Friday, June 27, 2014

The history we have forgotten

We as Indians have been a little too good to sieve out history from our colonial past. We take pride in some of the colonial legacies we still possess like the railways, military establishments, judiciary, development of cities like Mumbai and of course- the gift of a democratic system of governance. Many installations and establishments are even a part of UNESCO’s heritage lists. But while work of civil servants and even the Olympic gold in 1936 by the Indian hockey team days of the colonial rule is recognized, the acts of valour by Indians fighting under the armies of the British Empire have been lost from our memories.

It has been just a fortnight since I visited Imphal, the theatre for some of the toughest and bloody war exchanges from WW II. Unknowingly, it was exactly 70 years to the days the areas around Imphal and Kohima were under a heavy offensive by the Japanese army. Some of the key road intersections in Imphal held hoardings talking of the anniversary and some events lined up to commemorate the sacrifice and bravery of the locals.

While there was no great enthusiasm amongst some of the locals I met there about the war or the commemorations, the fact that delegates from United States, Australia and even Japan were to assemble in Kohima on 28th June as a part of the closing ceremony. Evidently so, The New York Times carried an article called ‘A largely Indian victory in WW II, Mostly forgotten in India’. (

I got the shivers to imagine how would be a war where the two armies where split only by an asphalt tennis court, how come we missed this part? How come we never heard about it in any news reel, movie or even a write up? Frankly, not all is ignored; the fact that the British National Army Museum recognises this war at Imphal and Kohima as the greatest the British were involved during WW II was in the Indian media last year.  ( But how many Indians today actually know about this so called ‘Stalingrad of the East’?

Well, to be honest, the history text books I read had the Japanese mentions only with regards to Pearl Harbour and then Hiroshima-Nagasaki. At times a small record that Subhash Chandra Bose formed the Indian National Army (INA) with the Japanese support and was handed over Andaman & Nicobar.
But since India under the British rule had refused to acknowledge the war as its own, we have possibly forgotten that Indian soldiers were involved in fighting in Africa, East Asia as well as the Eastern Indian frontier. The Imphal War Cemetery, managed by the Commonwealth Graves Comission, had head stones dedicated to soldiers who were English, Australian, West African, Chinese and also recognises some Indians from various army cadres. (Officers, EME, Riflemen and also Labourers).

Just 20 kms outside Imphal is Red Hill (Lokpaching), the place were Japanese were held up and later forced into retreat. The Japanese government has erected the India Peace Memorial at the spot and today it is no less than a site of pilgrimage for Japanese tourists visiting the area. A further 25 kms down the same road is Moirang, the place where INA has a memorial. I have found a memorial for the Italian PoW’s who died in India under captivity in Mumbai. Even an Indian Doctor from Solapur, Dr. Dwarkanath Kotnis has been recognised by China for his efforts serving against the invading Japanese army. But honestly, how many Indians are aware and really do care?

I confess as an individual, I do get a lot of my heads up from movies and features on NatGeo, Discovery and History Channel. Not to mention mini-series like Band of Brothers and The Pacific also added the bits which still don’t get the coverage. To know about the war in the East, I picked a quick read, but that didn’t help much. So over a period of two days, I watched ‘The bridge on the river Kwai’ and all 10 episodes of The Pacific to get the complete picture. In my opinion, the Japanese offensive was far too intense and ruthless than what the Nazi’s. No Nazi believed in Kamikaze, hara-kiri, would set of a grenade when surrounded by the forces and even booby trap native women and children.

The war in Asia was possibly fought over a far larger area and in much tougher conditions. Sure, they faced harsh winters in Europe and Atlantic, but the APAC had tropical forests, hills and rains. Beach landing on so many islands and yet, so much has been missed out on this part of history.

Anyways, my initial thought was that WW II is a war fought on Indian soil and has seen many Indian soldiers lay down their life as a part of their duty. Possibly the best memorial we can build is host their memories in our hearts and give them their due respect. Let us believe and not forget this part of our history. 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Popularism today is Economic collapse tomorrow

I know I am not qualified enough in Fiscal policies and am on thin ice as I write this blog. But considering some general buzz around me and a bit of recent reading I undertook, I felt it was important for me to make a point here.

