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Religion is Ayodhya’s only business, faith only anchor

‘If the temples are shut for even one month for whatever reason, half of Ayodhya’s population will face starvation. It’s purely a pilgrim-based economy.’



An aerial view of the Saryu river on the eve of the bhoomi pujan of Ram Temple, in Ayodhya on Tuesday. ANI

Religion is the main source of income in Ayodhya. Until the 1960s, timber from the neighbouring Gonda district was sold from Ayodhya but even that trade was limited to adjacent districts. Today, timber merchants have long disappeared and the town relies solely on pilgrims for their income. Most of the residents describe their profession as “aakash vritti”, which literally means “what falls from the sky”. People depend on the gods for sustenance. Sufi, a businessman who sells cardboard boxes to sweet shops near Hanumangarhi, swears by the local harmony that exists between Hindus and Muslims. What he worries about is the lack of jobs and livelihoods in Ayodhya. Sufi says, “If the temples are shut for even one month for whatever reason, half of Ayodhya’s population will face starvation. It’s purely a pilgrim-based economy”.

The revenue model of Ayodhya’s temples is fairly simple — donations from devotees and rent from properties. Donations are made by the poor and the rich in cash and kind. For instance, a poor peasant family from Bahraich district comes to the seasonal melas every year and they stay in a designated temple. At the end of their stay they leave behind the rations they carried with them along with a small amount of money. It is understood by both pilgrims and pujaris that this is a donation. The pujari has given the family shelter and a place to set up their temporary brick stoves. Richer pilgrims also come laden with sweets and make offerings of money, mobile phones, air conditioners, bed linen, etc., and some take care of various repairs or construction work that might be required in their guru’s respective ashrams. This is in addition to the daily offerings of money that are made in the big, medium-sized and small donation boxes usually placed in front of the idols of deities. “Pray and pay” is an unwritten code followed by the devotees here. Ascetics, priests and mahants are seldom engaged in any kind of profession and the devout pilgrims are only too happy to make contributions towards the sustenance of the religious gurus.

Bigger temples run their own charities. Donations to religious trusts and charities are also a way of claiming tax deductions. By donating large amounts of money rich merchants are able to save income tax while earning ‘good karma’. The melas attract mainly peasants and other rural folks from near and far. Busloads of pilgrims, on package tours, descend on Ayodhya, from as far as Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat and even as far as Nepal and Bengal during the mela months. The offerings of these pilgrims and the money they spend on food and buying sweets and other knickknacks are the real source of livelihood for thousands of people in Ayodhya. For richer temples like the Naka Hanumangarhi run by the Nirmohi Akhara in Faizabad, money is also earned by renting out their spacious buildings and grounds as venues for birthday parties, dinners and weddings.

 The Ramayanic tradition of primogeniture had been broken in the Ayodhya royal family with Man Singh’s ascension in the late nineteenth century. The present heir to the throne of Ayodhya is a descendant from his grandmother’s side and therefore locals don’t consider him as the true heir. Prince Yatindra Mohan Mishra, an acclaimed poet and author, met me at Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Library & Museum where he was working on “some research on his next project”. Mishra, who runs the Maharaja Public School in Ayodhya, illustrated the importance of the melas to Ayodhya’s fragile, pilgrimdependent economy. “It is an ecosystem that really depends on the common farmer and farm labourer from neighbouring districts. When they have a good crop, they are able to spend more money in Ayodhya. If the harvest has been bad the income of Ayodhya’s shopkeepers and businessmen also go down. In the school that we run parents are usually able to admit their wards in August or later because that’s when they would have made some money during the Sawan Mela. I feel the economy of my town cannot be dependent only on the mela. We need industries and factories too,” he explained. 

Notwithstanding the negative views of the locals, the Mishra family continues to represent Ayodhya in India and abroad, particularly in Oyoto, a sister-city of Ayodhya in South Korea. Mishra is a writer and poet who recently authored a book on India’s most celebrated singer, Lata Mangeshkar. Though the ‘days of royalty’ are long past, Mishra is aware of the weight and impact of his words and chose to refrain from commenting on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute. But he didn’t hold back from saying, ‘I am a proud Hindu and a proud democrat who believes in progressive values.’ Like many locals who believe that writers and journalists highlight only the negative aspects of Ayodhya, Mishra too said, ‘So far whatever has been written about Ayodhya, it has been negative.’

