Friday, June 23, 2006

Yipee, Bombay Will Have A Metro, In 2021

A friend just told me I should be happy because Mumbai will finally have its metro. She said, I carp and complain all the time. Okay, I am happy. And yet, in my happiness and joy, I am compelled to pen a few points.

1. This is Phase I which will end in 2009 end or so. While I have greater faith in Reliance's (the company who has bagged the contract) execution abilities, this is not a purely private initiative. Purely private initiatives (including levelling entire mills in weeks) are capable of immense execution focus. Am not sure about public-private. Mumbai airport's new arrival terminal is a case in point. Its considerably delayed the chap doing it is `private'.

2. Phase I is a east-west connector in the north of the city. Very useful for those who are living in those parts but zero impact for anyone else.

3. Phase II and III are what will really matter because they will connect the city's north-south axis. Targeted completion is 2021. Without revealing embarassing details about my age, let me assure you I will not even be able to think young at that time. And there is no guarantee it will be done by 2021. Maybe you can start telling the building of the Metro story to your children who in turn will narrate it to their grand children. Who might just about be able to experience it. You think I am kidding, ask anyone who lived in Calcutta in the 70s.

What Next ?

By then, what will happen to this city ? I have no clue. We are 18 million and straining at every inch. The roads are giving in, water is a problem and there are not enough health services. So, children are suffering from malnourishment in the middle of the city..Implosion is a good word but in India things do not implode. They maintain a steady rate of descent into a never ending abyss of decay.

And what it is it going to take to build all this ? You can forget about smooth traffic movements. That does not exist even today. Its a nightmare travelling east-west or west-east in Bombay. What is worse than the nightmare that is ? Search me. Bombay's metro builders would be wise to seek the counsel of Delhi Metro's E Sreedharan. At least he will figure out how to manage traffic while putting up a metro track in the middle of the city. So, should I be happy ? What do you think !

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Fighting Government To Survive: The Bangalore Story

I am now of the view it should now be a global term for a situation where a politician holds a democratic state to ransom. Or when and his his cohorts emerge in brazen public eye to railroad anything that comes in their way of personal material upliftment. So, guess who has been Bangalored recently ? Well, its Bangalore !

The present war between politician and former prime minister H D Deve Gowda and NICE, the promoters of the Bangalore-Mysore expressway project is downright sickening. And its a scar on democracy, even what we know of it.

The Indian Express ran a story last week which exposed the fact that Gowda owned a 47-acre piece of land off the expressway.And because he couldn’t use the land (allegedly) the way he wanted, he was stalling the project big time. Actually, better still. He was getting the state Government to do it. What was suspected all this while or known but not said is now in the open.

Gowda then proved his intentions by getting the Government to engineer a `hostile’ takeover of the land around the expressway, which was handed over to the project as part of the deal. The Chief Minister (Gowda’s son) said the Bill would protect the land of poor farmers. The 47 acres he owns next to the expressway is worth a crore an acre, according to the Express.

Fighting To Survive

Ashok Kheny the man behind the expressway has fought over 300 court cases already to get the project going. He fought two in the Supreme Court as well. In the last judgement, the SC pulled up the state government for its antics. Then Gowda tried changing the law as well. As politicians only know too well, there is nothing the courts can do if the law itself is changed. Fortunately, there is some relief, at least for now.

The point is not the court case. So far one assumed that Bangalore or for that matter IT has succeeded despite Government. Now, its actually about fighting Government to stay and survive. And being insulted and called the vilest of names (land grabber !) while doing that. Commerce and polity couldn’t be at more variance than this.

We are supposed to be 15 years into liberalisation and we can't get a 111 km road project done without it becoming a national issue and politicians baring their fangs. And the fact that they push ahead with their agenda knowing the cat's fully out of the bag amazes me. Actually it does not, anymore. So much for media and so much for the courts.

This Government Is Destroying Bangalore And India

The other unfortunate truth is that the Government (as represented in the present context) is systematically destroying the little goodwill Bangalore’s entrepreneurs have generated. Not just for themselves, but for India. Bangalore was supposed to be India's showcase. Not for this Government. It gives a fig that its the country’s image is at stake. Because for one or two individuals, their land and ego matter the most. The rest can be damned.

