Tuesday, February 28, 2006

India Union Budget 2006-07: Where Are The New Tax Payers ?

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Forget Anything ? Indian Finance Minister P Chidambaram After Presenting The Union Budget On Tuesday (Pic courtesy: Business Standard)


Within two weeks of skipping a credit card payment, I would get a call from the bank . "We are calling to remind you," they would say. This was more than seven years ago. Today, if I do a slightly large dollar purchase, real or online, I get a call within the hour asking whether i am aware of it.

The reason credit card companies and banks have been so up to date when it comes to payments and the like is technology. Fifteen years after liberalisation, the Government of India in general and the revenue authorities in specific are grappling with systems that put our otherwise claim of an IT Superpower to shame.

All the talent that goes into writing some of the most sophisticated banking technology software the world over is useless or not used when it comes to our country. The same technology that drives the credit card companies is not available with our revenue authorities. I strongly suspect out of choice.

Skimming Over Tax Collection

Finance minister P Chidambaram's Budget for 2006-07 once again skimmed over this most important but sorely neglected aspect of revenue collection. Nowhere did the Budget even mention how and where the effort to expand the tax base is. It did talk of computerisation - the target for fully computerised networks is end-2006. At a time when the second internet revolution is under way. Did someone say IT Superpower ?

The FM said the departments of income tax and customs and central excise will undergo Business Process Re-engineering. Its a somewhat mystifying term for a group of departments which are perhaps the most resistant to change in the country before or after the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC). He says nationwide networks will connect 745 income tax offices in 510 cities and 510 customs and central excise offices in 245 cities. He talks of national databases, national data centres, data warehousing faciltiies and so on.

None of this gives me a sense that the FM is any closer to ensuring that more people pay tax in this country. Like he or predecessors have not. This year's budget has been nice to individual tax payers like me as there are no additional taxes. That's because the Indian and global economies are booming. What if they slow down ? There are, depending on who you believe, something like 44 million individuals who file returns. Note that filing returns and paying taxes is not the same. The number that actually pay is a few million. And we are a nation of a billion plus.

Why Scrap 1/6 ?

The previous government introduced the 1/6 mechanism...ie..if you owned a credit card, car or travelled overseas, for instance, than you had to file returns. That has been taken away. Why ? Its almost like an admission that we have no more potential tax payers to catch. Or make existing tax payers pay more tax. Or have we found more exemplary methods to zero in on high spenders. Nothing that I have seen even remotely suggests the desire to do so.

The FM then said later that the process was falling in place. "As the department gets ready to mine the information, as the government captures more transaction.." This sounds like we have all the time in the world. And we are so rich that a few years here and there don't matter. Is it because the FM does not want to do something or is it the tax officials who are resisting tooth and nail. Remember the customs officials who splattered chewing gum on the closed circuit cameras at Mumbai airport because they did not want to be observed. Any ideas why ?

To sum up, not only is the government not using simple, existing technology to crack down on existing, non tax payers but telling the existing, paying ones that not paying pays ! So, while most of us pay taxes, a significant portion of potential tax payers in India continue to go scot free. And they can rest assured that the Government has no real intention of bringing them to book. If it really wanted to, it would have done what the credit card company did to me, within two weeks.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Sa Re Ga Ma Pa And Then What ?

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Brij Mohan Lall Munjal of Hero Honda Motors has several accolades to his name. They include a host of richly deserved lifetime awards for his contribution to Indian business. As an entrepreneur, he's put India on the world two-wheeler map. He gave Rahul Bajaj a run for his money. He's also somewhat reserved, not one for limelight. If he wanted to, he could have sought and got a greater personal profile. He's avoided it deliberately. That's the impression he conveys when you meet him as well.

Yet, the other night, he was on stage announcing the winners of one of the country's biggest singing competitions. This was live and past midnight. He was looking reasonably energetic. The event was taking place in a suburban Bombay stadium. He gave an appropriate but quick backdrop to the competition. He reeled off the numbers and then went on to announce the results. "And the winner is...," he said..waiting for perhaps 30 seconds or more, knowing the nation was watching spellbound. Then he revealed the name.

He didn't stop there. He said he had followed the competition closely. He even offered words of fatherly consolation to the singer who came second. Something to the effect of him having captured everyone's hearts. Munjal didn't fumble for words as often people in gatherings like this do. Particularly sponsors. Perhaps its the confidence that comes from owning the event. And yet, this was not the indifferent, eyeball focussed sponsor striding in to claim the glory. It was someone who had plugged into the drama, right from the beginning. Or along the way.