I started reading ‘The Great Degeneration’ by Niall Fergusson exactly 10 days back, where he made an attempt to place some concepts like government debt, debt to GDP ratio and its implications along with effects of debt corrections and accumulation that pose a potent danger on generation that are not even born as yet.
Fast on its heels has come the railway budget from the one month old Modi government and some strong correction measures towards the fare structure has attracted the much anticipated public outcry. A fare hike of an average of 14% in passenger fares and 6.5% on freight has resulted in the opposition out on the streets. Not to mention, the average Mumbaikar is unhappy when his lifeline, the Mumbai Suburban network getting twice as much dearer as a monthly pass of Rs. 200 now will cost Rs. 435.

The cynics are already call it, ‘Modi ke acche din’. But if we just scrape under the surface and try to understand the scenario, we would realise that this is a small step towards a whole mountain of debt that needs to be levelled to lay the tracks to move ahead. So how big is this mountain… well I tried to look up on the Indian Railway Finance Corporation (IRFC) website but sadly could not get a figure- what I could definitely spot is that in November, the Railways raised Rs. 10,000 Cr. through tax free bonds. Why so much money raised in debt?

Just think of the sources of revenue for the Railways. Passenger fares (including ticket-less travel fines), freight charges; possibly sale of some scrap, commercial rights for advertising inside railway stations and wagons and possibly movie shoots. But let us place these heads against their expense heads. Running a railway network has operations costs of fuel/electricity, maintenance of older rolling stock and engines along with track side maintenance. Not to forget capital expenses can far outrun revenue if purchase of new wagons and engines, network expansion and infrastructure development is put together.

But the killer blow to all this is the man power cost. Indian Railways is the largest single employer in the world with a 24 x 7, 365 day operations to run this vast network smoothly. As with any employer; they need to pay their employees at the end of each month. Not to forget, every employee gets a pension which is a part of the welfare policies. And yes, every there are also hefty accident compensations.

So how deep in debt are we? And is there a reason to panic?

Honestly what the railways has experienced, we can extrapolate to the entire economy at present. A debt is nothing but a loan. Government raise this from people in the form of bonds as well as borrowings from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Every loan has a period and comes at an interest rate. The loans and its interest is repaid by means of the GDP of the country. The Debt to GDP ratio is usually an indication of how well a country can repay the debt. This ratio of India at present is 67.2% (highest amongst BRIC), which in isolation may not have much to suggest. But this figure combined with an economic slowdown and unrest looming in Iraq implies that there is likelihood that India will default on repayment of debts. And lest we forget, the overall external debt figure for India is up from USD 112 Billion in 2004 to USD 426 Billion in December 2013. So if left unattended, it is most likely to result in a debt bubble which will shackles of debt for the future generations .

Let me paint the larger picture a little better. Agriculture is offered a subsidy towards seeds, fertilizers, power and water. The government fixes a basic minimum price to safeguard farmers. In any eventuality, farmers are compensated to maintain their livelihood. We have a food safety bill, social medical set ups and rural employment scheme. We maintain a sizable defense force. Government employees and the armed forces are paid when they are working and even after they retire through pension. We have a subsidy on basic fuel and gas for households and various

So how can the government offer such subsidies and schemes? 

Technically, all this is something which can function through all forms of taxes paid. But the government is pushing SEZ in various sectors to raise the output and the GDP by offering tax holidays. Bottom-line, there is a gap between funds available and funding required. Public and external borrowings are short term solutions to a larger problem.

