Gaza Demystified

Read Time:20 Minute

Experts discuss the Gaza war, providing a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the region that has often been shrouded in controversy and misunderstanding.

Dr Adraian Haack
Director – India Office, Konrad-Adenauer- Stiftung 

Israelis and Palestinians have one thing in common. They usually hate when foreigners explain their conflict to them. I’m an observer from the outside, so I don’t know in person how the people in the Gaza Strip suffer right now and I don’t know how it felt to be an Israeli on 7th of October 23. The first thing we should know about Germany in this conflict is Germany was the biggest bilateral donor of the Palestinian authorities. Not many people are aware of that. But this went hand-in-hand with our commitment to Israeli security. The principle of the German governments in the past was very easy: The better off the Palestinians are, the less they will commit terror attacks on Israel. There is a UN agency called UNRWA, which is, in particular, in charge of Palestine refugees. I’m not aware if there’s any other UN agency, which is only in charge of one ethnic group or one region in the world. This is very unique. I highlight this, to raise the point that there was never a lack of material support for Palestine. Some people say that Palestine had the chance to become a Singapore of the Middle East. But now it is more in the direction of Afghanistan.  

But I remember from my work in parliament, in the foreign committee, that there were always problems with UNRWA. For example, the Germans were paying for the schoolbooks in West Bank and Gaza. But they were full of hatred towards Jews. Anti-Semitism was always more important than mathematics. The same was with infrastructure. There was a functioning water system in Gaza Strip, provided by the donor countries. The pipes were kicked out. They are now building the body of many of the rockets, which we see now being fired on Israel. There are a lot of bad examples regarding this. We can say, in total, the German philosophy of money for peace didn’t work out. This policy completely failed.

That’s very similar to Germany’s Iran policy which also completely failed. We defended the Iran deal, and had the idea that offering economic perspective to the Iranian regime will lead to less aggressive foreign policy. But the opposite happens. They use the peace times to intensify the proxy network, all over the region—the Hamas in Gaza; Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi in Yemen.  

The German Middle East policy also failed. We supported the two-state solution but we were never really close to that, except, perhaps in the 90s.  The main problem is that Gaza Strip and West Bank are ruled by two different groups, which are sort of enemies towards each other. The Fatah are the more moderate group, compared to Hamas, but one has to keep in mind that Abbas who is the Chairman of the Fatah party since 2009, is not distancing himself from the terror. After the 2009 election, they didn’t have elections. He is from Fatah. He’s denying holocaust. He’s very close within the radius of Moscow. So, he never, in fact, not only impressed, but the Fatah itself was never really a solid partner to build a two-state solution or in that regard, a three-state solution. 

The logo of Fatah is assault rifle and a hand grenade covering the map of Israel. The official position of Germany is that we support this two-state solution. But I’m not too optimistic. Since the seventh of October, Germany is engaged in this conflict. Germans were killed during the attack. A 20-year-old German woman was beheaded. Officially, we are in favour of an end of violence and a ceasefire.

Rise of Anti-Semitism

But let’s be honest. Our people are still somewhere in the tunnels of Hamas, taken as hostages. So, we are probably not the best advocates of a ceasefire. The very objective of the German policy since the past has been very simple. It has good intentions, but it was never really able to commit to the realities in this conflict. It was always an ivory tower kind of politics and it was of the opinion that you can somehow exchange peace for financial support. That has not worked out so far.

At the same time, we see that the immigration into Germany from the Middle East and North Africa in the last decade has created a situation where we have anti-Semitism on the streets. We don’t have the same situation like in France, but we are going towards it. We have aggressive demonstrations all over Germany. It is a one-way street because the Jewish population is very smaller and, at the same time, unaggressive. Many parts of Germany are not safe for Jews.  

For any Israeli government, it is hard to present any strategy to its people. Hamas has no military bases. They are right within the civilian infrastructure in Gaza Strip. We have a situation where the continuation of violence is very foreseeable. At the same time, Israel is now fighting this war, mostly with the Army reservist forces. Israel is a very small country. There is a chance that most people who are now in uniform and fighting in Gaza are personally victims of the seventh of October. They have a personal connection to the terror attacks and this makes the war even more difficult than it always is.

Iran’s Proxy Wars

Israel maybe able to destroy the structures of Hamas but it will not be able to end the idea of Hamas. The rubbles of Gaza will create a new generation of people who will continue the fight into the other direction. On both sides, the hate has increased so much. I don’t see Israel as an aggressor. I’m not seeing the average Palestinian peoples in Gaza strip of West Bank as the aggressors.

The aggressors are the leaders of Hamas, living in luxury in Qatar, using their own people as cannon fodder. Furthermore, there’s Iran which doesn’t want to get dirty. Hence, they use proxies all over the region. Their proxies, namely Hamas and the Houthi, are already in a fight with Iran’s enemies—in one situation with Israel and the other one, with Saudi Arabia. As long as Iran is not committed to a peace solution, it will be impossible to achieve peace.

Dr Stanly Johny

International Affairs Editor, The Hindu

The crisis, which is now unfolding before us in Gaza is one of the largest humanitarian tragedies and it is also a major geopolitical event. It has multiple implications. The latest flare up began on October 7, when Hamas, which is the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, carried out a cross border raid in Israel, killing 1400 people, mostly civilians.

The larger context is that the occupation of the Palestinian territories has been going on for the last, at least 56 years. It was in the 1967 war that Israel captured the whole of historical Palestine; which includes today’s West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza strip under Israeli control. Israel was forced to withdraw from Gaza in 2005 after the 2nd Intifada, but from 2007 onwards, Gaza has remained under Israel’s naval, land and aerial blockade.

Even prior to the October 7 attack, the situation between Israel and Palestine remained tense, especially in the West Bank. In 2023 itself, some 200 Palestinians and 35 Israelis were killed, prior to the October 7 attack by Hamas, in West Bank itself. The West Bank has been divided into three areas—ABC: Area A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, which practically has no authority; Area B’s security is divided between the Israelis and the Palestinians; and Area C is completely under the Israeli control. There are 400,000 Jews settlers in the West Bank and 300,000 in East Jerusalem.

Multiple Check Points

I have visited West Bank three times and travelled across the West Bank townships—both Palestinian townships as well as Israeli settlements. In the West Bank, there are about 640 Israeli checkpoints. If you’re in Ramallah, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority and want to go to the Al-Quds University in Abu Dis, which is the most important University of West bank, you will have to go through multiple Israeli checkpoints. I went through it.

The UN Secretary General has called Israel’s response as collective punishment. In the last four weeks, 10,500 people were killed in Gaza alone, of which 70% are women and children. 1.5 million people have been displaced, which is more than half the population of Gaza Strip. Thousands were moved and thousands more injured. Hospitals and refugee camps are being bombed. Even ambulances are not being spared.

Shocking Global Response

Look at the world’s response to this crisis. Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. In the past 20 months, the United States has led the global response to this. The US mobilized the western world and imposed biting sanctions on Russia. The US supplied billions of dollars-worth weapons to Ukraine to attack the Russians. The United States has also imposed pressure on other countries, especially the developing countries, including India, to take its line. US media said that America was taking a very moralistic position against Russia’s violation of international laws and against the occupation of the Ukrainian territories.  

And then, when Israel started bombing Gaza, four weeks later, after 10,000 people were killed, you don’t see any Western government even calling for a ceasefire. They have not even condemned Israel or asked for a solution. G7 today has called for a humanitarian pause. It means: ‘Stop bombing for a while, let in aid and then start bombing again.’ We see these contrasting responses towards the two big crises that we face now. 

Thirdly, when it comes to the Hamas attack, a lot of questions come to our mind. Why did they do this? Everybody knew that the Israeli response would be disastrous, because Israel in the past had also responded with heavy force against every Hamas attack. What is Hamas’ or Israel’s military objective?  There were multiple wars and peace efforts, yet a solution remains elusive and Palestinian state is still not a reality. So, what could be a possible solution? Is a two-state solution still viable? We need to debate this.

Mr. Sashi Kumar

Chairman, Asian College of Journalism  

As far as I can see, in 1918, Palestine comprised 80 to 90% Palestinians. Within a decade or so, it changed to two thirds of Palestinians. There was a move to remove Palestinians from their homeland where they were living. This is a process of converting the inhabitants of a place—the native population—to refugees in some other place.

The latest flashpoint of October 7 and what Hamas did was certainly condemnable. It was horrific. But on the other hand, the way the governments have reacted officially, including India, is curious. In my personal view, it is pathetic. This has not been India’s foreign policy stance on Palestine for a long, long time. In 1977, we clearly said that the only way to settle the issue is to return the land to the Palestinians. We have had the Bombay terror attack and the Pulwama. We did not go and bomb civilians in Pakistan indiscriminately. First of all, it was a security lapse in Israel that has happened on October 7. But that’s an internal problem. We still don’t go out and kill civilians, especially children.