All This For A Song ?

All this for a song. We all like heroes. We like to align with some. Because they are underdogs. Or they are good. Or they belong to an economically disadvantaged region. And yet, there is something troubling about such a song and dance. About a song. Sure, it represents something more. The rise of the underprivileged. The tryst with glamour and Bollwyood. For someone who was a civil engineer with the state Public Works Department (PWD), its a long journey. And he's honest. I've heard of PWD employees who hold two jobs.

Despite that, its baffling. Do we like such contests because they are a true representation of people's power. And perhaps hard merit. Because merit or votes do not work elsewhere, or in most places. Like the political process where you're votes don't necessarily swing what you want. Some 55 million SMSs were received. Depending on the double-counting, anywhere between 5 million and 10 million people voted. That's more than 10 per cent of the mobile phone population of the country.

I don't think that many mobile phone owners turn out to vote for politicians. But they do it for aspiring playback singers. Who will not necessarily do better than someone who has not risen through the competition route. Quite the contrary, one feels. At least so far. Kudos to them in any case. They've worked hard to reach where they are. And Munjal ? Well, he deserves the returns for the money he's invested in the programme. And the rest of us ? Could we also find something a little more productive to do ? Like also vote for a better quality of life ?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Faster Guys, Faster..

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Quaint, but its time to speed up !

The distance from Bombay to Delhi is approximately 1,300 km. From Bombay to Bangalore is 1,000 km. From Bombay to Madras is, maybe, 1,100 km. Now, if I wanted to go to Delhi by train, I could board the Rajdhani at 4 pm in the evening in Bombay and reach next morning around 9.00 am. Total time taken is 17 hours. More than the 17 hours taken, I can work most of the day in Bombay and catch a train. The same applies when if I want to travel to Bombay from Delhi.

Now, if I wish to travel from Bombay to Bangalore, its a different story. One train I know leaves in the morning and reaches next morning. Another leaves in the evening and arrives next evening. It takes 24 hours, not a minute more, not a minute less. Its the same story with Madras. And it has taken the same time for perhaps 30 years. Its possible that before that it took less time. As has been demonstrated in some sectors.

Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav has unveiled a new railway budget full of small steps which are good. They suggest a determination to change things. They also reflect an attempt to cater to aspirations. Like the introduction of more affordable air-conditioned trains. But not one real step that either acknowledges or attempts to acknowledge the fact that for the best part since Independence, speed has never been the essence in the railway economy.

Digital Economy & Real Economy

The contrast between the digital economy which allows Bangalore to connect with the rest of the world instantaneously and the real economy where trains to Bangalore take longer than to the capital couldn't be more stark. In effect, the government's priority in connecting the political capital to its state capitals continues to remain higher than connecting its economic growth centres to the rest of the country.


Yes, there is a Rs 22,000 crore dedicated freight corridor in the west and east. The project is to be inaugurated by the Prime Minister. The intention is laudable. But, the track record of similar large size projects is woeful. Like the limping Golden Quadrilateral. And in a knowledge/services economy, people movement should be priority. Not just between Delhi and Agra or Kanpur. Of course freight should move quickly. But you need both. People often tend to assume its one for the other.

Nor am I saying we should not have Rajdhanis running to Delhi in high speed and comfort. All I am saying is that we need to have superfast (not defined in railway terminology) trains that run to the new economic centres. And these are not new any more. This is not because Air Deccan will undercut Indian Railways. Its because a country can only progress faster if it moves faster. And I mean the larger mass, not the handful who can afford air-fares. And its the lack of efforts in this direction which is sad. And the refusal of the Railways to focus on this makes it worse.

Konkan Railway Tried

Former Konkak Railway Corporation MD B Rajaram wanted to run trains at over 150 kmph down the western corridor. He even conducted a few succesful tests. Which would have meant Bombay-Goa in less than five hours. By train ! The Indian Railways (the parent organisation) stymied it. The fact that KRC has seen more than its share of accidents hasn't helped. And like everything else, the baby got thrown out with the bath water. Instead we had talk of bullet trains between Bombay and Ahmedabad. That's like trying to fly before walking.


Even these guys can go faster, if you want to them to

So, if trains can run from Bombay to Delhi in 17 hours, Bombay-Bangalore could technically be done in, maybe, 15. Imagine, boarding at 7 pm at Dadar station and alighting at 8.30 am in central Bangalore. Sure, it will call for schedule changes, track upgradation et al. But that does not mean it cannot be done.