India is in a difficult debt cycle where we are borrowing for today against possible repayments for the future. If not controlled right now, it has the possibility to spiral into a situation of complete bankruptcy- much like what Greece suffered last year. The possible ways to control this is either to push the GDP higher (which is dependent on many external factors) or cut down on subsidies to manage this account better. The present government has chosen the latter, but before we get too critical on it decision, let us answer this in our mind- Are you in favour of policies of Popularism for today and ready to see an Economic collapse for the future generations; make your choice.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Let’s go Karting on dot.coms

About six months ago, I wrote a blog post on how online retails were making hay with 30% growth over Diwali, while the economic slowdown was hurting sales across malls with drop in footfalls of 10%. Things The dynamics of the online business have been shifting gears rapidly in the interim with the likelihood of a scenario in the near future where lack on online presence may be harmful as say not having a store at the proper location.

Unlike the developed markets, online retail in India is actually an online market place where the buyer and seller trade goods with the online retail portal serving as the intermediary. So basically when you order a book or any other goods, the order is actually placed against a supplier or a local trading company which fulfill the order. The online portal earns a small margin on every transaction.

This is exactly the reason why e-shopping is so cheap; there is no inventory to be managed by the retail portals and no showroom spaces needed by the sellers and traders. The system functions on one well-coordinated web of online ordering and ERP systems that integrate the buyer- portal- seller at one shot. Yes, Flipkart had tried the warehousing model initially when they started off with books, but it was not the way ahead with an increase in number of categories.

Much like the real world, e- retails today also host various categories today ranging from specialty verticals to the mega stores which sell everything under the sun. Buy furniture and furnishings at Fabfurnish, Pepperfry or Urban Ladder, get groceries from Bigbasket, Localbaniya or Greenkart , the kinder get their needs from Firstcry or Babyoye. Every kind of personal accessory is residing on Lenskart, Watchkart, Jewelskart. Jabong, FashionAnd You, Yebhi are mostly for clothing and accessories. The sharks of this ocean are Flipkart, Snapdeal, Junglee (Indian arm of Amazon) and Amazon India.

So is this the great shift of the Indian shopper from floor space to web space?

There is enough reason to believe this, considering some indicators. The very fact that Motorola’s went ahead to launch its smartphone range in India exclusively via Flipkart was a bold statement in this direction.
Darwinism is also evident as historic presence has made no difference. Old timers like ebay, Rediff shopping, Indiatimes shopping have no space today. Adapting to change and migration has been the key. TV based shopping networks like Homeshop18 and StarCJ were initially launched for them to capitalize on the fact that Satellite TV penetration was higher than internet. I guess smart phones have changed that equation. Retailers like Crossword, Shoppers Stop have websites with exclusive online deals, so does Future bazaar. Seventy MM which offered online DVD rentals closed the business of DVDs and got into retailing in 2012.

And most significant, IRCTC; the online railway booking king which gets the maximum traffic in India by far, has got into shopping- mind you, stuff here isn't cheap by any lengths.

The biggest question in my mind tough is will this boom survive?

It might be a tough question to answer at this point, considering none of these sites have any significant USP to differentiate it from the rest. If we evaluate these sites on classical Marketing theory of the 4 P’s, this is the result as I see it:

Product: All of them are following the market place model where suppliers are the kings. If the suppliers overlap, there is uniformity in the products. Also, other than Amazon (Kindle, Fire phone and Pinzon range) and Flipkart (Digiflip), no one has any product lines or brand which they own. This eliminates exclusivity in products.

Price: Yes, the consumer is definitely price sensitive and much like a regular market, a buyer visits 3-5 sites comparing prices once the product is final. But, since the back end suppliers for many of these markets are the same, the selling price equations will always remain:

Selling price= Supplier price+ Margin,  if supplier’s are same and its price is constant; it’s a war on who can bleed on margins and survive for how long. A point to note, even on a global level, Amazon is still in debt.

Place: Let us take this as delivery and we may find that same day delivery, free delivery etc. are fairly easy to ape. The segmentation by geography is where the biggies have tried to map the market differently. Flipkart is an urban hot seller and Snapdeal is targeting tier 2. Amazon is tying up with the Indian Post to cater to the remotest buyers where a courier may not go. This in my view can be a sustained advantage for some period.

