Archive for September, 2007

Trying Times at Patel General Stores

At the southern tip of Bombay, where Colaba Causeway meets Wodehouse Road, wedged between Flashman Cleaners (“Curtains, Carpets, our Specialty”) and Teenage Library, is Patel General Stores.

Across the road is a taxi stand where half a dozen taxis are lined up. The taxi drivers chew pan, gossip and share an easy camaraderie. They are refugees from the jobless small towns of eastern Uttar Pradesh.  Baba, a tan dog w who they have commonly adopted lounges around too, waiting for scraps of food. On rainy nights, the taxi drivers let Baba sleep with them in their taxis. The taxis are their home too while  they wait to earn enough to afford a share of a room in Murthy Nagar, the vast slum that is home to the drivers, shop boys and dhobis and domestic help who serve wealthy Colaba and Cuffe Parade.

This corner is a good place to observe the gigantic forces now sweeping through the world and being hotly debated in academia and halls of parliaments: globalization, privatization, digitization…
But if you asked the taxi drivers lounging here, or the ancient proprietors of Flashman Cleaners, or the two cousins who run Teenage Library or young Chetan Patel who manages Patel General Stores, you would probably be greeted with blank looks. They wouldn’t even know what these words meant, let alone connect themselves to these waves of change.

Take the two cousins who run Teenage Library. When I first encountered them in the early 80’s a fifty rupee deposit and a charge of a rupee or two per week  you could borrow Mad Magazines or Archie comics while  young neigbourhood housewives borrowed Mills and Boon novels. When the first whisper of media digitization arrived, Teenage Library was at its leading edge renting out video tapes of Bollywood movies and American shows like “Cheers”. When satellite television came roaring in  carrying “Cheers” and “Three’s Company” on TV for free, they deftly switched to renting out DVDs of hard-to-get award winning movies. Now, video download services threaten but I am sure they will have a response for that too.

Or take Patel General Stores with its six feet wide front and that ten feet deep.. You stagger to the bathroom mirror one morning, reach out for your shaving cream and find that you cannot squeeze another drop out of it. That’s when you call Chetan at Patel General Stores and before you have finished stroking your emerging double chin, the door bell will ring with a young boy carrying the shaving cream.

But this happy if subsistence-oriented economic system in this corner of Colaba has of late had to deal with an ominous move. A Sahakari Bandar outlet, a dozen doors away which had provided sleepy but manageable competition has suddenly sprung to second life. It’s been acquired by a major business house, wiped of the dust from its shelves, dressed up its staff in new clothes and started aggressive price competition. Local customers have started switching their monthly purchases of rice and dal and salt and haldi already to them. Patel General Store’s business model and that of 11 million other stores like them in India, is going to be even more reliant on fleet-footed young men dropping out of school in rural areas. What may be at stake here may also be a system that currently serves as our economy’s shock absorber  as farming families, unable to support themselves , take their young sons out of school and send them to earn a living in the retail trade in cities.

Its comforting to know that we are not the only country that has had to deal with this transition from small, labor –intensive, high transaction-cost retailing to efficient, low transaction-cost, large scale operations, but we may be one of the few that’s dealing with it  simultaneously with some other mega transitions likethe one away from agriculture, the one away from small-scale industry.

At one extreme of the retailing transition is the United States with 80% of all retail now in the hands of large scale retailers. The pain of transition in their case was bearable partly because the growth of large scale retail in its first round happened in the newly booming suburbs of America in the 1950’s and 60’s. City retailers escaped these pressures for a long time. But even in America, the battles are far from over. When Wal-Mart attempted to open its first store in New York recently, a noisy coalition of corner stores, green activists, neighborhood groups, and labor unions thwarted them. So New York lives even today without a Wal-Mart store.

Then there is the case of France. In the 1970’s, as the giant retail formats started becoming popular, the French parliament passed a law that required retail outlets with a sales area larger than 10,000 square feet in urban centers to get approvals from a local board of citizens Composed of self employed shop keepers, consumers and local politicians. Refusals can be appealed to a national level board. This is what has kept French cities so charming and perhaps also the reason why things cost so much in France.

Last week, we were strolling through this world when we noticed Chetan step out of his shop on a busy morning to feed a biscuit to Baba, the taxi-drivers’ dog, who had been waiting hopefully with a mildly wagging tail for his morning meal.