The Media Bias

The Western media gives a disproportionate attention to the casualties of October 7th. Al Jazeera is balancing that to some extent. Two of the hostages were released by Hamas. One was an elderly woman sitting on a wheelchair and she was interviewed by the media. In the Al Jazeera interview, she says the Hamas kidnapped and took them away to their holdout. She adds that they were treated equally and looked after well. But the same interview in BBC stops the moment the woman says she was kidnapped.

The demonstrations against Israel are not just taking place in the Arab world or the Islamic world. People in Grand Central Station, majority of them Jews, protest and they say, “Do not kill civilians in our name.” They are shocked. I’m seeing a new history. Historians like Ilan Pappe’ call what Israel has been doing in the Palestinian land, for over 55 years at the least, is ethnic cleansing. It’s being called an apartheid state and a rogue state as well. The problem is not with the Israelis or the Jews. The problem with the official Israeli State. We have an extreme right virulent regime with racist and apartheid character. We can’t be apologising and defending that, just as we cannot apologise and defend the October 7 attack that took place.

Doctored News

Where do the media get its news from? There’s a Swiss policy research study of 2016 and revalidated in 2019. It says that 80 to 85% of the news in the world, especially the global news comes from three news agencies. Barring a few newspapers like The Hindu, even the richest news organizations, particularly in this part of the world, don’t spend money on having a foreign correspondent. They pick up news from the agencies: AP, AFP and Reuters.

AP is an American agency based in New York. It’s owned by the newspaper owners. It has 4,000 correspondents across the world and feeds 12,000 major news outlets across the world. Those then feed sub outlets including news agencies like PTI and UNI in India; DPA in Germany; Middle East News Agency (MENA) and Gulf News Agency in the Gulf and so on.

The second is AFP. AFP is a quasi-government news agency. It has about 4000 correspondents across the world and has a sizable reach, though not as much as AP. It has a slightly different viewpoint. The third is Reuters, which is a private news agency. In 2008, Thomson, a Canadian billionaire took that over and it’s called Thomson Reuters now. He’s one of the 26 richest people in the world. They have about 3000 journalists across the world. These agencies put out some 3500 photos, videos every day.

But the point is, their viewpoint is completely aligned to the Pentagon and NATO axis. Thomas Curley is a retired AP chief turned a whistle-blower after he retired. In 2008 or 2009, he said that Pentagon employs 27,000 outfits or individuals across the world and spends $5 billion a year to ensure that the news structuring of the world is aligned to the Pentagon.  

India Enables Nations

You cannot be hair-splitting and discussing academically or geopolitically or strategically the requirements of a situation. The point is, there has to be a ceasefire. There has to a halt to this. Otherwise, Israel will continue to perpetrate genocide on a daily basis.  

The Holocaust is certainly one of the biggest disasters in our living memory. 6 million Jews were killed. It is called ‘Shoah’ in Hebrew. Similarly, we have the Nakba of 1948 where lakhs of Palestine Arabs were displaced from their homes. We have a whole history of the colonization of Palestine and of making people refugees in their own land. Gaza is called an open concentration camp. The whole process of uprooting the people has a sense of ruthlessness. It is a prolonged torture as well.

When there was a refugee crisis, which threatened to inundate India, what Mrs. Gandhi did was to create a Bangladesh. We enable nations. We do not destroy nations. We do not make them refugees. I’m afraid I’m not able to sympathize or apologize or celebrate Israel’s action.  

Air Marshal M Matheswaran

Chairman & President, The Peninsula Foundation

I first visited Israel in 97. Since then, I have made quite a few visits there, officially. Being in the Air Force, we work with them on a lot of projects. As a military man, I have studied how Israel handled the 67 and 73 wars and bounced back. Of course, the American support was very vital in all that. From a military point of view, we admire the Israeli military, particularly the Air Force. We’ve always had very great equation in working with them during our visits and on our projects of strategic importance. My first impression when I visited Israel was highly appreciative of the excellent infrastructure development there and the people were extremely good.

I am also a person quite interested in history. I moved to every nook and corner of Israel. They took us around, and majority of the people who take you around on Israeli tours are former military personnel and who are very knowledgeable. So, you will learn everything quite well.

Striking Inequality

I observed that the region was highly developed and posh. But the majority of the people who come and work for them are from areas which are literally ghettos. I asked my Israeli friends, “Why is this so?” They said, “They are Palestinians and we are Israeli citizens.” The Palestinians were kept secluded, and the infrastructure was extremely poor. The settlements were mushrooming.

But the majority of the Israeli citizens and the people are secular. They have a compulsory military service for boys and girls. Many have continued with military service for 20 years, even though they may work in companies and various other assignments. Many of the people whom I interacted said, “We are tired of this conflict. We want to make peace with Palestinians. Our next generation of our children must live in peace.”

The scene we see now is completely radicalized. Netanyahu is a survivor and a politician. In my analysis, there are enough conspiracy theories floating around that Hamas was enticed into doing this attack. Netanyahu has a political history and from the 90s onwards, there’s one clear radical statement that keeps coming out that the entire Palestine will be Israel and that Palestinians have no place in that land.

Leveraging Holocaust

Israel has leveraged Holocaust. It was a catastrophe and any normal human being must hang the head in shame for belonging to a society that conducted the Holocaust. But Israel has leveraged it, by getting sympathy over the Holocaust, for over 75 years. I think they are running out of that leverage now. While they were the victims in the Holocaust of the Nazi Germany, today, their behaviour is no different from the Nazi Germany, and they are the perpetrators. The world is already recognizing this.

From a geopolitical angle, ever since the beginning of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the Western credibility has taken a massive beating. Who are the people who actually populate Israel today? The majority of the population belong to the Eastern Europe and Central Europe. The Zionist process was started in the middle of 19th century by Theodor Herzl, and a few others earlier than him. They were looking at land elsewhere because Jews were all over the world and they wanted land for themselves. There was certainly anti-Semitism and discrimination. But that disease is a European disease, not Middle Eastern.  For 2000 years, the local Jews and the Palestinians lived comfortably in Jerusalem. They had no conflict. The conflict started when European Jews started coming into Palestine and occupying that land.

The UN Secretary General was quite right when he said Hamas doesn’t come out of nowhere. It is a reaction to state oppression. When the Jews bombed the hotel in Haifa, and killed British soldiers in 1930s, the British quite clearly labelled them as Jewish terrorists. Menachem who became Israeli Prime Minister in 1977 belonged to a terrorist outfit in the 1940s.  

The Tunnels of Gaza

From a military perspective, there are many tunnels in Gaza and they are highly intricate. Urban warfare is almost impossible for Israel to tackle. Therefore, the first action for Israel is to bomb the hell out of the Gaza and flatten it completely. But tunnels run right down to 240 metres below. If that is the case, they will have to ultimately go into large, highly penetrating bombs, to demolish the survival and breathing mechanisms that operate in those tunnels for people to live there. Once you’ve done significant damage, then you move in and send your forces to do the urban warfare. That is probably the objective Israel is looking at.

Anthony Blinken said that Israel is looking at doing pretty much the same that the US did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What does that mean?  No one can survive. That is probably the objective. The civilians will have no place to go but get themselves boxed between Egypt and the last portion of Gaza. That’s the worst catastrophe you can think of. A leaked Israeli report, perhaps leaked deliberately, says that this is an opportunity to ethnically cleanse Gaza and push them into Sinai. If that happens, the 40-year peace treaty between Egypt and Israel will collapse.

Q & A

Stanly John: When it comes to fighting the non-state actors in an asymmetric warfare, Israel doesn’t have that edge which it showed in conventional warfare, whether it is fighting the PLO in 1982 or when Israel invaded Lebanon. Is the objective of crushing or defeating Hamas, even if you use heavy, lethal and collective force against the Palestinian citizens achievable?

Air Marshal Matheswaran: Firstly, it’s not achievable. Secondly, you cannot kill people en masse. It is state terrorism. The children who are watching all this, will grow and they will fight. Britain and the Irish Republican Army fought for 70 years. Finally, they came to the negotiating table.  Unfortunately, Israel is building a narrative based on biblical history and they have become a prisoner of that narrative. Talks and negotiations should be the way forward.

Stanly John: What do you suggest as a possible, practical and actionable solution?

