Monday, May 31, 2010

'To see God you have to make an effort'


By Shevlin Sebastian

Every day, at 5.30 a.m., A.V. Raghavendra Bhatt, the chief priest of the Hanuman Kovil at Kochi begins praying. “Like any true Brahmin, I begin with the Gayatri Mantra,” he says.

Here are the lines from the most revered hymn in Hinduism:

Aum Bhoor Bhuwah Swaha,
Tat Savitur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasaya Dheemahi,
Dhiyo Yo Naha Prachodayat

(Oh God! Thou art the Giver of Life,
Remover of pain and sorrow,
The Bestower of happiness,
Oh! Creator of the Universe)

Following the Gayatri Mantra, which he repeats 24 times, Bhatt says the devotional hymn, ‘Om Namo Narayana’. This is followed by prayers to Lord Ram and his favourite, Lord Hanuman.

“There are 33 crore gods and goddesses,” says Bhatt. “But the one who does all the work is Lord Hanuman. If you ask Lord Hanuman for something, he fulfills your requests very quickly.”

Bhatt tells a story of how Lord Hanuman saved him. One day he was riding a bike in Palluruthy, near Kochi. He had to swerve suddenly to avoid a young girl. Bhatt fell from the bike and damaged his knee.

Taken to hospital, he was told that a surgery needed to be done. But he remembered the case of a devotee, who had a similar accident and after the surgery he was unable to bend his legs.

“I knew that if I could not fold my legs it would hamper my work as a melshanti (chief priest),” says Bhatt. “I felt very upset. I fervently prayed, ‘God, please show me the right way.’”

At that moment, a friend called up from Bangalore and mentioned the name of a famous naturopath in the city. Bhatt did not do the surgery. Instead, he went to Bangalore and met the doctor. He applied medicinal paste on the priest’s leg, told him to close his eyes, and straightened the limb with a swift jerk. Bhatt was healed.

“This showed that God cared for me,” says Bhatt. The grateful priest made a gold shield worth Rs 1 lakh and placed it on the idol of Lord Hanuman in Kochi.

When Bhatt closes his eyes, he sees a striking image of God, especially when he says the Gayatri Mantra. At the centre of the sun, Lord Vishnu, who is known as Savitrinarayana, is sitting cross-legged, with a slight smile on his lips.

“The body is enveloped in gold,” he says. Savitrinarayana wears gold earrings shaped like a crocodile. The lips are red as pomegranate and the teeth are covered with pomegranate seeds. At the corner of the eyes, it is light red in colour. The veins can be seen clearly. The shape of the eyes is like the stem of the lotus leaf.

Asked how man can get in touch with God, Bhatt says, “In the milk there is butter, but you cannot see it. To get butter you have to do various procedures. Similarly, to see God, you have to make a lot of effort. It is only then that God will allow you to have a glimpse of Him.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

For the greater good of Cochin


M.C. Josephine, the chairperson of the Greater Cochin Development Authority, is happy with the work that she has done so far

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Repairing the Kaloor-Kadavantha road has been my biggest achievement,” says M.C. Josephine, the chairperson the Greater Cochin Development Authority. “It is now one of the finest roads in Kochi.”

Indeed, the 3.2 km long road is smooth and sweet and a pleasure to drive on. But for several years it was a nightmare, with potholes and stones strewn all over, making it unusable. In fact, a man died when he fell into a huge hole near Kathrikadavu bridge.

“Not many people know the history behind this mess,” says Josephine. It all began when the Kerala Water Authority (KWA) wanted to lay down pipes under the road, as part of a HUDCO project to supply drinking water to West Kochi in 2006.

The then Collector Mohammed Hanish, who was a member of the GCDA board, as well as the then chairman, T.K. Jose, agreed.

“But there was one mistake they made,” says Josephine. “They did not sign an agreement with the KWA asking them to restore the road to the original form before the digging began.”

When Josephine took over in April, 2007, the media had raised a hue and cry over the sorry state of the road. The High Court intervened. Local people and political parties staged protests. A man who lived on the road began using a horse to express his frustration.

When Josephine called the MD of KWA, T.P. Mohanlal, asking him to repair the road, he gave some complicated explanations about why the water authority could not foot the bill.

Eventually, the Local Administration Minister Pallolli Muhammad Kutty called a meeting, where Josephine, Mohanlal, the Fisheries Minister S. Sarma and several local MLAs were present.

It was decided that the cost of repairing the section of the road torn up for the laying of pipes would be split equally between KWA and GCDA. This worked out to be Rs 38 lakh each. “Thereafter, the GCDA spent Rs 2.5 crore to resurface the road,” says Josephine. The road became functional about a year ago.

The Jawaharlal Nehru international stadium at Kaloor will also become functioning soon. The GCDA is completing the roofing of the stadium.

“It is a Rs 10 lakh project,” she says. Now the turf is being re-laid, and 21,000 new seats have been put in. The stadium will receive a fresh coat of paint.

Josephine also discovered that numerous tenants of the GCDA were not paying rents on time. “Sometimes, the arrears went up to one year,” she says. Incidentally, the GCDA owns 19 shopping complexes in the city.

“I was disappointed by the tenants’ attitude,” says Josephine. “Because we are a government organisation, they feel they can get away without paying.”

So she put the squeeze on them. “We called the errant tenants to the office and asked them to pay up,” says Josephine. “When they did not, we issued eviction notices.”

Her clenched fist worked. The GCDA collected Rs 1.5 crore in arrears. “And people have begun paying the rent regularly,” she says.

She also moved decisively, when in the nearly five-acre land at Manapattiparambu Road, in the heart of the city, owned by the GCDA, there were a lot of homeless people who had set up makeshift tents and seemed intent on staying there permanently.

But Josephine ensured that a wall was put up all around the property, the people were evicted, and the GCDA is once again in control.

“A part of the area will be used for a multi-level car parking lot,” says Josephine. “In the rest of the plot, buildings will be made and rented out.”

The GCDA sometimes gives land away also. “For setting up the Vytilla Mobility Hub, 18 acres have been given to the state government,” says Josephine. Another 13 acres has been allotted for the Vytilla bus terminal. Five acres have been given to the Cochin Corporation at Mundamvelli, so that they can set up a sewage treatment plant.

Josephine is busy, but being the chairperson is not her only job. She is a die-hard Communist and works hard for the party.

On a recent Saturday, she inaugurated a strike of the KWA. Then she went to Panangad, 20 kms from Kochi , to attend an annual function of a Kundumbashree unit. Then Josephine was off to Kanjirapally to attend a family meet of party members.

So, on most days, Josephine arrives at the GCDA office in the afternoon. The staff has the same laid-back attitude. At 10.15 a.m., a few staffers trickle in, with an unhurried look on their faces. “But we have nearly finished all of our pending projects,” asserts Josephine.

The long-suffering public might not entirely agree with her.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

What a world of fun for everyone!

Veegaland, which completed ten years recently, is the most popular and successful amusement park in Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

Whenever Kochuouseph Chittillapilly, the managing director of V-Guard Industries went abroad for holidays with his family, he would frequently take his two sons to amusement parks in the USA, Europe, Singapore, and Malaysia.

“I became fascinated by the rides, the beauty of the surroundings, and the excellent service,” he says. Then one day the idea dawned on him to try something similar in Kerala, but he faced roadblocks.

“Banks were hesitant to provide the Rs 11 crore loan that I wanted,” he says. “They felt it would a failure.” But Kochuouseph had a gut feeling that it would succeed.