IIM and IIITs’ Class-less Future

         It was 7 PM by the time I finished battling the rush-hour traffic in Bombay and arrived at Worli in mid-town Bombay from my office at Mahim,near Bombay airport. It had taken me more than an hour to travel the five kilometers. I had to hunt around for awhile before I located the  name board. As the lift ascended at a glacial speed up two floors, through its collapsible grill door  I  could see women gossiping at open doorways or bargaining with vendors, the tell-tale signs of a building that housed residents who had moved from some village not so long ago.

I got out of the lift, gingerly stepping over stacked newspapers and wandered down a corridor to enter a room with personal computers lined up along its four walls. The lights in the room had been turned down, clearly to make the computer screens more visible. A dozen   twenty-something men and women were sitting  before these computer terminals with earphones attached, watching and listening intently and occasionally typing on the keyboards.

             A young woman who was striding up and down the room with a managerial air noticed me  hovering  at the doorway and came forward, a welcoming  smile on her face. She was expecting me.
 “The class has already started,” she said, leading me to a workstation and fitting me out with earphones. The computer screen in front of me was divided into three sections. Filling the right half of the screen was   a power point presentation that was slowly rolling over with the words, “The debt to equity ratio of a company reveals…” The left half of the screen was divided into two; the top half showed a live TV-like picture of a professor at his desk, explaining what was on the power-point screen. I could hear his clear, scholarly voice in my earphones. The lower left corner was like an Instant Messenger with many names listed, “Sneha- Coimbatore”, “Divya- Delhi”, “Karan- Calcutta”, obviously the names of  the other students who had logged on from throughout India to the same class as me. We were all at a management class  at one of IIM Calcutta’s  many Long Distance Education Centres. The lectures were being beamed  over satellite from IIMC’s Calcutta studios.
          An hour later, not only had my fading memory of the implications of debt-equity ratios been refreshed, but I also felt like a person who had seen the future revealed to him. Here was a high quality professor of finance, reaching out over the airwaves not just to a class of a few dozen but to a class of thousands! Had we at  last a way figured out a way to leap over the faculty shortages that currently limits the growth of high quality higher education in our country?
        I could barely wait for the class to finish to talk to some of the students. What makes them battle the rush-hour traffic of the evening hours after a long and exhausting day at work to spend another hour at these grueling management classes several times a week for a whole year?
 “We get to learn management from the same high-quality professors who teach the two- year residential management programme at IIM Calcutta,” said one student to me. “That’s a great attraction”.
          “Isnt it tough to digest these management concepts sitting by yourself at a computer terminal?”, I asked her, “after all, the students at the residential full-time programme can learn from each other  through after-class discussions with each other.”.

 “We also meet in groups on some week-ends to share notes and help each other,” she said.
 “Do all the students attend these classes rigorously? I mean , do any of them miss classes or drop out?”  I asked the manager of the Centre.

 “ I haven’t seen many  miss classes here. That’s probably because they are all working people who have put in five to seven years already and are paying for the course from their own earnings. And I can see that there is a camaraderie they have built among themselves which carries them through the year that the class lasts. Anyway, even if you miss the occasional class, the lessons are posted online for them to  download and catch-up ”

 Online education has it boosters and its detractors.  Boosters see it as a way of making high quality education affordable and available to a mass audience in an era where faculty shortages are endemic. They also see it as a healthy move away from the current system which places the burden of imparting learning on the teacher to a new approach which makes the student more responsible for his own learning. Detractors, on the other hand, see online education as a “cheapening” of the educational process and, because online education often is often very profitable, an unhealthy pursuit of profit. While this debate goes on, almost all US Universities have taken some steps in online education.

“A student’s university career…in the future, may no longer be through a particular place, time, or preselected body of academics, but through a network principally of students’ own making”, says George Keller former editor of the journal, “Planning for Higher Education”. “Students could stay at home or travel, mix on-line and off-line education, work in classes or with mentors, and take their own time. Their college careers wouldn’t begin at age eighteen and end at age twenty-two”, but be a life-long process.

Readers respones

Readers respones



I was thrilled to see an article on this course written by someone as eminent as you since I am doing this course myself ! Moreover since I work in Mahim I often go to the same Worli centre to attend these classes. I am nearing the end of the course and have thoroughly enjoyed the entire process of going back to school.

