Monday, October 08, 2007

Ex-President's Rule

Over a dinner conversation with friends the other day, I said, "I am sure the office of the President of India could play a role in judicial correction..." "For instance," I laboured on in gyan mode, "If you take the current president..umm." I forgot the the president's name. I looked at my companions for rescue. No luck, they forgot too. We scratched our heads for a few minutes, trying to correlate some activity that the President had undertaken hoping that would trigger the memory receptacle that contained the name. No luck.

Former president A P J Abdul Kalam arrived in California (from New York) around the 27 of September, a week or so after I passed through the East Coast myself. I didn't know he was there nor, I am sure, would I have been able to gate crash - Scanning the reports, I learnt that he spoke to several groups of people including at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. While not everyone appeared to agree with his thoughts at his various interactions (the number of joint households would be the best measure of Indian values), he clearly held the crowds to attention.

And he's not exactly canvassing for votes. He's been meeting entrepreneurs, academic and business leaders (Stanford President John Hennessey and Cisco Systems' chief John Chambers)and speaking about a World Space Vision for 2050 where a describes a planet heavily reliant on solar energy to power its needs. He also met with a large group of Indians who welcomed him like a sitting president, not a former one.

Talking Space & Progress

There are some interesting tidbits about why he never visited the US as president. You can find them here Though what struck me is that even after returning (for that matter, before going as well) he has an amazingly packed schedule. I can't think of too many politicians (at least in India) who have such hectic lifestyles, I mean of this nature..check out the schedule I picked up from his website.

5 October - Address to the Space Community Forum on the 50th Anniversary on the Space Travel at VSSC
4 October - Address to IIST students and Faculty at VSSC
4 October - Address and Interaction with the Students participating in the quiz programme - INDIA@60 at Thiruvananthapuram
3 October - Address and Interaction with Students at Indore
3 October - Address at the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore
3 October - Address to the IIM Indore Students and Faculty On the 11th Foundation Day
29 September- Address at the Inauguration of the International Seminar on Shipbuilding Opportunities, Ahmedabad
28 Setember - Address at the Basavapuraskar Award function, Bangalore
28 September- Address to the Karnataka Small Scale Industries Association, Bangalore
28 September- Address and interaction with the Students of Christ College, Bangalore
28 September- Address and interaction with the Students of the International School, Bangalore
27 September- Address to the Students participating in the 58th International Astronautical Congress, Hyderabad
27 September -Address at the 58th International Astronautical Congress, Hyderabad
20 September -Address at the International Aerospace Conference Celebrating Fifty years of Space Technology At California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California
19 September -Interaction with the Members of Stanford Institute of Economic Policy Research
18 September -Visit at Cisco top talents on the theme "Technology for inclusive development" at Jordan Conference
18 September -Interaction with Round Table Members India Community Centre, San Francisco, USA
18 September -Address and Interaction with the IISc, IIT & TIE San Francisco, USA
18 September -Interactive session with 50 Cisco top talents on the theme "Technology for inclusive development" at Jordan Conference Room, Bldg 9, San Jose

Its possible most of these engagements were frozen much before he lost the race for another term at presidentship. But going by the response he generates everywhere, I really don't think anyone cares. Despite being all of 76 years, the father of India's missile program continues to be the perfect mascot for a young, resurgent India. And yes I did remember the current president's name finally. I wonder if you really want to know.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Ganpati Trance & Team India Dance

Its an interesting time of the year to touch down in Mumbai. Particularly if you are coming in from America, a nation gripped by paranoia, fear and mild depression. For reasons ranging from Al Qaeeda to various financial excesses of the recent past. Yes, I was there on 9/11, my third anniversary trip, though I didn’t make it to Ground Zero on that day.

And you land in Mumbai where life seems to be one constant party. The annual Ganesh Chaturthi festival is on in full swing. Brightly decorated pandals (mostly jutting right onto the already choked streets) blare loud music as devotees line up for their darshans. There are several `immersion' days in the 10-day festival, each with a crippling effect on the city's logistics.

And there is the big one, the day most people stay at home anyway. More ear pounding music and street dances accompany this massive exercise that commences late afternoon and goes onto the early hours of next day. The time-band is not driven by astrological reasons, rather the traffic jams of idol laden trucks that await their turn to send the Ganpati idol on his last journey.

The Cricketers Arrive

Innovations abound. I saw one truck built like a cruise liner. So the lord now travels in style or was it the mandal's (the group behind the effort) fervent wish to go on a Caribeean cruise or something. What was the guy thinking ? I swear I heard trance playing on at least two ocassions. With accompanying strobe lights, all on a moving truck with a generator in tow. Yes there was a Ganpati idol too.

And finally Team India has arrived to a thunderous welcome. Driving into work in central Mumbai, I marvel at the throngs of people on the road to see the 30-km victory march into south Mumbai’s Wankhade stadium. Surely all these people have better work to do then to ogle at a bunch of guys who got lucky in the last over. As I reach my office, I realize I am gripped by the frenzy too. In ten minutes, bags have been dumped and a colleague and I are back at Worli Junction waiting for the ‘boys’ to arrive. I look around and see that the traffic has come to a standstill everywhere.

This is not exactly a vantage viewpoint. Its raining intermittently and we are not carrying protection. We try and squeeze under the occasional umbrella that springs open in front of us, smiling sheepishly at our temporary benefactors. After all, we are all united in our purpose.

Success Has Many Fathers

Earlier in the day, I read with amazement the number of advertisements released to commemorate the Indian cricket team’s victory over Pakistan. National carrier Air-India has booked entire pages to congratulate a handful of team members. Predictably, the advert has a photograph of the smiling aviation minister and a line which seems to suggest that Air-India had a role to play in their success.

How, I wonder. The papers said they flew Emirates, Dubai’s national carrier. I ask a colleague. Ah, they work for Air-India. At least on paper. I then discover that Indian Oil, another state-owned company, has also claimed a cricketer as its own. So has a private management school in Delhi. Later I read that the Air-India cricketers have received promotions too.

