The recent cricket frenzy shows how hysterical India, especially media and urban India, has become when talking on the issues of racism and color prejudice. While I'm least bothered about the fairness of criticism and diversity in the condemnation, I'm particularly worried about how hypocritical we have become while taking moral grounds on issues of discrimination either based on color, race, religion or caste. Why is that the numerous recent hair-raising incidents of caste-based violence come to public notice and disappear like a blip on the screen , and not get the same media space and degree of intellectual engagement like that for Sydney Cricket test?

How many of us have engaged in a reasonable introspection and debate on the following recent issues of systematic violence towards castes from lower in the social hierarchy by those above them?
- Lynching of alleged thieves in Bihar
Killing of a Pardhi couple and the burning of entire community of 300 Pardhi's in Madhya Pradesh
- Disrobing of a woman and her children in public on a falsely alleged theft in Kerala
- Battering to death of a young man suspected of being a cow-lifter in Punjab

Why is that we, both media and intellectual urban India, not introspect  on these incidents of violence that have primarily stemmed from a shared feeling amongst the higher castes to relegate nomadic and de-notified sections? Are we being at sanctimonious worst by refusing to talk about these issues on the same length as that demanded by cricket controversies?
~ Santosh


"Consumer isn't a moron. She is your wife"

This Ogilvy's quote made little sense until a couple of days back when I got the first glimpse of how the superficially similar consumer exhibited a varying gradation of behavior to the same basket of services. It was in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, where we were attempting to figure out why a prudently launched educational service of a company, which has had considerable  experience in "dealing" with the rural consumer, had evidently failed to take-off.   

In the three of the villages where the services was piloted it was quite shocking to see one that showed no success whatsoever, other that had some signs of partial success and the last one that had a commendable success story which unfortunately failed to sustain the momentum. Even considerable field analysis has not thrown much light on why the educational service package, which was targeted to improve the learning outcomes of primary school children, has failed to triumph. 

There are many questions that still remain unanswered. What explains the gradation of responses from villages which are not farther than a half-hour distance from each other? Was the service which was priced at a minuscule one rupee a day, not affordable to the consumer?  Was there a lack of monetizable value proposition to children or parents? Was the provider, who is ironically known for its undisputed expertise in servicing the rural, not meeting the expectations? Did the company, who knows the game of promotion better than anyone else in the industry, fail in its task of marketing the services? While some might argue that when services provided for free are per se not received well, it is irrational for an entity such as this to expect favorable responses when the same services are charged for. Does the rural consumer mind like that of a "smart" urban consumer correlate price with quality and value? If so then shouldn't an entity charge premium to help the blindfolded rural consumer realize the potential benefits of such services? 

For now, it looks like this rural consumer is much like a wife who I will probably get to know in a few months time!

~ Santosh


Yesterday's  Economic Times carries an article that brings to light that in the FY07, the actual fertilizer subsidy expense of  $12 billion was double that budgeted by the state. The article goes on to suggest that it's probably time to look at the much talked about organic farming which can potentially lower the subsidy bill to its one-fourth. If this claim is even partially true, then this definitely calls for policy stances favoring organic farming. But, is this one of those tall claims about organic farming's potential?

Many reputed organizations such as CAPSA, UN's subsidiary agency, claim that organic farming can reduce rural poverty. It seems to be an ideal solution for poverty especially in Asia Pacific region because it is labor intensive, uses no chemical and has higher return on investment, with a price premium of 25-30% that it can command. However, with 85% of the organic production in India exported due not so attractive domestic demand, the paradox is, it is mainly the rich farmers who are already producing for export who are benefiting from this booming sector. In a global market where certification is needed to show and guarantee the consumer that the product has been produced in consistency with organic standards, small farmers, who are often denied government's assistance in storing, processing, certifying and exporting their produce, fail to realize the potential benefits of organic farming.

The sad irony however is the need for certification given that most of India's farms are organic by default. Traditional agriculture which dates back to 7500-6500 BC in India has relied on scientific approach to organic farming. The seminal works of Vedic period (1000-600 BC) such as Vrksayurveda and Krishisastra , have a corpus of textual knowledge on organic agriculture practices. Sadly, in the last five decades, with our traditional knowledge and organic practices eroded with the influx of modern practices, small farmers have to pay extra to certify their produce.

