Archive for April, 2011

The not-so beautiful game

Saturday, April 30th, 2011 April 30th, 2011 Aabhas Sharma

Four games in 18 days between Real Madrid and Barcelona were a lip-smacking proposition for any football fan. Even for someone who’s not a fan it could have been an ideal way of getting interested in football. Two of the biggest clubs in the world taking on each other should have been the perfect advertisement of the game. But in reality, it was one of the worst, the footballing authorities would have hoped for. Maybe I am being harsh.

The first two acts of the drama (pun intended) wasn’t that bad. But the third one? By far, one of the worst football match I have seen in my life, and believe me in the last 15 years I have seen my fair share of horrible football. What I saw on television on Wednesday was not football – barring a moment of magic from Lionel Messi – and it showed that football is the only game where you can get away scot free by committing blatant acts of cheating. One team with absolutely no interest in playing football, the other team utterly devoid of the smartness and imagination required to deal with the former’s tactics, more than a dozen players diving all over the place and surrounding the ref to tell him who to send off or book. Is this football? Or more importantly, is this how two of the best teams in the world supposed to play?

I am not a Barcelona fan and I am not a Real Madrid fan either. I have seen this Barcelona team play some terrific football over the last three years. They haven’t had under 51 per cent possession in a game for close to three years. The fact most of the team is Spanish and a good number are from the youth system should ideally make them what their club motto says “Mes Une Que Club” — More than a Club. But they show their ugly side of the game too often. When a Barcelona player gets tackled, none of the players even looks at the one lying on the deck, who really looks like as if he had been shot. What they do is crowd the ref and badger him to book the opposition player. This happens without fail in every single Barcelona game.

Now not too sound anti-Barca – which I am not – a lot of teams adopt this tactic. A friend who I was talking about Barcelona’s tactics told me, “It’s a bit rich coming from a fan of a club who has had players like Roy Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo and now Nani.” Fair enough. The Man Uniteds, the Chelseas and the Inter Milans of the world have their fair share of players who do indulge in such disgusting – I know it’s a strong word but it’s the apt word – antics. But not like a tactic which Barcelona has up their sleeve, not in every single game.

But do I blame Barcelona or even Real Madrid completely for this? No, I don’t. The biggest culprits in this whole act are FIFA and UEFA, the bodies which govern football. Football is a game which runs high on emotions and has enormous sums of money riding on for clubs. But ultimately, all these antics are down to authorities turning a blind eye or choosing to not punish such acts which ruins the spectacle of football.

The lack of punishment encourages players to commit such blatant acts of cheating, and it is nothing else but cheating. To con a referee in my book – as it should be in the authorities books – is an act of cheating. To surround a ref and pressurizing him in booking an opposition player is using unfair means. Ban a player for three games if he dives and let’s see if he dares to dive again. Book a player on the spot if he waves an imaginary card. That would be an apt lesson for him not to badger the ref.

The authorities for some reason or the other don’t want to introduce video technology in football. So introduce retrospective punishment. When Wayne Rooney can be suspended for three games for swearing on camera, then I am sure Sergio Busquets can be banned for a game or two for rolling around on the floor. At the moment, the players know that to gain unfair advantage they just have to con one man – the referee.

The change has to come from the top. We can get angry at seeing players and teams resorting to such antics but unless the men who matter realize it, football will turn into a not-so-beautiful game.

Brush your communication skills before mailing that pitch

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011 April 27th, 2011 Priyanka JoshiPriyanka Joshi

I often get into Twitter arguments – all of 140 characters – with a few followers who think I am being unreasonable when I talk about the state of Public Relations’ (PR) industry. But after 8 years in journalism, I can safely conclude that I know how a Public Relation firm works, what the clients expect from them month after month and how they struggle to deliver the same.

