About the Blog

This is my diary....what I make sense of, around me. You'll find short prose on contemporary topics that interest me. What can you expect - Best adjectives? …. hmm occasionally, tossed around flowery verbs ?…. Nope, haiku-like super-brevity? … I try to. Thanks for dropping by & hope to see you again

December 23, 2008


Two interesting articles on Indian polity appeared in Newspapers recently. Written by two proponents on either sides of the political spectrum, one was by a high heeled NRI turned grass root level & local governance activist (Ramesh Ramanathan) and the other by a seasoned politician who weathered many political storms to be the third successive chief minister of Delhi state (Sheila Dikshit).

The former explains why the middle class is irrelevant in the present polity-- heated & emotive debates on TV , banner & candle demonstration on streets and informed public opinions do not matter as long as they do not carry to ballot boxes. He goes on to write how the polity works on caste & creed lobbying and fits like a multidimensional jig saw puzzle. Here I beg to differ with Mr. Ramanathan’s and my take on this aspect is as follows;

Caste & creed based politics is a form of mass lobbying that is inevitable in democracy, it is an expression of “the will of the people”. In essence what gets elected & represented in the assembly & Parliament are 'special interests' that organize on party lines to influence Govt.

This will of the people , when spread over layers & layers of ethnicity,cultures, dialects & economic strata over a vast geographical area takes a complex hue and is rarely visible as a homogeneous mixture. This probably explains the death of a two party dominance & arrival of coalitions on the Indian political scene. And this represents the masses & not the classes.

In this din of mass based politics what constitutes & represents public good is always debatable. The latter part has been largely under the realm of the media (especially electronic media) and urban middle class. And what happens in debate-o-sphere is largely irrelevant and is akin to shouting in vacuum as it never gets the political momentum because it never translates into votes and even if it does , does not carry any swing factor. This is true as far as small & medium urban and semi-urban electorate is concerned. However large urban electorate is getting organized and Sheila Dikshit’s rise gives a ray of hope and an answer to this dilemma.

She probably represents a unique constituency in the country, a large urban electorate which is young, cosmopolitan, aware (if not fully literate) and upwardly mobile. And it thinks & votes for what have been largely urban issues like development & good governance and less on issues mentioned above. The bijli-sadak- pani kind of issue that makes for citizen movements in cities is something that she has addressed effectively to retain power. With changing demographics and increasing urbanization (which is expected to grow from current 28% to 40% of Population by 2020) this model of polity is likely to be replicated in other constituencies elsewhere as well.

December 16, 2008

The Biz Pied Piper from Germany

For the past one year or so I have come to known my friend & business acquaintance Mr.Wolfgang Hoeltgen from Germany . A man probably in his sixties but combines the vivacity and inquisitiveness of any bright teenager around. He is also a known Indophile, someone who combines his love for India alongwith Business acumen, honed by his multi Industry & country work experience, to foster better Business ties between India & Germany. It is in this connection that he had made a trip to India recently and I had extended him an invitation from the Mysore chamber of Commerce & Industry to hold a colloquium on “gateway to Germany” in the heritage city. Wolfgang readily acceded to this invitation even though it had not been a part of his original plan & Budget. And so we traveled together to Mysore in the company of my colleague Sakharam Athavale over the last weekend.

India has not ceased to amaze Wolfgang, the colours and people around in India are something that he confesses to be captivated of. He has traveled extensively throughout the country and he says that the real India does not lie in the common tourist places that foreigners are so accustomed to explore. Such is his penchant for sightseeing that he is always ready to hop into any kind of Bus provided it gave him a window seat and a daylight ride in the countryside. During our trip he clicked away relentlessly with his Nikon camera and everything from hillocks to hawkers got captured in his inquisitive mind through his overworked camera. An oft repeated remark that you get to hear from him is that he may have been an Indian in his previous birth & that the past karmas may have brought him back to this country.

On the Business side he is a firm believer that the effects of globalization & a flat world has not truly reflected in the Commerce and Business relationship between India & Germany . He sees a tremendous opportunity especially for emerging Indian Businesses to explore in Germany. It is this conviction that made him to set up the German India Business Center that is supported by German trade & Industry especially by the region of Niedersachsen. His road shows emphasize the cultural differences between the 2 countries & how this can be harnessed in the right direction to make a potent combination. His remarks on the cultural differences  essentially highlight some of the inadequacies we face in our system and the difference it makes while engaging the Germans or operating in their home-country. What he finally underscores at the end of the day is a sense of optimism about the future and his eagerness and sincerity in pursuing the cause of furthering the German-Indo Business relationships.

December 6, 2008

Decoding Nilekani’s Imagination

During my college days I had read a book called “the wonder that was India” by AL Basham which was in fact the bible book on Indian History & General Knowledge for all Civil services aspirants of that time. It was a seminal work of a true historian who reflected on the glories of a mature civilization and its myriad qualities. In essence it was harking back to the past, which most of us in India essentially do, the difference being that the historians do it as a systematic academic work while for the rest of us it is a clichéd habit in our argumentative discourses . Talk to the older generation & the discussion usually meanders towards the clichéd phrase “ in the good old days...” which essentially is the premise that the past was good, vibrant and certainly glorious. In a very oblique way it somewhere reinforces a thought that the present may not be as good as the past .

It took a technopreneur like Nandan Nilekani to change that cliched vision of the past to the future through his book ‘Imagining India’. It is as though someone took the arc-lights of our mind& its incandescent energy (read latent energy) from the past to the future . Certainly no better person could have taken this work up better than Nilekani who along with Naryanmurthy & others defined the paradigm change in India’s mindset towards adoption of new ideas & technology as harbingers of the new age economy. In essence they replicated the golden era of Vijayanagar Empire (which is touted as the pinnacle of Indian civilization reflected in its glorious architecture & famed street wealth ) , albeit as a small pool in the economy where all those who straddled within the campus became either millionaires or novae rich. Coincidentally both these happened within proximity of few hundred kilometers.

