minutes. During the hot, dry summers, when temperatures top 110 degrees, pickers lugged liters of water to stay hydrated. Methane fires sprouted up across the mountain, lighting up the night.

China’s shift in policy, and the drop in prices, had a sharp effect on the slum. Workers are now struggling to avoid plummeting deep below the poverty line.

Another IANS report published by Mint said Punjab’s bicycle industry is struggling as cheaper Chinese imports flood the Indian market. It’s estimated that 200 bicycle factories have closed, unable to battle cheaper Chinese.

An excerpt from the report says:

At the heart of bicycle manufacturers’ grouse is how China has gatecrashed the Indian market through the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) pact, which came into effect in 2006. The agreement paved the way for the eight member countries to reduce customs duties of all goods traded among them to zero by 2016. China isn’t a party to the pact but is still reaping its benefits.

Much Fuss Over GDP But How Do We Measure Happiness?

The debate over India’s GDP numbers (economists are still locking horns over the truth and objectivity in these figures) was back into currency with this Arvind Subramanian piece published in June this year. He said that India may have overstated its GDP figures by 2.5 percentage points every year since 2011. Another insightful piece said the figures may have been overstated by 1-1.5 percentage points. This is significant, and while there may be a difference in figures quoted, inaccurate reporting of GDP is now an elephant in the room, too big to ignore.

GDP is an important economic tool. It measures the production of all goods and services bought and sold in an economy each year, by this very fact, has been of utmost importance to economists trying to measure economic growth. But of late, there have been concerns that GDP my not be a perfect tool to measure growth. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand PM took it a step further when she said her government is going to look at fresh ways to measure happiness and wellbeing of the people of her country.

So, what are we going to do when we fix our GDP numbers back home? May be, join the global efforts on finding means to measure happiness, because number-driven GDP is already being punched for being an ineffective tool.

Courtney Goldsmith, in this piece, argues why GDP as a measure of economic growth may not be effective:

In an independent review of the UK’s economic statistics published in 2016, Sir Charles Bean wrote that GDP is often viewed as a “summary statistic” for the health of the economy. This means it is frequently conflated with wealth or welfare, though it only measures income. “Importantly, GDP… does not reflect economic inequality or sustainability (environmental, financial or [otherwise]),” Bean wrote. What’s more, GDP is not the precise and flawless figure that many believe it to be – it is merely an estimate. “This uncertainty surrounding official measures of GDP is inadequately recognised in public discourse, with commentators frequently attributing spurious precision to the estimates,” Bean continued.

Sarah Arnold, Senior Economist at the New Economics Foundation (NEF), told World Finance that GDP as a measure of economic activity is simply a means to an end: “It has become so synonymous with national success that the rationale for pursuing economic growth in the first place seems to have been long forgotten.”

Putting the flaws highlighted by Bean and Arnold aside, GDP is still an inaccurate measure of prosperity, as it fails to convey much of the value created in the modern world. GDP was developed during the manufacturing age and, as David Pilling, Africa Editor of the Financial Times, wrote in his book The Growth Delusion: Wealth, Poverty and the Wellbeing of Nations: “[GDP] is not bad at accounting for production of bricks, steel bars and bicycles.” Where it struggles, though, is with the service economy, a segment that accounts for a growing proportion of high-income countries’ economies. “[Try GDP] out on haircuts, psychoanalysis sessions or music downloads and it becomes distinctly fuzzy,” Pilling wrote.

GDP’s preference for tangible goods also means it is insufficient at capturing the value of technology.

Of course, the number-focussed measure of GDP may not be equipped to assess job quality, wellbeing, carbon emissions, inequality, and physical health, key indicators of happiness and wellbeing that development economists have been focussing on.

Goldsmith, in her piece, further argues:

For GDP, which does not distinguish between good and bad production, bigger is always better. …Wars and natural disasters, too, can be a boon to GDP as a result of the associated increase in spending. Comprehensive wealth, on the other hand, accounts for all of a country’s assets, including: produced capital, such as factories and machinery; natural capital, like forests and fossil fuels; human capital, including the value of future earnings for the labour force; and net foreign assets.

GDP’s neglect of natural capital in particular has received more attention in recent years. Natural assets, such as forests, fisheries and the atmosphere, are often regarded as self-sustaining, fixed assets. In actual fact, all of these resources can be – and are being – depleted by humans. Since the 1990s, economists have looked into the possibility of putting a price tag on natural resources to ensure their value is taken seriously. Ecological economist Robert Costanza published a paper entitled ‘The Value of the World’s Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital in Nature’ in 1997 that valued the whole of the natural world at $33trn. While Costanza’s research was highly controversial, the idea of accounting for natural depletion within the landscape of economic growth is becoming more common.

