Tuesday, 12 December 2006

On the banks of Khando

It was the seventh day of Dashami (the greatest Hindu festival), the day preceding the sacrifice of animals to Durga, the Goddess of power. The incessant rains had stopped and the sky was partly clear with patches of black clouds hovering around, signalling for the rains still to come. Among the clouds peeked the moon gaining its full form day by day for the coming full moon day. The entire village slept in serenity. The bamboo leaves swayed to the light breeze and bats could be seen moving stealthily in search of prey. An owl was hooting in the far horizon. The banks of river Khando was dry and the sands seemed silvery with the partial moonlight. The recent floods had brought more alluvial soil and the banks had widened, the sands had got a washing. A crab could be seen crawling towards the receding water.

A flicker of two lights appeared at a distance, coming towards the bank from the village (The village was around one and half kilometres away from the river). The pair of glow became more visible and as they approached the bank, the silhouettes of two women could be seen. They were carrying small earthen oil lamps on their heads. They were clad in white saris and had put long veils to cover their faces. Suddenly silence swept the environment. The crickets' chirping stopped and it seemed as if the wind had stopped blowing. They put down the earthen lamps from their heads on the bank and started dancing. The wind started blowing again and with the gusts of wind the flames in the lamps flared. They danced and danced, till they were tired to the bones. With worries and anxiety on their faces they sat on the sands. They were waiting for somebody to arrive there at that moment. The younger woman was sweating with fear and so was the older woman. In the darkness of the night they were the only companions to each other. The older woman had tattoes around her forearms, legs and chest as if she was wearing long gloves, socks and blouse. The indigenous people have the belief that since one takes nothing with her after dying, the tattoes are the only companion to the next world and life. The younger lady had worn heavy kadas (bracelet like ornament worn around the foot near ankle) of silver and seemed more worried.

The two women could not wait any longer as the time was creeping towards morning at a fast pace. They whispered among themselves and the younger woman went nearer to the river water. She trampled on the fresh deposits of alluvial soil and started her search in the fresh deposits. The older woman pointed to a spot nearer to the bank. The younger woman reached the point and took out a khurpa (a small digging tool) from the interiors of her clothes. It seemed that she had recognized the place. Then she started digging with vengeance. As deeper she went, the slower became her pace. And when the thing she was digging for appeared, there was a mixed feeling of anguish and victory on her face. She was perspiring heavily. When she found the thing she was looking for, she took out the bundle and hugged it tightly in her arms. She started crying and she would not stop lamenting. The older woman came near her and consoled her. Then they took out the mystery object from the bundle - it was a baby boy! The baby was of around seven months and had a smiling face. The corpse had not decayed but the flesh had lost its lustre. It was white and numb. White ants had started their work and they had eaten a large chunk of flesh on the back. They had even started eating the ears. They brought the baby near the lamp and started massaging the boy with the oil from the lamp. Then all of sudden five young boys appeared from nowhere and one of them took away the baby from the women. Four boys strangled the women and dragged them towards the village. The older woman was stronger than the boys, she escaped from the hold of the boys and ran away towards the river. She crossed the river and darted in the darkness.

It was around three in the morning and there was a huge gathering in the village chautari (a gathering place in the village). They had hung a lantern on the branch of the peepal tree and the young woman was weeping by the side of the dead baby. All the people gathered were furious and some even tried to manhandle the woman. The village elders were calmer and they tried to sort out the problem. The guilty woman was made to speak out the truth. The baby was her own child. It had died due to pneumonia seven days ago. Her name was Palti, age 20 years and it was her first child. Her husband had been to Malaysia to earn money to take them out of penury. The older woman who had accompanied her was her mother-in-law. The villagers used to accuse her of being a witch. And now they were accusing Palti of learning witchcraft by sacrificing her first born baby. However, her side of story was totally different. She named five people of the village to be her mentors. They were witch-doctors and had promised her and her mother-in-law to bring back her dead child from the grasp of death. They had just followed what they had been told to do. But they did not turn out on the proposed time and they were caught in the act by the young boys who had been deputed by the same witch-doctors.

There was a thorough search for the five men, but they were nowhere to be found. The word had spread and lots of people from neighbouring villages started pouring in. It was like a mela (village fete). Some were demanding to punish her, some were asking to find and punish the witch-doctors and some even demanded to hang her. Finally, the matter was solved and a document was made stating that she would not involve in witchcraft from now-on-wards, also the name of five absconding witch-doctors were mentioned. A little black ink was applied to her right and left thumbs and she had to put her thumb-prints on the paper as she was an illiterate. She could not read what was written in the paper but she placed her thumb marks there.

