Sunday, September 30, 2012

India # 12: Getting Sick and Getting Well


After three weeks of pushing hard, last week a cold I’ve been carrying for two weeks caught up with me.  After Patna, I’d been looking forward to two nights at a Buddhist center in the place where Buddha found enlightenment, Bodngaya, which is also in Bihar.  Shasti, the head of Seija, had given me his car and driver for the weekend, the ultimate luxury.  But seven hours on dusty roads to get there and back might have thrown me into pneumonia, for all I know, so regretfully I canceled and returned to Bangalore two days early.

Airports have pharmacies and pharmacists a lot of discretion. Transiting through the Delhi airport I stopped at one for cough syrup and two remedies for reflux, about three bucks.  But the next day I know I need a doctor and in steps innkeeper Oberi, the owner of my residence.

The sign outside Altus Diagnotic, the doctor’s office he took me to, had already intrigued me.  It offers 13 specialties in a tiny space. At one on a Sunday afternoon I immediately get to see Dr. Vivek M. S., 35, and a diabetologist.  In ten minutes he writes five prescriptions plus instructions for inhalation therapy, gargling and vitamin C.  That will be $4 please.

I then walk across the street to Shanaaz Medicals next to the mosque, get the prescriptions filled for $7.60.  This has taken a total of 15 minutes and I’ve walked a block from my place.

The pollution had gotten to me, I think; riding business was a great urban immersion but has taken its toll.  So I take the week off to recover.  By Tuesday I feel well enough to inviting Mr. Oberi over for scotch.  This was not on the prescription list but a good time was had by both of us.  This also cements my decision to remain at Casa Cottages for a second month.  Oberi is from a famous Indian hotel family and he knows hospitality.  The whole staff—and there must be a dozen, more than he has rooms—is terrific.

By Thursday I’ve stopped making progress, however (scotch?) and go back to Altus.  This time I see Dr. A. A. Badami who is older, is an internist specializing in communicable diseases and has recently returned from ten years at the Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi.  He wants an X-Ray which I get immediately on a machine that goes back a long way.  It shows pneumonia in a small section of my lungs.  So he extends my anti-biotic, adds a steroid and some other items and now I am presented with my film and a bill for $l0.

I’m obviously focusing on the low cost and speed of treatment I’ve received.   The cost is nothing to me but consider what this means to middle class Indians—affordable, quickly accessible care in the middle of the city.  I don’t understand how this is possible but I’m wishing all the best to Altus Diagnostic--which makes a Boise doc-in-a-box look like Walter Reid.

Over the next three days I’m making good progress but will skip going to work until Wednesday.  Tuesday is another holiday —Happy Birthday Mahatma Ghandi!  

 

 

 

India # 11: Patna III, Government cripples the microfinance industry


Patna, Bihar, III--Government Cripples Microfinance in India

What we have just witnessed is a uniform microfinance system:  each recipient receives the same amount—10,000 rupees—for the same length of time—one year.  Moreover, all loans must be run through the same group-lending model, ten in the case of women, five in the case of men.  This makes little sense.  How can every potential business need the same amount for the same time?  And yet this is the system mandated by the Indian government for all microfinance loans through non-banking organizations such as Seija. 

Other ACCION Ambassadors in the field this summer have debated the merits of group versus individual lending.  Group lending is good for the lender.  Because each member is responsible for the loan of all members, the lending organization has virtually no risk.  Yet the group model requires a cohesiveness that is not easy to sustain.  And men are less willing than women to meet monthly and assume responsibility for someone else.

The Indian government exerts a powerful control over microfinance, which it tries to channel through its own government-owned banks that are required to devote 40 percent of their portfolios to social purposes such as very small businesses.  Sometimes these banks outsource this responsibility to organizations like Seija.

Government control got a great deal worse in 2008 after a huge crisis in the state of Andrah Predesh.  Thinking it would be a gold mine, many banking and non-banking institutions jumped into microfinance in the early 2000’s, pushing out loans perhaps like American banks pushed home loans on those who could not least afford them, which brought down the world economy.  The result in AP was a rash of suicides by lenders who could not pay, leading to a halt in new lending and a crippling of the industry of which ACCION’s partners are a part.  The government is slowly writing new regulations.  

Suicides were already epidemic among rural farmers.  In a five year period, 200,000 suicides were recorded—which tells you something about the state of rural life.   For example, India has widely adopted Monsanto’s Bt cotton, which can reduce costs and increase yields.  But small farmers can be wiped out if their Bt cotton crop fails, for example, because of a failure of the monsoons.  The book “Planet India,” an otherwise optimistic book by an Indian-American woman coming home, was particularly critical.