The conclusion is that the politicians can succeed. Look around and see the number of projects and initiatives that are not moving. That’s how it stacks up. Unless the city’s citizens rise up against him. The average Bangalorean I know is pretty upset with the turn of events. Its about time this showed up somewhere. Else, even Bombay’s troubles will pale in comparison. Even Bombay, as columnist Sudheendra Kulkarni pointed out this morning in the Indian Express, built a Bombay-Pune expressway. As he says, we seem to be determined NOT to build a developed nation.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Can India fix its `Macro' ?


The ISB-IIM battle seems to have hotted up a little, going by the furious exchanges flying around. I wonder why..a friend whos familiar with the turf says its because students have returned to their colleges. Ah, the privileges of being one !

Am tempted to throw some fresh fundas into the fire (like who the hell cares anymore) but will desist for a day or two. Meanwhile, am posting a column that appeared in Business Standard this morning !

China Will Fix Its Micro, Will India Fix Its Macro ?

What does the average Chinese businessman think of India ? I put this question two months ago to an Indian trader I met in China’s textile capital Shaoxing, some four hours south-east of Shanghai.

Over a vegetarian pizza, he told he that most of his Chinese clients considered India with respect, some even with fear. After all, Indians were teaching otherwise crafty Chinese entrepreneurs a trick or two about the textile trade. And then there was the tale of a school teacher's son and his six colleagues setting out with $250 in their pockets 25 years ago and creating the $2 bn Infosys Technologies.

A few months ago, the owner of a large Chinese textile unit accompanied him on a visit to India. The mill owner was sewing up some big contracts with Indian garment exporters. And of course to see this `fast growing nation' for himself. "Guess what," said the Indian trader, "The moment we landed at Mumbai and emerged from the airport, something changed. I could see the Chinese mill owner breathing a visible sigh of relief."

Perception On Arrival

He said other traders had similar stories to narrate. Visiting Chinese businessmen would speak well of India for its market potential and entrepreneurship. But on India as competition, they changed their opinion. The moment they cleared immigration. The perception they had built up did not match the reality they experienced. "We don't have much to worry," the mill owner told me," the Shaoxing businessman said, polishing off the last piece of the pizza.

Two weeks ago, GE chairman Jeff Immelt towered over Mumbai's corporate who's who as he outlined his firm's revised India vision. "$8 billion by 2010," he announced to an attentive audience. How ? "Well, for an economy to grow 8%, you need power, planes." Immelt said broad-based consumerism, which wants basics as power, transport and water supply, was the driver. "Once people have tasted an economy that grows at 8 percent a year, they get used to it," he said.

And then Immelt dropped his gem for the day. "The government and everything else works in China. The expressways and airports are just like those in Chicago and New York. China has got the macro picture right, India the micro picture. India’s pluses are fantastic companies and systems." So, he said, with a flourish, India has to fix the macro picture. China has to fix the micro picture.

Focus On The Perception !

Since then, I've been posing that question to myself. Lets for a moment focus on the perception of whether we can fix the macro rather than whether we will fix it. Lets also assume, this writer's perceptions are clouded by journalistic pessimism.

Take the case of Mumbai, the city I live in. After years of debates, protests and court cases, a `new’ airport will rise in the place of the only, old one. Will it be bigger ? Not sure, that depends on whether the slum dwellers who muscled in alongside can be rehabilitated. Will it have better access. Not sure, looks like I will have to pass the same shanty towns to reach the international terminal. And no direct road. So, its a look and feel show. A new airport is under consideration though, for, possibly two decades.

A city metro system was under debate and discussion for as long, if not more. Work should start later this year. With the city’s population straining over 17 million inhabitants, a metro (as and when it sees light of day) will help. Unlikely, it will change life much.

New York, Chicago & Shanghai

An island city like Mumbai needs a water transport solution: think Star Ferry in Hong Kong. We must be in the third or is it fourth decade of planning and announcements. No solution is even in sight. So, don't expect dramatic quality of life changes for a few decades. What about power ? Mumbai city scores here, though northern suburbs suffer. Lets not even talk of Bangalore.

In my last column, I talked about how investors are pouring money into China’s mega bank IPOs. Only because they feel China is fixing its micro, to use Immelt’s term again - he spoke of airports like New York and Chicago. Actually, China might do a little better. Particularly if you were to consider Shanghai’s Pudong International which is going from two runways to five. Or the recently completed 1,142-km Qinghai-Tibet railway line, a massive engineering feat.

