Archive for April, 2010

Going Poor

Monday, April 26th, 2010 April 26th, 2010 Praveen Bose

The UID project, now rechristened Aadhaar, can be a means for many to corner more than their fair share of their welfare benefits. And, add to it the Census 2010 which is this time more comprehensive. Again, it could ensure that welfare benefits reach the needy.

But, does it really reach only the needy? Indians being Indians, my fellow citizens always manage to find ways to derive welfare benefits, they don’t deserve, through devious means.

The Census, which this time around is very comprehensive, helps the ‘State’ figure out who needs what and how much. But, the hunger of the people to get everything cheap, may spoil the party for the idealist.

Imagine a whole village, with a population of about 5,000, having everyone living below the poverty line! Yes, that’s what has happened in a village (that I know of) where everyone, including the biggest land-owning family is a BPL family. How did they manage that? No, not by bribing the enumerators.

This time around, they have managed to find a ‘legitimate’ way to corner as much of benefits meant for the poor as possible. In one instance, a couple claimed they have separated, though still living under one roof. They managed to get some legal papers to prove they were divorced. Their three children (not majors) too have ’separated’ from them. But, they too live in the same house, though in separate rooms in the house.

There, the enumerator is forced into recording them as four families, no less. The income of the family too is divided into a many bits and pieces. And, voila! They are poor. Now, they get subsidised rice, way below the market price.

An enumerator in the village, a teacher, now feels very rich. She seems to be only one who has not claimed any benefits. But, she is thankful that the cows and chickens in the village are not fighting to be counted among the poor. Fortunately, they don’t fight to be poor.

She has had to face angry men and women who threaten to beat her up if they were not counted among the poor. The teacher is a much happier person now.

Tharoor’s other Dubai connection

Friday, April 23rd, 2010 April 23rd, 2010 Aditi PhadnisAditi Phadnis

Amid the brouhaha about IPL, what has been forgotten entirely is Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor’s efforts to develop his constituency.
When Tharoor left the United nations, he got a new appointment as Chairman of Afras Ventures, a company based in Dubai in quest of investment opportunities primarily in Kerala. Tharoor’s assignment was envisaged as bringing him on long trips to India. At the time he was an NRI. Whether he still is, remains to be investigated.

Afras Ventures was founded by Nandakumar Radhakrishnan who has interests in developing his home state of Kerala. Tharoor was said to have been eager to be associated with the private sector for a public service endeavour like Afras.

Tharoor and Radhakrishnan got in touch with the Chief Minister of Kerala, state finance and education ministers and senior government bureaucrats on potential areas for investment. As the first tranche of investment, Tharoor set up an IT business finishing school in Kerala. The school was entirely funded by the Afras group. It was inaugurated by Governor R L Bhatia last year.

At the launch, Tharoor was quoted by local media as saying: “It’s a world-class facility with trained faculty from abroad.” About Rs 4 crore has been already invested on the Afras Academy for Business Communication (AABC). “More investment will be required, as we target doubling the student capacity soon,” he was quoted as having said. He informed reporters that Tina L Parsons, eminent Speech Language Pathologist and Voice Specialist from New York, had been appointed the Executive Director of Training.

The courses was to commence from June 2009, which means the first few batches must already have passed out. The curriculum was divided into four modules; Language & Grammar, Accent Modification, Presentation Skills and Business Etiquette. The fee for the standard course was Rs 30,000 plus service tax.

Technopark at Kerala capital has earmarked 10,000 sq m for two finishing schools. Part of this space has been alloted to AABC. Technopark has realised that HR development is as critical to IT sector growth as infrastructure development,  RK Nair, CEO, Technopark told reporters.

But why wasn’t Afras Ventures on Tharoor’s affidavit, submitted when he was elected, considering he was still employed by them?

 

Summer of controversies

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 April 21st, 2010 Joydeep Ghosh

The IPL scam, Sebi-Irda spat… we are all set to have an interesting summer. Let me add my two bit.

Even if some ‘sweat equity’ was given to Ms Pushkar (if the allegations are correct), courtesy Mr Tharoor… does it really matter? Come’ on guys there is enough muck in the system. Here, politicians’ children and family members benefit just because their parents travel in a car with a ‘batti’ at the top (many times, it’s not even the child’s fault).

