Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Listen To The Supreme Court, Or Else !

Many Americans hate George Bush for Iraq. That hate rises as the body bags keep piling piling up. Three days ago, two CBS journalists were blown up by a car bomb in Baghdad. A third one barely survived. The journalists were in Iraq out of choice. The scores of dead American soldiers were not. What option does the American public have ? Very little. They elected George Bush. In a democracy, you've got to follow the process.

The student community is rightfully angry with the Government. Its protests have had some impact, but nowhere as enough. That only goes to show how thick skinned our politicians can be. Particularly where they perceive a larger votebank connect. We can protest, oppose, picket and shout slogans. Or wear black badges.

We can keep agitating against the ruling political class or certain members of it. We can fight for their removal. Or ask them to pull back. Or boycott them at every turn. And keep up the protests. But they too represent the will of the majority. Whether or not you agree with it. Yet, you can keep the pressure up.

SC Is `Highest' Authority

The courts work a little differently. The Supreme Court is the `highest' authority of the land. They are a part of the same democratic system and process the politicians belong to. And they represent the final `voice' in many issues. Disregarding that voice is tantamount to contempt of court. And contempt of court is a serious matter. And the SC has a habit of flexing its muscles to remind citizens of this.

I may not agree (and have not) with some SC rulings or judgements in the past. But the democratic process which allows me the freedom to express my views also constrains me from speaking out against the Supreme Court. Arundhati Roy discovered this to her chagrin in March 2002 when the Supreme Court jailed her for a day for criminal contempt of court.

Much as I disliked the Court's treatment of Roy, I realise that a polity like ours has to respect some authority at some point. Else you will have anarchy. The adventerous lot within us may desire that too that but its not such a great idea. A somewhat functioning democracy (as some would describe the State of India) is better than one that has collapsed totally.

Courts Work, Sometimes !

So, to conclude, if the Supreme Court tells you to stop protesting, my suggestion is you should. If you build up your case well, the Court can help get justice. In the past, they've demonstrated the ability to delve dispassionately into detail. And arrive at workable solutions. But taking on the Court for no reason except to convey a sense of distrust against all authority may not be the best idea. Not at this point of time. Not on the issue of reservations.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Now, Pin The Government Down !

A young colleague of mine came wearing a black band on his right arm to office. He was protesting against reservations over the weekend. Braved the hot sun and shouted slogans at Bombay's Azad Maidan. It was fun too, considering a lot of pretty girls were part of it, he admitted. But he says he's part of a larger group, that is committed to opposing reservations.

That's the good news. The momentum is picking up. And young, possibly middle and upper middle class India is opposing reservations to the hilt. And why shouldn't they ? They have much to loose. And its not their fault the Government is not doing its job, helping those who should be helped, effectively.

I am still not convinced whether reservations are the right solution to the right problem. Its the wrong solution the wrong problem. A classic politician's move - A short term, quick fix for an issue they have no desire to address, in the long term. Because they are not around that long. And they lack the tenacity of execution. Actually, they are not even around even now. Arjun Singh is in Saudi Arabia. As are most other ministers. Only PM Manmohan Singh has been left behind, to negotiate with the students.

Class Within A Class !

I still feel its jobs, jobs and jobs. Let me put it in a somewhat roundabout way. Someone who passes out of IIM is economically advantaged compared to most of his peers. So, an OBC student who passes out of IIM is economically advantaged compared to the rest of his OBC peers. So, how does reservation help the rest. Are we not creating a class distinction within the class !

Forget reservation, how does life improve for the rest ? Who, arguably, also aspire for a better life. Well, it does not. I still don't understand how by giving seats to precisely 1,500 students, anything changes for the rest. If I was an OBC (and I was once given to understand I could pass for one if I so wished), would I feel thrilled if some other OBC (of some 100 million OBCs) got a seat into IIM or AIIMS ?

