And now for something completely different

Earlier today, my friend Rafat sent over snaps of some of our earliest reportage. This is circa 1998, from our first job at now-shuttered A&M, India’s first magazine on advertising and marketing. Am pasting them below and noting – with much pride and approval – the pun in one of these headlines, for a report on a tieup between an ad agency and pr firm. 🙂

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Power. The ignorance it engenders. And some photographs.

Towards its end, “The Post”, Spielberg’s film on the Pentagon Papers, says: “The role of the press is to serve the governed, not the governors.” Which makes one think. Who are these people we are meant to be serving in India?

Take a look at the snaps above. These people — belonging to Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat — were photographed in the last three years. So much of our policy debates play out in their name. And yet, how little we know about them. And how static/outdated even that limited awareness is.

Some of this is about distance. Out of sight equals out of mind. Ergo, the periphery gets far less attention than what surrounds the centres of power.

And some of this is about power. As Brett Walker writes in The Lost Wolves Of Japan, “Power engenders a peculiar kind of ignorance: dominant humans almost never take the time to really get to know the peoples, plants, and animals they subordinate”. A curious drive to diminish is at work here. As Walker writes, we rejected the notion that flora/fauna might have their own emotional lives — reducing them to just gene-directed automatons. They come to be seen, not as discrete individuals, but as a broadly similar category. Which is something that Barry Lopez writes about in Arctic Dreams. About how the Inuits knew the personalities of every caribou, seal and what have you around them. Killing any of these, for them, was a far more considered process than it is for any big game hunter.

With biodiversity, some of this is due to a resetting of power dynamics between us and other species; some of this is due to how our thinking changed (more focused on what can be measured, for one, keeping the scientific method in mind) after the enlightenment; And partly, as in the case of Japan’s wolves, is about economic imperatives trumping old cultural systems.

As Walker writes, such diminishing, for want of a better word, extends to humans as well. We see it every time a demagogue wants to stoke up bigotry. The process starts by reducing their targets to broad categories — reducing flesh and blood individuals to identity markers (like Jewishness or Islam or the colour of their skin or caste) they cannot transcend. We also see it in governance. An instance: Back in 2011, when the Planning Commission wanted to delink minimum wages and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, activists organised a workshop in Delhi where they called Montek Singh Ahluwalia for a discussion. The audience? Mostly NREGA workers. Faced with the task of explaining to the workers why they should get less than the minimum wage, each of the visibly discomfited bureaucrats said their piece in English — and then left instead of staying for the discussions.

So much easier to clinically discuss workers/poor as an abstract category defined through a couple of traits than see them as real, living people.

There are questions here for us reporters as well. This stuff about our immediate context determining our priorities raises questions about us knowing whom to serve. A related question takes us further beyond. How does one serve? Report without knowing much about these people, or the latest forces acting on them, and the risk of us mischaracterising the problem/fighting the wrong battle cannot be ruled out. Take one instance, is today’s agrarian crisis in India is the same as the agrarian crisis we faced ten years ago? Or are there subtle (or large) differences?

Journalism is a knowledge producing trade. It needs method — if we are to capture a representative slice of whichever emergent process we report on. Ignore such questions. And we will end up with journalism with unchanging — and increasingly irrelevant — analyses which cannot do good.

Which is why India needs far more local reporting. For deracinated hacks like me, one answer, I guess, is to keep doing periodic deep dives into the field to update our understanding re the issues we write on. Essential given the rapidity with which societies change.

Another, I think, is to maintain a certain watchfulness towards how our brain arrives at its conclusions. To be aware of the cognitive traps we carry with us. And to work correctives for those into our reporting/writing process. To get time/freedom to report. And to read more — especially about the unknowns.

PS: I am blogging more than before. I used to when this blog was hosted at And then, I got busy and the blog just became a place where I aggregated links to my reportage. Trying to change that now.

And now for something completely different


No ‘End Of The Year’ cycle ride (see this and this and this) this year. One of my two co-conspirators was scrambling to finish his long overdue book — writing, not reading, it. The other was busy prepping for a marathon. And so, January 2018 saw the ‘End Of The Year’ trek. Eleven days of walking in Arunachal Pradesh’s Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary.

How was it? Life shrank to the basics. The quest to stay warm. Finding quiet patches of forest and sitting there with little more than the spotting scope. A few minutes of sitting still and the forest would come to life. And then, up went the scope as I gaped at the birds in one of the most biodiverse places in India. Back to the campsite by two or so. A quick lunch. And then sitting down to read The Lost Wolves Of Japan, write in my journal, or a smaller walk followed by sitting down to watch the sun go down. By seven, it would be getting seriously cold. And so, dinner. Nip into the tent and read some more. And asleep by eight or so.


