Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jan Lokpal Bill Movement: Lessons For India's Middle & Ruling Classes

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`Supercop' Kiran Bedi learnt the hard way (or so we hope) how not to hold fort when she resorted to somewhat unusual theatrics to drive home a point about elected representatives. She was on stage as Gandhian Anna Hazare fasted to get the Indian Government to agree to pass the Jan LokPal Bill, a strong anti-corruption bill. His fast ended on 28 August 2011, 12 days after it started.

The fast (and the strategy thereof) has attracted kudos and criticism alike. The critics call the fast and the accompanying protests blackmail. The supporters say politicians are not known to respond to the usual greet, meet and review process. As they have not in the past. Moreover, the country has lived with unprecedented levels of corruption for decades and across all walks of life. And cannot tolerate it any longer. Extreme conditions call for extreme responses. Both sides however agree that the issue of corruption in public life must be addressed, with some urgency.

I see it a little differently. Without getting into the merits of the Bill itself and the methodology adoped, lets look at what this movement has done.

1.It's brought India's slumbering middle class and youth together on an issue (corruption) they should have united on a few decades ago. Not that its only the middle class that's out on the streets.
2. Equally, its given India's middle class a sense of `real-politik' for the first time. The protestors and the country at large quite quickly realised the Government was being indifferent to them simply because it concluded the SMS/Twitter/Facebook fuelled gatherings lacked the support and momentum of India's masses. Never mind that the hundreds of thousands marched on their volition as opposed to being paid and carted in by the truckloads. Politician Mani Shankar Aiyar said in a television discussion two days ago that he called up his constituency in the southern state of Tamil Nadu to find out how many people were protesting on this issue. "Only 30," he was told. Mani's point: its an important issue alright but not everyone is jumping to support it.
3. Its showed that a bunch of smart thinking individuals with some public support can outsmart a government which, for all its might, demonstrated that it did not think in a calm and controlled manner. Its not that the Government does not have smart people, but the lack of an effective strategy or counter-strategy was glaring.
4. The same bunch of people had a working and evolving strategy at all times, notwithstanding Ms Bedi's theatrics. When Anna Hazare broke his fast on Sunday the 28th of August, he did so with a speech which laid out out a forward looking agenda, one that encompassed education, elections and the environment. In contrast, except for a few very notable exceptions, most Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha rambled on without making any specific points. So while Ms Bedi's antics must be frowned upon and dismissed as that of a political novice, the veterans didn't exactly cover themselves in oratorical glory. Though to be fair, the quality of debate was much higher than the median.
5.The movement created the first stirrings of a political identity for the middle classes. And one of some muscle as well. For deacades, the middle classes have watched silently and in fear as various quasi-political parties have wreaked havoc on the streets. Mumbai is no stranger to it. Time and again, the city has been warned by Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray that his boys would take to the streets if a certain issue was not addressed in his favour. And there are the infamous `voluntary-involuntary' bandhs in once Communist Party ruled states like West Bengal and Kerala. For once, the middle class can feel comfortable about getting down to the streets. Hopefully, it will maintain the peaceful and non-violent nature,as originally propogated by Mahatma Gandhi and as espoused by the leaders of the current India Against Corruption movement.

The challenge obviously is larger now. Showing consistency is more difficult than flash protests. Anna Hazare and his team have pulled through for an admirable period. More importantly, agree or not, they have laid out a vision and a direction. They seem to be cognizant of the criticism that they have hijacked parliamentary democracy. Of course they deny the charge. They also recognise that there are much dotting of the i's and crossing of the t's involved before any real legislation is passed. To that extent they are aware of the precise challenges ahead. Obviously, it helps to have at least two constitutional heavy weights on your side - former Law Minister & Supreme Court lawyer Shanti Bhushan and his son Prashant Bhushan .

The Government and its many constituents are obviously smarting. Unusually, this includes all sides of the house. And they will want to settle scores where they can. A few members of parliament will advocate greater control on media. Better still they will insist (as a few already have) that the media too be brought under the ambit of an anticorruption law. There will be other such missiles that will be fired in coming days. Some might well be justified.

But the Government can convert this into an opportunity too, by working with the prime movers of the movement more closely. It can take up prickly issues like corruption and be seen to be involving more people in fixing it rather than getting adversorial. By taking firm ownership of the issue rather than seen to be on the defensive. By doing a more broad-based, mass engagement for solutions that will fix the processes that create corruption, particularly `retail' corruption. While there has to be nitpicking on the law, there has to be greater nitpicking on the processes that lead to corruption in the first place. Particularly of the kind that involves the poor and helpless.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Business No Longer As Usual

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My Singapore-based economist friend put the whole corruption issue in an economic perspective. "Indian systems and structures have always been geared to manage the Hindu rate of growth – 3.5% between the 1950s to 1980s. What you are seeing is the inability to cope with 9% plus growth, economically, socially and politically.”

Well. More and more bigwigs are being chargesheeted and going to jail on charges of corruption. Unfortunately, many of us believe they will somehow extricate themselves, using money, influence or both. I will come to that in a moment. Lets take a look at Tihar’s well-heeled jailbirds. Presently, they range from accused in telecom spectrum allocation to Delhi’s Commonwealth Games (CWG) scandals.

There are four kinds of people in from the abovementioned crop. The first is founders of organisations, like realtors Shahid Balwa of DB Corp and Sanjay Chandra of Unitech. To understand their wealth in perspective, Shahid Balwa apparently asked Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officials if they could travel from Mumbai to Delhi (where the CBI court is in session) in his private jet. Understandably, the CBI officials declined.

Birds Of A Feather Flock...In Jail

The second is the professional kind. There are three Reliance ADAG Group executives, including managing director Gautam Doshi facing charges. Reliance was on the other side of the transaction with Shahid Balwa, details which form part of a CBI chargesheet. The third is politicians like Suresh Kalmadi picked up on 25th April on charges of cheating, consipiracy and corruption in sanctioning inflated payments to vendors. This was in his role as Chairman of the Organising Committee for the CWG. And finally, its the bureaucrats who were associated with both kinds of scams from the government side.

Four sets of people. All sharing various cells in Tihar jail as the temperatures (summer) rise in Delhi. Its safe to say that they will emerge from their confinements at some point. When, of course, is the Rs 100 crore question. But having interacted with some of them in the past, I do wonder (increasingly) how many will ever try the fast and loose approach in their business dealings ? Moreover, how many of their friends, associates and even remote acquaintances will take the easy way out when faced with legal-moral hurdles ?

Let me put it this way. Ever since Mumbai’s traffic police began cracking down on drunk driving a few years ago, I have only heard of friend’s friends spending a night in jail. A few friends have told me of agonising hours spent in suburban police stations in the dead of the night. Guess what. I do not drive even if I have had a whiff of alchohol, so wary i am of running foul of the law. The same friends have told me that a glass or so is legally acceptable. I don’t care. I just don’t want to take a chance. And I am not alone.

Can The Merry Ways Change ?

Now most of our friends in Tihar Jail obviously boast much thicker skins. And that’s why they are there in the first place. And a few will quite likely return to their merry ways when they are finally done with their time. Which brings me to the big question. What if the `ways ‘ themselves change ? Can this attack against corruption that is now societal, judicial and even political change the course of the river, albeit partially. Is it likely that doing business will never be the same again in India ?

The optimist and patriot in me says yes. When powerful people get chargesheeted and spend time in jail, some deterrence if not restrain has already been created. At least for a while till the systems to check corruption and to crack down discovered become stronger. One where the four kinds of jailbirds will find it increasingly difficult to intermingle unquestioned and milk state-owned resources to build personal fortunes.

The way of doing business changes every now and then. That has been the situation from the dawn of time when entrepreneurs and organisations came into existence. Entrepreneur’s (and maybe managers) always test the boundaries of law and business ethics in search for growth and profit. The last two decades have been challenging, as my economist friend says, for a country that never grappled with runaway growth or for that matter greed. This is the time to pause and learn a few lessons. There is no guarantee that corruption will go away. There is some guarantee that it will take much thicker skins to go through with it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Devil That Is Corruption

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The devil is in the detail, goes the old but appropriate cliche. It could apply to the reading of a contract or the framing of a cohesive strategy to combat corruption. Its the latter or the immediate lack of it that worries me. To the extent that we expect this television and social media fuelled movement to go to a next, logical phase.

