The Cauvery river water dispute and beyond…(1st part)

September 24, 2016 2 comments

The home office of the UK government has predicted that future migrations will be led not by economic reasons but by the availability of water and good weather.  Future wars have been predicted over water and its use. The recent dispute over the sharing the Cauvery waters is now clearly demonstrating that such events are no longer something that will happen in the distant future but issues that we will have to deal with, in the here and now.  The Cauvery water dispute has been simmering for over a century but we are yet to find a peaceful and mutually acceptable solution.  This issue is no longer one of mere water sharing or a farmer’s issue, but has evolved into an inter-state dispute, an expression of linguistic chauvinism and a tool for manipulative politicians.  Amidst all the noise and fire of burning vehicles, we seem to be losing sight of the larger issue of ‘water’ and how we are using it.

While it is genuinely emotional for many, I found that very few had a full understanding of what the complete issue was or the historicity of the dispute.  Trying to find a resolution without fully comprehending the problem will only leave the issue festering. The Cauvery basin is a system of rivers consisting of the Cauvery and its various tributaries such as the Hemavati, Kabini, Bhavani, Amaravati and others. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are the primary states in the Cauvery basin. However, a small part of the basin is in Kerala and, at the fag end of its course, the Cauvery delta includes Karaikal which is a part of the union territory of Puducherry. The crux of the Cauvery dispute is a conflict of interests between a lower riparian state (Tamil Nadu) which has a long tradition of irrigated agriculture by substantial utilisation of Cauvery waters, and an upstream state (Karnataka) which started late in irrigation development. However, Karnataka made rapid strides in irrigation facilities along with advantage of being an upper riparian  state which provides it with greater ability to control the flow of the river. Kerala (an upstream state with a modest demand for Cauvery waters) and Puducherry (the lowest riparian with a small demand) have subsequently become parties to this dispute.

The Cauvery water dispute has a long history and it goes back to the 19th century. The principal parties then were the Madras Presidency in British India and the princely state of Mysore. The dispute arose over objections raised by Madras to the new irrigation projects which the then Mysore government wanted to take up. The primary opposition was based on the ‘Doctrine of Prior Appropriation’ i.e., farmers from Madras were the first to use the waters of the Cauvery from the era of the Cholas, who had built an excellent irrigation system in the Thanjavur Delta, and had, therefore, acquired elementary rights over the Cauvery waters by prescription.  After prolonged wrangling and subsequent discussions, an agreement was signed in 1892 by the erstwhile Mysore State and the then Madras Presidency.

When Sir M. Visvesvaraya decided to build the Krishnaraja Sagar dam, the Govt of Madras was agitated over the size and the storing capacity of the K.R. Sagar reservoir and refused to give its consent to Mysore under the 1892 agreement. The dispute was then referred to arbitration for the final decision.  Sir H. D. Griffith, the arbitrator, gave an award in 1914 which was favourable to Mysore and the same had also been ratified by the British Government of India. The Madras government appealed to the Secretary of State for India. Eventually, the British Government prevailed upon Mysore for an amicable settlement with Madras and the agreement of 18 February 1924 was signed. Under the 1924 agreement, Mysore undertook not to build fresh irrigation projects either on the Cauvery river or its tributaries, without the prior consent of Madras. Madras also agreed not to refuse consent except to protect its prescriptive rights.  The 1924 agreement also provided for the review of certain clauses after 50 years i.e., in 1974, but the review did not take place nor was the agreement terminated or renewed.

A few years before 1974, the dispute over Cauvery flared up once again.  Mysore’s argument was that, according to clause XIV of the 1924 agreement, if the Tamil Nadu government built reservoirs on the Bhavani, the Amaravathi or the Noyal— the tributaries of the Cauvery in Tamil Nadu— Mysore would be entitled to construct offset storage reservoirs on the tributaries of the Cauvery within its jurisdiction. Tamil Nadu had already constructed reservoirs on both the Amaravathi and the Bhavani.  The Hemavathi reservoir’s potential, which  Mr Dharna Vira, the then Governor of Mysore ordered to be raised, was estimated to be 34 TMCF (thousand million cubic feet). Some leaders of Mysore also made a case for four more projects of the Kambadakadi, the Yagachi, the Lakshmana Thirtha and the Sagab Doddakere which together was supposed to create a potential of 10 TMCF. When added to 34 TMCF of the Hemavathi, it would have been 44 TMCF. They argued that if every TMCF of water upto 45 TMCF was not impounded before 1974, the control of Mysore on the water would be permanently lost.

