- Alex in Assam.
I set off on Friday morning 6 March from Ljubljana to Amsterdam. A day before there was the first confirmed corona infection case in Slovenia. I felt as if I was running away from the new world that was about to happen. When I touched down in Amsterdam late morning it was like making sure that not much would change. I got to the hotel and immediately rented a bike and left for the city centre. It was an amazing feeling. Amsterdam is a bicycle friendly city and the whole city feels like a small town rather than a city of a million. Before coming I read about the Dutch history and me being there, I imagined how it must have been to live in the Dutch golden age. I visited het Scheepvaart Museum, history of the Dutch maritime exploits, which made me feel great respect for the Dutch, their bravery and their resourcefulness.
They explored the whole world (arctic area, Australia, etc.), defeated the joint forces of England, France and 2 German bishoprics, established the modern financial system, made scientific breakthrough in many areas, created an empire and all this with a population of only around 1 million at that time (France between 15 – 20 million, England 6 million, Spain 8 million, China 150 million). Needless to say, many parts of the world suffered. But the ability to organise resources in such a way to achieve this feat is extraordinary and awe inspiring. And the city itself with its canals and being 2 metres under sea, its parks, urban planning is like a place from a fairy tale. Those were two days of complete calm and I was looking forward to my return on 24 March for another three days and a vocal renaissance concert for which I booked the tickets. How little did I know.
On Sunday morning 8 March I could not sleep much. I was too restless. I could not wait to enter India. Hundreds of questions in my head, will I enjoy India, what about meeting with Satya, his wife, his daughter, will we have something to talk about, will I disturb their lifestyle too much, will they like some small presents from Slovenia, etc. I woke up at 6, had a game of billiards myself, then breakfast, packed everything and off to the airport. Flight to Istanbul was nothing special.
Then I had a night flight to Delhi. I could already feel India as most of the passengers were Indians. The plane was less than half full so we could sleep comfortably on the plane. The staff very friendly, spicy sandwich. An annoying Indian family. The kid seated behind me kept banging my seat, then he was walking around the plane terrorising the staff. His brother was not much better. Their mom was just seated there. Their dad after our meal burped, probably the loudest burp that I ever heard. It was funny and we looked with an Indian guy of my age and we both smiled. Never mind the family, yes, I was finally on my way to the destination I was dreaming of for almost 20 years.
We landed in Delhi. Medical check. Everything ok. Visa ok. Going to the gate for Guwahati. What will be our meeting after almost 10 years? I do not want to be too much of a burden for them. We entered the plane. The staff was an Indian looking guy, an Indian looking lady and an Asian looking lady. All very friendly. I noticed on my flight to Delhi already but Indian women are very feminine, gentle features and speech, gracious moves. Rice and chicken, all spicy. Loved it. We landed in Guwahati. In a few minutes we got our luggage and I went out. Outside there was Satya waiting and smiling. I felt relaxed and happy to see him again. It made my experience much more home like. We exchanged some words and drove away with his car.
Guwahati, my first Indian experience, my first Indian city. A lot of traffic, blowing, colourful. It was holi – festival of colours all people wearing vivid and bright colours, painted faces, new experience. Piles of different colours at the stands along the road. Modern buildings, older buildings, trees, driving on the left. Satya told me that he had retired a year ago, that they settled in Guwahati, after his post in Delhi and Shillong, and built their house in Kharguli. His daughter at home and his son in Singapore. We revived some old memories from his time in Slovenia, Juglal Singh, Dr. Salec, ICPE’s DG, Surjit Bhujbal, H. Makwana, Ravi, the bus that took just him and me to the airport to pick up his son Gautam and took us back to Ljubljana. Good old days. Then we entered Kharguli and the drive way to the house.
We came to a large door. He opened it and then we entered the property. The house with a garden. There were Nilakshi and Aishwarya. Their warm reception banished my anxiety. I had met both of them in Ljubljana and I knew Nilakshi through her writing and travel blog. A different world from what I saw in the city —peace, greenery, fresh air, hill top, beautiful garden, comfortable terrace, amazing view over Brahmaputra river, which looked more like a lake than a river. It was dry season. I cannot imagine what it looks like after monsoon. Like sea?
They offered me a private room with a bathroom. Regular supply of tea and hot water. Good food. Indian mobile. Bedroom surrounded by nature – voices of rustling trees and birds. I got to know bird “kuli”, tree teak, papaya and some other to me unknown species that Nilakshi is growing in the garden. We planned to visit Jorhat, Majuli and Sibsagar but that was not to be. We proceeded to Kaziranga national park.
On the way there the landscape changed. In the beginning the road was winding through some low hills, then it changed to open landscape then there were some villages, dhabas (tea house or bistro by the road), paddy fields on both sides, road surrounded by trees. I was happy that Nilakshi is a tea addict just like myself so we stopped here and there for a cup of tea. There were cows around and on one of the trees there were some 15 stork nests. We could see some elephants and in the distance some rhinos. There were some tea plantations. Parts of the road with lots of trees and winding road reminded me of my own country. All along the road there were specimens of a stunning tree species with flame like flowers called modar, (Indian Coral ).
We spent a night in a government establishment in Kohora. Firstly, they offered us one accommodation but then they offered us a better one just next door, which was actually booked for us. It was a pleasant area surrounded by trees, away from the main road. It was calm and reminded me of a place which we used to visit with my parents for vacation when I was a child. We visited the Borgos Resort for tea. Judging by the cars parked, obviously for richer clientele. We had some sandwiches brought to us to our car as the restaurant did not allow pets.
We then visited an orchid plantation where they grow more than 900 species of orchids, most of them native to Assam. My mom would love the place as she takes great care of her orchids. Before getting to the plantation we passed a small market with some local products wood carvings, textile, etc. I was again surprised by the richness of colours. We had a very pleasant guide who seemed to be there for years but when I asked him how long he has been working there, he said for 6 months. Very good.
We visited a park with some amazing landscape, quite wild. It reminded me of a place back home with nice paths for walking some central area for concerts and other events. Borgohains actually asked the musicians that were getting ready for a concert to play some Indian songs for me. A young singer with an amazing song gave a great performance. I did not not understand what he was singing but I could feel that it was something emotional. Indian music. There was an instrument called harmonium that works on the same principle as accordion pushing air through some nozzles or something and it produces sound very much like it, although softer. We had great fun together. We laughed. Ladies were quite mean to Satya but in a positive way. Borgohains have a sound, sarcastic, sophisticated sense of humour which I like. Lovely time in the park. Nature always makes me nostalgic. It always reminds me of the times when I was a kid.
We then went back to our accommodation resort. Otherwise very peaceful looking Satya showed to me some elementary security measures that he is keeping under the driver’s seat. I was quite surprised. Satya lost the key of the room of the first room and there was some problem with opening the lock as they somehow did not have the spare key. It was funny to see Satya feeling awkward because of it. Later he informed us of a “delivery” of a local wine that he arranged while in orchid garden.
