Posts

Reserve Bank of India Reflections: Week 5

As we reflect on five weeks spent in India, a number of emotions are evoked. Many of these emotions we have touched upon in the previous installments, and I fear it would not do to dwell on these. It is, however, coming towards the time when some among us look to the west, and the impending journey back to our respective homelands to be with our kin. Alas, such thoughts should be pushed to the back of one’s mind, a flicker in the darkness, for we have time enough. Time enough to laugh, time enough to love.

group-photo“I can see the Shire. The Brandywine River. Bag End. Gandalf’s fireworks, the lights, the party tree’’. (Tolkien, 1955)

The euphoria of finishing work on Friday was directed, in typical fashion, towards Koregaon park for a night of turpitude. There was however one notable absence, that being your humble narrator, who the gods had seen fit to incapacitate with a fever. Nevertheless, the gallant survivors soldiered on. Uniting with friends both old and new, a great night was had by all, but for one exception. As it turned out, the night proved very much to be a tale of two cities, for a second among us found the euphoria he was searching for ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. The following morning started early for those in a fit state to travel. A short number of miles away lay the Symbiosis Institute, a glorious campus set back in the hills, unsullied by the spread of urbanisation. After a number of fascinating conferences and a sumptuous feast, the day was done, and the weary travellers returned home.

The next day, awaken by a burning desire for adventure and a relatively clean bill of health amongst the group, we departed for Lonavala, a hill station nestled between Pune and Mumbai. Having purchased a return train ticket for Rs 30 (or 30 pence to you and me), we seated ourselves in the cramped compartment and trundled down the tracks, the light patter of rain accompanying us for the duration. Upon our arrival, we were met with a daunting 12km to reach the famous Lohgarh Fort, situated precariously on the precipice of a sheer face. En route we passed a number of caves and waterfalls, each presenting an opportunity to breathe in our immense surroundings. After weaving our way up the changing path, we finally reached the bottom of an exposed set of stairs, made treacherous by the deluge that was now falling from the heavens. By the time we reached the higher sections, the stability of the rock beneath us had given way to a torrent of water, threatening at any point to sweep us to swift demise on the jagged rocks below. We pressed on, however, our spirits buoyed by the raucous chanting of our Indian counterparts ‘Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji’ they sang, as far as we could understand, paying homage to the once King of Maharashta who had occupied the fort. Upon reaching the summit, we stood victorious. I fear the expression soaked to our skins would not sufficiently describe our condition. For many of us, the suspicion was that we had in fact absorbed water, the monsoon actually permeating into our very souls.

pic2Needless to say, the prospect of the return journey to the station did not fill us with any particular relish, and as such we found a willing driver, who (this being India) allowed us to ride standing up in the back of his pick-up truck down the undulating mountain roads. This proved a source of much hilarity for those who were still making the climb, many finding themselves unable to contain their glee. The chanting continued for the entirety of our journey ‘Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji, Jai Bhavani, Jai Shivaji’ following us down the mountainside.

That evening, having returned home, we found ourselves deserving of a hearty meal and decided to venture to the Hard Rock Cafe. Hoping against hope that this would be the night that we would find the dark meat that our stomachs so craved. Our prayers were answered, and each bite of the tender, juicy, succulent burger was all we could have dreamed of. The work week continued as it is inclined to do so, broken up only by a trip to Mumbai to see various offices of the Reserve Bank. We were able to ‘interact’ with several important members of the banking world and learned a lot about the stability of the economy and the process of the destruction of money.

Epilogue: On our inability to encapsulate our surroundings and the ferocity of the monsoon.

For we are but simple men with simple words, and for such things we must look to those who possess the necessary verbal proficiency, lest we pass up the chance to embody our experience through the written word. On this occasion, it is through paraphrasing Coleridge that one might best project our intentions, ‘Where oft the sacred river ran, through caverns measureless to man’. For here the artistry of the words flows as do the rains down the luscious green valleys. And one need look no further for an estimation of scale, for ‘measureless’ embodies all that is India. The majesty of the landscape that greeted us at the summit was matched only by its vastness.

