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14 December 2017

My Table Tennis Heroes...

I would like to say I had a difficult early teens, but raking my memory, except for the fact that I was aimless and clueless as I entered my teens, I can't say anything else about my teens.
Yes, I matured a bit early. I developed hair on my face much earlier than my friends did, my voice started changing earlier than my classmates. Just like all teens who go thru such episode, I was a child inside, but everyone considered me a grownup and set their expectations likewise.
And I was aimless, I did not have any goals and did not have any mentors who could guide me. 
But in my mind I knew that I was intelligent, I used to read a lot and write a lot, I had a good grip on the English Language and in a curious sort of way, I also realized that I was perfectionist.
When I did anything, I was not content with doing it piecemeal. I went the whole hog.
But without an aim or a goal in life, there was nothing worthwhile to go the whole hog about, if you see what I mean.
During those days I used to play a lot of table tennis. I used go for tournaments across Kerala. There were a few good players whom I got used to appreciating. There was Bona Thomas John a young boy of my age who went on to dominate Table Tennis scene in Kerala for a long time since, there was P Sudhir, who joined Medical College and went on to become a doctor....
And then there were V Kumar and Srinivasan...
Both of them were from Trivandrum and were leading players during my time. V Kumar flirted between State No. 3 and State No. 5 for a long time and Srinivasan, while he was ranked in the 20s was the captain of Kerala University TT team, a formidable team that won many tournaments those days. 
What fascinated me about these two guys was their intellect. While playing a lot of Table Tennis, Kumar found time to study and do exceedingly well in his academics and did Electronics graduation from Kerala. During those days getting admission into Electronics was the ultimate achievement for a teenager in Kerala. 
Kumar was a soft spoken guy. He was always courteous and respectful to everyone. While he did not go out of the way to talk to people, he would engage with them pleasantly.
Srinivasan was another brilliant guy. He scored 10th rank in Class 12 exams in Kerala and went against the public perception and social pressures to join graduation in Mathematics and Physics from Kerala University. 
During those days I was doing my Class 12 and was not unduly worried about my performance since I did not have any aim in life.
But I was fascinated to see that Kumar, despite his hectic Table Tennis schedule, managed to score high score in the exams. He was my hero. I used to watch all his matches, hang around him to listen to his words. 
I was like a lap dog, hanging my tongue out, wagging my tail and always around Kumar.
If he had noticed my presence, he did not show it. 
Srinivasan, on the other hand was a Tamil Brahmin, of my cast. He was the exact opposite of Kumar (possibly due to this, they were very good friends). He was flamboyant, extroverted and loved telling risque jokes and laughing at them..
But he was brilliant.
While I did not hang around him like I did with Kumar, but his brilliance and that he was a Tam Bram had an implicit effect on me.
I he can do it, why can't I do better?, I used to ask myself.
During one of the tournaments, I think it was in Trichur Engineering College, I asked Kumar how he managed to score very high despite his hectic schedule.
"The trick is focus and hard work", he made a motherhood statement
"But there is also some smartness involved", he told me
"Like?"
"The responsibility of preparing the questions for class 12 exams is assigned to one or two professors every year. Since it is a very tedious job, what they do is to scan the question papers of the last 5 to 6 years and copy the questions and then change the numbers and prepare the paper for the current year. So if you rigorously answer the question papers of the last 10 years, with a reasonable certainty you will score about 90%. Only 10% is for new questions", he told me.
I wanted to become like V Kumar. I wanted to become like Srinivasan. I wanted to do exceedingly well in my exams. I wanted to prove to them that I was good. I wanted to impress V Kumar, my hero.
I had a goal, to impress Kumar by doing better than him. I was no longer the aimless teenager.
I was like a target seeking missile. I came home, and started studying. I got the question papers of the previous 10 years and methodically completed each of them.
By the time of my exams, I was well prepared. Of course, not prepared enough for 100%, but I scored about 95% which was sufficient for me to get into engineering in a good college in Kerala...
Both Kumar and Srinivasan did exceedingly well. Kumar became an electronics engineer and Srinivasan topped Kerala University in his graduation, topped Kerala University in his Post Graduation and did his MBA from IIM Kolkata..
I have lost touch with them since, but I believe that I was a spark waiting to be lit and Kumar came and lit that spark. I needed a guide and mentor at a difficult time in my life and Kumar, unknown to himself, became my mentor...
They were my heroes and I am proud that I was able to live up to them...

