Archive for April, 2012

Keep walking!

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012 April 25th, 2012 Namrata Acharya

The other day, while I was walking up to my office, I could sense there a queue of two or three cars behind me, blaring their way to glory. Obviously, I was the culprit. With my earphone plugged, I could hardly hear the impatient drivers trying their best to get a singular and straightforward message through to me: Get out of the way!

Okay, okay, so I was at fault. After all, listening to music while walking is not a very good idea, especially on Indian roads. Yet, the other day, when these cars were honking their minds out, I had very little option, with or without my headphones in use. There was hardly any space for me to move, as I was on a rather narrow lane. So what did the car drivers expect me to do? Vanish or melt in the April heat?

To give way to a moving vehicle on a road is such a standard norm, that we hardly bother to ask ourselves whether we have certain rights as citizens of a democratic society, or as pedestrians in cities with well-defined traffic laws. I wonder whether there is any book that dwells on the rights and duties of pedestrian living in civil societies.

In fact, there does exist an International Federation of Pedestrians, which seeks to promote and defend the pedestrian’s right to full access and mobility. The organisation, which represents the interests of the pedestrians, particularly the elderly and children, has an Indian arm as well. But sadly, its website hardly impressive and is almost as sorry as the plight of pedestrians on our country.

It is not that there had been no efforts to identify the rights of pedestrians in India. Around 2006 there were some efforts to by the Delhi government to ensure their safe transit passage by introducing push-button on crossings. In Pune too there had been some talk about giving some decent walkways to them.

However, I do not know if Indian cities actually have push-button in place. It will probably a pipedream or luxury for the next ten years at least. As a matter of fact, traffic signals on crossings in most Indian cities are not even equipped with timers. So, if you happen to be in the middle of the road and the signal turns red, there is a very slim chance that the racing vehicles will stop for you, as you sprint your way out of the traffic.

We could probably have more peaceful cities if people honked less and showed a little more respect for pedestrians. That doesn’t seem to be happening, so till then, just keep on walking!

Prime problem at the RCR

Thursday, April 19th, 2012 April 19th, 2012 Jyoti MukulJyoti Mukul

Earlier this week, while driving in front of the Prime Minister’s residence which I normally do, I came across a minor traffic jam. It was unusual considering that it is a high security zone and policemen do not allow people to stop or create confusion on the Race Course Road. Yet, there was jam caused by none other than state chief ministers and their entourage.
They were probably there to meet the prime minister, I guessed since the number plates on the vehicles were from different states. Let me admit, at the onset, though that I have not verified about the meeting.

Across the Prime Minister’s residence, there is a dedicated parking for OV vans of television channels and media cars. Exactly outside the secured premises, though, there is a kind of service lane where usually escort vehicles of ministers and other dignitaries are parked when the bosses are in important meetings inside. The space probably was less this time and the number of vehicles was more.

It became a prime problem at that hour for any office goer especially if you are in a rush to attend an office meeting. Yet, from the other end of the prism it is not such a prolonged one since policemen ensure that the confusion does not last long.
But the speeding vehicles with power brakes and power-headed drivers are a dreaded lot for any driver in the Lutyens’ Zone.
Government vehicles are as aggressive on roads as an upstart driver of a SUV on the Mehrauli Road who has recently tasted easy money from land deals. Money and power, after all, behave similarly when it comes to flaunting.

Besides the vehicles themselves, what struck me was the lack of parking space at the Prime Minister’s residence for the democratic heads of Indian states.

Some time back, when the media was all out against the mess-up in Commonwealth Games preparation, a senior bureaucrat ranted how pessimistic our reporting was but while cursing the newspapers for saying one side of the story, he acknowledged that a lot of money was being thrown around without much thought and planning.

Citing the example of Shastri Bhawan that houses many important Union government offices and is in the much pampered Lutyens’ Delhi, he came straight to the core issue which was disturbing him, the lack of parking space. The only good example of a modern building with no such woes, he said, is the India Habitat Centre.

“We should bring down all these government buildings that came up some time in the 50s and 60s or earlier, and have basement parking just as in IHC.” A point well-made, most Delhi’ites would probably say.

If the Prime Minister’s residence with sprawling lawns that have peacocks and black cats moving around does not have any planned parking for an event like chief ministers’ meeting, then the shabby Shastri Bhawan with its smelly corridors that go dingier or rather pitch dark due to frequent power cuts can be no better.

Forget about private colonies or housing societies in which powerless citizens reside. As a country, we do not create or plan for future. But, if the government really decides to pull down buildings and create parking space and plan better for the Prime Minister’s residence, at least the Race Course Road will be able to live up to its name of being a planned track not only for horses that race right opposite the Prime Minister’s house but also for government vehicles.

