Chindia: A Wonderful Example

I was in Singapore and had lunch with my old friend Bilahari Kausikan who retired as Permanent Secretary in the Singapore Foreign Affairs Ministry.

I first met him nine years ago at an official dinner in New Delhi. I was seated next to him. He looks a Chinese every inch and so I asked him how he got a name of a Carnatic music raga. His reply was fascinating.

His full name is Bilahari Kim Hee Papanasam Setlur Kausikan. His father, late P.S. Raman, who emigrated to Singapore in 1948 disillusioned with the Partition of the sub-continent had served as Singapore’s envoy to Moscow. Bilahari too occupied the same post some decades later. Mr. Raman married a Chinese lady.

If ever there was a symbol of “Chindia“, Bilahari is one!!

Speech in the Rajya Sabha — Bullet trains are not for India

Rajya Sabha Budget Session 2014| Date: July 22, 2014 | My speech @ 43:59 onwards

Column: Bio-toilet trains, not bullet trains

Are bullet trains, that seem to be an obsession with the Prime Minister particularly, all that necessary at this time?

The financial health of the Indian Railways is undoubtedly in a perilous state and needs urgent treatment. However, that is no reason to run the rail establishment down, as is so often done. It is frequently lamented that we are mostly with what the British left us. In 1950, the rail network length was 54,000 route km and, in 2012, it had increased to 65,000 route km, an increase of just 11,000 route km in 62 years. But this does not do full justice to what has been achieved in the face of considerable odds.

For instance, over the past six decades…

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This column was first published on July 20, 2014 at:


Demographic dividends or disaster?

Today is World Population Day.

How many of us know that India will be adding another 400 million to the current population of about 1.24 billion in the next 36 years and by 2050 will be the world’s most populous country. China, on the other hand, will be adding just 25 million and will stabilize at 1.5 billion by 2050.

Many states of India have already reached the critical Total Fertility Rate (TFR) level of 2.1. This is considered demographically crucial since with this TFR, the population stabilises after about a generation and a half or two. TFR indicates the average number of children expected to be born per woman during her entire span of reproductive period. The All-India TFR was at 2.4 in 2012.

The states that have fallen below replacement levels of fertility (TFR=2.1) are Kerala (1.8), Tamil Nadu (1.7), Karnataka (1.9), Andhra Pradesh (1.8), Maharashtra (1.8), Punjab (1.7), Himachal Pradesh (1.7), Jammu and Kashmir (1.9) and West Bengal (1.7).

But there are a number of populous states where TFR is still greater than 2.1. These are Uttar Pradesh (3.3), Bihar (3.5), Chattisgarh (2.7), Madhya Pradesh (2.9), Rajasthan (2.9), Jharkhand (2.8) and Assam (2.4). Odisha has just reached 2.1 but Gujarat is at 2.3.

These days we speak of demographic dividends when actually we are staring at a demographic disaster. There is undoubtedly a dividend to be harnessed through education, skill development and job creation, but at the same time we must not accept the situation in the high TFR states as something that cannot be changed. These states are in need of the “Tamil Nadu” model, which has combined economic growth with social welfare and delivered outstanding results, irrespective of political parties. Kerala too is a good example but there are some factors that are unique to Kerala and in terms of replicability Tamil Nadu is more relevant.

The incremental growth to our population is coming from UP, Bihar, MP, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Assam and Odisha. This has profound consequences for labour markets all over the country. The strength of the Parliament and the assemblies has been frozen till 2026 so that the well-performing states are not penalised. Perhaps it is time to extend that freeze even further.

Thank you for keeping ‘rurban’ in focus, Mr FM

The Finance Minister has announced the Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission to deal with infrastructure needs of the rapidly urbanizing rural areas. Shyama Prasad Mukherji was an eminent member of Jawaharlal Nehru’s very first Cabinet (1947-52) and had made notable contributions.

He founded the Jan Sangh and therefore the naming of the Mission after him should come as no surprise.

But what did surprise me, although pleasantly, was the use of the word ‘rurban’.