I had one memorable rendezvous with Nilekani when I  visited him in his office with V Vaidyanathan, currently the Country Head at ICICI Bank sometime in 2001. After the usual pleasantries we got down to a Business chat & Nilekani inquired Vaidy about the Bank’s performance on the Business side .And he listened with genuine intent & interest . His body language was languid but behind his still countenance I could sense the hum of sharp mind that was probably designed to whirl at a higher RPM(revolutions per  minute). When I interjected somewhere in the discussion, he replied me back by with my name which pleasantly surprised me. It could have been one of his charming ways but was certainly reflective of his sharp wit & his attention to detail.

I will not get into the review details of his book, Imagining India which has been done so far in umpteen Newspapers, magazines & television channels. I only emphasize his 180 degree shift in thinking and admire his locus standi on a very important theme that was propagated albeit differently by another great of our times, Abdul Kalam who had earlier published a book, India 2020, another inspiring read.

December 2, 2008

The people fevicol factor in Organizations

Pidilite, the manufacturers of adhesive brand Fevicol brand have captured their brand USP through very imaginative & interesting advertisements on TV.

Whether it is the fisherman catching fishes with a few drops of fevicol, be it the overloaded bus with people clinging to it on a rickety ride or the guy hanging to his lady on a precipice, have very creatively rendered the brand's proposition - its ability to bind on any surface & in any condition.

Is there any such ‘X’ formula that Organizations can replicate to create stickiness with its employees? I have heard a lot of lip smacking verbose that Companies often dole of when they talk of their employee relations, however to the contrary the reality may be.

On their part, It may be a necessity borne out of the usual PR (public relations) demands and the business posturing required in the marketplace .

Last week I was speaking to someone I knew who after putting in 6 months of work in a consulting firm had left in a huff recently without a job alternative on hand. He attributed his exit to the style of leadership in the organization and lack of transparency and empowerment given to him on the job.

 He said that the mails from his boss started to get nasty and a feeling crept in him that he was not being valued at job. All this when he felt that Business was looking up after signing a couple of new clients!

From our talk I could gather that his engagement process with his employer had soured quickly and the relations got strained to break point quite abruptly.

Talking of effective employee engagement, Hewitt Associates define engagement as comprising 3 measurable behaviors on the part of employees.
1. Stay - people stay with the company despite tempting offers elsewhere, the extreme opposite is what happened in this case, people move on despite no job on hand.
2. Say - people say and advocate good things about the company. Employees also like to have their say on job, when that get stifled engagement breaks.
3. Serve - they exert a lot of discretionary effort which may not be part of their job description. This is particularly true of small organizations when one person dons many hats.

So in essence is effective employee engagement the invisible glue that binds people to organization? the secret sauce of successful HR departments?

Engagement in its entirety could mean a lot of things, developing and communicating effective career progression, transparent performance appraisal & feedback, Performance linked incentive programme with buy in etc.

Business Guru and a leading current genre influential thinker, Howard Gardner, has examined this aspect in his book “changing minds” where he says work place behavior is influenced by factors like role models (that turn out good or bad), & responsible (or otherwise) Co-workers.

But at its core it remains a heightened emotional and ntellectual connection with a job and the Organization sustaining it.

December 1, 2008

A requiem

The city of million dreams
Stands on the ruins of battered screams
Blood & gore, in all its yore
from a few men across distant shore,
what they achieved in the end, they themselves not know
Helplessness stems after the anger & rage
Mumbai will again find its ways, its indomitable spirit will sway,
Until the next time again when Hell prays & showers its pain
Our leaders watch when things unfold again
with pointed fingers in political blame game,
Before they slip into their comfortable den,
The City will scream again.

November 28, 2008

Remembering Mandal Cha Raja

Like the Lalbaug cha Raja, a massive idol of Lord Ganesh that is installed in Mumbai every year, this raja of Manda strode tall in the political space in the late 80s & early 90s with his mandal plank of providing 27% reservations to OBC in Govt Jobs in India. I have distinct recollection of the not so happy memories of my college days when this issue erupted & how? And at the center of it was its chief protagonist, VP Singh who died yesterday.

Come to think of it, he heralded the defining moments of Indian political space which had begun to emerge out of one party dominance in India. The Mandal & Mandir issues gripped mass psyche on either sides of the political spectrum almost at the same time. The mandalization of politics, as I recollect inflamed passions & created mass student appraisal like never seen before. The immolation of Rajeev Goswami in Delhi at that time really captured the popular sentiment among the youths of that period. The forces of Liberalization had not yet been unleashed, and for many students like me, Government jobs were a logical career aspiration. But in one stroke it appeared that VP Singh took all the dreams away. I have never seen, before or after , the vigorousness of the uprising and vociferous protests by the students & masses. The main street of Belgaum was a sea of humanity protesting & marching to the Deputy commissioners office on the day of protest & submitting the memorandum. The scene was replicated in almost every small & big city in India at that time. As the College Miscellany secretary , I led a bunch of protesters shutting down classes in RLS Institute & Lingaraj college at that time. And in the process I ran into the fiery & feared teacher Prof.Malali who was taking his classes. Instead of scowling & firing me , which he was notorious for, he told me come on to the class stage (the old Lingaraj college had classes with a raised platform for teachers) & express whatever angst I had, and in no uncertain terms. He was not ready to disperse his class and I had no options.

Waves & waves of similar protests erupted from every city in India, big or small. It was as though there was another mass uprising in the country after the Quit India movement but this time against the Government & its policies.VP Singh faded away soon after, ill health gripped him which some attribute to the moral & mental baggage that he carried from this misadventure. A tinge of mixed nostalgia remains through his death.

