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Has the pandemic accelerated financial inclusion for India’s rural last mile?


Author: Nilofar Haja

Summary: Adoption of digital financial services by urban and rural consumers received a boost in the course of the pandemic, however, significant digital literacy barriers continue to hinder uptake for the majority of low-income unbanked and underbanked in rural India.

A Way Forward: Implementing a hybrid physical and digital financial services delivery mechanism that leverages multi-channel services such as Aadhar-linked payment, India Post payments bank, quick banking service kiosks, and SMS-based banking can accelerate social transformation for rural consumers.


Phygital Service Models

On January 5 last year, the RBI announced the creation of a ₹345-crore Payments Infrastructure Development Fund (PIDF) to boost digital payments in Tier III to VI centres and the seven North Eastern states. The move was aimed at encouraging Points of Sale (PoS) infrastructure in a phygital model, a hybrid physical and digital financial services delivery mechanism that would allow people in small towns and villages access to expanded payments, transactions, and a bouquet of banking services that urban consumers already had access to on their smartphones.

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Policy Overtures

A few days later, to underline this ambitious commitment, the RBI released the National Strategy for Financial Inclusion 2019-2024 as an overarching framework to accelerate financial inclusion and sustainable development.

The timing couldn’t have been more opportune. The arrival of Covid-19 and the series of lockdowns and country-wide restrictions on movement and businesses further reinforced the move to a cashless economy for consumers in urban, peri urban and tier II cities and towns.

The ensuing rules of social distancing and zero contact provided the right impetus for a transition that was already underway since November 2016 with the announcement of demonetization. 

This shift in adoption, however, hasn’t been uniform across the country. Where does the rural segment, constituting 65% of this country’s population, find themselves in this technological disruption? 

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Spotlight on Rural Markets 

Over the last decade, financial inclusion programmes such as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), Atal Pension Yojana, launched by the incumbent government – have accelerated accessibility of traditional banking and financial services and helped bring more rural citizens under the diversified umbrella of digital financial services.

As per a 2020 RBI report, of the 400 million bank accounts opened through the PMJDY program, 64% of accounts were held by rural Indians as of August last year. Furthermore, about 43.7 crore restrained bank accounts were opened with a deposit of ₹1.46 lakh crore as of October this year. Nearly two-thirds of these accounts are active in rural and semi-urban areas. Additionally, the number of banking outlets in villages/ banking correspondents (BCs) has increased from 34,174 in March 2010 to 12.4 lakh in December 2020.

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At present, access to financial services for the rural last mile largely translates to opening a bank account, sending money back home, or applying for a loan.

Services such as wealth assessment, agricultural inventory management, or updates on DBT schemes are still not easily accessible. What are the barriers? Conventional banking requires an elaborate onboarding process, including procurement of documents, KYC and verification, and multiple visits to the bank. What this translates to for the daily wage earners, agricultural workers, and low income groups is loss of wages as well as additional money spent on transportation and food to get to the banks.

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What’s At Stake

Adoption of digital financial services in urban and tier II regions have grown largely on the back of sizeable smartphone penetration numbers in India (748 million users as of 2020).

The number of internet users is expected to increase by 45% in the next five years to 900 million in 2025 from around 622 million in 2020, according to the IAMAI-Kantar ICUBE 2020 report.

However, smartphone penetration in rural India is still at 28%, as per a 2019 Kantar report. A majority of the 300 million mobile users in rural households neither own nor have access to a smartphone, making critical financial, medical, and emergency services out of their reach. 

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Financial inclusion is increasingly being recognized as a key driver of economic growth and poverty alleviation the world over. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of 2030 views financial inclusion as a key enabler for achieving sustainable development worldwide by improving the quality of lives of poor and marginalized sections of the society.

RBI’s National Strategy for Financial Inclusion report outlines how steady access to financial programs and transactions lends impetus to job creation, protects the vulnerable from economic shocks, and increases investments in human capital. Greater financial inclusion can support sustainable and inclusive socio-economic growth for all, ushering in far reaching social transformation across vast swathes of the underserved population.

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Fintech Start-Ups Leading the Way

Small finance banks, fintech companies and non-bank financial institutions are deploying low-tech, phygital models of financial services delivery by providing banking services using Aadhar-enabled payments, kiosks, and e-KYC via regular mobile phones. 

Chennai-based non-banking financial institution, Dvara KGFS, founded in 2008, helps build the financial health of low-income populations in remote rural India through a combination of traditional physical branches and digital banking. Their omnichannel strategy enables customers with varying levels of digital skills to transact and interact seamlessly through multiple channels such as agent networks, call centers, and apps. With 294 branches across 51 districts in six Indian states, Dvara has served more than 1.16 million customers. 

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The most impactful journey has come from BHIM, a UPI-enabled payments solutions app that has collaborated with 102 banks across India. Unlike other payment wallets, UPI payments do not require a digital wallet to store cash and also functions offline.

Specifically addressing lack of accessibility for rural customers, all transactions on BHIM can be carried out through SMS, eliminating the need for a smartphone or internet connection. Users can also send money via IFSC and MMID (Mobile Money Identifier) code to other customers who don’t have a UPI-based bank account. BHIM currently serves 10 million rural customers.

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Broaden the Resource Base

An inclusive financial services framework encourages a culture of savings, enables customised access to a spectrum of services, and helps lay the foundation for sound decision making pertaining to savings, wealth generation, asset management, and portfolio assessment. When low income groups have access to financial services, it also reduces their dependence on exploitative money lenders. 

In its accessible financial inclusion framework guide, the World Bank highlights that gender gap in (bank) account ownership remains stuck at 9 percentage points in developing countries. What this translates to is poor or zero access for women towards experiencing financial security or achieving economic well-being for her family. Countries with high mobile money account ownership have less gender inequality.

It is high time that the government and private sector players work in tandem to create impactful ways of building financial self-reliance for India’s last mile. 