In a recent newspaper article, a Monsanto defender said Bt cotton was not to blame for a run of suicides because only 29,000 deaths had been recorded in cotton country and that rate was the same before as after Bt cotton was introduced.  How’s that for a winning endorsement: plant my cotton and you’re no more likely to commit suicide? 

But I digress from Saija’s 180 million rupees worth of loans.  The question would seem to be whether the group lending  model and loan officer initiatives can help recipients make more in the next year than the $56 they will be paying in interest.  Handing out the money was a rush, in a rush.  Making loans work for the vast majority of recipients under restrictions set by the government will be the great task ahead.   

 

 

 

Patna, Bihar, III--Government Cripples Microfinance in India

What we have just witnessed is a uniform microfinance system:  each recipient receives the same amount—10,000 rupees—for the same length of time—one year.  Moreover, all loans must be run through the same group-lending model, ten in the case of women, five in the case of men.  This makes little sense.  How can every potential business need the same amount for the same time?  And yet this is the system mandated by the Indian government for all microfinance loans through non-banking organizations such as Seija. 

Other ACCION Ambassadors in the field this summer have debated the merits of group versus individual lending.  Group lending is good for the lender.  Because each member is responsible for the loan of all members, the lending organization has virtually no risk.  Yet the group model requires a cohesiveness that is not easy to sustain.  And men are less willing than women to meet monthly and assume responsibility for someone else.

The Indian government exerts a powerful control over microfinance, which it tries to channel through its own government-owned banks that are required to devote 40 percent of their portfolios to social purposes such as very small businesses.  Sometimes these banks outsource this responsibility to organizations like Seija.

Government control got a great deal worse in 2008 after a huge crisis in the state of Andrah Predesh.  Thinking it would be a gold mine, many banking and non-banking institutions jumped into microfinance in the early 2000’s, pushing out loans perhaps like American banks pushed home loans on those who could not least afford them, which brought down the world economy.  The result in AP was a rash of suicides by lenders who could not pay, leading to a halt in new lending and a crippling of the industry of which ACCION’s partners are a part.  The government is slowly writing new regulations.  

Suicides were already epidemic among rural farmers.  In a five year period, 200,000 suicides were recorded—which tells you something about the state of rural life.   For example, India has widely adopted Monsanto’s Bt cotton, which can reduce costs and increase yields.  But small farmers can be wiped out if their Bt cotton crop fails, for example, because of a failure of the monsoons.  The book “Planet India,” an otherwise optimistic book by an Indian-American woman coming home, was particularly critical.

In a recent newspaper article, a Monsanto defender said Bt cotton was not to blame for a run of suicides because only 29,000 deaths had been recorded in cotton country and that rate was the same before as after Bt cotton was introduced.  How’s that for a winning endorsement: plant my cotton and you’re no more likely to commit suicide? 

But I digress from Saija’s 180 million rupees worth of loans.  The question would seem to be whether the group lending  model and loan officer initiatives can help recipients make more in the next year than the $56 they will be paying in interest.  Handing out the money was a rush, in a rush.  Making loans work for the vast majority of recipients under restrictions set by the government will be the great task ahead.   

 

 

 

India # 10 The Saree Circle


THE SAREE CIRCLE

Dear Blog Buddies, I promised this post last week and wrote it on time but publishing it without pictures seemed a shame.  But the upload glitch is still glitching.  Maybe this week I'll have a breakthrough and can populate past blogs with images.   

Today I step into an event that has been repeated millions of times since the l970’s: the monthly meeting of women who run tiny businesses, thanks to microloans they have mutually pledge to repay.

In the early morning we cross the Ganges, now at floodtide, from Patna in the state of Bihar on a bridge nearly five miles long, which is itself momentous, and then walk a kilometer through banana groves to a tiny grocery store behind which ten women are seated in a semi-circle.  Other guests and I are introduced, join the circle and business begins.
 

Each member has brought her monthly loan payment to the treasurer who counts it, enters the tally in a record book and presents it to the Saija loan officer.  Each explains to the visitors how they use their loan: one for a cow, one for a bicycle rickshaw to haul bananas to market, one to rent tents, chairs and tables for weddings, and so on.

They have been together for three years and obviously enjoy this time, laughing easily.   There is a glow about them; they are beautiful people and anything but impoverished.  It feels at once natural and a great privilege to be with them.

The loan officer has some news to deliver and over time has offered training and advice, but simply coming together with ritual consistency has proved to be a reinforcement which has enabled group-lending to those begin with nothing to be successful over four decades.

ACCION discovered microfinance in Brazil in 1973 and Muhammed Yunnis invented it in Bangladesh when Grameen Bank was created in l976.  Ninety-four percent of Grameen’s seven million loans in Bangldesh are to women and all are in “solidarity groups” like this one.  ACCION still promotes the model but its partners have a much larger proportion of individual loans.   The government of India mandates the Grameen model for all of the country’s 10,000 MFI’s.   Men’s groups are typically composed of five.

