December 25, 2009

The Philosophy behind James Cameron's Avatar

James Cameron's Avatar is old wine in a brand new and spectacularly brilliant bottle. There is nothing new in the plot -- especially for those of us in India who have been following land acquisition battles in the tribal belt -- that pits the indigenous people as the underdogs who are battling to save their forest-based way of life from the clutches of a global ( universal ?) megacorp. Latched on to this main plot is a cameo sub-plot of a cute little love story between two individuals Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) from the two opposing camps, which again is nothing to write home about.

But what makes the movie remarkable and memorable is the concept of transferring identity and consciousness ( "soul" ? ) across two bodies -- one of which is a genuine human and the other a synthetic Na'vi humanoid. Cameron has referred to this synthetic humanoid as an Avatar which periodically receives -- and is animated by -- the hero, Jake's soul. The avatar analogy that Cameron has adopted from the world of Second Life and equilvalent MMORPG platforms is perhaps incorrect here. In an MMORPG, we have a physical entity ( the player ) and a virtual digital entity ( the avatar ) and both are ( or could be ) simultaenously active. In this movie, both entities are "real", physical entities only one of which is active at any time and this situation is referred to in Hindu mythology as the process of Parakaya Pravesha -- or entering into another body. Sankara is supposed to have done this when he was challenged with a question on sexuality, that a celibate like him should have failed to answer. However he is said to have temporarily left his body, entered that of near-dead king, learnt enough to answer the question and then left the king to die, reentered his own body and concluded the debate.

The concept of transmigration of the soul is also addressed with the injured bodies of Grace ( Sigourney Weaver) and Jake the paraplegic ex-marine who is the hero of the story. It fails in the first case -- Grace dies and her soul merges with the infinite,  but is successful in the second and Jake's soul leaves his damaged human body and takes refuge in his Na'vi Avatar.

The chinese philosopher Zhuangzi had written about a dream that he once had of being a butterfly and when he woke up he was left wondering whether he was a man dreaming that he was a butterfly or whether he was a butterfly dreaming that he is a man. If you follow the dialogue carefully you will realise that Jake has the same dilemma -- whether he is human or whether he is Na'vi -- and asks the question just before the intermission.

So much for the philosophy of Avatar but what made all this philosophy palatable -- actually quite enjoyable -- is the superb special effects with which the world is recreated. I wish I could have done a trillionth part of all this in my own movie Are You Real ? but then, I am no James Cameron

Post Script :

Another interpretation of this movie in terms of the Hindu concept of Avatar is available in this subsequent post. You may also consider buying a copy of the Road to pSingularity, that explores Hindu philosophy in terms of modern science and technology from my Bookshop@Yantrajaal.

December 01, 2009

Self Evaluating Question Papers : A simple homegrown approach

With the debacle of the CAT getting out of the bag and the rubbish of it being attacked by a virus being bandied around by semi-literate experts, I thought of digging deep into the innards of my laptop and locating a very simple tool that I had built a long time ago to automate the evaluation of examination scripts.

Despite all the progress made in telecom, internet connectivity remains a challenge especially when you have to consider users who are not only geographically dispersed but who have to operate in conditions that an American company like Prometric/ETS really cannot envisage. A design for India has to factor in a breakdown of communications and this is where the store-and-forward technology [ first used in the now defunct Lotus Notes product ] can provide a good model.

KwizAuto - the tool that I had built while teaching at the Praxis Business School, Calcutta is based on Excel and it works like this :

  1. Have KwizAuto available on the test machine or download it from a central location.
  2. Open it ... it will ask for  password [ in a real exam,   this password will be announced  in the exam hall ] ... in this case it is praxis2008
  3. Excel will throw a warning that  Macros have been disabled. There will be an option to enable Macros ... please do so as otherwise the tool will not work
  4. In this case you will face a simple Quiz in Quantitative Techniques consisting of multiple choice and true/false type of questions
  5. Answer it to the best of your abilities .. or just type in at random [ after all, you are not a student with grades to look afer ]
  6. Once you are done, press the LOCK button and you will be asked (a)  your name and (b) your roll number 
  7. This will create a new Excel sheet with the roll number appended to the name.
  8. You will see (a) your name (b) roll number and (c) your marks  ... but you cannot change anything anymore
  9. Close this new sheet and mail it  to the tabulator or upload it to some central server.
The tabulator can open the sheet with the same password, note the marks. He cannot change anything either.

This little tool obviously has all the answers inside it but they are protected by a simple encryption technology. This is obviously not military grade security and can be cracked by a competent hacker but most students will not be able to crack it in the limited time available. Obviously the tool can be improved upon but what is important in this architecture is that it cannot result in a situation where the student could not complete the examination -- unless of course the power fails and is never restored !!

Being a lazy person, I had designed this tool to save on the labour that a teacher has to put in to evaluate answer scripts but I feel that an architecture like this can be used for online testing as well. If any teacher wants to use this tool I would be more than happy to help.

November 28, 2009

Early Retirement and Social (In)Security

Many professionals in the corporate sector, who enjoy handsome take home salaries today dream of early retirement. The thought of being free from client and performance pressures and the lure of chasing down all those hobbies that one had to sacrifice at the alter of the corporate employer is extremely seductive. But an early retirement would mean that one should have a corpus of money that should be enough to cover the household expenses for the rest of ones life and that of the spouse. So how much money must one have on retirement day so as to sustain the lifestyle that one is accustomed to ?  How should one calculate what is required ?

Consider the following points
  1. Inflation will increase your household expenses every year ? And this increase is not a simple linear expenses. It will follow the compound interest law. 
  2. Your corpus will also grow as per the compound interest law.
  3. Interest rates are corelated to inflation. When inflation goes up, so does interest rates but the increase ( decrease) in interest rates will not be the same as the increase ( or decrease ) in inflation rates. In general post tax interest rates on risk free investments will be lower than inflation.
  4. Inflation and interest rates do not remain constant and the best assumption that one can move is that they will move cyclically between a maximum and minimum rate. You would need to make a call on what the maximum and minimum will be for both interest and inflation. You will also have to make a call on how long would each economic cycle would be. 
  5. Finally you will have to take a guess on how long you ( and your spouse, if you have one ) will live.
Based on this information you can calculate
  1. How much money you will need in a particular year after your retirement
  2. How much money you must have today to fund the expenses of that specific year
  3. Sum this up for each year that you expect to live.
The Retirement Planner spreadsheet that I have created will allow you to play with all these parameters and decide for yourself if you will have enough money when you plan to retire. Do note that this assumes that you have no major capital-type expenses like purchase of dwelling, vehicle, marriage or higher education of children or that grand visit to the Bahamas -- that will have to be provided for separately.

My current sheet shows that if you plan to retire TODAY and expect to live another 25 years and if your current household expenses are around Rs 90,000/month then you will have to have Rs 5.3 crores in liquid assets today if you want to maintain your current living standards.

This spreadsheet is in GoogleDocs. If you have a Google account  you can copy or otherwise you can download it as an OpenOffice or Excel spreadsheet and play with it. Happy Retirement Planning.

P.S. If you spot any obvious bugs in the sheet, please let me know. Shall fix it and acknowledge the same.

