Sunday, 5 October 2014

Why Speed May be Detrimental to Narendra Modi's Jan Dhan Yojna

MUMBAI: Hanumant Vithoba’s vision was dimmed by cement dust blowing into his eyes and his back was bent from hauling cement sacks into trucks. Vithoba, 92, worked for ten years in a cement factory in Sewri, a grimy, polluted port district on Mumbai’s eastern seaboard. After ill-health finally forced out of his job, Vithoba, the only wage earner in his family, retired to a shack. He had no savings and no hope of correcting his dimming sight.

Last week, new information and hope suddenly reached Vithoba. He hobbled over to a local temple and joined many others in opening a bank account under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PJMDY), the Prime Minister’s People’s Wealth Programme. This is the much-publicised game-changer that Narendra Modi extols, a move to bring banking services to India’s vast unbanked population, to slash runaway corruption in government spending and allow social-security payments to directly reach millions of poor people.

But Vithoba’s hopes are a warning to the hurdles facing Modi’s ambitions.

Asked what he expects from his new account, Vithoba replied: “I have heard that the government will give us money if we fall sick, if we need to pay for our treatment at the hospital, or if we meet with an accident. I will use that money to operate on my eyes.”

Clearly, Vithoba’s expectations are misplaced. As Indiaspend’s interviews at PJMDY account-opening camps in the poorest areas of India’s financial capital revealed, he is not the only one.

Sultana Shah, a mother of two and resident of a slum in the central Mumbai suburb of Ghatkopar, was clear why she needed a PJMDY account. “My husband is a peon who makes barely Rs. 5,000 a month and I have two children,” she explained. “It’s difficult to make ends meet most times, and this money will help keep us afloat.”

Across town, in his office, Assistant General Manager of state-owned Punjab National Bank (PNB), Om Prasad is visibly upbeat at the speed with which new accounts are being opened. “Our target for the inaugural day was 250 accounts per branch, and we far exceeded it, across branches.”

PNB opened roughly 1.8 million accounts nationwide on August 28, part of the 15 million opened that day, as Modi kicked off what is touted as one of the world’s greatest banking revolutions.

“I wish to connect the poorest citizens of the country with the facility of bank accounts,” said Modi. “There are millions of families who have mobile phones, but no bank accounts. We have to change this. The change will commence from this point… Never before in economic history have 15 million bank accounts been opened in a single day. Never before have insurance companies issued 15 million accident policies in a single day. Never before has the government of India organized a program of such scale — over 77,000 locations — with the participation of so many chief ministers, union ministers, and government and bank officials”

Although not at this pace and scale, India has seen a previous attempt at revolutionising grassroots banking.

In the five years to 2010, the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government opened 50.6 million no-frills accounts–the PJMDY reached 52 million accounts in just two months–meant primarily to directly deliver payments for various social-security programmes, from old-age pensions to jobs-for-work programmes. To bypass the lack of bank branches, business correspondents were used–agencies that opened accounts and handed over payments to accounts holders.

Three independent studies (CMF, MicroSave, Skoch) have previously shown that up to 90% of these accounts are inactive.

Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan has cautioned banks about the risks of focussing on numbers alone in the PJMDY plan.

At a recent banking conference, Rajan said: “When we roll out the scheme, we have to make sure it does not go off the track. The target is universality, not just speed and numbers. The system is going to be a waste if what we do generates a whole set of duplicate accounts.”

There are already indications that duplicate accounts are being opened. Banks have no way of knowing if someone opening a Jan Dhan account already has an account. This account is from banking columnist Tamal Bandopadhyay:

“I happened to be present at minority affaris minister Najma Heptulla’s launch function in Kolkata. Forty-odd financially included persons, who opened accounts on that day, walked into a five-star hotel for the first time in their lives and were treated to tea and cookies after Heptulla handed over to them a RuPay debit card and a passbook…It didn’t take much time to find out that for all of them, it was not their first bank account. Clearly, the banks wanted to meet the target at any cost.”

Rajan said that the focus of openings accounts must be only on opening them.

“It is going to be a waste if you do not have full coverage,” he said. “It is going to be a waste if those accounts are not used, they open and they languish. Many of the persons who are coming into the system are coming for the first time, so if we don’t make a good first impression, they will stay out.”

No frills for customer, no money for banks

Kirandevi Ramkumar Gupta, 36, does not have a good first impression about basic banking.

She and her husband, an auto driver, opened a no-frills account–to do away with the stigma attached to the term, the RBI in 2012 changed its name to Basic Savings Bank Deposit (BSBD) Account–with the Bank of Baroda one-and-a-half years ago, so that they could receive cooking-gas subsidies.

The couple only ever received one subsidy payment of Rs 600.

“After that we have not used it,” said Gupta of Kamraj Nagar, a slum of untidy concrete homes in central Mumbai.

PNB’s Prasad acknowledges the failure of no-frills accounts. He cites the example of Sakherseth town in Maharashtra’s Thane district where only a little over 20% of 9,000 No-Frills Accounts and Basic Savings Bank Deposit Account accounts opened more than two years ago are active.

Most of these accounts were opened for Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) payments, but of the 2,000 active accounts only 600 received any payments. “The accounts that have received any payment have seen a 100% withdrawal rate; and the 1,400 accounts that are still active have almost no balance in them,” said Prasad.

PJMDY accounts and those that preceded them cost banks upto 15% more than normal savings accounts. This is because of the extra staff required, travel and camp-site expenses, printing and other expenses to drive awareness, various bank officals told Indiaspend.

“The process cost — forms, debit card, documents verification procedure — is the same (as normal savings-bank accounts),” said an Axis Bank official, requesting anonymity, since he is not authorised to speak with the media.

