Morning brought better spirits. I narrated yesterday’s happenings to Nagbaba. He had never dealt in money so ten lacs was an alien figure to him. The storage project work and legalities involved were also beyond him. All he tried to gather was if I expected more trouble. I said, “No. Things may work out.”
I asked, “How are children with night blindness doing?”
Nagbaba replied, “Most are better and parents have been following the advice. But some need the doctor; just the food may not help them.”
I said, “I plan to leave soon now. Can you send someone to bring those children? I think they need help more urgently than I do. I can drop them at the Hoshangabad hospital.”
Nagbaba called a couple of young boys, instructing them to go to interior villages with a message. Once they left, he turned to me, “All cannot be brought but these boys will cover four villages within one hour of walk. We will get three to four children. I think you can leave by noon.”
My head was aching badly, as was Sooraj’s. I told Lakshmi, “See we cannot live without food for more than one meal. Our heads ache badly. Bring anything.”
She smiled and ran off. When she returned, she brought a basket made of bamboo. It was full of Amla (gooseberry) and some local kind of Ber (jujube) fruits. They were sour but had a sudden uplifting impact, along with sweet tea.
I thanked her for the meal and then turned to Sooraj, “Now I understand why these folks have only vitamin A deficiencies. Rest seems to be there easily available.”
While we waited, I wanted to know if he also felt that it were Sardars’ men who had chased us and shot Tulsi. Nagbaba replied “Bhaiya, we don’t know. All I can say is that Sardars have never tried to move us away or take our territory but others have.”
I nodded and then said, “But they are the ones who are destroying forests and pushing you to poverty. They do not raise any alarm is another matter. Sardars are doing it slowly and smartly.”
By now we had few tribal men gathered there. Nagbaba hesitantly told me, “Bhaiya, there was news from villages inside the forest that trucks carrying wood and soil have already started plying. This year, it is much earlier than summer.”
I was curious and asked, “How may ply each day?” He answered, “Roughly twenty but it will pick up in summers.”
I said, “By my guess, twenty trucks meant roughly ten million rupees of minerals or may be fifty million rupees of forest wealth going out every month – somewhere it was between the two figures. This time of the year, it is all illegal.”
I told Nagbaba, “See it is important that Sardars don’t become greedy and start increasing the tucks. It is likely that these initial trucks are the ones that are causing most damage to you. They might be digging where it is the easiest and along water channels. Someday, we will need to go inside and see. But remember, more trucks will take away your hopes of any improvement in water and food situation during monsoons.”
Bihu said, “We should break their trucks and scare the drivers away.”
I replied, “I have explained to Baba that it would be disastrous, and probably help Sardars. Do not start anything if you cannot finish it, which is what I have learnt in a few months here.”
In my effort to clarify, I added, “See your actions will attract all kinds of people - politicians, officials, moneylender, agents, Sardars and Dau, businessmen. I will add these priests also to the list. They will come with solutions, only to create more distress, because a solution means there is no need for them any longer.”
Then he asked, “Then what we should do?”
I said, “I don’t know yet. I have been thinking myself. There is something in my mind that says that the solution is around us, but if we take one or two wrong steps, that solution will disappear. I am just not able to nail it.”
Nagbaba reciprocated the feeling. He had told me about it the last time also.
Meanwhile, the children had arrived- two of them, with their father. All of us walked to Revaram’s hut and accommodated ourselves in the vehicle.
Then I took Nagbaba’s leave. For the first time while leaving I felt that now I won’t be back for very long. I wanted to be back only after I was carefree again.
We reached Hoshangabad government hospital by evening, just before closing hours. The one staff at reception had already closed the register; not wanting to take any more patients for check up. Without the register entry, the patients would not get the free medicines from hospital. Tilak slipped in a ten rupee note and it opened the register.
