Summer of controversies

April 21st, 2010

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.

***********

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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Salaam Sourav!

March 23rd, 2010

I am 38. And like most Bengalis of my age, lack sporting icons. When my uncle keeps on harping about Pankaj Roy’s record opening partnership, I barely bat an eyelid.
Maybe, it is tragic but it is true. In the last one-and-a-half decade, Bengal has not produced a sportsman worth talking about. In my school days, football used to be the big thing. I briefly remember Manoranjan Bhattacharya, Bidesh Bose and Shyam Thapa playing in Patna (my hometown) in the late eighties.
Intellectuals, I really wouldn’t know. But I have not heard about them definitely. Moviemakers, again I do not know but… The only other sphere I think they have done reasonably well is music, mostly playback singers – Kishore Kumar, Abhijeet and Shaan, Sreya, more recently. And of course, journalism.
No wonder, I have followed Sourav career quite fondly, and at times, with complete despair – like now.
When Sourav’s made his grand Test match debut in England, I had just bought my first television. The next match, he scored another one. And whether I admit it or not, I have watched or, at least try to keep tabs on his career over the years.
And it has been one roller coaster drive. Not because he was mercurial, by performance or attitude (you don’t make 18,000 plus runs in both tests and one days by being one), but because he did things his way. So people, including selectors and oppositions, hated him or loved him. With Sourav, it has always been white or black, never a shade of grey.
When he was dropped by Greg Chappel, there was a furore. The comeback trail was equally dramatic. Yes, he has made his mistakes over the 15 plus years. But as they say, it is a part of the game.
Unfortunately, these last three years in IPL have been a torture. While Sachin, Dravid and even Kumble have managed to hold their own, Sourav has clearly been a disappointment. Of course, last year Buchnan queered the pitch with his ‘one-captain per match’ formula.
Even if one gives him the benefit of doubt, his performance has not been worth talking about. Things have simply gone downhill.
No, it is not to say that he is not capable of getting that sparkling 50 or 75 during the tournament. However, it does not matter. Somehow, even his greatest fan would know that. It’s time to step down gracefully. Anytime is right. And if possible, after a sparkling 50. The god of offside owes his fans one…

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Agitation due to vegetation

February 17th, 2010

I am not a sociologist. But few things are quite stark. Food and clothing, education and jobs (in that order) are main concerns for every society.

Whether it is a tribal in West Bengal and Orissa, the unemployed in Bihar and UP or even, an Ajmal Kasab in Pakistan, these simple needs drive people to crime, agitation and all forms of violence.

And proponents of ideologies use this deficiency in the society to their fullest. Without pointing at any particular party or terrorist outfits or even, religious fanatics (because all of them are to blame), over the years, it has been clear that a few people can gather thousands and lakhs around them by promising these few things.

Yes, many will argue that there are college students from affluent families who are indoctrinated at an early age. True, but the bitter truth is that I have seen a whole lot these ‘ideological students’ settling down in proper lives after college. (Come on guys, in most cases, it is not about a country’s independence)

In fact, one of my seniors was a part of the group that demolished Babri Masjid demolition. Today, he is happily settled as an information technology professional.

Many so-called communists of the 60s and 70s are happily working in capitalist organisations, quite a few even in business newspapers, magazines and television channels.

Governments, as a result, should primarily focus on the troika of food and clothing, education and jobs. Instead, we find politicians taking positions that they will use force to crush the agitation.

Sure, it may be crushed. But a next generation of poverty stricken and oppressed will always rise.

A small example is a place like Manali. In a recent visit, I discovered that even if one wishes to travel late evening (which is like later than 10 pm), there is little fear. Most people, though not so affluent, are working.

My car driver on the last day was an interesting chap. The 25-year old owned 8 cars, a few apple and other farms. But he was still driving his own car. Whenever I had to leave the car to make a purchase or see a location, he would assure me that none of my valuables would be stolen. And nothing was.

The satisfaction of a full stomach, decent clothing, some education and a job goes a long way in keeping people happy. Alas, our problem solving measures tend to concentrate on too many other things.

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2009 – A year of defiance

January 12th, 2010

Last year, around this time, the mood was sombre. The fear of a complete catastrophe from the financial sector meltdown had chilled the minds of many. But well, with 100 per cent returns from equities, one cannot really complain that 2009 has been a bad year.

The ‘greenshoots’ , as the Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke likes to call them, have been many. Unemployment in the US, though not down, looks less scary. A lot of liquidity is sloshing around the world, helping companies to raise cash through initial public offerings, rights issues, private placements and so on. And all the stories that the world will slip into deeper recession sounds quite far fetched.