13 December 2017

Visit Report: Trip to Dubai 9-Sep-2017 to 7-Dec-2017

Today is 7-Dec-2017. I am sitting in the Indigo flight 6E 096 (did you know that the letters 6E were chosen for Indigo, because they sounded 'Sexy'?) waiting for the flight to commence. The flight, which should have started at 11.00 AM is already delayed by 10 minutes. 
I have been in Dubai for the last 3 months, 90 days to be exact. The period that went by can only be called 'eventful'. As a person I made a lot of progress. I learned to smile broadly and laugh loudly and heartily, more at my foibles than anything.
I was always good at giving complements, finding 'what is right' in people. Giving complements comes more naturally to me now that I have been dishing them out regularly in the last three months. I have learned to highlight the positives in people and accept their follies.
Not much though, stupidity still pisses me off
I have learned that all the good things in life are on the other side of inertia. Our default state is to continue in a state of uniform motion, when it comes to ourselves. We habitually do what we regularly do. We need to provide external push to ourselves to change our state.
A good example is my visit to Global Village, Dubai. This is an annual exhibition of goods and culture from different parts of the world. Even though Kannan told me about GV about a month ago, it was only last week, on Sunday 3rd December, that I went there. 
It is an amazing fair. You get to know the main products sold by different countries. The types of honey and spices in Morocco and Yemen were mind boggling, so were the variety of dates in Saudi Arabia.
It was huge. There were too many stalls and it would have taken at least 4 visits to the GV to do real justice to it. But I did not have any time, since I had to leave today.
Had I overcome inertia and gone there last month, I could have easily enjoyed the entire experience at a very comfortable pace.
Damn you, inertia...
Another example is of Skydive. If I had done it earlier (I had been planning to do it for more than a month and we were seeing almost every day from office divers diving in Dubai Marina, but still I could not overcome inertia and I must confess, fear. Since I also wanted to Zipline, I could have paced these adventure sports better. Finally, I did skydive on the 5th of December and Zipline on the 6th of December, leading to a lot of stress. I could have avoided all the stress simply by pacing these experiences better.
I also learned that committing myself to anything is the best destroyer of fear. Commitment removes the cobwebs of doubt out of the mind and help focus on the future. I also realized that what looks scary may turn out to be very enjoyable. My Zipline ride is a good example.
But there are exceptions. My skydive looked and felt scary and was a bit scary.
But you have to go there. You cannot not do something because you are afraid. You have to open the box to see if the cat is still alive. Till such time it is only speculation.
I learned to enjoy my company. I found that I was very comfortable to live with. I went for movies and long walks, spend time tweeting..
It was fun. I AM FUN...
I took a 350 Dirhams monthly pass in Dubai Metro and went all over Dubai at odd hours. I took Dubai Metro from Rashidiya to UAE Exchange (Red Line) and from Creek to Al Quisias (Green Line)
I took the bus 44 to Rashidiya, 83 to Naqueel, 66 to Margham Interchange (for Skydive), 88 from Du office to Karama and from there C03 to Al Fahidi metro station...
I ate Kerala Food, Lebanese Food, Pizzas, Burgers and Noodles. I also ate Pasta at City Walk Mall.
I watched Mushairas at Hotel Ascot, R Adda and Hotel Rush Inn. Danced to Out of tune Hindi songs at RAdda, Burjuman
Visited malls. Dubai Mall, Mall of Emirates, Ibn Batuta Mall, City Walk Mall, Marina Mall, Atlantis City and Burjuman. 
Took Tram at Marina and Monorail at Atlantis. 
Took a lot of Photos and Videos in my mobile phone.
Went to various temples at Meena Bazar, Om Shakti Temple, Swami Narayan Temple and Shiva Temple and sought blessings.
Did all tharpanams including special ones. 
Decided to become a multi dollar billionaire. Realized that something amazing is happening to me. Became aware that my Bamboo Shoot moment has already begun and will show spectacular result in the years to come.
Watched a lot of comedy shows. Watched standup comedy by Vipul Goyal, Harpreet Singh and Zakir Khan. I liked Harpreet, Vipul and Zakir in that order. Took photograph with all of them. Also attended the 'Open Mic' event held by V Desi Laughs.
Watched many movies including 'The Foreigner', 'Chef', 'Secret Superstar', 'Tumhari Sulu', 'Quarib Quarib Single', 'Murder in the Orient Express' and 'Finding Gunther'. All were good except the last one. 
Made new friends, Akshit and Sohil, both of whom I met in the Comedy Shows. Also Dr.Mater whom I met during my Dubai Round Visit and Edward from Kenya whom I met in Dubai Mall
Supported Adi in handling his first personal challenge while staying alone.
Transferred money to my HDFC Bank Account through Wall Street Exchange, went for boat ride from Gubaiba to Marina, took a Dubai tour (where I met Dr.Mater, a neurosurgeon from Saudi Arabia, in Dubai to explore opportunities)...
What I did not do in Dubai that I should have?
One, I did not go to Aqua Venture Water Park, supposedly the best park in this part of the universe
Two, did not go to Jumaira beach
Three, did not go to any discos including one at York
Four, did not try Desert Safari and Dhow Cruise
Five, did not visit other emirates.
All in all, a good visit.
Did I tell you? I also worked on the project, implementing IFRS15 using Oracle FRM for Du Telecom.
Now it is 12.00 Noon, we are still at Dubai Airport.
 

12 December 2017

On I&B ministry's decision to ban Condom Ads on national TV

The I&B (Information and Broadcasting) ministry of the government of India has decided to ban Condom Ads on National TV between 6.00 AM and 10.00 PM. The reason given is that showing condom ads during the day time will negatively impact the children who are watching TV.
The immediate catalyst was the ads of 'Manforce' condoms from the Manpasand group starring Sunny Leone. Apparently it was too risque for Smriti Irani, the minister.
Banning condom ads on national TV is a regressive move. Like ostrich, we are good at hiding our head in sand and not acknowledging the real issue. The real issue is that more and more children are experiencing sex. The average age of first sexual intercourse is now 14 for urban boys in India. We need to encourage the use of condoms more. We should be encouraging safer sex and condoms are the best tool for that. 
In addition we have the ubiquitous truck drivers who spend a lot of time away from home and indulge in prostitution. Most of the time they do not use condoms, possibly due to lack of knowledge. This group is a major cause of spread of HIV / Aids in the country. 
As a tool to population control, the government has been encouraging use of contraceptives in the country. However, the progress is not very satisfactory. Even with a lot of effort, the use of protection is inadequate in the country. 
At this point, decisions such as these will only slower the progress towards our national goals. If the content was the issue, then directions could have been given to moderate the same. Banning condom ads on TV during the day time will slow down the progress towards safe sex and ultimately will impede the progress of the national population goal. Decisions such as this are like throwing the baby with the bathwater.
Let me narrate an incident to show how difficult it is to implement population control policy in India. This is one that I had heard when I was growing up in Kerala. The health department wanted to lower population growth and were distributing free condoms ( Nirodh, made in India by Public Sector Hindustan Laxatives Limited, true blue Make in India). The team went to an isolated village and to demonstrate the use of condom, they wrapped it around a tree stump that resembled a penis. The villagers nodded in agreement that they have understood how to use the condom. 
After three months the department went to this village for a review. They found that outside each house, there were tree stumps covered with condoms!!!
In a country like India, where getting people to give polio vaccines to their children is difficult, encouraging safe sex is very very difficult.
Getting people to buy condoms is difficult, teaching people how to use it is difficult, ensuring continual use is difficult... And we are making it multi fold difficult by taking these hare brained decisions...
On the bright side, I am reasonably certain that the I&B ministry will reverse this decision. I trust the minister to take the right decision after she has exhausted all the other options (that was Churchill about Americans) .

