Friday, November 20, 2015

The Future of Manufacturing - and what it means for "Make in India"

Manufacturing is changing fast, with important implications for India's "Make in India" programme. Read more

The Dragon Mellows - Reflections from a recent visit to China

Visiting China after almost a decade gave me a chance to see first-hand some of the recent trends in that country. Read more

The Challenge of Silos

Silos pose a challenge in any organization, and more so in this analytics and data-driven age. Read more


Getting the Funding Piece Right

Creative inventors with creative ideas need creative capital... Read more

Thursday, August 27, 2015

InMobi's miip may be more important than Pichai becoming the CEO of Google!

The emergence of a tech giant from India would have much more impact than having several Indians at the helm of large global corporations....

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Understanding China: Insights from Hank Paulson's New Book

Thanks to his intensive interaction with China over the last two decades, Hank Paulson has some unique insights to offer in his new book, Dealing with China. Here's my take on this important book.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Scale and Impact: Lessons from Ronnie Screwvala's Entrepreneurial Journey

Ronnie Screwvala’s entrepreneurial journey has traversed many paths. Starting from what seems very mundane by his standards – manufacturing toothbrushes – Ronnie has been into cable television and tele-shopping and, most successfully, into the media and film production.

From being a major provider of content to other channels with pioneering shows like India’s first daily soap opera Shanti, Ronnie’s UTV evolved into a media player in its own right through successful channels like Hungama and Bindass. While I knew that UTV had made many memorable films, it’s only after reading Ronnie’s entrepreneurial autobiography Dream with your Eyes Open (Rupa, 2015) that I realized the extent of their range, and how successful they had been.

Ronnie has been on a break between ventures (it’s impossible to contemplate him sitting still!) and he has put this time to good use by sharing with all of us some of the key insights from his life as an entrepreneur in India!

Just Another Entrepreneurship book….or something more?
There are, of course, many books written by entrepreneurs about what it takes to succeed as one. So, it’s natural to ask is there anything special about Ronnie’s book? Are there any unique insights that he has to share with us?

What I liked best about this book is that its told first-person, direct, and with very little digression. As a result, it’s short, pithy and eminently readable, and packs a lot into its 160+ page core. It is motivating (just look at the range of things Ronnie has done starting with not too much money in his pocket), yet realistic in that it does not gloss over failures or pretend that everything happened according to plan.

The main message I got from this book is what I would call the importance of determined execution. Once you have identified an opportunity, made reasonable checks to verify that the opportunity is for real, and decided to address the opportunity, put everything into it to make it happen. That’s a characteristic Ronnie displayed from his first venture into making toothbrushes with second-hand, automated machines imported from Europe, through his creation of the infrastructure to produce a daily soap opera, and into his becoming one of the biggest film producers in India with several films simultaneously under production.

An integral part of this “determined execution” is Ronnie’s belief that it’s better not to have a “Plan B.” His rationale is that the very existence of a Plan B acts as a temptation to give up as soon as one hits (inevitable) obstacles. Instead, one has to be determined to make Plan A work.

So, how does one make Plan A work? What I understood from Ronnie’s book is that this happens essentially by planning, frugal innovation, having the right team and clear communication. The right partnerships also help.

What do you need to be a successful entrepreneur?

One of the points in Ronnie’s book that resonated very strongly with me is to never start or run an enterprise with exit as the objective. Instead, focus on building the enterprise’s brand, franchise and growth potential. This is not a commandment against exits – it can’t be, for Ronnie has exited several businesses over his career – but simply a caution that running an enterprise with exit in mind is very likely to make you take wrong decisions that could jeopardise the future of the company. Exits make sense when the future of the company would be better assured in someone else’s hands. For example, Ronnie justifies his sell-out of his TV channels to Disney by the fact that he and Disney had a very similar approach and philosophy to youth channels, and the future of the channels would be safe with a well-endowed player like Disney.

One important point that Ronnie has underlined is the need to focus on spotting emerging trends and maintaining continuous contact with present and prospective customers. The former is important both to identify emerging opportunities as well as get out of the way of trucks and trains that could knock down your business. This resonated well with the pain-wave-waste framework we proposed in 8 Steps to Innovation – a company’s challenge book emerges from feeling the pain (of customers, users), sensing the wave and seeing the waste (of human effort, material and energy).

An important element of Ronnie’s managerial style that emerges from this book is getting into detail, continuous motivation of the team, and frequent communication. He is unequivocal about his dislike of long Powerpoint presentations that don’t come to the point and provide an opportunity for everyone to mentally disengage and start playing with their phones instead. This made me wonder how Ronnie deals with Newgen employees who are hooked to multi-tasking with one eye always on their smartphone!

Ronnie dwells quite a bit on failure and the importance of looking failure in the face, learning one’s lessons, and moving on. Clearly, in Ronnie’s case, this ability came from a strong sense of self-belief and self-confidence. How do you build that confidence? Well, in Ronnie’s case it appears to have come from his involvement with the theatre. The ability to appear before an audience, emote your lines as planned, and hold the audience’s attention was, I am sure, helpful in building this confidence. Though he doesn’t dwell too much on his family, I get a sense that his family gave him that confidence too – while I am sure his family wasn’t pleased by his failing in his college exams, they gave him the space and encouragement to start again.

Like many entrepreneurs, Ronnie alludes to what is commonly called the affordable loss approach to risk management. He is willing to take big bets as long as he will be able to survive the downside. This simple heuristic is invaluable to entrepreneurs, particularly in India where so many things seem outside one’s control.

I found one of Ronnie’s observations particularly insightful. We often find businesspeople complaining about regulation and how it impedes business. But, based on his experience in the then fledgling cable TV business, Ronnie argues that some regulation is important to ensure that ground rules are in place and that there is orderly development of the industry. Here I might add that it’s not only regulation that is needed, but its fair and transparent  enforcement. In the absence of such enforcement, players who follow the rules are at a disadvantage and this often leads to poor quality products and services.

A Couple of Cribs…

For Ronnie, clearly big is beautiful. Though he acknowledges that scale is an individual choice and that some may choose to start niche businesses, his own preference for the large and impactful is clear. Ronnie argues that strategy becomes important only when you pursue scale. I found that too much of a stretch – in today’s highly competitive world, even a small company in a narrow niche needs to keep sharpening its competitive advantage if it wants to survive. Yes, for sure, the strategic challenges become greater when you are investing thousands of crores in setting up a Reliance Jio, but even a boutique consulting firm needs a strategy to survive and prosper!