November 11, 2008

The case of missing sparrows

Last week I drove down to Mysore on a Business visit in the the company of my friend & Business colleague Madhu Shetty, who I must say kept me in humored conversation throughout the 5 Hour to & fro drive with his unique perspectives & insights on many mundane things like Palaces, Politics, Business etc., As we stopped by the Deputy Commissioners (DC) office for a scheduled business meeting with the DC , my attention drew to 2 large black Siberian cranes strolling in the vast open lawns surrounding the DC’s office. I turned to Madhu & wondered how such exotic birds wandered in the open & that too in the middle of the city? He was quick to remind me that the birds were from the nearby Rangantittu bird sanctuary and as he lit one of his countless cigarettes asked me a rather innocuous question; have you seen any Sparrows in the open now a days?

As I set myself wondering & recollecting my flash Grey memory as to the last time I saw a sparrow in the open, it suddenly struck me that HE WAS RIGHT! It has been ages since I heard the relentless chirping of house Sparrows and their common sight that I had been used to in my childhood days. Now making up a case for a missing small common bird may be insignificant compared to issues like Global warming & other larger environmental issues we face today but is a definite pointer to the relentless pressure that rapid urbanization & development is exerting on the Habitat of such Birds . Madhu went on to say that the proliferation of low frequency electromagnetic waves that we use in today’s ICT (information & communication technology) applications may have driven this birds away. That may well be true but there could be other reasons as well - Fewer trees, polluted air, rising temperature and dipping water tables. Take the case of Bangalore, a study done by Indian Institute of Science (IISc) points that urban development has taken away 65% of the vegetation during the last 2 decades. Now that means far lesser greenery that is so vital for the birds feeding & nesting habits. Rapid concrete cover is effecting a twin blow, it is reducing greenery & at the same time depleting ground water table since bore wells spring up simultaneously. Tress can sustain ground water table that in turn sustains greenery and the birds but all this is getting destroyed in a vicious cycle of urban side effects. There is another angle to this issue, trees like Gulmohur , a native of Madagascar & an icon of Bangalore greenery is not suited as nesting tree for birds . So are Eucalyptus and Acadia , that are used to provide artificial green cover are not native trees and neither to they provide natural habitat for the birds and insects nor do good for the soil.

A small silver lining to this problem is that of late many Pvt Cos and Social groups have come together to bring back the Green cover to the city . The former funding the social initiatives of the latter as a part of their Corporate Social responsibility (CSR) programmes.

November 4, 2008

Presidential ticker

As the final lap of the presidential race gets over , one can’t help get over the withdrawal symptoms of what has been the end of another soap like saga on television. For some time now, we have been witnessing all the twists & turns , hopes & frustrations and of course lot of media innuendos & political gibbeckry on this seminal event . No other reality show comes even close. Strip all the paraphernalia surrounding this event to its bare essentials and what you get to witness is two contenders for what Dan Brown would call ‘a position of Power’. I am talking of a position of power that has been endlessly glorified & mystified in countless Hollywood flicks and novels adding to the aura surrounding the post. So essentially what would be the 5 things about this job that the 2 contenders Barack or McCain be after? Here’s my list

1. Party conclaves & Campaign : The run up show is no less grandeur than the one culminating in the taking of Oath & secrecy. No other reality show can even stand up to this, one massive PR exercise choreographed masterfully to the last frame. The confetti’s, the audience with picture perfect placards, the light & razzmatazz and of course the carefully rehearsed dialogues & punch lines of the candidates can even put Terminator dialogues to shade. A whole battery of Poll wizards, spin doctors & Communication and presentation specialists and Campaign strategists make up this jamboree.

2. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue : This boxlike stone structure with hipped roof, balustrade and columnar entrance designed by architect James Hoban maybe the smallest presidential mansion in the world but has unrivaled power & prestige .Nicknamed the Loo, Dick’s den, the Clinton bedroom etc , the most dominating aspect of the Oval office is said to be the colorful American eagle emblazoned on the room’s oval carpet. The eagles left talon clutches an olive branch and his right a bundle of arrows. It is said that during times of peace, the eagle faced left –towards olive branch but in times of war it faced right –towards the arrows.

3. Presidential retreat : Established as "Shangri-La" by President Franklin Roosevelt, it was subsequently renamed Camp David by Dwight Eisenhower. Serves the President, providing the First Family and their guests with solitude and tranquility and uniquely private place to work or relax. It is said that George Bush has officially spent 365 days — a full year — at Camp David in his tenure. You can actually go on hunting trips in its vast woods & accidentally shoot a friend like Dick Cheney did.

4. The Nuclear briefcase/Nuclear command: The black briefcase with the codes to engage & activate USA's arsenal of Land & Sea based nuclear weapons is one hell of a gadget that the president carries everywhere and everybody is wary of . It’s the ultimate silver bullet that the president can bite & bomb the earth to its Cretaceous era. The Russians have an equivalent one, code-named Cheget just to keep the president in check and play a game of cat & mouse if it comes to it.

5. Airforce One : This machine is the commander-in-chief’s portable home court in which he often flies to other countries in peace times while in war times is safely tucked away a couple of thousand feet away in sky. Mockingly called the ‘the flying phallus’ for its 6-foot-high letters trumpeting UNITED STATES OF AMERICA on its fuselage intimidating & mimicking the power influence and muscle inside, it has over 4000 Sq ft of interior floor space, including 4 separate sleeping quarters, berths for 26 member flight crew & 2 galleys capable of providing food for 50 people.