These days were therapeutic. Over the past months and years, the brain has felt increasingly like a slab of meat getting electric jolts of stimuli with rising rapidity — emails, social media notifications, messages, the news cycle itself. The fallouts have included a collapsed attention span. A deepening addiction to the dopamine hits of social media. Increased stress levels thanks to a surfeit of uncivil conversations on social media and elsewhere.

The costs of all this run high. My friends find me more irritable, more graceless than before. At a time the work needs to be more rigorous than ever, I find myself saddled with an attention span butterflies would spit at. And so, with the end of ‘Ear To The Ground‘, my reporting project for Scroll, I have been trying to disentangle myself from some of this. The twitter account has been deleted. After reading books like Irresistible and The Shallows, I am trying out new restrictions on distraction/interruption technologies like cellphones and the internet.

The initial results — before I headed for Eaglenest — were promising. With twitter out of the way, the brain found itself reading more. Two standout books read during this period included Superorganism on how insect societies evolved and function, and Island Story where author JD Taylor cycles around the UK to give us an excellent introduction to pre-Brexit Britain. Two other books — Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch and Steve Wick’s account of William Shirer’s years reporting on the Nazis from Berlin — raise the important question on what it takes to truly belong to the time one lives in. Other notable books were Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, Anuk Arudpragasam’s The Story Of A Brief Marriage, a hagiographic — but instructive — account of Manga artist Osamu Tezuka, and more.

The hike helped consolidate some of those early gains. Partly because these days were marked by the complete absence of any connectivity. No phone signals. And no power source to charge the phone anyway. This ebbing of stimuli and the resulting silence brought in some calm. The forest too imposed a mindfulness towards the ongoing moment. And so, the brain gradually began getting used to a new normal — of doing a few things in a day, each for extended amounts of time. The challenge now is to hold onto these gains — instead of lapsing back to the old normal. In that context, a friend has suggested this book called Deep Work that I have just ordered.

In other ways too, the hike was useful. It is important for us green hacks to be reminded of why we do what we do. At one level, Eaglenest is one of the more primeval forests I have seen. Ancient trees that soar up high and all that. And yet, it was impossible to escape mankind’s stains on this place. My guides and I saw signs of hunting. In the snap below, that building is our campsite at Sisni, and the reddish stuff in the foreground is the coagulating blood of some unknown animal. This is what we saw shortly after reaching Sisni.


In the park’s southern reaches, logging by Bodo groups is said to be underway. Walking through the park, one encountered plastic. Gutkha packets. Abandoned cement sacks fraying into thin plastic strips. Beedi packets. Plastic bottles. Broken glass bottles. An abandoned floor mat. Wafer packets. One could go on. Things came to a head on the day we saw elephant droppings which contained a piece of tarpaulin.


These are familiar processes. Take habitat destruction. Assam seems to be getting a lot of its timber from the forests of Arunachal (Which is what we saw during last year’s cycle ride to Namdapha as well). A lot of Arunachal’s political economy pivots around road construction. These roads, built in a manner which results in frequent landslides (see below, road between Kalaktang and Tenzingaon), seem to create livelihoods more through road construction than economic activity engendered by these roads. The outcome is a constant building/expansion/relaying of these roads with accompanying environmental impacts — the damage to hill slopes; an influx of underpaid road crews who cut trees for firewood/to clear plots for farming; etc. ; the damage to hill slopes. And then, there are the local communities. Leading economically marginal lives, they too fall back on the forest for firewood — to use or sell.


The Lost Wolves Of Japan touched on this desire for economic improvement. Japan used to worship wolves. And then, after the Meiji restoration kicked off a modernisation project in the country, it began seeing wolves as a threat to Japan’s ranching businesses. And hunted/poisoned the species into extinction. Economy trumps culture. Not to mention old systems of restraint/respect towards other species. Across India too, economic marginalisation — due to inquities in wealth distribution — seems to be taking similar tolls on human-biodiversity relationships.

Eaglenest has fared better than most parks. It draws birdwatchers from around the world — and uses them to run highend tourist camps with some of the proceeds going back to local communities. But even so, for all manner of complex reasons, buy-in from one community (Buguns) seemed to be higher than the other (Rupens).

All this triggered large questions. Was tourism growing? Was it helping everyone in the communities or were the gains flowing to a few? If tourism was rising, was hunting coming down? Or had it already made enough inroads to reduce the numbers of megafauna? At the same time, do we make a mistake by focusing on hunting? Isn’t habitat destruction the biggest threat to the park?


