Days 55-62 March End Break

I had taken all of the last week as a a break from the Shodh Yatra, to be in Delhi, Mumbai and  Hyderabad, to attend to work related to “year closing” since the fiscal year ends on March 31.

As it is, all along the Shodh Yatra, in the months of February and March, I had to spend a fair amount of time on the mobile phone and on e-mail, to attend to the microfinance crisis, in my capacity as MFIN President.  During this period, we had formulated our written response to the Malegam Committee’s recommendations on a new regulatory framework for microfinance institutions and submitted those to the Reserve Bank of India  (RBI).

In response, the RBI had called a meeting in Mumbai on March 24.  As MFIN President, I presented the view of the 45 NBFC MFI members of MFIN to  the RBI Deputy Governors, Dr KC Chakrabarty and Smt Shyamala Goipnath.  Later. on Mar 28  we met Mr Malegam  and Dr KC Chakrabarty in two different meetings.

We urged them to notify quickly, whatever  of the Malegam recommendations the RBI accepts, and implored them to give MFIs some time to adapt to the new regime  I also met the CEOs of several banks, giving them an update on the ground situation and urging them to start lending to MFIs who have little or no exposure in AP.  On the whole the meetings were positive but one has to wait with baited breath as to what comes.

The Finance Minister at an ASSOCHAM Roundtable in Mumbai on March 27

I also had the opportunity to attend a policy round table in Mumbai with the Finance Minister, organised by ASSOCHAM. Could not really get through to him due to  there being so many people. But if I had his ear, here is what I would have said.  Here is a video link to a statement on this issue at an important policy forum.

But what bothered me was that no one was willing  to address the main issue, that of widespread default persisting in AP, which has already jeopardized MFI (and thus bank) loans worth Rs 10,000 crore (USD 2.2 billion). More importantly, the damage to credit discipline that has been caused by over 10 million low-income households being encouraged to default, will lead to any sensible lenders turning away from this segment and in the end, it will make access to credit more difficult and costlier to the poor, which is exactly opposite of the intent of the AP Government.The media highlighted my views as follows:

On a despairing evening when I wrote a mail to my son, he composed a poem and sent it to me. This has restored my resolve to fight anyone fomenting mass default. Here it is

Chale Chalo – Poem by Chirag Mahajan

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Day 49 North East beginning with Guwahati and Shillong

The northeastern states of India – Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh, the Seven Sisters, as they are called, with the addition of the little brother, Sikkim,  are remote from the rest of India, and not very well-connected by road or rail. Yet they are among the most beautiful places in India and contain among them more diversity – biotic and ethnic – than the rest of India.


I was lucky to have spent about two years of my youth , between 1976 and 77, in this region as a marketing management trainee 0f Philips, the Dutch multinational electronics company.  I traveled extensively and developed an abiding love foe the region and its people. This got a natural fillip when in 1992, Mr Sam Palia, then Executive Director of the Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI) decided to step down from the IDBI and establish a foundation for catalysing development in the area.  This was called  the Rashtriya Gramin Vikas Nidhi (RGVN), headquartered in Guwahati. Mr Palia asked me to join as a Trustee in the RGVN and help him set up operations.  I spent a fair amount of time doing this.

The first Executive Director of RGVN was the late Rahul Bhimjiani, my brilliant but eccentric classmate from IIM, Ahmedabad.  Another early team member, whom I helped recruit in RGVN was the late Prabhab Datta, a dynamic Assamese youngster, who had worked as a spearhead team member in the Operation Flood, the project launched by Dr Kurien of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), to establish cooperatives  along the lines of the highly successful Anand Milk Union Ltd (AMUL)  in Gujarat.  Prabhab had picked up all the good lessons from this experience and was ready to try out new development ideas in the northeast, Rahul’s brain was a factory of new ideas for development.

With the leadership of Mr Palia ensuring funding support and creditibility, it was go, go, go!  In its first ten years, the RGVN had identified over 1000 small development projects –  mostly for income generating activities baaed on agriculture, horticulture, forestry, animal husbandry, fishery, handicrafts and services like eco-tourism.  RGVN did this by identifying over 700 small NGOs, some near start ups., and giving them support and guidance, but most importantly, reposing faith in them, which was rarely done by outsiders to north-easterners. In addition, the RGVN also incubated the Credit and Savings Program (CSP). This was based on the Grameen Bank , Bangladesh (GBB) model.  Prabhab had come for a visit of the GBB along with me in 1995. Within a few weeks of coming back, he launched the RGVN CSP, which I am told is the biggest microfinance program in the northeast.

