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Indians’ love for things Foreign …is this a virus more dangerous than Covid-19?

How often have I seen a situation, for example that of having to choose a professor for an a higher educational institution, or a senior manager for business organization when people around me urgently advise me to pick the candidate who has an foreign degree or foreign work experience. When I ask them, why, they look back at me with a puzzled look, as if I have raised a question about something that is so self-evident.

When the decision in question is about choosing “just another” professor or manager, it could be rationally justified as an attempt to provide a cultural mix that can only be for the good. But when it is for the head of an Indian Institute of Management or the head of a policy making national institution and I again raise the question why, again I get greeted with that puzzled look.
Its not that the persons so enamored with a foreign degree or foreign work experience are run-of-the-mill folks: I have seen current or former Secretaries to government or Managing Directors of successful businesses show those inclination for things foreign.

Some professional disciplines appear to be more prone to it than others: the economics profession seems to be more prone to it than others. Roles like the Reserve Bank of India Governors, or Economic Advisors to State or Central Governments must brandish a foreign degree/work experience (the current RBI Governor is an unusual exception to this hallowed rule). Its almost as if, after half-a-century of Independence and investment in higher education we just cannot seem to believe that our Universities cannot produce an Economic thinker good enough.

I have seen this personally most acutely in the choice of Directors of the Indian Institutes of Managements. Even if there are excellent and proven India-based internal candidates, the push from other Board members if to find a person who is currently a Professor in a foreign (often American university). And this push is irresistibly strong when the Chairman of the IIM in question which is looking for a Director has had no prior education at an IIM or IIT but is otherwise a successful business executive.

I can by now predict what happens when such an Non-Resident Indian candidate is chosen: he or she is by then in the final stages of their career often with a mere half-a-dozen years to go for retirement in their ,for example, American university and does not want, under any circumstance to jeopardize their retirement benefits from that university. Secondly, the families are firmly settled in America and cannot relocate to India. All this results in the chosen Director performing as a Guest Artist- visiting their Indian campus occasionally.
Again, its not this Guest Artiste role that causes the damage. Such visiting NRI Directors don’t have the time to make the 5-10 year emotional commitment to create any truly innovative Research Centre or a revolutionary Curriculum change.

I have seen otherwise great IIMs flounder for a decade after such an NRI Guest Artist Director choice.

And at the policy-making level, such Policy-Making-Guest Artistes during their tenure in India propagate the Western Fashion of the day being it the ideology of Socialism-Public-Sector-Primacy in the 1950-1970 period or the Low-Interest- Rates-Shareholder-Value-Maximization in the current era.

And at a more macro level, I have found something disturbing about Indian who pine to go to college abroad. Some of this passion for going abroad is part of being just practical: because entry into the top Indian post-grad institutions like the IIMs or the IITs or Medical Colleges (to name a few institution types) is extremely competitive. So, if your parents are well-to-do, all you need to get into a Harvard or Harvard-like prestigious educational institution is to ask your dad to write a fat cheque for your admission. The Pulitzer Prize winning 2005 book, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges – and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates by Daniel Golden spells out how this is done extensively.
The fervent desire to go abroad after an IIM or IIT degree is driven partly by a deeply held belief in some Indian families and communities that life abroad will be both fairer and materially more rewarding for them. And considering that practically all large Indian businesses are run by families it has become practically a iron-clad rule that they will be educated abroad and come back to run their family businesses. And since this foreign education stint is most often in the Arts and Commerce field, they return back to India with the entrenched belief that all technology-based innovation in business is best left to the West. Their role is to manage business through contacts and relationships.

All this has created a nation-wide culture that any kind of India-based innovation and thinking is not something that Indians can do. All intellectual creation is best left to the West. This complete distrust in any India-based innovation is rampant even among the current senior Civil Servants.
Is all this because of the several hundred years of British colonialization? Is that put a virus inside us Indians that leads to a distrust of things Indian particularly in matters of science and technology? This is clearly a virus more dangerous and more long-lasting than COVID-19, so, should we launch an equally vigorous struggle to eliminate this virus?

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Discovering things about my little dog

Just the other day, on the way back from a weekend trip to Varanasi, my first trip there, we were idly glancing at the books in the airport bookstall there, when my eyes lit on a book that has made me question many assumptions in my life.

But, first the context. I have always been a dog lover. Shortly after setting up home in Mumbai, I adopted a dachshund. Like many obsessive dog lovers, I was the one who took him for walks morning and night, fed him, bathed him, and of course had him sleep on the same bed as us.


my little dog

When he died a decade later, I had a beagle. A decade of cuddling and petting him, he passed on, and it was time for Churchill, a basset hound (named so because he had jowls like his namesake statesman).