PPS - Have added an extra feature in which there is a small probability that on some years there will be an additional unforeseen expenditure. [ updated June 2015]

November 17, 2009

The Recursive Meta-Incompetence of the Indian State

Now that I have grabbed your attention with a couple of big and high sounding words let me justify their use in the title of this post.

In any discussion of the Indian State, the first image that pops into our mind is that of the parade with which our armed forces salute the State -- through the person of the President -- on Republic Day. The spectacular nature of this parade, the precision with which the contingents -- both military and civilian ones -- walk, move, act and enact various scenarios is of course something to be proud of but the tragedy of the parade lies in the fact that it has no relation to the way the State actually works outside the parade route. Were we to move away from Rajpath and step into the dungeons of any sarkari daftar, the reality that will confront us is terrifying. Decrepit and stained with betel juice and with piles of dusty files covering innumerable empty desks, government offices -- whether central, state, municipal, panchayat or public sector corporates -- present a uniform image of lethargic indifference to the process of administration, governance or management. A few locations -- perhaps the offices of the uber-senior officers in government, or those of some PSUs -- may try to be different but that is only as far as looks go. If you look any deeper -- behind the feeble spit and polish -- the picture is an equally grim image of archaic and anarchic incompetence masquerading as indifferent authority.

Incompetence is the authoritative word here. It does not need a rocket scientist ( and I have always wondered why rocket scientists are brought into such discussions ! a molecular biologist would have done just as fine ) to figure out that the State is incompetent. Just in case you thought otherwise there are umpteen examples of simple projects taking just too long to finish or not being finished at all. While China has built the railway through Tibet we are still planning one in Sikkim and Arunachal whereas we had the expertise to build the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in the last century ! Forget about railways in the Himalayas, we cannot even build a 200 feet culvert on Bakrahat Road ( 5 kms from Calcutta ) in the last two years. Or forget about roads .. we cannot even make sure that a letter from Prime Ministers office reaches that of the Chief Minister in time for him to attend a meeting in New Delhi. Pervasive incompetence : you see it in the eons that it takes for a municipal tax bill to be corrected for errors, for tax refund to be paid in time, for .... and the list go on and on ab nauseam.

In an earlier post I had argued that even if a government employee were to be not incompetent, the framework of authority, responsibility and trust within which government operates would ensure that nothing happens on schedule, within budget and meets quality standards. This was a view from the outside, but now that I am a part of the system and have a worms eye view of things, I would veer around to the view that competence is sorely in short supply over here !

Are people in the government sector less competent than their counterparts in the corporate world ? Trying to answer the question is like opening a can of worms because it causes egos to be bruised rather badly but to be diplomatic -- and perhaps correct -- about it would be to state that the fraction of competent people in the public sector is less than the fraction of competent people in the private sector.

Is this corporate arrogance ? Not really. We can look at umpteen examples but a good place to start as any would be the usage of computer technology -- or even something as simple as email -- in an office environment. This comes most naturally to even the most smallest of the private organisations but is a great rarity in the rarefied atmosphere of a government office. Most people in government would consider it beneath their dignity to read and respond to email but in reality it is more often than not beyond their ability to be online and proactive in responding to missives. Inability to use email or other technology is just one of the many instances of inefficiency or incompetence -- there are hundreds of "best practices" available in the world of that can lead to significant performance improvement but they find no place in the world of government office.

Why ? One quick answer could be corruption -- because efficient, elegant and transparent practices can root out corruption and that would not be in the interest of the various vested interests that inhabit these offices. But corruption is a part of the larger Indian story and not the subject of this article.

So if we ignore corruption why is it that government continue to perform at this abysmal low level of efficiency ? We go back to the original hypothesis that says that a statistically larger percentage of government employees are inefficient and incompetent. But how can that be ? We all come from the same demographic or genetic pool ! In the same family one brother works competently in the private sector and the other is a lethargic sarkari babu ?

The answer could lie in the fact that competent people are reluctant to join the government or if they do join, they would like to leave as soon as possible. It is like the process of diffusion in a gas-centrifuge that is used for Uranium enrichment where the heavier atoms get separated from the lighter atoms and we have different concentrations of U238 and U235 in different parts of the spinning container. So is the case here -- the surge and swell of society ensures that more of the smarter people stay outside the government than inside and so competence and efficiency is found in greater abundance outside the government than inside.

This is where the recursion kicks in. As more of the competent people choose stay out, the less competent and effective do government departments become ... and this drives out ( or keeps out ) even more competent people. This is a vicious cycle, a downward spiral that becomes worse and worse -- so there is really no hope for it to recover and so no incentive for any competent person to try and fix things. A normal incompetent person can sincerely try to improve his competence -- by seeking assistance with new tools and techniques -- but in this case the incompetence of the organisation is such that it cannot overcome its own incompetence. So it tend to take refuge in denial, bluster and false bravado -- who says government is incompetent ! I will pull his tongue out ! and take him to the equivalent of a privileges committee !!! This is meta-incompetence -- he who knows not and knows not he knows not is a fool, avoid him -- that is what smart people will do.

Is there a way out of this recursive meta-incompetence ? Is it possible for visionary, a crusader who can come in and fix the problem by the force of his personal leadership ? Can we not say that "as is the prince, so are the people" ? Sam Pitroda tried and got us going on the telecom but he could not do anything about the DoT/BSNL/MTNL and the sarkari telecom organisation. Perhaps there are other examples but none that has been anything close to successful and in the end we would have no option but to agree that "as are the people, so will be the prince" -- the system will finally get you.

But Sam left us with one great lesson : if you cannot redesign the sarkari organisation make it irrelevant so that we do not have to suffer at its hands. We do not mourn the death of BSNL, we celebrate the success of Bharti and Reliance !

That could be our only hope of escaping from the clutches of the recursive meta-incompetence that plagues the Indian state. Let us get the state out our lives. It is on its way out in industry and it would be wonderful if it could be shown the door in education, medical services, municipal services and -- some day -- out of judicial, [ see also this], taxation and security services.

We shall overcome our state, some day. Not like the Maoists with guns and murder but with bold ideas that can change the future.

October 26, 2009

From V-Schools to B-Schools : A Research Agenda

With an obsession with placements, Business schools in India -- IIMs not excluded -- have degenerated into thinly disguised placement agencies or at best glorified vocational schools. The compartmentalisation of B-school curriculum into the four principal management functions, namely Finance, Marketing, Human Resources and Systems and Operations reflects this mindset. These are the four principal kinds of tasks that a manager is expected to perform and B-schools pat themselves on the back if they can teach these four skills to the satisfaction of the recruiting companies. [ Though in reality, companies that hire from B-Schools do not seem to care for even this skill ...] Unfortunately, this puts B-schools in the category of vocational schools or V-schools

If we draw an analogy with engineering schools, this approach would mean that students are taught workshop practice -- chipping, fitting, foundry, welding -- assembling circuit boards or laying out wires for electrical circuits ! But an engineering school teaches much more ! From mechanics, through thermodynamics, control systems, logic gates all the way up to engineering mathematics and algorithms. This is the kind of knowledge that separates an engineer from a technician and by extension the kind of approach that separates an IIT from an ITI !!

