Romancing Rural India – Summer Internship at ITC

It was 5:34 A.M. No time for any self-respecting human being to be getting up and about. However, here in the northern states of India, the sun is more eager to rise, and its first rays were already filtering through the curtains into my room. I peeked through my sheets, groaned at the intrusion and covered myself again, determined to clock in at least an hour more of dozing. That’s when my doorbell rang jarringly. I shuffled to the door and it opened to reveal a hotel clerk, replete with combed oily hair, smiling at me. He suggested that it would be a good time to have a bath, as hot water would not be available post 6 A.M. I decided against debating with him on the stupidity of wanting to have a hot water bath in 44 degree heat, and just nodded my head, closed the door and went right back to sleep.

It was to be a long week in Bihar.

Sitting now as I am, in rain-soaked Mumbai which is beguiling me with the best weather it has had in months, those eight weeks I spent on my internship seem like a world away. I still remember the day I got placed for my summer internship at ITC. When the time to get our project briefs approached, I eagerly awaited a project on something glamorous like Personal Care Products (PCP) or foods. I dreamt of rolling out grand promotional plans and turning around the brand in ways that only naiveté permits. The world was going to be my oyster. But instead I got a project to increase rural sales of Mangldeep agarbattis, and my project location was Chennai.

 

I've seen this logo one too many times.
I’ve seen this logo one too many times.

 

My first reaction, predictably, was of incredulousness. Agarbattis? What the heck do I know about agarbattis? However I was excited about the rural areas part. I always wanted to hunker down in front of a mofussil crew of villagers and converse with them, understand them. The romanticism of that image in my head was to be corrected in the weeks to come, mostly via copious amounts of cow dung and flies. Nonetheless, these weeks taught me things I had never come across before, in both my classes at college, and life. That is why I have chosen to write about my experiences for the Summer Saga 2014 contest. Because I came across a few stories that deserve to be heard.

Let me begin from the top. My project was very open ended, and I was allowed to come up with any ideas that could help boost sales in states where Mangaldeep’s sales were dipping. This included studying our distribution system and benchmarking it against that of our competitors, studying any innovative marketing strategies that anybody was running in the market (not necessarily an agarbatti company), and looking for portfolio gaps etc. But at the time that I left Mumbai for Chennai after my exams got over, I didn’t even know this much. It was with the help of my mentor and the other guys at the office that I was able to eke meaning out of such a vaguely worded and vastly interpretable project brief. Allow me to walk you through my eight weeks then.

Let me start by talking about Chennai for a bit. Firstly, it is HOT. For a Bangalorean who had moved to Mumbai for his MMS, I believed I had adjusted to coastal weather. Chennai just laughed at my beliefs and cranked that thermostat all the way to 11. Even a five-minute walk to buy some breakfast in the morning had you sweating all over and sapped of the will to do anything productive. The first week was the hardest, when I was made to tag along with a local distributor salesman on his beat, to ‘see how the company makes money’. This is when I discovered the second and last drawback of life in Chennai. If you don’t know Tamil, good luck to you. Travelling along with him from 10 AM to 3 PM, I often got delirious due to the heat around noon. A couple of times I even got dehydrated and cramped up, and no amount of water was helping. Through all this I was trying to ask questions to the shopkeepers to try and understand how the competition was making money. But unless the salesman translated my words for me, I would get nothing from the traders, except a joke or two at my expense at times. Those three days I spent on the beat elevated my respect for salesmen, who managed to carry out such physically trying jobs with a smile on their face.

At the end of the first week, I sat down with my mentor and we tried to hash out the states I should visit for my rural stints. After much analysis and MBA jargon bandied back and forth, we whittled it down to 3 states; Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Oh yeah, I was going to be stuffed up to my tonsils with rural India now. I was scheduled to visit Lucknow and Kanpur in UP; Indore, Dhar and Ujjain in MP; Gaya and Darbhanga in Bihar.

Damn. I hadn’t ventured north of the Vindhyas in my life.

First up was the week in Uttar Pradesh. I landed in Lucknow and got into a taxi, towards my designated guest house. It was in a quiet and pleasant neighbourhood in an area called Gomti Nagar. Broad avenues lined by leafy trees keeping it fairly cool even in the heat of April. The accommodation arrangements made for me by ITC, while not overtly luxurious, served my purposes perfectly. Before leaving Chennai, I had asked my cousin who had studied at IIM-L, what there was to see and to eat in Lucknow. While I eventually never got to do any sightseeing, I made time to order a famed Lucknowi basket chat that evening. I have never had better chat before in my life, and it was so heavy that I had to end up skipping dinner.