At Axis Bank, one of India’s largest private banks, opening a PMJDY bank account costs approximately Rs. 100. The bank has 2,500 branches and expects to open about 1 million accounts byJanuary 26, 2015. For the bank to break-even, it needs at least 30% of them to be active.

Banks were clearly unenthusiastic about no-frills accounts, and it appears apparent that growth did not translate to financial inclusion.

The number of branches of Scheduled Commercial Banks in India increased manifold from 68,681 in March 2006 to 1,02,343 in March 2013; and the number of BSBD accounts opened increased from 73.45 million in March 2010 to 182.06 million in March 2013.

As this 2011 study said: “Banks are not allowed to charge the customer for the No-Frill Accounts, and find them intrinsically loss-making. Thus, banks are doing little to market their benefits or encourage their use. This has led to extremely high levels of inactivity in the No-Frill Accounts…underlining that the objective of financial inclusion has not really been met.”

The hardest part: Getting subsidies into bank accounts

While most people opening basic bank accounts do it for the subsidies and government payments, many beneficiaries just don’t receive them.

The World Bank estimates that only 4% of India’s adult population use its accounts to receive government payments, which run into the billions of dollars, a vast percentage of which is siphoned off by corrupt officials or through other leaks.

According to a paper by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP), a New Delhi based public economics and policy research institute, subsidy payouts by the government for the year 2010–2011 stack up thus: total food subsidy Rs. 58,500 crore, wage expenditure bill MNREGA, Rs. 24,864, and fertiliser subsidy, Rs. 62,301 crore. The total LPG subsidy was Rs. 23,746 crore, and national education subsidy, Rs.31,036 crore. There are many other subsidies, including those for pensions, housing, scholarships, childcare and toilets.

If subsidies to millions of beneficiaries could be paid directly into their bank accounts, using Aadhaar, or the Unique Identity scheme, the savings to the government would be Rs 20,265 crore, said the NIPFP estimate.

More than 680 million Indians have been legally identified and a unique number allotted to them. The government has now given the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) a target of 1 billion enrollments by 2015. This exercise will apparently run parallel to the spread of banking, seeking to provide banking services to about 600 million who cannot presently access them.

These are impressive numbers and herald ambitions with few global precedents, although they build directly on the experiments and programmes begun by the UPA.

Indeed, the very scale of the banking programme–and the speed asked of it–is cause for worry.

Yet, there is little doubt that India needs a massive banking expansion for its poor, but gradually prospering population.

Among the currently excluded population, there are two broad sub-categories, Managing Director and CEO of Yes Bank, Rana Kapoor, told Knowledge@Wharton, an online journal of the Wharton Business School. “There is [the] segment that has both need of financial services and the inclination to pay reasonable charges for them. The rapid proliferation of microfinance institutions and gold loan non-banking finance companies highlights this potential. The other segment is that of people heavily dependent on state subsidies for their livelihood. For this segment, though the other financial services may not be relevant, having a savings account to receive these subsidies without pilferage is highly desirable.”

According to data from the Global Financial Inclusion (Global Findex) database, only 35% of the population above 15 years of age has a bank account at a formal financial institution — a bank, credit union, cooperative, post office, or microfinance institution. This is significantly lower than other the BRICS economies of Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa where the average is 61%.

Another issue that has plagued financial inclusion in India is that a large number of banking correspondent agents, the route that many banks use to reach the unbanked, are only in bank records. In a survey of 2,932 villages with a population of greater than 1,000, only 39% were covered through customer service points (CSPs), according to this 2012 report. Only about 6.6% of villages had “transaction ready” CSPs against the reported achievement of one CSP in every village with a population over 1,000.

The result is that even in cities, there are many who are untouched by formal banking.

In a slum in the tony western Mumbai suburb of Bandra, auto driver Sheikh Mehamood, 41, does not know that money saved in a bank can fetch him interest. He never had money to save and never opened a bank account because “banks always ask for so many documents and a minimum balance of Rs 1,000″.

Mehamood is, however, aware that a bank account can benefit him. “For a person who does not have anything, whatever extra they get is good for them.”

Jan Dhan: What’s different this time?

“In a word, implementation.”

That is the assessment of a bank CEO, speaking on condition of anonymity, about the difference between the UPA’s no-frills accounts and the PMJDY. He describes continuous, subtle and not-so-subtle, pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry, ever since Modi launched the programme. Targets are set, revised and closely monitored.

“This programme itself is not very different from what we had earlier. But, the execution is much much better. Earlier we concentrated on villages. Today we are looking at a conglomeration of families — every household should have an account. Banks have to conduct surveys in the allotted areas on how many households don’t have an account and then subsequently open them,” the Axis Bank official said

“The real difference between this programme and the others is that it is being monitored,” he said. “We have found that if people are being watched they behave better.”

Aside from the scale, speed and close monitoring, the PMJDY hopes to be more than a vessel for subsidy payments. The plan envisages at least one basic banking account to each household, a RuPay debit card with an in-built insurance cover of Rs 1 lakh, an overdraft facility of Rs 5,000, if the account is operated satisfactorily for six months, and a life-insurance policy of Rs 30,000 for acounts opened before January 26, 2015.

The CEO likens the megascale approach to a hosepipe. “Open the spigot so wide that a lot of water will be wasted, but there will be so much water that the plants will get watered.”

M.S. Sriram, a professor at the Centre for Public Policy at the Indian Institute for Management, Bangalore, is sceptical of such an approach. “The current methodology serves political interests — it can claim and count numbers and tout achievements,” said Sriram. ” There is no meaning in these achievements unless we see at least 10–15 transactions in a year in these accounts.”

Financial inclusion programmes are likely to be successful only when the accounts have transactions not just be a vessel for handouts and subsidies, he said.

“Whenever there has been transaction-led initiatives (providing loans under the old schemes, having savings and credit under the self-help group movement) they have worked, but just opening accounts is tokenism. What is the use of opening accounts and touting the numbers if nobody is using them?”

