Wah, Taj boliye!!!

When I visited Agra and the Taj Mahal last week, it was exactly after 10 years. That was in the midst of a hot summer in 2006. Much water has flown in the Yamuna since then and 10 years is a good time to see for oneself if the so called winds of change blowing across the hinterlands of India is for real. In these 10 years, the “Elephant” and the “Cycle” have got their opportunities alternatively to ride in Uttar Pradesh with the “Lotus” blooming or rather looming large at the centre!

We left Delhi pretty early (5.30 am to be precise) to beat the morning traffic till Noida. Close to Aerocity the new Airport hub replete with hotels and offices, even in the wee hours the roads were busy. One, with the slew of vehicles ferrying the staff from Call centres and BPOs of Gurugram after the night US shift and two, with the panoply of cars of all hue waiting in the roads for the call from their owners when they land at the airport. Now here’s the dichotomy. Folks who don’t bat their eyelids to write cheques for purchasing cars of the types of Audi, BMW,..  whine to pay the parking fees at the airport! So the drivers just hang around choking the roads leading up to the airports. (This by the way happens in almost all cities in India, I guess). After that initial congestion, the drive through the Lutyens’ Zone was nice. Lutyens’ Zone could be a credible advertisement for Swachh Bharat mission I thought. But then it’s always been that way.

Once we cross Noida, we quickly enter the new Yamuna Expressway which is supposed to make the Agra and the Taj trip more memorable. Earlier also folks from abroad always remembered the Taj Trip very well for the long travel from Delhi to Agra. The Expressway is international class so are the toll fees! But then if we need quality infrastructure and if private guys have to develop the same, you need to pay for it!  Along the Expressway one cannot miss the Buddh International Circuit built for bringing F1 to India. It’s sad that India doesn’t feature on the F1 calendar since 2013! The circuit now is reduced to hosting national races and being a promotional/testing venue for automobile manufacturers.  Blame it on the financial troubles of the promoter Jaypee group or the bureaucratic hurdles around hosting F1. One hopes F1 returns to India soon for the changes in brings in the landscape overall – partly which is even today visible. However just ahead, confirming the winds of change were the surprisingly neat and clean toilets at the 1st break at the food plaza!!!

The Expressway has a speed limit of 100 kmph for cars and 60 kmph for heavy vehicles. The driver of our luxury coach clearly believed that ours was a heavy vehicle and never for once allowed for himself the luxury of accelerating beyond 60 kmph. Never once. Now this discipline of following speed limits on highways must qualify as a big behavioral change!

As the Expressway ended and we entered the city limits of Agra, the dream drive ended. We were back to the early morning hustle bustle of a small town with buffaloes, dogs, hen and monkeys interspersed with a whole lot of people, handcarts, autos, crowded tempos,… on the roads. Busy road side eateries were rustling up morning snacks and the overall “dust bowl look” hardly can pose for Swachh Bharat. The road from where the Expressway ends leading to the Taj is surprisingly still narrow with chaotic traffic. The very impressive guide (impressive with his suave English and worldly knowledge) who joined us at Agra would tell me later that a highway straight from the Expressway to the Taj is ready and would be open to public soon. It was apparently waiting for the UP CM Akhilesh Yadav who has been busy with his parivar war these days!

The guide cautions us of all things prohibited inside the Taj. Well except for cameras, phones and wallets everything else is – looks like.  The 1st sight of the Taj as you enter from the main door is breathtaking and indeed the best sight!

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The guide no longer tells stories of why Taj was built as he knows very well that the tourists are all Google savvy these days. He focuses more on the intricacies of the construction and why it is a Wonder of the World. Talking of Taj being one of the Wonders of the World, at the Great Wall of China you can see an official certificate declaring it as one of the “New 7 wonders of the world”! Wonder why we can’t have a similar plaque at the Taj???