One of the big challenges of starting and running a business in India is coping with corruption. Prospective entrepreneurs, particularly those who lack a business background, are often unsure how to deal with this. Ronnie makes only a passing mention of ethics and integrity. I wish he had shared his perspective on this issue.

In conclusion…

There is a surge of entrepreneurial energy in the country today. For the would-be entrepreneur looking for the right motivation and some tips on how to keep going, Ronnie Screwvala’s book has come out at the right time.

[The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.]

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Are you too old to be an entrepreneur?

Age shouldn't be a barrier to your entrepreneurial dreams. Read more here.

What we can Learn from the House of Tata about Innovation

The Tata Group Innovation Forum and associated activities have been in place for about a decade now. Here is what we can learn from them....

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Tribute to Vidyanand Jha and Dheeraj Sanghi as they turn 50

This post is dedicated to two of my friends who just turned 50.

A Creative Persona

He was one of the first friends I made as a doctoral student at IIM Ahmedabad (IIMA) in 1991. Poet, film buff, supporter of the underdog, teacher of creativity, voracious reader, questioner of authority, former left activist, jazz enthusiast Vidyanand Jha celebrated his 50th birthday recently.

As doctoral students at IIMA, we had to do many of the first year classes along with the MBA students. So, we were part of one of the sections of the MBA class, in the spacious amphitheatre-like classrooms for which IIMA is famous. We were seated towards the back, on the right hand side, with one MBA student between us.  But as far as I can recall, we were already friendly even before we were serendipitously seated so close to each other.

Several things stood out about Jha – his looks, his photo-chromatic glasses which helped him hide his eyes or even let him sleep while classes were in progress, the diversity of his experience compared to the typical MBA student! Many of our classmates had probably never heard of the CPI-ML, let alone been a member. I recall one occasion on which a professor asked how many students had a rural address, and Jha was the only one who put up his hand. Jha used to hang out with the senior, scholarly yet rebellious doctoral students who held forth on the philosophy of management thought and life.

While at IIMA, Jha and I used to attend every seminar we could. So, we got exposure to a wide variety of subjects and speakers. But, neither he nor I became great researchers in the traditional academic sense. I think we just enjoyed the exposure and the discussions.

As evidenced by his Facebook posts today, Jha is a member of multiple worlds. One is the world of Maithili literature. Jha is an accomplished poet himself, and has been published by the Sahitya Akademi. He has also translated books into Hindi. I tried to persuade him to translate my book From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation into Hindi but didn’t succeed in doing so. Maybe he would have done it if it were fiction. I often ask myself how strong is the dividing line between fiction and non-fiction – after all, even non-fiction is based on the lens through which you see things. But, may be Jha doesn’t see it that way.

Jha has been a member of the faculty at IIM Calcutta since he finished FPM at IIMA. Kolkata has always been the gateway to the east, and his location has helped him remain in close contact with his home. He has also become a fluent speaker of Bengali. Kolkata has a good number of literary and cultural events, and it’s a clear sign of Jha’s cultural interests that he has managed to attend these in spite of the fact that IIMC is miles away from the centre of town. That’s quite unlike many contemporary management academics who lead a much more sequestered life.

Over the time I have known him, Jha has been a compulsive giver, particularly of macabre films. But the fun part is that he doesn’t see them as violent or offensive. Maybe that just comes from being a writer and a film buff.

Many years ago, in an article in EPW, Ramachandra Guha bemoaned the loss of the bilingual intellectual. Guha spoke too soon – Jha can be an intellectual in Maithili, Hindi and Bengali in addition to English! But if I have one regret, it’s that Jha (like many other Indian scholars) has been more in the Indian oral tradition than a great writer as far as management is concerned. From talking to him, and seeing the feedback of his students, I can see that he has lots of interesting insights into management and organizations, but few of these have found their way into print.

Reflecting his left leanings, Jha has always been quick to take the side of the underdog. I can remember one warm afternoon many summers ago when he and another friend of ours derided the IT industry for creating cybercoolies.

A Change-Maker

Another friend who turned 50 recently, is an equally weighty academic. Dheeraj Sanghi was technically one batch junior to me at IIT Kanpur, but we graduated in the same year as he did a 4-year BTech, and I did a 5-year integrated MSc programme.

I got to know Dheeraj thanks to another friend, Pramath Sinha. We were building our team for the Cultural Festival and Pramath brought in Dheeraj to manage our finances. Dheeraj was active in student politics , and so was I, but I got to know him well only after he became a member of our Festival team (he did a great job!).

After a PhD at Maryland, Dheeraj returned to our alma mater and has been a faculty member there ever since. Like Jha, Dheeraj is also a straight talker, and not one given to excessive diplomacy and tact. But he has been fiercely loyal to IITK and has put tremendous effort into sustaining its best traditions. As Dean of Academic Affairs over the last few years, he was an enthusiastic innovator, with all his efforts directed towards helping IITK achieve the best academic standards.

Dheeraj has never been afraid to experiment. He took a couple of years off to head the LN Mittal Institute of Technology in Jaipur, and though I couldn’t visit him during that stint, from what he told me it is clear he managed to try out a lot of new things there as well.

Dheeraj just moved to IIIT Delhi for a couple of years. IIIT Delhi already has a creative leader at its helm. But Pankaj Jalote should watch out, Dheeraj will soon be ready to unleash his ideas there as well.

Dheeraj’s commitment to engineering education has been evident from his blog. He has waded into controversial issues like the two-stage JEE process with gusto and has always managed to provide very logical and thought-provoking analyses.

One of Dheeraj’s other passions has been the Indian Railways. He travels long distances (by train, of course) to attend conferences of other rail buffs like himself. He explores the myriad options available on the IRCTC ticketing website, sometimes landing up in all sorts of trouble as a result, and he then has to valiantly try to recover his money using various clauses of the Railway manual.

I am surprised that Dheeraj hasn’t figured in the recent round of IIT director appointments. Maybe he is too outspoken. But, time is on his side, and I hope the country will take advantage of his energy and vast reservoir of ideas to build one of our institutions.

It’s been my privilege to know Jha and Dheeraj. As they cross 50, here’s wishing them many more years of creative endeavours.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Lessons from Jagdish Sheth on what it takes to be a management guru

Jagdish Sheth's autobiography - The Accidental Scholar - gives useful insights into what it takes to become a management guru. More here

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Creating a Distinctive Identity for Indian Management Education

How should the Indian B-school and MBA program of 2015 be distinctive? And what can our business education offer to the rest of the world? These are two questions that flashed across my mind as I attended MBA Universe’s Asian Management Conclave (AMC) at Singapore recently.

