Monday, November 30, 2009

India's Story

A must watch - Sashi Tharoor talking about India's story.

No Longer a Civil Rights Footnote - Claudette Colvin -

It is fascinating to read about Claudette Colvin, who and not Rosa Parks, refused to give up her seat in a bus and started the fight for de-segregation.

I am fascinated because this is not just the lost hero stuff. This also tells us a lot about political communication. One feels almost offended, defrauded, for being told the wrong story for such a long time. One may somewhat understand the political expediency in choosing Rosa Parks ahead of her to do this - she was calmer, more sellable.

That's not the point. The point is that this story should have come out earlier. May be I am expecting Ms Parks to say, when she was interviewed and turned into a celebrity, 'but it was actually Claudette who started all this'.

No Longer a Civil Rights Footnote - Claudette Colvin - "From Footnote to Fame in Civil Rights History"

Foreign Universities in India: The Bill Sent Back

The Prime Minister's Office has sent back the bill allowing the Foreign Universities to operate in India for revisions.

Not again! This bill is jinxed, and have been in a state of flux for more than seven years now.

But, as I learnt why, I am truly surprised. My expectations were the obvious: The PMO has found that there are too many privileges being given out in the bill, and hence, held back its approval. Quite the opposite, in fact. The PMO realized that the bill does not make it attractive enough for foreign education providers to come to India. They want to get this thing right the first time and hence, appointed a set of people to review this.

That's more pragmatic than you would expect from our usually pragmatic Prime Minister. He is on a roll, truly.

My earlier enthusiasm about allowing foreign universities in India were variously put down by the readers. It is still too difficult to set up shop in India and do anything meaningful. Besides, there were questions about quota restrictions etc. One expected only the second rate colleges to open up shops in India. True, because the top ones can anyway attract Indian students at their home base anyway.

But it seems that the PMO knows those things too. The Prime Minister was talking about the importance of educational collaboration between US and India when he was in Washington recently and it seems that he meant it. He wants to make the bill attractive to foreign education providers. He seems to get the fact that there is more about this than just saving the money Indian students spend studying abroad. This is a question of our competitiveness about a nation.

I am now hoping that this pragmatism will also apply to Indian education providers too. There is a huge void there now. The Public universities are in a retreat, short of funds and resources, and they can not anyway handle the hugely expanded Indian labour force. So, private sector education is a rage. But the process is still too difficult and too arcane.

For example, if I am to set up a properly accredited college in India, the government will tell me how many students I can take, where I can take them from and what I can charge. Or, at least for most of them. I shall be given about 20% of my seats which I can auction in the open market [not literally, figuratively] and raise the money to run the institution. This model is so seriously flawed that this does not allow any serious business in Education. The only way people can make money is by selling the degrees and compromising seriously in terms of student intake for those 25% seats. It does not allow space for any subject which is less than obvious; so while we have an overcapacity for MBA studies, there is very little to study media or design. There is almost no effort on research, or very little.

The mess is not just chaotic, it is hurting our competitiveness. There is no dearth of private colleges, but it is usually a corrupt business. It is set up to be so: Too many regulations, too many restrictions. So, degrees are being auctioned and the labour market is becoming unfairly skewed. The government may argue that most of the colleges were run by charities and they were not supposed to make money anyway. But that itself is a problem, and the government should surely knew better that the charities are usually a front. There is a market opportunity in education in India: It is foolish to expect a non-market solution will ever solve it.

Foreign universities are a step in the right direction, but it is unlikely to solve India's problems. It has to be solved through augmentation of internal resources to bridge the infrastructure gap in education. A tough job, but it needs to be done, if India has to get anywhere near what it dreams to be - a superpower. One just hopes that the PMO will show the same understanding and activism when it comes to reforming India's education infrastructure.

An Obituary: The Invisible Hand

Capitalism has failed. Or, so it seems, standing in the middle of the worst post-war economic crisis. It is not about the house prices, which have started turning upwards, or the stock markets, which have recovered some time back. Precisely to the point, Capitalism has failed people. For all the talk of economic recovery, the unemployment is stubbornly high in many places. Carefully crafted careers have been wrecked, families lost their homes and a lost generation has been created. Capitalism as a system indeed failed all these people.

The funny thing is that it was always expected to fail. Despite all the hopes that we have finally beaten recession, economists knew all along that such cyclical changes are ingrained in capitalism. In fact, some of them actually celebrate it - creative destruction is what it is called. This is Capitalism's mechanism of wiping out the old and the inefficient, and create new efficiencies and businesses. The theory is - with progress, societies create vested interests and a rent-seeking class is established; the ones which do not contribute to productive enterprises anymore, but eat away the profits. Such cyclical downturns destroy the rent seekers and restore the enterprise economy, where hardworking individuals create wealth all over again.

Which is exactly what has happened over last couple of years. We know the rent seekers, banks which took away more than 40% corporate profits in Britain and America, and their cronies, the opportunists and middlemen who could access the funds easily and cheaply, and gambled with those in pointless enterprises. The markets, as it should, eventually went out of control - God acting Robin Hood yet again - and the stolen wealth got stolen again.

There are two problems in the script this time. The first, there were lots of little guys who got caught into this. The guys who lost their jobs and their homes. One may say that they were not sustainable any way. But, to work, capitalism must be humane. It does not work any other way. Consider slavery, which may have been economically efficient, but did not make the cut as far as moral or emotional standards are concerned. So, in our age of consensus, brought on primarily by democratic principles, such system will not survive.

The second, the problem is much bigger this time than we can see. The reason is that the recession was not allowed to play out in full precisely because of the democratic consensus. There is pain in a recession; but the redeeming outcome is that it destroys rent-seeking, at least for the moment. This time, that did not happen. Governments across the world stepped in and stolen wealth, primarily from future generations, and saved the rent-seekers. At the end, we have the worst of both the worlds. Little guys are still in pain. The rent-seekers still in their place. And, coming generations have lost whatever they had.

But, indeed, we all know that this will solve nothing, but we refuse to believe it. Wealth itself has a self-correcting nature. It is human endeavour, frozen, in a way. It evaporates even if it is kept in a bunker, if it is not worked upon daily. The rent-seekers, bankers in the West and their various private money clients, come out winners of this recession. At least, for the moment. Consider this a big steal, of public wealth. The countries have handed over their wealth to banks and have now become the ultimate sub prime borrowers. The same make-believe world continues. The credit rating agencies get paid by the banks and rates countries credit-worthy; the countries borrow endlessly and hand over that money to the banks. The rent-seekers have taken control of the information cycle, and bankrupted all of us of ideas.

However, we know the problems now. At the least, we know that the invisible hand is all too invisible, and one must get some regulation in place. The little guys know the real pain, and they are trying to figure what hit them. There is some kind of a pattern across countries: In France and Italy, the presidents' imperial excesses are all but plain. In Britain, the nation of middle-class shopkeepers, the MPs have earned themselves a name of stealing small things, including Adult DVDs and Duck Houses. In America, the hand-in-gloves arrangement with the bankers are all too apparent and suddenly, they are running the country with a British principle: Do not embarrass. The fools played on people for last hundred years or so is running out of time. A day of reckoning seems to be near.

