Aap Ki Dilli – Dil Se !

Today, Feb 10th, 2015 has been a very special and unforgettable day !

The stunning sweep of the Aam Aadmi Party’s victory, with 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi Vidhan Sabha, has come at the conclusion of a long year, with many points at which the party had been written off by detractors.

As I look back on the past year, I believe these are the 5 most important reasons that Delhi voted so resoundingly for AAP.

1. The hard work and credibility of AAP’s candidates : Sir jee – AAP ki sarkar !

Candidates who had been elected as MLA’s in the 2013 election, conducted several Mohalla sabhas and meetings with Residents’ Welfare Associations (RWA’s) to ascertain the most pressing needs of their constituency. They then proceeded to expend their entire MLA LAD (Local Area Development) Funds, in line with these priorities. By the time the Delhi assembly was dissolved in late 2014, each had a tangible report card of projects that had been efficiently executed, in line with the requests and needs of citizens of that area.

Candidates who had lost the last election (many by very narrow margins) remained engaged with their constituents and worked on identifying solutions to local issues – functioning as the shadow MLA’s of their area.

None of them knew whether or not they would be given a ticket for the 2015 election – but that did not hold them back. They used the past year wisely to build relationships and earn the trust of their voters – which gave them a great advantage, during the short one month campaign period.

2. The AAP 49 day Government : Yeh Dil maange more !

Though projected in a negative light by many in the media, the 49 day AAP Government was actually a great success with the Aam Nagrik of Delhi. Corruption visibly reduced, the VAT “raid raj” ceased, school admissions were made more transparent, an SIT was instituted to probe the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, 47 fast track courts to handle cases of violence against women were commissioned and promises on power and water were kept, to name just a few.

Jo kaha so kiya” was a campaign cry that evoked a very positive response at every Jan Sabha I attended. What the opposition projected as anger against Arvind Kejriwal for “running away” – was in fact angst that he had not stayed on and continued to deliver.

When Arvind apologised with folded hands and said that he would never resign again, if voted in with a majority, the crowd would roar with approval !

3. Positive, Issue based Campaign : driven by the Delhi Dialogue 

In October last year we started the Delhi Dialogue process, which along with a few of my AAP colleagues, I had the privilege of leading. Through the Dialogue we had discussions with stakeholders from across the city – with youth, women, traders, villagers, teachers, health workers, RWA’s etc to understand their problems. We then had discussions with specialists locally, nationally and globally to find solutions to these issues.

Our focus was to identify Issues and solutions that an Elected Govt in Delhi could address to make the life of Delhi’s citizens simpler and better. The dialogue was apolitical and bipartisan – we tried to speak with as wide a range of stakeholders as possible – whether they were AAP supporters or not.

What emerged was very positive and energizing. The dialogue itself created a great deal of positive energy. The outcome of the dialogue created a tangible and pragmatic 70 point action plan, that became the solid foundation for our Delhi manifesto.

4. Wonderful and highly motivated volunteers : Dil se !

The magic of AAP is in the people it attracts – and the selflessness with which they work. Drawn from all walks of life and from every socio-economic strata, the Delhi campaign was powered by Volunteers who had seen the party through its worst days and had chosen to stick by it. United by their desire to serve their country, no one was paid for their efforts – other than for modest reimbursements of expenses.

The Delhi team was supplemented by volunteers from across the country and a superbly competent NRI team.

With no hierarchy or discernibleFeatured image organisational structure, volunteers bonded together to form dynamic groups that were determined to bring in 5 Saal Kejriwal !

The camaraderie and enthusiasm with which volunteers got the Aam Aurat and Aam Aadmi to sing and dance to the catchy campaign theme song, had to be experienced to be believed. Talented singers, poets, actors, artists, cartoonists, IT professionals each contributed to make this a very successful and viral campaign in both the real and the virtual world.

5. The Opposition : Kya bole ?

Political analysts will undoubtedly present detailed analyses on the reasons for the opposition’s debacle. Suffice it to say, that the mainstream political parties seemed to score a series of self-goals, that were hard to fathom.

I believe we will look back to the 2015 Delhi election as a turning point. In a democracy, no matter how good the Government may be, an Alternative is essential.

For the past several months it seemed as if India was heading in a direction of single party dominance. Today the Common man has sent a message of hope across the country – that there is an alternative.

The onus is now on AAP to stay grounded and deliver transparent and accountable governance, that is honest, inclusive, equitable and sustainable.

And as Delhi swears in Arvind Kejriwal as its new Chief Minister on Valentine’s day, this is a romance on which the nation’s hopes rest !