In public life, one should never claim intellectual property rights on ideas or words but I can’t fail to point out that the word ‘rurban” (rural +urban) originated with me. I have no problem whatsoever with the FM appropriating the word but just as a matter of historical interest I should point out that I have been using this word frequently. I used it in a interview to the New York Times (November 18th, 2011) and used it again in an address to a Conference organized by the IDFC on urbanization on February 13, 2013. I distinctly recall using this word much earlier than 2011 as well, but can’t find the exact reference readily. I am sure I could locate it if I searched hard enough. In fact, Anil Padmanabhan, Deputy Editor of the Mint had ascribed the authorship of this word to me in one of his columns (October 27th, 2013).

I don’t wish to quibble. The Mission is important. Its foundations had been laid by UPA-2 and NDA-2 should take it forward. Taking credit is secondary and should not really matter.

Bio-toilet Trains, Not Bullet Trains

I simply cannot understand this obsession that Mr. Narendra Modi and his colleagues have with bullet trains. I too have travelled on such trains in Japan and China. And every time I have done so, I have become even more convinced that this is not for India, except for some prestige or psychological reasons of “us too” having them.

The Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train will involve an expenditure of at least Rs 100 crore per km. The distance is 543 kms and therefore the investment will be close to Rs 55,000 crore at least. And what will be the one-way fare? At least Rs 5000 or so. So, who will use this train?

Given our habitation patterns and movement of people as well as cattle across tracks, bullet trains will have to necessarily slow down unless they run on elevated tracks. In China, passengers have been told to move away from conventional trains to bullet trains. This is simply not possible in India.

Better to have bio-toilet trains than bullet trains, given that the Indian Railways is probably the largest open sewer in the world, with its daily passenger traffic of over 2 crore. We make 4000 coaches every year and in 2012, when I was Minister of Drinking Water and Sanitation, we had got the Railways to agree that all new coaches will be fitted with the DRDO-developed bio-toilets. But the larger issue is one of retrofitting the 50,000 coaches presently in use. The Railways had agreed that this process would get completed in five-six years. This must engage Mr. Sadananda Gowda’s constant attention and his focus should not get diverted into chasing bullet trains just to make some Indians feel good that they have also ‘arrived’.

An interesting ode to the Malayali nurse

The Malayali nurse is ubiquitous in hospitals, in India and also increasingly, in other countries. The recent rescue of nurses from Iraq brought out the poet in journalist Sidin Vadukut. This is a very nice, very evocative ode and makes for a really interesting read.

A small sample:

Malayali nurse there is nothing you will not do.
You save lives in places where you do not belong.
You deliver babies in languages you do not speak.
You wash corpses of people who were vile to their final breath.
You keep calm, Malayali nurse, and you carry on.

You can read the rest of the ode here.

Speech in the Rajya Sabha on deficient rainfall prevailing drought condition

Speech on ‘Responsible to Science, Responsive to Society: A New Dialogue’

Who’s studying internal remittances?

It is well known that Kerala’s economy survives and thrives on remittances from abroad, particularly from West Asia. In 2011, the latest year for which authentic figures are available, these remittances from workers amounted to something like Rs 47,000 crore. This is around 30% or so of gross state domestic product.

What is less known is that outward remittances from Kerala to other states of India, like Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha, are also very substantial. The other day, I was told by my friend Dr KJ Joseph, who is a Professor at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, that it has been estimated that these outward remittances from workers who are working in Kerala in different sectors like plantations and construction and who are working as domestic help, amounted to about Rs 17,000 crore in 2013.

External remittances has been well studied by institutions like CDS. But clearly, internal remittances have not attracted much academic or even policy attention. One estimate given to me last year by the UIDAI was that internal remittances could exceed Rs 75,000 crore, of which only about 30% are through formal channels. That is what would have made the UID number for migrants such a boon.

Labour markets are clearly in a state of great flux and internal migration is accelerating. Distress migration has indeed come down in some regions, especially on account of MGNREGA evidenced, for instance, by the fall in movement of workers from states like Bihar to Punjab and Haryana and from poorer regions like Srikakulam to better-off regions like East and West Godavari within the state. But demographic pressures in northern and eastern India are such that migration to the better-off states of southern India is inevitable and could, in fact, grow.

All rights reserved. Copyright © 2014. Jairam Ramesh.