We should be optimistic, though. Last few years have outed the Invisible Hand. It could have turned out to be the scandal of the millennium [though we have just started] - the bankers in deep embrace with our politicians, suddenly exposed to a rude awakening. We have now got a new principle - Too Big To Fail - one very suitable to our time. And, one which is wholly unprincipled. We did not seem to care that there are people who are 'Too Small To Hurt' and forgot the legitimacy of our system comes directly out of the votes, and the pockets, of those small guys. We kicked them. The good thing is - we woke them up now. They would soon want to see the Invisible Hand.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Private Notes: How Sunday Posts May Change

I am on a review mode, because I don't want 2010 to become like 2009, a lost year. 2009 was rather unique in my life, a year which I spent in the permanent resignation mode, somewhat carrying out my responsibilities and not looking forward to anything in particular. The world in general has also spent the year in a PAUSE mode, waiting for things to get better, and to get moving. Whether my approach to life was shaped by the general mood, or I indeed contributed to the general mood, I don't know: Possibly both are equally true. But, at least from my personal perspective, it is time to come out of the cocoon, and get moving, take some risks and make sense of my efforts.

I have a pretty much straightforward agenda for 2010. That of staying in England and make the best out of the opportunity - to learn, to start a new life and to make a difference. I can not deny that England offers a range of opportunities which I would not have got staying in Calcutta, and I have always been too afraid of failure to seriously go after any of those. I have been waiting, in a sense, to reconfirm my decision to stay in England. It is as if I was looking for some sort of external approval, like God appearing before me and telling me that I have done the right thing. This was ridiculous, and yes, I knew it all along. But, I kept telling myself - true to my Bengali middle class roots - that I can ill-afford to fail. The fear of failure was so great that I kept doing things which I neither liked nor were profitable, because anything else would have required me to risk paying rent myself.

While all this was going on, this blog was my quest for purpose. What started as a writing practise became a core thing in my life, and I was consoling myself with the stray comments and few readers, who mostly knew me and wanted to figure out what I am doing, that I am pursuing a distant writing career in some way. It was fun, yes. But it was meaningless, too. Because, writing, like everything else, is not about the outcome - publishing and being read. It is about perfecting the craft, practising without being read, and only expressing well argued points of views rather than random thoughts. I lost sight of these simple facts, which I knew all along, in the exhilaration of seeing my writing live on the web with a click of a button, and more, some of the counters telling me that these are being read by other people. So, while I was living a clueless, mediocre life, I was fooling myself with the illusion of progress in a writing career.

As we approach 2010, this needs to change. I want to come out of the sense of compulsion that I feel every morning - that I must write something - that I practised while trying to follow Julia Cameron's advise of writing morning pages. I must move on to the next level - I must write something good or meaningful, develop a signature style - to make this blog writing make any sense. Besides, I must find a purpose in my life general, and do something meaningful.

Those who know me would know that while I am writing this, I am not unhappy or depressed. I have always been quite capable of self-criticism and I have an infinite capacity to remain optimistic. I actually think those are the only two positive qualities I have, though I am not sure what good these are in getting any work done. But, honestly, while I write this, I am neither thinking what a waste of time the blog writing has been [because it was not a waste of time, but a rather useful exercise at that point of time] nor how I face the people who have been saying this all along [because they said so for any new thing I ever tried]. Rather, my thoughts are on how this blog will evolve and what I shall focus on through 2010.

I shall change this blog to what it was intended to be, Sunday Posts. So, I am planning to start writing this blog only on Sundays, when I shall set aside some time to review the preceding week's prominent events and put together any other writing that I happened to do during the course of the seven days. I am hoping that this will allow me to write better and assimilate thoughts and reflections well. I am also hoping that this will give me more reading time, which I am struggling with at present, and write more meaningfully as a result.

I am also optimistic about what I do in 2010, which will definitely be different from the endeavours that I put up in the current year. I have been too hands off, almost in a state of hibernation. I am looking to get deeply involved in something, spending time 24x7 on it and pursuing my goals through it. Somehow, in the course of last year, I have got into a passenger mode, doing what I need to do but not trying to make a difference: In 2010, it should be a deliberate attempt to push my agenda through. I am also mindful that to achieve this, I must become more uncompromising with how I spend time. I have put up with time wasters quite a bit, which I must stop doing. These are people who are not necessarily bad or unsuccessful, but the ones who are rather the opposite, so full of themselves or so cowardly that they are unlikely to step out of their cocoon and do anything meaningful. Such associations, by spirit, belong to my past and I must now undock my life and move ahead. This will indeed be the single biggest challenge in the coming days: To make a clean break with the past.

I know there are a number of things that I need to do at my end. Starts with how I appear, invariably. I look my part - emotional, a touch eccentric, slightly lost-in-the-clouds intellectual. This is nowhere close to the man-of-the-world image I need. I don't look or talk like that person. I have so far consoled myself saying that trying to be someone else is too much of a waste of a person I am. But, then, I am not sure I have been myself. For so long, weighed by fear, I wanted to conform; I have never actually tried to be myself. So, to be honest, I shall try to stop trying to conform - and remain unnoticed, which I mostly try to do - and start to express myself more clearly. This should indeed change everything; I can't wait to see that happen.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Social Learning: Taking Learning Content to Next Level

Social Learning is the current rage. That's the keyword the Learning Technology providers are clinging on to, the knight in the shining armour who would rescue the stricken companies in the middle of this unending downturn. Learning is invariably social, and even those theorists who would primarily look at the learner as the key driver for all learning activities, can not rule out the role the social context plays. Or, the shared context, as in a classroom, where lot of actual learning happens through interactions between learners or by absorbing another person's point of view of the same learning input. The technology-mediated learning is devoid of this, mostly, because, for all its advantages, e-Learning is mostly a solitary activity.

This leaves it with a crippling limitation. While the e-learning content can be quite engaging, without the social context, learning loses fun, inspiration and ability to inspire thoughts. This may be okay to impart instructions, areas where active thinking and participation by the learners is neither necessary nor expected. Somehow, it works well to impart training on how to perform a defined task, or to prepare for tests. But, this is no good when one is teaching, let's say, strategic thinking, which must start with learners bringing in their own experiences and perspectives on table, and listening to others reflect on those. Surely, a solitary learning experience is no good for these situations.

There are standard ways of creating a social environment of learning in e-learning context. Forum is one of the most used and also one of the most hated words in the discipline. Everyone seems to have a forum, and no one seems to use them. No presentation of an e-learning solution ever concludes without extolling the virtues of a forum, but hardly ever a forum is used. Even outside the e-learning arena, I have seen people getting excited about forums like Yahoo! groups and setting them up with great energy. However, I have hardly ever seen them being used extensively, and more often than not, the forum participation becomes painful with a string of meaningless emails showing up in the inbox all the time.

