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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Lifting the veil

The almost global debate on whether Muslim women should wear their customary veil is another example of us confusing between what we think people ought to be doing and what people have a right of doing. It also illustrates lack of cultural sensitivity.

The reason the western world is so much up in arms against such explicit display of one's religion is because their religion does not have any such requirements. That being the case, they just cannot fathom things like Muslim women wearing the veil or Sikhs wearing the turban and growing beard. I am pretty confident that if christainity had any such explicit requirements, the western world would have been far more sensitive on these matters.

I do not think that wearing a veil is something any women ought to be doing. Hiding one's face to me is a sign of cowardice. At the very least it is reflective of socio-cultural conditions a few decades back (at the minimum). But that is my opinion and that is about it.

I also think that women have the right to decide what attire they ought to be wearing. They have a right to decide whether they want to expose their face or hands in front of others - its their personal decision and they have a RIGHT to make that decision. If they do decide to wear the veil, its not something I appreciate or like or support, but I certainly support their right to make that decision.

Now again, this right to wear or not wear the veil cannot be absolute. If the demands of work or things like security demand it, then one cannot be allowed to hide under the garb of religion. So one cannot possibly be allowed to teach to small children wearing a veil - it just does not make sense for example.

In the same light I firmly feel that in India we ought to have a uniform civil code. We ought to have a basic common framework governing individuals. It cannot be left to subjective interpretations by religious scholors of ancient scriptures. Nor should we have different sets of rules governing different individuals depending on their relious beliefs. There ought to be one single law applicable to Indians and within that legal framework, individuals are free to practise their religion.

That's it for now...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Need for personal bankruptcy law

Lack of a personal bankruptcy laws is one of the many ironies of the state of legal system in India.

Picture this, if a company gets into a situation of too much debt (either because it takes on too much debt in absolute terms or because its repayment ability falls), it has many avenues to restructure its debt, to pay lower interest rate, to have debt waived off temporarily or permanently, fully or partly. The business gets protection from seizure of property/assets so that it can continue normal operations. Indeed the SARFAESI Act was passed a couple of years ago, because the bankruptcy law was too heavily skewed in favor of (commercial/corporate) borrowers.

However, if an individual gets into too much debt, he is doomed. He has almost none of the options mentioned above as being available to commercial/corporate borrowers available to him. Farmers are comitting suicides every day because of being in a debt trap.

Logic demands that if a company has the option of getting its debt restructured, interest and/or principal waived/reduced then so should an individual. But this does not happen in a formal sense. It needs the problem getting out of control (which means lots of suicides and lots of headlines) before the political class 'comes to the rescue' and a temporary 'band-aid' is put on. But this essentially is a one size fits all approach and the decision is 'forced' onto the lending institutions which is unfair. So, we a formal legal procedure that is put up once and for all, else this process is repeated almost every other year.

In fact I would argue that the need for having a bankruptcy law is even greater for individuals than for corporates. In case of invidiual it is often the question of survival. Secondly, a company getting into a debt trap can be put an end (be liquidated) - but you cannot do that with an individual. So, in case of an invidual/household getting him/them out of debt is the ONLY option. Secondly, once in a debt trap unless there is some structural mechanism available, it is almost impossible to come out of it thanks in no small way to 'compunding' the 8th wonder of the world as Einstein put it. Thirdly, in case of individuals, debt trap affects not just that person but his family - so there is collateral damage (Ironically, in case of corporate its employees may get laid off nor not get paid and it is then that they need help with their debts and it is precisely then that they do not get any help while their company continues to get benefits!)

Now, it is not my argument that banks/lenders in India are insensitive or unaware of this. Nor is it my claim that banks/borrowers are overly harsh all the time. But it is certainly my case that there is no formal law which lays down ground rules of how to deal with such a situation, the rights of borrowers (it cannot be the case that banks/lenders have all the bargaining power) and the various types of settlements which are possible so that borrowers can have a reasonable hope of getting out of the miserable situation they find themselves. We need a proper law which puts this and many other things in writing.

For example, the personal bankruptcy law (which incidently was tightened a year or so bank as it was perceived to be too lenient and favouring the borrowers!) covers things like who is eligible to claim personal bankruptcy, under what circumstances, what are the assets that cannot be seized, how and to what extent can debt be waived off or deferred etc etc etc. All these are fairly important issues.

Now, the immediate reason for writing this post is the farmer's suicides. But the need for this law will increasingly be felt as the 'credit' culture gets seeped in the soul of this country. Hitherto, since credit penetration at a personal level was very low, the need for this law was not felt (apart from to the extent individual businesses/farmers etc borrowed). However as increasingly almost every thing is brought on credit (remember credit card is nothing but a unsecured loan!) and as the marketing departments of all financial institutions work overtime in trying to get people take on credit - it will not be surprising to see more and more people getting into debt traps.

In fact another side benefit of this law would be that if banks have to take some losses under this law - either through deferrals or waivers etc, it will force their marketing managers to use a bit of judgement in extending credit.

That's it for now...

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The irony of Belgaum issue

Belgaum is a district south east of Maharashtra and lies at the centre of a border dispute between Maharashtra and Karnataka and has been so for more than 4 decades. The problem is this - the organisation of states in India was done on linguistic lines and in Belgaum the division between Marathi speaking and Kannada speaking people is almost 50-50 (well almost because Maharashtra claims it has more Marathi speaking people and Karnataka claims it has more Kannada speaking). The dispute has seen protests, court cases, strikes and even threats of arrests of major political leaders on either side.

I do not wish to get into the merits of the case but the issue does raise some interesting points

  • I find it ironical that here is a country which has border disputes within its states for more than 4 decades and it has not yet managed to solve them - and this country claims that we would find peaceful solutions to border disputes that it has with its neighboring countries.
  • What this dispute and especially its lack of resolution tells me is that there are vested interests (read: political parties) which have an interest in keeping the issue alive so that it can be appropriately stoked or calmed depending on what suits them at that particular moment.
  • Another point which this raises is how regionally divided we are/feel. It matters so much to people to be classified as belonging to a particular state rather than other, especially when since the region remains the same and on a day to day level, it will at the end of the day not make any material difference.
  • What this issue tells me is also how emotional some of these issues are and unless we really understand the moot emotional reasons and address them, we can never be able to reach a solution - unless we allow enough water to pass under by when the issue loses its very foundation. In this case it would be large scale geographical movement of people whereby the concept of being belonging to a state is no longer synonymous to being physically residing in the geographical borders of it. This is what is precisely happening here with Bangalore (capital of Karnataka) becoming the IT capital of India.


Finally, it raises a more fundamental question - what does it really mean to be a 'Maharashtrian' or a 'Karnataki' or for that matter an 'Indian' or 'American' or 'British'. For this I hope to write a seperate post.

That's it for now...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Full circle - Delhi sealings, Deja vu

In January of this year I had a posted a note titled "The Demolitions Must Continue" arguing that the demolitions etc (Ulhasnagar and Delhi at that time) must continue. The logic being that unless the offenders are forced to pay a 'cost' for their actions, necessary change in behavior would not occur either with the affected people or the society at large. This is extremely essential when the problem concerned (illegal construction/occupation) is widespread.

However we have not learnt anything and the problem continues to surface again and again and will continue so, unless we set the right precedents and instil a degree of credibility in the laws that we make.

Lets take a look at what has happened since January - Illegal constructions in Ulhasnagar were regularised, Illegal constructions in Delhi were regularised, Illegal constructions in Dombivli are being regularised, the cut off date for slums in Mumbai extended from 1995 to 2000 (earlier extended from 1975 to 85 and 85 to 95!).

This is nothing but a band-aid over the systemic issues we have with respect to illegal constructions. The construction lobby is powerful and is in cahoots with the executive (the local municipal authorities in each respective cases). The message we are sending out to these people is that what you have/are done/doing is OK - if sufficient number of people start protesting then we will pardon/excuse your transgessions. Does this give them any reason to all of a sudden start respecting the law?

Edward Prescott and Finn Kydland were awarded the Nobel prize in economics for 2004. Part of their work focussed on time consistency of economic policy wherein they argued that what matters is not rules and regulations but the perception about credibility and enforceability of these regulations/rules. In other words what they are saying is that it is no use making all those rules and regulations if people at large do not belive that these rules will actually be enforced - they will not change/modify their actions to conform with the changed/new rules/regulations/norms.

And it is the powerful logic above which we have seen being played out time and again - be it illegal construction, illegal slums, tax evasion, licenses etc. In fact this very well typifies the 'chalta hai' attitude that is considered so prevalent amongst we Indians. If 'chalta-hai' does not indicate people's faith that law will not be implemented then what else?

And it is not necessary to have 100% implementation - but what is needed is implementation adequate enough to change people's perceptions. And for that we need to make a start and then make the system fool proof as we go along.

