Archive for March, 2009

Exam time for parents

Thursday, March 26th, 2009 March 26th, 2009 Shyamal MajumdarShyamal Majumdar

I  was at my daughter’s school this morning to collect her results. While children were busy discussing their holiday plans, parents were huddled together and discussing grades. “It’s A, yaar,” I heard one of them wearing a particularly long face telling his friend. The response was “you are lucky, it’s B+ for us”.  “Poor fellows. Children shouldn’t let their parents down like this,” my neighbour, whose son studies in the same school, whispered .
It’s usual, I thought, as I am used to seeing over-anxious parents discussing their children’s grades in a manner as if the sky has fallen. But something about the parents’ conversation this time was curious. Everyone and her aunt were talking in terms of a decline in grades. If it was A earlier, it is A- this time; and if it was B- earlier, it’s C this year.
It’s surely impossible that everybody’s children have done worse than last year? Most children may give a damn about grades, but everybody? After all, some students were indeed coming out of their respective classes with a big smile — the kind of smile that is usually reserved for those with topmost grades.   
But I have read a lot about crisis management. So in my desire to be an ideal parent and prepare my daughter for the worst, I told her that the teachers have become stricter this time and she should be prepared for a lower grade. My daughter was, however, quick to dismiss the concern and reminded me of the gift I have promised to buy this Sunday in case she does better than last year.  
My neighbour, however, soon resolved the mystery about the parents’ apparent concern about grades. After all, they were talking about their own grades at their workplaces. Unlike their children’s exams where the grades are higher or lower depending on the hard work that a student has put in, the results of the exams at India Inc are throwing up only losers this time.
Most companies have just announced the results of their performance appraisals recently and grades ( and consequently increments) are lower across-the-board even if you have put in the same amount of work as last year. The only question is by how much. So, those of you who haven’t got your results (performance appraisals) yet, don’t be surprised if your supervisor is giving you ‘B” this time against ‘A’ for the same level of performance last year.
There are many companies which have taken the grading system to a new level. One of the largest Indian software companies, for example, has gone much beyond the conventional four grades of A, B, C & D. The company has extended it to H, which means every line manager will have eight grades to choose from. So last year’s C grader could well be this year’s G grader, giving the company flexibility to pay that much less. The same company was thinking about reducing the grades to just three a couple of years back to make its performance appraisal system less complicated!
In case this is making you feel depressed, here’s something to cheer you up: how many of you are buying gifts for your children this Sunday?

The twin trials of Madoff and Raju

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009 March 24th, 2009 Joydeep Ghosh

December 10, 2008 – Former Nasdaq chairman Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme discovered by his sons and reported to federal authorities

December 11, 2008 – Bernard Madoff arrested, later put under house arrest

March 12, 2009 – Bernard Madoff confesses to $65 billion Ponzi scheme. Court verdict: Jail and faces maximum penalty of 150 years. Assets frozen and prosecutors eye wife’s assets as well.

January 7, 2009 – Satyam Chairman (now former) Ramalinga Raju self-confesses to Rs 7,800 crore scam

January 9, 2009 – Ramalinga Raju surrenders, arrested by Andhra Police (by the way, he had a date with Sebi next day)

March 14, 2009 – Newspaper reports suggest that Raju’s Madhapur den is being raided by CBI, implying there are a lot of loose ends still being tied up. And the fact that there are a number of agencies, including the Andhra police, CBI, Sebi and others investigating, things will not get any simpler.

Prima facie, two similar cases. Madoff ran a Ponzi scheme and conned investors. Raju conned investors who had bought his company’s shares by ‘cooking up a balance sheet’.

While the US government has already arrived at a number ($65 billion) for Madoff, we still have no idea about the money lost by investors in Raju’s case.  Perhaps, we will never know.

In Madoff’s instance, the case has been heard, the verdict given and is up for appeal. As for Raju, the buck is still passing around.

Newspaper reports suggest that Raju is living a raja’s life in his special cell. His brother Rama Raju is cooking food with help from (former CFO) Srinivas Vadlamani. Cooking accounts must have prepared them for this role anyway. They are even allowed limited quantities of cakes and biscuits (isn’t Raju diabetic?).

Meanwhile, his lawyers are busy telling the courts how the Rajus are suffering in jail, pestered by rats and bandicoots.
With several agencies waiting to charge him on different counts, all that Raju is likely to face is a lot of court hearings, as Sunny Deol famously said in Damini, ‘Tareeq pe tareeq’.