I totally agree with you that we may taken the first step, maybe not so consciously, towards ensuring top quality education to a much larger student community. Pursuit of profit? Well I would rather see institutions like IIM-C get financial independence through pursuit of profit than getting grants and being at the beck and call of ministers and bureaucrats.

Thanks again for the article.

Kind regards
Alok Tiwari
Alok Tiwari <>
read your piece — IIM and IITs’ class-less future — with interest.

One more heartening aspect of India’s evoluton-friendly higher education system is that it is proving not only popular overseas but giving other well-established global labels a run for their money, in more senses than one.

For instance, in Singapore where I live and work, S.P. Jain Institute of Management has carved a niche for itself in the business schools segment — a ‘market’ where Big Boys such as INSEAD, SMU, Chicago School abound. So have other well-known Indian primary and high schools.

Indian academics, it seems, can not only teach thousands of fellow Indians in India online, but excel at teaching multi-national classrooms overseas. And, in the days to come, more and more of them will likely make waves outside of the US (which, for long, has been their traditional overseas destination).

Well, your piece may well infuse fresh life into many middle-aged NRIs’ long-standing desire to pursue management education. How wonderful it would be then if IIM-C allows NRIs to enrol for courses at its Long Distance Education Centres in India.

If call centres could overcome the time-zone factor, so can LDECs, I’d reckon.

Best regards,
Siva <>
Good article.
Not just the IIMs and the IITs……..this model can be applied to even school education……only if our leaders have the vision and the will to make this happen.
Warm Regards,
“Dubey,Chandra” <>
Hi Ajit,

I think I am surprised by your article mainly because it seems that it has taken the institutions of higher education in India and eternity before they have started making their courses available online. Also, what is not covered in your article and one would need to worry about, is that in a world that has seen and recognized the value of blended learning; completing a management course, which challenging as it is on it’s own, should have been developed as an extension of the classroom lectures without accounting for the infrastructure for pre and post class help/learning, growing student discussion bodies, FAQ boards, smoked filled cafes et al. It sounded from your article that this is left to the student’s initiative, who if not competent in seeking these support aids is doomed to struggle through his eLearning modules.

Also, the greatest detractor of online education is not the quality of lectures delivered but the non customization of the content when delivered through new media. The greatest loss of classroom teaching is felt when it is delivered in an altered mode but with content customized in an attendant manner.

This article was particularly interesting to me as an instructional designer who worked in India many years ago at a job that then required me to “convert” existing classroom training to meaningful online learning and skill development. It seems, like a lot of other things, Indian educational institutions have allowed a new brain drain, where the services that were so superiorly developed in our own alley was not recognized, adopted and made available to our people first.

Random thoughts these…thank you for reading.

Dear Mr. Balakrishnan,

I went through your article on the distance education course and the future of learning with a lot of interest. I’ve recently joined the e-learning field, partly motivated by the power that it has to disseminate education and learning to the masses. The adoption rate is so high, that corporate spend on e-Learning is projected to grow at 40-50% yoy to reach USD 22 billion by year 2008 (gartner), and the K12 segment (US) is also a big consumer of e-learning courses.

As you would have found, online MBA is the most popular of all online courses (there are 130+ accredited e-Learning MBA courses from the US universities), and it’s good to know that that IIM-C is also offering something similar.

Even though we have live interactions, the inherent problem with the present synchronous delivery model would be that it’s the same as attending classes – and doesn’t allow full leverage of the ‘anywhere – anytime’ advantage offered by e-Learning (courses specifically designed for self-paced learning). One doesn’t need a ‘live’ prof to explain the debt-equity concepts, but his time is much better utilized clarifying doubts and discussing case studies with students, who already have gone through the concepts through a self-paced module online – making it a variant of the standard blended learning program. Imagine someone who only gets free time late at night and on weekends.

Parts of the synchronous mode should, of course, be kept for other benefits like networking and motivation.

Subham L Chakravarty
Subham L Chakravarty <>
Good Morning Ajit,

Why am I writing to you? I am up early this morning to catch up with some
reading/studying for the IIMC’s Long Distance Senior Management Program
under the aegis of NIIT-Imperia. As is my habit, I scroll through the news
portals as I have my morning coffee so that I am sufficient awake before I
get started. Today as I was doing this, your article on Rediff
( caught my eye.