Alas, neither Rahul Bhimjiani, nor Prabhab Dutta, were there to meet on this trip. Rahul succumbed to cancer a few years ago, Prabhab to a massive cardiac arrest many years before.  Nor was a third friend. Sanjoy Ghose, who was abducted and killed by the cadres of  the outlawed United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).  My trip to the Northeast was a silent remembrance to all of them, and though I had planned to visit Sanjoy’s last work centre, the Bhrhamaputra river island of Majuli, eventually I could not.

With me on this leg were Sushil Ramola, my IIM-Ahmedabad 1979-81 class mate and now co-founder and CEO of the BASIX  Academy for Building Lifelong Employability (B-ABLE);   Pragnya Seth, a close family friend who again has known my development career since 1981 like Sushil; Amit Mehta, CEO of BASIX Sub-K i-Transactions Ltd, who was to join us in Dimpaur, but eventually did so in Imphal;

We also had with us (only for the first day and a half), Dilip Sarma, an Assamese post graduate in social anthropology from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who left his job in the State Bank of Hyderabad to come back to work for the development of the northeast ten years ago.  He started off as the person to run the CSP of the RGVN, but soon decided that he did not want to be constrained to be a banker.  So he started the Centre for Humanistic Development (CHD), an NGO, based in Guwahati.  Through CSD, Dilip has don done a number of studies and projects to understand the youth of the northeast.

Dilip Sarma on training the militant youth of the NorthEast

Sushil, Pragnya and I landed in Guwahati at about 10 am on 19th March which was a Saturday before Holi, the colour throwing festival of north India.  Dilip Sarma had come to the airport to pick us up and we were to drive straight to Shillong since there was little influence of Holi up there. Along with Dilip came Shubrajyoti Bharali, a post-graduate of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand  (IRMA), the A coming from Anand, where the Anand Milk Union lTd (AMUL) was such a success. I had met Shubhra during bhis IRMA dyas and had encouraged his plans to come back to Assam and had given him some early exposure to microfinance and development work.  He came back an set up Axomi, an NGO which is doing some very good work in microcredit as well as in the dairy sector.  See more at: Shubhra had come to the airport just to welcome me and he did it in traditional Assmese style, by putting a fresh gamocha (hand-woven piece of cloth), lily white, with  dash of pink weft design.

Shubrajyoti Bharali of Axomi with me wearing a Gamocha at Guwhati airport.

Then we headed to Shillong, but as it had rained very heavily the previous night, the journey, instead of being four hours, took seven.  We were lucky there were no formal meeting on the other side, but I had told a whole lot of people that I will meet them. Given that it starts getting dark by 5.30pm, we decided to call all of them to one place.  But where is there a place to be found at such short notice that 20-30 people can fit in?  Eventually, we asked Sanjib Kakoty, faculty member at the Indian Insititute of Management, Shillong, whom I was going to see, if we could ask the others to also assemble at hos home.  Sanjeeb and his charming Naga-Kuki wife Chong were not only incredibly gracious in permitting that at such a short notice, but they gave everybody a sumptuous repast and warm cup of tea.

Some of my guests at Sanjeeb's house in Shillong

... and colleagues from BASIX Shillong office

After every body had their refreshments, I announced that I was going to have some serious video interviews – one with Patrcia Mukhim, Editor of the Shillong Daily who had recently become a member of  the BASIX Holding Board ; another with Sanjib on the Gandhian tradition in the northeast, and one with Dilip on his work with unemployed, militant Bodo youth,

I did manage to get these wonderful people to speak on camera,  and I advise the intersted reader to log on to the following links:

Patricia Mukhim explains development challenges of Northeastern states

Patricia Mukhim voices the developmental challenge for the northeast

Sanjib Kakoty on Gandhians in the Northeast

Sanjib Kakoty on the Gandhians in the Northeast

When Sanjib was talking he mentioned that his father was one of the people who walked with Vinoba Bhave in the northeast and indeed, Vinoba’s shoes for this stretch were htus lying with the family as a memento.  Sanjib took us upstairs to his father amd mother’s stidy to show us the shoes, neatly displayed in a glass case.  It was very  touching for me to once again come so close to Vinoba!