Wonder if this railway minister or previous ones have noted that visiting heads of state often visit Bangalore first before coming to Delhi. Or for that matter Hyderabad. Albeit that city will be second port of call in George Bush's itinerary. Does anyone think why they don't visit Patna, or, for that matter Lucknow ? The answer stares at your face. Economic centres outweigh political centres of importance. If people outside the country can recognise it, why can't we ?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

India's Own Davos

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Nasscom 2006 in Bombay was a TCS show. No doubt about it. The fact that TCS CEO S Ramadorai is also chairman of IT industry body Nasscom this year helped. Infosys Technologies, on the other hand, was not all there. Possibly out of choice. Not that they would have to revise guidance downwards next quarter. But a lot of people noticed the low-key presence.

The India Leadership Forum was perhaps the biggest of its kind till date. And it demonstrated that the India IT story is getting stronger. Not just that. Companies from world over are as locked into the problems and solutions of India's growth on the IT services side as we all are. They will treat avian flue with less paranoia than ever before. And best of all, they will soon do a better job of selling the India story.

TCS swung INS Vikrant, yes the ship, as the venue for the closing ceremony of the three-day event. Delegates were driven into dark and brooding Ballard Estate on the south eastern tip of Bombay in the evening. And from the deserted roads into Tiger Gate right onto the waterfront. Where the giant, decomissioned aircraft carrier stood in all the maritime glory it could muster. With lights blazing all over. And the twinkling lights of Bombay city forming the backdrop.

Cool Wind In The Hair

You walked through gangways, clambered up steep iron staircases and reached the main deck. To be greeted by a real helicopter, aircraft and torpedos (used by guests to sit on while eating dinner). The ambience was spectacular. Cool, light gusts of wind would hit you every now and then. On one side the sea, another, the newly built International Cruise Terminal. And starboard (or was it aft), the tall office buildings of Fort, south Bombay. Interrupted ocassionally by powerful fog horns as ships sailed out or past in the distance.

Nasscom rolled out a Hollywood Nite on INS Vikrant, with performers flown in from Broadway, including a full-blown rendering of All That Jazz. The sets were grand, the music powerful and the experience of being away from it all was truly memorable. Every India roadblock, ports included, seemed distant. Come to think of it, wasn't Bangalore the IT capital ?

Most of the overseas visitors looked and sounded pretty impressed with the Vikrant bash. They didn't have to be sold an India story. They came for what India offered and were not too dissapointed with what they saw. Some of them (the British in particular) looked at the humourous side of things. Like the CEO of Southern Water UK who said he measured time taken to cover distances in Bangalore in days now.

Davos For IT Sourcing

If World Economic Forum, Davos was big, so was Nasscom 2006, Bombay. In its own, little way, it was the Davos for IT Sourcing. It just happened to take place in Bombay. In a dump called Kalina in the northern suburbs. And where everyone stated and agreed that in the whole world, India was the best place to do business with now. Despite all the problems. At this point of time. And where the prime attraction was not Shiamak Davar's troupe.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The President Approves

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Is the Indian IT industry giving back to society as much as it takes ? The Government of Karnataka has lagged in infrastructure investment, but what have the big IT firms done, on ground ? The debate is not simple and the answers are not in black and white. Big IT (read Infosys) distinguishes between personal and corporate philanthropy. For firms like TCS and Satyam, the distinction is blurred.

In his discussion (not speech), at the India Leadership Forum 2006, Nasscom 2006, three days ago, president Dr APJ Kalam made a longish reference to the rural information technology work being done by the Byrajju Foundation. The foundation is run by Satyam Computer’s B Ramalinga Raju. A passing reference to a project by someone like Kalam would make most people blush and glow in pride. This was a full-blown dissertation.

But Raju, possibly with the wisdom and experience that makes successful people what they are, appeared unmoved. Instead he gazed stoically at the plasma screen on the ground. The screen had the same visual as the six giant screens that hung on the Grand Ballroom wall of the Grand Hyatt in Bombay. Of Kalam with a cute hair cut mostly hidden behind the lecturn, making his presentation. And then Kalam paused, looked up from his notes and said, "You can ask Raju how he is doing it. You can ask him." Like you stopped him in some corridor and wanted some quick advice. Raju smiled, so did everyone else.

"Hey Raman, Is It You ?"

Kalam, to digress a little, has a habit of breaking out of structured presentations, usually to the glee of the audience. Like he did same time last year at the Nasscom 2005 Leadership Forum, also at the Grand Hyatt. This was a video conference. We could see him and he could see us. He had hurt his leg and hence could not make it to Bombay. Then too, he challenged the IT industry to do more.

