Sunday, October 22, 2006

India And India Inc: Tata And Tata-Corus

The day champagne bottles were popped to mark the success of the $7.6 billion Tata Steel bid for British steel maker Corus, the newspapers also noted, somewhere inside, that the district of Vidarbha in Maharashtra had seen another four farmer suicides. This brought the total to almost 1,000 suicides in about a year's time. In just one region.

Tata-Corus was the largest Indian takeover of a foreign company and will make Tata the fifth largest steel player. We must also be the one of the few countries in the world where poverty, deprivation and debt have conspired to kill people at a rate that would match any war zone. Except that there are no suicide bombers here, there are just suicides.

Increasingly, when I am asked by people about what’s happening in India, I say there are two India’s, India and India Inc. There were always two Indias or maybe more but the other India earlier was just educated, aware and ranged in income levels from the middle class to the affluent. Everyone knew they existed but no one really cared beyond that. We could have been another Latin American country.

What Will Happen to Corus ?

I happened to be in London the day Tata’s bid for Corus became public. I also happened to visiting some journalist-friends at the BBC’s White City offices where BBC World is headquartered. Even as I was sitting in the now fully digital newsroom, the tickers began firing more and more takes on the possible deal. The BBC producers quickly realised that this was now the big story of the day. Not just for the Asia editions but also global bulletins.

Being a journalist from India and all that, they felt I might be able to provide some insights. So, I was asked, first, if this bid was for real. Second, they asked, what would now happen to Corus ? Yes, I said to the first, but I didn’t know what to say to the second question. I mean, no one has ever asked me that one before. Its always been, what will happen to some poor unsuspecting Indian company. Not because of a takeover, because we’ve ensured that we don’t really allow those but because of competition that we’ve fortunately allowed.

So there is India Inc, whose image outside is getting more and more menacing, so to speak. I was in Bavaria, Germany before I visited London and a German journalist friend mentioned how there was concern amongst some workers in local engineering firms particularly after Indian companies (like Bharat Forge, M&M) began snapping up assets here. There was even concern over India’s medical tourism initiatives because German medical practitioners would potentially be hit.

Not Just Bangalored

And I am quite happy for that, more so than perhaps the traditional Bangalored view (I will dwell on this more later) where thanks to flat world and all that, Indian engineers and call center executives began plucking jobs out of cubicles of firms in the western world. That’s worrying but not as much as the spectre of someone coming out of the blue and taking over your company one fine morning, or so I would think. Tata taking over a Corus is not outsourcing. It is sheer might and puts Indian companies on the same platform as any large western or for that matter eastern multinational. This my friends, is not a global delivery model. It is a global model.

And there is India, where farmer suicides continue. Where the chief minister of the state of Maharashtra says 40% of the suicides have nothing to do with debt. So in effect, he is not responsible. Didn’t realize that politicians were only responsible for covering people when they went bankrupt. Else, its clearly your lookout. Why then do we arrest people for trying to commit suicide ? I mean if you are not in debt, than its fine, go ahead.

So, India Inc is taking good care of itself, but what's to happen to India ? Well, in a limited way, I think that steps by private sector giants like Mittal and Reliance in building massive supply chains with giant retail front ends with the farmer at the back will create a better deal for many millions. If nothing else, many farmers will get better prices for their product and they will be encouraged to move beyond being marginal land owners. Nothing that the government is doing or is planning to do in this regard will do, much as I hope it will. I only wish we could have similar initiatives for basic education, sanitation and roads. Unfortunately, as we all know, this is still Government territory.

India And India Inc Converge

Until recently, I always thought that it would be the Government that would prop up India while India Inc got the glory and recognition. Increasingly, I feel that India Inc is the only salvation for India as well, at least when it comes to raising incomes and providing livelihoods to the larger millions. Obviously India Inc does it for a profit. But that’s better than the Government trying to do things and handing out monies to middle men. And doing a pathetic job in any case. You don’t have to go to Vidarbha in central Maharashtra, the roads outside my house are a good enough start.

The best thing is that the Tata Group has known this for decades. Its interesting that Tata Steel, whose expenditure on Corporate Social Reponsibility (CSR) is perhaps the highest amongst all Indian companies and thus a wary pick for stock market analysts has also turned out to be a prowling tiger on the global stage. At least today. And that’s where the interests of India and India Inc have converged, I would think. And will come even closer. I think so. Am sure Mr Tata thinks so as well.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Veil Debate: The Immigrant View

The veils debate has come to India, as I write. And it continues to rock Britain, ever since former home secretary Jack Straw set it off two weeks ago (read previous post). Polls in Britain, including one initiated by The Guardian newspaper say that "53% of voters think Mr Straw was right to suggest that the full veil creates a barrier between Muslim women and other people, with only 36% believing he is wrong on the issue."