We are basking in a post World Cup cricket victory glow. A well-timed Anna Hazare anti-corruption campaign appears to have satiated our innate desires for another win. After beating Pakistan and Sri Lanka, surely a corrupt politician was small change. Question is can we now prevent the movement from being a one-day win just like its cricketing predecessor.

At the outset its not easy. I believe corruption affects us worst in our immediate vicinity, in our day to day lives. A 2G telecom scam revolts us but only because it deeply affects our sense of values and the context we see ourselves as a democracy. Beyond that, what price Government-owned telecom spectrum is sold for does not materially change our lives.

A Builder's Reception

A week before Anna Hazare began his fast at Delhi's Jantar Mantar, Maharashtra minister Kripa Shankar Singh's son was found to have received a sum of Rs 4 crore from builder DB Realty. Its not clear for what. Good news is you cannot accuse the poor fellow of bias when it comes to builders and developers. It was also found that his wedding reception bill for Rs 15.5 lakh had been picked by another builder, HDIL. HDIL's key pitch is slum rehabilitation. They should add weddings to the list.

This is one example that jumped at me. Every village, town, city and state in India has hundreds of such instances. Happenings that we learn of or see in broad daylight. Ive always wondered how politicians get away by installing plainly illegal hoardings at Worli junction, near where I live in Mumbai. Is it corruption, blatant misuse of public property or just breakdown of law and order.

Or how a politican like Chaggan Bhujbal in Mumbai, elected legislatively but without any state cabinet position, can travel in eight-car police convoys, mowing aside cars that are driven by members not of his ilk. So there is no visible corruption here, or is there ? And how do we convert the anger we so wonderfully expressed on a day to something that keeps such people in check over a sustained period ?

The Visible Symbols

Its human nature to rally around symbols. The daily corruption of the administrative and bureaucratic kind cannot be fought through single symbols. You need motivated people at a very specific, regional level to seek information (as many are), build up cases and then go after the perpetrators. This is a full-time job in itself, so deep is administrative corruption and linked inefficiency in our country.

This is where I think the youth of India have a greater role to play. As they've shown their solidarity on Facebook and Twitter with Anna Hazare, they need to seed small movements (for example) in college campuses and institutionalise the approach. For instance, can colleges in Andheri (a north Mumbai suburb) pick up all the land parcels that have been alloted to builders in the last five years and write project reports on how the transactions were done ? And can they get a few marks for doing this ?

Can other projects look at the state of the roads (measured against the repeated expenditure) ? Or the illegal posters ? Or can you help truck drivers trying to enter Mumbai city and being harassed for entry tax (octroi) and often forced to pay bribes. Or endure impossible waits. Or do a real check of every politicians real assets, compared to what they've declared while standing for elections. Yes, you will spend the first few days laughing at the figures declared. That will be the fun. But the details will not be. That's the nature of the devil.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Zone

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I was watching Indian captain MS Dhoni's eyes when he hit the sixer that catapulted India to victory at the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 on Saturday night. Only someone with numbing focus and meditative concentration, oblivious to the utter mayhem and cacophony all around, can play a shot like that. It was the definitive, you-guys-can-take-this stroke from a cricketer wanting to leave a permanent stamp on the game.

To be fair, many such definitive shots have been played, match winning and otherwise. But it was one of the few I would categorize as belonging to The Zone. Spiritual expert Jaya Row who once defined the Zone to me. "Its your ability to disconnect totally from the world outside and be in total control of your mind and body for that moment," she had told me.

I have always wondered about the role of spirituality (secular) in our lives. Ms Row, a Vedanta expert, defined ita appropriately. "Think of Sachin Tendulkar when he is facing a bowler. Look at his face," she said. She didn't have to explain further. The question is do you need a do-or-die sporting event to achieve this state of total concentration ? World class sportsmen get there most of the time because they are trained to. Conversely, they make mistakes when they slip out of the Zone.

Can I Do It

Interestingly, this phase of inner silence and external concentration is something that we all aspire for. We slip in and out frequently but usually find it difficult to stay put for longer periods. Some of us find it easier to hit the Zone early morning, some late evening. Most successful and happy people spend more time in the Zone. Note, the two are not mutually exclusive.

The Zone is not an agressive place, as I understood it. The motivation might be agression, like in a sporting event. But it might also be an attempt to find a peaceful interlude. The destination is the same. There are many things to take away from a sporting victory. One is to become a cricketer and enjoy a nation's adulation. The other is to learn from them and find your Zone. And enjoy it !

Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Way Or No Way

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(Daily Mail pic showing former British PM Gordon Brown)

In India, this is something we are used to and used to giving in, almost as we would bow to kings and queens in medieval times. With citizens of other democracies, the reaction can be a little different.

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown came under fire after his entourage tried to bump a heavily pregnant woman from business class on an international flight. It happened at Oman, when passengers on a British Airways flight were told they would have to move to a lower class because of an `overbooking' problem'. The story appeared on Daily Mail but strangely cannot be found on the newspaper's website anymore, at least when I last checked !

The pregnant woman's husband moved from business to premium economy and other passengers from premium economy were moved to economy and some, apparently off the flight altogether. The story came to light because the woman, seven months pregnant, refused to budge. She also got a photograph taken which is circulating on the web.

The Indian Way

The passengers of course don't know how lucky they are. In India, quite likely, the sten-gun toting guards of a much lesser politician or real estate developer would have lined up the passengers against a wall and threatened to shoot them. Possibly they wouldn't have carried out that threat because of the mess it would create in a public place. But surely they would rough up.

A friend and a well known Mumbai politician were driving a few weeks ago to a concert in a Mumbai suburb when their car got shoved aside by a real estate developer's motorcade. The politician was travelling like you and me, ie minus the red light and motorcade. He was shocked. I understand he tried to make a few calls to protest but got nowhere. This happens all the time in the world's largest democracy.

Roads are the one place where we all meet, till we retreat to our fortresses, towers or slums as the case maybe. So be prepared for your rights to be trampled at will, if only to temporarily make way for a greater being. Our inability to protest this amazes me. It does not amaze me that elected representatives and thus `servants' of the electorate get away. They will, til we redefine the relationship between ordinary citizens and politicians and the rich and powerful.

Only If I Had The Choice

There is no difference between the three categories, often. Note now former Telecom Minister A Raja spends quality jail time alongside Shahid Balwa of DB Realty, a `leading' Mumbai builder. The latter is charged with bribing the former. I am willing to bet that in good times, both exercised their rights that flow to this class by shoving aside anyone who obstructed their convoys. Like politician Raj Thackeray's entourage did last week in Goa.

Here are a cross section of views. The first is Jawahar on the site which carried the Daily Mail story. "Hey BA, you seem more like our Nepal Airlines Corporation. I thought they bumped people off the flight to make way for politicos only in the airlines of the 3rd world countries. Cannot believe you do that too."

And another one from a Sir John in Australia, "This is just typical of the so-called UPPER-CRUST. And that CRUST is made up of all sorts of persons, who think they can have it over what they call and treat as 'DROSS" or 'THE PLEBS", who this CRUST is supposed to honnor, protect, serve, and thank for, for having been selected to do so !!"

Incidentally I used to be a regular British Airways flier. I stopped some years ago when they bumped me down from Premium Economy without reason. And never responded or compensated me for the loss. Obviously I found better airlines to fly. Unfortunately, I cant do the same with our roads.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Buffett Lesson: Unite In Philanthropy

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Warren Buffett came to India. The closest I came to him is when my aircraft passed his (parked) private jet in Bangalore last week. Of course I was flying commercial. Thanks to a fairly trying schedule involving four cities in as many days I missed most of the media coverage surrounding his India visit. Which means, by deduction, I missed most of media too.

So why did we get so excited about Warren Buffet ? So one reason is the obvious one. He is the Sage Of Omaha. He is the most valued value investor. And for all the wealth his firm Berkshire Hathway generates, he himself lives the life of, well, a sage. Its perhaps the failing of my current assignment (or boon ?) that I only have time to browse a few reports and not take the full blast. It was in this context that I read T N Ninan's piece in Business Standard. I think it beautifully sums up the Sage's wisdom.

The second reason is the reason he came here. To invite India's rich (add recently rich) to part with their billions (in dollars). I could say a lot more on this to but I think the Business Standard's article titled `philanthropy mongering as PR' next day pretty much summed it up. I am not sure whether Buffett had success in either. But that can be assessed later.

