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Friday, January 2, 2015

Capitalism lessons from Dallas Buyer's Club

I finally watched Dallas Buyer's Club yesterday - amazing movie and acting - definitely deserved its 3 Oscars and 6 nominations. But boy the movie also had a most interesting set of themes related to capitalism theories! Spoiler alert ahead.

The movie portrays real life hero Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey's character) as a true blue Texan with a devil-may-care attitude towards rules. When Ron sees demand, he wants to create a market. Pure free market approach. And free markets worked so well in this case. In the infancy of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when US regulators were moving far too slow in allowing effective new drugs to launch in the US, unauthorized buyer's markets created pockets of solutions by importing drugs and distributing them to dying patients. Supply finally met demand, bypassing market constraints, even if in a quasi-legal way. +1 for capitalism.

Funny thing is, in the same token the movie also dramatically portrays the perils of naked capitalism. The FDA clearly put the interest of big pharma companies ahead of public health - and dying patients. Its a typical case of legitimizing corporate profit seeking behavior through lobbying. Cue John Oliver's amazing humor on regulators' failing their roles, this time in the case of net neutrality. Non-video link here.

Getting back to Dallas, what can one say? Ironic moral of the story: Capitalism partially solved a problem that capitalism created!

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The grapes of drought

Visited California 2 weeks back. Huge drought all over the state apparently. Been going on for 4 years or so. Very likely caused by climate change. Agriculture affected severely, and the Golden State does produce half of the US' fruits and vegetables. Two major storms last week (biggest in 5 years) barely improved the situation as per scientists.

And yet. NO way of knowing there is a drought going on if you weren't told. Almost zero impact on residents' lifestyle. Sure, you are requested not to water your lawns in the interest of conserving water. But that's a cerebral request and a cerebral response by residents. No real pinch felt anywhere, for instance, through water rationing or occasional water cuts. Heck, water runs in all taps 24x7 in the Golden State even in the middle of this unprecedented drought.

Now, I am not complaining about this state of affairs. Far from it. In fact its heartening to know that despite such little impact on real lifestyles, people are driven to think about the drought and respect it. And California is definitely the most eco-conscious state in the country. But the tragedy is that many citizen of the first world, for all their well meaning intent, dont realize the true seriousness of some issues:

What does it mean to be bereft. What does it really mean to live with scarcity? How badly can Mother Earth hurt you if you don't care. 

If all a drought means is that you don't water your lawn (!), then you are obviously going to take time to get sensitized to reducing wastage in general. Forget general sensitivity, even specifically with regards to water, lower lawn watering aside, most places in CA didn't even bother with simple measures like water saving taps or 2-way control shower knobs (temperature + volume). And that is my gripe. This drought could have been a golden opportunity for nay-sayer Americans to experience firsthand the perils of ignoring climate change and favoring a devil-gives-a-damn lifestyle. But we probably remain a long way from giving up reckless insensitive things like gas guzzling V6 sedans and 18 foot long Chevrolet SUVs, non-stop air conditioner / heater usage, and ridiculously excessive use of plastic bags and paper napkins.

Disclaimer: All of my water-related lifestyle observations for Californians are based purely on personal experience at this point

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

SIAM is the state of the Indian auto industry

News is out that two more Indian hatchbacks failed the Global NCAP crash test recently. And not just failed, but failed miserably (0 stars out of 5). One of the two cars is India's 2nd largest selling car model (Maruti Suzuki Swift), and the other comes from multinational player Nissan (the Datsun Go), so its obviously damning news. This is on top of five other popular models that failed with 0 star ratings in January. But despite all this, look at the reaction that the director of the official industry body (SIAM) offers:

"It is just scaremongering" 
"Global NCAP can do what they want. We have our own safety road map that we are going to follow and are already following." 
"...the UK-based agency has not considered that average speeds in India are lower than in the developed world, due to poor road conditions and heavy traffic"** 

Now Maruti Swift & Datsun Go Fail NCAP Crash Tests

Links by Reuters and BBC here and here.

Does SIAM not know that India has the worst road safety record in the world? Granted, passenger car safety is just one part of the entire issue (poor road design and conditions, lax driver attitudes towards traffic rules, lack of respect for vulnerable users like pedestrians or scooterists, etc.). However, passenger car safety is actually the easiest one to fix. Just make airbags compulsory on all cars, or specify minimum structural rigidity for instance - these are not major changes. But this is not the first time that SIAM has tried to turn a blind eye to safety. In the past, the lobby group has actively tried to scuttle moves to improve safety norms or make airbags compulsory - simply because sales would dip somewhat. Agreed, many Indian customers are still cold to the idea of paying for safety, but that's changing rapidly, and anyway the role of the industry body must be to catalyze movement towards a better world, not act as a barrier. Just wish they would get rid of their naked-capitalist mentality and start thinking of total societal good.

By the way, hats off to Honda and a few other OEMs who stay well ahead of SIAM's current (antiquated) safety norms and actually offer Indian customers the same car safety as customers in the rest of the world.

**The tests were done at 64kmph. Now that's a pretty reasonable impact speed for Indian standards. Cars now typically do 80-100kmph on Indian highways, so a collision impact speed of 64kmph would probably be fairly common, especially in head-on incidents. And the point about heavy traffic is almost a joke. Traffic and low speeds is a reality in urban India, not on highways or expressways like the one below (this is increasingly the design spec for India's national highways, which carry 40% of India's people and goods). 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Sticking my neck out for a great go-to-market strategy

BharatBenz is the Indian arm of Daimler commercial vehicles, launched in 2012. I have been supremely bullish on their prospects right since I first heard of them in 2011. Here are a couple of links: Link 1Link 2. After some initial stress, they seem to be doing really well now.

In my opinion, Daimler's approach captures nearly everything that a multinational must do when entering a large new market like India:

1) Emphasizing the core offering. Daimler has launched trucks which are a perfect blend - global products that are appropriately engineered for India. These products hit close to international standards, but are not over-engineered either and are actually 'just right' for emerging markets like India. So pricing is not absurd, and the offer actually appears to hit a sweet spot on the performance-price frontier (~10-20% price premium). Further, the trucks are also fairly customized for India. For instance, there is a laser-like focus on fuel efficiency, which is Indian customers' priority #1. Through all the de-specing and customization, these trucks still are an order of magnitude ahead of conventional Indian trucks when it comes to quality and engineering, so that way Daimler has stayed true to its core competence.

2) Building up distribution muscle. Large, complex markets like India require multinationals to penetrate deep via distribution if they are to get out of the fringes and become major players. Daimler has partnered with experienced retailers in all the major trucking hubs of the country. There is still some way to go on distribution, but for a new entrant, they have done a great job on the distribution front.