For ‘measureless’ was the queue of well wishers, waiting for an introduction. As were the miles covered by foot and by wheel. ‘Measureless’ was the deluge that did cover our brow, that weighted our garments, and did steel our determination. Is not the power of the monsoon measureless? Does is not giveth and taketh away? A force beyond measure, its fingers reaching across the horizon; arteries breathing life into a barren land.

But in our reverence, prey that we forget not its apathy to the plight of man, for one can hope alone to avoid its wrath. Its appetite for destruction stretches indefinitely, its roots of malice stretch deep. But measureless are the bonds that join us. Sacred and immortalised ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers’. (Shakespeare, 1599)

 

 GEO RBI interns

Illicit Cheeseburgers, Monsoon Rains and Self Help Groups: Week 4 at RBI

Thirty-four. That is the number of malaria tablets Chris has left, and also how he has been counting down the number of days we have left in Pune.  Since we are only here for 15 more days, Chris has devised a complex formula for calculating how many days remaining, where he takes how many malaria tablets he has and subtracts 19 (he has 19 extra tablets plus another 9 tablets at home as he has to take the malaria tablets for 4 weeks upon arriving home which is 28 days). That should give the days that we have left.

The relentless deluge over Pune this week heralded not only the coming of the long-awaited monsoon rains but also marked for us the passing of our internship’s halfway point. Though the frequent downpours threaten the Americans’ continued education in cricket, we refused to let the grey skies dampen our spirits. As such, Saturday evening saw us head for the delicious food promised by a bastion of traditional Indian cuisine, the German Bakery. Almost unanimous approval resulted, although one of us was devastated to order the Arrabbiata only to be presented with what was, indisputably, Bolognese. However a return seems inevitable, due to the whispered promise of some illicit bacon cheeseburgers, a luxury we have only dreamt of these past three weeks. After consuming outrageous amounts of Banoffee pie, German Sachertorte and Baked Cheesecake for dessert, we journeyed across Pune towards the High Spirits Café, where at least one of us found greater leeway in his Indian relations. A relaxing Sunday closed the weekend, though Liam and Ollie still succeeded in soldiering to next door’s Frozen Monkey for an afternoon gin and tonic.

The highlight of our week was a field trip taken on Tuesday to visit Chaitanya, an NGO dedicated to building the capacity of the rural poor, particularly women and children, by promoting self-reliant and sustainable institutions to enable them to lead the process of development for a better life. This mission is achieved through the promotion of self-help groups (SHGs) which allow for group saving and borrowing in small villages. (Yes I did say self-help group, and yes I did abbreviate it.) Chaitanya facilitates these SHGs and their formation into local Clusters and larger Federations of 200-400 SHGs. Since being founded by Dr Sudha Kothari in 1989, Chaitanya has grown to have a reach of over 116,000 women across the state of Maharashtra! As well as providing these women with opportunities for saving and borrowing, they also provide training in a range of areas including legal, healthcare, financial literacy and improving livelihood. The women who go on these free training courses then return and share their knowledge with other villagers, contributing to the village’s capacity to sustain itself without outside assistance. We were taken to visit one such village where we were invited to the self-help group’s monthly meeting. Through Ashwini, our translator from the RBI (our Marathi is unfortunately lacking) the group was revealed to be a well-organised and professional institution, and our conversations with the villagers showed us the confidence and independence they had found through the SHG and the friendships that had formed in the process.

Chaitanya’s work in that one village, replicated in thousands more throughout Maharashtra, has improved the lives of countless women and their families. The good that has come from one woman’s belief in developing the capacity of others was inspirational for us all and is reminiscent of the words of Nelson Mandela:

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead”.