Life is not about feeling happy for some lucky sod. Its like saying Arjun from my building won a Rs 1 crore Playwin lottery. So all of us building folks are happy and celebrating. Would you ? Yes, winning a lottery and gaining admission into a course is not the same. But then, isn't it somewhat here ? Since its a reserved seat ! So, its not about OBCs per se. Its about the numbers. The numbers are too vast for homegenity of any sort. And for people to bond with each other on this.

Where Are The Jobs ?

The government and the private sector have to work together here in creating more and more jobs. Which means opening up more industries, more investment (foreign and domestic) and creating a clear charter for more industrial output. We all celebrate the success of India's IT industry. The problem is we are celebrating the success of half a million people (at the very best). And not bothering about creating jobs for the rest. Not enough. And not on a war footing, which is what it should be.

I could go on and on about this but will not. The point is protesting students have to now force the government to think about solutions as well. With a promise to execute. Again I think, as always, how is it that the Government is able to display such amazing determination and will, to push through reservations but behave like a wimp when it comes to building roads, airports and ports. Yes, one is a short term fix and the other is long term. Who's seen the long term !

Since the students have shown so much determination, they need to take it a step further. And pin the government down on implementing solutions. On more primary education and more jobs. The vast majority knows they need vocational training and the ability to earn a living. Not the promise of more seats for a few thousand of their so called bretheren. That's fooling them. And of course not fixing the original problem.

Student power has changed a lot of things all over the world. Its emerged as a very important locomotive for change in India as well. It must do its bit. In a sustained manner.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Students Of India, Its Your Problem As Well !

I'm glad the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) students (finally) emerged from their campuse in Bombay to form a chain of protest. That’s good to hear. Now, where did they do that ? Not near distant Mantralaya or Azad Maidan or some such public place where their protests would surely have more impact. Rather, in the relative comfort of Powai, in North Bombay. Oh yes, it was right outside their campus. Wow ! That must have taken some effort.

As long as they protested, I guess. Maybe this is exam time. Which leads me to wonder. Why, again, is a fundamental issue of meritocracy in education not affecting the rest of the country's student community ? Or the creation of more quality education seats. Surely, even a child can tell you that adding seats in premier institutions is not like topping up an ice-cream cone. Or packing a Bombay local train with a few more hundred commuters. Its got to be thought out and planned out.

China has faced similar problems. And responded with a strategy to hugely enhance education capacity. Across disciplines. Like information technology & English language where it wants to play catch up with countries like India. But China has also calibrated over-capacity in colleges (which strains the job markets) with tighter admissions. But no quotas ! Which obviously is the easiest thing to do for our politicians. Because the other option requires an intensity of execution which they largely lack. And its a longer term solution. Why bother when you have a quick fix !

I hear youngsters talking about these issues all the time. So, I presume they care. And yet no one has really moved, excepting a scattered few. Is it the because the medicos have made themselves the sacrificial goats ? And they are managing and fronting the show.

Stage Managed, So What ?

Before I move on, there are suggestions, here and there, of the medicos’ protests being stage managed. Are we thinking foreign hand here ? Or is it just opposition parties ? Or is it some third force that we are yet to be acquainted with ? Didn’t realize that this is how we regard the folks we visit we go to when our lives are hanging in balance. I wonder, then, why you would entrust your life to someone you equate with politicians, middle-men, brokers and god knows who else.

Lets assume that the medicos are `stage managing’ the whole thing. They band together every evening, draw up plans of attack, farm out duties at a national level, ensure reports are constantly flowing in and monitor the whole thing, using whatever technology they can afford or access. I don’t get it. What’s wrong with that ? The best protests are stage managed.

From Davos to Tinamen Square, people don’t happen to get together like that. Following a cup of coffee at the local Barista. The most effective protests are meticulously planned. And executed with precision. It happens all the time, all over the world. That’s how student protests (I am limiting my argument to them) ought to be. That’s why student protests usually achieve more in the longer term. As history tells us. As opposed to crowds going berserk.

Now, What ?