Anyway, I made my way to the office the next day via ridiculously cheap shared autos. I was given instructions as to what I was expected to do, and I set off for the nearby villages along with two order capturing salesmen, Farhan and Suresh. Since they only had one bike, we travelled to all the villages riding triples, Swades style. Along the way, both the jolly salesmen told me about their experiences working for ITC and aired a few complaints cautiously. I was having a completely different experience and enjoying it. We covered feeder towns and their wholesalers as well as village retailers. I asked my questions to the shopkeepers as the two took their orders.

During the afternoon lull, when our beat was almost getting over and we stopped for a lunch of delicious parathas, Farhan started narrating to us, his daughter’s recent birthday celebrations. He had saved up a part of his salary for the last three months in order to buy a doll for his daughter’s birthday. As he described her happiness on receiving the gift she had wanted, I saw on his face a joy so pure, it lifted my heart. When I later learnt that these salesmen made as much in a year, as I did for each month of my internship, I felt a mixture of amazement and shame; amazement that contentment cost so little, and shame for my discontentment in life despite having so much. I resolved that day to try to be thankful for what I had.

 

This shopkeeper is one of the many happy people with little to their name.
This shopkeeper is one of the many happy people with little to their name.

 

Two days later I left for Kanpur. Now calling Kanpur a city, even a second tier city, is a bit of a stretch. It seemed to me more like a town that forgot to stop growing. But then again I spent all my time there in market areas, and I would like to see an elegant and organized market area anywhere in India. I followed the same drill in Kanpur, meeting up with salesmen, only this time we had two bikes so I could sit behind one of them. I remember a particularly amusing conversation that I had with one of the salesmen over a cup of tea.

‘So, is this the old part of Kanpur?’ I asked as I looked at the mess around me.

‘This? No this is new Kanpur. Old Kanpur…is a lot shabbier. This is our new town,’ he said with visible proud. I was shaken and dared not question him more.

Nonetheless, I only carried fond memories from Kanpur (especially the tea at their stalls, thickest milk ever used) as I made my way to Indore, for my next week in Madhya Pradesh. Indore was nothing like I expected. It has some of the best roads in India, some of the most prosperous peoples, and on the whole caused me to wonder why Madhya Pradesh was considered a backward state. That query got resolved once you got out of the cocoon of city life and went down to its villages. The problem with the villages there- to my limited experience- are that they are very far apart. This must have historically hindered extensive trade between them and even today, covering a beat in an FMCG van in MP means you’re in for a long day.

And that was exactly what I did. I was cooped up along with a driver and a salesman in an FMCG van, which is basically a minivan full of goodies. We would go around to each shop, take orders and deliver the goods then and there, in what is called the Ready Stock model. The van also contained agarbattis, but these were rarely asked for. Everybody was mainly clamouring for the cigarettes, Bingo chips and Sunfeast biscuits. And while they did their deliveries, I would ask my set of questions to the traders.

 

The FMCG van I travelled in, stocked with goods.
The FMCG van I travelled in, stocked with goods.

 

In fact it was the endlessly repetitive questioning that was the most challenging aspect of the job. I know you’re probably wondering; in a project in a sector that he didn’t know about, going to some of the most backward areas in India, asking questions was the most difficult thing for him to do? But no what I mean is, it is really difficult in the afternoon heat in a dusty little village, dragging along a body sore from sitting in too cramped a place, to ask questions and give a damn about the answers. Beyond a point it threatens to turn into something mechanical and drone-like, and there is the chance that you could miss out on something significant that someone said. After you’ve visited enough shops, you start to build a pattern with the information you’ve gotten, and then start to ask only the questions whose answers fit into this pattern of yours. That is when you’ll most probably miss something. So my advice to anyone who will be getting to do field work on their internships is, don’t fall into a rut. Zealously guard against it. Reboot your mind before every shop, like it was your first one, and ask every single one of your questions religiously. Drawing inferences will come later; you are in the field right now to collect data, period.

In fact the going-to-the-most-backward-parts-of-India part that you might suspect to be the most challenging aspect of the internship was hands down most enjoyable. The villages of MP, their people, their language is all so colourful, so endearing, that it charms you and it seems like everybody is happy and always pulling each other’s leg and never fighting. I know I sound like a ten-year-old, but I felt like one. For instance after Indore, I went to Ujjain and while going to one of its satellite villages, we had to ride through the infamous Chambal valley. Coincidentally it was a very hot day and the salesman, Joshi ji, suggested that I tie a handkerchief across my face to avoid getting tanned as that would pain for days afterward. So there I was, sitting on a bike, covering my face like a dacoit, when we passed the signboard saying ‘You are now entering Chambal valley’. It was one of the coolest moments of my life, tarnished only by my lack of an evil moustache to twirl.