This is somewhat surprising, because we live in a highly social world. People spend hours cultivating their Linkedin, Facebook and MySpace contacts and lives. In comparison, the reluctance to use the social features of learning environments are surprising. But, one can possibly understand the phenomenon using a metaphor - community parks - why forums don't work.

All over the world, modern town planners set up community parks as the area where people will congregate and conduct their social lives. They set them up at the centre of the town, pedestrianized areas around them and created, mostly, easy 24x7 access. However, in most cases, the community parks became a magnet of drug abuse and prostitution, and drove families and people away from them. In fact, these planned communities had LESS social interaction than the previously unplanned communities, where social interactions happened on side streets rather than community parks. So, by destroying small, integrated neighbourhoods and bringing up planned cities, the urban planners missed the point: social interactions happen in course of normal life, and not outside it.

Same principle applies when one talks about social interaction in learning. It does not happen outside it. I am no believer of forums. I believe that the social features should be contained in the e-learning material itself, and should not reside outside it. I should be able to share my views while in the content, tag it with my favourite YouTube video or bring a friend to chat over it. Besides, people love sharing what they learn, and how they learn, and this must happen not as a separate activity but in the course of learning activity itself. We are already moving from books to e-books, and in no time, we shall arrive at interactive textbooks, with its own dedicated multimedia readers.

Besides, as people learn differently, people participate in the web differently too. The forums, as it exist today, allow only a limited choice of participation. I find it useful to refer to the Social Technographics profile devised by Forrester Research: the six categories of Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners, Spectators and Inactives. I do find this relevant to design social learning activities on the web, as it defines how people will prefer to interact and participate. In the context of this discussion, it is actually useful to share the tool here, so that one can build a social technographics of one's learning audience.

So, in summary, bring out Social Learning is more than just adding a forum on the learning environment. It is a whole gamut of tools and activities, available ideally inside the learning content itself. This is indeed the future space for e-learning, but getting there will take more than just tweaking what we have today. In fact, this will need a paradigm shift and a break with the present, which may mean emergence of new players and undermining of some of the current leaders in the industry, who just do not seem to get the concept.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Road to Copenhagen: Why India Must Wake Up

One week from Climate Change conference in Copenhagen, when World Leaders must meet and decide how they are going to 'save the planet', many countries are still wringing their hands and unsure whether they need to do anything at all. Unfortunately, India is one of them. India is a big polluter in absolute terms, but a minnow when compared on a per capita basis - because of its large population. India's professed stance, for more than two decades since we started talking about Ozone layers and climate in general, is that it will only do its bit when the developed world, primarily America, starts acting on cutting its own carbon emissions.

The logic of this stance was development. India and America are competing in many spheres, and the Indian government did not want to burden Indian producers with 'unnecessary' obligations to the environment when Americans are not doing enough to cut their emissions. The move would have been politically suicidal, it was argued, a permanent surrender, a reminder of the past subjugation and again letting the West get away. So, the 'principled' stance of the successive Indian governments was to have no stance at all, not to discuss climate at all. This was in line with India's refusal to sign Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the ban on Landmines and other conventions which needed international consensus.

Frankly, the crowd at home somewhat loved it. Everyone despises an environment tax. Besides, Indian cities get by on hugely carbon emitting old vehicles every day - the fact that they may start junking some of those 1960s machines was abhorred universally. Some of the new age initiatives, mostly forced by Supreme Court, on different local governments, went badly, mostly for botched implementation. These became a butt of joke, as did all other initiatives like anti-smoking campaigns. When Gopal Krishna Gandhi, the Governor of West Bengal [and also, grandson of the Mahatma], decided to practise voluntary conservation by switching off electricity in the sprawling Governor's House in Calcutta every day for two hours, Government ministers, leftist ministers, ridiculed him for the effort. It was all giving in to America.

Of course, it makes sense for Indian government to insist that Americans must start conservation first. As it would have made sense for Gandhi to insist that the British must first practise non-violence before he entertained the idea. But, he did not do that. Not for any moral reason, he was humble enough to say, but because he could not afford violence. Like, India can not afford a climate disaster. We must act first before we need it more than many others.

For example, and of course I am being flippant here, an average 2 degree temperature rise across the world [and this will not happen evenly] will mean that South England will get Champagne climate in about ten years time. I am serious: I have heard people talk about switching to vineyards in a few years time. The same thing may mean Maldives and some of low lying areas in India, including some of Calcutta suburbs [where I come from], being permanently submerged in water. It may mean disappearance of Bangladesh in a few years, and a lot of refugees into India. It may change the monsoon and crop cycles, and as far as I know, Indian farmers are not prepared for that. More floods in Eastern Bihar, deforestation in Central and Western India. This does not imply West will not get affected, but more to the point - India, like everyone else, can ill-afford a catastrophic, irreversible climate change. It is not a political issue any more; it is a survival issue.

If one wants more proof, look at Calcutta. The city administration and the state ministers allowed old, polluting vehicles to ply many years after all the other major cities have banned them. The logic was, funnily, development - employment of many of the people who drove those old vehicles. It was forced to take some action, only haltingly and reluctantly, after being forced by the courts. The compelling reason: Calcutta turned out to be one of the most polluted cities in India, driving away people and consequently investment, and put one in six people in Calcutta in some kind of breathing disorder. Some observers said that the most affected were those who drove the polluting three-wheelers for a living and their families, with an unusually high incidence of TB. So, yes, they had a day job and earned a little; but spent all of that on medical care and ruined their own lives. The government kept the votes, but abdicated their main responsibility - to govern and to protect.

Apart from the fact that we can not afford Climate Change, the other compelling factor is that we are competing for the future as much for the present. We know that days of fossil fuel are limited. We know that environment will be considered as an economic cost in some way. We know that our cities must be environmentally sustainable to draw investment. We know that we must innovate - and encourage such innovation through policy, therefore - to prepare for the post-fossil fuel world. We know that those innovations are a must, if our own 1 billion people need to join the world that the developed 1 billion enjoyed for so long, without sinking everyone together. So, being anti-conservation is not being pro-development, it is a necessary pre-condition for our development. It is a must for us to remain competitive.

I think we have a propensity to follow wrong models. On Climate, we follow George W Bush. We could have easily looked at Japan, which pursued an independent, conservationist policy without having to be pushed by anyone. I continue to look at various energy efficient innovations coming out at various countries - converters which can create water out of air, solar panels which can satisfy industrial level requirements, LED lighting that does not generate heat - and know that we are getting left so far behind that by the time we wake up, we would have lost our competitive advantage.

We are at what I shall call a Klatu moment. I obviously liked the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still, whose new version has been realigned with climate risk. The message was - the human civilization must be destroyed to save the Earth, because otherwise both will be destroyed. But, then, there is another redeeming message that we should take into heart - we do change at the precipice. We are at the precipice. India must wake up.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Would Dubai's Default Spoil the Party?

