Tuesday, September 5, 2017

My Independence Day thoughts

Some thoughts on India's development processes while celebrating 70 years of independence.

The single most important thing we can do to make India better is to stop assessing it's development metrics as a monolith. With respect to economics, human development, industrialization, health and sanitation, education, employment etc, our variances are very vast! We should stop looking at indices like national GDP growth rate, IIP, gross food grain production, overall budget of healthcare etc. Not to forget the single most useless number, national consumer price index (CPI), that is being used as an inflation monitor by RBI. These numbers hold little value when variances are so large.

The 4 slabs of GST rates is not just an outcome of political shadow boxing, but ground realities of the vast systemic economic differences that exist in our country. We ought to go down to district or panchayat level indicators & indices with respect to healthcare, inflation, education, GDP, sanitation, unemployment figures to understand local effects. We ought to analyze the demography through the prism of class, income and economic condition and study the indices of each segment separately not just geographically.

The number of people who get missed by margins of error in even state based indices could run into millions, offset by few high value data points. E.g., A flash transporters strike may not affect a well stocked reliance fresh store that has good food storage facilities but will affect the street vendors in the same area. This in turn affects the corresponding consumer class in that area.

So, let's hope that our macro policy makers and people in general move beyond single point measures  to more sensible ways of measuring national development indicators that takes into account the diverse variances of the country. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Of NEET, Patidar & Jat protests, Bhim Army and the fundamental responsibilities of the State

Protests have been erupting across the country on various issues over the years. We've seen the Jat and Patidar protests for reservations in the last couple of years as well as the Bhim army swarming the National capital as well as parts of western UP and Gujarat. Tamil Nadu, moreover, for the last year seems to be in an eternal state of protest for one reason or the other. What ties the suicide of a laborer's daughter in TN, who fought against NEET, to the protests against land acquisition for nuclear power plant in Jaitapur? What ties the Patidar protests in Gujarat and the Jat protests in Haryana to the BJP's landslide victory in UP? The answer to this in my opinion seems to be two fold.

1. The fundamental role of the state is rapidly evolving post May 2014. 
2. The unheard aspirations of huge rural demographics and the information asymmetry that was prevalent earlier is no more with the emergence of social media. 

When PM Modi's BJP was elected to power in May 2014, there was no second questioning about the mandate being a vote of an aspirational India to upward mobility in life. Things like, corruption, appeasement politics of UPA etc were just the final mile mandate converters. But the question lie as to what this aspirational India wanted. The narrative that dominated mainstream media during the campaign period and the early days of NDA-2 was that of a nation making use of it's favorable demographics and economic fundamentals to enable upward mobility and assert itself in the world for it's interests. 

For the first time, economic and foreign policy institutions and think tanks started studying India under Modi as a different animal. The word in vogue was 'Reforms'. Us, the urban educated middle class and upper class wanted reforms to make the govt get rid of it's non performing sectors, reduce massive leakage and mindless subsidies in places where possible and overall, provide a platform for us to compete with the best across the world. Globalization showed us what the world has achieved and what we can if we concentrate on efficient resource and energy allocations. Aadhar linked subsidies, cut in subsidies for petrol, gas, kerosene etc disinvestment in sick PSUs were all results of this. From changing to NITIAayog as a policy based enabler at the centre to rapidly passing environmental clearances for large capital projects across the country, the govt was fulfilling its understood mandate as an enabler of job creation and economic growth. Apparently, this was just one side of the story. 