Now, before I am lynched by an angry mob of PR or communication professionals, I must declare that both journalism and PR industry need to uplift their morals and way of doing things. While there are hundreds of poorly qualified journalists thriving, it definitely does not justify the increasing amount of ‘pile-on’ PR we see nowadays.

My past blogs have generated myriad responses that includes statements like “journalists are hoity-toity breeds who cannot think beyond their bylines” to “journalists are equally deluded about the subjects they cover.” But dear PR, does that mean it’s all right to be a sub-standard, pushy-salesman-like representative of a company that is paying you to get their views to media?

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Everyone who is in PR and media knows that there is no guarantee of how your client’s press release (or news) will appear, or where your message will appear. When a reporter agrees to interview your client, there WILL NEVER be any guarantee of how or when the matter will be used. I believe that there’s a skinny difference in pushing your story and turning into an unbearable pain in the a**. I know that it’s extremely unpleasant to be rejected (there are times, when I have been told that company does not wish to be a part of my story and it really kicks me hard), but that’s a part of media relations.

So, when your story idea is flat-out rejected then opt out of it graciously – better revise your pitch for someone who will write it — before it gets mucky.

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There are dozens of PR agencies, marketing or communication executives who want their executives featured in media. But do you know why they never make it to newspages? There’s this key rule that goes for any journalist – they like to talk to somebody people who have been quoted by other reporters, simply because it reduces the risk of getting any misleading information.

No matter how you draw the line between media and public relations, I believe that both these jobs require a great deal of skill in mass communication. I can only hope that professionals in these positions learn to anticipate what information will be in demand, and know how to access it quickly.

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I like to get as much information about a new product or services as possible in one go without having to jump through hoops to get it. But trust me this happens so rarely that I have almost given up. PRs can do themselves a great favor here by sending out as many resources as possible in the first instance. This includes: press release in plain text (not attached as no one bothers with attachments), at least one low resolution image of product/screenshot, web links to more information, price and availability and direct contact info for someone dealing with the account who understands the subject well beyond the press release. Is that too much to ask? Perhaps.

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The fastest route to failure is calling up a reporter without reading up on what you are pitching for. Just yesterday, I got a call from a PR agency that was pitching a social media story to me. When I asked, “Do you know how many users use social media in India?” I got silence and mumbles for an answer. I added, “How many users use this social media app that you are pitching to me?” Silence. “When did it launch and why is it different from the others?” Silence. You can take a guess if that ever appeared on newspages.

I guess the job is to put a story to the journalist briefly and compellingly that will link your publicity needs with the reporter’s rational self-interest.

Remember, journalist writing — the kind necessary to write a proper news release — can be taught (thanks, AP Stylebook.) But the ability to identify a compelling story and then retell it in a way that compels others is a gift that only the best PR pros possess. Alas, the number of such PRs is on the decline.

Tax administration and corruption

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011 April 27th, 2011 Tarun Chaturvedi

The comments on my last blog made me realise that by and large people have lost all faith in the system of governance. The government in India has three pillars, the Parliament (politicians), the Executive (bureaucracy) and the Judiciary. There is no doubt that the credibility of the first two is at an all time low. We now look forward to the judiciary to instil some credibility into the system. In such times, when the trust quotient of the government is running negative, it becomes very difficult for people to appreciate the welfare state and the Nordic model. Hence I have decided to shift focus on to the issue of corruption. Anna Hazare is the flavour of the season and I have no reason to stay away from it.

Once we start discussing corruption in the system of taxation in India, interesting issues emerge. There is corruption at the point levy (i.e. policy formulation) and collection and there is the obvious case of corruption at the level of application of the tax collected. Hence this issue needs to be addressed from the perspective of the taxpayer, the tax collector and the government as a whole. The taxpayer blames the tax administration for corruption, the administration blames the taxpayer and the politician blames the collusion of the taxpayer and the administration for the corruption. In this conundrum, it becomes difficult to arrive at a fair conclusion.