So if we wish to move from an ITI to an IIT, a V-School to a B-School, what is it that that should be on the curriculum ? One approach would be replace the current four areas with four other more fundamental ones : Leadership, Mathematics, Psychology and Technology.

But before we adopt this approach we need to understand how these four things map into and support the more traditional areas. To do so, let us dig deeper into what is meant by these four areas.

Leadership in the context of B-schools consists of Entrepreneurship -- which could be traditional entrepreneurship as in setting up new businesses but should also extend to entrepreneurship within a firm, or intrapreneurship, where each business unit operates on its own risk-reward model. However this entrepreneurship should be tempered with Ethical behaviour and a strong focus on Equity -- that ensures that the rights of all stakeholders are adequately protected. So Leadership can be defined in terms of Ethics, Equity and Entrepreneurship.

Managing a business calls for both analytical -- or left brain, and emotional -- or right brain, skills. That is why managers are expected to have both IQ as well as EQ. Mathematics in general, represents the core analytical ability and in a B-school context can be translated into modelling techniques that apply to financial models, optimisation models that lead to operational efficiency and models that apply to marketing and sales. On the right brain side, where one has to deal with human beings, the core skill is Psychology that can be used to understand Consumer Behaviour, Organisational ( and employee ) Behaviour and of helps us to understand the laws that lead to the resolution of disputes.

But in today's business environment, the biggest driver is the development and deployment of new technology. What are the key technologies that a B-school should focus on ? Ever since the discovery of fire, Energy is recognised as the key to growth. Food security and health issues force us to focus on the Life Sciences in general and Bio science and bio engineering in particular and Habitat requirements lead us to seek breakthroughs in Materials and Manufacturing. The last, but not the least, that ties all this together is Communication and Collaboration technology that has traditionally been referred to as Information Systems.

This sixteen areas (a) Leadership, Ethics, Equity, Entrepreneurship (b) Mathematical Modelling, Financial Models, Operational and Optimisation Models, Marketing Models (c) Psychology, Consumer Behaviour, Organisational Behaviour, Dispute Resolution and (d) Communication and Collaboration, Life Sciences, Materials & Manufacturing and Energy could represent the core set of knowledge that any Manager ( as opposed to a supervisor ) should possess or build upon. With this model, it is not at all difficult to accommodate all the four traditional disciplines, namely Finance, Marketing, HR and Operations, quite easily within one or more of these sixteen areas.

Interestingly enough, these 16 areas can be grouped into a traditional Magic Quadrant where the left half represents left brain activities and right half represents right brain activities and as we move from bottom to top we move from specific topics to more general ones.

A typical B-School curriculum consists of 32 courses spread across 4 semesters. 16 of these courses could come from these areas while the other 16 could be distributed across specific electives that delve deeper into one or more of these areas.

In an era when a B-school is judged on the basis of its Industry interface and in its ability to turn our "industry ready" managers, this model may be questioned and criticised on being too theoretical and divorced from what the industry needs. However let us understand that just as industry needs both engineers and technicians for engineering functions, it also need supervisors and managers for business functions. IITs provide engineers, ITIs provide technicians. Similarly high end B-schools should build Managers who can provide leadership in thought and action -- not supervisors who know how to calculate loan EMIs.

October 17, 2009

B-Schools and the Placement Syndrome

Why do students queue up to get into B-Schools, especially the more well known ones ? And why are some B-Schools more well known than the others ? Both questions are in fact two sides of a more fundamental question - what value does a B-School bring to the table ? and the answer to both questions can be found in the placement history of B-Schools in general and specific schools in particular.

Students join B-Schools because they believe -- and in many cases, quite rightly, that it is a ticket to a high paying job and some B-Schools are more well known than others because their students end up with more, better or higher-paying jobs.

But why blame B-Schools for this trend. In the 70s, 80s and even as late as the 90s when unemployment was the dominant feature of the economic landscape of India, students would throng the gates of the Engineering schools because because that was seen as the most sure shot ticket to a good job. Students who had neither the inclination nor the aptitude for engineering scrambled to become engineers because of the job prospects. Today, when other opportunities exist in the field of finance, retail, media, life sciences, entertainment, the collective memory of the Indian psyche still drives students to engineering -- but the craze could be ebbing somewhat.

But the craze for a badge from a B-School continues unabated and to keep up with this demand we have an increase in the supply of B-School seats, both at private schools as well as at public sector schools like the IIMs and IIT, plus of course the corresponding expansion in the ancillary industry of CAT-coaching classes.

Which brings us back to the question ... what role does a B-School play ? or rather let us ask a related question : what role should a B-School play ?

Does a B-School add value to a student ? Is he or she taught anything that is of use to the company that hires the student. Any B-School would like to believe that it is adding a lot of value to the student in terms of knowledge and capability but a quiet and anonymous questionnaire among students might reveal some startling facts. Quite a few students tend to have a very poor view of most of their teachers and view the fact that they have to sit through their classes as the price they must pay for getting that ticket to that great job !

So is the view in many of the companies that recruit these B-School students. But if they do not really care for what is taught in B-Schools why do they pay higher salaries to these students ? One widely accepted answer is that these B-Schools provide a good screening tool ! Students who have managed to crack the CAT, JMAT, XAT or similar tests -- whether by aptitude or by hard work -- are just the kind of people who are likely to thrive and prosper in the corporate world. Thus the B-School is not a place that adds value to a student but an effective screening tool that makes the job of selecting employees easier !

Thus from both perspectives -- that of the student and of the recruiter -- the B-School is nothing but a placement agency, but is that what it should be ? Placements are important no doubt but should B-Schools not raise themselves above this mundane role of screening-and-placing students and consider something more substantial for themselves ? For example should B-Schools not play a role in creating new knowledge ? in terms of business models, best practices and in terms of new technology. Should they not establish themselves as centres of thought leadership and guide the national debate on economic and social matters ?

Unfortunately, each and every B-School in India today, including the best known ones, have reduced themselves themselves to the level of placement agencies. At best some of them have managed to elevate themselves to the level of teaching shops -- that teach some tools of the trade, like linear programming and balance sheets.

What is really missing is the big leap of imagination, of innovation, of ideas. Is it not the time for some of the B-Schools to step forward and plug this gap ? And strangely enough once this happens, once we take our eyes off placement and salaries and focus on genuine thought leadership, placements and salaries will fall in place, on their own -- and not be the tail that wagged the dog !

September 27, 2009

Sandhi Puja

Sandhi puja is perhaps the most significant event in the entire sequence of rituals that constitute the autumnal adoration of the Goddess -- the Durga Puja, but not too many are aware of the legends that have invested this event with the aura of extreme sanctity.

Sandhi means junction and in this case it is the junction between the eighth and ninth lunar day after the first new moon that occurs after the sun moves into Virgo -- as per the Hindu zodiac, which lags the Christian zodiac by the Ayanamsa value of around 23 degrees. That is why the ritual is performed in the last 24 mins of the Ashtami ( the 8th lunar day ) and the first 24 mins of Navami (the 9th lunar day).

