Saturday, January 28, 2006

False Hope At Davos

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Its India and China again, this time at the World Economic Forum at Davos. To India's credit, much effort has gone in hardsell. To India's misfortune, much of this will remain that. Any new investor who gets swayed by the hooplah will want to visit this promised land. What he will see and conclude on landing in Bombay airport is best not left to imagination.

Let me first quote Bruce Nussbaum, assistant managing editor at Business Week and innovation and design columnist. "What I didn't realize was the enormous presence India will have at Davos this year. Billboards, buses, parties, sessions, workshops restaurants will all have an Indian theme to them. Delegates will get Indian pop and classical music, pashmina shawls and a cd with tons of economic data on it when they sign in. The Saturday night soiree will have Bollywood dancing and music. India's 115 person delegation will dwarf China's."

And let me now quote the first response that crops up on his column.

"Every few years and decades India is hyped to really make the breakthrough to become a global economic power. Yet, despite its brillant thinkers and its knowledge economy outsourcing, fact is that this country is still dominated by poverty, terrible infrastructure, discriminating social structures, rampant corruption, an agricultural society and protectionism.

India's "thinking economy" is limited to a very small fraction of the population and has only lifted very few people out of poverty, while China's manufacturing led progress has had a strong impact. As much as I hope for India that it will rise to become a global power, it will only achieve it if it can create more jobs for the poor and tackle the most pressing of a long list of difficult issues.

Warm regards from Chiang Mai, Alex Osterwalder"


Alex has either visited India or has studied the country very closely. That is not the point here. It's that any visitor at Davos who is exposed to the razzle and dazzle of India (Bollywood, colourful shawls etc) will confuse government intention with private enterprise achievement.

Folks are now saying at Davos that India will score as a soft power. Actually it scored some time ago. But this is another illusion like the Indian rope trick. Bollywood might look attractive. So do Latino performers. Not sure people are rushing to Puerto Rico to invest because they like J Lo.

The fact is you need `hard power' and hard decision making to move from developing to developed nation status. Pick up any newspaper and count the announcements that make news. Actually, its the same announcements that have made news for decades. Its quite remarkable how we fool ourselves ! To quote an example, count the number of announcements on Bombay's attempts to build a metro, a sea-link and re-surface its (alleged) expressways. Or build a second airport. Every city in India can narrate a similar tale.

To return to Davos, even seasoned delegates will (once again) equate statements of intention for desire to execute. Because they would like to believe, as would you and I. And its unfortunate because many of them will lose heart and go back (look at the miserable Foreign Direct Investment figures).

Only the really determined stay on. The determined know the difference between intent and action. But for the rest, its tantamount to fooling them. Forget foreign investors, how many of Indian citizens truly believe that India can truly get its act together. In our lifetime ?

Which is not to say India will not grab some more outsourcing business. Or a few more firms won't become world leaders in their businesses. Of course that will happen. But don't believe the Indian CEOs either. Their confidence stems from their own successes on the global stage. That has little or nothing to do with the location of their present head quarters. Alex from Thailand has understood the Indian connundrum well. Its about time everyone else did too.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The New Republic And Some Old Problems

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Last night my car stopped at a traffic signal in south Bombay, very close to the impressive Gothic Indian Institute of Science buildings. An old, wizened, lady holding two half-used strips of medicines knocked at the window. I didn’t respond. The knocking got louder and more urgent. She would not give up. My colleague and friend sitting next to me ignored the lady too. Then the knocking got to her. She rolled down the window and handed over some change.

Elsewhere at the junction, young boys were peering into windows of other cars, waving stacks of Indian flags. The old thin wood strip and paper flags have given to durable plastic ones. And they come in far more sizes and shapes than before. You even get little, round plastic stands that you can affix a small pole on. And keep it on your desk as a reminder. That India is a Republic, in its 57th year. Though for many people, even that reminder will not change their lives.

Bombay is looking positively energetic. Next to the restored National Gallery of Modern Art near Regal Cinema, a long line of stalls are selling everything from handicrafts to food. The neatly appointed stalls are temporary and form part of the Mumbai Festival. A smartly attired boy manning one yells, “People, you won’t get anything cheaper than this.” His stall is hawking burgers and desserts. The stalls, the offerings are upper middle class India. So, the word cheap is relative.