08 December 2017

On getting old...

Man, growing old is hard..
Not in the literal sense, of course. One is growing old every moment, every second, every minute, every hour...
You get my drift.
You do not realize that you are progressively getting older. Everyday the mirror doesn't tell you about the new wrinkle on you face of the new strand of grey hair.
Or the puffs on your face.
You do not feel the incremental calorie taking shelter on your well endowed stomach, your chest or your temples..
You don't see all these...
Don't worry if you don't see that you are aging. Society will give you clues. Showing the mirror is its self assigned role.
First clue is when the neighborhood kids start calling you uncle. First time it happens, you take umbrage. You shout at them, admonish them and somehow wrench a 'Bhaiyya' out of their stupid mouths.
But for how long?
There is the next gen and the one after that. It is a parade of ever younger next generations. They pound you down till you accept being called 'Uncle'
You console yourself that these are kids. They have earned the right to call you uncle, if you see what I mean.
But that is not the case with the random shopkeeper. You are in the next level of aging when the random shopkeeper starts calling you uncle. 'Uncle, aap chai peeyoge?' asks the chaiwalla in the railway platform.
I run an innocuous hand over my graying side burns while giving him an eyeful. I have half a mind to dump the entire contents of the tea pot on his stupid head. I restrict myself to the mean look.
From 'uncle', it is a quick promotion to 'Uncle ji'. It is a more respectable uncle.
Shall I tell you a secret? 'Uncle ji' is a powerful phrase. You can use it to your advantage. Negotiate the heck out of that shopkeeper who called you 'uncle ji'. Indian society places a lot of importance to age. Use that reverence to your advantage. Negotiate to the last drop of blood from the shopkeeper who dared to call you 'Uncle ji'
He will crumble in the end, mark my words
"Aap se kya bargain karna uncle ji", he will tell you finally in exasperation, "you name your price".
My standard rate is 10% discount on the list price for each 'Uncle jis', including the one where he caved.
While the incidents that I mentioned above are normal, I have come across two situations that flummoxed me.
First was when I was interviewing a candidate for a job. This was in 2015.
"How old are you?", I asked in passing. He told me he was 26 years old.
I did a quick math, must have been born in the late eighties.
"My dad was 26 when I was born. He was born in 64", I am not able to fit this CAT question in context, but 1964 was definitely mentioned.
I was born in 1963, which means that sitting right in front of me was someone who could have been my son. I never saw THIS coming. (of course it had to happen some time, but it was surreal all the same)
My first experience of recruiting a guy who was young enough to be my son.
(As a non sequitur, I was married in 1993. Which means I had never had sex for four years when this guy's dad was reproducing like dickens !!)
Interviewing a guy who was young enough to be my son made me acutely aware of my age and the aging process...
The second episode when I became aware of aging was even more bizarre...
One of the advantages of growing old is that you learn that girls like flirting and aging process comes with a license to flirt with pretty young girls. 
In the office I work, there are two girls in our department, both in their 20s, one from Maharashtra and the other girl, Nitya, from Kerala.
I smile at them everyday and wish them a cheery good morning. I generally comment on their hair style or their pretty eyelashes.  Girls like these, you know.
They also respond with enthusiasm.
I was kinda proud that I was able to flirt effortlessly with PYGs.
I still had that 'Ram Charm'...
One day, while I was signing the attendance register, Nitya, girl from Kerala, came to me.
"Can I tell you something?", she asked.
Of course you can, darling. Ram is always receptive to 'something' told by pretty girls.
"You look just like my dad. Every time I see you, I remember my father living in Kerala"
Damn.
Damn, damn, damn...
All these days, every time she looked at me, she was seeing her dad in me. On weekends, when I work casuals to office, and she commented, "you look different today", she was probably planning to buy her dad a pair of jeans and a T shirt (with words, 'Man for all seasons' written on it) on her next trip to Kerala.
Let me tell you, looking like some one's dad is the worst thing that can happen to you. Especially when they are away from family. It is OK if you did not know. But once you know, you don't know how to handle it. How do you handle that yearning look of love and affection? How do you handle that critical look when you say or do something 'unfatherly'? What is the approach to handle this? Is there an SOP?
Knowing that you look like some one's dad is tough.If that someone is living alone and away from the family, the knowledge can be unnerving.
And finally, if you look like the father of a pretty young girl, it can be downright deflating.
On the positive side, every time I look at Nitya, I also started thinking that had I had a daughter, she would have looked as pretty as her. One of the few times when I was proud of my sperms. They have taste.

On going to airport, or how in life you cannot assume anything....