For the first time in 68 years, the union govt saw it's primary role as an enabler of opportunities rather than an ensurer of welfare for the under privileged. The amount of subsidies in the govt's budget sharply went down. Land acquisition from small owners increased and the instances of big industrialists moving into traditionally untouched spaces (physical and service related) of the underprivileged increased rapidly. While this was seen as minor side effect by the urban dwellers, it hit right through the heart of rural masses. The masses of heartland India didn't necessarily vote for this. They wanted a nanny state, albeit cleaner, in varying degrees. They wanted welfare that was guaranteed by UPA through legislation but never properly implemented. The anti establishment sentiment came from throwing out the obnoxious Lutyens insiders who just sang melodies of welfare and social justice but never understood and implemented it cleanly. The Jat and Patidar protests started when they saw that the role of govt being an enabler was well short of their expectations of a handholder. The bahujans of our country saw the aggregation of state resources away from large scale welfare to privileged sections of society, (who saw themselves as better placed to enable wealth creation and growth) as completely against the ideals of social justice. This explains the farmer suicides, TN methane project protests, the NEET protests, the Bhim Army and JNU protests. 

The urban demography missed this aspect of the 2014 mandate. BJP didn't see it until it lost sorely against the Lohiaites in Bihar and learnt it's lesson. In UP, it shifted decisively to populist politics and the selection of Yogi Adityanath, though had us confounded, resonated well with the rural demography and is the result of this class politics. 

This leads us to a fundamental question. What should be the role of the state in India? Is it's role to ensure social justice and redistribute state's capital and resources to reduce inequality and give opportunities to the millions of underprivileged people? Or is it's role to allocate resources to that sections of society that will maximize output and quality and therefore enable and reward the better performers(whether that is by talent or privilege)? We are at an inflection point where there are millions and millions of people in the aspirational middle class who want the govt as an enabler and yet there are millions and millions of people who depend on state's welfare and affirmative action to move up in life.

It is this question that is being debated and fought on multiple fronts across the country. From the compulsion of Aadhar for subsidies to the forcing of NEET exam on a state. From the large scale allocation of infrastructure projects along the geographical commons (sea coasts and forests) to the conception of Smart cities. From increasing railway ticket costs to providing subsidies to airlines for regional connectivity. The proliferation of social media has decreased the information asymmetry between urban and rural dwellers in India to a large extent and therefore we are going to see more and more protests to this definitive U-turn from welfare politics to free market politics. 

I just hope that each side understand the place and needs of the other to better come up with solutions.

This post is dedicated to the departed soul Anitha who wanted our society to have this debate and fought for it right through the corridors of justice in SC.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The farce called Transfer of Technology

Imagine 50,000 years ago, in a small village, a feud breaks out between a bunch of neanderthals. Every man gets hold of a stone made weapon and begins to sharpen it to attack his opponent. There is one man who doesn't know how to sharpen or make a weapon off a stone. He is confused whether to attack with the blunt stone or not. His instinct says it will not kill his opponent. He looks around and tries to improvise by just imitating the action that the others are doing with their stones. He doesn't know whether he could make the weapon better by tying the stone to a stick to make it a spear. Such a neanderthal is never going to win a battle. His weapon is only as good, if not worse, as he could imitate from the other opponents. 

This is the problem that India has been facing from independence with regards to our country's air combat systems.The famous charade about India's technological prowess is "We have the indigenous technology to send a satellite to Mars but can't develop a fighter jet on our own". It is true and there is only one reason for this. We never knew what we wanted and therefore we never tried. From 1947 till this date, we have never asked the question to ourselves "How do we want to project our air power better than what is best out there?". Our question has always been "What are the air combat systems used the world over and which would suit us best?". And therein lies the fundamental difference between the nascent success of our space programme and the absolute failure of our defence programme.

The idea of "Transfer of Technology" being touted by politicians across the aisle as a success, is a cause as well as symptom of our failing research and development eco system. Since we never knew what we wanted with or for our Air Force, we have always tried to "match up" to the state of the art systems that was available over the decades. In the 60s, when the Mig 21 emerged as a successful fighter jet, we wanted it. Nothing wrong. The idea of a single engine supersonic fighter becoming the backbone of our Air Force was a good vision. It was even better when we acquired the technology to manufacture it locally and we built 650 of them over the decades.