After another decade, when Churchill passed on, we did something revolutionary: We adopted a pye-dog, a pariah dog, which we found wandering around the village near our weekend home in Alibag, across the bay of Bombay where we live.

These dogs are called ‘pye’ or ‘pie’ or even ‘pariah’ because they have no discernible breed; it is surmised that they are the result of unplanned cross-breeding between various ‘pure’-bred dogs.

This dog, a female pup, which we named JillJill, however, had some odd qualities.

First, it would not touch meat, but loved fish, unlike our earlier three dogs who seemed to live just for their twice-a-day meat portions.

Second, it was obsessively suspicious of anyone ringing our doorbell, unlike our earlier three well-bred dogs who welcomed all visitors to our home, ‘including robbers’ I groused in my mind.

Third, JillJill would attack viciously anyone who came close to me when I was sitting reading a book or having a drink. We and our fellow dog lovers put all this down to a possibly uncared-for puppyhood.

Finally, the string-like tail it had when it first arrived at our home, within weeks blossomed into a thick fan-like one, something like what some pure-bred dogs have. We then surmised that JillJill must have somewhere in its ancestry, a cross between its pye-dog ancestors and some well-bred bushy-tailed dog.

All of the above surmises so deeply ingrained in my belief structure must be the reason why I was thunderstruck when I opened The Book of Indian Dogs by S Theodore Baskaran at the Varanasi airport last weekend.

There, in the opening pages, was a picture of a dog who looked exactly like JillJill and which I learned was a ‘Bakharwal’, which were commonly bred and used by pastoral folks such as Gujjars to guard their cattle. Apparently, it was a pure Indian dog breed, not a bastardisation of a foreign ‘pure’ breed.

Book of Indian Dogs

Was JillJill’s antipathy to mutton and beef part of a centuries-old antipathy bred into her because sheep and cattle where what her ancestors reared and were employed to protect?

As I stood there at the Varanasi airport, transfixed, devouring that book, shattering one assumption that I had after the other, I learned that the origin of the domesticated dog was not, as I and my dog lover friends has assumed, from Europe.

DNA studies of 5,000 dogs from 38 countries done by scientists at Cornell University now place the origin of the domestic dog as Central Asia and more specifically in the area between Mongolia and Nepal. Terracotta figurines of dogs with collars have been found at Mohenjodaro, thus dating the domestic dog in India at 3500-1700 BC!

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Goa: Beyond the sun, beaches, food and feni

When I started reading Vatsala Mendonca’s book, The Shadow of the Palm Tree, the first thought that struck me was God! I thought Goa was only about than sun, sand pork vindaloo and feni; I had no idea that behind the charming, ever smiling Goan faces, there is so much complexity and history!

Take for example the palm tree, that ubiquitous object that we find all along the west coast of India. In Vatsala Mendonca’s Goa, they are not merely trees with long stems with a frond of leaves on top. Their gentle swaying in the sea breeze soothes the characters, they know that the ancient Egyptian god Huh was shown always with a palm in his hands, for the Greeks it was a symbol of Apollo, the Romans rewarded their heroes with palms, the Hindu’s wrote their scriptures on treated palm leaves and Mohammed built his home out of palms and a palm tree is planted to commemorate the birth of each son.

book cover

At one level this novel is an account of Abreau family, a wealthy, land-owning family in Goa and traces its evolution, from the time of the arrival of the Portuguese in the early part of the 16th century to the take-over by India in the 1960′s.

Salvador Abreau and his wife Dona Teresa and have five children. As is the practice in well-to-do Goan Christian families, according to the author, one son Luis follows his father’s profession of law, another, Miguel, becomes a priest and third, Joseph, a medical doctor, and Anne, the daughter is left for marriage. Salvador himself is a lawyer who spends his days practicing law in court and his evenings drinking feni and writing poetry. Then there is Salvador’s sister, Tia Rosa, whose dream of a home and family of her own did not work out and so continues living in the Abreau home “loveless yet desperately yearning for love”.

The Abreau family acquires its wealth by participating in the African slave trade; the European attempt to capitalize on the lands they acquired in North and South America had created an almost unending demand for African slaves. In a similar fashion, ships sailed from Goa to Mozambique carrying spices and hardwoods and returned with shiploads of African slaves.

At another level this novel shares a point of view with Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel ‘Sula’ in seeking explanations of a character’s behaviour not as is usually done in fiction in society, psychological make up, or the socio-economic background of the character but in the complex legacy of racial heritage, slavery and patriarchy.

Still another level at which this book operates is that of Latin American novelists which its foremost exponent, Gabriel Marquez, described in his Nobel Acceptance Speech as invoking “a sense of the incorruptible superiority of fate and the inhuman, inexorable ravages of history.” Thus, major historical events like Goa’s involvement with the African Slave Trade are alluded to but in the Latin American literary tradition are seen through their effects on the lives of characters rather than being described; destino is what is invoked to explain events.