Antilla Musings

From a vantage point, somewhere in south Mumbai, I was watching helicopters land and take off from the Mahalakshmi Race Course on Sunday morning. A friend pointed to Mukesh Ambani's 27-storey Antilla home (clearly visible from where we were standing) and added that he had applied for permission to land on his terrace. My friend being a pilot, presumably had an aviator's interest in landing and take-offs from a building terrace. Of course Antilla's in your face opulence was not lost on him.

To most, Antilla represents a pinnacle in Indian business achievement and sheer ostentatiousness. Although, its now difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. And therein lies the problem in India. So we like and respect success but are uncomfortable when someone brandishes his wealth and power so openly. More so in a nation where the disparities are so stark. Remember, we never saw it like this before either.

A Mukesh Ambani is not to blame for the disparities. He must, like all entrepreneurs big and small, be lauded for creating opportunity, jobs and Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Most of us accept that too. But then, why the discomfort ? I think its because of the concept of perceived equality. Which means that at one level we feel the very rich have taken from the Land and its People and not compensated sufficiently in return. On the other, the State has not done its job of giving us a good deal either.

Distributed Equality

You might argue that the entrepreneur is not to blame for this. True. But the State must fix the perceived gap between the entrepreneurs who mine (pun not intended) the resources the Land has to offer and the benefits that flow to the populace. It does not help that most of the wealth generated in the last decade has to do more with resources that were appropriated in ways and means that were mostly illegal. The 2G telecom scam is a good example.

But what if the State did a much better job in delivering services than it is currently ? I am not upset about a helicopter landing on someone's terrace and whisking him off. But I am surely upset at Mumbai's horrible roads, which surely hold the record for the most non-linear man-made construction on Planet Earth. Or Mumbai's domestic help who marvel at Mukesh Ambani's Rs 70 lakh ($143,000) monthly electricty bill when their homes an hour's train ride from Mumbai are beset with daily power cuts.

Its the distributed inequality that makes Warren Buffett and Bill Gates come and talk about philanthropy. There are two arguments here. First that most Indian businesses practice philanthropy and were not waiting for Mr Buffett to come and preach to them. The other is that philanthropy cannot fix the problems that we really want fixed. Even if the extent of philanthropy, lets say, doubled or even tripled.

So Who Fixes What ?

Most successful businessmen realise this too. They would rather contribute to the larger cause of opportunity creation (which India desperately needs) rather than Buffett-induced philanthropy which in a nation of a billion will always be a drop in the ocean. Unless you were someone like Azim Premji (Wipro chief) who talked about the deficits of education for a long time and finally decided he was going to put some money where his mouth was.

Can businessmen help the State deliver better services ? This is a tough one. The State does not like being told what or how to do. On the other hand, the same taxes you and I pay can deliver a better quality of life. We know this but have to find sufficient ways of enforcing better delivery from the State. We will. I also believe, however, that there is a case for more co-ordinated giving for larger objectives. What if the Ambanis, GMR Group, Birlas, Tatas and the thousands of new and very wealthy entrepreneurs combined their funds for a few specific causes ?

Its not something that any of them would jump to. After all, most of us like to leave our singular stamp on our giving. But for a country of this size, such efforts will bear more fruit. Particularly in areas like education and healthcare. And that's something that Mr Buffett figured too. By donating to the Gates Foundation rather than trying to do it himself. Thats a lesson we should surely take away.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Real Fear Of Flying

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I have been mostly on the road for the last three weeks. Which means catching flights of various shapes, sizes and of course pilots. I am worried. Because neither the airline, India's regulatory body (Director General of Civil Aviation) seem to know whether the pilots flying the aircraft have earned their licenses honestly and didn't forge their tests. And till some 4,500 licenses are fully scanned, we will entrust our lives to pilots whose credentials are not re-established.

I was reading an insightful piece in the Business Standard which talks about how the pilots forged critical components of the tests required to become certified pilots. For instance, most of the now suspended pilots flunked papers on aviation meteorology, radio aids and air nagivation. How this escaped everyone's attention is a little bit of a mystery. Or not.

The matter picked up steam when the DGCA ordered an inquiry into an improper landing in January (on the nosewheel) by a pilot who, amazingly, had commanded flights with IndiGo Airlines for two years. Turned out she had a forged certificate showing she cleared the tests in November 2009, and thus got the Airlines Transport Pilot Licence (ATPL). A few more names cropped up soon, including one from Air India and another (apparently the authorities are hunting a few) from IndiGo.

Continous Testing

I have no doubt that the airlines themselves are turning over every scrap of paper they can lay their hands on to establish whether the records are in order. As we all know, airlines constantly run their own tests and periodic simulator training sessions. Its not like you get hired it and you are in for life. You are tested constantly - almost like a competition sports player - and have to perform to perfection all the time.

So its a little funny that pilots who have not slipped up for two years suddenly make a glaring error, which in turn starts the chain of events that gets them caught. The other possibility is that they were slipping up all the while and continued to fly. Which of course is highly irregular but also unlikely as no airline would risk its passengers' lives and thus its reputation.

So is there a problem with the quality and nature of testing itself ? Could be, because many pilots say that the Indian DGCA has higher rigor than most other regulatory bodies. This in turn forces desperately aspiring pilots to take measures such as this. Because in their minds they know that they might forge exam papers but will fly the aircraft with the diligence it requires.
Thats a talking point but obviously does not fly because laws have been broken.

Unfair On The Rest

Since everyone is `guilty' until proved `innocent', all record's must be scanned. This is good inasmuch as you never know what else might pop up. Its bad because the reputation of the majority has been sullied. Many pilots I know have earned their licenses through the straight, hard route. By pooling family savings, slogging hard and then battling with the bureaucracy to get their licenses. They have recourse to neither clout or money which might help speed things up.

Coming as this does on the heels of various other scams, including 2G, its a sign of how desperation and aspiration make for a terrible combination in an economy where there more aspirers for any well paying and/or glamorous profession than jobs going. Fudging of certificates happens all the time in the information technology and business process outsourcing (BPO) industries. And hence the creation of a National Skills Register (NSR) by industry body Nasscom. Perhaps the airlines also need something similar. Am sure the solutions will be found, but flying will not be the same. At least for a while.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Forgotten Debates On Nuclear Power: Circa 2007

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Three years ago, I wrote two articles for the Business Standard newspaper. The first, which appeared on October 30, 2007 was called, 'Dump Nuclear Energy For Renewables'. The second, called The Staggering Cost of Nuclear Power appeared three weeks later on November 17.

I am reproducing both articles because I am even more convinced now. Not because of the safety issues that Japan's earthquake has highlighted but the fundamental problems with setting up nuclear power plants that we haven't fully understood, or debated. Actually, I am quite amazed myself how little or nothing has changed. Including the fact that Kudankulam, which I refer to here, is yet to go on stream. Or is finally promised to go live now.

DUMP NUCLEAR ENERGY FOR RENEWABLES

Govindraj Ethiraj / New Delhi October 30, 2007

I visited the Nuclear Power Corporation’s Kudankulam installation, 25 km west of Kanyakumari, two years ago on a dazzlingly clear day. On paper, the project was impressive — 2,000 Mw of fossil-free energy pumped into the country’s power grid at costs that sounded affordable, at least the weighted average cost over the plant’s life.

As my hosts described the project scope and timeline, I asked them when they began work. “Well, technically in 2001, though the first concrete pour was in March 2002,” one of them said. “When is it supposed to be ready?” If I remember, the answer was 2007.

I didn’t pay too much attention to the cost and time factors until a few weeks later when I discovered Kudankulam was actually conceptualised in 1988. It then went off the radar for ten years after the Russians, who offered to help build it, got busy with the USSR’s disintegration. But it was not the Russians alone who delayed the project. Local environmental protests held it back as well. Incidentally, 2007 will end soon and Kudankulam is not ready.

Nuclear Power Is Too Expensive

I remembered Kudankulam again last week when participating in an insightful discussion on climate change hosted by the British High Commission in Mumbai. The panel was led by environmental journalist Paul Brown, author of Global Warning: The Last Chance For Change, and also had Dr Rakesh Kumar from the National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI).

Not surprisingly, one point of debate was whether nuclear power should be favoured over thermal power, a key contributor to greenhouse gases. In the exchange that followed, Kumar took the scientific standpoint that nuclear power was cleaner over the long term and thus preferable. Brown disagreed, though more for other reasons.

“Nuclear power is too expensive,” he said vehemently. According to Brown, even if you ignored the safety aspects, the cost of uranium mining and enriching, running the plant, and, finally, disposing of nuclear waste was rarely presented upfront. Moreover, plants were located far from populated areas for safety reasons. Which means that at least 10% of the electricity (Brown’s “local” estimates) would be lost before it reached anywhere.