 Mishra seemed to hesitate while sharing his view about the VHP claims of Rama’s historicity or the development of Ayodhya as an organised centre of Ram worship. But he talked openly about himself, “I am a descendant of a royal family that patronised the legendary singer Begum Akhtar and artists like Pagal Dasji. More than anything else in my life, I want to preserve and enhance this intellectual, literary and artistic legacy of my family,” he said.  Ayodhya’s royal family is one of the few Brahmin royal houses surviving in India. They have their own avenues of income including a large amount of real estate and educational institutions and are not directly affected by the ups and downs of the pilgrim bazaar of the town. Some of the biggest temples are also the biggest landlords and their landholdings are scattered in various states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Ramanujis once held control over the biggest land banks in Ayodhya. But with time the landholdings have shrunk as lands have been sold to sustain their temples and ashrams. ‘The offerings from pilgrims are not enough and the richer devotees are too few in number,’ said Acharya Dharmendra Upadhyaya, a third-generation owner of a Ramanuji temple in Ayodhya’s Vibhisha Kund locality.

Land may not be a source of income any more for Dharmendra Upadhyaya and Bhagvandas Acharyaji but there are other ways to generate money for wellestablished families like theirs. Bhagvandas rents a portion of his ashram to an astrology firm. He offers religious counselling by way of providing guidance for rituals and even sending digital versions of religious mantras and texts. “Just the other day, a lady devotee called me from Italy asking for a copy of the Hanuman Chalisa so I sent it to her on WhatsApp.” Did you charge her for that? I asked. “No, but it’s her wish if she wants to donate some money, she’s from Chandigarh, we have an ashram there also.”

 The astrology firm in his building operates like any other business process outsourcing or customer care centre. Horoscopes are made and shared over email and WhatsApp in return for payments via e-banking. Besides, both Upadhyaya and Bhagvandas and other mahants travel across the country and stay at various temples and homes of devotees. At the end of each such stay, they are showered with gifts of money, food and other items. Most of the devotees they have today have been associated with their respective temples over generations. A devotee’s son becomes the disciple of the son of his father’s guru. In this sense, unless the guru or the devotee break ties, inherited discipleship remains fixed. It is up to the ingenuity of the guru to attract more disciples. 

The big Ramanuji centres like Asharfi Bhavan attract devotees throughout the year but even the combined footfall in all the Ramanuji temples is a fraction of those who visit Ramanandi centres like Kanak Bhavan and Hanumangarhi.

Excerpts from the book, ‘Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord’, published by Aleph.

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“Don’t compete but change the rules”: Maneck Malhotra, Director, Choco Swiss



Maneck Malhotra

Recently, Maneck Malhotra, the director of Choco Swiss, a designer chocolate giant in India, sat with NewsX for an exclusive interview. He shares with us his mantra of “Don’t compete but change the rules” as he talks about how he beats the competition in the Chocolate sector in India.

Maneck spoke with us about the journey he’s been on to get to this point, and the role his father, who founded the company had played. “I think my father was very ahead of his time. He was a Chartered Accountant in the UK, but then we came back to India so that the kids could have an Indian upbringing. We were the first ones to import equipment to design soft-centred chocolate. In India, most people just relate chocolate to bars, but we went beyond that.”

He also feels like the market has grown and matured a lot since his father founded the company, and that those changes will aid Choco Swiss’ success. “You know, in my father’s day, you didn’t have all these different airlines to transport chocolate in, there was just one, you didn’t have refrigerated truck either. There have been a lot of changes since my father’s day, and you know I think we’ve waited 30 years to be in a place where the market is well-placed for us, and I think we’re there now.”

