Renu Pokharna

Archive for September, 2011|Monthly archive page

Selling bamboo, Gadchiroli village becomes crorepati

In Agriculture on September 30, 2011 at 5:02 pm

A tribal village in Gadchiroli that has pioneered the community management of forest land and produce, this week added a new feather in its cap — it became the first village in the country to earn a massive Rs 1-crore revenue from bamboo sales, carried out through a transparent and independent tendering process.

The revenue, according to the gram sabha of Mendha-Lekha village, is nearly 150 per cent more than what the forest department raised in a neighbouring village recently.

The gram sabha led by Devaji Tofa issued tender notices — drafted by local activists Mohan Hirabai Hiralal and Subodh Kulkarni — in two newspapers on August 26. Forms were priced at Rs 2,000, four times the normal forest department price, to discourage non-serious applicants,” said Hiralal.

“Nine forms were sold until September 14, the last date. Tenders were received from places in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra,” Hiralal said. An executive committee of the gram sabha, aided by Hiralal and Kulkarni, accepted four of the bids.

“If the government forces the factories to pay about Rs 2300 per tonne to sugarcane the retail price would go up by at least Rs 5 to Rs 35-37 a kilo or more,” said Vijay Gujrathi, chairman of the Sugar Traders’ Association.

Farmers have cited rising costs of labour and other aspects, demanded a price equivalent to the market retail rate after deducting the cost of conversion, and challenged the Commission for Agriculture Cost and Prices benchmark as well as a State Cooperative Bank order that factories paying more than Rs 1,375 would become ineligible for loans. Last year, agitating farmers had successfully got their prices raised — from Rs 1,450 per tonne to between Rs 1,500 and Rs 2,000 — but the Cooperative Bank order will now restrain factories.

Over the last one month, the Cooperatives Ministry and the Sugar Commissioner have held dialogues with farmers’ groups and factory owners. “We met Patil and discussed the price. We remained firm that we would not settle for anything below Rs 2,350 as the first instalment,” said Raju Shetty, MP and president of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana that organised last week’s protest.

Factories pay in instalments timed with the release of bank loans. Sugar commissioner Vijay Singhal said, “If farmers are paid what they are demanding then the retail price of sugar will go up in the entire country. The next time they will ask for Rs 2,500, Rs 3,000, anything.”

Raghunath Patil, Maharashtra president of the Shetkari Sanghatna, alleged that some private factories have offered even less than the government rates. The minister said, “I agree there are some factories which haven’t followed the payment guidelines. We have issued notices.”

Unless they get their prices, Patil warned, “The country will have to do with only 50 lakh tonnes of sugar in storage from the last season, because there will be no supply from Maharashtra this year.” Maharashtra last year accounted for 90 lakh tonnes of the country’s total produce of 220 lakh tonnes.

At a public function in Satara during the weekend, the Cooperatives Minister urged Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar to help resolve the issue. “I am not the Co-operatives Minister,” Pawar said. “Patil [should be] able to do the job.”

Money Matters
Rs 1,450/tonne

This is the FRP (fair and remunerative price) fixed for sugarcane by the Commission for Agriculture Cost and Prices. It is based on a recovery rate of 9.5 per cent, a measure of the sugar extracted from every tonne; 9.5% signifies 95 kg per tonne.

Rs 1,375/tonne

Price fixed for farmers in Maharashtra, where the recovery rate is 11.3%. It has been worked out on the basis of the CACP standard at 9.5%, with Rs 146 added for every percentage point of additional recovery, after which cutting and transportation costs are deducted from the total.

Rs 2,350/tonne

The demand by farmers who agitated last week. They estimated that a tonne of cane produces sugar that would fetch Rs 3,000 on retail, and deducted Rs 700 per tonne spent by cooperatives that are supposed to be “no-profit units”. This works out to Rs 2,300, which they scaled up. Another group wants Rs 2,200.

Rs 30-32/kg

The retail price sugar now fetches in and around Pune, where the agitation has been centred. If the government accepts the farmers’ demand of Rs 2,300 per tonne of cane, then the retail price will rise by around Rs 5, touching Rs 35-37 per kg, as per Sugar Traders’ Association estimates.


Last year, the FRP was fixed at Rs 1,450 but farmers agitated successfully for a raise. Based on the varying rates of recovery, farmers in Western Maharashtra got about Rs 2,000 per tonne while those in other parts of the state got between Rs 1,500 and Rs 1,800.