This McKinsey report says:

GDP as a unit of measure has not kept pace with the changing nature of economic activity. Designed to measure the physical production of goods in the market economy, GDP is not well suited to accounting for private- and public-sector services with no output that can be measured easily by counting the number of units produced. Nor does GDP lend itself to assessing improvements in the quality and diversity of goods and services or to estimating the depletion of resources or the degradation of the environment associated with production. Transformative change in technology is not easy to measure using GDP because so much of the benefit accrues to consumers.

World Bank too has touched upon the subject with its own concept of “comprehensive wealth“, covering in its sweep all produced capital such as factories and roads; natural capital like forests and water; human capital, which leads to earnings; and net foreign assets, to project a fuller picture of economic wellbeing and growth. Experts today are also working out ways to measure intangible qualities of happiness and knowledge but we have a long way to go.

There are interesting cues here, in this Econlife piece published today, which questions if money could indeed buy happiness, by comparing GDP, social support, life expectancy et al of the top 10 happiest countries (according to the UN Happiness Report) in the world.

I think happiness couldn’t ever be measured except in smiles and those trying to chase happiness are the unhappiest lot. Think of this at a national level and tell me: is it possible to make everyone happy? I like it when they say, happiness is a state of mind. Of course, this is because this happiness question weighs heavy on my soul so escapist statements best resolve the moral dilemma. However, honestly, GDP and happiness do not always go together, that’s very much true. 

Does Capitalism make you materialistic?

Capitalism Didn’t Invent “Keeping Up with the Joneses”
— Read on

Absolutely interesting piece. This one breaks the myth about capitalism making people materialistic. It’s all about creating more choices and opportunities. What you pick remains your sole decision. Don’t blame capitalism for it.

Nightmarch: an intimate journey into India’s Naxal heartlands


I opened this book with a conflicted mind. As a capitalist, my understanding of India’s Naxal movement has been that of a movement galvanising ignorant people to block India’s development. I strongly believe that they deserve what is rightfully theirs, but I have never been a great admirer of alternative governments and violence.

Alpa Shah’s brilliant examination of the movement—not as an outsider writing on the subject but as a participant observer—made me revisit some of my beliefs. By the end of the book, I felt familiar with the world of the Naxals, their motivations and conflicts, and the sordid path of those who lead the movement forsaking worldly pleasures for the difficult dream of a just and egalitarian society.

The book’s lucid prose sensitively straddles the world of Naxals to tell stories of conflict, hierarchies, inequality and inherent contradictions in the movement with compelling takeaways for everyone—and that’s what takes this book right to the top of political writing in narrative non-fiction. Nightmarch: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands is an insightful exploration of conflict and its origins, and how the understanding of both eludes politics and policies for tribals in India.

Between 2008 and 2010, Alpa Shah spent 18 months in the forests of Jharkhand and Bihar living among the tribals in huts without electricity and water. Shah, a professor of anthropology in London, sought to understand how and why the tribals—mostly belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, often neglected by the local administration and the state and central governments—were picking up arms to create a “different world”.

Shah moved to Jharkhand at the time when Operation Green Hunt, a government operation to flush out guerrillas, was launched. This made her task more difficult as tribal communities were far removed socially, geographically and politically from the rest of India and she had to venture into the interiors. Towards the end of her stay, she joined a platoon of more than two dozen Naxals on their night march from Bihar to Jharkhand—a 250-kilometre trek—dodging scrutiny of police camps and check posts. This was a dangerous and audacious exercise given that Shah was unarmed, the lone woman in the platoon, and also new to navigating the rough terrain at night. But her determination convinced the Naxals. Very soon, she was off on a ten-day trek that would allow her to not just connect with Naxal leaders at a personal level, but to also have the most intimate view into their motivations, dilemmas and conflicts.

On the night march, Shah meets Gyanji, a senior Maoist leader whose soft feet belied his Naxal identity. Later, she would discover that he came from an upper-caste, well-to-do family, committed to bringing justice and fairness to the lives of the tribals. With her description of Naxal leaders, Shah humanises them and at times, also seeks to address popular myths about the men and women leading the movement. Gyanji, for example, with his playful eyes, love for poetry and interest in grooming himself, is not a gun-wielding Naxal. Prashant, with his guns, songs of revolution, and books written by Gulzar, Tagore and Russian revolutionaries such as Alexandra Kollontai, is a Naxal who was driven to the movement after the upper-caste feudal army, Ranvir Sena, burnt his cousins’ house. Overnight, he became a Naxal from being a Naxal sympathiser. Kohli, with his boyish appeal, joins the movement to escape his father’s reprimand on spilling milk. Clearly, everyone has different reasons to be a Naxal.

Yet, despite these differences, Naxalism, as it stands today, endures dreams of a classless and equal society. Inspired by Soviet Russia and Maoist China, India’s early Naxal movement in the 1960s was killed. Yet, seeds of rebellion were sown and it resurfaced in the later years in the “flaming fields” of states such as Bihar where fierce caste wars between the Naxals and dominant caste landlords raged on.