Man, life is tough...
You can't assume anything in life. The default settings are always set against you..
For example,
you go to a restaurant and order,
    a veg do pyaza: the chef would dump his entire stock of chilly powder into it, unless you specifically state 'Mirchi kum'. You can't assume 'medium' spice. The default assumption is that you are the greatest chilly lover in the universe...
     a cup of coffee: The default setting is lots of sugar and 'extra sweet' coffee. If you want less sugar, you have to explicitly state. You can't just assume 'normal' sugar in your coffee
It is not just food. Wrong default setting is everywhere. Have you not heard the saying 'a bread falls with buttered side down'? That is the default setting of a buttered bread, right there
Universe is always conspiring against you. How much careful can you be? Easier said than done.
The incident I am about to narrate happened to me on 7th December, 2017...
It was morning 7 am and I was about to leave my hotel  ('Rush Inn on Bank Street, Meena Bazar Dubai') for the airport to board the Indigo flight to Bangalore. I had three pieces of luggage with me, all heavy, and I wanted to reach the airport well in time, having given an extra 30 minutes, just  in case. 
I came out of the hotel and hailed a taxi...
When you hail a taxi anywhere in Dubai, you will naturally assume that the driver will know the way to airport, right? I mean, it is not a big city by any standard and is a tourist destination. Carrying people to an fro from Airport is the bread and butter of a normal taxi driver in Dubai.
You expect to dump the luggage in the boot (in India we call it Dicky, for some reason), casually sit in the car, tie the seat belt and blithely ask the driver to take you to Airport Terminal 1. And he will be like 'Yes sir, which route should I take? Maktoum or Garhoud?' and you expect to ask him to take the quickest route, preferably with no Salik (toll tax in Dubai)
Right? 
Right? 
Wrong...
When I told my taxi driver (blithely of course) that I wanted to go to airport, the first question he asked is 'Do you know the route?'
Wait, what? 
He was from Pakistan and was new to Dubai. In a place teeming with taxis, I had chosen a taxi driver who did not know the way to my destination.
He switched on his GPS and we started our adventure, him and I. He opened Google Maps, typed 'Airport Terminal 1' and we were on our way.
(If you ask me why I did not take another taxi, I direct you to the section about my heavy luggage. Also I had a buffer of 30 minutes, remember)
Despite working in IT field and all that, I am still getting used (euphemism for 'I have no clue') to Google Maps. I am from the old school that believes that god has given a mouth with a tongue to ask for directions. Here was this driver, expecting me to guide him using google maps.
Nothing teaches you the concept of 'Space Time Continuum' than navigating using google maps. If it says 'go straight for two kilometers', you can be certain that there will be multiple decision points on the way that will strain your concept of 'Straight'.
It it says go straight for '400 meters and then turn right', you will be confused if you have to take t he right after 200 meters, 300 meters, 350 meters (it will feel as if all the roads turn right !!), the first right or the second right at 400 meters. And you will invariably take the wrong right (see the clever play of words there? Unagi !!!)
Even when you finally reach the airport, if you assume that you will be directed to the departure terminal, you are wrong. Unless told specifically that you want to go to departure terminal, the driver will end up taking you to the arrival area, one level below.
If you assume that trolly will be available nearby, you will be wrong...
If you assume that someone will guide you to departure terminal, you will be wrong...
Finally, if you assumed that flight will depart from Terminal 1, they would have rerouted it to T3...

12 November 2017

This is India....

We were planning to watch 'Murder in the Orient Express' movie, my team mates and I.

One of our team members was unenthusiastic.

"I hope this movie is not a sequel", he said.

We assured him that this was the original and not the sequel.

"This is my second english movie ever. The first one I watched was Fast and Furious 7. There were regular references to prequels and I did not understand most of it since I had not watched them", he made a kind of passing comment.

We were shocked. This was his second English movie, like ever...

I had watched three English movies in the last one month and this guy had seen only one English movie in his life. We were incredulous.

What about Hindi movies?

"My first Hindi movie was 'Soldier' starring Bobby Deol and Preity Zinta. Preity used to be Pretty then", he said

Why? How is it that he has seen very few movies?

He was born and brought up in Uttarakhand, a state in North India. In the village he grew up in (and in nearby villages), there were no movie theatres. He watched Soldier when he went to the City with his dad...

Gentlemen and ladies, I give you India. On the one hand you have cities like Mumbai  and Bangalore, where people fight to increase night life, and here we have places like the one where my friend came from, where there are no movie halls.

So when you discuss, argue with someone, keep this in mind. He may be coming from a totally different environment with its own perspectives and value systems.

11 November 2017

Signing with Green Ink....

I was talking to my friend, who is a Chartered Accountant, that I was planning to set up a company and as a part of that I was planning to apply for a Director Identification Number (DIN). This is a legal requirement in India. You cannot become a director of any company without a DIN.

"Once I have a DIN, I would be a very select minority in the country who has a DIN and who is eligible to sit in the meeting of Board of Directors", I told him, "That is an awesome feeling"

"I know that feeling, I felt the same when I was able to sign the Financial Reports of a Company using a 'Green Ink' pen", he responded.

I did not understand. He explained that as per convention generally followed in India, only a select few professionals including Chartered Accountants and Senior Bureaucrats, use Green Ink to sign important documents. So getting eligibility to use Green Ink to sign documents is a big deal....

What about you? Do you have some experience like this which made you feel very proud of your achievements?

29 January 2017

TVS Iyengar: Story of an inspiration...

I am currently doing a project for TVS group in Chennai. The group has HO in Chennai and has offices in other parts of country including Madurai. 

Selvakumar is an accountant with the group and he works out of Madurai. He is a third generation TVSian (or is it TVSser? I am not sure). His grandfather used to work with TVS Group when it was founded by Mr.Sundaram Iyengar. His father followed and now Selva is also working with the group for the last 24 years. In fact many of the people I met are second or third generation employees, especially in Madurai.

Selva is a storehouse of knowledge about the group. I asked him to give me some nuggets into the group.

TVS group was founded by TV Sundaram Iyengar who trained as a Lawyer and worked in a bank, before quitting working to start his business. He originally started his business as a timber merchant in Palakkad district of Kerala. He later moved to Madurai and started a Cycle Repairing unit. When General Motors wanted to enter India, he took the pan India dealership of GM. 

During second world war there was acute scarcity of Petrol. Mr.Iyengar designed a gas powered bus and started running the bus for public transport.

He also set up the first Public Road Transport network in India. The buses were known for their punctuality. It is said that the temples on the route will do their morning pujas based on the horn sounded by TVS Buses plying in their area.

TVS buses did not allow any standing passengers. The buses were frequent and hence that was not a problem for the passengers. 

He also started a logistics business through a company called Southern Roadways Limited which later became TVS Logistics (I think).

TVS group is currently being run by third generation Iyengars. Most of the employees are also third generation employees like Selva.