Women have powered microfinance and insured repayment rates in the high 90’s from Day One.  The money goes for school tuition and uniforms, food and medicine.  That’s far less certain certain with the guys.

I try to sink into the moment, take it all in, look around as deeply as I can.  That I had some small role in all this over 50 years ago seems an utter miracle, an act of God, but that thought only comes later.  Right now I am surrounded by bananas and a circle of women whose remembered faces will give me pleasure for years. 

TEN THOUSAND RUPEES AT A TIME

We must be on our way because at the district office new groups of ten women are being created at a rate of one every half hour.  Saija has raised 180 million rupees for new loans and is determined to disperse all of them in July, August and September.  The staff of 10 of this district has already approved 900 loans for the month and it’s time to turn over the money.  As we approach, twenty women are leaving, others are climbing the stairs and even more are filling up every available chair in the office.

The routine is for a Saija official to take each group through a series of questions and answers to sure they understand the obligation they are undertakin, often with a family member also pledged.  They get it, that’s pretty clear.  Then each signs in four places and finally there is a little ceremony where they receive 10,000 rupees, or about $200, clasped in a paper band.  I’m been asked to do the honors for one group, which I do awkwardly with a little Namaste bow, the only gesture I know.  We are all quite serious and proper and hustle along.  Children are squirming and the menfolk are waiting on the stairs.   

 

 

 

Cancer free!

On Friday I heard from my sister, Jill Groth of Idaho Falls, that she has been declared "cancer free" by her doctors!  At the first of the year she learned she had colon cancer, was operated on in late January and went through chemo all summer. 
This is wonderful news.  Jill has gone through this with grace, optimism and good sense.  Her family rallied around her beautifully and made as much good out of this as possible, it seemed to me.  Now to put the flower beds to bed for the winter.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

India # 9: Patna, Bihar, Part One: A Road Jammy, Politics and a Life Change


Dear Blog Buddies, this is the first of three posts from a two day visit to Patna, Bihar.  It’s a bit long and political so if you’re short of time, feel free to skip. But you’ll meet some interesting people today.  Tomorrow’s post is one I hope to get right, since it was a memorable experience..      

 

Last Thursday I step off in plane in Patna in the state of Bihar, leaving behind modern India and setting foot in historic India.  The air is hot and heavy.  Far more bicycle rickshaws than scooter rickshaws ply the streets.   The Ganges is nearby, overflowing its banks in an ancient cycle of renewal.   

Before we get on the road, however, a few words about Bihar, the state which has a population of 83 million, almost entirely rural, for which Patna serves as capital.  It has been the most maligned of India’s 28 states, I’ve learned, its people accused of backwardness and evil ways and its economy near the bottom of all states for decades.  For example last week in Mumbai, Bal Thackery, the powerful leader of a right-wing Hindu nationalist, anti-Muslim, anti-Christian party called Shiv Sena, insisted that all Biharians be thrown out of Mumbai.    Thackery has stoked anti-Muslim passions for years, triggering numerous riots and deaths and is a dangerous man.  (A former chief minister of Bihar said Thackery should be the first to leave since his people came from Bihar long ago—apparently  true.)

One of the great modern writers about India is William Dalymple.  His 20 year old book, "The Age of Kali"--with "Kali" being a word for blackness--India is in bad shape and the heart of India's blackness is Bihar.  It has seen the advent of caste politics, with untouchables making noticeable gains in government jobs and legislative representation.  But Bihar has become ungovernable because it is literally and nakedly governed by criminals.

“The Bihar Miracle”

However Bihar has earned an opposite reputation since 2007 when Nitish Kumar took over the government.  A widower, he is said to work virtually non-stop following a religious practice.  Harvested food rots before getting to market all over India but particularly here, so rural road building has become a priority.  Education and the empowerment and literacy of women have shown strong gains. He may be best known for promising a bicycle to every girl who stays in school.  He has strengthened the tax code, the judiciary and Bihar has been declared “the least corrupt government in India.”

Bihar has grown at nearly 12 percent a year since Kumar took office.  Crime has been tamed.  Remarkably, he was the showcase partner cited by Greenpeace India when I visit its national office, which is in my Bangalore neighborhood.  Kumar has strongly supported the use of solar power for irrigation wells through Greenpeace.  Another Kumar partner is Husk Power, which creates village-level electricity using rice husks.  “For the first time in 50 years Kumar has brought real hope to Bihar,” writes Columbia University professor Arvind Panagarlya in the September 15 Times of India.

Bihar nonetheless remains one of the poorest places in India and on the earth.  This is why ACCION’s recent investment of $2.5 million in Seija, a young  micro-finance institution,  impresses me as consistent with its historic commitment to aiding  those “at the bottom of the pyramid.”  Coming here was important for me and I’m glad to have been invited.

