Going to the toilet shouldn’t be this hard

In India, 600 million people don’t have access to toilets, and so defecate outside. 600 million – that’s about the populations of the US and Indonesia – the world’s third and fourth most populous countries – combined. That’s a lot of people forced to hold on, and a lot of poo out in the open. It’s deeply unhygienic, and it’s also incredibly dangerous, particularly for women – a fact that was brought home some days ago. But the unfortunate reality is that, for the women who make up that 600 million, going to the toilet means waiting until under the cover of darkness to creep out into the fields, or some bushes, or under a tree to relieve yourself, all the while watchful for snakes or monkeys or leopards – or simply, other humans.

Sulabh's different toilet models

Sulabh’s different toilet models

There are a number of organisations fighting the good fight when it comes to sanitation: Unicef launched this campaign a couple of months ago, while the Gates Foundation hosted a toilet fair, inviting toilet designers from around the world to come and exhibit their sanitation solutions – on the front lawns of the Taj hotel in New Delhi. But perhaps the organisation doing the most prolific work on toilets in India is Sulabh International, a Delhi-based NGO that works to address the toilet issue on a number of fronts. Now, it has announced it will build toilets for all homes in the village at the centre of this week’s news. Sulabh’s toilets cost on average 5,000 rupees – less for simpler versions, more for complex designs), so bearing the cost of toilets for an entire village, even a small one, will be not insubstantial. It has also called on businesses to ‘adopt’ a village and take charge of providing it with toilets.

In April, Monocle24’s The Urbanist program dedicated an entire show to toilets around the world, and for this I spent half day at Sulabh’s headquarters, learning about the organisation’s work and interviewing the founder, Dr Bindeshwar Pathak. In the 1970s Dr Pathak pioneered a low-cost composting toilet that addresses indigenous needs efficiently, and this model is at the centre of Sulabh’s operations today, selling it to communities, groups and households. Sulabh toilets can be seen all over Delhi, including at metro stations. The organisation also works to rehabilitate and provide livelihoods for former manual scavengers, those people at the absolute bottom of the pile of India’s deeply hierarchical society. To see a manual scavenger picking up human or animal waste with their bare fingers and place it in a basket which they carry on their heads is a peculiarly confronting experience. Still, it’s estimated that around 1.3 million people, most of them women, are tasked with this demeaning work.

For all of Sulabh’s attributes, of which there are many, my day there was a somewhat surreal experience. I’d been instructed to arrive in time for morning prayers, which I did, and ended up in a busy, yet hushed, waiting room. Staff spoke of Dr Pathak in reverential terms. Once it was time, everyone gathered in a separate assembly hall where scores of immaculate workers stood, lined up, chanting a sanitation prayer penned by the founder. Then, visitors and dignitaries – including myself – were introduced, felicitated and garlanded, before a short speech espousing the value of cleanliness. Once the assembly was over I was ferried to a small toilet museum on site and photohanded over to the museum curator, who took me on a detailed tour of the room, which contains historical information on toilets and thrones from throughout the ages – including a wooden French 1800s-era seat that looks like an actual throne, and a 1980s futuristic model. After that, a tour of Sulabh’s different models, of the grounds where gases are converted into energy powering the compound, and finally, an audience with Dr Pathak himself.

Despite the apparent deification, Dr Pathak was agreeable and friendly, with a deep knowledge of toilet systems from around the world. I asked him what he’d thought of the models on display at the Gates Foundation toilet fair a few weeks prior, and he pointed out that none are suitable for India because they’re patented, and Indians simply can’t afford the licensing costs involved. He also told me that the death of his young nephew from diarrhoea was one of the reasons he designed the composting toilet, and continued with the work. As I left, I was handed a DVD: I’d been trailed by a photographer and videographer for the entire visit, which had been disconcerting, as though I were starring in my very own video clip. They turned out to be an in-house audio-visual team, and they’d documented my visit and compiled the images and video to give me as a parting gift. It was a thoughtful touch, and one that ensures I won’t forget Sulabh for a long time.