For my answers to these questions, read this

Sunday, March 29, 2015

VidyaGyan: Allowing Indian Talent to Flower and Bloom

The Shiv Nadar Foundation's VidyaGyan schools bring the best school education to bright students who can't afford it.

My latest post on VidyaGyan is available here

Friday, March 20, 2015

Making Inclusive Innovation Work

[This week's post is a continuation from last week's post - insights from the Inclusive Innovation conference held at Rashtrapati Bhavan.]

Funding Innovation

Funding of innovation is always a challenge, and one that different countries solve in different ways.
Gilles G. Patry, President & CEO spoke about how the Canada Foundation for Innovation has invested over a billion dollars in state-of-the-art facilities at universities across Canada to help them do world-class research. The Foundation funds upto 40% of the project cost and focuses on partnerships. He suggested that the model is largely successful. The evidence? -  Canada punches above its weight on research and accounts for 5% of impactful research papers [sorry, I can’t recall exactly how this was measured or over which period.]

For me, one of the big attractions of the Round Table was the participation of Nobel Laureate and Grameen Bank founder Mohammed Yunus. For someone who has brought revolutionary ideas like microfinance to the world, he was surprisingly skeptical about the availability of finance.  According to Yunus, the sector needing the largest innovations is the finance sector! Professor Yunus drew our attention to what he considered the biggest achievement of Grameen Bank - in savings and not in lending! He estimated that the Grameen Bank had contributed to more than $2B savings so far.

A German participant pointed out that money is available for impact investment but not enough social enterprises are available to absorb this investment. But, other participants were skeptical of Impact investing, citing a conflict between the social mission of the enterprise and the investor’s desired outcomes

Anil Gupta said the ecosystem should support both managed innovation and spontaneous innovation. He stressed the need for both a sanctuary model  that has chaos inside and order outside and an incubator model  that has chaos outside and order inside.

Making Social Innovation Work

Several useful ideas emerged on this theme:

One participant made an interesting observation – most people today recognize 1000 corporate logos but fewer than 10 plant species. Parag Anand of the School of Planning & Architecture (SPA) at Delhi came up with at least one solution to this problem – the SPA organizes tours for student immersion as user experience is critical to social innovation.

Iyer from the Mumbai-based Indian Foundation for Development (IFD) spoke about the need for tinkering rooms/workshops in schools as also innovation exchange programmes. The IFD has started 185 balagurukuls that host 12500 children, and there is a need to expose them to creativity and innovation.

Anil Gupta advocated the Indian concept of samavedana – making others’ pain your own, or empathetic innovation.

Mohammed Yunus suggested targeting waste. He said that at least one out of every 6 pairs of shoes bought by customers is not worn. Can’t these be re-channelised to the poor? Can’t cloth rejected by textile mills also be used?

Some participants wondered how existing innovations could be spread or diffused better. Reaching the market is often difficult. Anil Gupta gave an interesting example of four machine tool start-ups in Ghazaiabad/Faridabad that started a common marketing company so that together they would have a broad enough catalogue and a large enough volume of products to justify marketing expenditures.

Grameen Bank uses the joint venture route to solve new problems and reach users. For example, it has a joint venture with BASF for treated mosquito nets, and uses the Grameen Bank channel including self-help groups to reach users. The scientist from LBNL advocated coming up with innovations that the corporate sector will embrace.

Corporate Sector vs. Social Sector

In fact, the liveliest debates were about the role of the corporate sector and the social sector.  Lines were clearly drawn with some people like this scientist clearly preferring market-based solutions and others clearly distrusting the private sector to do anything beyond enriching itself. The word “trust” figured in many of these discussions.

Solomon Darwin of the University of California at Berkeley pointed out that while open innovation is a 2-way street involving ideas flowing both outside in and inside out, corporations have tended to focus only on the former. He pronounced that the world of high margins is over though I wonder how this can be completely true when Apple is sitting on hundreds of billions of dollars amassed through huge margins.

One of the most engaged participants in the Round Table was Jin Hyo Joseph Yun of South Korea. One could almost see his mind working as he tried to relate what he had seen in the exhibition to the discussion in the conference room! He tried to build a model on the fly – volunteers are needed to connect technology to society/market but virtuous big business is needed to make it commercially successful.

Stuart Hart cited Polanyi to make a point that was in one of his articles - production has got disembedded from the social world. People have come to distrust the business process. There is a need to re-embed economic activity in society, that is to build business models that create mutual value.

Mukesh Puri, Secretary Higher & Technical Education, Government of Gujarat believed that successful innovations have to be owned by the people . The perceived benefits need to be clear. He cited Pravesh Utsav, a celebration held at the time of girls joining school in Class 1 All political figures participate. He said that the drop-out rate has declined as a result.


It is ironic that innovation which is inherently an integrative activity is today impeded by silos. These silos are reinforced by different philosophies and worldviews. We may have to rely on other forces at work to lower these walls. Take the new requirement of compulsory CSR activity by Indian companies – this is forcing companies to work more closely with NGOs and other social organizations. Hopefully, this will create an environment in which companies and NGOs recognize each others’ worth, and lead to collaborative and inclusive innovation in the future.

[This blog has been written based on notes taken by the author. These have not been re-checked with the speakers. Views expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily represent the institutions they work for.]

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Revisiting Inclusive Innovation: Notes from a Recent Roundtable

The practice of inviting outstanding grassroot innovators to the majestic environs of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the home of India’s head of state, was started by President APJ Abdul Kalam when he was president. It’s a tribute to the rootedness of our national leaders and the persistence of Drs. Anil Gupta and RA Mashelkar that the practice has not only continued but been reinforced over time. This year, the event evolved into a week-long “Festival of Innovations” with award ceremonies, workshops and roundtables.

Under the Tent…

The centre of the festival was a huge temporary structure pitched on the Rashtrapati Bhavan Football Grounds that had exhibits and demonstrations of all the award-winning innovations. The innovators must have been encouraged by the large crowds in the hall, even though the main destination of the crowds was the famed Mughal Gardens, thrown open to the public at this time every year.

The innovations themselves were not very different from earlier grassroot innovations that I have seen, at least in terms of the categories they represented. The most prominent was mechanical devices to do tasks that would otherwise be done manually. Many of these were focused on farm operations but some were on health and sanitation. Devices to help people with disabilities, and improved agricultural varieties were other important categories.

Some of the impressive innovations included a modified walker that enables climbing stairs, interlocking bricks, and wearing a helmet as an ignition switch for a motorcycle.