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Sources:

https://www.theweek.in/news/biz-tech/2020/08/28/jan-dhan-scheme-completes-6-years-over-40-crore-bank-accounts-opened.html

https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/how-over-reliance-on-tech-worsens-financial-exclusion-in-rural-india-7134424/

https://yourstory.com/2021/07/financial-inclusion-hyderabad-based-fintech-startup-nayaseva-rural-india-pay-bills/amp

https://www.aboutamazon.in/news/aws/enabling-greater-financial-inclusion-in-rural-india-with-aws

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/india/net-hesitancy-hiccups-for-rural-india-vax-drive/articleshow/82671780.cms

https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/tech/technology/india-to-have-900-million-active-internet-users-by-2025-says-report/articleshow/83200683.cms

https://www.financialexpress.com/industry/sme/cafe-sme/success-of-digital-financial-services-rests-on-rural-indias-shift-from-cash-to-digital-payments-economy/2189985/

https://www.dailypioneer.com/2021/state-editions/finance-blocks-owes-mobile-app-for-powering-rural-finance.html

https://www.accion.org/digital-tools-fuel-financial-resilience-in-rural-india

https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/trends/features/how-small-finance-banks-can-reform-the-fabric-of-rural-indias-finance-ecosystem-7606251.html

https://www.business-standard.com/article/technology/india-s-active-internet-population-to-hit-900-million-by-2025-report-121060300444_1.html#:~:text=While%20internet%20users%20grew%20by,past%20year%2C%20according%20to%20The

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/financial-inclusion-grew-24-across-fy17-21-rbi/articleshow/85415519.cms

https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/financialinclusion/overview#1

https://prsindia.org/policy/report-summaries/national-strategy-financial-inclusion

https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/india-ahead-of-china-in-financial-inclusion-metrics-now-sbi-report-121110801290_1.html

What toxic work culture looks like in Indian publishing and media agencies


As a child of the 80s, my first foray into the workplace came about in my early 20s, fresh out of a 3-year undergrad degree during the early years of the new millennium. Growing up, I had considered all kinds of careers and jobs, including being a doctor, teacher, astronaut, geneticist, exobiologist (thank you, Isaac Asimov and science fiction), and even an IAS officer (Indian civil services).

A disappointingly low aptitude for Math, physics and chemistry meant that I couldn’t score high marks in the eligibility entrance tests for a career in medicine or related sciences.

I opted for humanities (psychology, literature and history) as consolation. 

Full-time work, career, job, employment, or any of these aspects of earning a livelihood was just a hazy concept for me and almost all my peers in school and my neighborhood. When I said I wanted to be a geneticist, my imagination veered towards sitting in an ultra-modern lab, studying cell mutation, and making breakthroughs in the applications of cell mutation (most definitely governed by movies and books).

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What I hadn’t given much thought to was the administrative side of being employed and having to earn your livelihood: Clocking in and logging out everyday at a defined time (or else, your pay gets docked); commuting for 1-3 hours a day to your workplace (depending on where you stay); working with colleagues 5 to 6 days a week (team meetings, collaboration, outings); proving your case for promotion and salary hikes (KPIs, appraisals, angling for salary hikes); and navigating an unknown and unpredictable office environment with professional decorum (office politics, negative co-workers, poor performers). 

Was I naive to not anticipate these aspects of a working life? Maybe. School and college, however, had not prepared me for what comes after. We didn’t have access to internships, work-study programs or freelance work opportunities while studying.

Having spent 20 years in the comfort and predictable environment of learning, student camaraderie, competition, and examinations, my toughest challenges then were scoring good marks, checking out a sought-after reference book before any of my classmates could, participating in extracurricular activities and balancing it with a hat tip to sporting events. The subjects of wage, labour and performance were not introduced all through school or college. 

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I had seen my father work for more than 40 years, steadily and without a break, at the same government bank from where he retired at 60. My young mind associated fatherhood with 9 hours of “something to do with office,” “commute via local trains,” “apprising our math and science homework,” and annual summer vacations. On the other hand, the mother-figure stood for caring for the kids, household chores, cooking, and tough love.

That’s the 1980s-1990s, middle class, suburban Bombay for you: parents didn’t discuss money, work, office politics, killer commutes, financial constraints, or savings/investments for education with their kids. A few of us who were privileged, received a modest monthly pocket money and were encouraged to save coins in our piggy banks.  

Growing up, I couldn’t see the connection between what we learnt at school and college (Trigonometry and Calculus, anyone?) to their real life applications at work or life (tackling sensitive, complex, human issues like poverty, bureaucracy, caste system, discrimination, slavery, child labour).

So, at the ripe old age of 21, after I spent a year trying to secure admissions at Oxford for a master’s in archaeology (couldn’t afford the tuition), I decided to take up a job. I knew I was good at writing and poetry and was considered exceptional in college at research, sifting through facts and presentation. A friend recommended applying at media houses or newspapers for a job as a journalist. And something just clicked with the notion of being a fearless reporter gathering critical news for the public’s awareness and playing a part in changing civil society!      

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Well, the reality of my first job at the city tabloid was starkly different to my imagination and certainly, a wake up call to my inner child to grow up quickly. 

I didn’t get the position of reporter, but I was hired for the role of a copy editor for a modest sum of Rs 14,000 in 2005 (Rs 45,000 in 2021 with the inflation rate of 200%). I was told that work hours would be erratic (forget 9 am to 5 pm, it would be 9:30 am to 11 pm during production days every week); salary hikes would happen on appraisal once a year (percentage varying from 2-8%); cost of commuting would not be the company’s responsibility; partial mobile phone bill would be reimbursed (even if you use the mobile only for work-related calls); and use company resources carefully (desktop computer and Internet as well as a backbreaking chair). 

What remained unspoken or intangible was the idea of a company culture, codes of conduct between employees, work ethics, and professional decorum. The two years I spent at this media company turned out to be one of the harshest, nerve wracking, stressful jobs that I would end up taking over the next 20 years. The boss yelling at us, pages thrown at our faces and desks, colleagues being nasty and negative, long nights spent working without overtime pay, lack of systematic feedback and appraisal mechanisms, a weak human resources department that was empowered to only dole out salaries and not address chronic workplace issues (attrition, burnout, foul language).