During the Q&A session, a middle-aged gentleman at the rear stood up and asked a question. It was something to do with defence and information technology I think. From the other end, Kalam said suddenly, "Hey Raman (or such), is it you ?". The gentleman looked thrilled. "Yes, yes." "How are you ? Are you doing okay ?" Kalam then waved out to him. Like old buddies would. The rest of the congregation ceased to exist. I don't even remember if he answered the question !

Last year, in September I had visited Satyam’s offices in Hyderabad. This is the city office, located within walking distance of the airport. One of the things Raju spoke of during our meeting was this effort. He had a simple challenge. “How can we create jobs in villages, reverse migration to cities and create value for us ?” He and his colleagues at the Foundation have made it work. Some of Satyam’s work in its HO now gets done in a village called Jallikakinada referred to by the President.

Executing With Efficiency

The interesting thing is the people working on the project are extremely committed to the cause. And come from industrial backgrounds. This allows them to execute with industrial efficiency. Satyam is not the first to use industrial efficiency in rural work. The Tatas have perhaps pioneered it. But this particular effort is noteworthy. And the possibilities are staggering.

For more, read the original article that Hindustan Times, Bombay, was kind enough to carry in September last year.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Ladies & Gentlemen, The President Of India

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SM Krishna, Kiran Karnik and President APJ Kalam (courtesy: www.rediff.com)

President Dr APJ Kalam was late for his keynote address at the India Leadership Forum, Nasscom 2006, by more than an hour. Since I (partly) came on the same road and it was reasonably empty, he couldn't have got stuck in a traffic jam. Turned out, he was stuck in one. Nasscom president Kiran Karnik revealed the president was delayed by a fog at Delhi airport. This was a literal one, not a metaphorical one, he added.

Karnik is very good at doing these things. He maintains a perfect balance. He is respectful but does not grovel. Not like some of the manufacturing guys. The worse I have seen I think belong to the construction industry. Reckon the grovelling is proportioniate to favours received. Karnik was equally business-like with Maharashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh on the first day. But then the IT chaps, within Nasscom and outside, are different.

Rather than wait endlessly, Nasscom smartly kicked off another session. This was on global sourcing. It was quite interesting and laced with wry British humour. Richard Granger, DG of IT for NHS and Les Dawson, CEO of Southern Water (supplies water to south of England) were in good flow (no pun intended)."You measure journey time in Bangalore in days." Or, "The last time I went to a call centre, I thought I had walked into a nursery." "We (the British) gave you administration and bureaucracy. And I believe you've taken it to a new level."

The third speaker, Ian Hau from GSK, was cut short. Before he went, he talked of the need for productivity. Provided an interesting insight. One American farmer feeds 100 people. In India, 60 farmers feed 100 people. Guess what, when it comes to IT, one Indian equals an American, almost. He spoke of digital connectivity as a tool to productivity.

Said how he came via Agra. Whilst there, he mailed a picture to his wife from his laptop. It was of him standing in front of the Taj Mahal. The message was, "Wish You Were Here." His wife immediately sent another photograph back. It was of her standing in two feet of snow in Philadelphia. The message, "Wish You Were Here." But the President is the President. Everyone felt sorry for Lau. He got a long ovation.

Kalam is a darling

And then it was time for Kalam. He is a darling. Some people say they don't find his speeches going anywhere. Kalam arouses a completely different set of feelings in this writer. You feel good to be Indian. You have to acknowledge that merit, education, knowledge, sincerity and honesty can get you somewhere in this country. Despite the so many things that don't work. And the best part is he's cool.

When it comes to a Nasscom-Mckinsey & Co study that he referred to in a slide, he says, "Its a costly report." He never says I will tell you and speak to you. Its always, "I want to discuss with you." Yes, he made a power point presentation. He also ran through it. Later, before leaving, he said, "I am late and those people at TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) are waiting for me." Like he had been having a cup of coffee with some old friends.

Kalam came with an agenda. Indian IT wants to grow to $60 bn in exports by 2010. He wants it to be $200 bn. "I am here to discuss how to do it." He has an interesting proposition; convert the addressable market for IT and ITes in the world to actual business. He also speaks of setting up a World Knowledge Platform. He runs through complex broadband network diagrams to show how it work. Most of the diagrams are drawn over the south east Asian hemisphere. Philipines has linked 7,000 islands with high speed internet and video conferencing, he said. Philipines has a 155 mpbs network, being upgraded to 622 mbps. India had to link 600,000 villages with technology.