James Wright, GEO RBI intern

Jewel of the East: Week 3 at RBI

As we near the halfway point in our internship, we have started to become accustomed to the daily routine at the RBI. Friday evening rolled around, the working week was over, and it was time to celebrate the two birthdays in the group. The Wari pilgrimage was making its way through Pune, reducing the city to a standstill; we found ourselves bound to the local vicinity. Forced to travel on our weary legs, we managed to stumble to our oasis: the Frozen Monkey. Sweet relief flowed through our bodies as we supped from the golden nectar filled chalice that is the frozen monkey beer tower.  As the GEO team will be able to testify, a night of revelry was had…

James departed in the early hours of Saturday morning to meet his parents, who had ventured across the plains on holiday. In losing James, we had also lost our silent guardian, our watchful protector. Without the group’s self-appointed tour guide, we were distinctly lacking in cultural knowledge and thus, found ourselves jumping into rickshaws and heading to the local sports shop. After a successful shopping spree, we returned kitted out in our ‘replica’ Indian cricket shirts and armed with bat and ball, we were ready to educate our American counterparts on the beautiful game of cricket.

After a long and lazy Sunday morning we set about exploring what the market streets of Pune had to offer. Pungent aromas tickled our nostrils, the hustle and bustle commerce spilled onto the streets. We wove our way through crowds, industry and enterprise greeting us at every turn. Marvelling at the rapid progression of the genetic modification of animals in India, two herds of cattle waltzed lazily past us, a fifth limb emanating from the nape of their necks. We ventured into a ‘tailors’ with the intention of leaving with a made to measure suit. The reality found us, marred by the language barrier, with no such luck.

As the start of the working week raised its head, we awoke from our restful slumber and were once again greeted by the resident yoga master press ganging unwilling volunteers into bodily contortion. Work progressed at a rapid rate, with minimal distraction and a level of intensity in the office unmatched by even the most motivated of workforces. The only relief we allowed ourselves came on Brent’s birthday when we descended upon BBQ Nation for a feast of heavenly meats: fragrantly spiced prawns, succulent chicken, melt-in-the-mouth cod. It is safe to say that we left thoroughly satisfied.

We now leave you to dwell on the sombre words of one of our own, a reference to our dwindling time here in paradisiacal Pune:

“Weep not for what you have lost but for what you are yet to lose” (Desimone, 2015).

Indian Immersion: Week Two at RBI

Given the previous week’s laid back approach to work, the RBI interns wondered if the whip would be cracked on our exceptionally flexible backs (thanks to the continued 7am yoga). However, it has become apparent that this internship is really about exploring India and the culture rather than spending hours working in the office. At the time of writing (Thursday midday) we have only spent one day in the office this week. (This travesty occurred on Monday.) Since then, we have been exploring Pune with great enthusiasm.

Saturday 4th: Although we woke up with sore heads, our desire to make the most of our weekend quickly put self-inflicted illness aside. We made our way to the Shaniwar Wada: a palace fort which is a central feature of Pune. However, on the suggestion of James Wright and his encyclopaedic knowledge of Pune, we made a quick detour to the Pataleshwar Caves first. In the 8th century, a temple was carved out of the solid rock of the caves. Well worth a visit although our cultural naivety was highlighted when we walked anti-clockwise instead of clockwise around the temple. When we arrived at the fort, we were greeted by an intimidating set of gates – the walls are the only remaining structure of the palace; however, it’s actually a very peaceful way to spend the afternoon.

Sunday 5th: This was a down day with not much to comment on except for the arrival of delegates from SAARC countries from other parts of Asia. The previously uninhabited hostel (which is much more like a hotel) was suddenly filled with government advisors and CEO’s from Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Monday 6th: Back to the daily grind.

Tuesday 7th: We went to visit the Aga Khan Palace, a site of historical significance as Gandhi was imprisoned there for 2 years (1942-44) during India’s struggle for independence. This was a majestic building, contrasting with the conditions in which many people in the surrounding area live. It was Jake’s 26th birthday; however as it was a school night celebrations were put on hold until Friday.

Wednesday 8th: We woke early in order to make a field visit to a women’s self help group (early enough to earn a respite from yoga). Face daubed with red paint and anointed with rice we received a traditional greeting and a very informative talk. This field trip truly put into perspective the difference people coming together can make.