A simple example of how this can operate will help. I use the suburban railway train everyday to commute to office and I have my season ticket for that. But if I have to take a journey not covered by the season ticket (which happens rarely) I normally do not bother taking any ticket and travel without ticket. Why? I simply do not think it is worth my effort standing in the long queue to take the ticket when I see no ticket checker along - anywhere! But if I simply see a ticket checker once in a while or hear from someone that they are seeing ticket checkers nowadays, I perception of things would change and I would think twice before travelling without ticket - for what is at stake is not just the fine and ticket money but also my standing in society. I would find it extremely embarassing caught without ticket in a railway train or station (in front of 100s of people). This is how you bring credibility to your rules and regulations.

And so if we want to get rid of this 'chalta-hai' attitude, then the first thing we have to do is go about enforcing our laws - however old or ridiculous or 'painful' they may be. In some cases changing law may need to go hand in hand with enforcement - but enforcement at any cost cannot be allowed to lag.

It's about time, people are made to pay for their transgressions!

That's it for now...

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Tale of two champions - a randomness perspective

Past few weeks saw 2 great champions announce their retirements from their respective sports - Andre Agassi from tennis and Michael Schumacher from Formula 1.

Both of them are legends in their respective sports and will go down as one of the best not only their respective sports has seen but generally. But both are them are very very different and pure randomness has a lot to do with it. Let me explain

Andre Agassi won a lot of titles during his 20 year career. He is one of the very few players to have won all 4 grandslam titles in tennis. But he will not go down as one of the all time greats - inspite of him being immensely talented and hardworking. Why? bad luck. His career for almost a decade ran parallel with someone who was even better than him - Pete Sampras. Agassi was great but Sampras was exceptional. And the fact that Sampras had to have his career at the same time was Agassi's pure misfortune. But for Sampras, Agassi would have won a lot more titles and would have definately had a place in the all time greats of the sport (if not already).

Schumacher has almost every possible record to his name in Formula 1. I am a great fan of his but he was not as great as his records suggest. He is brilliant, but he is not the best to have ever raced Formula 1 (unlike what the records suggest). Schumacher during his career had no great rivals to race against. Senna died unfortunately just when Schumacher was establishing himself. And then except for couple of years when he competed against Mika Hakkinen (and now Alonso), Schumacher virtually had no competition - he and his car were way ahead of competition. Senna when he raced raced against multi year champions like Prost or Mansell. Not Schumacher. Not his fault though, you take what comes your way and you cannot decide what comes your way - you can only choose how to react to that. Schumacher made the most of his opportunities.

Curiously enough Agassi's wife - Steffi Graf had also had such good fortine. Now, I am a huge huge fan of Steffi Graf, but her career may have taken a completely different turn if something very very unfortunate had not happened to her most difficult competitor - Monica Seles. Monica Seles as proving a difficult nut to crack for Steffi when a maverick Steffi fan stabs Seles during a tournament. This threw Seles's career completely off track and she never fully recovered from this incident - what shape would their respective careers have taken if that incident had not taken place? Would Steffi have gone on and won so many titles that she did? And Seles, she would most certainly have gone down as a great champion - but instead she goes down as one of the most unfortunate players ever.

There would be numerous such examples in other sports (or same sports) in business, politics, academics etc etc etc. The simple point being that when you say someone is great, its not just down to the skill of that person or his hard work but also down to chance. And similarly (if not more) to someone who is the second best or third best - its not always their fault, but many times, just their misfortune that someone better than them had had his/her career to coincide with theirs.

Take womens tennis currently - no single player dominates it. Why? because a lot of good players are playing at the same time - Amelie Mauresmo, Justin-Henin Hardene, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters just to name a few.

Merit is relative!

That's it for now...

Saturday, August 19, 2006

We have come a long way...

Not so long ago, the RBI and the government were cutting rates. And they were met with vociferous opposition. The opposition, the Left parties, trade unions and even sections within the ruling parties opposed the move. What about the common man who is a saver it was asked, what about retirees who depend almost exclusively on interest income was asked, the actions are purely meant to benefit the corporates and big businesses it was alleged.

The change from those days to today, could'nt have been more stark. Now, we are currently in the midst of rising interest rates and voila, the government is now being pressured to 'not' raise rates. Because the rising rates have hurt the 'common man' as his EMIs on loan's increase. The criticism has come from within the ruling party and apparently was so strong what government had to send advisories to PSU banks on getting board approvals for rate increases (rather than just routine decisions). Aside with this, there has been no welcome/praise for rate increases on the deposit side nor has there been no pressure to revise upwards rates on Post office savings schemes.

This is just an indication of how much water has flown under over the past 3-4 years and how we are moving from a saving oriented society to a 'relatively' more consumption driven. The definition of 'common man' earlier was that of a person who worked all his life, saved money - put that in FDs or Post office schemes, spent only when he had money etc etc. The 'common man' currently is someone who has a housing loan, a car loan, a personal loan, someone who goes to Big Bazaar's or Shopper Stop's of the world every other weekend etc etc etc.

And this is no cyclical change in response to lower interest rates or robust economic growth (read: higher salaries and higher employment) - its a structural change and one that has still got a long way to play itself out to full extent.

That's it for now....

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Scarcity no indication of quality

Telephone's were a scarcity few years back. Getting a telephone connection meant that you needed to wait for a few years. The same was true for car's, scooters, even to get government approvals. That indicated that there was scarcity and by implication there was a value (read: status) associated with it due to it. But no one would claim that those products or services were of particularly high quality.

Yet we seem to do precisely that with IITs, IIMs or AIIMS etc. Yes, these institutes are scarce and so there is a value (status) associated with that. But that is no indication of quality. The other day I was going through the interview of some IIT alumnus returning from US and he was saying how IIT entrance tests the conceptual knowledge of students and how only the best of the best students are selected and hence though more than 100,000 students apply only a fraction of them are selected - what crap.

My answer is simple, quality has two connotations - absolute and relative. Yes, on relative parameter, I am ready to accept that out of the sample available to them, they select the better one's but what on absolute level? If the IITs have to fill up 4000 seats, is it their claim that every year they manage to find exactly 4000 extremely bright (very bright) students? It may be that the first student to get into IIT is bright (very bright), but what about the last? Do they stop filling seats (keep seats vacant, if in a particular year, the crop is not quite upto standards?). And what about the first person to get rejected? Is he necessarily below their entry standards? A true test of the quality of students is an absolute criteron.

Let these institutes say that we have a particular benchmark (entry criteron) - anybody and almost everybody who crosses that gets in, rest are out. That is a far better measure of the quality of students (at least at entry level).

A good example of how this sort of system might work are the professional courses run by the Institute of Chartered Accountants or Cost and Works Accountants or Company Secretaries of India. Anyone can go and register - no limit on who can register. A set of very tough and demanding exams (mostly 3 exams - one at entry stage, one intermediate and one final) is what you need to pass to get certified (a measurable and fixed criteria for deciding who passes and who does not) and anyone and everyone who passess this exam gets certified. Thus once you control the quality of these exams, you automatically ensure the quality of students and quality of final output.

That's it for now...

Friday, August 11, 2006

The MBA 'bhoot' is in full ascendancy

Over the past week I had been to visit my cousins. Now one of them is about to graduate and he wants to do an MBA - why? well, apparently if you do an 'MBA' then you make a lot of money, while if you do not then you probably do not! I am amazed. It took me a great deal of persuasion to talk my cousin out of this thought and show him the true picture of the 'MBA' phenomenon.

I had a strong belief that the MBA bhoot as I call it, was fairly widespread - but was amazed to see it in reaility. Being a part of the MBA fraternity I shouldn't be the one to spill the beans - but thats exactly what I am going to do. So here are a few MBA myths busted:
  • 'MBA' is all that matters - Its not MBA that matters is 'MBA' from where that matters. So frankly, doing an MBA from only the top 10-12 colleges is what would make a difference, rest all is frankly - crap.
  • 'MBA' pays you high salaries - True MBA gives you good salary (for most colleges), better than what most graduates might get otherwise, but what is often forgotten are the costs (explicit and implicit) that go in to getting that degree. Most colleges charge anywhere from between 1.5-3 lakhs per annum for an MBA course, so over a 2 year period that amounts to 4-6 lakhs (and this figure is increasing at 15-20%) per year. Add to this the opportunity cost of not working for 2 years (this includes both the salary and the experience) and the interest and the total comes to around 8-10 lakhs. That's a huge investment - and you need to compare the returns (that is incremental salary and growth prospects) with this investment. On doing this most people will find that they don't break even till well in their 30s (even assuming you complete MBA before 25) - not that attractive a proposition isn't it?
  • MBA salaries are high, even for not so reputed colleges - This is the biggest misconception. MBA salaries are high, but not as high as they are made public. Almost all colleges 'massage' (I do not want to use the word fudge, although that might be an appropriate word) their average salary figures. The figures stated publicly are way above what are actual figures. And since all colleges do it, no single college can back out and publish the 'true' numbers - because, the game is all about salaries!
But, I do not think this bhoot is coming off any time soon. Partly, because students and parents do not want to believe what I said above (if what you are saying is true, then how come so many students are doing this course? is a question I got repeatedly from my cousin and his parents). That's sad and yet not surprisingly. If you are into financial markets then this is the sure shot sign of a bubble - when people start justifying their actions based on what the others (read: crowd, herd) are doing.