A tale of two CMs

Kalam says he visited Samsung in Korea. And, in his typical style, threw them a challenge. "I am giving all of you here that challenge as well," he adds quickly. He wants a tablet PC that costs between $100 and $120. The PC should be wi-fi, have a telephone, video capability for entertainment, allow for tele-education, medicine, hand writing recogniser and e-business capable. Sounds so fantastic that someone may do it and quite soon !

Flanking Kalam on the dias were Maharashtra governor S M Krishna (former Karnataka chief minister) and Mahrashtra chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. The Maharashtra CM had perhaps read the speech before he arrived at the venue. His eyes were either locked on the ceiling or kept wandering around, or he gazed straight at the sound console at the back. Or was it the door.

Krishna on the other hand was concentrating hard on the speech, even taking notes. His eyes were focussed and his forehead was crinkled. Here was a man who was absorbing furiously. Possibly he could put some of these larnings into practice. Maybe in a future political avatar. It's because of him (largely) that heads of state visit Bangalore when they come to India, even before New Delhi. Only wish he stayed back to clean up the traffic jams.

The Presentation Ain't Loading

Nasscom has done an excellent job of organising the India Leadership Forum this year. The whole place is wi-fi. Yes, its a big deal in India, where hotels typically charge Rs 850 for a day for wi-fi usage. And there is a separate connection for media guys. The speeds are not exactly blistering but it works. Many of the name tags have RFID chips in them.

To digress a little bit, RFID can make things interesting. You could know (theoretically) how many people attended what session. Which bunch went where ? Did the CEOs attend sessions or were they standing outside ? What about the delegates who paid 25 K (Rs) ? What was their attendance behaviour ? Which CEOs attended what sesions ? Who spent the longest time having lunch ? What were the journos doing ? Then I discovered the journos didn't have tags. Maybe Nasscom was a bit scared to tag them !

Something didn't quite work when the President wanted to speak though. A few uniformed guys (government and Nasscom by the looks of it) struggled on stage. And it was an unusually long time. The kind that causes audiences to fidget. Not the usual fiddle once and it starts. The presentation wouldn't load or it was not showing up on the screens.

The guy with a walkie talkie on stage was throwing menacing glances at the back. The good news is that Bill Gates too has had similar problems in the past. Fortunately, the President had to give away the Nasscom innovation awards. To some very interesting companies and entrepreneurs. And then he was on. And yes, we all rose to sing the national anthem, before and after. I don't know about you, but it does give me goose bumps.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

All Roads Lead To Indian IT's Biggest Show, Maybe

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All smiles at the inaugural.

At the Grand Hyatt hotel in Kalina, suburban Bombay, the who's who of the Indian information technology industry has assembled for The India Leadership Forum, Nasscom 2006. Its brighter, grander and more slickly put together than ever before. In the Grand Ballroom, six giant screens and a crystal clear JBL speakers ensure video and audio reach every corner of the room. Later, the Grand Ballroom splits into three Ballrooms for specific `tracks'.

The quality of attendance is pretty impressive, perhaps the most impressive ever. The chief technology officers (CTOs) of Citibank, Microsoft and British Airways are here. They look like they want to be here, not a grudging `let's check it out' presence. So is the Director General of IT for UK's NHS. Top IT guys from banks like ABN Amro and Deutsche Bank are there as well. Joining them are a bevy of top notch venture capitalists, IT consultants and academicians from the world over.

To make an old point, where and when there is opportunity, people will come. Despite Bombay international airport. You don't necessarily have to go to Davos with Shiamak Davar in tow. Meanwhile, the home crowd is in full attendance, despite the high delegate fee of Rs 25,000 each. One heard some grumbling. Though delegates did get a nice lovely leather bag and assorted sponsor merchandise. The platinum and gold sponsor lists reflect the diversity of interest - Welsh Development Authority to DLF Universal.

The Flat World

New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman held forth yesterday. He is a pretty good speaker. Many people don't like him and castigate him for oversimplifying matters. I don't. Possibly because I am a journalist too and think that one of my jobs is to do precisely that. And I don't mind being paid loads of money first to write a book and then to speak on it. And yes, make money doing both.

Having said that, Friedman belongs to the Kevin Freiberg (author of Nuts, the book on Southwest Airlines) category of speakers. More like management gurus, more like motivational speakers. There is much raising and dropping of voice, pounding of lectern and transfixing of eyes on unsuspecting, front row seaters. "I know some of you have read my book. I know some of you have not, I know exactly who you are," he says solemnly, peering around the hall with a knowing gaze. A detailed piece with some quotable quotes will follow.

Mahrashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh who inaugurated the function formally (a little earlier) on Wednesday appeared to have done his homework, or got someone to do it. He said that 32% of internet subscribers in India were in Maharashtra, 35 % of PCs were in Maharashtra and 32% of the IT professionals in the country were in Mumbai and Pune. And before you could say it, he did. "I know there is congestion on the roads and power is not reliable."

Waiting For Guidance

It's a favourite politician tactic. Articulate the problem before someone else does it. And look reasonably miserable whilst doing so. That way, the other side does not have the heart to pounce on you or berate you. Then Deshmukh went the whole hog. He credited Nasscom for Maharashtra's IT success story. "Its because of your constant support and guidance. Its your initiative. This is not the complete story, we are just waiting for your guidance and advice to make the state more friendly." A master stroke, I thought, for someone who has done so little.

Deshmukh concluded by saying he promised he was looking into all the issues relating to infrastructure. "I am concentrating on this personally," he said. He added, for good measure, that the power minister (Sushil Kumar Shinde), the aviation minister (Praful Patel) and the oil minister (Murli Deora) were from Maharashtra. So, the state will benefit, he said. I thought of doing a statistical analysis to prove how no such thing has ever worked in the past. But then came the golden promise. "In five years, we will become a world class metro."

Outside, a former Nasscom head honcho told me they had to run to the government to get the access road to the Grand Hyatt paved properly in time for the event. And that's the staggering contrast. It took me 30 minutes to cross one signal near Santacruz (between the Grand Hyatt and the domestic airport). Because there were no traffic police and impatient drivers were charging onto the road from all sides. This was at 10.30 am in the morning. And you better be careful because thousands, literally thousands, of people are walking briskly on the road. Because the pavements are encroached.

Integrated Townships

And then you turn off the Western Express Highway (kindly excuse the term Express or Highway) drive up to the Hyatt and enter another world. In his inaugural speech, not surprisingly, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) chief and Nasscom chairman S Ramadorai made a fitting case for new, integrated townships. "We want integrated townships with their airports and universities so that we reduce pressure on cities and spread benefits of development across landscape." Can't blame him for asking. But what's to happen to the rest of us ?

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Airport Strike Is Off ?

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The Worst Airport In The Country ?

Passed through Delhi airport a few days ago. It now classifies as the worst domestic airport in the country. One will of course continue to hunt for new benchmarks. And if anyone wishes to contribute, they are welcome.

My flight was supposed to depart at 7.40 pm. It was delayed, progressively, to 8.45 pm. It finally left at 9.05 pm. It was over Bombay at around 10.30, roughly on the fly-time schedule. The pilot announced that we were 11th in the landing sequence. And quickly added it was beyond his control. And then we circled, as always. Landed a little after 11 pm. To the airline's credit, they called twice to inform me of the scheduled delays.

The Delhi domestic terminal (for private airlines) belongs to another era. Which one that would be precisely it is not clear as yet. The awkwardly located airport lounge cum restaurant on the first floor was overflowing with people. After all its the only restaurant in the whole airport, apart from a few kiosks here and there. A few chairs were placed outside in the corridor leading upto the restaurant. And waiting passengers were sitting around drinking, eating.

No Sitting Here

There was a sudden commotion at one end of the corridor, away from the enterace where more chairs were placed. A restaurant manager (going by his uniform) began shouting, yes shouting at one of the passengers. The gist of it was that the passenger had no business sitting there. That's because the chairs were all placed there for repair and inspection and not for sitting. For a moment it appeared that the problem was that the passengers were drinking alcohol outside the restaurant's premises.

It didn't sound like that as the shouting went on. It did sound like the restaurant guy was behaving obnoxiously. After all, its not the passenger's fault there was no place inside. It's not his fault the airport looked and felt like a pigsty. One that was overflowing as well. The restaurant guy should have been apologising or speaking decently at least. If there were rules that were being broken. And trying to find out how he could make everyone comfortable. And yet, here he was, shouting.

Our flight had been called so we had to leave. I was tempted to join the fracas. At least to find out how the hell someone could speak like that. But with 20 minutes to go to take-off, you don't want to take chances. I still intend to find out why the restaurant manager was behaving like that. Making a spectacle of himself. And embarassing everyone sitting around. And I will.

