The Sameness of Change

One leisurely Sunday evening, I stepped into a Mobile shop that lay on the the side of the over bridge that bypasses Bagru, a few meters before the crowded corner sweetshop and the perpendicular road that leads to the village centre.

There were two other Mobile shops that stood beside but were closed for the day. Large boards hung outside, advertising offers from Jio — the new service from Reliance that promises unlimited internet and voice calls for the price of a cheap quality whisky bottle. On the walls inside, Airtel and Vodafone stickers compete for space with Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhat publicising Vivo and Oppo — phones from China. Otherwise the shop is empty and small — its owner Manish a 20 year old engineering graduate from a nearby college that shut its doors recently, is putting order in the boxes under the glass shelf that doubles as reception area in a 10ftx10ft square space opening on an uncovered sever clogged with plastic wrappers, engine oil boxes and shreds of clothing from a nearby tailoring shop.

I am curious about the economics of a Mobile shop ( not a shop that is mobile but one that sells mobile phones) and therefore ask him about the monthly sales, the working hours, his margins and the local competition amongst other relevant details. After initial hesitation, he provides me with an interesting background on his business and his aspirations for the future — about which he was unsure — taking the Mobile shop as a starting point. As a way to thank him for the information he provided me I thought I should provide him back with some free advise and suggested that he setup a mobile phone repairing business on the side. I went, in fact, one step further and offered to connect him with the owner of a training centre in Bagru itself — one that offered courses in computer and mobile repairing; operating under the government sponsored skill development schemes.

A few weeks earlier, I had met Kishore — a professor of Sanskrit in a nearby government school who moonlighted as a real estate broker on the side. He also owned several concrete buildings that he either rented out or used for businesses that did not require his physical presence. It became clear, on the first meeting itself, that he was well connected, smart and ambitious. The government sponsored training centre was located in one of the buildings that he owned.

In my next trip I decided to visit the training centre for myself and made an appointment to meet Kishore at the premises. I explained to him that I would like to see the facilities with a view to recommend someone to take a course there and suddenly found him reluctant. But I pressed and so we met.

It had rained that morning and the air was pregnant with the smell of putrefied cow dung and rotten vegetables lying on the road. There were flies all around. We climbed up to the second floor, where the training centre was located. It had been closed for the day I was told but its general state spoke of its long disuse. After a series of discussions that avoided the subject of training, he admitted that indeed the centre was closed for a while, as no new students had been enrolled. He does not know why the government is not sending him students despite the massive advertising campaign and a promised demand for thousand of seats from private providers under the PM Skills Development Scheme. There were puddles of water all around and a few classrooms have been converted into temporary warehousing space.

There is a widespread view that the private sector has failed India for decades justifying government intervention — from skilling to employment to public welfare schemes. The BJP governments seems eager to fix both. Yet, while it has made considerable progress in fixing things at the top — it continues to suffer crippling deficiencies at the bottom — training programs for instance. In the past some of the blame was apportioned on-performing states and poor governance under Congress but with most states now under BJP rule that argument is getting difficult to make.

As time rolls and outcomes fail to match up with the promised change, it is becoming apparent that emphasis must be placed on actual execution of these schemes. That effort is not in sight.

A month or so ago, I visited the department of agriculture in Rajasthan and was shocked to see its walls stained with paan — a red and brown mixture of tobacco and betel leaves that requires periodic ejaculation from the mouth to prevent overflows.

These stains have been there for the last thirty years, approximately the life of the building — I am told, as a matter of fact and as an acquired right to spit on its wall.

I wonder. Congress has gone. BJP has come. As things have changed… they appear to have remained the same

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