Where's The Time/Cost Debate ?

So what is Brown suggesting? According to him, for the same money, every billion dollars spent on nuclear power, you could have hundreds of small- scale renewable alternatives installed, some within months. These would include solar panels, small-scale hydro and wind turbines on homes, offices and factories. Considering that homes in cities like Bangalore are increasingly turning towards solar heating for water, I am inclined to believe this. And there must be a reason for a windmill stock called Suzlon Energy to catch stock market fancy.

All the same, let’s assume Brown is being a little alarmist. I would still insist on a debate on time and cost. The best case construction time for a nuclear power plant is 10 years, give or take. In India, it’s mostly “give”. Even internationally, it could go to 12 years. Second, cost. With the government funding the project, you can be pretty sure that there are several numbers that are not getting thrown up.

Even if there are no over-runs, we are talking about a figure close to Rs 6 crore per Mw at the very least. Which banker, I wonder, would leap at a 10-year outlay at the minimum with such a high capital cost and all sorts of hidden costs, unless it is subsidised, which is the case in most countries, including the UK, as Brown pointed out? Then how long and why should we subsidise nuclear energy particularly if we don’t need to?

No Legislation Either

Even if the bankers sign off, I can bet my half-life that no nuclear plant project will take off in India without first being slapped with a battery of lawsuits and environmental protests. I know site identification is on but can you guess where the next three nuclear power generation sites in India are going to be? I have no clue but I do know that the government is trying to squeeze in two more nuclear plants into Kudankulam.

And by the way, the legislation to allow private sector firms into nuclear power has not been passed. Once again I have no clue where this stands. I can assure you, though, that this is not the easiest legislation to push through, considering that, among other things, the word nuclear, for valid and invalid reasons, is now tied to the Indo-US nuclear deal.

So given all of this and also India’s general track record in big project execution, why then, I wonder, is the government not putting all this energy (in saving the Indo-US deal or propounding nuclear options) into renewables? Incidentally, we generate more than 6,000 Mw of renewable energy but only around 4,000 Mw of nuclear energy! The figures are from NPC and not mine.

So if I were Dr Manmohan Singh, I would call up President Bush and tell him that apart from our left problems, we’ve got a big one when it comes to reconciling the cost of nuclear power versus the returns it will give and the actual time it will take to get more projects off the ground.

Moreover, I would say, we need renewable energy quickly since we don’t want to go down the polluting path that your country did. So instead of pushing nuclear, why don’t you sell us some clean renewable energy producing technologies? You don’t have to go too far for that, you can begin with General Electric, the company that first sold us the nuclear reactors 40 years ago. GE’s big thrust nowadays, in case you have not noticed, is ecomagination.


THE STAGGERING COST OF NUCLEAR POWER

Govindraj Ethiraj / Mumbai November 13, 2007

In 2003, the MIT led an “interdisciplinary” study resulting in an exhaustive report titled “The Future of Nuclear Power”. Four years later, the study continues to be a bible of sorts for proponents of a nuclear power renaissance. And, interestingly enough, for detractors of nuclear power as well.

The opposing views sum up the debates surrounding nuclear power today. While most pro-nuclear power scientific studies and opinions claim nuclear power is safer and cheaper, they also acknowledge that cost is critical. They also argue that cost must not be seen in the absolute, rather in the context of savings in greenhouse emissions.

Last fortnight, I argued that given the cost and time overruns of nuclear power plants in India and their minuscule contribution to total capacity, they are just not worth the effort. I admit that what you may well hear from most detractors is the worst-case scenario for anything nuclear and the best case for everything else, particularly those related to non-fossil fuels.

Renewable Scores

But I also argued that if we already generate more renewable energy in India than nuclear power (6,190 Mw versus 4,120 Mw), than what sense does it make to pursue the latter? Assuming of course, at least for the purpose of estimation, we have no dual-use objectives for nuclear fuel or the power plants.

My little reading of the subject shows that opinions on the cost of nuclear power can vary sharply. Often the best scientific brains are on opposing sides. And both can brandish figures to support their claims. But even the most optimistic do not claim that nuclear power is a bargain basement buy. And even these seem to skip the crucial matter of over-runs. And it’s because of the over-runs that the fundamental viability of nuclear power must be questioned.

A Greenpeace report titled “The Cost of Nuclear Power”, released in May this year, highlights the considerable delays in constructing nuclear power plants all over the world. It quotes, for instance, US Department of Energy (DoE) data to show that while the estimated cost of 75 reactors in operation in the US was $45 billion, the final bill was $145 billion.

Longer To Build, Costlier To Erect

The report also points out that the average construction time for nuclear plants has increased from 66 months for completions in the mid 70s to 116 months or almost 10 years between 1995 and 2000. Greenpeace says the longer construction times are symptomatic of a range of problems including managing the construction of increasingly complex reactor designs.

In India’s Tarapur III & IV, for example, the cost went from Rs 2,427 crore at start to a final figure of Rs 6,200 crore. Greenpeace figures also show that all nuclear plants in India have run massively over time even as capital costs ballooned. Greenpeace has also compiled, interestingly, details of some 14 nuclear power projects the world over where work has stalled. These are mostly in former Soviet Russia but also include Argentina and Brazil.

India’s Department of Atomic Energy has an installed nuclear generation target of 20,000 Mw by 2020. Completing nuclear reactors under construction will take the capacity to 7,280 Mw. A good part of this, for instance, the Kudankulam power project, will be delayed and will have cost implications which will only emerge in later Comptroller & Auditor General (CAG) reports.

The Total Cost Equation

The question thus is not whether nuclear makes sense. From a technology and safety perspective, India’s track record is undoubtedly sound. India’s skills in this sector are also good. Fuel is a question mark but it can be bought from somewhere. And finally there is the cost and effort involved in decommissioning and nuclear waste.

But the total cost picture is what is extremely unclear. Incidentally, building any new power plant is fraught with risk. This is quite evident if you look at the number of announcements that have been made over the years (including Ultra Mega Power Projects) and those that have actually fructified. On the other hand, capacity could come from anywhere. Reliance Energy’s two proposed plants at Sasan and Krishnapatnam will alone add 8,000 Mw to the national grid. And there are other projects as well, all of which together dwarf the activity on the nuclear side.

The lesson here is that nuclear power is good but mostly in theory. When it comes to capacity addition, the private sector will move much faster with fossil fuel-based projects. Obviously that is not a great idea, either. But in any case that’s not the thinking that really seems to be driving our nuclear power programme.

The Final Equation

If the government is so keen to pursue this, then total costs for every component of construction — technology, operations and disposal — must be made completely transparent. The Department of Atomic Energy, the mother organisation for all things nuclear in India, should explain why and how it feels nuclear power is favourable over, let’s say, renewables.

Interestingly, the DAE has a primary mandate of increasing the share of nuclear power in the country. Its other mandates include driving nuclear research and applications in medicine, food processing, agriculture and “basic research”. One solution is to bring expand the mandate to include, maybe, renewable as well. That should not be too difficult. Once upon a time, the Electronics Corporation of India, a DAE arm, used to make economy television sets.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Can Social Media Survive ?

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Well that's the question many have asked already. The problem is not in social media's utility, its in the revenue model. Which again many have alluded to, particularly in reference to the $50 billion valuation figure placed on Facebook.  I was part of an interesting discussion last week in New Delhi where consulting firm Deloitte presented its Technology, Media & Telecommunications (TMT) predictions for 2011.

Usually, I find such predictions lacking in the kind of leap of faith which make them predictions to start with. I found this set a health departure. For two reasons. First, Deloitte says (among other things) firmly that social media is yet to become a real force, in revenue terms. For one,  advertising spend on social media  is still 1% of total advertising spend. Total advertising revenues for 2011 are  predicted at $4 bn for social media, a small amount compared to the investments perhaps going in. And surely the euphoria.

Second, television continues to grow furiously. Deloitte points out that television ad revenues have gone up from $174 billion globally to an estimated $191 billion in 2011. At a 6% growth, this figure could cross $200 billion in 2012. In contrast, newspaper industry revenues have gone from $126 billion to an estimated  $93 billion in 2011. Indian television revenue is expected to grow 14% in 2011. China on the other hand is expected to grow 16%.  Indian newspapers of course continue to grow.