The big news today is that Dubai World, the big property conglomerate with many prestigious and some world famous developments under their belt, has requested its creditors to allow it an additional six months to pay a debt of $3.5 billion, which was due next month. The news immediately undermined the stocks of British banks, which were showing signs of recovery, and pulled the major European stock markets down. The impact is more severe because this debt deferment request also includes Nakheel's debts, a Dubai World subsidiary and the one which actually did some fascinating projects; no one was expecting that Nakheel will default as well. Besides, there are several state-backed companies which are defaulting or are near default, which is undermining the credit rating of Dubai's sovereign debt itself. This will limit the state's ability to raise money and bail the troubled companies out. So, suddenly, we see a trouble in the horizon; just when it seemed that we are on the path of recovery.

Dubai was always a bubble. It built a neo-gilded age capitalism, based on wildly speculative property projects. While it lasted, it was speculators' heaven, and properties got 'flipped', sold, multiple times even before they were built. All fuelled by debt - almost all based on cheap money flowing in Europe and America, and subsistence labour extracted out of poor Asian countries. The problem is that most of properties were being bought not to be lived in, but as investments, which is the respectable word for speculation. If one needed to see what is wrong with Capitalism, one visit to Dubai would have been enough: It was rent capitalism at its best.

Now, we are at the payback time. Dubai's companies will have to pay back or renew $60 billion debt in the next 12 to 18 months, and that is a big headache. Capital is fleeing Dubai. Despite the common perception, Dubai has no significant oil wealth and is a pure services economy. So, the credit rating downgrade is lethal, this will make speculators run immediately and getting people to refinance these debts increasingly difficult. If this continues, we shall suddenly see the next chapter of Great Recession - capitalism's ugly underbelly - unfolding in front of our eyes.

Almost the only way for Dubai to save itself is to secure loans from a bigger, oil rich neighbour. Almost everyone guessed that Abu Dhabi can't let Dubai fail, as they are part of the same Emirates federation and share the same currency. Abu Dhabi is cash rich with their oil wealth, and is much less leveraged. But recent rumours suggested rifts between two ruling families, including a tussle on the Emirates Airlines shares. Emirates is possibly the best things that happened in Dubai over the last decade, a professional airline with a convenient hub right in the middle of Asia, Europe and Africa. If Dubai had one advantage, it was its geographic location; this was leveraged by Emirates to the best possible extent. In contrast, Abu Dhabi's success with its own Etihad was fairly limited, and talk of merger was one the air. This did not happen, as personalities came into play, perhaps. Unfortunately for Dubai, the bigger, wealthier neighbour is actually their best chance at this time.

The others who could bail them out, and will possibly still bail them out, are Kuwaitis and Saudis. Kuwaitis already have a lot of investment in Dubai and they may be forced to cover their tracks. Saudis have less at stake, and they were royally miffed last year when Dubai bid to get the proposed Arab monetary union headquartered in Dubai. But, any further meltdown of Dubai may affect the entire region and even undermine the political influence of the Sauds. So, their hand may also be forced now to lend money and restore confidence.

But, the point is, this will still spoil the party. At a time when investor confidence was just about coming back, an ugly bailout in the Middle East will shake the banks and upset the fragile European recovery. Joblessness will spread in Asian economies, as migrant labourers are sent home and this will fuel political turmoil in many of these countries. The Dubai flu will soon become a worldwide phenomenon.

Dominic Strauss-Kahn, the head of IMF, recently talked about the huge exposure the banks still have to leveraged assets and how we may all face a relapse to credit crisis soon. Just when it looked that the combined effort of World governments managed to save embattled economies like Iceland, Ireland and the East European ones, Dubai's troubles are a clear reminder that we are not out of the woods yet. We also have to remember that such economic troubles always have a domino effect, and it only takes a few hours for one country's trouble to spread into a whole region. We know Dubai's story is more or less over, but the bigger question - whether this can be contained in Dubai or does it have to invariably spread over a larger space - will only be answered in the next 8 to 12 weeks. The problem is that the energy to solve such crisis is at a all time low now. Gordon Brown, who took the lead when the crisis hit us, looks battered, unloved and ready to retire. One almost misses the naivety and dumbness of the Bush team; Obama is already so deep into crisis of his own making that he can hardly focus on anything else. Everyone else seems to have their hands full and looking at bailouts themselves. So, Dubai's troubles may spin out of control quite quickly and bring a lot of people down with it.

An Autobiographical Note

Recently, I was asked to write a short autobiographical note, highlighting major learning experiences in life. This was an interesting exercise, as it allowed me to reflect back on what I have done so far. I reproduce my submission below. Two themes became clear to me. One, all my life has been a search. For a purpose, perhaps. And, two, my learning happened in a series of disruptions, when things fell apart or something changed dramatically. It was a worthwhile experience reflecting back.


Growing up in Pre-liberalization India, I spent my school days with a set of rather simple goals: A job in the Government. A marriage, arranged, with a girl from a suitable family. And, bringing up kids to do exactly the same. In fact, these goals were so simple and obvious that it was stupid not to go for it. The recipe was very straightforward too: Study hard. Which meant following the teachers and memorizing the books, and write predictable answers to predictable questions.

But, then, the rules changed. I discovered computers when a few early enthusiasts brought an early PC, which only had a green flickering screen and text messages on its screen, for a day’s display in our college library. I was fascinated by how they could write a few lines of code to turn the screen into a digital clock. I must admit that since I had not seen a digital watch before, that seemed like a magic.

This, indeed, did the trick of breaking down my utterly predictable path of life. The layers of time-bound application procedure for a Government job, together with scores of multiple-choice laden competitive examinations, pointless group discussions and interviews seemed too daunting. Suddenly, there was this alternative possibility, exciting and full of adventure, of living a different life. To turn time digital, metaphorically speaking.

When I proposed to my father that I would devote a few extra hours every morning learning computers while doing day studies for a Masters in Economics, he was not exactly sure. But, he funded it regardless – this was the first time in my life I volunteered to take on any extra work.

It was a sense of purpose, after all, which kept me interested. The future, no longer predictable, seemed to be somewhat visible. Not that I learnt anything exciting: It was mostly business programming using COBOL. However, I enjoyed something on the side: Setting up computer networks and managing them using Unix. This did not matter for the exams we had to write, but this got me hooked. Most of my batchmates ended up in large companies doing data processing, and I ended up in a small, struggling, start-up as a result. One that designed and sold e-mail services to companies, and was the first one to do so in India. It was a world as far apart as possible from the predictability of a government job, or the money I could earn as a stockbroker [I flirted with that possibility too, briefly]; but it was more exciting than anything else I could imagine.