In all this, the forest department’s response was ineffectual. Understaffing is high. Budgets are low. There is a certain wariness towards tangling with the Rupens, whose members were said to be hunting/picnicking in the sanctuary — which looked like male-bonding/insistence on persisting with old tribal cultures to me. All this seemed to have bred a passivity where the forest staff I met had stopped challenging even the processes they could — like ensuring construction crews brought back all the cement sacks they took into the forest, safe plastic disposal by the camp operators, and so on.

Walk through the park and one saw forest department boards talking about the campsites. Each of them described the location and then spelt out the department’s conservation infrastructure sited there — “An anti-poaching camp of the forest department is located here,” as the board below says. The catch? None of that exists on the ground. It is all governance on paper. There is a larger observation on the Indian state here. In 1992, the Supreme Court banned all logging in the North East. But in the absence of a functioning state administration, that writ too exists only on paper. At the most, formal players cannot log. The informal sector (not to say non-state actors) chop away with impunity. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

All this adds up to heartbreak. Those elephant droppings with tarp. A leopard cat cub we saw which had been separated from its mother. I do not know if it is still alive given how young it is, how cold Eaglenest is at this time of the year, and those hunting expeditions. One evening, a bull elephant carefully walked around our campsite through the undergrowth instead of coming up onto the path. Watching it walk into the gathering dusk, it was hard not to feel anxious for its future.


And yet, there is everything to fight for. Last year, I went walking in the Alps. One thing that stood out about that trek — apart from my bone-tired fatigue — was how empty those forests were. Eaglenest, despite the pressures acting on it, still has staggering biodiversity. One day, in two hours, walking just 8 kilometres along the road, I — massively clueless about bird species — saw no less than 20 different species. Eaglenest is said to have no less than 500 species of birds alone.

All of which is what we saw, in March 2015, at Mizoram’s Dampa Tiger Reserve. Huge biodiversity, yes. But with deep poverty and militant groups posing threatening the forest in their own distinctive ways. And, again, an ineffectual state — thanks to a combination of cash-strappedness as well as governmental indifference.

There is complexity here. As I finish this post, I am wondering about all the other layers/nuances I have missed. I need to think about all this a great deal more. Probably head back to Arunachal on rejoining work. And try to see where the solutions lie — Local communities? Getting government institutions to work better? Or, as a friend says, creating employment for people to reduce pressure on the forests — which also calls for a recasting of the elite capture that characterises states like Arunachal.

‘Ear To The Ground’. What we reported on between 2015 and 2017.

In March, 2015, kicked off a reporting project called ‘Ear To The Ground‘. It was meant to ID the largest changes afoot in six handpicked states — and to use them to understand the major processes shaping India now. As that project draws to a close, it is nostalgia-time (for me, at any rate). It’s also likely that most readers will have read some — not all — of these reports. And so, am aggregating all reportage here.
The first state we reported from, circa March 2015, was Mizoram.