27 Sep 2011, Indian Express

215 officials convicted in torture and mass rape case in tribal TN village

In Rape Case on September 30, 2011 at 4:56 pm

A trial court convicted 215 police, forest department and revenue officials for rioting, raping, assaulting and torturing tribals of a village in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri, nearly two decades after one of the worst cases of official brutality in India was reported.

The violence against the inhabitants of Vachathi village — abutting Sathyamangalam forest, which was then forest brigand Veerappan’s base — took place on June 20, 1992.

Tribal villagers had prevented forest guards from searching the hamlet for a sandalwood smuggler and allegedly assaulted them. That evening, a team of officials — 155 forest department personnel, 108 policemen and six revenue officials — entered the village. Men were assaulted, 18 women raped, the village was looted and destroyed.

Principal District and Sessions Judge S Kumaraguru awarded 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment for atrocities against STs and seven years’ RI on charges of rape to 12 forest officials. The terms are to run concurrently. Five other officials facing rape charge were given seven years’ RI.

The 17 officials convicted for rape were arrested immediately. The rest were sentenced to jail terms of between one and three years.

Indian Forest Service officer K Harikrishnan, the then Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, was given three years’ imprisonment. He is one of the four convicted IFS officers.


30 Sep 2011, Indian Express

No chai garam as rlys bans LPG on platforms

In Bizarre Laws, Gujarat, Livelihood on September 30, 2011 at 4:55 pm

With the railway authorities having banned use of LPG cylinders for cooking on stations citing safety hazards, those with a taste for steaming tea have been left out in the cold.

Following the ban, refreshment stalls at railway stations have to use warmers to keep at least bakery items in an edible condition. For tea, there are vending machines, but tea lovers are hardly warming up to it.

Pankaj Mehra, who runs a refreshment stall on a platform at the Ahmedabad railway station, said that since the ban was imposed over a month ago, business of stalls have gone down by half, forcing removal of employees and reduction in stocks.

“So far, they have not given additional power connection to stalls so that they can install ovens or other appliances to make up for absence of LPG cylinders,” he says.

Another stall-owner Gupta said there would be no milk for children or sugarless tea for diabetic passengers due to technical limitations of vending machines.

Again, the tea or coffee in vending machines can be heated up to only 85 degrees while it needs to be heated up to the boiling point of 100 degrees to make a perfect brew, he points out. An estimated 26 refreshments stalls and as many trolleys are doing business at Ahmedabad railway station.

Sharfuddin, a young taxi driver outside the railway station, laments that since tea is not available inside the station building, he and fellow drivers have to go to Kalupur in late night while piping hot tea was available at the station round-the-clock until recently.

Railway officials said the orders came from the headquarters.


30 Sep 2011, Indian Express

Bihar’s showpiece law faces its first test

In Bureaucratic Delays, Civil Services Reforms, Corruption, Poverty Eradication on September 30, 2011 at 4:32 pm

“Affidavit, affidavit,” touts, or middlemen, call out as they move from end to end of a long queue from Patna’s Kargil Chowk to the entrance of the collectorate near the Ganga’s banks. Budhiya Devi, who wants a caste certificate, knows it will “take less time than before” but little about how to go about it. There being no government counter to sell application forms, she approaches a roadside vendor, where a middleman hears her and offers his services.

Bihar’s flagship anti-corruption programme has ended up encouraging the innovation of a racket within a month. Middlemen offer any of the 50 services covered under the Right to Public Services Act, effective since August 15 to ensure speedy delivery of such services. They sell the RTPS form, fill it up and get into the queue. At the Patna collectorate, they charge between Rs 200 and Rs 1,500 depending on the client and the services sought, which will eventually be delivered within the stipulated time.

The price for refusing the offer is a long wait. In the queue, middlemen ahead of them will be carrying 50-100 forms each. Jumping the queue is not a listed offence under the Act either.

The racket goes beyond the Patna collectorate. The Bihar Prashnik Mission Sudhar Society (BPMSS), a nodal body set up under the GAD (general administration department) to monitor the implementation of the RTPS Act, has been flooded with such complaints from all over the state. Near the Phulwarisharif block office, for instance, middlemen have struck a deal with vendors who have set up stalls to sell forms. These are available online but not everyone downloads them. The charge on clients here, mostly from suburban and rural Patna, is between Rs 100 and Rs 500.

At the Danapur block office, government staff say they are threatened by middlemen who want their applications given priority. The Danapur sub-divisional officer has been asked to identify such elements and report to the Patna district magistrate. There have been reports about bullying from Motihari, Begusarai, Bhagalpur and Nawada, too, and about deals being struck between lower-rung government officials with middlemen to prioritise their applications.

