Contemporary issues related to human development , regional and global.

Month: February, 2014

Matha Amruthanandamayi in trouble?


[This was written in October 2003, soon after Amruthanandamayi’s fiftieth birth day celebrations in Kochi. In comparison the sixtieth birthday celebrations, despite the participation of Modi, was a low key affair and mostly confined to her Mutt in Vallikavu. With the publication of Holy Hell, authored by her one-time Australian disciple, Amma seems to be in be drifting into a phase of deep turbulence.]

Amrthavarshm-50 was grand. I watched for three days and spent more than eight hours wondering at the throbbing crowds on move. Variety of VVIPs honored themselves by participating. Media glowed with the spiritual message of Amma for one full week. No dissent was heard anywhere. Everything was clockwork and Amma had a virtual cakewalk. Everybody was in praise of everything, something unprecedented for in Kerala, for an event of such magnitude.

Amma was for all religions, all castes and all ideologies. One Caste One Religion One God theme of Narayana Guru sounded war cry, in the backdrop of Amma’s cry for love and understanding. Compared to Amrithavarsha 50, the oncoming 150th Jayanthi of Narayana Guru will end up as damp squib; followers are on war path and babbling diverse tongues.

Sankara never had a birthday; historians guess him to have lived from 788 and 820 AD. Like Amma, Sankara began his mission quite young, and as a child of eight left his widowed mother in pursuit of knowledge. Traveling length and breadth of India, he defeated Mimamskas and Buddhist philosophers in intellectual combats and established four Hindu mutts, for which he was branded Buddha in disguise.

Unlike Amma, Sankara was a Namboodiri and died quite young at thirty two, an intellectual giant and exponent of advaita, the most brilliant of monistic philosophies, constructed ever by human intellect. For Sankara, everything was Maya and truth was beyond cognition. Born into a lower caste, Amma belongs to the material world, her lap is tangible and easily accessible. She has a socialist mask and sounds typical down-to-earth people’s God.

Amma has no intellectual pretensions. Interviews published in leading newspapers vouch for this. She described her previous birth as a canceled cheque. As to what she would like to be in next birth, Amma sounded far more serious: no time to worry about that, life is short and atman has neither birth nor death. Coming to the economics of her Ashram she was even more down to earth: “My followers are mostly poor, some fast on Saturdays and brings the savings to the Ashram, whose inmates work hard to make flowers, photos, camphor or stich clothes. They all work hard, eighteen to twenty hours a day. Malayalees work hard when they go out. Within Kerala work-hours decrease and we dig our own graves.”

Amma vehemently denies the suggestion that, she collects money from the rich, like Rajanish and others who run Ashrams as corporate enterprises. She seems to believe that, enterprises of her own Ashram are financed entirely by the surpluses from hard work or frugal savings of its inmates. Ashram engages the best of professionals, chartered accountants and tax experts, who re-assure her on this point. A village school dropout at ten, Amma had very little formal education when she took to spiritual practice; business management is Greek and Latin to her.

Amma hails from my village, and her Ashram is just three kilometers away from my ancestral home. The imposing structures of her Ashram were built recently. She had a small practice in her modest parental house close by, where she used to live, attending to small local audiences until late eighties. Sudha Mony was thirty-two, when name-change was advertised in a local newspaper, to facilitate her Indian passport in the name of Amrithanandamayi.

A well planned campaign in South Indian towns with sizable Malayalee populations, followed her first foreign tour in 1985. By1990, Amma had a devotee strength of over one lakh. Foreign trips brought in the cash for starting institutions. One after the other invitations poured in: to address World Parliament of Religions in Chicago (1993), religious congregation to mark the golden jubilee of UN (1995), the Peace Millennium Summit of UN (2000) and the World Peace Meet of Women Spiritual Leaders (2002). Amma received Gandhi-King award in 2002.