The happiness question: Bhutan’s new Prime Minister

Bhutan got a new prime minister last year, in only its second democratic election. I first visited the tiny country tucked inside the Himalayas in 2011 for a literature festival and have loosely followed developments there ever since. When the results of last September’s election were announced, I wanted to find out more: just why did Bhutanese throw out their first elected government after a single term? It hadn’t been a bad government by any obvious measure: indeed, Bhutan has gone from being virtually isolated a few decades ago to having the highest GDP in South Asia. Were they simply flexing some democratic muscle? Or were there external factors involved? Certainly some people I spoke to felt it was the latter – that Bhutan was being caught up in the brewing powerplay between India and China. Of course, this was mere speculation from afar, and sources said it could well be simply be a series of unfortunate coincidences.

I made it back earlier this year, and after a short flight from Delhi that passed over the Himalayas – giving me a bird’s eye view of Mount Everest – I landed in Paro, a large town with the only flat valley large enough to accommodate a landing strip for international flights.

Last time I visited, Paro was a deserted main road lined with beautifully carved and painted wooden facades. Little had changed, although I noted a few new buildings.

The Oberoi is building a hotel in central Thimpu. One window is painted to show how the exterior will ultimately look.

The Oberoi is building a hotel in central Thimpu. One window is painted to show how the exterior will ultimately look.


Meanwhile, the changes in Thimpu, the capital, were more noticeable: new buildings, more construction sites, more people thronging the city centre, new bars and restaurants.



I mean, it’s no Bangkok, but there are signs everywhere that this is a place on the rise and one that’s increasingly connected with the region, whether it’s a shop full of K-pop DVDs, signs advertising education agents for Australia, or a band playing Foo Fighters covers. But at the same time, there’s a strong sense of adhering to tradition: most women I encountered were wearing the traditional outfit, the kira, even if it was paired with stilettos and worn in a bar while drinking beer.



But in the end, it wasn’t a thorough examination of modern Bhutanese mores I was there for; rather, I managed to score an opportunity to interview the new prime minister, Tshering Tobgay. The interview, and accompanying story, appeared this month in Monocle.


The Bhutanese parliament house, like all other buildings, has a traditional exterior, while its interiors vary from functional to jaw-droppingly beautiful – like the hallway with views over the Thimpu dzong and surrounding mountain peaks, where afternoon light streaming in through the windows painted the woodwork golden. The prime minister’s own office is spread across the parliament building and a nearby government block as there isn’t enough space for his staff of almost 30.


I had just a scant half-hour with the leader, but he was gracious in answering all my questions thoughtfully, even those he didn’t seem to like very much – like when I asked him about his stance on Gross National Happiness (he’d indicated in previous interviews that he wasn’t a champion of the policy). At the same time, he was strangely reticent, even expressing reluctance to have his photograph taken or allow me to hold my microphone in his field of vision.

We’d hoped to interview him in the room used for official state visits, photo opportunities and suchlike: the wallpaper is handpainted and glass cabinets lining the walls contain ceremonial masks and other cultural objects. The light and backdrop were perfect; unfortunately the prime minister elected to use his own office. It was fine, but didn’t have the same sense of gravitas.


Perhaps one of my favourite aspects of Bhutan is its relative innocence: the prime minister’s two burly bodyguards, stationed at the bottom of the flight of stairs leading to his office, were really quite chuffed to be asked to pose, and the photo made the spread.

Outside, we’d been warned we shouldn’t take photos of the exterior of the parliament house – but we did, and no one stopped us.


It was a short, yet intense and action-packed trip, and not a huge amount of time for pulse-taking; however I did ask almost everyone I met about the election result. Bhutanese are gentle and don’t like to criticise, so the most excoriating criticism came from a 30-something bar owner, who said quietly, “Well, you can see this for yourself. If people had thought the previous guys had been doing a good job, they would have kept them in.”

Click here to read the full story.