To return to the point, so the protests have picked up steam. The student in me reiterates that every student should take up the issue. Whichever way you feel. Particularly, if you want a serious debate and conclusion. Studies conducted by Surjit Bhalla and Sunil Jain in Business Standard debunk some popular theories. For one they challenge the commonly touted OBC stastic, saying its 36% and not 52%. Bhalla than goes on to attack the lawmakers saying they’ve blundered in principle.

This is not something, unfortunately, that’s been widely debated. Though Ive seen some interesting points of view on this blog and elsewhere. Though I think that's only one of the issues at stake. Lets understand one thing. There is a large section of society whose lives are not exactly rocking the way yours and mine are. I say this because if you are reading this post, you can read, have access to a computer and know where to surf. I have said this before..there is an increasing disconnect between the post-liberalization riches that have benefited a few and this class.

The issue is not whether its 36% or 52%. We are talking tens and hundreds of millions of partly educated or uneducated, unemployed youth. Who watch TV, films and develop aspirations which are similar to you and me. They would not like to be condemned to the lives they were born into. They want out. And not all have the necessary DNA to become entrepreneurs or migratory labour.

Wake Up, Or Suffer

Something about the system is not working, because opportunities are not being created. China has created over 100 million manufacturing jobs in the last few decades and has pulled some of its populace out of poverty. We have nothing to show in comparison. Except more stock-option blessed riches in urban India. And the occasional vanilla farming jackpot.

I have argued this before as well. Politicians can be trusted to come up with some pretty unimaginative responses. The rest of us unfortunately pay the price. Either by being denied seats or facing some other fall-out. To that extent, the problem is all of ours. Particularly all students. Because its you who will suffer the most. And you better wake up. Instead of watching with equanimity.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Why Are The Doctors Protesting, Alone ?

I don't get it. Until a few weeks ago, I thought the additional 27% reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBC) affected a whole lot more folks. Someone posted a comment cum link on my blog seeking support for an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) student initiated effort protesting against Arjun Singh's quota capers. Many Indian Institute of Management (IIM) students (or were they former) too made noises.

And yet, the only people protesting the hardest seem to be the doctors. Whose being on the streets unfortunately has the maximum impact on the people they are suppposed to serve, typically poor patients needing medical attention. Often urgent. And they look like the villians in the story.

That has not stopped them. Medical students from West Bengal and Bihar to Delhi and Mumbai, they are uniting to take on the government. Even Mangalore ! And the momentum only seems to be gaining. Students are talking of stepping up their efforts and creating a nationwide movement.

Amazing Rallying Powers

The medicos seem to be united regardless of their backgrounds. I quote one, from the DNA newspaper.."Dr Rudra who finished his internship at KEM medical college last year and belongs to the OBC caste said, “All students have realised that reservation is a game of votes. I belong to an OBC caste and I don’t need reservations. Reservations should be based on economic basis. My friends, who are also OBC’s, have also come out to protest.”

But the OBC problem affects a lot more people. The government wants to make the 27 per cent OBC reservation in 20 central universities, the IITs, IIMs and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The total quota will then stand at 49.5 per cent. And its the medicos who are hitting the streets all over the country.

As amazed as I am with the medical student fraternity's ability to organise and mass-rally, I continue to be a little puzzled as to the reason for the silence on the part of the other constituencies. The doctors and interns have more to lose than engineers and management graduates, unfortunately. Public ire will not turn against a IIM grad for hitting the streets. It will against doctors for staying away from work. The doctors are in a dangerous Catch 22 here.

Dr P Makes A Point

And as I wonder, I have one solid response from Dr P, a doctor based, lets say, in north India. He is pretty upset about the OBC issue. Though he has been corresponding with me on, other, professional issues. I put the same question to him and I reproduce his response which I received a few hours ago.

"Anyway, coming to a very pertinent question that you have raised here. As a doctor (and exam appearing), I have full reason to be circumspect. The majority of the seats are competitive and the pass percentage is FAR less than what is needed for IIT's or other Regional Colleges.