Let us first look at the issues of corruption at the point of levy. This means that the policy formulation is influenced so that undue advantages accrue to a particular lobby. This is one of the most common forms of corruption but is difficult to practice and hence difficult to pinpoint. The 2G scam is a good example of this kind of corruption. This is practiced by the learned and is beyond the understanding of an average tax payer. One needs in depth knowledge of the law for both impacting and also scrutinising policy formulation to catch such a form of corruption.

The above is also the worst kind of corruption. India has numerous examples where the tax policy has been influenced in order to favour a particular section and there is no record of the money lost due to the faulty policy formulation. But unfortunately such instances have never caught the public scrutiny. These result from an unholy nexus where the taxpayer initiates, the bureaucracy endorses and the legislature accepts and formulates the law.
And of course (to achieve success in the above), as we now learn there has to be substantial doses of the Page 3 person who enjoys celebrity status and plays the role of the catalyst and does nothing else in his (or hers!!, of late I have been a little confused about the gender of the catalyst) life.

The author is a practising chartered accountant specialising in tax consultancy, and is a visiting faculty at various B-schools in India and abroad

Wake up India, before it’s too late

Thursday, April 21st, 2011 April 21st, 2011 Nayanima BasuNayanima Basu

Give crores to cricketers, let several Arunimas suffer … So what?

Indians have long been blamed for being complacent about every act of malpractice and corruption that is so rampant in this country. A wise man once told me Indians are like fishes and corruption is like water. Just as a fish cannot avoid water, Indians cannot avoid corruption. Agreed! But the tragedy today is that most Indians have become utterly shameless while certain sections, especially the youth, believe in half truths and feel they know everything, equipped as they are with a few mindless social networking sites.

I, like most other fellow citizens of my country, also cheered when India won the World Cup and I agree they played well. But wait a second. Is this not what players are supposed to do? Players played a game, I repeat, A GAME well. Fine. Cheer for them! Encourage them! Pat them on their backs! But how dare we offer pots of money, bungalows, free airlines and railway passes to them who are already filthy rich and live an opulent lifestyle.

On other hand, when national-level volleyball player Arunima Sinha is thrown out of a running train by robbers and loses her leg, the government finds it has suddenly run out of cash. While the High Court has ordered the UP Government and the Railways to pay a mere Rs 5 lakh each to Arunima, there was little else in consolation from our so-called political leaders and other organisations. So a total Rs 10 lakh for Arunima compared with Rs 5 crore, Rs 10 crore and villas to Dhoni, Sehwag, Kohli and the likes.

And why only Arunima? This is a country which ranks 67th in global hunger index, in which 37 per cent of the population still lives below the poverty line and which is home to world’s most underweight children. What are we doing? Where are we going as a country? This is a country where millions still go to bed half fed. How dare we offer crores to cricketers or shamelessly show them being auctioned on prime TV channels, while slotting a programme on poor farmers only on DD National, which hardly anyone watches.

Last week millions thronged to support Gandhian Anna Hazare who was surrounded by people who do nothing for the society. The same rush of support could be seen in social networking sites as well. But these same people are never seen when a six-year-old gets killed by his employer or a woman gets raped and killed by some stranger? How many of us do not offer bribes to agents, clerks to get our passports, driver’s license, tickets made? Can we stop all that forever?

It is easy to preach but we should truly wake up in terms of being a true human and practice it…

Case for increasing tax rates in India

Monday, April 18th, 2011 April 18th, 2011 Tarun Chaturvedi

Come February every year and India is abuzz with the talk that this Budget, tax rates should be lowered. I fail to understand this obsession with lowering taxes.  Is there a real case for decreasing tax rates or it is pure rhetoric?

It is interesting to analyse the tax rates in different countries and compare them with India.  It is amazing to note that all the developed nations have tax rates that are much higher than those in India. In the whole of Western Europe, the highest rate of individual income tax is in excess of 41%. In fact in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, it is in excess of 51%.  In Asia most nations have a highest tax rate in excess of 30%. It is only in Latin America that the rates are more or less in line with India.

