Sunday, October 30, 2005

BMW Foundation Series I !


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.


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

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

Thursday, October 20, 2005

On A Wing And No Hope


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..

Monday, October 17, 2005

Feel@Home: The Long Term Competitive Advantage !


One Way To Feel@Home, Palm Meadows In..Ahem..Bangalore
(Pic Courtesy:Abhinav Agarwal)

The three foreigners in the table next to me are having a good time. There is beer, cigarettes, loud laughter and generous high fives. They appear to be speaking in French. Behind, me an older couple converse in more hushed tones, they could be American. And right across, a youngish English lady is dining alone, sifting through some papers as she picks off a modest plate.

From my vantage seat in the ground floor coffee shop, I have a sweeping view of the lobby and I see men and women walk through briskly, lots of east Asians; Japanese, Korean and maybe even Chinese. Its late evening and they are dressed in business attire, men with their neck ties pulled loose. They must be returning from a day at work. This scene could be Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore or any hotel in any part of the developed world. Actually, this is Bangalore. And it’s a small, well-managed but almost non-descript 3-star hotel.

A few years ago, one would have associated this sort of property with small town businessmen, traders and mid level executives of companies. They are still there, but seem outnumbered by what now is clearly an international clientele, of extremely business-like, business travelers. Going by the front office staff reactions, many of them were obviously on long stay here.

The Economic Glue

Its another interesting facet of the Indian technology story, of how the Garden City has accepted and assimilated not just multi-national companies but also multi-national cultures. It’s the story of how Bangalore has over the last few years firmly become another stop in the global network of technology centres, not just for the work that is done here but the sheer cultural comfort and perhaps even connect that visitors from world over appear to have.

That, in this writer’s reckoning, will be the biggest glue for the long term economic story, not just for Bangalore, but also India. Because only when a place feels like home will you will keep integrating, returning and re-investing, whatever be the economic story of the day. It’s a different spin on the same thing, but its warmer and touches the intangible part that people often know but are unable to put a finger on; its Feel@Home, the new economic competitive advantage !

Large MNCs have been here longer than you and I, some for centuries and stuck around, despite some very challenging economic odds including the fact that we were a closed economy for three decades or more. And yet, culturally, for all their market commitment, very few individuals working in them have really assimilated with the land and its people, except for the occasional Indophiles. They’ve worked hard, brought in money, technology, systems, created wealth, repatriated it but never really felt at home. Thus the organisations too have stayed somewhat distant, there to see but never entirely. Hindustan Lever, HSBC are exceptions that come to mind.

Being present in market to mine the opportunities presented and feeling at home are two different things, I would argue. Being present, you manufacture, trade and sell goods and services for the good of the parent elsewhere. Nothing wrong with that at all but when you Feel@Home, you go a step further, you integrate your local environment with others in the rest of the world, you initiate a high level of engagement between people all around, all because you feel you want to bring business and prosperity home rather than because its economically imperative for the parent. Globalisation triggers the first sequence of events, Feel@Home the next. And that’s what we are seeing in cities like Bangalore.

What Feel@Home Isn’t

Sure its tough to quantify. Not too many people will tell you they don’t feel at home. Other’s will, but privately. And yet, you can see it on their faces, you can sense it in the way they talk, walk, act and react. Some make themselves comfortable wherever they are and look as much. Its not very likely though that we would meet too many of these in a normal work environment. Thus, its about the environment reaching out to you as much as you try and perhaps not try to reach out to it.

Feeling at home does not mean you spend the rest of your life in that location. It’s a place you feel comfortable, your family relates to the ecosystem as do you, you establish a cultural connect with the people and the values that goes beyond formal lunch and dinner sessions. But most importantly, there is a intellectual connect that enriches you at work and outside it. Many successful techies have felt at home in the Bay Area in San Francisco, even if they moved away subsequently.

Bangalore’s eco-system is fast approaching (some would rightly argue that it did so a while ago) what I would call the evolved Bay Area Feel@Home status. R Govindarajan, co-founder and CTO of Aztec Software, a product technology company told me the other day that he feels at home in Bangalore. “The eco-system is there, the techies are there and most importantly, the people you want to connect with for guidance are there.” Gobi, as he is called, has done time in the Bay Area but wanted to return to India.

Feel@Home, Not Globalisation, Induces Cutting Edge Innovation

There are scores of such stories in Bangalore. Sure Bangalore has almost always had a Valley like eco-system for technology, aptitude among locals, institutions of learning and a climate that at least used to be nice. And yet, the integration with the rest of the world only happened much later.

Parts of America arguably create the ultimate Feel@Home environment, attracting, retaining and constantly nourishing the best talent in the world, across a wide variety of fields. Examples are countless, but this is my most recent. Two months ago, I met Padmasree Warrior, a smart, somewhat scholarly looking lady in her early 40s.