This is an employee friendly group and has many amenities for employees like Schools for Employees Children, Hospital (both inpatient and outpatient), Houses that can be purchased by the employee based on 100% low interest rate loan provided by the company etc. Hence the turnover is very low.

The story of Mr.Iyengar is fascinating. Every time he saw a problem he took steps. When petrol was scarce, he ran his buses on gas, started the public transport system known for their punctuality etc.

He also took part in the Independence Movement and was a close associate of Rajaji.

For marriage purposes, employment in TVS group company is like US Visa. Just as US Visa removes the need for local vetting by Visa authorities in many countries, a TVS Employment means that the boy is of high calibre. Boy belongs to the TVS Family and that is it. No more vetting is required. This a tremendous honour for the TVS Family. 

Truly great man, Mr.Iyengar. I salute you for all that you have done for the country.

22 January 2017

Has India been ignored in Davos?

This article by Tavleen Singh in today's Indian Express makes me very unhappy. Indian economy was growing at over 7.6% per annum and now where are we? Standing in ATM and Bank queues for withdrawing our own cash. I am afraid that demonetization is inflicting long term damage on the Indian Economy. A reversal in economic growth is not something to be taken lightly. It changes people's expectations and behaviours. Also, one generation may suffer due to a few years of degrowth.

I am reminded of Mr.Pan whom I met in China in 2002. Pan spoke excellent English, but was working as a cab driver in the company that I was visiting. I asked him why it was that, he, one who can speak good English, is working as a cab driver, when China desperately needed English Skills. His answer was eye opener. He graduated in English Literature in 1975 when the 'Gang of Four' was ruling China. They branded English as 'unpatriotic' and barred any companies from recruiting English Literature Graduates. This policy continued for over 10 years during which Pan and his batchmates decided to pursue other occupations. But they were branded as 'Anti National' because they learned English and no one was ready to give him a job. Finally, he learned Car Driving in desperation and has been working in this job for over 15 years...
 
The point is, two years is a long time in the lives of people. A reversal in their fortunes due to ill thought out public policies could put them on the path to an irreversible loss of quality of life.
 
This is the implication of even one or two years of degrowth, especially if that was due to badly planned and executed policy. Confidence in the government can take long time to come back...

08 January 2017

Budget Conundrum...

"Should the Budget be presented on Feb 1?", I asked MEMEHIF.
Remember MEMEHIF? I had introduced him to you sometime ago as My Engineer MBA Educated Highly Intelligent Friend. He has views on everything, this friend of mine.
Since this is the issue that seem to be bothering the country now, I wanted to know what he thought about this.
"No, of course not", MEMEHIF was quick and emphatic in his reply, "Government has unleashed demonetization on the country and we are going through a pain. With elections in key states coming up, a budget just before elections will only give this government an opportunity to announce some soaps to the electorates in these states that will tilt the election in their favour. After all Pranabda postponed the Budget in 2012 when elections were announced in UP."
"But people say that at that time India was going through some crisis and postponement of budget helped government avoid some tough decisions prior to the elections. That is not the case now. Economy is growing. At this time postponing the budget means other parts of the country will have to wait for UP Elections to be over. That is not fair on the country", I pointed out.
"But BJP had asked for postponement of the budget then?", MEMEHIF pointed out.
"Are you saying that any time state elections are announced, the budget should be postponed?", I asked
"Yes, of course. Budget gives an unnecessary advantage to the party in power", replied MEMEHIF.
"This is a vast country. At any point in time there will be elections to some states or other. Which means that some of the Central Governmental actions will always be at the mercy of some state elections.". I said
"So what?", replied MEMEHIF, "Heaven will not fall if budget is postponed. Haven't we managed for 70 years now?", he responded
"I think that you are making a case for combined election. Let us have State and Central elections together. That way we can avoid the confusion and constitutional crises. Are you saying that?"
"No, no, no, no....", MEMEHIF's reply was quick and vehement, "I am not saying that. Don't put words into my mouth. Single election to the state and centre will only give absolute power to the party in power. That is not a good thing. We need the checks and balances that we are having now"
"Let me understand this. On the one hand you are saying that Budget should not be presented since state elections are announced. You are ok with the ensuing crisis and the obvious lack of fairness of that action on the rest of the country. On the other hand, you are rejecting the obvious solution to the issue, vis. having a single election to both Centre and State Governments. Am I correct?", I asked
"Yes, I guess you are", replied a sheepish MEMEHIF
P is for Paradox...

25 December 2016

Mindless Application....

"Mind is a vestigial organ, like appendix or ear lobes. 'Application of Mind', as a concept, is overrated.", says Sam Peters

We are sitting in Lutyens Coffee Shop (LCS) an invisible coffee shop in the middle of Lutyens Delhi. This is the holdout of Senior Government Ministers, politicians of all hues and senior government officials in Lutyens Delhi. The entry is through strictly restricted membership.Despite not being a politician or a government functionary, I managed to get membership to this exclusive club.

Sam Peters is the spokesperson of a leading political party. Sam and I are spending a relaxed evening at LCS. Sun is just about to set, though you can't tell with all the smog around.We are talking about the need for applying ones mind before taking crucial decisions.

"Application of mind is an overrated concept. Its role in decision making is debatable at best", Sam continues.

"What if decisions go wrong?", I ask him

"You can always roll them back", quick comes the clear reply, "and if they are irreversible, we have to live with the consequences"

"You can't be serious", I tell him

"Our government has been doing this for the last two and a half years", says Sam, "we have become experts at taking decisions and then rolling them back. Did heavens fall? No, they didn't. All this talk about 'applying minds' (Sam did an air quote) before taking decisions is all a liberal left propaganda",

Sam concludes his point.

When arguments go against him, Sam uses two weapons. First is to call people names. People who debate with uncomfortable facts and figures are 'Liberals'. If they provide facts about how the decisions are impacting the poor and the marginalized, they are 'Left Leaning Liberals' (worst kind of Liberals). If the Press asks tough questions, they are 'Presstitutes'.

