Saturday, December 31, 2005

Don't Over-react To IISc..

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Indian Institute Of Science, Bangalore. Now A Terror Target.


Visiting America, you experience first-hand how paranoid this country is about terrorist attacks. Justifiably perhaps. My fear is that India could get there. Unjustifiably. When terrorists attack something as unassuming as the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, you really wonder where this is coming from. And how ?

I’ve passed the Indian Institute of Science dozens of times on my way to Raj Mahal Vilas. That’s where my family lives in Bangalore. The IISc is out of the way, its not even in the heart of Bangalore or the happening part of it. For terrorists (or whoever planned this) to cart themselves and their AK-47s there in order to spray bullets into an unsuspecting group of professors or students calls for some motivation. Or some confusion in purpose.

As others must be wondering too. Why IISc ? Does it represent the best India has to offer in scientific pursuit ? In many ways yes. To the extent that an educational institution should become a terrorist target. I really wonder. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) headquarters are not too far from here, maybe a five-minute drive away, further out of the city.

But the ISRO would be well guarded. And they chose the Institute of Science. Possibly, as some speculate, because there was a convention with high profile names speaking right then. But that's not the point here lest this be seen as an attempt to sift out the most juicy terrorist targets.

Messing Up Priorities

There are two somewhat distinct issues here. First, Bangalore. The city has become a unwilling poster boy for everything that’s good with India. Perhaps the IISc was seen as one manifestation of the success that is Bangalore. It was also a sitting duck as many other such installations are. And like most educational institutions (including the finest in paranoid America) the IISc did not have gates and guards.

Even before terrorist threats began appearing on the radar screen, regular VIP visits (Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin for starters) caused considerable hardship to ordinary Bangaloreans. Traffic jams which are bad as it is get worse when VIPs arrive, typically to visit Infosys on Hosur Road or Wipro at Sarjapur. My fear is that parts of Bangalore surely need more security as other places do, but it has to be focussed and specific. As do other locations in the country perhaps and that's what one is talking about, here.

The second issue is that we have a way of messing up our security priorities. Instead of guarding installations with the appropriate, ideal combination of human resources and technology, we guard all the wrong things, exhaustively. By often quoting archaic laws. A kid sitting on a computer anywhere in the world can get a birds eye view on an Indian airport. But photography is prohibited at all airports. Including to media, unless special and painstaking permissions are taken.

I wonder why your tickets are checked when entering the airport concourse. No airport that I have been to, elsewhere does that. Once you have checked in, security check can be extremely stringent as it should be. In all American airports, boots, sneakers and heavy shoes have to be sent through the x-ray machine.

A few weeks ago, on my way out of Boston Logan International on an internal flight, I didn’t take my laptop out of my bag before sending it into the x-ray machine. Apparently I should have that. For some reason, this jammed the system. Couldn’t figure out how, but it shut down the line for a good ten minutes.

After which the security guys asked me to stand away from the bags, ran a chemical swab over the bag before handing it back. This is the airport from which two aircraft took off on the morning of September 11, 2001 and turned into flying missiles. Presumably, Logan is as paranoid as any airport can be. And yet, no one checks your tickets when you enter the terminal all the way to the check-in counter.

White House Tour

My best example is about the White House in Washingon DC. Do you know that you can walk around the main White House fence largely unhindered. Surely this must be one of the best guarded places on earth. I counted three people who looked like guards, when I last passed through. In India, entire roads to politicians’ houses get barricaded. Why, I wonder, do our leaders cower in fear (or appear to do so) and hide under their collective beds ? Who are they more scared of, terrorists or a discontent electorate ? Anyway, for more on visiting the White House !

Which brings me back to first point, on the Indian Institute of Science. One fear is that nothing will happen at all. The other is that we will overzealously guard everything that we should not. Or stop allowing the free flow of people. America overdoes it too. And faces citizen protest and much public debate. Like the one about whether the airlines should begin allowing some items back onto hand baggage. But debate about public convenience is as big as public security.

On Bangalore, the important thing is to respond effectively but be judicious on allocating and utilizing resources for security purposes. No one is saying don’t guard the IISc, but don’t guard it to an extent that you have to fill a form in triplicate if you are a student who wandered by for some information. It’s a fear. Maybe its unfounded but its based on real experience elsewhere.

Security As A Way Of Life

Its like the airport example. The four guys standing with guns at the enterance can perhaps be better used at the security check-in. Either way, a paper ticket which you have 3 seconds to glance is hardly a deterrent to someone wanting to attack the terminal building. Even with ammunition. So, these four guys could be posted elsewhere.

The point being made is general, about a larger malady. Tightened security is getting to be a way of life in many countries. Unfortunately, India may have to follow. Things could get worse for Bangalore. There are already more threats floating around. I read today that security has been stepped up for the chief minister and a five-star hotel in Bangalore. Predictably, perhaps ! In a later post, though, I intend to argue how bad it can really get.

Unfortunately, we are not used to much debate in these areas. We tend to dismiss or reduce it to unpatriotic behaviour. That’s one thing I rarely see happening in western democracies like America or Britain. You can call George Bush all sorts of names for attacking Iraq or eavesdropping on your phone calls (as people do in full page advertisements) but no one will call you unpatriotic for doing that. Its another matter that Bush might ignore you totally.

But managing such threats effectively in a populous country will be a big challenge. Particularly since the concept of public ownership and service is a little fuzzy here. Unchecked, over zealous or mis-managed security will further discriminate against our own countrymen.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

I Broke The Law And Its Google's Fault..!

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Exhibit A: State of New Jersey vs GE

Looking back, I think I saw the state trooper’s car in what you could call the general eye-horizon. I saw it parked on a bridge as I sped beneath on the 16-lane New Jersey Turnpike. I was heading towards Washington DC and was hoping to make it to Baltimore by sunset. Then I saw it, moving off the bridge, speeding down the ramp and joining my side of the Turnpike.

The rest is not a blur. In seconds, the blue-red lights strobes were right behind me, the cop car tailgating dangerously but purposefully. I had cut back on the speed instinctively. But it was too late. In the rear view mirror, I could see the policeman shaking his face like he was saying, “Don’t buddy, don’t make it worse for yourself.” I looked again in the rear view to ensure I was the chap he was after and began slowing down.

Our cars pulled over. I rolled down the windows and allowed the freezing air into the car. He didn’t get off his car right away. First pulled out a microphone and spoke for an indeterminable length of time. Presumably, he called in the details; Ford 500, maroon colour, lone Asian driver. Hopefully he did not say maybe armed and dangerous or maybe he did. Then he got out of the car, turned back, went right around his car and then came over to my window on the right side. Interesting, had not noticed this specific move in the movies.

Emboldened I Am

“Good afternoon sir, your driving license and registeration please.” Handed over the stuff. “Okay, you were doing close to 90 miles in a 65 miles per hour zone. Are you in a hurry to get somewhere ?” “Not at all,” I said matter of factly. “Your hand was near your ear. Were you talking on the phone ?”. “No,” I said. On my side, huge trailers roared past, buffeting the car with their slipstream. The temperature on the dashboard console read roughly near 0 C.

To cut a long story short, he returned with the license to his car, spent an agonizing 5 minutes conferring with someone on the radio, wrote out something on a piece of paper and then returned with a ticket. By now, my name and photograph must have flashed through the entire INS database and my visa status checked. Maybe I was now noted down as a potential law-breaker. But nothing that one could do, now. We said our goodbyes and I was off, watching the speedometer very closely.

This was the first time I was driving alone in the US. I’ve always had company in the past. Its because I was driving alone and did not have a law-abiding local resident with me that I perhaps overshot the limit. And I was driving alone because I was emboldened by a software, not the car. You know it too, its Google Maps or MapQuest or Yahoo Maps. Powerful mapping software that empowers you totally. And that’s why I think I was so cheerfully tearing down the Turnpike that afternoon.

Nobody gives you directions in the United States anymore. “Will we meet for lunch ?” is all my friend in Washington DC asked. And he gave me his address, including the critical zip code. Any other time, not giving directions would be considered rude. I think its reached a point where giving directions will be rude because it will be a waste of time and an insult to the other party’s ability to navigate MapQuest/Google Maps. All you do is to punch in the zip code and it opens up in seconds.

Google Maps It Out

Nobody will necessarily accompany you if you can drive, because they need not show you the way. Merely hand over a print out. Invitations to social events are accompanied by a webpage with directions, printed from Google Maps or MapQuest. Its amazing how everyone trusts it so blindly. I suspect it also takes away an important conversation starter..”So, where do you stay ?” “Oh, I stay off Route 1, Exit so and so..” Now, I can see the smug one saying, “Zip Code so and so,” or handing over a printout.

I’ve used Mapquest before, back in India, for checking locations in the US. A few years ago I used MapQuest when driving through. It worked well. In some ways, its a little more friendly than Google Maps. But Google Maps has changed the equation because it combines with Local Search, satellite images and Google Earth. The combination of this makes finding directions more exciting and more simple. And you feel you don’t need to ask anyone for any thing.

Moreover, thanks to Google, whose search function you use in any case, drifting into Maps comes easily. Want to go to the corner store five minutes from the house but don’t know whether to take the first left or right when you leave the apartment complex. Well, try Google Maps. It paints the directions on the local map. Of course you can use satellite images or Google Earth to figure out how the store looks from space. And with Google Local you can even get the address, phone numbers and so on.

As Good As The Original

Want to visit the nearest malls, museums or movie halls near by. Find out their names on Yahoo Maps (for example), their addresses and directions to them from wherever you are. Find out about ATMs and gas stations as well. Yahoo has a dynamic map with the map pointer moving as you scroll down, lets say, ATM locations. There is a lot more which you can browse around.

I discovered that all private apartment complexes are registered with the mapping guys. So, even if there is a new apartment complex or condominium that’s come up, anywhere in the U.S.A, chances are it will be updated at the county level and picked up by the mapping guys instantly. So, maps take you right to the doorstep. Why then, would you want to ask for directions ? Unless there is a road blockage which the mapping software won’t tell you. There will be other sites that could do that, at least in some cities.

