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Launch of my 6th book, ‘Voices from the Grassroots’

August 10, 2018 Comments off

Writing a book is indeed a long drawn, at times painful and at most times a very fulfilling event. My 6th book ‘Voices from the Grassroots’ took a few years in the making. From being disparate blog articles written on the spur of the moment to stringing them all together took time. This would not have been possible without the support and constant push that I got from two of my interns – two people who worked with me for nearly a year. Somya Bajaj (now doing her Masters in Public Policy in Princeton) and Shwetha (now a researcher in Azim Premji University) did the initial work of curating and collating the articles. Shwetha also did the first round of editing and helped me shape the first draft of the manuscript. Several friends helped in the editing – from my wife Bindu, my sister-in-law Ms Vidya, Dr (Brig) Rajan, Sampath, Sangeeta Menon, Prof Govind Sharma, Lijo Chacko, Mahesh Jambardi and several others. Each person had a view and gave some very valuable inputs which have been integrated into the final book. It was also read by several students and people representing other potential reader groups and their inputs were factored in too.

The book was possible only because of the people whom I learnt from and have written about in this and my earlier book. Writing the various anecdotes was the first step. Filling in the emotions that I had experienced was something that words would not do adequate justice to. And that is when we thought about simple sketches to capture them. The soul of the book are in these sketches and they were drawn by two young people – Manasa Rao and her cousin Dashar.

My earlier experience of crowd sourcing the funds for ‘i, the citizen’ gave me the confidence to do the same for this book too. Again the support from friends and well wishers was more than encouraging. We had collected enough money to run the first print of 4000 copies. What was special for this book was the fact that the tribal women entrepreneurs of the Ragi products unit in Jaganakotehadi tribal colony also contributed their mite The book now had to go thru the design and the layout. This is where Rohit Shetti and his friend Deepak Mote worked their magic. Rohit always set high standards in everything that he did and it is reflected in this book too. The book was finally print ready.

Now that the book was ready, all that remained was the printing and the formal launch. I was keen on getting a printer who saw this not as just another job to execute but as a work of art. Sampath, a enterprising young man delivered on this without compromising on either the quality or renegotiating the deadline agreed to.

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The launch was an event that I will always cherish. The former Prime Minister, Shri H D Devegowda couldn’t make it due to the ongoing parliament session, and the book was launched by Dr K Kasturirangan who also spoke eloquently about the book. Bhaskar Bhat, the MD of Titan Company Ltd was the guest of honour and Justice M N Venkatachaliah, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India presided over the function. All their speeches were touching and was uniformly appreciated by the very enlightened audience who had assembled. All in all, it was a memorable day and the event felt more like a ‘Satsang’ than a book launch. The video of the Bengaluru launch event can be seen here.

The launch of the book in Mysuru is now scheduled for the 14th of August at Windchimes and the entire event is sponsored by S K Sanjay who insisted that we have it in his place. Niranjana Vanalli, a well known writer and professor of journalism at the University of Mysuru and R Guru, the Chairman of NR Group will be the guests for the event. I also take this opportunity to invite all friends and well wishers to attend this event too and make us re-live the special warmth and joy that we experienced at Bengaluru.

Invitation_graam_Mysore

 

Categories: General

SVYM’s development paradigm & the mobile vegetable store…

July 22, 2018 4 comments

It was nearly 6 years ago that I had first written about Rathnamma, a street vendor who made her living by selling greens and vegetables in Mysuru. One of the actions that emerged from this experience of having spent some time with her was the project of working with street vendors. From collectivizing them and forming Self-Help Groups, to extending credit facilities and giving them the training to manage their finances, to empowering them to negotiate with the local power structures; the SVYM team worked hard to ensure that their human and social capital was constantly expanded. Along with these activities maturing and stabilizing, I too had moved on and laid down office at SVYM. This meant that I was not aware of how our work had changed the lives of the people that we worked with, till a pleasant encounter with Siddappa helped me understand the lasting impact that SVYM had created.

My wife Bindu and I were returning back from our morning walk when we found enroute an auto selling fresh vegetables. Though, this looked like a regular auto, it had been modified by Siddappa into a mobile vegetable store. As Bindu was wrapping up her purchases, Siddappa recognized me and mentioned that he was part of the SHG initiated by SVYM for street vendors and his life had changed over the last several years. He proudly told me that he now had a consistent and near-certain daily income of INR 500 after deducting all his expenses. He also now owned the auto and his working day was fully under his control. What made one feel truly happy was he mentioning that his older daughter was now studying in the second year Bachelor of Science program, while his son was in the eight standard. His life had truly transformed, and he and his family could now look forward to a more meaningful future. Our efforts at building his human and social capital were now seeing economic consequences.