If name calling do not work, they use the second weapon. It is called the 'Anti-Modiji' weapon. There are three variants to this weapon. The question variant is 'Why are you against Modiji', the statement variant is 'Your are against Modiji' and the accusatory variant is 'Why are you impeding the progress that Modiji is trying to bring'. 

Both the above tactics are intended to divert attention from uncomfortable questions. Sam Peters is trying the 'Liberal' tactic on me. I am not going to fall for this.

"You bragged that in the last two and a half years, you have taken many decisions and rolled them back. Can you give me some examples?", I ask

"Oh, I can give you plenty", replies Sam, "where do I even begin? Let me start off with Porn Ban. Remember porn ban? One fine day we banned more than 800 websites telling the Supreme Court that they were porn sites. We were accused of intruding into people's bed rooms. Later we found that many sites had nothing to do with Porn. After some criticism we rolled back that decision. Couldn't we have done the due diligence before taking this decision? Of course we could have. But that would have called for the so called 'Application of Mind (AOM)' (air quotes again). Who cares for that? right?" Sam gives me a victorious smile and sips his coffee.

"That is just one decision. It doesn't mean that you regularly take decisions without AOM. One swallow does not a summer make", I point out.

"It is not just one", replies Sam, "Remember the encryption policy that R S Prasad tried to bring in, in the early days of the government? You were not allowed to delete your Whatsapp messages or emails for 90 days (even if they were Spam Mails). That was another decision taken without AOM, which we quickly rolled back", Sam is obviously proud of this.

"You rolled it back under public pressure, correct?", I question Sam.

"That proves my point that AOM is not required for decision making. You can always roll back the decisions", Sam is quick on the uptake here.

"You have given me an example of just one minister", I tell Sam, "It doesn't prove anything. May be the minister is incompetent. One swallow does not a summer make".

"You presstitutes won't give us credit where due, will you?", Sam admonishes me, but it is obvious that he is relishing dishing out the list of decisions of the government taken without AOM.

"My aviary is filled with Swallows, my friend", says Sam, "Let me give more examples. Remember our erstwhile HRD minister? She declared December 25 as a 'Good Governance' day and asked Schools and Government offices to be open on that day and ensure that Students attend schools and staff to attend offices. This decision was rolled back after public protest", Sam finishes with a twinkle in his eye.

"But that decision has not been rolled back. December 25 is still the Good Governance Day", I inform him

"Ha, ha, I had you there, hadn't I? The joke is on you. How many students are in school on December 25? How many staff is working in the office on December 25? None. Nada. Zilch. It is like an effective roll back", Sam is relishing this.

"Just three instances do not prove anything", I am feeling a bit deflated with the torrent of examples that are coming out of Sam. 

"Early in her term HRD minister took a decision to replace German with Sanskrit as the second language in the middle of the school year. This put a lot of students under difficulty. That was another decision taken without AOM. Even a kid would have thought through before taking such decisions. But we didn't. We simply rolled it back when protests erupted and courts intervened", Sam is on a roll.

"Even a decision to have an uneducated person to head the education department was taken without AOM, would you say?", I ask Sam

"Thank you for  giving credit where due, my friend. Yes, you are right. How could I forget such an achievement? Another example that AOM is overrated?", Sam sighs. He is obviously tired of giving this slew of examples.

"Ok, I grant you that two ministers took decisions that were without AOM. But to credit the entire government with a broad brush for the achievement of two ministers is a stretch", I tell him.

"Oh, come on. How many more examples do you need before you give us some credit?" asks an exasperated Sam Peters. What about 'Composite cap' decision made by Finance minister and rolled back the next day?", Sam asks

"What is that?", had not heard about it earlier.

"One challenge that we face when taking complex decisions without AOM is that we not get credit for rolling back the same. One day finance minister announced the introduction of 'Composite Caps'. Currently, in some industries like Private Banks, FDI is capped at 49% and FII is capped at 26%. Composite caps meant that the total caps was shifted to 75%. Market obviously assumed that now 75% FII was allowed and stock prices zoomed. Next day it was clarified that FII cap remained at 26%. The share prices deflated on this news. That was the end of Composite Cap"

"You could argue that the government should do the due diligence before making such announcements. I think you are being too hard on us. Why should we do AOM if we do not believe in AOM. Our policy is 'Act first, rollback next' ", says Sam.

I am not about let him off so easily. "Come on Sam, you have to do better than this. Every government takes decisions that has to be rolled back. The above examples just prove the rule. Your government is no exception to the rule", I insist.

"How many roll backs has to happen before you accept that too many roll backs has happened?", Sam tries a Dylan, "Cut us some slack, won't you?", same says in a beseeching tone.

I decide to be a bit lenient. "Ok, I grant that the decision to roll back the tax on EPF withdrawals was taken without AOM, but that is all. Only five or six decisions at the max."

"What about our PM landing in Lahore unannounced on his way from Kabul. Can you not grant me that one?", Sam begs.

"Ok. Fair enough. I grant you on that, though the jury is still out on that one", I add a caveat.

"What about Amit Shah saying 'Acche Din' will take 25 years? Do you think that promise of 'Acche Din' before elections was done without AOM?", Sam asks

I am not sure election promises fall into this category. Considering that people voted for 'Acche din', I give a guarded assent on that one.

Sam is encouraged by my decision to include election promises into the list. Out comes a long list of unkept election promises. "What about the promise to arrest corrupt politicians and put them in Jail? Considering that we have not put a single corrupt politician in Jail mean that the promise was made without AOM?"

"What about the promise of Job growth? There has hardly been any job growth in the last 2.5 years. What about economic growth? Other than a GDP Growth sleight of hand, we have not been able to deliver on that one. Sensex is at the same level as it was on May 2014. Do you consider these as promises made without AOM?", Sam looks at me expectantly.

"You are trying to take credit for a number of debatable points. All parties make tall claims in run up to elections only to face reality upon coming to power. You can't take credit for reneging on election promises.", I reply.

