August 28, 2005

Reservations : Scrap &Rollback

Reservations of opportunities -- whether government jobs or college seats -- has become a national malaise. The idea was conceived in good spirit and as usually the case for any politically motivated activated, it has now generated into a thorn in the flesh of Indian civil society.

Let us get the facts straight. (a) Years of reservation has had a very marginal effect on the overall rise on the standards of living of the scheduled castes. A few, clever and well connected members of these castes have derived benefits. (b) The national hue and cry that the political class has raised for preservation and extension of reservations is a cynical, opportunistic and immoral attempt to get into vote-banks. There is no second thought or ambivalence about it. When people like Mayavati & Lallu Yadav champion a cause, there cannot be anything faintly decent about it. (c) Members of the rational, civil society are unusually coy about calling this bluff, calling a spade a spade, because they have this sneaking element of doubt and guilt .... of past discrimination and worse.

Going forward, we need to be very clear that the world is an unforgiving and competitive place. If the backward castes, were .. well .. 'backward' in the past, it is their problem not that of society at large. All men are NOT equal and any attempt to make them so will fail.

In the fiercely competitive society that we live today, the Indian nation cannot be fettered by the inefficiency caused by the incompetence of incumbents of reserved posts.

The political class is guided by the motive of self preservation. They want votes, scheduled castes provide vote banks and so politicians will never do what is right for the nation. They will do only what is needed to win the next election. ( Here, why blame India's politicians ... it is the same all over the world ... Look at George Bush !)

Members of the rational, civil society must not be hesitant in criticising reservation. We must take the bull by the horns and go on the offensive ... ask for rollback of reservation. Ask for a timeframe. It is not enough to stall attempts to increase reservation, we must actively seek to reduce and eliminate reservation from all aspects of life.

The first attempt to create a nationwide movement against reservation failed during the VP Singh era. North India was in flames ( which caused the death of quite a few agitators, who died of self immolation ) but the flames were quenched by the hard hearted politicians who hankered for votes.

We are in the midst of the second attempt, when a whole bunch of South Indian educational institutes have filed lawsuits that have been upheld by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, politicians are gathering together to strike back.

Every member of India's civil society must now firm against the political vandals who are about to storm the gates.

August 22, 2005

Business Equity, reflections on ...

The corporate landscape, which the Economic Times has been mapping faithfully for the past quarter of a century, has been changing over time. This is, perhaps, a reflection of the tectonics of globalisation but if we look closely, certain underlying patterns become evident. We will classify these patterns in terms of “equity” and see how ET, over the years, has related to these.
The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary [the only one that I could quickly access from my internet connected laptop!] defines equity as the money value of a property or of an interest in a property in excess of claims or liens against it. Used loosely, it measures certain qualities that impart value to an entity. So what is that intangible that adds value to a business ?
1960s - Financial Equity : This was the trader’s world. Access to capital was the primary ingredient for the success of a business enterprise. This was the age of the “general order supplier” or whatever equivalent name you would choose to use. This was the pre-ET (antediluvian ?) era.
1970s – Political Equity : With socialism or rather babudom sweeping through India, know-who was more important than know-how. Since the government dictated nearly everything that a business could or should do, connections in high places was the only route to success. In this era of gloom, the Economic Times was born and predictably enough its main focus was on tracking government policies and decisions together with the macro economic factors that these had an impact on.
1980s – Process Equity : With the first winds of change starting to blow through the desolate landscape, India woke up to the need for efficiency in business practices. The primary focus was of course on manufacturing processes. Advanced manufacturing techniques – purchased from the “developed” world, were seen as the keys to success. So much so that we even imported the technology for making potato chips from Norway (or somewhere equally exotic!!). This process equity was further bolstered by investments in quality systems leading to the hype and hoopla of ISO-9000. The Economic Times dutifully changed its focus to keep a close tab on interesting corporate houses.
1990s – Brand Equity: CNN (or rather its compelling coverage of Saddam Hussein’s adventures) opened India’s eyes to the immense potential satellite television. Suddenly we realised that there was a world beyond Dookhdarshan. Organisations could now reach out and touch the customer and the medium became more important than the message, the package became more important than the product. Success now depended on advertising and corporate communications. Brand equity became an integral part of the Economic Times.
2000s – Knowledge Equity : The closing years of the twentieth century has seen a surge of what is known as the knowledge economy. There is some confusion about the usage of the term knowledge – were the artisans and engineers lacking in knowledge ? Certainly not. But this is knowledge of a different sort. Businesses today can thrive and grow only if they can have a clear idea of nationwide (global ?) inventory topology [Supply Chain Management], precise customer demographics [Client Relationship Management] or price-performance characteristics of suppliers [eProcurement]. All this data was always available and waiting. It needed the magic of digital connectivity – the internet though not necessarily the world wide web – to turn transform this data, first into information that could be processed, next into knowledge that could be leveraged and then perhaps into wisdom that would become a part of the corporate culture. The focus today is on how to manage this knowledge, efficiently and effectively, irrespective of the organisation or the business area.
Quo Vadis ? Where are we headed ? When we peep into the womb of futurity, the corporate landscape looks fluid and chaotic. Faster, sooner and smarter may not be the best mantra in life but then nobody claims that the good is always is always successful (consider Laloo and Jayalalitha). To be successful, organisations must anticipate and adapt to this changing scenario. Is this an echo of Darwin’s theory of natural selection ? The sense of déjà vu is complete if we remember that since the birth of the Economic Times, the wheel has turned a quarter, but the hub remains the same.
article written for the silver jubilee of the Economic Times and never published.