He spent four months traveling to Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Hyderabad to study amusement parks. What he saw was not encouraging. “There was a clear lack of beauty and cleanliness,” says Kochuouseph. “The personal attention to customers was not up to the mark.” No wonder the parks were not doing well. He realised that if he wanted to succeed, he had to avoid the mistakes made by the other parks.

The location was decided by an impromptu purchase, several years ago, of a 10-acre plot of land on top of a hill in the sleepy village of Pallikara, 15 kms from the heart of Kochi. Once the plans for an amusement park became firmed up, he quietly bought plots from several owners nearby, till there was enough land to start a park.

In April, 2000, Kochuouseph plunged ahead with an Rs 22 crore investment. But the entrepreneur made things difficult for himself by pricing the tickets at Rs 250 per person. This meant that a family of four had to shell out Rs 1000, a steep amount for the middle-class in those days.

But Kochuouseph’s logic was simple: “When we go abroad, they charge $40 (Rs 2000) per person as entrance fees,” he says. “I had provided many facilities, and so I needed a good profit to meet the expenses.”

The gamble worked and the people came in droves. Sitting in his palatial bungalow beside National Highway 47 on the outskirts of Kochi, the businessman analyses the reason why. “There are many NRIs who enjoy these activities with their families when they come to Kerala for vacations,” he says.

The state is a consumer-rich society. More number of cars, televisions, washing machines, and air-conditioners are sold here than in other parts of India. “For high quality, people are willing to pay good money,” says Kochuouseph. “The visitors have come from all parts of Kerala to enjoy the facilities.”

On a recent Sunday, because of the summer vacations, there is a huge crowd present in front of the ticket counters. They range in age from toddlers to grandfathers. There is an air of anticipation and excitement.

Half an hour later, with ticket in hand, one enters the park. And the most striking impression is the astounding neatness. It is spotlessly clean. The grass has been trimmed neatly, the trees are aglow with flowers, and the cement paths are well maintained: no cracks or crevices.

And the numerous rides are mind-boggling: The Twin Flip Monster, the Sky Wheel, Dashing Cars, the Balloon Tower and Moon Walker. There is a Balarama Cave, a Musical Fountain cum Laser show and a Wonder Splash. There is a hang glider, as well as several pools, including the wave and family pool.

In the family pool, an unusual event took place. A paunchy middle-aged man felt that he had stepped on a stone. He reached under the water and pulled it up. It was a single tooth denture. The man beckoned a park employee standing at the side and told her to take it to the ‘Lost and Found’ section, near the entrance, but she was hesitant to carry it because it was a denture.

Suddenly, there was a yell. “That’s mine,” said 14-year-old Shashi. “I have been searching for it for the past two hours.” Shashi gave a gap-toothed smile. “It fell off when I dived into the pool,” he said, as he shook the man’s hand. “Thanks very much.”

The wave pool, which sends off waves at regular intervals, is very popular. One side is cordoned off for ladies and children. Unfortunately, there was quite a bit of gawking by the men. “It seems as if we are in a zoo,” a woman complained to a supervisor.

Kochuouseph is frank. “Yes, there are instances of eve-teasing and drunkenness,” he says. “But we have numerous security guards, most of whom are in plainclothes.”

They are well-trained and unobtrusive. The moment somebody starts misbehaving, they will be taken out quietly. “Sometimes, we don’t mind paying back the entrance fees to ensure that the person leaves the park,” says Kochuouseph. “We are determined that people should have a high quality experience.”

The park authorities ensure that by constantly striving to improve. “Work goes on 24 hours a day,” he says. “There is a group of employees who do the night shift, to keep the pools clean. The next morning the pools must be fresh and pure because a new group of customers will come in. We cannot say that because of yesterday’s rush we could not clean the place. They are paying Rs 500 per adult and Rs 380 for children on weekends and expect the best.”

Because of the company’s emphasis to provide top-class facilities, the people are coming in large numbers. “In 2009, we had 9.23 lakh visitors,” says B. Jayaraj, senior general manager. “But the crowds come during particular seasons.” The peak time is during the summer vacations for students, Vishu, Onam, and the Christmas holidays.

“The low season is during the monsoons,” says Jayaraj. When asked about the steep ticket prices, he says, “Nobody has complained to us about it. In fact, people are getting value for their money.”

And Kochuouseph is much respected for that. He remembers a recent dinner party that he attended where he was introduced to a student, Ajay, studying in Class four. When his mother told Ajay that Kochuouseph was the owner of Veegaland, the boy had a look of wonder on his face.

Soon, Ajay whispered something in his mother’s ears and she started laughing loudly. Apparently, the boy said, “Uncle is very lucky. He can go to Veegaland every day.”

Buoyed by the success of Veegaland, the company opened an Rs.120 crore amusement park in Bangalore, ‘Wonder La’ in 2006. Located 27 kms from the city, on the road to Mysore, it has also become successful.

Last year, the Wonder-La Holidays Private Limited, which runs Veegaland and Wonder-la, had a turnover of Rs 70 crore and a profit of Rs 12 crore.

“Our future plans include opening a park in Tamil Nadu, on the Chennai-Pondicherry route,” says Kochuouseph. “There are so many tourists from that state at Veegaland that we have become a recognised brand name among Tamilians. So, there is a strong possibility of the park being a success.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Saturday, May 22, 2010

‘God does everything for my good’


By Shevlin Sebastian

Every day, at 8.30 a.m., C.P. Jain, a former president of the Kerala Chamber of Commerce and Industry enters the puja room in his home at Kochi. There are idols of Lord Mahavira, Padmavathi, a goddess of the Jains, and Lord Venkateshwara of Tirupati. Apart from that, there are numerous photographs of different gods.

Jain begins by chanting the Navkar Mantra, the most important one in Jainism. Here are a few lines:

Namo Arihantanam: I bow down to Arihanta (Lords),
Namo Siddhanam: I bow down to Siddha (Liberated souls),
Namo Ayariyanam: I bow down to Acharya (Gurus),
Namo Uvajjhayanam: I bow down to Upadhyaya (A different category of gurus)

The Navkar Mantra has a total of nine lines and Jain repeats it 108 times. “I feel a mental peace and happiness, and a heightened concentration after I finish saying the mantra,” says Jain. Thereafter, he does some aratis and pujas, and says some personal prayers.

“I pray for joy, equanimity, love, world peace, and for my own prosperity,” he says. “I pray that my family should be happy, and my children should do well in their education.”

Jain’s elder daughter, Kanupriya, 23, is doing her MBA in Lancaster, UK, while Kriti, 21, is attending a course in Industrial Biotechnology at Anna University, Chennai.

Asked to prove that God exists, Jain gives an example. Kriti was about to sit for an exam in ‘Statistics and Probability’. In the previous test, she has done poorly.

Jain pleaded with his daughter to go and pray at a nearby Jain temple. Kriti did not go, but thanks to work -- Jain is a trader in newsprint -- he went to Chennai along with his wife.

One evening all three of them went to the temple and prayed for Kriti to do well. Later, after Kriti did her exams, she called her father and told him that she had secured the highest marks in the class: 90 per cent. “This proves to me that God exists,” says Jain.

When Jain closes his eyes to pray, he sees a statue of Lord Mahavira. “The Lord is sitting cross-legged, and his eyes are closed in a deep meditation,” says Jain. The idol, made of white marble, was located in a temple at Jaipur.