The software and the algorithms that power the search are only as good as the primary information they have. And that’s what is truly amazing. Doing it once is bad enough. And then updating it constantly and having the systems in place to do is not simple. And it happens. All the direction searches I have done on MapQuest, Yahoo and Google have turned out to be remarkably accurate for the smallest of gullies. Though they could take different approaches.

Can India Do This One ?

There is a lot of GIS effort on in India (which presumably would lead to similar databases) but our basic mapping is in such a mess that you wouldn’t know where to start. Or, its locked up in some Surveyor General’s office that you and I cannot access it. There are a few brave efforts like Escorts' city guides, I don’t know about the rest and would be happy to. If you want to learn about opening up seemingly private domain information to the public domain, learn from the United States.

Just imagine the huge savings in time and effort at every turn. I choose which ATM to go by looking at the distance on Yahoo Maps, or the nearest coffee shop. Or whether I should walk to the local library or wait for someone to pick me up. And which cab company I can call by seeing who is closest. Its amazing how completely in control over your destiny you are. But you should check speed limits as you drive. America takes speeding violations very seriously. Don’t think any of the map portals mention them specifically.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Should General Motors Invest In Gujarat..

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Harvard Square, Boston

The food is hot, as in spicy hot and the weather outside is cold, as in freezing cold. My two dining companions are Harvard Business school students, class of 2006. Both are Indian, one is a former entrepreneur and the other, to be one.

Tamarind Bay, the restaurant we are seated in, is located bang in Harvard Square, Cambridge, a ten minute walk from most Harvard campuses in Boston, in Massachussets. There are two good Indian restaurants in Harvard Square, almost cheek by jowl. The other is Bombay Club. Despite being a chilly weekday night with most sidewalks covered with snow, this one is packed to the gills. Indian food is almost an incentive to fight the biting cold, it would seem.

Between roti, chana dal and succulent mutton roganjosh, I am trying to understand why Rohit Jain sold off his stake in a software business he co-founded to come and study at Harvard. As I am trying to figure, among other things, why Ganesh Rengaswamy would give up his job to come study at Harvard. Actually the part about giving up a job is okay but going back to to run a dot company, in 2005, could be termed a little unusual, if not downright suicidal.

The Learning Trail

These are young Indians from India. Their answers range from the mercenary; consulting job that could pay upto $400,000 per year to the more cerebral, I want to focus on public policy in the long term answer. They cherish the journey of learning. As old as all this sounds, there is a vital difference in what they are learning outside their curriculum right now. And understanding this is critical for India’s colleges, management institutes and the ambitious corporations they serve.

I spent the earlier part of the evening sitting in the vast Spangler Hall (also in the HBS campus) with its rich five-star lobby like seating (all for students) speaking with Abhi Shah, my constant companion for this trip. Abhi is more than just a student at Harvard. He is associated with two India lobby foundations in Washington, as founder & chairman of the US-India PAC Youth Committee, co-founder and vice president of the US-India Business Alliance. He is also the president of the HBS Globalisation Club.

Both Abhi and Rohit represent clarity of purpose in their own ways. Rohit, an IIT engineer, says he wanted to find out how “the other side was.” My question to him: why did he sell a start-up business that seemed to be doing fine to go back to studying. “Actually, this was my third business,” he says. “Before that I was involved in a small refractory business and then in starting up a restaurant in Delhi,” says Rohit who graduated from IIT Delhi in 2001.

Studying & Self Realisation !

Rohit admits the decision to study at this point did not come easy. “There is a huge opportunity cost in coming here. An MBA degree is not like an engineering degree that’s more tangible. There are no real hard skills and its more general management.” And yet, for someone like him who wanted to work in new places and see the world, notably raw American capitalism, this has been fruitful, he says.

Abhi who is roughly of the same vintage says he’s found the journey fascinating. Is studying a little later in life, having worked a few years, like a self-realisation process, I ask ? Yes, he says, most folks here are doing a lot of soul searching on what they want to do and where they want to go. He quotes a figure, “80% of students rethink what they wrote in their statement of purpose (SOP) during admission,” he says.

More importantly, he points out, its Harvard’s case study method of teaching that has hooked him. “You are talking of 500 case studies in two years, many of them protagonist studies, with the CEO sitting right there. You can’t even dream of replicating this experience on your own.” The interesting thing, Abhi says, is that many students actually want to become entrepreneurs in the first year but by the second year have had a rethink. Incidentally, many such studies end with the students concluding the CEO in question should be fired.

More Than Connections

Ganesh, also an engineer originally, is confident his website, www.travelguru.com will work. He is perhaps the second or third travel website company to hit India with some momentum and obviously venture capital. He says having worked in Infosys for a few years, he wanted to do something on his own. His co-founder at travelguru incidentally finished up from Harvard last year.

So, what were these guys learning here and what were they going to bring back home, if they did return ? The answer is perhaps none of this. Okay, they were sure to bring back fresh connections with the mighty Harvard Business School alumni network, with over 65,000 active alumni - another statistical insight from Abhi. And of course, a brand name they could strut around with.

The answer emerged over a sandwich lunch with a senior HBS professor at the vast Baker Library dining rooms. “A few years ago, the big debate was on ethics and corporate governance. Today, we are trying to understand how to talk about issues like global terror and doing business in a multi-cultural world,” he said. According to him, these were real issues that corporations today were grappling with, particularly those present in multiple markets.

Invaluable exposure

Ganesh, Abhi and Rohit (among others) are unlikely to return visibly brighter and smarter. But they will return with a multi-cultural exposure and business experience that is invaluable in these times. I know Indian CEOs who will give an arm and leg for such managers. These youngsters will approach the Chinese threat the way it has to be approached, with respect and not bluster. And they will know how to better deal with a post 9/11 world.

Now, that’s very little to do with curriculum, how I see it. The challenge is now for our institutes, including the top rankers, to replicate similar learning environments. A few are attempting it but the desire to grapple with real world issues is limited, at least the sensitive ones. And its the sensitive stuff which really makes the minds work. Like, should General Motors continue to invest in Gujarat ? Just a case study.

The writer was visiting Harvard Business School as part of continuing research on a book on entrepreneurship. This article appeared in the Hindustan Times, Bombay, on Tuesday, December 20

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Can We Get The Weather Right, At Least ?

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Central Park, New York: We Knew This Was Gonna Happen

It was roughly -7 degrees C (low) in New York yesterday. Today, its likely to be closer to -1 C. It snowed and rained, in that order, last evening. The snow flurries began coming down roughly 5 pm or so, at least where I was driving across the Hudson river near New Jersey.

Today's been bright and sunny all day and temperatures went upto 7 degrees C. Actually its the first such day in weeks, after it snowed heavily on the morning of the 9th of December. The temperatures, dates and times have been noted down from weather reports which you can access anywhere in the world, including for hours on local television stations. The only difference is that each of these weather events were predicted and forecasted, down to the minute almost, anywhere between a day to a week before it happened. Its a degree of accuracy that's almost scary.

So the taxi driver out of JFK (I landed on an internal flight) told me not to venture out the next morning because it would snow at 5 am. He asked whether I would be suitably clothed for the ocassion if I did venture out at that time. "Hardly," I said. "Be advised that there will be heavy snowfall," he said. Of course, I was well advised and well prepared, like millions of other Americans on the north-east coast.

More Rights Than Wrongs

It was no different yesterday. A proposal to `steak out' was nixed in the morning because of the impending snow, sleet and rains in the evening. It was pretty clear by afternoon that this would be an evening of rest and recreation. Accordingly, the neighbouring video library (which stocks a shockingly large number of VHS tapes) was visited and two films including one by Oliver Stone called U Turn procured.

Of course, the weather forecasters don't get it right always, as my friends in America like to point out. The fact is that they got it right on two critical ocassions in the last ten days. For me, that's a better average than anyone can ask for. I always thought weather forecasting was a hit n miss game and everyone was okay with that. Since its the weather you can't or at least didn't expect to be dead on.

But that's not the case. The quality of forecasting at least as experienced by a visitor and non-resident like me is staggering. And for someone who still thinks Bombay could have been saved much of the suffering it endured on July 26, were the forecasts right, its a pity where the rest of the world has reached in this department. Particularly since most of India experiences secular weather patterns which only change three or four times a year.

Good Forecasts Save Lives

Predicting when it will rain and how much is critical not just to office goers in Bombay but people living along flood-prone rivers in eastern India and farmers who want to save their crops elsewhere. I caught Kapil Sibal saying recently the Indian weather prediction system would be overhauled to global standards. Over a Rs 1,000 crore is spent on it, he said.

Clearly, prevention costs less money. That does not mean you trigger so many false alarms that people stop believing it. In which case, we need to spend money first on getting a world class weather forecasting system in place, with the ability to collect and mine data of all sorts (including fog at Delhi airport). Effectively earmarked and budgeted, it will mean a fraction of next year's flood relief which need not be spent (at least in that magnitude). If nothing else, we might save a few more lives.


For more insights, visit my NY page on www.weather.com The software is undoubtedly cool but its the back end with all the real-time data assimilation and mining that makes it fascinating. I hope Kapil Sibal earmarks this and makes it his benchmark.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Terror In The Classroom

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The stately dining and meeting rooms of the Baker Library at the Harvard Business School seem a somewhat unlikely place to talk about understanding the problems in the middle east in general and fundamentalist Islam in specific.

Particularly when subjects like: should Cisco Systems sell internet routers to China, are being hotly debated in the classrooms right now. And while Cisco is seen as an important ethics case study (the routers help in cracking down on internet dissent), some of the larger concerns amongst some HBS faculty are to do with how to incorporate such subjects into their curriculum and teaching.