Bright & Bankrupt

Later, I dine at The Dome, a restaurant on the roof of the Intercontinental, a eight-storey hotel bang on Marine Drive, also known as the Queen’s Necklace. From my vantage seat, I have sweeping views of the promenade to my right, all the way upto the subdued skyline of Malabar Hill. To my left is the business district of Nariman Point. A few buildings further up are lit up brightly, garishly but brightly. They would belong to the state government of Maharashtra. The state of course is on the verge of bankruptcy. Its been so for some time.

Bombay’s private prosperity has little to do with the state of its public finances. Most of the state’s income is spent on the salaries of its employees. Who obviously don’t work hard enough. Actually, its worse. Their existence serves to increase the hardship that comes with living in this city. Whether it’s the civic bodies’ utter indifference or the law and order machinery which is mostly seen protecting politicians from the electorate. Of course there are exceptions. But on days like this, with the rest of the nation, they are celebrating. If nothing else, its another holiday.

At The Dome, the menu is Continental. There is no dinner, just lots of snacks and fondue. We settle on the cheese fondue. The fondue arrives as the winds from the Arabian Sea get nippier. This is one of those rare nights in Bombay. Where the cold breeze and the lights all around make the city actually look desirable. Down Marine Drive, streams of colourful firecrackers light up the sky. The season of big marriages at the `gymkhana’ grounds, the Hindu Gymkhana and the Parsi Gymkhana, is still on.

Republic Day Sale

Republic Day is now another occasion to call a sale. Why not ? A big central Bombay discount store has promised fantastic deals. The road outside, I am told in the evening, was jammed with cars, all big fancy ones. The person who told me this spent half an hour waiting to get through. That’s Bombay. You may be headed out of town but can be held hostage anywhere. There are no exits into big roads or expressways which are moving all the time.

Later in the evening, I stop at a shop near my house to buy some provisions. As I am about to enter, an old man with a lady and a small boy come up. The man is dressed like a farmer from the interior, with white `kurta’, `dhoti’ and a cloth cap. He mumbles something about being stranded and not having money to return. My first instinct is to ignore and walk on. I do that. I go inside the shop and see the man standing, looking at other passers by, gesturing weakly.

I step out again, change my mind. “What do you want money for I,” I ask. “We want to go back home,” he says. “Where,” I ask. Nagpur,” he says. That’s a 15-hour train ride, I know. “How did you get here ?” I ask. He says they were called by someone who promised them a job. Then they were ditched, he says. The barefoot child and mother look on. I am still in two minds. “How much ?” I ask. “Three hundred and fifty rupees for all of us,” he says.

Good Deal

The figure sounded okay but one could hardly check. “Do you have enough money to get to the railway station,” I ask. He says he’s collected Rs 40 already by asking people. “Isn’t there a train now ?” I ask. The last train left in the evening, the next one is at 6 am tommorrow, comes the reply. I look at him. I think about the woman with the medicine strips last night. And the lavish dinner later. Something snaps. I take out my wallet and hand over Rs 300. Three crisp Rs 100 notes, fresh from the ATM. This is possibly the first time I’ve handed a largish amount like this. To a stranger.

I get into the car, start up and begin backing up. As I turn around, I see them squatting on the road next to the kerb. Maybe they will count the money before they get moving A friend calls on my mobile. I narrate the episode of the old man, the lady and the boy. And my generosity. “You’ve been had,” she says. “It’s the oldest, most sophisticated begging trick in the city. They tell you they need the money to go back to the village.” “Are you sure ?” I ask as I consider turning around. “Of course,” she says.

I reflect on my little encounter. Possibly, I did get taken for a ride. But then, Nagpur or not, they looked like they could do with the money. And they didn’t look like they would snort cocaine with it. Perhaps they would use it to buy a nice meal. Or to buy something else. I know my taxes mostly go up in thin air. This was better. At least the old man thanked me. Not too profusely, but he did.

More importantly, he reminded me where we, as a middle-aged Republic stand, in the larger scheme of things. Like the old lady the night before. For a Republic Day, it was not a bad deal, for both of us.


Read:

The President's Speech On The Eve Of Republic Day

News Coverage From Local Media

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

An India That Works ?