Thursday 9th: To honour the SAARC delegates, there was what only can be described as a feast. Waited on hand and foot, we witnessed a cacophony of different harmonies.  Although not a word of the lyrics was understood, the sentiment was much appreciated. To wrap the evening up we were treated to traditional Nepalese wind dancing.

Friday 10th: This is James Wright’s birthday, and we will also celebrated Jake’s birthday earlier in the week. Consequently, Friday evening will be enjoyable (provided Pune isn’t at a standstill because of the pilgrimage which is passing through).

Reserve Bank of India: The Start of the Special Relationship

RBI-group-shot-meal2

As we nervously descended on the canteen for our first meal, it suddenly became apparent that this was to be our first meeting with the American half of our entourage. From our very first encounter, it was clear that the special relationship had begun. With a symbiosis on a level that we have never before experienced, our eight hearts beating as one.

This spiritualism was demonstrated when we found ourselves unexpectedly taking part in the Hindu culture, with an early morning knock at our door by the campus’s Zen master. Morning yoga has brought peace and tranquillity into our daily routine and our instructor has showed us that frequent meditation relives stress and will reduce the risk and likelihood of cardiac arrest. Sessions run an hour long, Monday-Saturday, and are filled with unique routines to jumpstart our days. Although we are just beginners and learning the correct poses and proper breathing techniques, we believe that six-weeks of dedication will mold us into life-long yogis.

RBI-group-shot-park5With confidence brimming one evening after a couple of days of acclimatization, we ventured out for our first journey into downtown Pune. With rickshaws our chariots, we raced through the streets. A cacophony of horns accompanied us en-route to our destination Koregaon Park, a cosmopolitan district which provided a multitude of bars at which we sought to quench our near insatiable thirst.

Our time outside of the long slog of the work hours are spent doing a variety of activities. Long, mild evenings are spent playing cards on the roof terrace in the company of a hoard of resident Indian short-nosed fruit bats. Outside of our Yoga workouts, we also play football (occasionally joined, and ultimately shown up by members of the various training programmes run on campus). Recently table tennis tournaments have become incrementally more competitive in a similar vein to Wimbledon, which some of our party follow religiously.

RBI-office3The work aspect of the internship started slowly. After being shown to our office for the next 6 weeks, we took our places to begin preliminary research for our projects. Our education is however not solely limited to bank function. The members of faculty have all been determined to ensure that at every turn we are well looked after, but also gain an understanding of the history and politics of India. A communal screening of Richard Attenborough’s critically acclaimed ‘Ghandi’ gave a harrowing account of India’s fight for independence, as well as providing a sense of perspective, allowing us to see how the country has grown and developed. For many of us, this has evoked a period of reflection which is perhaps best encapsulated in the words of Robert Holden:

‘Each of us is called to do something in the name of love, to make sure that humanity comes to understand itself and is able to choose love over fear’.

Reserve Bank of India – Fourth Week

DCIM100GOPROWeek four had a slower feel due to the lack of a mid-week adventure for the whole team, but it was just as exciting as the others. While the beginning of the week was rather uneventful, we were lucky enough to have our first hands-on experience with the Indian wildlife on Wednesday without even leaving our office. It caught us by surprise – we originally mistook the squeaking in the wall as a sign that our air conditioning system was failing us, until we saw a head pop out. It was horrifying and humorous, and nobody was sure how to handle it. What we thought was a rat soon spread its wings, and as it left the comforts of the wall, we left the comforts of our office, confused and amused. It was a bat, and nobody knew what to do until a brave local managed to corner it, capture it, and release it back into the outside world. Everything was well again until another bat flew out of the wall while a maintenance team was trying to fix a leak in the room.