We then left to Iora restaurant that was few minutes away by car. They served delicious local food, which I thoroughly enjoyed. They served a big plate surrounded by some small cups with different types of sauces—an Assamese thali. The place was very nice and it seemed as a part of a bigger resort. We then headed back home to get a sleep. I had a shower and washed my teeth and went to sleep.
In the middle of the night I was woken up by indigestion problems, nausea, stomach ache. I felt terrible. It was probably combination of everything— tap water with which I washed my teeth and gargled, long day, it was the first day that I could release the tension and relax. I could not sleep well. I woke up every half an hour. In the morning, when I saw Satya, I felt really sorry for Borgohains who made the whole plan of the visit and now because of me they had to change it. But I was knackered. I could barely stand on my feet. They took great care of me, brought me some tablets and electrolytes. By the morning next day my health already improved. I do not know what was going on around the area, because I was just sleeping for the whole day.Fortunately, I recovered the next day and apart from being tired, I was stable. We were able to return to Guwahati.
On our way back we stopped at the tea plantation and took some photos. Tea plantation make an amazing landscape. It looks as if someone just walked over the plants with a lawnmower at the height of 1 metre and cut them all to the same height. Lovely. Some elephants, cows on the road, rhinos in the distance, colourful clothes, paddy fields. I could get a feel of how people live in the area. Some schoolchildren in uniforms, a pair of young lovers riding a motorbike. Interesting enough women sit with both legs on one side not like in Europe where they sit like men do. We then stopped at the Laheke bistro (laheke meaning slowly in Assamese). The manager of the place, an acquaintance of the Borgohains was a really pleasant person, calm, sophisticated, cosmopolitan person. Pleasure to talk to, but sadly I have forgotten his name. He told us that they are running top of the line accommodations as well and are visited by people from all over the world. We had tea, of course and some sweets which Nilakshi advised me rather not to eat.
We left the place and proceeded to Guwahati. We stopped at another place to get tea and Borgohains got some sweets which I was advised against eating it as precautionary measures. We then went back home, I mean to Borgohains’ home. Nilakshi and Aishwarya played some music. Nilakshi Assamese and Indian music, Aishwarya some indie rock music. Very nice. I was becoming exhausted due to the consequences of the ordeal from a day ago. I remember Nilakshi telling me that tea auction centre was established in Guwahati in 1970.
We again met in late afternoon and Satya informed me that India is closing all inbound flights. There was news of some disturbance in Shillong. We discussed the situation with Satya and we agreed that best I could do was to prepone my flight to Delhi next morning.
My office boss informed me that we were closing the hotel and sports centre till the restrictions are lifted. Well, each day the situation back home was getting more serious obviously. Everything closing. Total lockdown. Fortunately, India was still being open, which extended my normal life for a few days at least. I did not want to go back home under such conditions. I would rather travel around India.
Satya told me that he had some arrangements for the next day and that I would be alone and could visit Guwahati. I was happy in a way that I would not to disturb Borgohains and that it will be the first time that I will have to take care of myself without Satya’s help. I had a great sleep that night.
When I woke up the following morning, we had breakfast and then I went to the city. Satya and Nilakshi gave me some basic instructions on how to get around and what to see, which proved very useful. So, the adventure began. Me alone in India. Let’s go.
I walked down the road from Kharghuli and got an auto-rickshaw which took me to Ganeshguri to the Air India office. Interesting experience. In the vehicle I could actually feel the city and its vibe. If someone told me about the traffic and blowing the horn, I would imagine a stressful experience. Surprisingly I felt very calm and focused on the task at hand – reschedule the flight. The traffic seemed very disordered but works well. There are signs for two lanes painted on the road, but in reality, they turn into 2 lanes and a half. The city planning is different from what I am used to in Europe. There are few or no traffic lights, there are long roads and in between there is a wall painted black and white to which I will return later. There are gaps in the wall which work as a kind of a crossroad. I could not see many zebra crossings.
The driver took me to the Air India office. When I arrived there, I was first in the queue. After a few minutes many other customers came. I was lucky not to have to wait. After a minute it was my turn. There was this lady around 50, looking half Indian, half Asian, again gracious moves, very feminine, soft spoken, who was really friendly. There was another guy working there but he seemed to be unsure of what he was doing. The lady was very professional. I asked her whether she is the manager of this place and she told me that she was. I said that it looked like it judging by the way she works and her professionalism. Next to me there was a client who wanted to postpone rather than prepone the flight and he insisted on coronavirus discount but the more the guy and the lady tried to explain that it only worked the other way around, only if you prepone the flight, the more he insisted. Finally, the lady went back to my ticket problem. She was very pleasant to talk to and we had a friendly conversation. Obviously, the situation was crazy as there were calls all the time for flight changes. She managed to change the flight but only for the next evening with no earlier flights available apparently. There was no extra charge for the flight change due to coronavirus. I only paid the difference in the price of the ticket which was some 9 EUR. I was quite happy with that.
My card did not work so I had to exchange the money but I had to go to some other place. I got an auto-rickshaw again. I told him where to go and he said that he knew where it was. We circled around but the guy obviously did not know the location. We finally managed to get to the place, I exchanged the money and we went back to Air India office. I paid for the ticket, thanked the lady for her assistance and told her that she is very friendly and professional. I wished her good luck and she to me. We smiled to each other.
After that I took a walk around the area. There were many small stands selling food, proper meals. I recalled Nilakshi’s advice so I avoided eating it. I got the idea of what Guwahati is like. Obviously not many Europeans walk through these streets as I was quite an attraction. I brought linen trousers and a polo shirt. It was an interesting experience. I wandered away from the main street and found a stand selling some Indian crisps and other things. I bought some of them for my parents and friends. I found another auto-rickshaw to take me to the Assam State Museum. This guy was chewing something and had red teeth. I had never seen this before. Every time that we stopped, he spat and there was this white black wall and when he spat onto it, there was a red fresco painted on the wall. It was an unusual experience. Satya told me that it is betel nut and has a negative effect on the users’ health. The spitting driver took me to the Assam museum in Ambari.
It was an interesting museum with many artefacts from Assam history, weapons from different eras, some Japanese and British weapons, sculptures, writings and collection of different nations/tribes that live in Assam. After almost 2 hours I went in search for food. Just opposite to the museum I found several small bistros and I entered one with good techno music – Chillax bistro. Very nice, small, good atmosphere. There was me and some Guwahati teenagers. I ordered some barbecue chicken and tea. It was delicious. I particularly liked the sign on a door, for staff only obviously, “Trespassers will wash dishes.” I found it funny. Then Satya called me and told me that he is coming to the city. I told him where I was and then we met just across the street from the museum.
We went to the riverbank and had a walk along the river. It is very nice. Works still in progress but once it completed, it will be a lovely promenade. Many youngsters were there so I could get a glimpse of what life of Guwahati and, I guess, Indian youngsters is like. It is not much different from what we in Europe do. There was some courtship going on with awkward feelings in both men and ladies, blended with restlessness and expectations. Those successfully accomplished enjoyed their time together holding their hands. The fact that the sun was setting on the Brahmaputra river made it all the more charming and romantic.