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I have this image of Bombay grinding to a dead halt, as its vital arteries slowly get clogged with people and traffic. Its happening already, in smaller doses. And no one particularly cares. A proposal to get a sea-water transport project off the ground has entered its 30th year of discussion - I could be off by a few years. A proposal to build a sea-link with the mainland is now, possibly, in its 40th year of debate.

At this rate, we should be looking at projects that were initiated in the time of or last reviewed by Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979), Viceroy and Governor General of India in 1947 and see where we stand. I suspect not too badly off. The bulk of the infrastructure you and I use today, including railway lines, roads, airports, ports and water pipelines, were built before Independence. There are less active airports in India than there were in 1947. I would love to be corrected on this one.

Amartya Sen was bang on about argumentative Indians. Except that he did not put a time line on how long Indians can argue and debate on a subject. At least I don't think so. A head of a foreign bank in India recently told me how he was amazed that elections in India were not the end of the process but the beginning of it. A person elected to power is only elected, not empowered. So, by extension, he or she is not elected to power. What is this person elected to ? I wonder.

Beginning Or End ?

A decision to modernise an airport is the beginning of the process, not, as you might think, the end of a debate on whether to modernise or not. Modernisation, I might add, can be best described here as the renovation of a large hall, putting some extra lights, brightening things a little and adding a few counters here and there. This issue continues to be debated, while, as this writer has argued before, we should be building at least three new airports (in as many cities) as of yesterday.

A Bollywood film (Aamir Khan's Rang De Basanti if you were dying to know) is debated upon. The defence minister of the country and the three chiefs of the Indian defence forces have the time and inclination to sit through a film and decide whether you and I should be shown how obsolete Russian MIG 21s take-off and land in India. Hint, its usually outside the airport and preferably headlong into some open field. I wonder if warlords in Somalia (of which there are many and tasks few) have the time to administer films in their regimes.

Not all Indians are in this mode. Not Infosys Technologies, not Tata Steel. India Inc is on a furious, never say never die growth mode. Its CEOs, some of who run corporations larger than many government departments, are running faster than their tread mills allow them to. They are desperately seeking opportunities to expand and grow. Before the inexorable hand of time and globalisation grabs them.

India Inc Is Awake At Night

India Inc is battling sleepless nights and focussing on execution and competitiveness. And the Government of India as manifested here in the defence minister is putting his stamp of approval on a Bollywood film. The gap in priorities between the two Indias, of enterprise and government is frightening. Its a contradiction in democracy that one is unable to quite fathom.

Over the last four months, I have been part of two major round table debates on whether the Government of India is failing India Inc, or is it the other way around ? One was at XLRI in Jamshedpur, the other at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. More on them later but suffice to say there is an increasing disconnect between the educated, urgency driven youth and our ageing, perpetually debating politicians. The disconnect is perhaps accentutated by the fact that the young attempt to understand. Only to be dissapointed.

This is truly worrying. If I work hard and pay my taxes, I expect some returns. As do entrepreneurs and their firms. Note that one is not asking for a China-like pace. Though I could argue that India's private sector can match the Chinese entrepreneurial sector. Its got a way to go but not much. But in China, the state is clearing hurdles at breakneck speed. In India, in a sickening combination of ineptitude and inaction, it is introducing them at the same pace.

India Inc is getting around the roadblocks by scouring for opportunities outside. Despite the fact that the second largest market in the world is theoretically right here. You can hold back everything but not ingenuity and enterprise. India's largest company, Reliance Industries, it is said, wants to build brand new cities. American construction major Bechtel (whose services Reliance ocassionaly uses) is famed for its ability to do precisely that. Now, is there a way to get governments that work as well.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Jammed On The Streets & Runways

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You return to Bombay, after more than a month outside and hope that life is a wee bit simpler. In the city in specific and country in general. After all, the term developing nation ought to mean development. Actually, it only gets worse. I now have a term that defines the attempt to move from point A to point B: its called the sequential jam phenomenon. And I suggest you factor this into your calculations.

The highway leading to the domestic airport at Santacruz was jammed. Note that I was going in south to north (rush hour is normally in the other direction) at 8.30 am to catch a flight. I was tuned into 92.5 FM, the radio station I am usually tuned into while on the road. To my horror I discovered the hosts Jaggu & Taraana had switched subjects from the morning newspapers to discussing the same traffic jam. Obviously, the situation was worse, particularly on the other side of the road. Several callers were coming online to vent their feelings on the state of Bombay's roads.