Sashi Kumar: One state solution is not practical. Two state solution was a possibility. The prerequisite for that is that, on both sides, you cannot have extremists. On the Israeli side, they must give up their theological approach to statehood. On the side of the Palestinians, the militants must take a back seat. There must be a more moderate representative force, perhaps like PLO in its more moderate days, which can carry on a dialogue and come to a kind of consensus.  

Stanly John: Why is the UN helpless or what can be done by the UN?

Air Marshal Matheswaran: UN has a very limited role, especially when it comes to conflict. The UN Security Council can pass resolutions and ask countries to do something. There are multiple UN Security Council resolutions. After the 1967 war, the UN Security Council asked Israel to withdraw from all the captured territories—the West Bank in Jerusalem, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. 56 years later, except the Sinai Peninsula, all the territories are still with Israeli control.

The UN Security Council is not even able to pass a resolution, calling for a ceasefire. The first resolution that was put to the UN Security Council by Brazil, called for humanitarian pause. Even that was vetoed by the United States. The only country that can now effectively put pressure on Israel is the United States and nobody else. President Biden famously said his foreign policy would be cantered on human rights. But his administration doesn’t even call for a ceasefire, after four weeks of bombing. That’s the reality.

Stanly John: There is a view that you need to silence non-state actors like the Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihads or even the Houthis. What do you think about it?

Air Marshal Matheswaran: If the state of Israel is very virulent and treats the 2 million Palestinians as second grade citizens in their own land, then the question of resistance from the non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah going away is just a wishful thinking. It is not going to happen. If they really want a solution, then the political process must start. One must recognise the fact that Israel is as much a settler nation, as the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada are. Majority of the Israelis will themselves recognize that. Because they were persecuted in Europe, on a humanitarian angle, the Palestinians were willing to accommodate them. When you are a guest, and they are the owners of the land, if you want to live together in peace, then you must first recognize this historical fact.  

Profit with Purpose: The Business of Impact

Read Time:13 Minute

The future of business lies in profit with purpose. Experts explore the growing trend of social entrepreneurship and impact investing.      

Mr Sujay Ghosh

CEO, First Solar 

First Solar is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of solar photovoltaic cells. Our company is headquartered in the US. We make solar panels. You must be aware that climate change is essentially caused by the burning of fossil fuels.  Everybody needs energy to grow. Energy is a key part of our lives. We use energy to commute from home to work or to college. We use energy when we cook food. We use energy for entertainment. As our economy grows, we keep consuming more and more energy.

Environmental Toll of Fossil Fuels

When we burn fossil fuels, we get energy and they emit carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide gets trapped in the atmosphere and it causes the earth to look like a greenhouse. When sunlight falls during the day, the heat does not get dissipated. It remains trapped. That’s what causes the temperature of the earth to rise. If the temperature of the earth rises to about one and a half degrees Celsius more than what it was before the start of the first industrial revolution, we will have permanent changes to the climate system and they will be irreversible.  

When the earth heats up, it melts ice caps. The Arctic and the Antarctic ice caps are melting and that’s driving sea levels to rise. When sea levels rise, you get extreme weather events. The cyclones which were happening once in 100 years are now happening once a month.  Extreme weather events cause cities to get flooded. Recently, Derna, a city in Libya got flooded in just 30 minutes and 30,000 people lost their lives. When a lot of rainfall happens in a very short span of time, cities built on riverbeds get washed away. We see in Manali, Kullu and Shimla massive landslides, causing damage and destruction.

Extreme weather events can cause drought. If drought happens, we won’t be able to grow food, which means there will be food crisis. We see some of that already playing out in certain countries. It’s going to become more and more acute, if the weather continues to change. So, we have to stop this, without disrupting growth. This is the single biggest problem which confronts humanity.

Climate change doesn’t select a country. Everybody is impacted and we have only one Earth. The weather system happens across the globe. The impact of carbon dioxide emission is boundaryless. Carbon dioxide, whether it is emitted from India or in China, will affect global weather the same way. 

Renewable Energy’s Cost Evolution

The only way we can stop this is by transitioning to more sustainable forms of energy. The three primary sources of sustainable energy are water, wind and sun. For hydro power, we use the natural force of the water, through a dam, run a turbine and create electricity. There are no emissions coming out of it. Likewise, when we use the force of wind, to generate electricity, there are no emissions going out. The last but not the least is photovoltaics, where we take the energy of the sun and convert it using semiconductor technology. We convert sunlight into electrons, collect the electrons and then use it to get power, without carbon emission.

Historically, till about five years ago, most forms of renewable energy or sustainable energy were expensive. When we started the solar program in India way back in 2010, when the country’s first solar mission came up, one unit of solar energy was Rs 17.60 per kilowatt hour.  At that time, one kilowatt hour of coal power was roughly four rupees. Now, the situation is different. Today’s solar generated anywhere between the two tropics, is the cheapest form of energy on the grid, at about Rs 2.60 per unit. One unit of coal power is now Rs 5.50 and diesel power is Rs 20 per unit. 

Clean Energy Transition

Globally, every country is transitioning to renewable form of energy and there are massive policies, plants and investments happening in the sector. In India, by 2030, the government has committed that 50% of our energy will come from renewable sources. At the beginning of 2010, 95% of India’s energy was from coal. Hydro power is very difficult to create, because we have to displace a lot of people to build a hydropower plant.  The Prime Minister has made a commitment that India will be net zero by 2070. That means that by 2070, we will be completely carbon free. That’s a massive transformation in our energy sector. Clean Energy Transition represents one of the most compelling opportunities, just like we had the IT boom in the early 90s.  

Reserve Bank of India estimates that we will need about 85 lakh crores between now and the end of 2030 to get to 50% renewable energy capacity. The adjacent effect of this is going to be felt on transportation and industrial manufacturing. We will be able to decarbonize our electricity grids and switch to renewable power. So far, we had only trains, which are electric. There is a very clear shift, coming in the mobility side. Two wheelers and three wheelers are now moving to electric, because it’s more affordable. The next step is going to be passenger cars and then buses. This sector will drive job employment, investment and startup opportunities. If you can directly and indirectly contribute to reduction of carbon intensity of the world, it should excite you.  

Today, the government of India is not able to find loans, either in debt or in equity, to fund new thermal power capacity. Ironically, NTPC (National Thermal Power Corporation) has pledged that they will build only renewable assets going forward and they’ll stop building coal plants. That’s the kind of transformation which is happening in this sector. It presents a very compelling opportunity to everybody.  

Ms. Gayathri Shanmugam

Chief Program Officer, Haqdarshak 

I represent a company called ‘Haqdarshak.’ It is an Urdu word that means the ‘pathway to your rights and entitlements.’ We are a very proud for-profit enterprise. We normally don’t find for-profit enterprises in the social sector and we are unapologetic about it. We want to make money out of this, so we can build a sustainable business and attract talent.  

What is the problem that we are trying to solve? The government has an annual budget of about nine lakh thousand crores for social welfare that covers sectors like Education, Health, Pensions, Insurance and Social Security. India is a social welfare state. There are a set of marginalized communities that need to be taken care of, so you can get them into the mainstream economy. The government recognizes that and spends. The question is how much of that actually reaches the marginalized? That’s the problem we’re trying to solve. Every year, almost 60 to 70% of this budget remains unutilized. How do we reduce that gap? There are two problems here. One is the problem of awareness. Many people do not know about the schemes the government has designed for them. For instance, the government gives free health insurance—the Ayushman Bharat scheme—but how many people are aware of it?  The second problem is ‘accessibility.’ Suppose I create awareness and reach millions of people below the poverty line and I’m able to communicate to them about the schemes they are eligible for. Does it solve the problem? Do they know how to apply for that scheme? Do they know how to fill up a form? Do they know which office to go to avail that scheme? That’s the problem of accessibility. So, there’s a problem of awareness. There’s a problem of accessibility. We are trying to solve these through an assisted tech model. We are a 7.5-year-old startup.

Tech Assisted Solutions

It is a technology that houses all the government schemes across the state and the country. The central government has thousands of schemes. Our country is a federal system. Every state government has its own set of schemes. These are policy documents, sitting in the form of a PDF or probably hardcopies and sometimes, not even soft copies.  If it’s a hardcopy sitting on a bureaucrat’s table, how do you get that into a format that a system can read and write?

We have a team that constantly does primary research and secondary research and captures these schemes in a format that is easily readable. We gather details such as: What is the name of the scheme? Which state is it applicable in? What are the eligibility criteria? What are the pre-requisite documents? What is the benefit? How do I apply for it? We capture that in a database. On top of that, we build a rules-engine. For instance, a woman resides in Tamil Nadu, and she has lost her husband. She is in a certain age group and belongs to a community. Her income is below a certain level. Is she eligible for a widow pension? That’s the rules engine that I’m talking about.