The centre of the hall had banners with quotations on innovation, largely from Anil Gupta and Mashelkar. Truth be said though, there weren’t many people reading these banners, and I wonder how many people would have appreciated the nuances of the quotes even if they had read them!
The innovators themselves were present, and many of them were peppered with questions by enthusiastic visitors. I imagine this must have been motivating for them, though by the end of the day they must have been exhausted!

But, if the purpose of the event was to recognize and encourage innovators from all corners of our country, and to underline the democratic idiom of innovation (“Anyone can innovate”), I am sure this event served its purpose.

…. And Inside the Conference Room

Inside the newly constructed Rashtrapati Bhavan Cultural Centre with its high ceilings and ornate decorations (including larger than life size portraits of all India’s presidents till date), innovation experts from all over the world conferred about the future of inclusive innovation. 

What are the problems to solve?

If you read our book 8 Steps to Innovation, you might remember that we advocated creating a challenge book of the most pressing problems that are literally crying for innovation. One piece of good news is that the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) Institute for GloballyTransformative Technologies has identified the fifty most important global problems to solve with technology. These include low-cost desalination to make drinking water available at a reasonable cost; a DNA-based diagnostic for accurate detection of tuberculosis; an integrated “clinic-in-a-box” for maternal and child care; low-cost homes for the urban poor; and a very timely point-of-use DNA-based rape kit to enable timely collection of evidence against perpetrators of rape.

Of course, there are solutions searching for problems as well. The co-founder of the notion of the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid (BoP), Stuart Hart drew attention to the wealth of “shelf technologies” in universities. At Cornell alone he reported that the university found about 4,000 technologies / patents that had not been exploited.

Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj had a different take on problems. He argued that there are many “non-issues” that need to be made issues. Clothing is important, as important as food and shelter. Why can’t clothing also be a parallel currency? Earlier clothing was only part of disaster relief and charity. Why can’t cloth be given for work?

Anshu pointed out the importance of clothing by reminding the audience that more people die due to cold in winter than due to other calamities.

Drawing attention to another “non-issue” that needs to become an issue, he said that 88% of women don’t have access to sanitary napkins.

How to solve the problems?

Hart advocated an intermingling of what he called “exponential technologies” with traditional ones to address the problems of people at the BoP.

But, going back to the exhibition for a moment, it’s interesting to reflect that there were hardly any “modern” technologies like electronics or computers on display in any of the exhibits. The only such device in use was the mobile phone, and even this was in very small numbers.

An earnest NRI from a US lab had a different take on this. While he felt that India should continue to build world class R&D institutions, he thought that solutions may be available more quickly if the government were to subsidize private sector R&D or, more radically, “reverse outsource” critical problems to western research centres. What he was suggesting here is that the Indian government commission (say) a Pfizer or a Merck to come up with a new cure for tuberculosis and make it worth their while by underwriting all the research expenses. But I really wonder whether that’s a business model they would be interested in; what could work though is for the government to give a research contract to one or more outstanding academic or research laboratories abroad.

Brock from the UNICEF Innovation Centre underlined the importance of design with the user rather than for the user. He emphasized that design should be for scale, and that an organization liked UNICEF should embrace open standards (not open source) since a public organization should embrace public goods.

But, he admitted that there was a need to change their mindset from seeing the private sector only as suppliers to working with grassroot innovators as partners.

I spoke about the importance of government procurement, and policies regarding standards in making social innovation work. Rigid standards designed with existing technologies and suppliers in mind can keep out important innovations. Pre-qualification clauses can act as barriers to entry. The government sometimes encourages imitation without respecting intellectual property. And tender procedures prevent government from procuring things that might have been developed specifically for the government. Instead, the government should play a more positive and proactive role in supporting inclusive innovation.

How do you make Inclusive Innovation work?

To conclude this piece and share the key takeaways, please visit this space next week….

[This blog has been written based on notes taken by the author. These have not been re-checked with the speakers. Views expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily represent the institutions they work for.]

Friday, March 6, 2015

Madhya Pradesh as a Manufacturing Hub

When prominent demographer Ashish Bose suggested the name “Bimaru” for the collective of four north Indian states that were struggling to perform well on both the economic and social fronts, little did he realize that this name would stick for several decades to follow. But, it’s now a moniker that at least one of the four states – Madhya Pradesh – is keen to shed as it projects itself as a growth state for the future.

At a workshop organized by CII at Bhopal on March 5, Professor BB Bhattacharya (BBB) [picture below], economist and former VC of JNU, suggested  an interesting distinction – you are still a Bimaru state when, like Bihar, you are seeking special economic packages, and not like MP when you are confident of creating your own destiny.

As is well known, MP’s economic growth in recent years has come from agriculture. It is the country’s leading producer of soybean and pulses and #2 in wheat. The state has won the Krishi Karman award – an award given by the National Food Security Mission to states excelling in foodgrain production - the last three years in a row.

I am still not completely clear about how and why the state has been able to achieve 10+ % growth in agriculture the last three years. While the government of MP credits the growth to improved irrigation, adoption of technology and better farming practices, and optimum utilization of rain-fed areas, media reports refer to a zero-interest loan scheme to farmers, availability of power, and better irrigation coverage.

But, whatever the reason, the state has realized that it can’t depend on growth in agriculture alone for the future development of the state. That’s why it is increasingly looking at industry as the key to future growth.

An Industrial Growth Strategy for MP?

At the workshop, Professor BBB made a few important observations in his opening remarks. The East Asian growth story was as much a story of social development as economic development, and the availability of skilled and educated manpower made the growth story possible. East Asia also became technologically savvy quickly, and rapidly made the transition from being a mere recipient of technology to a creator of technology as well. He therefore underlined the importance of human development and technological capabilities for industrial growth.

Mr. Prabhakar Kadapa, CEO of Avtec, a CK Birla group company that makes engines for the automotive industry observed that his company’s products are becoming more knowledge and technology-intensive. While it has plants in multiple locations, the technology-intensive work that has a higher element of value-added happens in Hosur near Bangalore and not in his older plant in Pithampur near Indore. He estimated that 70% of his future capex would flow into Hosur.

As a participant in the panel, I observed that the East Asian countries had followed a similar trajectory of industrial growth, starting with relatively less complex industries and then graduating to more complex ones. But I wondered aloud whether manufacturing will remain the same going forward, or whether there will be fundamental changes. Some recent developments like the growth of 3D printing [see picture below] and the shift of some manufacturing back to the developed world might point to fundamental changes in the nature and patterns of global manufacturing.