But I am not convinced that all is well. While bankers around the world are rejoicing that they have managed to arrest the recession by pumping liquidity and printing notes, there seems to be a hollow sound to it.

There is a lot of talk about how the trickle-down effect of the Wall Street has positively impacted the Main Street. The argument being that giving liquidity to bankrupt banks led to more lending. Saving jobs of overpaid bankers gave them confidence to take risks. And interestingly, most of the banks who took Federal aid have returned the money.

Yes all this is true. But there is a small catch. I don’t think that business confidence is too high. While raising cash might have become easier, I really wonder how much of it has been used to add capacities and generate jobs.

Most employers or corporations would like to sit on this cash till the confidence improves. And in the absence of employment generation, the cash that has been pumped in will have zero or no multiplier effect.

That is the reason, Lord Keynes advocated that in times of uncertainty, the government should generate employment by simply hiring people to dig holes and fill them. However, private corporations will look at parameters like return on capital to boost their balance sheets.

While Bernanke’s model is better than the one employed by the Fed in the 1930s recession (when it tightened the liquidity), I wonder if it is enough. Because unlike China or Japan, most US banks are not government-controlled. As a result, they are more worried about their balance sheets and more importantly, their bonuses.

As many reports have pointed out, bankers – ‘the problem children’ – continued to earn hefty bonuses while lesser people suffered, lost jobs and went bankrupt.

Yes, allowing the banks to fail may not have been the best solution. But there has to be some repentance. Otherwise, we will soon be heading for another bubble and recession.

In my view, at present, we may have deferred the some part of the pain. But pain, there will be, sooner or later. We, as individual stakeholders, should prepare ourselves with sound savings and insurance. And hope, the banks and insurance companies don’t fail us.

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Dial ‘M’ for Money

November 16th, 2009

Television channels and newspaper reports claim that Madhu Koda (former chief minister of Jharkhand) has embezzled Rs 4,000 crore. Recent reports point out that transactions worth Rs 650 crore, a small portion of the money, took place in the Union Bank of India.

I am always bewildered by these numbers. How does one carry this amount to a bank or give it to someone? Even if they are all Rs 1,000 notes, that means 65,000 bundles – one would need at least a van or a tempo (small-sized truck) to carry it. Sure, it could have been done in tranches, but still.

So where did this cash come from? Better still, do people really keep Rs 1,000 crore in their houses or say in ‘godams’ (in hindi movies, especially in villages the zamindar has godams where he hoards all the food grains)?

And when needed he hires a tempo, loads all this cash, gives it to a politician or crook, who in turn, carries it to a bank (in the same or another tempo) and deposits it.

How long does it take the bank teller or the note counting machine to count it? To count even Rs 50-60 crores, it should take at least a few hours, as a single bundle is only Rs 1 lakh.

In smaller cities, branches may have to be closed because of the size of transaction.

Forgive my lack of experience. Being a middle-class person, the only time I have seen suitcases of cash is in the movies.

But it would be rather interesting to know how people hoard cash, carry it around, protect it from rodents (besides the law, of course) – what if one bundle is eaten by a rat (Imagine this sentence: Money hoarder: “chuha mere godam mein ek crore kha gaya or chuhon ne note kutar diye”)

And what happens to this money, once it has been captured. Ok, some part of it would go as awards to policemen or CBI officials. What happens to the rest? – Is black money a state subject or centre?

Questions, questions, questions… And I have no answers.

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‘Sir’ – a much-abused word

October 8th, 2009

While growing up, the word ‘sir’ meant respect for elders, mostly teachers. Of course, it did not mean that we did not make fun of them in their absence… well, sometimes in their presence as well :)

But coming from a smaller town (Patna) and a family of school and college teachers, I almost grew up with the words ‘sir’ and ‘madam’. Student would come to our house every evening to, either study or learn music.

In fact, some people even called us ‘Ghosh madam ka beta’ or ‘Biplab sir ka bhanja’ (nephew).

But nowadays, the usage of the S word irks me quite often. And it is mainly due to telecallers from mobile, credit card, bank and ‘god-knows-what-else’ companies. Some of these callers have almost perfected the art of calling you ‘Sir’, even if they mean ‘Jerk’.

For instance, I want to settle a credit card bill for months now. So every time someone calls from this bank, I request them to send me a bill (which incidentally has not been send to me for over a year). Instead, they keep on tell me to pay a small amount (referred as ‘bucket amount’) and promise me to settle the bill next month.

The conversation goes something like this.

Me: “Kindly send me a complete bill. I am tired of paying these small interest amounts.”

He/she/ (from the call centre): “Definitely sir, but kindly pay Rs … and I promise that next month we will call you and settle this.