The pair of shoes that Vinoba Bhave used during his Bhoodan padayatra in Assam

It was already 9pm and we thanked our gracious hots, Sajnib and Chong and made our way to a nearby lodge for the night stay. Escorting us was Chris Cajee, a Khasi young technocrat, who has set up a BPO in Meghalaya and also a solid waste management facility in both Shillong and in Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh.  Chris was very helpful to BASIX as well when we were setting up the common service centres in Meghalaya – we have nearly 200 of them all over the state.

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Days 42,43, 63, 64, 67 Bihar

The Stupa at Vaishali

We stopped by at the Museum in Vaishali an walked through the exhibition in half an hour. The capital city of the Licchavis,  Vaishali was the most important centre of governance, commerce, culture and religion  from the sixth to the fourth century BC, when  Patliputra took over that role.  Evidently, the kimgdom  was a “republic” and  practiced a kind of consultative monarchy, for it seems that thousands of  elected representatives were involved in decision making on important issues.  Before doing so, they would have a ritual bath in a big tank, known as the abhisheka (coronation) tank.

Vaishali’s historical importance was realised by an young Indian Civil Service (ICS )officer, Mr Jagdish Chandra Mathur, who was posted here as a Sub-Divisional Officer.   He continued to support  both archaeological as well as developmental activities in this area, through out his career. Mr Mathur was later posted in the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India.  One of his initiatives was to bring to Vaishali, a remarkable development worker Mr Krishan Dev Dewan.

Mr Dewan had studied agriculture in the undivided Punjab and after the Partition, used his knowledge of agriculture and his community organising skills to make a group of refugees from Pakistan self-reliant in Nilokheri (near Karnal) .   In the mid sixties, as India faced food shortages and food self-sufficieny became the national goal,  Mr Mathur was  instrumental in launching the Freedom From Hunger Campaign (FFHC), which was partially supported by the FAO. At the behest of Mr Mathur, Mr KD Dewan moved to Vaishali in 1968 and started a remarkable set of projects to enhance agricultural productivity of small farmers .

In the meanwhile, FFHC was renamed Peoples’ Action for Development India (PADI) and Mr JB Singh, a very dynamic and devoted official of the Agriculture Ministry, was appointed its Director. I had the honour of knowing JB  for  many years  first when he was the Doirector of the  NGO -Action for Food Production -AFPRO and then when we both served on the Board of Gram Vikas, an NGO in Orissa.  JB was its Chairman and we spent many evenings together in Gram Vikas’ Mohuda campus, when JB would recall his days as an agricultural supervisor, initially involved with the famous All India Rural Debt Enquiry (the Gorawara Committee), later introducing high yielding varieties and still later in PADI. It was from JB that I heard of Mr Dewan and his work, though I never had the opportunity to meet him in person.

PADI started  working in the early 1970s  towards the goal of making better means of production and agricultural inputs accessible to the farmers, particularly small  farmers in a compact area who had been organised into Small Farmers’ Associations (SFAs).

Small farmers located in the districts of Vaishali, Muzaffarpur, East Champaran, West Champaran and Darbhanga of North Bihar and Deoria of Eastern U.P. were. over the years, organised into 20 Small Farmers’ Associations (SFAs)  each with  about 1000 farmers. Each of the SFAs  was provided a  revolving fund of Rs 200.000 and assets/ infrastructure like borewells, irrigation pumps and a pipeline network., an office and warehouse building, furniture and training equipment for agricultural and allied activities. Apart  from  faming, allied activities like dairy, horticulture, vermicompost, mushroom cultivation, fishery and piggery and bee keeping; and non-farm activities like carpet weaving were promoted to provide additional income to farmers. Some of the SFAs managed to get funds from different funding agencies and government organizations to engage in the production of garlic, cauliflower seedling and processed honey. Two began carpet weaving, even managing to export carpets.

Initially, PADI staff were deputed to the SFAs as General Secretaries to undertake the key tasks such as irrigation and land development, crop planning, procurement of seed and fertilisers, on-farm agronomic advice, crop marketing,  allied activities and agro-processing and non-farm activities such as carpet weaving.  Mr Dewan’s idea was that in due course, the members of the SFAs will play leadership roles.  But that did not happen due to the lack of managerial, financial and technical expertise among the members. In order to fulfill this gap,  Mr Dewan  envisaged the Consultancy-cum-Guidance Centre (CGC)  in 1979 and gradually established it  by 1984. The PADI staff, however, continued to play the role of General Secretaries in each SFA,  and the SFA  members continued to depend on Mr Dewan for vision and inspiration and the General Secretaries for management and implementation.