“Its not about Islam itself. Nor is about terrorism per se but every CEO with a global footprint has to think about it, understand it and factor it into his calculations of doing business,” a senior HBS professor told this writer over a ham and cheese sandwich lunch. “And we have no choice but to look at more closely,” he added, almost in a whisper.

Prophetic Words

His words turned out to be prophetic, well, nearly. Yesterday, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud announced a $20 million grant to Harvard University, a stone’s throw away, and Georgetown university in Washington to create programmes on understanding Islam.

“Harvard’s Islamic studies program will enable generations of students and scholars to gain a thorough understanding of Islam and its role both in the past and in today’s world. Bringing the understanding between East and West is important for peace and tolerance,” the Prince said in a statement.

Harvard will now create a university wide program on Islamic studies, recruit new faculty members and provide more support for graduate students. Harvard took six months to decide and ran the Prince’s proposal through its university’s gift policy committee, which meets once a month.

While Harvard University’s Islamic thrust may not have a direct bearing on the Business School’s curriculum right away, HBS faculty say they must bring in a greater understanding of the world as will be experienced by their students, much the same way, ethics and corporate governance became critical issues post-Enron. This they say is one of their biggest challenges in coming months and years.

What's The Big Deal !

Alwaleed has chosen his universities well. Sitting through a HBS class some days ago, one could not have experienced greater diversity in nationalities and cultures -a perfect crucible for a hands-on understanding of the complex global world (yes, it does unfortunately sound like a cliché) for future leaders.

Complex it must be, considering that the only time people kicked up a row like the one about Cisco's routers were when someone sold a few F16 fighter jets to a neighbour.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Argue Him To The Ground, If You Can

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“Welcome him and argue him to the ground,” challenges Bombay boy Homi Bhabha, the bearded, greying professor who runs the Humanities Centre at Harvard University. The subject obviously is Sen's latest book, The Argumentative Indian.

Dr Amartya Sen, seated demurely to his right on a small table looked on. They were both on a small stage at the Arthur M Sackler Musuem auditorium in Boston two nights ago. “I think its going to be a remarkable evening,” says the scholarly Bhabha. To which Sen responds, “Well that depends, remarks can be of many kinds.”

Sen has a classic, dry sense of humour. On this cold night, as he faces a packed hall overflowing into the aisles, he is in full form. “I am too contaminated by my book to discuss it. What made me do it ?” He goes on to explain, finding occasion to take a potshot at India’s education system. Actually I’ve always been fascinated by the culture of the sub-continent. I wanted to study Sanksrit and Maths. But the schools determined that you can’t do both so I settled on Math.” Since then, says Sen, he’s been wanting to return to `Sanskrit’.

If it were not Sen, you would think he rambles, his voice rising to a thunder, suddenly dropping to a near whisper, causing some transmission losses. He drifts, darts, races, often playfully, across subjects, themes, cultures, historical periods, time and space and can shift from a serious, sober note to humour without warning. And yet, every line is worth examination and study, often deeper introspection and thought. Here go some glimpses.

Are Indians Over Influenced By The British Legacy ?

“I think the importance of the British was exaggerated by the anti-imperialists and post-colonialists. There is a tendency to concentrate on just 200 years, which is too short a period in the history of India.”

Interestingly, listening to some Harvard Business School (not Indian) students’ views on India’s IT success the next day, the contrast was noteworthy. Many felt that the British legacy of language is one of the key reasons for India’s success. Others even felt that British legacy and systems were instrumental in giving India an edge, possibly a reference to the legal system. Most of them had never been to India.

Back at the Sackler Musuem, the topic is democracy. The question is: Do we owe it to the British too ? Sen says over a 100 countries emanated by the empire that was Great Britain. “And yet, instinctively, I think its been far more successful in India,” he says. He also links this obviously to the argumentative Indian.

Sen feels the argumentative tradition is not unique to India. The tradition of debates exists all over the world, he says. He refers to the Bhagwad Gita and the debate between Arjuna and Krishna. "Finally, Krishna pulled the wool over Arjuna's eyes and convinced him that it was duty to fight the war. But the debate and argument was part of the process," says Sen. "The final point is often rejected but the debate is in place."

Hindutva Not Looking For Relevance

Sen continues to rally against the BJP's Hindutva. Hindutva was not looking for relevance, they were looking for power, he says quite firmly. “They are ignorant of Sanskrit,” he says in another context. He quotes an example to illustrate the role of the Mughals in vitalizing Indian culture. The Upanishads were translated by Shah Jahan’s eldest son, who learnt Sanskrit, into Persian. This was how the Upanishads were introduced to the Europeans since they knew Persian.

In a similar context, he recalls a Delhi-based Indian fortnightly calling him a westernized Indian or words to that effect after he won the Nobel prize. “I called up the editor who in turn claimed it was not him but his deputy editor who wrote that. “I said, please tell him to come to my hotel and we will discuss this. But on one condition. We will only speak in Sanskrit.”

Later, to a question on the contrast between the liberalizing economy and the occasional bouts of xenophobia and parochialism seen in India, Sen says, “It pains my heart to give credit to the BJP for anything, but if anything, they maintained a strong focus on the market economy.”

Sen spends considerable time on what must be another pet subject: Multiple identities. "Each of us has multiple identities, from being an Indian, to a Harvard professor to a lover of Bengali poetry," he says. Bhabha and he start off on a lively debate on the subject as well, the former asking why the love of Bengali poetry constituted another identity. It was time for another story.

"What If Your Grandfather Was A Murderer ?"

When the Fascists were recruiting in Italy in the early 20s, one Fascist recruiter asked a young man and potential recruit why he was not keen to join the Fascists. “That’s because my father, grandfather and great grandfather were Socialists,” said the young man. Asked the Fascist recruiter, “Are you saying than, that if your father, grandfather and great grandfather were murderers, you would be a murderer too.” Well no, said the young man, “In that case, I would join the Fascist Party.”

A young man from the front row asks a winding, complex question on the clash of inner identities, the sort which run through your mind when seated alone in a dark, closed room. Sen’s response, “I would suggest you first get out of the dark room or look for the light switch.”


The Arthur M Sackler Musuem

Notes: The Harvard University Art Musem’s Sackler Museum houses collections of ancient, Islamic, Asian, and later Indian art. For what its worth, I discover that Homi Bhabha and I hail from the same college, Elphinstone in Bombay. Bhabha went on to Oxford. In my time, working just after college was more fashionable.

The Argumentative Indian in Boston

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Its fascinating how the concept of The Argumentative Indian can be projected as a concept to other cultures and communities to adopt and embrace rather than for just Indians to read about. Try telling the Chinese !

Coming up, more on how Nobel prize winner Dr Amartya Sen did precisely that and kept a packed audience enthralled during a talk hosted by Harvard's Humanities Centre at the Sackler Musuem auditorium in Boston last night - the biting cold obviously not deterring his fans, including this writer.

Here is one Sen gem from his speech. What did social reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1883) say on the real terror of death. "Just think," he said, "When you die, others can go on speaking but try as you may, you cannot argue back."

Amartya Sen incidentally is no longer Master, Trinity College, London. Like most other people, presumably he found the calling at another organisation greater. Actually, he returned to his previous job, as Lamont University professor at Harvard University's Department of Economics, in January 2004.

I always wonder whether you can go up and ask a Nobel laureate, "What exactly made you quit your previous job ? Was it compensation or other issues ? What are the attrition levels like at Trinity ? Did the organisation have a balanced scorecard approach ? Now that you've returned, where do you see yourself in five years ?"

The writer is visiting the Harvard Business School, Boston for the next few days. Needless to add, having tried all attempts to gain admission and failed, he is now resorting to Indian ingenuity to gate-crash a few classes.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Great Indian Foreign Exchange Trap

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Walking through Shanghai’s spanking new Pudong International Airport on my way out of the country last month and having found that I still had some Yuan left with me, I stopped at the foreign exchange kiosk to return the currency. “Can I have the ATM receipt or the original receipt for the currency ?” asked the lady behind the counter. I did not and I said so. “Sorry, we can’t take the currency,” she said. That was it, no further discussion.

I walked on and entered one of the rows of gleaming duty free shops and bought a CD by a famous Chinese pop singer. I asked the counter girl for her recommendation, she pointed with a smile. No questions asked obviously about the source of the currency. It struck me, as I walked on to the departure gates that if there was one area where China has not evolved, it’s the financial system. More on that at some other point but if there is one area that China is seemingly lagging behind the rest of the world, its this. But then I have repeatedly discovered, on matters of forex control, India can be worse.

Leaving once again, this time from Delhi, I stopped to buy foreign exchange. Let met put it simply. Buying foreign exchange in India is still a most cumbersome, painful and irritating task involving the generation of mountains of paperwork which, I can bet a thousand bucks (in dollars) no one ever reads. I wonder whether any self respecting law breaker (in the currency domain) will fill forms to pull out foreign exchange.

What Do We Do ?

Most currency shops not only make you fill out lengthy A2 (the name) forms and sign them but also take Xerox copies of your passport to store away in some vault which, presumably, the underworked Reserve Bank will scan at the end of the year. I mean they have to be underworked if they have the time to look at even a thousandth of the mounds of A2 forms and Xeroxes of passports. And if they do take time out to scan them, there is a bigger problem at hand.

If you have the time and don’t want copies of your passport floating around the countryside, all you have to do is source the same currency without a `bill’. Having tried it, its easier done than said. And since most of this activity happens (in Bombay) within roughly 2 square km of the Reserve Bank of Indian’s imposing headquarters, presumably they know about it too.

I usually ask the counter clerks why they do it ? Typically the answer is, “Rules sir, what do we do ?” True, what do they do ? Getting a licence to transact currency is not easily got and no one wants to speak up for fear of regulatory retribution. But with a $150 billion (China has over $600 billion) sloshing around in our reserves and crowing about it too, it’s a farce if we keep treating dollars like a flock of precious pigeons that will take flight to never return if set free.