Extreme caste hierarchies still continue to plague the Indian society, giving succour to the Maoist movement whose war is against caste oppression. And this continues to mobilise the most socially discriminated group, the adivasis.

The most extreme counterinsurgency measures began in 2005, affecting lakhs of adivasis who were seen by the government as Maoist sympathisers. The crackdown followed the emergence of a new political and military organisation the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and its People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army. Today, as per government claims, 20 Indian 28 states are Naxal-affected.

Shah describes police action in these states against the guerrillas as the “juggernaut of perhaps one of the greatest people-clearing operations of our times”. The underlying message in the book is that of development pitted against social justice, with corporations invading natural habitats of adivasis for profit, destroying environment along the way, even as Naxal leaders mobilise the tribals they drive to homelessness.

Alpa Shah discovered Naxalism, and the “participant observation” method, proposed by British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, while she was a university student in London as an antidote to armchair research. But the motivation to finally travel to a Naxal-dominated, remote Jharkhand village perhaps came from the grit and fortitude of her grandmother who many years ago had travelled in a small boat to Nairobi in the late 1920s from a dusty Gujarat village. While Shah’s personal history and her father’s secular values shaped her outlook in life, it was not until her stints in the slums of Delhi for the World Bank that made her want to question injustices and change the world.

In Jharkhand, Shah spotted NGO workers in Land Rovers, development funds siphoned off by local elites, votes bought during elections, corporate honchos landing at Ranchi airport to mitigate land acquisition worries, and Naxal armies recruiting tribals in the region. This is how she eventually came to see the Naxalites: protection and rent seekers. But when her doctoral research supervisor asked her if Naxals were “really a bunch of thugs”, she decided to find out.

Nightmarch is Shah’s account of what she saw when she immersed herself in the lives of Naxals and their ideological war against the Indian state. Yet, Shah is astutely objective in her narrative and reflections, and notes, with profound understanding, how the idealism that holds Naxalism together is very often undone by the movement’s ease with using means of violence, how a movement modelled on principles of equality can create a more unequal society for Adivasi women and how Naxal leaders survive the hardships of jungle life to be betrayed by their own trusted men.

In the end, Shah discusses the contradictions the revolutionaries face. Besides being betrayed by their own people as they continue a relationship with their kin and families, Naxals find themselves ideologically pitted against capitalism when capitalism is needed to fund largescale revolutions. Not just this, their tendency for violent resistance also invites violent state oppression.

Being led by upper-caste men, Naxal movements have also overlooked the inequalities within their own ranks as men from elite classes have failed to give space for nurturing of the lower caste, adivasi women leaders. Yet, Shah argues that revolutionary movements such as Naxalism have provided an alternate vision where individualism, hierarchies, and accumulation of wealth at the cost of exploitation are discouraged, thereby acting as a democratising force.

Nightmarch isn’t just a journey into India’s Naxal heartlands, it’s a journey into your minds and hearts as you turn page after page, and for this and this above all, it must be read.

Nightmarch: A Journey Into India’s Naxal Heartlands by Alpa Shah

Published by Harper Collins



First published here.

Plan panel mulls ways to spur Dalit capitalism

The government has begun discussions with Dalit entrepreneurs on what can be done to promote business ventures set up by members of their community.

As a part of its discussions with various groups before it finalizes the 12th Plan for 2012-17, the Planning Commission has sought suggestions from the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Dicci), a business group, on what can be done to spur Dalit capitalism, how these business ventures can be funded, and how Dalit voices can be heard while charting out policies.

Narendra Jadhav, a member of the panel, said a proposal to introduce executive development programmes for Dalit entrepreneurs at some of the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) is also being considered. “(We are) very seriously contemplating the idea to have some kind of formal executive development programme for Dalit entrepreneurs. It can be outsourced to some of the IIMs. Most Dalit entrepreneurs have business skills, but they need polishing, particularly the younger ones. This will be considered, examined and polished in the 12th Plan. We will make a policy in this regard,” Jadhav said.

In a meeting held earlier this week, the planning body has also suggested that the chamber set up a venture capital fund to finance projects promoted by entrepreneurs born at the bottom of the caste pyramid and indicated that the government could consider picking up a stake in this fund, officials said.

The chamber will soon appoint a committee to formulate concrete suggestions. This is the first time that a Dalit business forum has been invited to make suggestions to the Plan panel.

“There are two things: one is promoting entrepreneurship that’s an end objective in itself. If there are difficulties faced by some communities, then you may need special interventions,” said Pronab Sen, principal adviser to the panel.

Jadhav said encouraging or creating situations for expansion of Dalit entrepreneurship also has an employment angle. “If there is a policy in this regard, it will also give fillip to employment of Dalits (by Dalit entrepreneurs). It is also about taking cognizance of the fact that there is a greater change taking place in society, and also about being open to voices from the ground while formulating the 12th Plan to make it more focused on the real issues from the ground,” he added.

