Friday, June 11, 2010

Patna Airport and The Juggernaut of Bihar's economic development

When news came of Bihar being the second fastest growing state in India, there was all round skepticism, even derision in some quarters. I remember the TV debate in which a geriatric retired member of the Indian Planning Commission tried to deride the suave NK Singh by hinting that as the basic data is supplied by the state government, there is reason to doubt it. Funny why he never doubted the data from any other state or even Bihar data for years when its growth was slower. Bizarre was the statement of Mr Pronab Sen, the Chief Statistician of India who, in spite of the data being released by his own Central Statistical Organization, claimed it is not his data. He was probably implying that he is a mere clerk whose job is to tabulate the data given by the state governments.

I am happy to say that there a been continued flow of data which supports the story of an economic turnaround in Bihar. There was the news of Bihar being the fastest growing cement consumer in India, then the huge growth in foreign tourists in Bihar (mostly Gaya) and now there is the news of Patna being the fastest growing airport in India. Year on year, it had a massive 60.8% growth in passenger traffic. Having been a regular user of the Patna airport since 1988, I always believed in the potential of the airport. I have seen withdrawal of the regular international flights from Kathmandu, the introduction of the IA flight to Mumbai in the early nineties via Ahmadabad and later by Sahara via Lucknow or Ranchi, the increasing frequency of the flights to Delhi and so on. I always found the flights to be full and getting a ticket never easy. So I always felt that there was scope to have more flights. In this context, I was very surprised when IA discontinued its flight to Mumbai. As a private citizen and one who is directly affected, I tried to take this up with the authorities but was told that this is a commercial decision taken due to lack of traffic. I found it strange since all the flights I had taken on this sector around that time were pretty much full. Thankfully, it is the age of liberalization and private carriers took up the space and we soon had Mumbai - Patna flights by Kingfisher and Go Air proving my hunch to be right. There is the similar story of telecom. When a modern day enterprise like Airtel, free from biases or a blinkered view of Bihar, came to the state, telecom took off in Bihar and the current growth is quite in step with the rest of the country.

This growth amply proves that when Bihar has been given a chance, it has delivered. These nail the lie that there is something inherently wrong with Bihar. These negate the cynicism of the likes of the above mentioned planner who have hitherto dominated economic policy. Historically,they have come up with harebrained schemes like the Freight Equalization Scheme and then blaming Bihar! In spite of these obstacles, Bihar has delivered. Now it is for the rest of the country, particularly the central government, to amend policies which can accelerate this growth.

On the airport specifically, Patna is a very small runway and very little scope to increase its length or the operational area. So a modern airport with facility to land aircraft like A380 is required. I know the planners may find the idea laughable, but given that Bihar is a landlocked state with a massive and increasingly prosperous non resident population. There is vast scope of tourism given the holy places of the Buddhists and Jains in Bihar. There is no reason to continue to penalize the poor migrant from Siwan by forcing him to go t Delhi and then take a flight to Dubai. (Siwan has among the largest Indians in the gulf). The international hub of Singapore is just two hours away. A good airport at Patna will convert the trickling traffic to a gushing stream. I hope Praful Patel as also the authorities at Patna listen to the changing times and take appropriate steps.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Obituary - John Shepherd-Barron - Inventor of the ATM machine

John Shepherd-Barron passed away on May 15. His is an interesting case of an invention which can be called a true Eureka moment. One day he was in an urgent need of cash but was locked out of his bank since the banking hours were over. While having his bath, the idea of a cash dispensing machine like a chocolate dispensing machine struck him. Being an engineer working with De La Rue instruments, he could give shape to his idea and designed what could be called the first ATM machine. This machine did not work with a plastic card but with a slightly radio active cheque. This machine was first installed by Barclay's Bank in North London on June 27, 1967. Come to think of it, the world existed without an ATM machine just over 40 years ago and now we have more than 1.7 million of them installed worldwide.

Another interesting snippet is that originally, he wanted a 6 digit PIN. But when he asked his wife, she said that she can't remember a number more than 4 digit. And thus was the ubiquitous 4 digit PIN born.

Shepherd-Barron's principal motivation while inventing the machine was 24*7 availability of cash. However, it helped reduce the cost of a transaction greatly and replaced the human tellers rapidly. Today in India, the average cost of an ATM transaction could be as low as Rs 12 (majority of the cost going towards cash counting and transportation) while the cost of the same transaction if done through a teller clerk, in spite of the low salaries, could be Rs 50 or more. The difference between cost of cash dispensed by humans and the ATM machines in the more well economies such as UK or USA would be much higher.

It is quite possible that the plastic card itself or mobile payment products or another invention could obviate the need of an ATM machine in future and the ATM machine becomes but a footnote in the long history of financial innovation. But at the moment, this machine is the mainstay of the retail banking industry replacing the need of a branch with this machine. In fact, Paul Volcker, the former US Fed Reserve Chairman, described the ATM as the last truly great innovation in financial services

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Community Outreach Program - a Bihar Foundation Mumbai initiative

I am delighted to share that we, Bihar Foundation Mumbai, initiated a community outreach program at Mumbai yesterday. As part of this program, a group of 50 students and 20 senior citizens are visiting the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya. They would also be visiting places of tourist interest at Patna like the museum as also a visit to the Vishnupad temple at Gaya. The outbound train from Lokmanya Tilak terminus was flagged off by the tourism minister of Maharashtra, Varsha Gaikwad.

The Govt of Bihar is also rolling out the red carpet for the delegates. The return journey will be flagged off by Ram Pravesh Rai, Tourism minister of Bihar. It is thus one of those happy bipartisan events where both the UPA and NDA ministers are participating.

I enjoyed watching the enthusiasm of the people going to Gaya. And why should they not be? They are going to have a long and exciting journey to the holiest of their shrine besides a visit to the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Patna.

This is but a small event, like the gentle first rain drops at the peak of summer. Inevitably, it will get evaporated soon. Hopefully, it will also generate the "saundha" smell as also herald the outpouring of monsoon in the coming months. Small as this event maybe, there are two firsts: proactive initiative by Bihar to take tourists from Maharashtra to Bihar as also taking Indian Budhdhist pilgrims to Bodh Gaya as opposed to the foreigners. An interesting snippet is that the the Gaya airport is the only airport in India and possibly in the world that has several regular and chartered international flights from different destinations but not even one from within India.

I do hope this will some day lead to a direct train between Gaya and Mumbai in to facilitate Budhdhist pilgrimage from Maharashtra to Gaya. Thus the traffic will not remain a one way traffic.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Nitish Launches blog: More than 400 comments in 2 days

I was directed to this blog by a friend just now

Nitish's blog must be generating a lot of traffic since it had attracted more than 400 comments in just two days. I also liked his first entry, where he highlighted the bicycle for girls scheme. I can say from personal experience that this has been a huge success. Part of the reason for success is the innovation in its execution, where instead the govt procuring the bicycles and then distributing it, the govt chose to give out the cash directly to the beneficiary thereby letting the user choose the bicycle of his choice.

If I recall Patna of my school days, there were hardly any ladies riding a bicycle, let alone a motorcycle or scooter. All one could see was very very few ladies driving a motorcar. In this social milieu, to see girls riding to their school in rural Bihar is nothing short of a revolution. Godspeed to such schemes!