Tuesday, October 21, 2008

FIR: Orange Hinterlands and the 9-seater enterprise

Last week I embarked on a trip to the hinterlands with a zilch of clarity where I was headed—in life as well as on the trip. While the ticketed destination was Nagpur, seat of the region of Vidharbha, in Western Maharashtra I ended up spending the trip in the train and a modern campus, 40Kms off the city of Nagpur. It was a B-School playing host to corporate honchos and students for its annual B-School Festival.

The trip was an outcome of randomness of the past few weeks. With no classes scheduled for a major part of the week, my MBA-ilk had gone through this state of randomness in the past. When a friend suggested we quiz in the hinterlands, a past-time I have dabbled in at times and bet my intellectual identity in, it was a perfect excuse for a getaway from Mumbai Madness.

As a student and as a marketer, the choice of mode of transport was clear— Sleeper-class in Indian Railways. The minister in charge of this State enterprise has impressed me lately with his socio-politico-business acumen and the jugaadu system he has brought in with his constant cheeky innovation. Second Class, once the great leveler, is now a compulsion or a punishment to the educated civilization I belong to. The 3rd AC has now become the standard while Deccan tried to poach on the clientele of the 3rd AC without much success. Yet I travelled, for the sake of childhood memories  of annual vacations to God’s own country. It was a time 3rd AC and low-cost airlines had not been envisioned.

My Rail-olfactory memory is filled with stenches of different levels, from urgh! to ssssshhhhit! .I call my present abode, the great Indian city, an infinitesimally large railway platform for these reasons for it reminds me of the Platform Stench. Living here for the past one and a half-years, has given me ample opportunities to add to the variety and nuances of distinguishing smells. Having reached to a point, where I completely ignore the sea and any sea-related odour including the rotten dry sewers which fill up the liver, my olfactory senses have managed to survive thanks to the family gene.

The one stench I rediscovered was that of the iron and wood coaches. The best part about the sleeper coaches is that they are natural, rather life in motion. They do not cover up the blemishes, the imperfections which lie in society. While the ongoing train was headed to the land of Singur( and this may a bad taste in the mouths of all Nano fans), the coach was as stuffy as the sick head of a politician deciding to position himself on the basis of race, caste or creed.

Yet there was change awaiting this archaic design which has existed for as long as I can remember. As per the new plan, the Sleepers will be 81-seaters, that’s 9 seats in a compartment( which is by adding one to the side-berth). The Minister’s strategy of increasing seats and decreasing the amount of air available to his brethren in a sleeper coach is deplorable ut cheeky. To think of, that a decade back the quality of life in transit, the same coaches was better than now is proof of what would have happened in the heartlands of India’s worst maintained states.

Yet Bihari Balatant commercialism is what has made the Railways a saleable and profitable proposition today, at least they are clear to a large extent whom are they selling to and what should they sell. They face similar impediments as the Telecom sector. Too little infrastructure to service the high demand. 

Yet every change needs to be greeted with applause. So, finally railways woke up to the demand for charging points(as mobile users swelled and today you see a larger queue near the charging points than for the seats.) In-fact, what amazed me was country folk with iPods and their A.C Chargers charging them up for the journey ahead. I really missed taking that pic.

Indian Railways does throw up surprises at you. Moving on, I was and I am still quite impressed by Nagpur Railway station. I find the entire setting picturesque. However low on battery it wasn’t possible to take pics in daylight.

As I had mentioned, The trip was born out of randomness but it was always looking for a purpose. We went for a quiz in the hinterlands thinking corporates won’t turn up for an event like this on Friday, but they did. The best was a HUL manager (and a pretty good quizzer in Bangalore and Mumbai Circles turning up from the tribal aras of Madhya Pradesh for the event)

We didn’t do well, we were not expected to for the teams which qualified were all corporates. The trip, as I can now summarize was taken to understand reality and bring in hope and vigor to a pretty boring routine. The Indian Consumers as most marketing manuals tend to think and most B-School practitioners tend to imagine does not frequent M-Block Market in GK-II or a resident of Colaba. What brings in the volume, profit and at times growth are these towns which we would neglect.