Legend says the Goddess in her manifestation of the Mahishasur-mardini, the destroyer of the evil ogre who took the form of a buffalo or Mahish, performed her deed at this precise moment and so at this auspicious hour the manifestation of divinity is at its peak in the clay image that is generally used to represent the Goddess.

The actual killing of the ogre -- the triumph of the righteous and the destruction of all that is evil -- is supposed to be remembered and recalled through an actual blood sacrifice but today, most puja organisers settle for symbolic sacrifice which is the climax of this specific ritual.

The precise moment when the Goddess kills the ogre is marked by the setting off of firecrackers -- in faint resemblance of cannons being fired in the past -- and this creates a very unique audio ambience especially in the rural, and hence quieter ! parts of the country. As the priest in each puja performs the symbolic sacrifice and the drums and firecrackers that accompany him burst out as loudly as possible, it seems as if a wave of sound is travelling across the (usually) darkened landscape. The sound moves from puja to puja until the entire countryside is agog in a joyous celebration of good over evil. Those who celebrate the puja in the noisy environs of a city very often miss out this experience.

This short movie on the Sandhi Puja at Sonartoree, Prantik Birbhum shows the event and the spray of blood -- in the form of coloured seeds!

September 26, 2009

The Paradox of the Happy Prisoner

Maureen Dowd in her op-ed article -- Blue is the new Black -- published in the New York Times has referred to a survey that, if really true, should force us to seriously rethink the outcome of the War of Civilisations.

But first what is this survey all about ? "According to the General Social Survey, which has tracked Americans’ mood since 1972, and five other major studies around the world, women are getting gloomier and men are getting happier" .... First there is no further reference to this General Social Survey and to the five other major studies ... but we shall let that pass and focus what appears to be the core of Dowd's hypothesis. The reason that women are getting gloomier is because they have more choice today ! In the past, before feminist activism unshackled women from petty domesticity, women lived lives that were tightly controlled by the men in the family -- father, husband, father-in-law and son. They basically did what they were told to do ... and that was pretty much restricted to cooking, cleaning, managing the home and hearth and of course sex. But once these shackles fell away and women ventured out into schools, colleges, employment, entrepreneurship and what not it was thought that it would lead to a more fulfilling and happy life. But according to Dowd's article, what has happened is just the reverse. “Choice is inherently stressful,and women are being driven to distraction.” ! But even if one were to look at the bright side of things, women were "happy to have ... newfound abundance of choices, even if those choices end up making us unhappier" A paradox indeed !

We can now either disregard these 1+5 surveys and treat Dowd's article as utter trash, or else assume that she has indeed stumbled upon a fact of significance. Since the first option is a dead end let us instead explore the full implications of this paradox.

The liberation of women from the shackles of domesticity, from the shackles imposed by a male-dominated society, is one of the many liberation movements that mankind in general has gone through.

The first was the liberation from the physical environment when man learnt to control the taste of food and the temperature of the environment with fire and then went on to use technology to liberate himself from the whims of the environment.

But the more important instances of liberation were the twin instances of (a) relegious and (b) political liberty. The renaissance and similar social movements showed that the gods and their agents on earth, the religious institutions, were no more the absolute arbitrars of what is right and wrong and in the political sphere, the disintegration of the feudal society and the divine right of kings demonstrated that the will of the people was supreme. In fact the pillars of modern civilisation is based on the premise that individuals have the freedom to do exactly what they want -- except that this should not infringe on the similar rights of another individual.

Opposed to this concept of personal freedom is the belief that society at large, manifested either (a) through a tyrannical state like Communist Russia, or kleptocratic Zimbabwe or (b) religious fanaticism as evident in Wahabi Islam -- knows what is good or bad and individual rights must necessarily be subordinate to the dictates of this society.

In the what is commonly referred to as the War of Civilisation, the fault lines are very clear. One one side we have the liberal democracies that are based on the principle of personal freedom and choice and on the other the forces of totalitarianism that seek peace and tranquility in the subversion of the same principle of personal freedom and choice. The crux of the matter in either case is that of personal freedom.

And this is precisely the point where Maureen Dowd's article strikes a thunderbolt ! If we extrapolate from her analysis of women's freedom and enlarge our discussion into the domain of general personal freedom then we are left with a bigger paradox : Are we happy to have an abundance of choice and freedom even if the exercise of the same choice makes us unhappy ? Is the prisoner happy to be confined to a fixed routine ? Or would he be happy if were given the choice of doing whatever he wanted to know ?

Who knows ?

Tranquility of Saptami

The evening of Mahasaptami at Sonartoree, Prantik, Birbhum

September 24, 2009

The Broken Shivalinga at Kankalitala

Kankalitala is one of the 51 Shakti Pithas in the Indian sub-continent and is a place of pilgrimage and tourism for those who visit Shantiniketan. While most visitors are happy to visit the tiny shrine of the divine mother, not too many take the trouble to walk another 100 metres to the shrine of the Pitha Bhairab -- the consort of Shakti -- who is referred to here as Ruru Bhairav. But those who do, get a glimpse of one of the darkest images of medieval Bengal.

Sulaiman Khan Karrani was the Pathan who ruled Bengal in the second half of the 16th century and his general KalaPahar [ the black mountain, perhaps an allusion to his physical size ], a Hindu who had converted to Islam was notorious as the demolisher of temples in Bengal and Orissa. Legend claims that he was finally killed before the temple of Sambaleshwari by the goddess herself in the guise of a milkmaid who seduced him and his people with a gift of milk and sweets that was laced with cholera germs.

Kala Pahar is known to have demolished a number of fine Hindu temples in Birbhum and the temple of Ruru Bhairav is one such. If you enter the temple today, you will see the dismal remnants of a giant Shivalingam that is nearly two feet in diameter and it is broken ! Unlike a normal Shivalinga that rises up and erect from its seat in the yoni of the Mother Goddess, this one has clearly been broken off -- with great force and malevolence -- near the ground. A piece of basalt this big does not break off or topple so easily .. and so it is natural to infer that this was the handiwork of someone who was inimical to the temple.

September 21, 2009

Waiting for the Goddess

September 19, 2009

Quantitative Techniques in B School : Mea Culpa

I have been teaching Quantitative Techniques [ or more simply Statistics and Probability, for those who have given a miss to B-schools ! ] and as a part of my course I have taken the liberty to "borrow" heavily from the work of other teachers and professors who teach similar things in other parts of the globe. With all the talk of digital rights management and ownership of IP I feel rather guilty for having done so ... I could have of course acknowledged the origin of the information but since I have accumulated all this for a number of years, I really have lost track of what I got from where !

So I thought of doing something else -- and have decided to publish my entire set of slides under the creative commons license. Anybody who wants to teach Quantitative Techniques [ at least the first, introductory part ] is welcome to use my slides. This covers a little less than 30 hours of class room contact, with the rest being used to solve problems from the text book by Levin and Rubin.

I hope that this will be of use to both students and professors.

September 18, 2009

Mahalaya - in the digital age

Mahalaya -- celebrated on the day of the last new moon before Durga Puja -- is when many of us in India perform tarpan : a solemn act of remembrance of our ancestors. Those who have the inclination and the time perform this on the banks of Ganga, the Hooghly or any other river that they consider sacred.

