Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Nano Vision

Undoubtedly much of it is posturing. And, almost certainly a compromise would be reached. Buddhadev Bhattacharya has already indicated that there could be a re-worked R & R plan, the Tatas will – possibly – also up their compensation. Overall the stakes are too high for all constituents. The state government cannot be seen to let another committed investor go- away. The Tatas for all their tough talking have gone too far down to pull out at this late stage – especially without a ‘Plan B’ ready they not only have shareholders to answer to but also can’t afford a loss of face internationally by a delayed launch (who might question their ability to run the JLR operations overseas when they have trouble managing their own backyard at home ) and, not to mention, the risk of losing their first mover advantage with competition breathing down their neck with plans for launching similar products soon. Mamata Banerjee too won’t be able to bear the cross of driving away investment from the state (One hears that she has already sent some feelers to the government on what could be some possible alternatives). So, it is a reasonably safe bet to place on the Nano rolling out of Singur – albeit after some breathtaking brink(wo)manship.

Brand Buddha & Mamata's Kurukshetra

Out of all this the CPM’s image will take a further beating, ‘Brand Buddha’ would lose some more basis points and his starched white Kurta ( ‘Punjabi’ as the Bongs call it for some strange reason ) would look a wee-bit crumpled. And, whether the urban intelligentsia likes it or not, either ways, it would be a huge symbolic victory for Mamata which would raise her stock in rural Bengal – her chosen ‘kurukshetra’ against the mighty Marxists . But, the ultimate loser will be West Bengal. Even if the Government is able to avert a pull-out of the Tatas, this will be a huge set-back which will put all but a paid stamp on any dreams of having an industrially resurgent Bengal in the foreseeable future. Forget new investors – even existing industries, the Tatas included, would lose confidence and think twice as hard before increasing their exposure in the state. There is absolutely no question that, the Tatas would not put any more monies behind this plant – possibly reducing its dependence on Singur as they set-up a second manufacturing facility elsewhere – for which they already have open offers from other states.

Singularly Singur

I do not know the facts about the land-acquisition Therefore, I cannot and would not like to comment on whether the land holders were treated fairly and a just and equitable R & R plan had been put in place to start with. Though I have heard – seemingly logical - arguments even within well-informed and knowledgeable circles that, incursion into prime agricultural land could have – perhaps – been avoided, by reclaiming the vast stretches of industrial land along the banks of the Hooghly – now lying unused after the Jute Mills shut-down and Engineering companies relocated to other parts of the country. But, apparently – such an option was not acceptable to the Tatas as the cost of industrial plots (that would have to be purchased from companies and business houses who have been holding on to them as valuable real-estate) would have been much more than agricultural land acquired through a decree of the state government. And, they singled out Singur ( Buddha himsel had said this) of all the locations that were shown to them due to its proximity to Calcutta. Then, there is also a view that, the state has acquired more land than was actually required for setting-up the factory – ostensibly for the ancillary units that might come up near the plant ( so Mamata Banerjee’s 400acre argument may not be entirely unfounded). It also appears a little curious that, the Tatas - who are past masters of land acquisition (with experience of over a century across the country - including troubled spots like Orissa and Bastar) did not engage with the local communities ahead of commencing construction activities, as is there routine practice elsewhere. They were possibly lulled into believing - by the forceful re-assurances of the Chief Minister - that, the land would come to them on a platter. Be that as it may, any which way one looks at it, it is a dismal failure of the government to deliver what was promised - for a flagship investment in the state after years of industrial drought.

Mamta Bashing

While Mamata bashing would be popular both for the media and the cosmopolitan intelligentsia, I would argue that she couldn’t have been expected to behave any differently. Aren’t politicians genetically coded to fish in troubled waters ? Would the CPM have acted any differently had they been in opposition ? Therefore, I wasn’t surprised in the least to see on television yesterday – the ubiquitous Amar Singh suddenly turning up by Mamata’s side addressing a rally in Singur. So, did Buddha underestimate Mamata or was he simply being politically na├»ve – as people believe he was in Nandigram, where they say he was taken for a royal ride by his own party’s local satraps who misled and misguided him at every step ? I think that at both these places the CPM was victim of its own arrogance – assuming that the party machinery was all powerful and would be able to steam-roll over any challenges on the ground. But, stuffing ballot boxes in successive elections to secure a thumping majority is not the same thing as dispossessing farmers from their land – for a party whose credo has been built by selling the dream of securing land for the landless.

