Would you like to go to MIT without clearing college?

This may become possible if Nobel winners Duflo and Banerjee’s efforts are successful.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is trying the idea in the field of poverty alleviation, hoping that the approach will allow it to enrol students from around the world who have the ability and motivation to succeed but lack the traditional credentials for entry.

Duflo-Banerjee have many detractors, though.

Ms Gopalan, a doctoral student and teaching fellow in anthropology at Harvard University, acknowledged overall scepticism given her belief that the Duflo-Banerjee methods involve “treating the lives of the poorest as a giant open-air lab” while avoiding meaningful challenges to the wealthy.

She also noted that the course’s tuition fees and its requirement for an internship in a city where the annual cost of rent is about $30,000 seemed to present difficult hurdles for students from low-income backgrounds.

Read more here: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/nobelists-offer-masters-degree-entry-based-online-success

Tyler Cowen is already questioning if a university system is doing enough, anyway.

In your young adventurous years, by contrast, the only jobs you can get are those that don’t reward (or allow) adventure. The result of all this is a less audacious America. Start with the Ivy Leaguers. I have no rancor against lawyers, financiers or management consultants, but the pursuit of these careers seems like a misallocation of human creativity.

In Bloomberg Opinion, read more here.

Highly curable if reported in time

Four diseases claim more than 24,000 lives in New Delhi . On top of the ‘killer list’ lies respiratory diseases. Heart diseases, tuberculosis (TB), and cancer come pretty close. Those who suffer, pay a big price — both physically and financially. Together, the four diseases affect more than 30 per cent of Delhi’s population. Such is the scenario that in government hospitals, there are more patients than doctors and beds; in many cases, science has not offered easy answers. This last story of a four-part series was first published in the Indian Express. Read here >>

Woe of the working class

Four diseases claim more than 24,000 lives in New Delhi . On top of the ‘killer list’ lies respiratory diseases. Heart diseases, tuberculosis (TB), and cancer come pretty close. Those who suffer, pay a big price — both physically and financially. Together, the four diseases affect more than 30 per cent of Delhi’s population. Such is the scenario that in government hospitals, there are more patients than doctors and beds; in many cases, science has not offered easy answers. This third story of a four-part series was first published in the Indian Express. Read here >>

Heat On Young Heart

Four diseases claim more than 24,000 lives in New Delhi . On top of the ‘killer list’ lies respiratory diseases. Heart diseases, tuberculosis (TB), and cancer come pretty close. Those who suffer, pay a big price — both physically and financially. Together, the four diseases affect more than 30 per cent of Delhi’s population. Such is the scenario that in government hospitals, there are more patients than doctors and beds; in many cases, science has not offered easy answers. This second story of a four-part series, first published in the Indian Express. Read here >>

Smoking Life Out of Delhi

Four diseases claim more than 24,000 lives in New Delhi. On top of the ‘killer list’ lies respiratory diseases, followed by heart diseases, tuberculosis (TB), and cancer. Those who suffer, pay a big price — both physically and financially. Together, the four diseases affect more than 30 per cent of Delhi’s population. Such is the scenario that in government hospitals, there are more patients than doctors and beds; in many cases, science has not offered easy answers. Beginning with COPD, a four-part series looks at these diseases, and how they affect Delhi.

Smoking Life Out of Delhi was first published in the Indian Express.

Reading Hindustan in Bihar

First published in Mint: https://www.livemint.com/Home-Page/Z1r7HfBhwKSstRvClBJ0cJ/Reading-8216Hindustan8217-in-Bihar.html

Bharti’s cellular theory of growth

First published in Mint: https://www.livemint.com/Home-Page/trjewrH7xTTOmOj9tHSPcN/Bharti8217s-cellular-theory-of-growth.html

Kamla Balan Bridge in Bihar – it’s a disaster waiting to happen

First published in Mint: https://www.livemint.com/Politics/hXg4cJufdI5JSr5YbU0DoK/Kamla-Balan-bridge-it8217s-a-disaster-waiting-to-happen.html

Bihar’s IIT dream

Patna: Along the busy Rajendra Nagar flyover in Patna, the skyline is dotted with huge, irregularly placed hoardings. More than a hundred in number, they congregate with a purpose: to help every child in the city enter the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs), the country’s premier technical institutes.

This dream caught Navneet Rajan’s fancy when he was struggling to balance his aspirations and limited means at the Patna Muslim High School. He enjoyed chemistry and mathematics; and the slogan in the neighbourhood only helped concretize an idea: “Do not be a chemist; become an IITian.”

To make things easier, he, like thousands in previous years, did not have to set out for Kota, the city in Rajasthan which has become synonymous with the IITs for the sheer number of coaching institutes. All of them train students for the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE), conducted for admission to the IITs.

Rajan signed up with JEE Classes, a newly launched coaching institute that caters to Patna’s IIT aspirants. The coaching institute says it delivers on Kota’s promise—but with cheaper fees that can range from Rs25,000 to Rs60,000 a year. Coaching in Kota can cost a student on an average Rs15,000-20,000 more, excluding travel and accommodation expenses.

Rajan is one of 700 in his batch, where several batches add up to a student strength of 1,500. In a class resembling a downtown garage, the students make several rows of intent listeners as their teacher writes equations on the blackboard and addresses the class through a microphone. In a peculiar gender divide, girls occupy the front benches; boys sit in the back rows. Yet, as ambitions go, they all think equal. Everyone here hopes to get into the IITs; an average one of 5,000 aspirants qualifies for the JEE every year.

Elsewhere, too, this dream has triggered a deluge. The city of the working class and small-time traders is now waking to a smart new set of coaching institutes that promise a seat in the IITs. Coaching class owners recall that about a decade ago, there were around 300 such institutes, that helped students get admission to both medical and engineering colleges. Today, an estimated 1,000 such coaching institutes are run here, positioning IITs as tickets to a dream job and promising to make Patna “the next Kota”.

More than a hundred new classes have been set up in the last couple of years, thanks to several coaching institutes from Delhi and Kota setting up branches.

Here, success stories from the big cities are seeping into the psyche of the middle class and fuelling ambitions. Just last year, Shitikanth, who uses his first name only, from a school in Patna secured the top spot in the JEE. That was 27 years after another student from the state hit the merit list with a second position in 1981.

In recent years, at least a thousand students from the state have made it to the IITs, with more than half the number coached at the home-grown training institutes. Super 30, a tent house coaching institute for the state’s underprivileged, is now the best fable in town.

As local tales go, one doesn’t just need to make way through littered alleys and roughshod roads to reach the institute, also known as the Ramanujan Mathematical Academy. There is a stringent entrance test to qualify for admission and for 30 seats, about 5,000 apply every year.

For the deserving, boarding and food are provided at two small student lodges in the midst of the cacophonous town, at a meagre Rs6,000 a year.

Poring over a thick book in one of the barely furnished lodges, Kumod Ranjan, 18, is unconcerned about the lack of a ceiling fan in his room. “Sweat keeps us burning. What if we sleep during study hours?’’ he says.

In less than three months, he along with 29 other promising mathematicians, picked from economically weaker sections, will appear for the JEE.

According to house tradition, each one of them has to qualify because they are what make the Super 30, an initiative launched by founder Anand Kumar along with top cop Abhyanand.

Six years ago, 18 of the Super 30 students cracked the IIT entrance. The number rose to 22 in 2004 and 26 in 2005. Last year, it recorded 100% success.

Then, for the lesser equals, there are various options: Genius Forty, Fantastic Fifty and Stupendous Sixty, styled after Anand’s Super 30.

Bhupesh Kumar, founder of Genius Forty, says it’s not about aping anyone, however. “We are into welfare initiatives. We are doing some good work,” he says, adding that his institute picks up 40 students to coach for the IITs every year at heavily subsidized fees.

At Vision Classes, however, ex-IITian and founder K. Singh’s slogan for the institute—“Let’s make Patna the next hub for IIT coaching”—also makes profound business sense. After 11 years at a coaching institute in Kota, Singh returned to his hometown last year to arrest the flow of students to the Rajasthan town.

“Our dream is to set up a system which stops the brain drain from here. Bihar loses approximately 30,000-40,000 students to coaching centres in Delhi and Kota every year,” he says.

Singh’s vision is already seeing results. Sujata Kumari, 18, who coached for a year at Kota’s famed Bansal classes, along with two others, joined his institute as soon as it was set up. “My parents didn’t have enough money to pay for another year. Here, teachers have experience from Kota and the classes match that quality,” she says.

But competition for the likes of Vision Classes has grown tougher. While institutes such as Delhi-based FIIT-JEE and Kota-based Daswani Classes and Resonance have already made deep inroads in the flourishing business, several others like Sahil Study Circle and Vidhyamandir Classes have also stepped in with glossy brochures and air-conditioned classrooms over the last couple of years and are offering attractive discounts. “We have kept our fees 30% lower than the fees being charged at our Delhi centres. This offer is open only to students from Bihar,” says Amit Singh, administrator at Sahil Study Centre in Patna, which is headquartered in Delhi.

Many of the locally set up institutes, therefore, including Singh’s, have aggressive marketing strategies in place to meet the competition including launch of websites to attract outstation students also, free T-shirts with the institute’s slogans and coffee mugs and tie-ups with local schools to tap the IITs aspirants at a young age.

At JEE Classes, administration head Balaji, 30, with an engineering degree from IIT Bombay and a management course from Xavier Labour Relations Institute in Jamshedpur, is using his four-year stint in the corporate sector to hard sell JEE as the city’s premier coaching institute. “The education sector in Patna is booming and this is the time to erect good infrastructure and teaching facilities for students here,” he points out, adding that in the last one year, JEE Classes has grown to four centres in the city. “We hope to enrol 4,000 students this year.”