Like, countless hours of debating with senior executives why email could be better than fax. In one occasion, I was asked to draw a diagram comparing how email is sent vis-à-vis postal mail! The pace of technological change was hard to keep up with, and often, half of my working time used to go to learn new ways of doing things. It was exciting to see things change that fast. Until, one day, I had a second déjà vu moment – not unlike my first encounter with the Digital Clock – when, someone, in a seminar on Data Communication, dialled a number in Singapore and logged into a Bulletin Board, which he called the Internet.

Internet, then, was still like a Bulletin Board, where one needed to write commands to get things done. But, it had many things, including the email. Free. We were told that the government was planning to bring it to India. I almost instantly knew that my days of implementing email services were numbered.

When Internet eventually arrived in India, about 18 months later in 1995, I have already changed my job. Instead of competing with the Internet, which was a non-starter, I decided to join a training organization, which took the advantage of Internet boom and wanted to train Indian graduates to do programming. The job appealed to me for obvious reasons – I was supposed to preach to other people what I have already done in my own life. I brought a lot of passion to the job. My sales pitch was my autobiography. The connection was immediate, and I did very well.

In fact, too well, perhaps. I got carried away. I was arrogant to think I learnt it all. By 1998, I was dreaming of web-based classrooms. At work, where we only used trainer-led classes and some videos, things seemed backward. Money was plentiful then. I met an entrepreneur who recently returned from the States and was full of stories about the venture capital industry there. He liked my idea of web-based classrooms. I was full of confidence and bored with the day job. Again, I took a leap of faith, much to the disdain of my family, and walked out of the job just when I was looking, first time in my life, settled.

It ended badly. I was naïve commercially. While we got good clients and projects at hand, I did not fend off my rights with the right sort of contract. The financiers, looking at the crumbling share markets in the States, were getting nervous: They wanted to close in and sale the company before the Indian market crumbled too. I had very little to stop them from doing that. Worse, I did not even have the courage to fight. I meekly gave away all that I worked for, and left.

My decision to leave India was prompted by this failure. This is when the predictable world completely disappeared. I did not know what to do exactly. My ex-employers, a big training company, was generous: They made an offer to take me back and then allowed me to work more or less independently in extending their IT training business internationally. It seemed God-sent, as it allowed me to travel, earn good money as well as work on projects independently. So, I ended up doing this over next four years.

Starting 2000, as I left India, I was working a lot less with technology and more with commercial realities of International Business: regulatory environments, contracts, Export and Import, and nuances of cross-culture. As business expanded and I travelled to new countries, I was amazed to discover how people look differently at the same realities just because they come from different cultures. I started to believe that travel is the best form of education one can get. Every new day brought new learning, not unlike the very first days of my career and my initial fascination with TCP/IP.

So, by 2004, I wanted to see the world. When I left the job I was doing well in, no one was surprised. I was leaving for Britain as a High Skilled Migrant, which meant coming over without a job in hand. It was risky, and I was not that young anymore. My supervisor at work, who was a long-time mentor, wished me luck – said she hoped that I should find my purpose, finally. My best friend gave me a tube map, and a relative arranged a stay in a Sikh Gurudwara.

So, by July 2004, I had started living a different life. The transition from being a rich man in a poor country – I indeed enjoyed my expat life – to a poor man in a rich country was difficult. I was soon working in a warehouse, shifting materials, and queuing up for free food at the Gurudwara twice a day. It was difficult while it lasted. However, looking back, it seemed the best thing I had ever done. It took away the pretensions I grew up with, all the casteist disregard I had for manual work. If education needs to start with humility, this was my crash course in it.

Since then, I have built a career selling e-learning services to companies and public organizations. I wanted to learn the trade and studied marketing formally. My understanding of cultural differences developed – particularly from the numerous negotiations I had to engage into, with colleagues, customers and suppliers. When I was invited to join the board of my current employers, I took it as a learning opportunity: Sure enough, I was soon learning as much about myself as about others. I had a chance to observe different leadership styles, and contrast my mostly Asian clients and mostly European and North American colleagues. I felt I had a deeper, richer perspective on human behaviour and leadership, which would not have happened if I did not choose to travel.

So, that, in summary, is the story of my journey. One that was built around Globalisation in a sense. The computers wrecked my well-set future and the Internet built an alternative one. I chose to travel, taking advantage of the increasing business links among countries. And, since the, I have building a career on the platform of globalisation of knowledge and skills. This has been exciting so far. I am looking forward to the rest of it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

On Cities

I referred to my discussions with Sudhakar Ram previously and my interest and association with his New Constructs initiative. While he looks at seven such constructs - success, work, consumption, learning, governance, wellness and globalization - one of his idea is particularly intriguing. That of a future of villages. It is counter-intuitive, as the model of development we know is based on cities. In our minds, more cities mean more progress. We acquire farming land to build factories, and housing for workers, and count that as a sure sign of economic development. Besides, if someone talks about village-based development, we take the person as either Maoist, or Mad, or an impossible idealist without any grounding of reality. Since Mr Ram is clearly not one of those, it did make me listen up and think through what he was saying. And, it made sense.

To start with, cities are industrial creation. Or, more correctly, modern cities are. Medieval cities were primarily trading outposts. The ones before that were capitals of powerful rulers, where bureaucrats congregated to collect taxes and run the affairs of the state. There were university cities, of course, but they were more universities than cities, and the tensions between residents and the students were always in evidence [riots in Oxford, for example]. But, those times, cities had no independent existence - they were built to extract value from what the villagers produced. The tensions between the cities and the villages were omnipresent - peasants marched on London in 1381 and more famously, on Peking in 1640, eventually bringing down the last Ming Emperor, who committed suicide. It was only with the advent of industry, the cities came of their own. The landless migrated from the villages to the great industrial cities of Manchester and Sheffield at the start of the industrial revolution, and the myth of the cities as the place of opportunity and progress were irreversibly set in motion.

In the nineteenth century, the honour was passed on to Great American cities, particularly Chicago, which inspired world's imagination and attracted people from all over the world. The luckless Irish and other European migrants, pushed by famine and deprivation at home, crossed the Atlantic to find a new life in America. The great factories, which employed thousands of workers and were immortalized by Charlie Chaplin in his Modern Times [as well as by photographers like Lewis Hine], stood at the core of the sprawling cities. That was progress, in all its excitement and variety, and most importantly, freedom.

It is on this last count cities scored ahead of the villages. The migrants, in their faceless existence in the cities, were free of the yoke of social status that hindered their lives in villages so much. This movement from villages to cities freed up so much energy - of people unbound - that this pushed whole nations forward. The freedom to think and act changed our societies irreversibly - it brought on new 'constructs' on relationships, unleashed the sexual revolution and brought in material innovations at a furious pace. The promise of the cities were self-fulfilling, and was well realized.