A real Special One?

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 April 17th, 2012 Aabhas Sharma

You don’t have to be a genius to acknowledge that Jose Mourinho is a fantastic football manager. A man who often divides opinions — loved by some, absolutely detested by others — Mourinho rarely stays out of headlines. His detractors say that he needs money to win trophies and that he doesn’t behave in a dignified manner. There is a case for both those arguments. He did spend a lot of money at Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid. He has been at the centre of many controversies in his caree. He has criticized refs, gouged a rival manager’s assistant in the eye, comes across as extremely arrogant: in short done a lot of things to become a hate figure. But there’s one thing which he does better than most: win football matches and ensure that his teams win trophies.

Mourinho has had a glittering managerial career so far. Wherever he has gone, he has won trophies — 18 trophies in 12 years prove that. Despite those trophies, it is this season which will make or break Mourinho’s legacy. Beating Barcelona FC – arguably one of the greatest team of all time – in the La Liga with Real Madrid or a possibility of toppling them in the Champions League will lay all doubts of Mourinho being an all-time great to rest.

Not that if he loses either of the trophies, Mourinho’s star will wane. He will still be the most sought-after manager in the world. Frankly speaking, there’s no shame in losing to a great team like Barcelona who have the likes of Leo Messi, Xavi and Iniesta in their ranks. But Mourinho is fiercely competitive and ambitious and for him coming second even to Barcelona in successive years will be a failure. He had stated early in his career that he wanted to win the league title in Europe’s three prestigious leagues – England, Spain and Italy. England and Italy have been conquered and now he is almost within touching distance in Spain as well.

Real Madrid under Mourinho have been an unstoppable machine. They might lack the fluidity and eloquence which is the hallmark of Barcelona but in an industry which is result-oriented, Mourinho’s Madrid have been streets ahead of most teams in Europe. They score goals for fun (107 in the league alone), have an excellent defensive record (second best in Spain) and almost never get beaten (twice, including one loss against Barcelona).

In a season where almost everyone had written them off and made Barcelona favourites for every competition, it has been a stellar performance by Real Madrid to stay ahead of them. A possible eight games – five in the league and a probable three in Champions League — stand between Mourinho and immortality. To win league titles in England, Italy and Spain along with the chance of becoming the only coach to win the Champions League with three different clubs will be an extraordinary achievement. But to beat Barcelona along the way and achieve this will be a real special one.

24/7 work pressure: Is there any end?

Friday, April 13th, 2012 April 13th, 2012 M Saraswathy

A recent survey by an HR firm says majority of public sector employees feel that they are expected to be available by their employees 24/7.  Here the figure for public sector employees is significantly higher than that of the private sector. But the question is: Don’t we all undergo it?

Tell me, whom among all of you switches off his/her cell-phone as soon as you leave office? Or, don’t check messages at home from your bosses?  Further, would not look at an official mail when you are out of the workplace. After all, who among us can attempt to earn our superior’s wrath?

Work-life balance is something that has always remained skewed towards work from time immemorial. You cannot afford to miss a call from your boss or not promptly respond to their messages even if you are away on a holiday or a social event. This is regardless of whether you are a public or a private sector employee. I would even go to an extent of saying that in a public sector company, one can at least give excuses of a weekend, unlike the private sector where even a Sunday may mean work. Taking into consideration the whimsical hire and fire policies, one just cannot be callous about these issues.

While technology has definitely played an important role of maintaining this status quo, the work culture is also to be blamed. Frankly, how many of us have ever turned down any call on a Sunday saying that it being a holiday, we would not work. For professions such as ours, a holiday may end up giving additional pressure to work and produce better content than the normal days.

The western economies have accepted the work-life balance principle as an essential HR tool in their companies. No matter how much ever is the work pressure, a holiday is always considered a holiday.

If one looks at the present survey, the Indian scenario is quite clear. It has been revealed that more than half the employees handle official matters during private time. Also, most employees (79 per cent) also shared that they would receive work-related phone calls/e-mail even on a holiday. Shocking? No, this is completely normal. Also considering that I am one of them.

Here we have come to terms with the fact that once you start earning, work never seems to get over. Though one cannot expect any miracle to happen overnight with the boss shooting an e-mail strictly prohibiting one from working after office hours, one can hope to see a slight change in the HR practices. With Indian firms gradually adapting western work practices, it may not be very far  when one can safely switch off the cell-phone while on leave. That is, neither having to answer the 101 questions of the angry boss later for this behaviour nor having to give excuses for doing so. Happy hoping!