Hence there is more competition. I am told that most of the students do manage to get in Engineering. Look at this way too. With the proliferation of the colleges in South (Karnataka/ Tamil Nadu), it is easier to get a donation seat cheaper than Medicine. The similar donation runs in couple of lakhs for Medicine/ Surgery or any other branch."

The Lure Of Money

"Further, most of the Engineers opt for MBA. Which is easier for them. Making a career switch for Medicine is difficult. For the same reason, I opted out of IAS preprations. I'd rather work in a hospital (and preferably in a teaching institue) than push files.

This could be one reason. From this session onwards, one of my juniors, paid 48 lakhs in XXXX, Chennai for a M.D. General Medicine seat. One of the other juniours paid roughly Rs 25+ in YYYY, Tamil Nadu. Hence, the competitive pressures to get the sarkari funded seats is high. Where the fees is subsidised."

I can empathise with what Dr P is saying. And that makes me wonder whether simple demand-supply economics is what is keeping the engineers and management graduates silent. Make a noise but only to the extent that your life could really be affected. After all, you have Plan A, Plan B etc. Nothing wrong in that. Most of us have our lives to lead, including journalists !

Smart as they are, I don't expect a first year IIM graduate to descend to Jantar Mantar in the scorching Delhi heat. Protests unfortunately have to be held in the middle of the day, when temperatures could touch 45 degrees. Especially, when summer means a month spent poring over bill receivables in Citibank ! Or, maybe more dramatic like structuring Alipine convertibles in Goldman Sach's Zurich office. Okay, no more bitching !

Here's The Math

Back to Dr P. Where he reminds us of same basic numbers. "Privatisation of health care delivery has adversely affected the rural health care. If someone has "invested" a particular sum to "educate" himself through the specialisation (which again makes no sense for a developing country like India), he would want to re coup his "investments". It is a no brainer."

Dr P concludes by making an interesting point, about doctors leading revolutions..yes, Dr A, you did remind me, for a brief moment, of another doctor who abandoned his comfortable existence decades ago in south America to become one..yes, I refer to Che Guevera. Anyway, to return to Dr A, before one gets carried away on an uncharted idealistic journey.

"This remains my point of view. Let's take it this way. Doctors have been at the forefront of "revolutions". Till the time, there is radicalisation of the "movement", nothing would happen. I am studying and waiting for the oppurtune time. I wouldn't want to see a repeat of Mandal 1 where immolations had become fashionable. Mere "democratic forms of protest" like rallies isn't going to work. Strikes would. Unless they come in with ESMA. The future looks bleak."

Let me admit that apart from a friend or two, my association with the medical fraternity is restricted to meeting them when in dire need of medical assistance. So, I have no special love for them. And I am quite amazed at the sincerity with which some of them have been hitting out at the government over the OBC issue. And the revolutionary take Dr P's point a step forward.

This War Will Not Be Fought In Cyber Space Or Through SMSs, It Will Be Fought On The Streets

Let me pick up a quote from Jam TV, a part of Jam Magazine. This interview was recorded this afternoon in Bombay following another round of protests in Azad Maidan. The protests met with a unusually brutal, almost pre-meditated response from the police.

The doctor/medical student being interviewed here says, "There is no point in discussing reservation in drawing rooms. These people don't understand this language. This battle will not be fought in cyber space, through SMSs or on mobile phones. It will be fought on the streets. Our time is precious too. We have to come out now and fight this..." I am moved, fellow bloggers ?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Indians Spin Textile Story in Shaoxing, China !

Neeraj claims the first three months in China were torture. "I couldn't understand a word. I thought I made a mistake by coming here," he says passing around cups of Indian tea in his office cum guest house. Neeraj is a textile trader based in the bustling city of Shaoxing. The apartment is packed with fabric samples on hangers. "And then," he says, "it began making sense." Evidently, as he asks the cook to include dal in the menu for lunch, in fluent Chinese.