That night was a night she could never forget. A night of assurance, a night of anxiety and a night of dejection. She was crying relentlessly and had sore eyes, but there was nobody to console her, nobody to empathize. She fed the newly born calf and the two little kids born to her favourite goat. She closed the doors of her room and put on the heavy latch. She had lots of things to say - to her husband, to her mother-in-law who had run away, to her baby who was reburied in the sands of Khando and to all her loved ones in her maiti (maternal home). She would have written a whole book had she been a literate. She moved around the room and prayed to the Gods in the picture frames hung on the walls. Then she took out a small bottle from the cupboard, looked at it carefully and downed its contents in one gulp. Within minutes, there was a dead body lying with vomits all over its face.

(It is based on real life incident and the names have been changed to safeguard the identities. It has been published in www.soulscribe.com)

The thin fine line

Recently I was in Bangalore for an industrial tour and I called one of my friends from engineering days. He is an Infoscion and we have been close friends for last 10 years. I had expected that he would come to receive me and give me a huge hug. But I had to wait till eight in the night to get a glimpse of him. I waited outside Planet M watching the hurly burly crowd on the Brigade Road. He came and we had a great time together – we talked about the past, present and our future plans. Seeing his busy schedule, I told him how I came out of the whirlpool of workload. When I returned from Bangalore, I scanned two pages from my diary and mailed him.

April 2001
I was waiting for the inventory guy to provide me the stocks. I yelled at the boiler attendant to give me the kerosene consumption data and I kept on calling the finished goods incharge to submit the despatch data. Then I got to the production department and asked for the day's production. The quality control officer came with the data and I started my work balancing the masses – input and output, calculating the financial implications and finding out the efficiency of our machines. By 3:00 PM, I got the market demand report and by 5:00 PM I was ready with the next day's production planning. As the clock struck five, my work was completed. But as usual I stayed till 7:30 PM, analysing the data and looking for the loopholes that can be get rid of and other ways of increasing the efficiency.

March 2002
The Thai Production Manager who joined last month is a real smart guy. He gets all the work done in those odd eight hours and always looks cheerful and smiling. Today as usual, I had completed my work and was going to start the analysing part for which I am not paid. As the clock struck five, there was a knock on the walls of my cubicle. There was my Thai Production Manager who hates working late. He pulled me and we went for an evening stroll in the countryside. We shared our ideas and we came up with the solution for the most difficult problems that occurred in the plant recently. Today I got answers to all my previous useless efforts. From now onwards I will never work late!

My friend knows me well. He knows that I can't change so abruptly. So he keeps me calling and checks casually whether I have left office after five or not. A few days back he called me. He was really happy at that time and I knew from his voice that he had something great to tell me. He had replied me back with a bang! In his one line email he had written:

Hey dude, now it's your turn to read! Now most of us at Infosys have started practising this! Open the attached mentor session speech from our Boss, Narayan Murthy.

I hastily opened the attachment and it read:

Infosys' Chairman and Chief Mentor Officer (CMO) - Mr. Narayana Murthy's Speech on Late Sitting:

Hope that many of us start leaving early for home after reading this... I am not relating this to the present scenario. I know people who work 12 hours a day, six days a week, or more. Some people do so because of a work emergency where the long hours are only temporary. Other people I know have put in these hours for years. I don't know if they are working all these hours, but I do know they are in the office this long. Others put in long office hours because they are addicted to the workplace. Whatever the reason for putting in overtime, working long hours over the long term is harmful to the person and to the organization. There are things managers can do to change this for everyone's benefit. Being in the office long hours, over long periods of time, makes way for potential errors. My colleagues who are in the office long hours frequently make mistakes caused by fatigue. Correcting these mistakes requires their time as well as the time and energy of others. I have seen people work Tuesday through Friday to correct mistakes made after 5 PM on Monday. Another problem is that people who are in the office for long hours are not pleasant company. They often complain about other people (who aren't working as hard); they are irritable, or cranky, or even angry. Other people avoid them. Such behaviour poses problems, where work goes much better when people work together instead of avoiding one another. As Managers, there are things we can do to help people leave the office. First and foremost is to set the example and go home ourselves. I work with a manager who chides people for working long hours. His words quickly lose their meaning when he sends these chiding group e-mails with a time-stamp of 2 AM, Sunday. Second is to encourage people to put some balance in their lives. For instance, here is a guideline I find helpful: 1) Wake up, eat a good breakfast, and go to work. 2) Work hard and smart for eight or nine hours. 3) Go home. 4) Read the comics, watch a funny movie, dig in the dirt, play with your kids, etc. 5) Eat well and sleep well. This is called recreating. Doing steps 1, 3, 4, and 5 enable step 2. Working regular hours and recreating daily are simple concepts. They are hard for some of us because that requires personal change. They are possible since we all have the power to choose to do them. In considering the issue of overtime, I am reminded of my eldest son. When he was a toddler, If people were visiting the apartment, he would not fall asleep no matter how long the visit, and no matter what time of day it was.! He would fight off sleep until the visitors left.. It was as if he was afraid that he would miss something. Once our visitors' left, he would go to sleep. By this time, however, he was over tired and would scream through half the night with nightmares. He, my wife, and I, all paid the price for his fear of missing out. Perhaps some people put in such long hours because they don't want to miss anything when they leave the office. The trouble with this is that events will never stop happening. That is life! Things happen 24 hours a day. Allowing for little rest is not ultimately practical. So, take a nap. Things will happen while you're asleep, but you will have the energy to catch up when you wake. Hence "LOVE YOUR JOB BUT NEVER FALL IN LOVE WITH YOUR COMPANY (Because you never know when it stops loving you)"

But does it mean that we should stop working hard? No, never. Hard workers know where to draw a line (and it is a fine one) between their professional and personal existence!

Sensory branding – tickling all five senses

The place had old look – the furniture were old , stylish and the waiters wore typical Indian look, the ambience took me back to the old days. A soothing instrumental music permeated through the hidden speakers and the aroma of soft brewed coffee wafted around. It was the subliminal branding created by the Indian Coffee House (ICH) that attracted coffee lovers from the city. Recently, I was bemused by the brand tactics of a hotel in Kathmandu – they played traditional Nepali tunes and as I entered there was a fresh smell of roses all around.

Might be they have taken cue from what marketers are practising in the West. Some supermarkets in Northern Europe are connected to bakeries by hundreds of meters of pipeline. These pipes carry the aroma of fresh bread to the stores' entrances. The strategy works. Passers-by are struck with hunger and drawn inside the shop. A major British bank has introduced freshly brewed coffee to its branches with the intention of making customers feel at home. The familiar smell relaxes the bank's customers.

The marketers have suddenly turned to the two remaining senses that most of them had ignored for such a long period. In the past they were busy satisfying the touch, feel and see aspects of brand. The product was meticulously created and cleverly packed. The colours, graphics and design – they sold the entire brand.

The latest theory claims that successful brands simply must have their own distinctive odours. If we can associate our product with an appropriate smell, consumers can be touched at a deep emotional level, making them loyal.

The notion first took hold in the Nineties, when Singapore Airlines took the help of Stefan Floridian Waters, a distinctive scent, to boost its corporate identity. The scent was suffused inside the aircraft, mixed into flight attendants' perfume, even dripped on to passengers' hot towels. The intention was to prompt familiar, warm memories when passengers boarded the plane. And it worked wonders!

But smell isn’t the only sensory effect that brands are manipulating. In the automotive industry, advances in acoustic design have enabled the manufacturers to engineer, with great precision, how a door will sound as it closes. Thus, the soft opening doors have replaced the screeching sounds. The white goods industry has capitalised this concept to the hilt. Now the dishwashers and mixers never hurt your ears. And every buyer looks for the goods that produce pleasant sound!

Some websites have captured the ABCs of sensory branding. When you visit those sites, you listen a particular sound that is quite appealing and makes you unknowingly visit that site again and again. I wonder why Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) hasn’t turned to this emerging trend. The sound of birds chirping, rivers cascading and breeze whizzing will give the visitors a feel of Nepal in wild. It will surely draw hordes of visitors to our country.

In Brand Sense, author Martin Lindstrom predicts that the world of marketing is about to witness “seismic shifts” in the way in which consumers perceive brands, analogous to “moving from black and white television…with mono sound to high-definition color screens installed with surround sound.” "The more senses you appeal to," he says, "the stronger the message will be perceived" - largely because the "subtle, pleasant and insidious" nature of multi-sensory branding entices customers without their being aware of it.

So, are you ready to tickle all the five senses? Join Martin and his horde of followers to create a niche for your brand.