Jain’s father had taken him there when he was a child, and that image of Lord Mahavira became embedded in his mind. “It is a beautiful statue,” he says. “When you sit before it, you can feel the vibrations emanating from it.”

And yet, despite his devotion, Jain gets angry with God when bad events occur. “I ask God what is the mistake I have made?” says Jain. “I tell Him that I am praying every day to you. We are doing everything according to your dictates.”

Eventually, Jain puts the blame of bad events on karma – paying for negative actions done in a previous life – and develops a deeper understanding of God.

“I realise that whatever God does, it is for my good,” says Jain.

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Moulding the future


In her sixth year as Principal of St. Teresa’s College, Sr. Christabelle talks about the various initiatives that she has taken up

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sr. Christabelle, the principal of St. Teresa’s College, Kochi, arrives at her office at 8.15 a.m. There are several teachers waiting to meet her. Some want permission to hold special programmes or seminars for their departments. Others want to discuss their concerns regarding certain students.

“A student is absent for a few days,” says Sr. Christabelle. “The teacher will contact the family, but if the student continues to stay away, I will intervene. Usually, I tell the parents to come and meet me. When that happens, the matter becomes much more serious.”

Students go through various problems at that age. “Some are not interested in a particular subject, or in studies, as a whole,” says Sr. Christabelle. “A few suffer from psychological problems. Others face harassment while travelling in buses.”

Sr. Christabelle finishes with the teachers’ queries by 10 a.m. Thereafter, there are visitors from outside. “Politicians come seeking admissions,” she says. “Officers will ask whether we can open an account in their banks.” Salesmen will showcase different products, like the latest computers and laptops.

People invite her to be a speaker at seminars and functions. Many representatives of associations like for the blind and the deaf and dumb ask for financial relief. “We try to help as much as we can,” she says.

Sr. Christabelle’s day finishes at 5.15 p.m. She attends a group prayer at the chapel from 5.30 to 6.30 p.m. Thereafter, dinner is served. After listening to the TV news at 7 p.m., the nuns will gather together and share their experiences, till 8 p.m. “This is the best part of the day,” says Sr. Christabelle.

As the others nuns go off to rest, Sr. Christabelle is back in her office at 8.30 p.m. “This is an important period for me,” the nun says. “I can work without any interruptions.”

There are reports that need to be sent to the Mahatma Gandhi University and the Department of Collegiate Education. “I do a lot of innovative planning during this time,” says Sr. Christabelle.

This is also the time when she replies to e-mails, and reads magazines like ‘Outlook’ and ‘India Today’, to keep abreast of what is happening in the country. She returns to the convent at 10.30 p.m.

In her sixth year as Principal, Sr. Christabelle has placed a lot of emphasis on doing seminars and projects. “Recently, the students did a project on women domestic workers,” says Sr. Christabelle. They studied the problems they faced, organised a seminar, and submitted a study to the University Grants Commission, which had provided a grant.

“This study can be very useful for different agencies like women’s organisations and the Cochin Corporation,” says Sr. Christabelle.

Some of the subjects that have been tackled include Aids, obesity and health issues among women, and problems of the elderly. As she talks, a group of teachers arrive to discuss with the principal their plans to hold the first Women’s Science Congress in August.

Thanks to Sr. Christabelle’s initiative, teachers now use Power Point presentations and LCD projectors in the classroom. “It leads to better communication and efficiency in teaching,” she says. “When you give a lecture, half the matter is not absorbed. Through Power Point, you can transmit information in a faster manner.”

Sr. Christabelle has also shifted the college timing from 9.a.m. to 8.30 a.m. So, classes finish at 2.15 p.m., and thereafter students can attend courses like functional English classes, graphics, animation and web designing.

“All these courses finish by 4 p.m.,” says Sr. Christabelle. Thereafter, financially-strapped students have the time to work as part-time salesgirls and give tuitions.

Asked how the students of today are different from the past, she says, “They are more individualistic and outgoing. They come up with a lot of new ideas. They have a better access to knowledge because of the Internet They are techno savvy and are adept at using the mobile, the computer and the lap top.”

But her complaint is that they often use these skills for shallow ends. “They spend long hours on chat, listening to music, or e-mailing,” the nun says. “They should use their time in a more productive manner.”

The college, with its strength of 2200 students and 125 staffers, is doing well. But Sr. Christabelle is upset by the moribund ways of Mahatma Gandhi University and the state government.

“Society and the world has changed rapidly, but our syllabus has remained the same,” she says. “The subjects have to be redefined. I have tried to get permission to start so many new courses over the years, but have never got a positive response.”

In an hour-long conversation, Sr. Christabelle looks depressed for the first time.

The silent plea in her eyes: ‘MG University, please wake up!’

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Retaliation is the best way

Women in Kochi who have been sexually harassed by men take the offensive, with beneficial results

By Shevlin Sebastian

Meena Menon was five months pregnant. One day she boarded a bus at Panampilly Nagar. There were no seats. So she stood, holding the rod above her head. A young man got in from the front, came up to her, fondled her breasts and carried on walking towards the back. Meena raised a hue and cry. The passengers turned around to look. The panic-stricken boy jumped down from the running bus.

“He was stunned that I retaliated,” says Meena. “He expected me to remain quiet, like most women. I am sure he will think twice before attempting this again.”

Christina Joseph is a regular at the Novena prayers at the St. Antony’s Shrine at Kaloor. One Tuesday evening, she had joined her palms together, and raised it upwards.

At that moment, a man standing next to her took the opportunity to press her nipples. Christina shouted, “Why do you come to church and do these things?” The man just slunk away.

Latha Devan was coming out of a jewellery shop when a man, who was coming from the opposite side, groped her breasts. “Luckily I had my umbrella with me and gave a whack on his head,” says Latha. “He ran away as fast as he could.”

Increasingly, most women these days are fighting back. “Whenever we react, they flee,” says Latha. “They are cowards.”

Meena agrees. “When you react, the eve-teasers feel afraid,” she says.

However, despite these bold actions, whenever women venture out into public spaces, like in a bus or a train or a movie hall, they feel anxious.

“I am scared about how people are going to behave,” says Meena. “It is a degrading experience when men behave badly with you.”

Christina says she becomes doubly tense when she goes out with her teenage daughter, Anna. “I try to protect her as much as I can,” she says. So when they are leaving a theatre after a film, her husband, James, will walk in front, Anna will be in the middle and Christina will be at the back.

Christina says women need to take such precautions. “The big drawback in Kerala is that when a woman is harassed the public will remain silent,” she says. “They will only watch. So, you have to fight the battle on your own.”

She says that it is important that the people show support to harassed women. “It is only then that incidents like these will stop,” says Meena. “Those who are watching silently should remember that they have mothers and sisters at home.”

When asked for the reasons for this bad behaviour by men, Meena says, “They are sexually frustrated. These men have the misconception that women are crazy for sex. They believe that if they molest us, we will get excited the way they do.”

Incidentally, most of the men who have harassed her are 45 years and older. “I am sure they are married,” says Meena. “They probably do not have a good sexual relationship with their wives.

Apart from middle aged married men, there are the labourers, mostly from north India, who look at us with such unbridled lust, it is a horrible feeling.”

A cynical Christina says, “All men are like this. If James, my husband, were not educated and came from a good middle-class family he would have behaved in the same manner.”

So what is the expert’s view on man’s degrading treatment of women in Kerala?

Psychiatrist Dr S.D. Singh says that Kerala is a sexually repressive society. “Men get little chance to express their sexuality,” he says. “So, when women come close to them in public spaces or when they stand or sit next to each other in a bus or a train, they ventilate their sexuality by harassing the females.”