The Impact We Create

With this, you have easy discoverability of the scheme. What do I then do? I build a simple app, where I capture basic details about the citizen, name, age, gender, caste, community, occupation, farmer or non-farmer, health, etc. The system will then throw up what schemes that particular individual is eligible for. I would urge you all to go to Google Apps and download the Haqdarshak app. You can use this to help your own domestic help or drivers or whoever it is. You will be able to discover the schemes that the person is eligible for. At the least, we can create the awareness.  

With the Haqdarshak app, you can help your domestic help or drivers or whoever it is. You will be able to discover the schemes that the person is eligible for. At the least, we can create the awareness. 

We reached out to the remote parts of the country. We have trained community workers and self-help groups on how to use the app, to fill up the forms, to go to the government offices and submit them; to follow up with the government officer and to ensure that the benefit is actually received. So, the problem of accessibility is solved through feet on the street. We have trained about 50,000 women entrepreneurs on the ground so far. In the last seven and a half years, they have reached out to 4 million citizens, unlocking about 5,000 crore worth of benefits for these 4 million citizens. That’s our model.

The Business Side of the Model

Where’s the money in this? How is this even a business? We work with a lot of CSRs. We work with philanthropy, large foundations and corporates, who give us service delivery contracts, to go and do this on the ground. That’s where our money comes from. I found my calling in this sector and in this organization.

We have our investors. They do what is called impact investment or patient capital. They look for SRI (social return on investment). We appeared in Shark Tank India, early this year in January.  Three of the four sharks have invested in us and we’ve closed that round of investment. We pitch ourselves in the impact sector and development sector. We are not the only organization. There are a lot of organizations that are trying to do good here. There are a lot of ways one can contribute. There is Tech for Good. If you’re a tech enthusiast, you must know that we are building technology for this. If you’re an operations enthusiast, then there are problems to be solved there as well. And there is money in it.  


How do you measure and quantify the social impact that you create?

Gayathri Shanmugam: There is a framework for measuring impact. We do monitoring and evaluation. For instance, if I unlock Ayushman Bharat, which is the insurance scheme in the country, what is the possibility that the people will end up using it? For many schemes, the government has direct benefit transfer (DBT). We have a way of calculating the potential unlocked and there is a formula that is unique to every scheme. We then club all that and say for this program, that we have unlocked so much benefit. We measure the impact in terms of critical success factors. As a business, the scale, the quality of the application, the scheme diversity that we have covered, getting people out of poverty are some of the critical success factors. 

What are the challenges you foresee in scaling up renewable energy adoption in India?

Sujoy Ghosh:  Rather than challenges, I would rather say these are opportunities. Energy is a commodity and the final output has to be affordable. The first thing we look at is cost. Our solutions must be cost competitive. That is the one challenge we constantly look at. Everything across the value chain must be cost competitive. Otherwise, people will immediately switch to the next lowest cost of energy and then we lose the whole plot in the fight against climate change. The other aspect when you’re dealing with scaling up renewable energy, is that the renewable energy by its nature, is infirm power. You cannot accurately predict if the sun is going to shine or if there would be clouds tomorrow. Whenever it’s bright and sunny, you get solar power and whenever it’s windy, you will get wind power.

But as a consumer, the light should come on when we flip the switch. We want the energy to be reliable, and available on demand. That’s where there’s a gap today. For this, we need to build storage systems. If the whole world has to switch to net zero and completely go away from conventional energy, then storage would be the limiting factor.

What advice would you give to young professionals and students interested in pursuing a career in social entrepreneurship and making a meaningful impact on society?

Gayathri Shanmugam: That’s exactly why I’m here today. There are a lot of fellowships in the country, focussed on social impact, for example the Ashoka Fellowship programme. People come for internships. But you must realise that impact is created on the ground and not in offices. So, you will have to be there out on the ground, be there with the people, understand their problem and then solve for it. We are always open to internships.

In Delhi, there is an organisation called ISDM (Indian School of Development Management). They have a two-year MBA program, just for social development. Even working with small NGOs, you can learn a lot and become more socially aware. Then, you can make a conscious decision whether you want to move into this sector.

How do you navigate the market differences, working in various countries?

Sujoy Ghosh: We are a global company and operate across 45 different countries. Yes, climate change and sustainability are global concerns. Today, China monopolizes about 90% of the global supply chain for solar panels and wind turbines. They dominate in the areas of lithium battery, critical minerals, and semiconductors.  Post-covid, everyone has felt the need for resilient supply chains and most of the nations are working on it.

The Middle Layer Conundrum

Read Time:6 Minute

Questions are now being raised on the usefulness of middle layer “experts”—hailed till yesterday as the “best-in-class.”


Constantly emerging external business trends/needs drive every business identity to rejig their existing organization structure leading to internal disruptions, misunderstandings etc. Quite often the sarcasm sets in. “Hi, one more circular” is a common comment at the coffee table. Intensity of impact varies from the size of the organization and the extent of changes that are being pushed through. Perceptions vary across the teams, particularly if the company is big and spread across multiple geographies. In spite of best intentions/efforts, the actual outcome or the effectiveness of these changes often fail to yield the desired results.

Depending on the position of the company in the market one may try to pioneer new solutions into the market to establish leadership, and another company may be keen to catch up quickly by pushing in competing products/services. In both scenarios, often external resources (considered as domain experts) are taken on-board either through a fixed term contract/permanent employment. New roles are created and those who occupy these roles are often projected as “change agents” who will steer business into a new horizon hitherto not ventured by the company. They are generously given huge budgets, enough authority to get things implemented across the company spread over many countries. Thus a “new layer” of organization comes into play. When more such initiatives are introduced once in a year, more people come on board with the “Experts” tag and the “middle layer” starts building up or gets bigger.

Few years down the line, a review of the business can reveal how effective was the roll out of new ideas; its success or failure as seen in the top and bottom line, and thereby, the “usefulness” of the middle layer. Did they deliver? A “No” answer will lead to critically questioning the very existence of these “experts”—hailed till yesterday as the “best-in-class.” Such scenarios are not uncommon in many companies.

Let us look at the “Why’s.”

Every “change process” faces typical challenges and no organisation is an exception.

“Culture or the DNA” of the Organisation comes in first in the bucket list of possible reasons. Frankly this can’t be brushed away. The senior leadership must keep this in mind while rolling out new initiatives. Communication process plays a critical role. The “buying in” by all stake holders in every business unit and their ability to communicate the message to their teams decides the outcome. Every business leader must convince himself/herself before lecturing to others. The conviction “I am in it” matters. That will help in instilling confidence to the team members. Simply speaking, “If I don’t believe in it, I can’t convince others”.

“I know it all” syndrome is the next one to tackle. This exists at multiple levels. Experts have this feeling and the employee at the last mile also feels the same way. Experts demand actions to be done in their own way/process. The last mile guy says he/she knows what his customer will or will not buy. How big the gap is, will decide the outcome of the implementation. Open face-to-face dialogue between the two will reduce the gaps. Mutual respect and alignment will help a lot. Remember: The soldier should be trained to fire the shot apart from the General knowing the same. The needs of country/market/sector vary. Tailoring the solutions appropriately boosts the success rate.

To overcome such issues, some companies hire “Market Specialists” and some “Product Specialists”. In my experience, “Applications engineering/knowledge” is the most important one that guarantees the success. I have faced embarrassing situation when the “Experts” from the Global HQ fail to understand the needs of the customer when facing them in the field. I recall one customer telling me, “Hi, I pay you money for your product to work in my plant and not in your laboratory.” Another customer ridiculed me, “Your company says, ‘Engineering Excellence Worldwide’. Come on guys, it has not even reached my plant which is 200 KMs from your plant.” From these I realised in a hard way that the end user customer’s needs must be satisfied by our solutions. The rest are all mere “noise”.

It’s easy to explain how to cook a dish using a PowerPoint presentation. But it’s different when one physically starts cooking the dish. There is NO substitute to “hands on” experience, field experience etc.

Thus the question arises: “Are we doing the right thing for our customers?” The search for the answer goes in all directions, including questioning the effectiveness of the structure of the organisation. Here comes the “Middle layer conundrum.”

“Do we bring in external domain experts for implementation? Or do we train the field guys on new technologies/solutions and let them implement?”

I always felt “Product knowledge + Process knowledge = Success” By the term Process, I mean the applications engineering/knowledge.