One who made it through the switchboard was relentless. He rightly described the term highway for the Western Express Highway as a joke. He said no one cared for anyone and we were on the verge of anarchy. And then spewed venom against the city's civic authorities. I was praying I could be plugged in too. But then decided the challenge of maintaining one's emotional balance while trying to dodge traffic and predict my fate at the airline check-in counter was too much.

Pothole Highway

The radio hosts called it a discussion on the Western Pothole Highway or some such thing. They even created the appropriate abbreviation. Everyone laughed. With less than half an hour to go the flight to lift off, I wasn't finding it funny. I did dash off an SMS from mobile. In four lines, I explained the dire predicament I was in. I don't know whether they read it out because singer Himesh Reshamayya (I think) came on and began crooning amidst pounding beats.

After ten agonising minutes in the last 50 metres unto the traffic signal turning off into the airport, I reached the airport. There were 20 minutes to go. The counter was still open and I was miraculously checked in. Then came the traffic jam at the security check. Two lines stretching into infinity. Women could go into a third line. And then the airline attendant began calling out for passengers on my flight, late as it was. Along with two others, I was whisked into the third line for women. Most other passengers glared at us. I looked purposefully at my watch.

I was sitting inside a good five minutes before scheduled departure. Pulled out the newspapers and began catching up on the day's news. All ready to take off. Too soon. We were in the last of the traffic jams for the morning. The doors closed some 15 minutes after scheduled takeoff time. We crawled towards the runway for another 15 minutes. And took off a good 40 minutes behind time. I now propose to master the art of meditation in sequential traffic jams, of all sorts. Either that or levitation.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

I'm Desi, And I'm Cool Too !

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The Cool Ambassador


"Have you seen Bluffmaster ?," asked my Indian-American friend's 9-year-old son. "No," I said, as I racked my brains to remember if there was a Dev Anand film by that name. "You must have heard the song Say Na Say Na," he went on. "Say Na to what. Well, no," I said. Then it dawned. This was a new Bollywood film.

I didn't recall hearing of it when I departed Mumbai and India a month and a half ago. On my return now, I learn the film had opened on the box office a few weeks after I left. So, I was not that off. Yet this young boy from a little town in the American Midwest knew all about Bluffmaster.

He has visited India only once when he was three. His parents, both academics and US citizens, have lived in America for close to two decades. That makes him a second generation Indian-American. He loves his Sony Play Station but is not obsessed with it. He plays baseball and basketball at school. And knows the games as well as their leading lights.

Acceptable Amalgam ?

He can reel off names of all the states that make up the United States and their capitals. He demonstrates with finesse, the arms-out, three-finger pose that rapsters use. He usually ranks on the top percentile of his class and is learning to play classic music on his violin. And yes, he adores Bollywood.

The little fellow is not alone. Thousands of children of Indian extract across the world dote on Bollywood films and music. So much so that their own parents are amazed. Not too long ago, they collectively wondered whether their children would ever pick up anything Indian. And they lamented how they would permanently drift away from their roots.

Their children today appear to have an acceptable cultural amalgam of western and Indian. That makes them similar to the post-MTV youngsters in urban India. But the many youngsters I encountered were not just Bollywood buffs. They were raving fan of the popular Indian Idol show and of contest winner Abhijit Sawant. He even has a DVD of Sawant and other Indian Idol finalists.

It's Cool

Bollywood created the original, celluloid connect with India's 20 million diaspora. Now, live television is building links with all of Bollywood's extensions; music, stage shows and of course contests such as Indian Idol. The result is an interesting and promising connect with the Indiabeyond the celluloid, one of middle class existences, dreams and aspirations.

While they are drawn to it for obvious reasons, the young diaspora connects with Bollywood for reasons other than their parents. While the oldies often watch Bollywood films for sentimental reasons, the young diaspora likes it because it's cool. In my friend's house, Himesh Rishamayya's Aashiq Banaya causes the kids to leap up from their couches. Play Kishore Kumar and you are rewarded with a chorus of groans.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) produced by Yash Raj Films in 1995 is regarded as the initiator of Bollywood's modern connect with diaspora. The film had a diaspora theme which perhaps did the trick. It didn't make as much as money as it could though, thanks to piracy, a continuing scourge. A Bluffmaster may not have a diaspora connect at all. But is already drawing attention with the young there. Because of the songs and of course Abhishek Bhachan.