Raising the funding limit for Dalit enterprises through the National Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Finance and Development Corporation (NSFDC), the apex government body for finance of small-scale businesses run by the weaker sections, is one of the suggestions Dicci made to the panel. The finance body grants a maximum loan of 7 lakh for Dalit businesses while its state wings mostly offer composite loans of a maximum amount of 50,000.

“Most government schemes for financing Dalit businesses expect them to be small-scale, such as buying cattle to set up a milking unit, or an autorickshaw. In the meeting between Dicci and the Plan panel, just one out of 35 Dalit entrepreneurs with businesses worth crores had availed of a loan from NSFDC and that 7 lakh loan took three years! Sadly, the government finds it difficult to believe that Dalits also could need a loan of 80 crore or so,” says Chandra Bhan Prasad, an independent Dalit activist and writer, who was a part of the Dicci delegation that met the Plan panel earlier this week.

The Plan panel’s deliberations with the Dalit business group seem to be guided by the changing socio-economic realities of India, and the steady rise of Dalit capitalism in particular. Considered the most underprivileged community in India, a section of Dalits are now engaging in large-scale businesses for the creation of wealth and employment that allow them an escape both from the demeaning tasks assigned to them by the caste system and the stigma of being branded as non-meritorious beneficiaries of reservations in education and employment.

“There are Dalit entrepreneurs who are into large-scale manufacturing and are also suppliers for government-run bodies such as the Indian Railways and the Delhi Metro, which proves that Dalit businesses are no less competitive and efficient than others,” said Milind Kamble, chairman of Dicci, who also attended the meeting.

The key demands that the chamber made to the Plan panel were to include Dalit entrepreneurs in priority-sector lending at special rates through institutions such as the Small Industries Development Bank of India and the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. “We also asked for appointment of Dicci members on government panels, ministries and committees engaged in policymaking, just the way members from Ficci (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) and CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) are appointed,” Kamble said.

D. Shyam Babu, a fellow of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies in New Delhi whose research on Dalits and the new economic order has highlighted the social advance of the community in the wake of globalization, said government measures to promote Dalit capitalism will help create a Dalit bourgeoisie. “Most Dalit entrepreneurs face problems varying from difficulty in getting enough supplies on credit, lack of social networks, absence of kin groups in the business, and control of traditionally dominant business-caste groups. These, along with other social variables such as lack of social capital, make the Dalit situation more complicated and vulnerable to homogeneous categorization,” says Surinder S. Jodhka, a professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Jodhka’s paper, Dalits in Business: Self-Employed Scheduled Castes in Northwest India, drew insights on the expansion of private capital in India during the post-1991 period and highlighted the discrimination faced by Dalit businesses.

Prasad said the government should also formulate policies that favour grant of a certain number of tenders to Dalits. “Once Dalits are put in the supply chain, since the government is the biggest employer, discrimination in labour markets would also end,” he said.

First published in Mint.

From Bhopal to London, quest for justice travels in a bottle

Bhopal: It was probably the label that deterred shoppers in London from grabbing a free bottle of water being distributed one summer afternoon this year. B’eau Pal’s water was deceptively clear even though it came from a slum colony hand pump in Atal Ayub Nagar, Bhopal. Its bold red label told the real story, the fine print that shocked people: “The unique qualities of our water come from 25 years of slow-leaching toxins at the site of the world’s largest industrial accident.”

Toxic contents: Sarangi of Sambhavna Trust with a bottle of B’eau Pal. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

The struggle for justice for the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, which happened at the city’s Union Carbide factory, is now no longer limited to sit-in protests, black flags or burning effigies on the streets of New Delhi or Bhopal. It’s now moving out of Indian shores.

B’eau Pal is the wacky product of two anti-globalization activists’ imagination. Performance artists from the UK—Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, popularly known as The Yes Men—launched B’eau Pal to highlight what they said was the continued refusal of Dow Chemical Co., which bought Union Carbide Corp. in 2001, to take responsibility for the disaster. At least 25,000 people died as a result of the leak on the night of 3 December 1984.

Also Read our previous stories in this series

Dow has always maintained that it has nothing to do with the accident and that the defunct Union Carbide factory in Bhopal is now the property of the Indian government.

The company said in an emailed statement: “Although Dow never owned nor operated the plant, we—along with the rest of industry—have learned from this tragic event, and we have tried to do all we can to assure that similar incidents never happen again.”

The statement also pointed out that “the former Bhopal plant was owned and operated by Union Carbide India Ltd, an Indian company with shared ownership by Union Carbide Corp., the Indian government and private investors. Union Carbide sold its shares in UCIL in 1994, and UCIL was renamed Eveready Industries India Ltd, which remains a significant Indian company today.”

Responses such as those haven’t satisfied activists such as Bonanno and Bichlbaum.