This week, raids were conducted simultaneously at collectorates and block offices in 11 districts, including Patna, Muzaffarpur and Begusarai, and dozens of middlemen were caught, allegedly red-handed.

The allegations and raids have come at a time when Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is preparing for his Seva Yatra , nearly concurrently with L K Advani’s anti-corruption yatra. Nitish’s stated objective is to assess how far the RTPS Act has succeeded. “The very objective of the yatra is to learn directly the kinds of complaints people have about RTPS,” Nitish said. “We may amend the Act to make it more people-friendly.”

As an innovation, it has been welcomed by citizens, with over 24 lakh applications received and over 11 lakh of them disposed of till the beginning of this week. To tackle the racket that has come up, the GAD is planning to bring out a circular saying that an applicant can submit only three forms in a day. Another corrective measure being planned is the introduction of a paid-for tatkal service, on the lines of that in effect in the railways, which would discourage applicants from approaching a middleman.

GAD principal secretary Deepak Kumar said the government would soon make the services online. “The only problem in this is in ascertaining the veracity of scanned documents submitted along with the application forms. Plus, we need a higher storage capacity in our computers. But we will sort this out and start online services from October,” he said.

He said the BPMSS had been monitoring various complaints and and will come out with corrective measures, mostly using technology. “We are considering making the application process less cumbersome. We may also reduce the time to render services.”

Among the steps already taken are advertisements to create awareness about the Act, and SMS updates on the status of an application, even if rejected. The GAD principal secretary said no one has complained yet about services delivered. One problem, he conceded, is that in districts bordering Nepal, poor Internet connectivity is delaying disposal of applications.


30 Sep 2011, Indian Express

She probed organ racket in life, died seeking nod for transplantation

In Bizarre Laws, Bureaucratic Delays on September 25, 2011 at 4:07 am

In life, Dr V K Subadra had been part of a government team that probed a kidney transplantation racket in Kerala. When the retired Kerala Health Services additional director died at 62 on September 11, it was after her former colleagues delayed a decision on allowing her liver transplantation.

Diagnosed last year with haemochromatosis, a life-threatening complication caused by the accumulation of iron, Subadra had resigned herself to the belief that her years were numbered. Then she got an unexpected, voluntary offer from a man, a reformed liquor addict, to donate part of his liver, which was healthy. But when she rushed back to Kerala from Botswana, where she was working post-retirement, she ran into a government system reluctant to sanction transplantation between unrelated persons.

On September 6, a committee put off a decision saying “it was not convinced about the intention and health of the living donor”. Five days later, a shocked Subadra died.

“The decision of the panel devastated my wife,” says her husband T G Ravi, a Malayalam film actor. “The donor had made her so passionate about life.” He said tests 15 days earlier had found Subadra fit for surgery but her health failed after the panel failed to sanction the operation.

The same evening as the committee put off its decision, she wrote a six-page letter asking them to reconsider. She died before it could be sent.

“I may not have the required health for a surgery if I have to look for a new donor and complete the entire formalities again,” wrote Subadra, who had lost two elder brothers to the same complication.

Having been a member of a state committee that had probed the legal aspects of organ transplantation in private hospitals a few years ago, she wrote: “As a person (who) looked into the kidney racket cases, I had grasped the complexities of regulations. Hence, I can feel your predicament.”

They had planned the operation at a private hospital where, Ravi said, his wife had been asked to register for the harvesting of the liver of a brain-death accident victim. She refused. “…The remote possibility was a brain-dead accident victim matching my group, if that victim’s family consents. But it would be cruel for praying for such an incident,” she wrote.

The family had chanced on the second donor. “A colleague of my daughter-in law had presented the case in her charity group,” Ravi said. “Babu, came forward. He had been a liquor addict but had given it up through spiritual reformation.”

Babu did not seek payment and had his wife’s consent for the donation, Ravi said. Tests showed his liver was healthy.

22 Sep 2011, Indian Express

Govt set to reduce buffer zone limits to 100 metres

In Climate Change, Gujarat, Urban Management on September 25, 2011 at 4:05 am

The state government has decided to reduce the range of buffer zones around hazardous waste storage facilities in Gujarat from 500 metres to 400 metres.

A resolution to this effect from the Urban Development (UD) department is expected in the next few days, top officials said.