We asked Maneck about the challenges he faced upon taking over the company from his father, and what competition is like, in India’s chocolate market. “Look I think, for the longest time, India was completely dominated by Cadbury, Nestle, Amul, etc. People just associated chocolate with those brands, and with those types of chocolates, so one of the major challenged for us was to get people to accept that chocolate with a gifting sentiment, could also be chocolate with a daily consumption use. For the longest time, my father based his sales strategy on gift packs, which created a mindset that we tried to change in our customers.”

Talking about the pandemic, and the challenges it created for Choco Swiss and the industry, Maneck was brutally honest. “I’ll be honest, it was quite difficult for us. We’re a good that is not a daily consumable good we’re based on lifestyle aspects, which the pandemic shut down. We’ve been increasing our digital presence because obviously customers can’t go to physical stores to buy our products anymore. We really had to take a step back, introspect and think about our digital strategy, and I think now that we’ve done that, we’ve come out stronger on the other end of it.”

He spoke about some of the new initiatives that Choco Swiss has been taking, with regards to their product line, but simultaneously, emphasized that value that they place on sticking to their roots. “Over 70% of our sales come from our basic classics, those have not changed in 30 years. We believe in sticking to our roots, but obviously, we do understand, that we need to keep innovating and keep offering the customer something new. With that in mind, we’re trying to enter into energy bars, we’re also going to be releasing some very quirky and unique and progressive blends soon in the future.”

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‘AI and blockchain data will revolutionize the world’, says Mayur Ramgir, an international award-winning innovator, founder of Zonopact, an incubator for young talent



Mayur Ramgir

In an exclusive conversation with NewsX for its special segment NewsX A-list, an author, serial entrepreneur, film director and philanthropist, Mayur Rangir takes us through embracing technology for the better and how students and working professionals can have a better future in the tech world.

Mayur is the fellow of ‘The World Technology Network” and winner of the ” Pride of the Nation” award 2018. The JAVA expert shared his perspective on how technology is helping us survive this unprecedented time where businesses are suffering and people are losing jobs.

He said that this surely is a difficult time, not only for individuals but also businesses are struggling with it. They have the fear of uncertainty.’Even India’s GDP is hampered and GST collections are not enough’, he added. He mentioned that things are moving towards a new era, businesses are learning new ways of dealing with the situation.’6 months back companies were not ok with employees working from home, but now they have adapted with the change and have realised that the productivity of employees can go up with a little freedom’, the techie continued.

He feels that technology is going to go to the next level when hospitals will be automated and even workplaces will be completely touchless.

According to Mayur, technology is much more than just a cell phone and smart TVs. He says that with researches going on for implementing AI into our daily lives, AI and blockchain big data will revolutionise the world. They will mostly rule the next decade. Hence, changing tech in India in the coming years. He also asks students to look into courses where they can build their skill sets in this emerging world of technology.

He speaks about some new forward-thinking institutions like the London School of Emerging Technology and WilyNXT. The whole curriculum of these institutions is based on taking up real problems from industries and upcoming startups and make their students work on it. Working professionals can opt for professional certification in which they don’t have to quit their jobs and can go to London for a few weeks to do the course.

Lastly, the tech expert has a few suggestions for the students in this arena. He finds technology to be a funny area because one has to prepare themselves all the time with new technologies coming into the market every now and then. He urges the students to keep training themselves accordingly.’Early-career employees should think about upscaling their skills by joining professional courses offered by various institutions ’, he added. By following this, these employees will be ready for the jobs coming in the next generation.

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Hiren Gada, CEO of Shemaroo Entertainment discusses the changing nature of streaming services, digital content due to pandemic



Hiren Gada

Mr Hiren Gada, CEO of Shemaroo Entertainment in a recent interview with NewsX discussed the changing nature of streaming services and digital content due to the pandemic.

Due to the closure of the movie theatres during the lockdown, it’s been an almost impossible feat to try and release new movies. Luckily for us, Shemaroo has come up with a solution. They have started a kind of pay-per-view model ShermarooMe to “open the window of monetisation and release of the film”.

ShemarooMe is a one-stop destination for authentic Indian content, starting from regional movied to Bollywood movies. The platform grew out of a necessity to “unlock the film’s journey and give the audience an opportunity to see fresh content”, Mr Gada said. “It’s a transaction product where you can buy a ticket and redeem it on a movie. You can then watch the movie for a period of three days as many times as you’d like”, he added. “It gives the audience the closest possible experience of a movie theatre as you buy a ticket from BookMyShow and then watch it.”

