Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Who is killing Odisha??

Though my title might suggest, this is not about any natural disaster- this is a disaster which has disturbed the socio-economic fabric of this state. I recently had an opportunity to travel through the interiors of Odisha to a place called Barbil in Keonjhar district taking my count of visiting the state from never to three in a space of ten months. Though on the last two occasions, I was restricted only to Bhubaneswar and outskirts, I did get a hint that the state was still more of an under-developed area with a high concentration of tribal population. This trip was an eye opener to the real world of sorts.

The first few hours for me till Jajpur were more of a drive through the countryside, much like Maharashtra’s Thane district in the monsoons. Scenic aspects of the countryside with lush green fields and wide highways running through the fields on both sides were refreshing. But as we approached the mineral rich areas where mining was the key activity, the picture changed drastically. Mining in India should be a profitable activity with low royalties and high rates offered in the Global markets.

But as I had read in ‘Patriots & Partisans’ by Ramchandra Guha, mining in India has always resulted in ecological and economic plunder. What came in next was like time travelling back into India 20 years earlier. The roads got bad and un-motor able, signs of iron ore on the sides and accidents involving dump trucks signifying reckless driving. The road was single lane in either direction with heavy traffic and pot holes that were representative of the lunar landscape. Traffic jams which ran for kilometers and involved at least 200 vehicles on both sides with 10 wheel trucks with 16 tonnes of ore to Paradip at the hands of drivers who were visibly under age. Highway 215 went across a landscape where there were just forests with little or no civilization. Shops by the road only catered to the truckers with dhabba food, tyres and lubes for the trucks and recharge vouchers for cell phones.  

The infrastructure was abysmal. The one vehicle width bridges across small rivers were relics from the British era- made of bricks which were never designed to carry loads of 16 tonnes on 10 wheels. The daily traffic of heavy trucks had eroded the bridges to an extent where the bricks had formed ridges under the tracks.  Like the roads, the vehicles are also badly maintained. The towns we passed through looked like the India story had never reached these places with the locals bearing the brunt of daily traffic jams. Even ambulances and local buses were stuck in the jams every day.

From what I understood from the driver and other people in the area was a picture created out of both: degenerative politics and opportunistic attitude of the locals. To paraphrase my driver- the situation you are witnessing is much better than 5 years ago. We had above 300 illegal mines in this area; now we down to just 15-17. Today a jam might be for a few kilometers and last us an hour or two to get across; back then we just used to camp in the car- no one wanted to take up a drive these roads. Today we have just a fraction of the truck which used to ply here and they too are permitted to run only between 8pm to 8 am. By night- they simply rule; by day the block the roads as there are no parking bays to support the numbers. End result is the two lane road is reduced to just one working lane by day.

But why are these people ready to face hardships and why does a local not protest against the plight? Why does no one seem bothered that a truck covers 300 kms over 7 days? Why do we have multi-axle trucks plying on narrow roads not designed for such traffic even when there is a railway line running from the mines to the port? The answers I got were mind boggling to how people are deep rooted to corruption, selfish interests and missing the bigger picture towards development.

In the hay days of illegal mining, just about everyone made money through every possible avenue. Anyone with money bought a truck to move the ore. Anyone of 16 became a driver and villages made money by facilitating their movement by collecting illegal tolls. No one needed to work in the fields to make a living, they survived on the revenue share from what village made through the trucks going through. If someone had the influence, one could even fill a truckload of ore by borrowing small quantities from others. Villagers even made money from the traffic jams by offering passage through private land for anyone who paid to get their vehicles ahead by a few kilometers.

Even truckers made big bucks. Labour contractors at Paradip port were given Rs 200 for every vehicle unloaded- they take Rs 50 against a receipt of Rs 200 and the truckers do it themselves and pocket the money. As the trucks moved slowly on the roads, an account of 1 km/ltr was the mileage given; the rest of the fuel sold.

When the government cracked its whip on illegal mining and made transportation via railway wagons a must, the locals, truck operators and the opposition partnered. Cornered, the government still rules with an iron fist on the mining; but gave in to the trucks coming back. But the damage has been done. A road widening project funded through PPP was on the basis of the 300 mines and the thousands of trucks on it each day. With activity limited to a fraction now, the private partners have pulled out. With no infrastructure to support, global giants like POSCO have moved out from the state.