November 1, 2008

Rajyotsava ruminations

Today is Karnataka Rajyothsava and this year celebrations have more pomp and gaiety since Kannada has been official recognized as a ‘classical’ language along with Tamil & Telugu. On this occasion my thoughts echo on  linguistic activism and its proponents.

I find a  disturbing trend  of the so called groups/associations taking the self imposed mantle of protecting its rights and interests and project it as representative of the community. I am saying this because a small marginal group with dubious intentions and political agenda are usurping at the cost of silent majority.

And sadly the intelligentsia and people who matter most belongs to the latter. To put this thought in perspective it will be important to note that people who have richly contributed to the progress and development of Kannada language has been people who spoke other languages and vice versa.

Four out of the seven Kannada Jnanpith laureates have other languages as their mother tongue. D R Bendre spoke Marathi, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar spoke Tamil, Shivaram Karanth came from the Tulu heartland while Girish Karnad spoke Konkani. Many other important writers in Kannada – D V Gundappa (Telugu), T P Kailasam (Tamil), P T Narsimhachar (Tamil), G P Rajarathnam (Tamil), Tarasu (Telugu), Samsa (Tamil), Na Kasturi (Malyalam), Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar (Tamil) among others did not have Kannada as their mother tongue.

The first person to prepare a comprehensive compendium of Kannada – English dictionary with 70,000 words was a German, Rev F.Kittel in the 19th Century. My relative K Madhav Pai (Konkani) has distilled the complex meta philosophical Kannada couplets of D V Gundappa (DVG) in 2 lucid books in Kannada called Kaggokti Sampada, Part 1&2.

Even when it came to representing the political interests of the community, Veerappa Moily (Tulu) and Dharam Singh (Rajput - Hindi) have been elected as state chief ministers and had long chequered political careers. Similarly Kannidagas like Guru Sri Raghavendra & E V Periyar have vastly influenced other regions in the Religious & Political space. The former is a revered saint with large following in 3 southern Indian states of AP, Karnataka & Tamil Nadu while the latter was a prominent figure in the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu.

Bilingualism is something that flourishes in our state, and many people including me speak two languages (Kannada  & Konkani). Karnataka is probably the only state which is microcosm of many distinct ethnic and linguistic communities , and I am not talking of Bangalore alone, the Tuluvas,Kodavas, Konkani’s, Kshatriya Marathas, Jainas are all very distinct ethnic communities with sizeable populations and history and all have symbiotically blended into the state cultural and social milieu. The Karnataka tourism tagline is very apt “One state many worlds” and would make any anthropologist's delight.

The Kannada language itself has various forms, when one talks of Kannada, it is not a singular tongue, but one with many dialects. For instance, Mysore Kannada, Hyderabad Kannada, Mangalore Kannada, Dharwad Kannada, Coimbathur Kannada and so on.

However on the eve of its 52 Anniversary, it is a fact that Kannada language & culture is facing relentless pressures of modern times and the various facets of this anxiety is well captured by Sugata srinivasaraju in his seminal book “Keeping faith with the mother tongue” , a must read for anybody interested in this topic .

(some of the facts stated in this article has been taken from this Book)

October 30, 2008

Janmabhoomi Vs Karmabhoomi

We live in embattled times, our cities have not only become melting pot of various cultures but battlegrounds drawn on linguistic & ethnic identities. The current happenings in Mumbai notwithstanding, modern India is on the move and the stress points are manifesting at its fissure points, our large cosmopolitan cities. Add to this the desperate Rajneetis of marginal politicians seeking vain attempts to draw political mileages and build vote banks and you have the fire ignited. 

Rapid Urbanization is drawing people from all sides and walks of life and my city Bangalore (aka Bengaluru ) which has been my home for the past 14 years is a perfect metamorphosis of this kind of transformation in Indian cities. Here I live without any fear of recrimination or any other baggage as I belong to the state & identify with its ethic culture. In a sense I live free of fear or favour. 

But I cannot say the same of a lot of my friends & acquaintances from outside the state who form ¾ of the city population. Though there is apparent calm and tranquility on the surface, most of these people live in mortal fear of recrimination as it happened in the case of the Cauvery water crisis or during Dr.Rajkumar (a noted Kannada personality & Film thespian ) death. 

I wonder what went through the mind of my neighbor, from chennai, when he had big pictures of Dr.Raj pasted on his front and rear glass of his car during a few days after his death. Minor trouble did break out during his funeral procession (allegedly engineered by a big time local politician) but thankfully it did not take any linguistic colour.

My thoughts are drawn to the hackney raised by KRV (Karnataka Rakshana Vedike) and that of MNS (Maharashtra Navanirman Sena) and patterns that follow a common diabolical agenda to attain political puberty and arrive on the electoral stage. Both of them appeal to the so called asmita or pride drawn on the rich culture and heritage of their respective linguistic domains. Both entities have conveniently found out that it’s not the upwardly mobile or the rich highly educated and cosmopolitan people of their community that find an immediate audience but the large mass of poor , under educated and marginal segments who wage a daily fight for their existence. 

And what better platform to voice this in the lower rungs of Railway recruitment Jobs! Railways after all is the mother of all recruiters in this country (read largest Govt recruiter). Both entities also took on popular film superstars & made them bow to their diktats. Both are fringe parties without any political base, KRV does not have even a single representative in the state assembly, and their agenda and manifesto is unique in the sense that it is not pursued by any of the main stream political parties. This gives them a virgin political bandwidth to drum up mass emotions on linguistic chauvinism. Both states incidentally does not have a regional party like Telugu Desam or DMK/AIADMK to root this kind of identity.

In Mumbai where certain professions are dominated by UP/Bihari’s like the Taxiwallas, chaatwallas or Halwaies , Bangalore exhibits similar patterns. Your neighborhood Ironman, Sweeper , domestic helper or office support staff could most probably be a Tamilian so as the likelihood of your neighborhood Bakery, Tea stall or Provision store wallah being a Malayali. I am drawing this on my common observation and is not meant to demean in any sense. 