Big Week in Politics

However after we land, my seeing Saija in the field must be put off for reasons that take us to the heart of Indian politics.  Last week Bangalore was caught in a “road jammy” because of a bus employees strike, making traffic even worse than usual.  This week there is a nationwide protest strike against reform policies announced by India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. The architect of India’s remarkable progress since l991, Singh has been widely criticized at home and abroad recently, not only for corruption in his administration but for stranding the economy through inaction.  Last week he announced that a 51 percent foreign investment would be allowed in airlines, insurance and retail--the most controversial sector.   WalMart India does not sit well with a nation of shopkeepers. 

To partially offset a mounting deficit from subsidizing  energy, he also raised the price of diesel fuel by five rupees and limited subsidies on compressed gas for cooking food. 

So our party will spend an indefinite time in the airport restaurant until protesting strikers permit traffic to move.  Included are Siddhartha Chowdri, who launched ACCION-India seven years ago and pushed for the Saija investment.  He’s responsible for my being in India and thus a great guy. Then there is Hannes Manndorf from Berlin who head’s ACCION’s global business development and the Saija leaders, all here for a board meeting.

Everyone takes being stranded in stride and for me it’s fortuitous because I get to hear how Mr. Shasti Ranjan Sinha and Ms. Rashmi Sinha came to found Saija and partnered with ACCION.

Shasti was raised in privilege, on a large farm and in the only house for miles not made of mud.  “We thought the lower castes were meant to live as they did, that mosquitos didn’t infect them or pain hit them as it might us--they were that different. For example, when six of our family went to the railroad station ten kilometers away, 100 men took turns carrying us in chairs slung between their shoulders.  As reward they were given a single glass of tea.”  He is 58 so this was not that long ago.

He lived in this bubble through 25 successful years in the real estate and insurance business in Delhi.  Then, while visiting the shrine of Sai Baba, a Hindu saint to whom he and Rashmi are devoted, he suddenly knew he should be doing something else with his life.  It took time and addressing objections from his family more time but his direction became clear:  he and Rashmi would return to Bihar, which he hadn’t visited in decades, and work for the least fortunate.  That brought him to microfinance and an eventual alliance with ACCION.   “When I learned they’d been in business for 50 years, I knew ACCION was right  for Bihar and us,” he says.

The name “Saija” combines two phrases, one from Sai Baba and the other from the founder of Sufiism, the mystical branch of Islam.   A name like that is apt in Bihar which has one of India’s richest spiritual histories.  Buddha found enlightenment here, Jainism was born here and the world’s oldest university, Nolanda, flourished for 600 years, spreading Buddhist scholarship until extinguished by a Mughal invasion in the 14th century.

Finally, at four o’clock, the roads clear and our purpose in Patna can finally get under sail.   

 

 

 

 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

India # 8 TATTOOS ON THE HEART



Before I left, Susan Dillon, an old friend from my days with Shalem, a meditation group which had been an important part of my life from l974 to ’84 in Washington, gave me a book she thought would serve me well, so on the way over I read “Tatoos on the Heart.” It is by a Jesuit priest, Gregory Boyle, who lives among the gang members of Los Angeles, providing them with jobs and dignity and often burying the young men we meet on the book’s pages.

It is not a book about gang members who found God and went straight or the good being done with Hollywood money, although that’s in there.  He’s not writing about before and after, reform and redemption. Instead, Boyle only wants to convince young men who have lived all of their lives in fear that ‘they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them.”     

“No need to contort yourself to be anything other than who you are,” he write about Jason.  He delights for another gang member when he feels “home sweet home in his own skin.”   It is “a matter of returning, not measuring up.”

After a lifetime of straining to achieve, I  could stop right there and  have plenty to absorb notwithstanding that we’ve all heard this before.  But I also want to set out four excerpts in which he addresses our relationship with “the poor:”

·      The wrong idea has taken root in the world.  And the idea is this: there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives.

·      Often we strike the high moral distance that separates ‘us’ from ‘them,’ and yet God’s dream comes true when we recognize there is no daylight between us.  Serving others is good.  It’s a start. But kinship is better—not serving the other, but being one with the other.

·      Jesus was not ‘a man for others’; he was one with them.  There is a world of difference in that…. He wasn’t with the outlaws he was an outlaw.

·      Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.

I’ll be taking this with me: I didn’t come here to serve but to be with.  

  

 

          

 

 

TATTOOS ON THE HEART

Before I left, Susan Dillon, an old friend from my days with Shalem, a meditation group of which I had been a part from l974 to ’84 in Washington, gave me a book she thought would serve me well, so on the way over I read “Tatoos on the Heart.” It is by a Jesuit priest, Gregory Boyle, who lives among the gang members of Los Angeles, providing them with jobs and dignity and often burying the young men we meet on the book’s pages.