Just to say that our batch of 25+ in Mumbai (120+ across 5 centres in India)
is a motley crew ranging from 33-56 years in age; and a fair mix of senior
and middle management people from Indian Cos and MNCs. Why are we here? I
think because most of us have no formal or holistic mmgt training and that
is what we are looking for. And full-time courses, for one reason or
another, are not a feasible option.

Speaking for myself, I could have accomplished some of this one my own, but
preferred a structured approach. Do we truly learn? I think yes. The more
disciplined and dedicated among us read much beyond what the professors’
notes or suggested reading (which are just a starting point). More
importantly, we independently analyse cases and the discussions that we have
amongst ourselves are as educative.

And once we have lost our “stage fear” the interaction over the synchronous
platform is also enriching. Perhaps not as much as the classroom; we are
onsite at IIMC next week and may be this myth will be dispelled too :-)

Now that I am awake, it back to the grindstone…

Aruna Panangipally <>
Hi Ajit,

It is indeed a good article, however isnt it important to actually have the prof with rich industry experience to be right in front of u and share his part of experience along with the subject of topic. Doesnt that give much more value and a better understanding for the subject.

Coz just hearing someone give a lecture over an earphone, doesnt quite have that effect that the one in person gives u.

Darshan Dodia <>
Hi Ajit:

I found this very interesting, especially because I have developed several online courses, including rarely found (in the USA, that is) online Market Research course for MBA students which I taught for the first time last year and about to start again on 8/27. I am also developing an undergraduate MR course that will debut in 2008. The online variation of a very unique course called Marketing and Money that I developed from scratch to strengthen the woefully weak marketing math skills of my American undergraduate business students won the AMA’s annual award for Innovative Excellence in Marketing Education in 1995. I think the true potential of online education in India lies in its ability to revolutionize the quality of secondary education where millions of bright youngsters suffer from very mediocre infrastructure. A public/private partnership could result in the blossoming of hundreds of thousands of Internet education centers all across the country,
run/supervised by retired high caliber teachers. Cannot think of a better way for corporate sponsors to invest in society. Companies big and small can sponsor or become patrons for as many centers as their budgets permit, while the Central and State governments pay for or subsidize the Internet access of these places. One talented Maths teacher can, as you rightly point out, reach zillions of children. Mere clicks of online buttons could deliver content in all 15 languages of India. In addition, this would be a great resource to coach smart, but resource starved rural kids for IIT JEE etc. The point is India already is very conscious of and is spending big public bucks on education. The Net has the potential to multiply that many times over. This is certainly true of our common home state of Kerala. Hope the folks there catch on to this. I desperately hope they do! I have lots of fond ideas and dreams and am willing to help in any way I can from my
rather distant perch.

Best regards,

- gg
(BTech Mech IITM 1973, PGDBA IIMA 1975)

gopala “GG” ganesh, ph.d.
professor of marketing
university of north texas
 Good article on distance education. This is what I suggested to IITK
and iisc to do jointly for M.Tech degree many years ago.
Perhaps the technology is better now.will send to friends again and
put on my   soon to close web site. Instead they now spent Lakhs of
Rs and put the ppt slides on web site.

 M.A.Pai Professor Emeritus
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Univ of Illinois at Urbana -Champaign
S and T India Portal
 Hi Ajit,
I read your article called ‘IIM and IITs’ class-less future’ on rediff. This is really awesome. You know what I think is that online education has more advantages than disadvantages. This is proved by the very fact that you have already one such.

Bye the way, I was never aware that IIMs and IITs also distance learning courses. Can you please let me know if it is possible to pursue MBA from any of the IIMs by distance learning? If yes, what’s the procedure for admission and attending the classes? This is because I’m a full time employed person and can’t afford to study full time.

Rachna Bansal
“Bansal,Rachna IN GGN SISL” <>
Dear Sir

I am glad to see your article

My views/doubts/premature questions

Do we really want to make the education / “college education” a
life-long process. When will we start working to raise our families and
take better care of them. Will our standard of life improve by going to
college throughout life. The purpose of a college education is to
provide the students with some skills which are relevant and  help them
help themselves and their families. A typical life would be office and
college and nothing more. Think what will happen if a father and a son
go to the same online class, there will be no clear demarcation of
authority and many more lines will vanish.