As If Our Airports Are Not Bad Enough

The problem is not the paperwork as much as the delays it causes. Getting forex at Indian airports is the most time-consuming, frustrating task that you can possibly experience in a journey apart from of course, the airports themselves. If I may digress for two paragraphs, I can now add Kolkata to my list of personally experienced dysfunctional Indian airports. Try this for ingenuity: a full international flight comes in and the baggage is sent out on two separate caroussels to “speed up” the process.

Result: passengers start darting around like goal keepers trying to catch a ball that may fly in, thankfully the baggage is crawling and not flying but the pandemonium is no less. The belts themselves were perhaps built when we were still flying Avros, Caravelles and Dakotas so any aircraft with a passenger capacity larger than 25 is obviously difficult to handle.

Actually no, the carrousels themselves are okay sized (just okay) but they move with such amazing sluggishness, you wonder whether the folks who operate them take tea breaks whilst carting the baggage from the aircraft onto the terminal building. This happened last month. And I wonder how `modernising’ airports can solve this problem when half the (if not the whole) problem is with the people who man them.

Time To Change

Anyway, the miserable passengers who have no choice but to buy forex in India stand in lines that take at least 15 to 20 minutes and then spend an average of five to 10 minutes each at the counter going through the paperwork. The counter person rarely moves very quickly, given the very deadening nature of his or her task. On most occasions, the third or the fourth chap in the line has got restless and started shouting. On one occasion, it was me. The clerk didn’t give a damn. After all, the procedures were not his.

Should forex counters not maintain records. Sure they should, though countries with liberal forex flows don’t even bother with that. But if our guys insist on keeping records, why not just take the passport number, enter it into a form on the computer, store and print a receipt and give it back, with the currency. So, instead of 5 minutes, you can do it in perhaps 45 seconds or less. That’s how long it takes if you were to change currency in Bangkok or Heathrow airports, for example.

Most normal people `arrange’ for forex before they leave, legally or illegally. Forex shops even send delivery boys to your house with dollars so as to ensure you are spared the agony later. Of course, they still make you fill the paperwork and make the notings in your passport. Since it happens in the comfortable confines of your house, you are less inclined to protest.

Times have changed. Even the RBI knows that. So why must we persist with systems that are designed to frustrate or better still ensure non-compliance ? The RBI to be fair is reasonably pro-active. But this remains an area unattended and capable of making life most difficult for the ordinary traveler.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

China May Beat India In IT, With Help From Guess Who ?

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Last fortnight, I ended by saying that the only possible feel-good in China for the serious Indian visitor is the reception that local IT companies give you. The story ended at Beijing’s own Silicon valley, the Zhongguancun Software Park, as we were listening to a presentation being made by the CEO of Beyondsoft, a Chinese IT services company.

But there is more to this story and its about the somewhat unpredictable future. Can China beat India in IT ? Does it matter whether they will ? The answer to the second question may not be very relevant but the foundation for the first is very much in place in Zhongguancun or Z Park as it is called on the north west end of the city.

Z Park is not and does not claim to be all that China has to offer for IT services. But its an important showcase, like Bangalore is one. The pace at it which it is growing is noteworthy and is all controlled, unlike Bangalore. The official taking us around explained that the park was a total of 1.4 square km of which two-thirds was completed.

Next year, they would start construction on a second stage (across the road so to speak) with an acreage of 1.6 square km. Most of the big brands including Microsoft, Oracle and Lenovo are here in force. And so are now, Infosys and TCS.

Can Planning Do It Here Too ?

The question I’ve been asking myself is, a country like China has done so much through focussed, purposeful and determined planning, can it repeat the same miracle with IT as well ? It’s a question to which I wish the answer were simple but it’s not. China is a bulldozer economy that somehow seems to succeed in everything it sets out to do. One of its many focus areas is IT and its pretty clear it wants to get ahead here too.

The Z Park in specific and this part of Beijing city represents everything that any state with a single minded focus will achieve once its identified the ingredients. Some of the physical ingredients are clear to see, a sprawling `park’ with a garden-like environment (roughly 55% of the park) with birds, pools, lakes, swimming pools that you are encouraged to `jump into’ and on-campus gyms.

The distinguishing part about the campus here in contrast to those back home, to this writer, was the lack of fortress like walls, stern guards and large captive generator sets and so on. You turn off the main road, pass a little kiosk and a largish tombstone with the park’s name and a etched map and you are in. In any case, all infrastructure is shared, unlike in most parts of India where every company (wanting a large set up) puts up its own food courts and the like.

Can The X Factor Help Us ?

Rajeev Purnaiya, who successfully ran telecom solutions company CyberBazaar before selling it to Webex was with me as we gazed in wonder at a scaled down model of the Z Park in the main reception area and offices. “I don’t know,” he said as I asked him the inevitable question, “It’s the X factor that this place does not have and Bangalore does. It’s the spark which drives the story back home.” He has a point. Its tough to disaggregate at a later stage but the missing link is what holds it all together.

But again, the Chinese seem to be pouring in the intangible ingredients for the X factor at a huge pace. First Z Park is surrounded by some of China’s best universities, Beijing University and Tsinghua University, the latter being more science and technology inclined. Last month, the university, which has designed two satellites and claims a host of inventions, saw at least three VIP visitors ranging from 2000 Physics Nobel Laureate Zhores I. Alferov who addressed students on Quantum Electronics to California Governor Arnold Swarzenegger (follow your dreams) and finally Nasdaq President & CEO Robert Greifeld on entrepreneurship.

The stress on the soft side, a critical ingredient for young workforces is high. Z Park brochures speak of 200 restaurants with cuisine from all over the world nearby, ranging from French foie, Mexican fajitus to local Peking duck. And of course, if nothing else, you can land up at Bar Street near Houhai in central Beijing, a long line of live music bars and speciality restaurants which offer a complete international experience, as we discovered.

Would India Dare Advertise Its Nightlife ?

The only perhaps jarring note on Bar Street are the somewhat aggressive beggars outside, but it didn’t appear like the culture police were circling the area waiting to crack down. It struck me then that no Indian IT company will dare advertise nightlife in Bangalore or Chennai. For a simple reason, its there one day and not the next. Or for that matter that their campus is 55% landscaped gardens and pools for fear of someone asking, “What do you need gardens and pools for, are you producing software or gardens?”

The other point worth noting is that the Chinese education system seems more welcoming to Indian IT education players (A piece focussing on this thought is coming soon) like NIIT and Aptech (each following a slightly different model) in allowing them to not just set up shop but also work with universities in tuning their curricula. Note that there is no talk or fear of educational imperalism.

For the record, total Indian IT market in 2004 was s $17 billion (projected at $22 billion for 2005) but that includes IT services ($9.2 billion), BPO and domestic ($4 billion). The China IT exports figure is only $2.8 billion and that includes embedded software exports, so IT sourcing is small. And yet, China’s overall software sector (including domestic) is expected to reach $36 billion this year, way ahead of India.

Don't Ask, Just Watch Where Infosys Is Going !

The story is not as much about software as it is, once again, about deciding on something and going after it. Indian IT entrepreneurs are obviously convinced of the China IT story. Infosys has said it will hire 2,000 people in China by next year and aims to take that to 6,000 in five years. TCS, Cognizant, Satyam and Patni will follow with large numbers.

Incidentally, TCS and Infosys employ close to 50,000 people each today whereas the largest Chinese IT services company employes under 7,000. So, chances are that the Chinese may well overtake Indian IT by 2010 or whenever or for sure come bloody close. The only difference is that the Indians will help them do it.

The author was part of a CII-Young Indians delegation to China last month. He can be reached at govindraj@datelinebombay.com. This piece also appeared in the Hindustan Times's Bombay edition on Tuesday. You can reach him at govindraj@datelinebombay.com

Friday, December 02, 2005

Emigration Clearance Required For China, You Must be Joking !

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A few months ago, while checking in for a flight to Dubai, I was told by the counter girl that she would not check me in. The reason was that my passport did not have a ECNR stamp (supposed to be given to any genuine 12th standard student or graduate from an Indian university).

The matter escalated to the immigration manager who hemmed, hawed, expressed much disappointment in educated people not being aware of the law and after much haranguing, gave me a temporary clearance. This, after I, brandished copies of my IT returns (I was forewarned about the hurdle at immigration since the ticket was bought just a day before), pointed out that I was not likely to work as a driver with a sheikh or a menial worker whose passport might get confiscated and my work was only for two days (do see my tickets). So, he or the Government of India did not have to worry about `protecting’ me from being sold for cheap in the middle eastern job market.

It was half an hour to go and the aircraft doors were about to close. I was now mentally ready to stay back in my dear country which cared so much for my welfare outside that I was tempted to ask if my job would ever be protected inside. Even the last, last boarding calls had stopped. But lo and behold, the immigration officer himself walked back with me to the check-in counter to request the airline people to allow me in. So, after putting me through 45 minutes of agony, he did his kind deed for the morning.


Look Ma, No ECNR


For various reasons, this writer has the distinction of not having a ECNR (Emigration Check Not Required) clearance on his passport. This is despite several legitimate attempts to get it knocked off. They include the travel agent producing my graduation mark sheet, my three years of income tax returns only to be told only the graduation certificate and the original copies of the returns would do.

What, I asked my travel agent, about my PAN card ? There is a number there with a photograph, which clearly shows I am registered and filing taxes. Why can’t the passport officer or the protectorate or emigrants hook up with the Income Tax database and verify for himself ?

“Sorry sir, they can’t do it, you have to go yourself and explain or get the originals.” How in the lord’s name is one expected to produce certificates from crumbling universities (Bombay) or stand in line at the passport office starting 8 am with originals of my IT filings. Sure I can do it, but why should I ? Why does the government collect taxes from me, put me through hell while paying them and not have the common sense to share that information with its own bretheren ?


Temporary Suspension..


There is an option. You can get your ECNR temporarily `suspended’ by going to a small building in one corner of north Bombay housing the relevant arm of the Ministry of Labour. There, on showing your passport and return air ticket, you are given a one-month relief on the ECNR. That means you can travel to all the aforementioned countries, though there is no real proof otherwise that you would return, ever.

