Trip to Georgia: Part 2 – Batumi

Welcome to the second part of my blog on Georgia! In the first part, I’d talked about the first four days of my trip to Georgia with my wife, spent in the amazing capital city of Tbilisi. This post is about the three days we spent in the beautiful beach city of Batumi, and later our final day in Tbilisi.

On the 12th of October, we travelled to Batumi– our second destination. Batumi is Georgia’s second largest city, located on the cost of the Black Sea. It is an extremely popular tourist destination and it’s not difficult to see why- classical well-preserved buildings, modern high-rises, port, beaches, boulevard, and more. We took a train which started from Tbilisi at 0910 and reached Batumi at 1410. One-way journey per person cost approximately INR 800. The train was excellent- modern, clean, fast, and comfortable. Pictures tell it better.

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Our Batumi accommodation, the Sunny Hotel, too was booked through Airbnb. This was with a private bathroom- cost us around INR 2000 per night. The hotel is 15 minutes away from the city centre. From the balcony, we had an amazing view of Batumi skyline. Here are some pictures, again, all of which are from Airbnb.

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View from balcony
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View of the hotel from the road
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View from balcony

We stepped out in the evening, taking a marshrutka (minibus) which cost us INR 14.5 per person. We visited a souvenir shop and bought some stuff, took a ride on the Ferris Wheel, admired the stunning scripture of Ali and Nino, ate pizza and Khinkali (Georgian dumpling) and then headed back to the hotel.

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We didn’t become really big fans of the Georgian food, so we stuck to pizza all the time

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Khinkali, the Georgian version of dumpling

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Oh this is a US warship we spotted docked at Batumi port- USS Mount Whitney. To be precise, she is a Blue Ridge-class command ship of the United States Navy under the Military Sealift Command; it is the flagship of the United States Sixth Fleet. She is also the command and control ship for the Commander Joint Command Lisbon and the Commander Striking Force NATO (from Wikipedia).
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A Turkish joint. Try at least one of these places. Amazing rolls.

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Dolphinarium. Never ever miss!

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Shingle beach
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St. Nicholas’ Church. Amazing architecture and paintings.

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The next day too we explored Batumi city. The whole of the city can be covered on foot.

Feel free to explore Turkish food joints which serve amazing rolls. There are a lot of street-side shops from where you can buy souvenirs- but don’t forget to bargain. We visited a dolphinarium, an Armenian church, and St. Nicholas Church. Please check out the show timings at the dolphinarium and do not miss it for the world!

The next day we reached the city by around lunch time and went straight to the Hilton, Batumi. Beautiful hotel, needless to say. But what we found interesting was that it charged almost the same price for food as much as a street joint charged. Now I don’t know who’s selling it cheap/ expensive, but this was something we’ve never seen elsewhere. So, don’t worry about the bill, just walk into the Hilton Batumi and enjoy.

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Hilton Batumi
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Hilton Batumi

After lunch, we returned to the hotel, packed our stuff, said goodbye to its manager, and went straight to the railway station to catch our train back to Tbilisi. It was the same nice train which took the same five hours. We were back at Nana’s place by 2300.

The next day, the 15th was our last day in Georgia. The flight was at 1705 in the evening, so we still had half the way to explore Tbilisi. We picked the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi commonly known as Sameba. Now as opposed to the other churches we visited in Georgia, this one is not ancient; this was built between 1995 and 2004. Wikipedia says that this church is the “third-tallest Eastern Orthodox cathedral in the world and one of the largest religious buildings in the world by total area”. The church is located at walkable distance from Avlabari metro station and has a nice little cafe just outside it. Don’t miss this church, it’s quite a sight.

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We got back to Nana’s place, packed, spoke to her for some time, said our thanks and goodbye, and left for the airport. She had arranged a taxi for us, for INR 580. Remember our trip from the airport to Nana’s place cost us INR 1450! We should have bargained harder.

The return Air Arabia flight also took the same route: Tbilisi-Sharjah-Hyderabad. We reached Hyderabad on time. There ended a memorable trip. Happy honeymoon – check.

Before I call it a day, here are the expenses we’d incurred:

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Trip to Georgia: Part 1 – Tbilisi

I visited Georgia (the country in the Caucasus, not the state in the US) in October 2016 with my wife on our honeymoon. Amazing experience, it was. I am embarrassed to say that I could not pen down my experiences anytime the past 16 months after the trip. Reasons I can quote are laziness and … no, just laziness. But not anymore. So here it goes.