These were no small achievements for an Indian Saint of low social origin. When she signed up with Singapore Airlines for her first foreign flight, Amma was totally ignorant about the prowess of modern business management. Religion and spirituality were recognized as the USP of our subcontinent long back, by the managers of Rajanish and MaheshYogi. Their focus was the Indian rich, foreigners and corporates. Mangers of Amrithanandamayi chose NRIs of the South, especially NRKs, who were spiritually handicapped in a variety of ways. Sankara, Vivekananda, Narayana Guru or their mystic wisdom, could hardly be packaged to address their spiritual needs. They needed something very tangible. Lovable and of universal appeal, Amma was less demanding intellectually, but far more satisfying emotionally: She was God incarnate for the existentialist Hindus of an emerging century.

Throughout the golden jubilee, Amma was conspicuously visible and she was seen handling captains of industry and other celebrities from all over the world, including the Indian President, with ease and without the inter-mediation of her managers. The event was well organized and managed with precision by a team of brilliant professionals and headed by a CEO, who was conspicuously invisible. Such brilliance cannot be confined in the shadows for long: a top ranker of Harvard succeeding the village school drop-out could be yet another Indian miracle.

Amrithanandamayi Mutt is sure to be an excellent case study in social marketing and social entrepreneurship for years to come, in five-star management schools, the world over.







This campaign note, prepared for the fifteenth Loksabha elections 2009, is of relevance even today.


The notion of a third front of regional parties led by the Left and challenging the two fronts led by the so called national parties, had an inspiring and colorful take off during the fifteenth Loksabha elections. However, the very idea was looked down as plague by our elite classes.


Main stream media had even refused to debate on the possibilities of and prospects of such an alternative. Under the heat of real politics it simply vanished like a rainbow. Protagonists of the idea were criticized and ridiculed for lack of vision and political experience. Revolutionary ideas are nothing but beautiful dreams: we keep striving for their realization. Indian State is degenerating rather rapidly and the search for an alternative system of governance for the Union Republic and a polity suited for this could hardly be postponed.


Indian National Congress had long outlived its role as the leader of national liberation: the bogus Gandhi mantle on the person of its present President has lost its magical powers. BJP holds out Ram as a political trump card, but its efficacy has been greatly eroded by far lesser gods of more recent origin. Both Congress and BJP have lost most of their mass appeal, and regional parties that are close to the people at large are seen deserting these so called national parties, one after the other.


Our elite classes generally look down on regional parties: They are considered to be of little or no national importance. Regional parties even use all India labels, in order to enhance their repute, respectability and public acceptance. Nevertheless, relevance of regional parties has steadily increased, thanks to the failures of the national parties to live up to the expectations of common people. And today, they play a substantially large role in governing our Union Republic. A large number of Indian States are ruled, today, not by national parties, but by regional parties or political coalitions led by them. Congress and BJP, the two national parties patronized by the elite classes with the hope of developing a healthy two-party democracy, wield political power only in fewer number of member states of the Union Republic.


Under our federal constitution, state governments are accountable for most part of development administration and governance, including the delivery of public goods like policing and street level security. Division of responsibilities among Central, State and Local Self Government Institutions is somewhat water-tight in our country, and not seamless as it should be, and as practiced in by the parliamentary democracies of developed countries. As a consequence, there are numerous blind spots in our system of governance: The totally confused response to the 26/11 terror strike on Mumbai was an eye opener in this regard.


Obviously, there is a gross mismatch between the responsibilities assigned to state Governments and the material resources at their disposal for discharging them. This mismatch has widened over the past years. State governments elected by the people and accountable to them, are hardly equipped to live up to their expectations regarding material and cultural development. Public institutions under them are totally ill-equipped and grossly underdeveloped compared to their counterparts at the Centre. Thanks to their near total financial dependency, state governments find it impossible to launch meaningful capacity building programs or HRD projects of their own. This had precipitated a sort of self-aggravating dichotomy in Indian polity, which has now assumed alarming proportions, especially in the context of the recent economic reforms and structural adjustments.


Centralized policy making and decentralized administration are, no doubt, the golden principles of modern management; in business as well as in government. However, such a division of responsibilities in our federal constitution has not helped in developing a healthy Centre-State relationship. Due to the near-total financial dependency and lack of grass-root level democracy, decentralized administration at the state and lower levels has remained a mere pipe dream. On the other hand, centralized policy making was a partial success with regard to the twin objectives of protecting the national economy from neo-colonial exploitation, as well as optimum use of internal resources.