We now need to see the dispute from the context of the realities that had changed by this time. Karnataka (Mysore) was no longer a native state under the British but stood on equal footing with Tamil Nadu (Madras). The re-organization of states brought about enormous changes in the territories of both the States which changed the equation of the riparian areas. Kodagu — which was not a party to the 1924 agreement— became a part of Mysore besides being the birthplace of the Cauvery. And Kerala— which was not a party to the 1924 agreement— became a party to the dispute.  Whether the 1892 and 1924 agreements continued in force and bound Tamil Nadu and Karnataka as successor states to the old Madras Presidency and Mysore state was also a point of contentions between the states.

In July 1986, Tamil Nadu made a formal proposal to the Central Government under the Interstate Water Disputes Act (ISWD Act) 1956 to set up a tribunal and resolve the dispute. However, the Rajiv Gandhi-led Central government dithered on setting up a tribunal and continued to favour a policy of negotiated settlement. Finally, during a hearing on a petition by few farmers’ association of Tamil Nadu to the Supreme Court (SC) of India, seeking an assurance of irrigation water from the Cauvery, the Apex Court instructed the central government to establish a tribunal within 30 days. In agreement with the SC Order, the government of India established the Cauvery Water Tribunal on 2 June 1990.  In 1991, an interim order was passed by the Tribunal in response to a plea by Tamil Nadu that since the adjudication process would be time-consuming, there was a need for some assured availability of water for irrigation in the Cauvery basin in the state. The Interim order directed that Karnataka should ensure an annual release of 205 TMCF of Cauvery waters to Tamil Nadu (of which six TMCF should go to Puducherry). The Tribunal also laid down a detailed monthly schedule of releases.

In its final order that the Tribunal issued, it proceeded on the basis of an annual availability of 740 TMCF in the Cauvery on a “50 percent dependability” basis and made an allocation as follows
Tamil Nadu 419 TMCF
Karnataka 270 TMCF
Kerala 30 TMCF
Puducherry TMCF

Out of 14 TMCF left, 10 was meant for “environmental protection” and four was factored in for the “the inevitable escapages into the sea.” For years of low rainfall, the Tribunal envisaged a proportionate adjustment of the allocations. The Tribunal also recommended the establishment of a Cauvery Management Board to monitor the monthly schedules and act as a “regulatory authority”.

The present position of both the states is, to a large extent, rooted in their refusal to give up burdens of the past that they carry. Tamil Nadu revels in nostalgic imagery of an agro-civilization that flourished on the intricately complex irrigation network build by the Chola empire, and the historic head start it enjoyed on the use of Cauvery water. An emotional feeling driven by a sense of vulnerability, that it is in the mercy of Karnataka for irrigation needs, drives its often hawkish position in negotiation. Karnataka, on the other hand, feels that 1924 agreement was an unjust one forced on a weak Mysore state. It has steadfastly refused to accept the basic principle of riparian law and continues to hold a tacit position that points to the primacy of upper riparian state. Karnataka is also of the view that the explosive growth of Bengaluru into a metropolis and its ever growing water needs have not been factored in by the authorities

One of India’s foremost water policy experts, the late Ramaswamy R. Iyer suggested the following: “As for Karnataka, what is important is not the allocation of 270 tmcft to it but the fact that it has to release 192 TMCF to Tamil Nadu. In most years, the flow from Karnataka to Tamil Nadu will be higher than that figure. It is only in a year of low rainfall that difficulties may be experienced. In other words, even the release of 192 tmcft (which was earlier described as of operational significance) really means nothing in a normal year: the crucial point – and this is what has been causing all the trouble – is the sharing of water in a distress year. Here the Tribunal has offered no formula but has stated the principle of proportionate adjustment and has left the detailed management of this to the proposed Cauvery Management Board and its committees.”