The move comes in the wake of several residential complexes having come up close to the Common

Hazardous Waste TSDFs (Treatment Stabilisation Disposal Facilities) in the Naroda and Vatva industrial areas.

The move assumes significance as building anything within 500 metres of these TSDFs and Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs) is not allowed anywhere in the country by the Central Pollution Control Board because the industrial waste stored in these facilities may leak, causing harm to human life.

S K Nanda, Principal Secretary, Environment and Forests (E&F) department, said, “New TSDFs and CETPs will follow the 500-metre buffer zone rule, but all the existing ones will have reduced buffer zone of 100 metres. The decision was taken because many projects have already come up (within 500 metres of these facilities) and some are in the pipeline or have been sanctioned that people have paid money for.”

He added that borewells would, however, be strictly prohibited in the complexes that come up in the 500-metre radius of these facilities and supplied piped water.

Nanda said a meeting was held between the E&F department, various municipal corporations and the UD department, and the minutes of that meeting have been approved.

While Urban Development Secretary I P Gautam declined to comment, top officials said the department would soon pass a Government Resolution officially authorising the reduction of buffer zone.

The resolution would also contain strict guidelines that green cover be maintained in the 100-metre radius to make the buffer zone visible and there is no encroachment.

Besides the ban on borewells in the 500-metre radius, a two-km radius would also be regularly checked for soil and groundwater contamination, they said.

There are currently eight TSDFs and 26 CETPs that are supported by the government in the state.

Officials said there are about seven more private TSDFs and over 5,000 private effluent treatment plants, while seven more ommon Effluent Treatment Plants are in the pipeline.

Environmentalist who raised the issue cries foul

Vadodara-based environmentalist Rohit Prajapati, who was the first to raise the issue of residential complexes coming up in the buffer zones of TSDFs in November 2010, said he was deeply disappointed and angered by the decision reduce the range.

“This is nothing but manipulation of environmental norms to legalise illegal projects. It shows powerful people can pressurise the government to do illegal modifications to legalise their illegal activities,” he said.

“All this would not have happened if the government was vigilant enough to detect these constructions or acted upon his complaints since the constructions were still nascent and no one had occupied the flats as yet,” added Prajapati.


 21 Sep 2011, Indian Express

Copycats or life-savers?

In International Relations, Public Health on September 25, 2011 at 4:04 am

Chinese and Indian drug makers have taken over much of the global trade in medicines and now manufacture more than 80 per cent of the active ingredients in drugs sold worldwide. But they had never been able to copy the complex and expensive biotech medicines increasingly used to treat cancer, diabetes and other diseases in rich nations like the United States—until now.  These generic drug companies say they are on the verge of selling cheaper copies of such huge sellers as Herceptin for breast cancer, Avastin for colon cancer, Rituxan for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Enbrel for rheumatoid arthritis. Their entry into the market in the next year—made possible by hundreds of millions of dollars invested in biotechnology plants—could not only transform the care of patients in much of the world but also ignite a counterattack by major pharmaceutical companies and diplomats from richer countries.

Already, the Obama administration has been trying to stop an effort by poorer nations to strike a new international bargain that would allow them to get around patent rights and import cheaper Indian and Chinese knock-off drugs for cancer and other diseases, as they did to fight AIDS.

Rich nations and the pharmaceutical industry agreed 10 years ago to give up patent rights and the profits that come with them in the face of an AIDS pandemic that threatened to depopulate much of Africa, but they see deaths from cancer, diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases as less of an emergency.

The debate has intensified in recent weeks, before world leaders gather at the United Nations this week, to confront surging deaths from noncommunicable diseases, which cause two-thirds of all deaths.

Although the draft agreement for this week’s meeting at the UN offers no support for poor nations seeking freer patent rules to fight cancer and other noncommunicable diseases, their advocates have vowed to continue fighting to loosen those restrictions not only this week in New York but in continuing international trade negotiations around the world as well.

The US government has a long history of pushing for strong patent protections in international trade and other agreements to protect important domestic industries like pharmaceuticals and ensure continued incentives for further inventions.

The new biotech copycats will be less expensive than the originals, but they will never be cheap. It is unlikely that many African nations will be able to afford such a costly medicine for breast cancer, when far cheaper ones for colon and testicular cancer are going wanting.

Dr Yusuf K Hamied, chairman of the Indian drug giant Cipla Ltd., electrified the global health community a decade ago when he said he could produce cocktails of AIDS medicines for $1 per day—a fraction of the price charged by branded pharmaceutical companies. That price has since fallen to 20 cents per day, and more than six million people in the developing world now receive treatment, up from little more than 2,000 in 2001.