  1. Our first report from this state in north-east India looked at Dampa Tiger Reserve — and the challenges of conservation in India’s North-East. We saw one odd trend here: Forest staff get salaries much after Project Tiger releases them.
  2. This time, April 2015, is also when a minor drama was playing out between the BJP and the state. A quick story featuring governors.
  3. In other news, a rural development programme — NLUP (New Land Use Policy) — had been repurposed by the state government into a populist programme.
  4. It was a time when three autonomous district councils — of the Lais, Maras and Chakmas — were seeing their own changes. They wanted the BJP to help them become Union Territories.
  5. There were some questions on whether these councils might become BJP’s first footholds in Mizoram. An accompanying story looked at how the Councils were run — pertinent given their demand for union territory status. Horrible financial health.
  6. Like Dampa’s forest guards, the state’s anti-HIV programme was seeing irregular payments as well. The consequences were serious: the gains from Mizoram’s successful battle against the spread of HIV/AIDS were being lost.
  7. The next report got into more detail. Why are payments irregular? And — using state health department as an instance — what do irregular payments do to government programmes? In Mizoram, health department workers are taking personal loans to do their job.
  8. A part of the problem was Mizoram’s low capacity to boost state government revenues (from within the state). And it looked like things would get worse under the 14th Finance Commission.
  9. The state was changing in other ways. Facebook groups were giving newspapers a run for their money.
  10. Another way to understand the society? The great popularity of Korean soap operas.
  11. Back to the economy. Can the Kaladan highway rescue Mizoram’s economy?
  12. One reason for low employment — and a low number of indigenous business groups — was political corruption which gave contracts to companies outside Mizoram. Case in point: the roads sector. Fun story, this. While reporting on it, we found that CM Lalthanhawla’s brother (and fellow cabinet minister) Lalthanzara had held shares in one of these companies getting road contracts.
  13. The aftermath of that story: Formal institutions (police, courts, opposition parties…) ignored what it said about Lalthanzara. But local papers and facebook groups picked it up — and translated it into Mizo. It got shared heavily on whatsapp and fb. Next, a youth Mizo National Front leader held a press conference. As the heat built up, Lalthanzara first issued a clarification which was not convincing — he said he got to know about the shares from the Scroll report.
  14. As the heat kept rising, he resigned.
  15. But this was no victory for accountability. Because all that did was help him evade an anti-corruption probe. Sure enough. He recontested in the bypoll for his constituency. And won again. Here is ‘s report. The voters seemed to have voted pragmatically. Having a deputy CM as your MLA is surely beneficial. And yet, we had a case where an engaged public, aided by translations of the article, created enough pressure for a minister to resign.
  16. And then, this wrap of all our Mizoram reporting.
  17. Next was Manipur. To look at NE and conflict. Two reports. The first on how Manipur is doing after 70 years of conflict and AFSPA.
  18. The second? A chance discovery about Manipur’s ancient peace-building scrolls. This is my favorite #ETTG story of all.
  19. The next state was Odisha. The state’s mineral boom — and its end — marked most of our reportage from the state. The first piece here was about Indian paramilitaries labelling the Dongria Kondhs of Niyamgiri as naxals. And hounding them.
  20. The iron ore export boom had triggered a frenzy of investment — trucks, iron ore smelters, crushers, the works. A lot of it based on little more than irrational exuberance triggered by the boom. Now, they were all struggling/failing to stay afloat.
  21. The boom and bust marked Odisha in many ways. A lot of the cash from the iron ore boom flowed — not into factories — but into speculative stuff like gold, land, real estate and education. As iron ore prices sank, so did these. A case study from education.
  22. In that instance, the students were the losers. But there were winners too. Gains from iron ore mining went to a narrow bunch of people. A mining contractor from Salem, Tamil Nadu, became Odisha’s biggest contract miner.
  23. He worked in tandem with the local MLA, an independent called Sanatan Mahakud. He was paying a monthly stipend of as much as Rs 2,000 to about half the families in his constituency! Working on this story, I came to think of Mahakud and Prabhakaran as the new kings of Keonjhar. story 3 kids at play
  24. That photograph was taken in Keonjhar. Kids playing in the local stream — using discarded thermocol boxes. This inequality pervades Odisha. Indeed, even as Prabhakaran, assorted mine owners and people like Mahakud gained, the state was unchanging in other ways. Go to Bolangir and you see distress migration has continued unchanged.
  25. Or go to schools and you will see extraordinary understaffing. This school, down the hill from Mahakud’s house, had eight classes but 4 teachers. Coping mechanism? 2 grades per class.
  26. Put it all together and you are bound to end up with this story: How Odisha squandered valuable mineral resources without any gains for its people. Little here that is unique, of course. Echoes what happened in Karnataka during the iron ore boom.
  27. Elsewhere in Odisha, fears about a monopoly taking shape in India’s port sector. The latest port to face the heat from Adani? Odisha’s Paradip.
  28. And then, the state wrap. Which wondered why the state was not seeing more protests against such inequity.
  29. Looking back, the Odisha reporting is underwhelming. It mostly focused on already familiar terrains. Anyway, after Mizoram/Manipur (NorthEast) and Odisha (Mineral-Rich), we trooped over to Punjab (Irrigated Agriculture). The state was seeing protests at the time. The Sikhs’ holy book had been desecrated. Cotton farmers were protesting too — their crop had been hammered by a bad whitefly infestation. The trigger, we found, was changing behaviour of mid-latitude westerlies.
  30. More on worsening economics of punjab farmers here. On why farmers in Punjab burn post-harvest stubble, contributing to Delhi’s noxious air during the winter months.
  31. At the same time, Punjab was seeing deindustrialisation.
  32. One trigger was rising cost of doing business in Punjab. Ask about this, and businessmen would point at their power bills — which had add-on charges like Octroi and Cow Cess on power bills. Ask why and you get a mind-formatting answer.
  33. As in Mizoram and Odisha, we looked at how Punjab fares on education/healthcare delivery. We found underfunding.
  34. Why is there underfunding? Because the state doesn’t have enough revenues. Why does the state not have enough revenues? Because of political control over some of the biggest cash-generators for the state government. Aka, welcome to Badal Inc.