Promotion: Spams! That what every send me in my mails. I get ads on social networks, TV, on my mobile apps and games. It is as cluttered as can be.

Service: This is not a P, but usually the best way to make a difference amongst alikes. But a look at the websites and they all appear the same. The customer service is not much to choose as well.

The bottom line is there is little or no scope for any site to build their brand persona or consumer experience that can lead to loyalty amongst consumers. In that case, this will finally be an online kart race where survival will depend on who can work on the slimmest margins to stay afloat. It is only a matter of time for us to know how it flows.  

Monday, June 9, 2014

Refusing to upgrade the Colonial Gift

The debate is not if the British plundered and left India and many other colonies in disarray. While one might say that the colonial rule did erode some of the cultural and material wealth from India, it did leave behind some positives which we practice even today. Apart from unifying India from a cluster of 500 odd princely states; railways, post & telegraph, education, law & judiciary, democratic constitution, unified armed forces are just some of the many. The only seeming problem is that while some of the colonial blessings have changed to keep in sync with time, we are refusing to change some for a post- Independence India of today.

My last blog spoke on some colonial legacy which builds the divide between the armed forces compared to the paramilitary and the police. Hot on the heels of that I have come across another set of professionals refusing to give up their colonial habits- this time it was the lawyers. The Bar Council of India (BCI) rejected the suggestion by the former Chief Justice of India, Mr. RM Lodha to run courts for 365 days to clear the huge backlog of cases and provide speedy justice.

The argument presented by Justice Lodha is impressive; if healthcare can be offered 365 days; why not justice? What is amusing is the basis the BCI has rejected the suggestion- “It is not possible for advocates to attend court for all 365 days. It is neither practical nor feasible. Without rest, advocates cannot work throughout the year,” said BCI chairman Biri Singh Sinsinwar.

Picture this; a corporate works a total of about 230 days (considering Saturday-Sunday as off) across the year, the postal employees and government offices work for 280, the armed forces, healthcare and police; well virtually 365 days. Even teachers are working for about 250 days. So why should the judiciary work only 210 days (190 if it’s the Supreme Court), when the backlog of pending cases is so huge?

The reason I believe is the fact that procedures and duration of the courts is still the colonial legacy.  In colonial times, Indians were allowed to practice as layers, but majority of the Judges were British. Holidays, summer breaks etc. were all a part of their life style as there was no immediate need to resolve cases. Majority were cases against Indians and I don’t think it mattered much to them if the system took its own time to offer justice. The presence of so many summer retreats across the country is just enough a case to indicate that the high rankers in the British administration took vacations really serious.

But why does the law fraternity still desire to enjoy that life style? Well technically, who will want to give up on official 4 weeks of summer and winter vacation granted as a part of legal procedures as designed by the system?

Anyways, I did not want to get too upset on the working days issue as I’m sure the privileged are never going to budge on their stand. But then I read the same article in another publication and this has another demand.

While the BCI rejected the CJI's proposal, it decided to make a demand to the Union government to exempt advocates from paying toll. And what a fantastic reason to offer, -"Advocates render social service to the community". So what next, doctors, psychologists, environment scientist and workers- who all should we not exempt from paying toll for using public infrastructure?

As an ordinary citizen, I feel as if I’m qualified, employed and pay my dues in all honesty- but I feel soon to be part of a breed that will be left without any trace in this country for not having the role of a super human engaged in activities which were once exclusive for the colonial rulers. What legacy we want to live under- the uncommon Indian!!!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Still living in the Colonial Times

Last weekend, I was driving down to Pune accompanied by my father and on the way I saw something which left me with a whole herd of why’s and how’s in my mind. In fact what I wish to express my opinion about this knowing that it can invoke serious irk from a lot of people who guard our national interests.