"Ok, I grant you that. Was worth a shot anyway. But will you grant me that the promise to put 15 lakhs in the bank account of all Indians count as promise made without AOM? I mean, no way we were going to be able to achieve that. It cost us the Bihar Elections, as it were", Sam asks hopefully.

I grudgingly acquiesce to this point. 

"While rollback of all the above decisions were credited to the ministers, PM could not take any credit for this. PM was under pressure to deliver. Press was questioning his decision making skills. That is why, on stroke of 8'O' clock on November 8th, he announced demonetization. The mother of all decisions taken without any application of mind.. This decision proves beyond doubt that our government is capable of taking any decision without due diligence and application of mind", Sam concludes grandly. 

"Wait a minute", I protest, "the jury is still out on that one. This decision could prove highly successful in the long run"

"In the long run we are all dead, my friend", Sam responds with a tone of finality.

The more things change....

Recently I read tweet that made me ponder a bit. 

"I applied for passport on Monday, and it was delivered on Wednesday. Acche din are here".

I thought about time, about 10 years ago, and the hassles of getting a passport.

You had to fill this long, detailed form, give all sorts of details with proofs (copy attested by a Gazetted Officer and verified with the Original at the counter), answer all kinds of questions (similar to the ones asked by the bank clerk when a senior citizen goes to deposit his own money in the bank) and then wait for about a month, and a visit by the local police man to verify your address, before you got your passport.
 
All 35 pages of them, if you are lucky.
 
That was then. The philosophy was for the government to distrust the citizens until they proved trustworthy.
 
The same philosophy is behind the demonetization. Everyone is a black money hoarder until proven otherwise.
 
It is behind the complex taxation laws asking you to provide multiple evidences if you want to claim tax exemptions
 
It is behind the multiple security checks at airport. They check your cabin bag at security, check the baggage tag before you cross the check in gate and again check the baggage tag before you enter the aircraft !!
 
As the tweet shows, things are changing. And contrary to public beliefs, they started changing even before the current government took office.
 
But then, out comes demonetization...
 
The more things change.....

The new mechanic in town...

My grand father purchased a car in 1947, exactly on the day the country got independence, 15th August, 1947. He named it Economy. At the time he purchased it, there were a lot of challenges. The automotive technology was at its infancy, there were hardly any good drivers available, mechanics were few and far between, road infrastructure was bad etc were some of the challenges that he faced. He faced these challenges head on and soldiered on with his new car. He used it for over 20 years before passing the same to my father.

My dad used it for over 30 years. Over time Economy had some problems, there was some wear and tear, there were a couple of accidents, one in 1965 and another in '71 and the performance of the car slowly deteriorated.

And on one fine day in 1991, Economy stalled. It could not go on.

There was crisis all around, an expert mechanic, well versed in new global technology and with years of experience in vehicle repair was brought in to repair it.

He completely overhauled Economy. The car was repainted, refurbished, modern engine running on latest technology was fitted, imported spare parts were installed and the drivers were given clear and new driving instructions.

That was the condition in which I received Economy. The car quickly integrated itself with the new technology and the new mode of driving. The improvement in performance was mind boggling.Fuel efficiency almost trebled from about 3 Kmph before 90s to almost 9 Kmph consistently over about 20 years.

I maintained it very well with regular checkups and occasional changes in spare parts. I drove it over long distances. The drive was a pleasure. Economy was chugging along very smoothly.

Over the last 15 years or so, I observed some noise coming out of the car. Minimal noise. Not major. Something that I could Ignore.

I took it to various mechanics. They suggested a few tweaks here and there. They specifically recommended against any radical action, the argument was that Economy was in excellent condition. General opinion was that the noise was a localized problem and needed a localized, targeted solution. A 'Carpet Bomb' solution was discarded by almost all the mechanics that I spoke to.

About two years ago, a new mechanic came to our town. He was touted by his marketing team as the best mechanic ever to have graced the country. There was nothing he could not do. There was no problem that he could not solve, there was no technical issues with the car that he could not repair.

I took Economy to the mechanic and told him about the minor noise. I specifically told him that Economy is running beautifully, much better than the cars belonging to my friends.

He listened to my words and to sounds coming from Economy.

"Economy needs a total overhaul. There are noises all over and it has to be entirely dismantled and refitted with new spare parts", he told me.

He sounded so authoritative that I could not ask him some basic counter questions like, what is the basis of his observations, how good are his support staff, how can only he be right and all the other mechanics be wrong, does he have all the required spare parts and most importantly what is his experience and what are the facts based on which he has come to this judgement.

In other words I blindly trusted him.

How long will it take to overhaul and retrofit the car? I enquired

It will take about 10 days, he told me. For about 10 days you will have to bear short term pain. But imagine the long term pleasure that you could experience, he said pointing a rosy future for Economy. It will run as smooth as a gazelle and as fast as a Cheetah. This will far outrun your friend's car in the long run, he assured me.

I asked him to go ahead.

It has been almost 7 days since I handed over the car to him. Every day I follow up. The experience has not been good till now. I see lot of people waiting in front of his workshop waiting for his intervention. It takes about 4-5 hours just to meet him. When I ask about the status, the responses are curt and terse (Unlike the marketing spiel that he used to give when he was seeking business). Spare parts are ordered, they are yet to arrive, he tells me. Some of his staff fell sick and he is trying to find a new support staff to take over the pending work. After dismantling my car, he found that he did not have replacement for some spare parts. Work is slow, can't you see that this is festival season and staff will not be available?

He still assures delivery in the next four days.

Also he told me that, for the next 6 months or so, Economy will go back to the pre-90s level of performance. Only when it adjusts to the new spare parts will it rev up and zoom like a cheetah.

"In the long run, Economy is going to be awesome", he has promised me.

One lives on hope.

18 December 2016

MEMEHIF and I: Catch me if you can

You know MEMEHIF, My Engineer MBA Educated Highly Intelligent Friend. I had introduced him Here and Here.