But the corrupt have never gone unpunished. After all, Sukh Ram was fined a princely Rs 2 lakh and sentenced to three years in jail… 13 years after the case was first reported.

Of course, it is a different matter altogether that many would not have even remembered why Sukh Ram was accused or fined. It is a tragedy that over the years, public amnesia has allowed many an issue to die a quiet death.

Raju too, will get his just desserts we hope… never mind if the dessert melts by then.

Fraudster or martyr?

Monday, March 23rd, 2009 March 23rd, 2009 Bhupesh BhandariBhupesh Bhandari

It’s been over two months since B Ramalinga Raju confessed to cooking Satyam’s books for seven long years – for 28 quarters he faced shareholders, research analysts and his employees with a straight face. That he is guilty of the monumental fraud, everybody is convinced. That he is all evil, not everybody buys that. 

People in Hyderabad still talk without reserve about the excellent work done by his charitable arm, EMRI, which runs an emergency ambulance service throughout the state. Help reaches any person in distress in less than half-an-hour. One-third of the calls are for deliveries. The drivers never accept a tip. In congested areas, paramedics reach the patient on two-wheelers. A man who gave almost ten per cent of his time to this kind of work, how could he defraud the company he had founded? Disbelief and shock linger on. 

There is another thought gaining ground. Ramalinga Raju inflated the accounts only for the good of Satyam, so that it could hold on the marquee clients. He did not take money for personal enrichment. In fact, he pledged his shares to fill the gap. And once the situation became unmanageable, he took the entire blame upon himself so that Satyam could survive. At least this is what his fiends would have us believe. 

All of this is yet to be heard in a court of law. So it is still early to jump to conclusions. But some things in this version do not add up. Ramalinga Raju said nobody else was aware of the falsification of bank deposits, except his brother, Rama Raju, Satyam CFO Vadlamani Srinivas and himself. What about the Satyam employees who handed over the certificates (which now clearly appear forged) to the auditors? What about the auditors themselves? For 28 quarters they failed to find anything amiss! 

The real profit margins that Ramalinga Raju talked about after removing the false accounts were ultra-thin. The industry average is far superior. If this average is used, Satyam’s actual bottomline would appear much better than what Ramalinga Raju claimed. What about the banks which must have got the Satyam annual reports which carried details of the deposits? Did they not bother to check the numbers? 

What about the family members? The shares in Satyam were held by their holding company called SRSR Holdings? Did they not enquire why the shares were pledged? To what use the money so raised was put? The investigating agencies have their hands full. The sale of Satyam will not be the end of the matter. 

Recession and stock prices

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009 March 18th, 2009 BG ShirsatBG Shirsat

The impact of a downturn on share prices has been varied. In the 2001 tech recession, seven out of ten sectors lost more than average (65 per cent) of their value between the Sensex peak of February 14, 2000 and low of September 21, 2001. Sectors affected by the meltdown of internet bubble of 2000 fared even worse with information, communication and entertainment sectors losing more than 75 per cent of their value in the recession of 2001.

The implication of current downturn seems to be far reaching than 2001 with eight out of ten sectors having lost more than 65 per cent of their peak value of January 8, 2008. The housing bubble in the US in 2004 to 2006 has led the current recession as subprime housing lenders defaulted due to sharp correction in property prices. The US subprime default has already destroyed $50 trillion of shareholders’ wealth across the globe since January 2008 and still there no light at the end of tunnel.

The 1980–82 and 1990–91 recessions affected valuations less severely. Only one sector lost more than a third of its value in both of these downturns (energy in 1980-82 and financials in 1990-91), and most sectors suffered losses of 5 to 15 per cent. The current recession, which was mainly caused on account of financial default in the US, has affected all consumer discretionary sectors such as automobiles, airlines, retailing and textiles. The value destruction has been across all sectors but consumer related sectors are punished more.

All the past global recessions have provided opportunity to buy equity for bountiful returns over the next few years. In 2001, tech stock prices had crashed by an average of 65 per cent with almost 98 per cent stocks witnessing value erosion. However, in the next eight years, between September 21, 2001 and January 8, 2008 valuation rocketed by over 1000 per cent. Even at the current prices, the average gain from listed securities is still a whopping 300 per cent.