  35. The Badals’ control over Punjab was not just economic, it was also political. The party had a say everywhere — from the police stations to the gurudwaras. There is another way to frame these two stories. Once the Badals came to control Punjab, what did they use that power for? Mostly to grow their business, it seemed like. Later, as we moved to subsequent states, this question came in handy repeatedly. How is political power used?
  36. With government doing little to help (whitefly, eroding competitiveness, etc), people were falling back on ancient belief systems, newer social institutions, etc, to cope/find solace. The fallout? As in Odisha, which is seeing a jump in the number of people going to godmen, so in Punjab.
  37. This was one pattern. We would find questions in one state and their answers in the next. Economic insecurity + falling back on traditional structures of caste, religion would continue to be a theme in subsequent states. And then, our wrap of all Punjab reporting. With a title shamelessly stolen from Murakami’s book on running. What we talk about when we talk about Punjab.
  38. Three states down. Running badly behind schedule re what was a 15 month project (I am a slowpoke). And this mid-stage summary re what we had found so far. A few things were clear by now. A. These states aren’t working the way they are meant to. B. Each of them is seeing a concentration of political control. C. There has been a weakening of democratic checks and balances. D. All three states were failing at their core functions. E. They fail at #D partly because of huge foregone revenues. F. What accompanies this inequality is non-productive populism. G. Moving through these states, one saw how marginal most livelihoods were. H. People were responding in complex ways. Anger. Demanding populist give-aways. Indebtedness. Migration. Falling back on religious, caste and ethnic identity as everyone tries to become a part of a larger collective which can best increase their bargaining powers.
  39. The wrap felt underwhelming. Its conclusions were too boilerplate. But it helped — in some way I do not fully understand yet — get into more detail in the next three states. The first of which was Tamil Nadu, with its reputation of being one of the best-run states in India. We started by looking at how traditional livelihoods are faring in the state. And found a complex set of factors (including rising sea temperatures) had dramatically altered fish catch composition. And I mean dramatically.
  40. Climate variability showed up when we moved inland as well. It was a contributing factor (among others) to a large spike in household borrowings in TN. Essentially, the gap between income and expenses was being met through borrowings.
  41. Families were simultaneously lending and borrowing. A real debt society. Next, we looked at how Tamil Nadu manages her water. We travelled down a tiny river called the Noyyal, which feeds the basin that contains Coimbatore and Tiruppur. Story 1, here.
  42. As story 1 showed, TN could not resolve water conflicts along the Noyyal. And so, story 2 looked at the Supreme Court’s intervention to stop water pollution by Tiruppur’s garment industry.
  43. As we saw in Punjab, sand mining and stone crushing (aka, the construction sector) is one way in which politicians/political parties support their party cadre. We tried to understand that better using river sand mining in Tamil Nadu as a case study.
  44. Its fallouts are large. Sand mining doesn’t just hammer rivers. It also has consequences for the state economy (foregone revenue, again), alters competitive advantage in state politics, and more.
  45. And yet, as one saw, none of the checks and balances — media, judiciary, rival political parties, local communities — were able to stop sand mining. Which touches, then, upon larger questions re our capacity to resolve existential threats.
  46. As in Punjab, Tamil Nadu too was seeing people coalesce around identity. In this case, caste identity. The reasons had to do with stagnation, a newfound economic equivalence between castes, and so on.
  47. Along the way, we learnt about Manpower Supply Companies. One of the biggest (if little-studied) changes in industrial employment in India. Formal companies have entered the domain of labour thekedaars (contractors).
  48. Some of these are massive. As many as 60,000 workers on their rolls. And have entirely rearranged industrial labour markets in Tamil Nadu. Some, sigh, are owned by politicians. Not so different from the labour contractors of Odisha, then. The industrial town of Hosur, on the Bangalore-Chennai highway, is one place where a bunch of these changes played out. Our interview with novelist Aadhavan Deetchanya.
  49. And now for something truly odd. In the last seven or so years, learning outcomes in Tamil Nadu have fallen steeply. The state now ranks in the bottom five along with worthies like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.
  50. The second part of that story got into more detail.
  51. Take a look at TN’s healthcare numbers and you see something similar. On some metrics, like IMR/MMR, the state is plateauing. On others, like immunisation, it shows steep falls. Which was very odd again. Tamil Nadu is supposed to be one of the best run states in the country. A closer look suggested that, in health, the easy gains had been made (like institutional deliveries to bring down IMR/MMR). The residual problems were more complex (poverty, caste discrimination, gender imbalances). Failing to resolve those, TN’s healthcare dept is instead rolling out “decorative” solutions. Programmes that focused on optics. So even as immunisation coverage fell, the state began supplying “Amma Baby Kits” to newborns — with J Jayalalithaa’s photo. Welfarism was becoming messianic populism. I am channeling Tzvetan Todorov’s The inner enemies of democracy here. He and Zygmunt Bauman have been very useful for me during this project.
  52. Moving around, each state seemed to embody a different democratic dystopia. Financially unviable (Mizoram), Conflict resulting in a meltdown of rule of law (Manipur), 40 families call all the shots (Odisha), single party rule (Punjab), messianism (Tamil Nadu). Some of which found its way into this Tamil Nadu wrap.
  53. Next was Bihar. Rainfed agriculture. A counterpoint to Punjab with its irrigated agriculture. The first thing that rattled me shortly after reaching the state around October 2016 was its arsenic crisis. And the state’s extraordinarily unconcerned response to it. That was followed by a two month digression when I spent my time travelling, tracking how demonetisation was affecting Bihar. And then, in early January, back to regular programming.
  54. Weak administrative responses to increasingly complex challenges show up elsewhere in the state too. The disease burden of Bihar is changing. Unlike states like Kerala, which are seeing a rise in lifestyle diseases, Bihar is seeing a change in infectious diseases. New ones like Dengue are coming in. An intricate set of unconnected factors are to blame — warmer winters + malnourishment + migrants returning home bearing infections + etc.
