What does being a Tata Scholar mean to me…

March 6, 2015 Leave a comment

Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (popularly known as J N Tata and who lived between 1839 to 1904) was one of India’s greatest business-industrialist icons. A patriot, philanthropist, and visionary, he is credited with laying the foundations and largely consolidating the position of Indian Industry and enterprise.  It was in the year 1892 that he set up the JN Tata Endowment.  The main objective of the endowment was to encourage young people to take up higher studies at some of the best universities in the world.  It is the first Tata benefaction in the field of education, and possibly the first of its kind in the world.  Persons receiving this loan scholarship are known as ‘Tata Scholars’ and more than 4700 people have been awarded this scholarship till date.   It is a matter of pride that I also received this scholarship in 2009 to pursue my Master’s program at the Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University.  Getting the scholarship was something that I can never forget. I had secured admission to Harvard in 2008 but could not go, as I did not have the required funds to do so.  Disappointed, I had approached Justice M N Venkatachalliah to seek his advise and he was the one who mentioned to me about the Tata scholarship.  It was then that I had applied to the J N Tata Endowment and was happy to learn after my interview with the committee at Mumbai that I had secured the maximum that the Trust gives out.  Apart from a loan component, it also included a travel grant and this is what gave me the confidence to set sail to the US.

Securing the scholarship was also a matter of joy for a very sentimental reason.  It was in the year 1893 that Swami Vivekananda had met J N Tata and inspired him to build a school of science and technology in India. He had later asked the Maharajah of Mysore to grant land for this Center, which is today known as the Indian Institute of Science.  Getting a scholarship from an endowment instituted by J N Tata was to me special and I felt that maybe it was pre-ordained too.

This year is the 175th birth anniversary of J N Tata and the entire Tata group is celebrating the same.  It was in this connection an alumnus meet was organized at Mumbai by the Endowment.  This kind of meeting was being organized for the first time and nearly 162 people from around the world had gathered at the Crystal room at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel at Mumbai.  This hotel was also another Institution set up by J N Tata and it was only fitting that the event was being held here.  As part of the celebrations, the Endowment had prepared a video titled ‘Lasting Legacies’ and I felt happy that I was one of the six Tata scholars to have been featured on this video.  The entire program was very well organized and the different events were seamlessly interspersed amidst a very sumptuous dinner that was served.  I was truly overwhelmed and humbled to be here amidst the company of some extraordinary men and women.  People who were not only highly qualified but with extraordinary achievements. People like Dr J J Irani, Dr Jayant Narlikar, Dr M R Srinviasan, Dr Renganathan, and Mr Ratan Tata .  Being in the presence of and interacting with such extraordinary men and women, of great achievements in different spheres of human endeavour by itself was an intellectual treat.  I was also deeply impressed with the humility, the quiet presence and the dignity with which Mr Ratan Tata carried himself.  Such a charismatic and special person, that one felt very comfortable in his presence despite he being who he is.

I was one of the few people who were asked to speak and share our stories.  I spoke last and mentioned about the onerous responsibility of the Tata Scholars in making this world a better place and the speech was very well received and appreciated.  It would be no understatement to mention that the 28th of February was not only a special day for me, but has left me with many fond memories of being in the company of truly great and extraordinary men and women.  Now I understand that being a Tata scholar is not just a ‘brand’ or a tag that one carries, but the responsibility of being both a global citizen and a humanist in letter and spirit.


Categories: General

An announcement, with an appeal

January 29, 2015 Comments off

I am happy and excited to write about an upcoming book that I am authoring. Tentatively titled I, the Citizen, the book is based on articles on development and citizen engagement that I have posted on this blog, edited to present reflections and perspectives on development from the point of view of an engaged citizen.

Divided into sections, the volume covers a range of topics from development perspectives and lessons learned from the indigenous communities in South India to development policy at a macro level, from personal and emotional reflections on ground realities to reason and evidence based perspectives on policy. The sections and the articles within the sections flow into each other giving the reader a sense of continuity of thoughts and issues, and yet a look at the broad spectrum of perspectives. Importantly, the belief, experience and the power of citizen engagement reverberates through the articles and the sections giving us the hope and conviction that common people can indeed make a difference.

GRAAM would be the primary publisher of this book. A unique feature of this endeavour is that we are hoping to crowd source the financial resources needed for producing and distributing the book along with good wishes and moral support of our well wishers.

I am absolutely sure of your support in this venture too and am hoping that you will make a generous contribution to enable the book to see the light of the day. For your reference, here’s the book proposal that details the sections containing the articles. Do feel free to write to me for more details or clarifications.