3) Appropriate investments, management bandwidth, patience. All of the above requires hefty investments, as opposed to a low-cost replicate model that may be relevant to smaller countries. Daimler has made some pretty significant investments into a new R&D center which engineered trucks for India. Maximizing fuel efficiency required months and months of fine-tuning. They spent a lot on a factory in India as well, as on building up the distribution network. And on the management front, Daimler seems to have made BharatBenz a priority at the highest levels, thus guaranteeing high leadership attention. Finally, there is the acknowledgement that a market like India is not a short term play, but is actually a measured bet on long term success in what will become a major future market. Damiler has also astutely planned for the India investment to also reap dividends in emerging markets across the world - BharatBenz trucks will be exported to key EMs including South East Asia and Africa.

These are just a few of the many things Daimler seems to be doing right. The market is pretty strained though (overall CV sales were down ~30% last year), and truckers are taking time to warm up to BharatBenz. Of course they might have also got one or two things wrong during the launch, but overall, they are already #3 in market position, which is amazing (within a year of launch they have leapfrogged players like Volvo and Navistar). The big two are really far away though (Tata and Ashok Leyland together command ~75-80% market share, with Daimler bringing up #3 at ~5%!).

In all, I believe BharatBenz has got a great go-to-market strategy. Let me go out on a limb here and proclaim that they will be a big success in the next few years.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Eating cheetahs

Sailfish. Faster than cheetahs, predators just like cheetahs. Apex predators both. Yet cheetah killing is obnoxious, but sailfish are casually slaughtered and eaten (euphemism: they are 'fished'). No guilt. When will we stop treating ocean dwellers like food, and instead start protecting them? When will a tuna burger be frowned upon the way we frown upon a lion meat burger?

Here is a compelling way of looking at it (Sea Shepherd Conservation Society):

A boat full of dead pandas is alarming right, but we turn a blind eye to a boat full of dead tuna.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Hello Moto

Just read that Motorola has jumped ahead of Nokia in the Indian handset market. Link here. That is just mind blowing at so many levels.

1) Motorola has achieved #4 in the massive Indian market (by volume), just on the basis of 3 models...2 if you count out the expensive Moto X
2) Motorola did this within a year of re-entering the market. Holy cow! How did they manage the sales & distribution? I know a lot of sales would have come through Flipkart and other e-commerce partners, but worth figuring out how they nailed the physical distribution bit (if they had any offline sales at all)
3) So online channels for handsets have become so significant? Wow
4) Typical price points for large-volume handsets have moved north of Rs. 10,000? (~$200). That's a 100% jump from just a couple of years back
5) How low has Nokia fallen. I mean, they were struggling with smartphones, but couldn't they have at least nailed the low-end of emerging markets with Asha and other models? Just goes on to show how terrible their strategy was to not launch in Android
6) Indian customers were so quickly willing to let go of all their baggage with regards to the Motorola brand. I remember a time when Motorola was seen as a dog brand...didn't matter if they came up with a few good models, their negative brand value hurt them so bad (like Fiat or Chevrolet in the Indian car market right now). Boy has Motorola moved on from those times!

Quite something.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Offshoring vs Reshoring

There was an interesting article last month in Forbes about how manufacturing costs are really rather irrelevant for niche products. Link here. Makes a lot of sense.

And now we have another interesting case about a similar theme. It's Harley Davidson this time. Link here.

Its good that we have swung back from the extreme. Hope the bandwagon doesn't go the other way now. We already saw Google / Motorola try domestic manufacturing with some of their electronics (Moto X, Nexus Q)...didn't really work it looks like.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Animals and children

The other day I read 'The Crows of Pearblossom', a children's book by Aldous Huxley [minor spoiler alert]. I was curious to read it because of the author, whose dystopian novel 'Brave New World' I really liked. Apparently Huxley wrote this story for his niece, who was 5 or so at the time. Its a pretty nice story with many delightful instances of the protagonists having human characteristics (anthropomorphism). However, it was also a sadly typical tale where a carnivore (a snake in this case) is shown as evil.

That got me thinking, how important it is to sympathetically portray carnivores in children's books/movies. We are all intuitively driven to like 'cute', harmless creatures like rabbits or cows, and its also easy to show them as nice characters / heroes in our stories. Carnivores by dint of their diet, often end up playing the role of villains. They loom over the heroes of the tale, promising death or danger. Their personality then is also logically shown as dark or even outright evil. Isn't it ironic, given we ourselves as humans are biologically omnivores (I know many of my friends could possibly be categorized as pure carnivores given their dietary choices!).

The point is, though its easy as a narrator to show carnivores as the villains, are we not obliged to show them in a neutral / positive manner? Are we not creating an unhealthy fear / dislike for carnivores in our children by painting them black in otherwise shiny white tales? Think about it: children should be taught to be careful around carnivores like snakes, but why should they all consistently dislike snakes but adore say, sparrows?

Humanity has struggled with letting carnivores be in peace for a long time. Its almost as if we psychologically like to destroy other predators (especially apex predators like the big cats, wolves, or large birds of prey like eagles). Part of it is safety, but a lot of it is also just some primeval form of one-manship. Just look at all those photos of kings triumphantly posing with dead tigers. Given our own issues, isn't it time we stopped loading our children with emotional baggage about the supposed wickedness of carnivores?

Disclaimer: I am not saying we deliberately mis-portray carnivores in children's tales, just that we often take the easy route out when sketching animal characters, which ends up priming our kids poorly. Huxley himself idly made up this story for his niece one afternoon, which is quite fine for a one-off. Dreamworks' Madagascar is a good example where the storytellers explicitly played with the dynamic tension of having a mixed set of carnivores and herbivores in the lead cast (scene where Alex the lion starts to crave his friend Marty the zebra as a juicy steak). 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Flyovers of fancy

I have been meaning to write about 'class-ism' in Indian urban planning for a while now. In a nutshell, this is how it works: We deliberately invest a lot more into private transport - which supposedly* favors the elite - and willfully under-invest in public transport.

I first noticed this when all these flyovers started popping up in our cities about 10-15 years back. It was a step in the right direction, sure. I mean, our cities are tearing apart so bad that any transport infrastructure is well received. However, the tragedy was that for a full decade or so after we entered the flyover boom, everyone only focused on the flyovers. No one really cared about public transport systems like metro rails or BRTS. Thankfully that's changing a bit now, with metros coming up in about a dozen cities, and several tier 2 cities experimenting with the BRTS. And yet the tragedies remain - of an elitist mindset which mindlessly favors private car users. Some examples below.