But other than that there are serious forces at play to ensure that this bubble sustains itself for longer and longer and longer.
  • Firstly the colleges itself want more and more students to apply. Every college charges about 1000 rupees per application. Given that more than 160,000 students appeared for CAT last year -thats an annual revenue of a cool 16 crore (and growing at more than 12% p.a) and similarly for other colleges. eg. My college got about 17000 applicants couple of years back - that gives them a revenue of 1.7 crores - a tidy sum (the costs attributable to this revenue stream are essentially fixed in nature).
  • Further, this tide of applicants allows the colleges, media, coaching classes, 'career counsellor's' to attach scarcity value to the degree. A scarcity value is apparently an indication of difficulty of the exam/callibre of students who get in. Well, to an extent - but getting thousands of students to write this exam who otherwise should not - does not make the exam any tougher nor does it make the students who take the exam any brighter!
  • The coaching classes for the entrance exams for have an incentive in getting more and more students signed up for the test and by implication their classes. And the classes do not care what students sign up, as long as students keep on signing up - their cash registers are ringing. These classes will chase you - call you, write to you, invite you to seminars and tell you that how with hard work you can crack the CAT - if only that were the case, I could play cricket for 24 hrs a day and become Sachin Tendulkar.
  • Next in line is the media, which will trumpet the salary figures post final placements. It will spend entire day (news channels) on how top notch companies pay ridiculous amounts of salaries to Indian MBAs and other crap.
So, in conclusion - this MBA bhoot is about to get bigger before it blows. But blow one day it sure will. Look at what happened to the 'Engineer' bhoot. Once upon a time, a child growing up had to become an engineer and he was assured of a comfortable life - materially. Well, no its no longer engineering that matters (and even parents and students understand this) is what stream, what college and how well you did there. So the discrimination between colleges is underway. That will happen with MBA also (it is currently restricted to only the people in the 'loop'). Till then lots and lots of families will spend lots and lots of money and get lots and lots of nothing from that investment.

That's it for now....

Monday, July 31, 2006

Unfair comparison with Israel

In the aftermath of the Mumbai blasts we again seen the never ending comparison with Israel. It's become almost a cliche to compare India with Israel (and given Israel's current operations in Lebanon, the comparison is even more widespread). The main argument being that India is not as harsh/stern in dealing with terrorism as Israel is, that a country as small as Israel surrounded on all sides by Arab states, deals with the mere kidnapping of two of its soldiers with such stern reaction. This apparently shows how much it cares for the lives of its ordinary citizens.

I wish to rebuff these charlatanism with following points

  • Even after being so stern with terrorism, it would not be anybody's argument that Israel has 'tamed' or 'successfully tackled' the problems of terrorism. It continues to be plagued by it. The resolution in sight even in its case seems to be dialogue and a mutually acceptable settlement to the Palestinian problem.
  • Secondly, it is very clear in case of Israel, that almost all terrorism is external in nature. In our case I am not so sure. Yes, it is very fashionable to blame Pakistan for every small bomb blast that takes place in this country. Yet there is very little evidence (at least in public domain). We should not lose sight that there are enough people in this country who are prone to indulge in terrorist acts. SIMI is a home growth organisation, so was the underworld of Mumbai (and though they get support both financial and political from across the border, its cadre very much consists of people who at least on paper are Indian nationals). The Naxalite movement (a highly under reported, understood and recognised risk) is entirely home grown and to date is not known of having any links with Pakistan. The Sikh militancy was home grown to a large extent. The militancy in North East (ULFA, Bodo) is again home grown to a large extent (though admittedly it has 'some' financial/political support from some border countries). This home grown nature of the militancy, changes the situation to a large extent.
  • Finally, even if we concluded that our neighbour on North West is to blame the issue of feasibility of our military actions deals fatal blow to all our ambitions of Israeli type tactics. The military superiority that Israel enjoys vis-a-vis its neighbours is overwhelming. Inspite of the aerial and land assault that Israel has launched on Lebanon (or Hezbollah), all that it seems to be able to retaliate with is a few rockets. The ratio of number of people dying on both sides is a stark reminder of this overwhelming superiority that Israel enjoys. India too does have military superiority over Pakistan, but it is no where as overwhelming. The kind of response we are talking here is not a full scale war, but a short and swift military action - and this is where the lack of overwhelming superiority hurts us. Pakistan has enough ammunition to make our payoffs appear too risky and not worth it. This is the single biggest reason why even if wanted to, we cannot launch the very kind of operations that we are fascinated by the Israelis.

Again, don't get me wrong. I am not for one moment suggesting that we go soft on terror. But we must appreciate the nature of the problem faced by us before we start going over board with our fascination of Israeli tactics. Making fruits of development and the judicial system reach all corners of the country by themselves would in my opinion go a long way in solving our problems. We need to look inwards for solutions - and get cracking!

That's it for now....

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Mumbai blasts aftermath - Some thoughts

Some of the events/acts in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai blasts are really troubling. Here are my thoughts on some of them.
  • Firstly this intelligence failure business - Post every terrorist incident we simply jump around and blame the intelligence authorities for their 'perceived' failure in preventing the indcidents. But what we fail to understand is that this intelligence business is very tough. You need to be right every single time while the terrorists need to be right just once (and they can and they indeed do keep trying on and on and on...). So if an attack is foiled the intelligence agencies have done their job - but we are blissfully unaware of their success but even a single failure of them and they are chastised in full public glare. I am not suggesting that there was no intelligence failure or that there are no intelligence failures - but lets no rush to conclusion on the day after.
  • Secondly this business of the 'Mumbai spirit' - Firstly, its almost a cliche nowadays post any terrorist incident in any city of the world to praise that city's spirit and how that incident will bring the city together and how it will gather itself and bounce back and defeat the intentions of the terrorists etc etc etc. Part of this patting is necessary just to fill that 'josh' into the people. But beyond that lets not fool ourselves in believing that there is anything special called as 'Mumbai spirit'. Lets face it - Mumbai returned to near normalcy (as much as could be achieved physically) purely because its people did not have any other option. I myself was one of those who went to work the next day - afraid i was to some extent, anxious I certainly was - but I could not stay at home. Mumbaikar's have seen incidents like this happen every couple of years and thus it has become a part of their psyche. The incident has its 'shock' impact for a few hours but then it gets lost in the Mumbaikar's 'been there, seen that' attitude.
  • Thirdly the most sad part has been the (Central) government's response - The first thing it does is to blame Pakistan. Its one thing to blame groups based in Pakistan and other to blame the 'Pakistan'. By doing so each and everytime a terrorist incident happens and not coming up with any concrete evidence of the involvement of 'Pakistan' we degrade our credibility in the eyes of the International Community. Worse still its the people of the country who are being fooled, and the incompetence/inability of the investgative agencies brushed aside under the capet. The next step the government does is to call off talks with Pakistan scheduled to be held in a few days time. This is as foolish as it gets. The entire world expected us to respond in that manner and we just did! That says a lot about our diplomatic skills. We should certainly be more (and more) demanding of Pakistan in rooting out terror that is exported from its country - but such a feeble response does not take us anywhere. Instead, going to the talks and conveying to them in strong language what our exact demands are would have resulted in credit in the eyes of the international community. Yes, the pressure from domestic public was there to call of the talks and to do some 'hard talking' but that is precisely the reason why our not calling off the talks would have resulted in credit to us. We certainly need to be stern and demanding with Pakistan but in manner which reflects inaction on the part of Pakistan in curbing terror that causes a breakdown of talks rather than a knee-jerk response from our side. We need to be smarter
  • Fourthly its the reaction of the Samajwadi party in refusing the ban SIMI - This thing is dangerous on two counts - firstly because what it tells is that the government in Uttar Pradesh will not follow/implement the decision of the Central government to ban SIMI. IF the central government believes that a particular organisation is against national interest and indeed is accused of having terror links then its no business of the state government to do anything other than implement it in letter and spirit. Tommorrow the Tamil Nadu government may say that it does not believe that the LTTE is a terrorist organisation and this it will not implement the ban on it in letter/spirit. This sets a dangerous precedent. Secondly, the evidence is overwhelming that SIMI does indeed have terror links and that the actions/words of the Samajwadi party is purely driven by its perceived benefits in playing the 'Muslim card' in the forthcoming assembly elections. Going soft on a terror linked organisation for electoral benefits may prove disastrous for this country and its something that all sections of the society must condemn. May sense prevail in Mulayam Singh Yadav's mind - but I am not hopeful
  • Fifthly the so called 'Hardline Hindutva' organisations - I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised at the fairly cool response of these organisations to these terror attacks. May such sense prevail often at these organisations. This is certainly not the time to inflame religious feelings and thank heavens that these parties and their hothead leaders seem to have behaved in a relatively mature manner. But I did see one poster posted by VHP at Bhandup station and it was a fairly explicit in what its feelings were towards Muslims. I do not think any ordinary Muslim would appreciate (infact any feeling other than anger is unlikely) that. For some reasons, these organisations have a penchant for creating nuisance. Though they have been relatively quiet this time - I think that is down to mere chance rather than any deliberate attempt on their part. I don't think these organisations really appreciate the importance of preserving peace and harmony in the city. These organisations continue to remain a potential source of risk - although I have much more faith in the people of Mumbai than I had in the people of Gujarat in controlling (in fact not allowing) untoward situations.
  • Sixthly the question of cause - We must also address the question of what leads a human being to so hate something/somebody that he/she is ready to kill not tens but hundreds of people. And while the situation in Kashmir is an obvious thing to point at, we must also look inwards and point to our own systemic faults - our investigative and judicial process. They say justice delayed is justice denied - and if denial of justice happens in a systemic manner, hatred grows. We still have not punished the perpetrators of the Gujarat riots and those involved in committing the Godhra carnage. We still have not punished those involved in the 1993 blasts. We still have not punished those involved in the 1992 riots in Mumbai. We still have not punished those involved in demolishing the Babri Masjid. We still have not punished those involved in 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Is this not denial of justice? Does this not motivate people to want to take law in their own hands? I am not justifying their acts - but I am putting forth some of the grounds which may create the hatred. And this works for all the parties involved. Seldom do riots affect only one religion or one race. People of both sides are affected and if the involved are not punished adequately, publicly and efficiently; it sows the seeds of next riots, next terror attacks - taking the country down into another round of chaos.
  • Finally, we need to grapple with the reality that though not every Muslim is a terrorist, almost inevitably all terrorists are Muslims. Now simple logic demands that, that is where our intelligence agencies must concentrate their limited efforts - but doing that amounts to religious profiling, something which we ideally should not be doing. But can we help it? Can we afford to not do otherwise? I think we need to move ahead on this, yes its unfair on the large majority of the Muslim population of this country - but I think the larger interests of the country demand that. But at the same time, this very religious profiling can lead to more mistrust and more hatred, so we need to be discreet and smart. Maybe we take help of some foreign govenments who have had to deal with similar issues. But do something we must - but I am not optimistic on this front.
Well, thats it for now....