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The whiteness of the Taj has been fading thanks to the excess pollution over a period of time. So the authorities have undertaken a massive job of restoring the whiteness of the marble with surface treatment. We were told that they use what is known as Multani Mitti (mud from Multan). This process is underway and one could clearly see the difference in the 3 of the 4 minarets where the treatment is already over. The main dome will be up for treatment soon next year during which time it may be closed and will be a letdown for the tourists! Considering that Multani Mitti is from Pakistan – wondering if MNS will have a problem with that under the present Indo-Pak rough weather!

The Diana Bench which has now become the best photo-op place or rather selfie spot at the Taj– continues to reinforce what marketing and PR can do to a product. A spot where couples celebrate their love with that enduring pic is named after a person for whom love was elusive for most of her curtailed life!

Compared to the last time, the vicinity of the Taj is certainly neater, cleaner and devoid of general litter. Of course don’t expect us Indians to drop all the disposable shoes only in the bins kept for that purpose. Bins are provided and as is our habit we litter the shoes all over the place!

A good over 2 hours spent at the Taj and post lunch we visited the other monument – the Agra Fort. Agra fort is also impressive and brings a lot of high school history lessons back to memory! The emporium which the guide took us for shopping was expensive even for the foreign visitors in our group. But what was striking was the way they explained the process involved in the making of the marble handicrafts in understandable English. And didn’t do the pushing and shoving to buy! Talking of push and shove, the road side vendors hawking different “tourist targeted” stuff were polite and didn’t really hound us – a change from last time.

As we left Agra for Delhi, again a very pleasant but slow drive on the Yamuna Expressway was fantastic. In the backdrop of the setting sun, the smoke from burning of the agricultural fields create a hazy feel and of course add to the pollution of the capital. I read about this practice of burning the rice stubble by farmers once the harvest is over just few weeks ago in a “Swaminomics” column in the Sunday Times of India. Read here. As pointed out in that piece, it’s high time, they find an alternate to this polluting practice lest any “Odd-even” or other kind of idea is not going to help curb pollution levels in Delhi.

Once we crossed Noida, we couldn’t escape the now notorious evening peak traffic of Delhi. From Noida to the hotel took close to 2 hours! In India we now famously suffer from last mile connectivity! In almost everything. For example in roads, the highways like the Mumbai Pune Expressway or the Yamuna Expressway eases the travel between the borders of the respective cities but the journey from the end of the expressway to the heart of the city is still a nightmare wading through narrow roads and ever exploding traffic.

So to conclude, many positive changes are visible. Few legacy issues remain. As in many other areas, “the elephant” is on the move and we are getting there albeit slowly. Though visiting after 10 years, this is my 3rd visit to the Taj and somehow for the 1st time I really felt like “Wah, Taj boliye”!!!

Postscript: One of the enduring lines of the guide while explaining India’s high population – “In India, in the day time we believe in ‘Culture” and in the night – Agriculture😂😂😂

 

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Swachh, Sochalay & Soch!!!

In his 1st Independence Day speech post becoming the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi announced a dramatic and by any stretch of imagination a very ambitious goal of turning India into a ‘Swachh Bharat’ by 2019 – the 150th Birth Anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. As far as ambitious goals for nations go, Kennedy’s – “before the decade is out of landing a man in moon and returning safely back to earth” goal set in 1961 usually comes up on top. But I would say that Modi’s goal of turning India into a Swachh Bharat is far more ambitious and audacious. Unlike ‘Project Apollo’ which only required commitment of huge resources and a focused effort from NASA, ‘Project Swachh Bharat’ required focused effort from Govt., funds, and more importantly a fundamental change in attitude of people. That too that of millions.

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2nd Oct, 2016 – Gandhi Jayanti marked the completion of the 2nd year of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in India. As one who was and is excited about this project right from when it was announced and is keen to see it succeed, I make a conscious attempt see how the program is progressing.  So not surprising that this is my 4th post on this topic!!! And based on what I read and see at least in Mumbai where I live, I can say that while the Govt. is sincerely working to make it work, we as people are failing the same.