What drives the Rupee down ?

Indian rupee collection

Indian rupee collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Global factors, local forces or animal spirits – what drives the Rupee down ?

As the Indian rupee nose-dived this past week, and stock markets were enveloped in gloom, pundits struggled to decode the answers to this question.

One thing however was painfully clear : the consequence of the lower rupee would be higher prices for all of us.

–       we would pay more for fuel, fertilisers and every item that had imported parts

–       we would pay more for our loans, as the Reserve Bank of India raised interest rates, in an effort to keep FII money from flowing out

How did the Indian economy, hailed as a roaring tiger just a few years ago, reach this sorry state ?  What triggered the fall  and what  sustains the rupee’s downward momentum ?

The first global trigger was the suggestion by Ben Bernanke on June 19, 2013, that the central bank of the USA was prepared to begin phasing out it’s Quantitative Easing (QE) Program.  As a result bond yields in the USA rose, and markets across the world fell, as Foreign Institutional Investors (FIIs), pulled money out of equities and emerging markets to invest in US treasuries.

Economies such as India, which had developed dependencies on FII inflows to fund their Current Account Deficits, faced immediate and painful adjustments.

A second trigger came earlier this week, as fears of military action against Syria escalated.  As the price of Brent crude spiked, markets assumed that rising oil prices would undermine growth – especially for countries highly dependent on oil imports.

However these factors affected many emerging markets. Why have the currencies of Mexico, South Korea and many eastern European nations held up so well, while the currencies of countries like Turkey, South Africa and India have plummeted ?

The answer is that FII’s are differentiating between countries.  They are looking at the fundamental factors driving each local economy and choosing where they wish to place their bets.

Countries that rely most on short-term foreign money to fund trade deficits have been the hardest hit. India has a Current Account Deficit (CAD) of  5.1 % of GDP (Turkey  is at 5.9%, S Africa  at 6.3%)

But even this does not fully why FII’s are pulling more money out of India, hence causing the Indian rupee to weaken more than other currencies ?

The answer lies with the elusive animal spirits.

There is a change in guard at the Reserve Bank of India. Markets will observe carefully to see if the new governor, Dr Raghuram Rajan, will take as strong a stance as his predecessor Dr D Subbarao, on inflation, monetary policy and the autonomy of the central bank.

More importantly it is clear to Investors that the Indian political establishment will cater to vote bank politics rather than focus on economics in an election year.

To quote the Wall Street Journal, dt Aug 29, 2013 :  “If India’s fiscally irresponsible “antihunger “ bill passes the Upper House, while needed structural reforms languish, don’t be surprised if pessimism over the country’s future deepens.”

What is the way out of this situation ?

The markets, like all of us, are looking to see decisive actions by the Government, that will help restore confidence in the Indian economy. Three simple steps will not only stem the fall of the rupee but also set the Indian economy back on the path of growth :

1)   Rein in Government Spending and bring the fiscal deficit under control

2)   Take quick measures to address the Current account deficit

3)   Start seriously undertaking pro-growth reforms

As Terrence Checki of the New York Federal Reserve stated “Fundamentals are Fundamental”. Three simple words that our Policy makers and politicians would do well to heed.

If we have criminals in Parliament, we will have criminals on the streets

On Thursday 22 August, a young journalist was brutally gang raped in Lower Parel, Mumbai.

On the same day, the Union Cabinet of India, cleared a proposal to amend the Representation of People’s Act (RPA), in order to negate a recent landmark Supreme Court judgement, that disqualified legislators convicted of crimes.

The correlation between the two events, is a tragic reflection of the situation that India finds itself in today.

The proposed amendment to the RPA deserves a brief explanation.

On July 10, 2013, the Supreme Court of India, in response to a Public Interest Litigation, gave an eminently sensible judgement, ruling that Section 8(4) of the RPA would be set aside. The RPA states that a convicted criminal cannot stand for elections.

However, as per Section 8(4), if a sitting MP or MLA is convicted while in office, then they will have 3 months from the date of such conviction, to file an appeal. Until the appeal is decided, no action will be taken to disqualify them, until the appeal is disposed. Unfortunately in India, given the speed of the judicial process, a convicted criminal can remain in office for several years while the appeal is being considered.

The Supreme Court ruled, that this Section went against the intention of the founding fathers of the nation and the spirit of our constitution, which was to debar criminals. In the view of the Supreme Court, if a sitting legislator felt he was being unfairly prosecuted, he could seek protection by staying the conviction; however a blanket protective clause, as provided by Section 8(4) was ultra vires.