Their satire has extended to a movie, The Yes Men Fix the World (TYMFTW), and will soon extend to a comic strip. Released in the US last month, TYMFTW also had a select screening in Bhopal. The film premiered in the UK on 11 August, soon after the B’eau Pal launch in London, and won an award at the Berlin Film Festival.

Struggle continues: Activists and survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy protest outside Dow Chemical’s office in Noida on Thursday. Manish Swarup / AP

“B’eau Pal communicated the tragic effects of the gas leak 25 years ago that continues to wreak havoc in areas close to the disaster site in Bhopal, and it symbolized everything bad that’s happening in the world right now. It’s essentially about putting profit over everything else,” Bonanno said over the telephone from London.

The launch also coincided with the release of a report by the Sambhavna Clinic, a charitable organization working for relief and rehabilitation of at least 100,000 survivors of the tragedy. The report showed that the local groundwater, vegetables and breast milk in Bhopal are contaminated by toxic quantities of nickel, chromium, mercury, lead and other volatile organic substances. The report added that several babies in nearby localities were born with serious medical problems.

When Sathyu Sarangi of Sambhavna planned a Scotland trip earlier this year, Bonanno, along with the Bhopal Medical Appeal, another non-governmental organization based in London, got in touch with him for the spoof. Bonanno said they even took B’eau Pal to the Dow office in London.

Sarangi, a trained metallurgical engineer, quit his corporate job in the US to support the Bhopal cause. Kennedy and Monk, a London-based firm, designed the B’eau Pal’s label free of cost.

“We want to keep it alive as an issue. Satire and serious agitation are two sides of the same coin; they don’t exist without each other. In Bhopal, humour probably hasn’t been appropriate for many years, but it is now more relevant than ever before,” Bonanno said.

Five years ago, Bonnano impersonated an executive of Dow Chemical live on BBC World Television to announce that the company was going to clean up the disaster site in Bhopal. The hoax had then brought Dow’s shares down by $2 billion (Rs9,320 crore now) until it was identified, and now, features in TYMFTW.

The Yes Men’s other famed hoaxes include a collaboratively produced fake New York Times edition announcing the end of the Iraq war, a phoney George W. Bush website and the false announcement of the World Trade Organization’s dissolution in order to shift focus to helping the poor.

The stir has brought support and attention for The Yes Men and for Bhopal. However, the film has not been released yet in India. In the disaster-affected colonies of Bhopal, where Sarangi’s organization carries out relief and rehabilitation work, almost no one knows about the latest addition.

Critics also question the long-term impact of such forms of protest. Television commentators in the West denounced Bonanno and Bichlbaum’s stunt (of impersonating a Dow executive) as a cruel joke that gave the victims of the disaster false hope.

Bonanno, who served in corporate America, like Bichlbaum, before settling with a teaching job at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, disagreed. “When we did this, Dow’s shares came down. We got some 600 articles on Bhopal in the US press, which wouldn’t have happened without the spoof. We may not protest but what we have been doing brings the disaster back in public discourse.”

This first appeared in Mint.

Bharti’s cellular theory of growth

Olhanpur, Bihar: Until about three years ago, Nizamuddin Ansari, 65, a retired head clerk from the Indian Railways mail service, spent most of his days on the verandah at home. The monotony of watching over his courtyard as the women of his family went about their household chores would be broken by the occasional visitor or a money order from his sons employed in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. Then, the small plot of unused land he owned next to his house got a celebrity tenant: Bharti Airtel Ltd.

The company wanted to set up a phone tower on the plot before it made a debut at Olhanpur, Ansari’s village of some 25,000 people, in Bihar’s Chapra district.

(Left) A one-stop Airtel shop in Olhanpur. Recharge coupons of between Rs10 and Rs50 sell the most here ;and the Airtel tower in Olhanpur (in the background). Bharti Airtel was the first telecom company to enter the village. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

The Ansari household then had two men employed in West Asia (the number has since grown to six), who would be lucky to see their wives and children once a year. Phone conversations were the only way to stay in touch.

Also See Olhanpur(Map)

The land would bring a monthly rent of Rs10,000, adding to the family’s income of around Rs50,000 sent home by family members overseas and from farming.

Within a year of Bharti Airtel entering Olhanpur in 2006, Ansari gave up his landline connection provided by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd, a state-owned phone services provider, and bought five mobile phones for his family of 11, mostly women.

(Left) Parashar Telecom, a distributor for Airtel in Chapra, struggles with power cuts. Outages can sometimes last around 12 hours a day here; and Khushboo Paan Bhandar at Pathera village makes a busy picture of an Airtel retail store. Here, and mobile phone coupons sell like hot cakes. Its 14-year-old proprietor, Mukesh Chaudhary (behind the counter), says he makes an additional Rs45 a day selling phone recharge coupons. Madhu Kapparath / Mint

The phone firm launched its services in Bihar early in 2005, and in the four years since, has built a coverage presence in all of the state’s 38 districts. Of at least 18.67 million customers in Bihar, according to end-February data with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or Trai, the company has 7.15 million customers.

