A colleague forwarded this article from Tehelka, Sugar goes sour. The story took me back to a visit over two years ago and the memory is still as fresh as if it was yesterday. It is a cool February morning as we drive from Chandigarh on the highway to Ludhiana and Jalandhar to visit the rice mills of one of India’s large rice companies. As we leave Chandigarh, both sides of the road are covered with acres and acres of wheat fields interspersed with bright yellow mustard fields, right out of any Bollywood film. This is the romance of Punjab where any moment you expect Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol to burst forth with a song on their lips.
As we enter the factory premises, there is nothing that prepares us for what we are going to see over the next couple of hours. The buildings are nondescript single- and two-storey constructions with drab yellow paint peeling off the walls. We enter the 500-600 sq ft room room of the Chairman and Managing Director to the lilting accompaniment of chants and hymns. Must be the recital of Guru Granth Sahib, I think, as I see the ornately-framed pictures of various Sikh gurus adorning the walls of the well-lit office. “They are hymns from the Tirupathi temple,” one of my companions says. And it indeed is so, the CMD informs us.
A major part of the room is occupied by an imposing table and a throne-like chair. Another large section is occupied by four sofas for visitors, where we sit. To one side are two tables where two gentlemen sit and work. They seemed like accountants and behind them was a wall-mounted LCD television on which CNBC Awaaz runs on mute.
And then I notice, even as I shake hands and mumble a good morning to the CMD, that the entire room is filled with bejewelled statues, sculptures and paintings, mostly of god and goddesses in their various avatars, and their vahaans. The different animal statues that I counted were of eagles, tigers, giraffes, horses and tigers. Wherever I looked my eyes were assaulted by these bright figures. The only exception was a portrait of the CMD himself in his younger days.
He starts by telling us how he started the business. He was a very bright kid (“most intelligent person in the family”) and knew that he was destined to become big, very big. He started off by setting up a rice mill in 1978, in partnership with a friend, in the outskirts of Amritsar, and then set up another one in 1980 in the middle of nowhere in this place between Ludhiana and Chandigarh. He continuously invested in modernising the plant and expanding its capacity.
The company it seemed had all the right ingredients that would appeal to any large investor. It has implemented SAP, one of the largest global CA firms, as its auditor, invested in a 30MW rice-husk-based power plant (socially responsible and environmentally friendly) and, the CMD informs us, he is continuously buying his company’s stock and urges us also to do the same. On trailing 12 months, the stock was trading at less than 10.0x.
The perfect story or as perfect as it gets. Then we get up to visit the factory. We are honoured guests and the CMD himself drove us around in a CRV. After showing us around all the parts that had been abandoned and the new plants being set up, we get down to enter one of the milling areas. Imagine my shock when I see children of 9-12 years old scurrying around like rats in the dusty shop floor moving rice bags of 5 and 10 kgs from the packing area to a stacking area before loading on to containers for exports! I am shocked as I have never seen anything like this in a supposedly reputed firm. The rest of the plant visit is a haze as the CMD takes us around.
I deliberately fall behind and try to engage one of the kids in a conversation. He looks blankly at me before hurrying to the job at hand. The kids are caked in dust, have no face masks and were barefoot. It is an image that continues to haunt me as I get out of the shop floor and we resume our tour. Some of these kids must have been less than the age of my 12-year old Siddhant.
“How much are they paid daily and where do they come from?” I ask. I am told the children are from Bihar and UP and they are not even paid on any daily wage rate; they are only paid as per the work done during the day. The CMD informs us that he has bunkers within the campus for the kids like in China, and I ask, “Do you provide their food?” He says, “No, that they make their own arrangements.” He goes on to talk about his plans to construct a new office building, and a new gate… “Is your house close by?” I ask. He says, “We will go there as well.”
As we climb to the second floor of his house, right at the centre is a sunken circular area. One area is dominated by a large television and the rest of the arc is a seating system. As we sit down, one of the household helps switches on the TV set and adjusts the channel to CNBC Awaaz. “So where do you invest your money?” I ask him. “I only buy my shares,” I am informed. For a man who buys shares of only one company, he seemed to be watching an awful lot of the business channels.
All around the room we are once again surrounded by all kind of deities. Clearly our CMD is a blessed man.
As we leave, I mention the inspector raj of the government of India and how it had changed over the years. Had anything changed in the way excise officials and pollution control board inspectors behaved? The CMD informed me that he is a very well-known and well-respected person in Punjab and no government official or inspector visits his plant.
Later, I met a journalist in Chandigarh who works for a national newspaper. As we sat down to lunch, I asked him about the CMD. He reluctantly mentioned all sorts of unsavoury rumours around the CMD, which seemed fantastic, including one about the CMD whipping his workers. Whether it is the mustard fields or the whips, Bollywood it seems is never too far away.
Forty-eight hours later in Delhi, we are driving to Noida to meet Supriya Akhaury. Ducking through lanes and by-lanes, past open sewers next to which samosas were invitingly being deep-fried, we entered a courtyard, on either side of which are about 10-12 rooms. This is the school set up by Akhaury, a project under the Jayaprakash Narayan Memorial Trust’s Vidya & Child, which she runs. She could have been a corporate executive with large soft eyes, a large red bindi dotting her forehead and smartly dressed in ethnic cotton salwar kameez.
But this qualified Chartered Accountant gave up a corporate career to make a difference to the lives of underprivileged children. Vidya & Child has been working at the grass-roots level with children of marginalised sections of the society for over a decade. Children enrolled with Vidya & Child attend the schools program for five to six years before being mainstreamed into regular schools. There is also a host of after-school support activity for older children, even supporting them through college. Slowly Vidya & Child is expanding its reach by setting up more schools. One is being set up in Siwan in Bihar, Akhaury’s ancestral home town.
We were taken on a quick tour of the school by the Principal and Akhaury. On the first floor, Class V children had put up a skit on global warming. The children were supremely confident, certainly more than what I ever was, and did an excellent job. Akhaury informed us that she built up this school by taking one room on rent after another. She was lucky to get 20 rooms in one location and the landlord has by and large been nice. Over 70 children have been mainstreamed by Vidya & Child; 307 children, nearly 50% of them girls, attend the Ambedkar Vihar School that we were visiting.
These children probably would have ended up in some rice factory or some farm or in a local gang but for Akhaury, her dreams, her determination and her team. The memories of that day came flooding back as I read the Tehelka story. Vidya & Child now works with over 700 children and across 5 locations; it has doubled its size, and the rice company meanwhile has lost most of its market cap.
Mustard fields to the slums in Noida; from Bollywood to reality. The Bollywood dream of mustard fields juxtaposed with nightmarish reality of child labour. The reality of the stink of the slum to the hopes of children being educated and living for a brighter day. Which reality would you like to support? Which dream would you like to succeed? Who would you choose: Lakshmi, wealth, as was obviously being chased by the rice mill owner, or Vidya, knowledge?
When we said goodbye to Akhaury, I suddenly was feeling much better. For India’s demographic dividend to turn into reality, we need many more Supriya Akhaurys.
As Forbes India, in its latest cover story, says,
“Forget the obsession with becoming a superpower. First let’s become a great nation.”