Warrior could have passed for an (educated) housewife in Bangalore, a top ranking official in a Infosys or a Wipro, a principal of a college or even a senior government official. That’s if she had stayed in Bangalore. She moved many years ago to a place where she could feel intellectually and professionally at home, she is now Chief Technology Officer at Motorola and drove the highly successful Motorazor mobile phone project.

Look at it this way, its because many talented people (including at Microsoft, Intel, Infosys, Wipro, Adobe, SAP and GE), often Indians, feel at home or created a Feel@Home situation in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Gurgaon, there is a world class innovation environment. One that works equally for local and overseas companies. Globalisation will not automatically induce local or regional innovation, only a multi-cultural, multi-talented environment does. Cities and towns in many parts of the world have done that for decades, now the likes of Bangalore are following.

A Global Citizen At Home

As a corollary, feeling at home is not just about foreigners visiting India, its as much about people from other part of the country. Bangalore is a more recent host in that sense, after Bombay, Delhi, Chennai and so on. Walk into most modern work places, not just in IT but also in consulting, tax and so on and you will find more than 80% of the staff from outside Bangalore. Even in a city like Bombay, its unlikely that you will find such a large percentage of people from outside the city in an average workplace.

Does this mean expats will flood Bangalore ! Unlikely, because the competitive advantage lies in having local people run most services operations. And yet, as the value add component increases, cutting edge R&D for instance, the movement and location of people (regardless of number) will be driven more by the necessity of being in the right environment than by cost arbitrage.

This has been structurally attempted in the past; technocrats in Bangalore have spoken of and attempted to build a Bangalore-Singapore corridor of sorts. And while technology (product and services) as a whole has led the way, the challenge is to see how and whether other industries follow suit.

On the flip side, Indian states and cities attempting to bring in investment should work simultaneously on understanding and building a multi-cultural Feel@Home environment. Somehow, this is always interpreted as more five star hotels. But that's not it. Feel@Home is making the ordinary expat feel like an ordinary citizen, safe, secure and comfortable. And of course, giving him or her the confidence to want to move out, see the sights, appreciate the local culture and enjoy it. Or to have a plain good weekend. Some of it is about infrastructure but not all of it. Bangalore is intrinsically warmer, other places will have to work on being so.

And yet, as the assimilation levels rise and outsiders integrate with the local environment, as they do the same things you do, visit grocery shops, department stores, movies, the pub and so on, the longtime local resident must learn to embrace the new order. This is the tough part. Most (though not all) western democracies are used to this; appreciating and living with the vibrancy of a multi-cultural environment. And remember, we are talking highly paid, visible people, not tourists who come and go or migrant labourers who work behind the scenes.

Bangalore has done it admirably so far. Yes, this is despite all the infrastructure problems and so on which one shall pass for this piece ! The challenge is to stay this way even as it makes life for its now global citizens, permanent and visiting, better than what it is.

Hi All. For those who wandered in and actually wish to do so again, you can access this website by just keying in And for those desirous of prolonging their agony by engaging with this writer, you could do so by writing into Cheerio !

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Living In Garbage; Why The Mithi Problem Will Not Go Away


Mixing Business & Filth (Pix: Author)

"No one has spared the Mithi river. Not the slums, the encroaching factories, the MMRDA, the BMC and definitely not Mumbai's airport," says Virendra Dube sounding more sad than upset as he points in the direction of the terminals and aircraft in the distance. We've walked in from the main Kurla-Andheri road in north Mumbai, dodging all forms of garbage puddles and piles of excavated earth. We are standing on a patch of field that's covered with mud gouged out from the little hills behind us and gazing at the aircraft lining up for take-off.

There is little that separates us, the shit, the stray dogs poking through the garbage, a few small boys playing cricket and the Boeing 737-800 presently hunkering near the end of the taxiway. I am gripped with a sudden urge to wade through the foot-deep `nullah' (better known as the Mithi river), cross the breached wall and charge onto the taxiway, perhaps waving my shirt as I go.

Not much would be accomplished, except that the pilots and passengers would get a royal scare. Maybe the terminal would shut down for a few much for airport security anyway.

Last Opportunity ?

The Boeing's turbines power up with a huge roar, the aircraft shudders and is off, tearing down the runway before lifting off in the distance, banking right as it climbs into the sky. Virendra Dube has seen this sight many times, he lives near by. He is a BJP party worker and my tour guide for the day, in our journey up the Mithi river. The patch of field we are standing on housed a large group of slums which were demolished only a few months ago and will soon become an extended taxiway to the main runway.

The High Court initiated demolitions of the encroachments along the river have already begun and this is perhaps one of the last opportunities to get a final close-up view of what really turned the river into a monster that on July 26, 2005 destroying life and property. And there is Dube - who, a member of the Mithi River Monitoring Committee, knows every bend in the river, so to speak.