As a consequence of the 10 July judgement, Section 8(4) was struck down with immediate effect. Any legislator who is henceforth convicted of a crime attracting a sentence of more than two years, will be immediately disqualified, his seat declared vacant, and he will be debarred for the next 6 years from contesting for elections. The Supreme Court also ruled that anyone in police or judicial custody (i.e. in jail) would be debarred from standing for elections.

Given that 30%* of our MP’s & MLA’s have criminal cases against them, this ruling was greeted with relief by citizens across the country.

(Source *: Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) statistics: 162 MP’s in the present Lok Sabha, 40 MP’s in the Rajya Sabha and 1258 sitting MLA’s, have self-declared criminal cases pending against them.)

Unfortunately, the reaction of all major political parties to the judgement was very negative. Perhaps because, in our political system, we have come to believe, that candidates with criminal cases against them, have a better chance of being elected, or that their criminal record does not matter to the voters.

ADR statistics show that political parties, shockingly gave tickets to 74% of candidates with criminal records, for a second time, despite having information on their criminal background from a previous election.

MP’s (who have otherwise been unable to agree on any matter of national importance in the past 4 years) gathered to protest the Supreme Court judgement, at an all-party meet on Aug 1. The Indian press reported an extra-ordinary show of solidarity, as leaders of various parties, cutting across party lines, asked for amendments that would overturn the apex court’s ruling, on the grounds that it challenged the supremacy of Parliament.

The Cabinet proposal to amend the RPA, was then swiftly moved forward – ironically, and tragically for India, on the very same date as the Shakti Mills gang-rape.

What does this mean for us ?

A week ago, a highly educated young man who had studied at an Ivy League Business school in the USA was discussing politics with me. He argued passionately in favour of a certain national political leader of a certain national political party both of which shall go unnamed.

India is at a tipping point” he said, “and a fractured mandate is dangerous for our country. Every vote that goes to the xxx symbol is a vote for xxx.” However, when I sought to discuss the credentials of the local candidate in his constituency, he dismissed this saying “It does not matter who the local candidate is – he could be a rapist for all I care”

This then, is where we find ourselves. As the grief and rage over heinous attacks on innocent women like Nirbhaya and the young photo-journalist mount, it is worth reflecting on how we reached this point.

It is self-evident that :

If we have criminals in Parliament, then we will have criminals on the street.

– If the law-maker is a law-breaker, and makes laws to protect himself, then the citizen has no protection.

If Police reforms that will empower the police force to serve citizens, rather than politicians, have still not been implemented, despite repeated strictures by the Supreme Court since 2006, then the citizen has no hope.

Is there a solution ?

I believe there is. Clearly we can send the right message to political parties in the next election, by voting for candidates without a criminal record.

However, social media gives us the opportunity, to send them that message today.

With 78 million Indians on Face book, 20 million on Twitter and 22 million on LinkedIn, we have a voice. We also have the means of instantaneously and effortlessly, reaching senior leaders in the major parties, each of whom sees social media as an important tool of communicating with us.

So let’s send them the message :

We do not want criminals in Parliament – so there should be NO amendments to the RPA !

What I stand for

In 2009, I stood for the Lok Sabha, National Parliamentary election as an Independent Candidate for South Mumbai. Though I lost, I learnt a great deal about my city and the people at its heart. It was the beginning of a journey, and one that I knew, I would devote the rest of my life to.

At the time, my step was considered quixotic by many, who regarded it as tilting at the windmills of the powerful Indian political establishment. Yet, in the four years since then, I have been delighted to see a rising wave of other independent citizen candidates and newly formed political parties, start to contest local and state elections.

It is as if the floodgates have opened, and the common citizen, the Aam Janta have said “Enough”. The initial reluctance of our generation, to participate in a political process widely regarded as venal and corrupt, has given away to the realisation that Politics matters. We can no longer abdicate the space of Governing our nation to the lowest common denominator. We can and must participate constructively, not just in the political debate, but in the process itself.

In the past four years I have been asked repeatedly if I would stand again; from which constituency and what my campaign strategy would be. Friends and well wishers have been generous with advice and offers of support, that I greatly value.

But it was a simple question from a child that has dominated my thoughts over the past four years.  “Why are you standing” she asked, “and what do you stand for ?”

To answer this question, I started to undertake a series of exploratory journeys. The first into the issues that our country grapples with. The problems of education and health; of law and order and human rights; of poverty and corruption; of water, energy and food security…and of the best practices and policies that India could adopt, to address these challenges.