The destino of the Abreau family is traced back to the founder Tomas Abreau and his role in kidnapping Immaculada, a beautiful young “negra” in a raid on a Mozambique village and bringing her to Goa. Though Immaculada and her descendants continue to serve in the Abreau family, “destino” ensures that no woman of the Abreau family through the generations is happy.

The novel’s pivot point is when Dona Teresa, the mother of Miguel, Luis, Joseph and Anne, throws herself in to a well and drowns. Each chapter of the book is in the voice of each of these children trying to make sense of this event.

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Does the literature Nobel to Bob Dylan mean changing times?

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind

The announcement last week that the American pop singer Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature has raised many eyebrows in the literary world. Is this event an acknowledgement that the word “literature”, which till now, has meant “written works”, especially those considered of “superior or lasting artistic merit”, no longer need be “written” but can also be sung? Or is it an acknowledgement that the printed word no longer reigns? Or even that a felicity in writing is no longer the defining point of learnedness?

I remember clearly the day I heard Dylan for the first time. It was 1964, I was in my final year at school in my home town, Cannanore, a small town in the Malabar coast of Kerala, my ears peeled to the music from Radio Ceylon coming out of a Murphy Radio nearly as big as a present-day refrigerator (transistor radios were a few years away). Radio Ceylon, at that time was the only source of international music and news from outside our little nook of India (television was also a few years into the future). Why was I so attentive to the sounds coming out? It was a miraculous time for music and movies with musicians and film makers in a frenzy of creativity and the world seemingly on the precipice of change like it had never been before. In India, for one, “Midnight’s Children”, people like me born right after Independence and in free India, were coming of age and graduating out of high school. In the United States, Martin Luther King had that year electrified the world with his “I have a Dream” speech, triggering the civil rights movement that would in time lead to a fairer world from African-Americans. Cinema was entering its golden age, with films like Lawrence of Arabia, Psycho and closer home, Mughul-e-Azam, Barsaat ki Raat and Bandini. The world would not be the same place again! We were living in revolutionary times!

Dylan’s music was the voice of those times with songs like, The times they are a changing (“There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’, It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls”), A Hard Rain is a-gonna fall ( “I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken, I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children”), music no longer was sung in praise of the gods or by moonstruck lovers- real social issues were brought in and it was electrifying.

Ever since Johannes Gutenberg, in 1450, invented movable type, a method of casting this type on to a mould, and thus made inexpensive printing possible, the printed book has been a powerful instrument in shaping the world. Gutenberg’s first “hit” with his new process invention was, of course, the Bible and it is believed that the Protestant Reformation might not have been possible without the inexpensively printed Bible; religion no longer was just a prerogative of churches and priests; thanks to the possession of the Bible, every household could reach out to god directly.

Is Dylan’s Noble Prize yet another signal that of what David J. Gunkel, the American academic see as signalling that the times we live in as “the late age of the text” and a period of transition from print to electronic culture? Or merely a long overdue acknowledgement that popular music (of the 1960’s particularly) has had greater poetic values than poetry itself: for instance:

How many roads must a man walk down

Before you call him a man?

How many seas must a white dove sail

Before she sleeps in the sand?

Yes, how many times must the cannon balls fly

Before they’re forever banned?

The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind

The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

Dylan, when interviewed about the meaning of the song had this to say: “There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind – and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some …But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know . . . and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.”

If this isn’t poetry, what is?


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How to build world-dominating businesses

A few days ago I found myself sitting at the longest table I have ever seen in my life listening to a discussion on what are the technologies that will be influential: what jobs will these jobs create, what jobs will they destroy in the coming fifteen years. One side of this long table was filled by people working for NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India)and my side of the table had a dozen or so people like me: entrepreneurs as well as executives from large Indian business groups, people heading think tanks and management consulting companies. Towards the fag end of this multi-hour meeting of give and take, Dr Arvind Panagariya, the Columbia University economics professor and current head of NITI Aayog raised a question: “What does it take India to produce companies like Google and Microsoft? While there was not enough time to debate this question that day, this question has been ringing in my head since then.

I guess what the question really meant was what does it take for India to produce world dominating companies, companies that operate in the Information Age (and not smoke stack, mining or real estate businesses), companies which compete on the basis of the sophisticated technologies they employ to make their products easy to use as opposed to companies that compete on the basis of the cheapness of labour employed by them.