In view of the pressures of time, many of us prefer to remember our ancestors in the privacy of our homes but in this age of the Internet, I thought that it would be a good idea to dedicate this post to my ancestors without whom I would not have been here.

smashan anale daghdhosi,
parityaktosi bandhaboih ,
idam neeram, idam kheeram atra snahi idam peebo .
akashastha niralomba bayuvuta nirashrayo,
atra snatwa idam peetwa ,
snatwa peetwa sukhi vaba

meaning ,roughly,

you are burned in a fire at smashan,
you are deserted by relatives/friends
here is water & here is milk ,
take a bath & drink the milk.
You are floating in the sky,
with no support , no shelter ,
you are dissolved in air -
come bathe here , drink this,
by bathing & drinking be happy.

September 02, 2009

Why is Social Media Important ?

I was trying to create a presentation on the importance of Social Media in Marketing but realised that there is no way that I can improve on these two ... Since discretion is the better part of valour I know when to step aside and let the master speak.


August 26, 2009

Authority, Responsibility and Trust : The ART of Red Tape

We come across, and frequently use, the phrase red tape and we know that it refers to the delay that is endemic to the bureaucratic process - but have you ever wondered why is that bureaucrats are so slow in doing things ?

Anybody who has visited a government office in India would of course attribute this delay to competence or corruption. More often than not, a little bit of speed money -- the chaipani -- has a magical effect and most red tape disappears. On the other hand, we do know that the best and brightest in the land are hesitant to join the government and so there does exist a certain lack of competence in administrative matters.

But let us be charitable for a while and assume that our bureaucrats are indeed competent and NOT corrupt : in that case should red tape not disappear from our lexicon ? But it does not and will not .. and here is why !

You ask a sarkari babu to buy a computer for his office and he ( or she ) will get tied up in knots ! Committees will be formed, specifications will be drawn up, tenders will be issued, evaluation committees will be set up, contracts will be "negotiated" ( OK, in this case without kickbacks), purchase orders will be issued, AMC contracts will be discussed and then -- and only then -- a single machine will arrive in the office -- the process will take not less than a month but more often than not three months.

But when the same sarkari babu sends his son to college and the son wants a computer, how long do you think the process will take ? Perhaps a day to check with a more knowledgeable colleague and then another day to make the purchase -- at most three days !

Why is there so much difference in these two cases ? In the second case both the AUTHORITY and the RESPONSIBILITY of buying the computer lies with the same person but in the first case, it lies with two different persons ( or different organisations)

This separation of responsibility and authority is the root cause of all bureaucratic delays in the government. The police are responsible for maintaining law and order but the authority to sanction the money lies with someone else. The PWD is responsible for repairing roads but authority lies somewhere else. And it is not just financial authority ( though that is the most important one). The authority to issue a formal circular ( to clarify some obscure point of view ) does not generally lie with the person who is supposed to act upon that obscure point of view.

Separation of responsibility and authority is not a bane for only the sarkari bureaucrat. Employees of private companies have to go through the same process but the delay and level of pain is less because in many cases the source of authority and the agent of responsibility is organisationally closer and in many cases the two entities merge into one office : a manager who is responsible for sales is also empowered with the authority to spend money.

So the separation between authority and responsibility is less and in many cases, it does not exist. Why is it so in private companies but not so in the bureaucratic bowels of the sarkar bahadur ? The answer lies in the third element of the ART of Red Tape : TRUST.

Owners of private companies -- as reflected in Boards -- have a level of TRUST in the their managers but the owners of the country -- as reflected in legislature -- do not trust the administrators. It is almost as if it is a self evident truth -- an axiom -- that a government servant cannot be trusted to do anything. You need to have a complex system of checks and balances -- the Vigilance Department, the CAG, the CBI -- to keep an eye on each other.

Authority, Responsibility and Trust -- unless we as a society can come to grips with these three factors and work out a way to harmonise their relationship, bureaucratic delays will continue and we will be left admiring the ART of Red Tape.

August 23, 2009

Paintings of Devajyoti Ray

While I do appreciate abstract art -- particularly shapes and colours that please the eye -- I do not always agree with the statement that "if you are looking for meaning in art, then you are barking up the wrong tree". Shapes, patterns and colours are nice but they are even nicer if they can communicate something that you recognise and can identify with.

I came across these paintings by Devajyoti Ray at the website of Galerie ArtEterne and was very impressed by both the form and the content.

August 21, 2009

Hope, Hype and Honesty : Technology at the Edge

Every new technology ( or idea for that matter ) that appears in the human psyche goes through the phases shown above [ see chart ] if they survive adolescence and enter maturity. Virtual Worlds, Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing are three ideas that keep churning through my thoughts and I was pleasantly surprised to find the three of them being addressed in the Gartner report on technology hypes.

Being an early enthusiast of and evangelist for Second Life -- the 3D Virtual World where I had first set up my first Kali Temple and virtual Praxis B-school -- I had been resigned to the fact that low penetration of personal broadband lines will hamper the growth of this wonderful technology. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Second Life has posted a 94% QoQ growth and now has nearly US$ 50m of user to user transactions every month. Also the availability of Wireless Broadband from the CDMA players will accelerate acceptance and finally pull it out of the "Trough of Disillusionment" and take towards the "Plateau of Productivity"

Web 2.0 is moving closer into the "Slope of Enlightenment" and we can see it right here at Praxis and our very own Kollaborative Klassroom. Not only have we adopted this Orkut lookalike as our base platform, it is so widely popular with both students and faculty that we very often wonder how other schools and colleges can do without this platform.

However, Cloud Computing is in danger of having a dramatic fall from the "Peak of Inflated Expectations". While we at Praxis continue to use Cloud Computing to the hilt -- both for our Kollaborative Klassroom, as well as a part of our academic curricullum -- there has been, of late, some reality checks that have been performed on the claims that are being made by the various vendors like Google, MS and Amazon. These test show some weaknesses but this only to be expected in an area as new and as challenging as this but I am quite sure that once people get to know about tools like Zoho Creator, the adoption process will pick up and enter the mainstream.

But while it is good to know that technologies that were once at the bleeding edge are now moving into the mainstream ... what is that shall keep us awake at night ?

Thought controlled MMORPG ? Think about it and no puns intended !

July 11, 2009

OSS : Onward Software Soldiers

Onward Software Soldiers, marching as to war,
With a Chrome-on-Linux going on before,
Google, the loyal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle, hear its trumpets blow.

Predictions are hazardous and emphatic ones even more so -- for the credibility and reputation of the predictor -- but let me stick my neck out anyway and state that Google Chrome might just as well drive a stake through the heart of the proprietary and paid-for software story.

The ethic of reciprocity also known as the Golden Rule is an ethical code that states one has a right to just treatment, and a responsibility to ensure justice for others. One of the many ways of expressing this ethic is "do not do to others what you would not like to be done to you". Microsoft violated this code when it killed Netscape by bundling a "free" browser with its dominant operating system but having sowed the wind, they now reap the whirlwind as Google plans to ship a free operating system along with the hardware and put Microsoft out of business -- after all, in a world without walls who needs windows ?