Post Dil Chahta Hai

This suggests Indian entertainment has more options to reach out than ever before. This new market is asking for cool and global products. Its not asking for exclusively tailored (or hopelessly contrived) products for its perceived tastes. That segment may continue to exist. But the young diaspora seem pretty clear about what they want. Some call it the post Dil Chahta Hai (2001) era.

India produces between 800 and 1,000 films annually. Some 3.1 billion tickets were sold in 2004 but revenues were only around $1.16 billion (Rs 5,800 crore). A Hollywoodblockbuster in a good year can return as much, if not more. Expected revenues for Bollywood in 2005 are around Rs 6,500 crore. So, the revenue potential is huge. If the industry can mine it.

The figures are not available here but the international sales component for Sony and Zee, particularly in Bollywood linked programming must be rising. All advertising is local. Salman Khan for instance endorses a popular phone card to call relatives and friends in Asia.

Homogenous Global Culture ?

But a audience connect that goes beyond direct celluloid would surely mean greater opportunity for the content content. Particularly when some of it becomes real time and on-online. The way it has in India. The contests already see aspirants from the UKand the US. In time, the young diaspora will effectively decide and drive ratings from their drawing rooms. Like you can for Britney Spears.

Last month, I met Geoffrey Jones, an energetic Harvard Business School Professor who counts, among his many academic interests, diaspora communities and their contribution to the global economy. He's also studied the India's IT phenomenon by developing case studies on people like Mphasis Corporation chief Jerry Rao. And one of his most recent case studies (authored with two other profesors) is titled Can Bollywood Go Global ?

The study concludes by asking some interesting questions. It says Bollywood's prospects internationally rested on the future of global culture itself. Was the world heading for a homogenic culture in entertainment ? Or was the global culture becoming more diverse ? Some answers are there to see. India's young diaspora has redefined its cultural menu. To some extent they will pass it on to their peer groups.

We Invented Antakshri !

Sipping coffee in a somewhat functional but tastefully done up upper West Side apartment in New York, Alok, a PhD from Stern University who works for a management consultancy is watching Indian Idol. He is not exactly a die-hard fan. Nor is this writer for that matter. Alok's visiting parents had subscribed to Sony and Zee, the two channels most Indian diaspora are hooked to. We watch as a young girl with folded hands profusely thanks the country for voting her to the top. The tears of joy and gratitude seem real.

Alok's wife and he talk about how their Guyanese maid, whose great grandfather left India for good, is a Bollywood addict. As is, I learn, another cousin's son, who is a second generation American studying a PhD in a humanities subject at Columbia University. Alok says India should have pioneered this competition model and held on to it, rather than the other way round. "Its not too late even now," he adds.

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times (Bombay edition) on January 17)

This writer would be most keen to know your reactions/comments on this issue and the following questions. The answers will help put together a forthcoming piece !

# Do you agree with this writer's suggestions ? Is there a new connect with the young Indian diaspora ? Or, is it old wine in a new bottle ! Is it good, bad. What are the fall-outs ?
# Do overseas parents have less to fear about losing their cultural connect with India ? Or is it the wrong kind of connect ?
# What do trends like this mean for India and Indian culture as a whole ?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Pain Of Arrival

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Rejected, With A Smile (The Terminal, 2004)

Is there some other way one can return to India, ie, not through its airports. I wonder how immigration officials at Bombay's port are, for the occasional sea-farer or sailor. Maybe nicer, since visitors are few in these days of air travel. But then you never know.

The reason is simple. Indian airports, Mumbai notably, are among the most abject in the second world. That is well known. But Indian immigration officials who could perhaps have countered the pathos that so swiftly envelops you on deplaning are worse. Where a smile could have made you feel welcome, you are greeted with an expression that typically ranges from bored indifference to a suspicious frown. Your first instinct is to run back.

Immigration officers are usually the first real taste of a country's persona. The infrastructure can be terrible but it's the people who leave a mark. Indians are known for their hospitality, even now. But Indian immigration officers don't quite reflect that. Their attitude makes an arrival a forgettable experience.

