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In 2003-2004, the Godrej & Boyce Furniture and Interiors Group (FIG) executed a milestone order from the Government of India for supplying and installing 20,000 desks in Afghanistan. This provided Godrej the opportunity to be associated with a noble cause ?helping Afghanistan in the field of Education. It was in this connection that the writer, M.A. NAIK, spent five months in Afghanistan to coordinate the project.
Sojourn in Afghanistan
reached Kabul with Sunil Kamath, Service Executive, Maharashtra Branch, on 14 August, 2003. Sunil stayed for about a month before he was replaced by Arif Khan, Technician, FIG. From then on, Arif and I executed the job.
The Ministry of Education (MoE) in Kabul was unaware of the fact that the Government of India was donating 20,000 school desks to Afghanistan. Hence, when the material reached there, the Ministry was not geared to coordinate the effective distribution of desks to various schools. Worse, they didn’t even have the list of schools to which the desks were to be sent. It was only after the material reached Kabul and assembling started that they made a list and informed us accordingly.
The next step was to arrange for trucks to carry the desks from the assembly site for onward distribution to schools. Here, again, the MoE found itself woefully ill-equipped to handle the job, as they did not have a sufficient number of trucks. After much follow-up from our side, the MoE requested the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to help them by providing army trucks. Though they got the help they had requested, the MoE then found itself ill-equipped to avail of the facility provided by the MoD! Various problems such as shortage and unavailability of fuel, non-availability of drivers, breakdown of trucks, indiscipline among the drivers, non-availability of a representative from the MoE, etc. resulted in inadequate and inefficient distribution.
The Embassy of India had made a request for 1,500 and 3,000 desks to be assembled at Jalalabad and Mazar, respectively. We agreed to extend our help to the Embassy, though the situation in the two locations was quite different. Mazar has a majority of Uzbeks and Tajiks, who are supporters of the Northern Alliance and are friends of India. We could move about freely as there was no perceived threat there.
Space for Assembly:
As we had shipped the desks from Mumbai in a completely knocked down condition, they needed to be assembled in Kabul. For that, we required enough space with basic acilities such as electricity, water, etc. The space required was not available either at the Embassy nor with the Ministry. After the material started reaching Kabul, we were left with no alternative but to hire industrial space on the outskirts of Kabul, at a place called Pule-Charkhi, on a monthly rent of $2,000.
Distribution of Desks:
This was the biggest drawback and the weakest link in the entire process. The MoE perennially faced problems with availability of trucks, drivers, fuel, its representative, instructions for distribution, etc. Some obstacle or the other always threw the distribution process out of gear. We took it upon ourselves to personally follow up on a daily basis with the Ministry’s office. After ensuring that sufficient fuel was allotted to all the trucks, we had to accompany the trucks to the site, get the desks loaded onto the trucks and head for the schools for distribution. After ensuring that there were sufficient people available to help with offloading, we had to offload the desks and place them in classrooms. Often, schools didn’t have any manpower for offloading, and we had to suspend work and send our own workers along with the trucks.
Some schools pressed senior students into service for offloading. These students were available only when the classes were being held. So we had to schedule the deliveries taking into account the availability of senior students. In girls?schools, senior girls used to do the unloading.
The pace of work was very slow. On an average, only 150 desks were delivered per delivery day. Our daily production on an average was 400 to 450 desks per day. The gap between production and delivery time used to result in a huge backlog of undelivered desks. Often, we had to request the Embassy to speak to the MoE to speed up deliveries. However, despite the Embassy’s best efforts, matters did not improve. To break this slow-paced work schedule and bring in efficiency, we had to constantly keep following up with all concerned.
The Afghan Work Culture
The working hours in Afghanistan are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The truck drivers used to report for duty only at around 8.30 a.m. Left to themselves, they did not make any efforts to check on the availability of fuel, etc. That work was left to us. We, in turn, after reporting to the Ministry in the morning, used to take up the matter with M.S. Karamkhel, President (Administration), so that things would start moving. By the time we got the required quantity of fuel for the trucks, it would be around 10 a.m. It would take another hour for the first batch of trucks to arrive at the assembly site. Then the trucks would set off for the first trip to a school. All the schools where the desks were installed are, on average, 45 minutes?drive away from the site. Thus, by the time the first lot of desks were delivered, it would be noon, lunchtime for the drivers, which would last for an hour. By the time they resurfaced after lunch, it would be 2 p.m. In the next hour, the truck drivers would make one more trip before calling it a day. Closing time (4 p.m.) approaching, nobody, including the schools, had any enthusiasm for working. For all practical purposes, work would stop by 3.30 p.m. It was next to impossible to get them to work. And, since the drivers were not under the direct control of the MoE, they used to define their own work schedule.
The working hours become even shorter during the month of Ramzan. Add to this the breaks required for offering prayers five times a day. As our assembly schedule extended into the Ramzan period, we found hardly any work being done during that period. Hence we decided to finish the Jalalabad assemblies as the Consul-General of Jalalabad had assured us of the assembly site as well as the workers. When we went to Jalalabad, we were advised by the Consul-General of India not to venture out on our own, as Jalalabad has a prominent presence of Taliban sympathisers. We were escorted daily by armed guards to the assembly site. It took us 18 days to finish work in Jalalabad, when, ideally, it should not have taken us more than eight days.
We addressed our problems by involving MoE officials, whose interventions were sometimes effective.
Climatic Conditions and Infrastructure
With the onset of winter, snow was the order of the day. Often, in the extreme cold, machines did not function, thereby slowing the pace of assembly. Similarly, snowfall also deterred the delivery of desks to schools situated in remote areas.