But a free operating system may not be enough to kill of Microsoft. Desktop Linux, particularly Ubuntu, has been around for quite some time but Microsoft still rules the roast. Why ? Because a vast majority of users are intellectually and mentally lazy to step out of their zone of comfort and of course Microsoft has a below-the-belt approach of convincing and coercing those in positions of apparent authority to spread fear-uncertainty-doubt into any decision making process. Industry associations like NASSCOM --who are generously bankrolled by Microsoft -- are particularly susceptible to this pressure.

But "No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come." And Chrome is not one, but two brilliant ideas bundled into one silver bullet that has M$ written on it!

What are these two ideas ?

First : Zero Cost. Anything that is free is always preferable to something that one has to pay for.
Second : Cloud Computing, as a viable business model. We all know that while free is good, there can never be a free lunch .. there has to be a business model somewhere that ensures that software programmers can -- and should -- earn a decent wage.

With Cloud Computing, we are moving the money from products to services and Google has very convincingly demonstrated that it is possible to make money, and tons of money, by distributing free products and bundling in services.

But making money is not all -- how you make money is more important. Every time I pay money to Microsoft -- like when I bought Vista and M$ Office -- I resent having to do so because I have an Ubuntu machine running Open Office on my desk as well. But on the few occassions when I have paid money to Google -- like when I was trying to sell my book through the Internet -- I really felt that I was paying for a service that I could not have got anywhere else. In a sense, it was OK to pay Google but not OK to pay Microsoft !

The reason that I am betting on Chrome is because it is a natural extension of the cloud computing model that in a way has been around for years albeit under different names, A long time ago, this model was referred to as the mainframe computer ! where all data and "intelligence" was located on a central server.

The client-server model -- largely pioneered by Microsoft technology -- was the first big challenge to this model but after a lot of hype and hoopla -- and beautiful, user friendly screens -- people realised that the client server model was neither scalable nor manageable for anything but low end applications. The rise of the internet and the world wide web threw up a new model of browser based computing -- where the browser was the "universal client" and the network was the "virtual server" -- that preserved the facade of a client-server model but in reality had many of the properties of the mainframe model. Companies like IBM, Oracle and Sun tried to capitalise on this model by introducing "thin client" machines like NetComputer and NetStation that were designed to run off the network but the model did not quite catch on with users for two reasons : (a) inadequate bandwidth -- inexpensive and reliable broadband was still a couple of years away and (b) very few native applications -- none of the available applications had been designed with the network in mind and hence had to be force-fitted or rather shoved down the users' throat.

But today is different from yesterday.

A vast majority of us, for example, are so comfortable with web based mail -- pioneered by Hotmail -- that we are not even aware that we are using cloud computing. So is going to be the case with more and more applications like Wordprocessing, Spreadsheets and Presentations which are already available from Google Docs and Zoho.

And of course with broad band becoming ubiquitous and affordable, the threat of being cut-off from the net is as frightening or is as business-as-usual as a power failure. Do people hesitate to buy a TV because of the load shedding ? Not really. Will people hesitate to use the cloud because of inadequate net access ? Equally unlikely -- provided the application programs that are available in the cloud are as interesting as the TV programs that are available on the broadcast channels !

So where are we ? On cloud nine ?

Not yet, but let us get started with cloud computing and with Google Chrome in the pipeline life can only be better -- and less expensive -- than what it is today.

the initial piece of poetry is of course adapted from the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers"

June 30, 2009

Simplifying & De-stressing Secondary Education

An open letter to ...

Mr Kapil Sibal,
Minister for Human Resources Development
Government of India

Dear Sir, Mr Sibal

Your thoughts on the abolition of Class X examinations and the introduction of a single nationwide Class XII examination are like the winds of change that should blow away the cobwebs from the stultifying and claustrophobic classrooms to which we in India have condemned our children. You would of course know that in the United States, a similar system is in place with students – if they wish to join college – having to take only the SAT examination.

Our Class X examinations serve no purpose but to allow students to enter Class XI. Our Class XII examinations are no better – they merely serve as entry portals to colleges and in the case of engineering colleges, even this nominal and residual value is ignored because every college has its own entrance examination – nobody trusts the Class XII results. So no tears should be shed if these two examinations are consigned to the dustbins of history !

But there are powerful vested interests at work who would like to see these examinations retained. The various boards – ICSE, State Boards of Secondary and Higher Education – that owe their existence, salaries, perquisites, power and position to the existence of these examinations will fight tooth and nail to retain them and since education is a state subject it will not take too much of an effort for the states – particularly the communist ruled states – to block this initiative politically.

So is there a way to go ahead with these excellent proposals in the face of political opposition from the states ? Yes, if -- in my humble opinion – we consider the following steps :

  • We note that the the CBSE and the centrally funded institutions of higher learning ( IITs, NITs etc ) fall under the jurisdiction of the central government and any changes to their operations need not have the explicit concurrence of any other entity or political constituency.
  • The Class X CBSE examination can be abolished and the Class XII CBSE examination should be thrown open to all students – irrespective of the affiliation of their school. So students in non CBSE schools can continue to write their own examination but in addition can be optionally asked to write the CBSE XII. But why would they ?
  • The motivation to write the optional CBSE XII examination would be that its scores will be used for admission to the the centrally funded institutions of higher learning because the IITJEE and the AIEEE would be abolished ! So in one shot the CBSE XII examination becomes the de-facto single Class XII examination in the country .. and this can be achieved irrespective of whether the state governments agree to this or not.
  • If all centrally funded institutions ( including non engineering colleges like JNU, Vishwabharati etc ) converge to this single examination then the logistics could prove challenging – the number of students may reach a crore ! So instead of having the examination just once a year, it may be offered once every two months and a student should be allowed to sit for it as many times as he or she wants – provided that the last attempt should be within 12 months before entry to college. Thus the validity of the score would be 12 months. By spreading the examination over a year and allowing multiple attempts, the stress level associated with the examination will go down significantly. Children will be happy !
  • Since we have multiple instances of the CBSE XII examination and population that is taking the examination is different, marks and ranks are irrelevant. Instead percentile scores – based on the marks scored by all students who have taken the examination over the past two or three years – should be calculated and all admission decisions should be based on these percentiles. But given the diversity of institutions that will be using the score there should be separate percentiles for Physics-Chemistry-Maths, History-Geography-Civics, English and local language.

State boards can continue with their traditional Class X and Class XII examination which will act as feeders to local colleges but over a period of time the state examinations will become irrelevant – students will gradually lose interest because their result will be of interest to a very limited number of local colleges. The popularity of optional CBSE XII will be high because (a) that is the only route to join the popular central institutions and (b) there will be no schedule conflicts and students can take the examination at their convenience.

If the CBSE XII examination can be conducted with adequate care and diligence, new private colleges and universities – that should get created under the Governments higher education policy – and even local colleges in most progressive states will inevitably gravitate towards the same.

Hence we would have achieved our aim of abolishing Class X examinations and having a single Class XII examination without too much struggle and effort on the political front.

Mr Sibal, Sir I hope you would find merit in my proposal and discuss the same with your team.

Warm Regards

June 25, 2009

What is Cloud Computing

A slightly modified version of this interview has appeared in today's edition of the Economic Times.

What is Cloud Computing ?