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It is experiences like these that serve to reaffirm our conviction in the development paradigm of SVYM. SVYM believes that the development process is inter-generational and does not happen overnight. We strongly believe that development is best manifest by the constant expansion of human capabilities. While economic growth is necessary and a part of our vision for a strong nation, we believe that our primary efforts need to be focused on building the human and social capital of people. We are convinced that this will enable the creation and management of the economic capital that will ensue. Not only has Siddappa expanded his own capabilities but is slowly building the equity that his children will benefit from. From a personal viewpoint, I not only felt emotionally fulfilled but intellectually reaffirmed too.

-Balu

Categories: General, Musings, Story of SVYM

Release of my next book, ‘Voices from the Grassroots’

July 12, 2018 1 comment

I am happy to inform that my next book, ‘Voices from the Grassroots’ will be released on the 1st of August in Bengaluru.  The invitation for the same is below.  Inviting all friends and well wishers to attend the same.

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About the book:

Voices from the Grassroots is a collection of stories and reflections that captures the pulse of the commonest people, whose diverse contexts, aspirations and struggles make up the social landscape of the Indian subcontinent. The book takes the reader through myriad real-life experiences of the author and portraits of people in the pursuit of identifying hidden voices – of hope, compassion, wisdom, frustration, of coping with adversity and desire for change; voices that the reader would resonate with, and yet acknowledge that they are often lost and unheeded.

How young Appiraja’s meal puts our education system in perspective, how Kempaiah’s wisdom lets us find meaning in an otherwise luckless venture or how Madi’s cries tug at our heart and show how much there is to do; there are anecdotes that everybody committed to the cause of inclusive development and citizenship will connect to. The book ultimately leaves the readers with humility to listen to ‘voices’ of the people and perhaps find their own too.

Voices from the Grassroots invitation

Categories: General

SPB – not just a musical legend!

March 8, 2018 8 comments

SVYM’s founding was based on the inspirational message of ‘Tyaga’ (Sacrifice) and ‘Seva’ (Service) propounded by Swami Vivekananda. All the work of our last 34 years is based on these foundational principles and our activities are driven by the undercurrent philosophy of ‘Seeing God in man’. This is best reflected in the Palliative Care Program that SVYM has been running from 2009. Started in a small way, the program today covers close to 200 patients across the city of Mysuru and its suburbs and is striving to help people who are terminally sick, live their last days in dignity.

While the services offered at the doorsteps of needy people costs us around INR 16000 annually, we are constantly looking to finding donors and volunteers who can helps us in expanding this program. Ensuring acute medical care in an Institutional setting to terminally ill patients is also a critical component of Palliative Care and we thought of adding a Hospice facility at Mysuru. Our team was undeterred by the fact that this would require huge resources and they decided to mobilize it through our annual fund raising musical event. This event called ‘Swaranubhuti’ has already seen two earlier editions and helped mobilize the resources needed for home based palliative care. Creating a Hospice meant much more than what our earlier programs had generated and the team decided to request the renowned singer, Mr S P Balasubramaniam (popularly known as SPB) to support the initiative. Ramakrishna Mudre met and apprised him of our activities and what we do and he agreed to sing at this event. A singer of SPB’s repute must be getting innumerable requests to sing for charitable causes and he agreeing to do this for us without a moment’s hesitation left me much more than impressed. Swaranubhuti-2018 was thus planned and it was decided to hold the event in Bengaluru on the 4th of March 2018.

This day will now remain a day that will be permanently etched in my memory. Not merely for listening to a musical legend but for something that I find it difficult to describe in mere words. Here was a man who has sung more than 40,000 songs in 15 different Indian languages in his lifetime – and not for a moment did he allow any of the adulation or the recognition get in the way of the larger purpose of participating in a program that wanted to help people live & die in dignity. He was clear on why he was doing what he was doing. The thought of participating as a family member along with several other committed people wanting to help other fellow human beings was so evident in everything he spoke and did.