Hike story: It’s all pre-decided

Thursday, April 12th, 2012 April 12th, 2012 Kalpana PathakKalpana Pathak

It is that time of the year again when employees are handed over sheets of paper to fill in and appraise themselves.

While this exercise reminds many to update their CVs, others decide flaunt their job offers at this opportune moment.

My HR executive friends tell me that the entire appraisal exercise is nothing but humbug. For largely, appraisals are pre-decided.

“Actually, it is always decided in advance, who will get a promotion and how much increment will come  your way. If you are the boss’ blue-eyed boy, even if you have worked less than your neighbour, you have your way,” says an HR executive in a media company.

In her organisation, she says candidly, a person’s increment is largely decided in the smoking zone. “As and when my boss goes for a smoke, rest of my colleagues follow. Smoking zone is a good area to network with the reticent bosses. In fact, many who don’t smoke also go to register their names in his good books,” she says.

But if you question the HR heads on this, they rubbish it. Though off the record, some do agree.

“Who will get what kind of an increment is not what I decide. I just execute what I get from the respective department heads. Of course keeping in mind the budget,” says an HR friend at a pharma company.

Many companies will give you a big raise when you join them and then, every appraisal season, you will be given a token increment. The patent line is: performance was below expectation or not up to the mark.

I remember, in one of my previous organisations, employees had even been dished out an annual raise of Rs 100!

And at another media organisation, though the employees have been informed of a possible slowdown and thus no increment this year, a list has already been drawn of who will get how much.

But this is not the case with every company. At many organisations, appraisals are a very transparent affair and have made people stick to their jobs.

So when your appraisals this time round would not be as per your expectation, and your HR head will give you all possible gyan– on how fair and employee-friendly the  organisation is…you know if to take it with a pinch or a truckload of salt.

Pay less, buy more

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012 April 11th, 2012 Rrishi Raote

What was the first thing you ever bought online? An IRCTC Indian Railways ticket? Domestic flight ticket? Movie ticket? A couple of years later did you, like the rest of us, graduate to books, CDs, DVDs, cellphones and computer peripherals? And what was your most recent online purchase? Pen? Streaming movie? Vitamin pills? Face cream? Packet of biscuits? T-shirt? Toothbrush? Shoes?

You see the change. Once upon a time Indians bought only “virtual” products like movie and travel tickets online. Anything real, and we preferred to go see it in the real world, to sample it with our own senses before paying for it. Now, however, there is a boom in ecommerce, with sales rising very fast, to about Rs 2,000 crore last year from virtually nothing five years ago. Yes, rising incomes and better broadband penetration help but so, most promisingly, do Net-enabled smart phones.

There are dozens of new companies and they are making lots of money (and raising lots of venture capital) selling things we Indians only a year ago wouldn’t have dreamt of buying online: clothes, for example, and shoes. How can you buy such things without trying them on? But now we do. We also have begun to buy soaps and toothpastes, sodas and cartons of milk — everything, in fact, on the typical household grocery list, except fresh vegetables and fruit which are difficult to transport and store.

To keep us consumers supplied with these everyday things, ecommerce companies are pioneering new ways of doing business, learning to focus fiercely on the back end, from efficient warehousing and shipping to convenient cash-on-delivery. Most of these companies are inserting themselves into the supply chain between manufacturer and consumer, typically elbowing aside the traditional wholesalers, transporters and retailers who shift goods out into the market. In this way they try to capture the maximum share of the purchase price. This allows them to offer discounts to tempt buyers.

But some companies are looking beyond merely a share of the purchase price. Ecommerce volumes may be rising, but they are still quite small, and retail margins are just a few percentage points — so the money is not yet cascading in. What is the solution? Well, if you’re not selling much of the product, sell information.

This information can be incredibly valuable. Take for example a shopper who is browsing for bath soap. If later he also looks on the same site for a children’s school bag — well, this means he is a householder, time to hit him with offers for the full range of household products.

There’s more. Brands usually know in very good detail how many items of what product sold in what outlet in what location. What they do not know is anything about specific customers. An ecommerce site can track its customers browsing habits and the path they take through the site in complete detail. So the ecommerce company can tell a brand, say, that a certain number of women of a certain age in a certain locality bought a certain hair colour three months ago but have not bought it since.

And the site can find ways to cluster products or present deals that maximise the chance of the consumer picking them up. Vijay Singh, co-founder of grocery ecommerce startup AaramShop.com — which sells through kirana stores and therefore earns nothing on sales transactions, and pays nothing for warehousing, but makes money on “analytics” — told me, for example, that honey sells when grouped with milk, that when a customer browses one hair colour brand then another hair colour brand might want its ad seen on the same page. And so on.