Why The Telly Could Dominate

How much time will we spend in front of the telly ? Well, Deloitte says 3 hours and 12 minutes in 2011. Compare that to 15 minutes for social media on an average and 33 minutes for the internet, in America. And there are powerful global franchies like Strictly Come Dancing which now attract 250 million viewers in 38 countries. We have our own variations and adaptations of many global franchises in India. And this will grow as there is another 3 billion potential new viewers to target !

I also understand increasingly the role of television and entertainment in the heirarchy of needs, particularly in countries like India. A television will typically come ahead of most gadgets and just after maybe shelter, food, clothing and a now, mobile phone. And not surprising that color televisions are given away free in states like Tamil Nadu. Its the entertainment opportunity, not really news and current affairs. Which can actually make life more content, for most.

What do you think  ? Do you think social media will get the support of commerce. And to what extent ? Do leave  your thoughts !

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The 1 Cee R Club

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This morning's papers tell me that the residents of Chandigarh  are willing to `shell out as much as Rs 1 crore (twice the actual cost) to own a two-bedroom flat.' And this is a state government-run development ( Chandigarh Housing Board). So while it might be a competent build, it might not have the bells and whistles private developers throw in.

This is not to say the residents of Chandigarh cannot afford Rs 1 crore ($210,000) apartments, particularly for a Housing Board construction. Sure they can. A realtor taking me around in a distant north Mumbai suburb last  weekend told  to forget thinking about buying a good place if I had less than 1 Cee R in my pocket. What he meant is Rs 1 crore . The realtors/brokers say `Cee R', because they think its respectful  in case you don't belong to this exclusive club. Thankfully, the family was looking for a place to rent and not to buy.

The latest Economist has an interesting survey called Bricks & Slaughter, arguing that while property is widely seen as  a safe asset, it might be the most dangerous of them all. Try telling that to the folks in Chandigarh. The Economist piece also talks about  (alongside  advertisements for gleaming new condos in Singapore where you can work, play, live and grow and luxury villas in Gurgaon, near Delhi, where `Fine living rarely gets any finer')  the famous Burj Khalifa, the 388 metre structure in Dubai.  Many flats inside lie empty, as do houses in many parts of the world from the United States to Spain.

Say It With Pride

All of which might seem like alien nations to us in India. Chests brim with pride when it comes to property prices. It's an achievement for which you've worked hard by spotting at the right time and place.  The realtor told me that there was more supply coming up in this distant north Mumbai suburb. "So ?" I asked. "So prices will always be stable or they will keep rising," he told me with the eternal confidence I have come to expect from this breed.

At one level there is nothing exclusive about a club whose tentacles have now spread to the farthest corners of the country. I do wonder, often, why so few people consider  rising asset prices  a problem. Actually, even inflation is barely a problem -  it's a sign of growth which we crave for. Then I wonder if we really have the brainpower to fix the problem of asset prices. And then I wonder again whether the brainpower that there is keeps it that way, by managing and benefiting from such supply-demand imbalances. Hint: one very enterprising young man from  this world was thrown into jail recently.

Oil prices are rising. I asked in an earlier post whether we were ready for a situation when oil would hit $200 a barrel as has been widely predicted. Well, the answer is evidently no. But at least we think about it. When it comes to rising property  prices, we've stopped thinking. Welcome to the 1 Cee R Club. Too bad if you don't belong.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Why I Worry About Food Channels

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A confession. This is less about a mid-day chef shootout amidst howling spectators and more about food, the kind that most of India finds it difficult to source daily. There are many indicators to measure governance. Usually, its access to food, shelter and clothing to start with. Then education, healthcare and infrastructure. In a country where elections are often lost on food in general and onions in specific, lets look on food.

Here is a table that I have taken from Time Magazine that's self explanatory.  It highlights  percentage of total household consumption expenditure  towards food.

Country                         % Of Income On Food

United States                                          7

United Kingdom                                       9

Australia                                                 11

Brazil                                                       25

China                                                       33

India                                                        35

Tunisia                                                    36

Egypt                                                       38

Nigeria                                                    40

Indonesia                                               43

Pakistan                                                  46

India is better off than some countries but worse off than many developed countries. And most of these countries are much smaller in any case, except China which is bigger. The Time Magazine draws a connection between rising grocery bills hitting the poor and causing political unrest, note  Egypt and Tunisia. The Economist has a special report on the same subject in the latest issue. The world's population will go from 7 to 9 billion in 2050. Will there be enough food, the author asks ? Adding that at the start of 2011, world food prices have crossed the peak they hit in 2008.

Why No  Blueprint ?

In India, I would pose this question right now. And I did go through the pronouncements of the Union Budget 2011 in this regard. With some disappointment. Because while  are a multitude of steps, none or all add up to  the one Big Idea, Big Blueprint I thought one would expect at a time like this. And given the way we reacted (or not) to the last onion price crisis, I am not sure how much of even this is converting to action and in what way.

Production and supply chain are the big concerns. Much has (and will be) debated and written about on these two aspects of agriculture in India. But to little avail overall. Not just because there are foodgrains rotting in the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India (FCI). Turns out it happens in many countries. The Economist says rich countries waste about the same amount of food as small ones, in quite different ways. Studies in the US/UK apparently say a quarter of food from shops goes straight into rubbish bins or thrown away by shops and restaurants. Salads head the list, if you were keen to know.

That does not help us here. What I would expect now  is a blueprint with action points that says how  food prices could come down and supply go up, in whichever order. You can't do this over the weekend and announce it while inaugurating a car dealership. Instead, take three  months, appoint the right people to work on it, see how technology can help manage the information-supply chain challenges and then present a national solution. Which is surely there. I am not getting into the rest of it (including genetically modified crops) because that's not the problem.

Of Food Shows

The Economist points out somewhere in the survey: (I suggest you read the whole thing) that the food industry has been attracting extra attention of other kinds. For years, some of the most popular programmes in English speaking countries have been cooking shows. That may point to a healthy interest in food, or not. The historian Levy thought the Roman empire started to decay when cooks acquired celebrity status. Meanwhile, for the  last three days, my cable television has been flashing a message  about a new food channel.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Bollywood Formula Guide To Understanding Union Budgets

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This one failed to deliver a Big Idea. Most annual  Budget exercises in India  actually don't.  Usually, they are  a combination of four or five  factors  in no particular order. And almost forumalic, like Bollywood cinema. Sixteen reels make a film, of which 6 reels must be songs, 2 reels must have action sequences and so on. Figures are approximate and you should allow for evolving social mores. Ditto with Union Budget exercises. Needless to add, the  formula will vary depending on the evolving political situations, among others.

So I thought I would look at this annual ritual (and shine the proverbial spotlight) from five  vantage points rather than embark on a deep economic analysis which no one (including self) would follow. And submit that you could use the same five  factors next year too.

1. Plumbing

Where existing policies are cleaned up, given finer shape and  initiatives  discussed in closed loops are showcased for mass viewing. Importantly, promises  are presented afresh, with some garnishing. The best example of course is the transition to a Goods & Services Tax (GST). The one tax that will create the freedom of movement of goods across States in India, just like the European Union did, a while ago, across countries.

The documents released today say the areas of divergence with States  have been narrowed. And a Constitution Amendment Bill is proposed to be introduced in the current session of Parliament. Also, there is significant progress in establishing the GST Network (GSTN), which will serve as the IT infrastructure for GST introduction. Incidentally, GST transition is the one area where industry is looking for an encylopedia of action steps, not a few lines which they know of.

Nevertheless, there is some forward movement, like in the case of the various, but minor reductions in customs duties.  But what do you make of this one ?  'Augmentation of storage capacity through private entrepreneurs and warehousing corporations has been fast tracked'. Or, 'Issues relating to reconciliation of environmental concern from various departmental activities including those related to infrastructure and mining to be considered by a Group of Ministers'.

Or, 'Membership of various international fora engaged in anti money laundering, Financial integrity and Economic development, Exchange of information for tax purposes and transparency, secured.'  And then the tax proposals, where you expect the most precision: 'System of collection of information from foreign tax jurisdictions to be strengthened. Well, well. All this  is verbatim, including the syntax from the Budget Highlights  from the Government's own documents. Moving On to the next Reel.

2. Plain Promise:

'Government to come up with a comprehensive policy for further developing public private partnership (PPP) projects. On  corruption, the one issue that has rocked the country for the last six months - 'Group of Ministers constituted to consider measures for tackling corruption. Recommendations to be made in a time-bound manner.' Even promises can be drafted with more promise, one would think.