But it soon became evident that my ideas were shaped by my own background and perspectives – that of a banker who had grown up in urban India. In my years of banking I had learnt one thing – if you make the wrong assumptions, you make the wrong decisions – and such mistakes can be very expensive. There is no better way to understand the business and prospects of clients than to spend time with them in the field and understand the dynamics and drivers of their business.

Since India lives in her villages, it became clear to me, that this is where I would have to go. So in the summer of 2012, I embarked on a journey to the villages of India. During the course of the year I visited 15 states and spent time in over 120 villages. For the most part I traveled by public transport and lived in the homes, for a day and a night, with the women beneficiaries of my bank’s foundation.

Some of the stories of the journey have been shared with you through this blog and posts on Face book and twitter, and much of it still remains to be told. But the thread that ran through each and every step of this path, was that despite all the cynicism and sense of hopelessness that we experience when we watch TV or read the papers, the heart of India beats strongly.

The dignity and generosity with which I was welcomed into the homes, of women who had very little, will stay with me for ever.

In home after home, my hostesses refused to take any compensation for the hospitality they provided me. The true meaning of “Atithi Devo Bhava” came home to me when in one instance my gift of a saree was gracefully accepted and then in return I was presented her “shaadi ka joda”. Despite the  hard physical labour which they put in over long hours (women everywhere in our country rise at dawn and work till late at night), there was always time for the sharing of stories and for the gift of laughter. It became abundantly clear to me that the women of our country have very big hearts and very broad shoulders.

But it also became clear to me, that we are eroding this moral fibre of our people with the policy of hand-outs and give-aways that every political party is adopting for short-term electoral gains.

In Gram Sabhas, I was often asked aggressively by male villagers, as to what I had come to give them. The plethora of Government schemes driven by electoral promises, delivered inefficiently and with innumerable leakages, is creating a climate of entitlement. This is worsened by well-meaning NGO’s who see development through the lens of charity.

In other villages I was asked for help in accessing bank loans. Initially very pleased at this request, I was distressed to learn the reason bank loans were preferred to all other forms of credit was that “they never had to be repaid – as they were invariably written off before the next election.”

Flag ship schemes such as MGNREGS, which if well executed can transform districts (ref my blog on the Bankura experiment) are in general so poorly implemented that they are becoming major vehicles for corruption and theft. Villagers across the country confided how they had received money despite doing no work, but also shared that they did so in the knowledge that everyone up the chain had taken a much larger cut. “Is it not fair that we should get our share ?” was the simple question.

So we have embarked on a path, where policies that ostensibly aim to provide social justice and inclusion are becoming ruinous. From the recent experience of some countries in Europe, it is clear that such policies are not financially sustainable in the long run and result in the impoverishment of the finances of a nation. What is worse, is that through the collateral damage they create, they impoverish the soul of a nation.

We are converting a proud and dignified people into those who are dependant on hand-outs. This will destroy the future of our children.

The second major concern that I gathered on this journey, was the erosion of faith in our Institutions. The common man has begun to doubt the pillars that are the very foundation of this country – the police, the judiciary, the CBI, various constitutional bodies, and even the Armed Forces.

These are institutions that we look up to, to uphold our rights as free citizens – no matter what our social status or incomes, no matter what our gender, community, caste or religion. We can only be equal in the eyes of the law if there are institutions that defend and uphold our rights, not just in letter but in spirit.

But sadly, whether this is justified or not, the people of India have begun to feel that the integrity of these important institutions have been compromised. This will erode the faith of citizens in the state and the very basis of our democracy.

We are at a tipping point.

Ours is a nation of hard-working, innovative, entrepreneurial people who are decent, God-fearing and honest. Our people have no need for charity, nor is it in their nature to cheat or defraud anyone. We are not a corrupt nation but sadly some of our leaders are. It is not the people of India who have let our country down, but regrettably much of our political leadership has.

It is time for all of us to take a position in defending what we believe to be right. And so, this is why I stand.

And this is what I stand for :

I stand for the soul of India.

I stand to uphold the integrity of our institutions.

And I stand for the dream of every mother who believes that the future of her child will be bright – based on his/her own hard work and because she/he had no more, but also no less, than a fair and equal opportunity.

Gram Swaraj…The villages of Assam


The villages of Assam are beautiful.

Surrounded by lush green paddy fields, bamboo clusters and tall slim Areca (betel) nut trees define the boundaries of each village, and within the village of each homestead. Eco friendly, and customised to suit Assam’s climatic conditions, the walls of houses are built of bamboo, and covered with mud. Roofs which were traditionally of thatch, from the tall elephant grass native to the area, are gradually being replaced by tin roofs. Each home generally has its own water source in the form of a well or a hand pump and sometimes more affluent households also have a small fish pond.