For starters, Georgia is a country surrounded by Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, and the Black Sea, in clockwise order. If you are too lazy to look it up, here is the map. Kindly note that the areas in green and purple are contested when it comes to who rules them. Please note that this map is from Google and I don’t have any rights over it, whatsoever.

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Georgia’s area is roughly 70,000 sq. km which is a bit less than that of the Indian state of Assam. With a population of 3.7 million, it comes close to the Indian state of Tripura. So now you have a perspective. For more details, here is the Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georgia_(country)

One question. Is Georgia in Asia or Europe? Good question. The boundary between Asia and Europe is contested because it’s one huge chunk of land. By most accounts, Georgia falls in Asia. However, it looks to me like the culture and outlook are more East-European than Asian. Being a former Soviet Republic, it’s still caught in between the Russian and western spheres of influence. The last time I checked, it had applied for EU membership and the application is in process.

Why did we choose Georgia of all the places? First of all, we’d heard it’s beautiful and affordable. But the cherry on the cake was e-Visa for Indians. You can apply for an e-Visa without having to go through the hassle of visiting an embassy/ consulate in person. All you need to do is upload scanned copies of passport and photograph. No flight tickets and accommodation booking proof are required. E-Visa charge is USD 20. Usually, within five working days, you will get an email saying your e-Visa has been approved (if they decide to approve it) with a link to download it. When you travel you have to carry a few passport-sized photos, and proof of travel insurance and financial means. Here is the link to Georgia e-Visa portal: https://www.evisa.gov.ge/GeoVisa/

When it comes to matters of visa and immigration, my rule is “read very carefully and obey”.

I have to warn you here. If you are Indian, it is likely that you will be questioned in detail at the Georgian airport. There have been many incidents where Indians with valid e-Visa were denied entry into the country and deported. Please Google this and understand the current situation. I have read that if you have a valid US, UK, or Schengen visa on your passport, you are highly unlikely to be denied entry. If you don’t have one of these precious little colourful things on your passport pages, please do your research, think, and then make a call. Back in 2016, we didn’t have this problems and Indians were welcomed warmly. So, we didn’t face any questions at the Georgian immigration.

Coming back to our trip. It started from Hyderabad airport at 0400 on 8th October and ended at the same place at 0320 on 16th October. So, 8 full days. Outbound and inbound, we took Air Arabia flights between Hyderabad and Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, via Sharjah. It’s an economy airline, worked well as one. No free food but 30 kg check-in baggage. No complaints. Return flights per person including travel insurance cost us INR 43,000. Remember to buy the travel insurance offered along with the flight ticket when you book on Air Arabia website, it saves the trouble of buying one separately. We had booked only a month in advance, I’m sure earlier booking doesn’t cost this much.

Now that we’re started talking currency, here are the conversion rule as per 2016 October rate: GEL 1 = INR 29. GEL is Georgian Lari. I will take the liberty to mention money in INR throughout, please feel free to do the conversion math, if required.

One important fun fact about Georgian Lari. GEL is a closed currency, meaning you can’t get it outside Georgia. So, what you need to do is to carry US dollar, pound, euro, or rubles to Georgia and after you land, you can convert these into GEL. Don’t take your chances by bringing only INR. At all conversion places, I found that only these four currencies are accepted.

We landed at Tbilisi International Airport at around 1700 on 8th October. Like I said, immigration was smooth back in the day. The first thing we did after coming out of the airport was buying SIM cards. Luckily, they are available at the arrivals. One with free local calls and some 2GB of 4G data cost us around INR 750. You can also find currency exchange desks but don’t convert all your currency here. You will find much better rates in the city. You will find a line of taxis whose drivers will be waiting for you with a cigarette between their lips. I didn’t notice an airport pre-paid taxi service. You gotta bargain with these drivers. My wife is good at it and I suck at it. Finally, we got one guy to take us to our host almost 45 minutes away for INR 1450.

My mention of smoking above was not a passing reference. Georgia is a country of smokers (cigarette, to be clear). A lot of people smoke- in front of their kids, while driving, inside the airport at the gate waiting for their flight!

Our choice of accommodation in Tbilisi was an apartment we found and booked through Airbnb. This is not in the city but is close to a metro rail station from where the Old City is only around 20 minutes. The apartment offered what it promised. It cost us around INR 1100 per night. Facilities included one private bedroom, common bathroom which we shared with the host, kitchen, Wi-Fi internet, ironing table etc.

Below are some pictures of Nana’s place, including the room where we stayed. All pictures are from Nana’s page on Airbnb, I have no rights over these.