The strong proponents of organic farming's potential to cure poverty claim that if the state comes up with a policy that supports these small farmers by say subsidizing the certification cost, then majority of the farming community would switch to organic farming to pocket the extra premium. However, what about those consumers, either below or just above poverty line, who cannot even afford to pay for the subsidized ration? Can those who struggle to pay even 4 Rupees for a Kilogram of Rice be expected to pay for the "organic premium" for the claimed extra health advantage? Would majority of households in the low and low-middle income class categories be able to afford the near 25% rise in her shopping bill?

Well, for now,  it evades my comprehension as to who are the true beneficiaries of organic farming.

~ Santosh


"The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that: Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right; greed works."
- This fictional character Gordon Gekko's address to stockholders in the famous movie Wall Street , still seems to find a good cheering audience, both among the business and the elected representative body, in India. The latest in this avarice seems to be the $1.5 billion Biscuit industry's desperate attempt to double its market share by its brow-raising offer to supply biscuits through government's Mid Day Meal Scheme (MDMS). The industry along with the MPs, who they have evidently have pocketed, are lobbying for serving biscuits instead of the traditional cooked meals under MDMS.

According to these self-proclaimed experts, not only in  the field of nutrition but also in the multifaceted socio-economic development, biscuits are the best meals for the 120 million growing children across the country who are covered under MDMS. It escapes my comprehension as to how company's like ITC, Parle and Britannia are backing baseless statements of MPs that biscuits are a favorite snack of children and that they have a higher recall and acceptance among the intended beneficiaries of the MDMS. How can one, based just on the grounds of couple of corruption cases and reported poor quality of meals, stretch to make claims that cooked meals should be replaced by packaged biscuits? The least one expected from the industry was to lend its mind-space in efficiently managing supply chain and delivery channels. Instead all one can see is the potential atrocity when "greed" and "corruption" join hands. 

It seems that the lobbyists need a primer not only on nutrition but also on the multipurpose objectives of MDMS. As per the Supreme Court order, all states are mandated to provide every child in Government/Government-assisted primary schools with a "prepared meal" instead of "dry rations". The revised norms of NP-NSPE even specify the minimum content of 450 calories, 12 gm of Protein, with adequate quantities of micro-nutrients such as Iron, Folic acid, Vitamin-A, etc.

However, today's most ubiquitous Parle-G Glucose biscuits claim to provide just about 300 calories and protein of less than 5 gm in serving size of 11 biscuits. So, how many biscuits is a child expected to munch in a day and of course without the usual accomplice of a cup of tea or coffee? Is the industry claiming that it would come with a perfect recipe with all the essential nutritional ingredients in magical proportions all within the current average conversion cost of Rs 1.17? Is the industry setting new paradigms for CSR by sacrificing its usual margins? Even if we were to accept the unusual benign nature of the industry, can a biscuit be any distant substitute to a hot cooked meal which can offer the variety to sustain the interest of children?

Today it is the biscuit industry and tomorrow it could well be the packaged food and even confectionery industries vying for the lucrative piece of this Government initiative. Before one tends towards the industry side based on common charges of corruption and health hazards as a result of food not being cooked in hygienic conditions which might be partially true, one needs to carefully consider the sheer impact of cooked meals on aspects such as child nutrition, school attendance and social equity. Firstly, in deprived areas where the child does not even get two square meals a day, these cooked meals are enjoyed as a "festival food".  In areas where hunger is endemic, will one value the assurance of cookies? Secondly,  the socialization value that MDMS brings as children sit together and share a common meal would seem to get eroded if one is given a pack of biscuits instead. (Hope that one is not attempting to to create a "High Tea" gathering here!) Thirdly, the employment opportunities created for the poor women in particular has no place if cookies are to replace cooked meals. (For a detailed analysis read here)

Now on the "corruption" argument front, I wonder how packaged snacks is any less vulnerable. What is needed to minimize corruption in MCDS is an overhaul of our monitory system. The need of the hour is development of appropriate technologies and operational models that will improve the administration of MDMS. Is it too much to expect the industry to partner with the state at operational or management level to ensure delivery of warm healthy meals to vulnerable children without incurring high cost? Who is to defend the right to food of vulnerable groups when MPs decide to leave them in the hands of corporations whose sole objective seems profits?

Thanks to SC-appointed commissioners who have just today slammed the suggestion by MPs' group. Well, now it remains to see if someone will wake up the industry's "conscience"!

~ Santosh 


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