Adjacent to the house is a small vegetable garden, a few fruit trees (typically mango, banana, pineapple, Assam lemon, and Areca nut) and an animal shed (most homes have at least one cow, a few goats, and a few chickens or ducks, and if it is a tribal home often a few pigs). There is usually a small bathing space adjacent to the well, with walls made from dried Areca leaves. The boundary wall of the homestead is constructed of similar material, providing privacy yet easy passage.

A homestead traditionally consists of 4 rectangular rooms built around a courtyard. The first is the living room, the second the kitchen, the third the store room and the fourth a shed that houses the family loom and farm implements. At the centre of the courtyard is the place of worship. In Bodo households this takes the form of a Cactus (zizu tree) which is the symbol of Bathou their supreme God. In Hindu households one usually finds a Tulsi plant (holy basil) taking centre place. In the homes of the tea tribes one finds further elements of decoration with designs on the walls often embedded with small pieces of glass. Betel leaf (paan leaves) are grown as creepers on the walls. Flowering plants are found in every home, providing both fragrance and beauty.

Assamese villages are not just aesthetic but also very clean. Homes here, like in villages everywhere in India, are spotless. What is noticeably different, is how clean the common spaces and pathways are. This is true across the board, of tribal villages, migrant villages and mixed community villages. Homes are generally organised in a geometrical grid, on either side of straight pathways, overlooking their own farms. Land holdings vary quite considerably in size, with the average size across Assam (as per official statistics) being 1.1 hectares.

Every village has a common community hall, adjacent to a small temple or namgorh. Most of the meetings I had with Women’s Self Help Groups and Farmers clubs were held in such halls. Open sided and airy, but covered with a sturdy roof, to keep out the rain, these provide an all weather meeting space, for the village. They also serve as the community space for music, dance, theatre and religious discourse in a tradition established by the great Assamese Bhakti saint Sankara Deva who provided Assam with a sense of cultural identity and unity in the 15th century.

I was also delighted to find that every village has a Primary school (up to Class V) with spacious play grounds. Mid day meals are provided free of cost and attendance is good. Teachers are usually from the village itself. Many of these schools are set up as “Venture” schools, whereby some resources are provided by villagers, and the state provides a grant in addition. This seems to provide the much needed element of local parental control to ensure the desired quality of education. Middle / High schools usually serve a cluster of villages and are generally within a radius of 5-7 kms. Both children and adults use bicycles to commute and the quality of roads (as attributed through sign boards to the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna !) is excellent.

In contrast medical facilities seem sparse and inadequate. Where Primary Health centres exist, they are usually unstaffed or at best staffed by a compounder. Many villagers attributed this to past insurgency where doctors were often victims of kidnapping or extortion. Though the region is rich in medicinal herbs, practitioners of traditional medicine, were few and far between. Thanks to the national Maternity health program that incentivises delivery at a hospital rather than at home, mid wives are also a vanishing breed.

Families are generally small with an average of 2-3 Children. Elders seem to be an integral part of the household, and are treated with obvious respect and care. There appeared to be no gender bias, with girls and boys treated with the same amount of affection and provided with equal access to education. Villagers acknowledged that there was a cultural bias towards superstition, and many spoke in hushed voices of black magic and witch hunts.

Several villages have been provided electricity through the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojna, though electricity supply tends to be erratic. Villagers pay for electricity, reporting rates of between Rs 4.20 per unit to Rs 9 per unit ! Construction of toilets is limited – ranging from 10- 40 %. Penetration of mobile phones was high, averaging 75-90%.

There has traditionally been no culture of individual savings, but over the past year the women have taken to the concept of Savings cum loans SHGs enthusiastically. Average savings range from Rs 10 – Rs 25 per week. Loans are granted to members at interest rates of 2 %. – 4% per month. When I expressed surprise at the high rates, they patiently explained that it made calculation easier ! They also explained that as profits would be shared amongst members of the SHG, the rate in itself did not matter…a good lesson in the principles of co- operative banking. No more than 2-3 women in each village had a bank account, and there was a general complaint that banks were both too far and too unresponsive to be useful (average of 5 day long trips to open an account).

Identity papers in the form of ration cards, or voter ID cards were rarely available. No one had heard of the UID or Aadhar project. Job cards were available with BPL families but usage of the MG NREGS scheme was limited – and experience of receiving payments was poor. The general perception was that there was a fair amount of corruption associated with the scheme, though on probing there was very poor knowledge about the actual details.