I think the first port of call to start finding an answer to this apparently innocuous but in reality complicated question is to go to the internet (yes, to Google, where else :-)) and locate a scholarly paper using the key words, “Brin”, “Page”, “Page rank”. When you have done downloading it, ignore all the tech stuff and merely look at the two dozen words on the first page where the authors thank people who made the 1998 paper possible: “The research described here was conducted as part of the Stanford Integrated Digital Library Project, supported by the National Science Foundation…Funding for this cooperative agreement is also provided by DARPA and NASA”.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page are of course the founders of Google, the paper you just glanced at is the paper which proposes the technology Brin and Page used to build the Google search engine. Wait, look at a little closer at the acknowledgements: Stanford University already had a project trying to make sense of the newly emerging internet as far back as 1998 when the rest of the world barely had heard of the internet. And finally, look at the source of funding: “DARPA” stands for the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency- note how American defence interests and university research funding and creation of companies like Google are so intimately inter-twined.

So, one way of rephrasing the NITI Aayog question is why is it that in India universities do not initiate visionary projects that anticipate future technologies like the Stanford Digital Library project. A related question, why doesn’t Indian defence establishment (DRDO?) not pose research questions to our universities and back it with funding like the American Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency? While I will, in a moment, answer the India question, for those who want to decode how such intimacy and confluence of interest has happened between Defence interests and American universities like Stanford, there is no better place to start than Rebecca Lowen’s 1997 book, Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford. Professor Lowen’s (she teaches at Stanford) thesis is that university administrators faced with financial pressures and seeing the flush-with-funds American defence sector during the Cold War remade the American University into “cold war universities”, “recipients of Defence Department patronage and close relationships to private industrial concerns, many of which were developing war-related technologies”.

A related line of enquiry reveals the hand of the US Defence Department behind that device which practically all those present that day across the large conference must have had in their pockets: The Apple iPhone. I wish I had distributed copies that day of Professor Mariana Mazzucato’s book about the hidden hand of the American State behind the iPhone: The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths.  In this book she points out that in the United States, it is a myth the myth that it is the dynamism of the private sector that drives innovation, she shows that the private sector only finds the courage to invest after an entrepreneurial state has made the high-risk investments. She points out that every technology that makes the iPhone so ‘smart’ was government funded: its touch-screen display, the voice-activated Siri, the Geographic Positioning System and related map data which detects your location and gives you helpful directions, not to mention the internet itself, the microprocessor that drives it, as well the cellular technology which makes all mobile phones possible.

The secret to transforming what could have been a heavy hand of government that stifles all initiatives lies in the processes that DARPA follows, says Professor Mazzucato. “It facilitates workshops for researchers to gather and share ideas while also learning of the paths identified as ‘dead ends’ by others. DARPA officers engage in business and technological brokering—linking university researchers to entrepreneurs interested in starting a new firm; connecting start-up firms with venture capitalists; finding a larger company to commercialise the technology; or assisting in procuring a government contract to support the commercialisation process. DARPA funding is provided to a mix of university-based researchers, start-up firms, established firms and industry consortia”. So, the answer to the question, how to create world- conquering companies may be this: how to make the Indian State become more entrepreneurial.

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Hail the Invisible Hand of the State

The current debate in India about how to trigger a quantum jump in industrial manufacturing activity and thus create large scale employment is largely centered on ways to reduce the role of the State- in allotting land, in environmental clearances, in firing workmen and so on. Yet, the case studies of two industries which came from origins even smaller than where manufacturing is today and have become international success stories, the Indian pharma industry and the Indian information technology services industry, proves the opposite point. Neither would have come to their current stellar role in the Indian economy without the active but largely invisible hand of the Indian State.

The Indian pharma industry has grown from minuscule revenues in the late 1960’s to a world player with an annual revenue of $ 40 billion (of which $ 15bn is in exports) and an activity base of 20,000+ manufacturing units employing over 29 million people. The case of the software services industry is even more striking; it employed just 8,500 people in 1990 and had a revenue of a mere $165m (tiny Ireland had a $185 million software industry at that time). Today its size is $118 billion with $100 billion as exports. The people directly employed in the industry is reported as exceeding 2 million with another 7 million employed indirectly. Both these industries have also created multiplier effects in sectors such as housing construction, transport services, and household goods as young chemists and programmers set up homes and bought cars and home appliances.

What was the magic? Unfortunately, finding the key to these success stories is like that old tale of the blind men of “Hindoostan,” who, when asked to describe an elephant, said that it was like a wall, snake, spear, tree, fan, or rope, depending upon which part of the elephant each touched.

Proponents of the “market economy” will say that the success of these two industries is an example of what energetic Indian entrepreneurs can achieve when the government of India steps aside. Reinforcing this view is India’s business press, which frequently features stories about software and pharma industry millionaires. Proponents of ‘“globalization,” such as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in his book The World Is Flat, credit globalization: increased world trade that spreads prosperity around the world. Proponents of “privatization” say that decades of public sector efforts in these industries (Electronics Corporation of India in the case of IT and Hindustan Antibiotics are often quoted as examples) came to nothing until the private sector was “allowed” to participate. To them, this is proof that the government needs to privatize many other industries as well. And of course there are those that say that the State’s only role should be to provide zero-income tax on export incomes, government-sponsored software parks and export zones.