The UIDAI’s effort have been mammoth and unprecedented. But, for a more efficient Direct Benefits Transfer system (as cash transfers are called in India) to be put in place, Aadhaar seeding must become more extensive.

“Bank accounts can be really effective if Aadhaar seeding is done properly. Once that happens government benefits will automatically go to the Aadhaar-linked account and people will have an incentive to be within the formal financial system,” said the Axis Bank executive.

“The Swaabhimaan (no-frills accounts) programme of UPA and the PMJDY of the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) are interesting programmes, but I believe they have got the sequence wrong,” said IIM’s Sriram. “We first need to create a system that demands accounts–by ensuring that people see the benefit in opening an account–not by offering baits like insurance, but by making transactions easier.”

While the UPA government started well by mandating that MGNREGA payments and other benefits be paid through a bank account, they faltered by having a business-correspondent model that kept customers away from the banks.

“How would they (customers) deepen their financial transactions with the banking system if they are always dealing with the BC, who only makes payments?” said Sriram. “If they have to discover the range of the banking facilities that they could use, they need to be familiar with the bank.”

Indians seek that familiarity. A November 2013 RBI survey reported that in a sample of 34,149 people in rural India, 76% were aware of services offered by banks: “The study shows that there is financial awareness and demand for banking services in rural areas. Hence, if access can be provided, usage of banking services will improve. Major factors hindering access are the non-availability of banking outlets and long distance of existing banking outlets.”

These stumbling blocks have not been addressed, and so the warnings of RBI governor Rajan and other experts. Politically, the misplaced expectations of those like Vithoba and Shah could snowball into disillusionment, as India’s previous government experienced.

It does appear clear that India will have the 75 million bank accounts the Prime Minister seeks by Republic Day, 2015. It is the only thing that is clear.

This story first appeared on

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Partnership or sellout? Facebook buys WhatsApp for $19 billion

In a blog post titled 'Why We Don't sell Ads' WhatsApp cofounder Jan Koum wrote: When people ask us why we charge for WhatsApp, we say “Have you considered the alternative?”

That was on June 18, 2012.

Less than two years later, WhatsApp, not its users, seems to have considered the alternative.

Earlier today, the popular messaging service announced 'a partnership with Facebook'. In simple terms, WhatsApp's has been sold to Facebook for $16 billion.

According to its SEC filing on Wednesday (February 19, 2014), Facebook announced that it was acquiring WhatsApp for a total of approximately $16 billion -- including $4 billion in cash and $12 billion worth of Facebook shares. The agreement also provided for an additional $3 billion in restricted stock units to WhatsApp’s founders and employees over four years subsequent to closing, taking the total deal to $19 billion.

"WhatsApp had every option in the world, so I’m thrilled that they chose to work with us. I’m looking forward to what Facebook and WhatsApp can do together, and to developing great new mobile services that give people even more options for connecting," Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement.

Facebook clearly has its reason for buying out the popular messaging service. In it's filing it cited WhatsApp's 450 million+ monthly users with "70% of those people active on a given say", its messaging volume which was approaching the entire global telecom SMS volume; and its sustained growth trajectory, adding more than 1 million new registered users per day.

"WhatsApp is on a path to connect 1 billion people. The services that reach that milestone are all incredibly valuable," said Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO in the company's filing. "I've known Jan for a long time and I'm excited to partner with him and his team to make the world more open and connected."

WhatsApp on the other hand cited its reasons for 'the new partnership' as being good for growth and expansion.

"Doing this will give WhatsApp the flexibility to grow and expand, while giving me, Brian, and the rest of our team more time to focus on building a communications service that’s as fast, affordable and personal as possible," Jan Koum, cofounder of WhatsApp wrote in a blog post.

But, considering its claims of adding 1 million new registered users each day, the explanation doesn't completely fly.

We don't know yet, whether WhatsApp has been straitjacketed by business pressures, the changing dynamics of communication or the influx of competitors like WeChat, SnapChat, MessageMe and Line or if it's really only because the two companies have a "shared mission to bring more connectivity and utility to the world by delivering core internet services efficiently and affordably".

But, the good news is, both say that nothing will change for the messaging service's users.

Zuckerberg and Koum said that WhatsApp will remain continue to operate independently, users will get the service for a nominal fee and it will stay ad free.

Now, that's what should keep users happy.

In his blog post about why WhatsApp doesn't sell ads, Koum had written:

Advertising isn’t just the disruption of aesthetics, the insults to your intelligence and the interruption of your train of thought. At every company that sells ads, a significant portion of their engineering team spends their day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect all your personal data, upgrading the servers that hold all the data and making sure it’s all being logged and collated and sliced and packaged and shipped out… And at the end of the day the result of it all is a slightly different advertising banner in your browser or on your mobile screen.

Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.

It's still early in the day to know the kind of effect Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp will have on the messaging service's core product principles, but let's hope, we the users, don't eventually become the product.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Rs 5 menu in Delhi’s eateries

New Delhi: Congress leader Rasheed Masood may claim that “one can eat well” for as little as Rs 5 in Delhi, but according to owners of small restaurants in Delhi, that meal would have to be as small as a dry chapati.

Owners of small restaurant and street-side food vendors who Firstpost spoke to said that even a simple plate of dal and two chapattis cost over Rs 20.

“Half a plate of dal and two rotis cost 23 rupees – and that’s the cheapest meal one would get at my hotel,” says Mohammed Samir, owner of Subhanallah Hotel near the Jama Masjid.

While the hotel is around 60 years old, Samir has been running the hotel with his brothers for the past 30 years.

“Since the time I started sitting at the hotel and managing it, I can safely say that the cost of ingredients and vegetables is ten times the rate it was when I began,” he said.