The question is, what did we do after it? A visionary Air Force would've come up with it's own needs, it's own ideas of new concepts for future combat systems. A visionary HAL, having acquired a supersonic aircraft manufacturing technology, would've spent decades understanding the technologies that went into it rather than simply manufacture it blindfolded to the specs.  (The USAF has already specified what kind of future bomber it wants 2 decades from now and has started working on the experimental technologies with Northrop Grumman)Neither the Indian Air Force nor HAL (the only a/c manufacturer) wanted to explore, question and research on the next step in air combat technology. Instead, they looked up to the superpowers to see what the next technology would be. Once the next step came in, the same Transfer of Technology, license mfg cycle followed.

This has been judiciously done for almost all air combat systems. The Sukhoi 30 MKI (air superiority super maneuverable), the Rafale (medium range nuclear strike heavy fighter bomber), the upcoming FGFA PAK-FA(stealth fighter) are all examples of another country/air force inventing next steps in air combat technology and us trying to acquire them. The idea of stealth fighter came from west and we are only co-developing it after three different companies have already done it. We continue to attempt to match/acquire the level of military technology whose agenda and benchmark is being set by someone else. Our fledgling missile programme too started with reverse engineering Russian ballistic missiles and then further developing related technologies from it. Even in such a mature area, ideas of MIRVS and Hypersonic missiles came from the superpowers. The only solace is we are neck and shoulder with them in terms of pace of research and development.

That is why Transfer of Technology is never going to be of any use to India. We don't want to think ahead with the acquired technology. We don't spend time on pushing the frontiers of ideas. We as a country, as a culture, as a civilization have lost the capability to innovate, to think beyond the best. From our air combat systems to transportation systems to e-commerce retailing we are trying to only recreate an idea already proposed and developed by someone else.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Boycott of PK and some fundamental questions

Banning of PK is a retrograde step. It is against freedom of expression. I do not want to see it removed from theatres. Now coming to similar cases, so was banning of Vishwaroopam in TN and The Da Vinci Code in a lot of states when they released. How was that not against freedom of expression? The then TN govt said it cannot control law and order if Vishwaroopam releases. I respect "Emadhu islaamiya sagotharargalin unarvugal". At the end, the final version was cut to satisfy 5.5% of TN population(or actually a dozen ppl). 

Some serious questions arise out of these incidents.
1. As much as minorities have emotions to tend to, don't majority have too?
2. Does the state react to people's sentiments or to the degree of violence that stems from people sentiments?
3. If a state can't assure law and order, why wasn't it removed and Governor's rule imposed? (btw this goes to states if banning PK too)
4. Does 5.5% of population voting as a block becomes more politically significant than 80% of population that votes variably according to it's subgroups?
5. If the above is true, does one fundamental right exercised once in five years have the potential to hold in hostage the other fundamental rights of the majority through the rest of the years?

By this I do not mean to hurt my friends who follow other faiths.
I do not want their sentiments to be hurt also.
I do not want them to see being marginalized in the society.
I do not want to see them being stereotyped as 'those who vandalize if not respected'.

But I want them to understand, that the above factors have been created by few individuals who declare themselves to be representatives of their groups.
I want them to understand that if they do not shun these individuals then the whole community gets the blame.

To the Hindu far right (Bajrang Dal, Hindu Maha Sabha, VHP),
Can you guys please stop acting as if you are living in the 9th century?!
We know what to take out of a movie seriously and what to be left at the theatre hall.
A majority of this country's population was born after the Constitution of India came into existence. We live in The Republic of India and not Hindu Rashtra.
We grew reading our Preamble and Fundamental rights. 
Democracy and pluralism are the two best things that could've happened to India.

To the moral high ground liberal main stream media analysts,
You guys are anyway hopeless and
1. Your minority appeasing commentary confounds me to this day.
2. The idea of crushing the majority to compensate for something that happened in the past is the worst thing to happen in a secular democracy.

The fact that we will be wishing all our friends a happy 2015 in couple of days and yet still haven't figured out how to be a plural tolerant society is a shame on us.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The road ahead for AAP

They came, they saw and they have failed. It happens.