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View from the balcony

Our host Ms Nana spoke English, was welcoming, and explained to us how to go about the city. We wasted no time, we ventured out to explore our first night in Georgia. Honestly, it didn’t go well because, for a long time, we were unable to find a place to eat. We walked a lot, for more than an hour, to finally find a small cafe. This was where we discovered that language was going to be an issue. English is not that popular there. If you speak Russian, you can manage. The night made us a bit sceptical about the days to come- mostly about food and language. But our concerns ended the next morning.

On the 9th we explored the Old City. We bought metro rail cards from the nearby station, each one costing INR 290. A single journey on the metro costs INR 14.5; this is a flat fare regardless of distance. All stations have signs in English.

Old City, as the name suggests, is a well-preserved and beautiful area with old-style buildings, ancient churches, and pretty streets and shops. Don’t miss the sulphur baths- get naked and enjoy for only around INR 300 per person. Experiment with the food at a range of restaurants- Georgian, Turkish, and more. Let the pictures do the talking.

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The metro stations are deep underground!
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Signs in metro stations are in English too, which is a big relief.

 

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The next day, we had a day trip covering Jvari, Mtskheta, Gori, and Uplistsikhe. You can cover all the four places in around six hours. Your journey begins at the Didube bus station. To get there, take the metro to Didube, exit the station, and head through a tunnel throughout into a market area. Here, you can find taxis and mini-buses called marshrutka. We bargained with a taxi driver who finally agreed for around INR 1900 for the round-trip. It’s also possible to take the marshrutkas to Mtskheta and Jvari which are less than half an hour from the city. A round-trip to Mtskheta in a marshrutka costs INR 29. Yes, it’s cheap. Tickets can be bought from the counter in the market or you can pay directly to the driver.

Jvari has a sixth-century Georgian Orthodox monastery located on a mountaintop. Mtskheta, one of the oldest cities of Georgia- founded in fifth century BC, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which well deserves this honour. Gori, a city of military and strategic importance, is best known as the birthplace of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Uplistsikhe, around 10 km from Gori, is an ancient rock-hewn town with cave structures dating from the early Iron Age. My point is, this is a beautiful circuit, don’t miss it. You’ll see amazing mountains, nice little village homes, and beautiful buildings.

One word about taxi drivers- they are fast. I don’t know if this is something special about only the taxi drivers or everybody who drives, but those guys are damn fast. Not that their roads are great; so, let’s not compare the scenario with fast-lane driving in the US or Europe. 120 kmph+ is the norm. Seatbelts, please.

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View of Mtskheta from Jvari monastery
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Another view of Mtskheta from Jvari. This rightly deserves to be a World Heritage Site!
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Inside Jvari monastery
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Mtskheta
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Orthodox church in Mtskheta
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Cave structures in Uplistsikhe
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House where Stalin was born!
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Wagon in which Stalin travelled!

The next day we went to Stepantsminda popularly known by its old name Kazbegi. By road, the journey from Tbilisi to Stepantsminda, on the historic Georgian Military Highway connecting Tbilisi and Vladikavkaz in Russia, takes approximately three hours. This is a magnificent route- hills, mountains, and breath-taking views. After reaching the town on Stepantsminda, which was pretty cool even in October, and having a cup of coffee from the pretty Cafe 5047m, one can hire an SUV to go uphill to the ancient Gergeti Trinity church, built in the 14th century, the major attraction here. This takes around 30 minutes one-way, and the round-trip in a shared SUV cost around INR 360 per person.

En route to Stepantsminda, one can stop at Ananuri fortress, an hour from Tbilisi. This is a beautiful 13th-century castle on the Aragvi river.

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View from Ananuri fortress
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Way to an underground tunnel at Ananuri fortress. That’s Amrita, my awesome wife!
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Ananuri fortress
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En route to Stepantsminda
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En route to Stepantsminda
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Cafe 5047m at Stepantsminda. Remember to take a break and spend some time here before going uphill.
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Stepantsminda
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View from Gergeti Trinity Church
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Gergeti Trinity Church
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View from Gergeti Trinity Church
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Gergeti Trinity Church

Let me pause here. In my next post, I’ll talk about the next four days of our trip, mostly spent in the beautiful beach city of Batumi. I’ll also give a detailed account of how much we spent on what which might help you in planning your trip to Georgia.

Thanks for reading!