But as with any thriving business in Bihar, there are challenges too. Kumar, whose Super 30 now holds a near-iconic status and has featured in international media regularly, has survived two fatal attacks in the last five years. He blames it on bitter professional rivalry. “There are coaching institutes who do not want us to grow,” he says.

Today, most prominent coaching centres in the city have hired private security guards, from Vision Classes to JEE Classes, though few admit that deepening rivalry is now posing grave dangers.

In Kumar’s case, this perhaps means living life dangerously. He has a posse of security guards provided by the state police to accompany him each time he steps out of home.

This story was first published in Mint: https://www.livemint.com/Politics/v830E5UueFnlzqhG8Ln34N/Bihar8217s-IIT-dream.html

Patna’s Brave New Nights

Pallavi Singh

That hot June afternoon in 1992 left an indelible imprint on Shanker Dutt’s memory. “June 5, in fact, let me tell you,” he says matter-of-factly.

The professor of English was at Patna University’s Darbhanga House, the heritage precinct where postgraduate classes for literature students are held, attending a farewell function for one of his colleagues. “Some of the students wanted to gatecrash. They were prevented from doing so but one of the students broke the glass of one of the doors and fired a shot,” he recalls.

The bullet hit Dutt, who was on the dais, in the wrist, “shattering all the bones”. Yet, when they took him to the doctor, he was reluctant to disclose how he had been injured. “A bullet wound meant a medico-legal case. One of my colleagues told the doctor I had tripped but the doctor, of course, figured it out,” he says.

It was Dutt’s first experience of fear in the city of his birth. By the 1990s, the historical capital was a hub of notoriety and lawlessness, a classic case of cow-belt indiscipline, perversity and despair.

Party zone: (Top to bottom) Dak Bungalow Road, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, is lined with new hotels and restaurants; and a group of teenagers celebrate Nishant Kumar’s (in black) 13th birthday at Yo! China in Bandar Bagicha; Kapil’s Eleven restaurant does brisk business on weekday evenings; the Saturday night show at Mona cinema is sold out; Maurya Lok complex is crowded despite the late hour; and the renovated precincts of Chhaju Bagh police station
In the four years since chief minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar took over, 317 criminal cases have been reported, against 1,393 such cases in 2000-04. Speedy trials ensured a total of 38,824 convictions—in mostly theft, murder, extortion and kidnapping cases—between 2006 and 2009. Most of Bihar’s infamous dons are in jail, including Shahabuddin, the former Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) politician who once went live on television, daring the state police to arrest him.

As evening approaches, police vehicles zip down the streets; dozens of policemen are stationed at corners. At newly renovated police stations (the state’s recent move to improve these battered posts has added to police confidence), officials actively attend to routine complaints.

Emboldened by the improvement in law and order, people in Patna have now embarked on a nightlife that assiduously chronicles middle-class ambitions, its appetite for change and hunger for recreational options.

Prabhat Kaushal, a garment shop owner, didn’t think it was risky to allow his 13-year-old son Riddiman a night out with friends—unlike earlier, when businessmen were hesitant to venture out late at night for fear of extortion and kidnapping. Kaushal dropped his son at casual dining restaurant Yo! China where bright lights from the wood-crafted ceiling illuminated the faces of 10 teenagers.

Outside, the evening is just getting started. Mobile vans and food stalls at the Maurya Lok Complex, Patna’s answer to Connaught Place, are busy rustling up freshly cooked Chinese and south Indian food, as people saunter in.

Yet, for Riddiman and his friend Nishant Kumar, Yo! China in Bandar Bagicha was just the right place for Kumar’s birthday bash. His voice brims with excitement as he explains: “Here, it’s air conditioned and we can order till midnight.” It was the 13-year-old’s first birthday celebration outside his home—but then this year is different, he remarks. “Now, all my friends hang out till late in the restaurants and so my father eventually agreed for me to treat my friends at a hotel,” the class VIII student at the city’s DAV Public School says. The online call registry Just Dial now has more than 150 restaurants on its Patna list, most of them less than five years old.

At Mona, one of the city’s oldest cinema halls and now converted into a multiplex, all weekend shows for the 9pm to midnight slots are “house full”, says manager Ajay Kumar Kataruka. “There was a time when we had to cancel late-night shows. Now, we don’t have tickets for people coming in late,” he says.

Different service sector players have reached the state, almost a decade after most metros saw the first wave, and consumers have lots of options. Yo! China’s many competitors include local entrepreneurs and national restaurant chains such as Kapil’s Eleven, owned by cricketer Kapil Dev; for leisurely evenings, there’s the Patna Golf Club or the Country Club International.

At the Bankipore Club, Kavindra, a businessman who uses only his first name, has been a member for more than 40 years. He recalls, “People would try to get out early and move together in groups to any specified destination so that numbers give them a sense of strength.” Now, of course, the club—like several others—has been revamped and is packed to capacity till midnight. The world where RJD’s Lalu Prasad threatened to cancel the lease of the Patna Golf Club seems very distant.

While Patna welcomes the new, significant attention is being paid to the old, neglected cultural centres. Kalidas Rangalaya, one of Patna’s oldest theatres, rescued from decay, stages plays round the week; BSNA, a state-run organization for the promotion of art and culture, hosts regular cultural programmes at the Bhartiya Nritya Kala Mandir auditorium. This is where weekend cultural events—Shukr Gulzar (Friday Bloom) and Shani Bahaar (Saturday Spring)— have also come up in the last two years.

“Art and culture follow only in a secure environment,” says Kavindra.

At the Cine Society, often fabled to be “as ancient as Patna”, its 50-odd members try to revive “the old days” twice a month—harking back to the time when they would screen rare classics. In the 1960s, the club used to import cinema reels from Europe for film screenings.

Bereft of an auditorium, society members now convert the patients’ waiting room at the Sen Laboratory diagnostic centre into an auditorium for screening movies—the Laboratory owner is a Cine Society member.

“In the 1970s, there were more than 300 members and films would be screened at the very spacious hall of the Indian Medical Academy. There are never too many people now since more entertainment avenues have opened in the city, but we haven’t stopped,” says Dutt, who is a member of the Cine Society.

At the historic bridge over the Ganga on the outskirts of the city, the youth have found their new pulse. Mahatma Gandhi Setu, one of the longest river bridges in Asia, weighed down by years of decay and traffic, now gets a fresh set of visitors after dusk—restless, and often in love.

This story was first published in Mint: https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/joE8FeeEqPi7zoMOih00RK/Patna8217s-brave-new-nights.html

Five Ways You Could Reduce Inequality in Daily Life

Start the new year by worrying less about things you can’t control and doing something about what you can. Inequality, for example.

Photo credit: wikimedia.commons.org

It’s a loaded term, alright, but let’s think like economists and see where exactly in our daily lives could we make a difference to mitigate inequality.

So here are my top 5 suggestions:

  • Pay your taxes honestly – While the government struggles with progressive taxation, you go ahead and do your bit. Pay your taxes honestly- no bungling rent receipts, or forged investment certificates anymore. Pay your taxes online and hey, when you eliminate corruption in private life, it goes a long way in eliminating corruption in public life.
  • Work on gender budgeting for the household: this is a much bandied about term but the govt still doesn’t get it right. This doesn’t mean you should be like that too. If you truly believe in gender equality, start paying your maids for their life saving work on par with your drivers. Allocate resources equally between genders for consumption, education, health and future savings. Always remember, gender inequality begins in households, and it’s well within you to tackle that.
  • Save for future big time – While you are young, who cares about ageing, right? Wrong! Demographic change is a reality and it will catch up with you sooner than later. Remember Japan? In India, social security net for its ageing population has shrunk. Add to this the effects of adjustment and without savings, you are in for a very cold and debilitating old age. Start saving big and do this till the time you are working. This is your safety net and your instrument to tackle inequality that may arise out of a combination of factors including economic shocks, ageing and changing labour market demographics, slowing growth and poor pension spending by govt.
  • Brighten your child’s prospects at intergenerational equality by security a child fund – If you have a child, this has to come right on top of your priorities. Start taking out a decent amount of your income for a child fund that grows as your child grows, to give you enough in the long run. Remember, a child’s education 10 years down the line would need a minimum of a crore INR, conventionally speaking. If you are aiming Ivy League, you wouldn’t want to just hedge your bets on scholarships. Work out a fund that pays out 5 crores. An equal amount for marriage ceremonies, contingencies, and helping the child settle down as he starts out in this big, bad world. We have seen how that works, so better safe than sorry.
  • Delay gratification, cut down on unnecessary spends, learn to grow your money – More savings that outflow means more money, simple. Yet, not so simple. When the value of money and your purchasing power has been deciding with inflation, you don’t need to just guard against excessive spending; you also need to grow what you have. But money doesn’t grow on trees! Start to get to know how to spot great shares you could buy, how SIPs work, how much of mutual funds is good for you, and how traditional more conventional ways of growing your money can still help you. Check out Monica Halan’s super advice on all do these in her book ‘Let’s Talk Money’. I have been holding off a review of the book for sometime; will do this soon. Keep watching this space.

So that’s it. Don’t wait for the govt or the capitalists to figure out inequality for you. You could do your bit. Why wait.

Millennials and Money

Four Reasons Why Millennials Don’t Have Any MoneyThe same forces… https://robertreich.org/post/190130389550

Same is true for India but the Indian media is busy sorting out its own credibility issues. Who has time to look at the real problems.