The developing world, joining the party in the mid-twentieth century, looked at this model with hope and adapted it as its own. No matter whether this was the right model given their realities, this was the only available model of development. The pride of a new country was displayed in its shining new cities: In India, in New Delhi and Chandigarh [and later in Hyderabad and Bangalore], in Pakistan in Islamabad, in Afghanistan, in Kabul. There are others, indeed, but Kabul is worth talking about. Imagine the shining city in the middle of the poor Afghanistan, and one can immediately foresee the disconnect and the decades of trouble that was to come. [The great mistake of Soviet rulers of Afghanistan, says American Strategists, was to try to control the country based on its cities. The Americans are making the same mistake, they add.] What added to the great drive to make cities is, of course, the success of cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, which became economic powerhouses and examples to the rest of the world; however, most of the rest of the Third world cities, barring a few exceptions like KL, became trouble spots and distorted the natural development of the mother countries.

Nowhere this city making is more obsessive as in Dubai, where they built as furiously as Chicago and built a modern day Tulip bubble. My impressions of Dubai, which I wrote about earlier, was mostly negative; I have never seen a more soulless, identity-less city before. Yes, I wandered around in the Souks and tried to explore the old city; but what caught my eye is labour camps, where people lived in sub-human condition; the flagrant racism; the moral policing side by side with unbridled vice; and the unsustainability of all. This was the ultimate bubble city, built on nothing but the excesses of investment bankers and property speculators from all over the world. This was a city at its most artificial. This was a modern miracle, a despicable one.

This is exactly why Sudhakar Ram's vision of villages, not in the ancient sense but in the sense of modern, interconnected communities, makes sense. I must add here that I am not talking about the 'villages' that I see in Manila: Salcedo village is a rich enclave, restricted access community, but not the self-sustaining one that we are talking here. The villages we see are geographically dispersed, environmentally sustainable, rich communities of people. It is connected, so people can do knowledge work, and it allows people freedom of work and thought, while putting the normal social restrictions on behaviour.

I know it is difficult to see. Besides, this can be viewed as a city dweller's utopia. Some friends were quick to point out that when you talk to someone from a real village, they still believe in the liberating power of a city. But, it can be said with some justification that most city dwellers will say the same thing: the redeeming possibilities of a village. Besides, no one is saying village as it is now, is perfect. Our societies treated villages as backwater for centuries, and it will need some undoing before they become livable again. But, the essential concepts - dispersed communities instead of a geographically concentrated mass, local production rather than global commerce and proximate governance rather than centralised big brother - are worth giving a serious consideration.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Leadership in the Connected Age: What We Should Look For

I am trying to develop an understanding of leadership, in the context of today. I think many of our ideas are too industrial age - a concept I picked up from the New Constructs initiative - and also too Euro-centric, though this term is used to mean Europe and America together. I know this is not a new discussion: People like Charles Handy explored these concepts extensively in the 1990s. But, like other concepts, these need to be revisited often.

So, to start with a metaphor. The industrial age leader was almost like the leading horse in the charge of the Light Brigade. First man out. The captain of Titanic. The one chosen to die. General Patton. Focused and Unforgiving. FDR. Unfearing. Dirty Harry. Dispassionate and Professional, though sometimes a social oddball. Warren Harding or Bill Clinton. Presidential from day one.

On a more serious note, leadership so far has been about standing out, standing apart. It was about leading the pack. The leaders absolutely must be 'at the top' - meaning, control. The model is military, the mission is to win. Compromise is a no-no, so is compassion. The leader must be ruthless, unattached - said Sun Tzu - and a generation of leaders, from Jack Welch to Bill Gates, complied.

But, as we decisively enter the Connected Age, this may need to change. Let's understand what we are getting into. 'Connected' is the defining term - suddenly there are communities of people who will never meet one another. There is a bit of a virtualization of life, and of relationships. Distance is a given, though no place on earth looks unreachable anymore. And, life becomes 24x7, not just because of globalization, but because work and leisure blends in, and it is difficult to say which is what. I would not give Internet more than its due credit, but it is largely because of Internet's promise, we suddenly have submarine cables and satellites and very cheap communication tools, without which this would not have happened.

There is also another dimension, which usually remains unmentioned. This is also the age of the commons. In the first phase of the Connected Age, which ends just about now, the mediators gained enormous power. People like hedge funds, which managed the money. People like Microsoft, which dominated our digital existence. Governments, which systematically took away our power while leaving us with the vote [ask George Bush and Tony Blair]. And, big media, which chose to preach, rather than inform [ask Fox News]. But, then, this recession has started doing their untangling. Disintermediation is the term, when suddenly these all-powerful institutions look naked. Fragile as ever. Exposed to its core, and they look much less like their formal all-powerful self.

So, centre of tomorrow's universe is going to be - YOU. Not me, though. It will be a commons centered world, of common men and women. Which is different from the self-centered world that we are just coming out of. Power will shift from nations and individuals to communities, groups of individuals who care about each other and everyone else. You may say that this is an optimistic vision, but one does not need vision to be pessimistic. One needs to look at newspaper headlines or walk down the high street. The closing shops, failing banks, out-of-job Prime Ministers, discredited news channels, shaken big military - all point to the same thing: A Power-shift. It was happening, but the edifice needed to crumble. We needed an earthquake. Happened now.

So, what happens to the leader now? Well, he looks more like Sheepdog than the charging horse. Behind, not front. That's how C K Prahalad sees it. More like Chesley Sullenberger, cool and professional under pressure, who landed a flight on Hudson, and got everyone, including himself, out safe. Less like Winston Churchill, who evoked fear and did not stand down, and remained certain and uncompromising on the goals, whatever the means. The leader looks more like Mahatma Gandhi, who evoked hope, displayed compassion and remained unwavering on the means, but patient about the goals.

So, the leader of the commons is a different leader. Patient, intellectually engaged, flexible, committed to the greater common good. The leader who almost does not lead. Who gives respect to earn respect. Who treats everyone as a full person. A democrat - because he listens - as well as a republican - because he rules by the will of his people. As far as metaphors go, there is another big shift - he is actually SHE.

Yes, like Mother Teresa. Frail. Small. Unremarkable physically. Someone who will not be noticed, except for her sense of purpose. The extraordinary will to make a difference. With a deep and overwhelming compassion. Very subtle, very complex, very feminine. Just like a sheepdog, one may say.

So, this journey, from leading the sheep to herding them, took us several centuries, but we are here now. Now we need New Leaders, who will display a different set of abilities than we looked for before. I shall try to list them down here:

First, the leader must know the way, even if she does not know the destination. We always started with knowing the goal earlier. That was when it was possible to know where we are going. No longer. The leaders today must focus on the journey, while continuously searching for the destination. And, they may experiment with the goal while staying focused on the means. On integrity, on commitment, on truth.

Second, the leader must be ready to compromise. Charles Handy talked about Chinese contracts, where everyone must win. We forgot the lesson somewhat. The connected age is a lot about interconnection. One can't win if the other one loses. The absolute positions do not work anymore. The only way to win in the future is not to remain unwavering, but to know how to achieve the greater common good.