Nayyab bhai, who sits in the scorching heat and dust selling biryani in a by-lane leading to Delhi’s famous Jama Masjid for six hours daily, says nothing is available at his stall for Rs 5.

Nayyab, who has been selling biryani outside the masjid for the past eight years, says when he first began his business he sold a full plate of biryani for Rs 10. Today he sells half a plate for Rs 20.

The cheapest item on the menu of Punjab Restaurant on Aurobindo Marg in Delhi, which can be considered a very affordable place to eat a meal, is a chapatti for Rs 6.

“What can one get in 5 rupees? Nothing. Only people who steal and eat will be able to eat in that amount,” Raj Kumar, the manager and owner’s brother-in-law told Firstpost, adding, “A basic dal and rice here costs 120 rupees.”

Gurpreet Singh, owner of next-door restaurant Sona Restaurant, says the Congress minister is stuck in the year 1995.

“I started managing the hotel in 1995 and that time we used to charge 10 rupees for half a dal fry and 1 rupee for a chapati. Today the same thing costs 45 rupees and 6 rupees,” Singh told Firstpost.

“How can we serve food for 15 to 20 rupees when everything is so expensive? ” asks Singh.

“Onions cost 40 rupees a kg, tomatoes cost 80 rupees a kg and cooking gas costs 1400 rupees per cylinder of 19 kgs. Over and above that we have to pay our employees and have overheads. How can we ever bring down the food to that price?” he said.

Even 18-year-old Vikas Kumar, whose ‘moth’ kachori was the cheapest meal we could find, sold his fare at Rs 10 for half a plate.

Kumar, who hails from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, has been selling ‘moth’ dal and kachori in Chawdi Bazaar, on his cycle over the past five months. He sells a single kachori and ‘moth’ dal for Rs 10 and a full plate with two kachoris for Rs 15. He also sells ‘moth’ dal and rice for Rs. 15.

In a recent interview to Firstpost, even Stri Shakti, an NGOs contracted to prepare and distribute Midday meals said that the Rs 3.11 per child plus 100 gms of rice and wheat each that the government provides is not enough to cover their costs.

“We get 100 gms of rice and wheat per child + Rs 3.11/child (for other ingredients, vegetables, oil, transport). While we have a tie-up with ingredient companies and wholesale vegetable vendors, enabling us to buy at less than MRP, we spend Rs 5-6/child in Delhi,” Jaspreet Singh, Manager, Srti Shakti told Firstpost.

Also see photo post by me on 'What you can (or can't) eat at Rs. 5'

This piece was written for

Thursday, 25 July 2013

A close-up look at Delhi's Midday Meal scheme

For the average middle class Indian, the Midday Meal (MDM) scheme in Delhi government schools may appear to be a ticking bomb. The schools are under-resourced, ingredients poor, safety checks minimal, and neither the NGO which prepares the food nor the teachers who distribute it can vouch for the quality of the food – which often contains worms, and one occasion, a rat. But the school staff claim the MDM in the nation’s capital is one of the better run programmes.

Sanjay Srivastava (name changed), a principal in one of the 13 schools run by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), in East Delhi’s Trilokpuri area says the midday meals in Delhi are far safer than others in the rural heartland.

“What happened in Bihar should not have happened. It is a huge tragedy. But just because there are a few bad apples in the system doesn’t mean everyone is like that,” Srivastava said.

“Delhi’s MDM scheme is much safer and more stringent that way. It’s not like we never have complaints about the food, but they are minor ones like the food not being hot when it arrives or the rice or pulses not having been cooked well,” he told Firstpost.

However, Parvati, a local resident whose son is in class 1 in Singh’s school complained about the quality of food.

“While my son has never fallen ill because of it, at least twice I have seen small white worms in the food my son got home from school. The worms are tiny and look like rice and many a time it could have been consumed without being noticed,” she said.

Another parent, Hemlata, whose son also studies in class 1 in the school said that he has also had a bad experience with the food served in school.

“Once my son came home with food served in school, which was smelling,” she said.

An NGO that runs kitchens and serving food to the East Delhi area of Trilokpuri, does not refute these allegations, but says the government and teachers are to be blamed for this.

Stri Shakti, one of the NGOs contracted to prepare and distribute midday meals, has five centralized kitchens across Delhi and provides food to 591 schools. Their Loni kitchen, under which the Trilokpura area falls, supplies food for midday meals to 208 schools each day.

According to Jaspreet Singh, Manager, Srti Shakti, the NGO he says follows the strictest norms of hygiene and cleanliness in cooking, but some things cannot be avoided and the government does not cooperate.

“A lot of times in this season there are insects which are usually inside the pulses and even the rice we receive from the Food Corporation of India (FCI). Green leafy veggies also pose a problem in this season, with worms in them,” he said.

“We try our best to do what we can with the conditions we are given and in fact we have requested the government to have menus that are seasonal so that we don’t have these problems, but their menu throughout the year is fixed,” he said.

Stri Shakti claims it serves 3,60,000 students each day across Delhi and that they make sure the food reaches schools within 1.5 hours from the time it leaves from the kitchen. The food is transported in steel containers and in hired tempos. The NGO says it can only do so much given government constraints.

“We get 100 gms of rice and wheat per child + Rs. 3.11/child (for other ingredients, vegetables, oil, transport). While we have a tie up with ingredient companies and wholesale vegetable vendors, enabling us to buy at less than MRP, we spend Rs. 5-6/child in Delhi,” Singh of Stri Shakti told Firstpost.

“We cover the extra costs through personal donations and profits made by our other units,” he said.

If the NGO’s hands are tied, the schools faces the challenge of making the most of too few hands. Principals and teachers in the schools say that severe under-staffing makes the management of the midday meal scheme more difficult.

Far from the prescribed student teacher ratio of 40:1 under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009, most of the 2,720 government schools in Delhi have a ratio 1.5 times that number or more. Despite the Trilokpuri school having 350 students and conducting classes from standard 1 to 5, with each standard having two sections, it has only six teachers presently.