  55. Once again, when confronted by complexity, the state’s response was close to non-existent.
  56. Deficiency in service shows over and over again — giving cycles to girl students but not hiring teachers, for eg. This took our reporting in the state beyond describing the here and now — into a search for more abstract answers. Why is the state’s work on matters urgent/important for the poor — regardless of which caste-combo is in power — so pathetic?
  57. Adding to our typology of democratic malfunctions, Bihar looked like quite the absent state. But nature abhors a vaccum. And so, a bunch of others were stepping into the void — from strongmen to coaching centres.
  58. The state was changing in other ways. Changing village markets, for instance, held answers on how out-migration from Bihar is changing. Talking of changing village markets, can you guess what this shop in a village off the town of Araria does? Upendra at his X-ray shop at Geetwas near Araria.
  59. That is Upendra at his X-Ray shop in the village of Geetwas. Even as the state government stayed unchanging, its people were changing in other ways. Like, do you know which films are the most popular in Bihar? Tamil and Telugu. Later, I saw young men in Gujarat see these as well. And, as a friend in Bhubaneswar told me, they sell like hot chai in Odisha as well.
  60. But one of the biggest, recent changes in Bihar is rising communal polarisation by Hindu rightwing organisations. Here is Chhapra.
  61. That, in a state which spurned communal politics just two-three years ago! Since the runup to the last assembly elections in the state, the BJP and its fringe have been trying to replace a horizontal stratification (per caste) with a vertical one (per religion). A look at its mechanics — like Shiv Charchas, Bajrang Dal mobilisations, and more.
  62. In all this, the state government was quiet. Which really made me wonder about this poorly informed mythos around Nitish Kumar. Where was the good governance? The secularism? All of which found its way into this state wrap. And sure enough, a few months later, he tied up with the BJP.
  63. And then, finally, Gujarat. #EarToTheGround reached the state at a time when protests against the GST (a new tax on economic activity) were taking off in the state. The first dispatch looked at why the textile cluster of Surat was up in arms. Companies in the cluster’s disaggregated value chain, we found, were more worried than vertically integrated ones.
  64. But, even before and , smaller units in Surat were in trouble. Rising imports from China; a change in customer tastes as inkjets/waterjets began competing with powerlooms; entry of diamond bizmen from kathiawad, high yarn prices, government policies that benefit raw material suppliers even at the cost of hurting smaller units, they were all to blame. Put it all together and you saw a larger crisis gripping MSMEs in the state.
  65. You see these forces at work across India. In Gujarat’s ceramic cluster of Morbi. And earlier, we saw similar MSME trouble in Odisha, Punjab, and Tamil Nadu. Again, complex problems which get little more than government slogans in returns. Like Make in India
  66. And so, for some years now, as MSME woes mounted, businessmen in Gujarat have pulled investments out of their businesses and put them into India’s booming financial markets — where returns are higher. Post GST, say bizmen, that trend has accelerated further. This flow of capital from business to financial markets is likely to be one reason why India’s stockmarkets are rising even as manufacturing slows.
  67. As things turned out, the traders’ anti-GST protests went nowhere. The tax was introduced. Here is an update on Surat’s response, two months after GST’s introduction, to the new tax regime.
  68. A third major pillar of Gujarat’s economy — after industry and agriculture — is dairy. And so, a two-part series on how Amul is doing. Part 1 pointed at the eroding financials of Banas Dairy, the biggest Amul district cooperative.
  69. These changes are explained by a steady politicisation of Amul. From Gandhian founders to regional satraps to, now, the BJP. And so, part two. How/Why the BJP came to control Amul (and the implications).
  70. It is striking to see how successfully India’s political parties take over rival institutional models. Cooperatives like Amul are one instance. Gujarat’s local governance bodies, like Municipal Corporations, are another instance. This politicisation comes with its own costs. Take Gujarat’s fight against climate change. The state is as badly hit by rising climate variability as any other part of India.
  71. However, urban development authorities, tasked with urban planning but answering to the BJP-run state government, were nowhere near meeting the challenge. Political imperatives/expediency were to blame.
  72. And then, this interview with political scientist Ghanshyam Shah on how Gujarati society is doing – after 20 unbroken years of majoritarianism. Oddly, majority communities are fissuring too, falling back on caste identities. Why? Rising economic insecurity. Which mirrors what we saw in Punjab and Tamil Nadu as well.
  73. All of which left us with large questions: Who has the majoritarian project benefited? Or, differently put, how did the BJP use the power it obtained through majoritarianism? It’s interesting to compare Gujarat with Tamil Nadu — the two industrialised states in our set of six. Both have starkly different equations between business and politics. As we saw in the groundnut story, the oil millers used to determine who would form government. As their star dimmed, that baton shifted to real estate and large conglomerates. In contrast, in TN, politics has always been the one in the driving seat. Perhaps in a related development, TN alternates between its two dominant parties while Guj saw single party rule for 20 years. The political logic (for want of a better phrase) of both states is different too. TN parties have a consensus on welfarism. Even when this degenerated, it did so into messianic populism. No one challenged welfarism itself. In contrast, Gujarat has majoritarianism. Apart from these, one point of similarity between the two. Within single party rule, over the last 15 years, Gujarat has seen great centralisation of power with the Chief Minister. (Like the AIADMK under Jayalalitha). These facets — the bias towards big business, political stability, centralisation and majoritarianism – are fundamental components of the so-called Gujarat Model. Which brings us to our assessment on how Gujarat is doing after 20 years of majoritarian rule. While reporting from Gujarat, among other things, #ETTG learnt about the link between the state’s low HDI numbers and its majoritarian ethos; a link between centralisation and steady communalisation of state administration — including parts of the judiciary; the curious fact that not just the minorities but even the dominant communities are struggling; how people’s attempts to deal with rising insecurity end up strengthening the BJP; which is related to temple/sect politics in the state; which in turn takes us towards the deep state of Gujarat — and India.