Mr. Prabhakar felt that in spite of these changes there would still be plenty of opportunities in low-cost manufacturing. He felt that manufacturing could make a leap if MP is able to attract one or two big name automotive companies to make the state their hub.

Prof. BBB emphasized the importance of individual companies inserting themselves into global value chains and then striving for continuous improvement to maintain competitiveness. Mr. Sanjay Kirloskar observed that his company’s single biggest recent investment was in 3D printing, and that the 3D printer was allowing dies and moulds to be created rapidly thereby cutting down the overall cycle time of taking new products to the market. He also cautioned that we should change perspective from low-cost to total cost of ownership, and emphasise quality.

I also emphasized the importance of catching the next wave at the right time. MP pretty much missed out on the IT services wave and managed to attract companies like Infosys and TCS too late. Given the slowdown in their businesses, it’s doubtful that their development centres in the state will ever reach a large size.

The final point I made was on last mile connectivity and speed. While MP has undoubtedly made significant progress in building highways connecting the major cities in the state, city and last-mile connectivity remains an issue. The state has the right intent, but there is a need to match the intent with speed of execution as fast response is key to competitiveness.

What the State Government is Doing

The Government of MP has taken the mantra of “Ease of doing business” seriously. At a workshop with industry on March 4, the government explored 150 different possibilities for simplifying permissions and procedures. MP CM Shivraj Chouhan personally spent a good part of the day at this workshop, and reportedly told state bureaucrats not to worry about the few percent of people who will take undue advantage of the simplified processes. Instead, he advised them to focus on the benefits that will accrue from simplification.

Participants in the workshop were appreciative of the government’s efforts but underlined the importance of the government’s industry-friendly approach trickling down to the lowest level of the government. Such a change in approach is reported to have happened in some states like Gujarat. Industries Commissioner Kantha Rao said the government hoped to use technology to overcome any problems at the delivery point.

Mr. Kantha Rao also mentioned that the state is trying to leverage the central government’s policy initiatives – it’s been one of the first states to have its own policies for supporting Electronics Systems Design and Manufacture, and Defence industries. The State also offers one of the best policies for textile units.


Professor BBB cited the example of China to warn the state that several advantages that the state enjoys today like availability of land, water and electricity could very rapidly change into constraints if industrial development takes off. Echoing this concern, some of the participants suggested that the state be sensitive to environmental concerns upfront rather than trying to address them later in a corrective mode. One participant suggested that the state should focus on clean energy. But, as he was speaking I recalled President Obama’s travails in trying to support clean energy and wondered whether Madhya Pradesh is quite ready for such challenges.

While there was broad agreement that the state needs to be able to attract higher quality talent to support R&D investments, some participants asked whether MP can hope to attract higher end jobs without making its cities more attractive. Would techies ever consider an Indore or a Bhopal on par with a Bangalore or a Hyderabad?

Another line of discussion centered around what the state can do to promote entrepreneurship. Can it set up incubators to support young entrepreneurs? Mr. Kantha Rao said, quite rightly in my view, that the government is not ideally suited to setting up or running incubators, but could be a catalyst of such initiatives.

Some Concluding Thoughts

India is embarking on a pro-manufacturing policy at a time when manufacturing itself may be on the verge of major changes. While the speed of adoption of new manufacturing technologies is difficult to predict, it is clear that the last generation of technologies itself has made manufacturing much more technology-intensive and most plants today are run by a small core of very highly skilled people. Given  this, it’s an open question how much employment manufacturing can create. Govindraj Ethiraj, Chief Editor of the Ping Network who moderated the discussion told me that a recent McKinsey report predicts a decline even in knowledge-intensive jobs thanks to changes in the way work is done.

Having said that, government policy support will create manufacturing opportunities in some sectors for sure. Defence is one of these, with the government having indicated its preference for products manufactured in India, and its willingness to move away from the earlier public sector centric model of defence production.

But, state-level strategies remain tricky. Should all states try to woo all types of industries? How can states build additional layers of advantage that would make companies find them more attractive as investment destinations? These are some of the big questions to ponder over. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Reflections on a trip to Odisha and Rajasthan

I just got back to Indore after a week in Odisha, Delhi and Rajasthan. It was a good trip, and set me thinking on multiple fronts.

Development Debates

One of the big debates in India in recent times has been on what conditions you need to create for investment and development to follow. This trip raised some new issues in this debate as both Odisha and Rajasthan have created high quality roads but not exactly been magnets for investment. You can get from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, a distance of 285 km, in a little over 4 hours! And this is not even a four-lane highway! The roads between Bhubaneswar, Konark, and Puri are quite decent as well. Contrast this with Bangalore and Mumbai which are, in spite of their creaky infrastructure, getting more crowded by the day! Apparently, human resource availability and other agglomeration benefits outweigh infrastructure!

Of course, it could also be argued that the reason the roads in Odisha and Rajasthan are good is because the states are less economically developed, and hence have less traffic. There’s definitely an element of truth in that as far as Rajasthan is concerned, the traffic was really sparse and consisted of only tourists or army trucks!

One big change that has happened over the last decade is the emergence of new education hubs. Bhubaneswar is one such with a good mix of private and government institutions. Jodhpur is one too – it has an IIT, an AIIMS, a National Law School, to just name a few. But it’s not clear if these locations are able to build any additional levels of advantage thanks to the co-location of these institutions. Instead,  they appear to be operating in their own silos. Unfortunately, the concept of a Meta University promoted by Kapil Sibal to promote collaboration between institutions in cities never took off.

Spots of Tourist Importance

It’s good to see that there has been a conscious effort to control traffic near important monuments. Whether it be at the Sun Temple in Konark, or the Jagannath Temple in Puri, vehicles are stopped some distance away from the actual location. However, this does mean that covering the “last mile” becomes difficult or expensive – a cycle rickshaw from the designated parking place to the Jagannath temple charges Rs. 30, and the distance is just that little bit longer than one would ideally like to walk in the sun. While I appreciate locals getting a livelihood thanks to these traffic restrictions, perhaps these towns should offer an electric shuttle bus service from the parking areas.

However, while traffic is under control, commerce has grown by leaps and bounds. Whether it be the Pandas of the Jagannath Temple or the guides and hawkers in front of the Sun Temple, or itinerant vendors selling everything from soft drinks to beer on the sand dunes, commerce is loud and in your face. And, the Jaisalmer Fort (see picture below) is a living fort, inhabited by more than 4,000 families, so naturally commerce is all around. The most subtle and well-organised commerce is at the privately run Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur where the designated route through the Fort takes you through a boutique, a local crafts fair, and two cafes!