1. JJ Flyover in Mumbai is off-limits for motorbikes. The JJ Flyover is a 3 km long elevated road which avoids congested parts of South Bombay and saves 15 minutes of travelling time at least. Bikes were banned on it a couple of years back, ostensibly to prevent biker deaths arising from speeding. Really? Can't we just have better speedbreakers on the sharp turns? The real reason seems to be that (we) car guys want to cruise down that nice stretch of road without having to deal with buzzy bikers.

2. Mumbai's new Eastern Freeway is off-limits for truckers. This new 11 km long entirely elevated road provides an alternate exit point from the city's commercial center in the south, to the mainland in the north. Thing is, one of India's largest ports, Mumbai Port, is also in the Southern part of the island city. As of now, truckers exiting the port have to crawl right across the city to reach their destinations. The freeway would have been ideal for truckers to get a quick exit because of its proximity to the port. Heck, most of the freeway was actually built on port trust land. See map below. The dark yellow line going all the way north is the new freeway. Bang next to the entry point is the port (red area in the South). And yet the freeway was only designed for cars.

3. Most Kolkata roads are now off-limits for cyclists. 
While most cities in the world are encouraging cycling, the Bengal government is doing its best to keep "them annoying cyclists" off the roads! Couple of links here and here.

These are just a few examples of our faulty mindset. The hoopla over the Bandra-Worli Sealink in Mumbai also comes to mind. Did you know that traffic on this bridge has actually fallen in the last 4 years? This Mumbai Boss article also talks about the Sea Link and some of the megalomania / elitism that ails our urban planning. When will we realize that encouraging private car usage on constrained roads will only lead to disaster for our cities? I have some thoughts on what is wrong with Mumbai's local train network, and how it could be improved a lot with a little effort. Will try to write on that shortly.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Of Droughts And Men

Revisited Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath after a while. Epic as ever. However my thinking has changed in the intervening years, and in some aspects I don't quite agree with Steinbeck anymore.

The machines are shown to be heartless while the farmers are connected with the land. He who tills the land with his blood and sweat is the rightful owner of the land - not some large corporation. Steinbeck pretty much proposes that we stop the march of modernization. Go against the natural scheme of things in a way.

However, the Dust Bowl of the 1920s was a human tragedy caused by overpopulation.The implications on human life were tragic, but fact remains that we ended up over populating an area which couldn't sustain the human density. Natural balance had to occur. Maybe I appear radical because most droughts or famines could then be explained away as 'natural corrections'. What about the eyes of helplessness, the starving children, etc? As an answer, I think we just need to expand our lens a bit.

We as a species have taken over forests and converted them into farmlands. Sent several species into extinction in the process. There could have been a similar impassioned appeal by nature against man. But the fact is, it was in the natural course of things. About 20,000 years ago, we became at last the one species in the history of the earth which could control master our environment. And in the race of life (survival of the fittest), we did what we had to do - took as much control of our environment as possible. In the process, if we over-stretch ourselves at some places, we just need to realize the implications.

Grasslands are by definition areas where denser vegetation is unable to survive (due to difficult climate). Instead, they sustain a delicate ecosystem comprising grasses, birds, small rodents, etc. However we humans have time and again converted grasslands into farms. The result? These farms may run fine for 10 or 20 years, and then boom, one day nature catches up via a large drought. Steinbeck himself talks about this sequence of events (rampant agricultural-ization of Oklahoma wildlands) as the precursor to the dustbowl events of the 1920s. So when the drought did hit, population was bound to rebalance. Then why blame the machines?

I believe that the same issue holds true for semi-arid areas of the Indian subcontinent. Parts of Vidarbha, Telangana, perhaps Orissa...they probably can't sustain the level of farming we have today (where every square inch of non-hilly terrain is under farms). Absolute recipe for disaster. Agricultural advances in the 60s (Green Revolution) mean that at least the farmers in these regions wont die for lack of food, but it becomes difficult for them to sustain anything but the most basic, haphazard lives. Perhaps that is the reason why tragic farmer suicides are so common here. But while this human tragedy has been unfolding over the last few decades, an equally tragic consequence has been the extermination of grassland species. The Great Indian Bustard is of course the poster-boy of grassland species. Nearly extinct. So too are dozens of other, smaller species. How is one to say which is the greater tragedy?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Shangri La Vanishes

Opened the HT this morning and saw an ad for some new 'Palladium Hotel' in Mumbai. A closer look revealed that this is the erstwhile Shangri La hotel! Gosh that was quick! The place opened 9 months ago and is already in trouble. A quick google search confirms it - the asset owner (Phoenix mills) and the operator have 'mutually agreed to part ways'.

I was always suspicious of the uber-luxury hotel's location, and will stick my neck out and say location would have played a big role in the hotel's failure. Nothing against Lower Parel - I mean, 4 Seasons is doing fine there - but the exact location of this high-end hotel was pathetic if you ask me. Bang next to a crowded mall (the most crowded in Mumbai I would think), with insane traffic in the few hundred meters leading up to the hotel. Which hotel guest would like to see the hotel in front of their eyes and still spend 30 mins in the car waiting for traffic to open up? Actually the entire Lower Parel area has terrible traffic problems, and the 4 Seasons is probably safe because its location is more Worli than Lower Parel.

The news article says the asset owner was in talks with another operator, but looks like they have had to go solo on this one. I think its a terrible turn of events for them. Without the backing of a global hotel chain, it will be oh-so-difficult to get guests to even know about the existence of this 'Palladium hotel', forget choosing it. And Phoenix is kind of stuck with the high-end positioning at least for a few years because of the amounts they have invested on the rooms. Lets see how they wriggle out of this one. The ad did give me an idea - they are strongly focusing on the restaurants and wedding banquet facilities than on the rooms. Well best of luck to them!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

UPA, stop throttling the private sector please

GM, Suzuki, Honda, Ford, Daimler under I-T lens for allegedly selling cars at a loss

Ridiculous stuff. Kill the golden goose already. This government is so concerned about its deficit that Vodafone alone couldn't satiate its hunger, now its also harassing loss-making auto MNCs!

Instead, why don't they stop blowing up money on that ever-consuming sink called Air India? Rs. 30,000 Crores we blew up on it last year. And of course all the myriad subsidies. God save this country from the populist Congress party.

Its like borrowing money off a credit card to go donate to charity - forever.

PS: Just saw this article on the 'greedy' taxmen
How can we get investor confidence back if taxmen treat businesses as per se shady?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

All because we don't connect with fish...