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As I watched and listened to him, I realized that he was not merely a singer who has achieved the status of a ‘legend’. This was truly an intensely spiritual man in the pursuit of a higher purpose – that of actually seeing god in every person that he interacted with. Whether it was the fellow musicians on stage or the young compere – he only had good things to say about each of them. He was constantly looking to bring out the best in everyone present – whether it was himself, or the attending musicians and even the audience. For someone who teaches leadership in different places around the world, this was possibly the best class in leadership that I have attended. The qualities of compassion, seeing only the positive, constantly demanding perfection of oneself and those around you, being disciplined, never allowing one to become the work at the center, staying focused on the larger purpose and never allowing one’s ego come in the way of one’s existence – all this and more was there for me to see and learn from this great person.

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And more than anything else, this was not a mere show that he was presenting to the audience. It was more than evident that this was the way he lived, and it was his natural and authentic self. For someone who has reached such a high stature to be so simple; for someone who has the world at his feet to be so humble is something that is unbelievable. But SPB is all this and more. He is a true humanist, a spiritual seeker and one who oozes divinity in his singing and in his very existence. We at SVYM were not just privileged to have someone like him support our work; I think he gives us the living inspiration of Swami Vivekananda’s message. And I consider myself truly fortunate that I was treated to not just a auditory feast, but to be in the presence of a spiritual giant who made himself so ordinary by making everyone around him become extraordinary. Sir, we salute you and thank you for being with us, for inspiring us to do more and for your message of never forgetting that we are mere instruments in the hands of God…

-Balu

 

Categories: General, Musings

Remembering a Saint…going down memory lane!

March 5, 2018 8 comments

Social media and online news today makes it real time for us to get to know what happens in different parts of the world. Whether it is real news or fake, good or bad, all it takes is a moment before the notification on one’s phone tells us what is happening. The message that I got on the 28th was not just sad but something that left a sense of emptiness within me. As I sat coming to terms with the several emotions that I was feeling, I remembered how 30 years ago, HH Shri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham had come visiting to our small dispensary at Brahmagiri.

It was early October 1987 and the three of us – Devaraj Acharya (presently in the UK and a founding member of the SVYM of UK), Ramesh S.S. (presently working as Professor of Medicine at K.R.Hospital, Mysuru) and I were holding on to the SVYM flag with great difficulty. We were running out of our meagre monthly stipend as Interns (or house surgeons as we were known then) and our motivation was also running low. We had stationed ourselves in the watchman’s shed at the old Inspection Bungalow at Beechanahalli and were yet to get the clinic at Brahmagiri up and going. Things were not looking good and only the embarrassment of failure and being ridiculed by friends and foes alike prevented us from returning to Mysuru. As luck would have it, the doctor working in the hospital run by the Ramakrishna Ashram at Ponampet quit and they were not able to find a replacement. Swami Veetamohanandaji, the President of this ashram met me in Mysuru (currently he serves as the Head of the Vedanta Center in Gretz, France) and wanted to know if I could refer anyone to work as a doctor on an ad hoc basis. It was the silver lining that I was looking for. I told him that two doctors would come to Ponampet and would be happy to manage the hospital at least for the next one or two months.

Back in Beechanahalli (where the Kabini dam is located), I told a relieved Devaraj and Ramesh that they could now lead a comfortable life at least for the next 2 months and could do some doctoring too! Both left for Ponampet and I stayed back to hold fort. My mind was blank and I could not figure out what to do. The next 15 days were possibly the greatest test of my resolve to undertake rural service. Here I was, a young intern who believed that he could make a difference. The only problem was that SVYM and I were completely broke. I would wake up each day hoping that something would happen to give me back my sinking courage and fill me with hope and encouragement. I still remember the long walk of nearly 16 km one way to reach Brahmagiri to oversee the construction of a toilet that the Zilla Panchayath (called Zilla Parishad then) was building for us. Whenever my rationed finances permitted me, I would travel by bus till Begur and then walk to Brahmagiri. This was few and far between. Lunch was indeed a luxury and wholly depended on the generosity of Karunakar, who was the caretaker at the Traveller’s Bungalow of the forest department. These were the times I felt like giving up and even today I wonder what kept me going then. But for the inspiring words of Swami Vivekananda that I would read every day, I am sure I would have closed shop and returned. It is now hard to imagine what I would have ended up doing if I had done that then.