Greta and Greenpeace

Exploitation of Greta – Greenpeace & Al Gore https://www.armstrongeconomics.com/world-news/climate/exploitation-of-greta-greenpeace-al-gore/

I have been thinking about this for quite a while and now all of this makes sense. What do you think? Greta is an amazing girl, but sometimes, all that idealism ans activism could be harnessed for some people’s goals and not for world peace.

I hope children like Greta find the light to rise above all vested forces at work. 🤛🏻

Should rich people pay more tax?

Second Richest Man Spouts Nonsense https://www.econlib.org/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, pallavi.s@livemint.com

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: https://bit.ly/2Ms0aiJ


‘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, alpashah.ac.uk.

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.

What Machine Learning has to do with Global Trade

Machine Learning (ML) is commonly seen as the scientific study of algorithms and statistical models used by computers to perform specific tasks. Considered a subset of artificial intelligence, ML could have game-changing implications for people of the world struggling with language barriers. As we know, Chinese, Spanish and English are the most spoken languages of the world. What ML can potentially do is to help people translate native languages into other different languages they may need to speak in with the help of artificial intelligence, and when this happens, this could seamlessly unite the world in more ways than one. Just sample Google Translate and you’ll know what I am talking about.

How does this help global trade? If economists are to be believed, language barriers have hurt trade substantially, and precisely why, with ML demolishing the language barriers, world trade could change. According to the “gravity model”, a common language between trading partners could raise trade by almost 50 percent. If trading nations, involving millions of people and corporations, begin dealing in a common language (thanks to ML), imagine the gains from the trade! This could mean people being able to work in countries where they couldn’t earlier as they didn’t know the native language, or communicate easily for work, leisure or fun.

With machine translation becoming more efficient and widely used, speakers of languages other than English, Chinese or Spanish will compete with them and the global market will be full of such people wanting a share of the employment pie. Job markets will no longer discriminate on grounds of language. Machine learning may just be paving the path to the possibilities of great human cooperation by bringing down the language barriers.

Yet, ML’s direct benefits for trade remain a matter of discussion for many scholars. They argue that the progress in ML may be limited to indirect communication and as far as trade ties involving direct communication are concerned, factors such as a preference for local products, trust between trading partners and familiarity with business may undermine the role of a common language. Then, there are linguistic, religious, and legal influences that could play a significant role.

Sources here and here.



The Kashmir Conundrum

Apologies for being away for almost a week. I have missed you, hope you have too.

I had no realization of what significant events my brief interlude from blogging would bring. But while I have been away, Jammu and Kashmir as a state of India don’t exist the way it used to. It’s now a Union Territory with a Legislature. The state was also bifurcated to create an independent UT of Ladakh with no legislature. This also meant article 370 of the Indian Consitution, which conferred special status to the state of J&K, was modified. Before this, this special status allowed J&K to have its own constitution, its own flag and its own laws independent of the same in the union of India. Now, people from all over India can buy land in Kashmir, set up businesses and invest; Indian government’s welfare schemes, rules, and regulations will now be applicable in the state.

Before the bill to this effect was passed in Parliament, Indian Army troops moved into J&K, clamped down on the Internet and detained local politicians and separatists. There have been apprehensions of violence and unrest over the development. As we speak, this continues with an eerie silence from the international community with the exception of Pakistan and China. What’s evident is that most countries in the world seem to be viewing this exercise by the Indian government as an internal matter of India, recognizing its sovereignty in dealing with its internal affairs. Pakistan, however, thinks otherwise and has already reached out to the UN and a host of other countries to offer their support in condemning India.

A Contested Past

Unlike the differing viewpoints on Kashmir, there are thankfully no conflicting opinions on how J&K acceded to India. I particularly liked this academic EPW piece on the history of the troubled state. The main points in the piece can be summarised as below:

  • At the time of independence of India, Hari Singh, the then king of J&K was ambiguous about acceding to India or Pakistan. He brokered a deal with the British govt to stay independent. This state was not to be, as an attack by Pakistani pastuns compelled Hari Singh to reach out to India for help. India, in turn, sought J&K accession to India.
  • At the time of accession, India adopted the policy that in case of dispute over J&K’s status, the matter should be settled in accordance with the wishes of people. However, India also considered the accession a purely temporary and provisional arrangement, as stated in the Government of India’s White Paper on J&K in 1948.
  • J&K was conferred the special status via Article 370; you could read all about the provision in detail here. Briefly, this article limited the Union government’s legislative power over Kashmir to just three subjects- foreign affairs, defense, and communications. This in effect ensured J&K’s autonomy.
  • Further, to strengthen this arrangement, certain riders were put in place: the central government couldn’t make any changes in the article without issuing a presidential order, with approval of the state legislature, and only after the changes were incorporated in the state constitution.

Why The Scrapping of 370 Was Welcomed:

  • Home Minister Amit Shah, in his speech in Lok Sabha, said article 370 had for years separated J&K from India, with the provision misused by separatists and sympathizers of separatists in the state. Shah’s argument was in line with the BJP’s historic stand on article 370, which has also been on their poll manifesto for years.
  • Another argument highlighted the lack of development in the state because of the special status of J&K. Shah said because of the article, many of the central government’s schemes and benefits didn’t reach the people of Kashmir.Manish Sabharwal wrote in The Indian Express:

Historians warn against “presentism” and Kashmir’s history is too long and complex to belong to any party, community, individual or religion. But it would be foolish to deny that Kashmir’s last few maharajas were distracted and disinterested in development. Monarchies or hereditary leadership are ineffective because they think of citizens or voters as a necessary evil that must be tolerated, possibly patronised, but certainly ignored. Naya Kashmir — a memorandum that Sheikh Abdullah submitted to Maharaja Hari Singh in 1944 — outlined a plan to convert J&K from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional democracy, called for universal franchise, freedom of expression and press, ability of women to work in all trades and professions, and a detailed economic plan. Much of what he sought is enshrined in our Constitution but his vision of social justice, economic progress and poverty reduction — which he couldn’t achieve in his lifetime — is highly relevant for Kashmir today….

India and J&K are tremendously and permanently intertwined. When one does well, the other does well. And when we both do well, we are unstoppable.

  • An overwhelming number of Kashmiri pundits rejoiced the scrapping of 370, arguing that with the provision gone, they would return to their homes in J&K from where they had to flee at the peak of separatist violence in the state.
  • Article 370 was acted as a shield for terrorists in J&K, who brainwashed Kashmiri youth against India and took undue advantage of their economic situation arising out of the poor development in the state.

Why The Scrapping of 370 Was Condemned:

  • Scrapping of 370 hits at the autonomy of J&K, many argued.
  • With the special status gone, outsiders can buy and in J&K. Many viewed this as a vicious attempt to engineer a demographic transition in the Muslim-dominate d state.
  • The move attacked the “Idea of India” and diluted Kashimiriyat. Economist Haseeb Drabu, in this piece for Mint, argued:

For the people of J&K, the biggest benefit of the state having greater legislative latitude under Article 370 has been the radical restructuring of agrarian relations. It was the first state in India, much before the communist government in Kerala, to carry out non-compensatory land reforms.

… These land reforms along with a massive debt write-off undertaken over 20 years, from 1951 to 1973, transformed the lives of rural masses and underlie J&K’s better-than national average human development indicators.

Samar Halarnkar in this piece for Scroll, argues that the move marks the slow un-democratization of India:

Aided and approved by vast swathes of the media, the Opposition, the administration and the Indian people, the Kashmir deception is the most impressive feat yet achieved in the slow, gradual process of dimming the lights of India’s democracy.

India has been set on course towards the darkness for some time. Successive Congress governments deliberately allowed India’s democracy to be clouded by the continuation and deployment of laws – old and new – meant to be used by a ruler against the ruled.

We did not complain enough when thousands suffered the wrongful use of vaguely worded laws: against terrorism, criminal defamation, information-technology misuse and sedition, the last of which has been freely used over the years against sloganeering students, villagers protesting power plants and cartoonists.

What Now?

I can not help but talk about the continued media clampdown in J&K. It’s been a week and news from the state has been a trickle, not a storm, as one would expect. The manner in which the move was hurried through, raises these legitimate concerns:

1. Future of media freedom in India – because even as we speak, reports suggest that people in and outside of Kashmir can’t still reach their families, and journalists aren’t moving freely in the state to be able to send regular reports.

2. State of democracy in India – because, firstly, the state assembly had no role to play in this move, and the parliament didn’t discuss a sensitive provision such as this enough before the bill was rushed to voting.

3. Position of courts on the government move – National Conference party has already challenged the government move in Supreme Court, but legal experts say this may not be a cakewalk. Here is The Print report that explored instances in the past when Indian courts have ruled on Article 370.

4. Role and future of political parties in J&K 

5. Will this bring about peace or conflict in the region?

6. Implications for India’s federal structure – Louise Tillin wrote in The Hindu:

 This is not the first time that a Central government has used its powers to bifurcate a State in the absence of local consensus. This was also seen with the creation of Telangana in 2014. As in the case of Telangana, the creation of the Union Territory of Ladakh does respond to a long-run demand in this region with a substantial Buddhist population. However, the decision to transform the remainder of J&K State into a Union Territory, at the same time as annulling Article 370, is a departure with profound and as yet unknown consequences in Kashmir, and wider implications for Indian federalism.

There are undeniably worrying aspects to the latest development in J&K. While there are no clear answers to this now, it’s important to say that the manner in which the government went ahead with scrapping of article 370, it should not keep us in any illusion about the state of the democratic process in India. We could only hope that good sense prevails and there is no repeat.

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. 

How Are Women Doing?

Hello 2019, how are we women doing across the world? Same same, this UN Women report released this month says.