Is it easy to get the product specialists to learn the process? Or will the process guys learn the use of products faster? On whom will you put the money? In my experience I tried something unique. Our engineering products were sold to the process plants like refineries, petrochemicals plants etc. Understanding the applications in these plats is vital to make a sale. I found that we often spoke to the Plant Engineers/Maintenance Engineers to initiate a sale. Sensing this, I recruited these Plant/Maintenance Engineers to take up Sales as well as Applications Engineering roles. They picked up the product knowledge easily and related them to the various applications. This led to a huge differentiation in the market place as our Sales team spoke the “Customers’ language.” They shared their practical experiences with the customers and easily convinced them to choose our solutions. Customers felt extremely confident as one from their fraternity endorsed the product by addressing every potential issue that may have to be considered while making a decision to buy our products. Our engineer became “one amongst the Customer’s team.”

I replicated this success wherever I moved across the world to assume different roles. At one point, 100% of my Engineering team were Plant/Maintenance Engineers. Sales team had 60% of such professionals. We had a team that perfectly aligned with our customers. Some of these professionals had communication issues and also were a bit rough-and-tough as they always dealt with plant workmen etc. They were easily addressed with appropriate training. These professionals also were extremely happy as they need not have to stand and work in difficult working environment all through the day in process plants. They could enjoy working in a cosy office atmosphere, travel extensively to visit various plants, meet different people along the way and enhance their knowledge. It was a “Win-win” situation for the business, the employees, and more importantly for the customers too.

Going by such wonderful experience, I am of the opinion that parachuting external experts from somewhere and landing them into the organisation will come with a baggage of problems discussed above. I am not against bringing in “fresh air” into the team to get a different perspective. But the selection of such experts must be carefully done by critically reviewing their practical experience in implementing new initiatives and their success rate. A good blend of 80% of internal talent and 20% of external talent in my view can be a winning combination. The message is: “Don’t fatten the middle layer”. This “Conundrum” has finite, low cost, low risk and practical solutions.

Women and Sustainability

Read Time:20 Minute

Women-driven sustainability projects are bringing in the required change the world over. However, there are dynamic variables that define the path ahead.  FLO Chennai in association with MMA & KAS organised a Panel Discussion. The panellists were: Ms Deepa Sathiaram, Executive Director, En3 Series & Technology Pvt Ltd; Ms Meera Nair, Independent Director, DBS Bank India Ltd and  Ms Maithreyi Lakshmi Ratan, Founder, Wild Ideas Cooperative Trust. Ms Meenakshi Ramesh, Executive Director, United Way, Chennai, moderated the session.

Ms. Meenakshi: Tell us how sustainability became the flagpole of your career.

Ms. Deepa: I started off with a career in engineering. As a mechanical and electrical engineer, I worked in the building industry and energy efficiency was always an area of interest. Most mechanical and electrical equipment items are the biggest energy guzzlers in any building.  From there, I moved on to sustainable development in the US where I worked for the US Code Authority, the International Code Council. I was one of the engineers evaluating new products. In the US, new products have to be approved by the Code Authority before they can come into commercial use in buildings.   In the early 2000s, the US Green Building Council started the Green Movement in buildings globally. They were looking for representatives from the Code Council to be part of that committee. Usually, the newest person on the block gets shoved with all the work and I took it up. Thus, it was more by accident, rather than a planned entry into sustainability.  When I started working with the Green Building Council, a lot of sustainable development ideas and techniques came about. There was so much that could be done in the building industry, which we were not doing. So it became a natural interest for me to develop my knowledge and understanding.  We decided to move back to India in 2003, because we wanted to start our own company.

The 3Ds

Between 2004 and 2008, most of my time was spent in explaining to people what we do, why we do and why they need us. One of the biggest things when we started working with projects was offering an integrated design because we work in silos in India. The architect does his own design and the electrical guy does his own design. It’s not integrated and it’s all done with a whole bunch of assumptions. They load a lot of safety factors and this causes excess use of materials and resources. One of the first things in sustainable development is to use less resources. There are 3Ds that I tell people as three mantras and they are: Dematerialization; Deconstruction and Decarbonisation.

Every material comes with a certain carbon emission associated with it. Today in a building, we use on an average, 128 different types of building materials, when you can do it with about 20 to 22 of them. The second biggest thing is deconstruction. We’re now looking at prefabricated modular based systems. Today, it’s all brick and mortar. After 30 years, when the purpose of the building changes, we have to demolish and then rebuild it. But if you design buildings that are deconstructible, then they can be removed and replaced. It can become very simple. All of this leads to decarbonisation. As a global group, we are moving towards zero carbon.  

Ms. Meera: My professional experience is largely in the food, agriculture, rural development and financial services. I started my career as a product manager, dealing with branded agrochemicals wherein we designed rural marketing strategies for branded agro chemicals. The mantra at that time was right dosage, of the right pesticide, on the right crop. That’s what Cynamid India preached. Little did we know at that time that it was about sustainability. On the output side, I worked on E-trading of agricultural commodities and futures trading of agricultural commodities. I was a founding team member of the National Commodities and Derivatives Exchange. We came out with products and markets for agricultural commodity derivatives in India. The objective was to come up with efficient price risk management strategies for the entire agricultural value chain, starting from producers, traders, the organizations who dealt with agricultural produce and the end users. We set up e-trading platform for Tamil Nadu government. Both e-trading and the futures trading of agricultural commodities are inclusive business models, which help the farmer -the producer to manage price risk efficiently.

Another place that I worked with was EID Parry.  I was General Manager -Strategic Initiatives. There, I worked on several rural empowerment strategies. Our focus was largely to create rural employment in the sugar belt of Tamil Nadu. We created market linkages for farmers. We created rural business initiatives and created rural entrepreneurs in that process.  Today, I work as a strategy and management consultant. I focus on food and agri business. Apart from that, I’m also a business mentor at Stanford Seed and Crescent Incubation Council where I focus largely on the food and agri business startups.  

Sustainability is Life Force

Ms. Maithreyi: Sustainability, as I think about it, is a set of activities. Sustainable activities are things that can be maintained over time, without the erosion of vitality inside and outside. Sustainability is in your everyday life and it is our life force. It’s a spiritual one. It is economic, social, cultural and financial. It’s in all aspects of being human. Even though the prominence of this term came into being with agriculture and the environment, it is absolutely applicable to every aspect of life. To me, a life that is sustainable is one which does not undermine the basis upon which you live. That is what we practice in Thiruvannamalai through our Wild Ideas Cooperative Trust, to retain that vitality. 

Ms. Meenakshi: Deepa, how has your 20 year journey been? Do you think people have come some way and are doing it the right way?  

Ms. Deepa: Well, it has changed for the better. There’s a lot more awareness at every level. But the biggest challenge for sustainability in our industry is sustaining sustainability. People will do it once or twice because there’s a lot of PR and branding around it. One person maybe passionate about it but when that guy moves off, you see that the interest drops over time. Doing things slightly better is definitely progress. But it reaches a point where you have to be more disruptive about how you want to do it. We’re not seeing that yet.  

Sustainability in Food & Agro Sector 

Ms. Meenakshi:  Meera, tell us how sustainability as a term is now more important than ever before in the food sector.

Ms. Meera: There are three main important reasons why the food and agricultural space needs sustainability. One is the growing population. By 2050, the global population will be around 9.8 billion. We need to feed this growing population. According to a World Food Programme report, we have about 828 million people going hungry every day. We have to take care of the hunger levels. This is the first problem. Secondly, there’s a lot of food wastage happening. One third of the total food that is produced across the globe goes waste. That can feed 1.3 billion people. In India, about 40% of the food that is produced goes waste and that’s a huge number. Thirdly, if you look at the household food wastage, it’s about 50 kilograms per person annually. That is 68 million tons. The fourth and a very important thing is that food production increases greenhouse gases in the environment. Greenhouse gases deteriorate the amount of food that is produced. It’s a paradox. How will you be able to overcome this paradox and produce food that is sufficient for 9.8 billion people sustainably? This means the current resources should be effectively used, so that it can be either enhanced or it can remain the same for future generations too. These are the four aspects that have to be looked at when you think about food and sustainability.

Peace is what they want

Ms. Maithreyi: I’m an organic farmer. The first thing we do around sustainability is to provide livelihoods for women and men locally. In agriculture, once we bring in machines, people lose work. The inputs they put in the soil are so harmful that within one generation, they can’t grow and they don’t have seasonal work. To address these issues of employability or sustenance of feeding their families, we started rural enterprises in Thiruvannamalai for local people with very simple things to address sustainability. The products have to be consciously made with local materials and with complete traceability from farm and forest. In terms of a business, we have to be sustainable. We have to be regulated and there are compliances.  When we asked the women we’re giving work, “What is it that you aim for, apart from predictable income?” they all said, “Peace.” Contentment is something they aspire for. It’s easier for us to work in the areas of sustainability when greed doesn’t come in.  The moment you’ve crossed a certain barrier, then there are resource compromises. The person is no longer considered a human being but a unit of productivity. In Thiruvannamalai, we help people get work that they love doing for eight hours a day. We set up rural enterprises in the organic farming. We have started rural livelihood programs in the construction industry to stem urban migration. It’s called workflow.  