East vs. West

While we seem to have picked up the consumerism of the west fast, we haven’t been as adept in picking up some of the western virtues. My visit to Bhubaneswar started with attending the valedictory function of a professional society. Much to my surprise, the function stretched to cover double the time planned. They had too many speakers and these speakers were either not given a clearly indicated duration to speak or the organisers thought it rude to interrupt and tell someone when they had exceeded their time. I noticed a similar phenomenon at the otherwise well-run conclave of the Indore Management Association in February, and at a Rotary jamboree in Indore recently. Maybe this is a Tier-2 city phenomenon, for I see most events in the metros sticking to their schedules!

Entrepreneurship alive and well

It was good to see entrepreneurship alive and kicking. I was particularly impressed by Manvar Resort, approximately halfway on the road from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. Just off the highway, it’s a lovely green resort, well-mantained, and served delicious aloo parathas. The owner is from the family that is a major landowner in the area, but full marks to him for the aesthetic ambience and excellent service of the resort.

Varun Arya, an IIT Delhi and IIM Ahmedabad alumnus, set up the Aravali Institute of Management in Jodhpur over a decade ago. His endeavor has been to bring the IIMA education philosophy to students of that part of Rajasthan. Along the way, he has had to weather many storms – with different agencies of the central and state governments. One result of these ups and downs has been that he has had to suspend his education programmes for some time till regulatory issues are addressed.
In the meantime, he has converted what was barren and saline land on the Jodhpur-Jaipur highway into a mini-oasis. He has built 12 lakes on this land, and all of them still have plenty of water from the last monsoon. Thanks to the lakes, the campus is cooler by a few degrees.

Varun has done several interesting things. All construction on campus is by local labour. He has got special equipment fabricated so that he has to rely minimally on transporting things from Jodhpur. They grow only trees that help other vegetation grow, and have stopped growing some plants that are common in the area but in reality “poisonous” for other vegetation. The boundary walls allow water to flow in during the monsoon to replenish the lakes, and also allow excess water to flow out. The classrooms are minimalist but functional. It’s quite a place!


The last place I expected to see empty beer bottles strewn around was on the sand dunes of Jaisalmer. The Swachha Bharat campaign has its work cut out – all the way from the beaches to the deserts!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Remembering Anand Ramachandran

I recently lost a good friend of mine whom I knew since my school days. Looking back at his life set me thinking about a few things.

Early Days

Anand Ramachandran was a voracious reader ever since I knew him. But everyday fiction was not for him. He read Philosophy and Mathematics, and studied these as well.

Mathematics was one of his abiding interests from the time I first knew him. Like some others, I think he was first influenced by the logic and precision of Maths. I can’t recall the details but he used to mention challenging problems in Algebra and Real Analysis when he was 15 and I was 17! At that time, he wanted to do a good first degree in Mathematics and then go on to do a PhD. In this, he was definitely influenced by his elder brother who did a PhD in Maths in the US and went on to be a faculty member there.

Anand spurned advice from others to be practical and do Engineering, and decided to do Maths in a college instead. But, by the early 1980s, college education in India had started to decline in quality. Anand got into Vivekananda College, a well-regarded college in Madras, but he found the syllabus and teaching pedestrian. He was particularly vexed by the need to pass exams which he didn’t find challenging, and which involved swotting if you wanted to get outstanding marks. I can recall his getting really frustrated by the fact that he had to do this humdrum stuff when there were so many more interesting problems waiting to be solved. And, friends kept telling him about the importance of exam marks to get admission to a “good” MSc programme. That only made things worse as did the fact that his brother had done an MSc from IIT Madras before going to the US. I am not sure of this but I think he finally enrolled in an MSc at Vivekananda College itself.

Change of Interests

But, Anand’s interests soon broadened into Philosophy and Linguistics. Within a couple of years, he had enrolled in Deccan College at Pune which had a good Linguistics Department, and started working with Probal Dasgupta (see photo below). Anand found the academic and social environment of Pune conducive to his pursuits and interests, and this became a city where he would not only spend time but make lasting friendships.

Anand chafed against exams wherever he went and Deccan College was no exception. Yet, he not only managed to study there but land himself a scholarship to MIT. By then he had become a fan of Noam Chomsky (below). While entering MIT was probably his personal high point, his stay there was tempestuous.

I don’t recall the details, but he was asked to leave the PhD programme. Anand told me that the Dean agreed he had been treated unfairly but he had to leave nevertheless. From what I understood, his friendship with Chomsky harmed rather then helped him, and he got caught in the crossfire of vicious academic politics. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that Anand’s lack of tact and direct talking would not have been of great help in this episode.

This experience was tough for Anand psychologically and left him with bitter feelings about academia. While he didn’t expect much from Indian academia, he felt let down by US academia as well. But this was not the culmination of his love-hate relationship with academia. More about that later!

Music takes him on a different path

One of Anand’s other passions in life was music, and he remained a true fan of good western classical music for as long as I knew him. While at Pune, he had become friends with a European man who had, if I remember right, been a member of the Osho Ashram. This individual had developed very high quality audio speakers and was making a business out of selling these hand-crafted speakers. Once he recovered from the MIT fiasco, Anand started selling these Cadence speakers. Prospective customers were rich, well-heeled connoisseurs of western classical music. With his erudition, it was not difficult for Anand to become friends with many of these individuals, friendships that became a big support for the rest of his life.

Anand started selling the speakers in Pune, but later moved to Bangalore where he even set up a studio that acted as a listening room to experience the quality of the speakers. But, given his intellectual interests, it was impossible for Anand to remain in sales, and he got interested in academic pursuits again.

New Academic Interests

By now, his interests had shifted to Statistics and Finance. I have forgotten how this came about, but he eventually became a consultant to Cranes Software, a company that was developing and selling statistics tools. Not surprisingly, he again came into conflict with some of the academic consultants to the company who questioned his lack of certified expertise in the form of degrees.

Anand returned to academics a few years later to do a Masters degree in Mathematical Finance at York University. Anand really took to the UK, and found it conducive to his temperament and interests. He struggled to finish the degree because he again felt somewhat straitjacketed, but finish it he did, and he stayed on to do a PhD as well.

His PhD was marred by an acute infection that affected the functioning of his heart and almost killed him. But Anand survived. He always gave a good deal of credit to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and the care he received from them. The NHS is often pilloried for being inefficient and slow, but Anand was very impressed by their care for him.