After a good half hour of rain, wind, no sun and several false alarms, the open bus carrying the cricketers comes into view. Most of them are standing on the open deck. The crowd erupts into a roar. A general surge begins and the constables who are posted precisely for this purpose weild their lathis. “Dhoni, Dhoni,” cry out the assembled.

Trance Becomes Dance

Dhoni, positioned in a Di Caprio-Titanic sort of way at the head of the deck is not looking at us though, he appears bored or is just dog tired. After all, he’s been at it for a good 20 km already. Yuvraj Singh is the most animated at this point and he even rattles his shoulders to the music. Another open truck with speakers blasting discotheque music is crawling ahead.

At this point, everything becomes seamless, the Ganpati trance and the cricketing dance began. Actually its simple, only a few hours have passed since the last idols were cast away. Mumbai city is throbbing with energy as one celebration flows into another. Stockmarkets are hitting new highs again so the moneymen are celebrating too. If you thought, all of this was happening only in Mumbai, you are wrong. This week, several business honchos from Mumbai are celebrating India@60, in New York.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

What Is The Hit Rate Here ?

I am following, as the world at large around is, actor Sanjay Dutt’s journey to gaol. Not that I have a choice, theree seems to be little else that is being talked about, at least for the last two days.

Unsurprisingly, Dutt’s friends, of which there are many, have attacked the special court in Mumbai for pronouncing a `harsh’ and undeserved sentence. After all the crime is 14 years old and he has been held guilty for possession of arms, which, lets face it, is something that would have got him a commendation for bravery or held up as an inspiring act of self-defence in some countries. I am sure I don’t need to name them.

The point is not whether Dutt is guilty or not. He obviously is. Nor is this about whether he should have got six years or two years or should have got two years with the possibility of immediate probation and so on. My sense is that while he must have expected to spend some time in jail, he surely did not anticipate being carted off from the courts to jail immediately. As a journalist friend who spoke to the jailor told me, “That broke him down completely and he cried like a child all evening and night.”

Getting Caught And Not

The point, that I have been trying to debate in my own mind, is, what is the hit rate here ? Because this is not about innocence or guilt. Its not about being accessory to a crime or not. Its not about the intention to cause harm or loss to someone, an individual or collective. Quite simply, its about who gets caught and who does not.

The same journalist friend told me that the chances of Dutt getting some form of relief at the Supreme Court were high. “It’s a matter of some time though.” He also pointed out that it was amazing how in the famous BMW case (a young man and his friends mowed down six unsuspecting victims in Delhi), despite fairly conclusive evidence, nothing has happened. There is even a Wikipedia entry on Sanjiv Nanda, the perpetrator.

The Mumbai bomb blasts happened in 1993 on a hot March afternoon. I still recall sitting in a friend’s office in Nariman Point on a hot afternoon when we heard the dull explosion and the tremor that went through the building. We ran down and out of the building and noticed the crowds streaming towards Air India building where clearly, something had happened.

Show Me One Person Who Was Hanged ?

The blasts were, as the theory now goes, a revenge for the killings that happened in December 1992 in Mumbai, following the Babri Masjid storming. I remember biking around parts of south central Mumbai with a photo journalist friend. And watching in horror as groups of young, crazed looking men wandered around flinging huge stones at anything that came in their way, from cars, traffic lights to store fronts. They would openly mock the police cordons who stood in the distance, safe in their own self-described perimeter.

Hundreds were killed, a commission of enquiry was set up. As all of us know, no one really was handed out a jail term, leave alone a death sentence. One constable was suspended for police complicity. Appalling as that is, it pales in comparison to the 1984 riots where over 3,000 Sikhs were killed, mostly in northern India. A Sikh friend of mine traveling on the Delhi-Mumbai Rajdhani Express escaped sure death by cutting his hair off and shaving himself clean. A senior Delhi-based editor I know said a few years ago, “Show me one person who was hanged for 3,000 deaths.”

So what is the hit rate ? Is it a factor of influence. Sure, most people do get away because of it but you can’t say Dutt lacked it. Or is it influence in addition to a low profile ? Possibly yes, if you are high profile, then you are in trouble because the media will descend on you. But actor Salman Khan enjoys a similar status. He mowed down (yes, yes allegedly) workers sleeping in the open outside a bakery in suburban Mumbai. And what one would have thought is an open and shut case is still being tried. Yes, Khan never confessed.

The Karmic View

Is it a structural failure of the law, order and justice system ? Maybe, but I am one of those who believes that we have all the laws that any self respecting democracy ought to have in order to effectively govern its citizenry, give or take a few, small aspects. Like harsh penalties for drunken driving. The problem as we all know is administration and implementation.

Or, to conclude, as my journalist friend said, is it plain fate ? According to him, Dutt has always had a bad run with fate. From the first time he got caught and jailed 14 years ago to now, when he’s been sentenced again. Of course, no explanation works better than the karmic one. And maybe that’s the best answer to my question to who gets in and who stays out.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Pasricha To Patil: India's Ultimate Public-Private Partnerships

A few years ago, while looking for an apartment for rent in central Mumbai, I chanced upon a flat in a building that `belonged' entirely to bureaucrats working for the state government (Maharashtra).

I met the owner of the flat, who worked with a state-run industrial agency and discussed the terms, which, not surprisingly, were quite outlandish. What was more outlandish, as I thought more about it, was how the gentleman in question had acquired the property, on prime land, worth crores of rupees or close to half a million dollars when his annual salary could not have been more than Rs 500,000 or $12,000.

The plot, so to speak, was simple. Mr K, along with his peers, had cornered a government-owned piece of land in the heart of the city and got it `dereserved'. Next step, get together, form a society and put up the building. At prices that anywhere between a tenth and twentieth of the real cost. It also dawned on me that Mr K had not only ripped me off as a taxpayer by usurping public land in the first place but was now demanding extortionate rents for the same !

The Seed Money

Mr K is of course not alone in this most public, mega land-grabbing spree the city of Mumbai has seen in the last few decades. Hundreds and maybe thousands of bureaucrats, police officers and politicians, among others have cornered acres of publicly owned land in the city for their benefit. State Director General of Police (DGP) Dr P S Pasricha was caught up in a sting operation that highlighted his proclivity for the real estate business and of course, the staggering financial muscle to back it up.