Aam Aadmi Party up close: Monocle24

Wazirpur Industrial Area is a part of Delhi that modernisation forgot. Even in harsh, dry heat, there are sludgy roils of sticky mud on the sides of the unfinished road where the earth has been dug up and forgotten, wearing a toxic metallic sheen. The buildings are crumbling, and on one corner three men stand, smoking, staring at the wet patch a foot away where a pipe is emptying a steady flow of refuse onto the street. There should be a drain there, but no one has thought to build one. After all, Wazirpur is an area of industry: of sprawling steel factories, of clouds of black dust, of migrant workers and the slums they live in. It is not a place for humans – that is, humans with enough money to have an alternative. They live a few hundred metres away, in Shalimar Bagh, a suburb first developed by the Mughals as a beautiful garden with fountains and proper drainage. The contrast could not be bleaker. 

But the people of Wazirpur vote, so, for just a handful of days every five years, are treated to visits by electioneering candidates. It falls into the constituency of Chandni Chowk, which this election is being contested by the Aam Aadmi Party for the first time. The party’s candidate is Ashutosh, a former high-profile television journalist who dropped his surname many years ago out of solidarity with low castes – that way, no one would know which caste he was born in to.

I spent half a day trailing Ashutosh on the campaign trail in Wazirpur. I arrived to see him standing in front of a crowd of a few hundred locals: it was their weekly day off from the factories yet many were sweat-soaked and covered in soot. All were men. Volunteers were handing out the AAP topis, little white peaked caps that the party has cleverly harnessed as one of its motifs, as it is headgear worn at the village level, thereby tying in with its ‘common man’ ethos.

I’d been promised an interview with Ashutosh but after his speech he disappeared into the crowd, and so I was invited aboard one of the campaign jeeps by some of his volunteer campaign staff. As it turned out, the jeep was the same one used by party leader Arvind Kejriwal to conduct his drive-by campaigning. We drove through a slum area adjacent to the factory strip; here is where workers have settled, often along with their families. And it is dire: concrete blocks for homes, swarms of flies, unpaved roads, men selling vegetables from sacks hanging from donkeys’ backs, dirt and filth everywhere. I’ve been in numerous slums and it never fails to shock me just how rancid the air is, how little electricity and water they have access to.

The volunteer driving the jeep shook his head sadly, pointing out signposts of extreme poverty as we drove along. Kapil Bhardwaj, a small business owner, has put his income generating work on hold while he supports the campaign, seeing it as one of the best ways to effect actual change in India’s fractured governance. “You know how often the local member actually visits here? Just once,” said Kapil. People kept approaching the vehicle, wanting to shout their support or offer a warning essentially not to screw things up. Through the bleakness there was a glimmer of hope that perhaps, these guys might just be the ones who are able to cut through and deliver them a more dignified life.

But the shadow of AAP’s truncated reign in Delhi looms large; in fact, another journalist on their tail tells me that questions about why the party aborted its leadership there after just 49 days have peppered candidates throughout; even in Varanasi, when Kejriwal travelled there to announce his candidacy, that was what locals wanted to talk about. Party members and volunteers might treat Kejriwal and other party bigwigs as local heroes, but voters aren’t quite there yet.

The following week, I tried again for Ashutosh: this time, his campaign convoy was departing from Turkmen Gate, one of the medieval gates leading into the cloistered gullies of Old Delhi, at 10am. By 11am Ashutosh still hadn’t arrived, however one of AAP’s big names, former journalist Manish Sisodia had, and I snuck into his car for a quick one-on-one, an attempt to muffle the eardrum-splitting chants from the loudspeaker rigged up onto a three-wheel truck nearby. He managed to distill AAP’s central message, of anti-corruption and devolution of power, succinctly for me, in just a few minutes. So just who is it that AAP is targeting? “It’s the common man, the person who is driving the car, the driver, or the owner of the car. It could be the person selling chola kulcha on the street, or the person eating the chola kulcha. Whether he’s coming from a bicycle or from a big city it doesn’t matter.”

After that, Ashutosh turned up, mounted his jeep along with about eight other people crammed on, clown car style, and off they took, down  Jawaharlal Nehru Marg, followed by volunteers and supporters in cars and autos. Myself and about five other journalists had no choice but to follow on foot on the busy road, ducking and weaving between vehicles and the occasional herd of goats.