There is also a promise in the Budget documents that discussions are underway to further liberalise Foreign Direct Investment. This would instantly cause the antennas of  those working in the retail and insurance industries to perk up. And maybe now, in Defense too. But the antennas have been going up and down for a decade now. So, take it easy is what I would say. Perhaps that is what you, as someone working in these areas, would say too.

3. The Big Idea Which Actually  Replaces Old Bad Ideas:

Not forcing  India's salaried class to file Income Tax returns and go through this annual tedium. That's really far sighted. But when you think hard, you wonder why it was there in the first place. But then, that's what most economic liberalisation is all about.  And its good. No one is complaining.

Along these lines, generally speaking, observe that  lower  duties and `relief measures' for sanitary napkins, baby and adult diapers have been announced. Now, why did we charge higher duties for something like this anyway. Perhaps it does not matter, considering we are an aspirational nation. Like we aspire for good  homes, cars and clothes and education for our children, we also now aspire for good diapers for them. Someone's done some sharp lobbying here, evidently.

I would include targeting of subsidies in this category for two reasons. One, work has been under way before the Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee's speech on Monday. So this is among those many announcements which have been revisited. Second, it should have been fixed earlier. Notwithstanding all of that, this is the game changer I am very interested in.

Foreign investment has been permitted in domestic mutual funds. Not really a bad idea for not having it, but  it could  have come earlier. Of course, Know Your Customer (KYC) norms are  always the concern for these things but its the same KYC that applies to equity schemes which has been there for a while. Earlier we were worried about too much capital flows and now we are also worried whether  the flows are  'genuine'.  Lets move on.

4. Being Politically (& Agriculturally) Correct

Every Union Budget will and should spend some time trying to address the problems of those of us who are untouched by the soaring indices or who  benefited from the  $1 million values that apartments in many Indian cities are beginning to command.  But there is not sufficient to conclude with, for example, this: 'Removal of production and distribution bottlenecks for items like fruits and vegetables, milk, meat, poultry and fish to be the focus of attention this year.' Good to hear that.

More specifically, there are various allocations for initiatives ranging from bringing the Green Revolution to the Eastern region (Rs 400 crore) to nutri-cereals, protein supplement and accelerated fodder development. Good stuff, hope the scale is right. And then there is a National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture, where 'Government will promote organic farming methods, combining modern technology with traditional farmer practices.' You would have thought it was already happening...

5. The Ocassional Big Idea:

How about this, "Full exemption from basic customs duty to Crude Palm Stearin used in manufacture of laundry soap.' So it will be cheaper to wash your linen, yes ? Kidding, but the one thing that caught my attention was the exemption from basic customs duty and a concessional rate of central excise to imported batteries for electrical vehicles. And concessional excise duty of 10% to vehicles based on Fuel Cell Technology. We are getting somewhere.

We didn't go whole hog or write a new alternate energy policy - not that the Finance Minister's office would do so - but at least customs duties on solar lanterns have been reduced from 10 to 5%. But at least we record our efforts to put down that Big Idea like this classic one under  Innovations: National Innovation Council set up to prepared road map for innovations in India.

6. The Interval

I know I said five vantage points but now,  this is the most important part. In Bollywood, the Interval is the pause  just after a dramatic Turning Point has been introduced. Its the kind of break that  makes you not want to leave your seat to grab some popcorn or coffee. And yet you do because you want to be munching away so as to better relish the twist in the tale. And use the few minutes to ponder about what would come next. Will the the hero really marry the heroine ? Was he always the bad guy ? Will he die in the second half in spectacular glory  ? Etc.

So instead of a two-hour continuous run, I propose an Interval. One where all parties rise, grab various refreshments, ponder, reflect and settle down  to await the twists in the tale. Note that once the movie is over, you don't really think back and wonder whether the Interval was worth it. Its about getting entertained here and now. And that's what its increasingly about, isn't it ?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Invest Here Or The French Alps: Can Union Budget 2011 Fix ?

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Ms Artha Property Real Estate  Services has today advertised luxury apartments starting at  Rs 1 crore (approx $220,000) in today's newspaper. If you live in any of the four or five big cities, you must be reaching for your cheque book. I almost did. Hold on. These properties are not in Gurgaon, Noida, Bandra or Andheri. Actually, perish that thought. These  properties, we are told, happen to be  in the French Alps (Viry). Oh, that's just  10 km from Geneva.

The  luxury apartments advertised range from 470 square feet to 870 square feet + balconies. Of course, 75% finance is available (from a Swiss Bank I would think) at 3.4% interest and monthly EMIs are lower than Rs 20,000. And  Ms Artha Property promises that possession is April 2013. Now that concerns me. But site visits are promised in March, so reckon you can go see for yourself. Which is doing better than many folks I know who bought properties without seeing anything in Mumbai. And they still are'nt seeing anything except dwindling bank balances.

A day before the Finance Minister presents his Union Budget its worth using Ms Artha's advertisement (no ill will towards this enterprising relator) as an indicator of where we stand as an economy. Which is on very weak footing. Wouldn't it be you think, if the Alps are more enticing to buy property in than Andheri, in north Mumbai. Of course you can't live in the Alps and commute to work. But these are trifling details, you would agree. Oh the reasons.  The French are facing their own pressures and like other such economies need investments from outside. Like we are not.

The Twin Canons

We are facing worse pressures thank to the twin canons of inflation of rising asset prices and can't seem to be able to do much.  These two factors  (the rest can focus on the rest) are killing this economy and its people. The first we usually try and respond to, the second we do not, except through some distant monetary measures. Each time, something has happened with the latter, its usually the result of an equally distant development (like a global economic meltdown) or providence or a combination of both. I am waiting to see what it would be this time.

So if there is anything the Union Budget can do, apart from lets say new measures for subsidy targeting, it is to drive the nail into inflation. Can the Union Budget do it ? Perhaps not entirely. Can the Union Budget bring down prices of real estate so that ordinary people can buy houses and there is not such an artificial supply-demand gap that every politician gets into the game as they have been. Perhaps not directly. But it can surely set various  balls rolling.

The first is to signal  monetarily (to the country at large and the Reserve Bank in specific) that interest rates should and will  rise. And rise to a point where some backs will break. Yes it sounds difficult to digest. But we did survive similar phases in the late 1990s. And till date, the problem has always been availability of capital, not the cost of capital. Am not saying the second is not important. And if you, as industry, are still seeking cheaper capital, than try borrowing from where Ms Artha is lining up funds, at 3.4%. And Im only half-kidding.

Cleaning Up The Pipelines

Theother thing is to focus on is declog the pipelines. Lets look at the flow of funds in the system, particularly in public services. There are ideas and committees that are working on this already. The right signalling combined with stringent action will help free up a lot of government funds.  And ensure they reach the right person in the right manner. Technology is offering  fascinating and affordable solutions to these issues that have plagued us for decades.

I would categorise imports as a pipeline problem in some ways. Lowering the tariff barriers and streamlining flows (technology can aid this process with greater precision) will help address some inflationary pressures. Though not all. There are other pipelines that need declogging, including of course availability of real estate. And education. Its interesting what open markets can do in a country. We have over 500 television channels and close to 90 news channels pumping out information (which may be all of us don't want) all day but not enough schools to educate our children or food to feed them. Which we desperately want.

And the problem is not the lack of pipelines. Because they will get created with the right incentives, including appropriate policy. Its about declogging them to ensure that they deliver the goods. That's the only way you wont add additional flight of capital to the problems we already face. Else, it would make more sense to invest in the French Alps and gaze at the mountains than see inflation eating your savings up. Oh and I forgot to add, if you think the Alps are too cold, you could settle for villas in Bali. Ms Artha promises to set you up there too. And its still cheaper than Andheri.

 

 

 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What If Oil Hits $200

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I remember asking then Finance Minister  and now Union Home Minister P Chidambaram what would happen to India's economy if oil went to $200 a barrel as was being widely predicted towards end 2008. Since it was already $147 a barrel, that figure didn't seem impossible.

Modern history  was of course kinder to us. Not only did oil prices plummet, it brought down everything with it, including the global financial system. Actually, it was the other way round but, as many would argue, though it really does not matter.

Tensions in the middle east have pushed oil prices to $106 a barrel and analysts, I read in some reports, are predicting a return to the $147 regime. Perhaps that what oil speculators are waiting for and in some ways prepared for. The modus operandi is the same, the circumstances are different. This time its Gaddafi we are worried about. Last time it was Wall Street.