One fails to understand the logic or the basis on which the Supreme court has based its recent order of releasing water while Karnataka itself is in a distress situation.  While we do seem to lack both the political and legal leadership with the vision to articulate the needs and the present situation scientifically and rationally, the citizens need to think thru alternate means of putting the demands across and clear strategies for comprehensive water use.  What the state of Karnataka needs to immediately demand is a clear and practical formula to arrive at an understanding on how water will be shared in distress years. Each state projects a figure based on what it thinks it needs and the sum of those figures far exceeds the availability of water in the river itself.  Keeping aside the emotions, the people of both states have to realize that it is bad water management and politics that has been keeping a permanent solution at bay.  Both states seem to lack mature and statesmanly political leadership with the vision to see beyond the Cauvery river.  Water management is not just about storing or releasing water.  It is not about rhetoric but doing the hard adaptive work of getting to realize that each of us have a role to play in this.

What can be specifically done to alleviate the water crisis?….to be continued in the next article
– Balu

Categories: General, Musings

Passing in on…

August 31, 2016 4 comments

“Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.”
– Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

A couple of months ago, Mr Mudre who oversees our palliative care program came to me choked with emotion.  Unsure of what had transpired, I was curious to know what had moved him so much. Working in palliative care is very emotionally demanding and our team members have to deal with pain, suffering, death and all the emotions that come along with them on a daily basis.  Mudre explained to me how he had recently received a donation of Rs 5000 from one, Ms.  Susheelamma (name changed to ensure privacy).  She had personally come to our office and presented him with the money.  The story behind this gesture of Susheelamma is something that will move and inspire any person.

Susheelamma, her husband and two children lived in a very small 100 sft house in Mysore city.  Her husband, Suresh (name changed to ensure privacy) was working as a daily wage laborer in the city’s water supply department while she worked as a housekeeper in a local hotel.  Her older daughter who was married and separated lived with her while her younger son had a job in large departmental store.  Suresh who was a known diabetic and hypertensive was unfortunately diagnosed with cancer of the stomach.  His illness forced Susheelamma to borrow heavily and the family sunk deep into debt.  Our palliative care team started to provide support to this family and visited them every week.  They knew that Suresh was soon going to die, and all that the team wanted was for him to die with dignity.  Despite expensive treatment and surgery, Suresh succumbed to his terminal illness a year ago leaving the family emotionally and economically shattered.

Susheelamma slowly returned back to her job and continued to work as a house keeper.  But she never could forget the love, attention, care and medical support that was given to her by SVYM’s palliative care team.  All that she could think of now was the support that she had received in her times of distress.  And she wanted to repay this debt in her own way.  She felt that the best way would be to donate whatever she had now saved with great difficulty over ten months to the Palliative Care Program of SVYM.  Her view was that this money could be used by the team for helping another family like hers.  She felt that she owed it to society for having extended its helping hand when she needed it.

Any amount of dissuasion could not stop her from making this contribution.  Though she had her debts to repay, she felt strongly that she had to do this.  This was her way of remembering her husband too.  People like Susheelamma are the ones that give us the inspiration to carry on against all odds.  Poverty is indeed something difficult to comprehend unless one experiences it personally.  In India, it is known that more than 70% of families who are just above the poverty line slip back into poverty due to an incidence of illness in their families.  Despite claims of the nation’s GDP growing at 7.5%, there are still large number of families who are still excluded from mainstream economies.  To complicate matters further, the public health system in our country is still not at a level where Universal health care can even be a remote possibility.  Compounding this is the waning interest of governments of the day in social sector interventions.  It is at times like this that Civil Society organizations can make a huge difference to the marginalized and deserving poor.   And the work of such organizations cannot do without the support of well-meaning individuals in society.    One doesn’t necessarily have to have a rich purse to share… all that it needs is the heart like that of Susheelamma who even in times of difficulty could think of others worse off than her.  She is truly rich despite staying poor.

Categories: General, Story of SVYM

Watch a video of the talk I gave at the IIT-BHU, Varanasi on 11th August 2016 on ‘A development vision for India’

August 19, 2016 4 comments
Categories: General, Musings

Address delivered by me at the 1st convocation of PES University, Bengaluru on 13th August, 2016

August 14, 2016 2 comments

Your Excellency Sri Vajubhai Vala, Governor of Karnataka, Sri Doreswamy Naidu, the Chancellor of PES University, Prof Jawahar, the Pro Chancellor, Dr K N B Murthy, the Vice Chancellor of the University, faculty, staff, students, parents and others present here today:

At the outset, let me congratulate the proud graduates who are here today to this first convocation of the PES university to receive their degrees. I am happy to be here amidst such a wonderful campus, among such acclaimed intellectuals, and outstanding students and scholarship and share your joy and enthusiasm.

Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of convocation address, which is: A elderly person, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you). And I intend to respect that tradition.

Each of you stand on the threshold of shaping your future and preparing for life in a world that seems to be getting increasingly challenging to comprehend, and difficult to come to terms with.  As you stand waiting to explore the adventure that lies ahead of you, you will have to come to terms with the fact that University education can only take you this far… All that your teachers and professors can do is to lay a foundation for you. But you will have to do the hard work of building on it with the skills that this university has honed in you.

I’ve got three things I want to ask you to ‘learn’ as you move forward, and I think these might be kind of counterintuitive, particularly coming from an activist who is unashamedly disruptive, and concerned mainly with social and economic justice.  Here are the three things I’m going to ask of you:
Learn to operate from zones of your incompetence,
Learn to be alive and
Learn to be real

‘Learn to operate from zones of your incompetence’ may sound like advice that is completely out of place in a university convocation.  Universities train you with one set of competences but the danger is that they do not allow us to come to terms with what we do not know.  As we gain competence in one specialized area of our study, we start becoming totally ignorant of our incompetence in other areas. Feeling incompetent is a safe and sure way to keep acquiring the competence you need to grow and thrive in this dynamic world.  The world is changing and progressing at such a rapid pace that no amount of knowledge or skills that you acquire will ever by sufficient or help you face the challenges that man keeps creating for himself today.  Learning to operate from zones of your incompetence will give you the humility to explore; to learn newer skills to build on your existing repository; and more importantly give you the freedom to fail.

We need to understand that intellectual arrogance can cause disabling ignorance and we need to over come this.  And we can overcome this only when we embrace humility with a desire to learn. Only when we have the humility to accept what we do not know, will we embark on the journey of life-long learning. Remember that every person will have something to teach you. If your attitude is that only smarter people or formal Institutions have something to teach you, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody & everywhere, your learning opportunities will be unlimited.

I remember something that happened to me very early in my life.  After my medical graduation, I went to an interior forest area in the Bandipur National Park in Mysore district with a desire to serve the indigenous tribals living there.  On a visit to a small tribal hamlet, I joined the meeting of a women’s self help group that was taking place there. There were around 20 women and they were animatedly discussing what to do with one woman who was repeatedly defaulting on her repayments. I had to come to attend this meeting mainly to establish myself as a doctor who now lived in a tribal colony nearby and was eager to help them with their health problems. I knew that many of them had relatives living in the colony where I lived,  and I had hoped that the news of my dispensary had reached them. After the welcome and the small talk, we slowly started discussing on what they did when they fell sick. Someone told me that her two-year-old child was having an acute diarrheal episode. I saw this as a good opportunity to establish my relevance as a ‘doctor’ and started telling them about Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS). I told them all about diarrhea, how to prevent it, the efficacy of boiling water and ended my talk with how ORS should be prepared and that it should taste like human tears. Little did it occur to me that drinking something tasting like tears required a lot of motivation and may not exactly be something that a two-year-old would like to have. The women were silent and did not respond as enthusiastically as I wanted them to do. I was talking to them about what the World Health Organization (WHO) called the ‘discovery of the century’ and these women just did not seem to care!! Then it occurred to me that these people had more than 10,000 years of anthropological history and must have been having diarrheas all along. They must have been doing something very effective to counter it too. I asked the women what they would do to help this baby. This kick-started a very vibrant and energetic discussion. The women told me that they would spend about a rupee on buying a banana and some flattened rice (called poha in hindi or avalakki in kannada). They would powder the flattened rice and crush the banana and mix the two well. They would then feed this to the baby. If the diarrhea persisted, they would make a decoction out of the peel of pomegranate fruit and make the baby drink it 4-5 times a day.

Here I was, stupidly telling this community to use a poorly tasting drink like ORS while they could give their baby carbohydrates, much needed sodium & potassium and fluids, in a simple yet tasty way. Banana is also a well-known bowel binder. How much traditional wisdom and knowledge exists in such indigenous communities! All that I needed to do was swallow my pride, throw away the arrogance that modern schooling had clouded me with, and come to these people with the humility to learn. One will never be disappointed nor cease to be surprised with the things that people whom we consider ordinary can teach us.