But actual case studies of these two industries tell another story. The rise of the Indian software services industry can be traced back to two mega projects sponsored by the government of India: the computerization of public sector banks and Indian Railways. These two projects, apart from providing an impetus to the startup and growth of hundreds of software development companies, also had another dimension. Far sighted government policymakers like Dr Seshagiri of what was then called the Department of Electronics, the forerunner to the current Ministry of IT, insisted that these applications be built using such technologies as the Unix Operating System and Relational Database systems; the world was then getting ready for a paradigm change that would unleash an insatiable wave of demand for computer programmers well versed in these specific technologies as the world shifted from mainframe computers to client server computers. Thanks to the Banking and Railway projects, Indian companies had a ready stock of thousands of software programmers well-versed in these new technologies who could be immediately deployed on assignments abroad.

The rise of India’s pharmaceutical industry is based on similar visionary moves by the Indian State. In 1970, the government introduced a new Patents Act reforming the 1911, which excluded pharmaceuticals and agrochemical products from eligibility for patents. Patents on molecules, which are products of chemical reactions or on mere admixtures and the like were made non-patentable in India. Only the method of making the product was patentable. This resulted in the Indian pharmaceutical industry developing considerable expertise in reverse engineering of drugs that are patentable as products throughout the industrialized world but not patentable in India.

You need to peer really hard to detect this kind of invisible hand of the State. Professor Marianna Mazzucato, Professor of Science and Technology at the University of Sussex and the author of The Entrepreneurial State – Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths did just this and uncovered the role of the American State behind what is generally seen as the ultimate artifact of entrepreneurial vision, the Apple iPhone. “What actually makes the iPhone a smartphone, instead of a stupid phone?” she asks in a recent TED talk. And answers that it is the Internet, the Global Positioning System (GPS), which detects your geographic location, the touchscreen display which makes it also a really easy-to-use phone. She points out that “the very smart, revolutionary bits about the iPhone, are… all government-funded. ….the Internet was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States. The GPS was funded by the [US] military’s Navstar program…the touchscreen display was funded by two public grants by the CIA and the US National Science Foundation”, and in the American pharmaceutical industry, “a full 75 percent of the new molecular entities with priority rating are actually funded in boring, Kafkian [US government] public sector labs”.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Indian eCommerce

( I wrote this at the request of Outlook Magazine who published a mangled version...this is the original)

Can all these web businesses that sell mobile phones, books and apparel 10-20% below the cost of what is available at retail shops and delivered free of charges home to you be for real? Will it all come crashing down? Or, perish the thought, is it one of India’s periodic spectacles that start with gushing media accounts of outsized company valuations, hitherto unknown entrepreneurs now being heralded as millionaires, which then leads to a grand denouement in which the same business men are then shown in rumpled clothes, with stoic expressions being led away by the CBI to Tihar jail?

Or, is all this a sign of India being dragged to its long overdue entry into the ecommerce era. Why long overdue? Because the percentage of all retail sales served by “organized” retail, i.e., non-mom-and-pop stores, and is considered a  measure of a country’s modernity and by that measure, in India is a tiny 3% compared to our sibling rival China at 13%  and European countries and the United States at 50%+. Why dragged?  Because the infrastructure that would have naturally led to ecommerce, the companies who could have provided widespread availability of credit and debit cards and reasonably priced broadband access have all being looking the other way while the world transitioned to the new economy.

I should know; it was on Independence Day 1998, that is to say, fifteen years ago, that I grandly declared at a press conference to an audience of puzzled journalists that Indian consumers could from now on, from their PC, “choose from over 40,000 music titles and 100,000 book titles to order online with discounts up to 40%, or make bookings in over a 180 carefully chosen hi-quality reasonably priced hotels”. For the next few years a few of us folks battled a narrow broadband user-base, a steeply depreciating Rupee that made PCs progressively more out of reach every year and poor credit card penetration; even a cash on Delivery payment system we launched in 1999 seemed to be of no avail.

What woke-up a somnolent Indian ecommerce industry that the rest of us had just about given up on was that a clutch of US private equity funds led by Tiger Global, had the vision to note that a consumer ecommerce market could be created in India because India had a per capita consumer expenditure roughly at the level of Brazil and China where ecommerce was flourishing. Since then, this group, and others who joined them, have invested large dollops of capital, by some accounts $2.5 billion, or Rs 15,000 crores in 2012 and 2013, into dozens of Indian ecommerce startups. These investors have then encouraged the ones who lagged behind in growth to merge with the ones which were forging ahead in an attempt to create at least one or two ecommerce companies that could make it to an IPO in the New York stock markets before the current euphoria about Asian ecommerce triggered by the impending IPO in New York of China’s ecommerce company Alibaba, ends.