Need for Ecosystem & Policies

Ms. Meenakshi: Deepa, you talked about 3Ds. Is it happening in the large building industry?

Ms. Deepa: The attitudes are changing, but the infrastructure hasn’t yet caught up with that. We lack the R&D and the ecosystem for making traditional building materials in India. Almost 50 to 60% of the materials that go into a building are imported. A good portion comes from China. For example, before the pandemic, a small scale industry person came down to our office and said he makes wooden looking flooring from paddy rice husk waste. The sample was fabulous. It was entirely handmade. I said, “Great. Can you supply 10,000 square feet for a project?” He said it would take him six months. We don’t lack talent, ideas or people. What we lack is an ecosystem to guide people both financially and also to create a commercial product.  In the West, most of the great products or innovations happen in the universities. Companies have connections in colleges and that’s how the Stanfords and the Harvards became famous. We don’t have that ecosystem, unfortunately. IIT is trying to do that with some success. But for a country like India, one institute trying to do that is going to take a long time. We don’t have the financial infrastructure and incentives to do that. A lot of those things are yet to fall in place. There are a lot of knowledgeable people in my industry. It is just that you have to tap knowledge and convert that into products, technologies, ideas and designs, which will then help us move forward in the low carbon journey. 

Ms. Meenakshi: What would it take to put something like this on the Make-in-India list? We are going to make our own chips. We make our own trains. 

Ms. Deepa: Make-in-India is yet to gain traction in the construction industry. I worked a lot in the US. I sit in a lot of committees for the Green Building Councils. The first thing I tell is that today we’re learning sustainability from a society that doesn’t know how to be sustainable. Traditionally India and to some extent, China have probably been the most sustainable and evolved societies. We lost our way when we sort of aped the West in many things. There are some pluses and minuses. But it’s time to start rethinking. You have to take some of your old science and ideas but wrap them in new products and designs, because nobody wants that old look or feel anymore. Every building that we design is the same fundamental science that was used 100,000 years ago. For example, one of the biggest techniques that works to cut out heat in a building is thermal masking. Our ancient forts and temples have two feet or three feet stone walls. Stone was available locally, so they used stone. Now nobody wants to build a two feet wall. If I tell that to a builder, he’ll say, ‘My FSI is gone.’ One of the things that we have put up to CMDA is not to count the thick walls in the FSI calculations. These are things that regulations can help. I don’t think anybody is against cutting down heat. If I spend 100 rupees more for the wall, I can save 1000 rupees in my AC cost.   

Ms. Meenakshi: Meera, are things changing in agriculture, because there is a lot of awareness or at least publicity about how, for example, Punjab should never have grown rice, because it’s such a water intensive crop and there is no groundwater in so many parts of the country. What do you think are sustainability trends?  

Embrace the 3 Rs

Ms. Meera: All of us here are consumers. So we need to adopt sustainability in our everyday life, something that our grandmothers were doing every day- reduce, reuse and recycle, whether it is clothes, food or anything else. The leftover idlis would be converted to idli uppuma. Food was served on plantain leaves. Those leaves were put outside as waste and they were eaten by the cattle. In general, the level of awareness about sustainability is increasing. There’s a lot of hype. We have UN SDGs. Years ago, India was a land of deficiency. We did not have enough food grains to feed our own people and we were importing food grains. So in the 50s and 60s, we had green revolution and white revolution and produced more rice and wheat. We started using more fertilizers and water resources. The water table went down. Because of cultivating water intensive crops like paddy, the greenhouse gas emissions have also increased.   We need policy initiatives. We need to move from crops like rice and wheat to high value horticultural crops. This is the year of millets. We are propagating cultivation of millets. As consumers, we also need to take a step forward and start moving from what is available near us and start consuming it. We need to make changes in our dietary patterns.  

Ms. Meenakshi: My husband and I went to a session of well-known dietitian Rujuta Diwekar, and she said, “Eat what your grandmother ate and you will be healthy.” 

4 Areas of Work

Ms. Maithreyi: The work we do can broadly be categorized into four areas. One is around livelihood creation. That is to get people work close to home so they can feed their families and they don’t have to go far away to do so. We do that by creating rural enterprises. Just because we sit in rural India, it doesn’t mean we can’t create world class enterprises. That was my fundamental philosophy. Within these nine years, our challenges have been many in the areas of infrastructure, compliances, policies, loans and subsidies. The second vertical that we explore is around social and cultural sustainability. This involves having families not getting fragmented. Everyone is tied to where they’re from. We’d like to retain that which gives them happiness. So education is a big part of what we focus on- not just in terms of attending a school, but offering holistic education. Our work takes us to every village where we run educational programs for children up to their college level and up to employability.   The third piece is health. I come from an urban setup. So I don’t understood many things. The best way to learn is to sit with rural women and men in a circle and ask them what keeps them up at night. They came up with a list and the list had livelihood creation, education and debt because of health related issues. Because of the food we eat and the lifestyles we have now, people go into severe debt. They can’t go to hospitals and come out without an atrocious bill. We organise health check-ups. It’s always important to think about how you can stop the problem in the first place and with preventive medicines. Simplicity is never respected but complexity is liked. We’re trying to go simple. We’re trying to get 94 herbs. We take these herbs to dispensaries where we get older people who are disenfranchised socially. No one wants to talk to them. They’d rather talk to Google and the TV. We want to run a social experiment to get respect back to our elderly. In the next three to four years, we’ll start growing forests. That’s a big part of what we want to do.  

Ms. Deepa:  One of the biggest challenges going forward is the rapid urbanization issue. More and more people migrate from villages and small towns because of lack of livelihoods and our cities are in no position to take that. Urbanization will lead to carbon emissions, which will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn will affect agricultural industry and which in turn is going to impact livelihoods. It’s a vicious circle. When you disturb the balance, this is what happens.

Ms. Meenakshi: What do you think are the unique contributions that women can make in the field of sustainability?  

Ms. Meera: You should start from your house. Not only women, but the men also need to be involved. Reduce, reuse and recycle. You must start this from your home.

Ms. Deepa: Sustainability is a very cultural thing, because it’s something that you have to imbibe. The source of this culture will only come from the women in any institution, any household or anywhere. Education and culture are again women driven. Globally, women, I would say, are three times more involved with sustainability than men, probably because we resonate to it and connect with it better.  

Ms. Meenakshi:  How does gender inequality intersect with environmental issues?

Ms. Deepa:  Women are probably the most affected because of climate change issues globally. A lot of livelihoods and women based activities are the most affected because of climate change. ESG—Environmental, Social, and Governance—is now a corporate mantra. When we talk of sustainability, still a lot goes under the environmental bucket. Social includes gender equality, gender balance, diversity and inclusivity. Governance includes both corporate governance as well as regulatory frameworks. There is a lot of push and thrust now in the environmental aspect of ESG and at least some progress has happened. In the social side, there’s very little impact that’s seen. It’s not just about gender equality.  

Ms. Meera: We must move away from mono cropping to diversified multiple cropping systems. Think about aforestation rather than deforestation. Look at drip irrigation facilities rather than using fertilizers across the board. Create livelihood opportunities, social networks and rural entrepreneurs. These rural entrepreneurs, in turn, can take the lead in developing various things around the farmland and the agricultural sector.   There must be policy initiatives to promote multiple cropping systems and to reduce food waste. We can give subsidized money and sops for building agricultural infrastructure that includes storage facilities. We must support those coming out with sustainable solutions in building cold storage facilities and transporting fruits and vegetables.  

Ms. Maithreyi:  It’s very important to stay local. The local can be a radius of 200 kilometres. It doesn’t matter. But it doesn’t have to be apples from New Zealand. 

Meenaksi: How supportive is your family in this pursuit of sustainability? 

Ms. Maithreyi: We live our life. We’re a family that’s living a conscious life. That’s all. We have cattle. We have five cows. We grow our own food. My son is 15. He grows his own rice. We have a farm where we grow our stuff including millets and vegetables. My husband does a lot of work with Chettinad egg-lime plaster (which is a zero carbon material). 