We saw the impressive statue of Lachit, the Assamese hero who defeated the Mughals. We had a nice walk and talk about different things. He suggested to me to return home asap. The idea which I very much resisted, since I was informed by my parents that the country is preparing for total lockdown, while India was still an open country. At that moment I felt nostalgic as I knew I would miss Guwahati, I would miss Assam, I would miss Borgohains. We headed back to Kharghuli. We had our last supper that evening and continued our discussion about some business idea. Nilakshi offered me some presents – cloths for my parents, a large bag of Assamese tea, a rhino and an elephant carved from wood and two of her books – Life’s Beautiful Days and Waltz in Happiness, (www.nilakshiborgohain.org).
In the morning, Satya showed me his office and ample lower terrace. We had a brief discussion on what CONCORD is doing, what he is planning, perhaps organise a programme for European managers, etc. He signed three memoranda of understanding. He then showed me around the house roof terrace. Even better view of the river.
We had lunch and some more discussions. I was getting nervous with more information about restrictions also in India. I was absent minded thinking about possible flight cancellations, what to do next. Should I stay in India, go back home, try to visit Agra, Jaipur…millions of questions. I felt as if my head would explode. I was impatient. I wanted to go back to Delhi asap. We had the last photo session on the terrace. I felt as if I were losing something, as if I am approaching some new world which I was not sure I really want to live in. For a few moments I forgot about everything and said goodbye to Nilakshi and Aishwarya. Nilakshi told me to keep the thermo bottle filled with hot water which I would be able to take to the plane. We left earlier as I wanted to stop at the Indigo office to check whether I could prepone my flight.
After our goodbye Satya took me to the airport. On the way I was saying goodbye to Guwahati, to Assam. It was my first experience with India. 5 days. I cannot describe with words. I had to bid farewell to a place which I left too early. I enjoyed the first day of our trip to Kaziranga. I enjoyed the Friday exploration of Guwahati. I enjoyed the conversations. I recollected all the highlights of Assam techno music at Chillax, friendly lady at the Air India office, betel nut driver, auto-rickshaw, Brahmaputra river, river bank and youngsters, Lachit, museum, indigestion problems, resort that we were staying in, orchids, Indian music, modar, Satya’s security measures, lost key, food, park, Iora, tea, hot water, bedroom in nature, books, garden at the house, kuli. It all just started to feel like home.
On our way to the airport I remembered the driver that was not sure where we were. I thought he just could not admit that he does not know, something like Spain. I asked Satya whether people in India have difficulties saying no. He confirmed. I then asked why and he replied that it is so as if something impolite. We arrived at the airport. I thanked Satya and we bid farewell.My good friend, I will miss you.
I first went to Indigo office and there were two helpful ladies. The problem was that I did not know when I should travel back to Europe. The borders were closing. We found a flight to Vienna which was the closest that I could get and not pay a fortune. There were two other Europeans at the airport. We looked at each other and we felt solidarity, the feeling of being European in foreign land in the middle of developing crisis. It was a good feeling. You could feel the connection between us although we met for the first time. We had a brief conversation. The two were a Belgian couple. They decided to go to Thailand instead of Belgium. We wished good luck to each other and exchanged smiles. In the end I did not book my flight, one reason was that I was still hoping that I would be able finish my visit to India on 23 March as planned and the other was uncertainty about the situation in Europe.
I checked in, did the security check and stopped at a bar for my last tea in Guwahati. This was the end of Assam. My mind switched to Delhi. It was night already. We were flying over islands of lights some bigger, some smaller all connected with a golden thread of lighted roads. Many questions in my head. What would the city look like? Would I manage to buys some spices? Will I be able to see Taj Mahal? When will I return home? Will I be able to visit the concert in Amsterdam?
We landed in Delhi. I took a taxi to my hotel. I wanted to stay as close to the airport as possible. I stayed in a relatively cheap hotel in Mahipalpur. Comfortable and I liked eggs for breakfast and soap. I booked the room for two nights. When I arrived, the receptionist asked me to cancel the reservation via booking. I did that and we agreed a discount. Cool. He told me that I would have to change the room next day. It was fine with me. I fell asleep immediately.
It was morning suddenly. I went down for breakfast. There were an Italian gay couple, a British guy who visited Arunachal Pradesh with UNIDO and is trying to show the local population of usefulness of cane for different products. He had a business idea of making different items from cane as a sustainable material and selling it worldwide. Interesting guy. Another English joined us at the table. He was a freelance video editor something. We had a very nice conversation. We wished good luck to each other and parted ways. It was a good start of the day. Firstly, I had a short walk around Mahipalpur area. There was a lady offering me her services, an offer that I politely declined. I decided to go to the airport and see what is the situation with the flights. It was impossible. Queues of people trying to rearrange their flights, phone calls. I could not solve anything. After an hour and a half at the airport I just wanted to escape so I decided to go to the Red Fort and to go around Delhi.
I took a taxi, an older Sikh driver, rather shy. I asked him to play some music that he liked. He looked to me surprised and turned on the radio with some Indian music for some proper experience of India. Traffic works just as in Guwahati. Delhi is a big city. We passed an area with big private houses with walls around and with big gardens. There were many foreign flags, I assume these were either embassies or ambassadors’ residences. There was black and white wall again separating the two sides of the road. We were talking all the time so I do not remember much more.
We finally arrived at the Red Fort, a massive red building. I almost could not find the entrance. It was Sunday and masses of people were there. I was a lone European. Again, colourful clothes everywhere. It looked as if people used the Sunday for a trip with friends and family. Ladies showing their best saris. I bought a ticket. Different prices for foreign tourists (600 rupees) and for Indians (100 rupees). It reminded me of the Assam museum which had a similar price difference. I found the entrance. A massive tunnel with many small artisanal shops of cloth, wooden products, golden jewellery, etc. The tunnel suddenly opens into an expansive park.
I was allowed to visit only one museum. It was the museum of independence fighters. One of the texts particularly caught my attention: ”As usual the coward British were scared of even unarmed Indians.” I could not enter other museums within the compound. A lot of renovation and improvement works going on in the park. Above me there were some massive birds circling. They looked like birds of prey. Red Fort is a world entirely different from the hustle and bustle of Delhi. Tranquillity, nice walking paths, park, some museums of Indian history. Charming. I was satisfied with my choice of visit. It was just what I needed.
I left the venue and just outside there was a guy with bike rickshaw offering me a ride for 100 rupees. At first, I was declining his offer. But after his insistence I said, why not. We agreed on the price and I jumped on the rickshaw and off we went to the spice market. We were driving through narrow streets, some small shops selling colourful clothes, also wedding clothes, some food, cashmere, silk and some other things. Half of them closed because it was Sunday. We arrived to a spot, where the driver named Chotu left the bicycle with another guy to keep an eye on it and proceeded to the spice market on foot.