Four days before I was leaving for China last month, my alert travel agent was on the line. “Have you got your ECNR done ?” she asked. No, I said, wanting to add I was now thinking of suing the Ministry of Labour for even thinking it could protect me when its Ministry of Surface Transport (presumably a sister concern) has broken my vertebral column with its terrible roads. Sure, some roads are state subjects but so what.

“You need to have one,” she said or you can’t go there. I then remembered the travel agent getting it done for my previous visits as well, so back went my passport. I was spared personal agony (though another page on my passport is gone) as the travel agent got it done but this surely took the cake. How can the Government of India ask Indians to have an ECNR for China, a country where its own residents can’t move freely from one place to another ?


Labour Belaboured


The point is that labour markets have changed in the last few years. The middle east continues to be tricky in more ways than one. But not south east Asia and surely not China. For one, China is not a place you can be smuggled in to work in a sweat shop (I would surely like to know if you can be). For one, there are enough Chinese to work in sweat shops.

More simply, in China or South Korea (exempted after an exhaustive review), as an Indian, you will stand out from a mile. No one may look at you oddly but that does not mean you have blended with the dormitories of Shenzhen or wherever. And finally, do trust the Chinese government to do a better job of managing migratory flows (of its own and outsiders) than your own Ministry of Labour.

And this is when the Al Qaeeda is picking up Indian truck drivers and using them for target practice when it wants to. Believe me, if more Indians are not getting kidnapped in Iraq or Afghanistan or being targeted in Saudi Arabia, its because they really don’t have the same `market-value’ as unfortunately, some westerners do. As a friend working in a middle eastern oil company and who travels regularly to Riyadh told me, “As an Indian, you have nothing to fear, but as a westerner, its tough. You have to constantly live under tight security.”


The Emigration Act, 1983


I digress. As always, there is a law which in some meritorious way, makes sense. The Emigration Act, 1983 provides a framework that hopes to regulate emigration of Indian workers overseas, particularly those on contractual basis and seeks to safeguard their interests and ensure their welfare. These words are the Government’s not mine.

Some of them unfortunately do need safeguarding, but that’s because this country for all its great IT and manufacturing resurgence story does not offer them better opportunities. I don’t see why a normal person with a family would want to become a truck driver in Iraq. I always thought the attraction for those kind of jobs in that part of the world was high in the eighties and early nineties and started waning since. I was totally wrong and the figures are if anything startling. Anyway that’s a larger issue.

In practice, the law its an utter disaster. And I return to my original point. Forget the destination country, I can be stopped at immigration and sent back if this I am not able to prove something the government makes my life miserable in trying to prove. And no, my PAN card won’t do, because it belongs to another department.

Nor will my credit cards because quite possibly, the poor and uknowing banks who issue them usually do so to jobless workers wanting to flee to the United Arab Emirates. And nor will the government put a man at the airport to do the stamping for passengers who have the proof in their hands (permanently and non temporarily) but not the time to visit them personally.


Managing 1.3 Billion People


I am tempted to say this is another thing we should learn from the Chinese, how to manage people flows. No, its not about (as some would like to believe) strip searching and flogging people people who desert their posts or show up in the wrong county. Its about having a nationwide citizen database that works, is inter-connected and knows exactly who deserves to go where and why.

And guess what, the system does not make them sweat in long lines to prove who they are. I know, I asked a local Chinese citizen in Beijing. Even a lost citizen's card is replaced reasonably quickly in your local government office.

This is a nation of 1.3 billion people so it must not be easy. But the determination to make something work, as always, is strong. Our Ministry of Labour and its parent the Government of India should take some lessons here and not make me run around the passport office in circles.

http://moia.gov.in/showsublink.asp?

http://www.airportsindia.org.in/aai/immigration/ecnr-f.htm

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The China Miracle: It's Still Work In Progress

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A Pucca Hut Amidst Residential Complexes Outside Beijing (Pix By Author)


It was probably on one of Shenzhen’s landscaped sea facing promenades, driving back into city from the factories of one of China’s largest computer hardware makers that it dawned on me that we are never going to be like China, not in my generation for sure.

First, to use an analogy, comparing ourselves with China is really akin to running a 100 metre race against Jamaican Asafa Powell (9.77 seconds world record) when the last time you ran competitively was in school or something close to that. It’s a complete waste of time because you will perhaps cover ten metres when Powell will be hitting the finish line.

Going on to speculate whether Mr Powell injected steroids to ensure is win is a further waste of time. Instead, India should look for a different track and field event, like a relay race or even shooting, where we have a ghost of a chance. And yes, we should stop trying to speak about their warts in the same breadth as their success, it only lulls us to further complacency.

Don't Draw Conclusions, Yet

That’s because China, as this writer has concluded in his limited intelligence, is Work In Progress. And in any project that is WIP, you can’t begin drawing conclusions like it was a done deal. At least the Indians don’t have any business doing so.

Of course, China has limited or no religious freedom, you can’t rave and rant against the government like you can on prime time television in India, there are restrictions on who goes where (Houko permits), you can’t pile on to a city like Shenzhen and Shanghai unless you have a job and of course, there is a good chance that if your little house in a big city is coming in the way of `development’, it will be razed down, though you will be given an alternative, possibly 20 km away.

And yet, everywhere I went, I met Chinese who were going about their business coldly and methodically and Indians who while admiring all that the Chinese have achieved, were quick to point out that all this came at a price, that development was only confined to urban China and that no development was worth the price that was being paid. And that seems to be a problem more than a smart observation.

Why Infrastructure ?

“Would you prefer the China model where you get all the glitzy infrastructure but can get thrown into jail for free speech or the Indian model where you have free speech, freedom but not the development ?” asked a recently posted senior Indian public sector banker over dinner at an Indian restaurant in downtown Shanghai. According to him, there was no mix or match, it was either, or.

One wonders. To ask some plan Joe questions. Since most of the amazement centers around infrastructure, why is China building these highways ? Surely, It can’t be because some party members in Beijing want to take summer trips to their villages in the less developed north west China.

Note that China now has over 1.9 million kilometers of highways (we have 58,000 km) and over 30,000 km of expressways. There is a $241 billion plan to connect all provincial cities, large cities with population over 500,000 and small cities over 200,000 with expressways in 30 years. Even today China claims only 99.6 per cent connectivity.

Sunil Mishra, Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) man in Shanghai says he has visited 17 provinces (in 23) and over 30 cities in China in the last year or so. His visits are largely to understand, on behalf of Indian business, where the new opportunities lie. He thinks Western China is where Indian businesses should be heading now.


Spreading Prosperity


More importantly, Mishra says, the remotest of towns and cities he’s visited, right upto a place called Khasgar (autonomous region of Xinjiang) in central Asia, bordering Kazhakhastan, the roads are as good as any in prosperous east China. “I was amazed when I visited Urumqi (the capital), not only was there an excellent road network but also five five-star hotels.” This writer struggled for an analogy but would guess its perhaps like saying Guwahati or Kohima had the same road network as Delhi.

So, if China has built and continues to build roads into the hinterland, it wants prosperity to spread and further economic integration. At a point of time, its unlikely to have achieved the final result, whatever that might be, but its better than what it was before. Or, as an Indian bureaucrat in China told me, given the country’s track record of peasant revolts, they have little choice but to reach out to the hinterland quickly. Presumably, Indian politicians live with similar fears, vis-√†-vis the ballot box, or do they not ?

Question Number Two. Is the average Chinese better or worse off today ? What do you think ? Okay, do they cower in fear because they might be dragged to Tinamen Square and shot in public view for saying the wrong thing. Not quite. The Chinese we met are affable, open to describing conditions as they are, the processes that drive them, occasionaly admitting to corruption but seem quite happy with their lives.

Dissent Is Tough

Open dissent is not encouraged. There is a definite restraint in expressing views, no one was willing to debate what would happen if the one-child norm was violated, “We can’t do it,” is all at least two young Chinese said. And perhaps that’s where the problem is. Equally, they are not the most comfortable discussing such views with foreigners, which is what we are to them. Indians rise most honourably to such occasions, but the Chinese don’t.



Young Chinese Soldiers On The Great Wall: "From Here, We Are Off To Wal Mart !"


On the famed Shanghai waterfront (The Bund) with its breathtaking view of Pudong’s massive skyscrapers on one bank and classic British heritage stone buildings on the other, young couples hold hands and walk around, absorbed in conversation and each other and in some cases, doing a few more intimate things. This did not look like a communist state where the state would come after you for moral turpitude.

China has a model of growth. It has a communist system which did not deliver economically and is doing so now. That’s to the nation’s credit. I live in a democracy where the roads outside my house are in constant disrepair, because some corporator does not care or is eating money. The model to my mind has worked, in fits and starts. I love my country, I live here, and I am happy I can protest all I want, though fat good it has done me. So, I would rather not point to the warts in China but see the learnings I can take back.

Skyscrapers & Huts

Driving out of Beijing city, in the middle of large clumps of residential complexes, stood small rows of pucca huts (see picture), an indication that prosperity is relative. In other parts, a little away from Shanghai, you can see even thatched houses which look a little unusual considering the quality of road and the kind of vehicles on them. Clearly, there are disparities. And that’s because its WIP, not the final product.

If you want to feel good about India, the place to visit is Beijing’s sprawling Zhong Gun Cun Science & Technology Park. The big names like Oracle and Lenovo are already here and so are mid size software outsourcing firms like Beyondsoft. A clear appreciation for India’s IT success hung in the air. Founder & CEO Wang Bin admitted China had a long way to go, particularly since the people and the skills in that magnitude were not just not there.

But then, he wanted to learn from India. And wanted to explore tie-ups. It did not strike me that he would go home and tell his wife, I met these Indians, they are smart, passionate and they’ve cracked the software business. But oh, they have 350 million people below poverty line, so its okay.