Thanking you, and with the best of my regards


Categories: General

Swami Vivekananda and the Ice House

January 23, 2015 Comments off

Last month I had the privilege of running a leadership workshop for young people at Chennai. More than running the workshop, it was the location where it was being held that excited me. It was being hosted by the Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai and held at the Vivekanandar Illam (Vivekananda House, originally known as the Ice House). What would be so special in a building named after this great saint? After all, our country’s historical landscape is replete with memorials commemorating an extraordinary event or is associated with an outstanding personality in some way. This building overlooking the Marina beach in Chennai is also no different. It is not merely a building named after Swamiji but was something that invoked a special sense of awe and reverence for me.

Swamiji was a constant traveller and he visited Tamil Nadu twice – once in 1892 as a wandering monk and again in 1897 after his triumphal return from the West. He arrived at Pamban in Rameshwaram island on the 26th January 1897 and then travelled through Madurai, Trichy and other places to finally reach Madras (present Chennai). He received an unprecedented reception at the Egmore Railway station where he had reached by train and reached the Castle Kernan (as it was then known) the next day. It was here that he stayed for 9 days, from 6th to 15th of February 1897 and gave his popular talks on ‘My Plan of Campaign’ and ‘The Future of India’. These are two articles that have influenced my life and thinking enormously.

Castle Kernan was earlier known as the ‘Ice House’ where the Tudor Ice Company stored the ice it brought from the United States. The Ice house was built in 1842 by Fredric Tudor. Tudor who was known as the ‘Ice King’ had made his fortune by shipping ice to the Caribbean, Europe and India. He had struck on the idea of harvesting ice from frozen fresh water ponds in and around Boston, cut them into blocks and sold them around the world. He had built three Ice Houses in India – at Calcutta, Bombay and Madras where the ice could be stored for months. Amongst the three buildings, only the one at Madras stands today. Once people learnt to manufacture ice locally, the ice business of his shrank and eventually wound up in 1880. It was then an advocate, Biligiri Iyengar who originally hailed from Mysuru, bought the ‘Ice House’ and renamed it ‘Castle Kernan’ in honour of his good friend Justice Kernan. Biligiri Iyengar and his family lived here till 1906, when family circumstances including the demise of Biligiri in 1902 forced them to auction off the building.


It was also in this building that Swami Ramakrishnananda, another direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa set up the Ramakrishna Math and lived. The Government of Tamil Nadu has now given this building on a long lease to the Ramakrishna Math who have restored it to its original state. The restoration process also has a Mysuru connection with architect Mr. Ravi Gundu Rao overseeing the entire restoration process.

Sitting in the room where Vivekananda lived and spending some quiet moments there was what made the visit very special to me.


Marching Ahead…

January 15, 2015 1 comment

This is a recording of a talk given by me on the theme ‘Marching Ahead’ on the 11th September, 2014 at Bangalore. The talk was organized by Yuva Brigade.

– Balu

Categories: General

Going beyond ‘Swachh Bharat’…building India’s social and human capital

January 10, 2015 2 comments

There is now so much visibility and noise revolving around cleanliness campaigns and waste management around the country.  If it is the challenge of disposal as experienced by the residents of Bengaluru or the media hype around Swachh Bharat, one is indeed impressed by the mind space that this issue is now occupying.  At the end of the day the question that one is left with is ‘Will all this truly make our country clean?’  One recent incident left me not only visibly disturbed but also aware of the enormity and complexity of the problem on hand.  It was around 8 30 in the morning and I was on the way to my office.  The huge metal container (Waste bin) that the City Corporation had put up on the street side was overflowing with stinking domestic waste.  I found a young man standing inside the bin and sorting and picking waste that meant some ‘wealth’ to him.  He was handing over his ‘selections’ to a child standing outside the bin.  This boy was around 8-10 years old and eating out of what looked like a food parcel held in his right hand and receiving the assorted waste and filling up a sack that hung carelessly across his back.

As I looked at the young boy, I wondered whether he being there and leading this life was a mere accident of birth?  Why was it that I was privileged to be in my place and not where he was?  What made it different for me? Will this boy or his family’s economic mobility move him away from this waste bin to something better and higher in life?  Would schooling and education have made a difference in this child having a different vocation after he grows up??  Was this brother or father standing in the bin, the only social connection that this child had?  Would it have been different if this child were part of a larger societal framework that could have stepped in to ensure that he too lived a life of dignity and respect?  Would such societal institutions, whether they are in the Governmental or Civil Society domains have made a difference to not only this child but to also how each of us view such incidents?

This raises the question on whether ‘Swachh Bharat’ will remain a mere slogan and photo op for politicians, movie stars and cricket players.  Or will it go beyond the 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 assures 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?