And so it went on until I decided to quit for further studies.

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The experience at the media house turned out to be a template for how most workplaces functioned unfortunately. I had the opportunity to make friends as well as share notes with peers from other media houses and allied industries; almost all of them have similar stories to share of workplace policies that were ineffective at keeping in check unprofessional attitudes and employee exploitation.

Today, we throw around terms such as toxicity, systemic abuse, discrimination, and entrenched biases, but back then, not only did we face the brunt of dysfunctional bosses, we were also moulded to internalize these behaviors and become toxic torchbearers for the next set of newcomers joining the industry.  

What do you end up internalizing when you work for two decades in these kinds of toxic, dysfunctional, stressful environments? Here is a summary:

  1. Work is a priority, over and above your health, well-being, and personal life. Even when you are sick or a family member is ill or it’s your wedding week, you’ll still be needed to put in the requisite hours and compensate for the time you won’t be clocking in. 
  2. All work is urgent and it needs to be reviewed immediately, even over the weekends, or on vacation, or when you are traveling / commuting.
  3. Flat hierarchies and open door policies are buzzwords crafted to draw in fresh-faced graduates without prior work experience. The truth is, the designations, socio-economic backgrounds, and cabin space determine your position in the pecking order and who can walk up to you for discussions and guidance. 
  4. Raising your voice, using abusive and foul language, yelling and shoving, throwing things, using silent treatment, penalizing and punishing your reportees is rampant and expected. HR managers and management routinely dismiss complaints against such behaviors and instead ask employees to toughen up and not take things personally. 
  5. Your designation and work profile end up defining your identity. Designations are used as incentives and carrots to drive us to perform better. We are also demoted to penalize us for work that’s not up to the mark.  
  6. Asking for paid days off and vacation time is frowned upon and you’ll be expected to work overtime before you go on vacation to compensate for the days you aren’t in office.  
  7. Pay scales will be arbitrarily capped under different bands and you will be encouraged to take a pay cut (than what you are currently earning) if you want the new job. 
  8. Pay parity policies will be introduced randomly so that all team members within a group or functional department are earning more or less similar salaries.
  9. Asking for cross-functional collabs and additional team resources will be frowned upon. We are told that the market is volatile and competitive, so there isn’t ever enough money to hire more people for the team or get help from other departments, who are already overworked. 
  10. We are told over and over again that your self-worth and place in life and society is determined by your payscale and hours of grunt work you put in. 
  11.  We are expected to learn new skills and level up in the same profile without the company spending any money on upskilling or continued professional development. 
  12.  Candidates with Tier 1 college education or an international degree will be brought in to take up higher-paying, higher designation jobs in the company, without extending the opportunity to internal candidates or current employees.
  13.  Incentives such as retirement benefits, medical and health insurance, paid leaves, casual and sick leaves, learning and development allowance, food coupons, and well-being programs (yoga, meditation, cycling / walking tracks) are not evenly available even at MNCs and well-endowed companies.  
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I could go on and on. This isn’t a pattern observed within one domain (media and publishing), it’s the dominant narrative across all sectors in India. What happens when work becomes a toxic environment and you see no alternatives to earning a livelihood? You experience high levels of stress, anguish, physically debilitating conditions such as back ache, wrist and joint pains, poor posture, declining mental health, low self-esteem, and depression.   

For most older millennials and GenX, that’s been the nature of our working life from the moment we stepped foot inside the office years ago.

Many professionals don’t get overtime for working late or weekends or even during mandated state/public holidays. We are tethered to our computers 9-10 hours a day, constantly responding to emails, attending meetings (online/offline), working within ever tighter deadlines, constantly competing for better designations and pay hikes, and not empowered to stand up for ourselves when the bosses yell at us.

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We put up with unprofessional work environments and kowtow to toxic management practices (sexism, discrimination, favoritism, bias, manipulation), because the job market is cut throat and there aren’t enough vacancies for the millions of us who are looking for employment. That’s the situation in most countries, not only India.    

As employees, we don’t have recourse to a strong industry association or labour union for white collar workers. We have no access to knowledge or legal resources in order to raise a complaint or call out abuse at work. Our schools, higher education institutions, and family don’t teach us about what goes on in the workplace and how to tackle such exploitation.

There’s also an implicit expectation that everyone will put in their hours of labour and go home quietly. If someone blows the whistle, then they would lose their job (without severance pay) and get blacklisted (not be hired by other media companies). There is no mechanism to post our grievances anonymously at the workplace and receive redressal for it.

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Of course, there will be variations in these exploitative practices across Indian companies. Some IT, technology and international financial services companies setting base in Indian cities would have a lot of employee-friendly policies that are consistent, transparent and in line with progressive workplace practices.

For example, commutes take longer in cities, so providing more travel allowance and not docking the pay for late log ins; inflation is high, so annual salary hikes are in line with that; medical insurance benefits that extend protection to parents and spouse as well; 15 days paid vacation every year and substantial casual and sick leaves.

Labour laws in India mandate fixed working hours (not more than 9 per day/48 hours per week) and compensation for overtime. However, in practice, most media and publishing houses, market research firms, advertising and digital agencies have no such work stipulations in place. It’s taken for granted that everyone will accommodate the 9-9-6 and not whine about the extra, unpaid labour (interns, senior managers, IT department, everyone included).

It’s ironic how GenZ and millennial hiring managers and start-ups today have co-opted the buzzwords that belonged to the GenX and older millennial generation (dynamic, challenging, driven) by modifying the terms with newer buzzwords: VUCA, agile, cross-collaborative. It all means the same thing: commit to work 9-9-6. 