Overflowing, With People

I had the good fortune of not travelling while the airport strike was on. I know the loos overflowed and garbage was strewn everywhere. But this seemed no different. The airport itself was overflowing, with people. There was not a single chair to be found.. And only four flights were delayed, from what I could see. The floors appeared clean but it didn't make the experience any better.

For any traveller, including the many foreign investors we wooed with song and dance at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, this is atrocious. Forget airport workers, its like the entire establishment has been on strike. For more than a decade. How else can one explain such inertia ? And its not like the solutions are being worked on in a huge hurry. What exists is piecemeal. That too is being challenged in the courts. After the airport workers finished, it was the business houses who took over.

Nothing that will take airport infrastructure to the next level. Or for that matter any infrastructure. Its like the half-hearted road widening projects in Bombay. A foot when you need a mile. And it gets the grand name of an Urban Transport Project. For clearing up pavements ? Which should be a routine job. We are still catching up with what we needed a few decades ago.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Privatisation Not Solution For All

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Do You Trust Them To Run Your Airports ?(Pix: BBC/AFP)

A few years ago, I travelled to Ratnagiri, around 500 km south of Bombay on the western coast. Until a decade ago, Ratnagiri could only be reached by road. Now, there is a railway line. Its called the Konkan Railway and connects Bombay and Mangalore in Karnataka via Goa, hugging the coastline all the way.

So, we were off on a Konkan Railway train with blue coloured coaches. This one was headed to Goa. It departed from the venerable VT station. The train runs on the old Central Railway tracks uptil Thane (one of the first railway lines in the world in 1853)turns west towards Panvel and then south. I was actually a guest of the Konkan Railway. The objective was to visit Ratnagiri station and its surroundings to understand how this railway system was managed.

The 741-km Konkan Railway is a post-Independence engineering marvel. It boasts 2,000 bridges and 92 tunnels and represents one of the most arduous infrastructure efforts ever undertaken. To my mind, there is nothing that free India has built that comes even close (Like always, I would love to be corrected).

We arrived early in the morning and were taken to a railway retiring room (for Class I officers or some such) near the railway station. Two assistant engineers were to be our minders for the day. One was young, one older, maybe in his early forties. Both had been with the railways since they began working and were deputed to the KR project (set up for the first time as an autonomous corporation) since its inception in 1990.

Simple But Impressive Folks

Right from the beginning and through the day, I was impressed with these two gentlemen. They were simple folks, in a very Government employee sort of way. But their dedication to the project and their bond with their organisation was staggering. And it came through in every other sentence. They spoke lovingly of the years spent in blasting through the tunnels, the number of nights spent away from their homes, the terror when sudden landslides would erupt.

"By the way, have you eaten," asked the senior engineer as we were leaving for the station. "Yes," I said. "Hope you have had a good meal. In the Railways, the only good meal is the one you have before you leave the house. You never know when the next one will come," he said. Then he laughed, "Of course, we are no longer in construction phase so its a little better," he added.

I met many more engineers like them through the day. I heard of battles against nature and bureacuracy. I heard of debates on how best to use information technology to manage the front end and the back end. So, as to ensure as many trains ran smoothly on a single line. On challenges of giving passengers a better experience. Mind you, for all this, KR does not have a very good safety record. And there are aspects of its functioning which can still do better.

Dedication And Pride

Yet, if someone told me that KR should be privatised, I would perhaps join its employees in picketing outside Laloo Prasad Yadav's offices or wherever. For the simple reason that private or public, you cannot get a more dedicated workforce than this. You cannot ask for a team that cares more about its organisation and its service. And there is no way you can generate or replicate the sheer pride that these employees have in their organisation.

Usually, when you have all these ingredients you have a great organisation and a profitable one. Or its a public utility in which case no private guy would want to touch it anyway. Which is the simple moral of this story here. All government organisations are not candidates for privatisation. At least not right now.

You may have a different view of Konkan Railway than me. That's imminently feasible. But you will agree that there will be similar examples in other government-owned organisations. Where people work with dignity and pride. Where they care about their job and the consumers of their product or services.

Take the case of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). It operates in the very Indian airports the airport workers held held hostage for three days (the strike was called off Saturday afternoon) . Many people believe that security at airports should be handled by private agencies. That's been the case in the US as well.

I disagree. If you ask me, the CISF is an example of how you can have world class security procedures and service levels right here, in the midst of all the filth the airport workers generated, or stubbornly refused to clean up. If anything, we should export CISF's skills and services to other countries, to learn and adopt. For some payment obviously.