August 13, 2005

Mangal Pandey : The Metaphor

A little slice of a very important part of India's history heavily garnished with the sights and sounds of an era, two cameo love affairs and A R Raman's haunting music all add up to a wonderful and romantic adventure : but oh how I wish it was three songs shorter ! That would have given this otherwise fabulous movie that cutting edge ... an edge that has been blunted by the director's desperate attempts to cut into psyche of the semi-moronic Bollywood fan for whom anything without "item numbers" will apparently not pass muster.

I will not sure how long this movie will run in the theatres and if Bose : The Forgotten Hero ( and film) is any indication, then I will be surprised if it crosses two weeks, but I would recommend this movie for anyone who has a love for India's past and is keen to sit through the passionate recreation of tumultous era.

In addition to the obvious charms of the delectable Rani Mukherjee and the sincerity with which Capt Gordon ( Toby Stephens) tries to portray the sepoy's point of view to the military authorities what is interesting to note is that, as Mangal explains, the initial revolt against the greased cartridges, fanned by feelings of caste and creed, metamorphoses into a not-quite-national-as-yet-but disenchantment with orders that fly in the face of a sense of justice and fair play against one's one people. I am not sure how much of this is real history but I noticed a couple of interesing facts :

a] The mutiny was fanned by a couple of British officers engaged in the illicit opium trade as a way to divert attention from the investigation of charges of corruption. The Parsi opium trader who was in collusion with the British officer deliberately showed the vats of lard to the excited sepoys and this was the final spark that lit the fire.

b] Mangal Pandey was a member of the proletariat. When requested by the emissaries of Nana Saheb to join forces he makes it very clear that he is not interested in replacing one set of oppresors by another. He wants a model of the English Queen who rules with the will of the people.

c] Messages were sent from camp to camp disguised as roti-s. This is a fact. We see Mangal making roti-s and we see scribes making multiple copies of their revolutionary manifesto. But we are never shown when the messages are sent. Perhaps Rani Mukherjee's song and dance elbowed out this piece of fact from the film.

d] Mangal is shown being hanged under a banyan tree. If I remember correctly this particular tree still exists in the Barrackpore Cantonment.

Perhaps the movie is not perfect. Neither was Mangal Pandey, nor the mutiny that he sparked off. Nevertheless, the Brahmim of Balia was an important metaphor of the age that represented the nadir of the historical evolution of Hindustan. It was the worst of the times, with the imperial age in terminal decline and the first flush of the enlightened renaissance still some way off. Confused and ill-directed this mutiny was the first documented evidence of the spirit of a nation groping for a way to find and chart its own destiny.

Some people are born great, others attain greatness and still others have greatness thrust on them. Mangal Pandey was at the right place at the right time, at the tip of the FIRST arrow that was shot into the heart of the East India Company and thus had greatness thrust on him.

However that does not make him any less great.


Net-net : an enjoyable movie, thanks to Harsh Hada and Rahul Sharma of WDC who had given me the tickets for the premier show at Inox City Centre.

August 07, 2005

Martin Luther & The Overthrow of the Incompetents

Have you ever wondered why administration in India never works ? Why is it that our electricity delivery network crashes every now and then ? Why is that our roads are never repaired in time ? Or for that matter they are dug up within months of being repaired ? Why is it that our disaster management is so amateurish ? Why is it that tax collection system is so leaky and extortionary ?

The colonial 'exploiters' have left us to our fate more than 50 years ago and it is true that the colonial exploitation has been replaced by the exploitation of the criminal-corrupt but why is it that we cannot fight this cancer within ?

Perhaps the cancer of corruption has gnawed us hollow but the most visible manifestation of this malady is the fact that we are ruled by incompetents.

If you look closely enough you will realise that in most of India's institutions the people at the top -- or around the top, that is those who are in a position to take decisive action, are the ones who have reached this point not through excellence of knowledge or proven delivery capability .. but simply because they have (a) connections in the right places or (b) have bought their way to the top. This is true whether it is a lowly position like the OC of Barabazar thana or the high and mighty head of the Planning Commission.

Merit has no role whatsoever in the selection of the incumbent of any worthwhile or decisive position in India and this is even more true where the choice or selection is made by people who have nothing to lose if the person selected is incompetent for the job. In fact the selection is made on the basis of the candidate's competency in areas that are directly antithetical to the demands of the job -- for example in his or her ability to reward unjustly the person or persons responsible for the selection by 'returning' the favour in cash or kind!

Net-net any major decision that is taken in India, whether it is as simple as which way should a one-way traffic system run to complex stuff like the contents of the educational syllabi or the location of a major dam, is taken either by a person who is incompentent or one who has goal in mind that is not aligned to the one that is expected from his office.

That is why India remains bound up in the chains of its own folly.

Is there a way out ? Is there a way that we could rid ourselves of this rule of incompetents ? The way that we used to rid ourselves -- for good or for worse -- the rule of the colonial power ? Perhaps there is a way but we have not found it as yet. The political movement that pushed out the British had drawn inspiration and models from many sources ... the French Revolution ? Cromwells England ? the American War of Independence ?

But do we have a model where merit and meritocracy prevailed over the corrupt-incompetent ? The closest analogy that I can think of is Martin Luther and his Protestant movement that toppled the hedgemony of the decadent Catholic Church and paved the way for the Reformation, Counter-reformation and the subsequent Renaissance. This was 16th century Europe.

In the India of the 21st century, who is Martin Luther ? When and where will he reveal himself ? And will he be called Kalki ?