Herbal Hankering

Meeting Chunni Lal was an incident that led me to write this piece of information. My grandmother is an old lady in her seventies and she tries her best to avoid allopathic medicines. And to my amazement, she knows a lot of people who are proponents of their own ready-made concoctions from locally found herbs. She had called one of the Vaidhyas who had a vast knowledge of Ayurveda, Vaastu and Astrology. We had a formal introduction and we talked, discussed and argued. We talked about my grandmother's illness and he popped up the cure – wrote down a concoction of herbs with weird names. I had heard names of just one or two among them. The good thing about him was that he told me the place and name of the merchant from whom I could buy those herbs – Rajbiraj and Chunni Lal.

The following day, I got to Rajbiraj to find Chunni Lal's shop. I found his shop at a corner of the market. It was a small room with the oldest look I had ever seen, the racks were broken and the jars with herbs had gathered piles of dust on them. And an old fat man was feeding a baby mongoose! I stood there for a while and was looking at the shop, the jars, the old man and the baby mongoose. The old man looked at me and asked why I was there. I told him my purpose. He kept the mongoose in a tin-box and came to attend me. He took the list from me and started searching the herbs. It was a long list and he kept on making puriyas (small packets) of the herbs and writing names on them. He had an old book which was torn in many places. He consulted it in between.

He carefully packed the herbs. He was telling me about the herbs, how they are picked from nature, dried and brought to his shop. He was ecstatic to show me more than 10 varieties of salt. I had never seen so many varieties of salt! When the turn to pack locally found herbs herbs came, he told me about the possibilities – collection of herbs from the nearby jungle, involving the manpower and marketing the products. There was a gleam in his eyes. To me he seemed to be Nepal's Dr. Burman, the man who started Dabur. Within a few minutes' chat we became close associates and I came to know that he was in that profession for the last 50 years. Had he been able to access and mobilize the local resources he would have been one of the largest suppliers of Nepali herbs. He told me the names of hundreds of herbs that are found in our jungles in abundance. Also he talked about the cultivation of some of the herbs.

Talking about Nepal and the herbs it has in its mines, Nepal stands 27th position in bio-diversity richness. In Nepal about 6,500 species of flowering plants are expected to occur, 5% species being strictly endemic and more than 1600 species of medicinal plants are reported to be used in the traditional medicinal practices. Currently the total volume of trade of MAPs (Medicinal and Aromatic Plants) is estimated to be 10,000-15,000 tons per year, comprising around 100 species. (courtesy: www.nepalherbs.org )

Out of nowhere the idea about using unused lands, cultivating herbs, selling them, generating employment and bringing laurels to the economy sprang up in my mind. I have put my effort to share the same with you all.

First of all, we all are aware that all of our villages have huge masses of unused lands which are termed as Ailanis and Partis. Apart from these ailanis and partis many villages have Bagars, the unused land on the banks of rivers. These pieces of unused land can be used for herb cultivation. If nothing grows in bagars then at least we can grow Aloe vera which attracts a huge demand from the West and Japan or we can grow Seabuckthorn which is making news in China these days.

The responsibility of cultivation can be given to a bunch of young unemployed youth. They will take up the errand wholeheartedly. A mobile group of technical persons who can monitor the growing, harvesting and packaging can be formed. There are lots of technical persons who will be willing to work as the advisers. A marketing wing at Kathmandu will have to do all the works regarding the marketing and export of these herbs. In the process, the Village Development Committee (VDC) will get rent for the unused lands, village youth will get employment as herb growers, technical and marketing persons too will get employment. And the herb processing if done will generate ancillary industries around the area, making a surge of employment generation and economic prosperity.

If few like-minded people can join hands then it's not impossible and I think we can be an example for other rural settings around South Asia and the world. And I don't think that this will bring any disharmony in our age old social fabric. According to our traditional planning, each village had certain number of ponds, Chautaris, the places for village meetings, Gaucharan, the fields for grazing cattle, temple of village deity and lots of other planned pieces of lands. Doing this (herb cultivation) we will only use the unused land! People like Chunni Lal can help us with their knowledge. Instead of sitting in his age old shop selling herbs worth few hundreds, he can help us in identifying, growing and processing the herbs.