Alibaba! Its annual revenues are $248 billion, about three times that of eBay worldwide and two-and-a-half times that of Amazon. Alibaba is also hugely profitable, its profit in a recent quarter was in excess of a billion dollars unlike Amazon which reported a loss. The international investors who are investing, merging and shaping India’s new ecommerce startups are betting that if China can produce an Alibaba with an expected market value of $ 170+ billion market value when it does its IPO, India should produce at least one or two with a $5bn+ market value.

There are many reasons why India may go the China path in its adoption of ecommerce. Organized retail companies that have the scale, management expertise and the information technology infrastructure to deliver consistently high quality and low cost goods, have never found a real foothold in China or in India. In China, for instance, such large retailers’ reach, even in urban areas is a mere 10%; in India even smaller. On the other hand, the Internet reaches more than half of China’s population, so selling things online in China makes eminent sense. India’s internet reach is only 11% now, but should it get to even 25%, as it is likely to in the next few years, one can easily imagine more than a handful of multi-billion dollar ecommerce players from India.

Indian ecommerce, so far, has merely taken its first wondrous baby steps.


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When I am 64

Published first in Business Standard

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64”, sang the Beatles when they burst into the international music scene. I was in my late teens  when I first heard this beautiful refrain. To me, like for all teen agers, asking your girlfriend whether she will care for you at sixty four appeared tantamount to asking her whether she would care for you forever; sixty four seemed so impossibly far away. Then, I woke up one day last year and realized that I had just crossed that milepost.

I quickly turned to Salman Rushdie for answers to the questions that came welling into my mind; after all he had made my age cohort famous worldwide, by casting Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of his novel, Midnight’s Children, as one of us. Saleem Sinai, was born at the stroke of midnight 1947 and his life, like that of the rest of us born in that period is shaped by the tumultuous events in Indian history. We were entering high school when India went to war with China, entering our teens at the time of the war with Pakistan, in our early twenties when Indira Gandhi declared an Emergency and embarked on forced sterilizations and when it looked like the democratic status of India that we had all been taught in our school days to believe in had come to an end. Saleem Sinai, in Rushdie’s novel, dies on his 31st birthday and its just 1978. The rest of us, Midnight’s Children, lived on to see Indira Gandhi defeated in a democratic election and spring back again to power two years later.

Why I asked myself, am I glancing through Rushdie’s novel, yet one more time. Was I trying to find meaning in there for all the years of my life that had run a parallel course to Saleem Sinai’s? Or was I the classic stereotype of a man in his mid-sixties that Erik Erikson, the German-American psychoanalyst, wrote about when he said that the mid-sixties is the age when a person looks back at his life and asks, Was it OK to have been me;  period of life when we reflect over all we have achieved so far in our life. If we conclude that we have achieved all that we set out to do, we develop a sense of integrity; if we conclude that our life till now these goals have eluded us, we develop despair which could lead to a sense of depression and hopelessness.

Erikson saw life as having eight stages. The first stage is from birth to the age of 1, during which if we receive maternal love and care, we develop a sense of trust, but if that maternal care is withheld, we go through life seeing the world as unpredictable and inconsistent. The second stage, from the age of 1 to 4 is when we face the challenge of toilet training- success here results in a sense of autonomy, lack of success leads a life-long sense of shame. The stage when we are between 3 and 6 is the pre-school period when the challenge is to take initiative, for example, to dress oneself. Success leads to a sense of being able to do things on one’s own, failure leads to a lack of confidence in one’s own judgment. The age of 6 to 11 is when a sense of personal competence is developed vis-à-vis others in one’s age group. The adolescent years, 12-18 poses the question, who am I? Where am I going in life?  The ages of 18 to 35 is the time for dating, marriage, family and friendships- successfully forming loving relationships with other people in this stage leads one to experience intimacy, failure to achieve lasting relationships in this stage leaves one feeling isolated and alone. During the ages of 35-64, one we are either making progress in our career or unsure whether what we are doing is what we want to do for the rest of their working lives. Successful resolution leaves us with a sense of comfortableness with the way our life is progressing; failure leads to a sense of regret. And then we are in our mid-60’s and a time of reckoning for one’s life, if one believes in Erikson.