It is not a book about gang members who found God and went straight or the good being done with Hollywood money, although that’s in there.  He’s not writing about before and after, reform and redemption. Instead, Boyle only wants to convince young men who have lived all of their lives in fear that ‘they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them.”     

“No need to contort yourself to be anything other than who you are,” he write about Jason.  He delights for another gang member when he feels “home sweet home in his own skin.”   It is “a matter of returning, not measuring up.”

After a lifetime of straining to achieve, I  could stop right there and  have plenty to absorb notwithstanding that we’ve all heard this before.  But I also want to set out four excerpts in which he addresses our relationship with “the poor:”

·      The wrong idea has taken root in the world.  And the idea is this: there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives.

·      Often we strike the high moral distance that separates ‘us’ from ‘them,’ and yet it is God’s dream come true when we recognize there is no daylight between us.  Serving others is good.  It’s a start. But kinship is better—not serving the other, but being one with the other.

·      Jesus was not ‘a man for others’; he was one with them.  There is a world of difference in that…. He wasn’t with the outlaws he was an outlaw.

·      Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.

I’ll taking this with me: I didn’t come here to serve but rather to be with.  

  

 

          

 

 

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

India #8 Getting to Know My Neighorhood


GETTING TO KNOW YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD   II

 

After sleeping late and surviving another session of No Hiding Yoga, I sink into a soft seat before breakfast with two quality newspapers to read.  This is reason alone to be grateful.  It is also the holiday for Ganesh, the elephant-like god who auspiciously blesses all undertakings, so the city is taking the day off.

I’ve been here just over two weeks and my understanding of my neighborhood is beginning to fill in.  (Too bad I don’t possess the descriptive skills of William Dalrymple, one of the greatest writers about India, who writes about the country’s capital 30 years ago: “…Delhi was full of riches and horrors; it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices. …In the morning I look out at the sad regiment of rag-pickers trailing the stinking berms of refuse; overhead, under a copper sky, vultures circled the thermals forming patterns, like fragments of glass in a kaleidoscope.”)  Instead, you’ll have to settle for something more mundane:

·      I discover I am living in a largely Muslim neighborhood.  Two blocks away is Johnson Market which, despite its name, if fully Muslim, with its meat and fish markets, flower vendors and men pouring out of the mosque, past a few beggars.  I now hear the calls from the mosque at the appointed hours in a beautiful voice, probably recorded but I can’t be sure.  In another direction is a larger Muslim community where a man was boiling a giant caldron of potato chips as I walked by a bit ago.  Some women are in full burka, others show their faces and girls, at least into the teen years, are brightly clad.  One man I’ve become acquainted with repeats the same message each time we meet:  we are all children of the same God.

·      Within a few blocks are seven or eight new apartment buildings under construction and in one of them, as evident from the laundry and children scampering about, several families are living on a narrow site.  Bangalorians abroad bemoan the replacement of homes with apartments and the pulling down of trees.  The new metro ripped out an entire boulevard of ancient trees.  But upwards makes sense environmentally and may enrich the neighborhood as it gentrifies and all the trees seem to have remained.

·      Under awnings at a half dozen sidewalk locations, men and women iron the laundry they have recently washed.  I have the pleasure of arriving home to fresh clothes three times a week myself. I make myself a hero by paying double the going rate to have a few shirts ironed.  Cheap thrills.

·      The place is honeycombed with little high-tech and other businesses.  Across from my entrance can be found Klaus IT Solutions, Flucon India, Iron Bird Tech Labs, Intra Dekor and Reflections Outdoor Advertising.

·      Perhaps it’s my tidy-up imagination but the neighborhood seems to be cleaner this week following a get-tough on trash announcement last week.  Women are out each morning and here again a little tip brings a big smile.  Thank you for cleaning up even if it’s your job. Still, trash disposal appears to consist of dropping a small plastic bag at a designated corner.  Trash bins are nowhere in evidence.

·      There must be eight schools of one kind or another within few blocks, pre-school through small professional school. India’s public education is “atrocious,” one Indian tells me, and a rickshaw driver could easily be spending 30 percent of his income (there are no women drivers) on private education.  Posters on trees and poles advertise education at all levels, in almost equal exposure with enticements to sign up for 20 megabit internet.   A woman from Spain I met at breakfast has been a volunteer teacher for a year in the neighboring state of Andhra Predesh.  She says her students are truly wonderful but badly prepared when they hit professional school at 21.  She untangles their English.   In India there are NGO’s everywhere you turn.

·      There is a lovely compound nearby consisting of the Berean College and Seminary, the Bible Baptist Church, residences and play areas.