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HH Shri Jayendra Saraswathi Swamigal (1935-2018)

One of those days, I had come to Mysuru and was reading the newspaper at the Ramakrishna Vidyashala and came across a news item that the Shankaracharya of Kanchi Peetham (or Mutt), Shri Jayendra Saraswathi had abdicated the Mutt and was in the Talacauvery area in Madikeri. What caught my attention was the fact that he had told the interviewer that he felt shackled by the orthodoxy of the Mutt and wanted to initiate a movement for the regeneration of India based on the ideals of Swami Vivekananda. I immediately shot off a post card to him, explaining what I was doing and suggested that he help us if he was indeed serious about it. I expected that he would never even read my letter, leave alone respond to it. It was a spur-of-the-moment gesture by a frustrated and tired young man who gave vent to his feelings and that was that. What indeed surprised me was that I got a reply from the Mutt. He had by then returned to the Mutt on the persuasion of his devotees and the senior Acharya. The Srikaryam (administrator) had written to me asking me to come to Kanchipuram to meet Shri Jayendra Saraswathi and share with him what I was doing . It was indeed a welcome break and I borrowed Rs.400 from Swami Sureshananda and reached Kanchipuram via Bangalore the next morning.  I reached Kanchipuram by bus very early in the morning. It was around 4 am and I did not have enough money to take a hotel room for myself. Not knowing what to do, I started walking towards the Mutt and was there within the next 20 min. The doors were obviously closed and I just walked ahead. One of the houses down the road had an open and inviting front yard and I just walked in and lay down.

I must have fallen asleep, for I was awakened by an elderly lady (Iyer maami – as she is called in Tamil) who was quite surprised to see a stranger sleeping in her yard. She was gracious enough not to scream and politely asked who I was and what I was doing there. I told her that I was here to see the Shankaracharya and was waiting for the Mutt doors to open. This kind-hearted lady then invited me in and gave me a cup of steaming coffee. On getting to know my background, her family offered that I rest, bathe and have breakfast with them. Sometimes, poverty can limit your sense of dignity and I did not even wait to be pressed to accept their generosity.  Around 7 am, I strolled into the Mutt and found the Shankaracharya giving darshan and prasad to a long line of his devotees. I too stood in line and introduced myself and told him that he had asked to see me. He invited me into his room and heard my story. After an hour of listening patiently, he asked if I would like to walk with him to the Kamakshi Temple.  Here I was, a 22-year old idealist walking alongside a man, whose generosity and support I was to experience later. It never occurred to me that this very man was revered and worshiped by thousands of devotees and he could with his mere wish, command extraordinary resources to help us. After returning to the Mutt, he suddenly switched to speaking in Kannada and asked me about my needs. I just blurted out that I would need his support to serve the forest-based tribes in and around Brahmagiri. He sat pensive for a moment and then told me that he had to verify my credentials. He told me that one of his devotees by name Chandramouli lived in Bangalore and that I needed to meet and take him along to Brahmagiri. Chandramouli would then report back to the Shankaracharya about my work. If his assessment were to be satisfactory, then he would consider supporting me.

I thought that this was indeed fair and rushed back to Bangalore. The same evening I met Chandramouli who had been spoken to by the Shankaracharya and told about his assignment. I requested him to visit us the very next day and pleaded with him to come with me. He agreed and offered to drive down, but warned me that he needed to return to Bangalore the same day.  Chandramouli was a very devout person. After a morning pooja at a Ganesha temple near his house, we set out to Brahmagiri in his new Fiat car. Chandramouli did not believe in driving at less than 100 km per hour and in those days, this was an adventure which I did not exactly relish! As we neared Kengal on the Bengaluru-Mysuru highway, Chandramouli noticed that there were celebrations going on at the famous Hanuman temple located there. He swung his car towards the temple and declared that we would take a break to have darshan. He was now convinced that the festivities at the temple were a good omen and a signal that I could be trusted.  We reached Brahmagiri at around 1 pm. The drive on the bumpy road had tired him out and he did not want to spend too much time there. All that he remarked was that it would be difficult to work in that god-forsaken place! We hardly spent 15 minutes there and drove back. On the way back, he insisted on having his ‘tiffin and coffee’ at his favourite Dasaprakash Hotel at Mysore. We reached Bangalore around 8 pm. I insisted that he speak to the Shankaracharya immediately and update him on our visit.