Learn to be Alive
More than a century ago, Swami Vivekananda thundered, “He alone lives who lives for others. The rest are more dead than alive”.  Being alive is appreciating that our education, our success and our achievements are meaningless if it is not undertaken in the spirit of serving others.  And this can happen only when we have a purpose in life that is larger than merely a career.  If a career is all about us and our own attainments, living a purposeful life is all about others and our meaningful contribution in making this world a better place.  Being alive is all about seeking happiness in the happiness of others.

Today’s generation has learnt to celebrate career successes to the point where we have lost focus on what truly matters.  Living your life for others is not limited to only spending your life in the service of others.  Your family, the community around you and your self matters too… Balancing our life’s priorities should include making the time for the people who care about you and about whom you care a lot too.  Taking our family for granted is the common mistake many do.  Life would be worthless if we sacrificed our family and their needs on the altar of career success. Allocation choices can make your life turn out to be very different from what you intended. People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to under invest in their families and over invest in their careers.   You should learn not to worry about the level of individual prominence you have achieved; but learn to worry about the individuals you have helped become better people.

Learn to be Real
To be real is to be yourself. For too long we have come to believe in the images that we and others have been creating for us from a very young age. This comfort-seeking world has convinced you about things that you cannot do and what you are not… From one’s childhood, we are constantly told ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that’.  We are reminded everyday of our own failures and what we cannot and should not be doing.  Very few of us have lived in ecosystems that have celebrated failures and given us the courage and encouragement to believe in ourselves.  The world is now calibrated to measure human endeavor by the narrow metric of financial successes and cognitive attainments.  Any person who sets out to be true to his own inner self and thinks and acts differently is seen as a non-conformist and too disruptive for anyone’s comfort.  Being yourself and not conforming to set patterns that society prescribes for you will allow you to go places where others dread to dare.  You now need to convince yourself of the enormous power and potential within you.  Learn the power of positivism…understand what you truly are…do not try and live upto the images that you give yourself and the world keeps giving you. Do not lose your authenticity…and you will surely succeed in making this world a better place.

Work with your strengths but more importantly build your strengths around what is passionate for you.  And remember that acting on this knowledge of understanding yourself will ensure that you are ‘creatively disruptive’ enough to operate in today’s world of ‘dynamic disequilibrium’.

The changing metrics of success
The benchmark for being successful is rapidly changing…it will no longer be the people who have the skills, knowledge and competence to make money…It will soon be measured by the human and social capital that you enjoy and not by the economic capital that you generate.  And remember that it is not people with PhDs from the best of Institutions who will succeed in the future.  Success cannot be a life where at best there is an absence of failure in our chosen fields…Survival and success is not going to be driven by how much you know or how well you apply what you know. It is going to be driven by disruption…innovation…digital technology, data management and the leadership that can sustain these processes

It is people who can confidently answer ‘yes’ to the following 4 questions that will enable themselves and those around them to succeed…
– Can you be disruptive?
– Can you lead with both passion and compassion?
– Can you learn to work in a digital environment?
– Are you prepared to live and operate in a data rich eco-system?
Understanding disruption is hard. Disrupting is even harder. Disruption literally uproots and changes how we think, behave, do business, learn and go about our day-to-day lives. Harvard Business School professor and disruption guru Clayton Christensen says that a disruption displaces an existing market, industry, or technology and produces something new and more efficient and worthwhile. It is at once destructive and creatively constructive too.

Only when you learn to be alive and authentic can you generate a passion for living.  Living a life for others is what compassion is all about.  Passion with compassion can be the formula for the success that you seek.

Young people like you are born and are growing up in a digital world where boundaries of privacy are getting increasingly blurred.  Only those who have learnt to operate in this highly interconnected digital environment will learn to thrive and prosper.  We live in a knowledge based society and in times of information overload where data is getting thrown at us from multiple directions.  Learning to mine, collect, collate, process and apply data in a productive way is what will discriminate the mediocre from the outstanding.