The place where it differs is that there is no limit on the number of people who can watch the movie and it’s wildly more economic. “We saw a huge surge in home entertainment consumption and so we launched a Hindi general entertainment channel in May which was put together during the lockdown.”, he stated. He went on to commend the team’s effort and grit, even during the trying times of the pandemic. Moreover, this channel was made free-to-air so that people wouldn’t have to pay for it.

Shemaroo Entertainment also worked with more than 30 temples to stream their artis live on their channels. They made this service completely free for their audience as well. “The idea here was to incentivise the people to ‘Stay at Home and Pray at Home’ and this really resonated with our audience”

Touching upon the future of regional digital content Mr Gada said, “ The audience prefer local and regional content and there has been a surge of original regional content. It’s an indication of a change in mass consumption. However, I am positive there is no replacement of the experience that a theatre provides”, said Hiren Gada, CEO, Shemaroo Entertainment.

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With expiry of lease, king’s kin seek return of AMU land



With the land lease given to the Aligarh Muslim University having expired last year, the descendants of the Jat king, late Mahendra Pratap Singh (1886-1979), a freedom fighter and social reformer who donated land to various educational institutes, including the AMU, have demanded that the land be returned to them. The family also wants the university’s city school to be renamed after him.

The AMU executive council has set up a committee to look into the matter and submit its report.

The officials said that Mahendra Pratap Singh, who was an alumnus of the Mohammedan Anglo- Oriental College, which later became the AMU, had given 3.04 acres of land to the university on lease for constructing a school in 1929.

Singh’s great grandson, Charat Pratap Singh, said that they had served a legal notice to the university in 2018 about the expiry of lease. He said, “There were two pieces of land given by my great grandfather to the AMU for promoting education. We are donating the bigger chunk of land on which AMU’s city school is constructed and, in return, the school should be named after him.”

The former king’s family has asked for another small piece of land measuring 1.2 hectare to be returned to them. “They can return the land or compensate us at the current market price of the land,” Charat said.

In 2014, a controversy had erupted, when BJP MP Satish Gautam had asked the AMU to celebrate the 128th birth anniversary of the king on 1 December.

King Mahendra Pratap Singh’s great grandson, Charat Pratap Singh, said that they had served a legal notice to the university in 2018 about the expiry of lease.

The BJP had organised a small programme at its office in Aligarh and had got an assurance from the then vice-chancellor to hold a seminar on Singh later.

Last year, the state cabinet had cleared a proposal to set up a new university in Aligarh, named after King Mahendra Pratap Singh.

“He had given land for the purpose of establishing the university, but his name has not been mentioned on any plaque,” Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had said during his election campaign in 2017 while promising to set up another university in Singh’s name.

Mahendra Pratap Singh, who set up a provisional government in exile in Afghanistan during World War I, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1932. He was also elected to the second Lok Sabha (1957-62) as an independent candidate from Mathura defeating Bharatiya Jan Sangh’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who later became the Prime Minister.

With IANS inputs

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As the world grapples with Covid-19, one of the biggest challenges facing humanity, our resolve must be that such a crisis should not deepen the already existing gender inequities.

Ruma Bhargava & Megha Bhargava



Covid-19 has brought many public health issues to the table which certainly is positive learning from the pandemic. This is a wake-up call to take cognizance of our inadequacies in the health infrastructure and delivery mechanisms, the lack of community awareness and the absence of linkages between health, education and poverty levels. We have risen to the occasion and the country has seen large-scale indigenous manufacturing of ventilators, PPEs and other protective equipment to weather this storm. WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) is being seen as the panacea to prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. This can be considered a watershed moment for public health in India. However, what has somehow not been at the heart of this discussion is the menstrual health of women in India. To date, there is no evidence of any direct impact of Covid-19 on the menstrual cycle, though it has been suggested that stress, anxiety and lack of proper nutrition can impact reproductive health.