Anand finally finished his PhD a couple of years ago at the age of 45+. He had to leave the UK, but found a job with a start-up in Singapore.

Anand remained a free spirit till the end. He couldn’t stand authority and got into conflicts with people in positions of authority throughout his life, even in the start-up! He hated other forms of rigidity as well, particularly the regimented nature of exams. But it is a tribute to his doggedness that he persevered to complete his PhD.

Some Concluding Thoughts

I believe that with Anand’s quality of thinking and academic interests, he would have made a really good professor if only our academic system were more flexible. Had he the good fortune to be exposed to a classics tripos at Cambridge or a liberal arts programme at a top US university, he would have done really well. I hope things change fast so that we don’t lose more Anands. I see a sliver of hope in some of the new programmes that are coming up in India like the Liberal Arts programme at Ashoka University.

Anand was an aesthete. This was apparent from the things he liked throughout his life – Mathematics, Classical Music, Yoga, well-written books. While he could get very angry about some things like stubborn bureaucracies and the narrow mindedness of Indian academia, he was himself non-violent.
One thing I really admired about Anand was his perseverance. At a time when many people are thinking about hanging up their boots, Anand was doing his PhD and thinking about what he should do next. He was keen to settle down in the UK, but alas that was not to be.

In the last few years, Anand had mixed feelings about me, since he now saw me as an establishment figure with authority. I think he felt, like some other friends did in the past, that I tried to run with the hares and hunt with the hounds at the same time. Anand is one of many mavericks I have known, who were attracted towards me at some point, but later drifted apart. Luckily I have maintained links with many of these friends thanks to Kajoli who shares their free spirit. That happened with Anand too – she remained in much closer touch with him than I did.  

Anand Ramachandran, Rest in Peace. A tribute to Anand would be incomplete without my great appreciation for Anand’s sister Hamsini who supported him through thick and thin and helped him sustain his dreams.

[These are my personal views and based on my personal recollections. Sorry for any errors.]

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Re-discovering Bihar

My last visit to Bihar was more than 20 years ago, so I was curious to see how the state has changed since then. The sense of anticipation was high as I now look forward to a prolonged interaction with the state – as Director of IIM Indore, I will be the mentor-director for the new IIM to be set up in Bihar.

Patna: Improved Infrastructure, but still very crowded

I had read about runway length and clearance constraints impeding flights in and out of Patna, and the reality of that was clear as we landed. Unlike other airports across the country that have expanded, got new terminal buildings, aerobridges, etc., Patna airport looked pretty much the same as I remember it from all those years ago. Looking at it closely I realized that it is a narrow rectangular strip with trees at the end, and no scope at all for expansion. The apron can’t accommodate more than a few aircraft, so clearly Bihar’s capital will need a new airport very soon.

All Indian cities have become more crowded over time, but Patna seems to be bursting at its seams. There have been infrastructural improvements in terms of flyovers and bridges, but the city still looks very crowded. Of course, like other cities, Patna has some areas that are sprawling and reminiscent of an earlier age – particularly the areas where the secretariat is located and where minsters and senior officers stay. But these look particularly incongruous in Patna because of the congestion in the rest of the city.

IIT Patna’s New “Vertical” Campus

We set off straight from the airport to the suburb of Bihta about 35 km from Patna where the new campus of IIT Patna is coming up. On the way, we had to negotiate significant traffic jams at Danapur as trucks heading to the railway yard had blocked much of the road. Further down, we passed the Bihta Air Force Base before arriving in Bihta town, and crossed the railway track across a new-looking bridge to get to the IIT campus on the other side. All in all, it took about 75 minutes to get from the airport to Bihta, and providing quick access to the city will become critical in the years ahead unless Bihta Air Force base gets converted into the new Patna airport as has been proposed by some.

The IIT campus is flanked by a brand new Hero Cycles plant, (apparently set up in order to meet the enhanced demand for bicycles in Bihar thanks to the state government’s scheme to provide cycles to girl students in government schools – more about this below) and a private educational institution with an imposing name – NSIT. Across the road is an HPCL oil storage facility.

The IIT Campus has a massive administrative building, a few academic buildings, 4 blocks of 8-storeyed hostels that will accommodate about 1,000 students, and multi-storeyed accommodation for faculty and staff. All these buildings are at an advanced stage of construction and should be completed in the next few months. A lecture hall complex and other infrastructure will come at a later stage. Personally, I would have preferred to see the lecture hall complex ready now rather than the admin block, but I guess they had to make some choices!

Some friends made critical comments when I posted photos of this IIT campus on Facebook, saying that the campus looks more like an apartment complex. I believe such criticism is unfair. Given the scarcity of land, we need to re-think the way we design academic campuses. Hostels and residential facilities have to go vertical, and scarce horizontal spaces can be used primarily for playfields and gardens. Clever design can make the campus seems spacious, green and open. Horizontal sprawl will have to be a thing of the past! If you want to see how this can be done, take a look at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the beautiful new university built in Clearwater Bay about 25 years ago.

Bihar has been an exporter of students to other states for as long as I can remember, but things are beginning to change now as high quality education comes to the state. 2 central universities, an IIT, IIIT, and an NIT are just some of the central institutions being set up. Besides, there are new state-supported institutions as well such as the Chandragupt Institute of Management at Patna (CIMP). This institute is presently located in a temporary premises in the heart of Patna as it awaits its permanent home that is under construction.

Gaya and Bodh Gaya

On Day 2 of our visit, we set off on the 115 km trudge from Patna to Gaya. The road is narrow (2-lanes) but otherwise in good shape, and the sides of the road are green with fields. It took close to two-and-a-half hours to reach the Circuit House at Gaya. I was pleasantly surprised to find the Circuit House spic-and-span, in much better shape than circuit houses I have seen in some other states.
We quickly moved on to the adjoining town of Bodh Gaya which has a very festive look. The roads are lined with flags, many countries have built monasteries, and hotels and lodging houses are all over. Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world throng this town where the Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. The Maha Bodhi temple had a festive air as well, as the day we visited was the concluding day of a week-long festival.

I felt a little awkward at the temple given the circumstances of our visit. I had been planning for years to visit all the important Buddhist pilgrimage sites, to re-trace the path of the Buddha. But it took an “official” visit to set up a new IIM to finally take me there!

The Mahabodhi temple is beautifully maintained with clean approaches, marble flooring and orderly flow of pilgrims. One thing that did surprise me though was the small number of Indian visitors – for a moment, one could easily imagine that one was in a different part of Asia!

