Justice calling

February 3rd, 2012

Come tomorrow one will know the Supreme Court of India’s opinion of the role played by P Chidamabaram (as finance minister at that time) in the telecom license fiasco. Watching current telecom minister Kapil Sibal’s press conference performance yesterday one hopes that the Court looks at this more seriously. Sibal applied specious logic to suggest (using many more words of course) that everything happened so quickly that the finance ministry didn’t have a chance to react to the telecom auctions and hence didn’t play a role in them. His visible glee at being allowed to waste time on playing word games with the word ‘moral responsibility’ was particularly sickening given the risk to India’s reputation from the turn of events.

Turning the clock back to Jan 2008, one remembers the sheer confusion reigning at that time and alluded to by telcos. One representative of an incumbent operator who was applying for a few licenses described it as a complete mela at the DoT with a crowd rushing in to file their application after the ministry announced a first come first served approach. Every paper carried descriptions of the scene which was in no way professional. It was fairly clear that things were awry even then but the finance ministry and government decided to gloss over this. This was most likely, because of the historical tendency of the desensitized Indian citizenry to take even such brazen display of ministerial/governmental corruption in its stride.

What remains is that someone with integrity somewhere in the government could fairly easily have flagged and possibly put an end to this charade. However, clearly no one did and here lies the real concern. Whatever the verdict on PC, one can only hope that the whole episode will be one level of disincentive for politicians from brazen acts of corruption. It just shouldn’t be so easy and so cheap (in terms of personal consequences if caught) to attempt such a pillage of national resources again.

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Of circumcision and surrogacy

December 9th, 2011

The morning dailies were a great source of blog fodder as two things rankled me immensely. The more recent one was a report in HT Mumbai on female circumcision (genital mutilation) in Mumbai. I thought it was restricted to sub-Saharan Africa when I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Infidel about her experiences. I could never have imagined that it would be practiced in India and that too in the supposedly relatively progressive community of Dawoodi Bohras where the women are educated enough to raise a protest through a website.

The ladies refuse to subject their daughters to it and are demanding that the Syedna, religious leader of the Bohris, ban the practice.

The process involves cutting the clitoris and stitching up the orifices and is usually done without anesthesia by traditional practitioners. The scar tissue and rustic sutures then seal off all but a small orifice making urination and naturally sexual penetration very painful. What makes it even more barbaric is that it is done on girls as young as seven who are completely unprepared for the lifelong trauma that follows. It also predisposes them to recurrent genito-urinary infections as they grow older.

The report had the mandatory contrarian view which voiced one woman’s acceptance of traditional practice saying that the pain improved her relations with her husband. If that is her choice and opinion so be it but one can only wonder what moral legitimacy allows her to make that choice for her seven year old daughter. Clearly even as an adult, societal and family pressures can force the acquiescence of women, so shouldn’t the procedure be banned altogether by the government and more importantly by the community leader given implicit religious approval?

I haven’t gotten over my shock and I do hope the pressures of disapproval from society at large force the community leaders to react and unequivocally ban the practice.

The other report which irritated me immensely was more because of the reportage rather than the actual news itself. Aamir Khan’s effective PR seems to have had more of an effect than any sense of balanced reporting.

Apparently the Khans’ choice of using surrogacy should be celebrated as is their openness in announcing it. The business transaction which involves a payment of about Rs 3-3.5 lakhs for renting a womb to ensure a continued direct bloodline is now suddenly laudable and fashionable because it supposedly empowers a woman along the way. Although, I really wonder how much of the money she actually retains over any reasonable length of time. A friend wondered why the couple hadn’t thought of adoption and emancipated a child.

Apparently, the ideal surrogacy candidate has to be below 35 and cannot undertake more than two such procedures after which it endangers her health. In one case, a lady over 35 delivered prematurely and her uterus had to be removed. Surprisingly (sic), however, there have also been cases of women trying to undertake a third such surrogacy.

All told the Khans have a right to do what they want to if they find a willing person and pay for it fairly. Their PR can also spin it any way they like. However, a little more discernment by the media when buying into the spiel would reflect better, especially if it ends up emphatically endorsing a practice which has several grey areas.