Coming from Bihar, I have heard this line several times. ‘Arre e to falanwa ka beta/bitiya hain’ (oh, he/she is ‘this person’s’ son or daughter). The rest follows…

Yes, if the government wants to fix the IPL, let’s go ahead and do that. And it’s because there are too many smokescreens in the IPL system.

Newspaper reports claim that crores were spent on post-match parties, clauses were inserted in contracts that models had to mingle with the guests, caps on earnings of junior players were introduced in days – Yes, it has become one crazy ride.

And then there is Lalit Modi.Though Jagmohan Dalmiya was blamed for commercialisation of cricket, he did it quietly. Modi, on the contrary, has turned cricket into comedy, that too, with a swagger.

Administrators, in my view, cannot even be seen to be siding with anyone (even if they are). No wonder, many of them are boring personalities because they need to make important decisions, and dispassionately.

So, a lot of people should thank Tharoor. He has suddenly given them a stick… a real big stick… to beat up both IPL and the cricket establishment that has eluded them for all these years.

Whether things will change or not, I don’t know or care. But this is one controversy that I will watch for sheer entertainment – just like the IPL.

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When Chandhrashekhar Bhave, the Sebi chairman, banned 14 insurance companies from accepting fresh premiums on unit-linked insurance plans (Ulips), he surprised many of us.

Most so-called experts were not expecting this. The argument: The insurance lobby is too strong for Sebi to do anything. Well, smart guys, the matter has gone to the court.

Whether Sebi gets control, Irda continues to have control or there is a dual control really does not matter. By simply taking up the matter in a big way, Sebi has made it front page news.

Importantly, a lot of customers are now asking questions. Almost a year back, a Business Standard reporter tried to buy a simple term policy from an insurance company. However, everyone tried to sell him an Ulip. Being a young chap with no dependents, he just needed a cheap policy. But everyone advised him to buy something that was 5 or 10 times more expensive with the lure of ‘wealth creation’.

The outcome of this case certainly interests me, but for a different reason. More controversy means more information for consumers. And Sebi’s step has achieved exactly that.

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Tweet, Ping, Poke but #getmehome

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 April 21st, 2010 Priyanka JoshiPriyanka Joshi

Unless you have been completely unplugged these last two weeks, you would have heard that Iceland has become, well, rather hot. On last count, six of my acquaintances were holed up at various airports, spending their costly dollars to deal with ‘forced and extended foreign stay.’ The volcano Eyjafjallajokull single-handedly grounded both flights and millions of passengers.

Undeterred, social media kept it promise of being a truly social medium. Hash tags like #getmehome, #ashtag, #ridesharing and desperate status messages on Facebook tell me that travelers are actively using Twitter and Facebook groups to voice complaints to the airlines (who are actually replying back with flight schedule!). Must applaud! Given the recent string of natural and man-made disasters, social media has really had an opportunity to expand its influence. It continues to be adapted and molded by a growing number of people.

Social media fans like Tod Brilliant- a Facebook user who was stranded in France because of the volcanic ash cloud grounding flights, has gone ahead and created a Facebook page that describes its purpose like this: “Hundreds of thousands of us are stranded, thanks to billowing ash from Iceland’s Mt. Elslksjksldxzjjjejsklaresssrfzzzt. Let’s come together, swap stories, keep our spirits up, and offer advice for coping with our situations.”

My 76-year old uncle, who was visiting India with his pension money, is now stuck in New Delhi as flights to Florida have been cancelled. While his ‘dollar’ buys decent ‘rupees’, he has been spending sleepless nights ever since he got an email from his neighbor who told him there was a minor fire in his backyard. He updated his Facebook status message about his situation and found an ex-colleague on the social site who volunteered to go and fix the damage done, in his absence.

A Twitter acquaintance tweeted — “Was to fly from London (to Mumbai) with Jet Air on April 19, now re-scheduled to April 28…worried about the fast depleting pounds in my pocket. How much rationing can I do?” She was soon offered free boarding in London by a helpful twitter-fellow who read her tweet and lived closeby.