Asking Airport Workers To Stuff It

There are many more examples. I am sure visitors to this page can come with several. They would agree that no one would want to privatise because its the coolest thing to do. Not in India at least. But when an agency renders the most abominable levels of service, is utterly indifferent to the people it is supposed to serve and then wants to perpetuate its rule and thus, everyone's misery indefinitely, then its time to heave-ho.

Konkan Railway was initially run by E. Sreedharan, the same man who built the Delhi Metro in record time. He was succeeded by B Jayaram, another extremely dynamic CEO who pursued the Sky Bus project relentlessly. He also invented the Raksha Kavach or anti collision device which is now being fitted in trains across the country. Jayaram retired recently but his legacy continues. Like his predecessor.

The solution to the airport problem or a government problem is thus not to privatise governments (as one blogger sarcastically commented !). The solution is that elected governments should take decisions which are good for the larger public. That's you and me. This government took a sound step in telling the airport workers to stuff it. Now, if only it demonstrated similar will in tackling the plethora of urban and other infrastructure problems that plague India.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Drama At Davos and Fiasco At The Airports

6 comments
Got a call last night from one of the bidders for the Delhi/Bombay airport modernisation projects. He sounded pretty miffed that their bid had not been considered. Now, bidding processes are supposed to be simple and straight. So that the winner and loser both know why they got it or didn't. Clearly not in this case as this insightful Indian Express article explains.

Meanwhile, workers and staff of the Airport Authority of India believe its their god-given right to run airports. Despite the Government deciding to award the airport modernisation to private bidders (after bidding) AAI workers went on strike this morning..and got lathi charged for their efforts in Mumbai. So, the message here is: the Government's decision and the debates for all these years on this issue do not matter. By extension the Government or state does not.

The private bidders on the other hand want to take the Government to court as well. Dark threats have already been made. Unlike the AAI workers, they have put in some effort. To put together an airport consortium costs money. Bharti of Delhi which tied up with Changi Airport of Singapore to bid for the modernisation and dropped out spent several million dollars putting the bid together. Not to mention management time. So must have the rest. And naturally, if there is the slightest lack of clarity, they want to protest.

Who Cares For Government ?

For the institution called the Government of India, this is another telling blow. No one cares, respects or wants to heed what the Government desires. The Government itslef is divided and split, left to right and top to bottom. In any company, if a board takes a decision on a matter, the decision holds. In India, a cabinet decision or even a prime ministerial directive can be challenged endlessly. With the ultimate objective of inaction, rather than action.

It is in this context that India's Davos drama (as I would like to call it !) looks even more pathetic and sad. A writer who left a comment said he was at Davos. He went on to say that there was huge involvement by India. There was Mukesh Ambani there. And others. He said I called it unncesssary PR (he should read a little more carefully because I didn't !) and then went on to describe how this event would divert attention to the great opportunity that is India.

My friend missed the point by miles. He is absolutely right about the India effort. Like one said earlier, credit goes to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and others for putting together a good show. And the Government for working with CII and the rest. But he (like many others) fail to realise that this is no good if a foreign investor flies to this land of great opportunity and encounters a half-shut airport. On the grounds that 15 years after liberalisation, we cannot achieve consensus on who should renovate a building.

Matching Product With Sales Pitch

Imagine visiting India this week, after watching the heavy duty pitches at Davos. Only to be greeted with police pickets at the airports. And be told by at least six major, global, airport companies that the Indian Government cannot get a simple bidding process right. Or keep antiquated unions who cannot spell the word service and have not heard of the concept of a customer, under check. Of course there are reasons but the bottomline is this: The Government neither got the process right nor could shut the unions up. And considering that this is 2006, not 1991, its shameful.

So, do we stop crowing at Davos. Of course not, in case my friend and others misunderstand me again. Of course we talk about opportunities. But we perhaps work more trying to sort out things with our government and the people who constitute it.
Our industrialists are notoriously silent when it comes to taking on government or putting their foot down. They still suffer from a pre-1990 license raj-induced fear psychosis.

The truth is unfortunately like this. If you got your airports and infrastructure right, you don't have to go to Davos. Its good to be there, but not the end of the world if you can't. India is too big a market and the opportunity too great, with or without Shiamak Davar and his troupe. People will come to you, like they come to China. As they say, any sales pitch has to be backed by good product and R&D. Else, your sales guys will be stoned the next time they go to the market !

By the way, if you couldn't make it to Davos, think about the air-fare you saved. Even better, think about the misery that you didn't have to face, in transiting through our airports once again.
 

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