Small isn't Bad

In many ways the very successes for which the CPM has been lauded during their three decades of uninterrupted rule in West Bengal has also been the cause of their undoing. First, it is not generally known that West Bengal is one of the best examples of a state where land reform has actually worked. Today, it ranks among the highest in terms of agricultural production among the states. With less than 3% of the cultivable land it accounts for nearly 8% of the country’s food grain production. It is number 1 in Rice and 28% of the country’s potato is produced in West Bengal – much of it grown in and around Singur. And, the biggest beneficiary of this agricultural boom has been the small farmer . West Bengal has become a case-study for the thesis - “Small is not necessarily bad”. With the exodus of industries in the 70s following the Naxalite movement and the natural demise of the Jute Mills, West Bengal has been converted into a primarily into an agrarian economy. Sadly some might say – but that’s the reality. The rise in per-capita income and the consequent increase in Purchasing power one has seen in the recent years have come essentially from the new-found rural prosperity. Therefore, displacement of the agricultural community – without providing alternate source of employment and income is bound to be a Herculean task. Who would have known this better than the CPM, which has thrived for decades on the politics of the land ownership? And, if Buddhadev Bhattacharya or his senior party colleagues didn’t anticipate this – then it can only be described as a monumental miscalculation of their collective leadership.

Either with us or against us

Secondly, West Bengal is almost unequivocally credited to be one state where Panchayati Raj is a reality. While critics my argue that – it was implemented with the sole objective of extending the party’s stranglehold to the village level and it is nothing but an elaborate machinery to ensure successive electoral victory through organized rigging – there’s no denying that grass-root democracy can be seen at work there unlike many other states across the country. But 30 years of rule does create a level of fatigue and an anti-incumbency factor. Besides, while industrialists from across the country – would unanimously vouch for “non-corrupt” credentials of the current CPM leadership at the state level, the same cannot always be said of their local leadership at the village, block or district levels. Instances of diversion of central grants and development funds are no longer unknown or exceptional, as evident from the changing life-style of many a local leader. And, a certain degree of totalitarianism is bound to have set in - with an " you are either with us or against us" attitude.

Shifting Battleground

It is these developing cracks in the CPM’s formidable armour that Mamata has been trying to exploit in the last few years. Recognising the growing disenchantment with the ruling party, she has intelligently shifted her battleground to rural West Bengal. Initially, she had tried to woo the urban elite by enlisting lawyers, doctors, retired bureaucrats and even generals into her ‘A’ team, but was quick to realize that these people were actually a drag on her fire-brand style and did not have the ability to garner votes. She also found that agitating over urban centric issues or getting embroiled in political equations at the Centre did little to add to her mass appeal or enlarge her vote bank in the political hinterland of Calcutta. Instead, she was better off taking on the Left in their own bastion. Much as everyone would like to deny it that, she has been making progress – may be inch by inch – as is evident from Nandigram, Singur and the recent Panchayat elections. She certainly ain't a Mayavati, but however eager her detractors may be to write her off as a misguided and spent force – she is also not going to disappear in a hurry.

Not in a Nano-second

So where does all this leave the Nano ? I believe the Tatas are faced with a Hobson’s choice. In an environment that has been sullied for good, the starting of the plant could just be the beginning of their troubled existence in the state. The CPM cannot undo in a Nano second what it has done over the decades in systematically purging the state of its industrial work-culture. And, Mamata wouldn’t do anything to help them either.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The CSR Biryani

In search of Paradise

The authentic Hyderabadi Biriyani (1)continues to elude me. Not that I know what it’s like – but I’m sure I would be able to make it out once I have the real stuff (not AB’s Cheeni Kum variety , but one straight from a Nizami handi). But I just haven’t been able to find a place that makes it to perfection.