I started out by saying its somewhat of a non-issue in India, like in many other countries. For the simple reason that unlike Britain, there is no immigrant issue here. Incidentally, the TOI today quotes Islamic scholar Zeenat Shaukat Ali saying "Quran doesn't ask Muslim women to use a veil. It wants them to dress modestly and behave in a dignfied manner." The veil has, Ali says, become a symbol of dignified dressing and its not a form of opression.

Like before, let me focus on the nation-state issue that I raised earlier. Which is really what a state can or should expect from its citizens, particularly immigrant citizens. Maybe there should not be a distinction in that. But my sense is that countries are beginning to distinguish between the two in some ways, at least in defining what they expect from them, for instance Canada saying knowledege of English is a prerequisite.

Do Immigrants Care ?

What I wonder and to an extent worry about is really the motivation behind migration. I also wonder whether most modern day migrants realise what they sign up for. And let me add that Indian immigrants to the west are not an exception here. My question: do immigrants understand the notion of a nation-state or is it only defined by what the emailer below says.

I will connect this with the subject of veils later but my instinctive answer is no..most migrants couldn't really care about the nation-states they adopt. Of course some do and perhaps make their adopted nations proud. The vast majority are in it for the free ride. And that is worrying. I will build on this later, but meanwhile let me quote two mails (presumably genuine) that appeared on the website of Britain's largest newspaper, The Sun.

Mike on The Sun
13/10/2006 14:07:33
Re:Show your face!

To right they should, it makes my blood boil all this fuss over the Muslim faith. If they want to live here then abide by British way of life, after all if any British citizen was to go and live in a Muslim country they have to abide by the Muslim way of life. And never mind all this multi cultural society clap trap they are just politician's words for i dont want to ignite a debate in case it back fires on me. But i say well done Mr Straw for being honest if only Blair and his i am OK jack sod everyone else cronies were as honest. there are only 3 things that attracts people to this country and that is service, 2.council property, and 3. State benefit.

14/10/2006 00:59:58
Re:Show your face!

I would just like to state, the last I checked this is a free country whereby where Muslims have integrated with what every colour of human you like and successfully co-exist with each and other British Citizen. Including freedom of speech and freedom to where what ya like and do what ya do best so long as you do not breach the law.

Please can somebody point out.. Is it against the law to where a Veil?????

Didnt think so... All the same I aint saying that there should be either, A muslim lady wears a veil based upon here dedication level of her faith to safe guard rapist as such who find it in their minds to screw what they choose a disgusting matter of which we all would condemn full stop.. BUT if he cant see ya face wey hey atleast he aint getting any fresh ideas.. What Ya rkon..

Mr Straw, I personally think is quite intelligent, but as they say donkeys are stupid, but Mr Straw aint a donkey, but has clearly demonstrated that he can walk on all fours... Clever lad.. but credit to the man he has caused a nationwide fiasco.. and given those idiotic extremists an excuse to jump on.. No wonder the security of this country is in a shambles they put the wood on the fire then complain when the water runs out... British politics... Just another b movie..

I Muslims lady in a veil, is a Muslim lady in a veil a standard human being, an affectionists, a patrion to her country and her religion, neither is shew forced or expected to where a veil but wheres on her own free will to further confirm her faith and beliefs..

Besides I do not feel that to understand ones feeling really requires the view of a face. If you really are caring and passionate god gave us understanding and feeling of words that mean heavily in sudden sentences, the great english dictionary and language further supports my point.

I am a Muslim totally integrated in to the british society, my occupation employs and invests in all colours of human regardless to race or what they wear i respect their beliefs and there religion and watever else they need from me as this means integration..

Get over it people.. wats the point of a debate when all it is gonna create is bad feeling in the general public nationwide and further disturbance to whats left of the peace and harmony our fore fathers have left us with..

I am a British Muslim, proud to be British and proud to be a Muslim, if ever I was asked to choose between my nation from my relegion I would end up in a phsyco ward as i just cudnt just they are both dear to me.. but if push came to shove.. then i am glad to say the British justice system still caters for all walks of life..

Take care all.. and just relax.. we are not the enemies and neither are you, we all in one boat but if we dont paddle together we gonna sink.. lets not let that happen..

All the best..

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Should (Muslim) Women Wear Veils ?