Me: “But you have been saying this for the last one year.”

He/she/ (from the call centre): “Sir, this time we will definitely do it.”

Me: “Sorry, I refuse to pay this small ‘bucket amounts’ every month.”

He/she/ (from the call centre): “Sir, your decision. But the interest will keep on mounting. Next month someone else will be on this case and I won’t be able to help you.

Technically speaking, while the call centre person is ‘Sir-ing’ me all this time, he/she/… is almost threatening me.

Some others use this word just to sell a product. Like, “Sir, we have this great offer or product.” And it is rather frustrating when the callers do not realise that a person may know more about some insurance or mutual fund product.

Typically, they try to sell a unit-linked insurance plan as a mutual fund. And conversations are like this… “No sir, you are not getting it. This is not an insurance plan, but a mutual fund.” – Yeah, and I am Salman Khan,

But the best ones are these. Recently, I got a missed call from a cell phone number. On returning the call, the person said, “Sir, I am from ****phone. We are offering you a free number.”

Me: “I never applied.” He/she/ (from the call centre): “Sir, it was a lucky draw.”

Me: “I don’t want it.” He/she/ (from the call centre): “Sir, it comes with a free gift.”

Me: “No, I don’t want it.” He/she/ (from the call centre): “Sir, our call charges are lowest, we will give you X plan. You will save Y money every month.

Me: “Ok, I will take it. He/she/ (from the call centre): Sir, what’s your name? …

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Green shoots? I wonder…

August 26th, 2009

While the sharp upward movement in the stock markets would indicate that the worst is over, the numbers are not too convincing.
Analysts are clear in their view that better corporate numbers worldwide are more a function of reduced costs, rather than better performance.
As far as India goes, already drought has hit the country pretty badly. Consequently, agricultural production and gross domestic product will be hit. This means higher food prices, higher inflation, and ultimately, higher interest rates.
Worse still, a bad season means reduced purchasing power of rural India. Though the Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has expanded the scope of NREGA, it will at best ensure that the poor do not die because of lack of food.
So the lack of demand will continue to hit companies, which are dependent on rural India, to generate revenues.
In other words, salaries are not going to improve in a hurry cramping the working middle or upper middle class’s ability to make big buying decisions.
While builders are aggressively building and touting ‘affordable’ homes, the definition of affordability has changed – a flat costing Rs 25-40 lakh flat may sound affordable to many, especially after the heady days of Rs 1 crore flats even at the suburbs (well, it’s still like that in many places).
But going by a simple thumb rule, here are some interesting numbers. To get a loan of say Rs 30 lakh for 20 years, a person needs to have take-home salary of around Rs 60,000 – 80,000 per month – a gross salary of Rs 7-10 lakh.
I wonder how many people would be willing to risk this unless the deal is really good.
Also, while the job market is improving, it’s still not a free-for-all (no hiring to just have the numbers). Importantly, salary hikes are much more conservative, if at all. Buying a car or a second car will also be a tough decision.
Signals from the world economy are not great either. The US, in spite of some decent numbers, does not seem to be out of the woods. And China’s growth, many feel, is a bubble.
Not quite a bright picture. Of course, markets might turn around much before that. But it will be more liquidity driven and less due to economic fundamentals.

To me, it will be a while (perhaps more than a while) before things really turnaround. Till then, well, life goes on.

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Inconvenience in progress…

July 29th, 2009

Traffic snarls are a common feature in Mumbai. Hardly a day goes, when one is not stuck because roads are being dug somewhere, there’s some morcha and if nothing else, some construction work.

I travel by road on the Western line (for non-Mumbaites, the Western line is from Churchgate to Virar, maybe even further now). And there are stations like Dadar, Bandra, Andheri, Borivali that many Hindi movies have made quite famous.

Of course, the moment I say ‘I travel by road’, friends pounce on me to with ‘trains are much more simpler’ or ‘you waste so much money everyday’. Well, after taking their concerns into consideration, let’s say I don’t feel like travelling on Mumbai locals any more.

So, road it is for me. Yes, it costs me a bomb. And on bad traffic days, it leaves a huge hole in my wallet.

But what surprises me is the complete lackadaisical approach that the ‘BMC/MMRDA/whoever else is responsible’ has towards the city.

In 2005, when ‘Torrential Tuesday’ occurred, lakhs of people were completely stuck – hey even Aamir Khan was stranded. Four years since then, things have marginally changed.

Yes, a number of bridges have been built on the Western Express Highway. But roads still suck. Entry and exit to the Andheri bridge are always full of potholes. And every year and several times during the rainy season, BMC workers keep on filling it up (why can’t there be a permanent solution???).