Somehow, in the past all my trips to Hyderabad have been truncated for one reason or the other – leaving no time for any culinary expedition. So, each time I had to come back content with the assembly line ‘base-kitchen’ preparation of Hyderabad House. This time round, therefore, I had gone armed with research on the net and tips from friends to embark on the Biriyani trail.

I was told Shadab on the way to Charminar was the place for the adventurous, but for those who are faint at heart the more up-market Paradise was, perhaps, a better bet. So, on the very first night after landing in the swanky new SHAMSHABAD airport - looking even more glittering in pouring rain - I rushed to drop my bags at the hotel and head out straight for Paradise Circle in Secundrabad for, what is touted as, the “World Famous Hyderabadi Biryani” – leaving Shadab for a more leisurely hunt the next evening.

I was probably expecting Hyderabad’s equivalent of Karim’s (near Jama Masjid in Delhi ) both in ambience and taste. I was immediately turned off by the garishly lit building, complete with artificial palms that made it look like it had been airlifted from the side-lanes of Dubai. An intriguing neon sign read “ Take Away Indian Chinese Kebabs” ( which later, after a careful inspection of the menu-card, I figured out were 3 distinct words and not an Indian variant of the Uyghur specialty from Xinjiang as I had first suspected). In my purist food lexicon, no honest and self-respecting Biriyani restaurant can by definition ever be multi-cuisine - with Punjabi, Chinese and Continental to boot, on their menu.

But, to be fair, I must admit that the Biriyani was good if not great – ( tho’ the Hyderabadi Chicken was a disaster – which was a mistake ordering in the first place). It was light and non-greasy, the mutton soft and succulent, with just the right amount of dum to leave the rice separate without getting soggy or sticky. But, it was still not a patch on Karim’s or for that matter – Arsalan, Zeeshan, Shiraz and the original Royal Hotel ( Chitpur Road ) in good ol’ Calcutta. So, I was left wanting more and looked forward to the expedition to the Charminar in my quest for the real Nizami Biryani.

Paradise Lost

Day 2 turned out to be a washout with the rains playing spoilsport. Our journey back from Gulbarga, where I had gone on work, took over 6 hours (it’s normally around 4 hours ). By the time, I reached the hotel it was well past mid-night and a nocturnal foray to the old city through waterlogged alleys was certainly not a good idea. So, reluctantly I had to settle for boring room service and call it a day – hoping that I might still be able to have a taste of the ‘real thing’ for lunch before leaving for the airport the next afternoon.

But, Hyderabad – even in its new Hi-Tech avatar - is not geared to take 6.5 cms of rain in one evening ( of which, it got 4 cms in one hour ). With the showers continuing through the night – in the morning the roads were clogged with traffic, which put paid to my hope of making it to Shadab for lunch.

Paradise Regained

That’s when Venkat ( of Eenadu fame ) came to my rescue. Hearing my sorry plight for a plate of Biryani – Venkat invited me for lunch to the ITC Kakatiya. He said that, instead of me going all over the city in heavy rain – he would get me a good Kacchi Biriyani at the hotel itself.

Venkat was obviously a regular at the Kakatiya – although Hyderabadi Biryani (2) was not on their menu ( they only served the Dum Pukht variety ) – Chef Riyaz at the Kebabs & Curries offered to dish out one specially for us. Notwithstanding that it was obviously cooked and improvised in a hurry, it was delectable – and with due apologies to the die-hard loyalists of Paradise – better than what I had the other night. The Mirch ka Salan ( this one part of their regular menu ) was outstanding and so was the raita with just the right touch of garlic.

As we dug into the Chicken Tawa Kebabs that preceded the Biryani – Venkat and I discovered that we had more in common than our taste in food. Both of us had spent time in media ( Venkat much longer and much more successful – he was till recently Director and the Marketing face of the Eenadu Group) and we both haven’t been able to get media out of our system (Venkat, understandably, even less than me having spent over 35 years in the business). But what was more interesting, co-incidentally or otherwise, both of us had drifted – by default or design - towards the social sector. Venkat is now working for a Hyderabad based NGO that looked after the CSR activities of VANPIC (Vodarevu and Nizampatnam Ports and Industrial Corridor) project, as I do for Lafarge in India.