Some progress has been made, yes, but institutional discrimination continues to exist in the shape of family laws, impinging upon women’s status in marriage and family structures, labour force participation and access to income and assets.

Disturbing realities persist. Women of the world even today work three times harder at unpaid care and domestic work when compared to men. Of course, when women work at home more, they are removed from opportunities for paid work and education.

I would sum up the key findings from India, you can read the entire report here:

  • Mothers-in-law still control the choices of their daughters-in-law, whether it is about choosing their clothes or making decisions over childbearing or children’s marriages.
  • Arranged marriage continues to be the most preferred way to marry.
  • Dowry as a practice is far from obsolete, hail feminism (or its failure in prohibiting the ugly practice)! Dowry practices continue to result in violence against women. Available data on dowry-related killings from the National Crime Records Bureau in India indicate that female dowry deaths account for 40 to 50 percent of all female homicides recorded annually between 1999 and 2016.
  • The total fertility rate within the Southasia region is projected to drop from 5.6 live births per woman in 1970-1975 to 2.4 births in 2015-2020 (same rate as the global average). This rate is predicted to further decline in the region to 2.2 by 2025-2030.
  • Son preference is going strong and sex-selective abortions happen with impunity. Countries with abnormally high sex ratios (greater than 105 males per 100 females) in Southern Asia are Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Pakistan, and hold your breath, India.
  • Marriages below the legal age of marriage still continue to happen in some regions.
  • Same-sex couples enjoy few rights or legal entitlements despite the Supreme Court of India repealing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, thereby legalizing same-sex relationships.
  • Unpaid work or other economic activities that happen within the families have the weakest potential for transforming women’s lives, yet they are a dominant feature of women’s work in the region.
    • Women who own assets such as land and housing have a greater degree of protection against violence and abusive marriages.
  • Only a fraction of women aged 15-49 in India (estimates ranging from 17 to 26 percent) receive a wage or income of their own, meaning that the great majority of women are financially dependent on their spouses, fathers, in-laws and other extended kin.
  • A majority of divorced women are still dependent on their parents and brothers for financial support and living arrangements after separation.
  • Women are overwhelmingly concerned about the adverse implications of their long working hours (paid and unpaid) for their children.

All of these, especially the last three findings, are alarming facts. Women’s guilt over giving less of their time to their children exists because they are trapped in family structures where women do most of the childcare and other unpaid work, often comprising heir personal and professional goals. Discrimination and son preference within households restricts women’s access to education and hence, jobs, leaving them financially crippled and vulnerable especially after a divorce or breakdown of the marriage. We may have seen changes in family law and criminal procedure code over the years but we have a long way to go. I have always believed that a lot of this comes from cultural underpinnings that influence every decision parents make for the girl child. A revolution is needed, nothing less.

Does Capitalism make you materialistic?

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

— Read on mises.org/node/47286

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.

Yes! US-China Trade War is slowing down the world economy

The global economy is not doing well, and trade tensions between the United States and China have a role to play. Even as the rift continues, another conflict I wrote about yesterday also needs early resolution before it snowballs into something big.

IMF’s World Economic Output Update released earlier this week underlines the fallout of the trade war between US and China. According to its latest forecast, real global economic growth will drop to 3.2% this year, 0.1 percentage point slower than the forecast made in April. These are worrying figures given that the growth figures stood at 3.6% last year and 3.8% in 2017.

The impact of the deterioration of the US-China trade talks can be seen from the slowing growth rate of global trade during the conflict period, the report underlines. IMF’s forecast for growth in global trade by 2.5% now is 1 percent lower than the forecast made in April. Here is another clear and concise analysis of the trade slowdown on Mishtalk. This is especially worrying because global trade since 2017 has seen robust periods of growth. On tariffs, the IMF has also said that attempts to address trade imbalances by taxing imports are hurting the world economy without fixing the problem.

Trade was also a main concern in the IMF’s annual External Sector Report released last week, with Chief Economist Gita Gopinath warning that such conflicts are shaking the global economy. Another important finding of the report underlined the big shift in global economies: China, which had the world’s biggest current-account surplus a decade ago, is now close to balanced trade with developed countries like Germany and the U.S. dealing with largest surpluses and deficits.

To get back to the ripple effect trade wars have been having on world economies in recent months, Gopinath, in her note on the report, says:

Trade actions and tensions have so far not significantly affected global current account imbalances, as trade has been diverted to other countries with lower or no tariffs. Instead, as highlighted in an earlier blog, these trade tensions and related uncertainties are weighing on global investment and growth, especially in sectors most integrated into global supply chains (where production is carried out across multiple countries).

Slowing growth mostly was found in emerging markets, with India forecast lower by 0.3 percent compared to earlier forecasts, followed by Russia, Brazil, and Mexico. Besides the US-China trade tensions continuing to impact growth across the world, the report also cited policy uncertainty as another impediment to growth. The solutions to mitigate the slowing growth, according to Gopinath, also hinge on policy decisions of governments across the world, policies that are pro-trade and contribute towards strengthening the rules governing international trade:

Many countries are now near full employment and have limited room to maneuver in their public budgets. So, governments need to carefully calibrate their policies to achieve domestic and external objectives. Countries with excess current account deficits, like the United Kingdom and the United States, should adopt or continue with growth-friendly fiscal consolidation, while those with excess current account surpluses, like Germany and Korea, should use fiscal space to boost public infrastructure investment and potential growth.

Moreover, carefully tailored and sequenced structural policies should play a more prominent role in tackling external imbalances, while boosting domestic potential growth. Reforms that encourage investment and discourage excessive saving—for example through the removal of entry barriers or stronger social safety nets—would support external rebalancing in excess current account surplus countries. Reforms that improve productivity and workers’ skill base are appropriate to promote exports in countries with excess current account deficits. Even economies with external positions that we assess to be broadly in line with fundamentals, like China and Japan, need to adopt policies that address domestic imbalances and prevent a resurgence of external imbalances; this requires structural reforms that facilitate competition in sectors like services.

Exchange rate flexibility remains key to facilitating external adjustment. As highlighted in this year’s analytical chapter, varying features of international trade, including the extent of integration into global value chains and trade invoicing in a dominant currency like the US dollar, can weaken some mechanisms of external adjustment and limit the benefits of exchange rate flexibility in the short term. So, exchange rate flexibility may need to be supported with other policies that bolster the export response, including through improved access to credit and transportation infrastructure. Allowing exchange rates to play their role, however, remains key to deliver durable medium-term rebalancing. 

Another report from the World Trade Organization, released this month, underlines a sharp increase in trade protectionism. Approximately $340 billion a year of trade faced tariffs, the report said, marking the second-highest figure on record, surpassed only by the $588 billion in restrictions reported in WTO’s earlier monitoring report.

All these reports, released in quick succession this month, flag trade tensions as detrimental to economic growth. Yet, bilateral conflicts continue, and while there is no alternative to WTO however ineffective and slow it may be at times, not all conflicts can be resolved by the WTO. This year and next are critical to seeing if sparring countries can come together and find effective institutional frameworks for trade negotiations that benefit all.

India and US Trade War Isn’t Unreal

United States–India trade ties have been in news for all the wrong reasons, of late. There may be optimism that it’s just a mini conflict that can be resolved easily, but the road ahead is nothing short of thorny. It’s a crisis that can snowball into a big rift if not managed properly. The institutional arrangements that currently exist between US and India are unable to manage this conflict, as is clear from the continued tone of President Trump’s tweets and statements on India. What makes worse is the protectionist nature of the governments in both countries.

Let’s look at what both sides have built in trade over the years which will be all exposed to risks if the trade ties continue to be volatile:

  • Bilateral trade in goods and services grew at an average annual rate of 7.59 percent between 2008 and 2018. This was double the value from $68.4 billion to $142.1 billion.
  • US was India’s second-largest trading partner in goods in 2018, and the single largest export destination with $54.5 billion worth of goods shipped to the US in 2017.
  • India was the ninth-largest trading partner of the United States in 2018 with US exports to India accounting for 2 percent of overall US exports in 2018, valued at an estimated $33.1 billion, up 87.3 percent from 2008.
  • US service exports to India were an estimated $25.8 billion in 2018, up 157 percent from 2008.
  • US arms exports to India touched $15 billion in the past decade.
  • Exports to India supported an estimated one hundred and ninety-seven thousand US jobs in 2015.
  • Bilateral FDI more than doubled from $24.3 billion in 2009 to $54.3 billion in 2017.

These numbers are enough to understand how important the US-India trade ties are. But as things stand, the disagreements are chronic and deep.  While Indian government’s efforts to engage in trade talks with the US have increased since 2018, the scope for existing Trade Policy Forum and the Indian Ministry for Commerce and Industry for talks between both countries remains limited. It doesn’t help that for bilateral talks, neither of the two countries has figured out an institutional mechanism to engage with each other beyond the Free Trade Agreements (but the recent conflict over FTAs negates even the possibility of any more FTAs in the near future). AT the WTO, they have sparred constantly with no concrete results.

A report released this month by the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center recommends that both US and Indian governments take steps to manage short-term disagreements and establish a more constructive relationship in the medium and long runs. This would clearly mean reviewing the existing institutional frameworks for reform, brainstorm on creating avenues for market opening agreements and draw a roadmap for the FTAs. It’s indeed a difficult ropewalk but much-needed. Read the detailed report here.