Mahatma Gandhi describing the ideal of Gram Swaraj, said ” Independence begins at the bottom… A society must be built in which every village has to be self sustained and capable of managing its own affairs…

Viewed from this perspective Assamese villages and households are almost completely self sufficient. They grow their own rice, vegetables and fruit, get fish and shrimps from the village ponds or paddy fields, milk from their cows and egg and meat from the animal they rear. They build their houses themselves from local material, and spin and weave their own clothes. Many traditional homes rear silkworms for the golden Muga or durable Eri silk, which forms a secondary source of income. Most households are also able to generate surpluses through the sale of rice, vegetables, meat and fruit, or of woven cloth bamboo and betel nut.

Not surprising therefore, that at the time of Independence Assam had a higher per capita income than the national Indian average. Given the relatively non feudal and egalitarian nature of Assamese society, and the self sufficient prosperity of its villages, Gandhi ji is said to have described Assam as Ram Rajya.

Regrettably the problems of the past few decades have disturbed this idyllic paradise. Ethnic tensions and violence have disrupted not just peace but traditional local self governance structures. There is little faith in the Village Council Development Committees (VCDCs that operate in Schedule VI districts such as Bodoland) where members are selected rather than elected. Though the performance of villages where there were Gram Panchayats with elected Panchayat members seemed to inspire more confidence, the general impression conveyed was that once appointed / elected local representatives got arrogant and corrupt.

Depending on where one was, there was a sense of reserve and wariness, and in a few cases of resignation and despair in the eyes of villagers. Though peace has returned to the region there is an under current of fear that this is no more than a temporary armistice.

This is truly a pity – for this beautiful state has much to offer its citizens and the rest of the country. Assam has the potential to become if not the food basket, the fruit and vegetable basket of India. With abundant rainfall, fertile soil and favourable climatic conditions the potential of this state is enormous.

To unleash this potential will take statesmanship – and also leadership in tackling issues that have reminded un- resolved for too long.



Hamlets of Meghraj


One of the most unforgettable memories of my childhood, was watching Bimal Roy’s classic movie, Do Bigha Zamin . The tragic story of Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy, and their unsuccessful efforts to retain their small piece of land, became etched in my mind as the fate of the Indian farmer, struggling against all odds.

So when I visited the Adivasi hamlets of Navagraha and Guyvaachada in the Meghraj block of Sabarkantha district in North Gujarat, sub consciously I feared I would see a similar picture of sadness and despair. Without access to irrigation, these village hamlets are Rain-fed and therefore much poorer than the villages I had visited in Mehsana. The soil is rocky, and land holdings which have been fragmented over time, measure no more than 1 or 2 Bighas at most ( 1 Bigha is 1/3 of an acre).

Fortunately, even though the lives of villagers in these hamlets remains extremely tough, the grinding poverty of the past seems to have been eliminated, thanks in large part to watershed works.

Funded by Nabard under a Central Government scheme, Watershed work was started in 11 villages in the Sabarkantha district in 1999. The scheme was structured so as to involve local communities, and the contribution of Villagers was in the form of Shramdaan (the gift of self labour). Most watershed structures were constructed from mud so as to demonstrate to the villagers that these were effective and that they could be locally constructed and repaired when necessary without expensive materials.

The watershed work proved effective, and Water started getting recharged in wells and tube wells, to the extent that there was sufficient water for at least one crop in the Rabi season.

In 2005, the Nabard scheme was withdrawn. In 2007, the RBS Foundation was approached by DSC (founded by the late Anilbhai Shah), to support a Livelihood Enhancement Program through
Natural Resource Management (LEP NRM)
in the same 11 villages, so as to ensure that the progress achieved was consolidated and enhanced through further capacity building and market linkages.

The Adivasi villages of Meghraj are beautiful and picturesque. Though the homes are simple mud structures and the full extent of land fragmentation is clearly visible, each house is aesthetically decorated with natural paints and colors. The small Aangans (courtyards) are filled with flowering plants and the surroundings are fragrant and clean. There is a sense of great peace and tranquility about these villages.

The structure of these villages is noticeably different from the villages that I saw in both Kutcch and Mehsaana. Instead of being clustered together, homes here are located alongside the land holding of the owner. Thus the village of Navagraha with 253 houses and a population of approx 1500 people, is very spread out and as a consequence consists of several hamlets, comprising 30 – 40 households each. As sons come of age and marry, they leave their parents’ home, and build a small mud hut on the portion of land allotted to them.