After national independence, the Government in Delhi had substantially expanded its developmental role, by opening up new technical departments, several Central Public Sector Enterprises (CPSEs) or the so called Navaratna companies, as well as a vast network of S&T organizations: Indian Parliament, Planning Commission, the National Development Council (NDC) etc were serving as watch dogs over this large institutional network in broader national interests.


Statesmen like the great Rajaji had criticised this elaborate policy making apparatus as license-permit-quota raj: Nevertheless, it had helped the country in making rapid technological strides in several critical sectors and in pursuing an independent foreign policy. However, capacity building of this magnitude did not take place at the state level due to a variety of reasons, including historical ones like bureaucratic hangover from the colonial administration in Delhi, as well as vested interests of big business houses.


These institutional arrangements intended for formulation of policies based on national consensus and planning have been either destroyed or have undergone fundamental changes in recent times, thanks to the socalled structural adjustment program. Footloose bureaucrats and corrupt politicians decide on national policies and programs today, with little or no formal consultations at the national level and with state governments.


The notorious nuclear deal with US was initiated by the Indian Ambassador in USA, and not by the atomic energy establishment, energy and power departments, or the Central Electricity Authority. There were no consultations, whatsoever, with state governments either: They are accountable for the street level supply of grid electricity and no nuclear power plant could be built on Indian soil without their permission and cooperation!


Electricity Act 2003, replacing the old act of 1948, was rushed through, despite serious objections raised by several state governments. Our country has no worthwhile power policy today, and the main concern of the union power ministry is the assigning of EPC contracts for super power stations in locations, finalized by it through all sorts dubious mechanisms. All these have virtually destabilized grid power development in the country, leading to widespread shortages and steep increases in electricity prices.


Ministry for telecoms has given up the time-tested national policy of capacity expansion based on an integrated program of technology development and local manufacture. Its only responsibility today is to auction off market rights for telecom operations and for this purpose we do not really require a union ministry in Delhi!


Signing of WTO agreement, the arbitrary withdrawal of agricultural subsidies by Central Government and signing up of numerous free trade agreements have destabilized Indian farms, opening up an era of massive farmer suicides. Several such examples of arbitrary policy changes by central government could be cited, including those related to defense policies and defense contracts, where the central government had abdicated or misused the policy making authority vested with it, in national interests.


Thanks to such numerous acts of omissions and commissions on the policy front, the very institution of central government has lost its moral authority over state governments, and along with it most of its patriotic credentials, earned and accumulated during the era of national planning and consensus, initiated under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru. This should be a matter of great political concern for a multinational country of continental proportions.


The massive distortions that have crept into Centre-State relations, the working of our federal constitution and Indian polity at large, need urgent correction in the best interests of our people. Initiatives for this will not come from the so called national parties, Congress or BJP. Only a united front of the regional parties, who are in real charge of governance or aspiring for it, and covering a sizable part of Indian population, could be expected to take on such initiatives. The ten parties that have sponsored the third front in the present Loksabha elections have underlined the need for a serious review of the working of the Indian constitutions in general and Central-State relations in particular: Some have even published discussion papers on the subject on the eve of elections.


These more serious aspects of Indian democracy and Indian polity are hardly discussed by the mainstream media. Pessimistic forecasts about the emerging third front of regional parties are the order of the day. Regional parties are often described as a motley crowd with no vision or objectives and without a Prime Minister candidate. They underplay the fact that, the Prime Minister candidate of Congress is not even contesting the elections.


Manmohan was the weakest among Indian Prime Ministers: It is common knowledge, that he was back-seat driven by an extensive PMO headed by a minister and controlled by numerous commissions and committees that were either unconstitutional or extra-constitutional. Five year term of UPA and Manmohan has proved beyond reasonable doubt that, our Union Republic barely needs a popular Prime Minister for its survival! 


Even in the absence of a Charismatic Prime Minister, the third front Government could hold the country together in a far more satisfactory manner, by making use of constitutional entities like the Inter State Council. They could be effectively put to use for the formulation of national policies and for evolving consensus decisions on controversial issues; and their decisions need to be made binding on the Central Government.