The Bluefin Tuna. As numerous once as the American bison. As majestic as the bison. Today it faces the same fate as the bison - complete annihilation. Time article here. Below is a para from an old but eye-opening NatGeo feature on Bluefin:
Do we countenance such loss because fish live in a world we cannot see? Would it be different if, as one conservationist fantasized, the fish wailed as we lifted them out of the water in nets? If the giant bluefin lived on land, its size, speed, and epic migrations would ensure its legendary status, with tourists flocking to photograph it in national parks. But because it lives in the sea, its majesty—comparable to that of a lion—lies largely beyond comprehension.

And another excellent portion...
...all agree that the fundamental reform that must precede all others is not a change in regulations but a change in people's minds. The world must begin viewing the creatures that inhabit the sea much as it looks at wildlife on land. Only when fish are seen as wild things deserving of protection, only when the Mediterranean bluefin is thought to be as magnificent as the Alaska grizzly or the African leopard, will depletion of the world's oceans come to an end.
But you know, the rot is deeper. Man will not rest till he exploits and ruins every single natural resource at his disposal. The Anthropocene (Age of Man) is truly here, and we have already permanently disfigured a great planet in an unprecedented fashion. Decimated its biodiversity. Read more about our age here:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

'My main brand is better. Always. Period.'

I came across a couple of news articles recently which talk of how MNCs in India are trying to 'adjust' the relative strength of their portfolio brands to mirror their global situation. What that means is that globally Brand A might be stronger than Brand B, and if the case is reversed in India, the corporate honchos will do all they can to make Brand B weaker than A.

The first example is Coca Cola India, which is (as usual) trying to push brand Coca Cola ahead of its brother brand Thums Up. Link here. The other example is of Volkswagen trying its best to prove to Indian customers that the VW brand is actually superior to Skoda. Link here.

Neither company is trying this for the first time. Coke has been attempting fratricide on Thums Up for over a decade now, and VW has been after subsidiary Skoda's brand equity since they entered India in 2007. Both have failed spectacularly - and yet they continue their efforts. Why?

The articles highlight some of the management thinking that goes behind such decisions: "We need our brands to be consistently positioned across the globe", "We want to offer our consumers the same experience world over", so on and so forth.

Maybe I don't understand long term multinational branding strategy too well, but it looks like these companies are actually going away from what customers are telling them about their brands. The current strategy of keeping Coke prices lower than Thums Up prices is still ok - at least it isn't actively hurting Thums Up. But Coke did exactly that a few years back when it famously stopped ALL marketing support for Thums Up while egging the Coke brand on. As a customer did you or I care? We still drank Thums Up by the droves and kept it a clear No. 1 in India. Today thankfully Coke gives brand Thums Up good marketing support, though the itch is always there to support brand Coke more (from the article: "...Vision 20:20 as it's called internally, most critical markets have been asked to show volume growth for the flagship brand")

The VW-Skoda story may not have such a reasonably happy ending though. Skoda entered India early (in 2001, vs 2007 for VW), and has built some tremendous brand equity here over the last decade. VW is forcibly trying to put Skoda 'in its place' - as a 'budget brand' below brand VW. Therefore all Skodas are now ~5-10% cheaper than VWs. There are two things to consider here.

One, the Indian customer's love and respect for brand Skoda is driven by the core product offering - the Octavia, Laura, and Superb have all been massive hits here. And all play in the 'premium' space, so lower pricing may not matter for customers. They may simply see Skoda as an even better deal - strong brand with great pricing.

But two, there are fears Skoda quality may go down to ensure the lower price points can be met. Now that would be a tragedy. And an ironic one at that. Skoda is a brand on the move, shedding its legacy quality issues in Europe and become a truly strong player. If these same legacy issues cause it to forever remain an underling brand to VW (with poor quality at that), then we would have come a full circle!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Newspapers in the news

GigaOM has an interesting article on how paywalls are a terrible idea for newspapers. The debate has been raging for years of course, and I have written in the past how solutions like DoubleRecall could help avoid paywalls. Mathew too says newspapers should look beyond the oh-so-obvious paywalls to create revenues:

To me, it makes more sense to try and figure out how to take advantage of the Web in order to provide something that the current market is likely to value, instead of focusing on how to squeeze as much as possible out of a declining market. 
However, how many newspapers have ever managed to 'creatively' monetize a website in a sustainable, ongoing fashion, without resorting to paywalls? In a sense, paywalls are the newspaper guys' answer to the book publisher guys' $10 ebooks. Sure there is no variable cost of selling each additional ebook, but you still have to charge folks per ebook to keep business running. Of course the fundamentally low cost of ebooks will probably shake up the publisher industry's high overhead costs in the long run, and reshape publishers if not destroy them completely in the long run.

However the newspaper industry has a far worse problem. While book publishers undertake the real job of hand-holding authors, helping them publish, and promoting their books (basically they do some value addition), most newspapers are just news aggregators (thanks GigaOM for the thought). And I think thats a key funda, one which may point to the long term future of newspapers, beyond just the current paywall debate.

So your newspaper basically picks up articles from agencies like AFP and Reuters, adds a few local (city/state/country) articles from a few journos on their payroll, prints them on a sheet of paper, adds a ton of advertisements, and delivers them to you in the morning. For this task their costs include

a) Payments to the agencies like Reuters
b) Printing costs
c) Salaries to journos / editors directly on their payroll (and hence not part of item 'a')
d) Overheads, overheads, and more overheads (advertising sales teams, subscription sales teams, printing staff, middle managers, regional managers, HR, Finance, etc. etc.)

Now these paper guys are having to compete with Google News, Yahoo News, Huffington Post, and a ton of other online aggregators, whose costs are only 'a', and in some cases, 'c'. Paywalls or not, how the hell are they going to compete with leaner online news aggregators whose only handicap is lack of journos / editors covering local news? If I may do some crystal gazing...

In some time agencies like Reuters and AFP will also add journos / editors covering local news onto their own payrolls. Or maybe new agencies will get created specifically for local news. But once that last bastion of newspapers is breached, there will be a big shakeout in the industry. Most smaller newspapers (who have little original content) will get wiped out. Larger ones like NYT may survive for a while. Meantime, the online guys get better and better at understanding your news needs (they are already much better at it than your print guys, who force feed random stuff down your throats all the time!). And as the final nail, some online aggregator will probably start offering a reverse newspaper down the line for the remaining paper format addicts. Imagine a Google News offering low-overhead printout and delivery (locality-level) of a Google newspaper in your exact preferred layout, but in paper format. Don't you think that might mean curtains down for conventional newspapers?

