Neem and Jaggery

Rathi Vinay Jha IAS

 

Ugadi was a festival my mother always celebrated in Mysore, where I spent my childhood. It heralded each new year with the bitter taste of fresh sprigs of neem flowers tempered with coconut and sweetened by jaggery, which taught us to anticipate and accept the combination of bitterness and sweetness that would be part of our lives in the years ahead. Looking back, it has been a journey full of challenges and lessons…some neem and some jaggery.

 

In 1953, when my brother—fourteen years older than me—entered the Indian Administrative Service, my parents made up their minds that I could do it too. At every step of the way they filled me with confidence to succeed. I was taught that it is not enough to say “I will “, but to believe that “I can “. I must confess I was a reluctant aspirant for the services. I felt that there was a lot else I could do with my life but it was a strong and enlightened mother who guided and motivated me. The inevitable happened.

 

Across the years there have been many interesting assignments and each one of them a unique learning experience. Working without fear or favour even earned me major penalty charges when I questioned the correctness of my Minister’s orders in 1982. My stand prevailed and I was exonerated of all charges just in time to make it to the Joint Secretary’s panel.

 

I would like to describe two instances where my work made a difference that has sustained.

 

A Tryst with Fashion

 

Early in 1987, I was asked by Pupul Jayakar, the doyenne of culture & design, to take up the task of establishing India’s first school of fashion. I was excited and knew it would be quite a challenge. I had to learn on the job and innovate. To my joy, I got absolute freedom to implement the mandate set by the Ministry of Textiles and this was the key to the success of the National Institute of Fashion Technology.

 

The Institute, initially set up to train professionals for the apparel export industry, evolved to produce designers who had a profound impact on the domestic market for clothing & accessories. It went beyond its mandate to expand and integrate skilling concepts, to support an industry that brought value abroad as well as at home. Many of the leaders of fashion design today are from the first few batches of NIFT.

 

NIFT started in the shopping arcade of Samrat Hotel in Delhi in 1987, a year after it was registered. As its founding Director, I had to start programmes in fashion education, an absolutely new discipline. It was a daunting but exciting task. The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York was already a technical partner, helping train our Faculty and set the initial curriculum. But to set all the other academic procedures and systems was my responsibility and we had to learn a lot from sister institutions in India and abroad. There were administrative challenges every other day but I had a great team both in the faculty and the staff. The foundation laid at that time—the core values and the standards set—have stood the test of time. Setting rules for admissions, the system was made totally transparent. I could therefore turn down all requests for admissions from successive political bosses because of the fact that even my daughter had failed to get admission! We had built, in a short span of time, a premier institute that received recognition for excellence both in India and abroad.

 

NIFT is seen as a very successful institution, but very few recall the travails we went through in its initial years. If the Government that assumed office in 1991 had had its way, there would be no NIFT today. With priorities changed for political reasons, the very rationale for setting up NIFT was challenged. The then Planning Commission labeled it an “elitist” institution to be shut down immediately without giving a second thought to the employment and skill development it would bring in successive years. But I recognized that NIFT was only as ‘elitist’ or inessential as an IIT or IIM.

 

It was a fight against the policy makers in government and we reached out for supporters everywhere—within government itself, among parliamentarians, and in the media. Lobbying was no longer a dirty word. I fought Government from within Government. A year-long battle was won and NIFT survived! NIFT and the idea of Fashion has since then spawned hundreds of training centers to “skill India” in an industry that brings top billing in foreign exchange earnings besides adding considerable numbers to the ranks of the educated employed. Today NIFT has become a byword for public institutional success and an institute that every other Minister wants replicated in his or her constituency.

 

The Idea of Incredible India

 

Back in 1959, under aged for the Bachelor’s degree course in Delhi University, by default, I spent a year after school travelling throughout India. This experience instilled in me a love for travel and for the beauty of our country’s diversity. Fast forward to 2001 when, while holidaying in the middle of Inle Lake in Myanmar, I got a radio message conveyed from Delhi that I had been posted as Secretary to the Ministry of Tourism. Tourism was a subject after my heart and I looked forward to my final assignment in Government with much excitement.