Neeraj is one of some 1,200 Indians living and working in Shaoxing, located three hours south of Shanghai and on the southern wing of the Yangtze River Delta. Shaoxing is popularly known as the textile capital of China and even Asia. What its perhaps not popularly known is the fact that it has highest concentration of Indians for any city or town in China, more than Beijing and Shanghai combined.

Like Neeraj, most of the Indians here in Shaoxing (also known as the wine city) are textile traders. And yet, very few actually have come from India. Instead, in a fascinating tale of economic migration, they’ve been drawn over the last five years from Dubai, Hong Kong, Taiwan and even South Korea. Following the manufacturing trail, so to speak. And the Chinese miracle of scale and costs.

India One Of Many Markets

Sitting in Shaoxing, Neeraj and his associates source and supply mostly wholesale fabric to markets world over over, including the Middle East, Africa, Iran, Iraq and East Europe. India for them is one of many markets. And they seem to be working all the time. Its a Sunday afternoon and two Indians from his Dubai office are in the midst of animated phone calls.

Precise figures are hard to come by. But five years ago, the Indian trading community used to export around 200 containers every month, half to India. Today, the community exports more than 3,000 containers a month. At an average of $30,000 per container, its more than a $1bn worth of business. The margins are wafer thin though. The Indian traders’ share of exports to India has been rising as well, to around 700 to 800 containers per month today.

Most of Shaoxing's Indian traders started small. Neeraj hails from Byas, Punjab. In 1992, after studying for a ITI diploma in airconditioning & refrigeration, he left for for Dubai. "I was the first passport holder in the family," he says. In Dubai, he worked for a textile company (his diploma didn't take him far) and did mostly odd jobs including sweeping up at the end of the day. And then he began learning the trade.

"Overheads Up, Business Down"

Along the way, he set up his own trading firm, sourcing fabric from Taiwan, and South Korea and supplying it to the rest of the middle east. Till manufacturing began moving to China. "We had to come here, he says," referring to his three brothers - his parents are Radhaswamy Satsang disciples and wish no connection with their sons' textile business.

The dapper Radhu Phulwani began in Dubai too, but a good decade earlier. He was the third Indian to settle in Shaoxing, in 1999. "In Dubai, our overheads were increasing and business decreasing," he says. Phulwani came to China first in 1987 and recalls visiting the country some 50 times before finally settling down. "I saw the decline of the Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese textile markets and the rise of China."

Phulwani says in the beginning, he would export around 50 containers a month. Today, he does almost 100. Of these around 10 head for India. Phulwani also tried setting up base back home. "The bureacuracy was too much," he says. He has an office in Mumbai, but he only visits it. A younger brother from Dubai is here more often. So, like many others, he is trying to make himself feel at home here, in Shaoxing.

Indian Curry In China

That's getting easier. There are four Indian restaurants and two grocery shops, started by the members of the traders’ community, probably wanting to diversify. And there is a Shaoxing Indian Business Association as well. Phulwani happens to be the President of this association. He points out that associations are not permitted in China, particularly ones with religious affiliations. This one exists `unofficially’with official knowledge, he says.

What does the future portend for the Indian trading community ? Will they migrate again ? Neeraj is not so sure. "There are six or seven people in the chain now. It has to come down. While business relationships will matter, it will not be easy, he admits. He wants to set up shop in Delhi, maybe trade in other commodities as well. He asks this correspondent’s companion, an Indian fabric importer, for some advice. "We are already doing some copper exports," he says.

Phulwani is more optimistic. "As long as the textile business does well, I am here. Ten years, fifteen years, lets see. China is growing," he says. Moreover, he says, there are no hassles of doing business here. "They treat us well, they respect us, there is no corruption." In the meawhile, when he is not working, he is keeping himself busy with the Assocation. "We have a lot of get togethers for festivals. But these are social gatherings, not religious," he insists.