So finally... who is really killing Odisha? The government, the politics or the people themselves? I feel it is the greed, corruption and selfish ends of all three of the above. 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Power, Trust & Responsibility

I admire the trapeze act in a circus. The idea of a trapeze that lets go of the swing takes a giant leap of faith while loosening his grip hoping the other person will be grabbing their hand on the other side defines teamwork and coordination in a lot of ways. In between the two swings is the space where the trapeze has the power to do all kinds of turns, twists and somersaults to enthrall the audience. This arrangement is completely flawless in itself as long as the two people in the act have faith in themselves, each other and are committed to their job at hand. In the rare case where there can be a failure of coordination, is the safety net which saves either from paying the ultimate price.

This arrangement is a very close analogy to the way organizations are structured and function. Like the circus manager, organization heads lay down the objectives, teams handling functions are given a target, the team leader assumes the role of playing the anchor to all activities and his team performs various tasks within the given framework to deliver results. The safety net is the organization and its top management which takes the onus of all activities done under its umbrella. Everything can function as smooth as a circus act till every unit maintains its decorum of duties and takes the responsibility for their actions.

The above arrangement basically eliminates the hierarchy structure in an organisation, empowers people within their spheres and decentralizes responsibilities to all involved. The output in true sense is built on teams and their collaboration and the credit for good work if shared can actually make work environments as fun as the circus. I can vouch for it considering I have worked at places where office strength has ranged from 30 to 300 to 500 to 1500.

The team of 30 was very well knit and this I must agree was the most enlightening phase of my professional life. Fact remains, it was more of each man for himself and if this were to go wrong, it was never more than two people who shared the blame for failure to deliver. When in a crunch scenario, it was an unwritten rule that the man at the helm of things is the man of the hour and is the one who takes the call. Results may vary as per the decision taken, but it made every person think twice and take an informed and thought out action.
Things did not change much even when I shifted to a placed that had over 300 employees, mainly because even then we functioned as an almost independent entity with our own targets, resources and at most times, decisions were always taken in a manner where every individual had to own up to the task at hand.  

As I have seen organisations of a bigger size, the chain of coordination has grown and strangely enough the equation of responsibility against decision making power has got greatly reduced. It was surprising that while a department comprised of about ten people, only about two or three had authority- the rest were merely a chain of execution. What came as a big surprise was that when I worked at a placed with 3000 people, authority is so very centralized that it was a cause of bottlenecks.

Image a scenario where a quick decision is required: the first person in the chain gets to understand the problem, escalate it to the next person and then gets through to the last person who takes the call. The urgency has to be firstly understood by two levels of gate keepers prior to it reaching the decision-makers. Not to forget, there is filtration of information at every level which in the end can be inaccurate. So not only I see delayed calls but also calls based on half burnt information. Also, the concentration of power at the apex has ruled the lower rungs happy to slip out of responsibility. All you have now are robots that follow orders.
I see this as a breakdown of the team structure. Responsibility and authority resides at the apex and the people below have no powers to take decisions neither the inclination for taking it either. The charm of power for the people at the top, at times don’t feel the need to delegate authority along with responsibility. With no power or freedom to take a decision, the people below are just means of execution and a channel to the top.

I find this absurd. How will people grow in an organisation? What happens to the high risk high dividend act which people should be encouraged to shoulder to fast pace the company? How will achievement be seen? It hardly surprising I see many people who have the romance with the companies of such sort and end up with 25 years in the same place with little or no aspirations. Not to mention, change is never going to come in a place like here as there is never a need felt for it. 

In an age when we feel that customers are low on patience and response time is the key, such attitude is actually building doom. I have heard that giant companies are like giants- they take time to get of their inertia but gather pace in giant steps. I really am not sure how valid this will be now as by the time the giant catches pace, the smaller bunnies make the dough- and when the giant comes at par, technology changes! Giant have to function as independent units with greater responsibility, authority delegated down the line if they wish to survive competition. Else the blades of grass will survive the storm and the giant oak will be uprooted.