As per UNICEF, an estimated 1.8 billion girls, women and gender non-binary persons in the world menstruate. The National Family Health Survey 2015-16 estimates the number of menstruating women in India to be about 336 million. Out of this, about 121 million (roughly 42 percent) women use sanitary napkins or other menstrual hygiene products. This means that even in normal times, women are deprived of good menstrual hygiene owing to cultural taboos, poverty, lack of awareness and inaccessibility of menstrual health products. These statistics can only worsen in crises like Covid-19. At Samarpann, when we started distributing ration and cooked meals to migrant workers and underprivileged people across India, we realised that a major issue women were grappling with was menstrual hygiene management. Due to the lockdown, the families had lost their sources of income from daily wages and the paltry savings which they had were utilised to purchase food and other things which ranked higher in priority than menstrual hygiene products. In the initial days, there was also the problem of the unavailability of menstrual products in the market because of depleting stocks fuelled by panic buying. The Karnataka and Telangana governments were among the first to include sanitary napkins on the list of essential goods.

Slums in Mumbai like Dharavi, with a population density of 2,77,136 people/ sq km, and others like Worli Kolivada, Deonar, etc, have shared water supply, toilets, bathing facilities and laundry sites and improper sewerage systems. In such a scenario, these high-density and poorly ventilated informal settlements not only pose the highest risk of the spread of the infection, it also makes it very difficult  to maintain good menstrual hygiene.

At a time when all of us are indebted to doctors and healthcare workers for their selfless service, we must also be aware of the menstrual needs of women medical and healthcare workers. As per the UN, 70 percent of healthcare workers in the world are women. Apart from the tasks of delivering healthcare, these women face additional challenges in managing their menstrual hygiene in these tough times. The issue came up with news from China, where healthcare workers faced immense difficulties in putting on and removing PPEs for changing sanitary pads, leading them to bleed into the protective suits. This would only worsen in the scenario of hospitals having an inadequate number of PPEs. The media also reported how many healthcare workers had suppressed their menstrual cycles using oral contraceptive pills.

This is the time when specialists all over the world are pondering seriously on public health issues and our preparedness to face any crisis. It is imperative that such a critical component of public health, that is menstrual health, should necessarily be included in the policy-making and be addressed in all the solutions to be implemented on the ground.

Currently, there is an overwhelming need to provide WASH facilities in slums and other deficient areas as well as ensuring regular water supply and separate WASH facilities for girls and women. While reaching out to underprivileged families, the inclusion of menstrual products should be ensured while distributing food and other items.

The administration should also ensure the availability of menstrual hygiene products in hospitals and quarantine centres for healthcare workers and patients along with enough PPEs for the doctors and staff. WASH facilities should be female-friendly and disabled-friendly, along with provisions for the safe disposal of menstrual waste. The schedule of healthcare workers should also be designed in a way that they have adequate breaks and remain hydrated during their working hours.

In times of scarcity, it is important to encourage several women self-help groups which are manufacturing low-cost sanitary napkins. There is also a need to encourage innovation in the menstrual hygiene space, with several start-ups already coming forward with ideas for reusable sanitary napkins which are cost-effective and environment-friendly. Samarpann has taken one such endeavour of supporting an SHG of 11 women in Changlang, Arunachal Pradesh, where we have undertaken the capacity augmentation of a reusable sanitary pad manufacturing unit. We are also buying back these pads and, in the first phase, distributing them to 500 women in remote villages in Arunachal Pradesh on the VHNDs (Village Health and Nutrition Days). Through this initiative, we are ensuring the livelihood of women in the aftermath of the lockdown and, at the same time, increasing the accessibility to environment-friendly menstrual hygiene products which will take care of their menstrual needs for a year. The reusable sanitary pads will also prevent plastic pollution by keeping close to 36,000 sanitary pads from entering landfills, thus, mitigating environmental and health risks.

This crisis can be turned into an opportunity where we bring neglected areas into the mainstream of the public health realm. We need to develop gender-sensitive policies and strategies and ensure the effective implementation of the same at the ground level. The response should also factor in the diversity of women in different communities which may have different education and awareness levels. When the world grapples with one of the biggest challenges facing humanity, our resolve must be that such a crisis should not deepen the already existing gender inequities.