It then emerged how the seed money (at least on the face of it) had emerged. Deputy Chief Minister of the state R R Patil said and I quote, "Pasricha booked a flat for Rs 2.97 lakh in 1975 in Dilwara cooperative housing scheme (in prime south Mumbai) comprising government officers as members and took its possession in 1985. Later he sold it in 2000 for Rs 1.40 crore. For this Pasricha had sought necessary approval from the government.

“In 1985, Pasricha’s family members bought 2.5 acre land in Shahanoorwadi area of Aurangabad for Rs 99,000. The land later came into Municipal Corporation limits. It was sold in 2003 for Rs 1.75 crore. Although it was not mandatory for Pasricha to inform the government of this deal as it was done by family members, he nevertheless informed the government”, Patil said further.

What's His Real Job ?

“In 1986, Pasricha became a member of the New Bharat Cooperative Housing Society by paying Rs 18,000. He got possession on the 480 sq. metre plot in 2000 and paid Rs 25,000 as development charges. In 2000, after he sold the Dilwara society flat, Pasricha bought commercial space at Kolhapur for Rs 1.27 crore. In 2001, he bought a flat for Rs one crore in Lady Ratan Tower at Lower Parel in Mumbai. For this, his son took a bank loan of Rs 61 lakh. Rs 39 lakh was paid from the sale of Dilwara flat and Rs 13 lakh was from rental and deposit of the Kolhapur commercial space, he pointed out.

All this makes me wonder how he ever had time to do his real job. But then, Pasricha and Mr K are similar. I would only rate Mr K as less enterprising since, on the face of it, he managed only a flat or two in the city near free of cost. Its actually quite interesting how this thing has shaped out. Because the `original sin' is not a sin at all, as its blessed by government and the bureaucracy. So why penalise them for the proceeds of something that was never seen as wrong.

This must stop. A land-scarce city like Mumbai cannot be subject to more looting and plunder by government servants. Why do we still call these guys servants ? Its time to go to the source of this plunder and not get distracted by the outcome. Its about going after the guys who perpetrated the original loot, `legally, or otherwise. Yes, on the search for the house, between asserting my principles and of course being constrained by affordability, I lost that flat to someone else.

Patil For President

As for Pasricha, the sting operation surfaced in April. Presumably its all over and forgotten if not forgiven as well, at least to my knowledge. Now we are all focussed on a unheard-of (at least by me) politician from Maharashtra with an equally stellar track record of taking people for a ride - like depositors in a bank she floated or on the sugar mill loans that she defaulted. But Pratibha Patil has greater expectations, unlike Dr Pascricha. She is running for President of India.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Singapore Sling - II (The Perfectionist)

Each time I visit Singapore, I am fascinated by the green grass and the beautiful trees, flowers, even shrubs. You may ask why, considering that there is so much more to see or do – like a visit to Clarke or Sentosa Island ! Well yes, but let explain. In the 1960s, when premier Lee Kuan Yew decided he wanted Singapore to become a garden city, he personally got interested in the subject of soil and vegetation, trees and drainage, climate and fertilizers.

He apparently became so involved in the subject that he even found out how in France, the broad tree lined boulevards were possible because a drainage system had been built below the pavements.

When he saw beautiful rolling meadows in New Zealand, he asked for the services of two experts from there under the Colombo Plan technical assistance scheme. Lee was told that Singapore did not have a grassland climate in which rain fell gently from the skies. Instead, being part of the equatorial region, it experienced torrential rainfall that would wash off the topsoil and with it the vital nutrients necessary for strong plant growth.

Under The Flyover

I know this is getting a little too detailed but do bear with me – In an equatorial forest, as Lee learnt, with big tall trees forming a canopy, the rain water drips down. But in Singapore, the trees had been chopped down, it would all come down in a big wash. So Lee decided that fertilizers would replenish the soil and began the task of making the compost from rubbish dumps, adding calcium and lime where the ground was too acidic.

Years later, when Singapore was already an acknowledged success, Lee asked his officials to find out which plants could survive below the flyovers where the sun did not shine much. And instead of having to water these plants regularly, which was expensive, he got his officials to find a way to channel water from the roads, after filtering it to get rid of the oil and grime from the traffic above.

When the flyovers became broader, shutting out the light completely, he ensured the roads were split into two so there would be a gap in the middle with enough space for sunshine and rain to seep through and greenery and vegetation to thrive below. “I sent them on missions all along the Equator and the tropical, sub tropical zones, looking for new types of trees, plants, creepers and so on. From Africa, the Caribbean, Latin, Middle and Central America, we’ve come back with new plants. It’s a very small sum. But if you get the place greened up, if you get all those creepers up, you take away the heat, you will have a different city,” he said.

A Perfectionist At The Top

Now, having driven up and down Singapore, I can tell you that that the heat has not exactly gone away. My father used to tell me when he visited Singapore in the seventies that it was just like Madras (Chennai). Hot as hell and humid too. And yet, the greenery does have a calming and maybe cooling effect. Maybe it would be hotter if it were not for the greenery, considering Singapore is closer to the equator than Madras. In any case, Ive never heard anyone really complain about the heat in Singapore.

I am sure over the years, there have been other issues to consider, like pollution, clean drinking water and so on. Each of these civic issues is a case study in itself. So let me close this one with this quote from Lee. “A well kept garden is a daily effort and would demonstrate to outsiders the people’s ability to organize and to be systematic. The grass has got to be mown every other day, the trees have to be tended, the flowers in the garden have to be looked after so they know this place gives attention to detail.”

And that’s why I look at the trees, shrubs and manicured grass as I drive through Singapore. Because I know that they didn’t just happen to be like this. Rather because someone right at the top has been monitoring this effort closely, for over 30 years. A perfectionist who is worth studying, individually and collectively.

(Material On Lee Kuan Yew Largely Sourced From The Aspen Institute Readings)

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Singapore Sling - I

Somewhere on the fringe of Singapore's Chinatown, Ronald and his family run a highly specialised `hobby supplies' shop. I've been in touch with Ronald over the last few months, on phone and on mail so it was a pleasure to catch up with him last week, on, I might add, a particularly balmy Singapore afternoon.