The next morning, I set out once again to Kanchipuram. By evening I was with the Shankaracharya, who informed me that he had heard from Chandramouli. He asked me what kind of support I was expecting from him. This was indeed an unexpected question and I was unsure how to ask him for money or for anything else. Would he consider me greedy? Would he think that I was there only to get his financial support? As all these questions raced through my mind, I decided that I would ask for a princely sum of Rs.1000! After all, I had to borrow money to reach Kanchi and my first priority was to return it! Even before I could ask him for anything specific, he asked me if Rs 100,000 would help in starting the work. He also matter-of-factly told me that he would ask the Trustee of the Golden Jubilee Charitable Trust in Chennai to give me the money and a Jeep for my use in the forest. It took a while for this generous offer to sink in. He gave me the address of the Trust and I left for Chennai in a daze.

In Chennai, with the help of my uncle Mr.Narasimhan, I went to the Trust and met the Trustee. He gave me a DD for Rs 100,000 and told me to meet Mr. Ravi for the vehicle. Ravi showed me an old broken down stationary ‘Trekker’. I was indeed disappointed. This vehicle did not look like it was road worthy and I was crest fallen. But then beggars can’t be choosers. This Trekker needed repairs, a new set of tyres, new battery and everything except the shell and the engine. Using the name of the Shankaracharya and his credibility, I managed to find donors in Chennai with Ravi’s help and got the vehicle moving. My uncle volunteered to drive it down along with me to Brahmagiri. We left for Bangalore early one morning and as we neared Bangalore, the vehicle broke down. The first expense that I incurred with the donation given by the Shankaracharya was to get this Trekker repaired again in Bangalore. After a couple of days, I drove this vehicle to Ponampet where Devaraj and Ramesh were still staying. Imagine their shock, when they saw me getting off an old vehicle and announcing that it was ours and that we could now return to Brahmagiri in style! We left to Brahmagiri the next day and the vehicle broke down again as soon as we reached there. By then, I had realized that I was flogging a dead horse and decided to make this vehicle our temporary home. The ‘Trekker’ stood there motionless for a few months more, till the Shankaracharya visited us in 1988.

The support given by HH Sri Jayendra Saraswathi will possibly be one of the most significant events in the history of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement. But for his support, we may not have been able to set up and start the Brahmagiri clinic (in those days, we used to call it the Jan Kalyan Tribal Health Center). I became a regular visitor to the Kanchi Mutt and used to meet with him at least once a month. Apart from the usual updates from my end, we used to have such wonderful conversations – from development to politics to the economy of India to Karma Yoga! He had a wonderful sense of humour too and it was such a joy to interact with him and just be seated in his room as he went about conversing with the several thousand people who came to get his darshan and blessings. He was not the Shankaracharya in the traditional sense and differed from his Guru the revered ‘Maha Periyava’. He was a monk, a humanist, a philanthropist, a mentor and several other things all rolled into one. Not just the traditional Dharmic Guru that the whole country revered him as, but also the social reformer that India desperately needed.

It was during one of my many such visits that he mentioned that he was going to give us Rs.5000 every month and that he would do so for the next 5 years. He told me that I needed to use those 5 years to build the organization and go beyond depending on him. While I might not have understood the far-sightedness of his actions then, today I must say that we have been able to grow only because we never became dependant on any one person, donor agency or the Government for financial assistance. True to his word, he gave us Rs.5000 per month for 2 years and then raised it to Rs.7000 per month for the subsequent 3 years.

More than the money, his support reinforced in me the belief that all good work will eventually find support. It also gave me access to a wide network of his devotees. His association gave Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement the legitimacy and much needed credibility at a time when we were small and hardly known. It gave us the exposure and visibility that helped shape public opinion about us.  My repeated visits and interactions with the Shankaracharya helped me learn and understand a lot of things. I was amazed at the level of compassion and concern that he could generate for his fellow human beings. I was a witness to his generosity – many occasions where he would respond spontaneously from the heart to pleas for help. Once I asked him if he had been let down by somebody whom he trusted. His explanation was simple. He told me that the question of being let down comes only when you expect something in return from people whom you support. His point of view was that you support somebody because you are placed in the position of being able to do so. The moment you expect the other person to use your support wisely and benefit from it, then it means being attached to the fruits of your actions. Here I was, being explained the concept of Bhagavad Gita and Karma Yoga in such simple and pragmatic fashion.