It amounts to a ratio of 58.3 students to a teacher. In April this year, the school had only four teachers — making the student to teacher ratio 88:1, more than double the prescribed ratio.

Srivastava said his school’s teachers are already overworked, and yet have no choice but to take up additional responsibilities thrust on them by virtue of being government employees. Teachers already playing the role of administrators, clerks and peons in the school. But they are also forced to shoulder additional the responsibilities during elections, census taking and other government surveys. Checking food safety becomes one more task in an already long chore list.

“After already performing more than 5 duties at any given time, the midday meal scheme puts on us an additional responsibility. When will we have time to teach the students?” asks 45-year old Ramesh Garg (name changed), who has taught at the school for the last 17 years.

Srivastava says while the midday meal scheme is welcome, he says schools first priority is to educate the children.

“Students need teachers more than they need food. It’s more important that they get a good education. Parents who have given birth to them will feed them somehow, but if they don’t learn what they are supposed to in school, parents cannot teach them that,” he told Firstpost.

The over-burdened teachers and principal often become the immediate target for parents’ anger when there are problems with the food.

“We are helpless in conducting quality checks because it’s not like we have our own kitchen. If we did we could first hand monitor it. The most we can do, which we do, is to eat the food before we offer it to the children to make sure it’s safe. We also stir the food to check for any visible signs of it being unsafe. But our hands are tied beyond that,” he said.

Besides, doing more can land an over-enthusiastic educator in trouble.

“A few years ago, a principal in a nearby school found a rat in the midday meal supplied to his school. He sent it to a lab and complained about it to the authorities. He was not only suspended earlier than his retirement, but does not get pension money yet,” said Garg.

A teacher for 22 years, and now the principal of an MCD school in RK Puram, told Firstpost that given the shortage of teachers it was difficult to manage.

“Each teacher teaches their students six subjects. In addition our school also teaches the kids computers. So each of us teach 7 subjects. We also serve the midday meal to students ourselves,” the RK Puram school’s principal said. “What all can we do?”

This piece was written for

Friday, 19 July 2013

Disabled, says who? I have polio, watch me dance

When Gulshan Kumar was 8 years old, he dreamt of being on television and in newspapers. Twelve years later, his sisters’ friends see his face in newspapers and have the same dream. This would be a heartening success story of any poor boy in India. It is an outright miracle for a boy born with polio. A young man who now supports his family by dancing for a living.

This is a true story of incredible Indians achieving incredible dreams, living in a society that doesn’t afford them the luxury of believing that they are equal citizens.

Kumar who originally hails from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh developed polio when he was 9 months old. His parents were determined to save him from a life defined by disability. They moved to Delhi to seek treatment, visiting numerous hospitals but to no avail. They soon lost hope.

“After going to many hospitals with me and seeing no change, my parents also thought that I will not be able to live like a normal human being,” he told Firstpost.

They were right, in a sense. Kumar still can’t walk properly. He can, however, twirl, swirl, and soar.

He is today a well-known artiste and an integral member of Ability Unlimited’s dance troupe which performs across the country and around the world. And he owes his success to a unique arts organisation committed to transforming the lives of differently abled children.

Headed by National Award winner Guru Syed Sallauddin Pascha, the Ability Unlimited Foundation works with differently abled children like Kumar to hone their talents and provide vocational training in the arts so that they can live a life of dignity and fully participate in society.

The foundation on Thursday announced the launch of its first therapeutic centre in Muhiddinpur Dabarsi, a village in Ghaziabad, UP. The centre, which is spread over 60,000 square feet and includes a residential facility for 150 differently abled students, is devoted to targeting those in most need of their unique education.

“While our cities have many facilities for the differently abled, there are none in our villages which is where 70 percent of such persons live,” said Pascha. “I am from a small village in South India and I have seen the handicapped being mistreated. When a girl in our village was getting married, her disabled brother was chained in the house so as to not allow him to participate in the wedding. Parents and the girl’s family were embarrassed and scared that if he did the wedding would be called off.”

The Centre will offer three and five year diplomas in Art, including majors in music, theater, dance, painting and photography, lighting and designing, and filmmaking. Most children at the school also complete the formal school curriculum through the National Open School, but are taught concepts of formal education using the therapeutic method.

“If we have to teach the children addition or subtraction we don’t just write them on the board and say 1 + 1 = 2. We give them a situation like one dancer comes onto stage and performs and he is joined by another dancer. Now, they dance as a team of two. We don’t tell, we make them imagine, to aid their learning,” says Pascha. “It’s a unique combination of dance, music, colour, costume, music therapy, theater therapy and dance therapy to help them realize their value and potential in society and amongst their family, and society, so that they can create their own identity. A distinct and confident identity.”

Ability Unlimited has 150 students and a total of 20 tutors and special educators, including guest lecturers, and it is hoping to hire at least another 20. The broad spectrum of techniques and mediums employed ensures that “if one kind of therapy fails the others act as a buffer,” says Pascha.

And the customised teaching of students focuses on strengthening the skills they possess rather than focusing on areas of weaknesses.

When Kumar first attended a dance workshop held by Pascha, he was the 8-year-old son of poor dhobi parents, who were skeptical about sending their differently abled son to dance training — and of his dreams of making it big.

“I saw my chance in this [dance workshop] and after that I told Guruji that I want to join him,” Kumar told Firstpost. Pascha’s requests to allow their son to attend dance classes initially fell on deaf ears, but after several attempts, they finally gave in.

Then a 10 year old Kumar debuted in his first full-fledged dance production in New Delhi’s Kamani Auditorium. His performance was well covered in the press and won him the whole hearted encouragement of his parents. Three years later, he embarked on his first international tour to the US and UK.