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Zidane's head butt and Sachin Tendulkar

Just a thought occured to me -

What Zidane did in the final against Italy was a very serious offence. There are no two ways about it. Even the French media and public admitted it and felt the punishment he received (Red Card) was well deserved. But at the same time, they still respect him for what he has achieved although this incident would go down as a blot on record of their national hero.

Few years back we had a similar incident (although some might argue not quite that serious) with our national hero - Sahin Tendulkar.

Sachin was shown on television to be doing something with the seam of a cricket ball - a punishable offence in the game. And although the player claimed he was just cleaning the seam, the offence nevertheless deserved to be punished (no player is going to go out and admit that he did wrong). The Indian media and public however were not ready to accept that what Sachin did was anything wrong and then there were cries of differential treatment and harsh puinishment being meeted out etc etc etc. There was a huge public outcry when punishment was handed out to him.

Now here's the difference - both Zidane and Sachin are national infact global incons in their own rights. But one is respected the other is idolized. One makes a mistake, pays for it and the fans accept the punishment as deserved and move on. Their respect for him is not diminished. However the fans of the other do not accept the fact (playing with the seam of a cricket ball is a crime in the game period) and make cries of partiality etc.

Its time we became more mature and stopped godifying people. If a person makes a mistake, he pays for it and life moves on. Everyone makes a mistake. Life goes on.

Let life go on..

Thats it for now...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Mittal Saga

I must say, I am very puzzled with the way the whole Mittal episode was handled not just by the media but the politicians and also public at large.

Yes, Mittal owns the largest steel company in the world and yes, he is an Indian. But let us get our facts straight
  • Mittal has lived outside India for more than 3 decades
  • Mittal has no business interests in India
  • His company is not an Indian company
  • His retaining Indian passport is also likely due to the tax status (I happen to know another 'Indian' who lived whole of his life outside India but retains Indian passport solely due to tax purposes!)
  • He has never publicly championed the cause of either India and Indian business
  • He is a very ruthless businessman (for which I respect him)
Yet, inspite of this the issue was talked about as if we were referring to a person next door - a person who is a national hero.

Sample this
  • We believed (rather convinced ourselves) that the hostility to his take over bid was his 'race', rather his being an Indian - without knowing that over the last few months there have been objections to take over of European companies by Europeans as well.
  • Our Commerce Minister (Mr. Kamal Nath) believes that it is his conversation with the Luxemburg head of state that ensured that Luxemburg did not oppose the deal - Who is Kamalnath?
  • We believed that Mr. Mittal is a shining of modern Indian businessman - bold, audacious, ambitious etc etc etc - what's the relation?
How convenient of ourselves? As the famous McEnroe saying goes, I wish to ask people - You are not serious.

Don't get me wrong, I have lots of respect for Mr. Mittal. But there is not need to eulogise him. I am proud of his being of Indian origin and I wish him luck, but I don't godify him.

Lets not go overboard..

That's it for now...

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Reforming the education system - removing exam pressure

The levels of pressure that students of class X and XII undergo is enormous and ridiculous. We need to do something about it and soon. I have some radical and some not so radical views on this topic.
  • Firstly abolish this 'fail' business at class X and XII (guess this logic can be applied elsewhere also). The logic behind 'failing' students in exam is to ensure that students who have not attained a certain level to move on to next level of studies. The intention is genuine and in the interest of the students. However in case of Class X and Class XII there is an implicit system of discriminating between students. A student has scored less marks does not get admission to the college he/she wants or does not get the choice of subjects he/she wants. So if a student has scored less marks which means that he cannot get either the choice of subjects or college or both has the option of taking the exam again to improve his score. Now that being the case, why should the administrative people arbitrarily decide whether a certain score is good enough for him to be eligible to apply to colleges and below a certain score he is not. What scientific logic exists behind that magical number of 35? None to my knowledge. So, lets do away with it. A student gets a certain score in the exam - the exam is the same for every individual and so each student can be compared to other, and now the colleges can decide the criteria for admission. If a student does not get what he wants with his marks, he can appear again. If scoring 20, does not do him any harm, then fine, let him get on with his life. What you are doing in the process is taking a huge stigma associated with 'failing' in exam. The best judge of whether a student has learnt enough is not a arbitrary score in an exam given on a particular day, but whether what he has scored gives him the opportunities he thinks he deserves, if not then clearly the student has 'underperforming' relative to his abilities and will want to take the exam again. But if '20' is at best what a student expects to score and at that score he gets a job or a certain course which hones whatever skills he has then let him get on with it, who are we to say that that student has 'failed' and must score 35. Stop this arbitrariness.
  • The second thing we need to do, is to stop this business of absolute marks. This is insane to my mind. Putting out a number that a student has scored 97% marks in aggregate and another student has scored 96.9% is to my mind a false precision that we give. The exams conducted are at best an indicator of how well/otherwise a student is compared to other. Giving such precise numbers creates false sense of superiority/discrimination which the exam is not capable of doing. Saying that someone who scores 550 marks in aggregate is a better student than someone who scores 549 is precisely the kind of precision our examination system is incapable of measuring but that is what we precisely end up doing. Admissions to colleges are gained/lost by a single mark. That difference could simply be attributed to randomness and not to skill or intellect. Certainly one can conclude that the student who has scored 550 has done better than a student who has scored say 450 but not 549 or 540. So the solution is to put grades where students in a certain range of scores are bunched together. This will stop the mad competition for marks that is currently plaguing our education system. How insane are things when a student scoring just a single mark less than other student gets rejected admission to a college - precisely because he scored 1 mark less than a student on one particular day on one particular exam. Its insane. We no longer want our students to learn, but simply to score marks. (And this should apply equally to the entrance tests also)
  • Another byproduct of introducing the grading system rather than absolute percentage system is that it will force colleges to give admissions after some thought. Currently colleges have the most easy task when giving admission. They just take the top x number of students (where x is number of seats) by marks scored. Now with the grades business, it would not be that simple. Certainly colleges have the right to choose the best possible students, but now choosing the best possible students would imply a bit more hard work on the part of colleges. They would ideally have to consider someother parameters also while giving admission to discriminate among students (many would argue, including me that they ought to be doing this even under current system of absolute marks). So they might consider his extra curricular activities, maybe conduct a personal interview, social background etc etc. This would (at least in theory should) result in a superior selection relative to the earlier 'pure' marks based selection process. This ideally ought to also result in a much more diversified bunch of students being selected enhancing the overall quality of atmosphere in the college.
How much of this gets done - I haven't the faintest of ideas. But one thing is for sure, the sooner we at least think of these or some other radical ideas to take the burden of 'scoring marks' out of students and put the burden on them of 'learning' and 'understanding' the better it is for us as a nation.

That's it for now....

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Reservations - A simple problem of 'framing'

The government want’s to increase reservation in higher education institutions and there are widespread protests against the same. The government proposes to reduce the impact of this move on general category students by increasing the overall number of seats so that the number of seats in the general category remains the same.

But the issue being protested is one of ‘merit’ and whether number of seats are increased or not – is not the issue at hand.

I myself have been aghast at the proposed move. I simply find it impossible to accept the fact that a bunch of people get entry into a college inspite of their poor performance in the entrance test – but because of their caste. It's outrageous..

