Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Why Blame Ratan Tata For The Nano ?

Ratan Tata is chairman of Tata Motors. He is passionate about cars. Not just driving or admiring them but about building them as well. Ten years ago he unveiled the Indica, the country's first indigenous car. The Indica was greeted with much acclaim. On the road, it was a different story. The car had several glitches and it took several years before they were resolved.

Tata acknowledged the Indica's failings from start. It was not easy. Possibly he turned the criticism as encouragement to work even harder to create an error-free product. But the Indica experience, as traumatic as it may have been at outset, did not deter him from thinking even bigger - A project to build the world's cheapest car.

So if Ratan Tata is a car maker, then all he can do, presumably, is to think of better, cheaper and bigger cars or dream of doing all of that. So he is only doing what he set out to do, or the founders of Tata Motors did when they set up the Tata Engineering & Locomotive Company (Telco which became Tata Motors recently) to make locomotives and other engineering products in 1945.

What Are The Rest Doing ?

I wonder then why people blame Ratan Tata for creating a car that might potentially swamp Indian roads or create a pollution problem. As an innovator in the automotive arena, Tata and his team are only doing what they set out to do, as best as they possibly can. Can the Nano be the most fuel-efficient car on the planet ? Or remain $2,500 for ever. Maybe not, but competition and determination might help.

That is the story of Ratan Tata. What are the rest doing, I wonder ? How much innovation can you credit those in Government who are supposed to create infrastructure, either for mass transport or private transport. Why is it that we fail so miserably in even defining a benchmark for innovation here, leave alone setting one - yes there is the Delhi Metro.

It could be argued that public funds end up funding private transport, either at the point when the cars are manufactured or are driven, on the roads. I am not sure. We pay much higher prices for cars and fuel than most, if not all developed countries do. A car that costs $10,000 in the US costs $20,000 in India. As simple as that. Fuel is much cheaper there too.

An Alternate Transport System ?

Actually, cars are insanely taxed in India. So where does that tax money go ? Why I wonder would I pay Rs 10 lakh for a car that costs Rs 5 lakh elsewhere and still not get good roads or quality public transport – at least one should flow logically, if not both. The question is rhetorical incidentally, we all know where the tax money goes or does not.

A small illustration. Mumbai desperately needs an alternate transport system. A proposal for a water transport link connecting south and north Mumbai has been floating around for three decades and more. All that someone in Government had to do (state of Maharashtra) was to take a decision.

As I have realised over the years, the easiest thing to do is to not do anything. That's what most public service in India is actually about. Business is different. Being remembered is not so simple anymore. Most battles are not fought in backyards but on the global stage. Even dynasty does not help. So why blame Ratan Tata for taking a decision and chasing a dream.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Rise Of Dhirubhai Ambani

(This blog's author is attempting to return to the fold, as it were. This is not the first attempt nor I suspect the last. The plot this time round is to make it simpler, shorter and easier to read. Which may prompt the conclusion that it was not so earlier. True, is the author's own objective assessment.)

Actually the book is called The Polyester Prince. Copies of the book suddenly appeared all over Mumbai on Sunday evening at traffic signals and pavement book shops. Prices ranged from Rs 100 to Rs 400 I was told. A colleague picked it up at Rs 100, the urchin selling it at a traffic signal in central Mumbai quoted Rs 250. The timing of the book's release - a day before Anil Ambani's mega Reliance Energy IPO opens for subscription - is curious to say the least.

The Polyester Prince was first published in 1998 and was supposed to be an authorised biography of the late industrialist. Somewhere along the way, possibly following a somewhat negative article the author (Hamish McDonald) wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the two fell out. McDonald went on to write the book and published it.

McDonald provides interesting and less known insights into Dhirubhai's childhood. His birth in Chorwad, his time in Aden where he demonstrated his entrepreneurial bent and the birth of the textile and petrochemical giant that is Reliance today. But the book also prises open the lids on episodes the Ambanis would surely want to put behind - for instance, the fascinating story and events that led to the arrest of Kirti Ambani, a Reliance employee, on charges of conspiring to murder Dhirubhai rival Nusli Wadia.

Incidentally, the book was banned ten years ago and has till date stayed out of circulation. What was selling on the streets yesterday is the pirated version of a banned title. Most enterprising, one would think, even as you wonder why now. I guess Dhirubhai himself would have said, "Nobody is a permanent friend. Nobody is a permanent enemy. Everybody has his own self-interest. Once you recognise that, everybody would be better off."

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