Then in January 2020, in the midst of this unchanging work ecosystem, a virus called corona brought our collective offices and labour practices to a standstill. Work from home became (and continues to remain) a new normal for white collar workers. In a future blog post, I’ll explore how the pandemic influenced our thinking around the nature of work, work-life balance, career trajectory, and the future of work.

When Dust Meant Play: Essay


Long before the structured sandpits, play zones, and artificial turf recreation areas of the new millennium took over the collective play dynamics (and imaginations) of children living and growing up in gated communities of suburban India, there existed dust.

Dust marked the beginning of hours of running, sometimes wildly, sometimes in groups, inside boundaries that had no visible walls but was nonetheless understood as a safe space. Dust was a trigger for the pursuit of adventure. Engaging with dust meant that you were comfortable (with), even eagerly anticipating, a torn dress, grimy face, skinned knees, scraped palms, and roughhousing. Dust signified the end of homework, chores, and a temporary release from parental control.

Dust, was the arena of play in the 1980s and 1990s and millennials grew up valuing the role that dust played in their pre-digital nomad life. 

With no compound walls, automated gates, or biometric scans, residential colonies of pre-economic liberalization Bombay featured open maidans that tripled up as: a) cricket pitches / lagori patches / kho kho dugouts / pakda-pakdi arenas (catch-catch & help-help, remember those?), b) makeshift parking lots for our Vespas and Bajaj scooters and the odd Premiers and Ambassadors, and c) Dandiya, Holi and Diwali celebrations. We didn’t have pukka halls, paver blocked sidewalks, concrete compounds, or even artificial grass or gardens well into the turn of the millennium. Dust didn’t lessen the sacred nature of the space and its shape-shifting evolution through the seasons. 

Shot at the Gateway of India, Mumbai. Copyright: Nilofar Shamim Haja

The maidan, with its mitti and dhool, was the only congregation space for building residents to meet, greet and gossip; for the watchmen to plonk their rusty chairs together and light up a beedi (no security guards from a registered company, sorry), for the macchiwali, sabziwala, and khari biscuitwala to shout out their wares; for the kainchiwala to sharpen his knives on his spark-breathing cycle, for the bartanwalis to barter utensils for clothes. The dusty maidan in the midst of the buildings was a stage where everyone had a role to play. 

Dust meant the intimacy of choruses that could never mingle within the painted walls of our homes.

The concrete tanki was always covered in dust, yet we plopped on it in a row, us girls and boys, with none of us ever saying, “Oh, my dress will get dirty, there’s so much dust here!” Of course it’s going to get dirty and that was the whole point! The tanki was a ‘hiding in plain view’ kind of space to talk about school, elder siblings, ghost stories, KaramchandMahabharatKille Ka Rahasya, superstitions that were assumed to be plain truths back in the day. The dusty space, neglected by shareef aunties and college-going teens, became an adda for boys and girls to meet and giggle and get familiar with the opposite sex in the guise of talking shop. Dust meant the intimacy of choruses that could never mingle within the painted walls of our homes.     

Glee! Shot at the Gateway of India, Mumbai. Copyright: Nilofar Shamim Haja.

Our collective dusting off of our clothes, bums, legs, hands, and hair marked the ritual that signified the descent into the domestic sphere and the close of play. We, zippered up our boisterous, wild child Mowgli personas in exchange for Luv and Kush from the Ramayana,- obedient, skilled, and clean children of Sita and Ram, the epitome of purity. The loss of dust is reflected in our antithetical behavior and a set of accompanying purifying rituals: rigorously washing our hands and feet under the bathroom taps, putting away our clothes in the washing bucket, wearing clean, fragrant clothes for dinner, wiping away the dust from the steel dinner plates, and finally, shaking off dust from the chhatai before sitting down cross-legged to have our meals. Dust occupied (and continues to do so) a thinly veiled yet permanent position at home: a position that we kept challenging through constant vigilance.

But scratch a little deeper, and you will see that cleaning and establishing order in the house – the removal of dust from every corner and surface – was what really marked the ebb and flow of the day.

On the surface, our days were marked by the calendar, the clock, and the timely ringing of doorbells by the akbarwala (newspaperman at 6am), the doodhwala (milkman at 7am), and the kachrawala (trash picker at 8am). But scratch a little deeper, and you will see that cleaning and establishing order in the house – the removal of dust from every corner and surface – was what really marked the ebb and flow of the day. To banish dust on a daily basis from home meant a well-calibrated set of behavior: don’t jump on the bed, don’t plop down on the sofa with our feet, don’t walk around the house, don’t step out of the main door to the dusty corridor or passageway, put away the chappals, and so on. 

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The kaamwalibai aka khaala occupied the pride of place in the household. Why? Because she was the high priestess of cleanliness; using her jhadukhatka  and pocha as sacred tools to officiate over the cleansing rituals that would appease the gods of purity. As a kid, I remember the absolutely comical expression, which I now realize was annoyance mingled with horror on my mother’s face when the house-help asked for chutti. Gasp! Chutti meant no purifying rituals for that day (or worse, a week or month if she had to go away to her hometown. Then, other temporary priestesses would have to be sought out). Not eliminating dust on an hourly basis meant a complete failure of the grihasti and mother’s house managing abilities. Keeping the house neat and clean was a mandate passed on from mother-in-law and mothers to their daughters-in-law and daughters. The absence of dust was a signifier of the domestic order of things being followed. 

To banish dust on a daily basis from home meant a well-calibrated set of behavior: don’t jump on the bed, don’t plop down on the sofa with our feet, don’t walk around the house, don’t step out of the main door to the dusty corridor or passageway, put away the chappals, and so on.