Fruits Of Growth

The Government here says the  key priorities for 2011-12 are controlling inflation, protecting the common man from rising food prices and ensuring the poor get a fair share of the  “fruits of growth”. Accordingly we can expect policies to be framed, is what the Business Standard says today. The newspaper also argues for tough moves to bring social equity, including steps like introducing inheritance tax.

I agree. I would add the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) contribution to that list. I will also propose a model for doing so in coming days. One I think would best take care of all interests. However, moves  to introduce greater equity by taxing the super rich should be matched with moves like reducing customs duties sharply on those products will help manage inflation.

That may include oil. But  oil is the big bear sitting in the room. And no one  knows  how to start this conversation. The bear has the potential to upset or wreck the best of monetary and fiscal calculations. And there are not too many of those going around in any case, given how we've been struggling with inflation for the last year or so.

So What Happens Now ?

So the situation is ripe for two kinds of outcomes. The first is that things get progressively worse till some distant  point - in many countries this is the point citizens spill out on the  streets. The second is that the system will give way because of the already accumulated heat of overheating.

The last time this happened (guess what, just three years ago), the system gave way. Wall Street collapsed, the banking system followed. And then froze solid. And of course asset prices of all types began falling. Unfortunately this period (and I say that carefully)  did not last long enough in countres like India.

Will the system give way? Possible, but unlikely at the global level because many systems (think Europe) have already given way ! What about India ? Well, India is more precariously poised because it tends to usually be like the frog that gets boiled without actually getting fully boiled. No, not in oil, in case you thought I was stretching the pun here.

The FM's Response

Fact is that oil prices are one of the many problems we face. And the one we have least control over. Fighting inflation requires some stern wielding of the monetary stick. And the time to raise or tighten interest rates is right now. We  should stop running from that. We need some strong fiscal measures as well, including managing tariffs. But that is not so much a matter of will.

And of course, the $200 question that I posed to the  Finance Minister's. Well, he admitted that he did not have an answer. Except to say that that things would get worse if prices went up. It struck me  he instinctively knew the economic system was strained badly  and would give way. Perhaps the  reasons were not so apparent. I am betting the same thing today.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

What The PM Should Have Done

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I read, from the weekend newspapers, that a 90-minute interaction between the prime minister and television journalists last week didn't go too well for the former. Going by reports, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh  ducked questions and was not assertive enough. Though, as has  been amply pointed out by the few who know him and many who do not, I have never known him to be assertive.

The problem lies elsewhere. When someone invites you to an interaction of this nature, you presume he or she has a message to deliver. A politician in power has the luxury, some might say, of calling you over and then responding to questions that are uppermost on the mind, your's  mostly rather than his or hers.  Of course, politicians know only too well that media tends to pounce on them on issues uppermost on their  mind - the  agenda be damned.

So, its a Catch 22 of sorts. Do you, the politician, come prepared with a  thought out,  strategically important, introductory message that allows you to set the agenda and then mould and massage the subsequent discussions. Or should you wait for em to pile em. I have no  specific experience on the other side, ie the politicians, but have seen sufficient interactions which have gone well or awry because of what the starting point was.

So I would still argue  the best position would be where you seem to have arrived with a tactical agenda. And then talk about what's going on in the real world around us.  How about a few real-life narratives of a  billion people  going about their lives oblivious to the 2G Scams, in all their struggles and happiness. Fighting, succeeding  despite everything. Sometimes not. Share their stories, inspire us.  Very few will  accuse you of being defensive then.

10% Growth ?

Will India grow at 10% ? I know this is one of those questions that will mesmerise us till we do it ? I suspect when we do hit that number, we will be facing far too many problems as an economy to celebrate.  As we already are. Inflation is the biggest bother. I read the views of almost a dozen economists in the last few days on the matter to safely conclude that they have no answer.  Most of them, thankfully, admit as much.

Inflation is one of those things you cannot fix unless you have equal control over the factors of money flow and supply. And of course have summoned the will to play with the levers. There lies the problem. Our ability, traditional and present, to move the levers is limited.  At least in a hurry. Increase interest rates and the growth hawks will scream. Lower interest rates and inflation and asset prices will blast through the roof. In my view, that's already happened. Though not everyone will have the same view.

The solution though is precisely that. To the extent that inflation is a monetary problem, there is no choice but to increase interest rates further. Can we realistically fix the supply side problem, whether in real estate or in foodgrain. Maybe, maybe not - yes I know onion prices have dropped from Rs 65 to Rs 23 per kg, or so. Frankly, we  are better off manipulating the levers we can. The other solution is of course much greater efficiency in the economy, in production and distribution of products and services as well as making the citizen more `visible' to Government subsidies, direct and indirect. So we may or may not hit the 10% mark. But we will be better off.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Indian Venture Capital: Funding The Billions

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Luis Miranda, presently Chairman of IDFC Equity and Sumir Chadha, presently MD of Sequoia Capital are veteran Indian venture capitalists. Both have been around for more than a decade. Both have `discovered' and nurtured entrepreneurs in different spaces. Luis can claim some credit for the initial success of infrastructure groups like GMR and Sumir, the likes of Cafe Coffee Day, JustDial and Carzonrent..which tells you something about the diversity.

Both were part of a panel discussion I was moderating last night at the VC Circle's  Limited Partners Summit  at the JW Marriott in Mumbai. We went through a brief history of  investing, including the challenges posed by  volatile markets and staying the course. Both admitted that the learnings had been tremendous, investments had gone wrong as had, more importantly, their judgement of some of the entrepreneurs behind  the ventures. The good news was that there seemed to be more rights than wrongs.

The discussion was wide ranging but let me bring out one or two points. One question often asked of venture capitalists is about their ability to find or create the truly innovative start-up, read the Yahoo or Google of India. I posed this to Luis and Sumir and was not surprised with the answers. For one, its now increasingly clear that innovation in India will not translate into startups like Google. At least for a while. The real innovation will happen in companies and ventures that are creating appropriate products and services for the Indian market market and consumer.

Digital Dividend
Sumir quoted the example of Star Health & Insurance which his firm Sequoia recently invested in. I am familiar with Star, its a good example of how firms in India are applying cutting edge information technology and processes to solve the problems of the poorest. In the Kalaignar Insurance Scheme, Star provides cashless insurance protection against a host of medical contingencies requiring surgery and hospitalisation. The scheme, which is government funded and aimed at `below poverty line' or BPL residents of Tamil Nadu covers some 352 surgical procedures. And some 40 million individuals are covered.

The part thats really exciting about this project is that its entirely digital. Patient records, interactions, transactions, everything, is oneline. Which means the poorest of the poor in this country in some states are enjoying facilities that citizens of many developed countries can only dream of. Firms like  Star are not just innovating new and efficient cost models using technology but also showing how the bottom of the pyramid effect can be served profitably. Not surprisingly, venture capital is headed there.

Luis had similar thoughts about the innovation in funding and structuring infrastructure projects. And I agree.  The gaps are so huge that there is enough to do here. By all means think of the next Google and Facebook if you can. Chances are you will be better positioned to do it if you were in Stanford or Harvard. Or maybe even in India in coming years. But the exciting innovation in India will be about finding solutions to the problems faced by a billion people.

The Next Decade

Leading on from the innovation argument, there was  some discussion on the next decade of venture capital/private equity. The bottomline is that everyone is considerably bullish about India and investment opportunities. And there are newer focus areas like health insurance, education, infrastructure and products and services focussed on the consumption side. For example, Luis' firm has invested in Manipal Health Systems which manages 11 hospitals and over 1,400 beds in south India. I would consider this innovative too, because  more such firms, in areas like education and health, would be encouraged to set up and raise capital. And also think of raising their standards and offerings.

Several stalwarts of the Indian VC industry, including Luis and Sumer as it happens, are moving on.  Luis is off to the public policy space and Sumir to start a public markets venture, which is more of picking stocks than seeding companies that may go public some day. Is this is a comment on the state of affairs in some way ? Both disagreed, saying the industry was strong and would continue to grow. Their own life cycles were turning, they pointed out. I wouldn't quarrel with that !

The question on the future was answered in a different way. I met Atish Babu and Jinesh Shah from Omnivore Capital. They call themselves an  "early stage venture capital fund investing in agricultural technology startups in India". Atish told me they were  back entrepreneurs  innovating solutions to improve agricultural productivity and sustainability. Their knowledge and understanding of rural Indian opportunities was strong and growing as I could see. They already had plans of what they could and not do in this market. And there are many more Omnivores out there, including Omidyar Capital, whose interest overlap somewhat. The next decade is evidently about the billions, not the millions.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Financial Inclusion Begins @Home

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Out of personal curiousity and professional interest, I am constantly in conversation with the banking and financial system  trying to understand how they can (and will) play a greater role in spreading financial inclusion in India. While its fairly clear that financial inclusion does not end with opening a bank account, its a very important start because close to 70% of India's population does not even have bank accounts.