·      When someone wants to say an American football team has taken on an opponent unworthy of them they are said to be playing against “The Little Sisters of the Poor.”  Well, they could come to Bangalore for such a game because close by me is the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged.

·      A little further afield is the great verdant expanse of the school for military police.  The rich and middle class are building upward in towers of considerable display here, a bit like Sao Paulo.  If the city ever wants to house everyone else vertically, the military owns vast tracts of centrally located land which could serve that purpose. Two blocks away is a colony of goats.  The aviary kingdom is dominated by birds that look like jays and sound like crows and are probably the same corvid family.  Street dogs lie around all day and night, resigned to being ownerless, as best I can tell, although many of them come from a line of poor dwellings closest to the traffic.  I am regularly delighted by shy cats, one of whom comes in for a look around. 

·      Fruit and vegetable vendors push carts through the neighborhood all day and at the head of my street someone will lop off the top of a coconut and provide a straw.  He and an old woman with a fruit cart stay until well after night falls.

·      My section of Richmond Town is very quiet but a block and a half away traffic was so heavy at seven last night I  crossed over to a restaurant only after a motorcycled policeman saw my plight, stopped traffic, and took me across.  

·      I finally realize my patio (where I am writing this at the moment) is covered by a coconut tree when one falls near where I was walking.  I also discover a giant orange-flowered jacaranda tree above the street.  That water splashing on the walkway between the two was my upstairs neighbors doing the laundry.

·      The air shaft outside my bathroom echoes with pigeons in early morning, the chatter of children, frequent tap-tap of a hammer and the pleasant smell of some family’s dinner.

This is not the stuff of great description or storytelling but rather, I hope, conveys a sense of settling into a particular place and time with an increasing sense of belonging, at least for a while.  I had thought that by now I would have taken the walking tour of the city, a bike tour in the country or the train to Mysore but I am content to remain close.

Tomorrow we’re off to Patna, although how that will go is uncertain since the opposition has called a strike to protest last week’s government decision to hike the price of diesel and cooking gas and to allow 51 percent foreign ownership in retail and airlines.  Just yesterday, one party left the ruling coalition headed by the Congress party, leaving it without a majority in the parliament. So we shall see how both the course of government and our travel goes the rest of the week.   

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

India # 7: Churchill slips a debt in Bangalore

 
It’s Sunday night and I’ve just spent the evening at what must be one of Bangalore’s most exclusive venue, the Bangalore Club, thanks to an invitation from someone I met at church.  And somehow a sixth sense tells me I know what is coming.

As you might expect, a place called the Bangalore Club goes well back into the era of British rule known as The Raj.  With only a few thousand in command, canny alliances with local rulers and superior firepower, Britain ruled a vast territory for 300 years, giving up power only in 1947.   The club goes back 150 years and excluded Indians from membership until independence.  It is a large, park-like enclave not far from my residence and the busiest avenues, resembling several California country clubs rolled into one.  Giant trees characteristic of Bangalore overarch everything: tennis, pool, badminton and other game areas; lawn dining and theatre area; handball and squash courts; residences; the main dining room; the men’s and women’s grills and the mixed grill (which mixes sexes, not meats), where we ate.  The Mysore Room commemorates the Maharajas of that nearby city with pictures of him attended by British and Indian soldiers in splendid uniforms.

The entrance is populated with the horns of animals, pictures of giant fish caught by members in 1919 and other emblems of domination over nature.  And there in the middle of the hall is an account book which shows clearly that Winston Churchill owed 30 rupees when he left after being a member here before World War I. 

It’s weird but I knew this, that Churchill walked away from a debt in Bangalore d now I am standing before the record of it.

I must have picked this up from “Into the Silence,” a long, anguished account of the carnage of World War II and how it spurred a British campaign to climb Mount Everest unsuccessfully just after the war.  Winston was in this story, incompetent at almost everything--needing influence even to be admitted to the infantry—serving as a junior rep of The Raj in Bangalore.  His description of the city—and his debt—is proudly on display at this club which is ironic because Churchill never gave up a conviction that England should rule India.

My host has a CPA firm working for international companies, is a father of six is and I quickly feel a brotherly affection for him.   He is an ardent, charismatic Catholic, which made me a bit wary initially since I left behind, years ago, his kind of ardor for our common faith.    

I learned there are 500,000 Catholics in Bangalore in 165 parishes, four in my neighborhood alone.  There are 300 religious orders or congregations living in 400 residences, evidence that the ocean of need in India continues to call both arms and alms into Mother Teresa’s adopted country. There are many millions more Christians, predominantly Catholic, in the neighboring states of Goa and Kerala (where 20 percent of the population is Christian) and in the city of Mumbia.   