The British economist Angus Madison in his ‘World Economy – A Millennial Perspective’ had observed how India was the Nation with the largest GDP in the world till the 16th Century.  The degradation in terms of our economy started in the 17th century and by the time we were an independent nation, we became one of the poorest nations in the world.  Beyond mere economics, those 16-17 centuries also saw an enormous expansion of human capability within India.  From Algebra to Calculus, 0 to Pi, from Trigonometry to Astronomy, from large cultural centers to the highest spiritual thought, we were everything you could think of.  Opportunities to excel in every sphere of human endeavor was everywhere, though social barriers did exists for many.  Despite all this, we had a thriving eco-system where creation of human and social capital was the focus.  Huge economic consequences ensued.  One can debate whether our growing economy led to the growth of our human and social capital, or the other way around.  But global experience today shows that sustained economic progress can happen only when there is growth and stabilization of a nation’s social and human resources.

What kind of human capital are we talking about?  Is it merely the capacity of a human being to acquire enough information 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?   Shouldn’t an individual strive to acquire the capabilities that can distinguish him from a mere animal existence and allow him to function as a part of a larger global network!  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.  If this world could be created, then this little boy would not have to stand amidst the filth, picking on what others threw away and just live his life rather than exist as a joyful 8 year old.

Imagine such a world where these self-evolved humans are interconnected and live with the awareness of interdependence and reciprocity.  That is the ‘Social Capital’ that this world badly needs, if it needs to stop hurtling towards self-destruction.  What does this ‘Social Capital’ mean? While there are different ways to define Social Capital, the most commonly understood one is where ‘Social capital’’ is the information, trust, and norms of reciprocity inherent in one’s social networks… They are the seemingly obvious opportunities for mutually beneficial collective action. Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions.  Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions that underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together.  This is what Indian society was well known for – whether it was the joint family system at the micro level, or the highly evolved political and community systems of governance that were thriving at the macro level.  Stories from the Mahabharata and our Puranas clearly expound not only how individual human capital is important, but also lays down the unwritten rule of social capital being higher up in the societal hierarchy.   Such a highly connected world would neither have the conflicts that we are seeing today nor the limited vision of mere economic progress. Such a world would have found given this young waste picker not just a dream but also the means to achieve them.

It was this evolving appreciation of human and social capital that led to the sustained growth of our GDP for such a long time.  Though the explanation seems simplistic, it is essentially a complex interconnected array of people, relationships, institutions and thought processes that all contributed to where we were.  Unfortunately, it was this human and social capital that the British colonization destroyed by taking away the foundation of our social-cultural milieu and civilizational history on which it was based.

It was at a time when India was at its degenerative worst that Swami Vivekananda burst onto the scene. Swami Vivekananda gave the dimension of personal inner ‘evolution’ a new meaning by taking it to the next level. He said ‘inner spiritual growth’ should happen through the service of people around us.  In one stroke, he could string together the individual with the social and gave a practical impetus to the principles of interdependence and reciprocity.   He also lived in a generation that saw the consequences of the degeneration of both these capitals and ensuing consequence on our national economy.  He saw the amelioration of the masses as the only solution and for this he called upon the youth to not only build on their own human capital but also give themselves ‘meaning’ by working to build the social capital of the Nation. And this he knew would result in the resurgence of the Indian Economy too. And that is the India he dreamt of, a resurgent and resurrected India that could be a world teacher and a world leader.

And only when we learn to weave all this together seamlessly, will we see change.  This change will not be in just one dimension or sector, but in whatever such highly evolved humans engage in.  And that means, not only will we generate less waste, consume more responsibly but also ensure that relative equity and opportunity will provide the required social and economic mobility for this young lad who is today wasting away along with the waste that he lives one.  That is the ‘Swachh Bharat’ that we should aspire for and that is what will make the dream of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’ a meaningful reality.


Categories: General, Musings

A talk that i gave recently on KIN (Knowledge, Innovation & Nationalism) that was organized by ‘Think India’

November 28, 2014 4 comments

Categories: General

Renegotiating citizenship and building a vibrant India

October 25, 2014 1 comment

The last many weeks have seen at least three different incidents of police personnel being attacked in the city of Delhi alone. Not to be left behind, we had the general public protesting the legitimate actions of the police in Mysore city when they tried to enforce traffic discipline. In nearby Mandya, a Deputy Superintendent of Police was nearly run over by the sand mafia only because she was trying to do her job and enforce the law. We have also read about incidents about footwear being thrown at politicians and people expressing a basic disgust at what they see as symbols of power. We also see the high and mighty go about transgressing the law with impunity – whether it is corruption, traffic violations or other forms of human abuse. Is there something that is common between all these incidents across the country? Is the rule of law disappearing in a country that is presumably democratic and law abiding? Why is ‘power’ being despised? Can these incidents be dismissed off or should we see the pattern of ‘State control’ weakening?