But then this morning, I was watching telly (as usual nothing interesting ever seems to be on) and a thought came to my mind. What if the issue was framed differently? What if the government were to announce that they are going to set up new engineering, medical and business schools specifically for backward caste students. All of a sudden, I find that this move is not quite so abhorrent. Why? Both things ideas (reservation with increased seats or new colleges) tantamount to essentially one and the same thing – but the difference in reaction is stark. And although I have not explored this with others, but my sense is that there will be quite a few from the ‘opposition to reservation camp’ who would react in a manner similar to how I reacted.

Yes, when I think deeply I can find flaws with this idea as well – but the violent initial reaction that the idea of reservation generates in me was (almost) completely absent here. The difference in initial reaction could not have been starker.

If I think deeper as to why my reaction changes so drastically – the answer is simple. In the reservation idea, one gets a sense (at least I do) that something is being taken away from one section of the society and given to other (rightly or wrongly is immaterial). But in the second idea when the issue is being framed differently, one does not get a sense that something is being taken away. It’s just that something is being created new and given to a section of the society. While one may argue that in the same token something should also be created for the other section of the society – but not creating something for one section does not evoke the same negativity and strong views as when something is taken away from one section and given to other.

Does herein lie the solution for the current imbroglio? I do not know – its for the ‘guardian’s of our constitution’ to decide!

But, this has been a true eye opener for me. I mean I have read in books about the problems associated with ‘framing’ and how humans react differently to what is essentially the same problem if it is framed differently. Fine – but when you yourself experience it, it springs a set of completely contrasting emotions. Firstly there is disappointment – because you’ve just realized how gullible/irrational you are, and then there is elation – because you have probably discovered something new about yourself, something new on the issue at hand and somehow I felt as if I made a connection with the theory!

This incident is going to stay with me for some time.

That’s it for now….

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Reservations : Betrayal, Opportunism and a Sly Human Resources Minister

The decision by the Union Cabinet to implement reservations for OBCs in higher education institutions is without an iota of doubt a highly condemnable one. I do so not because I am from upper caste (which I am), but purely on logical-objective grounds. To my knowledge these grounds (many of which are in public domain) have not yet been disputed on objective parameters.

If anyone comes up with objective manner of disputing these objections or if later information contradicts any of the points made here I would be more than happy to reconsider my view points. Indeed there could even be a situation wherein I support reservations (which I am opposed to in principle), if data points out that the condition of OBCs (or for that matter SCs and STs) is even worse than what we think it is and that this is down in large proportions simply to their being of a particular caste rather than any other reason.

Here it goes..
  • What makes us believe that we need reservations for OBCs? The main justification given is that OBCs are disadvantaged lot. Does any data bring that out? We cannot go about taking such a decision based on our gut feelings. Indeed the latest government data (NSSO study in 1997) indicates that the OBCs - so far as education is concerned are not as disadvantaged as most of us think. If this data is thought to be incorrect or outdated - there needs a fresh study so that we have facts before us. This is common sense to me.
  • Even if the data points that in terms of education the OBCs are a disadvantaged lot, for them to enjoy reservations (if at all), that condition of theirs needs to be attributed to their caste rather than any other reasons. For example it may be the case that a OBCs are disadvantaged educationally - but that is down to their economic backwardness and the economically advanced amongst the OBCs are not educationally disadvantaged. Further, the data may show that the economic disadvantaged amongst the upper caste are equally disadvantaged educationally. Such a scenario clearly calls for a different course of remedies. But unfortunately, we do not have any data - we have not identified the problem, we are doing chemo without knowing where the cancer is (if at all!)
  • We have had reservations for more than 50 years now for SCs and STs. There has been no study on the efficacy or otherwise of this measure. What is sacrosanct is the objective - that of uplifting the socially disadvantaged sections (not castes), and not the remedy - reservations. One pointer towards the efficacy of the remedy is that even after 50 years, the SC and ST seats in educational institutions are not fully occupied. This prima facie points towards a deeper malaise or a wrong medicine, certainly (again prima facie at least) warranting the employment of a different medicine. Again continuing the same medicine without knowing for another section of the society without knowing its efficacy (indeed having reason prima facie to believe that the medicine has not worked) seems a bizarre thing to do.
  • Finally, there has been no national debate on the said topic. Last time this issue was brought up (in 1990), it had to be shelved due to widespread student protests. What made anyone presume that the objections students had or in general people had gone away? In fact given the fierce competition that exists for the fairly limited seats at institutions of higher education, the stakes are if any, considerably higher today than they were before. If the minister has/intended to address the concerns while bringing this proposal then the manner in which the concerns were going to be addressed needed to be highlighted - this was not done and as it now turns out the concerns have not been addressed.

Don't get me wrong - I am not against the upliftment of the socially disadvantaged sections of the society. I am all for it - my only point is that we identify exactly who the socially disadvantaged sections are and that we apply the right medicine. What we are currently doing sounds highly political to me. The fact that UP elections (a state in which the Congress party has for the last few years done very very badly) are round the corner where a significant portion of the population comes from the very section of the society to whom the proposed reservation (appeasement!?) policy is aimed at.

The opposition - well, no one can really dare to oppose this proposal. If anyone does, they stand to lose the OBC votes.

As a last ditch effort, even if we finally did decide to implement reservations I hope we do so in proper manner. What I think is a right way to implement reservations is mentioned here.

Thats it for now...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Banning the Da Vinci Code

It is interesting tracking the controversy surrounding the release of the movie based on the book Da Vinci Code. Some people are understandably disturbed (to put it mildly) at some parts of the movie and are in favor of banning the movie.

For someone like me (and I am sure many more) this seems absurd. After all we live in a democracy and there is something called 'freedom of expression'. If some people are disturbed or aghast at some sections of the movie, they have the option of not watching the movie. But that is no reason to ban the movie.

But when I think deeper, it brings out the inherent hypocrisy in my thought process. I have no sympathies for Catholics whose feelings are hurt by the movie and I can make a general statement that most Indians do not - but I ask myself this simple question:

What would have happened in this world if something similar was said against Prophet Mohammed? Just some piece of cartoons are sufficient to have weeks of protests across the world. A statement as blasphemous as one in the book regarding the prophet and the entire Muslim world would have been up in arms and would have burnt for weeks.

Why go that far? How would I react if some similar statements were made about Hindu gods/goddesses in a movie? Would I be equally loudly trumpeting the cause of 'freedom of speech' - probably not. Already we have had examples of how people reacted against M.F. Hussain for his paintings of Hindu deities in what were perceived as being in an 'objectionable' manner. We all know how a certain political party's activists reacted violently to a book on Shivaji. We have instances of people protesting violently against movies which do not 'glorify' people like Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. Ambedkar or Subhash Chandra Bose. In most of these cases, my first reaction was also one of intense anger at what I considered to be exploitation of the right of 'freedom of expression' Even today, I do not think that a lot of these actions/expressions were justified and that the right of freedom of speech is not a absolute right under which all acts can be subsumed.

The very fact that most of the Christian world has just shrugged off this movie says a lot about the level of tolerance of these people to contrary views (and how contrary). As a society we brag about how tolerant we are. But are we really? I know that I certainly am not, certainly a long way from what would be considered to be a global benchmark in tolerance.

We have a long way to go... I have a long way to go....

That's it for now...

Monday, May 01, 2006

A sensible way to introduce reservations…

In the midst of the debate about reservations in higher education institutes and private sector, I thought I should add my couple of words as well (for whatever it is worth…)

Firstly, let me put records straight by saying that I am completely against reservations of any kind (and most definitely where the basis of reservations happens to be caste). I do agree that ‘affirmative action’ is one of the solution to remedy the problem we have (and yes, we do have a problem on our hands) but more importantly I believe the solution lies in bringing the lower caste candidates to the level of the ‘more privileged’ upper caste candidates be it in terms of scholarships or infrastructure or extra tuitions etc – but ultimately people (irrespective of caste) have to come up with the goods to deserve selections.

However I must also disclose that I belong to the ‘upper caste’ and thus my views may be considered to be prejudiced accordingly.

Now let me come to what I think is a sensible way of introducing reservations (if the Indian society at large has made up its mind for doing so)

  • Limited time period – First and foremost the law which introduces reservations has to be with a limited time period and which is predetermined. Further it has to be the case that the law expires after the passage of the pre-determined period and if the law is to be extended, then it again needs to go through the process of parliamentary approval. The effect of this is that this thrusts the topic of reservations once again into public domain when the time for its lapse/renewal comes. As to what should be appropriate time period – society has to be the judge but suffice it to say that a couple of years is too less a time for the law to have an impact and a couple of decades too long.

  • Measurable criterion to judge effectiveness – Second thing (and this ought to be extended to all existing reservations) is that we should have measurable criterion to judge the effectiveness of the law. The quantifiable parameters could be in terms of social or economic parameters or a mix of both. But certainly we should have set parameters in mind the achievement of which shall establish that the law has served its purpose and it needs to go. Now irrespective of whether the parameters are social or economic or both, they ought to be in terms of dispersion of these parameters on caste and ought to be compared in a like to like manner (e.g. given similar economic backgrounds is it more likely that lower caste people are less educated? or given similar geographic background are lower caste people likely to be less economically advanced etc). Further we must have in place robust means to gather such data. If the census does not serve this purpose, it needs to be recalibrated accordingly for 2011 edition and onwards.