And it is the people who are life-long learners; people who have learnt to be alive and who have learnt to act with authenticity, will be the ones who will be able to make a real difference in the world today. It is these people who have learnt to not only cope but to grow and thrive in a complex world who will end up exercising the leadership to take humanity forward. Managing ourselves and others around us is creating a revolutionary paradigm…Let us all be a part of it and together work with the determined optimism that is required to make this world a truly great place to live and operate in.  

Wishing you all the very best,

Dr R Balasubramaniam

Categories: General, Musings

My article on ‘NGOs & future of Civil Society’ in today’s Deccan Herald

July 30, 2016 2 comments

The growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) over the last four decades in many parts of the world is phenomenal.  India is known to be home to nearly 3 million NGOs working in different sectors like health, education, rural & tribal development, environment issues and social development amongst others.  They vary in size and sectoral focus and many small charities have now become large, going concerns and some of them rival government departments and private sectors in their scope and ambition.  Few people acknowledge the fact that NGOs are today one of India’s largest employers and have gone into areas where many would dread to enter.  Many of them have done extraordinary work amongst the marginalized and have created platforms for the voiceless across the country.  While the sector has its share of black sheep, one cannot be dismissive about the enormous contributions that a significant number of NGOs have done to the cause of social development in India.  While the Government is well within its rights to demand accountability and transparency from this sector, one should resist the temptation to try and paint all the NGOs with the same brush.  The debate around NGOs usually is one sided depending on which side of the story one likes to hear.  The Government response has been based on anecdotal incidents involving a few high profile NGOs and the changes that it is foisting on the entire sector is likely to have unprecedented consequences.  The debate now should be objective and one needs to address both the myths and the realities that are prevailing and likely to ensue because of the complexity of the eco-system that is getting fashioned by the Government.

The changing taxation laws, the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) act and the constantly changing rules, the Lok Pal act and the inclusion of all key NGO functionaries and Board members as Public servants are a but a few in this list.  On one hand the Govt talks about sustainable development and community participation but is insensitive to attempts by NGOs to become sustainable organizations by themselves.  Limits on the percentage of revenues to determine the ‘Charitable status’ makes the NGOs dependent on external sources of funds –whether it is from donors or Corporates or Government funding.  This frequently reduces many well intentioned NGOs to become contractors delivering welfare services wherever the public systems have failed or have never reached.  While the government wants to promote service agencies, it is now becoming wary of any NGO advocating change or empowering citizens in demanding change.  It does seem ironical that the government is streamlining laws and making it easy for FDI and invites global business leaders to set up operations in India but goes overboard in creating barriers for NGOs from receiving foreign funds or working with global partners. The Government should understand that the ease of doing business should also apply to the development sector and it must not intentionally create barriers that inhibit social action and change.

How poverty is viewed and how it can be tackled is one of the key areas of disagreement.  While the state takes the view of seeing poverty in terms of levels of income, assets, calorie intake, per capita gross national product or a combination of these; many NGOs see poverty additionally as the lack of opportunities, lack of access to Government services, geographical isolation, vulnerability, powerlessness and being ‘voice-poor’. The state response is usually driven by government programs and it finds physical weakness, isolation and income poverty more acceptable and less threatening aspects of deprivation to tackle.  The government tends to neglect discussions around vulnerability and powerlessness which NGOs tend to focus on.  This naturally creates tensions in the relationship and reactionary consequences ensue.  While NGOs may want to see themselves as supplementing Government efforts, the State may see them as threats trying to supplant Government itself.  NGOs also need to appreciate that they do not truly represent ‘civil society’ but only ‘civil interests’.

The changes in the external eco-system will necessarily drive even the best run NGOs to re-configure themselves in order to survive. NGOs will have to now learn new coping mechanisms while at the same time retain the flavour of voluntary action. They will have to learn to survive in hostile environments where politics and tradition compete for pride of place with bureaucracy and international donor agendas. They will have to fashion new strategies to deal with the risks in the environment, their own ambitions, and learn to operate with humility and transparency.  They need to hold themselves accountable not merely to their Boards and donor agencies but also to the Government and the communities that they work with.

The need of the hour is to begin the process of debate and dialogue not just around managing the relationship between the Government and NGOs, but also around the very understanding of poverty and how to manage it collectively.  Unless one appreciates the complexity and enormity of the problem on hand and the need for collective action, this growing tension may result in the disappearance of civil society organizations as we know it.  And the loser will neither be the Government nor NGOs but the people and the nation at large.