For all his greatness and vision, one of Mr Dewan’s  tenets – that the SFAs must work at no-profit, no-loss – led to the SFAs having no financial sources to revive defunct tubewells and to buy inputs like seeds and fertilisers in bulk.  In 1989, when PADI , which by then had become CAPART, withdrew its staff as well as the revolving fund of Rs 200,00 from each SFA,  even after 18 years they had not become self-reliant and financially sustainable. After forty years, the SFAs still exist but have lost vitality. Much of the old irrigation and agricultural infrastructure has become defunct and the executive committees of the SFAs have become inactive in many cases. There are 20 SFAs , each with roughly 1000 members,  as follows:

Sl. No. District Name of SFA Place
01. VAISHALI (5) BASFARCA Goroul, Bibipur
DASFARCA Daudnagar
KASFARCA Kamtauliya
VASFA Vaishali
BASFARCA Bahdinpur
GASFA Gangoi
GASFARCA Govindpur
BASFARCA Bheriyari
SASFARCA (SASFA -2) Sanichiri
SASFA -1 Shivpur
PASFA Parsouni
KDP Kamtarajpur
MDP Majharia
TASFARCA Tharu Parsouni
05. DARBHANGA (1) KDP Keoti

In 2005, the son of late Mr JC Mathur, Mr Lalit Mathur, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Andhra Pradesh cadre, became the Director General of CAPART.  He visited the CGC and the SFAs and came to the conclusion that the SFAs needed major capacity building.  As he knew my work in PRADAN as well as in BASIX, he got in touch to see if I would get involved. As I was much too tied up with existing commitments, I introduced Lalit to Mr Tarun Saha, the Bihar State Head of ASSEFA, a  Gandhian NGO I was associated with since 1981. Indeed, I had worked as a PRADAN professional with ASSEFA from 1982 to 85 in the Gaya and Jamui districts of Bihar, on projects of land and water development for small farmers who had received Bhoodan land.

I also worked on group tubewells, and some of these were funded through a loan from the Central Bank of India, the same bank which has funded VASFA and other SFAs.  Tarun had joined ASSEFA in 1985 and spread the work manifold. Afterm my introduction, he met Mr Lalit Mathur in 2006 and then visited the SFAs and the CGC, but was not able to excite them to undertake anything new or loan-based. Partly to revisit that idea, and partly for old times’ sake, I had asked Tarun to join me on this visit to Vaishali.

Mihir had arranged  that we meet Mr Dipanker Shri Gyan, Regional Deputy Director of CAPART, based in Patna, who is also in charge of the CGC.  He shared with us his analysis of the situation of the SFAs.  The older leadership  has not been able to adapt to a new regime where there are no grants funding  and no father figure like Mr Dewan to provide detailed guidance.  The younger generation is either not interested in agriculture, if educated.  If they stay back in the village, it is out of a sense of not having any alternative.  As the holdings are becoming smaller due to family division, irrigation water is becoming hard to get due to break down of tube wells  and crop inputs are becoming expensive, they are not motivated to do their best in agriculture.

He suggested that the members should be motivated to elect new executive committees with at least one third young men and one-third women, leaving only a third for the older generation who had become dependent on CAPART funding and CGC guidance.  He had also drawn up a list of physical works that needed to be done in each SFA, such tubewell repair, and made an estimated budget. Thus the “revival plan” was ready. The question is . who will bell the cat?

Back to Vaishali – 2nd April 2011

So here I am, back in Bihar. Landed in Patna and after getting together with several colleagues who have come from various places – Kaushik, an IITian who works in BASIX vocational training company B-ABLE; Manoj Mishra, who was with me in Bastar already; Harinarain Pande ji, my “field guide” in  rural development, with whom I worked in Madhya Pradesh for many years; Shishir, who left us to join ITC’s CSR team and is now with Usha Martin’s  NGO KGVK, and of course, Mihir, who is now the COO of Indian Grameen Services.  Several others dripped out  and some will join in the next few days  aas we make our way to  the Bhitharwa Ashram near Bettiah, West Champaran, where I have convened a seminar on “Reinterpreting Gandhiji’s Champaran Satyagraha for the 21st Century”.  Several eminent Gandhians, including 90 year old Razi saheb from Patna and Dr Ramji Singh, will be attending.