Among all the nations across the world the highest tax rates are in Sweden – 56%, followed by Denmark - 54% (in 2009 this was 62%) and the Netherlands - 52%.

The countries with the highest tax rates are the Nordic countries with a strong tradition of high tax and comprehensive welfare state. They also rank highly in terms of life expectancy and quality of life. On average, the Nordic countries outperform the globe on most measures of economic performance. Poverty rates are much lower there, and national income per working-age population is on average higher. Unemployment rates are roughly the same in both groups, just slightly higher in the Nordic countries. The budget situation is stronger in the Nordic group, with larger surpluses as a share of GDP. The Nordic countries maintain their dynamism despite high taxation in several ways. Most important, they spend lavishly on research and development and higher education. 

The above brings us to another basic question: What is the relationship between high tax rates and welfare measures and economic prosperity?

If one is to go by the Nordic model, the relationship becomes clearly established – the nations that provide the highest amount of public services including social sector benefits are the ones where tax rates are the highest. This is simple logic and does not require a great knowledge of economics. Taxes are the only method by which the governments approach the difficult task of raising resources for funding the necessary public services.

So it means that – increase tax rates but give me good administration, a safe environment, an efficient fire brigade, affordable health and education facilities ………..Oh my god!!
I am ready to pay anything to get these in return.

The author is a practising chartered accountant specialising in tax consultancy, and is a visiting faculty at various B-schools in India and abroad

Causeless crusade

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011 April 13th, 2011 Kalpana PathakKalpana Pathak

With due respect to Mr Hazare and his cause, I have my own reservations about the success of the Jan Lokpal Bill.

I don’t agree with Mr Hazare when he says that corruption will be down 80-90 per cent after the bill is introduced in India.

We have had Lok Ayuktas or anti-corruption ombudsman in 17 states in the country for some years now. What kind of a difference have they been able to make?

One of the most active Lok Ayuktas, Santosh Hegde, resigned from the Karnataka government last year owing to the BJP government’s indifference to the Lok Ayukta institution.

In one of the papers, Hegde described his decision to quit as a “cumulative effect” over a series of reasons ranging from the government not heeding to his plea for filling up of ‘Upa Lokayukta’ post to the then Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa reneging on his assurance that officers suspended on Lok Ayukta’s recommendation would not be reinstated.

Considering this, I wonder if a bill will put things in place.

A lawyer friend informs me that the bill, in substance, is not very different from the existing laws which govern prevention of corruption in India.

So a question to ask the glitterati and chatterati who converged at the Jantar Mantar to express solidarity with Mr Hazare is– would they not, in future, grease palms of the traffic police to get away after flouting traffic norms?

Would people not evade taxes anymore? Would they not pay extra to get a ration card or an LPG cylinder in black?

Or does all this not amount to corruption?

The real issue here is not about having a new bill in place, but about putting to good enforcement, the anti-corruption laws that we already have.

When I called up a few friends in Delhi to ask if they were part of the mass turnout at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar, they happily said they were. And as I expected, none of them knew what the bill is about.

So now that Anna Hazare’s 97 hours fast has paid off and the government has heeded to his demands, it would be interesting to see if the Lok Pal Bill actually turns out to be what is being expected or it becomes one of the many bills that people do not have a clue about.

For My Eyes Only

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011 April 12th, 2011 Praveen Bose

Wearing contact lens is no big deal for me. I have been doing so for about 17 years. I, though, took two weeks to master the art of removing the lens, the semi-soft type.

Though I have been wearing it for all these years, I am not comfotable with them thanks to some peculiar conditions that I have. The naive say, its because I wear the semi-soft type. “The soft lens are much more comfortable.”

I listen, and nod… “Yes. I have been a fool not to have gone in for the softer ones.”