Ministries in Afghanistan are strapped for resources. There are no proper roads. Many schools are without proper flooring and are housed in tents. For deliveries at Mazar, the Embassy requested the MoD to press into service some trucks to carry the material. Heavy snowfall in places like the Salang Pass (which leads to Mazar) adversely affected the movement of material to Mazar. Electricity problems are acute. We needed an uninterrupted electrical supply for our operations, as we were using power tools. Although we managed with a huge generator in Kabul, work suffered due to frequent power breakdowns in Mazar and Jalalabad.
The quality and finish of our desks was greatly appreciated by one and all. The happiness among students and the gratitude they showed were reflected in the warmth and respect with which they treated me during my visits to schools. All in all, we installed desks in approximately 75 schools in Afghanistan. The quantity of 20,000 is quite insufficient compared to the country’s requirement. Requests for more such aid to cater to the requirements of other provinces are being processed.
While I was in Afghanistan, I also bagged an order from NATO (total order value: $80,000) for storage units, tables and drawer units for 500 soldiers. Efforts are under way to appoint a dealer in Afghanistan to cater to business from government departments, non- government organisations (NGOs) and organisations connected to the United Nations.
My stay in Afghanistan gave me a good insight into Afghan society, its culture, food habits, attitude and other socio-political aspects.
Afghanistan, In My Eyes
I found that the Afghanis, by and large, are quite friendly towards Indians. Great hospitality is a part of their cultural ethos. Even a brief acquaintance is a good enough excuse for tea or a meal. Afghanis address each other with the utmost respect, with words such as Beyader (Brother) and Jaan (Dear), interspersed lavishly in sentences. The way they greet each other is quite elaborate. It starts with a handshake, followed by kissing each other on the cheek and then inquiring about each other’s well-being, using at least a dozen sentences!
Afghanis consider themselves to be true Aryans. The word “ARIANA?in the name of their national airline, Ariana Afghan Airlines, is a derivation of the word Arya. Afghanistan was known as Ariana once upon a time. Nearly 65 per cent of the population is Pashtun. Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara, etc. form the remaining 35 per cent. Pashtuns have been traditionally tribal. Pashtunwali, a distinctive set of customs and traditions, form part of the Pashtun culture. However, generally, Afghanis identify themselves more with the customs and traditions of the great Persian empire of yore. For example, Navroz, which falls on 21 March and heralds the beginning of spring, is celebrated with great fervour and enthusiasm, with the Government declaring three days?national holidays. Similarly, Farsi (a Persian language) is one of the two national languages along with Pashto. Exquisite carvings, intricate floral designs, etc., which are the hallmark of Persian art, are also evident in the architecture, carpets, etc.
In terms of food, which is non-spicy, one would not find much variety. Meat is their staple diet. Kebabs and Kabuli Pulao are the mainstay of the Afghani menu. Naan is the only variety in bread, although the shape and size varies from region to region. Not many choices are available for vegetarians. Potatoes, okra, brinjal and cauliflower are the only vegetables available. Afghanis don’t drink water during meals. However, after every meal, Kaava (piping hot black/green tea, without sugar and milk) is served and consumed in large quantities. Throughout the day it is common to see an Afghani sipping Kaava on some pretext or the other. Fresh fruits are available in different seasons.
Although the fighting, which lasted for more than 23 years (first against the former Soviet Union, then among themselves and finally against the Taliban), has broken Afghanistan’s backbone, its economy, it has not broken the willpower of its people. There is willingness on their part to shake off Talibanisation of society and join the mainstream. Pizza and burger parlours, Internet cafés and shopping centres have started springing up in Kabul. Youngsters are taking to trendy clothes, music, watching films and ?hold your breath ?drinking. Some of these things would have fetched the severest punishment during the Taliban regime. Schools have reopened so also have cinema halls. Most of Afghanistan is Bollywood-crazy. Hindi films, film stars, music, are great hits with Afghanis.
Even though there is no compulsion now to follow a particular dress code, nearly 95 per cent of women observe Purdah (covering oneself from top to toe) in Kabul and almost a hundred per cent women do so in other provinces. Afghanis are very possessive about their women. One dare not take liberties with an Afghani woman, for the reprisal may come in the form of beheading the offender. Rape and molestation are unheard of. On average, an Afghani has six to eight children. I came across an Afghani with 18 children, all from one wife!
Geographically, Afghanistan is largely a mountainous desert. One sees huge, rocky mountains without any greenery. Some provinces like Nangarhar (close to Pakistan) and Heraat (close to Iran) have rivers and greenery, which makes them wonderfully picturesque. Winter, which is quite severe, starts from October and lasts till February, the peak period being between November and January when the temperature dips to as low as minus 8 degrees Celsius. Snowfall during this period is quite common.
The presence of American and NATO forces have ensured law and order in Kabul and Kunduz. All the other provinces are controlled by different warlords. Although most of them have pledged their allegiance to the Karzai Government, none have surrendered arms nor have they merged their private armies into the central army. This situation has raised some questions among Afghanis, who ask: “What will happen after the U.S. is gone? Chaos and civil war??This prevents most investors from investing in this faction-ridden country. The absence of effective control of the Karzai Government beyond Kabul has given rise to many druglords who control a parallel economy thriving on opium farming.
It will take a long, long time for Afghanistan to stand on its own feet. Presently, NGOs and donor countries are pumping money into Afghanistan for developing its infrastructure. Most of the country’s requirements are met through imports. Unemployment has reached catastrophic proportions. Corruption and lawlessness are on the rise. Industrial and agricultural sectors remain under-developed. Factionalism and warlords persist. Against this backdrop, it would not be a folly to take a pessimistic view of the future of Afghanistan.
The writer is Dy. Manager (International Marketing) in the Furniture and Interiors Group. He handles furniture exports to Asian and African nations as well as to the Gulf.