  • Measurable criterion to judge failure – Third thing (and this too ought to be extended to all existing reservations) is to be able to have measurable criterion to be able to determine that the law has failed to serve its purpose. After all it is no body’s claim that reservation policies are a panacea of all caste problems. It is just one of the measures being suggested to solve the caste problem (at least partially). Hence we must be able to judge and determine (and conclusively) whether the presumption is indeed valid. It may very well turnout that reservation policies do not solve the problem (for whatever reasons) and we must then move on and try something else. And once having turned our back on reservations never comeback to it unless there are sufficient circumstances which warrant that (and definitely not before we try other untried measures first).

Well, these are just some thoughts that came to my mind which unfortunately no one seems to talk about when discussing reservations. No one even those who favor reservations seem to have any clue as to what is the most efficient way of implementing the policy. Above points seem to me to be very fair and reasonable expectations from a ‘upper caste’ person who opposes reservations, in case the country does indeed decide to implement this policy.

May the persons concerned get some sense (no pun intended!)…

That’s it for now….

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Effects have Effects have Effects....

One of my finance professors taught me a simple fact - effects have effects. What I am doing here is just extending on it, because not only do effects have effects, but the downstream effects of these effects and their effects get magnified to humongous proportions somewhere else or sometime later...

When I think back to how I got to where I am currently, I find it astonishing that where I am today is largely down to a couple of purely chance events over which I had absolutely no control. Put it other way, had some other person had a chess board or some other person not made a fairly elementary mistake, I would not have been anywhere remotely close to where I am currently both professionally as well as academically. Let me explain in some detail...

When I was in school, just like with most other people at that point of time what I wanted to do/would end up doing was a function of how much marks I scored in class X. But in class VIII, one fine day our school decided to enter into an interschool chess tournament (if I remember properly, that was the first time our school was doing so). So to select the team, there was a selection process. The number of people making up the team was 4 and I was placed 5th in the process so ideally I should have been ought of the process. But, I was the one of the people having a chess board, while the 4th placed person did not have one so he opted out voluntarily and I got a look in (Pure chance event no.1).

Now at the actual tournament, in absolute terms I happened to do slightly better than other 3 (not necessarily in relative terms though as I was playing on 4th board - effectively meaning I was playing the weakest member from the other teams). But that meant that I got some appreciation from our sports instructor and other team members. Fair enough...

Then one fine day, we get the news that there is going to be another (school) chess tournament in our city - this time an individual event and not a team event. Having done well, in the earlier tournament and just for the heck of it I participated not really expecting anything. One round happened after another and I kept on winning all the games until I met this chap (who later became and is still a good friend of mine) who had played chess fairly seriously for his age, had taken professional coaching and was the hot favorite (all of which I would learn later on). As the game progressed (I don't have any recollection of what actually happened, but he claims, he blundered his rook - and I think that is probably true - Pure chance event no.2). Well, he promptly lost the game and I had won all 6 games played till that time. The expression on the face of people when I came out of the tournament hall was palpable. To stay that most people who knew him were stunned was an understatement. (Just as an indication of how 'rare' the mistake of that chap was (lets call him X), I must have played against him at least a couple of dozen times afterwards in either tournament level or at practice levels. But I do not recollect a single victory against him after that. I did manage a few draws, but even there, some of them were 'agreed' draws to achieve a greater common good (which is fairly common practice in chess, at least was). He would just out maneuver me from basically any kind of situation in which he would get in. He was simply too good to me.)

It is at that point that I realised that I could win this tournament and I promptly lost the next (and final) game but the way the tie break score is computed meant that I nevertheless won the tournament.

These events in class VIII (more than a dozen years before) kicked off my short 'chess career'. So impressed was I of this, that I took to taking professional coaching and I choose the stream 'commerce' post my class X results purely to pursue my ambitions in chess (and not withstanding some fairly stiff opposition from the family). However, I never really made any headway in that. And finally in class XII, I called it quits and decided to focus on academics - but I found myself in a completely different area of study to where I would have liked to be.

Had the 4th ranked person in our school chess team, had a chess board (and there is nothing so great about owning a chess board), I would't have played the tournament and in all likelihood I may not have played the next individual tournament. Had X not made the very very rare blunder, (in fact even after that most people would have expected to win the game, such was his perceived superiority) I would have simply not taken chess as seriously as I did take. Certainly I would not have taken up 'commerce' stream post class X. Which would have meant that I would have come no where close to where I am today. Far from being someone fascinated/captivated by financial markets, I would have been (in all likelihood) someone fascinated/captivated by stars and the planets and the esoteric subject known as physics.

I never wanted to be in the 'commerce' stream and even today if there is one thing I would want to change about myself is to go back and take a different decision post class X. How I wish at times that my parents were a bit more forceful and actually imposed their decision on me (like most other Indian parents I must hasten to add...) rather than give me the freedom. Alas...
A couple of small inconsequential events in my life more than a dozen years ago when I was not even 15, have had a fundamental defining effect on my life.

The point I am trying to make here is simple, events are completely beyond ourselves and which by themselves on the face of it appear completely irrelevant or inconsequential could actually turn into the defining moments of one's life. My life (till date!) certainly is a case in point.

Beware...

That's it for now....

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The 'News' Business

I am unable to make up my mind on this issue. Whether ‘news’ is a product which is to be ‘sold’ by news sites or news channels or news papers etc or not?

Actually to my mind there are three ways to classify the ‘news’ business

Firstly you could classify ‘news’ is just a product like any other and the medium disseminating is concerned with making a profit. This is view with which I would like to be most comfortable with, but I am least comfortable with at present

Secondly you could classify 'news' business as a business of reporting facts and nothing but the fact - what is the difference between this option and the first one may ask - but there is which I shall elaborate later on

Thirdly, ‘news’ is a business of reporting/disseminating one's opinion on events that happen. Although I would like to be least comfortable with this view, it appears that this is the best we can get.

Let me consider each option one by one now and explore it in detail:

‘News’ as a product
If ‘news’ were a product just like any other, then it should be sold just like any other. And the basic rule of marketing is to sell what the customer wants – and customise the product as much as possible so that what you are selling is as close to what the customer wants to get (in this case – read & hear). Now what does that mean? Something like a CNN/BBC having multiple editions of their channels – one for their domestic audiences, one for middle-east region, one for Asia etc. And what about the content on these channels – customisation of the content implies not just more stories from that region/segment – but surely at some stage it implies broadcasting what the people their want to hear.

We already get customisation based on tastes, age, needs etc. So some 'news' is targeted at youth, some at businessmen, some at investors, some at housewives etc. What is to prevent the customisation to go to the next level and take editorial angle. Today that might be regarded as taboo, but in future it might not me. Further what is to say that some of that does not actually happen today? For what you need is not a diametrically opposite statements on different platforms – but slight nuancing of the messaging. I am convinced that some of it actually happens. Let me illustrate:

Imagine a ‘news’ organisation has two media outlets (be it news papers or news channels or websites or a mix of them) - one catering to investors (business) and other catering to 'desi' type of audience. The government does not cut food subsidies in the budget - in the business channel the focus is going to be how bad this is bad for the country and how the subsidies are increasing fiscal deficit etc. There will be ‘so called’ experts explaining why this is a bad move and how the country is paying a high price for ’mis-targeted subsidies’.
On your desi channel, the focus is going to be how government spared lower class consumers of price increases and how this is good news for the poor etc. You will have so called experts arguing why this was the right thing to do etc.

Think this does not happen? – just observe a business daily cover page and a normal vernacular daily cover page (from the same publication house) on the day after government raises kerosene or diesel or LGP prices. One would say 'govt finally bites the bullet' other would say 'kerosene becomes costly, lower sections to get hurt'. Isn't this a case of customising news based on what your readers want to read. The middle or lower class people do not want to read why raising these prices is a good/necessary thing nor are the business class readers interested in knowing how hardly this is potentially likely to hurt the lower sections of the society and hence why this could actually be a not such a good move after all.

Another off-shoot of this customisation business is creating the perception of being ‘fair’ or being ‘objective’ is creating of debates. So for any given topic you will inevitably have two people each of who surprisingly seems to have diametrically opposite views who will come to studios (or write columns) and speak for a minute for or against the topic and we get 'both sides' of the story. What the media creates is an 'illusion of debate'. This is their way of ensuring objectivity or fairness.

Well, if this is happening, why do I think this is wrong or why am I unhappy with this. The problem I have with this, is that this is happening without it being acknowledged as such. I would have no problems with it if 'news media' were to do this but openly acknowledge that this is what they do - after all they are in the business of making money and they make money by selling 'news' and they tend to make most money when they sell what people want. It’s simple business logic.

Another problem with this way of looking at media is that then we accord far more importance to media than it ought to be. Any given reporting from the media should not be taken at face value but rather discounted as that report is probably what I wanted to hear - and so not necessarily the truth (assuming there's something called as truth in the first place - which itself is debatable).