Yet another Facebook friend put this message out: “At home, looking after kids due to volcano while grandparents stuck abroad.” Not only he was inundated with kind messages that helped him cope with kids, a few helpful friends even suggested him ways to keep kids occupied and out of his hair.

Not to be outdone by web, BlackBerry has come out with apps that will allow phone users to keep a track of all flights (canceled or delayed) with an app called WorldMate Live. This app gives users instant access to all trip details, including itineraries, weather updates, currency converters and more.

My humble advice to anyone stuck somewhere because of volcano delays, please get on to a social media site. You might just find your Johnny-on-the-spot.

JUST HEARD: (on Twitter of course)

Flights and airports are getting back to normalcy. And tweets of relief are pouring on Twitter from across the globe.

There you are, Raju mistri

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 April 13th, 2010 Rrishi Raote

Over the past couple of weeks I have spent a fair bit of time peering at Wikimapia, ostensibly because I had to review a book on the Saraswati river. Not the mythical river that meets the Ganga and Yamuna at Allahabad but the real historical one on whose banks the Rg Vedic sages did whatever sages do.

According to the book, the Saraswati was the progenitor of the modern Ghaggar-Hakra, an interconnected set of river channels that stretches from the Shivaliks through the Thar desert and down to the Rann of Kachchh. According to the author, who summarises the scientific evidence very nicely, this river, which has a very wide bed but is now nearly always dry, was once fed by the Sutlej and the Yamuna, which did not at that time meet the Indus and Ganga.

On the dry banks of the dead river, where now only desert nomads live, are many, many ancient towns and villages, now buried in sand. They, too, point to a time when water was much more abundantly available.

So naturally, I took to Wikimapia to check all this out, to look for signs of ancient rivers and traces of buried cities. I found all of that, yes, and it was thrilling — but I also realised that just about every single screenful of satellite imagery was also full of personalised place tags.

That’s the way Wikimapia works — it marries Google Earth with Wiki. Google Earth provides the imagery, and ordinary individual users add in the information. So on a satellite image of your part of the world you yourself can identify your office or school or bank or favourite paan or bicycle repair shop. You can outline your own house. Anyone anywhere in the world who zooms in on that area can then see what information you have added in.

This being an exercise that only computer users can perform, and that too only when they are on the Net and with a fast enough Net connection to download image data, I found it amazing to see the degree of detail available.

For example, in the little town of Bhatner (now Hanumangarh), in Rajasthan, you can snoop on “lilitmohan pareek advocate”, “Mubarak House”,  “nitish parek a cool person”, “Lokesh DJ”, “raju mistri” and “Amit Chilana 941——-” (I can’t bear to give his phone number, even if he doesn’t appear to mind). And there’s lots more like this.

Outside the town, in the farmland around, you can pay a visit to “Ram singh sandha dhani”, “karan sandha marriage album editor home”, “vashudha ’s house”, “K.I.U. Dinesh”, “Hamuman Mandir”, and so on and so forth. There’s also a “Johal Farm House” sitting — perhaps illegally? — on the damp bed of what may once have been a channel of the Saraswati.

Something like this is true of most small towns and their surrounds that I looked at. In Punjab the density is much greater — around Ludhiana the fertile countryside is littered with tags.

Now, potential for analysis: clearly a lot of tags are people proudly identifying their homes (”my sweet home”) and land. Indeed, it’s very interesting to see the territorial patterns made by caste surnames — certain localities are dominated by certain names. Other tags are little business ads, with a number, description (”pind di motor”) and address. Some are neighbourhood place markers (”Hissaria chowk”). Others are civil, religious and historical sites: clinics, hospitals, railway stations, mandir, masjids, gurdwaras, forts, museums, havelis, etc.

In cities like Delhi, although the density of tags is much greater, they refer more to localities and small businesses or facilities like parks and hospitals — fewer people (relatively speaking) identify themselves and their homes.