Hamied said in a telephone interview last week that he and a Chinese partner, BioMab, had together invested $165 million to build plants in India and China to produce at least a dozen biotech medicines. Other Indian companies have also built such plants. Since these medicines are made with genetically engineered bacteria, they must be tested extensively in patients before sale.

Once those tests are complete, Hamied promised to sell the drugs at a third of their usual prices, which typically cost tens of thousands of dollars for a course of treatment.

“And once we recover our costs, our prices will fall further,” he said. “A lot further.”

Having suffered global opprobrium 10 years ago when they were seen as blocking efforts to save the lives of millions of poor AIDS patients, executives for branded drug makers are far more cautious this time about insisting that high prices are necessary. Sara Radcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, said companies supported copycat versions of biotech medicines as long as “countries do not abuse the flexibilities in international law with respect to compulsory licencing in true public health emergencies.”

Patents generally provide inventors rights to 20 years of exclusive sales, but international law allows countries to force companies to share those rights with competitors under a variety of circumstances, including to protect public health.

But the only way poor countries can get drugs that result from shared patent rights is if another country exports those medicines to them under emergency exceptions.

In retrospect, the battle 10 years ago over AIDS medicines was a small skirmish compared with the one likely to erupt over cancer, diabetes and heart medicines. Cancer and diabetes drugs are central to the companies’ very survival. Roche Holding Ltd earns $19 billion annually, or half its annual drug sales, selling Rituxan, Avastin and Herceptin. And sales of Herceptin have been rising faster in the developing world than in richer nations—making the developing world a crucial market. For middle-income countries straining to provide the best medicine possible, the new copycat biotechs will almost certainly be warmly received. GARDINER HARRIS


20 Sep 2011, Indian Express

Confiscated weapons: MPs of all shades, taints lined up to buy

In Bizarre Laws, Corruption on September 25, 2011 at 3:55 am

In the past 25 years, more than 700 MPs have purchased weapons confiscated by the Customs department at half their original price.

An RTI reply has revealed that in the past decade around 80 MPs have made good use of the Finance Ministry’s scheme to dispose of weapons confiscated at airports and ports. Among the buyers are Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, Congress’s Janardhan Dwivedi, jailed Commonwealth Games chief Suresh Kalmadi, BJP’s Shahnawaz Husain and jailed MP from Bihar Mohd Shahabuddin.

While the Arminious and Erma revolvers were a hit during the early 1990s, Webly revolvers replaced them in the late 1990s. However, the last decade saw .22 bore revolvers and 7.65 mm Walther pistols being preferred.

Mayawati bought an Arminious revolver in February 1991 for Rs 4,900 while Dwivedi bought 0.32 bore S&W revolver for Rs 1.45 lakh in the second half of the last decade. Former MP Atiq Ahmed, facing trial in 35 criminal cases, spent the highest amount to buy a rifle ‘Rugger M-77 Mark-II 30.66 mm’ at Rs 3.15 lakh.

Kalmadi bought a Webly revolver in 1995 for Rs 9,150 while Shahabuddin procured a S&W revolver in 2001 for Rs 43,507. Babubhai Katara, also facing allegations, procured a Webley revolver in 2000 for Rs 59,215. BJP MP Ashok Argal and the party’s Faggan Singh Kulaste, both accused in the cash-for-vote scam, also bought weapons — on successive days.

Among the Union ministers, Jayanthi Natarajan, Preneet Kaur and M Vincent Pala figure in the list.


22 Sep 2011, Indian Express

‘How many IITians have done research for a good cooking stove? Where is the contribution of IITs to the real India?’

In Energy, Microfinance, Poverty Eradication on September 25, 2011 at 3:42 am

I am in a village called Lingarajapura on the outskirts of Bangalore, right next to the city’s new airport. This village, for decades, has seen many things. It has seen many planes fly overhead but one thing it had not seen was electricity until Harish Hande found this village. Before I make a routine introduction, I’ll quote from your Magsaysay Award citation—one, that you brought solar power to about half a million households.

No, 1,20,000 households, which is about half-a-million people.

And second, that your approach has been to look at the poor as people who can create assets, not as people at whom you can throw money or subsidies or charity or alms.

Today, everyone thinks that the poor are employees. But we think that if India has to develop, then the poor have to be employers or asset creators.

In fact, it is worse than employees, it’s a pejorative translation isko naukri do, keep them occupied, so that he or she can fill his/her belly.