(This article appeared in Business Standard on May 10)

Friday, May 05, 2006

India's 21-Day Disadvantage

The conference room has a busy, workman’s look about it, with a long table in the centre. Around, on the two of the walls hang shirts with premium labels; Abercrombie & Fitch, Nordstrom, Tommy Hilfiger & Hugo Boss. Through the large, sealed window, is the familiar Shanghai sprawl of skyscrapers stretching across. Its raining outside.

We are in the China sales offices of the $500 million Esquel, a Hong Kong headquartered shirt maker, among the world's largest. Rebecca (name changed), a young merchandiser of Taiwanese origin, is taking my friend Vijay through a corporate presentation. She mentions, by the way, that her founder, Marjorie Yang was voted one of the most powerful women business leaders in the world by Fortune. Yang is also MIT and Harvard educated.

The next slide is on Esquel's production (60 million shirts) facilities. I notice their largest manufacturing plant is in Gaoming, near Guangzhou on the east coast. The plant employs some 21,000 workers. The rest are in Malaysia, Vietnam, Mauritus and even Sri Lanka. "I can understand they are big in China but how come they are not in India ?" I ask Vijay who wants to import Esquel's yarn-dyed (a speciality) fabric for Indian garment makers.

Compounded Delays

The next day we visit Syed, a GAP Inc `converter' or fabric sourcer, in another Shanghai office block. Right next to one of the city's six elevated roads. Translated, its a 14 km, six-lane flyover that runs above the city. Syed hails, +interestingly, from one-time textile city Davangere in Karnataka. Trained as an engineer, he went to Dubai 14 years ago but wandered into textiles and fabrics.

Syed says only 20 per cent of his fabric consignments head for India. The rest go all over the region, including Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. "Why is India not a bigger buyer, particularly in this post quota world ?," I ask him. Syed takes a pen and paper. "We work mostly with the big brands. Their lead times are small and orders big. And a garment manufacturer in India will find it tough. Assuming he has the capacity," he says.

Why is that ? I ask. "Compounded delays," says Syed. A consignment of fabric can take upto 25 days to reach the manufacturer in India, particularly in Mumbai or Delhi, compared to 15 in Sri Lanka. Customs clearance can be tricky. It might be three days in Chennai but upwards of 10 days in Mumbai. Depending on whether you have a full container or not. And then comes the long march; negotiating inter state barriers, octroi check points and bad roads.

Lost Opportunity

Moreover, Syed says the containers don't come straight to India. Mostly they are trans-shipped (transferred from one vessel to another) in Singapore or Colombo. Like I was on my Singapore Airlines flight back to Mumbai. "But why Colombo ?" I ask. "Well, they have a bigger and more efficient port, he explains. Anyway, that's another two-three days lost. And additional costs.And it's the same story on the outbound, though time at customs is less.

So that's one reason companies like Esquel are in Colombo and not in India. And Syed is exporting there. Customs clearance is brisk both ways, the garment factories are close by and labour, like the rest of the region, is cheap. Not to mention flexible. "But we are managing, aren't we ?" I ask Syed, thinking of all the IPO-fuelled expansion plans of the Indian garment makers.

"Of course," he replies. But then it is about the opportunity lost. China exports almost ten times as much garments as India. But lost opportunity is only part of the problem. Says Syed, "You have to remember the supply chain is always getting shorter and tighter." Deliveries are usually expected with 120 to 150 days of placing an order. Sometimes less. Depending upon the kind of fabric and whether its in stock. And the order size.

Logistics Challenge

Syed says that increasingly, big brands in the US and Europe are creating `fast track' segments. Like demanding that 15 per cent of the total order must be delivered within 60 days. "That's not possible for an Indian garment maker to match, even with locally sourced fabric." Though a garment maker based out of Sri Lanka could potentially deliver, he says.