The Ministry of Finance, along with the Indian Banks Association has just  launched the  Swabhimaan initiative, aimed at taking banking to some 73,000 villages having a population of 2,000 by March 2012. Electronic banking (at least technologically) is now  accessible by most people in and parts of India. Combine this with the mobility of identity through the Unique Identitification Authority of India (UIDAIs) Aadhaar project and  someone who has been out of the system for all his or her life will now become part of it. And there are other benefits, like subsidy targeting which I won't  get into here.

If close to 70%  the population does not have access to banking facilities, it must stand to reason that a good part of this 70% are in urban India as well. The good news is that we are connected to the problem (and the solution) right in our homes. Its actually quite simple to establish. Many of us living in cities and towns in India employ domestic help in the form of maids and cooks, driver for the car and so on. Ask them whether they or any of their family members have bank accounts. The answer, in 3 out of 4 or mostly 4 out of 4 cases is a plain No.

Proof Of  Identity

The reason they don't have bank accounts is not because they don't want to. Its because they don't have the right papers to prove to the bank they, well, exist.  The interesting (and sad) part of this is this is the case whether they hail from a village in a distant state or a village 40 km from a city like Mumbai or Delhi. Banks as part of their Know Your Customer (KYC) will demand proof of identity and proof of residence. Forget the working migrant class, even those of us who rent homes find it next to impossible to produce the right proof of residence.

The  UIDAI's Aadhaar will partly change this. The Government (via the Ministry of Finance and the Reserve Bank) has directed banks to accept the Aadhaar as sufficient KYC for opening `small accounts' or no-frill accounts. So the enablers are falling into place including the fact that most states have begun rolling out Aadhaar (1.6 million + as of this morning). But the biggest enabler is you and me. Instead of handing out cash to our domestic help, we should be telling them and helping them to open bank accounts. One way of doing this is to obviously ask them to get the UID first. Second is to actually help them go and open bank accounts.

The third is  to pay electronically (as far as possible). Its a headache reducer for both parties and a cashless way of existence has other benefits as well. This is the beginning. The next thing would be to bring in other small aspects of financial inclusion such as micro insurance schemes and/or pension schemes. Life Insurance Corporation (LICs) Jeevan Madhur and Jeevan Mangal are examples of such schemes. There are similar initiatives in micro pensions as well. I suspect that getting a micro insurance or pension scheme may face some of the identity challenges a la  opening bank accounts did. But this is getting rapidly ironed out.

FI@Home, A Force Multiplier

The multiplier effect of starting financial inclusion at and from home can be considerable. Most urban workers remit money to villages and small towns. A bank account on this end will incentivise the opening of one on the other end as well. So, if the two or three people who work in your home open accounts, its another three or four in their families plus a few more. Its not about the numbers though, its about the contribution that you and I can make through simple steps.

So, as March 1 comes closer, remember to start talking to your domestic help. Tell them about the benefits of opening bank accounts and how you might be willing to pay a small part towards insurance and pension schemes as well. Encourage them to adopt banking and savings as  a way of life. And that from now on you will deposit directly into their bank accounts. I bet you they will thank you for this. And don't forget, spread  the good word to all your friends and acquaintances too  !

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

China Beats India On Black Money And Yet..

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An economist from Washington-based think tank Global Financial Integrity (GFI) quoted in the Business Standard today says India lost $213 billion in illegal flow of money out of the country between 1948 and 2008. That would presently be worth $462 billion, assuming standard rates of return - all money should earn returns, shouldn't it  ? The other oft-quoted figure for black money stashed overseas  is $1.4 trillion.

The economist, Dev Kar, has an interesting point. He says that faster rates of growth in the post reform period have not been inclusive in that the income distribution is more skewed today, which in turn has driven illicit flows from the country. Thus, the result does not hold in the pre-reform period when growth rates were low and income distribution was more equitable.

This is an interesting point. And not surprising in some ways. All you have to look at China which has grown at 10% or thereabouts for some 30 years ! And leads the league tables for illicit outflows. The reasons for the outflows are very similar to India and, I reckon, quite boring to get into repeatedly- if you really want to know, its bribery, theft and kickbacks. To get a sense of the magnitude, I reproduce figures from the Ford Foundation funded GFI, which studied illicit flows from 2000-2008.






































CountryUSD $ BillionRank in Asia 
China22001 
Malaysia2912 
Philippines1093 
Indonesia1044 
India1044

Incidentally, Russia ($427 bn), Mexico ($416 bn), Saudi Arabia ($302 bn) are also ahead of India which is now ranked 15th among developing countries - if its any  comfort to you, the reader of this blog. Also, India slipped in the ranks because, according to the GFI, the oil exporting countries, shot ahead. I  hope we don't make up with as a `mineral resource' exporting country.

To me the big challenge today is equitable distribution. Fact is we would all care less about black money (and dismiss it as a tax problem)  if there was a greater sense of equitable distribution. Here, China is better off than India -  it has greater equitable distribution despite higher illicit outflows. How do you measure the first part  ? Well, you could use standard metrics, like absolute poverty, access to education, healthcare, child mortality and so on.

Which brings us to a fundamental point on quality of governance. Countries like China, or for that matter, Malaysia and Indonesia evidently deliver better governance to their citizens than India does. In India, we are grappling with intensifying corruption coupled with weak governance. No prizes for guessing. Its the same few people who we depend on and let us down both ways.

Good Governance, Bad Folks

In China, my sense is that these two sets do not necessarily or always overlap. The proportion of honest people delivering good governance seems higher than those who are not. And its possible even dishonest people are delivering good governance. This is often quoted by developmental institutions as being the classic South East Asia paradigm - not including Singapore.

The curse of rapid and unbridled growth is precisely the skew that causes, among other things, illicit outflows. Of course illicit outflows is only one manifestation of inequitable economic growth. Outflows or not, the damage to the internal economy and society can be high, as organisations like GFI also argue.  The only solution is to get a hang of things and clean up the system as far as possible.

In some ways, this is tantamount to  accepting that 20 years have gone by without our wrapping our arms around the problems thrown up by sudden growth. Its true. On the other hand, its  never too late. One way to view the noise presently being generated through the multiple corruption scandals coming to light is precisely that...a giant mop trying hard to clean up a dirty floor that has  been untouched for decades.

Monday, February 14, 2011

China Railway Comes Closer, To India

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Three months ago, I argued in an article that China's railway lines were inching towards the Indian border. The argument was of course based on reports of China's own plans to expand its railway network in the Tibet.

I also argued that towns like Tibetan towns like Nyangtri  (Nyingchi)  - which will eventually link to Lhasa - already boasted  swank airports. So, infrastructure investment had already flowed liberally into the region. The  railway line was following the initial thrust, not preceding, as would historically have been the case.

The Indian Express today reports with greater finality that China is to extend its Tibet railway network into the Chumbi valley area, next to Sikkim and the Siliguri corridor. The newspaper says the  China's Railway Ministry latest map shows lines extending from Lhasa to  Zangmu on the Nepal border, to eventually extend into Nepal and even Kathmandu. Another line will branch out midway at Shigatse, and end up at Yadong, which is on the other side of Sikkim.

Trading Places

As I pointed out earlier, there are sound economic benefits in this linkages for trade on both sides of the Indo-China border. Traders in Sikim have hoped that for years that a road or rail link with China via the Nathu La pass would accelerate trade. For Tibet, the port of Kolkata is closer than Tianjin (1,200 km versus 5,000 km).

India is also concerned about such developments from a strategic-defense perspective. Given history, that cannot and must not be ignored. The fact however remains that the region is in crying need of infrastructure. I recently travelled to Dibrugarh, in Assam, which is perhaps the largest, eastern-most town in India...incidentally, the longitudinal line that passes through Dibrugarh  touches Banda Aceh (1.5 hours ahead) in Indonesia down south.

I also drove from Jorhat to Dibrugarh on National Highway 37. One way of looking at it is that the infrastructure in this region is similar to most states in India. And why hope for anything better ? The other is to see China's moves on the other side of the border and use the economic, rather than the military rationale to change things.
 

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