Firstly, he showed me the chilli market. We climbed a dark and dodgy staircase to the top of the building with a view over the surrounding buildings and roofs. While there it was difficult to breath, it felt as if something was in my throat and we were coughing. It was due to the smell of chilli. I was happy to be at the spice market. I set myself a few tasks in India and one of them was to buy spices.
He took me to a very modern spice shop with two gentlemen, a seller and a person who with his white lab coat looked like a scientist. I bought some of the spices. I guess they have an agreement that a few percent of what they sell goes to Chotu. There were some other spice shops. I stopped in one of them and bought chilis. I saw a yellow root and asked whether it is a turmeric root and Chotu told me that it was. However, I distrusted him and ask the seller same question. He confirmed that it indeed was turmeric root. I felt a bit awkward for not trusting him. If I agreed that he will be my guide I should believe him. He took me to the right place, I felt safe, so why doubt him. I bought a pack of turmeric root and cardamom and we headed back to the Red Fort with my trophy. Chotu paid 10 rupees to the guy guarding the bike. He insisted that we stop at a modern cashmere shop but at that point I was really tired. I gave up and entered the shop but I apologised to the staff and I left immediately.
All along our journey we were discussing different issues. I found out that he is 46, has a wife and 4 kids, comes from a village close to the Nepal border, had been driving the rickshaw for 25 years, he is out for 10 – 12 hours a day. He was one of the few people I was in contact with that spoke excellent English and we could have a proper discussion. It suddenly struck me how a decent guy like Chotu earns 100 rupees for an hour drive through risking his life through hectic and dangerous traffic. I thought it had something to do with castes or simply with economic opportunities in India. He was a really pleasant person to be with, excellent English unlike most of the taxi drivers that earn more. 100 rupees I thought to myself…that is roughly 1.25 EUR for an hour of really hard work. I decided I will pay him 400 rupees i.e. 5 EUR. and tell him to buy something for his wife. After we returned to the Red Fort, I paid 400 rupees and I told him that he was a decent person and that is why I pay 4 times the agreed price. He was thanking me as if I gave him a fortune. I told him sincerely that I would not give 400 rupees if he were an asshole and that the experience for me was worth more than 100 rupees. And I told him that he should buy something for his wife. We said goodbye to each other.
There was a group of taxi drivers offering me their service. I said ok, 800 rupees to the hotel. I wanted to take a walk around the area anyway and I was not ready yet to take a taxi. The drivers offered me a drive for 1200 rupees, that was finally reduced to 950. I told them that that was too much. Suddenly I found myself encircled by a group of 7-8 drivers, who were intruding my personal space and yelling how much would I give:” How much? How much?” It felt uncomfortable and I needed to reclaim some space. I spread my arms and said:”Whoa!Calm down.” They took a step back noticing that they were a bit too aggressive, apologised and told me that they did not want anything bad. I said no problem. I thanked them for their offer and told them that I would take a taxi later but that at that moment I wanted to take a walk around the city. There was an older Sikh driver following me and kept repeating for some 5 minutes to take a taxi. But I insisted that I would like to take a walk now and will come back to the Red Fort later and then I would need a taxi. He looked away with disappointment and sadness and went back.
I took a stroll along the road heading south just to get a feel of what the city is like. I could not see many traffic lights, if any. But it was the known black and white pattern on the side of the road. I entered a small street with car and motorbike (parts) repair shops and plenty of people around. Along the main road there were many shops of all sorts of products telephones, textile, food, etc. and later there were some banks. I came to a big crossroad and as it was getting dark, I wanted to grab a taxi but could not find any, so, I decided to take Metro to the Red Fort and take a taxi there.
I entered the Delhi metro system at Delhi Gate. The ticket cost 10 rupees which is cheap. Two stations to the Lal Quila station. You get a token and you put in a slit and the door opens. Modern metro, modern trains. It must have been built relatively recently. The train was half empty so there was plenty of space. It was a positive experience and above all cheap compared to the fares in Europe. Bus ticket in Ljubljana costs 1.30 EUR which is just above 100 rupees for much shorter journeys. We arrived to the station I went out and the Sikh driver was right there. It was night already. I asked him to take me to the hotel but he said that another person will take me there. We agreed for the price of 900 rupees to take me to Vasant Kunj Marg. The driver replied that he knows where it is. Great. Let’s go.
I do not know whether taxis in Delhi are a Punjabi guild but the driver was Punjabi too. Anyways, we headed south. His English was not very good so we could not discuss the way that we conversed with Chotu. I asked him how some things are called in Hindi and he replied that yes, he speaks Hindi. I rephrased my question and the reply was Hindi is a big language, many people speak it…Good…I thought that not much conversation would be possible, but then I find a way around the language barrier. Luckily, I did learn some hindi so I told him that “Yah kya hai?” in Hindi is “What is this?” in English. Then I asked him for the name of two or three objects and after that he flooded me with all possible translations. I decided to take a short clip of the traffic in Delhi and the driver was explaining all sorts of things on the video. I appreciated his effort. So, I learnt mej – table, sabji – vegetables, kela – banana, seb – apple, bhavan – building, etc. Punjabi driver, thank you for your hindi language lesson. It was just what I needed at that moment and I am not being sarcastic.
The problem arose because he obviously understood that I am going to the area called Vasant Kunj. He asked me again for the name of the road and I repeated Vasant Kunj Marg. I had no idea where we were. He then asked three times where the road was and then came to me and told me that the road does not exist here. I told him that it is in the Mahipalpur area and I know that the road does exist. I even showed him the hotel card. Then he started complaining that he thought that that it was in Vasant Vihar and that Mahipalpur is further away and that I will have to pay 1000 rupees not 900 rupees as we first agreed in the mean time we reached the hotel. I told him that we agreed the different price, that I told him the name of the street right and that he did confirm his knowledge of it. He insisted. I told him that I am too exhausted to quarrel with him, which was true. Perhaps I should just give him 900 rupees and leave. I paid 1000 rupees and he wanted to reopen the whole discussion but I just stopped him and went inside.
When I came into the room I just laid down and had a rest for 5 minutes. I connected to internet and got a Viber message from my mom. Shock! On Tuesday they are closing the airport in Ljubljana and all air traffic. I could feel a burst of adrenaline flowing through my veins. And I thought: “Well, a major crisis has arisen.” Ok. There is too much adrenaline now to take rational decisions. I decided to take a shower and wash my teeth first to calm down a bit and during this time I would think over what options I had. I did that. It was the most refreshing shower. I came back from the bathroom with three options available: find a ticket back home if at all possible, stay in India, find a flight to Europe and then try to get back home from there.
Option three was out of question. If I arrived to Europe and then I am stranded there, I do not know, Moscow, Istanbul, then I would rather stay in India. Staying in India was in that particular moment the best option but what if India imposes lockdown too, actually just a question of time, then this option was out of question too. Let’s find a ticket to Slovenia then. It was night 0.30 AM. I found a flight to Slovenia via Moscow but the flight was at 2 something, which meant that I was too late to get that one. Not good. And then, hallelujah! A flight to Ljubljana via Istanbul at 5 something. I booked the flight immediately. I paid 600 EUR for one-way ticket. It did not matter as long as I am able to return home.