Dust occupied many tea-time conversations with neighboring aunties, chachis, and buas, each employing degrees of hyperbole to describe their prowess with taming dust through the house helps. I remember this conversation between mother and two neighboring aunties one evening: Auntie 1: “I make my bai clean the kitchen counters with Colin.” Auntie 2: “I make my bai use Lifebuoy for the washbasin.” Mother: “Oh, we just bought a vacuum cleaner and I don’t allow the bai to touch it. I handle it myself”. And there were audible gasps from the aunties. A vacuum cleaner was more hallowed than a mixer-grinder, geyser, or portable cooler in the 1990s: it was the highest of the sacred objects prayed for by every devout housewife and working women. A venerable device that offered a way to cleanse the house of dust, mountains of motes, and cobwebs from every corner (even under the sofa and the window sill) without having to stoop to our haunches or sully our clothes.

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While the rest of the world assumes that the British are best at carrying on the traditions of high tea while making perfectly splendid small talk around weather and politics, our Indian aunties regularly gave the Brits a run for their money with our distinguished discourse on wind types and dust sediments. In one such evening tea get-together at my home, my mother remarked to our neighbour: “Oh, Mrs Iyer, I tell you, iss hawa ne toh bhauchaal machake rakha haiPura ghar dhool se bhar jata hai. Kitna saaf karti hoon main?!” (Oh, Mrs Iyer, I tell you, this wind has created such a mess at home. The entire house is filled with dust. How long do I keep cleaning!” The cheeky child that I was, I quickly remarked, ‘As long as the wind blows, mumma’. Yes, I did receive a rap on the cheek for that one! 


Dust is no longer a reliable old friend whom we would take refuge in, but a mite-infesting weapon of mass occupation that helps sell industrial strength cleaning products.

The story of dust from here on goes hand in hand with technological innovations designed and manufactured to keep it in check. Our glass-paned window windows were replaced with glass sliders, brooms came equipped with plastic bristles, mops were upgraded with a twist and release technology, and a slew of cleaning agents now occupy our homes (apart from good ol’ Dettol) to help with removing dust from every possible surface. And sadly, dusty tankis have given way to overhead Syntex tanks and maidans have been paved over with cement, paver blocks and artificial turfs. Dust is no longer a reliable old friend whom we would take refuge in, but a mite-infesting weapon of mass occupation that helps sell industrial strength cleaning products. May our humble jhadus rest in peace! 


The sunny balcony where my plant babies thrive. Copyright: Nilofar Shamim Haja

Now that I am running my own house — and not doing my mom any proud with my lackadaisical attitude towards cleaning — I have come to appreciate the tremendous pressure that our mothers were under to keep things neat and clean. I don’t have children running around the house, so there’s no one to blame but myself when I discover that dust has made a comfortable home for itself at home. I hate it when a layer of dust coats my books, even though they are ensconced in glass-and-wood cupboards. I am in an eternal holy war against dust motes that settle into the corners of the sofa, crockery and the bed headboard. Every now and then I crib about the gusts of wind blowing in from the West, bringing in dust from the balcony and windows. I turn to my husband, my partner in crime (and grime) and whine, ‘Oh, these winds create such a mess. Look at all this dust, how long do I keep cleaning!’ His answer, unsurprisingly, is one I am already familiar with.

First published in Dust / धूळ in Edition 13 of Hakara, a bilingual journal of creative expression. Explore the issue here.

India: Sexual and reproductive health campaigns targeting men and women using Facebook ads


This content marketing case study by Nilofar Shamim Haja demonstrates how askNivi India, a free mobile health chat service available on Messenger & WhatsApp, captured 100,000+ users in 30 days through Facebook marketing

askNivi India is a product of Boston-based health tech company, Nivi Inc. This is an actual image from one of the Facebook ad campaigns targeting men and women in Hindi speaking regions of India

How Data Informs Digital Marketing

These are exciting times to be a digital marketing professional in India. Not only do marketers have a multitude of platforms and channels to showcase, sell and highlight their products and services, but we also have at our disposal tools to monitor, review, measure, and evaluate the performance of our messages.

For marketing professionals working for non-profit, development, social enterprise, and for-profit-foundations within the public health domain, the value of these measuring tools is significant: 1) Data becomes the clincher to secure funding for overall goals, 2) Data helps us make the case for further investments in *specific* programs within the larger portfolio, and 3) Data supports our push for increasing marketing spends across relevant media suitable for specific target audience. Data is the punchline and the overarching umbrella under which we secure, support and sustain our initiatives.

‘We count our blessings, not the pill’ – actual Facebook ad targeting 18-35 year old men and women in Hindi speaking regions for India, nudging them to think about contraceptives such as the pill

At Nivi India, a Boston-based free mobile health service that leverages AI-enabled chat bot on Facebook Messenger to have conversations with our users on family planning, sexual and reproductive health (SRH), and safe ways to avoid pregnancy, *data* helps us track user journeys: from the moment they click on a Facebook advert till the time they wind up the conversation with our chat bot, and even after, when we send users reminders and nudges towards a service they requested information on.

Bharat is Overwhelmingly Online

Since our free mobile chat service is available only on FB Messenger for now – coming soon to WhatsApp India as well – we decided to go live with Facebook ads (instead of Google adwords) and evaluate the results for the launch phase. And ironically, we relied on Google’s Year in Search 2018 insights to inform our digital marketing strategy. The report makes a compelling case for digital accessibility and ownership, particularly among the Tier 2 and Tier 3 users: 350 million connected smartphone users in India, with 9 out 10 new Internet users most likely to be regional language users.

‘Small family is a happy family’ plays off on the popular government of India ad campaign for ‘Hum Do, Hamare Do’ (We are two and we have two of our own) that encourages family planning.

Targeting Our Audience on Facebook

Let’s begin with how we targeted our audience. Who amongst us needs information on sexual health, contraceptives and family planning? Literally everyone who has hit puberty and until women reach menopause (broadest appeal, but there’s a case to be made for a nuanced look at the sociology of determining public health and SRH demography). Facebook, however, doesn’t allow us to target users under 18 years for our ads. Working in tandem with our partner organizations’ needs, we narrowed the TA to men and women in the 18-45 age group, residing in the North-West-Central regions, speaking Hindi, English, Punjabi, Gujarati, and Marathi. We didn’t deep dive into interests, after all, how can you filter users based on their preference for Bollywood, cricket and travelling against their need for family planning? No connection!