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Take it, Tenez!

Nadal quits ATP role as Federer stands firm

Nadal and Federer have time and again sparred off the tennis courts too - in the ATP players council. The boiling issue has been whether players should be ranked basis their performance over the past 1 year (current scheme), or the past 2 years (proposed). For a change I have been rooting for the Federer camp. You see, I agree with Nadal's concern that the tour is too taxing on players as they have to trot around the world to a new tournament every 2-3 weeks just to maintain their ATP points. But while 2 year based rankings may improve the fatigue situation, they will simply not reflect real form and competitiveness of players. For example, ESPN analysis towards end of 2011 shows that, even after one of the best seasons ever, Djokovic would still have been No. 2 behind Nadal had there been a 2 year ranking! I say player fatigue and resultant injuries is a very pressing issue, but can't there be other ways to address it? Reducing number of tournaments is an easy yet difficult-to-implement one, so maybe they should increase the profile (and awarded points) of mid-rung tournaments. That way top players will know they can get better returns on their efforts by choosing all Grand Slams, a few mid-rung events, and only a few lower rung affairs. Others can choose a more grueling mix if they please, with only limited chance to leapfrog higher ranked players purely on the basis of higher appearances.

But wait, isn't that what the ATP is already doing with its ATP Masters series of titles? :)

PS: All this reminds me of the ICC cricket rankings. I was wondering why India did not become No. 1 in ODI rankings even after lifting the World Cup in 2011. The team has of course gone into spectacularly decline since. Did the Reliance ODI Ranking predictor know something we didn't?

PPS: The title of the post 'Tenez', points to the origin of the sport's name. From Wikipedia: "It was not until the 16th century that rackets came into use, and the game began to be called "tennis", from the Old French term Tenez, which can be translated as "hold!", "receive!" or "take!". An interjection used as a call from the server to his opponent."

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Are you sure you are more intelligent than a dolphin?

Dolphins deserve same rights as humans, say scientists
Do read the above BBC article if you want to alter your perspective even slightly.

The great tragedy of our times is that, while we have (after centuries of slavery) accorded all human beings equal rights ('human' rights), we are not able to protect even the most bare basic of animal rights (the right to survival). Many animal species are emotionally complex and extremely intelligent. Its just that we humans, in our minuscule understanding of the world, never took the hints (see my previous article here). Its only now that we realize that several species have highly advanced languages. Blurs the line between man and animal, does it not? God knows how many more amazing things about other creatures will we get the chance to discover, before we banish them forever into extinction.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Diwali Dhamaal

There were fewer crackers this Diwali. Thank God. Hope the birds, dogs, and old people had a better day. Many people felt the awareness campaigns pulled it off. Agreed - the campaigns are picking up steam year after year. But the bigger reason if you ask me is this:!/RukeshR/status/133141450132172800
Backing article here

Diwali 'Atom Bomb'. Damn thing can apparently cause 120 db sound. Courtesy Deepak Agarwal

Thursday, October 27, 2011


This is how my thoughts have progressed over the last few years - across the interlinked disciplines of Physics, Religion, and Metaphysics. Quite volatile. Is this the end point? Who knows!

Existence of a Higher Power -> Multiverse Theory -> Buddhism (Selflessness is the goal) -> Atheism -> Determinism -> Quantum Uncertainty -> Nihilism

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Being Human

These are pictures of Prairie Dogs. Cute creatures, aren't they? Well, humans are responsible for *deliberately* decimating their population by 99% over the last century.

Prairie Dogs are among the world's best animal communicators, with one of the most sophisticated languages in the nonhuman world. Their yips and cries (from which they got the name "dog," although they are actually rodents) represent complex statements containing information they want to impart to each other: like the differences between the colors of clothes worn by passersby, or whether a human carrying a weapon had one on a previous visit. Just a hundred years back, these intelligent beings used to cover huge swathes of land all across North America. In August 1841 George Wilkins Kendall came upon a "commonwealth" of prairie dogs whose "mercurial and excitable denizens" provided some sustenance for the famished and disoriented members of the Texan Santa Fe expedition. He admired the "wild, frolicsome, madcap set of fellows...ever on the move...chattering away the time, and visiting from hole to hole to gossip and talk over each others affairs." Kendall was referring to the socially integrated activities of these animals, which include mutual nuzzling, grooming, and "barking" to express territorial claims.

These animals used to live in colonies which were so organized and so massive they would be called 'towns'. Stretching across hundreds of acres, these 'towns' would be divided into 'wards' by physical features such as ridges and gullies, and further subdivided into coteries or family groups of up to 8 individuals. One particularly massive 'town' in the Texas of the 1890s measured 100 miles by 250 miles, and contained an estimated 400 million Prairie Dogs.

Over the course of just 60 years (1901-1960), all these towns were utterly destroyed, billions of Prairie Dogs poisoned or shot, because they were considered 'varmint' and a threat to human cultivation. Apparently the poisons would take hours or days to take effect, causing the creatures immense pain before killing them.

So these intelligent, social animals had been around and thriving for millions of years, but man comes along one day and decides to kill them all to make space for himself? Wow. But the worse part is, it is now understood that these creatures don't really compete with livestock for food. In fact, they are an integral part of the prairie ecosystem - Prairie Dogs are a 'keystone' species upon which many other species of plants and animals depend for survival. But we had to come along and with our half-baked knowledge, kill them all and decimate the entire ecological balance, didn't we?

It doesn't end there. Today, 'Varmint Hunting' is a sport which is legally permitted in many states of the US (since the Prairie Dog continues to be classified as a 'pest'). Here is a description:
A particularly sadistic method of eliminating prairie dogs is by blowing them away at private "recreational" shooting contests, where shooters sit at tables near or within a colony and aim high-powered rifles at the animals as they emerge from their burrows. These "sportsmen" don't like to waste their bullets, so if they just injure a prairie dog, they consider it entertaining to watch him die slowly rather than waste another bullet. The National Rifle Association calls this cruel, bizarre event "varmint-hunting." Shooters have their own charming terminology for the various maneuvers they perform. A "triple" is one bullet that hits three dogs on a mound who are hugging each other in fear. In the "flipper," the force of the shot flips the animal backward. A "red mist" refers to the explosion of a prairie dog from a direct hit. This "sport" is accompanied by cheers from onlookers and participants, and, of course, prizes for the best shots.
The death tally at the eighth Annual Prairie Dog Extravaganza in North Dakota was 4,912, shot in a six-hour competition by 70 participants. A hunter's annual take in Utah can reach 6,000 Prairie Dogs. Just for comparison, imagine an alien coming down and killing 6,000 human beings in one season - 'for kicks'.