As we leave Syed's office and proceed for an Indian lunch, I collect my thoughts. An Indian garment exporter will almost always be at a 15 to 21-day logistics disadvantage. Come to think of it, it's the same reason Intel has to think so much before investing in an Indian chip fab. Its one thing to invest for local growth. Another to create a cog in a smoothly turning global supply chain wheel.

A multi-location garment maker, like Esquel, will hesitate to put India on its global manufacturing map. Not surprisingly, there is little or no Foreign Direct Investment in this sector. And thus more jobs. As long as it takes weeks to clear customs and days to transport the product from the ports to the factories. So, the bad news is that customs and procedures are one of the key causes for the delays. That's the good news as well. Revamping should be simpler than building infrastructure.

(This article appeared in Business Standard on 2 May)

Monday, May 01, 2006

Suryanarayana & Other Fearless Indians

Two years ago, at a technology seminar in Bangalore, I got talking to a telecom engineer in his 40s. He worked with one of the bigger private telecom companies and was responsible for building and maintaining their fixed line infrastructure. As I look back, I would say he looked like a homely, south Indian man of the house, with a soft-spoken and gentle demeanour.

The kind of man who would work hard and well until 6 pm and then go home to his extended family in a house possibly built by his father or grand father in Malleswaram, the older part of Bangalore. And so we spoke, of the challenges of telecom infrastructure and the opportunities that were opening up. And the competition.

Then I asked him where he had worked before his present job. I presumed he had worked with a state-owned telecom company, Bharat Sanchar Nigam. I was right, he had. But then he said he was away in Africa for a couple of years before returning to his present job. Where was that, I asked, mildly. “Somalia,” he answered, with a sheepish smile.

Black Hawk Down

“What in the blazes was he doing there ?” I asked, visions of Black Hawk Down in Mogadishu fresh in my mind. “Well, laying a cellular phone network,” he said. “For whom,” I asked. “For one of the territories, under the control of one of the warlords.” This was amazing. I asked him whether it was simple as he made it sound. You know, rise in the morning, read papers, brush, have tea, shave, quick breakfast and off for work. “Well, not exactly,” he said.

He explained that you couldn’t be walking around on your own, you usually had the guards with you. Of course they belonged to the warlord your cellphone company owed allegiance to. “So you were walking around Somalia with gun-toting guards erecting cellphone towers ?” I asked. “Well, you could put it like that,” he said, as we sipped our coffee in the sedate ballroom of the Taj Westend in Bangalore. Somalia I discovered later had six cell phone companies and a state-of-the-art network.

Reading about the beheaded K Suryanarayana, I was reminded of my meeting with the telecom engineer, who I shall not name. Both seem similar in disposition. Suryanarayana actually quit a job at the privately owned Tata Teleservices to take up this assignment in the Middle East. Which in turn got him to Afghanistan. Where he was working on a longish assignment. One that was doomed to never return from.

Risk Vs Rewards

Its not that both these telecom engineers were not aware of the risks of working in these places. The money was obviously good, but not work risking death. And yet they were. They couldn’t be more middle class than you can get, with families. Though, reports allege Suryanarayana had more one than one family to look after. Be that as it may, the prospect of not returning home was high. Or in their god-fearing outlook of life, death wouldn't visit them unless fate commanded it. Wherever in the world.

I asked the Bangalore telecom engineer what made him take up the Somalia assignment. He said he wanted a project challenge. And somehow did not place too much emphasis on the risks that came with it. He sounded embarassed about it. I couldn't figure this one. I concluded, partly, that as always, India had failed its aspiring populace. Some aspired for money, some for challenges, some for sheer excitement of seeing the world. Their government jobs were deadening and numbing. Of course, for others, it was bliss.

So they moved out. The sad bit I thought was that they never would get a hero's welcome when they returned. Because they were not heroes in the taditional sense. And they were not exactly fighting for the flag. They would be treated with the same disdain most returning Indians are treated with, at the immigration counter. They wouldn’t mind either, waiting only to get to their homes, sometimes far away from the cities where they landed. This was just another job. Except for A Suryanarayana. Who never came back.

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