In fact I admire and respect their sheer tenacity and hard work and find them glowing examples in entrepreneurism. But try explaining this to the local farmer from Mandya, a local who did not know any language except Kannada and came to work as a watchman in my apartment but was unceremoniously kicked out because he dint know Hindi and  could not converse with most of the people in the apartment! 

This is the kind of grist that keep the mills of KRV & MNS working overtime

October 14, 2008

The ICICI Conundrum

ICICI Bank has been active in public memory of late, be it the SMS’es,the advertisements or plain News stories. And all of it seems to be for the wrong reasons! The stock market crisis has been bad and particularly worse for the bank shareholders like me. The stock among select few got particularly hammered but of all the 5000 or so listed Cos, but ICICI has been a singular standout crying hoarse about a certain cartel of brokers and certain vested interests working overtime to pull the stock down.

This is not the first time the Bank has had this kind of problem, a few years ago it reported a ‘run on’ deposits in certain western parts of India due to similar malicious rumors. Is there anything about trading communities & business group activities that can be so detrimental to a particular Company. What could be the motivating factors?

ICICI has been a spectacular story in the Banking & Financial services space marked by a kind of aggression that you normally associate with few family run Indian Cos. Its transformation from a Corporate lending entity to a retail powerhouse has been swift and efficient driven largely by the vision and foresight of its enigmatic leader K.V.Kamath (KVK).

Actually it was a great place to work and learn too as I found out in my 5+ year stint between 1999-2005. What particularly stuck out in my memory was the incredible quality and tenacity of the top management whom I witnessed from close quarters. You got personalized response letters from the MD & ED on sending marriage invitation, you could regularly drive around the town with the Business Head (V. Vaidyanathan aka Vaidy,now country head) sitting beside you and discussing mundane business or directly correspond with them on crucial official matters .

I first interacted with KVK during a branch opening in Manipal sometime in 1999 where he spoke about brand building very passionately. And he was very consistent at that because he would pull down faulty glow-signs while traveling & chide senior officials in meetings when they made power point presentation with the wrong fonts.

Vaidy on the other hand was incredibly unassuming and approachable. One of his ex-colleague from a XIMB , a friend of mine had to tell me that he was not particularly an academic standout but had a certain X factor. In my interactions I could figure out that he had loads of work stamina just like his 40km marathons but more importantly had a good way of dealing with people. No wonder he zoomed through the progression curve & made it to the top without an IIM tag.

Another luminary was Chanda Kochhar who ushered certain kind of sensitivity to client engagements. When I was handling Infosys account, she particularly kept a tab on developments and made regular personal visits with me in tow to client.

However the scorching growth had its pitfalls . Overzealous collection agents messing up with customers or clients complaining of overselling (loans & cards earlier and as in the derivatives imbroglio later) were early indications. So were the ubiquitous ‘tele marketing calls’ that became synonymous with ICICI where every square customer in the retail market was systematically bombarded with carpet calls.

The branches too started getting progressively crowded and the services tended to be impersonal. Credit card complaints among other loan products started blipping on RBI radar frequently. Even the important securitization law had the ICICI stamp when it took Mardia chemicals to court and won.

In the meantime the crown prince-in-waiting Nachiket Mor gave it all up for non profit socially inclusion initiative role in IFMR. The Bank amidst all this has been undertaking a media blitz to project a more responsible and sensitive image and allaying unfounded fears through a sustained media campaign.

So a lot is happening on the ICICI saga and this may not be last you will hear on that front.

September 29, 2008

End of the free market era?

As I write this, the world is waiting with bated breath for the US govt to approve the bailout plan scheduled for voting tomorrow. World over stock markets have tanked and soothsayers have been active with their doomsday scenario. And the recent developments in the US financial markets which have been swift & dramatic have added to all this tumult. 

A Jurassic sized drama is being played out, Gargantuan sized companies going kaput & filing for bankruptcies, others being bought or sold in the marriage of Titans and the biggest of all, the US Fed reserve amidst all this drama appears in its bailout act as the benevolent Godzilla in the financial Armageddon.

Alan Greenspan may have termed this “Once in a Century Crisis” but he could well have sown the seeds of it during his tenure as the Fed chairman. His era of low interest rates spawned an economic boom that built up the Housing bubble, and the free markets fed on it with typical capitalistic carnivorous appetite that left several,now defunct Investment Banks & Financial Institutions choking with toxic assets. 

The moot point in all this “How did a systemic collapse happen in one of the most mature markets in the world? Where were the checks & balances in the system?”. Now I am speaking of a system that has given the world standard practices like SOX compliance, GAAP etc., ignoring systemic risks. Talking of risks, author & economist Peter Bernstein wrote in his book “Against the Odds’ how the financial sector has spawned a new breed of experts who make it a job to peer into the future and figure out the kind of risks that lie arrayed there. 

Didn’t they see it coming? or to be more precise, what were they doing when the so called ‘excesses’ took place? . Well at least you didn’t need an expert to figure out what would happen if NINJA (a type of low credit history customer with no income & job) class of borrowers were being financed by the system. All these kinds of assets went bundled as complex products and sold perhaps in search of new sources of profit. And the contagion spread, now threatening global financial markets.

The apostle of free markets, Milton Friedman had systematically built up a case for free markets that became the bedrock of US policies after the Great depression . Milton had argued for free markets that are devoid of govt interference by holding the case of great depression against Govt mismanagement. But today as the financial system chokes of toxic assets & slides into a very likely recession, the Govt in a U turn has swiftly gone about effecting bailouts, brokering deals and pursing for tougher regulations perhaps as anti thesis to Friedman’s views. Will the US of A revert to pre depression era laws signaling the end of free markets remains to be seen .