The future of Paradise

As we savoured the Biryani – with laccha piyaz on the side – we talked of how suddenly the social sector seems to be on the verge of an explosion. A new breed of professionals were moving into the space, different from the traditional jholawallahs who once populated the NGOs; just as the NGOs themselves were turning a new leaf – seeing themselves more as Social Entrepreneurs ( a la – Md Yunus' Grameen Bank ) and thereby trying to be instruments of lasting and sustainable social change – rather than working on the fringes as their precursors were wont to do.

Just before coming for lunch, I was interviewing a young man – a graduate from the Loyola Institute - working in the Arakku Valley as the CSR Manager of a leading corporate trying to set up a steel plant there. I was thoroughly impressed by the passion he displayed – committed to making a difference in the lives of tribals in the region, in the face of threats from extremist groups and motivated NGOs who are opposing the project.

It was interesting to see how so many corporate professionals were making a willing shift from front-line business roles to the softer areas of CSR or Social Non-Profit outfits to make a living and spend their time in a more soul-satisfying way. Specialist search firms (such as the Third Sector partners ) are facilitating such transitions at very senior (CxO) levels, which poses challenges on both sides – viz for the executives making the cultural change and the NGOs ability to accept them. New web portals like http://www.jobsforgood.com/ are becoming increasingly popular.

The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR ) itself is undergoing an evolution. From being mere token charity or philanthropy, to ‘nice to talk about’ stuff at AGMs and company annual reports , it’s being seen as an essential condition for a ‘license to operate’. It’s true that, many companies still do ‘lip-service’ and see CSR as a convenient instrument of “green-wash” and “blue-wash”. Therefore, I have always been suspicious about the motives of a tobacco company like ITC hyping up its CSR achievements ( just as others may be skeptical about Cement companies talking about their “sustainability” initiatives ). But, the real test of CSR, I believe, is when the companies no longer see it as an add-on activity but build it into the very fabric of their business operations. And, what can be a better example of that than preserving the great culinary traditions of a city you operate in and delighting your customers with the best Hyderabadi Biryani(3)in town.

(Note: For Biryani (3) & Salan recipes click on underscored links above )

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

After a month.....

Being with the family on the 12th day ceremonies was an emotionally draining experience. And, in just 2 day's it's going to be exactly a month. Of course, no one can even begin to comprehend or pretend to understand – what Malathi and the kids, Venkat’s aged parents, Malathi’s Mom, Dad, Brother and other close relatives (including her old grand-mother ) who had all flown down from Andhra were going thru’.

There was an unending stream of visitors everyday - often continuing till late into the evenings. The VIPs were preceded by their security contingent hours ahead of their actual arrival holding up life in the house. Friends were there to help, a few had well-meaning advice to offer, the rest were there simply to stand-by in the hour of grief.

The common refrain of all who came was: what a ‘brave girl’ Malathi was and how well she was holding herself together – she quietly asked “do I have an option?”. Her mom was resolutely holding the anchor of the household, while her Dad – the retired forensic Doctor – was the strong face of the family – calmly bearing the load of the tragedy.

Amidst all this, somewhere one felt Venkat’s affable spirit – providing strength and occasionally lifting the pall of gloom, when they joked and even laughed a little. The kids - too young and innocent to realise the magnitude of the loss - remained immersed in their games and computers, yet - silently and invisibly - holding onto their mother close - both to comfort her and be, themselves, comforted.

Newspaper reports confirmed what we had already heard from friends in the establishment – Afghan & US Military Intelligence had warned of the attack and even details to the make of the car that would be used were known. Attending a workshop on Safety at one of our plants in a remote corner of Chattisgarh, I pondered over the age-old question of whether human intervention can shuffle the cards to change the hand that life deals out to us – no matter how much westerners deride the ‘fatalistic’ mentality of us Asians.

As the relatives departed, the children went back to school and Malathi re-joined work, I was reminded of what Dubby (Bhagat ) had once told me in Kathmandu. At first there is denial, which is replaced by shock and disbelief, giving way to understanding, that ultimately leads to closure through catharsis - clearing the way for life to move ahead once again.