We are more solution-oriented rather than just complaining about stuff that’s not happening. We want to prove that sustainable energy for our country is a big catalyst for getting people out of poverty, without even talking about the environment.

Before we talk about you, tell us about this village. What was there when you came in?

We came here in 2008-9. Some of our colleagues were scouting for villages without electricity in some other part of Karnataka. Then somebody said, “You have villages right in front of Bangalore, why haven’t you looked at them?”

Right next to Bangalore, that’s a shame.

Right next to the international airport, forget Bangalore.

India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore, provides light to all of India. Bangalore is so integral to Brand India.

It is supposed to be the first city in the country to have got electricity.

In Urdu, there is a saying, chiraag tale andhera, darkness under the lamp.

Exactly. We came at 6.30 in the evening. In every household, there was a kerosene lamp, under which a woman was cooking. There was so much smoke that you and I could not have stayed there for a minute. There were kids in school, but obviously, unable to study. The best thing was what I learnt many years ago when we asked some labourers what it meant to move from kerosene to electricity. One of them said, “You don’t know what it means after physical work to come to our house with the kerosene lamp. Already our mood is down, it goes further down. And now that we have solar light, it makes such a difference.”

And yet, with that poor quality of lighting and life extinguishing cooking…

That smoke is equivalent to two packs of cigarettes on a daily basis.

Without even the alleged pleasure of nicotine. And yet, it punched a big hole in their household budgets, in spite of the huge kerosene subsidy.

See, that’s the irony. As we go poorer into the economic strata of society, people spend more on energy. The average household income in many of the villages we visit is Rs 1,600 a month. Out of that they spend Rs 155 on kerosene and candles and Rs 40 a month merely to charge their mobile phones.

That means the mobile becomes a source of expense other than paying their mobile bills.

Yes, they go to the nearest shop which has electricity and pay Rs 5 per charge. Typically, they charge their phones eight times a month as the landlord might call them for work anytime. So that’s Rs 195.

This is a classic example of broken window economics. You break a window, someone fixes it. You break it again and someone fixes it again.

Absolutely. You know everybody says the subsidy is on kerosene, but if you go and ask a street vendor in Bangalore, she spends Rs 15 a day on kerosene. And what happens is, everybody sits in Delhi and says, “Solar (energy) is expensive, we need to subsidise it.” They don’t look at the fact that there are various other parameters and an ecosystem that needs to be built. Today as we say, solar (energy) is expensive for the rich and affordable for the poor.

Could you please explain that?

Because the poor spend more on energy. Today it is at Rs 195 a month. If you look at five-year financing, solar (energy) actually works equal or cheaper.

I see nice houses here. What would they be without electricity? Every single house has a (solar) panel. These are almost like TV antennas.<.b>

And they get power when they want now, without fear of power cuts.

How much power does that panel give them?

That small panel can run two lights for four to six hours daily. So, evening for three hours and morning for one hour.

And they can charge their phones.

And that panel would cost about

Rs 7,000-8,500.

And that pays for itself in three years.

Three to five years.

It lasts forever.

Absolutely. In India, we tend to look at the poor as a monolithic structure, which is actually not true. The key is to create, with financing, solar, biogas, small wind and small hydro sources of energy.

These are the things you can do until Jaitapurs come, if they come.

My point is, you don’t need a lot of Jaitapurs if you start looking at these solutions. See for example, if we calculate per household electricity consumption in a typical economic way, we will say each household needs four to five units of electricity a day. But actually, they don’t need that much. It’s just two LED lights of three watts each, that is six watts. And they have another panel if they need four more watts. So why do we need to design for more than what the poor need?

To be making a positive contribution on the ground is not great brand value, doesn’t make you a star that easily. You would rather be standing somewhere with a flag saying, “Do not do this.”

We believe that the best form of protest is to find solutions. It is easy to go and stand anywhere, I can waste my time doing that. I would rather tell young people to use their energy to create solutions.

Every single house in this village is electrified now.

Yes, each of the 32-33 houses now use one or two lights.

So, when did this light come into your head? You were at IIT Kharagpur and went to the University of Massachusetts.

Typically in IIT, you have to study for PhD, that is what your goal is. My interest was solar and my love was thermodynamics, so I applied to the University of Massachusetts to study solar thermal. Fortunately, I had the chance to meet my friend Richard Hanson in the Dominican Republic. He was helping much poorer households in 1991 and taking bits of money. I thought that it was fantastic, just what a country needs. So I changed my thesis to look at socio-economics. It was the last I touched mathematics. I have always studied under electricity and I have never felt what it means to study in many of these houses (without electricity). So I spent some time in Sri Lanka and India looking at village dynamics, economics, politics and that is where this whole concept of a social enterprise came to my mind.

