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

In March, 2015, Scroll.in 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.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kcdrm1Uu2_E
  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.


‘This government is killing our businesses’: What small, medium enterprises think of GST revisions

After Friday’s GST Council meeting, which decided to cut the goods and services tax rate on two dozen commodities and announced relaxations for exporters and small and medium companies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the changes brought in an early Diwali.

The business press was bullish as well. “Three months on, GST now good for small traders,” said one headline.

This ebullience is intriguing. The impact of the Goods and Services Tax is complicated. Billed as India’s biggest tax reform, GST subsumes all the indirect taxes that businesses earlier paid the Centre and states separately with the aim of creating a common market. It involves a complete overhaul of the tax filing system.

Since its implementation on July 1, as several articles in Scroll.in and other publications have shown, small and medium companies in a range of industries are struggling to stay viable while complying with the new tax regime’s requirements. That is not all. GST also affects different companies in the same industry in different ways. For both these reasons, the GST Council’s revisions on Friday deserve a closer look. How far do they go? Do they really address the major concerns of all Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, also known as MSMEs, in the country?

The lid on illegal sand mining in TN might finally be lifted (but perhaps for the wrong reasons)

What we talk about when we talk about Tamil Nadu

It is out. Scroll’s wrap of all our #EarToTheGround reporting from Tamil Nadu.

How is Tamil Nadu doing?

Ask a layperson this question and, chances are, they will have good things to say. It does have a reputation for being one of the country’s better governed states. A welfarist state where, in marked contrast to large swathes of India, the government provides good healthcare and education to its people.

Between February and August, Scroll.in’s #EarToTheGround project reported from the state. And it found that this perception is no longer true.

Think Tamil Nadu has good public healthcare? It’s hard to find it on the ground

the concluding part of our story on why Tamil Nadu’s healthcare system is weakening.

In India’s development circles, Tamil Nadu is viewed as one of the best performing states in the delivery of public welfare like education and healthcare.

But, as the first part of this story reported, the state is improving on some public health indices (institutional deliveries), plateauing in others (infant and maternal mortality), and slipping backwards elsewhere (vaccinations, awareness about HIV/AIDS).

Why is it yielding such contradictory outcomes? Part of the answer lies in the weakening of its public health system.

Tamil Nadu’s healthcare numbers look good – but its people aren’t getting healthier

Out today, the first part of our final #ETTG story from Tamil Nadu. This one says the state’s much-vaunted healthcare system is weakening.

On some fronts, the state’s public health system continues to work well. Today, nearly all babies in Tamil Nadu are delivered in clinics – from 87% in 2002-’04, institutional deliveries climbed to 98.9% in 2012-’13.

But in many other areas, the state’s progress is plateauing. Improvement in infant and maternal mortality rates, for instance, has drastically slowed down in recent years.

On a few parameters, however, the state is moving backwards. The number of pregnant women visited at home by health department staffers, for instance, has fallen between 2002 and 2014.

As the story asks: “Why is the state’s healthcare delivery system delivering such starkly different outcomes?”

Paneerselvam has a major task: To reverse Tamil Nadu’s slipping development standards

O Panneerselvam has a tough task ahead of him.

Contrary to popular perception, which credits Tamil Nadu with high scores on development indices and a smoothly functioning administration, the state has lost ground over the last ten or so years.

Take education. Between 2010 and now, the number of students passing the state board exams has increased from 85% to 95%. In the same period, the number of students scoring centums (100%) has spiked as well.

However, these numbers, as Scroll reported last month, are challenged by none other than the National Council of Educational Research and Training’s National Achievement Surveys, which point to a precipitous drop in the quality of school education in the state.

Or take healthcare delivery. As a forthcoming story in Scroll will show, while Tamil Nadu continues to score high on metrics like institutional delivery, its numbers on Infant Mortality Rate and Maternal Mortality Ratio have plateaued. The state has also slipped on other metrics like immunisation coverage.

A closer study of why the state does well on some metrics while faltering on others leads to an important conclusion.