This time things are different though, with almost all global indices trading at multi-year lows. As of now recovery in stock prices is very remote as all economic indicators are showing no signs of improvement, History suggests some possible indicators of the beginning of a recovery coming from the consumer sector. In three of the four most recent recessions, higher consumer discretionary and IT spending led the way.

When real operating profit growth resumes in these sectors, it may be a useful indication that the economy is turning around. However, there is very little evidence that the contraction in the US economy is slowing. The fourth quarter GDP was revised downward, showing that the economy contracted at an annualised rate of 6.2 per cent during the most recent quarter.

Things have now improved, and a bear market rally is on. The big question is when will equity markets return to normal?

More than just a conversation

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009 March 17th, 2009 Abhilasha OjhaAbhilasha Ojha

“I was in a medical college in Allahabad. I was so happy that my hard work had paid off and I was going to fulfill my dream of completing my medical studies. It’s tough you know; it’s not easy to clear these exams. I was enthusiastic of joining a new place, a new college. I wanted to make friends and study and party and enjoy myself too.”
I smile at the other end of the phone. I wish we could’ve met right away, I say to him. It’s so much better to meet and talk such stuff. Harsh – no, not H-A-A-R-S-H that means cruel in English; Harsh, as in, joy, that’s what your name means, silly – are you sure you want to tell your story?

“Yes. I do. But I’ll conceal some details till we meet face-to-face, alright?”

Right.

“I’m an easy-going person. I enjoy music a lot, I’m serious about my work, which is not to say I’m boring and just studious. I’ve had a good friend circle but over the years, either I’ve matured too quickly, or they’ve been left far behind. I do not know but life has changed. I am fiercely protective of my parents (like any other son). I want to think of a bright future for myself. After all that’s happened with me,” he sniggers, “I’m still hopeful.”

How did it happen?

“Ha ha, you want to really move very quickly, huh?”
No, no, I’m sorry, it’s not that. I…
“It’s okay. You don’t have to explain yourself. Explaining oneself is very difficult. I know it. I’ve done a lot of explaining to the teachers, to my parents, to some of my friends, to the bureaucracy, to government agencies, to the police. All I did for two years was to try and explain myself to others.”
Did you succeed?
(Dry laughs on the phone for half-a-minute at least)
Did you succeed?
“I don’t know if I did. I’m not a doctor, you see. I never finished my medical studies.”
You called it quits because of what others did to you? What’s wrong with you? You lost out on your dream of wanting to become a doc?

 

“Oh, the same set of dialogues. Wish people would at least say the same thing in a different way. Like, say it with a feeling, in a tone that’s conveys anything but frustration. Say it like you were sitting in a fancy café, sipping on cappuccino and just, you know, discussing your recent shopping jaunt with a friend. Or, like you were on a picnic, or on a long walk with a pal, and just talking, y’know, just chatting.”

 
Hey, sorry, I just blurt it out. I didn’t mean to…

 
“No, it’s okay. Like I said, I’m used to it. My own voice shakes when I talk about it. I mean, it’s alright for me to talk about the incident — or incidents, because it went on for one whole month, every single day, every single night – but I often shiver and feel the tremble in my voice. I want to control it, catch hold of my neck and say, “Shut up, and talk properly,” but that would mean I’m turning into a villain too. What would be the difference between them and me? Yes, it happens. Stanford has done research to find out why bullying exists, why people become rude, why youngsters – and children too — are ragged. Very often, the research found out, victims become perpetrators and that’s why stuff like bullying and ragging exists.”

 
You’re right. I remember when I was in the first year of college. I promised myself – along with others in my gang – that I’ll rag simply because I’ll be in a position to. I’m hopeless at debates, I’m pathetic when it comes to fighting for my rights, I barely have a voice with which I can defend myself even as a 32-year-old. So I cry, I cry even today. But, listen, this is your story. Please go on.

 
“Hmmm, alright. But bullying, rude talk can happen in offices too. It’s alright to cry, it’s alright and it’s not stupid.”

 
A friend, in front of whom I cried about some office matter, said the same thing yesterday. And I felt much, much better. But, listen, would you go on with your story, please? I don’t want the attention on myself.