There was a mild queue but since I knew the doctor from last visit, I could directly walk in. He greeted me and while he saw other patients, I sat besides on a wooden chair, the one bought in eighties when this hospital was inaugurated. Since then nothing much had changed; even the autoclave looked of that era.
The doctor quickly disposed off the patients, most of them prescribed pain killers and a vitamin injection. “That’s the maximum I can do here,” he quipped, “the sooner they go to Bhopal or to a private hospital, the better for them, but these folks don’t want to spend.” I nodded but the spending power of the rag tag poor folks was not visible to me.
In our turn, the two children were brought in along with their parents. The children were nothing but bone structures covered by loose clothes. The doctor performed some physical checks and then told me, “Same problem, ask these ignorants to give food as I told you last time.”
One tribal spoke in his dialect, “We are giving it Saheb, but they vomit or have a loose stomach.”
Then he quickly wrote some medicines and syrups, and told me, “Their intestines and stomach are weak. Boil water before you drink. Buy these from the outside shop and also buy some biscuits I have written. Slowly they will be able to digest solid food. Avoid any milk.”
I thanked him and asked, “Can we get the medicines from the government store?” I meant fee ones.
He quipped, “Now, we only get a few generic drugs from some unknown companies, and the mix is decided by the government contracts. It doesn’t have what these children need.”
I smiled, “Companies owned by ministers; they will not stop at anything.”
The doctor didn’t want to make any controversial comment; he was still in service and he couldn’t risk going private. But he said, “Why are you wasting time amongst these people? God will take care of everyone.” I thanked him and moved out. Had there been no God to leave the issue with, it was quite difficult to handle most situations here.
We purchased the medicines with some extra syrup bottles for Nagbaba to distribute, and left tribals at the nearby bus stand. Then Tilak made a quick two hour drive to Bhopal. The sun had gone down when we left Hoshangabad. Despite my assurances, the others seemed vary of Dau now – each oncoming and overtaking vehicle was viewed with suspicion.
Next day, I was up early. By 7 a.m., I was ready for a tea in the verandah. I had been away for only three days but things had changed fast, even at home. Muniya had been persuaded to go to a nearby government school. It was my father’s words that worked on her. Tulsi had taken up household work- for our house and a couple of neighboring homes. She saw the job as a domestic help much below in social ladder than work as labor to it. But she soon realized it would give her and Muniya better prospects and money.
Tulsi brought tea and asked me, “How is everyone in the village?” I said, “As they were. Your hut is lying vacant.”
My father asked after she left, “How was your trip? Are things progressing as you planned?”
It was a strange question from him, as he never took interest in my work. But I think he had a premonition of trouble. I nodded in agreement.
Around noon, I went to the Bank with Tilak. My entire remaining savings in the investment funds had been received in the account. I knew that they were going to be a disappointment. The final tally came to thirty five lacs, some fifty lacs less than what I had invested. There was no point mulling over it. I was one of many who couldn’t figure out what was going on in this world.
From Bank, I went to our retail trading office. Though it was just January end, and some time remained before the March deadline given to Aditya’s team, there was a new urgency for us to assess how they were doing.
The review meeting had already been planned. We took some time going over all the progress and statements.
I said to the shop head, “See Mukesh, last I was hands on was almost five months back. Then, we had seventy five lacs as deposits. Now we have twenty five lacs and with this month’s salary and rentals to go, count it as eighteen lacs. In last six months, that is the balance has reduced so much.”
Aditya didn’t like the word ‘reduced’. He said, “We have spent on capex for long term.” I relented, “Okay its capex, including the top salaries, and branding spend which are most of it, but now we need to see some return from it.”
Mukesh was a shop floor fellow. He was an old employee but less educated and recently been every upset with the way things had gone. He quipped, “Bhaiya, one needs to spend time with customers to understand what happening. How will they understand data without that?”
Aditya protested, “Last one month, we have used data to stock more of top two commodities, water and pulses; and had made direct procurement arrangements. It would have added two lacs a month.”