Ms. Meenakshi: I read an article about microplastics. Apparently, your facewash has microplastics. They just get washed down the drain. It flows into the ocean because the vast majority of our sewage is not treated. Then they get ingested into marine life. So let’s all become more conscious and I think that is the first step. Perhaps real change will happen over a couple of generations. I am an eternal optimist. I truly believe that the next gen smart kids will pull us back. Can you all take us through a women-driven sustainability project that you were involved with?   

Ms. Deepa: We worked with a project in Indonesia. A group of women from the fishing community went out into the ocean to take all the fishing nets that get left behind in the ocean. Through a community initiative, they removed the fiber out of all of these fishing nets, which was then given to a company that made carpets. It was like using a local community, which was entirely women driven. They made money out of it, though it was not big. One of the biggest challenges for any rural initiative is scalability and repeatability. A lot of good things get done in pockets but we’re not able to create a scalable model.

Ms. Meera: Let me talk about what happened in our housing society. Till two years back, we were not segregating waste. But Chennai Corporation came up with a rule saying we have to segregate waste. In our complex, we have 350 apartments. So they said that collecting waste from your apartment will not be done unless you segregate waste. The women in our complex came forward and I was not one among them. I just saw what was happening from backstage. They came up and found out how it was done elsewhere. They clearly decided the rules. They just copied it from other societies where it was happening and told us how to segregate the food waste, the plastic waste, etc. If this initiative had been taken by the men, women in the household would not have agreed.  

The Pride on Her Face

Ms. Maithreyi:  ‘Wild Ideas’ was my first baby. I told Ranjitha, a woman who was not formally educated that we’re going to make products. Capacity building with a Stanford grad is very different from capacity building with my Ranjita who asked me, “Why are you asking me to do this?” But the ability for women to learn and adapt, especially when it comes to taking care of their families is just amazing. All our products are designed based on colour codes, because our women can’t read. The first time we set up a bank account for Ranjita, she asked, “Okay, now what do I do?” I said, “You have to put your money and you can withdraw this money.” She said, “Why do they need my money? I can keep it under my pillow.” “No, no. Every month, we’re going to give you money,” I told her and she agreed. We trained her to go to the bank. She went straight to the bank manager and said, “You have my money. Give it to me right now.” I was sitting there laughing. That is not the way to talk to a manager, but she doesn’t know. Then there is the other story of a woman who had never been to a school. She’s an orphan. She works with us. She said she wants to be the person taking the phone call for the orders. I trained her to pick up the phone and when she said with ease, “Welcome to Wild Ideas” with a pride on her face that she’s running the enterprise, sitting in rural Thiruvannamalai, I was in tears.  

Ms. Meera: We talked about support by the family. Sometimes you may have a supportive family. Many times you may not have a supportive family. But how will the family support you, unless you stand up and ask for it? As women, we need to stand up and talk for ourselves. Only then, we’ll have a supportive family who will understand us.  

Trillion Dollar Dream

Read Time:7 Minute

Mr Suresh Sambandam, Founder & CEO, Kissflow, discusses the Trillion-Dollar Dream for Tamil Nadu with Ms Yagna Balaji, Former CEO, DT Next, Daily Thanthi Group.

When you talk about an industrialised state, immediately what comes to our mind is either Maharashtra or Gujarat. But Tamil Nadu is the most industrialised state in the entire country and we beat Maharashtra by 10,000 industries. 17% of factories of the entire India are in Tamil Nadu. We have 16% of the workforce of the entire country in Tamil Nadu. 50% of the leather production of the country and 30% of the automobile production of India are from Tamil Nadu. The state contributes to 19% of India’s textiles, 18% of electronics and 15% of heavy machinery.  

In GSDP terms, Tamil Nadu is number two and Maharashtra is number one. The headquarters of most of the companies are located in Mumbai. So, everything gets aggregated there. The stocks of companies of all the 30 states are centrally traded in Bombay Stock Exchange. If you reapportion all of those values back to respective states, we will actually be number one.

GER, the Real Measure

Most of the time, people look at education in terms of literacy rate. But the real measure for education is not literacy rate but the gross enrolment ratio (GER) for higher education. Here, Tamil Nadu does two times better than the Indian average. Tamil Nadu’s population has equal percentage of men and women. The higher education enrolment number in Tamil Nadu for women and men are exactly the same. In two years, women will outdo men. It has not happened in any other state. It’s a phenomenal milestone. Without taking women to the next level, no society can grow up.  

When it comes to healthcare, the World Health Organization says for every 1000 people, you need a doctor. American standard is 500 to one but in Tamil Nadu, we have 250 to one, which is four times better than the WHO norms and two times better than the American data. Tamil Nadu is the healthcare capital for not just India, but Southeast Asia.  

Equitable Distribution

There is no point in developing GDP if the wealth is not distributed. To find wealth distribution, there is a metric called household income. If there is more middle class in a society than the rich and the poor, that indicates equitable wealth distribution of the society. Tamil Nadu is number one in that. We have 60% middle class. Tamil Nadu is not living in villages anymore, because 60% are already living in urban centers and this number is going to grow only more. The other thing that I’m most proud of Tamil Nadu is we don’t have caste surnames. It is the only state which doesn’t have caste surnames. It is impossible to do economic revolution without the foundation of social revolution.

In 2022, Government of India published (SDG) Sustainable Development Goals. Out of 16 SDG goals, we are 12 green, three yellow and one red. Andhra comes second, Karnataka third, Maharashtra is fourth and Gujarat is at five. If you look at Gujarat or Maharashtra, they are more focused on economic growth and not so much focused on social growth. West Bengal and Kerala are more focused on social growth. We need a balanced approach of socialism and capitalism. Otherwise, we will ruin the state. That is the model that has taken Tamil Nadu to the north star position and driven us to where we are right now.

The Four Master Strokes of Tamil Nadu 

  • There were only 6000 schools after independence. In one stroke, Kamaraj, then CM of Tamil Nadu added 22,000 schools in just a 10-year period. Only 40% of the students were going to school. He could double that over 10 years.   
  • We look at a generation as 25 years. When a generation finishes school, we want them to finish their college education also. From only 40 engineering colleges, in another 20 years, we reached 550 engineering colleges. That’s a phenomenal milestone. 37 of the top 100 colleges in India are in Tamil Nadu. One of the differentiating factors for Tamil Nadu is we focussed on social justice which none of the other states did. Everybody got the opportunity, both in jobs and education.   
  • As Tamil Nadu adopted a two-language policy, English became more prominent. So, people from Tamil Nadu do not go to jobs for Mumbai or Delhi. They go to San Francisco, London, New York or places in Europe, as our youth got the space to learn English. I truly believe that nobody should discard their mother tongue, but they should learn English.  

Tamil Nadu has been growing only at 10%. To get to a trillion dollar, we need 40% increase on compounded aggregated growth rate (CAGR), which is not at all easy.  Now, this year, we are pretty close to 15% growth.  

Entrepreneurship and Branding

As a fifth master stroke, we must focus on entrepreneurship. Governments don’t create jobs. They just govern. The jobs are created by startups, companies and businesses. More importantly, we need women entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship means brands. If you have a brand or an IP, it will work for you even when you sleep. We need to move away from just a service provider economy to a brand owner economy and that will be a paradigm shift. That’s when you will get to a trillion dollar dream. We need to inclusively grow Tamil Nadu state and not just Chennai or Coimbatore or Madurai. We need to have this growth in every city.  

Ideas for Each Region

In Ramanathapuram, there are one crore palm trees. We just sell palm by the road side. We should do branded palm juice which is tastier and healthier. We make palm candy and sell it. Combined with cocoa, we can make palm chocolate.  12,000 tons of chili powder is harvested every year. We just grind this and sell it as chilli powder or masala. We know of Tabasco sauce. A small bottle with quantity around 50 ml costs 200 rupees. This company makes 12,000 crores business. The opportunities are right in front of us but we do not know how to transform them to great opportunities.

In Krishnagiri, we have mango production. The pulp industries extract the pulp and throw the outer skin. We can use this skin, make vegan leather and build branded products.  90,000 tons of vegetables are manufactured in Dharmapuri. They go all the way in trucks to Bangalore and then get sold there, because the market is there. It then comes back to us for sale in Tamil Nadu. But the scary thing is they go with all the junk. For example, if you take a cauliflower, the edible portion is only 50% and the non-edible portion is the remaining 50%. We can use the non-edible portion as manure in the fields. Also, we can sell cut, packaged and branded vegetables. They can be preserved five times higher than the regular vegetables. We can use the straw from paddy fields and make compressed straw boards. All you need to put is veneer on top of it, so it looks beautiful. From Hogenekal, we get our sea food. We must sell them as branded sea food instead.