Please don’t imagine that you are anonymous online. Every seeing or buying decision, every link you follow, down to how long you spend on an item, all contribute to an electronic portrait that is more detailed than you could imagine — one that allows companies to know your habits better than you do.

Since electronic privacy is not an issue in India — who ever makes a fuss about it? — this personal information is available for sale and use. This is an important issue that we are simply not bothering about. It’s already too late to claw back lost ground.

However, more immediately, expect the clever analytics of ecommerce to radically reshape the way real-world business does, well, business. Department stores may find it harder and harder to compete with and match the range of ecommerce sites, but they will fight back with lessons learnt from ecommerce — such as, at the very simplest level, putting the honey next to the milk. Genuine freedom of consumer choice, which has, counterintuitively, not grown but shrunk in recent years, is going.

You will no longer be able to choose whether or not to buy, only what you will buy — and the marketers are working to eliminate even that unpredictability. On the one hand this is fascinating and creative work. On the other, it is chilling.

Tackling the Asian Enigma

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012 April 4th, 2012 Mahesh Y Reddy

India has the world’s largest area under rice cultivation, and is the second largest producer of the grain after China. The country retains its position as the world’s largest producer of milk and also has the largest child development program in the world. And, it will have the largest young population in the world by 2020.

Yet, a third of the world’s malnourished children live in India. Malnutrition, which not only accounts for more than 50 per cent of all childhood deaths but also impairs development and learning capabilities in children, is more common here than in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the long run, poor levels of nutrition also impact labour productivity and economic growth.

Given the current rate of malnutrition and the likelihood of an increase in the working-age (15-59 years) population from 58 per cent of the total population in 2001, to about 64 per cent by 2021, the youngest nation in the world will have an unhealthy, less educated and inappropriately skilled population. In absolute numbers, there will be around 63.5 million new entrants to the working age group between 2011 and 2016. Yet their working capacity will be questionable.

The Government of India has sustained the largest effort in history to improve nutritional standards, through the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme. The scheme was implemented over 20 years ago and now operates in 400,000 of the country’s 600,000 villages. Despite the effort, India continues to be a part of the Asian Enigma.

The Asian Enigma is the phenomenon of relatively high levels of under-nutrition among children and adult women in South Asia, despite more favourable records with respect to infant mortality, women’s education, food availability or other aspects of living conditions in comparison with, for example, sub-Saharan Africa.

The ‘demographic dividend’ that India will soon be face-to-face with would pose a challenge, putting tremendous strain on India’s land and water resources.

The industry is going to face the challenge of this demographic change in more ways than one. For example, 1.2 million people are engaged in infrastructure activities, and about 30 million are into labour work. When 58.3 million people are expected to be employed in the infrastructure sector by 2020, there will still be a shortfall of 3.64 million architects and 1.1 million managers and planners during the same period. Even if these many people are available, their output and productivity and capacity to learn skills will be questionable, given the current rate of undernourishment that India faces.

People make an organisation run. With a lesser number of effective people available to work, there can be questions of whether India’s growth rate will be sustainable – and if so, to what extent?

Other than that, India also has another challenge to take care of. The performance of the country in terms of mean years of schooling is not only much lower than that of countries such as Sri Lanka, China, and Egypt, which have higher per capita incomes, but also lags behind Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam, who have lower per capita incomes. It is also much lower than the global average.

India may have emerged as the fourth largest economy globally with a high growth rate, but it is still the poorest among the G-20.

According to the Human Development Report (HDR) published by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), India is still in the ‘medium human development’ category, while countries such as China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Philippines, Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa, and Vietnam rank better.

What India needs is a 360-degree approach involving every stakeholder in the nation-building process. The government has to ensure that its development programmes reach the needy and the deprived they were designed for. Local leaders at every block level have to be empowered and motivated to become a part of the programs run by government. Private partners need to be enrolled with government initiatives to bring in professionalism. Individual leaders and team workers at village levels have to be identified to help build a healthy nation.

In order to benefit from health spending, the process needs to be effective through improvements in accountability and incentives. The improvements in health status will be worth the effort as they turn out to have positive effect on growth.

While creating awareness can be one of the solutions to the malnutrition problem, it needs to be linked to availability of resources via the public food distribution system. Another response to this crisis can be to address the issue of inadequate care of females by husbands and elders. This is one of the major reasons for child malnutrition in India, as an ill-fed mother will give birth to an underweight child. There is growing evidence that if women have a claim on the household income, it will lead to improved education, nutrition and health.

Awareness also needs to be generated about good nutrition practices both in urban and rural areas. Studies have shown that proper nutrition in the early months and taking care to ensure that the right food is given at the right time and in the right way matters a lot in the child development process.

Readers are encouraged to suggest ideas that help overcome the challenges.