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Lessons in democracy

June 2nd, 2011

My husband and I ended up giving the kids an unexpected lesson in individual rights last week. My family has a policy of going out for at least one meal on the weekends. After eating pizza, Mcdonalds, Taco Bell for weeks on end, I, revolted (pun intended), decided that every week was one person’s turn to choose as long as we avoid fast food. My younger one decided that it would be his ‘Choose’ day.

This is a big deal as the juniors (or the smallies, as they refer to themselves) are split between lovers and haters of the great Indian thali and intersect only over the eclectic cuisine set mentioned earlier. The debate started and everyone started making their pitch. My husband, a career sales guy, made a big pitch for chicken at Jai hind launch home via the older kid who is pro-Indian thali, while I tried to sell Indigo Deli’s desserts with pizzas as a throw in enticement to the younger junk food afficianado, playing down the necessity of forks and knives and talking quietly in that establishment.

The Deli is as close to fine dining we can risk with six- and nine-year-old boys (who clearly demonstrate the behavioural link to Neanderthal ancestors at mealtimes) and was a strategic move as part of my uphill struggle to get them to acquire rudimentary table manners, at least in public.

However, the sales pitch on Jai Hind was working its magic on me as well and when the older smallie called a vote, I was non-committal and smelling victory, the nine-year-old masculine pack justice came into play as he called for a majority wins call. Little one, who has often lost out to the majority wins call, was near wailing at this point sensing a disaster with a thali meal becoming the choice of lunch out on His choose day.

We sensed the opportunity to give the boys a lesson in individual rights and capitalised on it by asserting the fact that no one would undermine the nine-year-old’s choice when he picked his place next week, which could be Jai Hind. They received a lesson that a majority rule is not necessarily the best solution especially if individual rights get trampled on. Taking turns and ensuring everyone gets their due opportunity or share can be so much more amicable.

The bonus was that the little one could also be held to a promise not to fuss when we go there next week and eat everything on his plate, this week and next week. The husband regarded his nice family set with a beatific smile, a glass of complimentary Brut champagne in hand, as it was the restaurant’s anniversary. I dug into a gooey dessert even as the boys were hushed to polite conversation levels as they worked on their fork and knives tricks.

In India, democracy rocks, like a cradle, in the hands of Mummy.

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Greed versus fear

April 1st, 2011

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.

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Swearing out loud

February 21st, 2011

This is a naïve piece of writing based on a concept which today signifies naiveté, honour and the significance of an oath of honour.

I am told that on submitting an application for a US passport you have to swear that the documents and information submitted is true to the best of your knowledge. The exercise has a powerful effect on a conscientious person and although you know the documents will be verified inspite of the oath, the act is inspiring. The importance given to a person’s word of honour underlines the respect for the individual that is enshrined in the country’s Constitution.

Most oaths including the one taken by defence officers on commissioning and doctors definitely instill the significance of the moment from what I am given to understand, the solemn moment in the celebratory environment.

So it is surprising that I haven’t come across the necessity of a similar oath in India. We would take a pledge of loyalty to the country in school but have never had the occasion for one post that. Our pledge in school although mundane on a day to day basis, on occasion (Independence Day and Republic Day) touched an emotional chord.

In contrast, the application for a passport, the symbol of my citizenship, was a daylong painful experience the first time around and although the renewal was much more efficient, it was all business. This is all the more unusual for a country that likes to wear its nationalism on its sleeve or its movie tickets (the national anthem sung before a movie is a major bugbear with me and I can’t understand why on a Saturday night I need to project my national pride before watching a Bollywood potboiler!!!).

Is it a systemic lack of respect for the Individual citizen which leads to limited significance for his word of honour? Or is it because we have seen the oaths administered to our elected representatives and the executive machinery being so frivolously treated by them that we have lost belief in the word of honour being significant? The Prime Minister has also further diluted the significance of the oath of honour to serve in the best interest of the country by ducking under the umbrella of coalition politics.

In all the brouhaha the corruption charges generated with major coverage on how much money was wasted and lost, there is limited focus on the honour aspect. The lines are blurred as when a minister is corrupt he does sell his honour so when we investigate and jail such a person, the crime of corruption also incorporates honour to an extent. But, it has to go the length of a criminal investigation for the person to fall from grace. The aspersion cast on his character and honour are just side-plays to the criminal aspect. There was a time when the aspersion would have been enough for the person to resign from public life and active politics.