Today Kumar’s parents are grateful to Pascha and proud of their son’s achievements. A child expected to be a family burden is now in fact their strongest support. Kumar today earns an average of Rs 15,000 a month as salary plus bonuses based on shows and performances. He makes more than what both his parents earn as dhobis. “Thanks to Pascha Guruji and the training I have been given, I am self sufficient, employed and a fulfilled human being now,” he told Firstpost.

His dream life is full of unintended ironies, says Kumar with a smile, “At a show where I once essayed the role of Krishna, people after the show were coming and touching my feet. Never had I imagined that my polio stricken legs would be given so much respect.”

Watch the performance of Ability Unlimited dancers, in a show titled ‘Bharatnatyam on Wheelchairs’.

This piece was written for

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The death of the telegraph. And their careers

Fifty-nine-year old Sushil Kumar, an employee at New Delhi’s Central Telegraph Office in Connaught Place, was a loquacious and busy man till last week. Now he is quiet and bored.

As the sun set on India’s 163-year-old state telegraph services on Sunday (14 July), Kumar and many other employees of the Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL), that provided the service, have seen their lives change radically.

Kumar, the senior telegraph master, now sits at his desk staring at peeling paint of the office’s pale yellow walls and says he feels like his life has been dealt a blow with the death of the telegraph.

Employed at the telegraph office since 1975, Kumar’s job mainly consisted of taking down the text of the telegrams that were to be sent. After 39 years of working in a role that required continuous interaction with people, furious typing skills and being an empathetic outsider to people who came to send good news and bad, Kumar told Firstpost that his life now feels like “it has no heartbeat”.

“We used to keep so busy – doing our work, joking with customers and sharing their happiness, sadness and disappointments – and we never realised how time passed. Now, with no public coming in to send telegrams, there’s an a pall of eerie silence. How much can one talk only to one’s colleagues?” Kumar asked.

A typical work day for Kumar now involves him coming in to office, staring at his computer screen for most part of the day, indulging in small talk with colleagues and returning home.

India’s telegraph services, introduced in the country in 1850, have been eulogised on numerous occasions in various films and like its immortality on celluloid, RD Ram, the chief telegraph officer at Delhi’s CTO remains hopeful of its revival.

“I know the service has been shut down, but I’m still hopeful there will be a turnaround,” Ram said, referring to a PIL filed in the Madras High Court seeking a stay on the decision to shut down India’s telegraph services.

Ram, who has worked in the office for 38 years, said he was very saddened by the decision.

“When I joined the service the minimum qualification was to be a class 10th pass, having good typing skills and a good handwriting. For people with these qualifications, who over the years learned to adapt to every type of telegraph technology that came and went and trained so hard to adjust, this decision is heartbreaking,” he told Firstpost.

“We never ever dreamed that our jobs will one day be lost and we will be in the spot we are in today. It’s like our shop, our work, our livelihood. Will a shopkeeper ever want his business to shut down?” he asked.

According to Ram, the CTO received an official intimation of closure of the services a month earlier, asking employees about where they would prefer to be transferred within BSNL. While many employees stated their choices, there were others who did not, hoping that it would mean staying back as long as the CTO still existed.

Madhu Bindal, senior section officer, is one such person.

Bindal retires in February 2014 after working at the CTO for 34 years, where she started her career and hopes to end it.

“This was like home and leaving it is unthinkable for me. I often think, ‘Where will I go? What will I do and how will I learn anything new in the time I have left’,” she said.

“I didn’t state my preference for any department transfer hoping that I am kept right here, till it’s time for me to go next February.”

“Nobody knows where they will be transferred or how they will adjust to a whole new job and colleagues. The future is uncertain for all of us and it gives me sleepless nights,” she said.

Ram said that work in the telegraph office started showing signs of slowing down after the early 90′s with the advent of newer technologies of communication. But he never imagined the telegraph services would be abolished because he believed it still catered to the masses and mainly to rural areas.

“In the 1980s only the Delhi CTO saw around 50,000 transactions per day on an average. Those were the peak days, where many of us worked more than our required 8 hours, sometimes clocking an entire 24-hours. We also got incentives on each additional telegram we sent beyond 200. Those were our glory days,” he said.

Compared to that, the Delhi CTO (which includes the Delhi Cantonment, Kashmere Gate, Janakpuri, Supreme Court and Connaught Place branches) in the last year, saw only an average of 250 telegrams being sent per day, says Ram.

Former national kabbadi player, Usha Gautam’s eyes well up as she talks about leaving the CTO.

“This was my first job and I want it to be my last. It’s like a first love – one you don’t want to leave or forget,” Gautam said.

Having worked at the CTO for 33 years, Gautam says she is feeling cheated of her home.

“This was my home for 33 years where all of us lived like a family. I always boasted to everyone that there’s no better place to work at than the CTO and about how much fun we had. Maybe, I jinxed our happiness,” Gautam said, “I feel like I have now become homeless.”

For one-time messengers of the public, eagerly adapting and adopting new telegraph technology, life has taken a strange twist with technology becoming their nemesis.

“We were the public’s messengers and were so happy being so. Going from having direct, daily interactions with the public and an insight into a slice of their lives, we have become mere puppets to technology,” Kumar said.

“Once I sat on my computer typing and sending telegrams. Today, I just browse the internet and read news on it all day,” he said.

This piece was written for

Friday, 12 July 2013

Delhi metro porn videos: How Big Brother is selling your privacy

Earlier this week, in a shocking disregard for the privacy of its commuters, more than 250 clips of couples getting intimate on the Delhi Metro were revealed to have been uploaded on international porn sites.

This footage which had videos ranging from a duration of two- to eight-minutes were being uploaded onto the websites since 2011.The incident has raised serious questions about the safety of information being gathered in the name of security and raised the prospect of a new threat: Leaking and misuse of surveillance data.