The Big Show About Getting Nothing Done

This blog comes a bit late in the day, but I still wanted to put together some of the important thoughts that have emerged on the G20 summit this year. The big show about getting nothing done – this seems to be the prevailing criticism about the G20 meet in Japan’s Osaka. Of course, Ivanka Trump seems to have made more news than the key issues_sustainable growth, innovation and health_for the summit in 2019. Ahead of the summit, trade analysts keenly watched the highly anticipated talks between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, expecting a breakthrough in the ongoing trade war between the two economic superpowers. G20, after all, is a congregation of some of the world’s largest and most powerful economies where world leaders deliberate on the important economic and political issues of the day.

Yet, this year’s event has come under severe criticism from trade experts who mostly are terming the G20 as utterly incapable of advancing solutions to global challenges. It’s true, if you look at it, that G20 actually is a forum of bureaucrats who are good at meetings but not really generating workable outcomes. This year, for instance, what really transpired at the summit are mere mentions of climate change in its communique and US’s repeated justification of its withdrawal from the Paris accord, both quite dull and drab efforts at communicating urgency on the  very serious issue of climate change that has begun its onslaught across the world — from record heat waves in Europe, unprecedented rains and landslides to ecological disasters in Japan. (If you need more convincing on Paris accord and climate change, here is a very useful piece that I absolutely recommend to you.)

All said and done, what is true is also that globally, a broad-based organization taking care of world trade issues at the scale of G20 hasn’t emerged yet. All the best ideas that world leaders may have on pressing global issues in trade and development may stay as ideas if not for a forum like G20 where they, in the least, get discussed.

G20 this year, for instance, didn’t move forward on the utterly critical Dispute Settlement issues, a longstanding pain point in international trade, even as American president Donald Trump keeps violating all trade rules with impunity.

Folks at the NRDC, Han Chen and Claire Wang specifically, have termed this year’s G20 summit as symbolic of Japan’s failure to commit to issues of climate change and coal phaseout. Japan is the world’s 6th largest contributor to cumulative carbon emissions.

They say:

Despite the climate costs Japan has already suffered, its own climate policies are woefully out of date. Prior to the G20 summit, Japan released an uninspiring long term climate strategy that is severely out of line with climate needs, along with watered down language on climate in the draft G20 communique. Japan’s plans for domestic coal expansion and international coal finance continue to draw international criticism, since OECD countries should be phasing out of coal by 2030. The G20 as a whole has also dramatically expanded coal finance, spending at least $63.9 billion on coal per year,  despite committing a decade ago to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.

….Two weeks before the G20 summit, Japan’s cabinet adopted its Long Term Strategy on climate change as part of its commitments under the Paris Agreement. The Strategy seeks to achieve net zero emissions in the second half of the century, but does not set a specific date by which to meet this target. It also maintains Japan’s existing goal to cut emissions 80% by 2050, without specifying a baseline from which to measure emissions reductions. By delaying its net-zero target until after the middle of the century, Japan remains inconsistent with a 1.5C warming limit, which requires reaching net zero emissions by 2050.

So much for the drama in world trade and continued inefficacy of global institutions who continue to be hijacked by the hegemony of the US. Over to next year’s summit now, but if this no-show continues, the voices that doubt its very existence will only grow louder and rightly so.

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.

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.

Kamla Balan bridge: it’s a disaster waiting to happen

Jhanjharpur, Bihar: On an apology of a road leading to this small town in Madhubani district, thick and diverse traffic—from trains to four-wheelers—chugs along on a century-old bridge over the Kamla Balan river.

Lifeline: The century-old bridge facilitates the movement of 14 trains and 500 vehicles every day to and from Jhanjharpur. Ashish Gupta / Hindustan

One by one, the vehicles cross the “sorrow of north Bihar”. As the sorrowful Kamla Balan—known for its copious floods—flows precariously underneath, the 10ft-wide bridge wilts under an uneasy distinction.

In a state that has brimmed with tragedy and sorrow, it is another disaster waiting to happen.

By an unchallenged act of political wisdom exercised in the early 1970s, this has been a rail-cum-road bridge for more than 30 years, facilitating the movement of 14 trains and 500 vehicles every day to and from Jhanjharpur. It serves as the state’s sole link to its northernmost regions.

As rickshaws, trucks and cars jostle for space on the bridge, everything comes to a halt at the railway gates when trains arrive, only to trail them in close proximity.

But with last month’s epic floods washing away villages in neighbouring districts, the bridge now battles pressing concerns, raised year after year when the river swells to life-threatening proportions.

“The bridge has already outlived its life. When floods come raging, no one knows what will happen,” says Sushil Kamat, a lineman at the railway checkpoint that guards both ends of the bridge.

The Kamla Balan, marking an exception to its yearly ritual, has not flooded Jhanjharpur this year—but it flowed above the danger mark eight times in the last month. At 50m, the river starts flowing over the bridge, submerging the rail tracks.

“Road and rail transport then is closed for days. Transportation costs for us increase and we suffer huge losses,” says Ajay Tidrewal, who owns a petrol pump in Jhanjharpur.

From people trying to get to the district headquarters in Madhubani to vehicles carrying food and vegetables to local markets, work and business come to a standstill with the northernmost regions of Lokha, Phulpras and Nirmali, and even Birpur Barrage on the Nepal border, cut off from the rest of the state.

In a year when the river doesn’t bring floods, travel is easier—by a fraction. Naresh Jha, who takes the 220ft bridge—built by the British in the early 1900s primarily for rail services—every day to reach the district headquarters in Madhubani with cargo on his truck, says it is often an hour-long ordeal to get to the other side.

“One vehicle in the way, even if (it is) a motorcycle, means my truck has to wait till it crosses the bridge and one is lucky if another vehicle doesn’t follow soon after that,” he says.

Accidents are another risk many travel with, with several instances in the past when vehicles were rammed by trains owing to technical errors at rail signal posts. “There is hardly any place you can escape to if you are caught in the tracks. You either jump into the river or get crushed,” Jha says.

Since 1972, not much has changed, except that thick wooden slabs were put on the bridge to pave way for road transport, in a constituency that elected the Congress party’s Jagannath Mishra five times between 1972 and 1994—he was the state’s chief minister thrice in this period.

Earlier, people either took small boats or trains to cross the river. Even today, records at the Jhanjharpur railway station show the metre gauge track on the bridge to be a fairly busy one, with an average of 400 ticket reservations a day and about 1,300 people taking the local trains from the town to neighbouring towns.

But in Jhanjharpur, where the bridge serves as an example of adversity turned into opportunity by politicians, the sole transport link for the region continues to be more lifeline for its people than burden.

Last year, and for each alternate year before that, the Kamla Balan raged with such ferocity that its embankments were destroyed and the bridge suffered serious damage.

“When rivers carrying heavy silt are contained between embankments, it leads to a rise in the level of the riverbed. The rising bed level leads to construction of higher embankments and in many areas, rivers as a result flow above the surrounding ground level, as in the case of the Kamla Balan. Now, floods here come roaring like lions,” says Dinesh Kumar Mishra of Barh Mukti Abhiyan, an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, engineer-turned-activist, who has been trying to re-establish cultural and political ownership of rivers since 1991, when the movement took shape.

Officials at Jhanjharpur’s flood control division say six of the bridge’s 11 pillars are now clogged with the river’s silt, allowing little or no water to flow over to the other side, putting the bridge under tremendous pressure each time the river swells.

For desilting work, the division has written to the state government thrice, between 1995 and 2005, but got no response. “This is unfortunate for a place that has remained the constituency of the chief minister,” says 62-year-old Mishra.

It was more than three decades ago that the rail bridge, with approval from then railway minister Lalit Narayan Mishra—a member of Parliament from the constituency in 1972—was converted into a rail-cum-road bridge.

Link road: The 220ft bridge, built by the British in early 1900s, may have outlived its life, but there is still no alternative to it in sight.

Nitish now continues his father Jagannath Mishra’s legacy in Jhanjharpur, and admits that the region needs separate bridges for rail and road transport. “I have sent a proposal to the state government to this effect. The old bridge has outlived its utility and a new bridge needs to be constructed urgently.”

But even as the national highway network being built in the region envisages another road bridge on the river, Nitish says there’s no alternative to the Kamla Balan bridge site.

“This bridge is the short-cut route to many parts in the region. If this crumbles, we (will) need to build another adjacent to it. No other bridge anywhere on the river can match it,” Nitish adds.

For the people of the region, the bridge, seen by many as a construct of political opportunism, continues to symbolize at once a benefit and a bane.

Sheela Devi—who has been living on the river’s embankments for 40 years now and grows vegetables—lost a daughter to the floods years ago. But each year the floods come, she returns to the bridge to celebrate and sing songs.

“I need no boats like before. I can walk to cross over to the other side, even when water flows,” she says. “We celebrate the floods as they make the banks fertile with silt. This is our tradition.”


Published in Mint.

The management of Bihar

At Patna’s congested Dak Bunglow intersection, where maddening traffic throbs like the impatient pulse of its people, a life-size billboard dazzles passers-by, announcing an ambitious venture: a “world-class business school for transforming Bihar”.

The plan for the proposed transformation is simple: The B-school will help students set up new ventures, consult and collaborate with public and private entities, follow a curriculum focused on regional development, and engage in state-centric research.

Ever since the Rs15 crore venture rolled in mid-2009, advertisements of the Indian School of Management (ISM) have, in a reassuring way, referred to its young founders Gaurav Singh and Aman Singh, to their academic credentials, and to their roots.

Both the Singhs are from Bihar, and in their early 30s. Both graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi; one then joined the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Kolkata, the other the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad. Both have worked for companies such as Schlumberger Ltd and JPMorgan Chase and Co.