 

The ever-colourful Joshi ji, a personification of MP, of sorts.
The ever-colourful Joshi ji, a personification of MP, of sorts.

 

From Ujjain I went on to the town of Dhar, where the roads were cramped and chaotic and it was raining the day I got there. It was perfect. My two days in Dhar were a respite from the relentless heat of the north. On one of those days I made a very curious observation about the rural peoples. While we the city lubbers call rain, well rain, in the villages impending rainfall is observed as ‘paani aa raha hai’ or that ‘it is going to water’. It is at such times that it hits you just how ingrained rainfall is in the occupational sphere in rural India. For them, rain is more a source of irrigation than a natural phenomenon.

From Dhar I came back to Indore from where I flew to Patna, and while it saddens me to say so, even post-Nitish Kumar Bihar is woefully behind the times and the rest of the country. It is not what a state capital should be. Nonetheless, I did not have too much time to introspect; I had to leave for Gaya right away, for that was where my work lay. Gaya is a city that is bursting at the seams with potential, and only needs its deserved opportunities. I was surprised to learn that it has its own international airport, until I was told that flights mostly come in from south-east Asian countries, and realized that I was in the city of Buddha’s enlightenment. In fact, the signboards in Bodh Gaya (it is an area well outside the main town) are in six languages; Hindi, English, Malay and Thai being some of them. The temple itself is breathtakingly beautiful, and wandering the premises is a lesson in peace.

 

No picture can capture that all-pervading peace.
No picture can capture that all-pervading peace.

 

I followed the same drill on sales routes in Gaya as I did in all towns until now. Two days later, I was on my way to Darbhanga. Darbhanga is in and around the Madhubani region of Bihar, which is famous for its eponymous art. It will be a lasting regret of mine that I did not get to experience this facet of their lives, but I got to hear the people speak their language Maithili. The manner of the houses also was very unique to the villages of the area. But homesickness was catching up to me. On one of the mornings near the end of my tour, I woke up and went down to get myself some breakfast. Looking at samosas, kachori and parathas once again, the south Indian in me finally revolted and I resolved to have something else. My searches yielded nothing and in a fit of frustration I ended up eating a pack of chips and drinking a bottle of coke for breakfast. I was sitting on the road next to a pile of dung, feeling sick and tired of changing cities every two and sleeping in a different bed every night.

It was therefore with no small relief that I left Darbhanga for Patna to fly back to Chennai. On the way we crossed a bridge over the Ganga, and I was just blown away by its magnitude. Stretching for more than a kilometre in width, its sheer scale incited in me a sense of humility and a smallness that I cannot explain; certain experiences evade articulation. By the end of the day, I was out of the fireplace and into the oven; I was back in Chennai.

The next few weeks consisted of data crunching, trying to draw out patterns and bouncing solutions off anybody in the office with the patience to listen to me. The biggest learning for me during this period was a concrete manifestation of the heterogeneity of this country; in insights, in purchase patterns and preferences, in purchasing power and the concept of a value product. I also came to know that the picture of rural customers that is painted in our books, of being poor and unable to make large or long-term purchases, is grossly outdated. Rural customers now have deeper pockets and if a product can convince them of its value, they will gladly buy it.

After much plodding and prodding, I came up with separate solutions for each of the three states, because ITC was doing something differently wrong in each one of them. The last week was a blur of presentation slides, remembering figures, and culminated in a 90-minute presentation in which every suggestion of mine was subjected to intense questioning and scrutiny. I however feel I fared quite well, and when I left the office for the last time that day, I did so with a smile.

If someone asked me to list out the things that one needs in an FMCG internship, I would tell them to carry sunscreen. On a more serious note, you need to be able to persevere in the face of physical hardship, the restraint to do one thing at a time because multi-tasking can only muddle things up further for you, and the ability and willingness to draw out patterns from data and to then act accordingly on those patterns. It also requires you to interact with anyone and everyone that you meet; you never know which corner help might come from. But the most, the single most important asset you need to possess is an open mind. Because an open mind will make the difference between two months of complaint-riddled, uncomfortable months and two months of experiencing new experiences and measuring up to the challenge of getting out of your classroom and getting down to do the real deal.

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