Click. The ticket booked. No time to waste. I packed my suitcase. I went down to the reception. I requested a taxi. It was 0.55 AM. The taxi arrived at 1 AM. The driver was very friendly and helped me with the suitcase. We were quick to arrive to the airport. There was little traffic. Hardly surprising when you think about the early hour. I had to wait for the check in. I decided to wrap my suitcase first time ever. I exchanged the rupees that I had left for euros. I grabbed a cup of tea and then another one. Then I found a seat to wait, lay my head on the suitcase and had a half hour nap. I was exhausted from the last two days. And there was still a whole day before me, before I would finally be able to get some rest. It was 2 AM. Almost 4 hours left before the take off to Istanbul. There was a screen with all flights and their statuses. Rome cancelled, Moscow departed, Miami check-in and so on. Istanbul no status.
It felt like a whole month passed while I was waiting for the flight. I overheard some Slovenian ladies talking and then another group of Slovenian ladies there. They seemed to have visited some spiritual experience. We were all obviously running away from India. It felt like an escape from a war zone. Surprisingly, people were not nervous. Everyone seemed relaxed, calm like we all accepted the reality of having to go away. Finally, check in to Istanbul. There was a long queue immediately. I had to wait for half an hour before I reached the counter. Check in was fast and I could go to the gate. There were still some rupees left so I bought another cup of tea and incense sticks. I was left with 122 rupees which I could not spend. Oh well, a souvenir from India. I reached the gate. In the waiting area they placed some very comfortable loungers. One was left unoccupied but not for long. I laid down. There were still 45 minutes left before boarding. I tried to fall asleep but I was too excited.
Finally, the boarding started. I reached my seat. It was in the middle row with three seats together. I was seated on the right one next to two Sikh brothers travelling to Canada. We had a 30 minutes delay. Suddenly, there was an overwhelming feeling of homesickness. If I could, I would teleport myself to Ljubljana. We finally took off.
I was looking at the map of our flight. We were moving away from Delhi on the large scale map, while on the small scale one we did not move at all. Finally, the plane moved and we were slowly approaching the Pakistani border. I fell asleep for half an hour before I woke up. I was struggling to read a book but my mind was just too busy to analyse and reorder all my impressions and thoughts of the last 10 days since I had left Ljubljana. Amsterdam, Guwahati, trip, Borgohains, Delhi. I turned on renaissance liturgic vocal music (Pellestrina, Desprez, Lasso) from the Turkish Airlines library and it calmed me down. Tranquillity. First meal. Rice and chicken. Good. After the meal I fell asleep for another half an hour. We were above Iran. I took my book, put on Handel collection. We were approaching Azerbaijan. I fell asleep for the third time, another 30 minutes. When I woke up, we were approaching eastern Turkey. Second meal, dessert actually. We finished and I put on renaissance music again. An Indian lady in the front seat watched an Indian Bollywood type of movie. My Sikh neighbours were sleeping. We finally landed. Europe! I was just one step from home.
We had to wait for 3 hours before check in. I had a call with my mom and told her that they should stay home and that I will come home from the airport myself just to avoid any risk of contagion. I would use a car sharing service. Cheap and comfortable. I found a comfortable bench and had another 30 minutes nap. I was walking around and found a shop which also sell alcoholic beverages. I found my favourite bottle of whisky – Lagavulin 16 years for a much lower price than anywhere else so far. Needless to say. The bottle finished in my rucksack. There was announcement of the gate number. I walked to the gate. Another step closer to my home. It was cold, but I also felt cold due to lack of sleep. I saw in the distance a small stand where I bought a cup of hot tea. Relief. It warmed me up. The gates opened and the boarding started. At the counter there was a small problem as I should confirm my ticket somewhere but I did not. It was not a big problem but exhaustion made it feel like a big thing. We sorted this out and I boarded the plane.
On the plane I found my seat it was just in front of the middle exit door and only one seat was next to me but it was empty. The plane full of Slovenian people. The only topic of the conversation was corona, all experts. I put on my music. I could not listen to these conversations. They made me too nervous, I was too tired. I played some Gregorian chants on my telephone. Soothing and calming music. We got our meal. Rice and chicken. We were finally above Slovenia. We started descending. The sun was setting, mountains, forests. It was all very romantic. We were flying north of Ljubljana. We had already descended so much that I could see Ljubljana and discern the stadium, Rožnik hill, the Castle, the city itself. Aaaah…yes, this is my home. We landed. We came to the border control immediately. By the time I reached the luggage belt my suitcase was already there. I picked it up and went out to get the car.
I opened the app and booked a car. I came to the car station and there was a lady already in one of the cars. I knocked on the window and asked the lady if she minded if I join her in the car and we share the expenses. I would also rather see someone else driving because I was exhausted and was afraid to fall asleep in the middle of the road. She agreed and I hopped in. It was getting dark and the landscape was beautiful. She was from the easternmost part of Slovenia, from Lendava. She used to work in the PR for the former government but is now jobless as she was employed. She was in Istanbul for a week but had to leave after 5 days.
The roads were empty so we quickly reached Ljubljana. I asked her to deliver me straight to my apartment block. She said ok but needed instructions since she did not know where it is where I live. Streets empty. Hardly any car. A ghost town. We reached the final destination. I took my luggage, I thanked her, gave her 10 EUR and we said goodbye to each other. I took a deep breath and looked at the building in the dusk. There I was. Back home. Nobody around. Me alone.
I went to my apartment on the 9th floor. I did not meet anybody on the way up. I opened the door. Silence. My parents cleaned the apartment while I was away so it smelled of fresh. I unpacked my suitcase. Looked at everything that I brought from India. I realised that I would continue my vacation in Ljubljana but I did not know till when. New world. The quarantine started. Two long short months.
Apart from the supermarkets everything was closed. Empty streets few cars. I could suddenly smell nearby farms. Clean air. The forest of Golovec hill across the street was becoming alive. Mornings were the most serene and tranquil moments ever. I went up to the hill often, early morning. I know the hill inside out because I spend a great deal of my childhood there. I know which path to take to avoid people. Starting at 6.00. Nature received much needed respite from humans. Two pairs of common kestrels came to our apartment buildings (3 are together).
One morning I was alone in the forest. Nobody there. Calls of black woodpecker. I surprised a roe deer doe with a fawn. I stopped and waited till they walked away. I proceeded and they turned back and looked at me. After some 100 metres there was the black woodpecker standing next to a tree stub. It flew away when I got closer. But the sound of its call was with me all the way. Raven, lesser spotted woodpecker, cuckoo bird, many smaller birds. I came to my favourite spot with an amazing view over Ljubljana and mountains to the north. Moments of meditation.