Privacy experts say that the incident of the videos landing up on porn sites only bolsters the case for a more stringent privacy law for India, without which there will be nothing to prevent the misuse of information gathered under surveillance, and culprits will remain unpunished.

The Delhi Metro video clips send out a message that our security can be breached easily without anyone knowing and at the whim of a stranger sitting on the other side of surveillance technology.

“The leakage of footage is a threat even from the natural security angle. If someone could leak these clips showing couples in compromising positions in the Delhi Metro, one can only imagine what kind of footage can be made available to cyber criminals and terrorists. Let this serve as a wake up call that India needs to do quite a lot in terms of beefing up its cyber security and also ensuring that unauthorized leakages don’t take place,” says Pavan Duggal, cyber security expert and supreme court advocate.

There is a whole new threat to increasingly becoming a watched society — where someone who is supposed to be the custodian of our security and privacy is the same person who violates it.

“Usually when privacy is infringed upon, it is so that security will be improved. But, here we have infringed on the privacy of individuals and the corresponding increase in security is not proportionate to the loss of that privacy,” Sunil Abraham, executive director at the Bangalore based Center for Internet and Society (CIS) told Firstpost.

Surveillance gone awry?

Usha Ramanathan, an independent law researcher adds that the Delhi Metro videos have more to do with the hazards of the pervasive use of technology than just privacy.

“The proliferation of surveillance tech without any understanding of why they are there and how much should be allowed is a problem. It is more an introduction of insecurity to our daily lives — we don’t understand the nature of surveillance and security,” she told Firstpost.

“There’s a thin line between surveillance and stalking. Merely using the word security does not equal real security,” she added.

Duggal says that “it is extremely problematic” that Big Brother is focused so entirely on watching us, even as he fails to watch his employees. With no checks and balances in place to ensure the security, authenticity, veracity and appropriate preservation of electronic information, incidents like the Delhi Metro videos will continue.

“Because putting a big brother machinery is one issue and ensuring there is no leakage is another. Unless there are adequate transparencies in the systems and strict procedures to ensure that misuse of data doesn’t take place, we will continue facing these problems,” Duggal said.

IT act is without teeth

“The government keeps reassuring us we do have a data protection section in the IT Act, Section 43A. But this so called data protection section does not cover internationally accepted privacy principles. It also does not regulate the actions of government entities in India. It only regulates private sector organizations. Most of 43A only talks of security of data and does not adequately cover under what circumstances data can be disclosed, ” Abraham said.

Duggal agrees with Abraham that India’s IT Act does nothing but “pay lip-service” to the notion of privacy.

“India has been relatively laid back in terms of cyber security. it is only now that they have come up with a national cyber security policy which is nothing but a coalition of policy statements minus any action plan,” Duggal said.

He argues that the IT act does justice to neither data security nor personal privacy.

“There are still some sections of IT act which offenders can be booked under — like section 67 which deals with online obscenity which is a bailable offense, punishable with 3 years imprisonment and Rs 5 lakhs fine. Offenders can also be booked under section 66A of the IT Act and section 66E. However, all of these offences are bailable, clearly not acting as a deterrence,” Duggal said.

“We need a very strong privacy law, which we don’t have,” said Abraham of CIS. “So, as of now, in the Indian context there’s nothing we can do about such incidents that occur. Till there is no law, the offenders would not have committed any offense.” And if the government puts in place a PRISM-like total surveillance system, we will have to worry about a lot more than just CCTV footage being sold to the highest bidder.

The eroded values of a voyeur society?

Issues of poor governance aside, experts say that Delhi Metro incident also reflects our own eroding values as a society.

“These are nothing but an indication of a decadent society unable to keep pace with sweeping changes that technology is bringing across. We have all emerged as people of double standards. We don’t want anything untoward for ourselves but we do not mind hitting other people below their belt,” Duggal says.

This, according to him, has also happened because we have leapfrogged from the PC to the mobile generation instantly — where people lack inherent net etiquette and the lack of self restraint further complicates the scenario.

“We forget that the Internet does not forget. It is a huge data dragon with infinite memory and whatever you put on it is going to be there for a long time,” Duggal says.

But Sunil Abraham is not so sure of whether we have become a culture with abraded values. He says that in the case of the Delhi Metro, it may be a case of too much power that has corrupted the offenders.

“I am uncertain about the average Indian not being respectful of the privacy of other citizens. The people who have leaked these clips are not average Indians, they are in a position of some power even if they are not senior officials,” Abraham says.

“They are sitting on so much public information that this can corrupt them,” he says.

“Surveillance cameras all over only reflects a society that does not trust its citizens to do the right thing — and that comes at a cost,” Abraham says.

This piece was written for

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Death. Be damned. Yes, I survived two landslides. Yay! And, Yay!

New Delhi: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. And if it's Mother Nature, be sure that her wrath is as twisted as the pathos of her loveliness.

In Uttarakhand, even as rescue operations continue, 20,000 people still await evacuation and unofficial sources tout the death toll to be as high as 10,000; the effects of nature's furor are still being felt in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and adjoining areas – by those who lost their dear ones, by those still awaiting relief and by those who survived it.

I am one from the last lot.

When I along with a couple of friends reached Kaza, a small town in Himachal Pradesh's Spiti Valley on June 15th, well on our last leg of a week-long drive through the state's picturesque landscape, we didn't anticipate any trouble. Kaza was our second last stop from where we were headed to Sangla valley and then to Shimla – from where we would head back to Delhi.

When we set off for Sangla in the afternoon it seemed like fair weather, but after a 30 minute drive through the mountains it began to rain and the sleepy village of Leo still about 50 kms away seemed like a good spot to stop for a hot cup of tea. However, when we stopped at Leo – a village which had just one stall selling tea – it was unusually crowed with tourist vehicles. Six of them excluding ours. And just as we were looking forward to some piping hot beverage, two drivers from the waiting tourist cars approached us looking concerned and began having an animated conversation with our driver, Ravi. In a few minutes Ravi was telling us that the drivers had warned him against going ahead as there were landslides occurring which could be fatal.

