Saturday, December 31, 2005

Don't Over-react To IISc..


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..!


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..


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, 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 ?


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 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

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


“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


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

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 ?

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 This piece also appeared in the Hindustan Times's Bombay edition on Tuesday. You can reach him at

Friday, December 02, 2005

Emigration Clearance Required For China, You Must be Joking !

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.

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