For the cost of education, it has to be always less than the benefits it
will give otherwise no one will join the class rooms, if i stretch my
education to a longer time period it is bound to cost me more ( money /
time or both (assuming i assign a relatively higher utility to time ))

I don’t have any solutions of what seems to be a problem to me right now
but I guess this way we may derail from the underlying purpose of the

~I am afraid what you said is right and I will see that sooner or later.
Guess I am ready for the new wave :)




Discovering What We Dont Know

I stared at the sheaf of photocopied reading material that the instructor had distributed to our class anger welling up inside me.

           “Many years had passed during which nothing of Combray had any existence for me”, said the opening line of the reading. What possible relevance could this reading in old fashioned, stilted English have to what I had joined this class to learn.

            I glanced around at the rest of the class of two dozen or so New Yorkers who had committed to the grueling schedule of two hours of evening class after work every week to polish our creative non-fiction writing skills at the New School, New York. It was shortly after the dramatic events of 9/11 and everyone in New York was trying to find meaning to things through writing and reading and things like that. The Whoopi Goldberg look-alike African American woman who usually sat next to me seemed unperturbed. Was I the only one who found this old fashioned reading material irrelevant?

     I took another shot at the reading: “one day, in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, something that I did not ordinarily take.”

     My sense of frustration only increased. Why didn’t the instructor just give us a list of five things to do to improve our writing styles instead of making us wade through this kind of stuff?

     I could barely wait for the class to end that day. As I stepped out into the cold, New York night on my trudge back home, I did not even stop to drop a coin , as I usually do, into the bowl of the man and his mangy dog huddled in one of the doorways on 10th Street.

    Later that night, with no deadlines to chase I decided to take another shot at the reading, picking up at the point where I had left off, the part where the narrator is in the French town of Combray and has just been offered tea by his mother.

    “I declined at first, and then for particular reason, changed my mind. She sent out for those short, plump little cakes called  ‘petite madeleines’.”

    I found myself getting drawn into the reading now. When I looked up an hour had passed and I had unwittingly read several thousand words of the reading.

    As many a reader may have guessed by now, the reading which I had found ‘irrelevant’ and caused me so much irritation but which I was now deeply engrossed in was the opening passage of Marcel Proust’s  In Search of Lost Time.  Published in 1913, many consider it the first novel of the 20th century setting the stage for the ‘modern’ novel. Graham Greene called Proust the “greatest novelist of the 20th century”, and W. Somerset Maugham called the novel the “greatest fiction to date”.

    What had caused this intense sense of frustration and irritation in me when the young instructor at the New School in Manhattan first gave me this reading? Was it that I did not ‘know’ that Proust was such a great author or that  In Search of Lost Time was such an epochal novel? If he had told me this, would  I have then got to know something that I did not know- that Proust was such a great author.

    Recognizing solutions to problems, both in science and management, often can be traced to a similar phenomenon- not knowing that we dont know something.

    One of the instances of this proved to be a turning point for Ayurveda.  Immunizing people against small-pox through ‘variolation’, a process where dried smallpox scabs were blown into the nose of an individual was known and practiced in parts of India as early as the 17th century. But for this to be part of public health policy in India, it had to find its way first to the Ottoman Court in Istanbul, where a British diplomat’s wife, Lady Montagu encountered it in 1717 and took the practice to England.  There, it was realized that since variolation could lead to the small pox disease in a high proportion of cases, a safer version was needed. With this knowledge, the solution to small pox entered the zone where many knew that a solution was possible and all that was not known was how to make it safer. Edward Jenner, an English physician, saw that dairymaids infected with cowpox were immune to small-pox and hit on the safe solution in 1798.  Vaccination as a public health measure that saved millions of lives in India had to wait for British public health policy to bring it back. And Ayurveda, missed a crucial breakthrough by not knowing that a nascent solution to small pox epidemics existed right here in India.

    “And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of Madeleine”, recounts Proust’s narrator at the end of the famous passage, ” immediately the old grey house upon the street rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, and with the house the town, the square, the country roads, all the flowers in our garden, the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea”.


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