It wasn’t a good campaign day for Ashutosh, with only a handful of supporters emerging from their homes and buildings to greet him, so perhaps he was grumpy after a couple of hours of standing on a moving jeep and waving. He stopped at an intersection and spoke to the Hindi language journalists, but one of his men batted away my request, saying I could get something after two and a half hours. I’d already put in about three hours of jeep-chasing, and even though I still wanted a third voice for my package I’d had enough, so watched as the convoy steered into Minto Road and disappeared. Shortly after however, I struck gold: I found a rickshaw driver who spoke a bit of English (*very difficult) and had strong views on politics: a far better “get”, even if I did fail to interview the man I’d doggedly chased through the streets of central Delhi for hours.

Indian election preview – Monocle24

It’s hard to predict the outcome of an election even a few months out, particularly when the dates are yet to be announced. Still, all indications point to India’s Congress party and its ruling coalition to be resolutely trounced come this year’s Lok Sabha elections. Most recently, a Pew Research Centre poll found that 63% of Indians say they favour the main opposition party, the BJP, as compared with 19% for Congress.

Election dates are expected to be announced this week or next, and I’ve heard from someone who is closely tracking election issues that voting may run from the second week of April until early May, with results to be released around May 16. This is, of course, purely speculative – but if it comes true I plan to buy that person a very large cocktail.

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago and it aired on Monocle 24 radio last week.

Interview with Manish Mehrotra, Indian Accent – Monocle24

Late last year I finally pinned the man who arguably amongst India’s top chefs for a chat about food: specifically, how to successfully marry Indian flavours with Western techniques. It’s a style on offer at his restaurant Indian Accent, in southeast New Delhi. Think dishes like a tandoori kebab stuffed with foie gras, or a golgappa filled with a couscous mixture and a vodka shot. I had to hold myself back from gushing; I’ve only eaten at Indian Accent a few times but I remember each morsel clearly. It’s that good.

We talked a lot more but this is what made it to air on Monocle24’s The Menu:

Designing India’s future: the 2013 Kyoorius Designyatra

I’ve just spent four excellent days in Goa as a guest of the Kyoorius Designyatra, an annual Indian design industry conference. Kyoorius is a not-for-profit organisation set up to bring some cohesion to the industry; and the Designyatra is their annual conclave. It’s a pretty big deal: it was on at the Grand Hyatt with sponsors including Zee TV, Vu and Absolut, 1,400 delegates and speakers from around the world.

Dominic Harris of Cinimod Studios

Dominic Harris of Cinimod Studios

When I initially considered going along, I imagined I’d spend a few token hours inside the conference, then the rest of the time at the beach. But in the end, I spent far, far more time than originally planned inside the venue: listening to speakers, meeting designers, checking out exhibits. The whole thing was fascinating and a window into an aspect of India that is quietly steaming ahead, at a time when the country is wrapped in bad press. There’s a lot written and spoken about other elements of India’s creative industries – art, fashion, music – and probably not enough attention paid to Indian design: but this is starting to change.

Kyoorius was set up about eight years ago by fine paper merchant Rajesh Kejriwal, who was looking for a way to connect better with his main customers, mostly graphic designers. After consultations he realised that, at the time, designers in India operated in isolation, with no real way of connecting with each other, and so he set about trying to change this. The cornerstone event is the Designyatra, which in that time has become hugely respected. Last year, Creative Review called it one of the best curated and best organised design festivals in the world, and that it is: there were just 20-odd speakers (22 were listed but I believe some couldn’t get visas) and while many were people who are lauded in their chosen fields, the focus appeared less on presenting a slate of *stars* and more on finding people with unique insights. For example, ad men KV Pops (India, Leo Burnett) and Tan Yew Leong (Malaysia, The Storytellers) spoke of tackling social issues through advertising campaigns, while Karin Fong (Imaginary Forces) took to the stage to talk about the inspiration and process involved in designing film titles. Sarang Kulkarni of Mumbai-based typographic studio White Crow spoke of developing a standard typeface while Brit Dominic Harris (Cinimod Studio) told the audience about creating massive LED lighting installations, for example on the London Eye.

Some of Sarang Kulkarni of White Crow's typographic work: versions of 'Aa'

Some of Sarang Kulkarni of White Crow’s typographic work: versions of ‘Aa’.