And just like that, poof, I am done. All states reporting/writing over. What remains is the all India picture. It makes sense to use these reports as inputs for a more considered piece on India between 2015 and 2017. And so, the all India wrap will have to wait till I get some reading done — Todorov on democracy, Bauman on Liquid Modernity, Acemoglu’s Why Nations Fail, Systems Theory, and more.

For now, I just finished reading John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’ — his account of a roadtrip around the United States with his poodle, Charley, as he tried to update his understanding of America. He writes: “A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.  Tour masters, schedules, reservations, brass-bound and inevitable, dash themselves to wreckage on the personality of the trip. Only when this is recognized can the blown-in-the-glass bum relax and go along with it.”

That applies to ‘Ear To The Ground’. I entered the project with a sharp schedule. Two months per state for identifying processes, reporting and writing. And three months, luxuriantly, as buffer. It quickly became apparent that I had grossly underestimated (or had no clue about) the complexity I would encounter. By the end of Odisha, the project had created its own structure. Time spent in a state was mostly spent reporting. No more than two or three reports — on relatively technical matters, like environment or business — got filed while in the state. More complex pieces on society and investigative features got completed only after leaving the state. The first because one needs to amass a lot of info before starting to pontificate on something as complex as a society. The second because a lot of secondary data, etc, needed to be processed. In all, by the time the last report got filed, it was the 33rd month.

Even personally, I am yet to come to terms with ‘Ear To The Ground’. It has been an intense time. There were places where I struggled. Thanks to it, as I told a colleague, I have lost several illusions about India, several illusions about myself. But there was never a moment when I regretted the idea. I learned a lot. More than that, I met many fabulous people — and become close friends with some of them. Even more than that, I received so much grace from everyone I met. In all, I look back and find myself wishing I was back at the start. At that forest hut in the village of Damparengpui. Up on a ridge with the rain crashing all around. Working on that first report about Dampa Tiger Reserve.