 
(Sighs jokingly) “Women are always so impatient. Okay, I was ragged. I was ragged very, very, badly. I won’t give you more details but you can let your imagination run wild. I was unable to face myself. I thought, ya’ar, this is the done thing in college. I can’t be so chicken, after all, I’m preparing to be a doctor. But every night (I was scared to even shut my eyes, by the way) I thought it was becoming unbearable. I spoke to the principal and he was sweet; he patted my back reassuringly. It felt nice, very nice, in fact, and then I waited. I needed action. I waited. I deserved speedy justice. I waited. I needed to set things right. I got ragged that night by a group of seniors who came into my room and then asked me to … I waited. I cried. I waited. I ran to the loo. I got ragged there too. I screamed. I waited. I begged. I waited. I packed my bags. I waited. I cried, ‘Mamma’ like a 4-year-old who had been hit in the mud by four bullies. I wanted to hug my mum. I also wanted to pee very badly. But I was so scared to go to the loo. I waited. Yes, I just waited.”

 
By this time, I start crying. “I’m so sorry,” I say, “I can’t hear anymore.”

 
“I couldn’t bear to stay there any longer. My parents fetched me, we came back to Delhi. For two years, I ran to get admission in any other medical college and authorities, seniors, elders laughed. My parents persuaded me to go back. I didn’t flinch. Yes, parents we can bully no? So I didn’t budge. ‘I’m not going back,’ I told Pa. They sighed. Their dreams of seeing their son as a doctor were shattered. Some professors came to meet me. Sweet na? They told me, ‘Beta, you are lucky. You didn’t spend six months in a hospital; that’s how ragging can be — and has been — in this medical college.’ At that time, I wanted to bear my soul and show them the scars but that wasn’t possible. I mean, you can’t rip open your heart and tell these profs, ‘See Sir, I’ve been hurt here, and here, and here.’ Even Majnus and Romeos never managed that.”

 
What do you do now?

 
“I wasn’t given a seat in any other medical college in the country and after two years I decided that I’d had enough. So, along with two other guys with whom I was in touch on an online anti-ragging community, I decided to run and support an anti-ragging forum. Anytime, anyone needs us, we’re there to show our support, our understanding. I wouldn’t use lofty words like, ‘mission’ or ‘aim’ or ‘goal’ to describe our forum, but if anyone wants to connect with us, we are there. We hope to sensitize people at large, we pray that ragging (which isn’t ‘fun’ or ‘easy’ as most people believe) will get eradicated someday. That’s what we’re doing. That’s what I’m doing and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”

 
You are a brave-heart. And you know what, you’re still a doctor. You are, after all, treating the society at large.
 

Dear friends, if you know of any person, organisation and/or forum, working towards the cause of eradicating ragging, please inform me on my id abhilashaojha@gmail.com

No more sacred

Monday, March 16th, 2009 March 16th, 2009 Rrishi Raote

When the tide rose high at Mamallapuram, the tourist guides told us, small sluices used to be opened to allow sea water into the Shore Temple. Then the reclining Vishnu in the garbha-griha, lit by lamps, would appear to rest on a sheet of water.

That was in 1990, when the temple was still approached across sand and rocks. Then it was something elemental, and even as a child I could see that. Now the temple sits in the middle of a lawn, landscaped earthworks separate it from the sea, and a crazy-paved path fringed with ropes leads brazenly up to the temple entrance. And the temple has been reappropriated: families enter with the tawdry paraphernalia of worship.
Now the Shore Temple is modern; it is no longer capable of awakening the pagan roots of your soul. It is no more sacred than Parliament House.

Nokia to make netbooks!

Thursday, March 5th, 2009 March 5th, 2009 Priyanka JoshiPriyanka Joshi

nokia-n97-smartphone.jpg

Nokia has dropped broad hints of its intentions to enter the netbook market. Nokia’s big boss, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo in an interview with a Finnish TV admitted “we are looking very actively at this opportunity.”

What began as rumours last year has fuelled itself into a full-blown opportunity for Nokia.  The company executives do not want to miss out on a product category that is thriving and which could be a good platform for boosting uptake of its web services (that are to be launched in May-June this year). This backs up Kallasvuo’s statements made at Barcelona last month that Nokia would expand the definition of the smartphone “into categories and form factors that have not yet been explored”. But the use of an ARM-based chip will hugely disappoint Intel.

Intel’s Atom processors gave birth to the idea of netbooks by leveraging its powerful position in the PC industry. Today, the chip giant has ensured that its mobile processors remain dominant in netbooks category, even as it got tougher to break into the conventional smartphone world. Intel is investing through recession – which executives insisted would be the pattern for 2009 too– in order to emerge from the downturn with the most advanced products in key growth areas. With operators relying on mobile data for their own survival plans, netbooks with embedded 3G, Wi-Fi and/or WiMAX should certainly represent one of those growth areas, and Atom is already driving volumes at Intel, even if it is squeezing margins.