One out of four of Olhanpur’s residents have a phone, say Bharti Airtel executives—double the 12.6% phone penetration in the country’s villages and small towns.

Village voice

Also Read earlier stories in Bharat Shining series

Indians are second only to the US when it comes to using phone minutes. Mobile phone customers in India record almost 500 minutes of use a month, ahead of the 423 minutes the Chinese record, according to data collated by consultancy BDA Connect Pvt. Ltd.

Such is the pace of expansion and growth in demand for phone minutes that the load on the Bharti Airtel network—and indeed other networks—keeps mounting daily. “We set up more towers…(but) the demand for fresh connections keeps rising,” says Manish Kumar, a territory manager for the firm in Chapra.

Elsewhere, his company sets up 100 towers every day, a task shared by Indus Towers Ltd, a 42%-owned unit, says Sudhir Gupta, vice-president of marketing at the tower firm.

Phone services are perhaps what comes closest to perfect competition in India. Sure, there are instances of collusive price changes, but when it comes to earning that extra rupee of profit, those in the business can be cut-throat. Almost.

So, within 12 months of Bharti Airtel building its tower at Olhanpur, Reliance Communications entered the market—it is now ranked second by customers, behind Bharti Airtel. In January, work got tougher for the likes of territory manager Kumar when two more competitors, Vodafone Essar and Idea Cellular Ltd, reached the village. “We haven’t seen the demand for Airtel declining but, certainly, people now have more choices,” he says.

The Ansari household has let out another piece of land to the latest two entrants to set up towers. Its income from rent has gone up to Rs30,000 a month and Naimuddin Ansari, 32, Ansari’s youngest son, has quit his accountant’s job at a New Delhi firm to return and help manage his father’s newfound occupation.

Hyper-local logistics

On days when networks fail in Olhanpur, there is much angst. “Poor connectivity is something the people here can’t stand even for 10 minutes,” says Sanjay Kumar, guard at the Bharti Airtel tower here, who doubles up as one of the two distributors in the village.

That happens often. Frequent power cuts mean that the towers rely on diesel-run generators for electricity backup—power cuts can sometimes last around 12 hours a day here. “The tanker comes every Monday, and if we run short of fuel during the week, we have to wait until Monday,” says Kumar.

The last time Bharti Airtel’s network failed for two days about eight months ago, villagers stormed the tower complex and protested till a tanker carrying diesel was called in from Chapra.

On a busy street at Pathera, a village neighbouring Olhanpur, Bharti Airtel’s distribution march—what chief executive and joint managing director Manoj Kohli calls his “matchbox strategy” to benchmark phone card availability to matchboxes in every village of India—is at work.

At a small paan (betel leaf) shop, its 14-year-old proprietor Mukesh Chaudhary makes an additional Rs45 a day selling phone recharge coupons. “Earlier, every passer-by would run into my shop asking for Airtel recharges. I figured this was also a product I could sell,” he says.

In neighbouring Khaira village, Bharti Airtel distributor Rajesh Pandey makes hundreds of photocopies of an emailed leaflet of the company’s latest tariffs to distribute in local markets. “We have no time to lose when a new offer comes. Photocopies of the schemes reach faster and are more economical,” says Pandey, who distributes Airtel coupons in six villages in Chapra, including Olhanpur. Recharge coupons of between Rs10 and Rs50 on prepaid phone connections sell the most, he adds.

Bharti Airtel also has a drive it calls FoS (feet on street) in rural areas, where distributors travel to sell prepaid phone cards, recharge coupons and related company offers to consumers.

To effectively serve rural customers and save on costs, Bharti Airtel has launched a programme called I-Serve, under which the company trains village shopkeepers to become a one-stop Bharti Airtel store—where customers can not just buy recharge cards but get their queries answered.

Azimullah Khan, who owns an electrical products store, is one such I-Serve shopkeeper. Last fortnight, a bunch of youngsters came with a question to Khan, who in his previous job drove a truck in Saudi Arabia for 16 years. They alleged the network provider was overcharging. “They had accidentally activated several alerts on their mobiles for which they were being charged. The problem is that they still do not know how to use their mobile phones,” he says.

Khan, whose shop also repairs cellphones with a locally trained hand, fixed their problem and sold them more recharge coupons. Bharti Airtel expects such on-the-ground distributors to save on customer service costs—but for Khan, the youngsters would have called up at the firm’s customer helpline using expensive call centre services.

Changing lives

As phone services spread in rural India—according to latest data from Trai, some 27.6% of India’s nearly 400 million phones (including around 38 million fixed-line phones) were in its villages and small towns—slow but potentially big changes are taking place.