Interestingly, in the West, these public harassments occur very rarely. “There, the men are able to express their sexuality by going to parties and nightclubs,” says Singh. “There is no stigma in men and women kissing, hugging, and talking to each other, unlike it is here in Kerala.”

In western countries, if you physically appreciate a woman, who is a colleague or a neighbour, it is taken as a compliment, and the woman will say ‘thank you’. “Here, it will be defined as a ‘comment’ or a ‘pass’, and will not be accepted in a dignified way by the women,” he says.

So what is the way forward? Latha says that the police or NGO’s should hold awareness courses for men on how to behave in public with women.

“Co-education could be another way,” says Dr. Singh. “Men and women should be encouraged to interact often with each other. At the same time, women should be taught to defend themselves against men who cross social norms and behave badly.”

(Some names have been changed)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

‘Om is the sound of the universe’


By Shevlin Sebastian

When Gujarati businessman Rajeev Dholakia went to the Kedarnath shrine in September, 2007, he was struck by a powerful energy in the main shrine. “There were pilgrims who came with a lot of faith and devotion,” says Rajeev. “Probably, they brought in more zeal.”

Rajeev felt happy, peaceful, and calm, but the mood did not last for long. “The pujaris have become too money-minded,” he says. “In most of the well-known temples, it is all about how much money you can pay and the time in front of the deity will be allotted accordingly. I felt angry and frustrated.”

He also discovered that most devotees were casual about their faith. “Many had switched on their mobile phones during the aarati session so that their relatives in distant places could also hear it,” he says. “It devalued the spiritual experience.”

At Kochi, where he stays, Rajeev is not a regular visitor to temples. Instead, he prefers to pray, while driving the car or working in the office. “God is everywhere,” he says. Prayer, for him, is to keep murmuring the word, ‘Om’ all the time. “It is the sound of the universe,” he says.

He says that by chanting ‘Om’ his mind calms down. “Usually, the mind is always in a state of chaos, flitting from one thought to another,” he says.

However, in between, he reflects over profound philosophical questions. “I want to find out the purpose of my life,” says Rajeev. “What is happiness and salvation? Why have I come to this earth? Where do I go from here?”

When Rajeev was younger, he had fewer doubts. When he would close his eyes to pray, he would behold the image of Lord Shiva. “I used to see the blue body with the long hair, the snake coiled around the neck, and the water of the river Ganges sprouting from his head,” he says.

Rajeev says that his mother is a deep believer in Shiva and he imbibed that faith from her. But, nowadays, when he closes his eyes, he prefers to keep it blank. “However, sometimes, I see the image of ‘Ajja’ my spiritual guru, who died in 2007,” he says. “I am hoping to reach God through him.”

So, like most people, does Rajeev get angry with God when bad events occur? “No,” he says. “What you get is what you deserve. It is the result of your karma. So I don’t blame anything or anybody. But I do get angry with myself. I feel I have not done enough mediation. That is why bad events occur.”

Asked to prove that God exists, he smiles, and says, “It is like trying to explain why I was born in a particular Gujarati family in Kochi and not in Ahmedabad, or in the Ambani family? Why didn’t I have those choices? So, clearly, there is some force that makes these decisions. To me, God is this immense power in the universe. We live at His mercy.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Hot and spicy!


C.V. Jacob has been running the Synthite Group with great success for the past four decades

By Shevlin Sebastian

C.V. Jacob, the chairman and managing director of the Synthite Group arrives at his office at the very early hour of 8.30 a.m. This is in the village of Kadayiruppu, Kolencherry, 30 kilometres from Kochi.

His office is large and spacious. One wall is dominated by a glass-paned window through which you can see manicured lawns, smooth cement paths, and neatly painted buildings.

The Synthite Group is an Rs 500 crore company, employing 2000 people. It’s most successful business is spice oils and oleoresins. They are converted into liquid form and exported to more than 70 countries.

“Currently, Synthite contributes 50 per cent of India’s exports of spice oleoresins, and this is equivalent to 35 per cent of the world demand,” says Jacob. The company has won several national awards for outstanding export performance from the government of India.

The group has factories in Maradur (Tamil Nadu), Harihar (Karnataka), Khammam (Andhra Pradesh) and at Kolenchery, Pancode, and Calicut. They started Riveira Suites, the first apartment hotel of its kind in Kerala, and the five-star hotel, Ramada Lake Resort and Spa at Kochi.

One of the first things Jacob does when he arrives at the office is to check the raw material purchases, as well as the sales of finished products.

At 10 a.m. he goes out to oversee the reconstruction work of the government hospital nearby. The Synthite Group is spending Rs 80 lakhs for it. After that Jacob makes short visits to the Medical Mission hospital, run by the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, where he is an advisor, and the St Peter’s College where he has been the secretary for the past 18 years.

Jacob also steps into the family-run English medium senior secondary school, St. Peter’s. “There are 2100 students,” he says.

Once a week, Jacob goes to the office of the Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) at Nedumbassery, where he is a director of the board.

“Jacob oversaw the upgradation of the ten-year-old runway which had been in bad shape,” says Krishnadas Nair, the MD of CIAL. “The work was completed in just a few months.”

Meanwhile, at Synthite, Jacob concentrates on finance and purchases. “I have delegated a lot of the responsibility to my sons, Viju and Aju Jacob, and nephew, George Paul,” says Jacob, 77.

He now devotes quite a bit of time for social work. The CVJ Foundation helps those in need of money for cataract and heart surgery. They also provide scholarships for poor students as well as assistance to buy houses. There is an insurance scheme for the poor.

“We try to help the needy as much as we can,” says Jacob. The family displays this helpful attitude in their company also.

When a person becomes a permanent employee he is entitled to a motorcycle or a car, depending on the salary. Other perks include medical reimbursements, education and housing loans. “All workers are entitled to interest-free housing loans,” says Jacob.

The company also has a pension scheme for staff members.

Thanks to happy employees, the Synthite group has no union. Jacob says that many attempts were made to start one, but the workers resisted. “They are more attached to me,” he says, with a smile. As a result, the company has not lost a single working day to labour unrest in the past 36 years.

Jacob says that he has also not experienced any problems, either with the LDF or UDF governments. “As for the Centre, they have rendered timely help,” says Jacob. Five years after he embarked on the spice oleoresins business, the central government began a cash assistance programme to help the industry.

Each company received a payment of 10 per cent of the turnover. “I used the money to invest in research and development,” says Jacob. “As a result, we were able to reach international standards in terms of quality and output.”

In 1973, Jacob had a tie-up with J. Manheimer Inc, an American company. “They provided crucial technical know-how to us and agreed to sell our products in the United States,” says Jacob. Thanks to the many orders given by Manheimer, the sales boomed and there was no looking back.

Asked for tips to run a successful business, Jacob says, “You must be sincere and dedicated to the company. It is important to have proper working systems in place. And you should keep an eye on what is happening. Hands-on management is the best way. If we work hard, our employees will also work hard. Lastly, and most important, one must be honest in all financial dealings, be it with the bank or with clients.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Heart-felt observations

US-based cardiologist Dr. Johnson K. Zacharias talks about the latest trends in the field, as well as the impact of medical tourism in India

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day, US-based cardiologist Dr. Johnson K. Zacharias, who lives in Port Huron, near Detroit, received a call from his nephew in Florida. The youngster said, “My dad is having gas pains, so I am going to the drug store to get some medicines.”