But curious and sometimes anxious calls wouldn’t stop. “Mostly to ask about the fee structure and placements,” Gaurav Singh says with a grin. “This is one place where parents are interested in education—and genuinely so. But what you have at this point is a series of study centres, which just hand out degree certificates, which makes them sceptical.” Soon enough, a hundred applications reached ISM; more are pouring in. With a batch of 40 students, ISM will start classes next month.


In a state obsessed with the dream of sending its children to IITs, B-schools such as ISM are now becoming a fad—a symbol of Bihar’s changing aspirations as the government spends more, new ventures and international firms expand their presence in the state, all demanding a high-quality workforce.

“Bihar has changed, and opportunities are emerging,” observes Pramath Raj Sinha, founding dean of ISB, and a native of Bihar who is now mentoring ISM. “It’s a shame that people had to leave the state earlier. But if Pune can become an education hub, there is no reason why Patna cannot.”

In recent years, Bihar’s gross domestic product has grown by an annual average of 11%, according to the state’s 2008-09 economic survey—a rate second only to Gujarat, albeit one often questioned by experts. Service sector companies such as banks, telecom, retail and insurance firms have flocked here.

The flourishing businesses of telecom companies such as Reliance Communications Ltd, Bharti Airtel Ltd and Vodafone Essar Ltd, for instance, have opened up jobs for people within the state. According to a 2008 study conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, Bihar registered India’s largest increase in annual telecom subscribers, posting a growth of 88.2% in 2007-08, compared with 51.1% in 2006-07.

Four years ago, the mention of an MBA would have swayed few people. When he was growing up, Zeeshan Ahmad had heard only of three career options: IITs, medical colleges, or the Indian Administrative Service.

After obtaining his bachelor degree from Patna University, Ahmad would have headed for an MA, but for a B-school fair he came across on his way back from college one day. “That’s when I realized the importance of employability,” he says. “I asked myself: What would an MA get me, and what can an MBA (get me)?”

Ahmad enrolled at Amity Global Business School (AGBS) in Patna, launched in July 2009, to pursue his MBA, with 24 others selected from 300 applicants. He is now working with Sudha Dairy for a summer internship.

The MBA dream has triggered a deluge of both applicants and institutions. Patna, once a city of the working class and small-time traders, is now home to a smart new set of management schools, promising placements with companies such as Microsoft Corp., Ranbaxy Laboratories Ltd and American Express Co. “B-schools across the country have a number of students from Bihar, but within the state, there was a certain class of people who wouldn’t know about an MBA or wouldn’t consider it,” Sinha says. “With the new B-schools, this is changing.”

C.B.P. Srivastava, director of AGBS in Patna, who was previously head of Icfai Business School in Hyderabad and who hails from Bihar, recalls that a decade ago, there was just one B-school in Patna offering an MBA. Today, there are roughly 100 B-schools in the city alone, most offering distance education courses, positioning an MBA degree as a ticket to a well-paying job. Several of them such as the Arcade Business College in Rajendra Nagar, with cramped classrooms and a handful of faculty, act as study centres for universities such as the Madurai Kamraj University or Sikkim Manipal University.

“Management education has entered Bihar as a storm and overtaken all professional courses,” Srivastava says. “It’s the first choice of every student these days. There are 58 MBA institutes affiliated to Punjab Technical University in Patna alone.” But there is a flip side: Lured by glossy brochures, few care about tenuous affiliations, Srivastava adds.

The entry of private players also reflects the declining standard of education in state-owned universities, where coursework is often marred by repeated strikes, even as the demand for education soars. Most recently, on 1 July, Patna University staffers went on an indefinite strike over pay scales, an annual ritual of sorts at the university.

The idea of setting up a B-school in Patna came to Gaurav Singh in 2008, when he was browsing through the website of the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). Singh found several applications for approval for B-schools from various states. “There were none from Bihar,” Singh recalls, “which was surprising, as many students from the state opt for studies in business schools all over the country.”

ISM Patna, which is awaiting AICTE approval, will offer, apart from a two-year, full-time postgraduate diploma in management (for an annual fee of Rs3.5 lakh), executive programmes for working professionals and a business incubation unit for local entrepreneurs. Around the same time Singh was toying with his idea and lobbying for investment, the Bihar government had already leaped to establish the Chandragupt Institute of Management Patna (CIMP). It was originally named “Indian Institute of Management, Patna”, in July 2008. But while CIMP, already AICTE-approved, couldn’t retain its original name, it follows the syllabus and practices of IIM-Ahmedabad, from where several of its faculty are drawn for guest lectures.

V. Mukunda Das, CIMP’s director, served as a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (Irma) and IIM-Kozhikode in the 1980s and 1990s, before he was invited to CIMP by the Bihar government. “I was told this is going to be the next IIM,” he asserts, “And mind you, we are just 23 months old! For our age, we are doing reasonably well.”

At the core of management education at CIMP is “rural marketing”, a module Das developed at Irma in 1980. With chief minister Nitish Kumar as its chairman, one of CIMP’s priorities is to train young people to work within the state. It has set up a microfinance research centre in partnership with National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development and collaborates with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for research on sustainable development management.

In CIMP’s corridors, an enormous bunch of students seems to bear along an air of enthusiasm for business in their home state. Neha, a second-year student who only uses her first name, worked earlier with a non-profit organization in Bhagalpur and now plans to work with a microfinance institution. Neelanjan Sinha, an electrical engineer from SASTRA University in Thanjavur and an ex-employee of Tata Consultancy Services Ltd in Chennai, came back to be with his parents and hopes to work in Patna after his MBA. Smriti, an English graduate who also uses her first name only, chose CIMP over a rural management course at the Xavier Institute of Social Service in Ranchi; she teaches children from Patna’s slums as part of CIMP’s social responsibility initiative.

The biggest hurdle for B-schools in Bihar remains the mindset of its students and their parents. When Das joined CIMP, he was startled by the number of parents who offered money to secure admission for their children. “I hear about quota for politicians, MPs and MLAs all the time, which shocks me,” he says.

Amity’s Srivastava adds that parents often mistake B-schools to be placement agencies. While CIMP and Amity have not graduated their first batch yet, they have attracted companies such as Sudha Dairy, PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt. Ltd, HDFC Bank Ltd, Indian Overseas Bank and IDBI Bank Ltd for summer internships.“Most think after they have enrolled the children and paid fees, their job is done,” Srivastava says. “We are at pains to explain that becoming employable takes more than that.”

And some habits die hard. Already, students have staged sit-in protests at CIMP and at the Catalyst Institute of Management and Advance Global Excellence (Cimage), a year-old business school, for placements this year. “I am not amused,” frowns Neeraj Agrawal, Cimage’s director. “This is what you expect in a state which takes politics too seriously, don’t you?”


This last part of the Bihar Series was first published in Mint.

The roads more travelled

By any measure that day in May, at the peak of summer, was an important one for Nawada, one of Bihar’s 37 districts. The bridge over the teeming Sakri river at Kadirganj block opened that day and soon enough two decisions on either side of the river, though seemingly disparate, were taken.

In Kadirganj, on one side of the river, Naseeb Baig, a small-time weaver often seen bent over his loom, decided to send his silk cloth directly to wholesale buyers in Bhagalpur, instead of approaching middlemen.

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In the village of Bhadaun, on the other side, farmer Ramesh Paswan’s 13-year-old daughter Geeta enrolled in class VIII at the SJBK Sahu High School in Warisaliganj, the nearest high school in the vicinity across the river.

The reason behind both decisions was the same: the new bridge, which at a stroke had connected the Dariapur and Warisaliganj blocks, two irreconcilable regions separated by the river for decades. “Because of the bridge, the route to Bhagalpur is now direct and I can send my goods from here,” Baig says. “I don’t have to…send it through people, who would first ferry it to the district headquarters and from there to Bhagalpur.”

Click here to watch a slideshow on how better infrastructure has improved education and health facilities in Bihar

No one knows if a bridge ever existed on this stretch, but Girish Narayan Singh, project engineer for Nawada in the Bihar State Bridge Construction Corporation (BSBCC), a state-owned enterprise, remembers well the awe on every villager’s face when construction began.

“They would see truckloads of building material and machines pile up along the river banks and gather out of curiosity,” Singh, who supervised the bridge’s construction, recalls. “After waiting for hours, they would ask: ‘Are you all just unloading material, or (do you) intend to build the bridge too?’”

No less dramatic than the changes it wrought is the fact that the 2.5km bridge, one of the 400-odd constructed by the Bihar government in the last 54 months, was built in a record three months. Even as India debates Bihar’s 11% gross domestic product (GDP) growth, as proclaimed in its 2009 Economic Survey, “the importance of roads and bridges as catalysts of socio-economic development remains intact”, says Partha Mukhopadhyay, a senior fellow at think tank Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “In Bihar, there appears to be a big emphasis on rural connectivity and rehabilitation of district roads.”

To read the first two stories in the series, go to www.livemint.com/biharseries

Some of the quickest consequences of new roads and bridges have been better connectivity to markets and to service providers such as schools and hospitals. Mukhopadhyay says that with connectivity, economic activity in villages might change, tending towards growth in high-value agriculture, traditional services and even manufacturing, since around 40% of Indian manufacturing still exists in rural areas.

“Bihar is also a curious case,” Mukhopadhyay says. “While it is one of the poorest states, initial results from the Indiapolis project (an urban growth survey) show that it has a large number of big villages with high population density, which fulfil two of the three conditions for being urban. The only requirement it doesn’t meet is that at least three-quarters of the male workforce must work outside agriculture.”

Infrastructure is one sector where statistics support claims of change. Last December, Bihar topped cement consumption in India, with an annual growth of 36%. The state economic survey claims that the construction sector grew 43.85% in 2008-09. The new infrastructure being built, including roads and bridges, contributed 13.4% of the state’s GDP, against 4.2% in 2003-04.