In 2014, after the initial months of ‘broom wielding photo ops” and “appointing Swachh Bharat Ambassadors” I guess that the Govt. realized that more serious thrust is required.  The impressive Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin & Urban websites give updates of the programs, activities and progress on real time basis.  The Swachh Bharat Mission dashboard tells us the “Before” 2014 Oct. and “After” situation on many milestones like Household toilets built, Community toilets built, Open Defecation free villages,..,… And the site also shows the progress at a state level thereby inducing competition among states to achieve their respective milestones.  And the Govt. introduced ranking of cities and towns in terms of how clean they are. The civil society picked up cue from the Prime Minister and in the first year I recall that every week there were Swachhata activities in nearby parks, community areas,…

2 years down the line, as I observe what is happening, it’s very clear that the Government has turned its focus on “Capacity building” – pouring money on building toilets and other sanitation related infrastructure as can be seen in the dashboard. Not just in villages. Even in cities like Mumbai, I am seeing “E-toilets” which have sprung up on highways. And I hope the Govt. is putting to good use the 0.5% Swachh Bharat Cess it is collecting from us.

The civil society comprising of NGO’s, Action groups,… are still carrying out their regular Swachhata activities though not as frequent or as visible as in 2014.

The Municipal administration, I see routinely carrying out cleaning exercises and then painting of walls, road dividers and other assets more frequently than before.

Awareness campaigns involving celebrities goading people to keep our cities clean,… are also quite omnipresent.

Even corporates have pitched in to support the “Cleanliness campaign” some of them expectedly weaving into their product’s marketing strategy.

The missing cog in this wheel is the attitude of the common man. What is happening there? We continue to litter in common places with gay abandon. I don’t see any remorse among people when they throw all kinds of garbage on the roads like wrappers, banana peels, cigarette buds, empty bottles, left over food,…,…!  Mumbai which is the so called commercial capital is also the “Spitting” capital of India. Here people take pride in turning their mouths to ‘Pichkaaris’ and spit wherever they are except their own houses.  “Painting the town Red” has gotten a different meaning here.  The Government could very well launch a new game called “Tukemon Go”. We could sight and catch hell of a lot of “Tukemons” of the real type and not virtual just as we step out of the house. I feel ridiculously bad when I see the freshly painted Yellow-black road dividers smeared with pan tainted Red in roads and highways of Mumbai.  Similarly the E-Toilets along the highways have still not prevented many to urinate on the side of the roads in the open! Any amount of cleaning is not going to make a place clean if this kind of atrocities continue.

Ergo, while “Capacity building” is progressing well as I mentioned earlier, “Character building” is lagging behind. And for that we have nobody else than ourselves to blame. As a country it is our collective failure that we put “a clean surrounding” as least in our priorities even now when supposedly the literacy and economic well-being are on the up.  A state like Kerala which is high on literacy is also among the cleanest states in the country. However when I see what happens in Mumbai which is a fairly literate metropolis, I have come to the conclusion that literacy has no bearing on Swachhata!! It is one’s attitude towards keeping common places clean which finally matters.

I do feel that by 2019, the Government may very well achieve the targets it set for itself in terms of toilets,…,… but cleanliness may still elude perhaps even till 2050. For Swachh Bharat Mission to succeed while the Government works on Sochalays, “We the people” have to work on our Soch!!! And that Soch is – “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is not about cleaning, but ending the need for cleaning”!

Postscript:  Heard somewhere “Don’t know if we will become a Swachh Bharat, but we are already a “Cess Bharat”😁😁

 

 

Marketing Warfare!!!

“Marketing Warfare” is an 80’s best seller from the famed marketing Gurus Al Ries & Jack Trout in which they elevate “Marketing” to a war and through the book talk about competitive positioning and military strategy. But this post is not about the theory of marketing warfare, but about the way to “market” warfare in the context of Geo-political happenings worldwide and in particular post the “Surgical strikes” which India carried out across LOC somewhere in between 28th and 29th of September.