September 9, 2008

The Indian Road to Perdition

Almost every year after the monsoon season, a clichéd story unfolds on Indian Roads. A good season and the receding rains would have left behind scarred roads battered with potholes. Thereafter for some months and possibly until the next monsoons commuting becomes a part of one big Indian Jamboree . 

Imagine the narrow congested roads where motorists, bicycles, 3 wheeled rickshaws, the odd Tonga or bullock cart not to forget stray cattle and pedestrians forced to walk on the roads by hawkers on pavements, all jostling for their bit of space in a unruly manner and dodging the potholes at the same time!

Mofusil areas as compared to cities i guess bear a bigger brunt of this catastrophe. By the time, the Govt and local authorities respond with their elephantine inertia, the larger public would have resigned to their fate on the roads & would have gotten used to it. Usually the response mechanism or the remedy brought fourth is worse than the ailment, potholes filled with mud and loose gravel accentuates the pain by making the roads even more un-commutable not to mention the dust and dirt it raises to make it one hellish experience. 

For a country with the second largest road network in the world, over 3.3 million kilometres, & carrying over 40% of total traffic, it’s nothing short of monumental tragedy. Yet everything trudges on. By World Bank estimates, every year bad roads cost India about 3-4 per cent of its gross domestic product which was more than $1.3 trillion in 2007.

The Govt every year spends Crores of rupees through its I&B ministry educating drivers on how to drive steadily and save precious fuel. But the same authority is oblivious to the monumental wastage and; drain such bad roads bring to the national exchequer . Actually bad roads put a lot of strain on multiple systems and its cascading effect on productivity loses & wastage of resources could be running into billions of rupees. 

Lets begin with the simple laws of motion, when the traffic grinds to an average of 5-10 kms instead of the normal 25- 40 kms speed in cities, the frequent gear changes & breaking increases the average fuel consumption by at-least 25% - 40% across all category of vehicles. The slowing moving traffic means that the efficiency of a city’s traffic management system’s (measured in peak number of vehicles plying on road) also comes down. 

Add to this , the wastage on business productivity when people reach their workplaces late or business deliveries that fall behind schedule. Anybody who understand the concept of time value of money will comprehend the kind of loss I am talking about. Third, for inter city/inter state transportation , bad roads means vehicles arriving late on schedule and higher breakdown rates on road. The costs of rescheduling & maintenance of Govt run transport vehicles itself might run into several hundred Crores of rupees.

The opportunity cost of all this vis-a-vis a viable alternative or better road management solution does not seem to be on the agenda of town planners, state govts & the central planning commission. What is needed a comprehensive policy on surface transport mgt which lays emphasis on the uniform usage of standard road laying & maintenance procedures. 

Thankfully a trend has begun to surface in the Mumbai & Kolhapur municipalities, the former has successfully tried a ‘carbon core’ method of filling potholes which uses water as a primer & has been certified by IIT Mumbai and Central Road Research Institute as a durable option. The latter has decided to privatise the entire road infrastructure in Kolhapur city and award the maintenance and operating contract to a prominent Infrastructure Company. What’s unique about this model is that it won’t create any additional financial burden on the local citizens or authorities.

August 25, 2008

Private Treaties

Going through recent media reports I came across NEWS about how media houses were ganging up to offer advertising space to buy equity stakes in small companies. Commonly called SME, small business houses are being approached by media conglomerates to offer media space as a currency to buy latent wealth in a quid pro quo arrangement. Call it a new age commercial bartering or a meeting point of vested business interests, the trend is visible in the management space too, consulting firms bartering management services for equity stake commonly called sweat stakes in small companies. 

The commercial terms of these so called ‘Private Treaties’ makes for a compelling business deal, a win-win situation for all it seems. SME’s who were looking for publicity but could not afford to pay in cash can now find a messiah in the media houses. The latter will provide strategic media space that can reap commercial benefits for these companies in the form of brand equity building, subtle product and service message delivery to intended target segments and not but the least, enhancing the PR quotient of the promoters. 

Even the stock markets of late have taken a liking for News & views of small quoted companies, a ground for good speculative trading with media in tow. Similarly in the Management space, small companies can avail Management bandwidth & Networking skills that normally eludes them.

Whether its media houses or fancy Consulting firms, it’s all about recognizing the ‘hidden value’ of these companies and unlocking them by extending what appears a generous helping hand. Of course strings are attached; the promoters have to cough out 2-20% stake for these angels which eventually would mean a windfall gain for promoters when these companies grow to the next stage in an emerging economy.

What drives this kind of deal making? Jack & Suzy Welch have an interesting insight to this,”Blame the fierce competition of the global marketplace. Too often, deal heat is inexorable especially if there are other contenders in the ring”.

Whether such arrangements has a bearing on the impartiality of media and their primary business of fair reporting without bringing any conflict of Interest is a moot point . On the other hand can Management consultants be impartial and objective without being affected by ownership frailties in such scenarios?

SME has suddenly become a focal point of interest and attention to a whole new generation of evangelists masquerading as value partners, mentors, turnaround specialists, growth agents, catalysts, and what not. A truth to whether they measure up to their lip services can be found in the details of their so called working terms & conditions for engagement. These guys in my opinion are essentially Corporate miners who see SME’s as the next treasure trove for making quick money. 

A lot of parallel can be found in History books which is replete with tomb raiders masquerading as archaeologists, treasure hunters seeking distant sea shores in the garb of merchants & spice traders and so on. So it’s all about history repeating itself with new jargon's & mumbo jumbos suited for the current digital age.