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Unveiling the plaque at Kenchanahalli for the Hospital that was built there

He visited us in August 1988 to lay the foundation for the hospital that we proposed to build at Kenchanahalli. He also visited our clinic at Brahmagiri and the campus at Hosahalli. He had brought along with him hundreds of expensive sarees that people had gifted to the Kamakshi temple. I still remember that day. It was raining and there was no road to our campus at Hosahalli then. One had to walk in the slush to reach there. Much to the chagrin of his attenders, he alighted from his vehicle and started to walk along with me. Along the way, he told me how people were blinded by faith. He told me that people were willing to spend thousands of rupees on expensive sarees for the Goddess, but were unwilling to buy clothes for the poor who needed it more. He said that he was making sure that the sarees were reaching the ‘real gods’.  At Brahmagiri, he noticed the broken down ‘Trekker’ and without hesitation, called his driver Rama and told him to hand over a Jeep which was part of his entourage. But people in his coterie created a ruckus and told him that they would need the Jeep to get back to Kanchipuram. He then asked me to come to Kanchipuram and collect the vehicle.  Despite the rains, the foundation laying program was great fun. Vivek and Seetharam had laboured for 3-4 days, walking each day from Brahmagiri to Kenchanahalli to oversee the preparations and it turned out to be the beginning of our collective journey.

Several years later, when I was at Harvard, I suddenly got a call from him asking me to come to India and meet him. Even before I could respond, he mentioned that several of his devotees were having a event in Bengaluru and he wanted to felicitate me on that occasion. Though I was in Bengaluru when the event happened, I could not receive the award that he bestowed on me as my father had just then passed away.

Some of the many memorable moments that I spent with the Shankaracharya during his visits to our centers

The years have now rolled on and fate and many forces with vested interests conspired to humiliate and marginalize this extraordinary person. From being arrested to being acquitted by the court, from being courted by thousands to being side-lined, from being worshiped to being ignored – he saw it all. But the inner strength, poise, humour and equanimity that he displayed is something that has always stood out for me. For me and several like me, he was not just the upholder of the Hindu Dharma, but the very incarnation of it. He was not just a monk at whose feet you prostrated, but someone who inspired you to take on the cause of National reconstruction for one’s own inner spiritual evolution. Though millions of his devotees will miss his smiling presence, what remains testimony to his life and times are the many social development activities that he initiated and supported.

-Balu

 

Categories: General, Musings

The population challenge for India…

November 19, 2017 1 comment

Events in India hardly get reported in the global media. But what found space in many of the world’s newspapers and televisions were images of smog filled Delhi and streets clogged with thousands of vehicles. And as usual, we saw the blame game enacted by our politicians, schools closed down, the National Green Tribunal having its say, NGOs coming up with their share of comments and the band-aid solution of odd-even plying of vehicles. Once the winter moves on, so will this crisis, till the onset of the next winter and the whole story will be played all over again. Why is that the underlying, larger systemic reasons not being handled the way that it should be gets little attention or media space? And why is one unwilling to see the larger picture of our burgeoning population being a part of, and the critical undercurrent of many of the problems including pollution that India is facing today?

India is now the home to around 1.32 billion people. Furthermore, India’s population is expected to grow to 1.8 billion before stabilizing around the middle of this century, even if sufficient measures are taken before hand and sustained till then. India is stretched to its limit due to overpopulation on several fronts. The demand on already scarce resources negates any development or progress that the nation attains. Whether it is drinking water or sanitation, the programs that are being initiated by Government will never cease to end. There are always more toilets to be built, more people to be provided with safe drinking water and more houses to be constructed. Apart from the inefficiency and leakages in the system, what makes matters worse is the sheer increase in number of people placing a demand on the system.

Excessive population leads to dysfunctionality of public and private institutions and makes all plans to improve a country’s infrastructure, health care facilities and social welfare initiatives ineffective. This includes the Indian Government which has struggled to enact reforms over the past 70 years since independence. Whether it is public infrastructure in rural or urban areas, or creating spatial and digital connectivity to the teeming millions, investments can never really match the needs. For real progress and the nation to thrive at the current levels of economic growth, the country’s population should ideally have been around 500 million. But we are nearly four times the population that India was when it got its freedom in 1947 without a parallel growth in support facilities. The consequences of population growth are a problem that the whole world will soon face sooner or later, but it is worse for India. Lack of fresh water, whether it is for domestic, industrial or agricultural use; crumbling sewage treatment and waste management systems; rapid depletion of natural resources and increasing use of fossil fuels; increasing urbanization with crumbling civic amenities; extinction of many plant and animal species due to deforestation and loss of Eco-systems; increased levels of life-threatening air and water pollution; inability to maintain public infrastructure; fall in standards of public probity and societal morals; high infant and child mortality rate and hunger due to extreme poverty are some of the results of this over-population that we are already experiencing.