But, on the other hand, the mid-60s is also the stage for some to achieve their greatest success. When Winston Churchill stood up in the British House of Commons, on 4th June 1940, as Nazi Germany was readying their invasion of England and declared ” … we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…” he was 67. When Mahatma Gandhi launched that final push for India’s independence, the Quit India Movement in August 1942, he was 63. More recently, Narinder Modi, the man who India has chosen by an overwhelming majority as its new leader, will be turning 64 in a few months from now.

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Film Review: The Good Road (2013)

A yuppie Bombay couple and their seven-year old son set out in their SUV, across the barren salt marshes of the Rann of Kutch. He, David Shroff, is in his sleeveless olive bomber jacket, American baseball cap and blue jeans, she, Kiran, wears a designer kurta over her cut-off blue jeans, and the child Aditya is in his T-shirt, blue jeans and sneakers. The road that they are on is one of India’s modern multi-lane highways with the white divider lines looking as if they had been painted on that morning.

Where are they going to and why is it taking so long asks the kid Aditya. Athangasa, and it’s only a few hours away, says Dad. Why do they have to drive, asks the bored kid, why can’t they just take a plane like the rest of his friends do whenever they go anywhere mutters the kid as he goes back to playing with his toys.

David, the dad, is feeling macho at the wheel of his SUV.  When two goods trucks approach each other ahead of him, he makes a daring maneuver and darts through them irritating his wife.

“Your driving always makes me tense!” she says
“When have I ever had an accident?”
She leans back on her seat with an air of resignation
“Can’t we drive in peace”, she says
“Why do the two of you always bicker?” asks Aditya

They are driving through is the Rann of Kutch, that vast 8000 square kilometers of salt encrusted land that the Kutch District of Gujarat shares with the Sindh province of Pakistan,  where daytime temperatures in summers can be as high as 49°C and winter temperatures can go below 0 °C and where the horizon can stretch into nothingness for a hundred miles in every direction without sight of a man or a tree.

There are others on this good road. Pappu, a laconic truck driver and his “cleaner” Shaukat, a teenage boy are making their way in a 6-tonne truck overloaded with marble tiles to 10-tonnes. Pappu drives all day long and all days of the week for twenty-five days at a time. He misses his family and wishes he did not have to stay away from them for such long stretches. But Pappu has a scheme that he is working on to get out of this grind. He is going to stage an accident where his overloaded truck will crash, he will “die” and collect insurance.  This is a scheme thought up by a dabha owner Jadeja and Pappu has every reason to believe in Jadeja’s scheme- the dhabha owner’s name, Jadeja, implies that he is a descendant of the clan of Jadejas who have ruled over this part of Gujarat for centuries even though this particular Jadeja’s fortunes have declined to a point that all he does is preside over this dabha and switch at a moment’s notice from chanting praises to the gods Brahma and Vishnu to plotting insurance fraud schemes.

The road may be state-of-the-art but its length is punctuated by traditional dhabha’s, basic diners, where the truck drivers stop for camaraderie, food, cigarettes and cheap sex from the nearby brothel.
The harshness of the environment of the Kutch desert that the film’s director evokes contributes to the tension, like the US-Mexican border desert setting does in the novels of Cormac McCarthy and films made from them like No Country for Old Men.

The action picks up when our yuppie couple in their SUV arrive at the Jadeja dhabha. David sneaks out to get a cigarette hoping that his dozing wife does not catch him. Son, Aditya plaintively asks for water, but not getting a response from his mother, gets off the SUV, goes looking for water, is distracted by a pup and wanders away far from the SUV. Dad David, finishes up gets onto his SUV and drives off. They do not notice that their son is missing from the SUV till some hours and dozens of kilometers later.  David Shroff reports his missing son to the local police and pillion rides a police scooter re-tracing the road they came from in search of his son. The headstrong mother, Kiran, drives off on her own in the SUV across the barren Kutch desert, something that even the Indian army hesitates to do because their trucks and jeeps can get stuck in the mud, even in the dry summer season.  Jadeja, meanwhile, notices the wandering Aditya and entrusts him to a reluctant Pappu to be dropped off at the next dhabha.

All that stands between the Shroffs and disaster are the inhabitants of this remote area of Gujarat- the wandering gypsies of the desert, the truck driver Pappu and his cleaner boy Shaukat, the itinerant brothel owner and his prostitutes, all stoically marching through their meager lives in a way best exemplified by the song the young brothel inmates sing as they go about doing their daily chores:

Spin the grindstone, spin the grindstone
If the grain is too fine the wind will blow it away
If the grain is too coarse, no one will eat it
*        *        *

“The Good Road” (92 minutes) is written and directed by first-timer Gyan Correa, the delectable camera work is by Amitabha Singh (Khosla Ka Ghosla and Chillar Party), and the exquisite sound is by Rasul Pookutty (who won the Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing for Slumdog Millionaire). The film is produced by the National Film Development Corporation.