Gaya has a cute airport, designed to meet the needs of international travellers visiting Bodh Gaya. During the tourist season, international flights connect Bodh Gaya to a number of Asian countries that have significant Buddhist populations. The only domestic connection is to Delhi and Varanasi (Air India) and this too doesn’t run the whole year around. But Gaya is on the main railway line from Delhi to Howrah, and is served by three Rajdhani Expresses apart from a host of other trains.

Gaya has a significant military establishment, a new Officers Training Academy, built on the premises of the erstwhile Army Supply Corps North Centre that was re-located to Bangalore a few years ago.

A Useful Learning Experience

On this trip I had the privilege of accompanying Shri Amarjeet Sinha, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of HRD, Government of India. Mr. Sinha has spent most of his career in Health and Education. Thanks to him, I was able to understand the socio-economic development of Bihar in a historic perspective ranging from the enduring impact of the Permanent Settlement on land use in the state to the recent improvement in some of its human development indicators.

I learnt that every girl student in class 9-12 in Bihar gets a free bicycle, uniform, and a scholarship, amounting to a total of more than Rs. 5,000. The bicycle, in particular, has resulted in a sharp reduction in school dropouts as girls are now able to reach school quickly and without significant cost. Thousands of girls have been trained in self-defence, in judo and karate. I was impressed to hear about a scheme of the Bihar government whereby young women from the Maha Dalit communities have been hired as catalysts (called Vikas Mitra = “friend of development”) to get girls in their communities to attend school, give remedial classes and improve adult literacy. All of this was quite impressive, and I look forward to learning more about these developments as I spend more time in Bihar!

[The views expressed here are the personal views of the author.]

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Deepakk Goyal and Passion Greens: The Future of Indian Farming?

This was a few years ago at IIM Bangalore. I was looking for some articulate IIMB alumni who could speak to our students to give them an alternate perspective on careers. One name that quickly came to mind was that of Deepakk Goyal. I knew he had done a few different things – undergraduate studies in the United States, a longish stint in his family’s trading business in Kolkata, a late MBA at IIMB where he was one of our mature students (and unlike almost all the others, already married with kids), and then a stint with private equity.

But I was totally unprepared for what was to follow. When I got through to Deepakk on the phone, he told me that he had become a farmer in Central India, near Indore. And, that farming was his new passion, what he would be following in the years to come.

Deepakk didn’t figure in my thinking for some time thereafter till I moved to Indore in January 2014. I was trying to discover any connections and contacts in the Malwa region and then I suddenly remembered Deepakk. We spoke soon after I moved to Indore, but didn’t actually meet till the Global Investors’ Summit in October.

Deepakk’s Farm

I had somehow got it into my head that Deepakk is into organic farming. Maybe because I couldn’t imagine him doing anything humdrum and, from all reports, organic farming is very challenging though also remunerative. When we finally visited him at the end of December, I realized that I was right about Deepakk doing something far from the ordinary, only it doesn’t have to be organic farming for it to be exciting.

The topography can change rapidly in these parts of MP. As we drove down the Khandwa Road, past the construction site of the new IIT at Simrol, and across the short Ghat section a little further down, accompanied for stretches by the huge pipeline carrying Narmada water, there are long green stretches. You actually cross the Narmada at some point. The Narmada is one of the few Indian rivers to retain its glory as we found to our delight during our earlier travels in MP to places like Maheshwar and Omkareshwar. Seeing the fertile stretches in the vicinity of the Narmada, I expected to see Deepakk farming well-irrigated land.

But, we were soon in for another surprise. As we waited by the side of the road a few kilometers beyond Sanawad town for Deepakk’s wife Shilpa who was following us some distance behind on the road from Indore, we saw dry, barren land. We turned left off the highway and followed Shilpa on a dusty and winding road till we reached Deepakk’s farm in village Gunjari.

And, what did we see here? A small farmhouse near the gate with a few tiny rooms on the ground floor and a kitchen and covered verandah space on the first floor. Rows of pomegranate plants neatly running away on a large expanse in front of the farmhouse. And a huge open tank of water close to the farmhouse.

The Indian Farmer: A Major Risk Taker

Most people who have grown up in cities have a romantic notion of farming, shaped by movies and books. Indian folklore shows the Indian farmer anxiously waiting for the monsoon rains, benefiting either from the monsoon’s bounty or ruined by its failure. The farming story has typical villains like the usurious moneylender waiting for the crop to fail so that he can possess the farmer’s land.

In recent years, the rash of farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh and Vidharbha has made many of us more aware of the complexities of farming. Higher returns have induced farmers to embrace cash crops, but the risks have also increased as investments are higher and farmers become more dependent on credit to finance this investment.

I remember someone once telling me that the biggest risk taker in our country is the Indian farmer. This was in the context of Indian entrepreneurs being risk-averse!

I can’t recall the exact content of his thesis, but one of my seniors in the doctoral programme at IIM Ahmedabad, SJ Phansalkar studied the risk-taking behavior of Indian farmers. Phansalkar himself went on to become a distinguished academic and author, and in recent years has worked for the Tata Trusts.

The Challenges of Farming

Well, all this esoteric discussion on risk-taking in farming became live and real when Deepakk told us about the challenges he has faced in the last few years. Several things can go wrong – insects, pests, animals, fungi, diseases of various kinds – any of these can unexpectedly ruin a crop. Market prices are unpredictable as they depend on demand and supply in a particular year across markets.

But Deepakk has learnt, even if the hard way, how to overcome these adversities. Some things I took away from our visit – each crop has its own idiosyncrasies and hence understanding a particular crop in all its details across cycles becomes important; expertise is fragmented and often tainted by the commercial interests of different sellers who are only interested in hawking their products; yet, there is scope for experimentation if done with careful monitoring.

Deepakk’s farm reminded me of what I saw on my visits to Israel – healthy looking plants growing in a barren landscape. In fact, Deepakk is very much like an Israeli farmer, totally committed to what he is doing, using technology intensively but thoughtfully, and fiercely protective of his efforts. He uses drip irrigation and soluble fertilisers to control the use of water and at the same time ensure that the plants get the nutrients they deserve.

The Future of Indian Agriculture

Deepakk’s advantage is his ability to invest capital and use technology and at the same time manage the risks involved. What we got at his farm was a glimpse of what Indian agriculture could look like in the future. It’s romantic, but in a different way from what you would see in an old Hindi film. What’s not clear in my mind is how the transition from the old to the new will happen…and how we will manage the social upheavals that are bound to accompany such a change.