Make Hosur a Sejong

Between Krishnagiri and Bangalore, there is 100 kilometer of highway and we can put wind turbines right in the middle along the divider and each one of the wind turbines can produce electricity out of the moving buses. In Villupuram, we grow ground nuts. We take the kernel and the husk is thrown away. The fact is that the husk has 6% hydrogen and there is a process to extract hydrogen from that. From green gram, we can make healthy waffles.

For Hosur, we have come up with a different idea. Hosur should be a self- governed state like Sejong in South Korea. The reason is, Hosur along with Bengaluru has the potential to become a twin city like San Francisco and San Jose. Hosur has the entire manufacturing infrastructure for EVs, AI and Robotics.

In Tirunelveli, we have lot of wind mills and also Koodangulam nuclear plant. We can use this clean power for data centres through cables. We have a lot of windmills but there is no component manufacturing infrastructure for windmill manufacturers.  Tirunelveli is where all the cooker industries are located. They make traditional cookers. But they can move to smart cookers which can be operated on internet. From millets, we should make branded batter like ID.  

In Thiruvannamalai, there is a mountain and there are a lot of herbs that grow there. We can make tablets from them to cure liver diseases.  In Cuddalore, we have jackfruits and cashew plantation.  Nothing stops us from making a Tropicana like product from jackfruit. Cuddalore is the cashew hub of the state. We make all the cashews and export. But after taking the nut, we throw away all the fruits as useless. We can make export quality liquor from these fruits.

The goal for trillion dollar dream is to build these brands. There are at least 10 or 15 brands which are doing really well now. To grow the economy from 300 billion to 1 trillion, all we need is to build 150 brands. That will automatically create at least 10 lakh jobs.  

Review: Harsh Realities

Read Time:7 Minute
 Harsh Mariwala’s book–Harsh Realities–was a highly anticipated Indian business story of one of the biggest FMCG conglomerates in the world. Mr. Arun Bewoor, a marketing and advertising professional, and a former President of MMA, digs deep into the book and shares his insight on some of the points touched by the narrative.

Arun Bewoor

When the Philadelphia Mayor unveils the statue of Rocky Balboa in the eponymous movie Rocky III, he says: “Every once in a while, a person comes along who despite the odds defies logic and fulfils an incredible dream. Touched by your accomplishments we today celebrate the indomitable spirit of Man.”

Was Harsh Mariwala a similar maverick in a similar situation when he decided to enter the tough, competitive FMCG market in the country? Unlike the boxer who needs only his gloved fists and strong legs to win a match, Mr Mariwala realised, to compete in the arena, he would need a team of experts who could help in the challenges ahead. He quotes Steve Jobs: “Great things in business are never done by one person. They are done by a team of people.”

One of the interesting chapters (no. 8) in the book relates to the hunt to recruit talent. There could be no compromises or any shortcuts. The chapter delineates the search and quest for managers with multi-disciplined skills and who shared his vision. At the best of times, a family-owned company based in Masjid Bunder in Bombay was not an attractive inducement. But Harsh Mariwala was obviously good at sharing the revelation of what he had seen and planned for Marico. Here, he elaborates to the identified candidates that it was an opportunity to not just perform on a portfolio offered but to build an enterprise and create an institution for posterity. He obviously succeeded in transferring his dreams to the persons selected for critical functions of Marico. They served the company with rigour and energy and certainly laid the bedrock for how the firm evolved over the next three plus decades. He accesses external sources where needed and also acknowledges the unstinted support he received from his paternal uncle (Kishore Mariwala), who possibly envisioned that Marico could develop into a branded FMCG firm to compete with the best. Later in the volume there is a certain poignancy as some of these stalwarts appreciate that Marico has outgrown them and they may have outreached it in turn. They exit with dignity, satisfaction and pride at what they leave behind. This is where Harsh Mariwala displays nerve and faith to execute what he proclaimed.

Bill Gates (Microsoft) once said: “One of the most difficult tasks for an entrepreneur is to have the confidence (or is it courage?) to ‘let go’.” Not just step back from Operational Management but to literally and figuratively hand over the reins to professional managers. No primogeniture succession, no looking over the shoulder, no ‘continuous’ meetings to review progress. Despite reluctance from family and protests from well-wishers, Harsh did ‘Let go’–a rare occurrence at the best of times. And his gamble, as this story unfolds, has paid off. Competent and capable executives took charge and have more than met the standards that Mr Mariwala set for himself and them.  The book inevitably starts with the wrenching decision to break away from an established, recognised family business in commodities and do what all companies desire but not always have the wherewithal to actually do: Add Value. Internecine battles followed with endless meetings and negotiations to reach an acceptable decision to satisfy all components.  Persistence was the key, and it succeeded. Mr Mariwala was the Captain of his boat, the sails of Marico were unfolded to catch the wind. The journey had started.

The buying of the key raw material (Coconut Oil) had been built through a reliable relationship on quality, price and export. The inefficient and lengthy distribution chain was shortened, eliminating intermediaries and offering a better value to the Farmer. One brand (Parachute) was already well recognised by consumers to represent a level of quality. That emotion needed to be reinforced and spread. Marico’s coconut oil could not and should not be considered a commodity.  At the start, as expected, funds were a serious barrier. Borrowing was not easy. But again, resilience mattered. The reputation and stature of the Mariwala clan helped while negotiating with lenders. Uday Kotak turned out to be a white knight. This was critical with Marico’s IPO. It allowed investment and spending on a scale that otherwise would have cramped expansion and resulted in moribund and inadequate efforts.

Building the brands–Parachute and Saffola (Cooking Oil)–was a challenge in a market with tough competition from strong players. And here is where Marico scored with innovation, strategic thinking, use of technology, deep consumer understanding, creative advertising, wider and deeper distribution, making allies with the trade and something as simple (and yet revolutionary) as packaging. Altering the shape of the final pack for easier stacking, using pilfer-proof caps and having better graphics made an impact on the cooking oils market on a scale not witnessed before. And as any corporation realises the daring to remain ahead is continuous – no marking time, no pause. With success, other brands followed. Sweekar (later discontinued) was launched on a price platform. More significant was the diversified portfolio into hair care, fabric care. The food business (an undoubtedly difficult market to battle in) was entered through cereals. Skincare was more elaborate with Kaya clinics–specialising in complexion, hair removal, enhancing beauty. This was a first for Marico in a Direct-to-Consumer business. The participation in the market via a broader product range with decreased dependence on one or two categories, marketing became more robust as seasonal variations were ironed out. 

M&As to accelerate growth followed with focus on similar product lines and geographies, with expertise more readily available. In hindsight, some acquisitions and JVs seem a knee-jerk reaction without much forethought. Some ended before really fructifying. Others succeeded and formed an integral component of the Marico universe. Time gave the perspective and experience provided the maturity for more surer and reliable partners and ventures. One theme that streams through the book is about the set of values which were defined, elaborated, communicated and ingrained into the very soul of the company, which is now rapidly expanding with new managers, trainees, and technicians on the Board. The values went beyond the vision and strategy. They cut across company departments, budgets and reviews. Rather, they propagated norms of behaviour and practices which are repeated and reinforced. As founder and CEO, Harsh Mariwala felt that the business had to be conducted under certain norms and within a framework that was enunciated in the values. An entire chapter (no. 9) is devoted to this subject. What did it mean and how did it impact the manner business was conducted? Values become an almost core competence.

The text right throughout the book is straightforward and candid. It reflects the author’s profile of humility to the point of self-effacement. The influence of Ram Charan (co-author and Harsh Mariwala’s guru) is obvious. Events of importance, milestone markers, decisive times, inflexion points are written without drama or histrionics. This reviewer feels some parts could have been spiced up. Particularly the episode on the rather savage call from the Hindustan Lever Chairman threatening to buy out Marico or else…. Mr Mariwala makes no dramatic sweep, except displaying restlessness that converts to resolution and defiance. How the saga ended with Marico buying the very brand Unilever wanted to leverage (pun intended) is well told and forms part of company lore.

Since its founding in 1990, the company’s sales, market cap, and stature have grown leaps and bounds. Marico personnel are valued and respected. Marico brands are well-known. Awards and recognitions followed. Marico is a respected FMCG company in the Indian economy. It is included in relevance and with reverence when business papers comment on Unilever, Nestles, Colgate, Godrej and others.

The book later covers the author’s encouragement to entrepreneurship, a meaningful CSR, the Ascent Foundation, Health Initiatives and others. 

To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: An institution is but the lengthened shadow of one man.

So, what next? The vision will set the pace. Values will hold the company. Innovation will keep it ahead. The journey continues as it must. The road ahead beckons.

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