It again seems clear that the Southern Hemisphere is where the Catholic Church will enjoy its most vibrant life and future.  Last Sunday’s Mass was a powerful liturgy.

My host is generous and courtly and says his accounting practice has thrived in spite of renouncing the corruption which is widely evident in dealings with the government.  I ask where he thinks India will be 10 years from now.

“It may take 15 years or longer but I believe younger people will not tolerate the present corruption and will eventually bring about change,” he says.  He has an extensive knowledge of India politics and points to the leader of the state Bihar, (a state I will visit this week) Nitish Komar, as the real deal when it comes to honest politics and care for the people.

He wants me to know how he came to join this exclusive club, membership in which closed years ago.  It seems an acquaintance feared his son would not pass a critical exam.  My host tutored the son for three hours over three months.  When the son passed, the man asked what he could do for him.  Nothing.  How about a membership in the Bangalore Club?  That would be nice.  And how would you like to have a wife?  Both became his in short order.  He now lives and works just a few minutes away, his children here all the time. Surely it is fitting he is here, paying his dues, long after Churchill walked out on his.

  

 

 

   

 

It again seems clear that the Southern Hemisphere is where the Catholic Church will enjoy its most vibrant life and future.  Last Sunday’s Mass was a powerful liturgy.

My host is generous and courtly and says his accounting practice has thrived in spite of renouncing the corruption which is widely evident in dealings with the government.  I ask where he thinks India will be 10 years from now.
ago.  It seems an acquaintance feared his son would not pass a critical exam.  My host tutored the son for three hours over three months.  When the son passed, the man asked what he could do for him.  Nothing.  How about a membership in the Bangalore Club?  That would be nice.  And how would you like to have a wife?  Both became his in short order.  He now lives and works just a few minutes away, his children here all the time. Surely it is fitting he is here, paying his dues, long after Churchill walked out on his.

But the most interesting thing about my host occurred after we parted.  He had said I might be interested in meeting a friend of his who was from my neighboring state of Wyoming.  Her name is Elizabeth Jeffords and she moved to India seven years ago.  I said I would love to meet her, then went home and Googled her name.

What came up was a report from the New York Post that one John Jeffords had sold his ranch in Wyoming where he had changed his name to Elizabeth Jeffords who assumed her new identify as a leader in the transgender community which is apparently also called the eunuch community.  And there are pictures of Elizabeth.

My friend has not mentioned this matter to me which I find completely admirable and certainly unique among charismatics in any faith, particularly my own.  So I asked to meet her. 

Unfortunately she is not here and her return is uncertain for medical reasons.  I can only hope she returns in time for us to become acquainted.  Another example of what a remarkable experience this is. 

 

 

   

It’s Sunday night and I’ve just spent the evening at what must be one of Bangalore’s most exclusive venue, the Bangalore Club, thanks to an invitation from someone I met at church.  And somehow a sixth sense tells me I know what is coming.

As you might expect, a place called the Bangalore Club goes well back into the era of British rule known as The Raj.  With only a few thousand in command, canny alliances with local rulers and superior firepower, Britain ruled a vast territory for 300 years, giving up power only in 1947.   The club goes back 150 years and excluded Indians from membership until independence.  It is a large, park-like enclave not far from my residence and the busiest avenues, resembling several California country clubs rolled into one.  Giant trees characteristic of Bangalore overarch everything: tennis, pool, badminton and other game areas; lawn dining and theatre area; handball and squash courts; residences; the main dining room; the men’s and women’s grills and the mixed grill (which mixes sexes, not meats), where we ate.  The Mysorre Room commemorates the Maharajas of that nearby city with pictures of him attended by British and Indian soldiers in splendid uniforms.

The entrance is populated with the horns of animals, pictures of giant fish caught by members in 1919 and other emblems of domination over nature.  And there in the middle of the hall is an account book which shows clearly that Winston Churchill owed 30 rupees when he left after being a member here before World War I. 

It’s weird but I knew this, that Churchill walked away from a debt in Bangalore d now I am standing before the record of it.

I must have picked this up from “Into the Silence,” a long, anguished account of the carnage of World War II and how it spurred a British campaign to climb Mount Everest unsuccessfully just after the war.  Winston was in this story, incompetent at almost everything--needing influence even to be admitted to the infantry—serving as a junior rep of The Raj in Bangalore.  His description of the city—and his debt—is proudly on display at this club which is ironic because Churchill never gave up a conviction that England should rule India.

My host has a CPA firm working for international companies, is a father of six is and I quickly feel a brotherly affection for him.   He is an ardent, charismatic Catholic, which made me a bit wary initially since I left behind, years ago, his kind of ardor for our common faith.    

