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 !
 

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