But without a doubt, the highlight of the conference was Dharamveer Khambog, a Haryana farmer turned Delhi rickshaw driver turned inventor. He’d returned to his home village to care for his family and had noticed that other villagers were laboriously hand-pressing fruit and plants such as amlas and aloe vera to extract the juice. Unable to afford the machines already available, he decided to invent his own. The result: a rudimentary-looking yet effective structure capable of extracting oils and essences from herbs, fruits and other farm products. He spoke in Hindi which I could barely understand but had the audience in stitches: a combination of his shrieky speaking manner, comic timing and his turn of phrase (“So I returned to my village to care for my sick sister, and my wife told me she wouldn’t sleep with me until my sister was better”). But then, when the moderator asked him if the invention had a name, Dharamveer, his chest puffed with pride, told the audience of design and branding experts that yes, the machine did indeed have a name. He’d chosen to call it Multipurpose Fruit Pressing Machine.

For that, he got a standing ovation.


The Grand Hyatt's private beach. I never actually made it there.

The Grand Hyatt’s private beach. I never actually made it there.

Sri Lanka: Saturday night at the Rajapaksas’

You won’t find it in any Lonely Planet, but Carlton House is perhaps one of southern Sri Lanka’s best-known landmarks. From the outside it’s like a fortress but once through the imposing iron gates, up the long cobbled path and through the wide carved wooden doors it’s more like a friendly sprawling B&B, with comfortable seating, artfully placed doilies and family photographs everywhere. But don’t be fooled: this is a place where much official business is done, in amongst the clusters of sitting areas that dot the three front rooms. It is, after all, the summer home of Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

It came to be that I was at Carlton House one Saturday night, when by rights I should have been poolside with a cocktail. But rather, I found myself perched on the edge of a sofa, my thighs sticking to the black pleather in the fan-cooled room, and craning my neck trying to see what was behind the curtain separating the public areas from the Rajapaksas’ private rooms.


Namal Rajapaksa. Photo: Poulomi Basu

Namal Rajapaksa. Photo: Poulomi Basu

It was January 2011 and I was there not to meet the president, but rather his son Namal, the MP for the nearby Hambantota region. I was writing a story for Monocle on the rise of Hambantota: currently a sleepy, under-developed town on the southern coast with little more than a cluster of municipal buildings and deep-sea fishermen. But things are a’changing, and the president wants his hometown to flourish. So Hambantota is getting reams of development money fo Sri Lanka’s second international airport, a cricket stadium, a convention centre, an expanded sea port and more. These projects have been underwritten by the Chinese, who are also providing much of the labour and expertise.

Getting an interview with Namal turned out to be relatively easy: his people agreed immediately – enormous banners of Namal with his father dot the region – however settling upon a mutually agreeable time was the difficult part. The photographer Poulomi and I had a mere three days in Hambantota, so after a bit of wrangling we finally settled on Saturday night. I’m sure Namal had better things to do, but he turned up promptly, entourage in tow, and, seating himself on a matching black pleather armchair, pleasantly answered all my questions.

Polite and enthusiastic about the plans in motion to develop Hambantota, he reeled off everything from figures on youth unemployment to detailed plans for the cricket stadium, with ease. Namal, young and solidly built, himself is a rugby player and working to widen the game’s popularity in Sri Lanka, and said that the initial plans for Hambantota were to develop it as a model sports city, full of top-end sporting facilities. (Hambantota was in the running to host the Commonwealth Games in 2018 but lost out to the only other contender, Australia’s Gold Coast.)

At the same time, however, he was breezily dismissive when I asked him whether the investment might be better used in the devastated northern or eastern regions of Sri Lanka – the former LTTE strongholds. The government has already invested heavily in those areas, he replied, listing road rebuilding and the provision of paddy as examples. But Hambantota, he said, was really, truly deserving of all the investment it was receiving: for too long it had languished, ignored, despite its handy geographic position, close to numerous tourist sites and already with features such as a port. Now, the time had come, Namal declared, for Hambantota to really shine.

As we said our goodbyes, I asked where I should send a copy of the magazine.

“Just address it to Carlton House. I’ll get it,” said Namal.


part two to come.