With time, as information builds up (worldwide, some 10,000 “places” are added to Wikimapia every day; the total is now about 12 million) then this may become a very useful tool for historians, sociologists and anthropologists, not to mention businessmen and corporations. Find out where your competition is or isn’t, where your market is and you aren’t… And it works in the easiest way, with the information being handed to you by hundreds of thousands of local reporters rather than an expensive, imperfect and slow research team.

For the moment, Wikimapia is an extraordinarily interesting, amusing and educational way to spend a few hours. Soon it could be a lot more.

Want of Convenience

Sunday, April 11th, 2010 April 11th, 2010 Praveen Bose

It is not rare for a reporter to find himself/herself in a situation where he/she is made to feel like ‘persona non grata’. If you ask questions that give the ‘host’ a chance to speak what he wanted to, they may even give you a pat on the back and smile at you… or even hug you.

The public sector undertakings are the funniest of the lot. At an event conducted by an association of technologists specialising in a certain field, a dignitary who spoke had many questions shot at him, and there were a few heated exchanges between the dignitary and some members of the audience.

The dignitary was speaking of the achievements of the ministry and that had irked the audience made up of people who work or had worked with some of the departments under the minstry.

After the informative talk, and the discussion thsat followed, when the dignitary was leaving, a few journalists gathered around him. And, the questions began to fly at him. When he began to get a little uncomfortable with questions, in stepped the PRO of a department. He told his boss: “Sir, sorry for the trouble. This event was not meant for journalists. They were not invited.”

But, any journalist peresent would have sworn that the PRO himself had sent out the schedule fo the programme. But, he had not mentioned that it was out of bounds for journalists. The next time he may have a post script added to the invite: “Journalists, to keep their mouths shut if you come.”

That could get him some brownie points and perhaps a promotion and pat from his bosses.

Abjure silence

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010 April 6th, 2010 Devjyot Ghoshal

After Mumbai burnt on 26/11, India was hurting. As the dust settled, heads began to roll.

Notably, the dapper Shivraj Patil vacated command of the Home Ministry and the then Finance minister P Chidambaram took over.

That was before the economic slowdown came and went; before the Naxal upturn came and refused to go.

Last December, it was with some pride that Chidambaram stood in West Bengal’s capital city speaking of his unblemished record after taking over as Home Minister.

He claimed that the system had been improved, the sharing of intelligence streamlined and more importantly, the country’s complacency of terrorism had been shaken off. “It has been a terror-free year, so far. I hope it will end this way,” he said.

To the Naxals he said, “We will talk if you abjure violence.”

Two months later, a bakery in Pune was blown to bits.

Incidentally, Chidambaram was in Kolkata’s Writers’ Buildings just days before the terror attack attempting to coordinate the offensive against the Ultra Left rebels, or the now famous ‘Operation Green Hunt’.

It is another matter that two of the four chief ministers who were requested to attend the meeting did not turn up. Of the two who did, one sits in the very building they met in.

But all along, the hinterland burnt, while Chidambaram continued with his stance of ceasefire before conversation.

Subsequently, the telecommunication ping-pong ensued. The Home Ministry made public its public fax number, followed by the Naxals making public some random mobile number.

To believe that both couldn’t connect without the media playing matchmaker is absurd; that they wouldn’t is another matter.

As the situation deteriorated, including the firefight at the Silda camp where two dozen security personnel were killed, the demands for reconciliation increased steadily.

Even the Trinamool Congress’s enfant terrible Kabir Suman put his name down for a possible list of mediators between the Centre and the Naxals.

Last weekend, Chidambaram finally went to Lalgarh: Bengal’s geographical indicator for Naxalism. There, in a supposed spontaneous change in his itinerary, the signifier of the classes went to meet the masses.

“I, too, come from a village like yours, named Sivaganga, in Tamil Nadu,” the Harvard-educated minister is said to have told a villager.

But Sivaganga witnessed the opening of 43 bank branches during his previous tenure in the UPA government as Finance Minister. With it came some semblance of an attachment with India’s economic growth story.

Lalgarh, unfortunately, has none of that. The local police station doesn’t even have a proper rope to hold back over-enthusiastic journalists, reports said.

But the local Block Development Officer can’t be blamed. His office has reportedly been closed down. Now, no one is quite sure where the job cards, or the jobs, are coming from.