‘It’s our safety kit’ – promoting the use of copper IUD for women to aid post-partum family planning. Courtesy: askNivi India

Secondly, our campaign objective was to send users directly to our Messenger chat service, so they can begin chatting with askNivi India, our chat bot. Our ads had to appeal to the widest demography possible, be relatable to both men and women, motivate them to not just read the headline and description accompanying the ad, but also compel them to seek the information highlighted in the ad messaging, and lastly, our ads had to be accessible to Hindi speakers in a way that’s not didactic, or preachy, and is attractive and scenario specific.

Messaging for Sexual and Reproductive Health

The Facebook ads are outcomes, but the journey began months ago with usability testing of our mobile chat service and creating user personas based on feedback from our sample users. The user personas help us compile a real life sketch of our target audience, taking into account dimensions such as age, sex, location, education, job, family size, network and peer groups, aspirations and motivations, tensions and anxieties, sexual health habits and problems, marital or relationship status, financial health, mobile accessibility and ownership, internet browsing, access to information, relationship with public health professionals, influences from media and so on.

‘What’s the best method?’ – askNivi India Facebook ad campaign targeting 18-35 year old women to nudge them towards thinking about different contraceptives

Our detailed user personas for single men, single women, married couple with no kids, married couple with one kid, and married couple with two kids helped us determine which stage of the family planning and sexual health life cycle our users would most likely be in and craft several ads that would speak directly to each of these cohorts.

What Kind of Messaging Works for Family Planning?

Creating user personas and their journey is a significant chunk of the exercise, but the other bit is research into public health messaging and mainstream advertising messaging on condoms, birth control pills, injections, and other methods. You all remember the Mala D and Nirodh ads on Doordarshan circa the glorious 1990s? How about that hilarious but brilliantly informative scene from the movie Anubhav where Shekhar Suman asks the pharmacist for Nirodh? Cut to 2019, where we see Ranveer Singh asking us to open our “khushiyon ka chhatha“! The public service ads and notifications by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, in stark contrast, lack all the jazz of contemporary Indian ads, but are equally noteworthy for their directness, volume of information conveyed, and relatable characters.

‘Stop worrying, adopt protection’ – askNivi India FB ad campaign targeting men and women in the 18-35 year age group, nudging them to avoid risky sexual behavior and adopt contraceptives

Info-Gaps Between Knowledge and Decision Making

For askNivi India creatives, we needed creatives and ad copy that would be able to squeeze the content of the videos above in the tiny real estate space of the ad headline and description, and address the everyday scenarios and concerns that users face. The end goals also varied for us: we don’t want to go the public health route of pushing family planning clinic referrals or the purchase of a condom or birth control pill or recommend a specific brand of contraceptives. That’s not the goal anyway.

‘The first decision for a newly married couple’ – askNivi India’s FB ad campaign targeting newly married couples, nudging them to talk about family planning as a vital first step of their new life together

Between the stages of say, marriage and deciding to use a contraceptive method or visit a clinic, are numerous info-gaps that a typical user struggles with in everyday life. “What to do if the condom tears during relations?” “What are the safe days to have intercourse?” “Can I get pregnant during my periods?” “I have a 6-month baby, how to delay next pregnancy?” “I heard that pills causes weight gain. Is that true?” “How many times can my girlfriend eat emergency pills in a month?” These are the kind of scenarios that our mobile chat service aims to address.

‘The beginning of a married life with the promise of protection’ – askNivi India FB ad campaign targeting newly married couples, nudging them to talk about family planning

User Journeys Rooted in Real Time

These are real questions from our users that we receive in the course of their chat with Nivi. These questions and concerns inform the messaging and tonality of our Facebook ads and address the specific situations that users need more information on. The ads also play into different psychologies: the ‘Small Family, Happy Family’ ad projects a confident family of 4, with the women taking the lead on seeking a permanent family planning solution after having two kids; the two young girls speaking to each other about misconceptions around birth control pills targets a user who is worried/anxious about a particular method; the young man clearly in panic mode plays into the fear mentality of users; and we also have the clever ‘Stop Googling, Chat with Nivi’ ad that gently chides our collective behavior to Google healthcare information and accept it as truth.

‘Better conversation is just a chat away’ – askNivi India’s brand tagline

Applying the Rules of Content Marketing

Since I come from a digital publishing background (ex-Mid Day, Design Curial, Conde Nast India), I understand the importance of CTA (call to action here was: chat with Nivi, it’s free and private) and headlines that are immediate “7 ways to avoid pregnancy” and ‘5 reasons why injections are effective”. The use of a number in the headline is deliberate (thank you, ScoopWhoop and Buzzfeed for your lessons in viral content) and is an update on an earlier ad headline that was straightforward, but didn’t get us the results: How can you avoid pregnancy or Take charge of family planning.

I also played around with A/B testing for a bunch of ads, targeting some at both men and women, and some at only women or only men, targeting as per language and region, ads that employ more or less Hinglish to appeal to the young demography (and to ascertain if users feel comfortable with Romanized Hindi), and Emojis to make the description appear less wordy and serious, and more friendly. Data allowed us to review the results in real time and provided us with impetus to experiment with advertising real estate.

‘Always be by my side, dear’ – askNivi India FB ad campaign slogan that seeks inspiration from popular television serials to nudge couples to think about family planning together and not place the burden on women alone

End result? Men Are Equal Stakeholders in SRH Journeys

We hit 100,000+ users in 30 days. And that’s just the beginning! What we learn as we deep dive into data acts as signposts and guides on our journey to helping users access relevant and timely information when they want. The overwhelming majority of users who engage with our ads are men, which is reflective of Facebook’s user demography in India. This data has given us compelling reasons to position men as key stakeholders in the family planning and sexual health decision making process. There’s a dichotomy in public health messaging which acknowledges men as gatekeepers of decisions and choices, but reaches out to women with products and services (through frontline health workers and ASHAs).