Third, the leader must show humility. Humility is the precondition of learning. On your knees, boys. Humility is also the precondition of love. Of almost all the uplifting things. So, the days of 'You know who I am' is over; it is time to focus on who you really are. There is no shame in frailty or failure; it is human. The only way to win today is to engage with the world, openly and honestly.

Fourth, the leader should embrace doubt and remove confusion. Doubt, questions, is the fountainhead of creativity. Being undoubting is madness in today's world, and doubts do not mean confusion. Being steadfast on the means removes confusion and establishes a sense of balance.

Fifth, the leader should be attached to his people. The military metaphor is OUT - Sun Tzu says that one should never be attached because he will then make mistakes. The family metaphor is IN. We are not fighting a war. We are saving the world, from ourselves.

Sixth, the leader must see beyond the immediate. That is the crux of leadership. Without this, everything else is just good behaviour. The leadership thinking must be strategic, beyond the obvious and the immediate. This is that old metaphor - the leader is the one who gets atop a tree and see the way through a jungle - that remains valid.

Seventh, and last, is that the Leader must be able to tell a story. Not a lie, but a story, which weaves emotions, details and ideas together. Metaphors are important; remember the old fox, Churchill, who saw an Iron Curtain being drawn across Europe, which dominates our thinking even today [for a long time, I visualized Berlin Wall as one made of Iron]. So, are connections - the story is one which we can connect to, not just a parable. All great leaders of all ages talked in stories - it was only the modern ones who dabbled with PowerPoint.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Private Notes: Rethinking Education

I am currently working on structuring the Leadership training initiative I spoke about before. The more I look at the possibility, I feel more passionately about it. The more people I speak to, I become aware of the need for a catalytic change that we need in India, and the desperate need for a generation of rainmakers who will bring this about.

For all the myths about mechanical industrial progress, the leadership that England attained in the Nineteenth century, or what United States achieved in the Twentieth, did not come about purely through the tweaks of the government policy. It was not even pure greed of the entrepreneurs, coupled with an advantageous Geo-political condition and military muscle, that brought about a sustained change in the society. The transformation needed intellectual leadership, experimentation and a commitment to better the lives of all countrymen by a few. India, while it is making great strides in creating wealth for those in the city, still lacks those leaders in its public life.

Most of all, Indian education needs to be transformed. This is a most urgent need, but so far the efforts are mostly misplaced. All the progress in education that has taken place in India over last two decades was about the government abdicating its responsibilities altogether, and the private sector, governed by pure profit motive, expanding the supply of education at all levels, using tried and tested money-spinning formula. The 'big' thing that the government may have done in education recently is to make tentative attempts to open doors for the foreign universities, which by itself is nothing and point to the collective dementia we are suffering from. 'Reforming Education' is not about getting foreign universities, which will end up being mostly middle tier colleges, open India campuses: This should be about rethinking about our future as a country and restarting our education system.

This is needed because our education system have not moved forward significantly since Macaulay's days, and we are still peddling the same, prescriptive, narrow formula of school education more than sixty years we have become independent. We have built a narrow tertiary education system and an education mindset garnered to get people a 'Job'. The whole system of thinking is very narrow, very colonial and completely out of sync with the modern world, which is all about creating all-round individual competencies and thriving as a free agent nation.

Besides, this leads to such terrible waste of our abilities as a nation. While the rest of the world has moved on, our policy-makers and education entrepreneurs somehow decided that most Indians are a somewhat inferior breed and all they can think about is a 'Job'. Hence, they are variably creating a narrow prescription about what can get them a degree/diploma through the shortest possible route, and the businessmen are skimming the market with various job-linked education offers. This leads to too many people pursuing studies on areas they neither love nor have a future in, ending up as a clerk/administrator of some sort. Besides, because investment in these kind of education businesses is so attractive, it takes away all the money and leaves little for any kind of education provision outside the obvious.

For example, one would expect a great deal of demand of environment related studies in India, given that we are a developing country and we must put an even greater premium on our fragile environment in order to keep the development momentum. However, education provisions in this area remains few and far between. Similarly, in education - don't we need a great number of teachers if we have to move forward - or in health care, the options are limited and often low quality. While every entrepreneur worth his salt opening management and engineering schools, all the other areas, including the lucrative ones like media studies, design and law have taken a backseat.

Indeed, the government regulation has a role to play. For a private school, the government decides the number of seats and how much one can charge - effectively limiting the revenue potential through a bureaucratic and cumbersome process. All the entrepreneur has to make do with is 25% of the allotted seats, which he can auction at any price. The system defies common sense and has permanently created a black market for education in India, often drawing black money, corruption and various other kinds of compromises. The system allows no way of making money straight - and only encourages men of property, who needs to find a respectable use of their property rather than leaving it fallow at times like this, to enter into the business of education. However, the government, as in any other country, is terrible bad at letting things go, and education is one area where they are messing up big time.

This is indeed not an environment where you can educate and bring up public intellectuals. In fact, it is a challenge to find a small slot in the schedule of an engineering and management school to be dedicated to community thinking. One of my ideas was to offer an International Internship to these students, the only twist being that I take them away to work in impoverished countries as volunteers. From the initial conversations I had with a few business schools, it does not seem to fly - everyone wants to come to Europe and work for big name brands.

I am still hopeful that I can create a leadership school, as a not-for-profit entity, with the objective of creating public leaders. I am at a stage when I need to think about how to structure this initiative and how to find money to set this up, but I am also worried whether there will be any takers for a programme of this kind. Because, leadership surely sounds great, but one may tend to equate the end of course outcome with becoming a CEO, at least a manager, and not with spending an year unpaid teaching small kids in Cambodia. This is indeed the challenge, but, as I said, more I think of it, I feel this is what I should spend time doing. This is a bit foolhardy and way out of line, but I have come to realize that I quite enjoy doing these foolish things.

Bangladesh: A Murder Unhealed

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh upheld the death sentences of the five ex-soldiers in the murder case of Sheikh Mujib, the first President of the country. Mujib was assassinated, along with most of the rest of his family, in a coup on 15Th August 1975. The coup plotters accused Mujib of various misdeeds, including nepotism, corruption, dictatorship and selling out to India. Mujib, the enormously popular leader who played a part in starting the liberation struggle of East Pakistan, which eventually become Bangladesh, clearly lost control of his country by then: The coup plotters simply marched out of the Dhaka Cantonment, surrounded his house with tanks and armoured cars and shot him, along with his wife, sons, daughters-in-laws and nephew, dead.

To start with, it was a grizzly murder and needed to be punished. It was long viewed as a political act. The subsequent governments of Bangladesh actually granted amnesty to the coup leaders, including those directly involved in the killing. This amnesty was upheld for more than thirty years, by various governments, for reasons ranging from being direct beneficiary of the act to not wanting to rock the boat. In the meantime, this one event remained unhealed and at the centre of the divide of this fractured country. Murder begot murder and the cycle of violence continued, the military always watching the civilian government with the corner of their eye, and the country going through as many as three mass movements, ones that had to be organized to throw governments out of power, in the last fifteen years. And, all this time, indeed, what used to be South Asia's richest agricultural country, continued to slip behind, into the abyss of poverty, illiteracy and religious fundamentalism.