Like most Singaporeans, Ronald did a compulsory stint with the army. He also happens to be a mechanical engineer by training, allowing him to ply his trade with considerable precision and understanding. Particularly when it comes to explaining stuff to a novice like me. And Ronald, who is evidently much younger than me, can be very patient.

As we got talking, I asked Ronald what his present customer profile was like. "Oh," he said, "from all over." I said you mean Singapore and Malaysia. "No, all over," he said. I knew he had many Indian clients like me. So, India as well I gathered. "Phillipines, Indonesia, Thailand as well," he said. And this was a barely 750 square feet shop, obviously with a larger warehouse somewhere at the back end.

A Regional Presence

Ronald's firm has grown in the last few years but not physically. He has a web presence. Its not exactly the Amazon of this business but its adding scale and sophistication as Ronald and his colleagues and family members figure their way around. But its reputation, even in the pre ecommerce days has spanned the region, across south and south east Asia.

Ronald's success and prominence is testimony to the hardwork and ingenuity of the Singaporeans in general and the Chinese in specific. But the larger credit must go to Lee Kuan Yew who built the blueprint for Singapore. I recall a memorable interview on Channel News Asia where he told the interviewer how one of Singapore's biggest advantages was the fact that it flanked a closed and yet potentiallly powerful economy like India. Like how Hong Kong benefited from China's seclusion. The challenge now of course, he said, was to re-invent.

Which Singapore is doing admirably. From shopping destination to leisure destination (in this heat !) to world class airline hub to biotechnology destination and so on. Standing in Ronald's little shop, I was struck by the opportunity lost not just all these years but even today. Lets face it, there might be ten guys who are smarter than Ronald between Delhi and Mumbai but not one who can be as nimble and responsive.

36-Hour Delivery

Let me give you an example. I call Ronald on a Monday noon and say, hey, can you send me so and so. "Sure," he says. And the component is on my table at 9.30 am on Wednesday morning. His mail confirming the order often arrives after the parcel. And I can track the parcel's progress from the moment it leaves Ronald's shop on Monday evening thanks to DHL !

For an Indian entrepreneur to do this will be extremely tough if not impossible.
One problem is obviously the infrastructure. The bigger problem is tarrifs, customs, duties and all the miserable paperwork that goes with it. I don't imagine a small mom and pop shop achieving such turnarounds in consigment handling, maybe big firms with well-oiled (on the customs' end) can.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of Ronalds in Singapore, Hong Kong and many other countries who have benefited from India's pre liberalisation myopia. Thanks to leaders like Lee Kuan Yew who ran SWOT analysis for their nations at the right time. There are thousands of Ronalds in India as well. I am sure you know many of them, like I do. Now only if they had someone to lookout for them, in this globalised world.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Gatecrashers Of New Delhi Airport

Am traveling again, this time I pass through the hallowed gates of Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport. If you want to showcase how Incredible India is, this is the classic one. And it makes me wonder whether the ownership really transferred into private hands. Anyway, the experience kicks off nice and early as I drive up the incline. A long traffic jam has developed. My driver alternately jams the accelerator and brakes to stay in one place. And its raining heavily.

The airport is packed with people, even more than Mumbai and Hyderabad airports, whose vast collections of crowds usually amaze me. Like all other airports in India, roughly 95% of the folks who visit the airport ain’t going anywhere. They are here to see off the other 5%, or is it 2% in New Delhi. Most of them travel very long distances.

Passengers like me are a hopeless minority. In every way possible. For a moment I thought I would give up and return, so challenging did the task of entering the terminal appear. Then I decided to fight my way through. After a careful study of my relative position to enemy flanks, I began to heave-ho. Angry stares accompanied me all the way. Several extremely able-bodied (I shall not say from where) gentlemen focussed on a lone and distant waving figure inside the terminal looked mightily inconvenienced.

Line & Length

There is just one long line to enter the immigration area. And it takes a long time. Guess why ? Not because the immigration guys are dragging their feet. Not quite. Because for every four guys from the line that walk over, there is one who will jump it or attempt to barge through. Two familes of four with howling children were `whisked’ through as I watched. Then followed a pot-bellied guy with a `pan' stained mouth - smiling sheepishly at no one in particular.

An American (not Indian origin) businessman - smart suit n boots - too tried to gatecrash as I watched. He went a step further. He begged the lady from United to please help him through. For what reason I could not fathom. She heard him, nodded her head, he pleaded again and then after much thought, she stepped forward and requested the immigration officer managing the line to let him through. I wonder what the excuse was. Maybe First Class. But there is no separate line.

Of course, despite my best efforts I didn’t see any ministerial entourage (with or without a minister) sail through immigration, security et al. After all, these fine gentlemen and gentlewomen (whose passport pictures may or may not tally) do not need to stand in any line. Or even bother to jump one.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Our Honourable Human Traffickers

Diplomatic Status For MPs

Actually, till one (or more) of our honourable members of parliament (MPs) were found running immigration rackets, I did not even know that they carried diplomatic passports.

I reckoned they could breeze through security, customs and what have you (with and without guns depending on the time and ocassion) and generally make everyone's life miserable. No, I don't mean all of them are like that. Obviously there are some very good eggs.

But good or bad, why diplomatic passports ? Specifically, this is how I am affected. I know MPs do not have to get a emigration check not required (ECNR) stamp on their passports. I know I have been running around for some three years to get it done. The lack of which makes me run around even more when I have to visit countries like China, Korea or Dubai. And guess what, a trafficker of humans can sail through where I can't. I am asked for every damn certificate since I was born and nothing seems to work, at least till now.

Tax Paying Citizen !

I point out that I am a tax paying citizen - please check my PAN (Tax Dept) number - but no, we are the ministry of external affairs and that is the ministry of finance. So we don't talk to each other. So because we will not talk to each other, it is your problem to figure out how to prove to us that you pay taxes, have passed a miserable exam and generally, are not a threat to some other country. But are'nt you the same government ? "We don't know." This by the way is not an imaginary exchange but an exasperating encounter with a real, senior official in the MoE.