'Welcome to Indian democracy', said 50.5 crore voters on 16th May 2014 in the most emphatic way possible. The Aam Admi party was expected to win between 4 to 10 seats before the elections started and they have won 4, all in Punjab. The more telling fact is that they didn't win even a single seat in Delhi, the place they had their only presence in govt. Winning 4 seats in Punjab is a cause for jubilation as they can easily build on this to consolidate in the state but losing Delhi has left many a supporter and AAP member confused and disappointed.

A lot would be said about how Kejriwal caused his own down fall by resigning from Delhi in 49 days and the leadership contesting from suicidal varanasi and amethi instead of established bases. I would in fact add the 49 days of govt to the debacle list but that's up for debate. Putting the blame on these things actually just ignores some deep systemic flaws present within the organization. To me, the former list of debacles are mainly the result of these systemic flaws and unless rectified, will prove to be severely detrimental to the organization and the cause it stands for.

The most important day for any organization is its day of inception. And AK made the biggest mistake on the day he formed AAP.Till that day, he was running a highly successful anti corruption movement, India Against Corruption(IAC). Something went wrong when IAC transformed to the AAP. For any organization to be successful, there are 4 aspects that need to be in sync with each other. 1. the party agenda, 2. the leadership's vision 3. the expectations of the party workers/members 4. the actual work being done.

IAC was highly successful only because all these 4 aspects were in sync. The movement's agenda was to eradicate corruption, the leadership's vision was to end corruption by finding facts, the public joined the movement for the very same cause and to support them and the implementation was very good in the org exposing the list of people behind corruption with records and facts. The members knew what they wanted of the movement and the movement was doing it successfully. When AAP was formed, it was no more a movement.

These 4 aspects of the organization of AAP were never in sync.

1. Party agenda
A political party fights elections not just to eliminate the bad leaders in the democracy but also to run the country. Nobody knows the agenda of AAP except that it is anti corruption and anti FDI. And the problem is, one doesn't even know if every senior leader of AAP endorses this agenda leave alone the other members. As it turned out, after 49 days of Delhi govt and from its speeches, the party is leftist. Nothing wrong but did the members or the people know about it?

 2. Leadership's vision
AK, until then was perceived as an honest man who just wanted to eradicate corruption. As soon as he formed a political party he had created such huge expectations, that people started perceiving the leader in him from their own ideas of honest leader. People knew AK the anti corruption crusader but nobody knew AK the administrator or leader. Nobody knows the leadership's vision even today. What is Kumar Vishwas's idea on increasing power generation? What is Manish Sisodia's opinion on controlling inflation? Prashant Bushans... ok better let's not ask for his opinions. What is the vision of the party leadership on agriculture, farm loans, expanding manufacturing, increasing jobs? The leadership seems to point out the flaws in the system but doesn't have concrete solutions to any of these.

3. The expectations of the party members

Since 1 and 2 were virtually absent, there was a policy vacuum. A lot of people questioned it and some still blindly follow it but none of them have got answers. The members wanted to know what is the plan of the party for the next 2 years, the elections and the next 5 years. AAP had not spelt it out. As long as 1&2 were vague, the organization at grassroots level did not have a direction and nobody was going to vote AAP to power.

4. The implementation of ideas 
Aah this is the favorite topic of every AAP basher out there. When AAP decided to fight LS elections, what did it have against Narendra Modi's BJP?  BJP had Modi's 12 years of Guj. governance and Vajpayee's legacy embracing almost every aspect of national governance. AAP had only 49 days of dramatic governance to show. Those 49 days could only be described as 'tughlaqish'. I can take a complete blog post on the list of mistakes on those 60 days but to summarize it, 'you don't win 27 seats, then again ask for people's opinion for forming coalition with congress and then ditch them in 49 days'. The word 'decisiveness' was absent in AAP's dictionary. Well,when there is no vision, where can there be decisiveness to achieve it?