DCIM100GOPROOther than Chris and Courtney conducting surveys and field work on Thursday, the team’s first outing of the week occurred on Saturday with a visit to Symbiosis International University’s School of Banking and Finance on the outskirts of Pune. Symbiosis was unique compared with the other universities in the area because of its very diverse student body with people from all around the world. During our visit, we observed many presentations from faculty members about their research on financial inclusion while many of the graduate students presented their field work on the issues of microfinance and financial inclusion. During the Q&A session, Vicki raised a question about whether or not India could adapt a similar system to Kenya’s mobile banking system. To our surprise, a Kenyan graduate student at Symbiosis was in the audience. He got up and spoke about Kenya’s system, mentioning how their decision to adopt mobile banking technology wasn’t based on extensive research and collected data; instead, people asked the mobile companies for the technology, and they made it work. In his opinion, India has the capability to do this as well, and he said that people just needed to act on it and make it happen. In other words, his philosophy was best summarized with Nike’s company
motto: Just Do It. Everyone in the room was very impressed with the way he spoke, and we were glad to hear his perspective on an issue relevant to financial inclusion in India. After the presentations, we were asked to come to the podium and speak about our own experiences in India and at RBI. We were asked about the differences and similarities between our homes, education, and life experiences, though as a member of the audience stated at the end, “we’re all human.” After all of this, we were treated DCIM100GOPROto a fantastic lunch at the Symbiosis guest house on top of a mountain
with fantastic views of the surrounding landscape.
At this point in the trip, we are beginning to realize just how little time we have left. We hope to make the most of it by continuing to immerse ourselves into the Indian culture, and it’s safe to say that we’re all very excited for Thursday’s visit to meet RBI’s Deputy Governor and see the DCIM100GOPROcentral offices in Mumbai.

Reserve Bank of India – Second Week

A sweet, subtle petrichor suffused the Pune air, heralding the arrival of the much awaited monsoon. The monsoon has one of the most transformative effects on a landscape in the world, changing it from barren fields into a lush green carpet. Moreover, its arrival is eagerly anticipated across all social strata. In many respects the Indian economy relies wholeheartedly on weather that we very much take for granted back home. Though the monsoon has not yet built up to its notorious tumult, we have seen glimpses of its infamous power.

Undaunted, we ventured out from Pune towards Aurangabad on a 700 km whirlwind adventure, taking a path northeast of Pune deep into the heart of Maharashtra. On a winding and bumpy ride traversing ridges, earthen planes and sprawling metropolises, the threat of wayward bovine herds nonchalantly wandering down busy highways was a very real one. Forts, medieval walls and minarets sprung up out of the scrubland and stood dauntingly atop steep hills, dominating the skyline and presiding over the fields below. After stopping at Windsor Castle, the hotel at which we were staying, we again set off with the promise of caves and a very familiar building.

Set high in the hills, the monolith at the Ellora caves is truly a marvel of human dedication and determination. Created without modern machinery–just centuries of toil, architects, artisans and labourers–the magnificent rock structure emerges from the mountainside, adorned with images of deities, elephants, histories and stories. The other caves hosted a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu imagery, including an enormous effigy of Buddha with his usual peaceful countenance.

RBI Mountains Enhanced-300x224On the journey back, the bus driver pulled over to an isolated shop touting a frenzy of coloured marvels. With considerable excitement, we descended on a small fabric shop where haggled for and eventually purchased 10 pillowcases adorned with camels, elephants and landmarks, 5 scarves and a sari.

When we arrived back in the town of Aurangabad, we were taken to the, perhaps unfairly dubbed, ‘mini Taj Mahal.’ The real name is the Bibi Ka Maqbara and, in honesty, it is a rather impressive spectacle. It certainly scores highly on architectural marvel, but low on originality given the fact the actual Taj Mahal was built by his father some 40-50 years earlier.

That night, a brief respite from a heavily curry-based diet was granted by the kind chefs of the Windor Castle. Previously the only non-Indian food we had had was an enormous steak, lamb and chicken combination from the madhouse grill. After dinner, we enjoyed a fairly subdued night of card playing.