Safety has, unsurprisingly, been a concern. In 2003, Satyendra Dubey, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and an engineer with the National Highways Authority of India, was killed allegedly by the land mafia while handling a bridge construction project. But things have changed since.

“Earlier, no contractor was willing to start construction and risk being targeted,” says Girish Chandra Mishra, a deputy general manager at BSBCC. “Now, 70% of our contractors are from the state only.”

BSBCC today has a budget of more than Rs1,000 crore, and its voluble managing director, Pratyay Amrit, has introduced single-window clearance, electronic tendering and an online mobile system for real-time tracking of projects and engineers on the field. “There are sops such as international holidays and bonuses for engineers,” Amrit says. “Where they don’t work, I also use fear to get work done.”

In his last four years, Mishra has handled nine projects sanctioned by the Asian Development Bank in Bihar, been trained in contract procurement and negotiation, and started to use a BlackBerry to monitor bridge projects. “Engineers are now going to Japan, Canada and Australia for training,” he says. “There is a great deal of motivation. Can you imagine, we just bagged a public-private partnership project worth Rs1,502 crore.”

The effects of such activity are in plain sight. In Patna district, where four bridges have been built since 2006, farmers such as Ram Bacchan Paswan have direct access to the foodgrain market in Dariyapur, in Masaudhi block, and have also opted for more expensive crops. “There is better transport now, which is why I can buy seeds and fertilizers in the local markets,” Paswan says. “Travel costs too have come down, and goods can be transported in less time.” He is now growing more green vegetables—which earn more—because he can sell them fresher, with the distance to Patna’s wholesale market reduced from 15km to a mere 7km.

A recent study conducted for BSBCC by non-profit Research and Development Initiative (RDI) in New Delhi claims that bridge construction has led to a decrease in school dropout rates, improved law and order, better access to higher education and public health centres, and a growth in cash crops and real estate prices in areas neighbouring the bridges.

“Several of these bridges are very small, but in very crucial areas, where just for a small distance, two blocks or villages would be cut off from each other,” Jitendra Chaudhary, a senior researcher who led the RDI team to Bihar, says. “This is where construction of roads and bridges has reaped maximum benefits.”

In flood-prone districts such as Katihar, Araria, Madhubani, Mujaffarpur and Sitamarhi, more than a dozen bridges have not only joined catchment areas to the rest of the state, but also led to increased vehicle movement in the interiors and, therefore, better business. “Such infrastructure development has impacted primarily the automobile and dairy businesses,” says S.P. Sinha, president of the Bihar Industries Association.

The number of motor vehicles registered annually in Bihar now stands at around 150,000—against 80,000 in 2006—and Patna provides an example of the automobile boom. At 17-month-old Mahindra Priyadarshini Motors in Saguna More, prospective buyers flock in large groups. Sales manager Ramesh Tripathi says they sell roughly 250 vehicles a month. The dealership sold 1,600 vehicles in 2009 and expects to cross that figure this year, having sold 900 vehicles till May. “The delivery time from the Nashik plant to Patna has reduced from 20-25 days to 10 days because of improved roads,” he says.

Nearby, at Priyadarshini Ford Motors, general manager Amiya Mohanty says the showroom has sold more than 500 cars in the nine months since it opened. “I was at a car dealership in Jamshedpur before,” he says. “We would wait for customers. But now, given the burgeoning demand, we are even trying to open more showrooms, and also get Volkswagen to Patna.” The showroom already has 300 pending bookings for the newly launched Ford Figo.

Better roads have opened new markets for perishable goods. Sudha Dairy, the state’s leading dairy firm, has been able to go national, spreading to 10 cities outside Bihar in the past 18 months. Having spurred a white revolution in Bihar, the dairy sold 30,000 litres of milk in Delhi and Kolkata last month.

“Because of better roads, we now collect 1.2 million litres of milk from the remotest of villages, unlike 400,000 litres before the infrastructure improved. Now, we are even planning to reach flood-prone districts in the state and as far as Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal),” says Sudhir Kumar Singh, managing director of Sudha Dairy.

Experts also predict the improved roads will boost the food processing industry. A 10-year vision document identifies 100 villages to be developed as rural agribusiness centres, bearing an investment potential of around Rs1,500 crore in the food processing sector alone. “What is most interesting…is that the farm and non-farm sectors are growing together,” says Anit Mukherjee, an associate professor at think tank National Institute of Public Finance and Policy.

O.P. Shah, a former chief of the Bihar Chamber of Commerce, is today a franchisee partner in the state for Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL). Shah says he wouldn’t have opened a Rs30 crore detergent plant in Hajipur if not for the restoration of law and order, and improved roads. “HUL was scouting for a local entrepreneur for a detergent plant in Bihar since 1993,” he says. “But no local player came forward earlier.”

Perhaps most tellingly, BSBCC is even being used as a motivational example in schools—at least in Vidya Datri’s classes.

At the primary school in Mobarakpur Sahajpura in Nawada, which has seen its enrolment rise from 160 children to 195 in the six months since the road outside the school was laid, Datri, a 35-year-old teacher, points to the glistening, charcoal-coloured ribbon from the window and addresses her students: “Children, study hard. Just as the government has made the roads shine, it will make all of you shine too.”

First published in Mint.

Next in Bihar Series: The management of Bihar”.

Bihar sees a growing tribe of rural migrants

Amipur may be a small dot along the national highway from Patna to Nawada, but its ambitions are big. In the 50-odd households in the village, sparsely populated and rife with an uneasy quiet, most men have left for work outside Bihar.

Siyaram Chauhan is the one who returned. He was rescued last month by the state government officials from a brick kiln in Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich where he worked as a bonded labourer. Savaged by rigours of work, his body is dark and he is afflicted with constant cough and fever but when he talks about the days in Bahraich, Chauhan’s eyes glint with hope, and apparent hunger. There were, he remembers, “piles of bricks to bake, even though it burnt hands” and “plenty of food”.

So when the season of brick kilns kicks in in October, Chauhan says he will venture out again. Like several others from the village, he is part of the rapidly growing tribe of migrants—while Bihar’s capital Patna, 120km from Amipur, wakes up to return of the moneyed class and an economic boom riding the wave of massive construction activity, its rural poor, stricken with poverty and unemployment, have stepped up migrations from the state in bigger numbers than before.

A yet-to-be released study by the Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), one of the major social science research organizations in India, a draft copy of which was reviewed by Mint, and the first ever dedicated research on migration of the rural poor from Bihar, estimates the number of migrants at 5.2 million, much higher than the 3.5 million estimated by the National Sample Survey Organisation in 2001. “Seventy-three per cent of both migrant and non-migrant households perceived an inclined trend in migration even in the last two to three years of the new government. With underdeveloped industrial base and largely subsistence agriculture combined with the recurrent flood and drought problems, social violence, caste enmity and above all, population pressure have created massive push forces, driving individuals out of home desperately in search of livelihood opportunities,” says Girish Kumar who compiled the IIPA study with colleague Pranab Banerji.

Click here to see a slideshow on the rural poor leaving Bihar in search of greener pastures

The postal-order economy, which thrives on money orders sent by people to their families, of the state has been booming. “On an average, every migrant is able to send Rs15,000 annually to the state which works up to Rs7,500 crore, 5% of the GDP of Bihar,” Kumar stresses. “Improvement in law and order and infrastructure will have an impact on the high-income group but migration of the poor will continue.”

What spurs drought-prone Amipur’s wave of migrations, says labour enforcement officer for Nawada district Kishore Jha, is a thriving cartel of local contractors who create debts for landless labourers.

“Trucks after trucks line up in villages here to ferry people outside the state. Till a few years ago, people would travel in hordes; now we do routine checks, so they are provided train tickets and discreetly move in smaller groups. What doesn’t seem to stop is the blatant exploitation,” Jha adds.

Chauhan agrees: “My employer in Bahraich promised to pay Rs150 per day, but would hand out only Rs125. When I protested, he demanded the advance of Rs25,000 he had paid to me for leaving my village and taking up his work.”

Overnight, he found himself in debt and for the next three years, he was forced to work as a bonded labourer until the day police came hunting.

Much like the colonial days when the British shipped thousands of labourers to their colonies in Africa and South America, migration in Bihar continues to be distress-induced. Fifty-seven per cent migrant households in Bihar are in debt, estimates the IIPA study.

Back in the village, the sun sets right over the ripening paddy fields and Chauhan spends all day plucking arhar (a variety of pulse). Very soon, all the crops would go for sale and he would be left without any work. He hasn’t heard of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which ensures 100 days of employment to the rural poor.

“This is what the problem is. They just don’t know the options available to them because they are illiterate,” says Jha. It is here in the villages that people no longer talk about Punjab and Haryana, which for the large part of the 1990s offered farm jobs to labourers from Bihar.

This wave of migrations has a new slogan: Dilli chalo (Let’s go to Delhi). “The exodus has now tilted from rural to urban destinations such as Delhi, Faridabad and Noida, where migrants are working in factories as unskilled labourers,” Kumar says.

In a state where agriculture continues to be the backbone of its economy, the slow progress of industrialization is also failing its rural population. There are seasonal agricultural jobs available but even with regime change, not enough industrial units have come up to generate employment.

At the State Investment Promotion Board, the newly set up body to attract and approve investment projects in Bihar, adviser S. Vijay Raghavan claims 156 investment proposals worth Rs91,000 crore have been cleared by the board in the last three years including those for 19 power plants, 23 sugar mills, 18 food processing units and 16 steel processing and cement plants. “We estimate that these projects would create job opportunities for at least 100,000 people in Bihar,” Raghavan stresses.