I must credit our honourable MPs (those discovered so far) with some intelligence. In the scale of value addition, human trafficking must be the most lucrative and rank, in my estimation, above drugs, gold and currency. Maybe the only thing more lucrative would be gun-running. But there are physical constraints to the smooth practice of this activity, as you might imagine.

On The Shilpa Shetty Episode

How quick we are to jump to our countrymen's defense. Particularly when it involves something emotive, argumentative and is addressed with a volley of hurriedly issued statements. And then the matter dies down, the soap opera (quite literally) ends and life goes on.

What did you do dear Minister in your tenure ? Well, my biggest achievement was that I protested the indignation a paid and willing sufferer in a circus had unfortunately to undergo. From whom I ask ? Well, from another performing monkey, but this time from the wild. Well, what do you expect when two different breeds of performing monkeys meet, I ask ? And lets put nationality aside for a moment.

Am I condoning racism ? Obviously not. Am I wondering whether every act of speech anywhere in the world demands immediate response. Yes, I am. Because, I would argue that there are lots of things around that revolt me which you, dear Minister, do nothing about. None of them involve performing artistes in circuses.

But they do involve things, little and big, that I see around me everyday which get me so angry that I wish I could lodge daily protests and get the kind of public attention a television episode can. Obviously, I won't and it can't. I presume you know what I won't or can't. And yet, I must protest because that's the least I can do.

PS: Yes, I have been away for a while. The Shetty rant written when the matter was hot. Obviously, star weddings are what's keeping the nation, or at least the nation's media, busy today. More on that later. I've been travelling a fair bit, including out of the country. I have so much to say that I don't know where to start, nice excuse hah ?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Will Indian property markets tank ?

Read an interesting interview with Robert Shiller (Irrational Exuberance guy) who is now predicting some sort of bottoming out in the US real estate market. Interestingly, he added a section to his book last year saying the property market there was likely to head south.

The US real estate market to quote an investment banking friend of mine, is detonating all over the place. Actually he told me this four days ago. And a few nights ago, the Dow Jones tanked followed dutifully by Japan, Asia and of course good ol India.

Shiller says he has been reading up articles and stories on what triggered the previous fall in the US. Interestingly, I embarked on a similar academic exercise, trying to understand what brought the real estate market to its bottom after 1994. I am not quite there as yet, but Shiller says one signal is when people start talking about how they were `had’ in a certain transaction.

Stories of stupidity

This is what he said in a Business Week article last week. "I've been reading old newspapers and advertisements to see how past booms ended. It's usually when stories start to circulate that embarrass people who believed in the boom. For example, there was a Florida land boom [in the 1920s]. There were stories of people buying land that was swamp. Booms end when prices start to fall, and then there are stories of buyer stupidity that are told and retold. I sense that's happening now."

Interesting, isn't it ? I met someone from a large conglomerate (with a substantial presence in real estate) on a flight into Delhi last evening. According to him, the functionary in his organization who drives the real estate business has predicted that 2008 is the year when the Indian property markets will turn. The same gentleman predicted the 2003 stock market bull run several months before it actually happened. I know because he told me !

So I am somewhat inclined to believe this statement. Of course one cannot guarantee this things. My American investment banker friend was telling me that the loan market was witness to the most amazing recklessness in lending last year. You went to a bank and applied for a loan. "What do you make?" the bank would ask. "Oh, $50,000, you would say." "Okay, here's your loan, enjoy !" Almost like that.

Bubble Or Not ?

The same gentleman I met on the Delhi flight said he was hearing of downward pressure on prices in areas like Gurgaon (outside Delhi) particularly when the sale was initiated by a seller, as opposed to the buyer landing up. This might be happening in other places too.

So will it all pop ? I have no clue except to say that if its happened before, it can happen again. Unlike many of my friends who think the only way is north, because India is growing furiously and all of that. I don't necessarily see a correlation but this is one of those things where its easy to take a position but difficult to go with anything but gut whilst defending the same position !

Shiller's insights are useful though. "Bubbles don't pop suddenly. The air comes out gradually. More and more people decide that the market is turning."

Monday, February 26, 2007

The All Important Inclusion

Inclusive. Remember this word, you will be hearing it many times in coming months. From all sorts of folks, politicians to business leaders. Because suddenly realisation is drawing that the last couple of years of runaway growth and prosperity has not resulted in inclusive growth. Rather only in a few getting wealthier.

Even China gets worried about such things so presumably we should be too. That we not only do not have inclusive growth but we have runaway inflation from rising prices of goods and services. I now understand that finance minister P Chidambaram and his team have been furiously reworking their Union Budget 2007 proposals so as to ensure that there are more specific steps to fight inflation.

And yet I wonder why we did not see it coming. We all got caught in the great India Shining mirage three years ago and vowed that we would always watch out for such signals. And yet we've had a near encore. Forget wheat prices and onion prices. Real estate prices have doubled in many parts of India in the last 18 months. What's the general reaction ? Jubiliation, because somehow we think this is a reason to celebrate rather than worry.

Rising Prices, Time To Celebrate

So instead of figuring out how to step in and control prices, the government almost took pride in the fact that prices were rising and no one was affected. Because we are a growing economy. Turns out we are growing but not quite the manner in which we thought we were. So voters are already voting with their feet as they have done in the states of Punjab and Uttaranchal. And suddenly, whether or not rising prices are the reason, politicians are scurrying around trying to put together dossiers of anti-inflation measures.

Sure the Reserve Bank has been stepping in and hiking interest rates. But then, monetary tools can only do that much. A friend from Coimbatore told me that his company had to go out of the city to expand their factory. Because land prices were ridiculous. Which means thousands of jobs would go to some other place instead of Coimbatore. But prices in this smaller town in Tamil Nadu had shot up as well. The project was looking less viable now, he said.

What does all this mean ? Quite simply, we can grow only when the critical factors of production and supply are in our control. When demand overshoots supply then you have overheating. And things don't just cool off nicely, sometimes they just collapse. The Economist hinted at that in a cover story recently. And everyone pounced on The Economist saying they got it wrong. Well, well.

Are We Not Growing ?