Even subject wise Inter State Councils could be established, if found necessary, as recommended in 2002 by Justice Venkitachelliah in his capacity as the Chairman of the National Committee for Reviewing the Working of the Constitution. Planning Commission could strengthen its federal character by working as the executive body of the National Development Council, and making this august body accountable to the Inter State Council.


Central Government organizations could develop a federal character by establishing state level subsidiaries and affiliates, as part of a much needed capacity building program at the regional level. Major states could be invited, in turn, to participate in the corporate management of Navaratna companies, at the board level. A third front of the regional parties, which are already participating in the governance of the country in a big way, are well equipped to formulate such alternative policies and programs and bring the Central Government administration closer to the people, help it shed its imperial pretensions, and liberate it from the stranglehold of global monopolists.


Unity in diversity as reflected in janaganamana is the hallmark of Indian polity. Coming together of the regional parties around an alternative development perspective could be a turning point in Indian history. And, the third front that is just emerging, is sure to re-envision Indian unity in an altogether different perspective; a perspective that is far more realistic and relatively free from financial and religious fundamentalism.


Indian Railways go round and round




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(Reprint of an article written in response to the rail budget two years ago)

In December 2009, Mamata Banerji presented in the Indian Parliament the Vision 2020 document for Indian Railways (IR). In the introductory part of this document she had stated: “When I was the Railway Minister last time (1999-2001), Indian Railways was the second largest railway network under a single management in the world in terms of route length, after the Russian Railways. It has now slipped to the third position. Our Vision is to put it on the road to regain the Number Two position in the coming decade and thereafter gain the Number One position in the subsequent decades not just in size, but in every other significant respect.”


This, indeed, was a grandiose vision, not only about IR but also about the Minister herself. Within two years, after presenting her vision document, Mamata shifted to Kolkata and since then, she has been ruling over IR from the writer’s building, with the help of her nominee railway minister, Trivedi. Mamata is now unhappy over her nominee’s performance: First, he did not do enough for West Bengal and secondly he had proposed a seemingly unpopular revision of rail tariffs, in consultation with her arch rival, Pranab Mukherjee. The good old critics of Mamata from left, right and center, now have their last laugh over her vision document,


Indian railway ministers, as a rule, play populist games and try to do something extra for their native states. Mamata was no exemption, despite her tall talk on Vision 2020. Foreign experts and consultants have made dozens of proposals for reforming IR, as part of restructuring the national economy. However, they remained on paper, like the Vision 2020. The only agenda that got implemented, related to staff reduction: As a result, IR suffers from under-staffing today, in terms of quality as well as quantity: Present staff strength is around 14 lakh, two to three lakh less, compared to two decades ago. Last year, 80,000 new hands were recruited anew, and the current budget targets inducting one lakh new employees.


Manpower in IR was growing pretty slow even in the past, compared to its galloping output. True, with higher train speeds and better technologies, labor productivity increases. However, the historical data, presented in the chart “Indices of Growth”, show that, there was a 12 fold increase in output, in terms of passenger and goods traffic, with human resources stagnating or increasing only marginally. Not only staff strength but also the route kilometer length of IR has registered only a marginal increase after national independence. In Kerala, we had experienced a big improvement in rail traffic, but that is not the case with most other states. Very few Indian villages and towns in India got connected to the rail after the British left the subcontinent.


Rail penetration in the country continues to be far below the international experience, on the basis of geographical area as well as population. India has 71 route km of railway per million people, and 19 r-km per 1000 sqkm. This is far below that of USA (803/22), France (603/63), Germany (520/117) or Japan (192/63). China was far behind India in rail penetration, but it has more than doubled its route rail length after independence to around 65,000 KM.  It may be noted, however, that India was making large investments in doubling of lines as well as in gauge conversion. IR could increase the productivity of its manpower with the help of such improvements in track and related communications systems, as well as higher capacity traction equipment, as evident from the index chart.


Express and long distance trains as well as suburban trains were the major contributors for the 12 fold increase in the output of IR with relatively fewer employees. Quality of service as well as law and order on the tracks and stations were the major causalities in this blind pursuit for higher and higher worker productivity. A railway employee was a respected citizen during British days and even his modest quarters were looked up on with respect by common people. All these have changed now and railway employees were considerably devalued, socially, within the span of a generation.