What took you to Sri Lanka? I think you went to Sri Lanka at the height of the strife there.

If I wanted to talk to any villager, they would always call me ‘Sir’ and I had that elevated status because of my education. I was never able to feel what they actually needed. While talking to an auto rickshaw driver, you need to be an auto rickshaw driver to feel his problems. I went to Sri Lanka because nobody knew my language. They would treat me at the same level due to that.

You were in Sri Lanka in 1993 in Anuradhapura. Those were tough times. An English-speaking Indian, particularly from the South of India, mysteriously appears in a Sri Lankan village not far from the Tamil borderline. Were you not suspected of being a spy?

I think the villages were more scared than I was. My colour matched theirs, so it was easy to blend in as a Tamilian or a Sinhalese in some of the villages.

So what did you learn in Sri Lanka?

I was doing an interesting project where the elephants were coming into farmland and a solar light actually scared them off. So I learnt not to look at problems from a unilateral perspective. For the poor of India, the poor of Sri Lanka, the poor of Dominican Republic, nationality does not matter.

That’s why hypernationalism is a fad of the middle class society.

Absolutely. Today, it is more of the divide between the poor and the rich rather than that between developing and developed nations or anything else. I also learnt to be more solution oriented.

So when you came to India, what persuaded you to become a commercial entrepreneur rather than just a social entrepreneur and that too non-profit?

I looked at several NGOs and when you know that the grant writer in these has the second highest salary, you know that somewhere they have got their priorities wrong. You do one project for Rs 100, are you doing the next hundred houses for Rs 90? Where is the efficiency? So I wanted to start a company where I know why I made a loss and how to increase my efficiency.

With that came SELCO, your company.

With that came SELCO where the fundamental was how to balance social, economic and environmental stability at the same level. And to destroy myths like the poor can’t afford technology, the poor can’t maintain and thirdly that you can’t run a commercial venture while trying to meet social objectives.

And the fourth myth that these days you don’t expect an IITian to do something so innovative at the grassroots level.

I’ve got through an IIT education through huge subsidies which most of the poor have actually paid for and then I go to Silicon Valley or I go to Bangalore with millions and I say that I have made money and I am an IITian. This is exactly the brand for which IIT was not started for.

If the IITians were to sell toothpaste, then the Levers should have funded the IITs.

Exactly, then they should not ask for subsidy from the Government of India. It is a very precious education. Six hundred-and-fifty million people are there without electricity in our country, which is around 48 per cent. Most of them do not have clean water or toilets. The only technology that has survived in this village is from the Iron Age. It’s a three-stone cooker (chulha). IITs have been there for 50 years. How many IITians have done research for a good cooking stove? And 70 per cent of India cooks under that. Why don’t we create efficient chulhas with better ventilation so that they use less wood? Where is the contribution of the IITs to the real India—these 650 million Indians?

Do you have arguments about this with your fellow IITians?

Yes I do, and a lot of them don’t agree. They say that if the industries flourish, more employment will be generated. I said that’s exactly the opposite of my point. You are creating more employment for the poor to become employees. When you tell a poor person to sell a Re 1 sachet, where does that Re 1 come from? It comes from non-expendable income. You are not giving the poor a choice between spending that Re 1 for good electricity, good water or shampoo. That is my argument with these people. IITians have become a bubble. We live in a cocoon, we only interact with industries.

Or hallmates.

Hallmates, yes. That is what I joke with Arvind Kejriwal, who is my hallmate.

One year your senior.

Yes, he was in mechanical (engineering), I was in Energy. But exactly, we hardly make friends outside our bubble. You never see IITians coming here, or even middle-class people.

Do you see the difference between your business, social entrepreneurship, and NGOs, a non-profit business? Do you see the tension between activism and doing something productive? Both are important but do you sometimes feel that the dice is loaded too heavily in favour of activism?

I believe so. I am not trying to sound brutal but I think activism is an easier way out. Let’s look at (finding and implementing) a solution. That takes time, five or ten years. Yes, activism has to be there but we need an example where people can get inspired and decide to dedicate their life to something. I definitely see that more people are trying to see activism rather than the real world.

Do you have arguments with activists?