In Olhanpur resident Gaffar Khan’s days in West Asia in the late 1970s, his wife Nazma Khan would travel to the district headquarters 20km away to make a phone call, or post a letter that would reach Khan weeks later. “There was not even one phone booth then in the nearest Khodaibagh market,” Khan says.

Three decades later, no household in Olhanpur faces that problem.

Local phone access can ease trauma, as Sushila Devi found out. The 32-year-old housewife’s husband, Surendra Prasad, works at a Chapra factory and visits home once a month. Cradling her newborn, Devi recalls how last month she called him as labour pains mounted. “Just after my call, he was by my side with the doctor when I delivered my child,” she says.

At a broader level, economists say the spread of mobile phone usage is cranking up economic growth through enhanced productivity.

A January study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, or Icrier, a New Delhi-based think tank, says increased penetration of cellular technology has contributed to higher and more inclusive economic growth. States with 10% higher mobile phone penetration than others, it concludes, have grown 1.2% faster.

The economic benefits are yet to reach states such as Bihar, which has to boost its state-wide teledensity of 16% by at least half to reach the ideal benchmark—the study found benefits begin to accrue once penetration crosses 25%. “If Bihar were to enjoy the same mobile penetration rate as Punjab, then, according to our results, it would enjoy a growth rate that is about 4% higher,” the Icrier report says.

For now, new businesses are mushrooming around phone services at Olhanpur.

At Khodaibagh market, Ragini Kumari, 6, is perhaps the youngest customer at Mehta PCO, a public phone booth that uses a battery-powered inverter to charge up to five mobile phones at a time for Rs5 each. Kumari, a class I student, visits Mehta PCO at least twice a week to charge her father’s handset since the generator connection at her home runs for just 2 hours in the evening, she says, before sprinting back home.


Published in Mint.

Reading Hindustan in Bihar

Raghopur, Bihar: At 3am, a newspaper van from Searchlite Printing Press in Patna sets out in the dark with bundles of Hindustan, the best-selling Hindi daily in Bihar (Hindustan is published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint). It makes its way through a narrow, straight road to Khushrupur, around 40km away, every day.

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214b91b0-1a20-11de-99ef-000b5dabf613.flvBy 4am, when a nondescript roadside tea stall in Khushrupur wakes up to business, the van has already dropped 100 copies of the newspaper on the steps of a deserted temple next to it.

The copies of the newspaper, wrapped in two neat bundles, make a curiously small package waiting to be delivered to readers in neighbouring Raghopur, in Vaishali district, a predominantly rural district of 2.1 million people.

At least 3 hours after the bundles have been delivered, Munshi Rai rides in, empty milk cans straddling his bicycle.

Also Read Earlier Bharat Shining Series

Also See Raghopur (Map)

The nimble-footed milkman from Khushrupur, perhaps, has the most important job in the diyara, a term used to describe regions surrounded by rivers. Raghopur, sandwiched by the river Ganga, falls in the diyara area. It sustains its economy on a thriving business of dairy products and farming.

Here, Rai is the lone carrier for Hindustan, which has an 86% market share of the total Hindi readership in the state, with six million readers and 29 sub-editions, as per the Indian Readership Survey of 2008; it is a key market for the newspaper and part of its aggressive plan to access places in difficult terrain.

There are just 100 copies to be sold, but in the seven years since the newspaper entered Raghopur, it has been more about accessibility than volumes.

When Raghopur, known mostly for being the assembly constituency of former Bihar chief minister Rabri Devi, struggles with heavy rains and sees its only pontoon bridge over the river collapse year after year, the milkman takes the route less travelled to carry the area’s only newspaper to its agents there.

Ashok Singh, distribution agent for Hindustan in Raghopur, likens the place to the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia, modern-day Iraq, which was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and literally means “land between two rivers”. “Raghopur is Bihar’s Mesopotamia. This is not the kind of place where one can send a newspaper. The real issue here is of access, and we have addressed it,” Singh explains.

Arduous journey

It’s a rough 7km journey to Raghopur, located just across the Ganga river from Khushrupur. There are no pukka roads, and after a 4km trek through fields of arhar—the most commonly consumed pulse in India—one must walk through a sandy riverbed. During the monsoon, when the river fills up, one takes a boat.

Rai has been taking this route every day, as an all-weather alternative to the pontoon bridge, since 2002, when Hindustan’s first 20 copies entered Raghopur on his bicycle.

This also means thatHindustan’s readers depend a lot on the way Rai prioritizes his day. Besides the speedy delivery of the newspaper across the river, Rai also frets about the timely departure of Patna-bound trains from the Khushrupur railway station. These trains carry his home-made paneer (cottage cheese) for sale to hotels in the state capital.

On days when they run late, Rai picks up the newspaper bundles late. “I am first a milkman. After this comes everything else,” he says matter-of-factly.