Zacharias said, “Please turn around immediately and take your father to the hospital. What is gas pains could be the symptoms of a heart attack.” At the hospital, a cardiogram showed evidence of blockage. Timely medications saved the life of his brother-in-law.

On his way to India, last month, Zacharias stopped over at Dubai. There he came across another case, Ranjan (name changed), who had been suffering from gas pains. Unfortunately, the family, unaware that he had a heart attack, did not take him to the hospital. Two days later Ranjan collapsed and died at home.

“When you think you are having a gas pain, which may be in the lower end of the sternum or upper stomach, always have it checked,” he says. “It could be a heart attack.”

Zacharias says Indians are predisposed towards heart attacks. “Indians have low levels of High Density Lipoprotein, which is regarded as a good cholesterol,” he says. “They have smaller blood vessels in the heart, as compared to Westerners.”

Indians also tend to suffer from diabetes, obesity, and stress. “All these factors raise the chances of a heart attack,” he says.

Zacharias has been running a successful heart clinic staffed with Indian doctors for several years. “Indian physicians are well respected in the United States,” he says.

This is one reason why medical tourism in India is booming. More and more Americans are coming to the country to do open-heart, knee, cosmetic, and dental surgery.

According to a study conducted by the Confederation of Indian Industry and McKinsey consultants, 1,50,000 foreigners visited India for treatment, last year, with the growth pegged at 15 per cent a year. India could earn more than $1 billion annually.

“Private hospitals in India have some of the most up-to-date facilities,” says Zacharias. But the biggest plus is the cheaper costs of surgery.

“An open-heart surgery in the US costs anywhere between $30,000 and $50,000,” he says. “In India it can be done for as low as $10,000.”

But there are inconveniences. “If I have chest pain and need a bypass surgery I will be scared to travel 15 hours in a plane,” he says. “Travel, itself, is a big strain.”

The other drawback is that when you go through a major operation abroad, you cannot have the family with you. “After surgery, a patient needs the support of friends and relatives,” says Zacharias. “But when you come to India, it is just a business transaction.”

Zacharias has been taken aback by the ‘big business’ attitude of most hospitals. “In India the authorities first check whether the patient can pay the bills,” he says. “This is a disappointing attitude. There should be a social conscience.”

In the West there is no discrimination between a millionaire and a poor person. “They get the same treatment,” he says. The hospital authorities worry about the payment much later. Their first and immediate priority is to save the human life. Whatever needs to be done, will be done.

“Indians have to learn to keep the balance between ethics and profits,” says Zacharias.

Asked about the new trends in cardiology, he says, “Research has been done to develop medications to thin the blood.” When the clogged blood vessels are dilated and a stent is put, there is a tendency for that area to get blocked again.

“To prevent that happening patients are given blood thinners,” he says. Zacharias usually prescribes a tablet called Plavix, along with aspirin.

Meanwhile, thanks to international seminars and information available on the Internet, cardiologists in Kerala are also up to date, says Zacharias, who was on a brief visit to the state.

Belonging to the Kuttanperoor family, of Chanagancherry, he did his MBBS from Trivandrum Medical College and worked briefly as a teacher of physiology at Kottayam Medical College.

After further stints in different parts of Kerala, he got an opening as an intern in the Detroit General Hospital in 1968. Later, he did a two-year cardiology fellowship, and settled down in the US. This 42-year-long stay has made Zacharias unprepared for life in India.

On a recent holiday to Munnar, this expert of the heart suffered from palpitations. “I was sitting in the front, near the driver,” says Zacharias. “But our car was barely missing other cars and buses on the road. My heart started beating fast. I had no option but to go to the back seat and avoid seeing these narrow misses. At times, Kerala can be hard on the heart.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Monday, May 10, 2010

A new musical route to Jesus Christ

For the first time in the Catholic church, a priest sings Christian hymns based on the ragas in Carnatic music, much to the joy of the parishioners

Photo: Fr. Joseph Thattarassery (centre) singing Carnatic bhajans

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Fr. Joseph Thattarassery was appointed as the parish priest of St. Joseph’s Church in Tripunithara, 8 kms from Kochi, in 2002, it changed his life. A mild interest in Carnatic music became a passion.

“There are 130 temples in Tripunithara,” he says. In most of the major temples, like Sree Poornathreseya and Chakkamkulangara Siva Temple, there are regular Carnatic sangeet kacheris or concerts.

“In the beginning I could not understand the meaning of the ragas,” says Fr. Joseph.

The priest had studied the basics during a one-year course at the St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary in Kochi. So he got himself a teacher, P.D. Sygal, and started learning the ragas for three hours a day.

“Soon, what I was struggling to learn, I could see its excellence in concerts,” he says. It was during a concert by the brilliant Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna that an inspired Fr. Joseph got the idea of starting something similar in the church. So, he took some ragas, and changed the lyrics to suit Christian themes.

When Fr. Joseph proposed the idea to the parishioners, the initial reaction was negative. In fact some people got angry. In one instance, they objected to the word ‘saranam’ in one of the hymns.

“They asked me why I was using a Hindu word,” he says. They had linked it to the Lord Ayyappa chant, ‘Swami Saranam, Ayyappa Saranam.’ But Fr. Joseph told them that the word ‘Saranam’ is a Malayalam word and means hope. “It does not belong to any religion,” he said. “It is part of a language. I had to clear their misconceptions.”

Despite the misgivings, Fr. Joseph began a bhajan recital at 4 a.m., every Friday, with a group of singers. And slowly the parishioners were drawn in by the great power of Carnatic music.

“When you listen to the Gregorian chants (Western liturgical music), you feel the Christianness in the song,” says Fr. Joseph. “But when you listen to a Carnatic song with Christian lyrics, you get the feeling that Jesus Christ belongs to our land.”

Undoubtedly, when Fr. Joseph sings, there is a magnetism in the music and the lines:

Divyakarunyam Bhaje
(We adore you Holy Eucharist)

Paramakarunyam Bhaje
(We adore you Supreme Mercy of God)

Sree Yesu Devam Bhaje
(Jesus the redeemer we adore you)

Sree Christu Devam Bhaje
(Christ, the Holy Anointed One, we adore you)

So, did the Church object to this? “On the contrary, I received whole-hearted support,” says Fr. Joseph. The late Archbishop Daniel Acharuparambil, the leader of the Latin Catholics, had won a gold medal in Indian philosophy from the Benaras Hindu University. “So he understood what I was trying to do,” says the priest.

Interestingly, there were a lot of Brahmins who came to listen to the recital. Among them was a man called Raman. “He used to come without fail every week,” says Fr. Joseph. However, after a few months, Raman moved to Thiruvananthapuram, 200 kms away.

Nevertheless, every Thursday evening he would return to Tripunithara, stay at a hotel and attend the 4 a.m. bhajan the next day. “Raman paid the expenses of all the singers,” says Fr. Joseph. “I can never forget him.”

After five years Fr. Joseph was transferred to the Our Lady of Perpetual Help church at Ochanthuruth, in the Vypeen Islands, near Kochi. Quickly he started a 12-person choir for bhajan singing, which included three Hindus: Unnikrishnan on the mridangam, Lalu on the tabla, and Devadas on the flute.

“It has been an amazing experience for me,” says Devadas. “To play Carnatic music inside a church before dawn has brought me nearer to God. I feel an inner peace.”

Jacqueline Patrick, the vocalist, says, “You experience a deeper closeness to God when you sing a hymn, with Carnatic, rather than with Western music.”