Also for this elections, AAP missed the people's mood completely. Here was AAP talking about CPI being not left enough, increasing subsidies, nationalizing some industries and anti FDI while over 15 crore of the electorate was born after the license raj was abolished and India embraced globalization. The CPI itself was out of fashion on the national scene by 2009 LS elections. And AAP's agenda for this elections was to break the system and start from scratch?!! That's the biggest joke of this election. Well AK, you can't repair a flight in air by stopping it. If you don't like the pilot, you just can't keep shouting that he's bad. You need to know how to fly it and also the passengers' destination and safely reach there.

The way forward

Setting these systemic deficiencies right is the way ahead. The party leadership needs to sit down with the rest of the organizational setup and decide upon  aspects 1 and 2 of the organization. What is the agenda of the party in the 21st century where the common man wants deliverable governance. What is the vision of the party leadership apart from a corruption free govt? Discuss these things. The organization from the top leadership to the grassroot level member needs to be clear on message and be on the same page at all times. It needs to come up with an action plan for the next 5 years and a long term vision for the country and individual states. It needs to participate in public debates and allow people to know of its agenda and plans. It needs to understand people's pulse and the needs of the people and try to come up with solutions. More importantly, can it please bring in some experts in different fields with widespread experience? Moral high ground is not going to solve problems, only intellectuals with great ideas can.

Policy making is not a one way traffic but a two way traffic between the leadership and the people. AAP needs to show it's mettle in fighting corruption at grassroots level. The aam aadmi cares more about corruption affecting him directly like at police stations, ration shops, registrar offices and tehsildar's office than that happening at ministerial level. AAP still has public goodwill and imagination. It might not win elections initially, but it stands for something that the people can ill afford to lose.

Right now, AAP is like Penicillin. It is necessary to have in stock and use it in times of need but can't be had as staple diet unless it change completely. All the best.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

My two cents...

This article is written at a time when I am taking loans in rupees and paying in dollars. It just pains me so much that because of the govt's short sightedness I need to spend more of my currency for mere survival. Coming directly to the point, the issue of depreciating rupee is of concern not only to me but to most of fellow country men. There have been economic advisory meetings, there has been interviews with Standard and Poor's representatives, RBI governor, our own 'Mum'mohan singh and Pranab Mukherjee. There have been discussions about policy paralysis with respect to current world economic scenario as well as in essential service sectors like Retail and Aviation. With all due respect to all those economic experts whose thoughts would be of much value, I really feel they miss the whole picture here. Let's look at the scenario.

The bulk of our foreign exchange comes from export of software and other IT enabled services.And a major chunk of the reserves go in buying oil from the international market for our needs. The consumption of oil and related products by India is only increasing and that too exponentially. When our consumption increase obviously our foreign exchange reserves are going to drain out. Considering the Eurozone crisis and Barack Obama's tilt towards discouraging outsourcing of jobs from America it is too much for the IT and ITeS sectors to compensate for the outflow of cash.

Atleast Dr. Singh has accepted the fact that amendments need to be made from inside and not in external policies. A one off loosening of law against the Vodafone acqusition tax issue is neither going to solve the problem nor going to bring back enormous investors confidence on India. It seems the decision making machinery runs on the time frame of coalition politics and not on economic implications. Having a coalition partner like TMC is like having a prosthetic leg that is full of infections. Of course its gonna lift you for the time being while forming the government but is definitely going to kill you in the long run. The announcement of FDI in retail and the later withdrawal coupled with the bad timing of the vodafone decision are standing examples. If you have decided on an issue, you shouldn't go back on it due to coalition pressures.

Next comes the aviation sector. If the AI-IA merger is anything to go by, IAS officers aren't necessarily great managers or CEOs in today's market. The lesser it is talked about the better. Combined with promotion of poor business  models in new green field airport projects and revenue curtailing taxation from all departments it is only bleeding the airlines of the little foreign exchange they have. Kingfisher is already packing all its suitcases to leave. To sum up the plight of this sector, 'The govt hasn't understood the industry and the industry hasn't understood the market'.

