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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...