For two months I did not have any contact with other people except lunches with my parents who live in the same building. I occasionally checked facebook for some interesting news. I read books. I played a computer game. I avoided any news of corona. I accidentally happen upon evening news on tv, when I had dinner in my parents’ apartment. Crazy. First piece of news – corona, second piece of news – corona, third piece of news – corona, fourth piece of news corona. It was presented in a way of tabloid newspapers – shocking, alarming. Incredible. Terrible. What has become of journalism nowadays! Sensationalism rather than news. Out of context news. I was still on vacation, in my mind still living normalcy in India.
It is impossible to describe my impressions of India without including the two months of quarantine. India did not end on 15 March it ended on 20 May when we reopened the hotel and I got back to work. It was the longest vacation in my life. It is impossible to disentangle the old world from the new one. India was my last contact with open society. The day in Delhi was the last moment, the last bastion of the normal world. In Ljubljana I was present with my body. But in my mind, I was still in India. I could not accept the new reality and the two months quarantine was a great time for me to think and rethink my life, my values, my future plans. I remained in a bubble. Isolated from isolation. Two surreal months. I closed myself off from other people. I led a monastic life. The most stressless time of my life. I listened to liturgic vocal music a lot. My home felt like a monastery. It was just what I needed.
People here in Europe say that returning from India does change one’s perspective of life. It did change mine but combined with quarantine the effect was probably more dramatic. All this time I meditated and I could listen to my soul without interruption of external stimuli. I could focus on my emotions, my reactions, my thoughts, my anxieties, my fears, my reactions, my priorities. I was beginning to understand where in my thoughts I get stuck in cul de sac, which emotions spur it. I always felt the pressure that I have to do something, however unproductive it was what I was doing. During this time there was no pressure as I could not do anything because everything was closed. It helped me to open up to myself. If before India I was in a way a person without much emotions, without much interest in people and their emotion. A benevolent psychopath I would say. I suddenly realised that the most important events in India were actually meeting certain people, who I was thinking about a lot since.The main pillar is of course the Borgohain family. Satya, Nilakshi, Aishwarya. They were the most important part of my trip to India. Hard working and thrifty family.
We met with Satya for a brief period. Of all the students I spent most of the time with him, conversing different issues. I know I was quite helpful. Of all the MBA students I grew attached to him most. It was great pleasure to meet with Satya again in his home country, in his home environment. I immediately realised that my anxiety of what our meeting will be like was unfounded and completely unnecessary. Caring, serious, funny, relatively quiet but having things under control, realistic, rational judgement of situation, relaxed, sometimes confused as with the lost keys. He was my narrator of Indian politics, Indian state, my newspaper in a way. My confidant and he helped me a lot in those precarious circumstances. His suggestions were the ones that I followed as reluctantly as I could, but were the best piece of advice. I was happy. I was lucky to have had met him in Ljubljana. Knowing him made me arrive to Assam in the first place.
I miss Nilakshi. She is well read. Piles of books on different topics are stacked on the shelves. I most remember Britain in India or something like that, some history books, some literature, some politics. She was my guide through Assamese and Indian history. Interesting character. Very polite, cosmopolitan, friendly, pleasant conversationalist. Sometimes with biting sarcasm. I remember once after dinner there were some seeds acting as breath refresher and digestive. She asked me whether we in Europe have something like this. I told her no and she asked whether we have not reached that stage of development. I always appreciate good sarcasm. It is a sign of high level of intelligence. A very proud Assamese with roots back from upper Assam.
Aishwarya, a recent law graduate, interested in intellectual property law. A bit idealistic in her views but intelligent. I guess she is the new India, modern urban middle-class youth, open, cosmopolitan. She played some western indie rock music while we were driving back to Guwahati. I guess that similar to the urban middle class, highly educated youth in Slovenia for her it is less about Indian culture but more about the developing global culture. Sometimes after I had said something, judging from her reaction I felt as if I there was something that I should not have said, but whatever I said was well intentioned. I am sorry that I did not have more time. I would love to go to the city and meet with her friends and get a feel of what the life, perspective of Indian, university educated youth is. I am very much interested in technology transfer, I wonder whether it is a coincidence that I met a person in India, who is planning to specialise in IP law.
Borgohain family thank you for your care, for our lovely trip, for your help, for offering me accommodation, food, hot water and especially for great time that you allowed me to spend with you in your home state. I was honoured to be allowed to live with you and it was the best way to get a feel of the life of cosmopolitan Indian higher middle class family. It was a priceless experience which I could only dream of. You accepted me as part of your own family. I felt comfortable with you and at home in your house. It feels good to have friends so far away. Thank you again. Namaskar!
Another person that made a lasting impression on me was the charming lady, manager of Air India Guwahati office. She was really friendly and professional. I always appreciated intelligence and confidence combined, rare combination unfortunately. She was very comfortable in what she was doing and her communication skills were adorable. Thank you for all your help lady.
The final person is Chotu from Delhi. A bright, funny, hard-working man who earns his bread by driving bicycle rickshaw every day. He was the most positive and friendly person that I met in Delhi. He gave me an unforgettable experience. It struck me most how positive he was compared to my fellow countrymen and countrywomen always complaining about irrelevant issues e.g. having to wait for 1 extra minute in line at the supermarket Lidl. Crazy. It made me realise how privileged I am to be able to live the life that I live and to have the job that I have. I think I became much more humble and thankful for what I have. Thank you Chotu for this!
It is amazing to see people thousands of kilometres away with similar interests, with similar history with different actors. While in Europe there were Austrians, French, Dutch, English, Romans, Greeks, etc., in India there were Assamese, Mughals, Bengalis, Cholas, Mauryans, etc. Empires rising and falling and people living through tumultuous times. And for the first time in history we people from different parts of the world can meet, communicate and find out that in our essence we are all same. We love good food, good music, having a good time. We care for our parents, children, friends. If any time in history it is now, due to challenges that we face, climate change in particular, that we have to start functioning as a global community.
Before I had come to India, I had a rather stereotypical idea of India – poverty, dirt, cows, spices, tea, Ganges river, spirituality, ashrams, Gandhi, women wearing sari, man wearing orange cloth named…I apologise for my ignorance. What I found out was life changing. They are right in that. It was not something particular that made me think more about who I am, where I come from, what are my most important values. But several events, people that I mentioned connected it all.
The things that I was stunned by were: the spitting betel nut driver; the annoying Indian family on the flight to Delhi; gentle and feminine women everywhere; beautiful women, especially in Guwahati; people in Assam are combination of Hindustani and Asian race; stressful traffic with too much blowing; more air pollution; relatively cheap; friendliness and impoliteness; people enjoying pretty much the same things as we do in Europe; Ashok Leyland and Tata trucks with decorated cabins; mostly Suzuki cars; different flora and fauna; cows on the street; different architecture; the country is developing but there is still much poverty; plenty of people everywhere; tea; auto and bicycle rickshaw; colourful clothes; spices; textiles; silk; tap water not for drinking; garbage and dust on the streets; many narrow pavements; two road lanes painted on the road that become two and half lane in reality; no or little traffic lights; black white wall separating two sides of the roads; pause in the wall for changing direction acting as a crossroad; techno music in the bar; food stands on the pavement; a lot of small establishments like car parts, food, clothes; dhabas; Brahamaputra river or should I call it lake; different scripts, different languages, different peoples in India; problem of immigration of Assam; paddy fields; did not see much alcohol; stray dogs; orchids; different prices for Indian nationals and foreigners; small Hindu altar/shrines with a representation of a god around the city; less meat; rice; little public transportation services; more social stratification; surprisingly, lack of feeling of the existence of the caste system; open showers with a bucket next to it; pleasant temperatures; women sitting behind men with both legs on one side of motorbikes; many, many more trees on the streets than I expected; not bicycle friendly cities and much more, which I have forgotten.