Click here to read the story



Bhutan’s first transgender

In remote Bhutan, a fascinating process of unfurling is underway as the once-reclusive kingdom opens up to cautiously embrace the outside world. The kingdom is selective about what it lets in: yes to Indian soaps and K-pop, no to polluting industries. Yes to Indian-funded and -destined hydroelectricity and infrastructural development out east, no to absolute democracy. The king is still revered like a god – most homes include images of the five dynastical kings in their family shrine – and Mahayana Buddhism is part of every facet of life, even in relatively cosmopolitan Thimpu.

Central Paro

Central Paro

The country’s second democratic elections are currently underway, and it tickles me to see updates from the Bhutanese media I follow on Twitter. “Naemjog polling station voters sitting around to chat after casting their votes are asked to leave the premises by police,” reads one update.

I visited Bhutan in 2011 in a short yet memorable trip, and managed to wrest about five stories out of it. But that barely skimmed the surface of all I experienced: one of the most colourful people I met there only made it into a couple of paragraphs in a piece I wrote for The Australian’s travel section. Dechen Seldon is Bhutan’s first out and proud transgender, and at the time, the country’s only one that she knew of. (Another seven or eight have emerged since.)

I met Dechen in a teahouse in Paro after a long trek. She was just 19 at the time, tall and beautiful, fashionably dressed in Bangkok-style clothes and with a luxurious mane of long black hair. She was flirting with another customer, obviously someone she knew well, and they spoke in English, rather than Dzongka or another local language. She looked less Bhutanese and more southeast Asian, with fine features, high cheekbones and impossibly long limbs. Once she finished her conversation, I pounced, wanting to hear her story.

Dechen Seldon

Dechen Seldon

Born a boy in Paro, she knew from a young age that she was meant to be a girl, but it wasn’t until the age of 14 that she made the definitive decision to assert her true gender. In Bhutan, it’s commonplace – often mandated – to wear the traditional clothing: the kira for women, the gho for men. Dechen’s uniquely Bhutanese way of asserting her gender was to approach her school principal and insist that she should be permitted to wear the kira to school, rather than the gho.

It was unchartered territory for the school, so Dechen consulted with the education ministry which considered her request, then allowed it, and she then changed schools to a convent for girls. She studied for a couple more years, and was treated as a girl by all, teachers and students alike. Now she works as a beautician in central Paro. Does she ever face any discrimination? “Never. I would say 95 percent of people here accept me as I am, and the others, well, no one ever says anything to my face.”

In fact: “Children call me sister and compliment my clothes.”

Still, it wasn’t an easy decision, nor was it a smooth transition for Dechen’s family. Initially her parents disallowed her from adopting a female persona. “When I was young, my mother would say, “what will society think?” It wasn’t until her teenage years that Dechen told her mother that, with or without her help, she would be making the change. “But after, when the government accepted me, my parents did too, and now they are proud.”

So just what is life like in Bhutan for a transgender? Much like anywhere else, it appears, although perhaps with a bit more distance from potential partners. Dechen moves with ease through the main streets of central Paro – well, both of them – and describes a close-knit group of friends as her support crew. “Sometimes when I go to parties everyone would look and laugh, which made me feel bad, but now I’m used to it and don’t give a shit.”

Still, while Dechen is a groundbreaker in the tiny, mountain-flanked country, there is a long way to go. Homosexuality is illegal in Bhutan, and transgressors can be jailed from between one month to a year. LGBT rights are only starting to be talked about openly, and the government is starting to give the issue some attention – for example, last year the health ministry announced plans to investigate and map the country’s transgender population, to make sure they could access HIV programs if needed.

Read my travel piece on Bhutan in The Australian here.


Kuku and his kids – all 155 of them

Apr 24, 2013 – Sometimes frocks can lead you to a great story.

It’s true. It’s happened to me. (And I now have ammunition every time my husband points out that I might not actually need a new dress). It’s a story that brings together desperation and hope, poverty and compassion, and boundless love.

