Business, Economy, Government

The Rise of the Digital Factory

CHENNAI: At a time when fears of automation is gripping industries worldwide, three experts from diverse areas – digital, automotive, and petroleum – discussed ‘the rise of digital factory’ at an event here on Thursday.

Automation is disrupting business models. A Canadian company has five engineers monitoring seven data centres located in different parts of the world. Robotic process automation – automating a process to a way a human does it manually – is attacking all enterprises, said S Madhavan, Director, Green Quotient Systems, a company that provides cloud computing and automation framework services.

The fear of a rapid fall in unemployment due to automation has been troubling governments, especially, in developed countries. But, Ford Motor hired nearly a 1000 employees last year which was a 10 per cent increase in its workforce in India, said Michael Brielmaier, Managing Director, Ford Motor Private Limited, India.

Ford’s employees in India, mostly engineers, are performing complex research and development work in laboratories to devise systems that integrate software, Internet-of-Things (IOT), and machines. They are working with global teams for optimal utilisation of what India has to offer, said Brielmaier.

The digital factory that Brielmaier talked about brings together automation and artificial intelligence to drive up manufacturing – where factories will function with less humans and more robots. It will capture the intelligence of products, even after it leaves the factory, sending back information critical for improving standards and quality, said Madhavan.

The intelligence put into products rolling out of factories, in case of cars, can be used for pollution control and reduction of hazards using better instrumentation, according to KRSR Krishna, Vice President (Engg.), Petrofac International Limited, Sharjah, UAE.

Madhavan agreed to this argument and said that cruise automated technology improves fuel efficiency. Nearly 10-12 per cent of a modern car is electronic. The percentage will only go up leading us to the autonomic car, he said.

Krishna referred to the off-shore installations of petroleum companies and recalled oil-rig blasts – Flixborough disaster, Mexico City (1994) incident, and Piper Alpha (1988) fire – and said that automation and artificial intelligence has “induced a degree of freedom from hazards”.

The “fusion powered future” and the disruption caused or to be caused thereafter is nearly $3 trillion to $6 trillion dollars by 2025, said Madhavan.

The speakers were all on the dais for the Madras Institute of Technology Alumni Association’s event organised on Founder’s Day. It was also the Alumni and Institute Day.


Tobacco fields…up in smoke?

Hunsur/H D Kote: Tobacco farmer’s worries have multiplied with licensing issues and fears of a ban coupled with the fall in yield per hectare in Hunsur and HD Kote Taluks of Mysore district.

“Tobacco farming will stop after two years. I will stop growing tobacco and shut my barn,” said Harish Gowda, who is one of the many non-licensee tobacco farmers in the area. He recently changed his crop from tobacco to ginger.

Many non-licensee tobacco farmers have shifted to other commercial crops after the tobacco board refused to grant new licenses.

The Board which was established in 1982 to regulate tobacco cultivation in the country last issued licences in 1990.

“Now, the Tobacco Board doesn’t want to encourage tobacco farming in the area and at the same time, it can’t deprive the licence holders,” said Dr. S Ramakrishnan, Principal Scientist, Central Tobacco Research Institute (CTRI), Hunsur.

“One reason the Indian Government decided against issuing new licences was to discourage tobacco cultivation. It wants to restrict the area under tobacco cultivation,” he added.

India, a signatory to World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) charter, must reduce tobacco cultivation to 60 per cent of its current area by 2020.

Scientists at the CTRI explained that tobacco was used as a blanket-term in the document and since there were several kinds of tobacco, the failure to specify the kind raised a confusion.

“The tobacco that they are referring to is not cigarette tobacco, which is grown here. Since this is export oriented, we feel that they might not touch this tobacco. Instead tobacco cultivated in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh which aren’t export oriented, might get banned. Once all these other kinds of tobacco have been banned, this tobacco might also get banned,” said Dr. M. M. Swamy, Agronomist, CTRI.

There has been a consistent investment in building and maintenance of barns, even by those who didn’t hold licences. Tobacco cultivators in the area claim that loans taken for such purposes can’t be repaid if a ban or reduction is enforced.

“I support regulation. Let the government take over the land and give us a small share. If they ban tobacco, I can’t repay my loan. I can’t get another loan to cultivate a new crop,” said Ibrahim Khan, another non-licensee tobacco farmer.

Dr. Ramakrishnan revealed that CTRI has been mandated to work on finding crops alternative to tobacco in the area.