The bhajan-singing is slowly gaining acceptance. During this year’s Maundy Thursday Mass, Fr. Joseph sang the ‘Raga Pahadi’ and it was well received. Fr. Joseph also goes back, on the first Friday of every month, to his old parish to do the 4 a.m. bhajan. And he continues an intensive training from an A-Top artist of All India Radio, N.P. Ramaswamy.

Meanwhile, the troupe is getting calls from different places in Kerala to perform. Recently, they went to an old woman’s home at the nearby town of Pallipuram to give a recital. The audience comprised 45 women, who had been abandoned by their families.

For one and a half hours the troupe sang songs in praise of God. Near the end, they launched into the Darbarai Kanada raga. This difficult raga, if sung with passion, has the potential to create a powerful emotional reaction.

“We started singing very loudly,” says Fr. Joseph. After a few minutes, all the women stood up, ranging in age from 70 to 90, and with their arms upraised, they began crying bitterly. “The old women were shedding tears of sorrow, because their children did not want them,” says Fr. Joseph. “Seeing them we also started to cry.”

But after the performance Fr. Joseph looked at the positive side. “I was glad that I could bring them some relief by singing such a beautiful raga,” he says. “Our song passed a message to these forlorn women: ‘If no human being, especially those closest to you, offers support, remember, God is always there for you.’”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Working for the people


The popular MLA from Tripunithara, K. Babu enjoys the interaction with his voters, and tries to render help as often as he can

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8 a.m., on April 27, the day of the nation-wide hartal called by the Left parties, K. Babu, MLA, has visitors at his home in Tripunithara. Among them is young Rajesh, a Kashmir-based jawan of the Indian Army, who has come home for a vacation. But his ticket is wait-listed for his return journey on April 30.

Babu writes a recommendation letter but warns Rajesh, good-humouredly, “There are four MPs who have their base in Kochi. So, if my request is blocked, call me up.”

Every morning, about 100 people come to his house with various complaints. “Some need a letter of introduction for a ration card,” says Babu. “Some want a recommendation for a job, while others want a marriage certificate to be attested.”

Usually by 9 a.m. Babu leaves the house. On Sunday, April 25, this is what his programme looked like: Babu first headed for the Anjumana temple at Edapally for a function.

From there he went to Angamaly where he attended an event at a jewellery store, the 60th birthday celebrations of a man, and the First Holy Communion mass for a child. Thereafter, he drove to Thrikakkara and Kakkanad for several weddings. It was at 2.40 p.m. when he reached home and had his lunch.

Within half an hour he was on the road. This time it was to pay condolence calls at Vytilla and Kaloor. He then proceeded to the MLA guest house where there was a conciliation meeting between the workers and the management of Apollo Tyres. Babu is the union president.

Thereafter, Babu went for a programme for women at Thrikkakara. He then attended a function at St. Jude’s church at Thammanam followed by the Building and Roadworkers Federation meeting at Rajendra Maidan. The time was at 6 p.m.

At Cannon Shed Road, there was another meeting. Then Babu attended resident association functions at Masjid Road, P.J. Antony Road and Thoppil Road. “By this time it was 8.45 p.m.,” says Babu. He then rushed to the IMA hall to attend a wedding reception. When Babu reached home it was 9.30 p.m.

“I do this because I want to keep in touch with the people, during happy and sad moments,” says Babu. “I enjoy the interaction. The people are also glad to see me.”

Babu has been an MLA for the past 19 years. So what have been his achievements?

He rattles them off: “The biggest achievement was the setting up of the Choondi drinking water project,” he says. “It has solved the water problems of Tripunithara.” A faculty building has come up at the RLV College of Music. At Vytilla, a Kerala State Electricity Board substation has been put up. “This has reduced the number of power cuts in the area,” he says.

A taluk hospital, a fire station, and a bridge have also been constructed at Tripunithara, apart from a 350-bed hospital at Ayurveda College and a hospital at Thrikakkara.

But a frank Babu admits that the big failure has been the non-completion of the Edapally rail overbridge. As a result, thousands of people are inconvenienced every day because of long waits at the railway crossing.

“The overbridge was to have been completed in 2007,” he says. “I blame the contractor for this.” The contract has been re-tendered and it will take another one and a half years before the work is complete.

Babu talks about other problems. “In Tripunithara, there is a lot of traffic congestion,” he says. “We need to build a bypass, but land acquisition is a problem. The Kakkanad-Palarivattom road is always choked with traffic. We need to make a parallel road. Flyovers will have to come up at Palarivattom, Edapally and Vytilla.”

From his enthusiastic talk, it is clear that he enjoys being a politician but he admits that he has paid a high price for it. “I have sacrificed my family life,” he says. “I have rarely gone out with them anywhere. I work 365 days a year.”

But this hard work is paying dividends. Says long-time resident of Tripunithara, Antony Maleth: “Babu has done so many good works for the constituency. Even though he is a MLA, he mingles easily with the people, and never disappoints anybody who comes to him for help.”

This will make Babu happy. Exactly a year later is the Assembly elections, but with the Congress set to sweep the elections, K. Babu looks all set to complete a quarter of a century as the MLA from Tripunithara.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A bright beginning

Director Mamas Chandran makes a competent debut with ‘Pappy Appacha’

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2004, film director MeCartin gave a class on animation for a group of people in Thalassery, Kannur. Mamas Chandran was one of the students. When the class was over, he told MeCartin he wanted to join films. “I had wanted to be a director from my childhood,” he says.

MeCartin says that he was very impressed by the talent shown by Mamas during the class. “A skill in animation could be easily transferred to films,” he says. So when MeCartin was making a film, ‘Pandippada’, he invited Mamas to be an assistant director.

Mamas did his job well, and went on to assist in films like ‘The Speed Track’ by Jayasurya and ‘Balram Vs Taradas’ by veteran director I.V. Sasi in 2006.

In between, Mamas also made advertising films, and music videos, as well as numerous cartoons for Malayalam newspapers like ‘Rashtriya Deepika’,

Thereafter, in 2008, Mamas sat down and wrote a script. After a month, he showed it to Anoop, superstar Dileep’s sibling. Anoop liked it and asked his brother to read it. Dileep also liked the script, and the brothers decided to produce the film.

But Mamas had to wait two-and-a-half years before the shooting began. “Dileep had a lot of films in hand,” says Mamas. So he spent the time fine-tuning all aspects of the film.

On April 14, ‘Pappy Appacha’ was finally released. It is the story of a father and son, played with aplomb by Innocent and Dileep, who are arrogant landlords in a village called Ithirikkandam. They have quite a few businesses, including a market, a match factory, a school, and a theatre.

When Mamas, the son of a police officer, was growing up in Idukki, he came across a news report about a theatre that had caught fire. Later, it became a local controversy because the owners burnt it down to get the insurance money.

So Mamas wrote about how Dileep and Innocent burned down a match factory to get the insurance. Nevertheless, it is the usual story of landlords dominating a village and engaged in warding off fierce rivals.

In between, there are fights, a few songs, touches of comedy here and there, and a coy love story. Kavya Madhavan -- Dileep’s object of affection -- plays Annie, a schoolteacher who works in a school owned by the landlord.

Although MeCartin has not seen the film, he says the feedback he got from colleagues is that it is “so-so.”

Deepak Isaac, a Bangalore-based professional on holiday in Kochi says that the film was slow at certain places.

“There is nothing new in the story,” he says. “However, the best part was the introductory credits shown in animation style with comical descriptions of jobs like editing and directing.”