The shocking stories of the American Bison and the Passenger Pigeon run parallel to that of the Prairie Dog. Just like Prairie Dogs, millions of bison used to roam inner North America till the 1800s. Early settlers remarked on "plains that were black and appeared as if in motion" with the herds of bison. Then they were shot en masse - just for their skin, while the carcass of the 2,000 pound animal would be left to rot. The bison almost went extinct by the 1880s, but thankfully some have survived. Today some descendants of the mighty bison remain in protected reserves, living relatively solitary lives, instead of being tiny specks in mighty black herds stretching miles across. Passenger Pigeons weren't so lucky. These birds used to live in enormous migratory flocks. One sighting in 1866 in southern Ontario was described as being 1 mile wide, 300 miles long, and taking 14 hours to pass a single point with number estimates in excess of 3.5 billion birds in the flock. By 1905, the birds were extinct, mindlessly murdered by humans.

That's a pile of Bison skulls. Just skulls, not the whole skeletons. Link

But its not just 'them yankees'. Humans have been experts at wiping out other species for thousands of years - across the world. India had some of the thickest jungles in the world uptil just over 100-200 years ago. Then man became 'civilized' and wiped out almost all of India's forest cover. Now the Indian hinterland comprises just millions and millions of acres of farmland with impoverished farmers and their malnourished children trying to eke out livelihoods from laughably small patches of land. All jungles have been cleared out, all wildlife wiped out. Tiger population has fallen from 100,000+ to 4,000 in just 100 years, their range decimated by 93%. While we humans have, you might say, 'swarmed and infested' the Indian peninsula to the point of breakdown (our population quadrupled to 1.1 billion in the time that the tiger's fell by 25 times).

Everything that is not grey used to be tiger territory ( = almost all of India)

Human Population across centuries. Note the unbridled explosion since 1950. And yet not enough people think we are out of control (Source: BBC)

Unfortunately this is not just a feature of modern man. The arrival of man on North America 12,000 years ago is believed to have caused the almost immediate extinction of the Woolly Mammoth, Saber-toothed Tiger, and many more species. 2/3rd of the large mammals on North American disappeared in a short period after man's arrival. I can imagine and even defend a prehistoric man fighting it out for territory with mammoths and saber-tooths, and winning - but what of the one-sided decimation of all other species in today's world? What gives us the right to exterminate other intelligent species in the name of our own 'progress'? To close, I will just quote Agent Smith's classic dialogue in the Matrix:
I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure. 

Some References

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Alma Matters

So I visited the IITB campus last weekend after so many years. Had been there to give an informal talk on consulting as a career option - you see, placement season is approaching. The talk was fine and all that, but I roamed around the campus after, and it just brought back so many memories. Nostalgia is so sad yet sweet. So many things have changed in my life in these last 5 years, and yet life on campus carries on just the same. 'Freshies' were running the gruelling 'crossie' race, sophies were graduating to badminton and squash, messes were still dishing out insipid fare, and rusted cycles were still all around. A lot of infrastructure has also been added. Here are some pics: Picasa link

Sunday, September 25, 2011

They are different...

Came across a very interesting ad campaign recently: the superbowl ad for the Chrysler 200. It uses the 'Imported from Detroit' tagline to appeal to American consumers' hearts. Very astutely done in my view, because a purchase decision can sometimes be strongly driven by what your heart says rather than your head. Especially for an automobile, which is very often an extension of a user's identity. Happy to note that the campaign won 5 Cannes lions.

There are also follow ads with the same theme which are available at Chrysler's official YouTube channel.

Also came across advertisements from Tata Steel which talk about corporate values instead of product superiority. Check them out here (the ads on TV are 30-40 second clips - this is the unabridged version I guess). Watch out for the messages in the end:

The reason I liked the campaigns is because through them, the respective companies are playing to their strengths and trying to connect with customers.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Advertising 2.0

Just found out about this awesome company called DoubleRecall. Its an ad mechanism which shows web users a small advertisement and then requires them to type two keywords from the ad before they can access content. I can hear the groans..."This is the mother of all annoying ad mechanisms; move over banner ads". But wait, this is so awesome because these ads act as backdoors to content which is otherwise premium (paid). Ever got annoyed with's annoying paywall? 10 dollars a month or something like that. But now, you could probably simply read a short ad and type in a couple of words and bingo, you would be through! This has got to be one of the most innovative ad mechanisms ever! We have all read about Web 2.0, but looks like advertising has finally woken up to 2.0. Read more about DoubleRecall here. And as GigaOm points out, you can check the ads being put to use at CNN Money - especially in the latest news section.

There are pitfalls for sure: The service would definitely generate much higher recalls, but would the additional amount advertisers get willing to pay, compensate publishers sufficiently for them to open up all their paywalls? Would the nature of this advertising be sufficiently clear to readers or would they just get annoyed thinking of it as an advanced form of a banner ad? And will advertising-crazy publishers (I am looking at you Times of India) perhaps misuse the service to interrupt reader access to even free content? We will have to see how this pans out, but I am pretty hopeful!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Tablets, Ecosystems and Business Models

Just read about Amazon's awesome plans for its tablet. Its speculative, but if true this new tablet will definitely be a game changer. Consider this: everyone keeps talking about how a tablet needs an ecosystem to survive, and many pundits particularly analyzed tablet strategy after the recent HP debacle. However, Amazon is not just banking on an existing ecosystem, howsoever successful (Android), its creating an all new one!

When you think of it, it appears like such a smart thing to do. Two reasons why:

1) Amazon is massively modifying the OS's visual interface (but not necessarily the nuts and bolts). Now its not just another tablet in the wall, its clearly an Amazon product.

2) More crucially, Amazon is modifying the entire pricing game by making the tablet just a tool for delivering paid content. As per the planned model, Amazon's customers are going to be purchasing tonnes of paid content such as ebooks, music or and movies, thus enabling Amazon to subsidize the price of the device itself. Sales could zoom because the device is priced so low. Seen it before? Of course we have seen it with ebook readers. Lesson is: forget ecosystems, the Amazon guys seem to be masters at creating profitable business models. The difference is: the business model is not just about creating a nice ecosystem for end-consumers, its also about figuring out how best you can monetize your products and services. Now why didn't anyone else think of it before?