“It is a contingency measure if at all anything happens to tobacco in terms of banning, and moreover, it is a matter of government policy, they can simply ban it in one stroke,” he said.

Earlier, a total of 1 lakh hectares of tobacco cultivation in the area yielded 100 million kg. Over the last five years, a drop in the total production has led to the tobacco crop area being taken over by other commercial crops – mostly ginger, according to scientists at CTRI.

“If farmers feel ginger is profitable, they will grow ginger. What is needed for ginger cultivation? Irrigation. They dig bore wells to fulfil the need. Nearly 15,000 hectares of land have been newly converted to ginger cultivation,” said Dr. M. M. Swamy.

Several farmers over the decade had leased their farm land to ginger cultivators from Kerala. A lease agreement for two to three years was signed and the cultivator would then dig a bore well and hire workers at his own expense. By the time the crop was raised and collected, the lease would expire, and the cultivator would move in search of a fresher, richer land to sow more ginger.

Although the farmers would receive a princely sum as lease, the cultivators would leave the land depleted of its strength by using chemical fertilizers in excessive quantities. Authorities also found that the ground water table had further sunk to lower levels.

The government has now issued an order annulling all such agreements after this year.

“I can sow ginger only after two to four years once the present yield has been harvested. Earlier, I would plant tobacco and rotate it with ginger. I don’t have that option now,” said Harish Gowda.


Business, Economy, Government

Empty Roads Ahead: Truckers’ protest begins today

CHENNAI, Mar 30: Truckers all over South India commenced their protest against the hike in third party insurance premium, abnormal toll charges and old-vehicles scrappage policy which has left trucks carrying essential commodities stranded at truck terminals at Madhavaram from 6 a.m. today.

Agricultural produce, poultry, LPG and cotton from Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra couldn’t enter the city.  Products like match boxes, crackers, copper plates were packed-ready to be sent to different parts of the country.

The increase in insurance premium by 50 per cent for public commercial vehicles with Gross Vehicle Weight of 40 tonnes under a third party insurance provider was approved by the Insurance Regulatory Authority of India in 2016. A third party insurance excludes driver, owner and vehicle from insurance cover and provides it to whom the damage was done by the insurance holder – for instance, in the case of an accidental death or damage caused by the truck, the insured amount would go to the victim.

“IRDA has failed to provide real time data [on the increase in deaths caused by trucks and insured amount demanded] since last four years inspite of repeated assurances in the past,” said the press release by All India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC).

“We transport essential commodities and hence are against an indefinite strike. But, if it takes one or two months for the demands to be heard and addressed, essential commodities transporters and people will suffer – everybody will face losses,” said M Ponnambalam, Secretary, All India Motor Transport Congress (Tamil Nadu Chapter), Namakkal.

The association has asked for the accidents, claims and compensations data to be sent to the Tariff Advisory Committee (TAC), having representatives from the Ministry of Road transport and highways, Ministry of Finance, and AIMTC, before the hike is implemented.

On the issue of toll, Achutan Nair, Secretary, Chennai Goods Transport Association, said that reducing delays at toll plazas would decrease the idling time of the vehicle thus saving fuel. The frequent and arbitrary levy of toll was also an issue, he added.

Goods transport Associations all across the country have sought the shelving of scrappage policy drafted to phase out heavy vehicles that are more than 15-years-old. They have asked the government to give concession in excise duty to those who are ready to scrap the old vehicle and buy a new one. “It should also let them keep the money received when the old vehicle is sold as scrap. Several people will lose their livelihood if compensations are denied. Creating an awareness in the vehicles owners – about clean technology and environment – is important. If the government is unwilling to take these initiatives, how can livelihoods be saved?” said Ponnambalam.

The truckers have also sought the curbing of corruption on the road through restricted discriminatory powers granted to law enforcement agencies – RTO, Traffic, and Police.

The associations, represented by the AIMTC, have placed before the Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari, with a caution that an all India strike would be called from April 20 if their demands are not met.

Covering Deprivation, Government, Health

Anganwadi workers ask for dignity of labour

CHENNAI, Mar 28: Anganwadi workers in the neighbouring territory of Puducherry receive a pension of Rs. 7,500 per month whereas those in Tamil Nadu get Rs. 1,500 per month.

Following a protest on March 26, the anganwadi workers and helpers will protest yet again on April 5 for fulfilment of their demands: raise in pension, recognition as government workers, increase in salaries, and above all, “for workers’ rights and dignity of labour”.