‘Pappy Appacha’ has done okay at the box office. And it is remarkable that Mamas, 28, and barely five years in the industry has been able to make a competent film.

Mecartin feels Mamas will become better. “The first film is always a learning experience,” he says. “Even the first one I made had so many mistakes. But by carefully avoiding the errors, the next film will become much better. I am sure this will be the case with Mamas.”

At his sister’s home in Thammanam, Kochi, where he stays, Mamas displays an outward modesty, but there are traces of braggadocio in his talk. Asked whether the presence of seasoned professionals like Dileep and Kavya made him nervous, he says, “An actor is a tool in the hands of a director. To mould them is my job.”

Mamas was also certain that the film would do well. “I was confident about the subject matter,” he says. “I knew there was a chemistry between Dileep and Kavya, as well as Innocent. I was sure that the comedy sequences would be funny.”

Clearly, Mamas does not suffer from any self-doubts. It is probably this conceit that has helped him make a debut where people in the industry have sat up and took notice.

At present, Mamas is busy writing another script. A new producer has promised to bankroll it. The future looks as bright as the sunny April morning that I met him.

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

A whole lot of crap

Every year several thousand tons of feces fall on the tracks of the Indian Railways. Despite it being a dangerous health hazard, the Railways are yet to install green toilets

By Shevlin Sebastian

There are 40,000 train coaches in use every day in India. “If you take the minimum of 10 people per bogie using the toilet on an average, daily, that is a total of 4 lakh,” says public health activist and non-resident Indian Dr. George Joseph Themplangad. “If 250 grams of feces per person is dropped on the tracks, it means there is 400 tons all over the country.” That’s a mind-boggling 1,46,000 tons a year.

Half a kilogram of feces contains 3 billion virus and bacteria. When the feces dries up it is present in the air. A large number of railway employees who work near railway tracks suffer from various diseases.

“This is because of the fecal dust that they are constantly inhaling,” says Dr Ismail Siyad, associate professor in gastroenterology at the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, Kochi.

Thanks to winds, the feces are also blown to a distance of 15 kms from the tracks. So, apart from those who live near railway tracks, which number around 200 million, people far away are also affected.

“During the monsoon season, the feces gets washed up into rivers, lakes, canals, wells, and the water supply system,” says Dr. Mathew Philip, Director, PVS Institute of Digestive Diseases, Kochi. “It also ends up in our food and in the air that we breathe. The diseases that we can get are dozens, including polio.”

Polio is transmitted through feces. The feces containing the polio virus of a person who is a carrier is passed out from the body onto the tracks. Then it comes into contact with water, which somebody drinks.

“It is through the oral-fecal route that one gets polio,” says Siyad. “A vast majority of the polio cases in this country is transmitted through the feces lying on the tracks.”

The other diseases include hepatitis, diarrhoea, cholera, and typhoid. Parasites like hookworm, tapeworm, and roundworm are spread mainly through fecal matter.

“When the feces lies out in the open, birds, animals and flies feed on it,” says Philip. “Later, when a fly touches food, the feces and the germs are passed, and this is eaten by human beings.”

Another problem is choked drains. Usually sweepers push the feces lying on tracks at railway stations into drains. But this clogs it up. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India report of 2006 stated that out of 358 stations it investigated, drains in 101 stations were blocked.

When George realised the dangers of the feces lying in the open, he tried to alert the Railway authorities, but to no avail. Finally, in 2006, he filed a writ petition in Kerala High Court, with the Railways and the state government as defendants.

“The Railways made a promise in court that they would settle the issue by 2008,” says George. In fact the then Union Minister of Railways Lalu Prasad Yadav allocated Rs 4000 crore so that green toilets could be set up.

Four years have gone past and there are no signs of any green toilet. “Like the feces, the money seems to have gone down the drain,” says George. But there is talk about setting up a Controlled Toilet Discharge System.

As the trains slow down, below 30 kms per hour, a kind of catchment will appear under the toilets. This will prevent the feces from falling on the tracks at railways stations. “But when the train gains speed and crosses 30 km per hour, it will again open up and the whole thing will be dumped on the tracks once again,” says George, with a rueful smile.

So, is dumping waste on tracks the common method all over the world? In the US and Japan, the trains have steel tanks, which collect the feces. Then when the train arrives at a station this tank is taken to a sewage treatment plant nearby and a pipe is attached so that the contents are transferred without spilling out.

But a few years ago the Japanese introduced the bio-toilet system. This uses bacteria to decompose the waste in septic tanks located on the train. Hence, there is no need to empty the tanks, except, maybe, once a year.

George says that the abundant feces can be used to generate electricity. From every toilet, the feces can be taken to one area in the train, where there is a steel tank.

“It can then be converted into methane,” he says. “A fuel cell processing facility will provide the electricity for the engine. Feces are the new frontier in generating electricity. It is time the Indian Railways put up green toilets.”

He says the railways have the money and the people to retrofit the toilets. “This can be done in less than a year,” he says. “We need to use only 20,000 technicians out of a work force of 17 lakh. Retrofitting is not rocket technology. It is a simple method. We are sending satellites into space. Why can’t we solve this problem, which is such a major health hazard?”

In fact, our leaders had realised that this was a health hazard years ago. In his book, ‘Hind Swaraj’, Mahatma Gandhi devoted an entire chapter on the Railways. “Apart from the pollution caused by the coal and the smoke, Gandhiji blamed the Railways for causing diseases, because of the feces being discharged on the tracks,” says George.

Meanwhile, there is an apocryphal story of President Nicholas Sarkozy of France, who came to India in 2008. While traveling by train from Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal he saw some feces lying on the tracks. He is supposed to have said, “I am not surprised. After all, the name of the Railway Minister is La Loo (The Toilet).”


‘The Railways is trying out several options’

Says Hemant Kumar, chief mechanical engineer, Integral Coach Factory, Chennai

What are the different types of green toilets?
There are two types. One is the bio-degradable toilets. In it, there is a retention tank and the fecal matter gets degraded through microbes. The other option is where the feces are stored in a tank, and when the train arrives at a major station, it is discharged into a sewage treatment plant.

Storing in steel tanks is the method used in advanced countries. So, it should work here?
That is one of the options. The Indian Railways is a vast network. The train starts at one place, and goes on traveling for 2000 kms. At various locations, we will need to clean the tanks and pass the material into a sewage treatment plant. We will be trying this out in a limited number of trains.

What is the major difference in conditions in India and abroad?
In foreign countries, the distance between terminal stations is far less. The time taken to travel from place to place is shorter, because of the higher speeds of trains. And, unlike in the West, we have many overnight trains. Also, the number of passengers is much more. We have to find a solution which is tailor-made for India.

According to news reports, the Railways had announced it would install green toilets in all its trains by 2011-13. So, you are far behind schedule?
We are yet to zero in on one particular design. The proliferation of toilets will take place only after that. We have tried out several types and each has some niggling problem or the other. It may also require some infrastructure to be put in place before we can install the green toilets. It will take another year to finalise everything.

What is the cost of putting up such a toilet?
A Controlled Toilet Discharge System, which we have put up in some trains, costs Rs 6.5 lakh per coach, but this is not a green toilet, since it is discharging the feces on the tracks. However, indigenous green toilets will cost less.

Would you agree that feces lying on the tracks are a health hazard?
It is. Apart from feces from toilets, people also defecate on the tracks.