Welcoming Your Own

Most nations and their immigration officers welcome their returning citizens. Its not because of their wonderful upbringing but simply because their systems and training demand so. India's dour faced immigration officials typically regard you with the distaste reserved for an insect that has crawled onto your plate. Two months ago, landing in Kolkata, an immigration officer asked me sharply in Bengali, "Kothai gaychilen" (Where did you go?). It was not a question but an admonishment almost. He also assumed that I would know the language.

The airports themselves are beyond redemption. Landing in Mumbai a week ago after more than a month outside, it truly felt like home. Half an hour before landing the pilot announced a delay because, apparently, the runway had been switched ! On landing, you walk through corridors that resemble municipal hospitals with the occasional policeman and uniformed workers loitering around. And then the touts.

No questions were asked at the immigration counter but I felt, like always, as if I had intruded into someone's private space. No hello, good morning, welcome back or such. The passport was taken, stamped and kept on the desk. "Thank you so much," I said, I realized, to no one in particular. The flight from London came in at 12 pm so it was okay. There is nothing more depressing than landing in Mumbai airport at 2 am and encountering such frigidity. Immigration is mostly quick, since there is not much traffic anyway.

The Dover Man

Arriving at London's Heathrow airport a week ago from New York, I stepped in front of a lady immigration officer. She didn't flash a 32-carat smile or rush out to embrace me. But she sounded warm and reasonably welcoming. And only asked how long I was staying. I noticed that there were at least two women of Asian origin seated in the long row of immigration desks.

Many years ago, I took up a bus from Brussels to London, landing up at Dover, England . The bus rode on a large ferry which crossed a particularly turbulent English Channel. It must have been 5 am on a cold March morning and my stomach was still turning. The middle-aged immigration officer took one look, smiled and then boomed, "Sooo sir, did you have a jolly good trip here ?". "Not much sleep I reckon," he added.

He went on to ask what exactly I was doing in Britain and where I was coming from. He did his job of asking all the right questions. Before stamping the passport and letting me off. Here was an officer who was friendly and welcoming. He need not have been so but he took the effort. And it made the experience for me the visitor, a memorable one.

How About Some Real Questions

Immigration officers are within their rights to grill arriving passengers. The Bangkok-Kolkata flight I took two months ago was packed with hordes of shopkeepers, buying low in Thailand and selling high in India. The express purpose of their visit was to ferry goods, making them couriers rather than travelers.

So an immigration officer may wish to ask some questions. Though I would imagine a customs official making some honest enquiries would be more appropriate. One shopkeeper from Dehra Dun was standing next to me while boarding at Bangkok. He said he dished out, on an average, Rs 5,000 as bribes on goods (accompanying baggage) worth Rs 50,000. And there were at least a dozen like him on the flight.

Not all immigration officers are like the Dover man. In the US, one has encountered cheerful and sour faced immigration officers. In Britain, its been more of the former. In Asia, its been more of the latter. Come to think of it, this is one area where we are perhaps comparable to China. But China is not home to me and their infrastructure is world-class. And I don't know if returning Chinese are treated as I am, in India.

We Pledge To Serve

As I was crawling the web, I found that Canadian immigration officers seem to be the most disliked. One traveler said Goa was the best. Lucky guy ! As most readers would know, its not quite the same thing if you were a politician or a VIP. Which typically includes a big businessman or industrialist whose employee roster includes people posted at airports to smoothen arrivals and departures.

The US Customs & Border Protection (CBP) agency under the Department of Homeland Security has a pledge on its site. The first line in that says "We pledge to cordially greet and welcome you to the United States ." The second says "We pledge to treat with you courtesy, dignity and respect. Repeated searches of the Bureau Of Immigration in India website did not show up any such pledges. The Bureau does invite you to send feedback. Several email ids are displayed for the purpose, two belong to hotmail and indiatimes respectively. So much for being a IT superpower.

This is not to say pledges and pronouncements are followed to the tee. They are not. But having one is not a bad place to start. And this is where our Bureau of Immigration should begin. Interestingly, employees of the Central Indian Security Force (CISF) who man airport security at national airports are a far superior lot, by international standards. One out of three usually says a pleasant hello before waving the scanner over you. Some even take the effort to read your name off the boarding pass.