This article appeared in the Hindustan Times, Bombay on 23 November. The writer was part of a CII Young Indians delegation to China and this is his third and also the longest visit to that country.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Do IT Clusters Foster Inequality ?

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A few months ago, walking out of the Infosys Technologies Bangalore HQ from its main road exit and towards the car parked off the bustling Hosur road, one couldn’t help but notice the little `bazaars’ doing brisk business on the side lanes, mostly with locals. The vendors range from robust young men hawking pots and pans to frail old women haunched over small heaps of leafy vegetables, eking out a surely less than modest living.

The contrast between the dollar riches generated behind the fortified walls of Infosys just metres away or for that matter the scores of other high technology campuses and the living and working standards (it may not be poverty) of the people bordering them has existed for a while, but has rarely been seen as a contradiction, not to us folks living here at least.

The reasons are well known. IT companies have created thousands of high paying jobs, given a terrific leg-up in India brand equity and, collaterally, become a beacon for doing business the right way, individually and collectively. Their detached existence from the immediate environment is, rightly, seen as an imperative for their efficiency and success.

Time For Tough Questions ?

Yet, for all the glory and gains the hi tech companies and the clusters they inhabit have brought to the country, perhaps its time to play devil’s advocate and ask some questions. First, do hi-tech clusters really benefit the local populace and economy over the long term And second, should Indian IT in this regard take a few lessons from manufacturing ?

Former prime minister Deve Gowda’s recent outbursts against Infosys in specific are worth viewing in this context. Whatever his intentions, is Gowda, like all shrewd and perceptive politicians, attempting to bring to the fore undercurrents of discontent that are already flowing in the polity. If so, should not the IT industry find and focus on the basic premise here rather than the battle. And see Gowda’s tantrums as a warning bell of sorts.

Before addressing these points, its instructive to revisit the IT (particularly the big guys) industry’s two-pronged approach to development. The first is to run highly efficient, world class enterprises that create jobs, attract more capital, fuel local GDP and create prosperity. The second arm of the model involves returning the profits generated, or parts of it, in some way to the society.

There are two aspects to the second arm. Most if not all the time and effort expended for this is intermediated either individually or through trusts. For instance, Infosys’ CFO Mohandas Pai drives Akshay Patra, a successful, privately funded mid-day meal scheme that has its genesis in Bangalore but is now a nation-wide effort. Infosys and Satyam Computer both have independent trusts that work with villages in their respective states and do commendable work.

We Want A Quick Flow, Not A Trickle !

So, it cannot be said that IT companies or their employees are not working for or with society and the like. But it could be stated that the “We believe in the trickle down theory” corporate approach may not mesh well with a polity that is increasingly demanding gratification here and now. “There is no patience for trickle down. In this age, inequity cannot be tolerated for more than a day,” says Boston Consulting Group India chief Arun Maira.

A chance meeting recently with German politician (Member of European Parliament) Dr Jan Christian Ehler threw up some interesting thoughts. According to him, from a government-state point of view, every Euro spent on overall infrastructure had brought back greater gains over time than have hi-tech clusters, at least in Germany. His argument; hi-tech clusters do not work over the longer term, at least in isolation.

This writer tried to follow that thought up with Harald Bathelt, Professor of Economic Geography at University of Marburg (also in Germany). Bathelt, who has studied clusters in many parts of the world, says the front and back linkages between knowledge clusters and their environment are very weak. “They are good for the economy but in many ways they are cathedrals in the desert,” he says.

Onus On Government As Well

Whose problem is it ? Tough to answer that because hi-tech clusters can grow `accidentally’ or be strategically driven. The government may be involved at genesis or a later stage of development. A good example of the former is Tidel Park in Chennai while Whitefield in Bangalore or Hi Tech City in Hyderabad reflect the latter.

In a short term politicians may well demand: what has a certain industry has done for the local economy ? The answer to that lies with both. For the government, the challenge is to de-risk quickly. Says Bathelt, “A single industry focus is not healthy, there can be changes in world markets, business cycles and so on. The Swiss government focused too strongly on the watch industry and everyone suffered when there was a downturn.”

So, instead of being seen as only working for IT, governments must visibly work on creating multiple enabling environments. The Karnataka government’s current focus appears to be to de-risk Bangalore rather than the industry. So while its good news that fresh IT investments will go towards Mangalore and Mysore, what is also perhaps required is a conscious, visible attempt to draw in investments in other sectors here.

The Big Perception Game

The need to do this has not escaped planners now or in the past. Andhra Pradesh has prepared exhaustive plans for massive job creation in the textiles industry, Maharashtra even wants to develop wine ! Unfortunately, this is a bigger perception game than reality. So, while a strong automotive cluster is blooming near Mysore (thanks to Toyota), not much will be written or talked about it.

On the flip side, for sure no one will ask what Toyota has done for Karnataka or Hyundai for Chennai, because, intrinsically, these industries have built stronger linkages with the local environment, unlike IT. And they don’t work out of glass buildings ! Which brings us back to the questions posed earlier, particularly since onus will often rest more on industry than on government.

Maira says IT ought to take a few lessons from manufacturing. He quotes his own example, working with Telco (now Tata Motors) in the late 60s and 70s. “Before we built the plants near Pune, then managing director Sumant Moolgaonkar (regarded as the architect of the company's truck business) built a training school and planted trees, showed the local people what the company would do. We also realized that villagers who sold us land did not want money as much as they wanted jobs and a future for a family member.”

Build Schools & Equity ?

Maira says for every glass fortress IT companies erect, they need to build bands in between with schools, clinics that attract ordinary people, not the high skilled workers that will drive their enterprises. “We built a training school in Telco which by the way did not guarantee jobs in Telco. But it gave the people vocational training and the confidence to go elsewhere,” he says.

This is not an argument that goes down well with most IT industry folks, as this writer knows it. There is one solution perhaps. That is to take a walk outside their campuses on Hosur Road and talk to the old lady selling vegetables. And see in her eyes whether she has benefited from the billion dollar balance sheets. She has not. And one day she will be Gowda’s biggest weapon.

This article appeared in the Bombay edition of Hindustan Times on Tuesday. The author can be reached at govindraj@datelinebombay.com

Sunday, October 30, 2005

BMW Foundation Series I !

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The closest I got to owning one..


A serious clerical error resulted in this writer being nominated and invited to the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt Indo-German Young Leaders Forum. The outcome was five fascinating days of learning, meeting and networking with some very interesting people, all of whom were obviously there on merit.

This happened amidst sun, sand and spray (as they say) at Temple Bay, a cracker of a seaside resort in Mahabalipuram, an hour and a half from Chennai. The participants ranged from professional managers and young industrialists to politicians and first generation entrepreneurs. The experience was unforgettable for many reasons, not least the (strategically induced) interplay between the argumentative Indians and the perfectionist Germans. In coming days, the writer will post a series of short dispatches from the Forum.


Trees, Songs & Dances

Germany has a keen interest in Indian history and has, in its universities, apparently over 50 chairs dedicated for that purpose. The hitch, as Christian Wagner, Senior Research Associate with the German Institute for International & Security Affairs in Berlin puts it, is that most chairs focus on the period upto the 8th or 9th century AD. Indeed a fascinating period as a later dispatch will argue, but a little behind times. There is just one chair for modern Indian studies, he adds. “There is thus a problem for Germans wanting to understand the new India,” he admits.

If there is a problem in Germany, there is a problem across the European Union, minus Britain obviously. But then there are very few things on which Britain and the continent are on the same page, for historical and other reasons. This writer was a guest of the European Commission (the executive arm of the European Union) in the late 90s when the action plan for implementing the Euro was being hammered out, the disconnect with India was evident then as it is now.

But there was no China ghost then. There is one now. Wagner says he is struck by the number of people working on China, academically. “I dare not give figures,” he smiles. So a generation that could have spent some time understanding India is using it, probably more productively, learning about China and how to engage with it. Many young Germans, including some this writer met, for sure are going along that path.

The good news is that Indian films are leading a change of sorts. Says Wagner, “Indian movies are now watched in Germany and we see lots of advertisements with Indian backgrounds.” Wagner is familiar with this part of the world but says seeing movies with songs and dances on German TV is new. “This has led to some debates with the wife about the remote control,” he admits ruefully.


The New Engineering Corridors

MV Subbaiah (family member of Chennai’s Murugappa Group) spoke of how he respected the Germans for their strong sense of nationalistic pride and team spirit. He also compared the argumentative Indian and the disciplined German ! Obviously you can’t transplant nationalistic pride but sitting next to someone who does feel so can influence you in a small way. It did to me and the need to further it amongst all you know, meet etc. Subbaiah recalled his numerous visits to German factories and how he continues to be impressed by them.

Subbaiah, an engineer from Birmingham University, also spoke about moving a project from mind to market and the challenges of integrating basic and applied research strengths. Interestingly, he also spoke of Indian family enterprises working with the mammoth network of small to mid-size but highly competitive family firms of Germany.

India’s IT story will be driven by its corridors with America, Silicon Valley and the like. Its manufacturing resurgence will and perhaps ought to be driven by the new corridors coming up with Europe and to some extent countries like Korea and China. Indian auto component manufacturers are already buying into plants in Germany while other engineering companies (Crompton & Greaves) are buying up plants in other parts of Europe.

Boutique investment bankers like Rene Griemens (another colleague at the Forum and a former Citibanker) say they are already scouring the Indian countryside for companies that he can take to Europe for acquisitions. “I love this place,” he says tucking into a rather generous helping of biryani.

The engineering corridors have existed in the past but perhaps not on an equal footing; knowledge flowed from Europe to India with appropriate localization but little went back, except maybe for the occasional manager. The new engineering corridors will work on a more equal footing. With India becoming a regional manufacturing & R&D centre for European majors like Siemens and ABB, this trend is already apparent.