So is honour then an old-fashioned concept? Or has the low emphasis on the word of honour of the regular citizen set the stage for an erosion in its significance for public personas as well? Is this a healthy development in a young democracy? Is this what our children will imbibe?

How naïve, childish and immature is this piece?

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Testing times for medicos

August 23rd, 2010

One of the government’s recommendations for improving standards of healthcare in India is through an exam for medical graduates before they can practice nation-wide without restrictions. Ostensibly, this is to prevent doctors who are not trained adequately from practicing beyond the borders of the state which allowed them to undergo that half-baked medical training and graduate. There is no talk of enforcing a basic quality of medical training with sufficient exposure to clinical environment and diagnosis such that the medical student on completing 6 years of training plus internship is a reasonably competent general practitioner. No, all the Indian state/ Indian medical education administrative circus can think of is one more exam and this in a time when we have pathetically low population coverage by doctors in this country.

Every semester or year, a medical student goes through a rigorous examination system which includes theory, clinical (bedside) and viva examination. This is administered by the university which is standard for all medical colleges and I fail to see how the new exam would be any different. I agree standards differ but that is a function of quality of testing and examiners and is easily established by having a list of approved examiners defined by some basic criteria like teaching experience (currently used) and no proven complaints on integrity (a must in these time when you can buy into and out of a medical college even as you can buy your way to laying the foundation for a medical college itself).

The examinations are rough as such and the dreaded viva where your life is in the hands of one single examiner is one of the main but largely uninvestigated factors in the etiopathology of ulcers in the fraternity. However, the clinical exams and vivas are practical at least and simulate the real life environment that a practitioner will be thrust into. One can debate whether a three minute extreme stress situation can be an effective gauge of ability but that’s for another soapbox.

However, the theory exams actually do very little to actually test the ability of the student to be a successful GP (with success translating to effective diagnosis and treatment and not pecuniary in nature). The real transformational magic is in the training you receive, the number of patients you treat and the diversity of cases you handle. No matter how much you mug for your exams it is only when you see a severe anaphylactic (allergic) reaction to a drug prescribed, can you really understand the sheer terror of it and after you have jogged your memory for how to react to it and done that or seen it done before you by a senior, can you do it almost reflexively the next time you see it happen. It needn’t even be so drastic. Just simple diagnosis and treatment measures from malaria to jaundice to food poisoning or even chronic diseases are best learnt through practical exposure to patients given the diversity of presentation of symptoms and reactions.

This is what you need to ensure when we talk about effective medical training. You need effective teachers and adequate clinical experience with busy hospitals and full departments. You have to mandate the teacher student ratio, clinical time and monitor that the teachers teach when they are supposed to. There have to be adequate number of cadavers for dissection so anatomy isn’t just book learning. The instruments and equipment have to be matched to what is available in hospitals and clinics so one can shorten the technical leap for medical graduates when they get their degree.

All of this can also be regulated if one puts effort into it but that would translate to higher capital expenses for teaching colleges and hospitals. Given that medical colleges are really seen as cash cows by politicos in most states it probably is easier to mandate another exam for graduates who are really too few to be heard and don’t carry any cash clout (you would laugh if you heard how much an intern or a resident gets paid). Even as you complain about falling standards of healthcare spare a thought for these students who have a really hard life in college and out of it and another exam will only make it tougher even as it offers no guarantees of improved healthcare for any or all in this country.

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United socialist states of America

August 16th, 2010

There are rumblings in blogs and rumour mills that the US President Obama is considering forgiving mortgage loans for distressed homeowners who are negative net equity ( homes cost less now than when purchased  and homeowners will probably have to step up to cover that deficit as loans get reassessed). An estimated 15 million US mortgages - one in five - are underwater with negative equity of some $800 billion, according to analyst John Mauldin in his newsletter.

The move should resonate with India’s socialist polity and the architects of the much maligned farm loan waiver (the impact of which is showing up in Nonperforming loan ratios this quarter for several banks) will cackle should the rumours play true (especially with the hauntingly familiar timing, as they come just ahead of crucial mid-term elections where the Democrats are expected to take a severe routing). One can only wonder about the changing times in this bastion of Capitalism and free markets and if you were a prudent renter after taking a call on home prices in those turbulent years, you would be kicking yourself hard…..again, if you had rented through the boom and not cashed in on it in the heady years.