 

The tourism sector had generally been seen as elitist and not evaluated as one that could create a million jobs to change the ‘face’ of India. The Ministry had a minuscule budget, spread thin across a dozen small schemes that could hardly make a difference to infrastructure in tourism destinations. Three days after I joined the Ministry in December 2001, I could hear gunshots in the attack on Parliament from my office. Compounded by other events like the attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the war in Afghanistan, there was a general fear of travel to the East. Travel advisories brought in bad news for a sector waiting to take its rightful place among the top contributors to the national GDP.

 

There was a lot to do, right from getting a better, let alone decent budget for the Ministry to rationalizing government schemes for building tourism infrastructure. The silver lining in all this was the Tourism Minister, Shri Jagmohan, who created an environment that supported out-of-the-box thinking. He had charge of the Ministry of Culture as well, an ideal combination to bring in the synergies required to propel tourism. The positive energy in the corridors of the Ministry brought together a team working with a host of new ideas.

 

With the importance of foreign exchange earnings to the economy, there had always been undue weightage given to international tourist arrivals. So, in this game of counting success on basis of tourist arrivals the question of creating a better product in terms of quality or in terms of experience had not been on top of the agenda. Furthermore, the entire statistic of domestic tourism and its impact on employment generation and therefore the economy was given scant attention. India was spending substantial sums on lackluster marketing from eighteen foreign offices that had no unified message to attract tourists. The country was still portrayed as a mystic land of maharajas and snake charmers. The figure of an elephant from an Ajanta mural was the Ministry’s logo, featuring a creature with a seeming limp that reflected the stalled state of affairs in India Tourism.

 

With a dynamic team in the Ministry, we started to think about new strategies for promoting tourism. The Ministry had a dual leadership structure with the Secretary and a Director General. I had gathered that this combination did not make for smooth functioning. Rarely had a Secretary and DG seen eye to eye on most matters. Emboldened by the recommendations of the Geethakrishnan Committee on economy in expenditure, I took the lead in pushing through two vital recommendations that had a lasting impact on the Ministry. While I got the nod to wind up the post of DG with no further ado, the Minister was not comfortable approving the closure of 10+ of the 18 foreign offices. These offices offered sinecures and it would have been an unhappy decision for many. I did, however, manage with much persuasion to get approval to close five of them immediately. The savings from closing these five offices was literally the “seed money” that initially sustained our new marketing initiative—the Incredible India campaign.

 

Early in 2002, an impassioned plea to the Ministry of Finance and the Planning Commission started the trend of higher allocations and the Ministry of Tourism has not looked back since. In the IXth Plan, the Ministry was allocated a meager ₹590 crores and one of my first tasks was to do the rounds of North Block to stress the need for the sector to be taken seriously. The brief for tourism paid off when the Xth Plan brought us a five-fold increase in budget. A renewed Tourism Policy, announced after twenty years in 2002, focused on the vision to position tourism as a major engine of growth and to harness the direct & multiplier effects of tourism for employment generation and economic development. For the first time, domestic tourism was recognised as a major driver of sector growth. In the Xth Plan, schemes of assistance to the States were rationalized to focus and influence destination & tourism circuit development with large projects based on India’s USP of heritage and culture. The development of infrastructure to showcase major heritage sites like Ajanta & Ellora, Hampi, Bodh Gaya, Mahabalipuram, Kurukshetra, just to name a few, were taken up in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and State Governments. Projects addressing rural tourism, ecotourism, wildlife tourism, cruise tourism and medical tourism gained ground and enhanced the multiproduct offers from India. This was a time when an era of active partnerships with multiple stakeholders in the industry took off. Stalwarts of the hotel and travel industry had by then initiated the Experience India Society to market India Tourism, and the Ministry started partnering them.

 

All this activity to develop the tourism sector was a natural build up to take the story of India to an international platform. Foreign exchange earnings were still a key factor spurring us on to excel and to count tourist arrivals. In parallel, therefore, began the quest to build a global brand identity that could encapsulate the beauty, the diversity and the wonder that is India, in a centralized marketing exercise. “Incredible India” was selected after much debate as the most appropriate out of a menu of slogans from the drawing boards of various advertising agencies. It was a tag line that was to grow in strength and give a global identity to India. And it is so catchy that it has been adopted beyond tourism.

 

But looking critically at India today and its myriad problems amidst its successes—the neem amidst the jaggery—I feel it is not enough for us to just feel proud of a successful branding exercise. Each of us needs to add that little bit to make India safe, clean and transparent in its functioning, in order to sustain the beauty of its heritage and to make it truly incredible.

 

 

 

 

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