Smile If Not Modernise

India's main airports are in a mess. We are debating whether to modernize an airport when we should have modernized a decade ago and built three new airports (Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore) as of yesterday. If passenger service and comfort is of any concern to anyone, this is another `soft' area to focus on. Airport services in general are another issue (a subject of a previous column). A smile always goes a long way in helping cope – for travelers and those sitting behind immigration counters. It costs nothing and the Left does not have to approve.

The writer can be reached at govindraj@datelinebombay.com

Monday, January 09, 2006

Fighting Terror, The Indian Way

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Its a weekday evening of the new year. Like most days, the sky above London is overcast. Its very cold but fortunately not raining. Light snowfall has been forecast though. The west-bound Circle Line tube train from Liverpool Street towards Paddington is packed with evening commuters heading out of the City. This is one of the lines on which a train was ripped apart by a suicide bomber on the morning of July 7, 2004.

Most commuters are either reading their papers (The Metro newspaper comes free) or looking straight ahead into nothingness. Its warm within the train compartment. For most, it seems like a normal work day. Except for the security that is now omnipresent. For the first time I notice British Transport Police (BTP) getting in and out of the subway trains. At the busy Liverpool Street, a hub for trains out of London, BTP and other constables stand on corners looking warily at the hundreds of commuters walking past.

Signs all over say that you are likely to be frisked and checked. This is for your’s and everyone’s safety, you are told. Its interesting how authorities in many countries are arming themselves with the provisions to take such pre-emptive action. Stopping and frisking someone walking through a tube station would have resulted in legal suits in the past. No longer. The BTP says its Stop & Search policy is transparent and there are guidelines to be followed.

Look What Terrorism Has Achieved

Over the years, its amazing what terrorism has achieved. The US spends billions of dollars (often indiscriminately as is often alleged) on security. Britain has begun to do that as well. More and more resources are being marshaled to manage security concerns. Laws are being changed to empower the state. Citizens are regularly inconvinienced. The objective is to be as pre-emptive as possible. Hence the controversial laws to eavesdrop on telephone calls in the US.

As more money is being spent, the cumulative paranoia appears to multiply as well. The presence of a dozen policemen at your local railway station can be viewed as reassuring or scary, depending on how you look at it. Or daily debates on how whether telephones should be tapped to to crack down on possible terrorists. This makes you think terrorists have infilitrated your very neighbourhoods and lives. Possibly, they are staking out the malls in your city as you are dining at home with your family in the evening.

India comes close. Bombay’s famed Siddhi Vinayak temple has police standing behind sandbags outside. As do other popular temples across the country. An Indian friend from America who visited the temple recently was amazed at how things had changed. Gone was the simple, mid-town feel that he remembered. This was a well-guarded fortress. The whole place smelt of money, he said. That was nothing to do terrorism though.

Tired To Be Paranoid

India is either too immune and pre-occupied to even be paranoid. An average Bombay commuter has to catch the same local every day. Such is the nature of the city’s dynamics. He or she does not even have the time to ponder the nature of global terrorism and how it might affect his or her life the next day. The possibility is real but the probability is dismissed.

This should not mean governments should not be alert. Possibly they are, but terrorism is something the Indian state is not equipped to tackle very effectively. It lacks the sheer resources and bandwidth. And its often too pre-occupied with itself, either with the mundane or important duties like guarding politicians.

There is good news though. Terrorists will never be successful when people ignore them or the damage they do. That has happened almost every time in India. Possibly Bombay leads by example. Hundreds have died in bomb blasts on suburban trains or from car bombs left on parking lots in recent years. Yet, people have picked up the pieces and rapidly moved on. In that, India has been more successful in coping with this scourge.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Is India Shining Again ?

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A 2004 Dig At India Shining Pic Courtesy: Frontline


Is India Shining all over again ? This was the question that was put to me somewhat rhetorically by Harvard Business School (HBS) professor Das Narayandas a week ago. We were seated in his warm, spacious offices with racks of book shelves at Morgan Hall in the HBS campus in Boston, Masachussets.

The warm room is a welcome change from the freezing, sub-zero temperatures outside. The lawns are covered with several inches of snow. Walking up the stone steps and into the heated confines of Morgan Hall is a relief, from the cold as much as the strong wind that whips your face. You really don’t see people walking around here in this weather. Most buildings in the campus are linked by well-heated, underground tunnels.