On the ground, though, projects will take years to take off, and Raghavan admits as much. “We have cleared the proposals but all the major investments will happen in the next tenure of the government,” he states.

The latest Bihar Economic Survey (2008-09) underlines the factors leading to high level of industrial sickness in Bihar: inadequate infrastructure, lack of working capital, non- availability of raw material, inadequacy of road network and communication services, poor and uncertain power supply and weak research support. “What is needed now is to identify and promote some rural areas with ancillary businesses to create employment,” says Binod Khadria, a professor at School of Social Sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

But migration in each case is not always due to lack of awareness and employment opportunities in Bihar, which has seen massive infrastructure work in the past four years—at least 500 bridges and flyovers have been constructed.

For a number of migrants, moving outside the state for work is a symbol of upward social mobility and freedom from the repressive caste hierarchy in the state.

In Amirpur village in Nawada district, infamous for its caste violence such as the massacre at Chakwai village where 10 people from backward castes were killed in 2004, Shivalak Majhi’s father Sukhdev worked as an agricultural labourer for 40 years, but could never buy a small tract of land. “We were always hand-to-mouth, and half the year, my father would have no work. My mother would then clean toilets in the rich households,” Majhi, who belongs to the Dalit community, says.

By the time Majhi was 20, he took the train to West Bengal with his two cousins—for better wages and work. “I work in a dye factory in Murshidabad for Rs140 a day. If I had stayed back in the village, I would perhaps have tilled land or done menial chores in households for peanuts,” he says. He is back in the village for his sister’s wedding.

Only 42% of migrants working in rural areas would appreciate having a job in Bihar, notes the IIPA study. “Out-migration for employment sake has now become a craze in rural Bihar. It has entered into the life cycle of nearly one-third of the households. So much so that now staying at village is equated with laziness among the fellow villagers,” says Girish Kumar.

For many, it’s the lure of better wages—in Bihar, farm labourers get paid anywhere between Rs70 and Rs120, and year-round employment that readies them for migration.

But for the likes of Naresh Mahto, it’s a matter of social prestige. A native of Gaya district, he works in a Sulabh Shauchalaya as a sweeper in Delhi. But when he goes back home, no ones asks what he does.

“Everyone is happy that I am making good money here,” he says. “I live in Delhi.”

First published in Mint. Next in the four-part series on Bihar: “The roads more travelled”.

Bihar sees reverse brain drain

It was perhaps the worst of times. With the fall of night, Patna would blanket itself in a pall of darkness, interrupted occasionally by traffic thinning rapidly with each passing hour. Downed shutters in shops would signal fearful business, rickshaws would accept no late evening passengers and women and children would be home before sunset. It was, for all practical purposes, a self-willed curfew.

As a painful memory of his growing up days, Sumit Prakash still has this vivid remembrance of his home town: notorious, lawless and hopeless about the status quo like a defeated warrior. “Six-seven years ago when I would go visit my parents in Patna, I wouldn’t be moving around without a bodyguard; I wouldn’t even be allowed to walk up to an ATM alone!” he recalls.

One fine morning in 2007, he realized this was changing. While Prakash and wife Smita Choudhary were driving back from a holiday to Sydney, where they both worked as business managers for different firms, his Patna-based father, who had just been denied visa from the Australian government on account of his old age, called up. “He asked us to return home. We had everything going for us, but we had no close family in Australia. Our option was Bombay or the United States where my brothers live but that day, out of the next 5 hours of the drive, we spent three hours talking about Patna,” he says.

The recurring leitmotif of the conversation centred around the improving law and order situation and infrastructure in Bihar and the record number of convictions in the state since the new regime under chief minister Nitish Kumar took over in 2005.

That is why, in February 2008, Prakash and Smita, homesick and looking for purpose in their state of birth, came back to settle down and run the family-owned school Prarambhika in Patna’s upmarket Boring Road. And just like them, there are many—engineers, doctors, management consultants, students and businessmen born and brought up in Bihar, but away for better education and employment during the previous regime led by Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)—who are returning to the state driven by emerging opportunities.

“For the first time in the last 60 years, there is a concerted effort to build the state. I wouldn’t say rebuild because there was no such thing as role of the state in Bihar earlier. Now, the place of the bahubalis (musclemen) has been usurped by the state. Convictions took place across all castes and classes unlike before when only people from the disadvantaged sections would suffer. Because of this, respect for the state and faith that police will act against lawbreakers has remarkably increased,” says Saibal Gupta, director of Asian Development Research Institute, a non-profit research organization based in Patna. There have been convictions of 49,000 people since 2005 including charge sheeted politicians such as Shahabuddin, a former member of Parliament from the RJD.

Neither had Anjay Thakur, a commercial pilot trained from California and a professional photographer who returned in late 2008 to look after the family-run hospital Shushruta Surgical Clinic. Not very long ago, Anjay’s father Rajeshwar Thakur, Patna’s leading laparoscopic surgeon, would close his hugely popular clinic in Patna city locality at dusk. “Earlier, doctors travelled with bodyguards. One doctor was shot down and we also know several doctors who got threat calls for extortion,” he says, adding that kidnapping and ransom were industry here.

Thakur’s family hospital is now in expansion mode with him at the helm of affairs, which is unusual for his accomplishments. In Thakur’s return lies abandonment of two promising careers in India’s metros.

After various stints of flying and dabbling in photography with stalwarts such as Farrokh Chothia and Atul Kasbekar in Mumbai and running a studio of his own in Delhi, Thakur’s interest in family’s hospital projects sparked owing to various reasons. “I had offers from IndiGo for flying, but when recession set in, it was withdrawn. Around that time, my family was planning to set up a hospital in Noida close to Delhi. My father suggested that it should be built in Patna,” he remembers.

From the gloomy flashback of the city in the 1990s, Thakur now mulls on the present. His voice lifts up as he describes his mornings at the Patna Golf Club, his impromptu road trips across the state and outside and most of all, the night life quickening to metropolitan tastes.

That Bihar is indeed becoming a state where aspirations and enterprise have replaced sense of insecurity and scepticism is evident from the newly opened restaurants and bars that serve till midnight, social gatherings in its clubs where young people have replaced the older members and lavish weddings. “Earlier, people were scared to show off wealth. At the club where I go, there would only be old people my father’s age but now, I see many of my generation and even younger, which goes on to show that people are indeed returning and that homes no longer have just old parents,” Prakash says.

Anjay, while dusting off his Mamiya, Nikon D2X and F100 cameras which he says he used for shooting stills of Bollywood movies such as Ek Ajnabee and Pyare Mohan, particularly remembers the use of Jimmy Jib cranes, mostly used in film shootings, at a marriage in Patna recently. “Can you beat that? How many people do you think can afford to shoot weddings with a Jimmy Jib?”

Apart from Prakash and Thakur, who have family ventures to manage and run, there are many who have returned to start from the scratch.

Bibhuti Bikramaditya worked with nSYStech Co. Ltd, an information technology firm in South Korea, as a project manager before setting up Tech Brains Pvt. Ltd, probably the first electronics design company in Bihar, in 2008. “I come from a small village and when I started doing decent abroad, I felt I should do something for the state,” he says.

Bikramaditya, while in South Korea, formed Bihar Brains Development Society (BBDS) in 2004, a forum for non-resident Biharis, which eventually shifted to Patna with him three years later. At the Society, he organizes scientists, entrepreneurs and students to brainstorm on opportunities that can be created in Bihar apart from promoting local talent.

For his electronics design company, Bikramaditya has also hired engineers from engineering colleges in the state such as National Institute of Technology (NIT) and Maulana Azad College of Engineering and Technology, Patna. “We are also helping NIT to set up a chip design lab. Then, there are several student exchange programmes we facilitate for colleges in Bihar with universities in Seoul,” he says.

The state government, too, is trying to reach out to people and exhorting them to return. Chief minister Nitish Kumar has a weekly jan sunwai (public hearing) at his residence. Police stations across the state have been freshly painted and refurbished and emphasis is being laid on faster registration of complaints. For the Global Bihar Meet in 2006, Kumar’s government also roped in Bikramaditya, who was then in South Korea, as international coordinator for the event.

But even Bikramaditya admits that the next step for the government, after fixing law and order, should be encouraging entrepreneurship, which will create jobs and bring in investment. “People right now are driven by the feel good factor,” he says. “Now, we need more dynamism from the chief minister; he needs to be the Narendra Modi of Bihar.”

Yet, at the Bihar Chamber of Commerce, where until a few years ago angry businessmen would lash out at the state’s top police officers for failing to check crime spiral, the topics for discussion have moved to traffic snarls in the city, frequent power cuts, public denial for paying for parking and lack of civic manners in people.

For those returning from the metros, it’s adjusting to this change in lifestyle and attitude that is bringing in the conflict in their happy vision of getting back to their roots.

“As a society which hangs out together, there is little of it. All my friends still remain outside the state, which is why I get to share my father’s friends,” says Prakash.

During his golf practice sessions, he eventually made a few friends, but wife Smita, who handled mergers and acquisitions at an Australian firm and now is the vice-principal of Prarambhika, says she continues to be constrained by a society, which is intensely patriarchal. “When I walk into a bank, it’s my husband people address even if I have asked the question. At 31, people refuse to believe that I can get work done. But I know it would be foolish to expect a drastic change overnight,” she says. “Since I have decided to live here, I have also decided that I am going to do everything and enjoy it too.”

This first appeared in Mint. Next in the four-part series on Bihar, read “The growing tribe of migrants”.