Several protesters are the first generation of workers who joined as ‘scheme workers’ under Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme in the 1980s. Most of them have served for nearly 35 years. As per the pension pay-out standards, a worker must receive 50 per cent of the last drawn salary as pension. A retired anganwadi worker receives Rs. 1,500 per month as against Rs. 5,000, which is 50 per cent of their Rs. 10,000 per month salary at the time of retirement.

Although their salaries are comparably higher than those in Bihar, the pension given to them is one of the lowest in the country, said R Karumalayan, General Secretary, Tamil Nadu state committee, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU). Anganwadi workers in the neighbouring territory of Puducherry receive a pension of Rs. 7,500 per month.

Since ICDS is a centrally-funded scheme, the government recognises anganwadi workers and helpers as scheme workers and not as government employees. Most of these workers are underpaid and excluded from the revision of pay under the seventh pay commission, said M Anbarasu, General Secretary, Tamil Nadu Government Employees Association (TNGEA). In Tamil Nadu, over the last four decades, their salaries have increased by Rs. 1,000 per decade.

The government officials compare the salaries of anganwadi workers in Tamil Nadu with those of underdeveloped states but these workers anywhere need social security after retirement as they hardly have any savings, said Karumalayan.

A majority of the protesters were widows and single mothers – several of whom were destitute.

Elections, Government, Politics, Travel

Were Punsters the cause of AAP loss in Punjab?

In the recently concluded Punjab elections, the AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) was predicted to win at least 45 seats but ended up winning 20 seats. It even garnered a lower vote share of 23.7 per cent than that was expected after exit polls – around 34 per cent.

Unlike AAP, Congress managed to win as many seats as was indicated in the exit polls and even more. It was set to win around 50 seats but went on to grab 77 seats.

“There was no leadership. AAP was solely relying on Kejriwal. Bagwant Mann and Gurpreet Gughi were ex-comedians – their party is full of comedians.  Also, many prominent leaders quit – between February last year and this year – and joined Akali Dal or Congress. There wasn’t a single person people could rely on,” said Jaspreet Singh, a 24-year-old resident of Pathankot in Punjab.

The exit polls showed that both Congress and AAP were supposed to win nearly 50 seats each. If leadership was the question between the two parties said to win majority, then Amrinder Singh made the difference.

“Amrinder Singh in himself is a brand. If there was no Amrinder Singh, the congress would have lost. No one cares for Rahul Gandhi in Punjab. Even Navjot Singh Sidhu was set to join AAP but he joined Congress instead – that was also a big blow to AAP,” said Jaspreet Singh.

Yogendra Yadav, who was unceremoniously sent out of AAP, had urged the voters in Punjab to vote against AAP, Congress, or SAD-BJP alliance, saying, “Punjab needs to opt for alternative small outfits or honest independents so that the hope for change is kept alive. For example the small forum backed by MP Dharamvira Gandhi or Sucha Singh Chotepur’s party (APP).” (PTI)

However, these smaller outfits and independents did not win a single seat, with major parties Congress, AAP, and SAD-BJP taking away 115 seats – Congress (77), AAP (20), and SAD-BJP (18).

“But, AAP still managed to win more seats than Akali Dal. That too in their first assembly elections Punjab. It is an achievement to win more seats than Akali Dal against the oldest party in Punjab. AAP was started in 2012-13 and entered Punjab only in 2014,” said Jaspreet Singh.

The Akali Dal-BJP faced arguments that predicted their rout in Punjab – anti-incumbency being the major reason. Exit polls said that the alliance would win not more than 10 seats. SAD-BJP combine won just 18 seats.

Covering Deprivation, Government, Health, Profile

How one hardy lady brings kids to school

The government hopes to keep more and more kids in class. And, a resilient tribal woman is fulfilling that hope in her tiny village in H D Kote district, Karnataka. 


Every morning, Lalitha rushes from house to house in her village calling out  each Anganwadi kid by name, promising payasa – sweet porridge – on the condition that the kid step out of the hiding place, hold her hand, and march to school.

The kids hide in the newly built toilet, under the hay in the cowshed, on the roof, amidst goats– but, Lalitha wins. She beats the kids at their own game. She pursues a giggle to the giggler with joy, but follows a sob with heavy feet when it beckons her to a corner.

Some mornings, Lalitha begins her day, to her disappointment, by fighting with a parent. “Screams! Shouts! I employ them all to put it in their mind that their child must go up to higher classes,” she said.