It is not unusual that there are cars ahead of you which either being owned by a politician or his family members travelling, some central government officer or just someone trying to throw his weight around to be excused from paying the toll for the road. There have been cases where toll booth operators have been injured for just doing their job well and demanding proper documentation towards the exemption. It has always baffled me on how low can some people stoop to evade a toll of Rs. 195 for a car in an era where a litre of petrol costs upwards of Rs. 80.

So this time, when I saw a card being flashed out from a SUV ahead of me, it didn’t take me by surprise. While his appeal was rejected and he paid the toll, what was surprising though the reason he was seeking an exemption: Ex-Army. I could not ignore the smirk the toll booth operator had on his face; it was as if saying, ‘Just about everyone will flash some card to claim he’s exempted’. Which brings me to a pertinent question- why are our armed forces a privileged lot? Why should a well off ex-army try his luck to evade a petty toll?

Lets face it, anyone in the armed forces enjoys a special waiver on anything ranging from a soap bar to a family car. Most of their accommodation areas are from the colonial era; even the recent ones are built to a scale that is much higher than a regular apartment. If at any place they are unable to get accommodation in their own premises, the government has places available to them on rent less than a postal envelope. They have their own schools, waiver of fees in aided private schools and a special quota for their wards across all colleges and professional courses.

Salaries for the people in the armed forces are as per the rank and cadre (I guess the Pay Commission lays out the salary band); but there are special considerations for people having a posting in certain areas or on the border. I am not sure if they need to pay income tax on their salary and if the special considerations attract FBT. (Better clarity on IT rules sought)

Bottom line; I feel our armed forces are a pampered lot; so much so that one even after the end of service likes to throw his weight around. I’m pretty sure the best argument to counter my feeling is going to be ‘We guard the borders and are the reason you sleep at peace every night. We are away from our families on a day you are celebrating festivities. We have deserving to earned the privileges.’

I do not have anything against anyone who will say this to me as each and every word is correct. My only complaint- while I agree to the fact that every facility, privilege has been endowed to the fact that the armed forces stand prepared to lay down their life for the country, why are the para military and state police in such shambles?  Why are the Police line housing quarters a sign of degenerated and neglected state assets thriving in the unhealthiest conditions? What denies the children of the Police and Paramilitary the same quota in colleges and professional courses? How is a CRPF or State Police jawan patrolling in Gadchiroli or Balaghat less in his deeds to face the Naxals?

The answer I believe lies in the origins of the Indian armed forces and the Police and paramilitary. The British Colonial Rule in India was established on the might of its army and naval power. The local Indian princes employed against each other to reign supreme while paying a hefty sum to the British. In due course, the local armies were relegated towards policing within the kingdom while external security went into the hands of the British. Some like the Police force in Mumbai were local militia under the Bhandari’s which got formalized after 1857. All the high ranking officials in the Police were British and objective of all of the local policing agencies was managing the local people and crimes. The Army thereby remained exclusive to manage greater affairs.

The disparities that originated in the colonial times continue even today. The armed forces are given an allowance for posting on a border front or sensitive area, this was in fact an offer to lure British officers to take up assignments in India (otherwise considered a difficult place for people to have home and settle in). The Armed forces have exclusive clubs and golf courses while the Police lack even basic facilities at times.

You still believe I am harsh about the conduct of the ex-army guy trying to push his luck at the toll. Try this- a retired army officer will still demand being addressed as Captain, Colonel, Brigadier, etc; ever heard anyone being called Inspector, ACP or Commissioner once they retire? Reason- you are civilians and we are the armed forces. We have earned it. Fair, but isn’t your achievement as a defence personnel dependent on arms, satellites, technology and efforts of a civilian? The manner in which the armed forces distinguish their superiority is something the colonist would have been proud of.

My closing comment; why 67 years after the end of the colonial rule, we have not yet realized the equal worth of human life dedicated to the nation in two different moulds. Why a cop who is standing  for 12 hours under the sweltering heat to clear traffic, chasing petty thugs, offering security cover during festivities less valued than a jawan standing at a border post away from his family? When valour from both can earn the same Ashok Chakra; why can there not be equality when it comes to the life and facilities they get?