While billions of rupees are being spent by public and private sources, one cannot dismiss away the growing inequality socially and economically. One cannot merely keep repeating the rhetoric of growing the pie, the reality of having less number of people sharing the social and economic pie has to be taken seriously. The issues are even more critical due to the advancements in Artificial Intelligence and Automation. Automation threatens 69 percent job losses with millions of job losses already occurring in the IT and production sectors. Despite all the skill development programs, we must keep in mind that India’s problem of jobless growth is just not going to be wished away by mere sloganeering. With farm labour becoming less and less remunerative, unskilled people are now looking for low skilled jobs that are just not there. Imagine the challenge of India’s social and economic fabric threatened by this growing numbers of dis-enchanted and restless generation of young people with heightened aspirations. While it is customary to see them as law and order issues, let us not forget that the sectors that can absorb some employment – whether it is the police, the judiciary, retailing or hospitality & leisure – they can only assure secure jobs to a small segment of this population, and that too after basic skilling. Even jobs like driving and running taxis are going to disappear as driver-less cars are going to be the reality within the next decade. Let us not forget the fact that the city of Dubai is already experimenting with robot policemen and Walmart in the US has begun to replace low skilled people checking store-inventory with robots.

While many people are already aware of the social and environmental problems due to overpopulation, but only a few are aware of its adverse effects on health. Most Indian cities (and not just Delhi) are badly polluted and have little fresh air. This leads to countless airborne diseases and skin infections. Poor public transport further worsens this as private vehicle are now becoming a necessity and not just seen as a luxury. Whether it is unscientific agriculture, in terms of burning agri-waste or vehicular pollution, reduction of sheer numbers is the only viable solution. And that cannot be managed as our population size coupled with a populist political system, will just not make it feasible or tenable.

While it is easy to wrap our minds around the problem, we need to understand what led to this. Though marriage age has been legally fixed at 18 years for girls, it is still customary for families, especially in rural areas to get their daughters married earlier than that. There is enough statistical evidence to show that girls getting married after 18 are likely to be educated and have less children. Poverty has seen to have a direct correlation to family size but unfortunately it ends up being a chicken and egg story. Growth cannot benefit people as the population is too large while the rich are known to have less number of children. State intervention beyond just doles and welfare are needed to tackle this head on. Whether it is a re-look at other incentives for smaller family size like eligibility to contest elections or getting tax cuts, one has to think out of the box to disincentive large families. Building the human and social capital of the citizens on a war footing is inseparable to the issue of over-population. The cultural narrative of seeing the men as wage earners and women as confined to the kitchen has to be refashioned and a voluntary movement to undo years of conditioning is imperative.

The government, politicians, policy makers, media and civil society groups and activists should come together with a bold population policy so that the human, social and economic growth can keep pace with the demands of a growing population. Major steps which have been already implemented need to be emphasized more and go beyond any political or religious underpinning. It is not about being a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian – it should be about being an Indian and such a population policy should be universal and enforceable across all demographics. Increasing the welfare and status of women and girls, making education and health care universal, increasing awareness for the use of contraceptives and family planning methods for both men & women, sex education in schools, and building safety nets for the socially and economically marginalized – all has to be done together and at the same time for consistently long periods to start making a noticeable difference.

We need to remember that India has 15% of the world’s population with a mere 2.4% of the land area. While it is inconceivable to expand our land area, the only way out is to stabilize the population to manageable levels. And these needs to be done within the next 10-15 years, or we may not have an India to talk about in real terms after that.

-Balu

This article appeared in the Star of Mysore, dated 22nd Nov 2017. 