My experience of representing the country

I’m sick and down with fever, which gives me the perfect excuse to write, which I am otherwise forced to procrastinate owing to work load, Netflix, and quality time with my wife. The first topic that came to my mind was the recent opportunity I got to represent India at an international platform- The High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York last month. In addition to putting down on what happened there, I also hope to let my young friends know about the opportunities that could come one’s way should he or she choose to work in the development sector. For a country obsessed with engineering, medical, and commerce education, there is a slight chance that this could offer a different perspective.

What was the event? It was the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development 2017 (HLPF 2017) convened under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) at the UN headquarters, New York, from 10th to 20th July 2017. The ministerial meeting of the Forum involving the representatives of the member states was held from 17th to 19th July. The HLPF is the annual Forum where member states gather and review the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Now, what are SDGs?– They are a set of 17 goals including eliminating poverty in all its forms everywhere, ending hunger, fostering innovation, protecting our planet from climate change etc. with definite targets and nationally and sub-nationally determined indicators, to be achieved by 2030. This was the second edition of the HLPF to review the progress on SDGs, the first one happened last year. At HLPF 2017, 44 countries, including India, presented their Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) on the progress they have achieved on SDGs.

How did I get to represent India? NITI Aayog is the nodal agency responsible to drive SDG implementation in India. It invited Andhra Pradesh and Assam to participate in HLPF 2017. Why these two states? They have put in significant efforts and achieved commendable success in designing a framework to align their development agenda with the SDGs and put in place a reporting and monitoring system. From Andhra Pradesh, the government organization I work with- Vision Management Unit under the Planning Department, handle all SDG-related work. I happen to be working specifically on SDGs and therefore was nominated to join the Indian delegation representing the Government of Andhra Pradesh in the ministerial meeting of the HLPF from 17th to 20th July.

Side Event conducted by India: While the member states presented their VNRs from 17th to 19th July, parallel events were conducted, organized by member states, organizations, associations etc. India conducted a Side Event on 17th July. Ambassador Syed Akbarudbin (Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations), Dr Arvind Panagariya (Vice Chairman, NITI Aayog and head of the Indian delegation to the HLPF 2017), Dr TCA Anant (Chief Statistician of India), Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri (former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations), and Prof Jagdish Bhagwati (University Professor of Economics and Law, Columbia University) were on the panel. Mr Anupam Kher spoke as civil society representative, and I represented the Government of Andhra Pradesh and presented its work. The panellists spoke about India’s achievement in the recent years in the areas of economic growth, infrastructure, financial inclusion, and Aadhaar enrolment, to a gathering of about 80 representatives from governments, media, Civil Society Organisations, the private sector, and academia. They unanimously observed that the world can achieve SDGs only if India meets its SDG targets. My presentation focused on the following:

  • SDG-aligned development framework designed and adopted by the State Government
  • Monitoring and review of progress towards achieving SDGs
  • Global and national benchmarking
  • SDG-aligned development strategy consisting of saturation approach, assurances, awareness creation, and E-Governance and economic development
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Side Event conducted by India
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Presenting Andhra Pradesh’s SDG efforts at India’s Side Event
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Andhra Pradesh’s CORE Dashboard presented at India’s Side Event

VNR presentation by India: On 19th July, India, represented by Dr Arvind Panagariya, presented its VNR to the HLPF 2017. Dr Panagariya, Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin, Dr TCA Anant, Mr Ashok Jain (Advisor- Rural Development, NITI Aayog), Ms Urvashi Prasad (Public Policy specialist, NITI Aayog), Mr Tanmaya Lal (Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations), and I were present on the dais. The presentation consisted of a 3 minute-video highlighting India’s recent achievements and PowerPoint presentation by Dr Panagariya on India’s progress on the 7 Goals under focus at the Forum.

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Indian delegation on the dais for the VNR presentation
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Dr Arvind Panagariya presenting India’s VNR
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The dais and delegates from member states

The initiatives pursued and progress achieved by India and Andhra Pradesh were well-appreciated at the Forum. The CORE Dashboard, a key real-time governance initiative of the State Government attracted a lot of positive attention. It’s true that there’s a long way to go to achieve the SDGs, but one can safely say that we have had a decent start. For Andhra Pradesh, the current government schemes and programmes have been mapped goal-wise with SDGs. The Real-time Outcome Monitoring System (ROMS) has been created which captures and displays progress on each goal.