In reality, it was a choice between seeing or not… not the soft vs. semi-soft debate.

Now, a firm has acquired the company that manufactures the lens I wear. Their product was considered very good.

The product of the lens maker was so good, it was acquired by a company for a good price and they just jacked up the price. They seem to have figured out that the demand for contact lens is inelastic.

No matter what the price, people will anyway buy them. 

The Rs 1,800 a pair of lens (2010 prices) now costs Rs 5,100 a pair. What happened? The raw material costs have shot up, alright. Yes, input copst inflation.

But, its more a case of goodwill pricing coming into play, which was not realised by the erstwhile owners of the lens manufacturing firm.

Now, when a lens wearer can afford a Rs 5,100 a pair… the optometrist can always push a little more and get me more comfortable pair… an imported pair of lens. A patented technology has been brought in by a Western firm. It’s specifically meant for my peculiar condition. But, the catch! It costs Rs 9,100 per piece of lens. That’s compared to what I wear which is Rs 1,800 a pair.

Now, it seems, people are just switching to the soft lens. Hopefully the previous owners will have the last lauch.

Gentleman of Letters

Monday, April 11th, 2011 April 11th, 2011 J Jagannath

For the last three years, most of my mornings’ caffeine shot has been Arts And Letters Daily, but on 28th December 2010, I saw a black masthead on the site. The site’s founder Denis Dutton breathed his last. This was my “where were you when Michael Jackson died” moment.

This was the very site that opened my eyes to a plethora of world-class writers and amazing pieces of writing. After spending a couple of months at the desk of a newspaper, this particular Oscar Wilde quote was ringing in my ears: “Journalism is unreadable and no one reads literature.” Time was ripe for the most sophisticated deus ex machina: www.aldaily.com.

Modeled on an 18th century newspaper format, Dutton, professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, started aldaily in 1998. For the uninitiated, I’ll try to describe the site: The site is divided into three sections, ‘Articles of Note’, ‘New Books’ and ‘Essays and Opinion’ and, six days a week, one link is uploaded to each section. On the left-hand side there’s another section called Nota Bene (Latin for “note well”). This might be seen as the site’s equivalent of tabloidish news,
which could easily walk into New Yorker’s pages.

Forget the paywalls, there’s a lot of material out there to be read on the Internet. How do you rummage through this midden to spend a couple of hours of your day reading something intellectually stimulating? Aldaily condenses its three links into a tweet-size introduction and lets you make the decision if you want to read it or not. In a way, aldaily is a precursor to Twitter’s 140-characters. Right from 1998, Dutton and his small but able team have been giving links preceded by just the right kind of tantalising text. Sample this: “When her daughter died, Edith Piaf slept with a man to pay for the burial. The melancholy grit of Piaf’s voice was hard-earned.” That was good enough to let me decide that I’m going to spend the next twenty minutes on reading the piece.

It’ll be unfair to lump aldaily along with other news aggregators like Browser or Utne or Longform. If an earthquake takes place in Japan, aldaily will give a reflective piece after a week rather than flashing the news on the site on the day of incident. Dutton’s refined tastes used to reflect in the kind of pieces he used to handpick. He is a connoisseur of classical music, world cinema, classic literature and also dismissive of technology and geopolitical conflicts. Through aldaily I came across magazines that I would otherwise always be oblivious to. Dutton never gave much thought to the publications. A New York
Times article will have a piece from Dublin Review of Books giving it company. In fact, I tell my friends that “you read only aldaily and there’s absolutely nothing that you wouldn’t know about this world”.

Dutton will be sorely missed.

To blog or not to block? That is the question

Thursday, April 7th, 2011 April 7th, 2011 Probir Roy

What is with mandarins in Delhi that when it comes to the digital world? They are all only to ready to regulate, monitor and control content while allowing traditional print and electronic media to remain ‘self regulating’ in nature, and giving the likes of paid news a free run. After all many of them have their own blogs, Facebook pages and twitter handles.