So, will India fix its macro ? And more importantly when ? If I haven’t seen real action for the past two decades, what do I see today that suggests a magical transformation in the next two. Very little. I've heard of $150 billion opportunities number for a decade at least. Funny, the figure does not change. Will we win the marathon against China in the next three or four decades ? Probably. But chances are I may not be around. Nor, if you are reading this, will you. But China will fix its micro a lot sooner. That I am sure. And I am sure Immelt is sure too.

Micro Or Macro ?

So, what should the average Chinese think of India ? What should the average Indian think of India ? The Shaoxing businessman tells me India has opportunity but should stop comparing itself with China. "Forget the infrastructure. Even we are treated better here," he tells me. Now, is that a macro or a micro problem ?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Rescue Us From Bombay's Mis-Managers..

Wednesday last, I spent roughly 2.5 hours on Lady Jamsedji Road in central Bombay. No, I was not shopping for vegetables or the like. It was a traffic jam and a heinous one at that. Reason: rains. And I left my office in Worli (central Bombay) thinking it couldn't be that bad. I mean sure it would take half an hour to 45 minutes more than the usual 1 hour (which is half an hour more than the earlier usual) but still.

Well, the roads were paralysed, the traffic had come to a standstill. To top it all, most of this arterial road was without power. And the water was rising, steadily. Actually no, but it looked like it would. For the moment, it was a steady drizzle, the downpour stopped a little while ago. And guess what, no traffic policemen. Or any policemen.

They had dissapeared. Like they did the last time I was stuck on this road for this duration. Would you like to know when that was ? Well, it was July 26, 2005, more fondly remembered as 26/7. When our car approached a traffic junction where we planned to turn off for a parallel road, I finally saw two men in the distance directing traffic. Policemen finally, I thought. Guess what, as I was turning off, I discovered they were local residents. Youngsters wearing wind cheaters. Amazing !

Every Deadline Is Broken

I can vent on and on about a whole lot of things that are wrong with the way civic authorities have plain messed up this year's run up to this year's monsoons. One thing stands clearly out. And that is a monumental inability to mismanage the simplest of things. Why else do you think every deadline for road completion is behind schedule. Which competent manager would have waited till the last day to finish what could have been done months ago ?

Or a disaster management system which failed instantly. Come on folks, have you heard of running mock-ups, tests, stress tests. How do you even dream your system works when you haven't exposed it. So, it boils down to a such a total managerial crisis in Bombay's civic system that even talking about it is depressing. Its this crisis that is ensuring the simplest things are going wrong and will continue. Unless something is done.

Running a city is not a joke. Surely not a megapolis like Bombay. And even assuming we had the most dedicated people in charge, I am sorry, it does not help. What you need here is not just commitment but talent. And a specific talents at that. We cannot be at the mercy of arbitrarily transferred civil servants. Someone who was running the textiles department or tourism cannot be running a city. No way. Someone who was running tourism can be sent to animal husbandry or agriculture.

Get People Who Have Experience

Infrastructure and city projects should be run by people who have managed large projects. Its another issue that even competent people have failed us. But the chances of their learning from their mistakes and improving are better. That's the difference between good managers and bad ones. We have the worse, because not only do they not learn from their mistakes but repeat the same ones every day. And every citizen in Bombay pays the price, dearly.

Bombay is now saddled with the most inept managers in the repertoire of India's bureaucracy, I would hazard. When the city is crying for the best in the country. The Government needs to hunt for managers. Actively. It needs to find them from within its system. Since it does not have the guts to hire from outside. And to be fair, there is talent within.

Whether within the Bombay Municipal Corporation or outside, we need managers who can manage projects, deadlines and be responsive to customers or citizens. And preferably have a track record of doing so. Put together a committee of former and present city managers to hunt for a candidate. And trust me you will. Even the government ocassinaly gets these things right. At least when it comes to public sector companies.

Politicians Bumble Along Too

Unfortunately, our politicians are unfortunately bumbling along with the mis-managers. Collectively, they are like the five blind men and an elephant. Which is obviously the city of Bombay. I can't think of a more disasterous combination. Good politicians have the basic sense to find and install good managers. Its their responsibility as well. Its time they did something. And found the right guys for the job.

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