As we were discussing some business ideas and proposals, I realised that I never gave too much thought to running a business apart from a very vague idea working for myself. Our discussions spurred my thinking about it more seriously.
We were not a rich family, but always have enough money. My dad was a higher police crime investigator and my mom working with the Health Insurance Institute of Slovenia, national public insurance institute. Parents did not include me in any decision-making process, did not give me much information about the financial situation in the family. Thus, I did not have to worry about the money. Ever. Money was always there. We were a modest, thrifty family. My parents saved enough money to build a house. I had everything that I needed. I acquired thrift from my parents for which I am very thankful. But never have they taught me the business finances. They did not have the knowledge. They grew up in the communist Yugoslavia and running a business was not really allowed, apart from some small artisans. We also did not know entrepreneurs. So, thinking in terms of financial gains, losses, accounting was something alien to me. But the wish was always there present.
This is an extensive text of my impressions, ideas, thoughts, emotions of my Indian trip. There are probably many others that I have forgotten. Since I have forgotten them, they probably were not that important.
2. CHALLENGES OF SUPPLY CHAIN MANAGEMENT IN COVID- 19 ENVIRONMENT
Author: Lt Gen Balbir Singh Sandhu
A lot has been written about impact of Covid-19 on health and day to day functioning of the society but not much has been discussed about the impact on supply chain both within the country and globally. Indian authorities have shown decisiveness and comprehensive policy implementation to handle the challenges of this situation and the spirit displayed by the citizens to meet this calamity has been commendable. Timely and apt decisions of the government have ensured continued medical cover and essential supplies for the citizens. Continued success of such services depends on effectiveness of the supply chain within the states, the country and globally depending on the items involved and luxury of choices. It is difficult to assess the impact of this pandemic on the supply chain in the initial stages because there is always some stock in the retail stores and the pipeline which ensures continued supplies and as a result, the consumers do not experience a shortage on a day to day basis. This also shows the inherent resilience in the Indian supply chain and ability of the stakeholders to switch to new way of life in a ‘Covid-19’ environment. On completion of almost eleven days of lockdown in India, a time has come to take stock of glitches in the supply chain which, if addressed in a systematic manner, can enhance efficiency and mitigate sufferings both in short and long term. The impact of this pandemic on supply chain is unparalleled in the history, probably more than the Ebola and SARS outbreaks, 9/11 attacks on the Twin towers and 2011 tsunami which hit Japan all put together. The irony is that the pandemic originated in a country (China) which also happens to be the biggest hub of global supply chain in almost every segment except crude oil.
Immediate impact of this pandemic on supply chain can range from shortages to spike in prices as the demand increases due to a prolonged lockdown period. Procurement is likely to be adversely affected due to inability of the vendors to carry out physical deliveries involving movement of goods, although the processes like online tendering activity can continue as hitherto fore. The issue of work force safety may result in non-availability of manpower for loading, drivers for transportation and several key personnel who are crucial to the functioning of the supply chain. With passage of time, impact on the supply chain is likely to multiply in the present-day economic environment where global sourcing of components and assemblies is a norm to make products competitive in pricing. Despite availability of E tendering platforms, the vendors may not participate in tendering activity due to uncertainty in availability and transportation of goods to be supplied. Unlike the military which works on the ‘Just in Case’ model of logistics and supply chain to effect high assurance levels, the industry works on ‘Just in Time’ model to give higher priority to economy over assurance. While the armed forces implement assurance by holding reserves at times at more levels than one, the aim in the industry is to minimise inventory to avoid blocked finances. It also needs to be understood that holding reserves or unused inventory adds cost to the supply chain which may not be acceptable in a competitive business environment where profit margins are ever shrinking. Therefore, a balance needs to be struck between diversification of procurement sources by onboarding more vendors located in different regions and holding reserves.
In the short term, first and foremost issue to be tackled is safety of the work force which needs to be ensured in the best interest of the industry and the employees. As regards the supplies, there is a need to identify alternate suppliers for which the data should already have been prepared. In absence of such a prepared data, this information can be obtained from the existing suppliers. Alternatively, this information must be searched from the data available on various online platforms. Alternate sources amongst tier Two/Three sources need to be explored to source the goods so that there is minimum or no disruption in the supply chain. There is a need to have an assessment of realistic demand at the consumer end which is often inaccurate/exaggerated from the traditional sources. The industry must possess reserve finances to ensure resilience in the system to sustain at least the initial disruption period till alternate arrangements are made. It is interesting to learn that the supply chain in the armed forces has inbuilt resilience by advanced planning as also having clauses in the procurement manuals which permit placing of repeat orders. Keeping in mind their constraints, the industry can adopt some of these measures followed by the armed forces. It is no secret that the function of Supply Chain Management and logistics originated from the armed forces when invading armies had to plan their sustenance for the period of the campaign, which was later adopted and refined by the industry. May be, a time has come for the industry to revisit its old relationship with the armed forces. To overcome the issue of spike in prices, sourcing through Group Purchase Organisation can be an effective method to economise and prevent exploitation because this organisation can leverage ‘economies of scale’ due to large quantities they would be negotiating for. Army Purchase Organisation centrally concludes contracts for nationwide delivery for which there is decentralised quality control and acceptance which ensures economy due to economy of scales and standardisation.
To tackle such disruptions in the long term, industry needs to have a well thought out strategy with inbuilt protection against unforeseen pandemics and disasters. Maintaining some reserves as a policy will be effective both in the long and short run. They will give reaction time to the management to explore alternatives, but reserves are always at a cost to the industry. Here comes the importance of contingency planning or scenario building. There is a need to visualise and wargame the actions to be taken in the form of ‘Risk Mitigation Functions’ which can ensure long term preparation against such disruptions. Future supply chain must be ‘resilient and agile’ which can be achieved through highest levels of ‘Digitisation’. Technology can ensure inbuilt resilience in the system to make it reliable even when disruptions interfere with human ability to operate due to lockdown or social distancing or quarantine. Digitisation improves accuracy, speed and builds flexibility. It is a pity that digitisation of Indian supply chain industry needs a lot more to be done to call it fully automated and technology driven. Industry also needs to build in financial resilience to sustain disruptions to the supply chain for some time. A well thought out proactive strategy based on forethought and planning will minimise panic and losses at the time of unforeseen disruption. Global industry had put too many eggs in one basket by relying on China as the sole supply chain hub for large number of products. After the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Cisco and Boeing revisited their supply chain to mitigate risk of depending on source of supply located in one region. There is a need for diversification of sources of supply and build provisions to ramp up capacity of alternate sources when the main one gets disrupted. The current crisis has also highlighted the need for near sourcing and indigenisation because businesses dependent on global sourcing are likely to be impacted more during such global crises, frequency of which is now on the increase. There is a need to have systems in place which help in forecast and providing early warning of such pandemics to minimise loss of lives and businesses. World Health Organisation (WHO) and countries from which such a pandemic originates must have a responsibility to warn others of the likely spread at the earliest. It is easier to cope with an odd over reaction than a delayed reaction.