In yesteryears when wars took place between nations, they were reported. These days they are marketed. I am not exactly sure when this trend started but I presume that the seeds for this were sown with the televising of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991. And then followed by “global gurus in marketing” – the Americans allowing journalists to be embedded with their troops to capture and report real time military action. And in doing so colouring the view as seen through the American prism. This I believe helped immensely in garnering public opinion in their favour back home and came in handy in political battles. A good example of such proactive communication is the tactical release of the now famous image of Obama and team watching live the ‘Operation Geronimo’ to catch Osama Bin Laden from their war room in the States. I am certain that the image played its part in getting Obama his second term after what was arguably a lacklustre 1st term. So as in conventional marketing where it is not enough to just have a good product but consumers be told of the same, in wars it has become important not just to engage in military action but to win the battle of the minds in the aftermath with astute communication, packaging – in short Marketing!

This is where I feel that India played its cards very well after conducting the “Surgical Strikes” this week. We are told that this is not the 1st time that our military has undertaken such operation along the LOC or across the LOC, but this is certainly the 1st time we made a clear announcement of it and let Pakistan and the world know of the same.  Here the 1st principles of marketing as I elucidated before came into play. That of not just carrying out the operation but communicating to the target audience of the same and communicating well. Which straight away helped build the narrative and enhance the image of our Prime Minister as a person who walks the talk. From here on irrespective of what happens, the Modi Government can take credit for having altered the image of India as a soft nation – a baggage we have been carrying for too long.

Not just this – the moves and communication preceding the operation have also been smart. After the Uri attack, the usual platitudes of condemnation followed. And then followed by the now famous statement that “the Army will respond at a time and place of its choosing”. As the talking heads in TV studios started analyzing what it means in terms of actual action on the ground, the Prime Minister while addressing a public rally in Kerala deflected all talks of war/military action by saying that our war with Pakistan must be to eradicate poverty. After this statement by the PM, most pundits started talking of the “return of Strategic restraint” in our nature of response. But most forgot the basic principles of warfare which is “you don’t say what you do and you don’t do what you say”! So I was not surprised that a clear military strike followed though I was indeed taken in by the quick timing.

On the other hand on the Pakistani side it has been utter confusion in terms of communication. While the PM Nawaz SharifStrongly condemned the unprovoked and naked aggression of Indian forces resulting in martyrdom of two Pakistan soldiers along LoC” the press release from Rawalpindi military HQ dismissed the strike as a routine “cross border strike initiated and conducted by India”. And interestingly brought in a “marketing” element by claiming that “This quest by Indian establishment to create media hype by “rebranding” cross border fire as surgical strike is fabrication of truth”!!! So while the Pakistani military establishment understood the concept of “Branding/Rebranding”,.. they walked into the trap which India laid.

India conducted the operation, “branded” it as a “Surgical Strike” and informed the world of the same. Pakistani military establishment and the Government openly echoed different views of the same. Now the question is – can you take to a level of serious military escalation after having dismissed the Indian operation as a border skirmish? In ensuring a muted response to the operation from the International community, India has successfully controlled the post operation narrative so far.

The Government having done its part so far carefully and smartly with effective controlled communication (the presser was addressed by DGMO and the MOE spokesperson jointly) could have reigned in the media from hyperventilating the whole night on Prime Time. There was an unwanted competition among anchors that night as if there was a “Kaun Banega Nationalist Anchor” competition! I believe there was some communication the next day from the Govt. to channels to pull back the rhetoric!

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The back cover of the book Marketing Warfare says “Marketing is war. To triumph over the competition, it’s not enough to target customers. Marketers must take aim at their competitors­­ and be prepared to defend their own turf from would-be attackers at all times”. I would like to paraphrase the same and say “Today, War is marketing.  It’s not enough to just win the war but to win the narrative after the war”.

P.S: Everyone who has seen US presidential debates knows that the real show begins after the candidates have said Goodnight. And that is in the “Spin Room” where cherry picked faces from both sides give a spin on what their masters actually said and meant in the debate!!! It’s a war out there, you see!!!