On the other hand, the stampede in Bihar state is suspected to be a result of poor management by the officialdom and one wonder’s whether anyone will be held accountable for the same? What then is the state’s role in ensuring governance in such situations? Could the ‘State’ have used its power to enforce discipline on a ‘mob’ that refuses to see prudence in following the law? Why don’t the citizens respect the law instead of unceremoniously ignoring or disrespecting them? Why has governance become a casualty? And it is indeed a strange and paradoxical situation – on one hand we seem to have such a smooth and peaceful transfer of power at the center but on the other hand are seeing a violent attitude that seems to mock at the face of the forces of law and order.

Contrast this with prime minister Modi holding a broom and calling upon his fellow citizens to take on the task of cleaning India. Will this really happen? Will we as a Nation pull our act together and find a collective expression of ‘citizenship’? We need to understand our socio-cultural DNA and our political evolution to appreciate whether we can truly express ourselves fully as responsible citizens of a vibrant democracy.

From a disparate set of kingdoms to acquiring a national identity of ‘India’ has been a long drawn political process. While the control of power and responsibility of administration may have shifted, the mindset and engagement of citizenry has not evolved proportionately. Credit for the formation of the modern Indian state must go to the East India Company that framed the laws to administer it. But one needs to appreciate that these laws were framed to enable control of the State over its subjects rather than ensure accountability of the State to the citizenry. We were only subjects of the Crown but were never regarded as its citizens with our rights and entitlements. This changed in 1947, when we got our independence and the State became answerable to the citizens of India. We inherited robust and well-meaning institutions of Governance that were considered to be one of the best in the world along with laws framed in a different context to address a different need. Though we did show promise in the initial years, we gradually have allowed degeneration to creep in. What happened over the last 60 years? All that we are today is an unhealthy and a noisy democracy.

The famous adage goes that those who do not learn from history will be condemned to repeat it. We need to learn what the history of our country reveals. India has been historically known to have a weak state but a strong society. German Philosopher Hegel’s simplistic observation is “If China must be regarded as nothing else but a State, Hindoo political existence presents us with a people but no state.” Traditionally, we have never conceded power at a deeper level to our so-called ‘rulers’. Today, we are in the process of transitioning from this traditional mindset to that of accepting democratic norms which demands a degree of subservience to the ‘State’. Post independence, this fragmented combination of kingdoms and provinces became a chaotic democracy. What we have today is a loosely structured, segmentary, federal union with the central govt sharing powers with the States but not so much with the citizens. Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist had dubbed India as a ‘soft state’ based on the government’s inability to get things done. This is reflected in the way in which the arms of the state have demonstrated repeated failures in enforcing the laws and legal frameworks. Whether it is handling corruption, or keeping criminals out of our political system, or having a fair & transparent criminal jurisprudence system, enforcing the rule of law on the high and mighty, to having effective regulations in the public sphere – we have seen how the State has been ineffective in evoking trust and faith in its functioning. A ‘soft’ State, Myrdal wrote, is unwilling to ‘impose obligations on the governed’ and there is correspondingly ‘unwillingness on the part of the governed to obey rules.’ What we are seeing today is not only a low level of social discipline but also a system that has incentivized the lawless and is very forgiving of social and legal transgressions. It is amidst such a scenario, we now need to see the lack of citizen engagement and social accountability.

How does one change this situation and how do we get citizens to own upto power and responsibility? Will it be too utopian to expect our citizens to not only be partners in progress with the State, but also accept their role and responsibility within the constitutional framework of the State and its institutions? How would the State respond to an enlightened and engaged citizenry? It is in this background that we need to see what the Prime Minister and his Government are trying to achieve. Whether it is asking the common man and celebrities to engage in the physical act of cleaning the neighborhoods or sharing ideas on web portals or asking for suggestions on how he needs to engage with the masses through the radio – all this are reflective of kick starting the process of engagement. One also needs to appreciate the heightened levels of expectations and the convenience of transferring our citizenry obligations to an iconic personality whom we, expect will wave a magic wand and solve our issues without we even breaking into a sweat. The State also needs to appreciate that citizen engagement once evoked can no longer be a mere political slogan or a tool to garner public support. Enlightened citizens will soon begin demanding good governance and participation, as a matter of entitlement and the system needs to be prepared to respond suitably and sensitively. Otherwise, what will result would be a society filled with disgruntled elements that will further marginalize the State and push its weakness into a state of chaos, irrelevance and confusion.

The leadership of the Prime Minister will be in inspiring the citizenry to pull up their socks and enhance their role in civic and governance matters. He needs to ensure that the State is able to engage with the citizens without overwhelming them into submission and also get the citizens to own up to their ownership of the state without it leading to the arrogance of entitlements. And only then, can we claim to make our constitution truly functional. It is only then can we claim a well-governed State operating with democratic principles, where the ruler and the ruled are seamlessly wired together in ensuring social and economic justice to all.

– Balu

Categories: Musings