Its quite amazing when you think of it..walking or driving around East London, where I am staying currently, I see far more veiled women than I see in Mumbai or Delhi or any Indian city. Which is not to say they are not there. Its just that in my travels in India, I do encounter burkha clad women but rarely veiled women and that too fully veiled ones at that.

Former British home secretary Jack Straw has kicked up a blazing debate in Britain by saying Muslim women should consider dropping their veils in order to communicate better and foster community relations. He expressed this in an article in a local newspaper The Lancashire Telegraph where he said he felt uncomfortable speaking to veiled visitors to his constituency in Blackburn.

A day later (two days ago) he did something unusual for politicians (at least considering where I come from) reacting to a backlash – he stood by his statements. Then, he went on to say he would prefer it if Muslim women never covered up. When asked if he would rather the veils be discarded completely. “Yes, It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being prescriptive but, with all the caveats, yes, I would rather.”

Muslims Split Too

In the same article Straw said a meeting with a veiled woman had made him consider the apparent incongruity between her entirely English accent and UK education and the wearing of the veil. “It was not the first time I had conducted an interview with someone in a full veil, but this particular encounter, though very polite and respectful on both sides, got me thinking,” he wrote.

Interestingly, the issue has split Muslims in Britain as well. Groups like the Lancashire Council of Mosques have attacked him, others like Dr Daud Abdullah of the Muslim Council of Britain said he understood Straw’s views. “The veil does cause some discomfort to non-Muslims. One can understand this,” he said, adding Muslim opinion was divided on the veil (Evening Standard).

Prime minister of Britain Tony Blair, the Bishop of London and Jemima Khan have backed Straw’s right to comment on the matter. While the PM has not said anything further, Khan (a convert) has said there is nothing in the Koran which says covering the face is mandatory.

A Question of Identity

The issue as everyone know is larger. Its about integration. Britain clearly feels that millions of immigrants later, there is not a cohesive British identity, rather one of split identities. The fact that radicalized Islam has reached out to some young British Muslims too causes concern. Another raging debate here is whether universities are being used as recruiting grounds by such groups. There is a report out on the issue.

Am personally quite fascinated by this subject, not as much as the impact of radical Islam (though I’ve been doing some reading on its origins) but the very concept of a nation-state and its collective identity. Jack Straw may be right or wrong in his views but I would support his asking whether certain cultural practices go against the grain of his nation-state.

I would support similar questioning in India as well –not on veils since I don’t see it as an issue. Nor is it in other countries including apparently America. That's also to do with the nature of immigration I guess, of the kind permitted into the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Or the kind of people and when they came in.

Problems For The Future ?

My sense is that more and more countries are going to question their policies of free-for-all immigration and assimilation, often driven by economic necessity, on social grounds. It seems to me that the social price (tension between communities) to pay for relentless opening up of a country is not going to be offset by economic gains. This is a problem that will occupy the liberal politicians of the west in days to come. I wish to initiate some debates on this as well.

I do wonder at this point whether:

a) Do nations have a right to determine what their citizens wear ? Where does that definition stop or should it stop ?
b) Does the wearing of a veil by (mostly Muslim) women go against the grain of the society of they live in ?
c) Who decides, particularly in a democracy where a veiled UK citizen has as many rights as a non-veiled one !

The answers will be interesting and varied and may have ramifications on our own multicultural society and elements within in that may `break’ out or have a distinct identity.

Friday, October 06, 2006

A Challenge To BMW !

After two extremely trying encounters with the British Airports Authority, which saw me compete for The Great Healthrow Terminal Marathon and British Airways who told me on arrival at Munich that my only checked-in baggage with all its toiletries and clothes had been misplaced, I stepped out into the concourse into the bright sunshine.

My troubles seemed to melt away as my eyes fell upon the BMW 7 series, extended, waiting to ferry, lo and behold, me to the Bavarian countryside. I strapped myself into the front passenger’s seat and began admiring the console. Having sat in aircraft cockpits, the experience was not wholly new. The young driver, a half Greek, half-German student studying medicine in Munich, was my guide and host for the next hour and a half.

The BMW 7 series is no ordinary car, but you possibly know that. I learnt quickly that I could hit the rotary dial located where the gear shift usually is, call up the menu on the screen placed on the dashboard and, among other things, fiddle with the suspension settings. “Will it be soft or sporty ?” asked the young driver. I chose soft and tweaked the electric switches to become even more comfortable.

No Limits Here

Autobahns don’t have speed limits right, I asked ? No, he said. I can go faster but we usually don’t. I looked like I rode autobahns for a living. I mean, we can go fast, but I don’t know if you would be okay, he said, adding insult to injury. Go ahead, I waved my hands. At which point, he dabbed the accelerator I think. I say I think because I didn't feel anything, but the speedometer leapt from 140 kmph to over 210 kmph.