Do I think this is how ‘news’ business should run – inevitably yes and do I think this is how news business is being run – its getting there, and do I think this is what people think of the way in which the news business is being run – absolutely NO.

‘News’ as a business of reporting facts
This is the more romantic version of the way we like to think news business is being run. Most of us like to think of ‘news’ business as a business of reporting facts – hard facts – straight into your face kind of reporting. But does I argue above, this is far from the truth. A lot of this has to do with the basic objective of a news organisation - which is to make profits (and nothing wrong with it - that's the measure we have adopted for deciding most things). So a news organisation wants to produce content which people will be ready to pay for and maximise the sum product of viewers x price.

Now, if you are publishing a single story globally – suppose (assume for the argument sake) that invading Iraq was the right thing – you tell this in middle east, no one is going to switch on your channel or read your news paper – but if you say one thing in middle east and other thing in US, you increase your profitability.

The other bigger problem with the notion of ‘news’ business as one of reporting facts is that its very rare that fact's can be reported in isolation. US invading Iraq is a fact - but that cannot be a news story. You need to tell the 'why, when, where, who and how' of facts and that's where the boundaries between facts and opinions get blurred. What is security for one is freedom for another, what is dictator for one is religion for another etc. there is hardly any middle line. How do you report what is happening in Kashmir and appeal or both sides of the borders – it’s incredibly difficult if not impossible.

Another problem with ‘news’ as a business of reporting facts is that news business is today in midst of sensationalism. Today’s all about creating sensation – its all about expos√©’s. And what comes finally is fact all right – but fact that is distorted and blown out of proportion.

In a country like India, there are more than 365 rapes that take place every year. Now the media starts reporting every single rape that happens - so there's a rape story every day in the press and then we get debates on things crimes against women are increasing and blah blah blah... A person gets murdered on a highway - he happens to be from the IT industry, and news gets made and IT industry is on the spotlight - what the hell, people get murdered everyday in this country and given that a large number of people work in IT industry and they generally earn above average salaries - they are likely targets, what's the fuss?

A reporter goes to a minister and puts cash on his table and says its just a token – you don’t have to do anything – the minister accepts it (even I would, someone’s giving me free cash!) and the story then gets made – minister gets caught red handed accepting cash – he sure did, but that does not mean that he’s done any favours or he has promised to.

All these are examples of factual reporting – but of facts which are either blown out of proportion or facts which have been artificially created.

‘News’ as a business of reporting opinions
This is the ideal case and this is what I would want every media organisation to do – simply state its opinion and not bother about making lofty claims of reporting facts. And overseas this is actually what some newspapers do overseas – some newspapers openly back parties in elections etc. But most media is a mix of reporting facts and opinions. Reporting on government policies for example one has to specifically state whether it is good for the country or bad - so what the paper is reporting is its opinion. But that opinion has to go into the editorial pages - but it often slips into the cover pages.

But the bigger problem is that the opinion of the editor may not be what the reader would want to read (simply because he does not agree with it). What happens then? What happens when the marketing department and the editorial department clash? Should the opinions be modified to suit the reader's tastes or should the editor be changed or should the opinions of the editor stay as it is in the hope that in the long run, people will appreciate the quality of reporting? I am afraid what happens in India is the former.

And this is what makes me uncomfortable with this opinion way of looking at news. In this day and age of commercialism, it is very difficult for a news organisation to take a idealistic stance and report what it thinks is the right thing (when its own opinion is just an opinion and as likely to be incorrect). The marketing department would inevitably take over slowly but surely and the paper would get transformed into option 1 – customisation and segmentation – selling what the reader wants.

So in final analysis, what we are likely to get is a media business which reports/states what the reader wants to read/hear. So as a reader we ought to give considerably less importance to media than we do currently but this is unlikely to happen until people realise the true nature of this business. This business is not about reporting facts - its about reporting stories which most people want to read/hear (stories which appeal to the masses!)

That’s it for now…..

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Commiting blasphemy - here's how

If you live in India and if you didn't swore by any of the statements below, you would be deemed to commit blasphemy. Here's my list (arranged by topics)

Business
  • Birla group, Tata group, Bajaj, Hero group represent some of the best of indian entrepreneurship and reflect some of the most efficiently managed companies and the best in terms of corporate governance
  • Reliance settlement was very shareholder friendly and carried out in the larger interest of 'minority shareholders'
  • Companies like Infosys, Wipro are some of the most sought after companies to work and their HR practices are some of the best in the country
  • Corporate India is all for liberalisation, free trade, competition
  • Sensex is fairly valued and is likely to be rangebound for some time

Sports

  • Sachin Tendulkar is the best batsman in the country and has been so for few years, having proved his mettle through his service to indian cricket over more than a decade and a half
  • Cricket fans in India are very knowledgeable of the game
  • Narayan Karthikeyan was very unlucky not to get a drive in this year's Formula One World Championship

Entertainment

  • Shahrukh Khan is the best actor in the country
  • Karan Johar is one of the best directors currently
  • Bollywood is big overseas
  • Aishwarya Rai has broken into hollywood
  • Award functions are a means of recognising and appreciating talent and performances

Media

  • Times of India is the best newspaper in the country
  • The job of media is to report facts - hard facts
  • Media does not exist purely for profits

Politics

  • Politicians are not professionals - that cannot be their profession
  • Politics is a means to serve the country and its people and make a difference
  • India is served by some highly intellectual people in the government
  • APJ Abdul Kalam has been very good as a president

Social

  • Pre-marital sex is a taboo

Alas... I disagree with every single line said above.

I commit multiple blasphemies...

God save me...

That's it for now...

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Importance of English

There are a lot of people in India, who dont' quite appreciate the importance of English. They consider English as a foreign language (which it certainly is) and a leagacy of the British rule (which again it certainly is). Then they go on to try and de-emphasize the growing importance of English in the country as a medium of communication and a medium of instruction.

The arguments of these people rests on two grounds - a) Children are best taught in their mother tongue's as that is a language which is natural to them and b) Continued use of english represents british legacy and it somehow is in conflict with our idea of sovereignity.

With regard to the first argument, I have not seen any evidence or do I believe that fundamentally there is any reason for a child to have better learning capability in one language over another. To me that sounds like a truck load of crap.

On the contrary, the second argument has some merits to it. There are a lot of people I know/have encountered who like to use English as a means on impressing people or some how proving their superiority over others. This to me is a sign of mental block. In fact many a times, I try and respond to these people in crude english or best in vernacular language.

Superiority/Command over english is no sign of one's intellect or social or economic status and
any move towards believing or assuming so is purely a reflection of one suffering from an inferiority complex.

However the point that we miss in the above discussion is how incredibly important enlish as a language is and how indespensible it is.

I recently was in a non-english speaking european country and boy, was I relieved that people there spoke english. How else do you communicate? If there's any one language today which is standard or benchmark accepted globally - it is english and thank god for it!

People who keep on harping about the adverse impact of growing importance of english in the country need to be dumped to a foreign country and asked to live without using english - that should wake them up nicely. And we are here talking about simple living - finding food, locating places etc. Then comes the complex task of actually conducting business - which calls for much more standardisation and structuring of things and that's when you realise how important it is globally to have a single common language which everyone understands. Infact on that parameter, we have a long way to go...

If there's one good thing that happened from the vast and long british empire is the spread of english. God bless them for that...

I feel like laughing when people say that just because the french president speaks in french when he speaks in public or the chinese president speaks in chinese when he is in public - that's a sign of how much pride they have in their language, and we should do the same. What crap.
If we are addressing a global audience, there is absolutely no reason why we should speak in Hindi. We should speak the truly global language - English. But, if you are addressing an indian audience by all means use the local language (again what language you will use even there is a question - use Hindi and you run the risk of annoying/not reaching the people in southern states!).

So, in conclusion English is important and more important than we realise (I just realised how under appreciative I was of this language) and thank god for it!

That's it for now...

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Objective of Life – II

The reason for writing this part II is because part I does not explain fully my thinking.

Firstly, it leaves an impression that I don’t respect people who have succeeded in their life – people who are widely acclaimed to be amongst the top in their professions. Well, this is only partly true.

It is true in the sense that I probably don’t respect these gentlemen as much as the average person does. But it’s untrue in the sense that I do not respect them. I certainly respect these guys, these guys have done well (precisely how well, and whether actually well enough to justify the respect/money they command - thats another question).

You see there’s a huge amount of survivorship bias out there when we see at these so called ‘successful people’. The successful people are survivor's first, skills, talent etc comes later on.

Let me give an example – Imagine 2 cricketer’s (A&B) starting their career at the same time. At the end of 10 games their scores are like this:

A – 0,0,0,0,0,100,100,100,100,100
B – 100,100,100,100,100,0,0,0,0,0

Other things being the same, you cannot conclude which of the two players A or B are better – you just can’t. However how likely are you to see the scores of player A? Are they as likely to be as the scores of player B? the answer is simple ‘NO’. Player A after scoring five consecutive ducks is more likely to be dropped from the team than not and thus he never gets the opportunity to score the five consecutive centuries that he otherwise could have. While player B is overwhelmingly like to get the opportunity of scoring the 5 consecutive ducks.