I now need to spend some quiet days. Locking all those memories into my brain. I do not want them fading away. And then, the larger-conclusions-from-it-all pieces.

That is it. Thanks for reading.

Few people seem happy with BJP’s rule in Gujarat, yet the party still controls the state. Why?

In April 2017,’s Ear to the Ground project reached Gujarat. Each of the other states covered by the project thus far – Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Bihar – showed one democratic malfunction or another. What about Gujarat?

Gujarat is unique in our subset of six states in having been under the rule of one party – the Bharatiya Janata Party – for 22 years. Particularly under the chief ministership of Narendra Modi, which lasted 12 and a half years, Gujarat saw extraordinary centralisation of power. As the human rights lawyer and activist Girish Patel said, one man’s word was final. As for the Assembly, Patel said, it was called only when constitutionally required. Between 2007 and 2012, the Assembly convened for just 31 days every year.

As Gujarat’s people vote for a crucial Assembly election, the first after Modi moved to New Delhi as the country’s prime minister, five trends characterise the state’s political economy…

And that, drumroll, is the wrap of all our Gujarat reporting. We are now done with all states reporting for ‘Ear To The Ground’. What remains is the all India wrap. Which I will pick up after some time.

One last thing, though. These articles have popped up at sporadic intervals. And so, there is a real possibility that readers will have missed some of them. And so, links to places where you can see them all — clumped together like scummy algae, so to speak — Scroll’s Ear To The Ground page; this twitter thread which contains links to all stories plus a small introduction to each (Twitter has this habit of not showing all tweets. It shows some and then bunches the rest as “xx more replies”. You will need to click on each of those to get the whole list of articles); this page with links to all my stories — including non-ETTG stuff like the DeMonetisation reportage.

Do see sometime. Thanks so much. And have a good end to the year.

Update: Since that post, I have exited Twitter. A long overdue decision. A version of that twitter thread I mention, here.

Urban planning: Why Gujarat’s cities are losing their fight against a changing climate

Out today, the second — and concluding — part of our series on Gujarat and climate variability.

Urban planning has seen a lot of changes in Gujarat.

Take Rajkot. In 1973, when this town in Saurashtra became a municipality, its municipal corporation was responsible for urban planning. That changed in 1976 when Gujarat passed the Gujarat Town Planning and Urban Development Act. Following this, Urban Development Authorities were set up in Gujarat’s biggest towns, and urban planning responsibilities were divided between these new bodies and the municipalities. While municipalities would handle town plans, the Urban Development Authorities would draw up development plans.

The difference is one of scale. Development plans work on larger areas – such as planning the city’s expansion – and look 20 years to 30 years into the future. They map the broad contours of a city such as zones and road networks. Zones include categorisations like residential, industrial and green spaces. On the other hand, town plans flesh out the development plan in detail, and work on a shorter timeframe.

To understand how Rajkot is preparing for a changing climate, which has resulted in more intense heat waves and changing rainfall patterns in Gujarat, as reported in the first part of this series, it is important to look at the functioning of the Rajkot Urban Development Authority or RUDA.

Gujarat is battered by heat waves, floods, drought. How are its cities coping?

What does the climate map of Gujarat currently look like?

Southern parts of the state get fewer days of rainfall now. In Surat, for instance, locals say that rainfall patterns over the city began changing about 15 years ago, with the city getting fewer days of rain each year. However, the rainfall is more intense, so Surat floods more often.

In Ahmedabad, 270 km to the north, the mercury topped 50 degrees Celsius last year – the previous high was 47.8 degrees Celsius over 100 years ago, in 1916. Another 150 km to the north lies Banaskantha, a normally arid region. Here, heavy rains caused flooding this year. To the south-west, in arid Saurashtra, farmers and scientists talk about delayed monsoons, increasingly torrential downpours and increased flooding.

There is little that is surprising here. Across India, climate variability is disrupting the structures of everyday life. In 2015, changing mid-latitude westerlies triggered a whitefly infestation that ruined Punjab’s cotton crop. In Tamil Nadu, rising sea temperatures have affected the fish catch. Inland, towards the town of Sivagangai, a weakening South-West monsoon has contributed to a drop in farm earnings and rising indebtedness. In Bihar, scientists in the agriculture university outside Bhagalpur say that crop yields are falling as heat waves increase in frequency.

The first five states’s Ear To The Ground project reported from – Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Bihar – were not doing much to adapt to, or mitigate the effects of, such climatic changes.

What about Gujarat?