By now, it is common knowledge that in the internet, mobile and social media world everyone is a reader, viewer and publisher. The blogger community has given power to anyone with an email id and an ability to put down words on a screen to become both an electronic “publisher” and “distributor” at the same time. The interaction between “receiving” data and its “publishing” it is where the core of the law and its interpretation should focus at this point. What is clear is that each side has its rights; the online publisher has freedom of expression and the receiver or public has the right to be safe and secure from harm in his electronic space.

A comparable situation in the real world is when a newspaper editor or publisher is not be held directly responsible, under existing legal jurisprudence, when their classifieds section carries fairly ‘explicit’ ads of massage parlours or escort services and other objectionable material. Similarly in the digital or electronic world, if users send objectionable text, voice or multimedia material over the net, mobile phone, telephone lines, then can the local telephone company, internet service provider or spectrum licensees or blog site or website be held directly responsible? In such cases, the spirit and principle of section 79 of the IT Act ought to kick in and restrict the direct liability of the service provider or intermediary.

Provisions of law that attempt to give one side or the other an unreasonable burden in conducting its business are doomed to failure.

Certain definitions and provisions of the Cyber Act 2000, in their current form are clearly limiting or burdensome. Over-enthusiastic or inadequate use and interpretation of sections 67 and 79 of the IT Act could have a bearing on direct responsibility and liability issues affecting evolving interactive service intermediaries such as web logs, search engines, news hopper services, mobile value-added service providers, and even mobile virtual network operators.

Notwithstanding the ambiguity of privacy laws in general in India — as applicable under Article 21 of the Constitution — is that cyber laws must not hint at censorship or impinge on the basic right of speech and expression. They may regulate the label on the “packaging” but never the content.

The author is co-founder of Paymate, a wireless transactions platform provider. Views expressed are his own.

Greed versus fear

Friday, April 1st, 2011 April 1st, 2011 Sunaina Vasudev

The number of controversies slipping out of the financial world isn’t funny. Although it started with Bernie Madoff‘s con operation it has moved on to the more sophisticated insider trading allegations on Galleon’s Rajarathinam. The real zingers are the big names from ex-Mckinsey Rajat gupta to Buffet blue eyed aide David Sokol have all been caught daytripping on the wrong side of the legal/ethical line.

What stands out is that the individuals clearly didn’t expect the initial exposure much less the media fusillade. In Rajat Gupta’s case at least he naturally had no idea he was being recorded and was clearly the bonus prize netted in the Rajarathinam investigation. The Sokol episode hasn’t been decoded to a similar extent as yet so one cant claim to understand it.

However comparing the trade-off in terms of the reputations that they have risked versus the potential reward, it is clear that none of them expected to get caught, in fact they both insist that it isn’t illegal (while avoiding the ethical aspect). The obvious analogy is that this must be pretty much how business has been done for a long time and this was clearly just one more episode where they were unfortunately caught. The legal grey area of talking to acquaintances was obviously de rigeur underlining the significance of contact base as a legitimate qualification for research and fund management function. Just imagine how this shortchanges the individual investor especially as one can expect competition to be pretty much in on this game.

The funny thing is that the recorded conversations have unearthed some skeletons in India as well. Put limited investigative efforts into the frame and one probably can’t even begin to imagine how much is under wraps.

The heartening thing is that this is a big wake up call to finance professionals that nothing is worth risking your reputation. One can hear comments to that effect quite often of late. Let us hope that the philosophy spreads going ahead as murky corporate/institutional dealings hurt the individual investor and lay persons most besides vitiating the market atmosphere.

Clearly this is one area where the ‘stick’ approach is very effective and hopefully the events will get entrenched in long term memory. However, the cynic in me expects limited chances of such a thing. As memory dulls, greed, I fear, supersedes fear.