Mukesh replied, “But it worked only for two-three days. Then we discontinued it as you couldn’t handle the food inspector.” “How does a food inspector come in this plan?” I asked.
Aditya said, “The food inspector says he will raid and find faults with pulse samples if it’s not procured from wholesaler of his choice or rather his department’s choice. For water bottles, we had made a fantastic arrangement with a local R.O. plant. But the inspector says we can take only one of the top two branded water bottles. Apparently, they have paid off nine crores to the department as bribe for the entire state. But we don’t get much margin in marketing these foreign brands.”
Mukesh said, “Bhaiya, the food inspector also gave another option, to pay him twenty thousand a month. It is better to make a deal, than to lose two lacs a month.”
Aditya replied, “I cannot take responsibility of managing inspectors, and won’t do anything illegal.”
I was not surprised at that, but said, “The product we are selling is not illegal. It is tested and certified. Regarding the Inspector’s fee, it’s the officials who are forcing us to pay.”
Then I said, “But that aside, I think we are responsible for many jobs and their wellbeing also. If we have to choose between two ills, this is a better one. There is no third option.”
Aditya said, “Then also think of the poor R.O. plant guy. He is a bright engineer and says it costs just a fifth of market price to produce, package and supply to us, but he can’t compete in the market due to this corruption.”
I told Aditya, “We cannot be responsible for his problems and high cost of water. But we, including you and me are accountable for losses and monthly salaries. He will make losses and soon figure out, the way I am also discovering. At least his competition does not send men after him. When I came here, I didn’t think entrepreneurship came to this here in our country, but that how it is.”
There was a short spell of silence. Then I requested a fresh start to the session. I said, “See we do not have much time to cut losses. We have to be where we were five months back. If I postpone the top folks’ salary number, we save five lacs a month, all that we need. How many will accept if we temporarily freeze till this project gives returns? It will be a salary liability to be paid off later.’
Aditya said, “I won’t and I think most of them won’t.”
I wanted to know, “But why?” Then I offered, “Say we don’t entirely freeze but give twenty to thirty thousand for you to take care of expenses?”
Aditya said, “Don’t take me wrong but I have expenses – Mortgages, and stuff. I can’t live without full salary.”
I tested another scenario, “Okay, but is it possible to make this unit start yielding something within two months? We should not be putting all the hopes on the accrued profits from Pipariya Storage, because ideally, those profits won’t belong to this unit.”
Aditya had also lost his confidence. It was another thing to do project management in a large company for stable clients, but quite another to do it in a small set up which demanded immediate results. To add to it, he had been bothered about issues like the inspectors. Most local businessmen would take such things in their stride. He replied in the negative.
Nothing much needed to be said. In next few hours, many of the office team decided to move on, while Mukesh was ready to handle everything including the customer handling.
Now our costs were drastically reduced. Though it meant postponement of Aditya’s initiatives, but it also meant we could keep the lights on for very long.
By the time I returned home, I was relaxed. It was 6 pm. As we sat in the Verandah, I told my father and Sooraj about the discussions at office. My father remarked, “It is good for you. When your business is small, you should build it with folks who go with you to any end. A business is just like a child.”
My father had always been in government service and was very risk averse. Yet he was probably right about a fledgling business.
I had other views too that were not shared with Aditya or Mukesh. Given the way the Food inspectors and various license inspectors had been dictating small businesses, and were forcing their choice of suppliers, there was no future for any product innovation. Most of them were technologically very challenged, and had mediocre education, and did not care about long term impact of their acts.
It was a new learning for me – they could kill any enterprise.
I told my father that I had received the last thirty five lacs in my account. It cheered him up- it was many times over his savings before he lost it to bribes.
Next couple of weeks passed peacefully. I improved my knowledge of law and the legal processes.
Dau also did not create nuisance at the storage during this period. Perhaps they had overestimated us and then decided to let go. Or they were not in a hurry for our response.