The journey shows up what is already well documented: reckless encroachments, indiscriminate polluting of the 14.5 km river and the collective failure of the authorities to spot, prevent and control both. What it does not show goes beyond the sheer filth and decay; it reveals a (human) disregard for environment which is so basic and so staggering that no amount of demolitions can ever address it. And that is an issue Mumbai is not even close to grappling with and no court can ever hope to resolve.

Mixing Business & Filth

Dube and I started out earlier at the Bandra Kurla Complex, a commercial district which must be unique in the contrast between the riches that lie within its mammoth glass paneled buildings and the decay that flows outside. From a vantage point on a bridge that crosses the Mithi river, one can see a mini skyline of the National Stock Exchange building and pharmaceutical major Wockhardt's HQ on one side, the slums of Bandra East on the other and the river, a turgid mass in its final lap before it hits the Arabian sea.

Mounds of plastic, industrial and other wastes lie on both banks, rising to the point where the shanties begin. There is no organized waste disposal here except perhaps to chuck it behind and forget about it. The shanties typically have their backs to the river, almost like they can live with it as long as they don't have to see it. And for all the debate that was generated about the wastes choking the river, here, on ground, nothing has changed.

As we begin driving north, we stop at several points, including a few which are now marked by the visits of politicians. "This is where Gopinath Munde began his tour," says Dube as we get off the car and walk into a group of three, somewhat dilapidated buildings, not far from the airport. Garbage lies everywhere we walk ahead. There is no gate so no one stops us. Three little girls skip past, hand in hand, singing a song which appears to imply harmony.

Are'nt We To Blame ?

We reach the edge, rest a foot on a low wall and look at the river flowing past. To the left, through the wall of the river bank, a pipe discharges a viscous liquid, an industrial effluent of some sort. A little further upstream, a few young boys are actually playing around in the water. To the right, where the river curves past us, on the other bank, men sift through heaps of plastic rags.

An hour or so later, we crawl into the sprawl that's Saki Naka, an industrial and now residential suburb of north Mumbai. The river seems to flow more freely here though like everywhere else, the banks of the river are a favourite dumping ground, even where spanking new residential complexes have come up. Everyone treats their wastes similarly.

While the likes of Dube admit that no one can escape blame in turning the river into a flowing weapon of mass destruction on July 26, local residents blame airport authorities, the MMRDA and so on. The airport authority has for instance built walls, forcing the river to turn almost 90 degrees. It was in these very areas that the water rose close to 15 feet, killing scores. Yet, no one appears to be blame themselves.

Sinking City

For now, demolitions are expected to clear upto 15 metres on either side of the river and then go upto 30 metres all the way. At one of our stops, near his building society, Dube points to a small independent house more than 30 metres away from the river. "They've been here for more than 30 years. And they've got notices. What do they do ?" A few men huddled outside a small cigarette shop stop Dube and show him a story on the forthcoming demolitions in the day's paper. He assures them they will not be affected.

The city is sinking. Under the weight of its own garbage which it does not want to dispose off and would, in large parts, live with it. The area along the Mithi river, particularly in the Kalina, Kurla and Saki Naka areas, is extremely vibrant as a hub of commercial activity. A whole variety of small businesses thrive in the bazaars here. Shops hawk everything from mutton to lathe machines and auto parts to scrap and recycled lubricants, often cheek by jowl.

And for all the throb of commerce and for the profits that are surely generated, there is no desire not to stuff pollutants into the environment, leave along keeping it pro-actively clean. A businessman may recycle oil illegally but must he also discharge the effluents right in the backyard ? Can he not comprehend the damage that he is doing to the environment and possibly himself ? These are questions that come to mind and the answers are not quite there.

Dumping The Problem

The Mithi river cleanup action, triggered by a petition filed by former BJP MP Kirit Somaiyya does not and quite rightly cannot address the fundamental issues of environmental engagement - incidentally Dube works with Somaiyya. Dumping garbage is not just a Mithi river problem. Its a phenomenon that permeates the entire city – the Mithi was convenient because people thought the flowing water would wash everything away. Addressing it means educating grown-up adults about basic civic sense and responsibility. Unless that is done, the river will return to where it started.

Gently As She Overflows

We finally reach the mouth of the Mithi in the afternoon, at the Vihar lake up north. The lake looks picturesque, shimmering silently against the hills in the background, overflowing gently into a small pond where a group of young boys are bathing and splashing around. There is no sign of the man-made devastation that will begin a few kilometers downstream.

To Work & Back, Without Polluting Anywhere (Pix: Author)

Vihar is surrounded by villages. We stop to ask two old ladies carrying wood which one they hail from. They answer and trudge along. They seem to be more aware of their environment than the rest of the city. They perhaps respect it as well and have not suffered the way the rest of the city has. The city folks could learn a few things from them.

(The original appeared in Hindustan Times, Mumbai on 11 October, Pix to be posted !)

Copyright 2008 All Rights Reserved Revolution Two Church theme by Brian Gardner Converted into Blogger Template by Bloganol dot com