Somewhat to my surprise, each home had an electric connection (power was generally available for 8 hours a day) and mobile connectivity (including 2G ) was reasonably good. However no home that I visited in Navagraha or Guyvaachada either had either a water connection, or a toilet.

For my stay in this area, our field staff had therefore, placed me in the home of Jaya Ben and Babu Bhai, located 5 minutes away from the village primary school, where there was a small toilet.

The story of Babu Bhai and Jaya Ben, my hosts, was thankfully a much happier one than that of Balraj Sahni and Nirupa Roy ! Though they also owned only Do Bigha Zamin, ( 2/3 of an acre) the watershed work of the past years had replenished the well on their land. For the last few years the Rabi wheat crop had provided sufficient Grain to feed their family of five.

Through the RBS LEP NRM project, agricultural assistance had been provided to the farmers in Meghraj block, to plant organically grown and pesticide free spices like Adrak (Ginger), Haldi (Turmeric) and Saunf (Anise). As part of the program, women of the village were assisted to form a Self Help Group (SHG) called Sangam, to clean, sort, grade, and pack the spices. They also set up a vermicompost pit, to supply organic fertiliser to the village farms.

The Sangam SHG is today a registered cooperative society of 650 women in the Sabarkantha area. Started in 2008 with a focus on providing women with a means of small savings, the accumulated savings of the group today exceeds Rs 650,000. Loans of up to Rs 15000 are granted once Rs 3000 has been saved. In 2009, it was registered as a Federation, and the SHG moved to stage 2 with a focus on income generation through vermicompost ; and packing, grading, sorting, and selling of spices. And in 2011 it was registered as a Cooperative Society.

Many of the women of Navagraha had been beneficiaries of the MG NREGA scheme in its early years – undertaking hard labour for road construction etc. As they shared their journey, one said to me in Gujarati : “Without Sangam our only alternative was hard manual labour. Now we have the confidence to stand on our own feet !”

Jaya became an early and enthusiastic member of the Sangam SHG, and her income from these activities became a useful second source of income for the household.

Through the incremental income so generated Babu bhai and Jaya ben were able ( like several other villagers ) to buy a cow and a few goats, which became a third source of income.

Though they are still a family that is categorised as living Below the Poverty Line (BPL) Babu bhai and Jaya ben were very gracious and hospitable hosts. I spent a wonderful night sleeping in their courtyard, under the stars, and very much enjoyed listening to the story of their life and interacting with their 3 young sons : Jitendra in class XII, Mayank in class VII ( who broke me a fresh neem Datun from the neem tree at dawn !) and Dharmik in class VII.

We discussed cropping patterns in detail. Like other farmers in the area, Babu Bhai was now exploring planting cotton, as he had heard that other farmers had received a good price last year. As we spoke with other farmers in the Navagraha watershed committee, it was clear that more and more of them were considering moving to cash crops notwithstanding the fact that cultivating crops like cotton was very water intensive.

In passing, I saw a basket filled with Moong Dal (a staple lentil). On asking, it emerged that Moong grew extremely well in this area with little effort – and also with little need for water. It could also be grown as both a Rabi (winter) and Kharif (summer) crop. And so we had a really interesting conversation, where we sat and calculated what the return on investment would be if Babu Bhai planted Moong instead of cotton. It soon became clear that given current prices of Dal, and projections of continued shortfall in domestic production, planting Moong instead of cotton could be a much better idea !

Though until this point he had regarded Moong as a crop only to be cultivated only for personal consumption, I was impressed with the swiftness with which Babu Bhai grasped the calculations, and his follow up with our field staff to establish market linkages should he chose to plant Moong for the Kharif season. The interaction taught me a powerful lesson : Our farmers don’t need protection – all they need is access to accurate market information, and to efficient and fair markets, and they will not only thrive but also ensure the food security of our country.

This point was reinforced when I met Babli Ben, a very hard working widow from the neighbouring hamlet of Guyvaachada. She had an even smaller land holding of only 1 Bigha. Perennially dry, the land had lain fallow for many years.

However post the watershed works, she had started to observe water levels rising in the wells around the village. So she took her courage in her hands and sought a loan of Rs 20,000 from the Sangam SHG, to sink a bore well. Fortunately she struck water, and was able to plant Saunf for the Rabi season. As she proudly showed me her harvest, she confided that it would sell for more than Rs 10,000 allowing her to repay half her loan in the first year itself !

Encouraged by the tremendous self reliance and hard work of villagers like Babu Bhai, Jaya Ben and Babli Ben, the RBS Foundation has extended our support till 2015 and brought a further 7 villages of Sabarkantha under the purview of the project.