Cloud Computing is less about any particular technology and more about how we use technology to reduce costs and improve efficiency. In Cloud Computing you move your data - and the programs that operate on this data - from private machines - desktop PCs or corporate servers - to machines owned by vendors.

How does this help ?

It reduces cost - both capital and operating, through economies of scale. It is like replacing the electricity generator in your home by plugging into the electricity supply : the cost and nuisance value of generating power at home is far more than having it supplied from a central utility. When a vendor supports a hundred customers with his bank of servers and support staff the cost to each individual customer goes down.

An intriguing concept, but does it work ?

Many of us are already using Cloud Computing without being aware of it. When you host a website or use Gmail or Hotmail you are using a server that is owned and operated by a vendor and your data - your web pages or your precious email - is resident on the vendors' machines. Your data is somewhere in the internet "cloud" !

Then what is this new hype and buzz about Cloud Computing ?

Websites and email are "new age", internet applications - not in the same league as traditional personal productivity tools - word processors, spreadsheets - or business applications like Order Management or Customer Relationship Management. The current buzz is because of the possibility of migrating these traditional applications from private machines to the shared machines offered by vendors.

How do you actually do this ?

Consider Google Docs - as an alternative to Microsoft Office. On the Google Docs website the browser will show a screen that is very similar to that in a traditional word processor or spreadsheet. You can create and edit documents or populate a spreadsheet with data and formulae but when you finally save your data ... it goes and sits, not on your hard disk but on the Google servers - and you can access this data later from any other machine that is connected to the internet.

What about business applications ?

If you have an ERP server you can of course have it located on vendor premises but you could also build your own applications and have it hosted on the web.

Does it mean learning new technology ?

Not really. My students - both in Praxis and at IIT, Kharagpur - have been building and deploying fairly complex applications on the web using the Zoho platform that looks like a combination of Visual Basic and MS Access - except that it is free and resides entirely on the Zoho website. There is nothing to purchase, download or install.

Can this be used to build really complex applications ?

Depending on your skill you can build complex applications either on Zoho or on the Google Apps Engine but quite a few applications in HR, CRM and Finance are available off the shelf.

What if I cannot access the internet ?

That is like power outage - a risk that one has to live with but with wireless broadband becoming available this risk is diminishing everyday.

Is it safe to put company data on third party servers ?

Is it safe to put your money in the bank ? It is - if the bank has a good reputation. So is the case here. One must choose a reliable vendor and more importantly one must make sure that the data is not getting locked into any proprietary format. As long as the data is in an SQL compliant database, then you always have the option of unloading your data and using it elsewhere.

Who are the good vendors ?

Almost every vendor offers a service in this area but the two that I encourage my students to try out - because there is no cost involved - is Zoho and Google. In fact, in my new book I have shown how a non-programmer can build and deploy a Zoho application in less than 60 minutes.

What is this book all about ?

"Business Information Systems" is based on my lectures at Praxis and IIT Kharagpur. Both students and managers will find this book useful not only for traditional topics like RDBMS and Object Oriented Programming but for many new age concepts like Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing.

Where do you get these unusual ideas ?

I am engineer by education, a programmer by passion and an imagineer by intention ... and my subscription to Slashdot keeps me abreast of what is happening in the world of computers.

Dr Prithwis Mukerjee teaches Systems Engineering at the Praxis Business School, Calcutta and at IIT, Kharagpur. You can read about his new book "Business Information Systems" at

June 23, 2009

Orkut as a platform for eGovernance ?

Web 2.0 in general and social networks, like Orkut and Facebook in particular, have emerged as very powerful models of social interaction ... so much so that Iran is trying to quell its election related insurrection by trying to block Facebook and the US Government convinced Twitter to defer its scheduled downtime so as to allow Iranian thought processes to play out to their full potential !!

While Orkut and Facebook are privately owned public platforms, we know that similar ( if not identical ) platforms are available to build own's one private social networks. For example we at the Praxis Business School, in Calcutta have our own platform, the Kollaborative Klassroom ( see ... to know what i mean ) that we have customised to reflect our own organisation ( courses and departments defined as "communities" and "friendships" that delineate relationships between individuals)

Currently employees of the government operate on a diverse set of platforms ... as is graphically reflected in the diversity of their emailIDs. Instead can we not envisage all government employees on a single Orkut-style social network ? that will allow integrated email, chat, and VoIP voice ( i am not suggesting Google, but i am sorely tempted to do so, since all of it is free and will not burden the tax payer ). Individual departments ( and sub-departmental groupings ) can be reflected as "communities" ... some of which could be closed and private while others could be open with some degree of moderation.

If we are even more ambitious, then we can consider private citizens -- at least those with voter ID cards or PAN cards -- to be included in these networks. If we want to be more cautious, we can create social networks for specialised departments like the Income Tax Department ? Whether we wish to be ambitious or cautious will of course depend on discussion that we can have at various public and private forums.

Creating a social network like this for the entire government has significant advantages. Since a large part of the eGovernance consists of collection and disemmination of information -- not the complex functionality required, say, in an ERP solution -- a social network platform could with its collection of blogs, forums, document attachment and messaging facilities, could be an adequate starting point. If additional functionality is required then individuals or communities could build community specific applications ( that is departmental applications ) that will add functional value to the network .. in fact applications could -- and perhaps should -- be decentralised as long as all this is done in a manner that is compliant with the overall network standards.

As an example, consider Indian Language facilities. As an Orkut user I had built a Bangla Writer that is available in Orkut but is actually used by a small niche of people who write Bangla poetry ! This is in XML and compliant with OpenSocial standards. We can consider similar applications at the regional and departmental levels but of course for administrative functions, not for writing poetry !

Moving to a social network automatically takes us into the domain of Cloud Computing. Moving data and applications into the cloud means that the IT infrastructure can be centralised and many of the challenges associated with the government procurement process can be addressed much more easily and transparently. Capex requirement will be reduced and operating expenses can be billed back to individual departments on the basis of usage. Many states have now implemented WANs that are mostly sitting idle .. and a social network can be an ideal application that can be rolled out on these networks and then of course as wireless broadband becomes a commodity -- as it might with the availability of the 3G spectrum -- the application will be even more accessible from all corners of the country.

Technology is not a challenge here. Social Networks like Orkut and Facebook are highly scalable and can handle hundreds of thousands of users ... what is important is MOTIVATION : can government be convinced to even consider such a radical approach ? ORGANISATION : what kinds of communities ? who manages or moderates which one ? what happens when a person is transferred ? and EDUCATION : employees have to be trained to use this. we know that most teenagers and young adults are very comfortable with Orkut / Facebook but their parents may need handholding !

So there are challenges and I am not saying that this will be easy ... but if the CSI and similar organisations feel that this is an idea that is worth exploring further then we could have focussed discussion on this topic. A conferance devoted to "Web 2.0 / Social Networks as a platform for eGovernance" could be an excellent forum to solicit ideas and opinions around this concept which if found acceptable and feasible can be transmitted to the government at an appropriate level.

Moving the government of India to an Orkut like platform is a mammoth task. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Can we consider taking that first step ?