August 8, 2008

5 rings of despair for Indian sports

On the eve of the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth, the Olympics, I am reminded of an incident that happened a while ago. It was the year 1986 and I clearly remember an incident that was reported and which transpired between the then Prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Margaret Alva who was the sports minister . 

It was the Asian games and days had passed without India opening its gold medal tally in the event. A worried Rajiv called up to check on India’s progress in the event and  Margaret asked him to wait for events featuring PT Usha , the then reigning queen of track and the best medal prospect for the country. To this Rajiv reportedly snapped “If only Usha can get us gold medals, then why do we have to send so many?" India had sent over 400 and all it got was four gold medals. Usha had a hand in each of them. 

Much has been written and debated about the factors leading to India’s dismal performance in the International sporting arena, no point in repeating the cliched excuses like we are a cricket crazy nation, our sports infrastructure in not adequate, our sport bodies are politicized etc etc. 

Agreed, these are problems to be addressed but our cup of woes, by no stretch of imagination exceed that of Nigeria, Iran and Somalia which face much harsher political & economic conditions but perform better than India at this arena. Are their athlete’s hungrier for glory is one moot point?

A general rule of thumb has been that a country’s performance in such arena is proportional to its population & economic wealth while a more serious analysis will factor other important variables like past Olympic performance, whether the country was previously part of the former Soviet/communist bloc (including Cuba and China), and whether the country being a host nation or so.

A study done by PwC on these lines do not figure India among the top 30 countries that are expected to grab 82% of the medals in Beijing. In another interesting study SS Vasan has found parleys between sports performance at regional & international levels and going by India’s performance at Commonwealth games, they should perform far better in the Olympics than they actually are.

I was just curious to check out on how close we were to the elusive medals in the 57 best attempts (read athletes competing from India in Beijing) that we have cobbled up for this event . What has been their recent mean/modal performance values & how do they stack up against the best in Business? 

Sadly, SAI & the IOA websites were conspicuous by absence of such data and analysis. What you get to see is the usual stuff of their recognized federations and associations blah blah.. What I wanted to know was all about our best athletes/sportsmen? what they have achieved? How they have trained for this seminal event? What does their performance indicate to? I hope Mr.Kalmadi is listening to all this.

All said and done, what need to change at a fundamental level is a complete rethinking and a 360 degree change of mindset in the way we approach sports business. 

To conclude I am reminded of what Ed Smith had to say about sports in his book What Sports tells us about life,"Sports is a condensed version of life - only it matters less and comes up with better statistics".

August 6, 2008

Quant’ nomics

My world of small scale investing has gone topsy turvy, thanks to the turbulent markets and the daily Yo-Yo swings in the Sensex. 

Sometime back i relegated my basic instincts in picking and choosing stocks based on my style of analysis to a new breed of Mutual fund called the Quant fund. This fund promised ‘agility’ and promised an investment rationale based on computer simulated models purely based on numbers with a promise to better the Nifty performance. I said why not give it a try when it was backed by George Soros, a big name in the Investment world. 

Here was some kind of a financial robot I thought, that would crunch numbers in the most cold blooded way possible and invest without any bias or misplaced emotions. After all mathematics and its underlying number based logic is what drives our daily lives, be it the car we drive or the planes we fly or simply the computers we work on. 

That were the thoughts then, now as i sit back and look at the performance that this dear Quant friend has delivered sadly belies all my hopes and expectations. Sitting next to other ordinary mutual funds in my online investment portfolio, it has delivered me a 27.9% loss as against 10-15% loss of other run of the mill funds. No wonder, i pity myself like the countless suckers who fell into a similar mess called Derivatives, another quant product.

Relative performance of such quant products points to failure, but why? After all stock market is all about numbers and quantitative techniques like the one on which this mutual fund rested should have performed atleast better is my premise. As a wise guy after the event i have realized that financial markets are primarily driven by basic human emotion of Greed and fear that makes the Bulls run and bears dance on the bourses. 

Do Investment logic based on numbers hold fort when they are on the rampage? Most Investment pundits, like the ones you see on TV and read in Newpapers, argue that the macro fundamentals of our economy is strong and the market will find its feet soon. But this kinda argument is based on numbers like Corporate earnings, Infrastructure spending, credit flows & like but will it sway the investment logic of fear driven ordinary investor? 

As far as I am concerned, I have taken to reading Emanuel Derman’s book “Life as a Quant” to find some solace and search for inner meanings to a Life in numbers.

August 5, 2008

Reality Bites

Reality shows on TV have a way of unwinding what has been hard wired into human brains for ages. The propensity to seek the unpredictable, not to mention the excitement, fear & anxiety and sometimes irrational behavior that goes along with it .

Man is a social pleasure seeking animal, and irrational too, better exemplified in today’s reality television shows. Where every person, whether the judge or the audience go with their preconceived notions & expectations of the participants or a situation and come out with a unique experience when the plot goes on unexpected lines.

Reality-shows in my opinion are of 2 types, the adventure and non adventure. The former is usually associated with travel, trek or Sports while the latter is mostly talent hunting, singing dancing & like. And shows like 30 Seconds to fame gives me the impression that its not only cricket that gets T20’ed but reality shows too. A participant is supposed to rattle off his talent in the craziest possible time span & then go through the shredder of evaluation from the audience & judges. And if he makes it to the next round, the participant is supposed to piece himself back for the second tango. And the cycle repeats. Though blood & gut normally dosent spill out in these shows, unlike the old roman gladiator games , its more than made up with racial slurs, regional/nationalistic sycophantic appeals for votes not to mention the psychological abuse heaped in the form of objective performance assessment.