NGOs & future of Civil Society – DH article 30 July 2016



Categories: Articles in Press, Musings

Two men…. two very different men

July 1, 2016 7 comments

The media for the last week is talking about two men, two very different men in India.  Both are in politics and seem to always be in the limelight.  One is Subramaniam Swamy and the other is our Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi.  While Swamy seems to thrive on creating issues and controversies, the Prime Minister has to communicate to the Nation and the world not only his Vision for the country’s future but also constantly negate some of the issues associated with the past.

I have had the privilege of having met and interacted with both of them and found them so very different.  I met Subramaniam Swamy when I was at Harvard.  Having heard about this maverick person from India, a few South Asian colleagues suggested that we invite him to lunch and have a chat on many of the issues that he was raising back home in India.

The lunch that we had on that day in August 2009 was indeed memorable. Swamy was a walking encyclopedia and seemed to know just about everything about Indian and South Asian politics and policies.  He could hold any conversation by himself and explain with facts and figures why he believed in what he believed.  He left us all impressed with his intellectual brilliance, his erudition, his impish smile and his ‘never care for anyone or their feelings’ attitude.  When I wanted to know where he found his courage to take on powerful people, his answer was straight and simple – “Having nothing to hide, gives me the courage and the power to expose others who have something to hide.”  Beneath his apparent arrogance, I could see that he did have a lot of valid substantiation to his arguments.  His conversations were built on the foundations of data and authenticity and one could not find any fault with the content of what he said.  What some people have a problem with are the manner in which he says it.  While he may not fit into the definition of a regular politician, I felt that in a country like India where our politicians and senior policy makers have a lot of skeletons in their cupboards,  we need some one like Swamy to show the common man the filth that lays beneath the actions of the sophisticated and powerful people  safely ensconced in their ivory towers.  I left that afternoon thinking that Swamy was truly a master craftsman at Politics. He seemed to know which side of the bread is buttered and intentionally picked his fights and adversaries.  For him, there seemed to be no distinction between politics, policy, publicity and people.  All of this gave him the adrenaline that he needed and he drew his affirmation from both the hatred that his adversaries gave him and the love that his fans showered on him.

I got a call from the Prime Minister’s Office in mid October 2014 informing me that the Prime Minister desired to meet and interact with me on my ‘Development Vision for India’ and what i thought should be the new ‘policy body’  (the present NITI Aayog).   I was both surprised and happy.  Having just two days to prepare left with me nervous and hesitant, but I decided that I would speak from my heart and not worry about anything else.  My appointment was for 20 minutes beginning that evening at 4.30 pm. I had reached Delhi in the afternoon and I got a call from the PMO asking if I could come at 4 p.m. itself.  Hurriedly, I reached the PMO and was made to wait in the outer waiting area outside the room where the PM met with visitors.  Sharp at 4 p.m, the Prime Minister walked in and greeted me warmly. I was stuck by the punctuality, the warmth, show of interest and the positive vibes that he generated.  His entire team of senior bureaucrats had already assembled and I was nervous at the full audience that I had.    As I hesitantly started my presentation, the PM stopped me.  He patiently mentioned that I had not introduced myself and took it on himself to introduce me and what I did to his senior officers.  I was stuck at the level of details that he seemed to know about me.  As I rushed thru my presentation keeping the limits of time in mind,  he politely asked me to go slow and mentioned that he was keen to listen and that he would make the time for me.  What was supposed to be 20 minutes turned out to be the best two hours I have spent explaining my views on what India’s development should be.  What left me floored was the level of detail that the PM wanted to dive into. He was full of questions and patiently listened as I explained my views.  He mentioned to me that he was a man in a hurry and that he had no time for academic theories and wanted to know from my grass root experience what would work and what would not.  His love for the country and for raising her to her rightful place in the comity of nations was very palpable.  Though he constantly encouraged his team to challenge and question my views, I found them to be mostly numbed into silence in his presence.  His sincerity to learn and understand, his commitment to resolve the challenges of poverty, his determination to make growth inclusive was very evident to me.  I was touched by his gentlemanly gesture of walking me out to the door and asking me to call on him whenever I visited Delhi.  I left that evening feeling hopeful and confident that the country had someone at the helm who could now steer her to great heights.