As we grapple with this historic crisis, a lot is expected to change in all spheres and supply chain needs to transform the most in a globalised and inter dependent economic environment. Digitisation and innovative use of technology will lead the change. Manufacturers may become less materialistic and go for multiple procurement sources even if that is not the most economical choice. Resilient, lean and agile supply chain systems backed by technology will be a matter of necessity and not choice in case businesses must survive future shocks and disruptions.
Lt Gen Balbir Singh SandhuArticle uploaded on 06-04-2020. Credit to USI of India.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.
3. RESTORING INDIAN SUPPLY CHAIN IN THE ‘NEW NORMAL’By Lt Gen Balbir Singh Sandhu, AVSM, VSM (Retd)
As per advice being given by the World Health Organisation in their media briefings and expert opinions appearing in the media, the worst from the COVID-19 is yet to come. This implies that countries have to make a choice between saving lives of their citizens by imposing endless ‘lock downs’ thereby permitting their economies to be decimated to a level that even the citizens find it hard to live a respectable life or create such dynamic processes by which a balance is struck between saving lives and making the economies also grow at a decent pace to prevent total devastation . The Prime Minister of India during his last address to the nation has rightly upgraded the slogan of his earlier address to the nation before imposing the lock down from ‘Jaan Hai toh Jahan Hai’ to ‘Jaan Bhi aur Jahan Bhi’ whichimplies that from the earlier call of saving lives even at the cost of economy, the time has now come for the country to take stock of the situation and find ways to commence economic activity while continuing to look after the health of the citizens. Such challenging situations need extraordinary and innovative solutions which are not found in the management books.
Supply Chain forms backbone of any economy especially for a country as large as India. Even during the earlier recession periods, the supply chain industry continued to grow, and it was estimated that the Indian supply chain industry will continue to grow at an estimated 8 to 10 percent for the next few years. Therefore, while the supply chain was the last to close as a result of this pandemic that too not completely, it should be the first to get on its feet and move on. There is a lot to learn from the military supply chain which is designed to operate primarily during ‘War’ and its operations during peace are incidental. When we look at the havoc played by the COVID-19 in terms of loss of lives globally and devastation of the global economy, for sure it is no less than the ‘Third World War’ which hasn’t come to an end as yet. Taking a leaf out of the military Supply Chain, it would be prudent to revisit the Indian Supply Chain and reorient it to the ‘New Normal’ times with minimum or no disruption. This crisis has also given us an opportunity to embed risk mitigation strategies and processes in our supply chain to take care of future disruptions which could be localised due to a natural calamity like flood/earthquake in a region of India or countrywide or even global the way it is now. Our future processes must be‘Disruption Resistant’ if not ‘Disruption Proof’ which is a tall order. Risk mitigation invariably means a little extra cost but in case we design a dynamic supply chain which has provisions to invoke processes during disruptions to the existing ones, it will be both economical and disruption resistant.
In the short term, the Government has rightly permitted interstate movement of even non-essential goods which is a step in the right direction. The drivers, co drivers and loaders etc are now forming part of the corona warriors team. We need to institute measures to ensure that they stay in good health because in case of too many casualties amongst this group, a fear psychosis can set in where non- availability of work force can adversely affect the supply chain functions and add costs. To prevent such an eventuality, arrangements must be made to monitor their movement may be by using the Arogya Setu App, carry out more frequent tests and take such measures, so that these workers don’t become interstate carriers of infection instead of goods. The halting places for the trucks could be designated, monitored and suitable facilities provided. Besides means of transportation, the supply end needs to have processes and checks in place to prevent spread of infection. A sense of collective responsibility and trust will go a long way in minimising disruption due to residual infection. This crisis can also be taken as an opportunity to create good quality ‘Rest Areas’ along the highways instead of unorganised roadside unhygienic eating places (Dhabas) and repair facilities. Such facilities created on a public private partnership basis will not only give comfortable organised halting places for the load carriers operators and travellers but will also create jobs and keep the highways free of encroachments which slow down the traffic and are avoidable bottlenecks. Needless to state that the facilities of food, bathing places, repair of vehicles etc provided in such rest areas must conform to the tastes/liking of the users and not on the Western model. The users must be attracted and not forced to use them. In sum, for the immediate period, there is a need to monitor and regulate movement with the aim of health and disease prevention of the work force and prevent spread of the disease. Creation of infrastructure discussed above is an ongoing process, but a beginning can be made.
For the long run, this is an ideal opportunity to transform the Indian Supply Chain and logistics segment which has largely been unorganised. Infusion of technology is the most important step which can help this process. In the current business environment, supply chain and logistics is no longer a function of movement of goods. With improved infrastructure, modes of transport and communication means, movement of goods is taken for granted. The client and the industry now look at the value addition in terms of real time tracking and connect with procurement, warehousing and distribution functions. Use of technology in the supply chain industry has been piecemeal which has not made substantial difference for the industry. The country needs to create a nationwide platform which connects the driver, helper, Owner, client, warehouse and all other stake holders round the clock. Real time tracking of consignments and availability of related data should be a ‘given’ which will then change the way supply chain operates. Digitisation of Indian Supply Chain will be as transformational a step as has been the introduction of Goods and Services Tax (GST) which has ended the kilometres long ques of load carrying trucks at the interstate borders.
There is a need to continue infrastructure creation so that it generates jobs, investment as also reduces the cost of logistics as percentage of GDP which is high in case of India compared to other economies. Despite improvement in infrastructure and introduction of transformational legislations like the GST, India needs to do a lot more to become globally competitive in logistics. India has slipped to 44 th position in the World Bank Logistic Performance Index (LPI) 2018 from the 35th position it held in the 2016 World Bank report. Modal mix of transport to carry mass goods like food grain and construction material must shift towards Waterways and Rail which are much cheaper and more economical compared to Road through which we transport almost sixty percent of cargo in India at this juncture. Early restoration of country wide supply chain will help cut losses for every strata of the society including, manufacturers, transporters, retailers and the consumers. A systematic monitoring and adopting a policy of ‘Seek and Respond’ by the authorities to address problems that may arise during the implementation will help restore the supply chain and logistics to a near normal in the times of ‘New Normal’ of the global pandemic called COVID-19. India again has a great opportunity to show the ‘in built’ resilience in our systems and the society.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CENJOWS.