Archive for the ‘Hyderabad’ Category

I’ve just arrived at my hotel in Bhubaneshwar in Orissa, after a few days spent investigating the feasibility of introducing solar lighting products to our customers there. I thought I would catch up on my posts with an overview of the monolithic obstacle to enjoying a fruitful, extended stay in Hyderabad. This post is a bit light on analysis and context, as it’s been a long week. I’ll plan on adding more detail when I get back to Hyderabad.

While the US INS is decidedly less welcoming when it comes to bringing qualified workers into the US, the Indian government presents few obstacles in applying for a work visa. In fact, in a rather ironic twist, the Indian government has chosen to outsource the provision of visa applications through a group called Travisa. I always included their offices in a walking tour of NYC. Mainly because the office was next door to my apartment, but also because few tourist stops offer such a taste of irony.

The real challenge lurks at the begnin sounding “Foreigner’s Registration Office” (FRO) at the Hyderabad Police Commissioner’s offices.  I was steeled for this experience by many of my friends who spent between three and five days trying to navigate the forty feet between the assistant commissioner’s office and the FRO waiting room. People have literally broken down in the waiting room due to the mental anguish of attempting to comprehend the absurdity of the system. I saw a couple recently arrived from England welling up in tears as their son bounced off the wall after the first five hours passed.

And so, I decided to entertain myself by finishing an account, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, of the more colorful personalities of Bombay. When that provded insufficient to tide me over during the six-hour wait, I took to using my blackberry as my method of blogging my FRO odyessey. The whole experience was a study in the creation of work to justify jobs to create more paperwork, and so the wheel of life turns.

Here are the blackboards that list all of the documents you need (I had a stack of 75 pages of paper, with duplicates of duplicated forms).

A few things happened that I wouldn’t have expected. I never thought I would be presented with this option on an application form, though I’ve seen other optional fields that have left me queasy, in the past. Play “Guess which field”:


This TV stand seemed like some sort of premise for a Jeff Foxworthy joke.

The live blackberry blog (with photos inserted afterwards):
35min to get there after we ask 12 different people where the Police Comissioner’s office building is.
Check-in, pat down, lounging guards. Get into the FRO by 10am. People come out early to sign us in. Welcome surprise. Call names at 10:30 (on schedule), I scramble for copies. Get there as number 3 and get in by 10:45am, 15min of document perusal. Passport checked 5 people. Documents looked at by 3. Younger folks are better dressed, more helpful and energetic, after twenty years I suspect this will have changed.

The third stage of registrant evaluation and quiet dismissal occurs slowly under the dim lighting of the musty office hall, with sheaves of gradually yellowing paper towering above you, like autumnal leaves gradually decaying. Older men are rotund, gruff, never smiling.

The senior application inspector is a colorless man who is busily harassing a newly arrived Sudanese refugee with broken English and Western clothes. “Why do you come here? You speak no English. So many don’t have jobs already. What will you do?” The man suffers these verbal thrusts with the placid countenance of someone who clearly has suffered worse aggression at the hands of officials throughout his flight to Hyderabad. After executing a proper thwacking the big saheeb, the senior inspector, reclines, pleased with himself, and accepts the Sudanese man’s application. Who knows what bureaucratic hoops he will have to dive through yet to allow himself to struggle to eke something out here. They are only allowing him a 6-month visa, so this is a semi-annual humiliation.

Of the thirty or so supplicants with whom I wait, 20 are Sudanese, the women veiled, and the men displaying too much respect for the Hyderabadi fashion sense – garishly patterened, rough cotton shirts, dark bootcut pants. With the women, there is an elegant grace, matched with a more assertive public character than I have seen with Indian Muslim women, though I know my exposure to both groups has been minimal.

Sitting in front of me: two chinese students, a couple americans, and two young women. Behind me, students, likely, with a fondness for 7up and the occasional flurries of animated discussion, which in the US usually covers the trio of pressing topics on shopping, boys, or gossip.


The waiting room exhibits some of the universals of bureaucratic interior design – discolored tile floors, narrow rows of utilitarian seating, the lazy whirl of fans. thoug these surely fail to provide much comfort when the full weight of the hot and humid monsoon season bears down.

A young English (I could tell before they spoke) couple enters – husband is some sort of consultant, given his computer back; the wife wears the psuedo locale clothing of a frequent international traveler and the token hena tattooes of someone recently returned from an Indian vacation destination or an inclusive wedding, who hops from city to city. The son seems content to seek dad’s attention, while asking probing questions about his father’s open laptop, entranced by the blue screen. His shirt reads, “Look handsome, young man.” This is a rather surprising exhortation to have on one’s shirt, given that those types of shirts usually project something more assured. In the US, I would expect it to read, “Trust Funder” or “Beauty Queen” or “Juicy” or “Your relative lack of wealth makes me uncomfortable, so I wear rhinestone studded clothing and massive watches.”  I am fascinated with the idea of growing up in India. I can’t really imagine how that would shape my perspective. I’m excited for this child. I wonder how he will internalize it. For the time being, he seems intent on exiting the waiting room, even if the barred window is the only escape route.


FRO 08/21/08 Stats:
55 people arrive to register. This is just for Day 1 of the process.

Number of staff: 14
Min docs per peson: 43 pages (mine was 75). Avg: ~60 pages.
Total pages generated for one day of applications – 60 * 55 – 3,300.