June 17, 2009

Environmental Refugees

Refugees have traditionally been associated with political upheavals. We have had Jews seeking refuge from Nazi Germany, dissidents seeking refuge from Russia, China and other totalitarian communist nations and closer home we have had Bengalis seeking refuge from the murderous regime in erstwhile East Pakistan. Then we had economic refugees who sought to flee their homeland not because of political persecution but because of economic need. One cannot argue with an empty stomach and their are parts of the world where an empty stomach is rule rather than an exception. This explains the exodus from South and Central America towards the land of milk and honey to the North. So is the case of economic refugees fleeing Africa for Europe and closer home we once again have had people from Bangladesh coming across the border into India and West Bengal.

But political refugees and economic refugees are now old news … The latest development in field of human misery and migration is that of the environmental refugee — that is those who have to leave home and hearth becaus home and hearth is not habitable anymore.

In the past we have had many environmental disasters and some of them have been pretty gruesome : Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdex and what not, but these were “incidents” or “accidents” that affected a large number of people over a period of time. What is now looming over the horizon is a more systematic attack on a way of life and the culprit is “mother nature” itself … in the form of global warming.

We have all heard of global warming .. how the glaciers are melting, how the arctic ice cap is shrinking and how the sea water is rising but Cyclone Aila — that struck the Sunderbans in June — has made it so very real for us in Calcutta.

How and why ?

Because we now see more and people leaving the Sunderbans to come and start camping in our southern suburbs like Sonarpur and Gosaba. These are people who are realising that there is no future left in the Sunderbans. The embankments are being washed away, fresh water wells are being submerged in brine and paddy fields are turing salty … and what is worse is that the process is irreversible. With each passing day, the water will rise higher .. more embankments will be washed away, fewer and fewer sources of fresh water will be available and cultivable land will diminish.

So why stay anymore ? It is not as if these people are leaving because of political or economic pressures but because the land is becoming inhospitable.

These are the refugees of the 21st century, the environmental refugees.

June 08, 2009

Modelling Education Reforms on the Financial Sector

Pratap Bhanu Mehta's article in the Indian Express on the devil being in the detail of educational reforms is very interesting. It makes us look around for successful models and one that strikes the eye is obviously the Stock Exchange mechanism -- that is perhaps one of the most successful model that has emerged from Indian reform process. To see if this model can be used as a reference, let us see some of the regulatory issues that a "company" needs to address before it can transact business and earn money.

At its minimum, a company must adhere to the conditions of the Companies Act and register itself with the Registrar of Companies. We note that the RoC does not really approve or reject the application on the basis of the quality of the companies products or that of its promoters. All that the RoC ensures is that the company meets certain basic disclosure norms in terms of ownership and financial issues. The focus is on accurate disclosure -- or transparency -- not on the actual facts and figures that are being disclosed.

As the company gets bigger and needs access to more funds, it seeks listing in a stock exchange. A stock exchange is not a monopoly government organisation -- it is run by its members as per rules that dictate a certain minimum level of financial competence and ensures a far more rigorous level of financial and administrative transparency. Once again, the focus is on transparency of the organisation, not on the quality of products or services offered. A stock exchange has two interesting aspects : first there can be more than one stock exchange, so there is no threat of a monopoly and second they are supervised by SEBI to ensure compliance with the laws of the land.

However the stock exchanges do not provide financial support to any company. That is done by individual investors in the capital market based on their personal or institutional perception of the company's performance.

So the three components of financial sector are (a) Registrar of Companies and the Companies Act (b) Listing in the Stock Exchange under SEBI supervision and (c) Funds from the Capital Markets. For foreign companies wanting to do business there is the fourth agency -- FIPB that has a wider mandate of protecting India's strategic interests.

Let us now map these components into the Education sector.

First the role of the Registrar of Companies can be performed very well by the AICTE -- provided we remove its authority to approve or accredit institutions. This authority used with malafide intentions has been the bane of education in India because it has kept out the best and allowed in the worst operators. The powers of the AICTE should be restrictively defined in a new Education Act and should be modelled on that of the RoC.

Any institution registered with the AICTE should be allowed to offer any educational services subject to the Consumer Protection legislation in the country. Consumers in India are quite conscious of their rights and if they have the choice -- as they now have in telecom or air travel, not to mention on soaps, shampoos or cars -- there is no fear that educational service providers will be able to cheat them. Let us have some respect for the Indian customer.

But if an institute wants to move into the next, higher league, we need a self-managed organisation like the industry association that will ensure discipline and transparency in its members. One or two leading institutes -- some from the government sector like IIT, IIM and some from the private sector like BITS, ISB -- can take the initiative to form these associations. Initially this might lead to multiple organisation -- like multiple stock exchanges -- but in the long run, through a natural process we might end up with two or three, similar to the BSE/NSE model that we have today. These associations would ensure transparency and consistency in the behaviour of its members and could be supervised by a government body like the AICTE. Institutes accredited through these associations would be ranked higher in the perception of students -- who are the customers of educational services.

Finally funds ! And this is where both the government and private organisations must step in with generous support -- but we must use a market driven approach. Both the government and the private sector should set up multiple funding organisations each with its own goals and objectives. The UGC is an obvious candidate but the Department of Space could provide separate funding for programs leading to astrophysics and the Department of Minority Affairs could have a separate funding for Muslims. Similarly Tata Steel could fund institutes operating within 50 kms of Jamshedpur and an NRI in California could fund institutions in his native Bankura district -- to each his own !

Whatever may be the source and intent for funds we need transparency on two fronts (a) the criteria for funding and (b) the actual distribution of funds in each year. Each funding agency could have its own criteria publicly available and any "registered" institute can in principle apply for funding provided it meets the requirements of the funding agencies. Agencies would distribute funds to eligible institutes based on their perception of how "good" the institute is -- in terms of how published criteria. This is where metrics like "student-teacher ratio", "placements", adherence to social goals in terms of gender and caste equity, quality of research, patents can be introduced. All funding agencies may not have the same set of criteria -- each should have the liberty to specify its requirements and institutes will have to compete for funds.

Some of the funding may be automatic and statutory – for example HRD funds to IITs and IIMs – while others may be discretionary based on the extent to which an institute meets the criteria. However all funding agencies , especially those based on tax payer's money, must make available to the public all information on funds disbursed to each institute AND the justification for the same in terms of the adherence to the funding criteria.

Potential students can study the pattern of fund disbursals and draw their own conclusions about how good or bad an institute is as perceived by funding experts who have voted with their purse ! In a sense, market forces will drive both funding and students to the best institutes in the country.

In fact honest competition is what is completely missing in the education sector and this has led to an immense complacency in the public sector education system in the country. What makes it worse is that public sector institutes are so dependent on the bureaucrats in the HRD ministry for money that they have no option but to toe the sarkari line. Both these issues can addressed through the structure that is proposed here.

And finally what about foreign universities ? If as a nation we are brave enough we can allow them to come and operate through this route but otherwise we can have the equivalent of an FIPB to ensure that trashy organisations are kept out -- but this is neither necessary nor sufficient for quality and is best kept in abeyance for the time being.

As a part of the Prime Ministers 100 day program, may I request Mr Kapil Sibal to organise a conference on Higher Education where ideas like these – and those from other, more eminent people – can be formally considered for speedy execution.

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