So are we not a growing economy ? Of course we are. But as I never fail to point out, not all of us are growing. Industry is doing well, IT is doing better but to many hundreds of millions, it will be a long while before there is any change in their lives. So, inclusion is an important word to remember.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Amartya Sen & The Tunnel Effect Of Indian IT

How often do you get stuck in a traffic jam ? Almost everyday right. Now, here is a car on the lane next to you. Both of you are headed in the same direction and have been immobile for a while. So you and the driver of that car get talking. You discuss various things, mostly it will be to do with the state of traffic itself.

Soon, the other line starts moving and the driver in the other car waves his goodbyes and gets going. You wave your goodbye and smile at him. You are actually happy for him. Because you know that soon you will be going too. Time passes and you get impatient. Actually you are not moving. On the contrary there is no change in your position at all. Looks like your neighbour's line was the only line to benefit. Your happiness turns to anger. You are upset. You now curse the other guy.

This, as Nobel Prize laureate Dr Amartya Sen described it this evening in Mumbai, is the tunnel effect. I hope I got his example right - if not, I shall modify. The ocassion was a small dinner hosted in his honour by IT industry association Nasscom and the Welsh Development Authority.

Staying Back In The Tunnel

What if the Indian IT industry represents the other car that you, in the beginning, are happy to see surge ahead. And your car, lets say, is the rest of the economy and the polity. What happens when you realise its only the IT industry or the other car that's moved on. You are not moving. First there is frustration and then anger. And then, who knows what.

Professor Sen is going to dwell some more on this issue, as I can see. I reckon he will raise questions about the IT industry's contribution to the society, to the nation. He will pose questions that I feel have been posed but not strongly enough. And raise issues that deserve greater debate than ever before.

India Versus China

Will India overtake China ? Everyone has a view on this. Professor Amartya Sen's view is as follows. He does not care. He does not find it interesting. "I don't have the slightest idea or interest," he says.

He would be worried, he says, if India started losing out in life expectancy and China began gaining. For instance, he says China was 40 years ahead of India in life expectancy in 1979. Now, its just 7 years. Mortality in 1979 was 39 years. Now its 28 years. States like Kerala do better on some of these counts, he points out.

Or developments in health care. China, according to Professor Sen, messed up healthcare by allowing everything to be handled by the government before 1979 and prematurely privatising and handing over everything by the private sector after. "You can't understand these things by comparing GDP rates," says Prof Sen.

IT and TI

Professor Sen used this evening's short address to refer to a favourite topic, the argumentative Indian. He ascribed the success of the Indian IT industry to the fact that Indians discuss, debate and of course argue. "I think whether the IT industry has done well because of TI, meaning, Talkative Indians," he says.

Morality Is Related To Knowledge & Information

Information Technology is the hub of social morality, says Professor Sen. But for more on this, you will have to wait a day !

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

How Multicultural Are We ?

My friend who heads marketing for a large US IT hardware multinational told me the other day his firm was swamped with applications for a mid level position they had advertised on the web.

While scanning the applications he found, unusually, that the applicants included two Americans, one Australian and one New Zealander. He asked HR to get back to them saying the job profile spanned Asia Pacific but was very much grounded in Bangalore. All four (none were of Indian origin) got back saying they were game.

Last week, I was speaking with a partner at a Big Four consulting firm. Remarkably, he said, more and more partners from around the world wanted to come and work in India. More so in the last six months, he said. "Once upon a time, people were `seconded’ to India, now they want to come here. Else, it was only Indians going overseas," he told me.

India Is Hot

That more and more foreigners want to work in India is not new. So why is it an issue today ? Because multi-cultural workplaces are exploding all over the place – the term denoting multi-national rather than just people from different parts of the country. My sense is that gearing up to receive and exploit talent from world over will be a big challenge and task for Indian companies. As many organizations have already realized or are in the process of doing so.

Indian organizations are not new to working with non-Indians. But, as a director with an IT MNC said to me recently. “in India, the only multi-cultural exposure has been really bi-cultural. So you had German, Swiss and American companies from the west and Korean, Japanese and now Chinese companies from the east setting up companies in India alone or with minority joint venture partners.”

According to him, in these cases, the management, because of the ownership pattern, hailed from the home country. So there was a managing director and maybe one more director who were either German or American. Everyone else was local or, in this case, Indian. So while there were some cultural issues, the onus on assimilation lay between one individual or two and the rest of the organization !

Challenge & Opportunity

But in the last few years, in industries like IT, telecom, retail, hospitality, among others, increasingly, expatriates are coming in at middle and even junior level positions. This creates an interesting challenge and opportunity for Indian organisations and managers. Challenge because Indian managers are yet not there when it comes to working in truly multi-cultural workplaces, here and overseas.

Opportunity because effectively addressing these issues will help not just companies achieve greater talent integration for the domestic marketplace but also help Indian mangers better tackle the the world. I recall Ratan Tata telling me in an interview four years ago that one of the biggest tasks and challenges for the Tata Group were going global and going multicultural, not necessarily in that order. At that time, Tetley was just about the only big global acquisition the Tata group had either concluded or attempted.

What has been the experience so far ? Largely good. The sense I get from talking around is that Indian organizations are working hard at truly multi-cultural environments. It helps that the India story attracts talent from world over. In many organizations, such environments have actually helped foster more thought leadership rather than, as one manager put it, cultural leadership.

High On EQ & Low On..!

The problems could be that the Indian weaknesses stand out. As the same manager told me, “Indian managers tend to be high on emotional quotient and low on professional quotient. This is sometimes difficult to comprehend for people from some other cultures.” This is of course a commonly mentioned point. And yet, he adds, Indians are extremely flexible and display a strong ability to change.

The bigger challenges lie ahead. If Indian workplaces and environments are to be truly welcoming to people from varying cultures, then we have to work hard to manage our own latent racism. Most managers will tell you that Indians tend to be more subservient to some cultures while displaying distinctly racist attitudes towards the other. This is not a generalization by any stretch. And good organizations have the systems to address this. But the external environment is another story. A mid level expat manager may not be able to live the cocooned lifestyle expat head honchos are used to.