You might say companies such as Samsung or HTC don't have Amazon's strength in context to create such a model. But they could have definitely tried! Think about it: did Apple have bulletproof music record licenses in its bag when it thought of a product like the ipod back in 2002? No, but Steve Jobs had the vision to create such a product so he went ahead and negotiated music licenses before launching. Couldn't a Samsung have negotiated with, say, a Netflix and brought movies to its tablets seamlessly? A seamless movie app might or might not have been a killer app (a-la ebooks), but it could have definitely given consumers a compelling reason to choose a Galaxy tab over an ipad (not just Samsung, every single player in the market is currently struggling to come up with a compelling reason). And now Amazon's tablet is going to offer ebooks and movies in addition to plain old web browsing and apps (and probably at a discounted price too). Beat that.

An interesting point it raises is that of Google's Android business model strategy. They were (are) the masters of the PC based internet, but were starting with a blank slate in 2007-08 when it came to the mobile internet. What did they do? They went and ran away with the idea that search and search alone was going to bring them all the revenues they needed from the mobile internet as well. So they created Android and distributed it for free to the entire world of manufacturers. For sure the platform is hugely successful, but don't you think they missed a trick or two when they chose to ignore all the other ways of monetizing mobile devices? In my view these other ways could have been much more renumerative than just search. Even sticking to just software, they could have probably kept a more controlled environment and possibly asked for a cut from all paid apps, like Apple does. Or tied up with content companies such as Netflix like I suggested above. Or heck, why not just move into hardware? Amazon wasn't ever a device manufacturer was it? Still they got their hands dirty with the Kindle so that they could control the ecosystem. I will bet you Amazon is making tonnes and tonnes more money on the Kindle than Google is making through Android / Honeycomb. And the irony is, Google recently got their hands dirty with hardware anyway by acquiring Motorola for...wait for it...defending the Android ecosystem! Something for Larry and Sergey to ponder over!

PS: Turns out I was not the only one taking a hard look at Google's success outside of search. Adam has bad news not just about Android but about all of their non-search businesses.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Job of a CEO

Recently I have been thinking a bit about CEOs and the challenges they face. There is loads to be said on the topic (most of it already said) but here are a couple of notes from my end:

Some might think its a nice cushy job being at the top, but in reality, its probably the toughest job possible for someone who really wants to lead his/her company. If you think of it, by default a company is always on autopilot when it comes to the CEO's involvement. Whether (s)he does any productive work or not on a given day, its work as usual for the company. So a CEO has to manage his/her time very carefully. There has to be a good mix of:

A) Engaging with company personnel, both senior management as well as employees
B) Engaging with external entities like key clients, shareholders, business partners, the media, etc.
C) Closely monitoring the current and upcoming projects / offerings
D) Planning for the future of the company

That's a quick and dirty list, there might be some key items I am missing. But truth be said, most senior managers would already be experienced and competent at managing their daily calendars. Give or take a bit, most managers can ensure that their time is well spent on all four (or more) of the above key items on their plates. Most good managers would also probably be good at items A through C. Which brings us to D, the deathly item. This one requires Vision. This is where Steve Jobs breaks away from the pack. It requires passion, creativity, balls. This is the make or break item. Unfortunately many CEOs seem to fall into the break category by attempting to do too much.

I have been reading with interest how HP's new CEO Leo Apotheker has been trying to steer the company in a certain direction (towards enterprise, away from personal computing). Most pundits have panned the choices he has made - while on the surface he seems to be following IBM's Louis Gerstner's moves, it may not necessarily work for HP. Here is a great article on what HP is doing wrong. And here is another. They bring out interesting topics such as:

a) A CEO's dilemma about letting a good thing be, versus showing the world his work, his plan, his agenda
b) The problem of planning for the 10 year horizon when a CEO's job may only be for a few years. Also, balancing growth with quarterly performance expectations
c) Working in a territory outside of your comfort zone (Leo is the ex-SAP CEO hence more comfortable with enterprise than consumer businesses. Is that why he dumped WebOS without giving it a fair chance? On similar lines, many pundits are also panning Nokia's Stephen Elop about eloping towards his old company Microsoft when devising Nokia's all important platform strategy)
d) The problem of squeezing a company too dry by going for aggressive cost cutting. HP's old CEO Mark Hurd seems to have done it, putting pressure on the incoming one to deliver results which are tough to replicate.

The articles also bring out some crucial questions about the role of a board. How careful should they be when hiring a CEO, especially from an outside industry. Or, how much should they engage when CEOs talk about large scale changes such as big M&As or spinoffs. I mean, here is the new CEO talking about selling off the main business of the company. Admittedly, HP's PC business is low margin, but hey, this is the global market leader PC brand we are talking about! The world's biggest PC company. Can a CEO shrug it off so easily? Where is the discussion, the debate?

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. That's it from my end for tonight.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What ails Infrastructure in India?

When I think of problems with infrastructure in India, the first thing that comes to my mind is: Funding (or rather, the lack of it). If you think about it, there is simply no comparison between the government infrastructure budgets of India and say, China. Our government just does not seem to have the money to build thousands of miles of high speed bullet train corridors, or 12 lane freeways, or dozens of world class ports. Where is the money in India? The flagship road infrastructure agency NHAI here has a miniscule Rs. 15,000 Crore budget annually, give or take a few. That is no comparison to the trillion dollar budgets China's agencies have. Can an MMRDA ever think of demolishing all of Mumbai and rebuilding it, a la Shanghai? So why is the Indian state struggling with infrastructure funding? Lets look around at how others built their infra.

The Middle Eastern nations built their infrastructure by pouring billions of dollars of oil money into the sector. This money was always in state hands as petroleum is routed for export sales through government owned entities. But China does not have such resource driven luxuries, so where is their money coming from? I mean, if a Chinese factory exports plastics or toys or electronics or whatever, the revenues go to private hands right? So who is bankrolling the massive infra projects? As an answer, I find it amazing that a primary source of revenue for the Chinese government could be indirect (taxes on corporates). When we then move to India, is it just that Indian exports are so much lesser, or is there inefficiency in resource management (corruption / loopholes in corporate taxation) too?

When I briefly brought the topic up with Pankaj Vaish of Citigroup*, he said that in his mind the key issue isn't actually lack of funds with the government - its execution. If infrastructure execution in India were actually smooth, the private sector would be more than willing to pump in all the money required for all our projects. He pointed out that our land acquisition is so slow and tormented, coordination between agencies so poor, and pace of approvals and execution so slow that international players simply don't feel confident about investing into Indian infra. These are entities otherwise sitting on trillions of dollars of money ready to be invested in emerging markets. Why would they not want to diversify their EM portfolio between equities and some stable, long term infra financing? Very fair point. So the fact that we are a democracy (and a badly administered one at that) is stopping our infra from taking off. Hmm.