A corridor works best when there is a connect that goes beyond the shopfloor, at least in this writer’s mind. That’s what’s worked with America and could also be one of the biggest challenges when it comes to continental Europe in general and Germany in particular. Lets hope Bollywood does its job well.


The American Rim

It usually takes an European to point out how America-focussed India is. Dr Jan Christian Ehler, a Member of the European Parliament from Germany, made that point again, when he began his talk by remarking how he found that most of the Indian participants at the BMW Foundation Forum sported masters degrees from the United States, across disciplines (The writer barely made it through graduation so discussions on post graduate degrees and the like don't usually normally faze him)

Ehler says he’s not against the Americans, he served with the 82nd Airborne (making him the second civilian in our group who appears to have taken a voluntary break to join the army) but he says there is a problem on both sides. India because most its `elites' have studied in `rim of the American empire’ and Germany/Europe because they have not quite understood the new idea of India and South Asia.

A greater connect with continental Europe will depend on how these two aspects shape up. Of course, Europe is not the invitational melting point that America is but it goes without saying that its in India’s interest to have a stronger cultural connect as it becomes a economic powerhouse. Whether it’s the Euro as a reserve currency or the centres of learning (particularly when it comes to manufacturing, maybe even areas like media and entertainment) in Europe, India needs to reach out further.


Young Germany


Young Germany thinks their once mighty nation is in trouble, unless it fixes its social security system. The general refrain is that young people are being forced to contribute large amounts to a social security system that unemployed or older people live off. They even feel the image of German engineering perfection and precision that the country boasts (though not overtly) actually belongs to the past and is fast slipping away.

Another cause of frustration seems to be that the older folks do not quite fathom the rise of China and what it means in the new competitive world order. One that is obviously putting considerable economic pressure on their country. Many young Germans work for corporations large and small that have had a China strategy for years. They travel a lot, particularly to China and are thus aware of what is happening but are not entirely sure their politicians tell the voters all this.

In all our meetings meanwhile, the participants (German & Indian) would be seated in their chairs a few minutes before the appointed hour. We would know the clock had struck the hour because the host would tap his pen on the glass and announce the start of proceedings. There is something fulfilling about meetings starting exactly on time, whatever the subject – no waiting for this one or that. There were tea breaks, usually of precisely 7 minutes, German-Prussian time, the host would quickly add.


China..

Frank works as an executive assistant to the CEO of the (German) world leader in solid wood processing machinery. You would think not too many folks can catch up with a company with decades of experience just doing that – a gold standard brand that can compare, perhaps, to the German Heidelberg in printing presses. And yet, as Frank told me, there are already Chinese fakes and me-toos. Inevitably, they would become brands which would challenge them in the global market place.

His company has a manufacturing presence in China but he wants to work there as well. The learning opportunities there are huge, he felt. Barbara who works with the BMW Foundation is also interested in China except that she’s taken her interest a step further. She studied Chinese in college and speaks the language. She also drives some of her foundation’s work in China.

I asked her how she got interested in the language. Her answer sounded fairly routine. Someone else in the family was already doing it, it just happened and of course it seemed logical and interesting. I have seen this in America as well. Commodity guru Jim Rogers told me (as he writes in his books) last year that he has a Chinese nanny teaching his toddler daughter the language right now. Why, because, the future is there, he says.

Be that as it may, its interesting how when you become a real superpower, you focus on understanding people’s markets while they try and understand you. Like with Japan and now with China. There is a stirring of interest in understanding how India is driving the IT services model with its rapid scaleability and so on. Unlikely that will result in people rushing to bookstores to look for `The India Way’ or some such titles. At least not in a hurry.



(More To Come !)

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Honey, We Got A Job For You

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Esquire magazine Editor-At-Large AJ Jacobs thinks Honey K Balani looks a bit like an Indian version of Eva Longoria (Desperate Housewives star) as he proceeds to record her "full lips, long hair and skin the color of her first name". All this based on a photograph, sent over the internet. Going by Jacobs' generous observations, one could perhaps conclude that this writer was privileged not just to meet with Honey but also speak to her at some length.

Earlier, we (driver & I) were bumping along the the dusty approach road to Whitefield in Bangalore. This is the other end of the city, you turn right as you exit the airport driveway and keep rolling, largely unhindered, as the road narrows and broadens in the inexplicably Indian way, throwing up scattered groups of vegetable vendors on one bend and an impressive congregation of shops specialising in `seconds' of well known brands on another. And then 6 km or so, you turn left into Whitefield.

Honey works for B2K, a upcoming BPO company housed in a large glass panelled commercial complex at the far end of Whitefield. B2K is co-founded and run by former Karnataka IT secretary Vivek Kulkarni who turned entrepreneur two years ago. Honey's fame (she was interviewed on ABC's Good Morning America last month) is a credit as much to her smartness and grit as it is to Kulkarni's vision of a university-like organisation rather than a process strong,`traditional' BPO. In their own ways, both have built an interesting sub-model in the BPO space.

Getting A Voice

The 19-year-old Honey is not even through college. She is currently studying for her final year, through correspondence. Before joining B2K, she worked for two years as a voice coach with Dell. Till she decided she didn't like the night life. "I was finding it difficult to work by night and attend college by day." The day job options were Accenture and B2K, the latter more so because it was new. B2K told her she would be taken on a voice coach with the possibility of being promoted to voice trainer in two months. "I was promoted in three months," she says.

Life was pretty routine for Honey as a voice trainer, till one day Kulkarni began experimenting with what he hoped would be a new and somewhat different BPO business stream. He called it Brickwork, a service offering remote executive research assistants and analysts, comprising often qualified youngsters on this side. Two things happened. Thomas L Friedman in a recent visit to Bangalore met Kulkarni and wrote about it in his book The World Is Flat. And Esquire's Jacobs read about it.

Jacobs then wrote in to Kulkarni seeking the services of Brickwork for some research related work. Honey, a voice trainer who was showing promise as an intelligent worker was appointed to Jacobs and the two began working together in late May this year. Last month, Jacobs documented his five-month `relationship' with Honey in an article called `My Outsourced Life' in Esquire. The article was picked up by Universal Pictures as a film project for Meet The Fockers director Jay Roach. And Honey turned into a celebrity of sorts.

Honey says it was not that simple in the beginning. "In the first week, he was a little uneasy, so I had to talk to him and make him comfortable. We spoke about a host of things, life in general, his wife, his son Jasper and so on." To the point that Jacobs also told her that he was a little nervous about his meeting with a publisher for a book project he was working on. "Relax, Ill pray to God and it will go well," said Honey. Jacobs got the deal, to write The Year Of Living Biblically, in turn picked up by Paramount Pictures. In and for the book, Jacobs will live for a year by the literal rules of the Old and New Testament.

A Testament To Good Work


Honey helped (all remotely obviously) do research, finding out names of related books, links and came up with some 25 reference books Jacobs could work with. Over the months, their routine (scheduling, general research) relationship took some interesting turns with assignments ranging from the interesting to the truly challenging. One day, Jacobs called her and said he and his wife had a huge debatewhere he claimed that most playwrights were gay. The wife disagreed.

So it was now over to Honey in Bangalore to dig out the truth, overnight. "I was in a fix. We were not allowed to surf websites which may contain such information," she says. So she went to `Vivek Sir' and sought his permission. Kulkarni had a big laugh and granted it. Honey's own research initially seemed to suggest that Jacobs' case was weak. "I was sweating, I had to find stuff that proved his case," she recalls. A day later, she mailed in the names of 12 gay playwrights. "There were about three or four more but were borderline cases," she laughs.

Jacobs then decided to administer the ultimate test. He called Honey saying he needed captions urgently for photographs for the June edition of the magazine and gave her two hours to deliver. Honey says she was in a tizzy again, racking her brains no end before despatching more than 10 captions to Esquire Editor-In-Chief David Granger. "I understand four were selected which according to Mr Granger is a better than average hit rate," she says proudly.

Back To College

Kulkarni says one reason for the easy working relationships some B2K employees have with their clients is because they are in a college or a university like environment. Walking around the well-appointed and carpeted offices, one meets young men and women, some very highly qualified look and work on research-driven projects in areas ranging from engineering design to advanced customer data mining. So much so, he claims he can't really supervise them because each of them is a specialist in his or her own right.

The clincher in this model, says Kulkarni, is that a B2K Brickworks employee is not part of a traditional, highly systems-driven BPO process. "They work directly with clients from day one, talk to them and have a direct contribution to make," he says as we pause next to a young nerdish, engineering graduate from Scandinavia working on a client presentation on energy efficient power generation systems. And thus, according to Kulkarni, the job content is strong, attrition is low and the future looks generally bright.

Honey concurs and quite firmly. "I am very clear. I don't think it's a case of Americans doing high level work and we Indians doing low level work. I said on Good Morning America that if that was the case, how come so many Indians were doing high-end work at NASA ?" Honey says in all her work with Jacobs, she was doing original research and providing original thought. "I am not sure Jacobs' article conveys that correctly," she adds.

We Are High-End Too

According to her, efficiency does not change from place to place, people do. On working with Jacobs, she says, "The way I would like to see it (their relationship ended after he began `living Biblically' for his book) is that he delegated a task to me and I delivered on it. And I worked like mad to do so, including, earlier reading up past editions of Esquire to understand the mind of an average reader in New York." Honey later went on to suggest detailed story ideas that Esquire should work on.Some of these are apparently being worked on.

Honey is now working on a e-learning project, equally exciting as the one with Jacobs she says. "Its high-end stuff," she reminds you. Jacobs and she are still in touch, they talk regularly. She now wants to write a book but maybe intern with a publication for a year before that, a suggestion from Jacobs. Editors back home better start thinking, or better still, handing over the task to Honey.

The original, slightly shortened version, appeared in Hindustan Times, Bombay, this week. The author can be reached on govindraj@datelinebombay.com

Thursday, October 20, 2005

On A Wing And No Hope

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Some Day, Maybe..