Another challenge is ensuring young Indians are exposed to multi-cultural environments before they hit such workplaces. Colleges and schools being the most obvious interaction point. At the Indian School of Business (ISB) a few months ago, I noticed several non-Indian students in the classrooms. I was told they were here on long exchange programs. Obviously the ISB or other institutions like it are an exception.

Understanding A Plain Jane

As I see it, organizations and institutions should set out a few tasks. First, make multi-culturalism an objective rather than an outcome that they have to prepare for. Second, as a corollary, make the working in a multi-cultural environment a virtue and a necessity for personal growth. Third, work towards all of this by creating the systems and processes to handle the inevitable fall-outs.

If you look around you, the smart Indian companies, from the Tatas to Reliance are already doing it. As are the IT majors. It will only accelerate. My sense is that early multi-cultural exposure will make for better managers right here. Or at the very least help understand how a plain Jane thinks and reacts in foreign lands, within or outside a reality show.

This piece first appeared in Business Standard !

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Oops, I Forgot I Am Carrying A Gun On This Flight

Two months ago, I had an interesting encounter with Mumbai airport security. I was flying from Mumbai to London and carrying, among other, non-violent items, a small tube of pain relieving gel for my back. The brand is well-known and you can find it in any medical store in the nation.

I walked through the frisking counter to discover my haversack had been ominously laid on the table. The guy came over and asked me to open it up. He looked at the man facing the screen with the X-Ray images. “There is a tube in it,” the scanner said. The Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) officer asked me to open my bag and take it out. I didn’t argue or anything, just said it was a pain relieving gel for my back. And it was a small tube, I demonstrated.

“No,” he said. “I need it,” I said. “Do you have a prescription then ?” he asked. "No," I said. And that was it, the tube went into the dustbin hopefully to be picked up and used by some baggage handler with a sprained back or shoulder, or at least I hope. London these days was on high alert - just after the big bomb attack in the sky scare and security was tight. And yet, despite my discomfiture, I was impressed with the sharpness of the Mumbai airport personnel.

Do You Know Who I Am ?

Well, the airport chaps (technically, the chaps who scan check-in baggage work for the airlines so it may not be the same) let a man with a revolver and 30 live cartridges go through Mumbai airport on January 13. By the way, we've had at least a dozen high alerts at the airports in the last six months. High alert, presumably, means you look for weapons and the like and not pain relieving gel. Anyway, the firearm was discovered in Dubai when the passenger landed. The authorities there must have called up the authorities here (this was an Air-India flight which itself answers a few unasked questions) and hell must have broken loose. Till it was all wonderfully covered up .

The possibilities of what and how are staggering. Lets look at them one by one. First, the man in question, businessman Nusli Wadia of the Bombay Dyeing Group, did not even put his baggage through security check. Second, his baggage whent through security check but the guys missed the gun and the bullets.

Third, they found the gun, discovered the bullets and asked for an explanation. However, when the passenger posed the big Indian question, “Do you know who I am ?”, they decided to let go. After all, he is a big businessman or a VIP. Frankly, I don’t what’s the most worrying or scary. Whether they knew there was a gun or they did not. Thankfully, the Dubai chaps were more alert or at least were not bought off.

Its My Servant's Fault, Catch Him

It gets worse. In Dubai, Nusli Wadia reportedly said he did not know the gun was in his bag because his servant packed it. So ? Well, we let go. After all, its not the poor man’s fault that his servant who packs his bags usually slips in a gun or two. And its only you and me who are asked every time when checking in whether we packed our own bags and whether anything untoward might have crept in.

And the best part is this. In Dubai, when challenged, Wadia apparently fished out an arms permit and said he had a license to carry the gun. Sure. So, we are now to believe the servant inadvertently packed the gun but Mr Wadia advertently carried the license. How convenient ! Lets assume the license arrived later and the servant did indeed slip in a gun. Wow ! What kind of `domestic help' does that ?

Okay, Ramu, I might need a gun on this trip because I have a few business deals to crack so pack my gun. Or, sir, would you like to pack the gun and the shaving kit together or seperately ? Amazingly, you can blame the servant and get away. At least, as it appears, a businessman of some repute can. What do you think would have happened to any of us were we to be caught with a gun in the check-in baggage ?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Indians' fuzzy outlook on citizenship

During World War II, in 1942 to be precise, US President Franklin D Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing some 116,000 Japanese Americans (of which over 60 per cent were US citizens) to relocate or move from the west coast to `war relocation centers’ in the country’s interior.

The reason was this. Post Pearl Harbor, many Americans believed Japan was about to launch another full scale attack, this time on the west coast. To quote an American Lieutenant General who administered the `internment’ program, "There is no way to determine their loyalty...It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty..."

It took four decades to right the slight. In 1988, President Reagan signed an apologetic legislation which said the government actions then were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership."

Help Us Stay Home, In Britain !

The Japanese American Internment is a prominent 20th century case study in the fundamental issue of citizenship and patriotism. And it often reminds me about Indians and our own fuzzy sense of citizenship and everything that goes with it.

Here is an instance. Some 30,000 Indians in Britain are requesting the Indian authorities to protest a British government move that affects their status under the Highly Skilled Migrants Programme (HSMP). The UK move may be unfair but it baffles me (if I were to believe the reports) that these chaps expect our PM to request Tony Blair to give them safe haven and potentially, citizenship, in the the UK !!

I would divide my America bound acquaintances, friends and relatives into roughly two categories. First are those who seek specific opportunity, find it at a location that is not pre-determined and then `settle’ down. Their return is always open-ended, so to speak. These are a minority. The second are those for whom countries like America are fixated, pre-programmed destinations regardless of what they do in India and how.

What About Patriotism ?

For many first generation settlers in the US, the 80s and 90s have been kind. Having acquired a two-car garage house, lawn mower and a sound understanding of local baseball, they ponder about what to do next. Should one stay on ? Will the children adapt back in India ? Will there be opportunity ? What about bureaucracy, bad roads, cheating taxi drivers and pollution ?