SDGs is not an independent or isolated framework, it covers a lot of areas which come under the mandate of government. This calls for the states to align their development agenda with SDGs to ensure that resources are allocated properly and priorities are identified correctly. Goal-wise strategies and action plans should be devised, and progress or lack of it must be monitored periodically. For the latter to happen, state governments must collect and record the data required to judge the progress in achieving SDGs, a lot of which is absent in the current statistical systems of the government. For instance, proportion of time spent on unpaid domestic and care work, by sex, age, and location; and level of water stress are indicators recommended by the UN to track the progress in achieving SDGs 5 and 6 respectively, but to the best of my knowledge are not part of any government data base.

What did I gain from attending the HLPF? First things first- rubbing shoulders and taking selfies with the big guys (read Dr Panagariya, Ambassador Akbaruddin, Prof Bhagwati, Dr Sabina Alkire, Prof Martin Ravallion …): value add to my social media profiles and photo gallery! On a more serious note, meeting and talking with the kind of people whom otherwise you’re highly unlikely to meet given your designation and pay grade ranks at the top. This has 3 benefits: (1) You get to do the elevator pitch about your work, they might get impressed (2) Opportunity to exchange business cards (3) Avenues for collaboration- some people you meet might want to work with you and vice versa. These three must result in further communication and building a professional relationship. These are important stuff because networking and building contacts are very crucial in the development sector, which is pretty small in terms of the number of people working with reputed organisations. Apart from contacts, getting new ideas and building self-confidence are the other perks. All these can lead to doing better work.

Finally, a word to youngsters. The development sector offers a lot of opportunities and needs fresh ideas. Get a suitable degree- public policy, development studies, rural development, economics, and rural management are some; and pick a field you like- it could be Corporate Social Responsibility, consulting, teaching, research, or field work. Starting salaries may not be that great but with commitment, patience, and willingness to set the bar always higher, growth in terms of remuneration and designation is certain. My remuneration today after two years of work with the government is at par with some of my friends who have been working in the software service sector for the past 5-6 years. About opportunities- you could get to work with governments at the state or central level, become part of real-time policy making, work with NITI Aayog, represent the country, who knows. One word of caution- I know many friends and colleagues who want to see the result of their work, in a very tangible manner, in a few months. I’m afraid this may not be possible. For instance, if I’ve researched and identified five key areas where the government is not performing well and must put in extra focus and attention, it could take the departments months or even years to accept that, draft action plans, implement them, and produce results. Or if I’ve identified 20 legislations which are no longer relevant, it could take years for the government to repeal them, owing to due process. Personally, I believe in doing my bit, with the hope that it could produce a positive impact in the near future.

Feel free to contact me via email for the PowerPoint slides I presented during the Side Event and the report I drafted on Andhra Pradesh’s participation.

How about working with the government?

Only a few of my young acquaintances work with the government at the national or state level. Those who work in the areas of policy, strategy, monitoring and evaluation, and research are even fewer. Youngsters either don’t pursue the education which moulds them into suitable resources for governments or simply don’t see employment with the government as a promising career option. I believe this has to change. On the demand side, governments in India need fresh and contemporary ideas more than ever and youngsters need to be aware of the attractive career options available with the government. On the supply side, we need more courses at undergraduate and postgraduate levels which create professionals for the government. Continue reading How about working with the government?

Multidimensional Poverty Index: The basics

Poverty is one of my core areas of interest, and fortunately, work. Good to work on what one likes. I’ve written on the subject a few times before on this blog, about its databases and recent numbers. This time, I would like to talk a bit about Multidimensional Poverty Index. Continue reading Multidimensional Poverty Index: The basics

Asian Development Outlook Supplement

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) this month released its latest Asian Development Outlook Supplement. Literally, it’s a supplement to the Asian Development Outlook published last April. This is how ADB releases its economic outlook documents for the region- Outlook every April; Update every September; and Supplements every July and December. Such an arrangement gives the opportunity to revise the latest estimates in the eventuality of any significant economic development.

So what does the latest Supplement say? Here’re some quick points: Continue reading Asian Development Outlook Supplement

Doing my bit in transformation

I consider myself extremely lucky to be a part of a recently concluded transformation exercise by the Government of Andhra Pradesh. The GoAP is collaborating with the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) of the Prime Minister’s Office, Government of Malaysia in conducting a problem solving exercise called the “lab”. It is a unique method which spans across 14 weeks during which elaborate stakeholder consultations are conducted, issues are identified, solutions are emerged, and initiatives are designed. I was part of the retail lab whose objective was to transform the retail sector in Andhra Pradesh and make it a key economic driver and employment generator. The team which I was a part of specifically focussed on improving the linkages of the small producers with the retail supply chain. Continue reading Doing my bit in transformation