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.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Reflections on Paths Not Taken

The other day, someone asked me why and how I became interested in the pharmaceutical industry. This set me thinking about some of the other interests I had over time, the ones I didn’t pursue. This blog is dedicated to two of the paths not taken.

My Tryst with Biology

I have always had an interest in modern biology. We had a reasonably good Biology teacher in school, Mr. David, who explained the basics of modern genetics well. But, more importantly, somewhere towards the end of my school years, the British Council screened the multiple part BBC series on Bronowski’s Ascent of Man. I still have some visual memories of the episode on genetics where Bronowski explained Mendel’s experiments.

Sometime during the same period, Madras played host to an international conference on Molecular Biology where there were a number of prominent international scholars speaking. I attended their talks though I didn’t understand much of what they were saying.

One of my school friends, Vimal Jain, had a strong interest in medicine and hoped to do research on cancer one day. Under his influence, I started reading about cancer as well and even contemplated doing medicine. I visited CMC Vellore to find out more about this possibility but was discouraged by the miniscule number of places available and the intense competition for these.

During this period, I read several interesting books, including one on Josef Issels, a German doctor, who proposed alternate therapies for cancer that involved identifying and removing all other potential sources of infection including bad teeth! I just did a quick internet search and found that Issels’ treatment is still alive though it remains as controversial as it was during Issels’ lifetime, with some considering it ineffective, and others as outright quackery.

While my parents didn’t discourage me from studying Biology, or from reading about cancer research,  I can’t recall their active encouragement either! But, my interest in Biology didn’t go away, and I got a chance to pursue it again when I was studying Physics at IIT Kanpur.

In our final year, in fact in our final semester (January-April 1986), I attended a course which was titled (I hope I remember this correctly) Foundations of Modern Biology. It was taught by Prof. S. Ranganathan, a brilliant biochemist, who had done a post-doc with one of the outstanding figures in Organic Synthesis, Prof. Woordward, at Harvard in the 1960s. Ranga brought RNA and DNA to life in a dramatic way. I now realize that this was a state-of-the-art course at that time, and Ranga was really current with the interface between Chemistry and Biology.

As an aside, IITK had some incredible faculty in the Chemistry department in the 1970s and 1980s including CNR Rao, D. Balasubramanian, P.T. Narasimhan, M.V. George and Ranga himself. Chemists in India recently celebrated Ranga’s 80th birthday and he was conferred with an Outstanding Teacher Award.

This fascination with Modern Biology has remained with me over the years, and is one of the reasons I have been interested in the Biology-driven pharmaceutical industry.

And another with Political Science

During the year (1986-87) I spent at Stanford doing my Master’s, I was drawn to other subjects. As Indian institutions go, IIT Kanpur (where I did my undergraduate degree) had an inclusive curriculum. Though I majored in Physics, I was able to do courses in Art, Sociology, Economics and Philosophy as part of the Humanities and Social Sciences requirement. But these seemed really inadequate when I saw the Course catalogue at Stanford. My urge to do other courses increased further when I spoke to some of the undergraduate students there.

So, I used the flexible credits that I had to attend a Political Science course titled “Political Economy of Development.” It was taught by a really articulate and knowledgeable professor called Terry Karl. I really enjoyed her classes and ploughed through the huge books we had to read as part of the class readings including Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies and Barrington Moore’s Dictatorship and Democracy.

Professor Karl was more interested in Latin America than Asia, but she encouraged me to work on a term paper on India, and I looked at the Punjab conflict (which was prominent at that time) with a Political Science lens. I still have the paper I wrote, and I must say it wasn’t a bad paper at all even if it was somewhat simplistic.

Another source of encouragement during the course was the teaching assistant, Alison Brysk. When I first saw the size of the readings for the course, I was really scared, so during the first tutorial session I asked Alison how they expected us to read so much. I still remember her response: one of the things we expect you to learn from the course is how to read efficiently (or words to that effect!).

After the experience of this course, I seriously thought about applying to a PhD programme in Political Science. If I remember right, I even discussed this with Professor Karl, and she was quite encouraging. But, I finally chickened out, because I really didn’t know what I would be able to do with a PhD in Political Science in India. As I was committed to returning to and working in India, I decided that this just wasn’t a good idea.

But I retain my interest in Political Science and what we did in Political Science 114K to this day. I have been lucky to have a chance to teach courses that build on this interest. I started teaching a course on Business, Government, and Society with Rajeev Gowda about a decade ago, and have taught this course off and on, including this year at IIM Indore to our IPM students.


I am lucky that I have been able to keep alive my interest in Modern Biology and Political Science even though I don’t pursue them as the principal tracks of my career. I am not an expert in either but you don’t need to be an expert to enjoy studying these subjects!

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