Dr Ruma Bhargava is the founder of Samarpann. Dr Megha Bhargava is Deputy Commissioner, Income Tax, Mumbai. The views expressed are personal.

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How recent amendments in EIA norms make them prone to violations



The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) draft, 2020 on 23 March this year but made it available for public opinion on 11 April 2020. Normally, the time available for public opinion is 60 days. The publication of the draft in the gazette was delayed by 19 days due to Covid-19. So, when many people mailed to seek an extension to the mandatory 60-day window for pub- lic feedback, the ministry’s top brass thought it was fit to allow another 60 days until 10 August. But later limited the extension to 20 days. Objections were raised and matter led to a judi- cial intervention, and finally, the court extended the deadline.

Before going into the detailed analysis of the EIA draft, 2020, let us understand the EIA. It is defined as one of the environmental assessment tools being used worldwide to provide planners and concerned citizens with essential information to plan for harmonising developmental activities. It is a systematic analysis of projects to determine their potential environ- mental impacts and the significance of such impacts and to propose measures to mitigate the negative impacts. Historically speaking, India started the practice in 1976-77, when the Planning Commission asked the then Department of Science and Technology to examine the river valley projects from an environmental angle. This was subsequently extended to cover those projects which required approval of the ‘Public Investment Board’ such as industries, thermal power projects, mining schemes, etc.

Although the EIA was established to safeguard the environment, it has been observed that its process has become a façade of legal paperwork. In most of the cases, the reports are prepared by the professional private consultant agencies, authorised by the government. If the projects approved by them are found unfeasible, they are rarely held accountable. Lack of administrative capacity to ensure compliance often renders a long list of clearance conditions which are meaningless. Periodic amendments are exempting one category of industries or the other from scrutiny. These exemptions are mostly given under pressure. Developers complain that the EIA regime has dampened the spirit of liberalisation and only increased one additional step that takes additional time in completing the project.

The latest EIA draft gives more discretionary powers to bureaucrats and politicians, while limiting pub- lic engagement. If the government declares any project as “strategic”, then no information will be made available to public. This draft says no information on such projects shall be placed in the public domain. This opens a window for immediate clearance for any project deemed strategic without any explanation. Projects concerning national defence and security are naturally strategic. It exempts linear projects such as roads and pipelines in border areas from following EIA norms and it will not
require any public hearing. “Area falling within 100 km of aerial distance from the Line of Actual Control with bordering countries of India” is defined as the “border area”. This would cover much of the North- east, the repository of the country’s richest biodiversity. All inland waterways projects, expansions/widening of national highways will be exempted from any prior clearance.

The most concerning issue of this draft is the post facto clearance which means projects which are al- ready operating in violation of the Environment Act will now be able to apply for clearance. It is a reappearance of a March 2017 notification for projects operating without clearance. Violators just need to pay 1.5-2 times “the ecological damage assessed and economic benefit derived due to violation” for remediation and resource augmentation. For such late applications, a developer will have to cough up Rs 2,000-Rs 10,000 per day for the period of delay. The impact of this can be considered with the example of illegal miners who are mining several trucks every day.

On 1 April, in Alembic Pharmaceuticals Ltd versus Rohit Prajapati & Ors case, the Supreme Court held that environment law cannot countenance the notion of an ex post facto clearance. This would be contrary to both the precautionary principle as well as the need for sustainable development. The violations can only be reported by the government officials or the violator himself, excluding the pub- lic from the process. It has extended the construction permit area required from earlier 20,000 sq m to 150,000 sq m. Conclusively, it is apparent from the above discussion how important EIA is if implemented properly but the recent amendments in the EIA norms make them prone to violations.

Environment is an issue that is always taken for granted in our country. People’s memory is very short. We forget the disasters very soon and never learn any lesson from our past. The recent Visakhapatnam gas leak case and the Assam gas and oil leak case were the results of the EIA norms violation. People should send their objections to the ministry within the stipulated time. Collective intelligence is considered to be powerful, so should be the collective objection.

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