Earlier, the parents would take their children to Coorg and enrol them as helping hands on a coffee plantation. Now, the owners fear the loss of reputation and the parents fear the police. Kids stay back in the village, and Lalitha is glad to fetch them every morning to school and accompany them back and forth whenever they want to use the toilet. She stands waiting, like a guard, to stop the kids from running away.

Rising aspirations in the village have reduced her tiffs with parents. Lalitha explained that the failure of the monsoon and non-availability of work convinced the parents that education is necessary.

Lalitha’s parents worked as coolies and farm labourers all their life and as soon as she was strong enough, they pushed her into coolie work. She spent her childhood in coffee plantations far away from her tribal settlement in Nagarahole.

Her pride in the kids she brought to school surges forth, especially when she sees girls going to college. She identifies them by name, and her questions to them, are mostly about their travel to town.


“A young mother standing at the door and wilfully sending her child to school is both heart-breaking and encouraging,” she said. “There are no jobs here, and you see boys loitering on the streets after failing their class 10 exams.”

Teachers from the school visit the village in search of the boys, trying to take them back to school. But, the boys run away. A boy, who doesn’t go to school or college, roams the streets for a few years until his parents decide to marry him off, saying, ‘that a wife and a child will set him right, instil responsibility, and send him in search of a job.’

Lalitha was herself a child-bride – married at 15, and soon a mother of three – two girls, one boy – about whom, she said, “Life here is much better for the kids than it was in the forests. They are seeing the world.”

In the afternoon, as soon as she finishes her rounds of dropping kids back at their home, she runs home, releases her flock of goat and lets them graze in the periphery of the forest while she takes a long, relaxing walk.

Covering Deprivation, Government, Health

Government’s ‘Delivery’ issues

Hunsur: Field workers such as the auxiliary nursing midwives (ANM) are limping from village to village in Hunsur taluk, covering its 296 villages; there are only 47 ANMs against a sanctioned strength of 76.

“Policy makers must understand that vacancies result in decreased reach of the health department and the reduction in coverage affects health awareness activities and services indirectly. Plus, the community here needs continuous assessments. ANMs and Asha workers bring field reports to the Taluk Health Officer’s table. Fewer field workers means fewer assessment reports,” said Rajeshwari H M, Block Health and Education Officer, Hunsur.

A new Measles and Rubella (MR) vaccine campaign is set to begin on Feb 7. A Junior Health Inspector is worried that there will be no supply at the PHC just as it happened when pregnant women who had queued up in front of a health camp at an Anganwadi were sent away since their tablets and injections were yet to arrive. Sometimes these pregnant women were also made to wait for hours as there was a shortage of staff to conduct blood tests and distribute nutritional supplies.

“At Nerlukuppe, there are two positions that are vacant at the PHC. At Doddahejjuru, there are two sub-centres that are empty. There areas are provided services through camps and deputations,” said MB Juby, Junior Health Assistant, Hunsur Hobli PHC.

Sitamma, mother of a pregnant woman sitting in the check-up room at an Anganwadi, revealed that when Meenakshi, a nurse who use used to check her daughter, quit two months ago, a complaint was made at the local PHC since no midwife or nurse was available. She then took her daughter to a former government doctor who had opened a private clinic in her area.

“If they say there are no nurses, what do I do? If they are not there when the time comes for my daughter to deliver, I have to take her to Mysore,” she said.

Government’s Delivery Issues

“Government funds, allotments, and policies are always a problem,” said BHEO Rajeshwari.

Under the National Rural Health Mission’s Janani Suraksha Yojana, pregnant women with a Below Poverty Line (BPL) card were to receive Rs.1000 in their 3rd to 6th month pregnancy, essentially, to procure locally available nutritious food.

“Pregnant women haven’t received the money for the last three years,” she said.

Under the State Prasuti Aarayke scheme, all tests at the Government Hospital are free for pregnant women and they also receive free ration. It is given to the pregnant woman but other members in the house consume it.

Use a SIM without a Phone?

Under the Mother and Child Tracking System (MCTS) and digitisation drive, field workers were given a free SIM. The data-entry system was modernised and hosted online. The field worker had to open the App, and enter the information. Earlier, entries were made in a ledger that was carried in the field kit.

Only a free SIM was given but not a smartphone. With meagre salaries, field workers couldn’t afford a quality smartphone.

Soon, the data-entry system reverted to its earlier process of field workers coming back to the PHC to enter the data manually.

“Technology was supposed to cut down the time between request and delivery but it has remained the same,” said BHEO Rajeshwari.