We drove to Viashali. Mercifully the 6.4 km long Ganga bridge ( Ima told it is the longest in Asia) connecting Patna wth Hajipur was not congested as it was the last time I crossed it m when it took two hours.  We made it in just two hours to Vaishali, where we drove to the office of the Vaishali Area Small Farmers’ Association (VASFA).  This is one of the 22 such small farmers’ associations which were established by Mr Krshan Dev Dewan, a remarkable individual. (See blog of Day 43 Vaishali CGC for more).

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“Poetry makes nothing happen” Auden, Yeats and Tagore


Chandna Mandal reciting Tagore’s poem Prabasi in the Sunderbans

Click below to see the recitation

The dumb earth looks into my face, and

Spreads the arms about me,

At night, the fingers of the stars touch my dream

They know my former name.

Their whispers remind me of the music

Of a long silent lullaby;

They bring to my mind, the smile of a face

Seen in the gleam of the first day break

There is a love in each speck of Earth, and

Joy in the spread of the sky

I care not if I become dust, for the dust

Is touched by his feet

I care not if I become a flower, for the flower

He takes up in his hand.

He is in the sea, on the shore; he is with

Ship that carries all.

Whatever I am I am blessed, and blessed

Is this earth of dear dust.

Publisher’s Note No: 14. Utsarga (1914). This translation by Gurudev is an interesting illustration of how the Poet faced the almost impossible task of giving a full and faithful rendering of some of his original composition. The first sentence is a translation of only the last two lines of the third stanza of the original; next four sentences are rendering of the fourth stanza; the sixth sentence of the first two lines of the eighth stanza; the seventh and eighth sentences of the first four lines of the ninth stanza and the last two sentences are of the last four lines of the tenth stanza. Translation  retrieved by Sankar Datta.

Yet, not too far in space and time from where Tagore wrote this beautiful poem, other men caused misery to millions of human beings.  One such even was the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, in which over 3 million people died, in a year when there was little overall shortage in rice production.  One person who studied this  tragedy was Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winning economist, who in fact, still has a house in Shantiniketan, and indeed we passed by it. Sen’s elegant explanation of famines, when there is no absolute shortage of food, deals with a “failure of entitlements” .  Another blogger has explianed it much more elegantly:

I’ve just finished (the main text of) Amartya Sen’s ‘Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation’. Sen (famously) argues that, contrary to conventional belief, most famines aren’t created by food shortages. Harvest failures, reductions in food imports, droughts, etc, are often contributing factors – but far more important are the social systems that determine how a society’s food is distributed. Absolute scarcity – insufficient food to feed everyone – is extraordinarily rare. Vastly more common is for an adequate supply of food to be beyond the reach of those who need it most. Sen advocates shifting our attention from questions of food availability to questions of distribution, or to the social systems that guide this distribution. “If one person in eight starves regularly in the world, this is… the result of his inability to establish entitlement to enough food; the question of the physical availability of the food is not directly involved.” (p. 8).  See more at:

I remember seeing Satyajit Ray’s Asani Sanket about the Bengal Famine in 1973, thirty years after the event, in the dark cool comfort of the Regal theatre in Delhi, yet sweating, holding the hand of my Bengali girl friend of those days…And that was just three years after the horrors of  the genocide in East Pakistan in 1970, which brought millions of Bengali  refugees to India and led to the birth of Bangladesh. How is it possible, for a land to be witness to both – the romance of Tagore’s humanism and the cruel “realism” of the Bengal Famine and the Bangladesh War?

After a few days , when I met Siddharth, we exchanged notes on what the trip to the Sunderbans and Shantiniketan meant to us, and this is how the brief  dialogue went. This link is to just a  three  minute long conversation and in English.

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Day 22 Shantiniketan


This word  has a special meaning for any Bengali, or for an unabashed  Banglaphile, as I am. ( I can  understand Bangla fully, speak enough to hold a basic conversation,  and  even read the script haltingly).   I thus did not mind waking up at 4 am  to get ready and go to the Howrah station to catching the Ganadevta Express at 6 am.  Even before we could get to Bolpur, we were treated to some wonderful music by two Bauls who got into the train at Burdwan. Click on the video link below

Though I had visited Shantiniketan perfunctorily when I was working in Philips in Kolkata in 1977-78, I did not have any memories of the place.  Since then, I had got to know a lot more about Rabindra Nath Tagore and I felt impeeled to revisit the place.  And who could be a better guide than Sankar Datta, my dear colleague since 1984 in PRADAN, and later on in BASIX, and now Dean of  The Livelihood School.   Sankar had gone to school in Patha Bhavana, the school in Shanitniketan and his father Mr Bijoy Gopal Datta, whom I know, was the University Engineer.  This is how he  had planned the day:

We could take a Rickshaw to Santiniketan. Travel through the Ashram: See China Bhavana, Patha Bhavana (the School where I studied), Gour Prangan, Simha Sadan, go by the road in front of the hostels to reach Kala Bhavana, Sangeet Bhavana, then turn back towards Chhatimtala, the point where the journey of Santiniketan began, with Devendranath (Rabindranath’s father) meditating under the tree. Then we could go into the Uttarayan campus, the residential complex of Rabindranath, which has then been converted into a museum.

Then we could break for lunch, where I could request two of our senior teachers, Mrinalda, who taught in Palli Siksha Sadan (the agriculture college) and knows the experiments that Rathindranath did on agriculture fairly well and Dikshitda, who headed the Palli Samgathana Vibhag ( the rural reconstruction department, which has been reorganized and has a new name since I left) to join us for lunch.

After this, we could proceed to Sriniketan and visit Shilpa Sadana, which was the then conceptualization of rural industrialization, and works on variety of arts and crafts, including handlooms (unfortunately, Mani Sengupta, Nabarun’s grandfather, who gave shape to this center directly under the guidance of Rabindranath is no more).

Then, if time permits, we could go over to Amar Kutir, which was also an expression of rural non-farm activities, including political activities. Bengal leaders like Rashbihari, Aorobindo, Subhash Bose, among many others have spent their time doing strategic planning in hiding here.”

Sankar and I on a rickshaw at the gates of Shantiniketan

Another person who decided to join us was Nabarun Sengupta, faculty member of The Livelihood School, who indeed  was born in Shantiniketan, and went to school here. His mother still lives there.   And then there was Siddartha Sanyal, who had started living in nearby Bolpur a couple of years ago. The only “local” I could not meet was former BASIX Board member  Keya Sarkar, who lives and runs a cafe here,  as she was was away to Kerala.

Nabarun came along on his bicycle

Though it was a Sunday, the campus was alive, as it observes a weekly holiday on Wednesdays, a Brahmo tradition that Tagore brought with him.  The students at Patha Bhawan ( the primary school begun by Tagore as an ideal school), as well those at the  Vidya Bhavan, the secondary school, seem to be engaged in joyful learning without any sense of  sel-consciousness at being watched by visitors across the frnces.

Students attending a class in Shantiniketan

But Sankar ushered me quickly to the Uttarayan Complex where Rabindra Nath Tagore ived and worked. The Complex consists of several buildings – Udayana, Konarka, Shyamali, Punascha and Udichi. The Bichitra ( or, Rabindra Bhavan ) designed by the poet’s son Rathindranath Tagore.  Unfortunately, photography was not permitted here, so I have to  show you an image taken from the net:

I spent a whole hour in the Tagore museum  at the back of this buiding wich depicted his remarkable life. Though not very well displayed (small font, big posters), it is still elevating.

Nabarun then led us to Kala Bhavana, the art college of Santiniketan, is still considered one of the best art colleges in the world. It had at some stage Nandlal Bose, Ramkinkar Baij and Beenodebehan Mukhopadhyay living, creating and teaching there.  One can still see many of their works on campus.


Sankar pointed us to Ramkinkar's Gandhi which looks "rudra" and has a human skull under its foot!

Kala Bhavana has many idiosyncratically painted buildings

Quite characteristically,  instead of hearing Rabindra Sangeet there, we found a  bunch of youngsters practising some western style pop songs with an orchestra.  We joined the curious crowd to see this, but no one could explian what was it about, so after a while we moved on.

Western pop in Shanti Niketan!

Lunch beckoned us at Khari Mati, a restaurant, niether built in traditional style, nor serving local cuisine. But it was fine and we were met here by  Prof  Prasanta Ghosh of  the Palli-Charcha Kendra; Centre for Social Studies and Rural Development.  Prof Dikhit Sinha, formerly of the Palli-Samgathana Vibhaga; Institute of Rural Reconstruction,  also joined at lunch.  Dikhit da told us about the work that Tagore had done for rural development  as part of the Sriniketan Experiment, taking an integrated approach, improving agricultural productivity, establishing rural industries and working on rural health care by establishing health care cooperatives!