I learned there are 500,000 Catholics in Bangalore in 165 parishes, four in my neighborhood alone.  There are 300 religious orders or congregations living in 400 residences, evidence that the ocean of need in India continues to call both arms and alms into Mother Teresa’s adopted country. There are many millions more Christians, predominantly Catholic, in the neighboring states of Goa and Kerala (where a quarter of the population is Christian) and in the city of Mumbia.   

It again seems clear that the Southern Hemisphere is where the Catholic Church will enjoy its most vibrant life and future.  Last Sunday’s Mass was a powerful liturgy.

My host is generous and courtly and says his accounting practice has thrived in spite of renouncing the corruption which is widely evident in dealings with the government.  I ask where he thinks India will be 10 years from now.

“It may take 15 years or longer but I believe younger people will not tolerate the present corruption and will eventually bring about change,” he says.  He has an extensive knowledge of India politics and points to the leader of the state Bihar, (a state I will visit this week) Nitish Komar, as the real deal when it comes to honest politics and care for the people.

He wants me to know how he came to join this exclusive club, membership in which closed years ago.  It seems an acquaintance feared his son would not pass a critical exam.  My host tutored the son for three hours over three months.  When the son passed, the man asked what he could do for him.  Nothing.  How about a membership in the Bangalore Club?  That would be nice.  And how would you like to have a wife?  Both became his in short order.  He now lives and works just a few minutes away, his children here all the time. Surely it is fitting he is here, paying his dues, long after Churchill walked out on his.

 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

India # 6: Dark beer and crony capitalism


Finding a dark beer in a city of eight million shouldn’t be all that hard, should it?  After all in my hometown, where half the population doesn’t drink, two companies make their own dark beer, as well as various other shades.  Boise has at least seven and one little place near my home offers 250 beers, many on tap.

But go into any restaurant or bar in Bangalore and you have one choice on tap:  Kingfisher, an uninteresting lager.  It’s like the John Belushi skit on Saturday Night Live long ago.  Whatever you asked for at his lunch counter he was only serving “Cheeseburga, Cheeseburga!” 

 Vijay Mallay, owner of Kingfisher, has a monopoly on tap beer in India and also distributes Heinekens.  Indians drink just one-twentieth of the beer Americans consume per-capita but what they do drink is controlled 57 percent by this one man. 

When I complained about this to my ACCION host he said Mallay not only has a monopoly on tap beer conferred by state and federal governments but squelches any quality startup opponent.  Not far from my host's old neighborhood there popped up a single bar called “Bierre” which, upon his inquiry, would soon be producing its own dark beer.  However Mallay stepped in and Bierre opened only after it had given Kingfisher an ownership share in this one little place, he said. 

Kingfisher supports a government requirement that beer not be exported across the lines of its 28 states, meaning every company must build 28 separate breweries.  Expensive? Yes.  But not as expensive as competition.

(I just got back from Bierre.  They were out of stout but had an excellent English bitter which I drank during a replay of Serena’s excellent victory at the Open.)

When it comes to booze and government, the story gets worse.  Indian law forbids consuming alcohol without a permit (consistent with this being a Hindu and Islamic country) which you must obtain from a doctor and then pay $l00 a year.  Or for $1,000 and a physician’s letter--saying alcohol is vital to your health—you can get a lifetime permit.

This is completely unenforceable, of course, but offers a constant threat the police can use.  It is just one of many restrictions people face.  In “Maximum City,” a superb book on modern Mumbai by Suketu Mehta, India is defined as “The Country of No.”  You want a gas connection?  No. A phone? No.  Want your daughter to go to St. Catherine’s?  You don’t know the right people.  A parking space?  Apply to the committee.  And so on--at least in Mumbai.

We think the United States has lapsed into crony capitalism where, for example, money turns an obscure section of the tax code into one company’s bonanza, as indeed it has. But India is way ahead of us here.  For example, the electricity blackout that hit 640 million Indians last month has triggered what the Indian press is calling “Coalgate,” a scandal, not a toothpaste, in which the ruling party gave to its friends the right to mine coal and many of them then sat on the concessions.  No coal = no electricity.

India is widely perceived as having neglected the infrastructure essential to a modern economy.  State-controlled is one reason; another is that India is composed of 28 states which wrangle and beggar their neighbors. Its notorious bureaucracy is a third.  A fourth is corruption and a fifth the outsourcing of nation building to one’s friends, family and supporters. 

The writer William Dalrymple in "The Age of Kali" wonders how different India would be today if its first premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, had not been educated in England during the heyday of Fabian Socialists.  India became the world’s largest experiment in socialism, with its major industries controlled by government, only recently relaxed somewhat.  Making alcohol is hardly nation building, I have to agree, but the absence of dark beer is a trivial reminder of what crony capitalism looks or tastes like:   all Cheesburga, Cheeseburga! all the time.