Yes, I do. My argument with them happens when activists become policy makers. Without having practical experience, how can you start talking about how the policy should be designed? Today, the solar mission for the country has been partly designed by some of the activists sitting in Delhi. It has been so Delhi-centric.

So you would say that they have no idea?

Have they ever come here?

Is that why the solar mission is not working?

It is not working the way it should have worked.

Do you get attention from Delhi, from the top leaders? I mean now you are a star.

It was easier to meet Obama when he came to India, but…

But not your own Prime Minister?

I have never met any minister in 16 years. It is better to work below the radar as you can innovate and are not under tension of any kind or interference from any quarter.

And you never have to worry about hosting ministers for distribution ceremonies because ministers bring subsidies.

Activists and politicians in Delhi need to see the daily expenditure of the poor and not come for four hours and say, “I learnt it, I’m the expert.” They should come and stay. After 18 years in rural areas, I have not been able to learn one single bit of it.

Now that you are saying come, stay and learn what goes on, I bet you know more about the corruption that these people face than any of these activists or journalists. So tell me, what corruption do you see and how? Is there an instant solution, like a law?

There has to be an inherent change in a lot of the middle class people. I applaud what is happening, I totally support it as it needs to happen on one hand. On the other hand, if I look at the very poor and what you see in this village today, when they go to use their ration card, the shopkeeper does give them their subsidised rice. But he adds that with the money that they save, they have to buy 10 kg of salt and sugar from him. So the poor have no choice. It’s corruption in a different way.

So what you need is governance reform.

Absolutely. Governance reform is the need, starting from people who earn Rs 10 a day. I see what is happening today with the Lokpal Bill and yes, that pressure needs to be there. Hopefully, the next stage is how can we actually make it more poor-centric. Until we don’t remove poverty from this country, corruption will not go. Poverty is the fundamental problem of our country.

I do hope that when they look at the next stage, they talk to people like you who are actually on the battlefront, people who have some positivity. To me, you personify that old cliché, ‘better to light a candle than curse the darkness’.

Through you, I want to tell youngsters that we have 650 million poor people but this country also has so many opportunities for solutions. You can be a star for Africa and Latin America, forget Europe and America. We can be the centre of innovation for the remaining four billion people. Can’t we be a soft superpower? We don’t always need to be a military superpower or an IT superpower. We can be a soft superpower for the poor too.

20 Sep 2011, Indian Express

Central schemes likely to be trimmed

In Centre-State Relations, Poverty Eradication on September 25, 2011 at 3:19 am

After extensive consultations with various central ministries, Planning Commission has decided to recommend a reduction in the number of Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSS) by almost two-thirds to 51 from the existing 147. Although the Plan panel is against winding up any of flagship programmes, yet agriculture and human resource development ministries are likely to see their schemes either trimmed down or merged in the 12th Plan period.

In its present form, the Centre funds 75-90 per cent of the schemes, while the state government bears the remaining expenditure. However, the CSSs have been a cause of friction between the Centre and the states. Most states have made their displeasure clear by asking the Centre to restrict its role to providing funds while allowing them to implement state-specific programmes.

On the demand of certain chief ministers, the Planning Commission had constituted a high-level committee under its member BK Chaturvedi, which had recently submitted its report.

The report is understood to have been approved by the commission in its internal meeting Saturday evening. The commission will seek the endorsement of the National Development Council on the proposed CSS setup in its meeting on October 15, sources in the commission said.

The Chaturvedi committee has recommended that the number of schemes in the farm sector should be reduced to nine from the existing 30, while key programmes like National Food Security Mission and National Horticulture Mission be retained.

It has recommended the number of schemes in the animal husbandry and dairy department be reduced to three from 15.

It proposed the number of CSSs in school education and literacy be reduced to four from the existing 17 programmes. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Mid-Day Meal Scheme could be retained as per the Plan panel.

In a recent consultations with chief ministers, the commission was told that CSSs are increasing the burden on the states as every state has different geographies and separate needs. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and his Gujarat counterpart Narendra Modi are reportedly in favour of ending the CSSs.

The commission, in its Draft Approach paper, has also pitched for earmarking flexi-funds within the flagship programmes to allow central ministries to experiment in different areas.

The paper, drafted after consultations with states, suggests improving the overall level of governance for better implementation of the CSSs and flagship schemes.

Commission member Mihir Shah, who oversees the social sector, said, “There is a need to overcome the universalisation without quality syndrome. The quality on outcome has not been attained as the implementation of different schemes have remained business-as-usual.”


19 Sep 2011, Indian Express