Now these things will take a long time to clean up and therefore the revenue stream will continue to be plugged in terms of forex. Coming to the most critical part, spending of forex reserves by oil companies is never gonna reduce. If this is the biggest hole in the tank the only way to keep the tank full is by plugging the hole and not by trying to add temporary hose pipes. All the decisions taken now are like hose pipes with limited input. The only solution to this is for us to reduce the dependance on oil. How long are we going to continue importing oil from whatever the rates the OPEC countries sell? We have to face the problem and fight it head on. Instead of spending so much on subsidies the govt can start with investing in future energy research. We just can't wait for the westerners to develop each and every technology that we need and expect them to give it for free. We have the need now and we need to do it now. Diesel and petrol based public transportation system must slowly be phased and replaced with hybrid and other clean energy based systems. Hybrid and electric vehicle technology must be publicised and its importance explained at every possible stage. Investment in renewable energy must be increased exponentially and for god's sake be given to private sector and not public sector.

There will be lobbies against the aforementioned points from different sectors.  To start with, most political parties will be against FDI in retail and the big auto industry will be against the shift towards renewable energy when Ashok Leyland, Daimler, Navistar, Mahindra, Tata etc have just recently invested hell a lot of money here. The solution is to work with them, and give incentives like a promise of  minimum market atleast by the govt to buy the new technology that had come up with.

 After all these scams and licking of coalition boots, this is the only way out. Attending G20 meets and heading ASEAN, BRICS and lobbying for a permanent seat in Security Council is just going to bring reputation and not respect and results. For the latter to happen, the govt needs to be stern and innovative in its policies and decisions and all the way.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Retirement plans for the Big 3 and an Insurance Scheme to Indian cricket

I start writing this article as India enters into the 5th day of the Adelaide(an achievement by itself). Throughout the England and Australian tours, the stalwarts of Indian batting have been ruthlessly asked questions both on and off the field. With around 37,00o test runs between them, people might say all three in their own way have the right to play the Adelaide test and I wouldn't question that. But this cannot continue forever. And if all three are going to retire from Test cricket in 6 months time, its nothing less than a nightmare for Indian cricket.

The talks of seniors mentoring the junior players and helping in smooth transition is rubbish to say the least. Virat Kohli is the only junior batsman on tour to have played with the seniors. Giving small tips in the nets during practice is fine but when will people like Rohit Sharma, Rahane or for that matter any other fringe batsman get used to it or gain experience? It just so happens that the highest run getter, the second highest run getter and the master of second innings rescue are in the same team and at similar stages of cricket life. It means that if all leave at the same time(which is a very good possibility) there will be a huge gap left. It means one of them has to sacrifice himself for the common good of the team. It means the game comes first and then the individual.

Even after this series if none of them retire, its a plague. If the three like playing cricket and still have some left in them, this is their last chance. Retire from int'l cricket one by one. Spend the next one year in the domestic circuit. Play the Ranji, Duleep and Irani trophy. Play matches with the budding cricketers and share your experiences and knowledge there. Teach them in building partnerships and innings while playing along with them. Give them a sense of security that 'the place up there' is where I come from and let me help you now reach there. Spend time in their dressing room. Show them the spirit and hunger. This is the place you learnt everything. Give back something to the alma mater, i.e the domestic circuit. This will go a long way in instilling confidence amongst the youngsters as well as they will get to know a lot before entering the circuit. This is the only way I see a smooth transition of the team in the next couple of years. The best retirement plan that the three can get and the best insurance that team India can get.

And this is the last and best chance to do it. 2 years of home test cricket. No better chance. the scenario is atleast one must retire immediately after this series and atleast one must stay for the next one and a half years. It is in the best interests of Team India that they are doing it. I would like to finish with one last word to the readers. Don't fight on who should retire first. They know better.