‘Are pills safe for consumption’ – askNivi India FB ad campaign

The plethora of questions shared by askNivi India male users on family planning, methods to space and delay pregnancy, and sexual health issues and intimate relationship dynamics point to their urgent concern and need to access real time information that will help them improve relationships with their partners and take charge of limiting family size. On the other hand, our data has also given us a peek into the worries and concerns of Indian women and how they tackle these problems in the absence of emotional support, financial independence, legal knowledge, or the means to act. Our future messaging will look at nudging, motivating, inspiring, and encouraging both men and women to seek information on SRH and empower them towards decision making.

If you are a digital marketing professional who has worked with healthcare or public health programs, I would love to hear your insights, observations or questions! Write to me: nilofar.ansh@gmail.com.

O Pedro restaurant transports you to Goa, right in the heart of Mumbai


O Pedro’s food and interiors will more than satiate your hankering for Goa, it will rev it up!

Ask anyone who’s been to Goa more than a couple of times. Chances are, they would have an authoritative “opinion” on what Goa is all about—best places to eat, cool bars to hang out at, and best beach shacks for the beach bums. Well, having lived in Goa for three years, almost two decades ago, the sense of what the city-state means to me hasn’t dissipated with age. If anything, the memories of the beaches, flora and fauna (miles of cashew plantation and lotus ponds), the friendly, sun-kissed faces, Portuguese architecture, the local cuisine, and the magical Christmastime bonhomie all take on a nostalgic turn as the years go by. Everything is bathed in golden sunlight (and accentuated with feni) in my memories of Goa.

O Pedro is a microcosm of all the best things that Goa has to offer and will satisfy both, the connoisseurs of Goan cuisine as well as the beach bums who have a hankering for all things Goan. The 2,500-square-foot restaurant and bar is crafted as an immersive experience for patrons; it is teeming with foliage (real creepers), old lamps and curios right out of a Goan villa, slimly proportioned cane-backed chairs, blue walls and pistachio-shaded backdrops, and pulsating Latin American music.

How does a restaurant specializing in Goan cuisine capture this sense of what Goa means to everyone? “This was a primary challenge in creating the space for O Pedro, to steer clear off any cliches and first-level-interpretations of what it means to be ‘Goan’,” says architect Ayaz Basrai, co-founder, The Busride Design Studio, Mumbai, and the man at the helm of O Pedro’s distinct Goa-inspired interiors. “In all our conversations, market visits and food trips in Goa, we looked for clues to this elusive second level of what it meant to be Goan, a layer that exists just below the first level interpretations of Azulejos and Fontainhas colours, shell windows and planters chairs, beaches and coconuts. We saw glimpses of this in the Braganza home in Chandor, colours in a particular room in South Goa that were so unnatural but fresh. We saw elements in the Mapusa market, and absorbed the madness of the terracotta work there.”

Read the full article on Architectural Digest India.

Mumbai’s Taftoon restaurant takes you on a gastronomic journey through the Grand Trunk Road


From the ancient site of Chittagong all the way through Kabul, Taftoon bar and kitchen in BKC, champions regional Indian cuisines.

“The idea was to represent a design in the BKC district that was calming; a modern day ambience which served the authentic GTR cuisine, seamlessly melding refined and rustic, vintage yet contemporary,” says designer Payal Khanna

A visit to a restaurant that’s just about to open to patrons is always an occasion for excitement. There’s anticipation to experience something new, followed by the hope that a new restaurant in town means the addition of a new sensibility to the Indian gastronomy scene (potentially, speaking). The contemporary restaurant scene, however, doesn’t offer much scope to stimulate our sensibilities, does it? The design vocabulary is de rigueur—exposed brick and concrete facades, pipes and vents for that garage-grunge aesthetic, and pop-culture elements that do not venture beyond graphic doodles, Aztec-inspired wallpapers, Tungsten bulbs encased within wrought iron cages, and the now ubiquitous patterned flooring.

So, it’s with a mixture of anticipation and caution that an invite to a restaurant opening is accepted. Taftoon bar and kitchen, in BKC, Mumbai, means a 45 minute ride from our Colaba office to a part of the city that’s transforming into a hotbed of gastronomic experiments (stretch your imagination from Hello Guppy’s Japanese concoctions to O Pedro’s Goan medley). Taftoon takes us on another overland journey, this time, through the ancient Grand Trunk Road: all the way from Afghanistan, through Pakistan, North India, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, finally crossing over and halting at Bangladesh.

The Silk Route a heady, lip-smacking concoction of whisky, apricot brandy, fresh Indian orange, cucumber juice, cilantro, and sour mix is something we would recommend at Taftoon Mumbai

Taftoon was a personally enriching experience as this reviewer has a master’s degree in ancient Indian civilizations—and the anecdotal treats that Chef Milan regaled us with certainly brought back memories of the lessons I learned in class about the Mauryan Empire. Consuming the food that was once, perhaps, patronized by Emperor Chandragupta Maurya and the people of Magadh, in a modern setting—replete with some of the most refreshing cocktails we have tasted—was a perfect postscript to our history tour.

Endnote: Before you attempt to review a restaurant, ensure three prerequisites: heightened senses, an intact appetite, and curiosity to dig into the story of what’s really being served. Taftoon catered to each of our prerequisites. Another visit is definitely on the cards. Could we have the Silk Route to begin with?

Read the full article on Architectural Digest India.

Udaipur’s Gogunda Palace hotel is a hidden gem for luxury lovers


Engage with living history by staying at the 500-year-old fortress-palace of Maharana Pratap Singh

If you love art, design and history, and have a penchant for luxury stays, then check into the Gogunda Palace hotel

Under the balmy Udaipur sun, embraced by ochre walls and stepping through labyrinths of wood-wrought entrances, we discovered what an intimate palace hospitality experience can come to signify: accessible luxury amidst living history. Situated 50-odd kilometres from Udaipur airport, the historical fortress-palace of Maharana Pratap has been restored and refurbished as the Gogunda Palace hotel, and sits majestic on a 2.5 acre lush green landscape accommodating 40 suites, many with views of the stunning Aravalli Range. The rooms are an enchanting cornucopia of mural work, art, woodwork, and medieval Mewari architecture, complemented by contemporary luxury sensibilities. Let’s take a tour of this palace hotel.