Avg hours spent per applicant for their first day – 7. Total time spent by applicants today – 7 * 55 – 385 hours.

Applicants per staffer – 3.9.
Applicantions processed per hour of staff time – .56.


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I was speaking with a colleague of mine about some of the more misguided enterprises that “social entrepreneurs” have pursued in Hyderabad. We, both within our company and within the microfinance industry, tend to view ourselves as pragmatists seeking to have the most immediate, demonstrated impact. I think there are benefits and downsides to this. For me, the right area of focus is addressing fundamental challenges that support an increasing quality of life and standard of living, thus enabling people to meet additional needs.

Other folks might choose to pursue more exotic ideas. Some demonstrate a surprising amount of creativity and create a novel path towards poverty reduction. Most are largely tangential to the immediate needs of the poor. One example of mis-adventurism was of a person who came to intern at an MFI in Hyderabad. They quickly attempted to reorient their internship towards a rather hilarious idea. They had decided that the most important area of focus, for them, was in starting a trash collection program to harvest recyclable materials to create school backpacks for students.

At face value, one would certainly want to ensure that kids have the right tools for learning. But, this misses two issues. First, backpacks are cheap and easy to purchase. By my thinking, don’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up a trash recycling effort, design a bag, and create a manufacturing process, just buy the bags outright (you could buy millions of bags with that money and get them to children more quickly). Second, many people in Hyderabad (and throughout the world) make their livelihood, however meager, on the type of high value materials that would need to be collected to make the bags, which would be given away for free, so you could not empower, nor pay the trash pickers. All over the city, you see hundreds of people trudging through the streets carrying bulging sacks of materials culled from the waste bins throughout the city. It would seem that there is hardly a gram of usable waste that is not collected.

And so, a brief presentation on the trash collection industry as witnessed at the end of my street:

When I come home in the evening, these bins are completely full. By morning (and throughout the previous day), these have been completely picked through and the rest is cleared out by the “GHMC” – Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation.

And then there are the reinforcements we call in when we need extra (fillintheblank)power:

For the past few evenings, I have strolled home to find this horse helping with our trash collection needs. I have yet to meet the owner, but I suspect he is saving quite a bit of money on horse feed.

Finally, some groups have taken a different approach when it comes to helping the people involved in this industry. And, most significantly, some trash pickers have started to organize themselves to increase their strength, power, and training. It seems to me that this is the type of model that we should be pursuing for addressing, first, the needs of the people who feel compelled to make their livelihood in this manner, due to a lack of other options. After this, we can address issues of recycling.

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Aarush’s Birthday and the Art of Motorcycle Construction – 08.19.08

Our team over at Business Development is rather close knit, whether due to personal affinities for one another or the fact that four to six of us share a desk. Regardless of the cause, we had a wonderful evening celebrating Rajeev’s son birthday. Aarush put on an impressive show of mild manners and complacency.

The whole birthday experience was wonderful, as was seeing their family come together for the celebration. I am learning more about the nuclear family structure in India and the closeness of each generation. I don’t think this observation is unique or surprising, as similar family patterns exist in the US, as I have witnessed in the Philippines, China, and elsewhere.

When it came to getting the family involved, there was no shortage of family available to help Aarush cut the cake and it took a few extra hands to get the cake eaten.

Following the wonderfully thoughtful lead of Nitin, the BD team conspired to challenge ourselves in the construction of a playskool toy and try to construct our present for him.

It might have taken an hour and five members of our team, but these few pieces of plastic eventually managed to come together, though, to our dismay, Aarush was absolutely nonplussed. One can imagine his frustration after watching five hours of collective effort and being unimpressed by the flames on the side.

We closed down the party and both dad and son were pleased.

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With the help of some exceedingly kind new friends, I’ve been able to meet two great roommates and move into a wonderful apartment with expansive views of Hyderabad; dive head first into my work with SKS; visit a few good friends, who have started their own adventures in Bombay (Mumbai); and start crawling towards a rudimentary understanding of Hindi (though Paul and Amee, two colleagues, are enjoying my utter tone deafness), in two frenetic weeks.

In the process of transitioning to life in India, I realized that I was already sliding off the radar, as my life and work here has subsumed me. I’m hoping that I can translate the emails I am sending to friends and family to something comprehensible to my friends with the hope that this blog presents a few thoughts on life in India, in Hyderabad, and the fascinating people with whom I spend my days.

Additionally, the work that we are doing at SKS is cutting-edge poverty reduction and alleviation work. In particular, we are trying to offer new ways for our clients to lift themselves out of poverty. I want to offer a few insights into the opportunities that we are pursuing, the potential impacts these will have on our clients, and the debates that rage within the development community about the value of what we are doing. Hyderabad is at the center of a phenomenal amount of innovation and SKS is leading the charge. Hopefully, I will be able to convey why all of this is exciting and important.

I’m looking forward to sharing with you all and I hope you will keep me up to date on what is keeping you busy and causing you to celebrate.

Finally, any advice on how I can improve my writing and/or make the topics on which I am writing more interesting will be warmly received.


PS – the image at the top of this blog will change as soon as I get a less visually aggressive image. Until then, Mom, I hope this shows you that I have made friends with the right folks and that I’m well protected.

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