The daily trip to Raghopur is part of his dairy business; picking up the bundle of newspapers and delivering them happens alongside, for a monthly payment of Rs500 from the Hindustan agent in Khushrupur.

On days when he is delayed, the newspaper’s business faces two obvious risks: a delay in distribution and pilfering of a few copies before the bunch is picked up. As happened on 16 March, when a combination of fever and delayed local trains caused Rai to reach Raghopur shortly before noon.

For the newspaper’s sales strategists, penetration of rural markets involves a two-pronged approach: build a varied network of information providers from the regions, such as the postman, milkman, bus conductors and drivers, and encourage local vendors to sell the newspaper.

“Earlier, the information providers were paid a fixed monthly remuneration and after the growth of market, we have also introduced vendors on a commission basis,” says Vijay Singh, area manager (sales), Hindustan, Bihar.

An addiction

The efforts towards providing Raghopur with a daily newspaper, which included identifying Rai as the most viable carrier throughout the year, have led to the making of a powerful brand in rural markets. For most readers in Raghopur, it is more than just a bunch of papers carrying news; it is an addiction.

At the hardware shop of high school graduate Rukkha Singh, where the first copy is handed out every morning, shopkeepers from the neighbouring markets and prospective buyers gather to read the headlines. Depending on the subscriber’s generosity and patience, they might even be able to go through all the pages.

Hence, within a flexible congregation of merchants, buyers and passers-by, one newspaper copy translates into hundreds of readers.

Nearby, at the village choupal (gathering place), youngsters assemble around a circular cement bench and take turns reading it. Some flip through the sports pages; some pore over the political news and the conversation slowly escalates into a heated debate.

One strong USP, or unique selling proposition, is the newspaper’s emphasis on localized content and regional dialects that its readers can connect with.

“In Bihar, the local dialects change every 40km. The Hindi daily has consciously moved away from puritanical notions of Hindi to incorporate popular terms from local dialects in its reports, which appeals to a large number of people,” says Mammen Matthew, resident editor of the Hindustan Times, the English daily published by HT Media, in Patna.

Developing a grapevine

Hindustan in Bihar has developed a local news network in districts, blocks and villages, the three levels at which local administrative bodies in India function, to tap local news and issues that have a bearing on people’s lives, which, in turn, has improved its reach.

Shailesh Kumar, a stringer for Hindustan in Raghopur, concentrates on crime and development issues in the region and believes that while newspapers the world over are dying, rural markets in India would continue to read them for decades ahead. “Here, literacy is also just about the level people can read newspapers. People have time for newspapers,” he says.

Prior to Hindustan’s launch in Raghopur, the newspaper agent, who is also a lawyer, surveyed the villagers to arrive at a prospective readership figure.

In a place mostly sustained by the dairy business and farming, 20 copies is all he could arrive at. The money here, he says, is ample, with each household making an average of Rs250-300 a day, and several families living off the money made from the hemp trade dismantled in the early 1970s by the state government.

Literacy levels in the midst of this prosperity are dismal. “If you talk about education here, it’s considered a joke,” Ashok Singh says.

But news generates enough heat in Raghopur, where political awareness is at an all-time high after railway minister Lalu Prasad contested state polls from the assembly constituency in 1983 and later fielded his wife Rabri Devi.

Reflecting rural shift

The newspaper’s advertisement spaces also reflect a rural shift: In excess of 90% of advertisements come from either local sources or government departments. Whether it is advertisements for locally made tobacco products, jewellery stores or motorcycles, advertisements in Hindustan reflect the tastes and aspirations of its readers.

Hindustan’s first day at Raghopur was eventful. On the day copies of Hindustan reached Raghopur, a group of youngsters from the village chaupal rushed with a copy to former panchayat (village council) member Lallan Singh’s house. As it turned out, the newspaper had carried the examination schedule for the first-year undergraduate exams of a local university where Singh’s granddaughter Pushpa studied. “The exams were to commence in the next few hours and because the newspaper had carried the schedule, we rushed her to the examination centre in Jiddupur village, around 10km away,” Singh says.

In the years that followed, Hindustan has captured local news in the region effectively—from the blast in a firecracker factory in Khushrupur in 2005 to the corporeal punishment meted out to students in the region’s Navodaya Vidyalayas.

It has also served as an information provider on job vacancies, Kisan Credit Card camps in villages and newer, fuel-efficient motorcycles.

Ashok Yadav, 28, who owns a paan shop just at the turn of a busy alley in Raghopur, has been reading the newspaper since the year it made its debut here. He sports long hair, put in currency by the captain of the Indian cricket team, M.S. Dhoni, and reads the sports pages first.

Yadav, who has passed high school, considers the newspaper to be more than just a source of news. Each time he sees the manager of a local bank who once charged him money to open a savings account, he thinks about writing to the newspaper for action. “If I write, will they not help?” he asks.

Published in Mint.