It is at Gogunda that Maharana Pratap was coronated as king (raaj tilak) in 1572 and it is from here that he left for the historic battle of Haldighati fought in 1576 against Akbar’s army. Built in the 16th century, at the height of royal rule in Mewar, Gogunda is one of the very few fortresses in India that have been restored to retain their original floorings, murals, woodwork, artworks, and external structure.  Payal Gandhi Kothari and Meghal Gandhi Pandya, sisters and businesswomen who belong to a Mumbai-based family that into’s mining, decided to step into the luxury hospitality business back in 2014 with the purchase of the Gogunda property.

Read the full article on Architectural Digest India.

The art of collaborating: in conversation with Rooshad Shroff


The Mumbai-based architect talks about his curatorial ethos, how objects become iconic, and leaving behind a legacy

Featured Image (left to right): Arjun Rathi (brass vessel), Anuj Ambalal (armchair), Aziz Kachwala (wall unit), Tectona Grandis (centre table), Sönke Hoof (armchair), Cyrus Patel (side table). Photograhy by Vinay Panjwani

Le Corbusier’s iconic concrete landmark, the Mill Owners’ Association Building in Ahmedabad, served as the perfect backdrop for showcasing genre-defying furniture and product design curated by architect and designer Rooshad Shroff at the Design Gallery, part of the second edition of the Raw Collaborative, held between November 30 and December 2.

It’s a rather fitting tribute to contemporary Indian design to see this exhibition at a venue that was designed by the French architect as a physical manifesto representing modern Indian architecture.

Architect and designer Rooshad Shroff flanking Thierry Betancourt’s design (left) and Bijoy Jain’s design (right)

Nilofar Haja in a tête-à-tête with Rooshad Shroff.

Nilofar Haja: When Raw Collaborative approached you to curate the Design Gallery for their second edition, what were some of the curatorial outcomes you were working towards?

Rooshad Shroff: The genesis of the collaboration really goes back to an exhibition I curated last year, 15,556 in Mumbai and Delhi, which was a culmination of 5 years of my research on furniture. Soon after, Raw Collaborative got in touch and asked if I would showcase part of the same collection in Ahmedabad. It really made sense to set up the exhibition here; the city is the centre of design, in a way, in India and it’s got the best of design schools with CEPT and NID. It was a design fair with booth-type exhibits and I wasn’t sure it was the appropriate space to showcase my work. But when I heard it was at the Mill Owner’s building, I jumped at the chance. 

Read the full article on Architectural Digest India.

This Paris apartment is a minimalist poem crafted in white


Designed by Guillaume Alan, the apartment is housed within a 19th century Haussmannian edifice near the Trocadero, affording views of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower

The living room is signature Guillaume Alan: clean, flawless, pure in form, preceded by high ceiling stone arches that form part of the entrance hall, inspired by the Orangery in Versailles.

Designing for a French couple that loves to travel and entertain and host festive parties at home while keeping in mind their need for calm and serenity is almost an exercise in cognitive dissonance. However, for architect and designer Guillaume Alan, this contradiction afforded him the opportunity to helm the interiors from scratch and breathe life into a space where none existed. The couple, who have been ardent admirers of Alan’s furniture for several years, had an intriguing brief for the architect: to design a home that would surprise and amaze them, that would provide them the comfort and sophistication of a hotel. Alan decided to approach this project from the outside in, studying the way natural light sprang into each of the rooms and walls of this Parisian apartment, and how it created depth in the nooks and crevices.

Located on the top floor of a Haussmannian edifice near the Trocadero, affording stunning 360-degree views of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower, the Paris apartment is a lesson in architectural effacing: there’s poetic drama in how the interior décor speaks volumes with its minimalist form. The living room is signature Guillaume Alan: clean, flawless, pure in form, preceded by high ceiling stone arches that form part of the entrance hall, inspired by the Orangery in Versailles. The architect has retained the old mosaic floor in distressed tones of grey, bronze and old gold. Again, light is drawn in through large windows and given free reign with a soaring ceiling.

Read the full article on Architectural Digest India.

This designer finds it fashionable to ‘hang out’ with bamboo


National Institute of Design faculty Pravinsinh K Solanki bends bamboo to his will to create poetic forms

A workshop in Dimapur, Nagaland changed the way furniture maker and designer and NID faculty Pravinsinh K Solanki looked at bamboo. Photography by Talib Chitalwala

If there is one epithet we could apply to the work of designer Pravinsinh K Solanki, then it would be ‘poetry in bamboo,’ for that’s exactly what the NID faculty member helms and crafts in his studio on campus: hangers made of bamboo. The form essentially remains recognisable, but the structure and shape have taken on a whole new dimension with the bamboo hangers that Pravin designs, crafts, shapes, and buffs to smooth perfection (see slideshow at the end of the feature).

Pravin, the associate senior faculty for furniture and interior design at NID, didn’t set out to turn bamboo, the perennial evergreen plant that actually belong to the true grass family of Poaceae — into a material that would become the all-consuming passion of his life. But a workshop in Dimapur, Nagaland, with senior NID faculty CS Susant changed his entire outlook. “I was zapped by the beauty of green-gold bamboo and the culture (in the North East). They cook food in Bamboo, eat bamboo shoot, burn bamboo to cook, live in bamboo houses, use bamboo furniture, bamboo utensils, baskets, jewellery, and accessories…it really challenged me to work on this wonderful material,” says the coordinator of the Centre for Bamboo Initiatives at NID. Professor MP Ranjan and NID Director Pradyumna Vyas.

Read the full article on Architectural Digest India.

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