We share great times, MEMEHIF and I. We play games, we discuss politics....

One of the games that we play is called 'Catch me if you can'. The rules of the game are simple.

I am the runner and MEMEHIF is the catcher. The game works as follows.

I start the game by shouting a word or a phrase. The only condition is that the word / phrase should be in the public discourse at that time. Politicians should be talking about it on radio and TV, TV anchors should be holding debates on that word / phrase. Every time the narrative changes, I can change the word.

The task for MEMEHIF is to catch me before I change the word. Which means that he has to catch me before the politicians change their focus to a new catchphrase.

Simple? Right?

I say 'Acche Din' and start running. 

MEMEHIF runs after me. He is much faster and can quickly catch me. Only politicians can help me. They don't disappoint. Before MEMEHIF can catch me, the narrative had shifted to Dadri

I should 'Dadri'. MEMEHIF, if frustrated with the sudden change in narrative, do not show. 

Enthusiastic guy.

As MEMEHIF is close to catching me, I shout 'Governance Day'. He is disappointed for sure. But those are the rules, mi amigo.

As I continue the game new catchphrases are getting added by the dozen. Words and phrases like 'Swacch Bharat', 'Yoga Day', 'Vemula', 'Kanhaiya', Jan Dhan Yojana (I was almost getting caught there, just like in 'Swacch Bharat'), NSG, Black Money Amnesty, Demonetization, Black Money, Cash Less, Less Cash, Black Money Amnesty (again) are helping me to win the game. 

I didn't even have to use some heavily polarizing pseudo nationalistic rhetoric that used to be the flavor of the day.

MEMEHIF seem to have given up. He is no longer involved in the game. He is not happy with too many changes in narrative....

I did not tell this before, but I am doing it now. There is a simple rule that MEMEHIF can use to win. He can also say the word / phrase that he thinks is the leading narrative of the Government. Only few words are allowed. They are Job Growth, GDP Acceleration, Economic Agenda, Reforms, Poverty Alleviation and Secularism. I am not allowed to say these words / phrases. Only MEMEHIF can.

Any time he says one of these words, he wins.

So far it has not happened. I have been winning the game, big time.

Catch me if you can, MEMEHIF...

Mistaken priorities....

When there are too many policy reforms to be addressed, why is this focus on moving India to Cashless economy?

Cashless is a natural progression of a middle class economy. As the economy and the technology evolves, more and more of the country will move to Cashless. (It is worth noting that only one village in the whole of India has gone cash less in the last 15 years. So imagine the mammoth effort needed to move the country cash less !!) When government is focusing on and encouraging Cash Less at the cost of focus on policy reforms, only two conclusions are possible.

One, this government do not have its priorities clear. It doesn't know what to do, so like a butterfly, it flits from one agenda to another (Acche Din, Swachh Bharat, Governance Day, Yoga Day, Porn Ban, Skill India, Make In India, Smart City Plan, Jan Dhan Yojana (probably a success, jury is still out on that one) Black Money Amnesty, Demonetization, Anti Corruption, Cash Less, Less Cash, Black Money Amnesty again...)

I am not even mentioning some Social Conservative Issues and pseudo issues that wasted the energy of the country in the last two years.

Two, it has it priorities abundantly clear. It knows that it goofed up by sucking out the currency from the system and is trying desperately to handle the aftereffects. 'Cash Less', 'Less Cash', 'Mobile Wallet'...etc are all euphemism for 'We are hopelessly short of Cash in our country'

My take is, it is point two above. The government is not fool. It knows the reality. There is hardly any cash in the system. Government is trying to make virtue out of necessity by asking country to go Cash Less. 

So what could be the priorities for the current government? Here are some.

Mr.Modi came to power by promising jobs and economic growth. That is the priority. We run the risk of fast losing our demographic dividend.

Power sector reforms is a priority. Coal India announced a dismal latest quarter. I remember the hype generated by Piyush Goyal when Coal India IPO was announced.

Judicial reforms is a priority. So many judges seats are lying vacant.

Financial sector reforms is a priority. Only 3% of India's savings goes to equity while business is paying upward of 19% for business loans.

Tax reforms is a priority, only about 6% of India's population pays Income tax.

Poverty alleviation is a priority, almost 30% of India is still poor,

Privatization of loss making PSUs is a priority, they are a waste of precious national / natural resources,

Rooting out corruption and putting corrupt people in Jail is a priority,

Building national infrastructure is a priority.

Rural electrification is a priority. Rural Banking is a priority, Agri Credit is a priority, preventing the rotting of food in godowns when parts of the country are reeling from drought and famine is a priority. Child education is a priority. Girl education and empowerment is a priority. Electoral reforms is a priority, inflation is a priority....

Improving the quality of public / government schools and hospitals, Strengthening Agri Supply Chain, ensuring that farmers get fair pay for their produce, expanding MNREGA and giving work and dignity to poor people, making India's educational institutions world class...

These are all priorities that the government can and should focus on.

Rural telephony and communication is a priority. Encouraging computer literacy is a priority. Educating farmers on organic farming is a priority. Solar is a priority as is non-conventional sources of energy.

Strengthening secularism and the celebrating the diversity of the country is a priority. Providing level playing field for everyone in the economy is a priority. Increasing our share of global trade is a priority. Making it easier to start business in the country is a priority...

I can go on...

Encouraging cash less by proactive policies and innovative approaches, building proper networks, bringing in the needed fool proof security, ensuring network availability, bringing cash less governmental interactions like automating property tax payments in Karnataka....

That is the need of the hour, if the government is serious about moving country to cash less.

Good policy reforms is like cooking food. Good cooking needs to be done on slow fire with regular oversight and interventions (regular mixing, testing for salt, spice etc). And it needs time. Similarly good policy reforms need time and diligent focus and oversight. And time.

Unfortunately, the demonetization has derailed any focus that the government may have had in getting some lasting policy reforms...Next two years will be a grind.

That is what I think. I hope to god I am wrong...