A few months ago, I got into an extended argument with Mumbai airport director and Airport Authority of India (AAI) man Sudhir Kumar. Why, I asked him, did passengers transiting from domestic to international and the other way round have to exit the domestic airport at Santacruz, battle through pollution, monstrous traffic jams and terrible roads before arriving at the International terminal at Sahar, around 6 km away.

Note that this was the state of affairs for decades, until someone got a bright idea last year that lo and behold, transiting passengers could actually be given a special coach to move from one terminal to the other, inside the airport premises. The coaches are there finally, but predictably, there are too few. Arriving late night in Mumbai, its not uncommon to see weary passengers standing in long, sequestered lines with mounds of luggage in tow, waiting for that coach.

Kumar, the dutiful officer that he is, put up a brave defence of the Airport Authority's efforts to make life better for passengers. He brought out a detailed map of the airport and explained how it would be difficult to merge the two terminals. I stuck to my ground, arguing that the AAI had displayed phenomenal lack of foresight in not anticipating this aspect. And, I further argued, this had nothing to do with investments or infrastructure. It was plain, simple common sense.

Unbecoming Perhaps But..

Its somewhat unbecoming as a journalist to jump into the fray, so to speak, but given this writer's horrific experiences (and am sure many others as well) with Indian airports in general and Mumbai in specific, its tough not to override one's responsibility as an objective reporter trying to sympathise with all sides. Though despite having tried, I confess, I am still struck by the complete lack of application of mind when it comes to our airports.

And when an aircraft careens off the runaway and slips into loose soil, surely one of the commonest minor accidents involving aircraft all over the world, our folks struggled for four days to remove it, enlisting, in the process, the only other folks whose service standards they can perhaps compete with, the Indian Railways. And the AAI is doing us a favour if it removes the carcass, because, guess what, it's apparently the airline's responsibility. What if it was an occasional cargo aircraft which visited the country once a month or a charter flight. Sure, the AAI can slap a hefty bill for services rendered and maybe, top it up with a penalty, but how could they claim its not their job !

And there is good reason for this angst. I was on a Bangalore-Mumbai flight on Wednesday (Oct 12) night. We left Bangalore half an hour behind schedule (suitably forewarned) at 10 pm and landed in Mumbai the next morning at 1.10 am. We circled Mumbai for close to two hours as we were number 27 in the landing sequence. Aircraft landing on the alternate runway have to taxi half-way back because there are no exits at the end so each aircraft took perhaps three times as long. I think I spent the extra time productively though, dreaming of all the (international) destinations we could have touched in a three-hour flying radius.

Compounded Misery

Wednesday night's misery came on the heels of a AAI employees strike recently (September 27) protesting privatization of Mumbai and Delhi airports. Note that while we should be putting men and materials to work 24/7 to find a solution to our royal airport mess, we are debating the matter. Anyway, to the unions' misfortune, the strike was not the resounding success they hoped it to be. And yet, it is illustrative to hear out the demands made by the AAI unions. Its equally illustrative to note the tone and the tenor of their demands and various committees on the subject to conclude that Indian aviation is on a slow boat to nowhere.

Many of their demands are based on facts, ie, Mumbai and Delhi airports together handle over 70% of passenger traffic and contribute over 80% of revenue and (indirectly) subsidise 124 other airports. AAI is a profitable undertaking (so why privatize !), the government has not allowed AAI to upgrade Mumbai and Delhi airports despite it wanting to do so for the last 9 years.

True. A proposal to upgrade the two airports was prepared in 1996 at a project cost of Rs 715 crore. It took four years (with cost escalations) for that proposal to get all the clearances by which time it went into a limbo. By then, it was felt that privatization ought to be the way to go. Nothing happened has since then. This is unfair, but if I had first hand experience with AAI's services, then I couldn't be blamed for pressing for privatization. But that's a separate issue.

The Unions also point out how the AAI would be better off were it not for a host of small and not so significant aspects such as the handing over of security at the airports to the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) at a higher cost to AAI, earlier it was managed by Mumbai police.

Myths & More Myths

Then they also make a few myth vs reality points, for instance that efficient and world class airports like Singapore's Changi, Hong Kong & Kuala Lumpur are not privately owned either. They claim that AAI has actually executed projects or done consultancy for airports in countries ranging from Seychelles and Maladives to Libya and South Yemen . To conclude, in their view, AAI is best equipped to take on the project of upgrading airports and managing them.

Going by the look and feel of the new Terminal 1B in Mumbai for private airlines, or for that matter, the Indian Airlines terminals in Mumbai and Delhi, it may not be a bad idea to allow the AAI to oversee the construction of a new airport terminal and facilities – incidentally, they don't do it themselves, they hire the right contractor, Unity in Mumbai. Though hiring the right person can be a challenging task in government.

An aside: on joining, the minister for civil aviation Praful Patel smilingly told a small gathering of journalists of which this writer was a part, "Its interesting that you call them airports, because to me, they are nothing more than buildings built by the Public Works Department for the AAI." Brave.

Management Failure

But the problems of today's airports have less to do with construction and everything to do with mismanagement. For the AAI has failed miserably in every aspect of airport management, ranging from keeping the toilets clean to ensuring that loaders don't harass passengers. Frankly, narrow as it might sound, if an airport management can't keep its toilets clean, then it has no business managing one.

And that's the larger point here. Its not about not having the funds to build a Changi, nor is it about multiple runaways, carpeted foyers and glitzy shopping centres. Its about service, plain and simple. Its about clean toilets, a working information counter and an ability to make passengers feel comfortable, for the price they pay the AAI, via the tickets they buy.

Service calls for desire, dedication and motivation. An AAI employee typically regards you as someone who has encroached upon his time. A few years ago, I had to pay the driver of a supposedly free AAI coach to ferry a wheelchair ridden relative, from the international airport to the domestic one. When was the last time you disembarked at Mumbai's international airport ?

Note how the loaders side up to you at the baggage carrousel and ask you if you need assistance in `clearing' baggage. Clearance, for those who came in late, is whisking your contraband through customs for a fee, to be paid in dollars. And the offers are made so openly, you wonder if you've landed in some lawless African nation.

Once I asked a chief commissioner of customs how this form of soliciting, which obviously means that the customs folks are in cahoots, could happen right under their noses. He squirmed a little but claimed such instances were rare and dealt with severely. Didn't seem like, the confidence with which the loaders hit upon you and I saw a display as recently as early this year. Mind you, they typically zero in on the helpless looking, baggage heavy NRI types.

Too Little, Too Late

Has nothing changed in the last decade ? Well not quite. There is one new (half) terminal in Mumbai for the private airlines who so far made do with the equivalent of an air-conditioned cattle shed with two bookshops, a medical shop that charges roughly twice the market rate for a strip of Crocin and a contemporary `handicrafts' shop. Is the new half terminal rightly sized ? No way, try catching a flight between 7 am and 9.30 am on a weekday. Some smaller cities, after having lived with cattle-sheds (non air-conditioned) have finally got new terminals. Some of these are actually architecturally appropriate at first glance unlike Mumbai (old) and Delhi which could still pass for hospital lobbies or something similarly depressing.

But its too little, too late. Ever tried finding out if an international flight has arrived on time ? Well, I have seen indicators flashing Flight So & So at the arrival terminal even after the passenger has walked out and greeted me. So, the best way to establish that a flight is landed is to forewarn the arriving passenger to carry a cell phone and call you on landing. Tried calling the inquiry number for help. I did once but I do leave this challenge to the more enthusiastic and would appreciate responses.

What Goes Up Must Land Or..

Even as recently as Wednesday night, passengers waiting at the airports had little clue what was happening. In many cases they knew the aircraft had taken off, but did not know where it went after that. Its tough to believe a plane is up in the air for three hours when its flying time is one and a half. All forms of unpleasant thoughts might crop up in the mind unless of course you are told otherwise. Rest assured you won't.

The Unions claim their upgradation proposals (which sound competent on paper) are in line with the corporate mission of making world class airports. Sure, why don't they think, act and work world class first. Surely, you don't need a world class building to offer world class service or a service to start with. The Unions claim their employees have accumulated a wealth of expertise in operating large airports. Obviously, frequent travelers like me are blind to sight and numb to sensation, because one has never seen or felt anything that remotely resembles a wealth of expertise.

Future Thoughts Only

There is an interesting presentation by a Dr K Ramalingam, ED (Information Technology) on the AAI website. This was made (in his own views, the introduction adds) at an international conference on emerging trends in air traffic management. Since it sits on the AAI website, it must somewhere reflect someone's aspirations of what things should be, unless it's a cut paste job from a Changi or some such airport website.

The `views' include RFID (radio identity) chips for baggage identification, real time flight information on websites, self service kiosks and speech enabled technology for information and value added services. Oh yes, the presentation was made in 2002. So, three and a half years hence, not one of these `views' appears to have become a reality for the Indian air traveler.

To conclude, someone in there is thinking, in general if not specific. But thinking is not enough. The AAI is a disaster in progress in the 21st century. And to reiterate, this is not about investments and upgradations. Of course they must happen and should have long ago. This is about failing on every conceivable service delivery parameter that one can think of. One is not even talking of tardy air traffic controllers who allow so much space between take-offs and landings you think they operate only with the benefit of eyesight and without modern landing aids. Bangalore if I recall correctly is the worst in this regard, Kolkata, Delhi come close.

Deliver To Stakeholders Else..

Organisations, be they in public or private domain have to deliver to their stakeholders or at least show that they tried. The AAI has not just failed but has earned the wrath of every air traveler who has traveled in the last few decades. That's because the AAI has failed to even think passenger convenience, as I argued with Sudhir Kumar in his offices at Santacruz airport sometime back. That's why the Unions have no business claiming they can do a better job. Frankly, after all that torment, its too late for a second chance. The Unions grandly sign off their demands by saying they "Trust the citizens of India will opt for the best in the interest of the future generation." Well sure. I can assure you they will, without a doubt.


PS: Some more views, in case you felt this writer is biased..
 

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