During the Sabarimala season, 30 lakh pilgrims come to Kerala. In railway stations like Kottayam, which is a hub when travelling to Sabarimala, feces are littered on the tracks. What should be done?
Most of the waste is caused by public defecation. During a fair in Sultanganj in Bihar, we had put up several mobile toilets at the station. But when 5000 people arrived, 20 or 30 toilets were not sufficient.

Is there a growing consciousness about green toilets among the public and Railway employees?
Yes, there is. We are working hard on setting up green toilets. Within this year we expect to fit about 20 coaches with green toilets.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

'Guru Gobind Singh is my favourite'


By Shevlin Sebastian

When Punjabi businessman Manjit Singh Sethi gets up every morning, he recites the ‘Satnam Waheguru’ in Gurumuki:

‘Satnam Waheguru,
Waheguru tera shukar hae’

(Praise God for his creation, which is eternal)

“I forget about the outside world and go deep inside myself,” he says. Manjit repeats this prayer intensely for a few minutes. “I also pray to God to make me a good son, brother, husband, father, and a businessman. I want the best to happen to my wife and daughter.”

So when Manjit closes his eyes, which, among the 10 Sikh Gurus does he visualise? “Guru Gobind Singh,” he says, without any hesitation. “There is a white falcon resting on his right hand. He is wearing a bright yellow turban, as well as a bracelet, and has a sword in his waistband. There is a vibrant smile on his face.”

Asked why he prefers Guru Gobind Singh, Manjit says, “He sacrificed his family for the sect. That made a big impression on me.”

Manjit became closer to Guru Gobind Singh, when for his arranged marriage to Sumitha Kaur in 2003, he had to go to Hyderabad. There, with his in-laws, he went to the 300-year old Sachkhand Sri Hazur Sahib Gurudwara at Nanded in Maharashtra, which was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

“It was out of this world,” says Manjit. “There was a huge gathering of Sikhs and they were all wearing so many colourful turbans. In Kochi there are so few Sikhs. The gurudwara is bigger in size than the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It was throbbing with life. After praying there I felt completely rejuvenated.”

Not surprisingly, the gurudwara at Nanded became his favourite place of pilgrimage. “Whenever I face problems in life, I always say to myself, ‘If I can overcome this, I will come to visit you, Guruji.” And when things do get sorted out, Manjit would go to Nanded. He has been going there every three months or so.

Manjit says that God sometimes talks to him. One day, in 2000, he dreamt that his father Harbans Singh was about to die. “In the dream, I am holding my father in my arms and saying, ‘Don’t leave us now.’”

Two days later, Harbans Singh fell seriously ill, but he was rushed to hospital and survived. “This dream was a message from God telling me that my father might be in some sort of danger,” says Manjit. His beloved father finally passed away in 2006.

After all these experiences, Manjit has no doubt about the existence of God. He tells a story: Once, during the construction of his palatial house in Jawahar Nagar, recently, a labourer fell from two storeys high.

“He missed a wall by a whisker, which would have meant instant death,” says Manjit. “Instead he landed on a few small coconut trees, which broke his fall and he survived. This proved to me that God exists.”

So, does man need God? “If we are not God-fearing, we will behave like barbarians,” says Manjit. “God enables us to be on the right track.”

(The New Indian Express, Kerala)

Saturday, May 01, 2010

A golden opportunity


George Alexander Muthoot, the managing director of the Muthoot Group, says that gold loans have been the corner-store of their business for the past seventy years

By Shevlin Sebastian

When George Alexander Muthoot, the managing director of the Muthoot Group arrives at 9 a.m. at his office in Kochi, 200 staffers are gathered around for a prayer. “It is a universal prayer,” says Alexander.

Here are a few lines: ‘God, we thank you for all the blessings showered on us yesterday. God, we pray for your blessings to give a great today. God, we pray to lead us to a much higher level of excellence in all our activities.’

This prayer is said by 10,000 employees in 1700 branches all over India. This is followed by a short talk: it could be about the business or about improving communication skills or customer relations. “This is done by one of the staffers,” says Alexander. Fifteen minutes later, everybody goes to their desks.

Alexander spends the day meeting with various departmental heads. “Most of the time I am discussing policy matters,” he says. “The business environment is very competitive these days. So we have to keep abreast of what our competition is doing.”

Since the company is primarily into finance and loans, their main competition is from public and private sector banks. “We keep track of their schemes, plans, and rates of interest,” says Alexander. “I encourage employees to come up with suggestions. Sometimes we will tweak our schemes so that we can gain an advantage.”

However, the Muthoot Group’s money-spinner is the gold loans, an innovative idea which was introduced by Alexander’s father, M. George Muthoot and his brothers, way back in 1939.

“This is our bread and butter,” says Alexander. The concept is simple. Suppose a person needs cash desperately. He can pledge his jewellery, and take money in exchange.

“The majority of our customers are small businessmen,” says Alexander. “They are expecting a payment which has not come through. But they have an urgent need to buy some material. So they take a gold loan.”

The loans start at Rs 2000 and go upwards till Rs 2 lakh. But the average amount is Rs 20,000. It is given for a year and the interest rates vary from 12 to 23 per cent, depending upon the amount. “There is no pre-payment penalty,” says Alexander.

Since there is a possibility of spuriousness in gold, the staff is specifically trained to evaluate it. “Only a few customers come with the intention to cheat,” says Alexander.

Thanks to the gold loans, during the worldwide recession in 2008-9, the company boomed. “At that time banks stopped giving loans, but we didn’t,” says Alexander. “Gold is always a good collateral.” Today, the company distributes loans worth Rs 100 crore a day.

They also make gold coins. “We buy 1 and 5 kg gold bars and convert it into coins,” says Alexander. “People invest in land, bank deposits, mutual funds, post office deposits, and shares. We encourage them to buy gold coins also.”

On Akshaya Tritiya, on May 16, when buying gold is considered auspicious, the group hopes to sell 300 kilos.

The Muthoot group has diversified in recent times. They do money transfers, foreign exchange, leisure and hospitality, housing and infrastructure, wealth management, health care and education, to name a few. And they have a social commitment also.

The group has set up the Muthoot M. George Foundation, which provides free medical treatment, provides money for marriages of poor girls, helps in the education of poor students, and sponsors kidney dialysis treatments.

“Since kidney ailments do not have a cure, as yet, we have instituted an award of Rs 1 lakh for the best research done by a young doctor in nephrology,” says Alexander. “These initiatives have given me a lot of satisfaction.” This year the company spent Rs 2.5 crore on their humanitarian projects.

Apart from Alexander, there are three other brothers: M.G. George (chairman), George Jacob and George Thomas (joint managing directors). “Our strength is our family unity,” he says.

But Alexander admits that the family was deeply pained by the brutal murder of the chairman’s son, Paul Muthoot, by unknown assailants, in August, 2009. “But we are moving on, despite the tragedy,” he says.

Today, the company is booming and has disbursed funds worth Rs 30,000 crore.

A self-confessed workaholic, Alexander leaves the office at 8 p.m. At home, his favourite pastime is reading fiction. Alexander’s current books include ‘Zero Percentile – Missed IIT, Killed Russia,’ by Neeraj Chhibba. “It is similar to Chetan Bhagat’s books,” he says.

In his spare time Alexander also likes to stay in touch with his children. One son, George, is doing his MBA in North Carolina, USA, while Eapen is doing his masters from the London School of Economics.

So what are the future business prospects in Kerala? “The state is well represented by banks and financial institutions,” says Alexander. “We are looking for growth outside.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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