Looking back, reading and listening to the media description of both these persons, I feel that both seem to be more misunderstood than understood.  Both of them are so very different but also so very similar.  Both are difficult to comprehend, predict and understand.  But surely both seem to love what they do and one cannot fault their sincerity and commitment to the cause that they believe in – that of making India greater than what she is today.



Categories: General

My article in today’s Deccan Herald on ‘Refashioning India’s Development Story’

April 4, 2016 5 comments

In the recent World Economic forum, the finance minister of India proudly proclaimed that India was one of the few countries whose GDP was growing and is the envy of other nations.  In his budget speech to the Parliament, he reiterated this fact while maintaining that our GDP would continue to grow in the forthcoming year.  Whether it is the finance minister or our Prime Minister, they do not spare any opportunity to remind the Nation of our economic growth.  While economic growth is a necessity and is welcome, will this alone be enough to shape the destiny of India and its future?  Will the narrative of ‘economic growth’ that our political system and government is fashioning be enough?

Announcements of schemes like ‘Make in India’, ‘Start-up India’, ‘Stand-up India’ and MUDRA will not mean much to the millions of toiling millions, especially in India’s rural areas if we do not see development from a perspective that is different from a blind pursuit of income growth alone.  Development is not just about building airports and highways; it is not even about more roads, hospitals and schools.  They are surely necessary and important, but should only be seen as the consequences of human development rather than the very purpose of it.   Development has also become a buzzword in the past few years and has been used and abused to shape the political and economic discourse of entire nations. It is projected as a broad purpose and justification of all activities, often without answering the questions of whose development and how. Development, in my view should be a ‘constant expansion of human capabilities’ and it can be most meaningful and lasting only when ‘Human’ and ‘Social Capital’ is created and expanded.

This raises the question on whether the many Government welfare and social interventions announced in the recent budget will really bring about any change in the lives of the poor?  Or will it go beyond the political rhetoric and change the face of India.  And what is this change that we desire?  As one thinks about it, one is left wondering if we can bring about change in our attitude, mindsets and physical environment without a change in the entire eco-system.  Will mere income growth and economic progress assure us of these changes?  Or do we need to usher in change at a much deeper human and social level before we begin to reap the ensuing economic consequences?

What kind of human capital are we talking about?  Is it merely the capacity of human beings to acquire enough cognitive information and skills to meaningfully participate and contribute to the ‘economy’?  Or is it something more than that.  What about all the other human capacities that allow him to function freely, responsibly and with dignity?  What about the qualities of compassion, humanism, spirit of enquiry, humor, mindful existence, positive thinking and the intent to be good and do good? Imagine a world that is led by humanity that is responsible in its consumption, respectful of all of nature’s creation, constantly striving for both internal and external peace, harmony and good will.  Such a world would be wonderful indeed, where sharing and caring would be second nature to human kind and the mad rush to acquire everything for just ourselves a thing of the past. Imagine such a world where these self-evolved humans are interconnected and live with the awareness of mutual trust, interdependence and reciprocity.  That is the ‘Social Capital’ that this world badly needs, if it needs to stop hurtling towards self-destruction.

India now needs a new narrative that talks about creating and expanding this human and social capital.  Sustainable development will then not be a mere slogan or a fashion statement that is talked about, but a practical and realistic attempt to build this new ‘India’.   In that new vision for India, development will also be seen as securities and liberties for communities and individuals.  This means that people will have the political space to voice their problems and choose the solution that bests represent them. Dominant players of development – whether they are the Government or Civil Society or the corporate world will then take the time to listen to people with respect and to provide them the platform to articulate their just and legitimate aspirations.  India needs to become a pioneer in translating this vision of development into concrete reality where the rule of law is the norm rather than the exception, where no Indian will go hungry, where human rights is not a mere slogan but a way of life, where democratic participation is not a fanciful aspiration but an everyday expression of citizenship, and where food, nutrition, livelihood, infrastructure, education, health care and religious freedoms are not mere political promises but entitlements of an empowered citizenry. Only when this happens can we call India a ‘Developed Nation’.


DH article 4April2016

Categories: Articles in Press, Musings