It all began with my quest for a formal dress, back in 2010. Rather than brave the malls, I crowdsourced for some names of tailors, and rang the first one on the list: Kuku Arora. Kuku caters mostly to New Delhi’s expat European population, making sports coats and linen suits and sensible shift dresses and ball gowns and whatever else. His office is in a narrow lane in Saidalajaub, one of Delhi’s many charmingly atmospheric urban villages. As we sat on the sofa discussing fabrics and cuts, I could hear the hubbub of dozens of young children clearly through a thin partition. I didn’t give it much thought until, as I was leaving, Kuku asked politely whether I’d like to drop by and say hello to “his children”. I was a little mystified: he couldn’t be older than 40, just how many kids had this man fathered?

kuku&kidsBut as it turns out, Kuku was not the smiling polygamist I was imagining. Rather, he had taken custodianship of scores of local slum children. He and his wife provided for them and cared for them: while they slept at home with their parents, each morning, they would travel to Kuku’s building, bathe, eat, change clothes, and be schooled. Some of them went to school elsewhere, some had landed apprenticeships, some were working in jobs that actually offered them some prospects beyond begging.

His quest had begun with just one little girl, a toddler at the time. She had just one hand, and Kuku started bringing her food to eat each day. Eventually he went and met her parents to see what could be done to help her; and a couple of hours later, found himself having agreed to look after a dozen-odd children, incapable of looking into their pleading eyes and say no.

His is a grassroots operation; while he was tight-lipped on how he could afford it, it was clear that it was at the expense of the trappings of a comfortable middle-class Delhi existence. I spent an hour listening to the kids read proudly from their English books, and then left, vowing Kuku that one day I would do a story on him. Fast forward a year and a bit, and I finally had an ideal opportunity: each week, US news publication the Christian Science Monitor profiles a Person Making a Difference around the world, and Kuku’s story made the cut.

Read more here.

Since publication, Kuku’s charity has been recognised as an official NGO. 

Interviewing India’s chief economic advisor


Apr 19, 2013 – He’s the man on Raisinia Hill who isn’t actually part of government: India’s chief economic advisor is independent, and posted to North Block for what’s usually a two-year term. It’s a significant position as they are in charge of preparing India’s annual economic survey and with the potential to have a direct influence on policy decisions.

The previous chief economic advisor to India was Cornell professor of economics, Dr Kaushik Basu. I interviewed him for Monocle’s November 2011 issue. It was the first time I had the chance to trawl the stately, red sandstone corridors of North Block. Here, the interiors are a study in contrasts: efficient, puritan, Gandhian simplicity meets the plush symbols of new money. In the waiting room there are plastic chairs atop woven silk carpets, and on the front desk, next to the electronic pad where I signed in was a functioning dot matrix printer. Somewhere in there is a metaphor for India as a whole.

The interview took place in August 2011, which was a somewhat bleak time for India’s economy. Scams involving enormous amounts of money and senior politicians had been in the headlines throughout 2010, and it seemed that years of building optimism and enthusiasm for India’s economy had ruptured. Growth had fallen dramatically, and inflation was so high that some low-income earners were reporting severely restricted diets. But Basu was still positive in his long-term outlook, going so far as to declare that India’s growth would outpace China’s, within five years.

Only a tiny portion of the interview made it to print, so here are some bits that didn’t make it – albeit still heavily edited. Basu is a talker.


Q: You have ideas about how to tackle small-scale corruption, what does this involve?

B: I put up a paper to go after one kind of corruption, which I called harrassment bribery, which is a bribe for something you’re supposed to get, like an income tax refund cheque, or export clearance for your goods. I suggested that we amend India’s anti-corruption laws so that giving a bribe is fully legal but taking a bribe is illegal. So the bribe taker knows the giver will not be punished if they reveal the crime.

Q: What are the greatest challenges that lie ahead for India, and where do you predict India’s economic growth will be in the next few years?

B: We need to make it a more vibrant market economy, and for that we need a huge amount of infrastructural investment. We need to improve our governance in a big way. I feel pretty confident that there is a very good 15 to 30 year run ahead for India. I also truly believe that within the next four or five years India will overtake China in terms of growth rate. One worrying, big challenge is the distribution of the spoils of growth. Poverty is not coming down fast enough. To me that is the biggest challenge for India.