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Book review: “The Future as Cultural Fact”, by Arjun Appadorai

Book review: “The Future as Cultural Fact”, by Arjun Appadorai
Arjun Appadorai is Goddard Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. I made these remarks at the Asia Society, Bombay, on July 25th 2013

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, says Arjun Appadorai, he, like many of us, was breathless in anticipation of “a new world of open borders, free markets and young democracies”. He was so enthusiastic about “globalization”, as this came to be known, that he even wrote a book about this new world. But then he says he watched in despair as all that the 1990’s brought was ethnocidal wars in the Balkans, the war against terrorism, the East Asian Financial Crisis and, the grand finale, the World Financial Crisis of 2008. It was as if the  contending parties in each of these conflicts were each pursuing their own visions of what they wanted this globalized future to be.

Arjun’s new book is an attempt to understand what these contending visions of the future each of these parties carry in their heads.. Evangelical Christianity in the United States, for example, he says, emphasizes self-help, commercial enterprise and a view of the family as a moral oasis against the threats of divorce and sexual freedom. This is their concept of “the good life”. The Muslim view of the “good life”, on the other hand, he says, has a different view of the relationship of authority to society, and a different view of the relationship that commerce and profit have to social values.

I first met Arjun in Madras in 1975, when we were both in our twenties. I was busy trying to set up Rediffusion’s first branch outside Bombay, Arjun was there pursuing  his doctoral dissertation from the University of Chicago.  I was much intrigued when he told me that, as part of his dissertation, he was studying South Indian temples such as the Madurai Meenakshi Temple. I was intrigued because such temples  for me were just  places to which  your parents dragged you off to once every few years, where you had to stand in line for hours to get a fleeting glimpse of the deity. In other words, these grand South Indian temples or me were at best, a focus of people’s religious sentiment and at worst a repository of antiquated beliefs.  But no, said Arjun. The religious function of these grand temples was a minor aspect. Their core function in early-modern South Indian society was  as “re-distributive networks” of tangible and in-tangible resources and thus were key sites for the constitution and legitimization of political authority in early modern South India.  In plain English , if you were an enterprising war-maker and brought vast areas under your control by force you could legitimize your authority by making suitable donations to these temples.

 When Arjun moved to New York in 2009, first to the New School and then to NYU  I expected something like the book we have before us to happen. How could he, an anthropologist, live and work in lower Manhattan at NYU without casting his anthropological gaze at that other dominant institution in lower Manhattan, Wall Street and the Financial Establishment. This book in one sense is the result of that gaze. The rest of us, including me,  look  at Wall Street as a place you bought and sold shares and other financial instruments just as people like me  view South Indian temples as mere places of worship.  But in his new book, Arjun   tries to extract meaning from the  rituals and artefacts,   political and economic actions of these financial actors.. His discussion about the culture of risk there follows the same thread of inquisitiveness as he did in his study of South Indian temples. He  tries to illuminate for us the meaning of such risk-taking activity.

He joins Naomi Klein, the Canadian social activist and author, in characterizing as “disaster capitalism”, actions such as the  “shock therapy” administered to some countries ( Pinochet’s Chile, Iraq, Poland, Russia…) where the winners in these countries end up living  in a world of  guarded suburbs in an arrangement that allows them to escape all tax responsibilities for their poorer fellow citizens who have lost out in the shock therapy. He also joins the American financial journalist and the author of “Casino Capitalism”, Michael Lewis, in casting a sceptical eye at modern inventions such as the “catastrophe bond”, financial instruments the buyers of which will lose all their money if a certain disaster event occurs within a certain number of years and the sellers of these “cat bonds”, usually an insurance company seeking to insure itself against extreme losses, pays the buyer a high rate of interest.  Such a system, he says,  is dependent for its prosperity on a steady stream of disasters ecological, military or financial. Unfortunately,  many, many bright and well-educated people are attracted to such businesses  and the practice of what Arjun calls “the ethics of probability”- the practice of making their futures betting on natural or man-made disasters. All very well except that 50% or more of the world suffer terminally when such catastrophes happen and no thought is given to such suffering.
He then  presents an alternative view  about our future- one which is based on a description of what combinations of norms, dispositions, practices and histories that lead to  and paths that lead to desired discernible ends.. If such as future can be imagined it becomes possible for us to aspire to this future good life. This is what he calls “the ethics of possibility” as opposed to the ethics of probability.

He says that our generation has abdicated the construction of a vision of our future to econometricians and mathematicians who construct a future which is a mere extrapolation of the present. The alternative he proposes is the construction of a future which factors in our aspirations, our anticipations and our imagination. In using our imagination in this way we are able create a vision of our common future.  Our future then becomes not a blank space filled with possible catastrophes but a space which people can democratically design, it becomes “a Cultural Fact”.


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