We visited the  Silpa Sadana, the Centre for Rural Craft, Technology and Design,   and were quite depressed to see its state. Tagore’s ideas frozen in time.  But by the time we visited Amar Kutir, our spirit was uplifted again.  This quintessential social enterprise manages to provide a living to over a thousand craftspersons.

Students at the Palli Charcha Kendra

I ended the trip to Shantiniketan by giving a talk to the students at the Palli-Charcha Kendra; Centre for Social Studies and Rural Development,  The talk by itself is old hat, but the opening song is worth listening to,  Click on the link below:

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Day 20-21 Kolkata

I was on a work break in Kolkata,  to attend three Board meetings  of CTRAN,  our energy and environment services company, ;   of IGS, our action research company ;    and of The Livelihood School, meant for training livelihood promotion practitioners and policymakers

Swami Vivekananda

But I decided to spend some time on my Yatra agenda.  So on the morning of the first day, before the first Board meeting was to start at 10.30 am, Naveen and I went to Dakhshineswar, the samadhi of  Vivekananda’s guru, Sri Ramakrishna Pramahans and then to Belur Math, the monastery complex established by Ramakrishna’s first and foremost disciple, Swami Vivekananda.

In the poster above, which I had seen at the Digvijay College in Rajnanadgaon, Chhattisgarh,  Vivekananda asks  ” Are you a youth? ” and then goes on to define a youth as  someone who: 1. Fights against injustice ; 2.  Stays away from bad habits ; 3. Is able to change inherited tradition; 4. Who has sense as well as enthusiasm; 5.  One who is ready to sacrifice for the nation.; 6. One who solves problems; 7.  One who makes inspiring history; 8.  One who does rather than talks.

A quote from  Swami Vivekananda, His Call to the Nation. p.30

The West had tried to conquer external nature, and the East had tried to conquer internal nature. Now East and West must work hand in hand for the good of each other, without destroying the special characteristics of each.  The West has much to learn from the East and the East has much to learn from the West; in fact, the future has to be shaped by a proper fusion of the two ideals.  Then there will be neither East nor West, but one humanity.

Mother Teresa

Then, on the second day, after the third Board meeting got over at 5 pm, along with Prof Vidya Rao of  the Tata Institute of Social Sciences who is on the Board of The Livelihood School, ; and my colleague Ram Sundar Roy, based in Kolkata, I went to see Mother Teresa’s home.

Mother Teresa's Tomb in her Kolkata Home

Could this be the answer?

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Day 19 Sunderbans, Dt South 24 Parganas, West Bengal

Sunderbans literally means “beautiful forests”, and the word evokes the images of Royal Bengal Tigers,  cobras and pythons and dense mangrove forests, criss-crossed by the “mouths of the Ganges”, as the island strewn delta of this mighty river is called.  I  had long been wanting to visit Shri Tushaar Kanjilal, the famous rural development worker of the Tagore Society for Rural Development, Rangabelia, in the Sunderbans.  As it happened, though I could not meet Tushaar da, I did go to the Gosaba block.

My kind host and guide was Saikat Pal, formerly of PRADAN and now running an NGO called Prasari. He is post graduate in Civil Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.

Saikat Pal of Prasari

Accompanying me were Siddharth Sanyal, a development worker who runs an NGO called Dakshinayan  ( ),  educating trial children in the Sathal Parganas of Jharkhand; .Ashok Singha, the CEO of CTRAN ( ), and Naveen my assistant from Hyderabad, who was with me since Raipur.

Arriving in Howrah station, Kolkata,  by overnight train from Bhubaneswar, Pradip, Ashok, Naveen and I got ready in one room of the Yatri Niwas, had breakfast and rushed by taxi to Sealdah station. We took a local train from the crowded Sealdah station up to Canning station, and then a three wheeler “motor van” till the river-crossing to Shamhunagar.

Siddhartha Sanyal and I, riding a three wheeler motor van

Crossing the Vidyadhari river at Shambunagar was one’s introduction to this unique ecology – small islands surrounded by mangrove forests,  cut off from each other by the numerous rivers, known as  the mouths of the the Ganges.  Though the river was  as broad as a quarter kilometre, the crossing took only a few minutes.

Crossing the Vidyadhari river to Sunderbans

The first person we met was Gautam da, the field coordinator of Prasari and he took us to the tea shop of  Paresh Das, a marginal farmer who was one of the first people to promote the “system of rice intensification ” SRI, a technique popularised by Prof Norman Upoff of the Cornell university, USA,  which more than doubles paddy yield while reducing seed, fertiliser and water consumption.