Thus player B survives after game 5, while player A finds himself losing out (and recollect that we cannot definitely say which of the two is a better player - the pattern of their scores being purely down to chance).

I admit that this example is slightly exaggerated, but we see this survivorship in real life. Take cricket itself for example. A new player is selected,–he gets to play a series and if he does badly: he is dropped, else he survives to play another series. And once the player establishes himself, he can afford to have a few bad series without the risk of getting dropped (notice the difference – only if you have survived a few seasons). How many Saurav Ganguly or Marvan Attapattu’s of the world do we see in real life – not many. Both these players had pathetic starts to their careers - but they then went on to become some of the best cricketers of their time – such examples are very rare.

This logic applies to all other areas. A student has to do well in the entrance exam and if she survives that he gets entry into a good college – and even if he does badly there, that college badge ensures that he starts off his career with an advantage over a person who did badly at the entrance test but did exceedingly in the not so ‘well known’ college he went to. Same logic applies to your job, business etc…

Another problem (referred to in passing above) is that success breeds success. So given two people, one having survived for longer and another a fresher and both faced with the same situation, the survivor has a higher probability of further surviving than the fresher.

In business terms this is commonly referred to as network effect. A classic example of such is a company like Microsoft. The more windows OS it sells, the harder it becomes for its competitors to penetrate the market. However this effect is more prevalent that commonly understood.

In sports for example a bad year by an established player is passed off as bad-form, but a bad series by a lesser established player and cries for him to be dropped from the team get louder.

In business, an existing company getting into a new business has a better chance of survival than a new company entering the business world per se Рsimply because of the network of contacts it has developed, financial standing and credibility it commands etc. Thus even if a new company has a better product/service, it stands in a relatively unfavourable position when competing against a existing company vis-à-vis another new entrant.

Things are worse in a country like India due to its red tape and bureaucracy. The domination of large business families is a very good pointer towards it. Notice that the onset of reform process, unshackling of controls etc, paved way for more entrepreneurs entering the business space.

Children of better off parents get to go to better schools (irrespective of whether their children deserve to go their on merit), while children of financially not so better of parents are not that privileged. Indeed children of beggars don’t get to go to school at all. If your parents are successful, you have a better probability of success. Even if you are born with Einstein’s brain in a beggar’s family, there’s very little you can do about it. And of course, you don’t get to choose things like your gender, place of birth, your parents, their financial background etc – which make a hell of a lot of difference to where you end up in life. You may be born as mentally/physically challenged – that’s a stroke of chance as well.

So in conclusion, I would just like to repeat a quote which one of my professors used in one of his classes which aptly describe my views on this topic

“Success commands explanation, Failure permits none”

That’s it for now….

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Objective of Life - I

This is one question the answer for which everybody wants but very few, if any, have it. What is few, if any, have it. Waybody wants but very few, if any, have it. What is the end purpose of life? Let me try and address this question from my view point – which in no way claims to be ‘the end purpose of life? Let me try and answer this question from my perspective. I must admit however that I do not claim my view to be complete or final in any way. It has evolved and will continue to evolve. Indeed it has undergone dramatic change over the past few years.

Firstly, let me say that there is no objective or end purpose of life. Life just exists because it exists. People who look towards some divine or supernatural reasons for existence of life are likely to be shocked by this – but that’s what it is, life did not appear on this planet with any specific purpose. Indeed when living beings procreate and give birth, the new born does not appear on this planet with any purpose.

However, human beings need some purpose to live. They need some goal in mind with which to carry on ‘living’. What is it that I want to achieve in life? – That’s a question I often ask myself. My answers to this question have been changing.

Initially I wanted respect in life. I wanted my name to appear in newspapers, magazines etc. I wanted to be interviewed on television. That to me was respect. Then my answer changed. I wanted to be rich. Until then I considered the thought of wanting to make money as perverse (I did have some communist inclinations few early on - no more!).

However off-late I find myself increasingly being sold by the randomness theory. Increasingly I believe that a lot (a hell of a lot) that happens to us is governed by pure chance (note the use of words – I say chance not fate or destiny). I distinctly remember a conversation that I had with one of my cousin a few years back where I had argued that there is no such thing as luck/chance. A man makes his own luck. If you are not successful in life (success defined in terms of respect/money as in above) then you have failed and that is because you are simply not good enough. How far I have come from that - seriously at times I laugh at the statements/views I had held a few years back. Indeed I today believe that it is to a large extent meaningless to look at the life of a given single person – it is largely a function of chance.

In the last few years I have seen lots of random shocks being subjected to people I knew which has pushed them back from achieving success in conventional terms or has taken them close to achieving it. I myself have benefited from such randomness in a positive sense. And a few of my friends have unfortunately been at the receiving end of chance.

It is but natural for many to think that I hold this view because I have myself failed in life (failed in conventional sense) – far from it. As mentioned above, I consider myself incredibly lucky. Today in a country of a billion people, I am on most parameters in top 5%. I cannot thank luck enough for that. But I equally know that this day shall pass and some day luck will not go my way – that’s OK.

So what do I think objective of life is? Well, my current view does not come from within me. I read it in ‘Fooled by Randomness’ and I immediately liked it. It said that given life’s nature – it being governed by chance, the objective should be to face that without losing dignity.

It is essential that irrespective of what chance delivers us, we keep our dignity. So if do not go bonkers if all of a sudden we are faced with grave incurable disease or you lose your fortune or you win a fortune.

I have seen my friend lose both his parents in a span of a year, having to leave his higher studies incomplete – but yet not lose his composure, not appear helpless (when in fact to a large extent he was). This to me is not losing dignity of life.

I have seen a someone coming from a not well to do financial background, not very highly educated, brought up not in city getting married into a financially well-off family - but maintain that humility that she had. that to me is not losing dignity of life.

I have seen a lady being bed-ridden for better part of 2 decades and that to in her late 30s early 40s – but always greet me with a smile, always enquiring about others, wishing them well, giving children sweets when they came. Was she helpless, yes she was, did fate deal a cruel blow to her, of course it did - but she maintained her dignity.

It was so easy for all of them to give up and lose dignity - but its to their credit that they did not. They are successful people.

Another important thing – maintaining dignity also earns you respect. Respect not in the sense that you are interviewed or you are covered in newspaper or magazine. But respect in a much deeper sense. Your word counts, your presence counts and is cherished. People listen to you; they want you to talk to them. That to me is real respect.

Well, I don’t know if I will be able to maintain dignity when chance deals a blow to me (sooner or later it surely will!) – but I will try

That’s it for now…

P.S - Part II to follow

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Coaching Classes - A prisoner's dilemma this

Seeing full page advertisements of various coaching classes in newspapers reminds me of game theory and how in a classic prisoner’s dilemma, players with no collusion (tacit or otherwise) end up in way below optimal equilibrium.

The way this coaching class business works is this, advertisements are released driving home the point of how crucial even a single point is in this competitive world. Poor parents, have no option to opt in to these classes as they see their neighbors’ doing the same. They can’t be seen to be the one’s who don’t invest for their child’s future. The fact of the matter is that when everyone around you is going into these classes, a given parent has no option as his child is the one left behind then.

However, the irony is that it is not the absolute level of points scored that makes the difference but the relative level. Given that number of seats available in a given college is fixed, if the average points scored by the students increases, that makes no difference to the possibility of a student getting admission. What matters is where he lies relative to other applicants. Thus if all the students go to coaching classes for increasing their score, it makes no difference as long as the relative ranking does not alter, however if only some of them go to these coaching classes then the relative ranking changes (assuming of course that coaching classes and marks are at least slightly positively correlated) and thus a given particular parent has to enroll his/her child into a coaching class – a classic case of prisoner’s dilemma

Now you may wonder why I am singling out coaching classes. Surely this logic applies to schools also and to quite simply students studying. If all students collude and decide not to study at all, then things become quite different.

Let me clarify, I am not against coaching classes. But I am someone who believes that incremental thinking/approach taken to far leads to ridiculous situations like the one with coaching classes. Imagine a child of class X or class XII. He spends the better part of 12-14 hrs of a day in school/college, coaching classes etc. Then he further has to take practice tests. So, on an average he is doing nothing but study for 15-16 hrs a day and he is 15-16 years old! And on top of that at the end of the day, this does not put him in any greater advantage than when all the students were spending only half amount of the time. There are far better and important things for a child of that age to do than read text books, take notes and write exams. What a waste of youth this, what a waste...

However we cannot do anything about this. Every incremental hour a child spends in a coaching class can be justified and it increases his/her chances of success (success not in life but in getting admission to a better college/university). However when we compare the situation we find we are in today with what the ideal situation should or can be, we can see how far we have come and how little good all this is doing to our youth.

What’s the solution? Well, there ain’t one. May be if we have plenty of very good colleges/universities we could control the problem slightly, but I doubt it. Regulation through legislative action or otherwise would do no good and in fact raise public outcry against the action. All I can say is that I am extremely happy to not to have found my selves in that situation when I was of that age. The credit certainly goes to my parents as well, who did not want to push me into that rat race (whether by design or accident is immaterial). And I am not in too bad a position professionally to think that I lost something by not being in the top colleges!

That’s it for now….