For a moment, I thought Narayandas was referring to the BJP slogan of 2004 and making a somewhat outdated reference. He was not. Actually, he visits India almost every year and lectures selectively at the Tata Management Training Centre (TMTC) alongwith two other senior Harvard professors of Indian origin – Krishna G Palepu and Nitin Nohria. He recently concluded a case study on an Indian company, Eureka Forbes. That’s a trend in itself. Increasingly, Indian companies or their CEOs are being studied at Harvard.

Economic Euphoria

Narayandas was making a thoughtful reference to what he thought was the general economic euphoria that had gripped India. “The word gloom does not seem to exist in the general vocabulary,” he said, in a larger historical context. According to him, economies like the United States had seen many economic downswings and lived with their memories. He was not sure whether India had any, at least of that nature.

There was nothing wrong in having a good run, economically or otherwise, he felt. Yet, there was a flip side.. “As a business historian, I know there are cycles. And I wonder whether people factor this into their thinking.” Professor Narayandas went on to speak on other things but he had a point. That sort of triggered something worth pondering over as we enter a buoyant 2006.

First, if things are likely to go wrong economically, its unlikely that the government of the day is likely to admit it. As Narayandas unwittingly perhaps stated, there is an element of India Shining, without the multi-crore advertising campaigns. While this state of being may not lead to election backlashes, it can cause a dangerous lull in economic expediency.

Markets That Turn Heads

Everytime the stockmarkets have risen precipitiously, the finance minister has actually reeled off P/E numbers to say how the stock market indices are in fine fettle and there is no cause of concern. That in turn reflects the strength of the economy, for which he would like to claim rightful credit.

Buyoant stockmarkets usually cause heads to spin. Its happened in the recent past and it can happen again. And that often slows down the sense of urgency. If there was one to start with. To draw the inevitable comparison with China, the country has demonstrated sustained economic urgency for decades and reached where it had. And its not slowing down now.

Travelling across China, you get a feeling that there is still a higher goal that is being pursued. A bigger interstate expressway system, even larger ports. Even in an area like arts and culture, China has shown that it wants to be seen and recognized. Ask any curator in the top museums in the world. They will tell you China is reaching out to them like nobody does, wanting to project its culture by sending out exhibitions and initiating tie-ups.

Resurgent Populism

Former chief economic advisor to the government Dr Shankar Acharya said last week that he couldn’t help feeling that the dominant theme for 2005 was resurgent populism. He described this as economic and social policies which are popular (especially to politicians) in the short run but which are fundamentally ill-conceived and inimical to the long term economic and social progress of the country.

If you agree with this point of view, then this indeed sets the stage for 2006 as well. Acharya also says, importantly, that this resurgence has occurred against the background of stalled reforms in agriculture, labour laws, electric power, banking, privatization, pensions and employee provident funds.

One could add airports, ports and roads to it too. Sure, some roads are being built somewhere. But not at the pace that was once conceived by the former government. And surely not enough to make a real difference to an economy that would have begun needing more than what it has. Which is not to say the present government is to blame and the previous one was getting it right. The previous one could well have slowed down as well.

No More Liberalisation Gains

Which brings one back to Narayandas’ statement. Are we then getting lulled into a India Shining mode once again. Possibly yes. Some parts of the economy are doing exceedingly well. But three years down the line, its time to worry whether these (7 per cent) growth rates can be pulled through almost infinitely as is expected.

The economists are already sounding the notes of caution. By pointing out that the gains of liberalization are now beginning to taper off. And a buoyant international economy could turn any time – the flattening of Chinese steel prices is one indicator. But all this is still not a problem in itself. There is little you can do if economic forces conspire against you or your business.

The problem is that desire to talk about or ram through reform at the desired pace slows down. None of the stalled reforms that Dr Acharya speaks off make headline news. Because the attention is elsewhere. Except airport modernization (of the two largest, most decrepit airports) which is in the news. But for the most bizarre of reasons: “Look, this is how we are vetting the bid documents.” What emerges is that no one trusts anyone and this is not going anywhere.

Blow-Out Or No Blow-Out !

Back at Morgan Hall, Harvard Business School, I conclude that Professor Narayandas has a point. Perhaps we are getting a little carried away, all over again. And need to be jolted into action. The good news is that there may not be a 2000 like blow-out. The bad news is that there may not be a 2000 like blow-out.

The author was visiting HBS as part of continuing research for a book on first generation entrepreneurs.
 

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