Nokia, the Finnish giant, is reportedly working on a cut-down, mobile web-optimized PC, based on the recently announced ARM multicore Sparrow processor and incorporating elements of the existing N800 internet tablet, including its Maemo-based Linux software platform.

We won’t see a Nokia netbook until early 2011, and most probably missing the first boat for netbooks. But trust Nokia to try to outdo the traditional PC makers in terms of form factor and mobility, playing to its strengths and building on the N800 experience to create a new approach, as well as capitalizing on its vast scale and logistical excellence.

According to various leaked features (found easily on the internet) of the supposed prototype, nicknamed Nokia Sparrow, include a multi-slide keyboard with different layouts, automatically revealed as the device is moved in different directions; and a multidirectional display, similar to the tilting display of the N97 smartphone.

Gurgaon to Delhi (everyday)

Monday, March 2nd, 2009 March 2nd, 2009 Abhilasha OjhaAbhilasha Ojha

I moved to Gurgaon in 2002 and lived there till 2006 before shifting to Mayur Vihar. Though people knew that commuting there was a hassle (still is, I hear) a typical reaction of friends was: “Wow! Gurgaon, huh. That’s where all the malls are.”

Despite the so-called malls and multiplexes, Gurgaon was a miserable, hopeless place. In fact, what you read about Gurgaon in the newspapers today are problems that had started a long time ago. I remember commuting in those “RTVs” (small, match-box sized buses) and jostling for breathing space everyday before reaching office in ITO. It took me close to 1.5-2 hours every day, one way. We used to have a chartered bus leaving from Sushant Lok-I everyday at 7 am and another small bus that left at 9.30-10 am. Oh, we were promised another bus at around 12.30 pm but we could bet a million bucks and be sure of the fact that it was an invisible bus. The conditions of these buses were hopeless with creaking seats and parts (such as nails) jutting out from the seats. The buses (if - and when - they moved) drove at maniacal speeds and the thought of elderly people sitting wasn’t ever a consideration. The buses dropped us to AIIMS and from there used to begin another journey; haggling with auto-wallahs for the fare to reach ITO. By the time I used to reach office, I used to think of it as a job well done. I used to pat my back, eat some food, pray for death, get some work done and quickly start planning how to get back home. 

If reaching Delhi from Gurgaon was a trip, going back to the “mall village” was another adventure. You see, a bus left every day from INA market at 5.30 pm. There was no way that I could go on that bus because of office commitments. Anyway, my target used to be trying to catch the 6.30 pm bus (another RTV) which used to leave, most of the times, by 6 pm. “Bus full hoh gayi toh nikal gaye (The bus got full so we left)” was the perennial excuse given by the conductor. In this scenario, I had two choices; either reach Mehrauli and then take a bus to Gurgaon, or brace myself to get into those call-centre cabs where drivers were charging Rs 10-20 (the fare depending completely on whether it was a brand new SUV, or a rickety one). 

It used to be a challenge; jostling past people, running to nearest traffic signal (since the traffic cops didn’t allow these vehicles to stop near AIIMS) and praying all the while to manage a seat. There were times when I was lucky to get the corner seat and I just didn’t want the journey to end. It was so tiring to run after vehicles that finally, when one did get a chance, it was a treat to soak into the luxury of a partly-torn seat while also listening to some music. The rising whiff of body odour, the cheap comments made by some men in the same vehicle, a middle-aged “uncle” feeling up and saying sorry every time his hand, under the briefcase, brushed and brushed and brushed your thigh till you looked him in the eye, smiled and said aloud, “Uncle, please don’t do that. I hate it,” was usual, par for the course. The vehicle (if I arrived at AIIMS later than 6.30 pm) would drop me outside Bristol Hotel or near one of the malls and from there I used to hail a rickshaw for Rs 50! (I was mugged too, right in front of the lane where I used to live, while I was sitting in a rickshaw one evening, by two young men on a bike). By the time I made it home it used to be 8 pm and after a quick dinner and some TV watching, it was time to crash out to start another crazy ordeal. 

The next morning? Oh, it was just another day.

PS: Please don’t send comments like, “Don’t you know how to drive?” I don’t. I don’t think I ever will.