We saw Paresh’s paddy field. He told use his yield uded to be 6 bags per bigha and has gone up to 9-12 bags per bigha.  (A bag is 60 kg, and a bigha is  0.134 hectare) So the yield went up from 2.7 tons /ha to 4.05 to 5.4 tons/ha,

A paddy field with system of rice intensification (SRI) technique

Later we saw the paddy field of a woman farmer nearby. She has a pedal operated pump, which she demonstrated for us.

Namita Mondal, a woman SRI paddy farmer using pedal pump to irrigate her field

Gautam got the farmers to demonstrae the weeding machine in the SRI paddy fields.  The reason it could operate so effortlessly was becasue the paddy was transplanted in neat rows.

We then visited Yakub Miyan, who is locally known as “vegetable doctor” as he is adept at growing veegtables.  He showed us the vegetables he was rowing and told us that at the end of the year  he will make about Rs 60,000  net profit.   He also shlowed us the RP-9 variety of mustard, a crop which was tried for the first time in Sunderbans.  RP-9 was a variety found in the forest of Jharkhand by a PRADAN colleague, Rajendra, who named it.

A field full of robust RP-9 mustard plants

We had a most wonderful lunch with  Yakub Miyan
With Miyan and his family and others

Later, Chandna Mandal,  the wife of Naveen Mandal, one of the field workers of Prasari recited the entire long  Bengali poem Prabasi  by Raindranath Tagore. See video ink below

(Must click on this to listen to this wonderful recitation of  Tagore’s Prabasi by village woman Chandna Mandal)


Publisher’s Note No: 14. Utsarga (1914). This translation by Gurudev is an interesting illustration of how the Poet faced the almost impossible task of giving a full and faithful rendering of some of his original composition. The first sentence is a translation of only the last two lines of the third stanza of the original; next four sentences are rendering of the fourth stanza; the sixth sentence of the first two lines of the eighth stanza; the seventh and eighth sentences of the first four lines of the ninth stanza and the last two sentences are of the last four lines of the tenth stanza.

The dumb earth looks into my face, and

Spreads the arms about me,

At night, the fingers of the stars touch my dream

They know my former name.

Their whispers remind me of the music

Of a long silent lullaby;

They bring to my mind, the smile of a face

Seen in the gleam of the first day break

There is a love in each speck of Earth, and

Joy in the spread of the sky

I care not if I become dust, for the dust

Is touched by his feet

I care not if I become a flower, for the flower

He takes up in his hand.

He is in the sea, on the shore; he is with

Ship that carries all.

Whatever I am I am blessed, and blessed

Is this earth of dear dust.

We then crossed over to the next island,Kochukhali which was inhabited largely by Oraon tribals, and  the houses there were mostly mud walls and thatch roofs. The people said they had no land as whatever they cultivated was destroyed by the sea water incursion that happened due to a Cyclone Aila in 2009. It not only took over 100 lives in this area and the neighbouring Bangladesh, but also led to the death of at least 12 Bengal Tigers.  See coverage in

The devastating effect of climate on livelihoods was evident everywhere. As agriculture was  no longer feasible, Prasari has introduced other activities like piggery, duckery and fishery.

** Ashok,  as discussed during our trip and later while inaugurating the CTRAN office in Kolkata, I hope CTRAN will adopt the Sunderbans as its “karma bhoomi” for studying the impact of climate change on livelihoods and experimenting with mitigation and adaptation measures.

Talked to women SHG members and found they had not got any bank loans so far. Health care is an important unmet need,

Met a bunch of youngsters and found that most of the males migrate for six to nine months, to places as far as Kerala for work.  Mostly as construction workers.

** Sushil, this can be a good place to provide vocational training. Saikat will be happy to work with B-ABLE to set up an employability training centre here.

Migrant workers who had come back home for a visit

As we were leaving, the villagers offered to demonstrate fish catching from the pond. See below

Ducks swimming in village fish pond

On the way back, I thought of the work of the British anthropologist, Evans-Pritchard, who studied the Nuer people in the Sudan and developed a theory of the impact of the environment on culture.   In the Sunderbans, one could see a stark example of that theory.

Finally, we rode back on the three wheel motor van back to the river crossing and took the last boat back, just as the moon was beginning to rise.

Returning from Sunderbans by boat. Naveen and I

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