I don’t know if it was the G-Forces or the fact that we were suddenly rocketing ahead of the seemingly crawling traffic but my heart skipped a beat. The young man seemed to have sensed some tremors on the passenger seat so he slowed down, to a sedate 160 kmph. I pretended to look at the GPS reader very carefully. "Aren't we in the same direction as Salzburg," I asked.

The highway was packed with trailers, heading towards Munich. Viktor, the driver, pointed out that the trailers were mostly Italians wanting to have a go at the Oktoberfest, presently on in full gusto in the city. Much as I wanted to, I never did make it there. Though I did see the lights of the fest from a distance in a tall building in Munich.

The Ultimate Suspension Challenge

While autobahns don’t have speed limits, recognize that you can rarely go over 180 kmph, such are traffic conditions at least on the arterial highways. The inner roads have speed limits. While the 7 Series comes with a host of other features, best left to automotive journalists to describe, I think the part I liked best was the suspension.

In fact, the Indian in me already wants to throw a challenge to BMW engineers. First, for the Indian versions (not 7 series), they should add a option called Bombay Roads, in addition to soft, sport etc. And promise that this will be the ultimate spine protector anywhere in the world. Think about it, its the automobile engineering challenge after, maybe, cars that run on water ! And I guarantee people will line up outside the dealerships.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

To Fight Terror, First Stop Getting Terrorised

By his own admission, UBL got some 2,500 innocent citizens killed in the bombings of 9/11, including of the World Trade Centre twin towers. America knew he was coming for them, but did not know how, where and precisely when. We seem to have a better understanding of all of that today, except maybe when. And yet, our lives have not got simpler, just more painfully difficult. Let me narrate an incident that's still fresh in my mind.

Between last night and this morning, I spent approximately two hours at security lines between Mumbai (Bombay) international airport and London Heathrow airport. If you think security in India is tight, you’ve got to see this and what it can do. It took me two hours to transfer from one terminal to another and I made it to my connecting flight to Munich with five minutes to spare. The only reason I was accepted is my luggage was on board.

Fifteen other passengers were not so lucky. Their baggage was offloaded as we sat in the aircraft. Like me, they all had confirmed tickets and someone waiting for them at Munich. And it was not their fault they were late. “We will put them on the next service,” the captain of the British Airways flight announced cheerfully. I am sure they did not similarly when they landed at the gate.

Banking On Averages

I arrived in Munich almost three hours later (the flight was an hour late) to discover BA had misplaced my only suitcase. The amazing thing was there was a Lost Baggage counter right next to the baggage carrousel. I’ve never seen one so close and so strategically located. Its like every airline that arrives at Munich usually forgets a few pieces of luggage behind. Not surprisingly, our half-full Airbus A320 had seven or eight people standing for lost luggage.

That’s still not the issue. Baggage gets lost I guess. Actually this is the first time its happened to me. So from a law of averages perspective, Im doing okay. The BA lady at Munich was pleasant and helpful. She ran my numbers through the computer and said the baggage would arrive in a few hours. She promised to deliver it to the hotel by late evening, despite it being 150 km away in a Bavarian village.

So what’s my grouse ? Its like this. I usually carry my toiletries in my hand baggage, along with my laptop and other electronics. Thanks to this heightened state of alert where toothpastes and shaving creams are seen as explosive material or triggers for the same, every bit of toiletry has to be thrown out. I thought I would use the small toothbrush and toothpaste that BA gave me on the first leg at Heathrow.

The Fear Of Terror

No way. I was running all the time, or standing in lines. The last line was the security check to enter Terminal 1 where I had to chuck the little tootpaste and toothbrush into a huge bin. What I thought was a 45-minute process of transferring between terminals took two hours, resulting in the last minute dash into the connecting flight. So, here I am in Munich, with no extra clothes and no toiletries. And no time to brush my teeth !

And that's my point. Terrorism or the fear of it has made us alert and aware of a whole new world out there. Its put on us guard. That is very good. I know why the United Kingdom is on high alert but now its getting a little ridiculous. Even Indian airports are following the same security rules whether or not the threat perception is the same. Fear obviously spreads faster than anything else. And Im not saying this because I had to run around for tootpaste and shaving cream.

Some of my fellow delegates from India told me they had vowed not to transit through Heathrow till things settled down. Guess I should have been a little smarter about this. But then that's precisely the point. We can’t get so scared that we make our own lives so miserable and difficult. Or keep configuring and reconfiguring our existence because of some madman sitting in a cave and plotting the world's end.

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