SOM Nov 22

 

Categories: General, Musings

GDP is passe, Human capital takes center stage for WB, IMF

October 27, 2017 Comments off

This article appeared in Deccan Herald on 27th October, 2017 and can be seen here:

Deccan Herald Fri 27 10 17The article can also be read here –

While the Indian media and political analysts have been talking about how the slowing down Indian economy is likely to hurt the electoral prospects of the BJP and slow down the Modi-Shah juggernaut, a different scene unfolded last week in distant Washington DC. The annual meetings of the Boards of Governors of the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was held then and it brought together central bankers, ministers of finance and development, parliamentarians, private sector executives, representatives from civil society organizations and academics. The core agenda was to discuss issues of global concern, including the world economic outlook, poverty eradication, economic development and aid effectiveness.

Only a few years ago, India’s growth story was being touted as the only shining patch in an otherwise depressing economic world order and experts were quick to offer differing explanations for the same. Equally quickly are the experts again explaining the dip as possible outcomes of the demonetization or the introduction of the GST and poor handling of the nation’s economy by the government. Somewhere in this narrative, human development and the fate of the ordinary citizen on the street does not find any mention. It is in this context, the meetings of the WB and IMF offer a shift in the way these global bodies are beginning to view development.

For several decades, the World Bank and its allied Institutions were seen with suspicion and as mere political instruments with very little appreciation of grassroots development and of being insensitive to local community interests. They have also been accused of turning a blind eye to citizen engagement, to environmental concerns and to mis-governance and mal-administration in the implementation of projects funded by them. They have been working over the last decade and more to shed this image and are now actively soliciting engagement with local community groups, in ensuring social accountability of the projects funded by them; and of looking internally to address inherent structural flaws in their aid and loan processes. But despite all this, their primary focus was on income growth and economic development. This year’s meetings saw a quiet and subtle shift which if sustained, could have long term consequences on how the world sees human development and progress.

While the WB President Jim Yong Kim and the IMF Chief, Christine Lagarde stressed on the relevance and effectiveness of Institutions like the WB and IMF, they also conceded that the Multilateral banking systems need to evolve and become more responsive and accepting of the changing geo-political realities of the day. The challenges of the Globalization backlash, of countries becoming fiercely nationalist and losing interest in multilateralism, technology transforming labour, and the global economic slowdown were some of the key concerns articulated. The newly announced Global Concessional Financing Facility appears to make it more strategic and flexible but one needs to see if the Bank can take it forward with the kind of lukewarm response that was shown by the member countries to a call for increased capital infusion. One also needs to appreciate the challenge that the WB will face keeping in mind the view of the United States regarding the WB funding of middle income countries, especially China. It is to be seen whether the World Bank will truly be a bank owned by the member countries and operate in a free, fair, just and democratic manner or continue to stay as extended political arms of powerful governments in the Global North?

Another major shift that was announced was the recognition of expanding human capital before any meaningful economic development can happen. The WB’s decision to publish ‘Human Capital Index’ reports annually like the ‘Ease of doing business index’ reports will push countries to now reassess how they will begin to view human development. Focus on Nutrition and the impact of stunting on the GDP of countries were highlighted in the discussions.

A call for participation of private capital in WB funded projects sounds like a monster waiting to be unleashed and paradoxical to the call for enhanced social accountability frameworks. With many countries including India already grappling with ‘Policy Capture’ by select corporates, this could result in policies being skewed to the advantage of powerful forces and drowning out the needs and voices of the common citizen. Dr Jim also raised the controversial topic of enhancing ‘sin taxes’ and presented the enormous health benefits by making tobacco products increasingly unaffordable. Though agreeing with him was politically correct for many of the finance ministers present, it needs to be seen how many will walk the talk and take on the powerful tobacco lobbies. Focus on women entrepreneurs and creating platforms to promote them is being spoken about for some time now. But it should gain more legitimacy and momentum, now that these Institutions have provided formal space. This welcome change needs to be reflected in clear and specific policies at the country level and presents a unique opportunity for India as untapped potential in millions of Self Help Groups is waiting to be unleashed.

Going by the past, one is hesitant to believe that all these major shifts will get operationalized immediately or if these agencies will be de-politicized soon. For too long have policy debates been distorted by over emphasis on incomes alone. It is indeed a welcome move for these Institutions to focus on other deprivations like poor health, lack of education, stunting, social exclusion and unemployment which reflect in poor human capital within nations. It is in this context that India needs to present a refashioned narrative and look to building the human and social capital of its citizens rather than get lost in the debate of the state of the economy and mere GDP numbers.

-Balu