Naturally the magnitude of the rescue will mean more deficits to be repaid at a later date at ever higher rates of interest, given the lingering doubts about the quality of revival in the US economy and strong talk of the possibility of a double dip. Little do children in the US know, as they play in their backyards, the burden they will have to carry and more importantly repay. With the ripples flowing out through linkages across the world, one wonders what form the global impact will take and what our children will have to face, if not ourselves.

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Funny side up

July 8th, 2010

If you caught a slice of the Joel Stein versus ABCD Hollywood hero Kal Penn (Kalpen Modi) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kal-penn/the-hilarious-xenophobia_b_634264.html slugfest on the net about a feature in Time magazine about the Indian takeover in Edison, New Jersey, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1999416,00.html you would get a sense of how to successfully play up any racially motivated controversy to gain publicity.

First take up the most recent example of said race bashing (however tongue in cheek), then respond to everything literally at face value, proceeding to demonstrate visibly that you clearly don’t have a speck of a sense of humour because if you did you’d see that most of the poor rehashed jokes were milder than usual stuff you get to read/see/hear across the world. Finally, throw in names of the few great people from or troubles faced by the said race (you know Gandhi/Buddha if you are Indian, Martin Luther King/ Mandela if you are black, Einstein / holocaust if you are Jewish etc etc- interestingly who do you quote if you are a white man-hmmmm!!! a nice question there-white apostles of peace don’t easily come to mind maybe because they don’t get quoted as much…. except BINGO!! Mother Teresa… See they do come in all colours!!). You express your distress at your victimization in the strongest possible language with several exclamation marks (now that’s just like this piece of writing fluff!!sic!), get an apology and in the process fry up any possibilities of free speech clause flourishing through to the next generation.

The piece is poorly written and is certainly not worthy of taking up space in a well reputed international magazine but that is the publication’s problem and the author’s, who shows up like a real brat grown up into a jerk who can barely write the comic stuff he purports to write and fits neatly into our stereotype of a typical ugly American. Also, the racial stereotyping in the feature is surprising, coming as it does from someone of Jewish ancestry (Stein- Jew, you’d think so!!), the most vociferous group of people who have perfected the art of reacting to any such racial targeting through the above mentioned process. That Stein recanted so promptly means he has been made aware of the growing Indian readership of Time, which flows well into the mercantile temperament of our American stereotype….. he now knows where a significant amount of the money comes from (because of target reader/market status)and bows to it!!

Kal Penn on the other hand has expressed outrage successfully and garnered significant publicity in the process. He does talk about the poor writing and the absence of humour on other races in this publication, but Gandhi also shows up (to be fair the reference was initiated by Stein on twitter-http://twitter.com/thejoelstein) while the free speech clause flies straight through the window. But, I wonder why it all gets so personal? Possibly because where Penn grew up is predominantly white and he did get a lot of grief from peers in the process. Will his reply stop that, unlikely.

What will shut Stein up successfully is if we stop reading such trite and poorly researched nonsense which goes into print masquerading as lifestyle features. The loud griping gets the author more publicity and is really counter-productive. Besides, we can’t protest every time someone lets their creativity flow just because it doesn’t parallel our view-point. It is important to hear what other people are thinking and unless it reaches print how would you know that. But if you feel the targeting is systematic and if you don’t like it, write to the publication and more importantly don’t renew subscriptions, basically vote with your wallet. Now that would really underline the statement you want to make.

Let’s face it, we are the new target for minority bashers in the developed world as non-resident Indians become more affluent and our domestic economy looks stronger. So be prepared to be a more universal butt of jokes going ahead and hope the lines get a little more creative than Dot-Head, so one can actually laugh at them. But, please lighten up and laugh a bit as well. Walk rapidly sideways into a door to rediscover that funny bone if you must but for the sake of our reputation, let’s learn to see the funny side of things. If you still don’t get it, get lessons from your neighbourhood Sardarji.

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Consumer experience: Phone calling

April 3rd, 2010

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.

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