Q: What are the main impediments, if any, to India’s growth?

B: There are short term impediments, I am very optimistic for the medium to the long term, and in that I don’t think I’m alone. We were talking about corruption just now. When there are scams and inquiries, the government machinery tends to slow down a little bit, and this is a natural thing to do with the psychology of people taking decisions. When policy makers get too worried about too may inquiries and scams going on they tend to delay decisions, and there is a bit of a slowdown in the decision making that is happening.

If the government manages to push through a couple of key market-oriented reforms over the next few months, I believe that as early as next year we should see the economy once again buoyant and doing well as we have been seeing over the last 15 years or so.

Q: How do you find the cut and thrust of politics and bureaucracy compared with the relatively sedate life of academia?

B: In the beginning it was disorienting, I had no experience in government. The first two months was like going to another planet. I kept telling myself the only way to go forward is to think of myself as an anthropologist, the way [Bronislaw] Malinowski went to the Trobriand Islands and stayed for nine months or a year. I said, surely I can survive two years in the Ministry of Finance, and think of myself as an anthropologist observing government from the belly of the beast. But then, much to my alarm I’m beginning to enjoy the rough and tumble of policy making and political jostling.

That doesn’t mean I approve of everything I see in government, but I enjoy the learning process and understanding that this is the way the world is. I have to say that there are individuals whom I respect greatly, something that is always a saving grace, to know that these people are well meaning and struggling to keep government as clean and straight as possible. They make you feel it’s all worth it.

Q: Outside of your professional life you’re also a writer and an artist, you’ve written books, a play, and I understand you have a charcoal drawing of Marx.

B: I would love to call myself an artist, I do paint and draw a lot. I’ve done a lot of portraits. I find people who have interesting faces make for good subjects for portraits. I have done a Woody Allen portrait that I like very much, I have done a Bertrand Russell portrait that I like very much. I have done a whole host of economists, I’ve got one of Amartya Sen in charcoal. Philosophers I’ve done pencil drawings of, Martha Nussbaum, so yes it’s a whole slew of people. And some subjects are more interesting than others.

Q: So you choose them according to their facial features and not whether you follow their economic philosophies?

B: Well yes I, choose my subjects by the facial features, I should say at the same time since you raised this about Marx, I greatly respect Marx, he was a staggering intellectual. He put together an understanding of history, which I think is a flawed understanding, but nevertheless it’s a majestic effort in pulling together strands of history. I also liked his idealism, that he was struggling to create a better world, but I do believe his understandings were flawed. I like the idealism of Karl Marx and I like the philosophy of Woody Allen greatly. Through all the humour I think there is an undertone, an undercurrent of philosophy in Woody Allen which I admire. So these are people I have indeed some fascination.

Q: What are the greatest challenges that lie ahead for India, and where do you predict India’s economic growth will be in the next few years?

B: There are two challenges. One challenge I think we will overcome. We need to make it a more vibrant market economy, and the infrastructural investment for that we need a huge amount. We need to improve our governance in a big way. The infrastructural investment, I do believe you will see very big improvements over the next five years, it will be visible.

Governance, I don’t know. We are trying. It is a tougher challenge than the brick and mortar challenge of infrastructure to change governance. But in terms of economic, broad economic growth, I feel pretty confident that it’s a very,15-to-30 year run ahead for India.

I also truly believe that within the next four or five years  India will overtake China in terms of growth rate. Not per capita income, China’s much ahead of us. And I don’t say this in a competitive spirit, I don’t want China to slow down at all.

One worrying, big challenge is the distribution of the spoils of growth. What we are seeing in India is with this very vibrant growth is that poverty is coming down, but inequality is increasing in a very big way. To me that is the biggest challenge for India. Here we need very intelligent design, we need civil society activism, we need good professional policy to attend to problems of poverty and inequality. The challenge that we will have to meet this challenge as quickly as possible. The suffering of poverty is too big a suffering for us to say, let us wait and it will get solved over the next 15 years as growth picks up. We can’t allow that to happen. So indeed there’s a lot of work to be done on that.

Click here to read the story on the page. Monocle, issue 48, November 2011.

Image: Jocelyn Baun

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