There is one caveat though. Private funding for PPP projects (Public Private Partnerships) works well only when we talk of positive NPV projects such as toll roads or airports. You might say many other infra projects have viability gap funding to ensure PPP, but there is an implicit assumption in there. That the government has enough money to provide the viability gap funds. Which goes back to what I spoke about earlier right? Think about it, if you consider a project like the rebuilding of an entire city, there is only so much return it can generate. So private money can't bankroll all (or even most) of such a project. Not just this, there are way too many such infrastructure projects which are a social responsibility on the government's part even if they are not economically viable. The PPP model cant be a panacea - a solution for all cases in my view. Example: Urban planning (Metros and other Mass Rapid Transportation, Building Reconstruction, Intracity roads), Rural roads (difficult to impose tolls), High speed train networks, etc. Even if some of these projects can be successfully completed using Viability Gap Funding, I think we will still end up with too many projects which fall short of funds. Any ideas?

*Pankaj is the Head of Markets, Citigroup for all of South Asia. He was part of a panel discussion I attended recently in Worli. The two other members part of the discussion were Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, popularly known as India's Warren Buffett, and S P Kothari, Deputy Dean of MIT Sloan School of Management. I particularly sought out Pankaj's views on infra after the discussion because of his astute observations on other macroeconomic issues India is facing, particularly inflation.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The trip

From the glaciers and muck of Rohtang Pass, on to the Ganja fields of Manali. Past countless landslides and raging rivers. Then past the grand old Grand Trunk road and on to the shiny facades and rotting roads of Gurgaon. Followed by a lunch by the Taj. The real one in Agra. Past the countless cows of Bundelkhand. Then a night dash across the Chambal valley - beautiful in the moonlight. Past broken Madhya Pradesh roads and past the dense forests of Central India. Past amused monkeys and Pench's Rudyard Kipling resort. Onto the home run - the under-construction expressways of Telangana. Himachal Pradesh to Hyderabad. 2200 km in 60 hours. One hell of a roadtrip.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Tu-144

Just came across the amazing story of the Tupolev Tu-144. One of the biggest engineering disasters I have read about!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Boredom and Creativity

Interesting piece by Dilbert's Scott Adams on creativity and how its linked to boredom. I am not sure we can (just yet) draw implications of the lack of boredom to how society is stagnating, but definitely on a personal level I do agree that you need time on your own to be able to be creative.

On the one hand, being so tuned in to the world (smartphones, tablets, kindles, etc.) actually helps stimulate things in your head. At least someone like me, I observe things, and I think. The more external stimulus I get, the more my mind starts racing. So its good in a way. And most of the things that I have ever blogged about came to life in this fashion.

But that's only one kind of stimulus. When I try to embark on something different, something bigger, then all these devices become distractions. I am having to fight out time from my schedule so that I can complete that short story I have been writing. And also certain other heavy topics that I like to think about - such as economics - I need time alone to muse. Ever noticed how all your best ideas come about when you are in the shower or the loo? No? Well at least that's the case with me. Guess its something to do with lateral thinking. Your brain gives you the best solutions when its not directly thinking about the problem. New perspective you might say. Not just showers or loos, I am glad to report that long commutes also out work for me and my brain. So next time you are stuck in traffic why don't you put on some nice music on the radio and let your mind wander?

Before I close, let me mention that I do think the information 'overload' of our times can be quite dangerous if all you do is consume mindless, purposeless content. It is one thing to read all the latest gadget news through your smartphone, or download some great books over your kindle, but if all you do is watch lame youtube videos or countless movies or reality shows on television, then in my view you are definitely abusing the marvels of technology. In this battle between boredom and creativity, I guess there needs to be a balance between entertainment and education; information absorption and thought generation; too little free time and too much of it. Cheers!
(Yes I know the last line is a motherhood, thank you very much!)

Monday, August 8, 2011

Values, a luxury not a choice

A couple of weeks back I was trying to go home from work around 8pm and it was raining like crazy. It took me a whole hour to find a cabbie who would agree to take me home. I kid you not, a full 60 minutes – during which I walked all across Nariman Point and even reached Churchgate, fully drenched despite the umbrella. People who have lived in Mumbai can appreciate how hard it gets to find a cab when its raining. When I finally did find a cab, I promptly began venting about how Mumbai cabbies act like crooks when it comes to taking on passengers, especially when its raining (FYI, the law states that a cabbie cannot refuse a passenger irrespective of where he/she wants to go). I was righteously indignant, but he said something that shut me up. He said,

“Sir, rules are rules, but a man has to look out for himself. If I try to be a sincere guy and take you home to Wadala when its pelting, I will probably not find another customer there for hours. I still have to pay a flat Rs. 400 to my seth for a 12 hour shift because I don't own the car. But you will not pay me a paisa more than the meter fare, will you?”

“Or, fording through waterlogged roads, maybe my rundown old cab will break down. Will you walk away unconcerned, or will you try and help me get it repaired? Or do you think there is a government department or an insurance company who will help me out if my car breaks down in the rains?”

“On a more elementary level, every day of my life is spent trying to scrounge out as much money as possible. There is a wife and kids and parents and siblings all waiting back home for me to earn some money so that they can live. Sure I would like to be the ideal cabbie who is honest and upright and stands up to his customers – who wouldn’t – but do I have the luxury of putting values ahead of money? “

It was compelling logic. If you put values ahead of selfish gains, your kids wont be able to afford even a half-baked education back in the village. If you die or something unfortunate befalls you, no government will give a damn for your family. It’s a wild wild world, and each man has to look out for himself.

And that is a large part of the problem we face in countries like India. Too many people are running their lives six feet from the edge, desperately trying to make a life out of the deal fate has handed them. Can you or I afford to lecture them on values? Sure there is rapid economic growth. But that is far too often distorting the wealth equation than resolving socio-economic issues for the unfortunate millions. Having started from abject poverty, this country is rapidly morphing, and wealth is being created within the span of years, even months, instead of lifetimes. While millions watch from the sidelines, unable to participate. Those with half a chance – like the cabbies who rejected me – are racing as hard as they can trying to make ends meet. Perhaps the land of Gandhi does not have the luxury to value values in today’s circumstances.

Sure you might say everybody has a choice. And I am sure there are many in this great land who continue to uphold values above many other things in life. But I don't think you or I have the right to judge the rest very harshly.

PS: I have been thinking about Values a little bit lately. There are some interesting themes to cover in business values too. Will cover them soon.