The next morning, three of our group were struck down with a mysterious illness, but they managed to rally for a second day of exploring caves, roads and monkeys. The Ajanta caves were discovered by a group of British soldiers who were on an excursion to hunt tigers. They came across a series of caves carved out of a horseshoe shaped hill. Built over two thousand years ago by Buddhists before the religion mysteriously left India to be replaced by Hinduism. Our group explored the valley and the wonders that lay within. The caves were a rich depiction full of colours and images of Buddha and his life including his many reincarnations.

Monkeys seem to be scattered fairly liberally around cave and religious sites. They look friendly from a distance but–as it transpires–they are mostly just thieves.

Reserve Bank of India – First Week

Arriving in Pune, the first cultural difference to hit you is the impossibility of crossing a street. Returning to our new home at the College of Agricultural Banking in Pune after standing as naïve westerners on the pavement for half an hour, we realized we were far from the comforts of working traffic lights, orderly queuing and unnecessary apologies. We were immediately thrown into research on financial inclusion, micro-enterprises, foreign exchange and currency management; receiving lectures from experts within the faculty. Our first week has involved experimental yoga classes, new insights into the Indian banking sector and curry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We were also given the privilege of attending a field trip along with faculty members of the college.

‘There are five principles of humanity; pure thought, pure action, strength of character, sacrifice and humility’

These were the words spoken to us by Anna Hazare, an Indian social activist who led movements to promote rural development and increase government transparency. He is considered the ‘new Gandhi’ and is regarded as a national hero, who has transformed Ralegan Sindhi (the village of liquor) to Ralegan Siddhi (a village who has achieved its goal). A sole survivor of a Pakistani assault, which killed all his comrades, he returned to his home village dedicated to devoting his life to social reform and engaged in projects to conserve water, stockpile grain, develop new dairies, plant trees, end caste divisions and build schools and training institutes. It was almost overwhelming to witness the constant stream of villagers flocking to the temple to kiss his feet and pay respect.  Yet Mr. Hazare has his critics. As interns, before attending the field trip we engaged in the standard Wikipedia search of Anna Hazare to find some drastic policies on the flogging of village drunkards. As Newcastle students partial to the odd treble, the idea of a public thrashing for being caught in Sinners appealed to none of us, and it was tempting to disregard him as an authoritative extremist who used fear and intimidation. Yet on meeting Mr. Hazare, you cannot deny the economic transformation he has achieved in what once was one of the poorest villages in Maharashtra filled with hopelessness, illiteracy and alcoholism. He sincerely regards the entire village as his family stating that although he has ‘forfeited a family’ by devoting his life to the village and his work, ‘he has gained an even bigger one’ considering the villagers as his own children. Mr. Hazare’s methods may not work in Western society; however, his achievements in Ralegan Siddhi include increasing literacy rates to 100% in the village and raising per capita income of the villagers from Rs. 225 to Rs. 2500. One principle he does share with Westerners is that you must ‘lead by example.’ At the beginning of his journey to achieve social reform, the village was unsanitary, and people would defecate in the streets for lack of infrastructure. Every day Mr. Hazare would clean the streets until others began to join him and eventually worship him.

Our field trip also took us to meet five self-help groups working with an NGO to help provide financial support and growth for the community. We were welcomed with coconuts and told about the benefits of the group in teaching the women new skills such as making incense sticks, which provides wages. The group has proved essential in times of need such as when one of the member’s daughters fell ill and had to pay 10,000Rs for treatment. The mother was able to take a loan from the group immediately with a 2% interest rate. A bank is unlikely to issue such a small loan and a money lender would have provided the loan at a much higher interest rate, making the self-help group undeniably beneficial. We were also given the opportunity to visit one of the only successful co-operative banks in India, The Ahmednagar District Central Co-operative Bank. Welcomed with roses, tea and our own plate of biscuits, we discussed the performance report and learned that establishing trust with your customers is one of the key components to success in co-operative banking.

Overall, we have had a great first week and look forward to future challenges, experiences and rickshaw rides in the next five weeks.