IR has succeeded to keeping up its relatively good safety records; however crime rates were steadily increasing in recent years. People in general are unhappy with IR, despite its lower costs and more comfortable travel in comparison with alternatives. Dirty coaches, over-crowded and ill-maintained railway stations with extremely poor civic amenities, and not-so-polite employees whose services are strictly rationed, are the order of the day. Indian railway stations were noted for their safety, security, dignified environment, neatness all round and even good quality tasty food.


Plenty of working people retrenched by IR, as non-essential staff: with the stress on long distance express trains, neglect of passenger trains, a large number of our railway stations bear a deserted look, today. In the good old days, even the wayside stations were offering parcel booking services to anywhere in India, and had certain minimal go-down facilities. They have mostly disappeared, now. Railway stations in our rural districts are dying a natural death: their assets and facilities could be of use and economic relevance to local populations, if they are salvaged and properly maintained.


Indian Railways were created out of the numerous small rail systems, constructed by British East India Company, and the numerous other companies floated by foreigners. This imaginative PPP adventure of eighteenth century had set up the first rail system in the country in 1853, just four years before Sipoy Mutiny or the First War of Indian Independence. These decentralized initiatives were close to the local communities and local environment in their own ways and for their own reasons. There were numerous mergers and acquisitions of these small ventures, later, and spanning the two centuries: IR and its organization in the present form had evolved over the last six decades of national independence.


IR, as on now, (see Chart) is a complex organization and provides work space for some 14 lakh employees: They work in numerous enterprises, organizations and departments with varied objectives, occupations and assignments that are of great relevance to the national economy. Thanks to its historical background, IR happens to be the father and mother of not only most engineering disciplines in the country, but also of numerous non-engineering professions such as accountancy, project planning, economics, project financing, and even information technology. IR has contributed to the self-reliance of our national economy in a big way, and is a major resource for industrial development.


IR looks like a leviathan and is a bureaucratic organization, presided over by a cabinet minister, supported by one or two ministers of state, and then the Railway Board, its Chairman and half a dozen board members etc etc, and all connected up in series and in parallel. There are fifteen zonal railways, each administered by a General Manger, who looks after the construction and operation of rail lines and related systems of the zone. The nature and number of complaints with regard to their performance indicate that they will perform far better, if re-organized state-wise as in the case of P&T, BSNL, DD, CEA and Electricity Boards etc, and several other Federal Government functions.


It will be even better, if these state-wise organizations are then converted into public sector undertakings with equal shareholding by IR on behalf of Central Government and then by the concerned State Governments, as in the case of Delhi or Chennai Metro. A full fledged rail Minster and a skeletal rail department in every state, for servicing and supporting this joint enterprise will greatly enhance the policy planning capacity at the state level, with regard to rail development as well as planning of the transportation sector. As on now, the state governments have very little expertise in these sectors. This sort of basic reforms will bring the administration of our massive on-rail resources, closer to the people, and the elected Governments at the state as well as lower levels.


Production units of IR under the General Managers, Public Sector Units like CONCOR,  CRIS, IRCON, IRCTC, RITES, IRFC, as well as RDSO, as well as the R&D organization of IR should continue their autonomous existence as on now, and they should expand and diversify as necessary. Central Government and the Railway Board will be better placed to prioritize and monitor the work programs of these more important strategic organizations from a national perspective. They could effectively monitor the performance of the railways at the state level, but will be relieved from attending to minor responsibilities related to their day to day operations. IR will enter a phase of centralized policy making and decentralized administration: It has all the systems and procedures as well as checks and balances needed for this transformation, quickly and effectively. No external consultancy, Indian or foreign, will be needed for the purpose.


State governments will be only happy to share the responsibility of rail development in the country. Central Government could play its visionary role far more effectively. Business will be rewarded with a world class rail infrastructure. Workers and trade unions may not raise objections, so long as their rights and perks are protected. What is needed is a change in our mind-set to accept the participation of State Governments in the management of our national rail network. That sort of participation will be far more desirable, practical, and productive than all sorts of PPP models that are being designed and contemplated, now.


* Published in the Passline of March, 2012.


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