My two favorites shows have actually been variations of reality shows but real nonetheless. One is that of the late naturalist Steve (Steve Irwin, the star of the Crocodile Hunter nature television documentaries) who combined his love of animals with the excitement of reality show by performing his daredevil acts of deadly animal rendezvous in the most unplanned & unscripted ways. The other by magician David Blaine who created the unpredictable acts of appearance & disappearance of objects, levitation,death defying stunts etc out of ordinary daily events through cool magic skills on the streets of New York & elsewhere. Incidentally the dude made a cool $ 6 million from such televised street shows last year .

Whats amazing about this kind of reality show is that in a perfectly normal and mundane backdrop, the protagonist operates on a thin line between the real & surreal. And carries it off with aplomb. These guys defy logic, fear, and tread into the unpredictable where rules do not apply and the plot can sometime go horribly awry as in the case of Irwin. They welcome us to the world of free will and entirely implausible plots.

Coming back to human nature and its great quixoties, Dan Ariely captures various essence of Human psyche in his book Predictably irrational , a good read.

July 31, 2008

Yeh Taara Woh Taara...

Sometime in Nov last year I was on my way to Mangalore to attend a relative’s wedding & as usual I took one of the several bus operators who ply on this busy route. It so happened that then the main Blr-Mlr road, a NH48 which passes through Shiradi ghats was so dilapidated due to monsoon (which has become a regular feature) that the bus operator told us that he was talking us through another lesser known Sampaje route which also passed through the Western ghats down to the coastal plains.

In the dead of the night, around 2 am or so, the bus came to an halt and i woke up to realize that it might have stopped to help some passengers attend  nature call. Sensing that this was an unusual route & not knowing where it would stop next, i quickly got out of the bus to seize the opportunity. 

Coming out into the chill night i realized that we must be in the middle of the ghats as i was greeted by the dense forest around and the relentless chatter of night life in the wilderness. As i was standing there, going through the motions, i was awestruck by a rather unusual sight . A crystal clear nightsky!!, accentuated by blinding darkness around revealed an amazing tapestry of stars & heavenly bodies across the horizon just above the canopy of thick dark trees. 

What was unusual was the clarity of the night sky, highlighted by pitch dark firmament that i could see the reddish pink tinge of the nearby planet & the whitest white glow of distant stars & constellations. This fleeting experience became a vivid memory because of the circumstances in which i saw the natural wonder. Now a days it is a rare experience for a city slicker like me to just step out to my top floor terrace & get a clear view of the sky in Bangalore on any given night, leave alone seeing the stars. Bangalore like countless other cities around the world, is so polluted with smoke & dust that all you can is view is a thinly placid sky filled with smog scattering the bright glare of the cityscape below.

The amount of light pollution that any city generates can be gauged from a simple observation from a window seat of an aircraft that is about to land in clear dark night. All you can see from several thousand feet up in sky is a swathe of bright yellow & white lights not to mention neon colours interspersed here & there. In fact coming from a late evening Delhi flight recently, an hour or so into the flight, I just kept peering out of a window seat to see whether I could catch a glimpse of a perfectly dark landscape on the ground. Small patches of light kept appearing on the ground almost endlessly & my patience ran out after some time . 

Satellites images of the world captured in the dark, as recent studies show, reveal that the artificial light emanating from cities around the world is 3 times more now than it was in the 1970s. Studies by Royal astronomical society have also revealed that the stars that Humanity is seeing in a clear dark night sky is steadily decreasing with time. Observatories around the world, despite their high resolution telescopes are unable to pinpoint fixed & moving heavenly bodies for astronomical calculations due to this poor visibility. Prompting scientists to put the Hubble telescope into space. And it has not disappointed, seeing into the far reaches of the universe like never seen before.

One of my most vivid childhood memories has been of my mother feeding me with the lullaby & tales of a bright moon (chandamama) & dangling stars under the clear night sky of a far away town in North Karnataka where she was a Govt Medical officer. Whether this simple yet extra ordinarily wonderful natural experience can be had by my son in Bangalore? Nah, may not.

July 28, 2008

Management Ethos

I find a lot of similarities between the Haute-Couture collection of hotshot designers and entrepreneurs having exotic advisory boards. Like the proverbial “Haathi ki Daanth” as one of my friend puts it, they are just meant to showcase rather than offer any practical value. 

How else could one describe that? Take for instance, in the first instance, the gorgeously looking dresses (sometimes bordering on grotesque) which are displayed by super thin models on the ramps in Rome, Milan & god knows where. No clothing expert in his right frame of mind will advise you to try one of these at the weekend party or a social get together. For that matter you will rarely if ever find one on the street walk. 

Not only because of the price element but also for practicality. Nobody buys the stuff but designers & design houses spend millions on such flamboyant presentations to the Glitterati (& Chatterati) assembled in a tennis court like audience. The couture I believe is an attempt or rather an opportunity to show off the designer’s genius and the design house’s prestige, not to mention the massive ego in both cases, rather than any serious commercial exercise of selling clothes. 

Ditto with entrepreneurs, who ornate their showcases with exotic advisory boards, of people who come with big reputations and chequered karmic history written on corporate & academic turfs. Maybe it gives the entrepreneur or a solution evangelist some forlorn conviction that it will create an impression among potential clients that smart people believe in his/her business concept and are therefore willing to lend their reputation & time to help the budding company grow.

In reality a lot of the high profile advisory board members find very little time and inclination to do any meaningful work i.e., bring their wisdom and foresight to help the company find practical solutions to its problems or for its clients. The Business owners have to realize that the difference between success and failure is primarily the result of their team on the ground and their collective endeavors. 

Ordinary mortals who bereft of high reputations and devoid of any hang-ups, sweat & toil and build a reputation for the company by their work on the ground. However, rarely do these mortals figure out in the annals of a company showcase (whether it be Company website or product brochures or presentations) or even if they do, their presence is inversely proportional to the value they contribute to their respective businesses

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