The best part, though, is the Malad bridge. It is being built for god-knows-how-many-years, and still everyday on the way back, commuters spent at least 30-40 minutes on this stretch.

My sources (taxi drivers and autowalas) claim that there was some litigation initially. But if my memory serves me right, this bridge is being built for several years – in fact, longer than most of the other ones in the same route. Yet, I keep hearing that it will be completed this month or next month.

Let’s take into consideration the total cost one incurs while crawling through that single stretch. There would at least be a total of 5,000 – 10,000 cars or autos or taxis passing through that road everyday and each would be wasting least Rs 30-50 because of the hold up. The daily loss: Anywhere between Rs 15,000 and Rs 5 lakh.

And if one multiples that number over last four-five years, the total amount would run into crores – perhaps, even more than the cost of constructing this bridge.

A point, the authorities should consider. But, it wouldn’t matter to them because it’s my pocket that takes the hit or their argument would be like my friends, ‘travel by train to save time and money’.

In Mumbai, one can see these hoardings all over the place. ‘Work in progress – Inconvenience regretted’.

To me it means… ‘Inconvenience in progress – Work regretted’

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Duronto, Ijjot and now… Boget

July 6th, 2009

Budgets always invoke a lot of speculation. While a whole bunch of experts believe that it is a non-event, a lot of people keep themselves hooked on to the television. And then, the usual culprits come and demystify the numbers for ‘aam aadmi’.Here are some common features of every Budget.

The opposition will always say that the incumbent government could have done much more. Some like the Left even say that government is anti-poor and anti-labour. And that, even after the FM allocates some 50,000-60,000 crore for the poor.

The finance secretaries, who helped prepare the Budget, will come and defend it stoutly.

Then corporate honchos will give ratings. Seldom it’s very low.

The worst part – the poor FM has to give interview-after-interview to television channels. Given that the number of channels have increased manifold since the mid-nineties, I wonder how any FM gets the energy to speak to all of them.

In my view, the FM should call all of them in a single forum and let the editors shoot their questions. And let all channels telecast it at the same time.

For one, it will save the ‘aam aadmi’ from flicking through some 20 channels (all of them claim that they have an exclusive with the FM). More importantly, it will help the FM save some serious breathe because he has to answer the same questions to different editors.

Most importantly, since the crème de la crème editors land up to interview the FM, they will make sure that they do not repeat the same questions. The result – good quality questions from the best editors. And the best part – television watchers won’t have swollen fingers due to channel-flipping.

Coming back to the headline… Mamata didi brought the ‘Bengali flavour’ back to the Budget on Friday. After Lalu’s crude humour, it was back to ‘duronto’ and ‘Ijjot’.

Now I am waiting for Pronob da’s ‘Boget’ … :)

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It’s Saina (not Sania)…

June 23rd, 2009

Disclaimer: Yes, I agree that Sania Mirza has done wonders for Indian Women’s Tennis.
But the comparison ends there.

I have a rather bad habit. Before going to sleep, I watch news. Sometimes, it’s a business channel (yuck to many), but mostly normal tamasha on news channels.
Yesterday, there was real tamasha. Some channels went quite gaga over Saina Nehwal’s super series win and Sania Mirza’s first round win in Wimbledon.
And while I am quite fine with the hoopla around Mirza, I am quite surprised with the lack of bandwidth for Nehwal.
In the last few years, Nehwal has consistently done well. Yet, for one tournament she was hassled for a visa (she rightly said that a cricketer wouldn’t have faced any hassles).
In fact, in this T-20 nonsense, I wonder if anyone even knew that Nehwal was quietly winning match-after-match.
In comparison, Mirza has to win one single match to be in the headlines. While I believe that Mirza has done wonders for Indian Women’s Tennis, but it’s simply as an ambassador. As a player, she has a long way to go.
At the age of 18-19, she had promise. At 22-23, she is still someone with promise. In singles, she hasn’t been in the quarter-finals of any of the Grand Slams.
But I guess tennis has more glamour than badminton. Everyone remembers Anna Kournikova…some, perhaps, even more than Chris Evert or Bille Jean King.
And someone may even argue that tennis is a more inclusive sport. Badminton is, after all, mostly an Asian sport. And the top ten have a lot of Chinese players and sometimes, a few Danish players.
For an Indian to break into the league is mighty impressive. If Nehwal’s coach is to be believed, she will be ranked sixth in the world after the recent win – in tennis, only
Ramanathan Krishnan was seeded fourth in the 1961 Wimbledon…
Sadly, talent and performance seldom gets reflected in television or newspaper coverage. Glamour, it would seem, works wonders.

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