Now, I am a lifelong Bombay girl at heart and anyone who has lived in Mumbai long enough knows that come what may – hell or high water (in the city's case, incessant rains) we Mumbaikars chug along, walk to our workplace, stay in office if the need be – yet work. “What could happen after all – it was only a spell of rain,” I thought. And that wasn't going to deter our plans.

Encouraged by my friends – also born and raised in Mumbai – we decided not to pay heed to the drivers' warnings. Forgetting our desire for a hot cuppa, we sped ahead. As we approached our first landslide zone 15 mins after, we asked Ravi what the strategy to pass through the landslide would be. But by then it was too late, we were in the midst of it.

Our driver Ravi deftly manouvered the Tata Sumo transporting us, over the huge boulders strewn all over the narrow road, even as he pedalled the accelerator with all his might, dodging the falling earth. My friends and I shut our eyes for a few moments, even as the friend sitting next to me let out a loud scream in fear.

I was pissed annoyed at my friend even as we crossed hurdle one. “DO NOT indulge in backseat driving,” I told her, “You are distracting Ravi. Even if we aren't going to die, we will die because of your shreiks!”. I had barely finished admonishing her when we approached our second landslide.

Before i knew it, I was holding the driver's seat and yelling, “Drive slow!”

I did exactly the same thing my friend had done a few minutes earlier, even as our Tata Sumo swiveled and skid as it hopped like a bunny on wheels on the boulder-ridden road. Wide-eyed, I gulped and looked at my friends who had similar expressions. Gasping we all hit our heads to the top of the car before we came to a standstill. At an altitude of over 12,000 feet I had just experienced my first real fear of death, as I'm quite certain my friends did – with falling rocks on one side and nothing on the other.

Even as I caught my breath and closed my eyes in relief after realising we were still on solid ground I chided the driver. “Why didn't you drive slowly? What if we skid off the road into the valley?” I said.

“Madame, driving slowly would get us hit, so I had to hit speed instead,” he replied.

It was, indeed, a situation of away from the falling rocks and into the valley below.

By now, we were all shaken. But what we saw ahead of us as we sat in the stationery car catching our breaths, horrified us enough to decide to turn back and risk the earlier two landslide zones we had just crossed.

About 600 meters away we could see a stream of water gushing down the mountain with big boulders rushing down at an even quicker pace. It looked like a stream of boulders, instead of a stream of water.

Our mind was made up. We decided to turn around, brave the landslides we passed (which now seemed less dangerous than the river of boulders we saw ahead) and head back to Kaza.

Even as we pulled up and reversed several times on the narrow mountain road before we headed back, the three of us looked into the valley hoping we didn't land up there. The ride back was a mostly silent one – intermittently praying for a safe passage through the two landslides and pondering over our good fortune to have survived them.

We reached Kaza 3 hours later, after having realised how lucky we were to still be alive and also savouring that piping hot tea in the pouring rain at Leo on our way back. Life felt good. We were back in Kaza – a town which was relatively safer than those being flashed on national television – far from the torrential floods of ravaged Uttarakhand. That night we slept like babies.

Mother Nature had another surprise in store for us the next morning – this time a pleasant one. The treacherous mountains surrounding Kaza had disappeared. She had worked all night to draw thick curtains of snow across them, as if they didn't exist. As if she was gently erasing our memory of the landslides the previous day with every new drape of white fluff.

That Sunday was exceptional for more than just the unseasonal snow that heralded a beautiful June day. It was special because we came to realise that the three of us had indeed gotten a second life. As the day tottered on we were told that the road to Shimla – the same one we had taken the previous day to reach Sangla Valley – had been washed away. They were swallowed by Mother Nature with loud burps nonetheless – roads, bridges and anything that dared to confront her fury.

Five days on, we were finally on our way out of Kaza via the Kunzum and Rothang passes to Manali and then onwards to Delhi. But, those five days were not without our share of rescue carrots.

We must have packed our bags to leave at least three times in five days that week. Once being when we were woken by our hotel manager banging our door at 7 am informing us that rescue helicopters were expected and asking if we were interested in flying out on them. “Of course we are!” we said, promptly putting our names on the list. We jumped out of bed, dressed and packed in 10 minutes and then waited all day. Nothing and nobody arrived to fetch us. And at the end of the day we unpacked – resigning ourselves to stay indefinitely.

We did manage to get out of Kaza last Friday after the officials and workers of the Border Roads Organisation and the Indian Army helped clear glaciers that had formed enroute to Rohtang Pass – some of which were as high as 18 feet.

As we drove up and down the treacherous winding roads marvelling at both, Mother Nature's beauty and her brutality, we couldn't help but ponder over her nature. Over the calm yet daunting peace she offers.

The words of Henry Van Dyke the American poet and Essayist resonating in my mind: “Who can explain the secret pathos of Nature's loveliness? It is a touch of melancholy inherited from our mother Eve. It is an unconscious memory of the lost Paradise. It is the sense that even if we should find another Eden, we would not be fit to enjoy it perfectly nor stay in it forever.”

Call it what one may. The bane of negligent and inconsiderate development, the curse of the Gods or apathy towards our environment. Our land – the likes of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh – will become a Paradise lost if we continue towards it our attitude of reckless abandon.

As lovely as Mother Nature may be, we must remember, she can be deadly.

P.S. Yes, This incident has finally prompted me to revive my blog (Yay!) Thank you all for being patient with my absence and still being loyal :) Keep reading and I hope I can keep writing here as frequently as I'd like to. If I don't -- egg me on :)