Chidambaram, however, stuck to his guns. He asked locals to resist the Naxal rebels and continue supporting the government, despite the latter having delivered next to nothing.

Not that the former have done much either, but thankfully they aren’t elected representatives.

Then, the Home Minister said, “The buck must stop on the chief minister’s table”.

After a night of rumination, the chief minister disapproved of Chidambaram’s analysis as “not good language”.

The Naxals have not said much, even though they are crucial to solving the particular debate and the larger problem.

The Centre, state governments in question and the rebels have to hit the table before one is seriously debilitated, and time is running out.

On Tuesday, over 70 paramilitary troops were killed in a series of ambushes at Dantewada, Chattisgarh.

In all likelihood, the fight will intensify and the body count will rise, unless talks start.

Instead of violence, maybe Chidambaram should considering abjuring silence. As a representative of the state, he has a monopoly over the former.

But the absence of the latter is key to ensuring that it stays that way.
 

Consumer experience: Phone calling

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010 April 3rd, 2010 Sunaina Vasudev

The first time I got a broadband connection through MTNL, it was a wonderful experience. The service was set up within an hour as linemen appeared on time and the speed was fine for my requirements. In the US, Verizon took almost a week between my request and the service guy turning up for installation and any fixes. Therefore, this was a really pleasant welcome back home. Any glitches with the connection saw a prompt response and I was truly happy with MTNL’s offering and service. This was 2005. I dont know how much of the efficiency was related to living in elite Cuffe Parade, at a stones throw from the office there.
 
2008 saw a shift to Prabhadevi and even that was great. We had a quick set-up especially as we had signed up for package with IPTV, which we didn’t want but the lineman encouraged us towards, saying that it will expedite the installation of our new line. The IPTV service never took off and so we were saved the expense just as the lineman had predicted, but the line got installed in a day, with broadband and all, at great speed. In the interim, we tried Reliance and Tata’s internet cards and came away disappointed. Setting the Reliance connection up was relatively more painful, while Tata responded to a request for a card so tepidly that one distinctly felt like one was dealing with a PSU of yore.
 
Fast forward to 2010 and another shift (Oh yes! we are nomadic) and with the floundering share price, MTNL’s service has also gone for a toss. Our line was shifted but the broadband set-up was another thing altogether. It took us three weeks to get someone to come take a look and we had to chase them up endlessly to get them to set it up the correct way so phone calls dont interfere with the DSL connectivity. However, complaints were attended diligently but getting the staff to do the required work was really hard.

I grumbled about all of this to a friend over dinner but she apparently had an equally nightmarish experience trying to get her non-PSU provider line shifted. I guess all the companies are stretched for service and it isn’t just an MTNL thing. The promptness with which MTNL replies to complaints is much better than most other companies, it appears. Hence, I stuck with them, they also have very attractive packages and therefore there is really no push to shift to another service provider. The problem for MTNL must therefore be sales, with private companies being much more aggressive in their push compared to MTNL.
 
Once you’ve opted for MTNL as a service provider, considering my own experience, it is quite sticky and you don’t shift unless you move or have a very bad service experience. Can this be the saving grace for the company?
 
Operationally, no telecom analyst has anything positive about the company. All investor interest is hinged on its assets, fixed-line, wireless spectrum at the efficient 900 MHz frequency and the biggest pull of them all, real estate. This has been the undoing of many a starting investor who has burnt his/her fingers on the stock attracted to the compelling valuations of the company. But, it has never looked inclined to monetise any of this, given its hardcore PSU image.
 
The fixed-line broadband service is what the company should be focussing on, but will it allow itself to do one thing well? Or, will it muddle along dipping its fingers into everything. including 3G where it will probably pay a collosal sum plunging headlong into a competitive scenario that it is just not equipped to handle?
 
Investor patience may run out fast if the 3G costs spiral in addition to the staff pension burden,  consumers will however stick on longer. But, if service dips, how long can MTNL pull this line? As a PSU, with majority government holding, it is in our interest that either the company does well or monetises its assets at a good price. Let’s hope the management wisens up quickly.