For e.g it was startling to see Jetking hardware training institute having set up shop in Nagpur. It was even more shocking as a marketer to see that the train next morning was filled up with scores of students heading to the Nagpur centre from the hinterland for their classes. While the conversations had that rustic touch, but the aspirations could make any B-School student sit up and take notice. They discussed class-room affairs, places where the couples could go, criticized teachers who weren’t up to the mark( and we for long have thought that the rural folk are happy attending schools where none exist). The female sitting next to me brought back memories of how Naipaul had incessantly criticized the Marathi community for everything from lack of facial features to hygiene, lack of logic, religious Zingoism.

This was the Indian Awakening. Here was the community’s retort, the female, from the hinterlands of India, struggling yet giving her best shot at speech in English. 

Mr. Naipaul, we were a strange country even then and we continue to be. To us, it was a nagging conversation, because as so-called sophisticated, jargon-ridden idiots who pride on our education which comes for free, it is not easy to understand the struggles one goes through to acquire in a nation bereft of opportunities.

IMT Nagpur, as the wikipedia entry says was instituted as a centre for corporate excellence. Their campus seems to reinforce the concept. I also liked how the entire city is plastered by signs indicating the route to the place (just like Symbiosis has managed to plaster Pune). Service excellence was best displayed in an IMT volunteer standing at the manual toll check-post and greeting us with welcome and apologies for any inconveniences caused to us. The students’ co-operative store though a necessity in any remote campus was again news to us, as we heard that it was operated by students only who took time off to operate it in turns.

Not that Nagpur is not the place for innovation and thought leadership! For good or bad, a city which has been the epicentre for Hindu Nationalism, Dalit-Movement and Free Press which I love in the form of The Hitavada, which has been part of my travails whenever I crossed Nagpur. I do hope some good comes out of the place. Its just a normal paper, bu then a great local brand in a country where rare Print Brands exist.

The randomness did reorganize into a structure. For once, it was a reality check leading up to placements. While a lot of industry sectors look gloomy, you go to these places and realise that demand exists and a lot of it. Indian economy will grow provided you believe it can.. For me the belief was reinstated. Some of the pics accompanying this post will bring in the optimism. It reinforced some of the ideas Rama Bijapurkar stressed about the multitude of social fabrics and structure in the Indian Market.

A tier-II station had a Comesum outlet. Mind you the same chaps who serve at Hazrat Nizamuddin Station and Bangalore City (two of the busiest in the country). Its been there for five years. The crowd at 11 at night when the whole city goes to sleep was again astounding. 

Then I saw the mechanized floor mop which normally graces its presence I swanky IT offices. It was being used to clean the platform (that too not No.1, the main platform). One of the cleanest Railway Station considering the multitude of the Junta it serves.

An hour away at the B-School campus, I saw a student’s co-operative store. It managed to keep the best of the brands for students, it was a co-operative. The telecom connectivity in the Hostel as expected was good. Ministers, at times, do end up doing a good job.

While coming back few enduring images gave back the hopes one finds fading away as he  checks the stock-market ticker and the corporate brouhaha about a recession setting in. Hope can always make you find a way. 

First an elderly gentleman showcasing the Jugaad Concept Indian Population survives on(See pic). Sifting through the pulp fiction of Surendra Mohan Pathak, he tried making most of his ancient walkman whose front flap was now gone. In the very same coach now being increasingly dominated by iPods and Nokia Express, he had managed to keep his musical spirit alive with his antique yet near-perfect solution of a tape recorder and the tape. On request he let me photograph him, often putting in the benevolence the Country Elder is expected to show. He took care of my belongings which I did keep in his custody for an hour while i went to see a friend in the AC Coaches. I listened to a track I could not recognize and heard the memorable voice of the Nightingale of India-Lata Mangeshkar which refuses to fade in the era of Fly By Night Model Turned Singers. We are like this only! The cassette cover however read Awara, Aag and Chori Chori all stacked up in a re-recorded 90 minute tape, emphasizing that India had woken up to piracy long before MP3s came to this country.

Second the enterprising spirit which comes in the wake of adversity. Two kids, lets stop considering this to be a child-labour instance were enterprising in picking up a basket twice their size and using the Demand-Supply economics to offer a great deal, Pomegranates(half-rotten at 3 for 10 bucks and 4 guavas for rs. 10). Considering it was the same target market they were positioning the one Mr. Thackeray sold their story on Saturday evening and Sunday(most were appearing for Railway Recruitment Board), it was evident what two sets of Marathi Manush( The opportunity deprived and the power corrupted) were up to.

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