Let's bridge the ditch before it broadens into an abyss

Have you ever imagined, how would you feel if you didn't have a computer and Internet connection? Might be you would not get the instant information you are seeking, or you end up asking your friends and seniors about the thing you are so anxious to know. Might be you had something in mind and you forgot it. You scratch your head but don't retrieve the piece of information. You can imagine how frustrating the moment is. But we all have the super tool with us – the search engines, forums, chat rooms where you can find the answer to your queries instantly.

Now imagine the case of a farmer in a remote village. The monsoon has started and he doesn't know where to get the seeds, fertilizers and advices to grow the crop. He depends upon the well-tried methods in the past and compromises for the seeds and fertilizers available in the market nearby. In the process, he ends up paying more than the actual market price. The seeds he ought to get at Rs. 600 per quintal may cost him Rs. 700 per quintal and similar might be the case with the fertilizers. The price ends up ballooned at the consumers' end till it travels from the distributor to the retailers.

The story is similar when the time comes to reap the benefits after a hard day's work. When the farmer harvests the crop and makes his mind to sell it, again he is the loser. If the market price is Rs. 1000 per quintal, he ends up receiving just Rs. 800 per quintal. The rewards of his hard work are eaten up by the intermediaries like brokers and petty traders.

He knows that his part of meal is snatched by someone else but he has no means to retaliate against it. He is a mere spectator at the hands of so called fate. He takes the moment as it appears and he is helpless.

So, is there no solution to provide relief to these farmers? Yes, certainly there are more ways to tackle this trauma, the only problem is we are in the fast paced world of access at click and they are in the laid-back world of brick and mortar. To bridge the gap we need a digital revolution to reshape the lives of these farmers in remote villages. Now the question might arise - how to include a farmer who has never seen a computer, into our circle of information sharing?

We can have a look at the e-choupal initiative by ITC, one of India's largest consumer product and agribusiness companies. By the help of this initiative, today lakhs of farmers are in thousands of villages in India are conducting e-business.

The e-choupal initiative by ICT is like an Internet kiosk, village gathering place and e-commerce hub all rolled into one. The word choupal means "village gathering place" in Hindi just like chautari in Nepali. These e-choupals are run by operators called the sanchalaks, who are one among the farmers recruited by ITC to be the interface between the computer terminal and the farmers. ITC has designed a hardware solution that includes a desktop computer with power backup through batteries charged with solar panels and has convinced local telephone exchanges to upgrade their equipment to support data transmissions. To overcome illiteracy, ITC made the transactional capabilities of the site available to farmers through the registered sanchalaks.

Now look at the benefits both ITC and farmers are reaping through this initiative. ITC, which exports millions worth of agricultural commodities, sources a fair amount of commodities from these e-choupals. By purchasing directly from farmers, ITC can source better quality produce that commands high prices in the international market. By avoiding intermediaries for conducting the transactions, ITC saves money on procurement. The sanchalaks get a commission for every transaction they process, which translates into healthy earnings for them. The farmers gain from better prices and lower transaction costs. Traditionally, they had to wait for days to sell their produce at local markets and auctions. They also had to pay for bagging, loading and unloading their produce in the local market. In the e-choupal system, farmers take only a sample of their produce to a local kiosk and receive a spot quote from the sanchalak. If the farmers accept the quote, they can drive their produce directly to ITC's collection centres and get paid within a couple of hours. The farmers save on doing so. Farmers also benefit from improved information and price discovery. With help from their sanchalak, they can access real-time information on crop prices, weather and scientific farming practices online. Ultimately, ITC envisions the e-choupal as an e-commerce hub for the village—a single point of contact among farmers and a wide range of suppliers of agricultural inputs and consumer products.

So, isn't it possible in our country? I say it's more than possible and in the process it will bring prosperity in Nepal, which will eventually lead to peace. A group of young people can not only deliver the benefits to farmers but also make a hub of engineers, farmers, designers, agriculturists and thinkers who can put their inputs in that initiative. With the inputs from farmers, the engineers and designers will design equipment to plant, water and harvest crops. With the help of agriculturists, the farmers can take up farming rewarding crops like Aloe-vera, vanilla, coffee, soyabean in lieu of traditional rice and wheat. But all of it will take a single initiative from a leader among ourselves.

The gap between the haves and have-nots has increased reasonably in the recent years and I think this type of initiative will at least stop others from snatching the food from the mouths of the have-nots in our villages, help them stand tall and help us in bridging the gap. So, let's come together and join hands before the ditch turns into an abyss!

I have included the information about e-choupal from Professor Mohanbir Sawhney's article and ITC's website.