As in the case of Mehsana, the road to prosperity in the hamlets of Sabarkantha, has begun with that most precious of all commodities – water; but it is being cemented by the hard work and entrepreneurship of simple villagers like Babli Ben, Babu Bhai and Jaya Ben, whose stories fill one with both happiness and hope.


Holy Cows and Wild Silk

washing cows near Alleppey, Kerala, India

Image via Wikipedia

Today I came across two wonderful & inspiring stories. Though seemingly un-correlated, they had the common thread of sustainability, running through them.

The first concerned our Holy Cow, and in particular the tiny Vechur cow, native to Kerala. It is the world’s smallest cattle breed  – a full-grown cow stands only 90 com high ! It nevertheless yields up to 3 litres of milk a day and requires very little by way of feed or maintenance.

In an article in the Hindu, P Sainath explains how several native breeds of Bos Indicus (native Indian cattle) have been driven to near extinction by the misplaced enthusiasm to promote cross-bred cattle. In Kerala, the Livestock Improvement Act of 1961, gave the licensing officer the power to order castration of bulls of native species. A farmer ordered to do so had to comply within 30 days. An amended act in 1968 mandated fines and imprisonment for those who failed to comply. No surprise then, that by 2000, the Vechur was on the FAO’s “Critical maintained Breeds List” (to qualify the number of breeding females is less than 100; or the number of breeding males is less than 5; or the overall count is 120 and falling)

Dr Sosamma Iype, retired Professor from the Kerala Agricultural University (KAU), led the drive to save the Vechur. In 1988, she started a search for Vechur survivors; found and bought 8 animals, and saved the breed from certain extinction. The Vechur Conservation trust she founded in 1998, now promotes the cause of not just the Vechur but other Kerala breeds of cattle, goats, pigs and ducks !

Says Chandran Master, a former English teacher who has devoted his life to preserving indigenous cattle breeds, on the official mind-set on cattle “The cow for them is just a milk production machine. Their view has no room for the composition and quality of milk. Much less for the role of cattle in agriculture and in a farmer’s life. None at all for the impact on the environment, diversity or community” 

The second story is that of Rashmi Bharti, who today received the Janki Devi Bajaj Award, for the best woman rural entrepreneur of 2011.

In 1997, along with her husband, Rashmi set up a Voluntary organization called Avani in a remote part of the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. Started as a chapter of Bunker Roy‘s Barefoot college of Tillonia, Avani now covers 101 villages helping villagers to make a respectable living, while continuing to stay in their villages. 

In 2005 Avani founded Earthcraft – a cooperative venture that now works under the management of local villagers, to produce among other things, exquisite silk fabrics and garments from wild silks. Silk cocoons are collected in the wild, from local plant species – Eri, Tussar and Muga. The silk is mostly hand spun and produced from pierced cocoons after the moth has escaped and hence qualifies as ahimsa or non violent silk.

Their products have been showcased at the Ethical fashion show in Paris, and are recognised as a green brand : hand spun, hand-woven, naturally dyed, zero waste, entirely organic, and fair price ! They have succeeded through high quality, green products, that have their roots in the community but reach out to the modern and sophisticated customer.

Avani and Earthcraft  have empowered women in these remote Kumaoni villages by making them economically self-reliant. It has become possible for families to live together for the first time in many generations. Lack of opportunities, in the past, had forced mass migrations of the men away from the villages, in search of work. The way of life of these hard-working people and their traditional skills in spinning, dyeing and weaving textiles were slowly but surely becoming as extinct as the Vechur cow.

The words of Chandran Master, when he describes the manner in which our official policies have treated the Holy cow, have a sad resonance in our attitude towards the traditional way of life in our villages. The popular belief in intellectual circles is that urbanisation is both inevitable and desirable.

My Lok Sabha campaign in 2009, took me through every alley of the slums, and chawls of South Mumbai. It gave me an insight into the desperate lack of dignity that our cities impose on the hard working migrants who come here seeking their livelihood. Since then I have questioned if this is the future we want for our people.

Rashmi’s work in making Kumaon’s villages self-sustaining, gives one hope that an alternative reality may be possible.

While accepting her award Rashmi compared EarthCrafts products to the hill women who produced them as being “steady, tough and beautiful !”

I can think of no better words to describe these two remarkable ladies – Dr Sosamma Iype, and Rashmi Bharti. With more women like them, not just our Holy Cows and Wild Silks, but our country itself would have a chance at a better future !