Ah, in passing, they might ask of themselves: should we become US citizens ? If we do, then what does it really mean? Should we give up Indian nationality just like that, just because we are getting citizenship here ? What about patriotism ? Or is it, in any case, restricted to cheering when Rahul Dravid scores a century ?

Okay, how many folks do you think really understand the following: ""I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the USA against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law.."

How Many Even Ask ?

I would like to guess but will pass. I don’t know whats more worrying, whether they do or they do not. Actually, it is my submission that only 5 per cent of self-exiles actually ask questions. To the credit of this 5 per cent, as I have seen in some cases, they can go through considerable heartburn. The other 90 per cent I would argue, do not even pose these questions. Of course there are many who steadfastly maintain Indian citizenship. We would all know some of them.

I always wonder why Indians (sure, maybe many Chinese do as well) find it so simple to switch nationalities ? Or is it that it does not matter when you are in the flow, student to H1B (or equivalent) to Green Card to citizen. Where is the time or energy to ponder where you really belong !

In which case what must be done about it ? Rather, should something be done or is it another issue best left to market forces ? I am not sure about this. Looking inward, I would argue that the case for patriotism is weak. What I am not sure is whether its getting weaker or with economic development, stronger ?

A Case For Patriotism

Why did I start with the example of the Japanese-American Internment ? Because the argument of economic good and meritocracy scoring over cultural diversity and ancestry can fade over time. Neither the host country or the immigrant can be sure that this sort of symbiotic relationship will stand the test of time, in the truest sense. No one is suggesting a repeat of the Intermnent. And yet we had the veil issue in Britain.

My fear is that young Indians with their fuzzy outlook on nationalism can be victims. Most don’t know (or care) what they sign up for. But for those still to do so, I would still make a strong case for patriotism. To be more appropriately inculcated, if possible. Not one that is necessarily borne out of economic soundness.

PS: This is another Business Standard instalment. Yes, I have been a little pre-occupied and perhaps lazy. I have been busy, among other things, fighting a fresh round of battles with our domestic airlines !

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Setting Expectations For 2007

Living in Mumbai, I am somehow bound to the “Will Mumbai become Shanghai?” phrase and all its connotations and interpretations. Before I come to my submission on our state of great expectations, a few words on the Shanghai syndrome.

First, Mumbai should look for a new phrase. That’s because, to my mind, Delhi has already become “Shanghai”. Sure, Delhi is not a port city or the commercial capital. But using the usual extrapolation of Shanghai to mean high-quality infrastructure, visible administrative determination (for whatever reasons) to clean up a mess and so on, Delhi scores.

Delhi is the only city in India where there are visible infrastructure improvements in short periods. Sure, Gurgaon residents are howling about the extra hour they spend on the approach to Delhi, but if you ask me, I see the men and machines working day and night to find some solutions. Unlike Mumbai, a city that took three decades to decide to build one bridge across a creek.

Just A 50% Chance..

Now to narrate two somewhat disparate examples. Remember Mumbai’s highway road signs (amidst crumbling or dug-up roads) requesting you to bear with the present for a better future? I don’t know about you but when I read them, I expected solutions that would fundamentally alter the road infrastructure in the island city. Far from it. As I see it, this high-decibel signage mostly meant that some roads or pavements would be re-layered. Yet, here I was thinking life was going to fundamentally change.

Allow me to shift gears. I happened to be in London the day Tata Steel announced its bid for Corus. It was interesting to see local media reactions. It was clearly a big thing. People wanted to know what would happen to Corus if the Tatas took it over. I didn’t know the answer. I still don’t, particularly now that it may not be the Tatas who will take over Corus.

Nevertheless, it struck me that ever since the Tatas threw their hat in the ring, their victory has been pretty much taken for granted by most of us—with the possible exception of Tata Steel brass and perhaps their investment bankers. Turns out as things stand they have only a 50 per cent chance, or is it less?

Expectation Overload

My point is this. We are in a constant state of expectation overload. In the case of Mumbai’s miseries, expectations appear so high that the outcome is laughable. Equally, albeit a little differently, in the case of a Tata-Corus, expectations have run ahead of reality. The Tatas may or may not be responsible for this but surely many others are.

And it goes on. From the unfinished Golden Quadrilateral highway project and government-sponsored advertisements which highlight announcements as achievements to erratic cricket performances and newspaper headlines that suggest something has already happened as opposed to “yet to”, we are in a perpetual race to declare conclusion or victory. The two are not necessarily congruous but the malady is common.

When the GQ project started, we were told to get ready to cover 1,000 km in 11 or 12 hours like on roads in the developed world. Guess what, thanks to litigation-induced blockages, we might actually take longer than what was planned. In any case, the gap between induced expectation and actual delivery runs into years, sometimes decades.

Where's The Word Gloom ?

Having said all of that, it’s still fine to over-expect in some areas, I mean you can keep expecting India to win at cricket or Sachin Tendulkar to score a century. It might happen (or won’t) but no one’s the wiser. It’s a little different when it comes to more fundamental issues of economy and infrastructure. We expect a Shanghai but fail to question the basic problems in civic infrastructure.

Now, a little digression. Exactly a year ago, I was sitting with Harvard Business School professor Das Narayandas at the HBS campus in Boston. Gazing at the falling snow outside, we were discussing, what else, India. “Is India Shining all over again?” the professor asked me. It was a rhetorical question, I realised.

Narayandas had this to say. The word gloom didn’t really exist in the Indian lexicon, referring more to those who were economically privileged and had benefited from the recent economic boom. As we go into 2007, I think of his words again. Whether it’s crumbling Mumbai or our global business aspirations. Or my concern, taking off from Narayandas’ posers, that our record GDP quarter growth numbers will make us believe we’ve cracked it all, already.

Plunging Ahead..

And so I ask, are we plunging into another new year overawed by the past, expecting miracles from the future ? Without rolling up our sleeves to solve the basic problems that still plague our existence? Are we assuming conclusion when we are far from even the beginning of the solution. If you ask me, my first thought for 2007 would be to set right expectations, individually and collectively. That way, we will achieve more and be less dissapointed when things don’t happen. Like realising how Mumbai will not become Shanghai. And accepting that even a Delhi can get its act together.

This article first appeared in Business Standard

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