If there was ever a competition among countries with good people and bad leaders, Bangladesh will surely make it to the top five, if not to the top. It is rare of find such a combination of entrepreneurial, hospitable people led by such a group of unscrupulous administrators for such a long time. Indeed, there were other examples, but the wheel often turned and the charlatans were thrown out. In case of Bangladesh, while it seems unstable from outside, justice seems to take forever. One glaring example is now - it has taken more than thirty years to try the murderers of the first President of the country.

But, it is not actually about the First President. That could be seen as a political act. The accusation of misgovernment were indeed right. Mujib's sons and relatives were conducting a reign of terror at the time. The corruption was endemic. Mujib was, fresh from the success of creating a new country, obsessed with himself, ruling arbitrarily and was pushing for an One party rule through a compliant parliament. He was, rather insanely, planning to undermine the army by creating an elite Presidential Guard, with logistical help and training from India. He made the classic mistake of leadership - he was building a small cocoon around him and started seeing the world through the eyes of sycophants. He lost touch. So complete was his megalomania that he lived in his bungalow, with minimal security, two kilometers away from the Dhaka Cantonment. When attacked, he confronted the attackers empty-handed and asked them to shoot him. They promptly obliged.

We obviously know that you don't go around shooting your presidents every time they misgovern. The debate in Bangladesh, funnily, is exactly about this: Whether it was right to shoot Mujib because he was destroying the country. But, beyond that, the coup plotters did not stop by shooting him. They killed everyone, including a baby. And, then, walked out Scot-free. This current trial is as much about killing Mujib as for killing Baby Russel, and there can not be any political justification of killing a baby.

However, despite its inherent justification, this verdict will still be seen as a political act. The reason is, primarily, that it is Mujib's daughter, Sheikh Hasina, who is currently the Prime Minister. Hasina, along with her sister Rehana, were away in England on the day of the killing, and therefore, survived. This trial, which was long overdue, was brought about by her election win last year, and since then, indirectly caused a mutiny in Dhaka. Bangladesh desperately needs to bury the past and get moving. Besides, the point that the government so far is committed to such trials, but failed to start a broader truth-and-reconciliation initiative, which would have brought out various Mujib-era misdeeds and cleared the air somewhat, will be seen as political, yet again.

Lastly, I saw the debate on the Internet whether death sentence must be handed out. The point of such trials is the trial itself, the recognition of the crime. In fact, it would have been better if lives were spared in this trial. That would have communicated the message: the trial was not about revenge, but about punishing such acts and ensuring that they don't happen again. There is, unfortunately, no point hanging the criminals more than thirty years after the act.

The danger, obviously, is that instead of healing the wounds, this may actually put in motion a new cycle of violence and revenge.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Private Notes: What I learnt in 2009

I am not yet in Christmas mode. Really. I still have a very busy six weeks to go. In fact, these last six weeks appear all important - as important as the last few pages of a novel - where a conclusion must be reached. So, I am not in a summary mode yet. However, I have indeed reached a moment of reflection - a point when I can look back a bit and start thinking what I learnt [and what I still haven't] - which may make these final six weeks more meaningful and interesting.

Contrary to my previous expectations, 2009 did not turn out to be my worst year yet. Instead, it was, like for many people across the world, a lost year. In my life, if it did not happen, it almost would not have mattered. That is a frank admission - I almost sleepwalked through the year, expecting that things would be worse than it actually turned out to be.

So, I gained nothing and am standing, at the end of the year, where I was twelve months back. I can easily project back to a year back - the days before 26/11 in Mumbai - when I was talking about fixing our business model and gaining new skills. Except for a few missed deadlines, I am standing pretty much at the same position today.

Don't get me wrong though - gaining nothing does not mean learning nothing. That's the only thing that kept me going, indeed. It was an year back - on the day of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai - I discovered blogging. Well, no, I did not start blogging that day - that happened back in 2004 - but that was the day when I really needed to talk to someone and blogging provided me the route to do so.

That was a time when I just discovered my love for Mumbai. Funnily, I never spent much time in the city till about middle of 2008, when I suddenly started going, one week every month. Staying at my brother's house in Powai, I became familiar and fell in love with the city. This is quite strange - as I thought Mumbai isn't my kind of city - but I discovered the noises, the life, the aspirations and dreams, of Mumbai quite soon. And, then, the attack happened.

I would not have known where Colaba is even a few months earlier. But, I returned from Mumbai just a few days earlier in November, and the news, first a rather cryptic 'gunshots heard in CST' on Rediff News, hit home immediately. When I mentioned this to my father on course of a phone call, he still did not know about anything happening: He just knew that my brother took his usual train out of CST earlier that evening and returned home. However, in a few short minutes after that, news has hit home: it was all over the news channels, and I would be frozen in front of the TV for next 48 hours. That time, when I felt frighteningly lonely, I discovered the connections that this blog gives me: nameless, faceless people from all over the world who care about similar things and feel a similar horror.

So, one big thing for the subsequent days, and throughout 2009, was my commitment to blogging.

You see, I started blogging to practise my writing. When I started, it used to be a private affair, a sort of morning pages, sort of unedited private thoughts which I wrote as a practise. I kept the access restricted and did not even share it with family: Not that I was up to something sinister, but I did not want to put on a show, be conscious while writing. That changed since the beginning of 2006, when I decided to make this a more public affair, but without the expectation of any general readership. I expected to put up a few photos and comments, and an occasional diary post, to connect back with friends and relatives. So, from morning pages, the blog morphed into a sort of exile's letter home; it was only in the aftermath of Mumbai, I realized the 'social' aspect of the blog, the joys of connecting through thoughts instead of connecting by chance, and started taking it more seriously.

This was one big lesson of 2009, as I went on and on. This will be my 224Th blog post in 47 weeks this year, that makes it 4 posts a week - some feat when you consider (a) I travelled for more than 120 days this year, and (b) I had about 100 comments in all for all my blog posts during this period. Someone observed that I must have discovered a real love of blogging because I manage to go on without much external support anyway. To be fair, the number of comments should be supplemented by the emails I received, which is enormously valuable. Some of them are from long-lost friends who I always wanted to keep in touch and some from people who I respect and would love to follow. In short, it is not the quantity of the response, but the connections itself, was my big takeaway from blogging.

I spent the whole of 2009 pinned to the dilemma about what I should do next. Now, many people got it wrong - this dilemma has nothing to do with the joys and sorrows at work. To be absolutely honest, I have quite a good job, which pays me well, allows me complete freedom on what I do and lets me the world. I also work with agreeable, nice people, who I like personally. It is indeed possible, provided I become more compliant and tailor my expectations a bit, I can spend rest of my working life working with the same organization. The problems are, as it always was, mostly in what I want to do rather than what I have. I have been searching for a purpose in life, all my life, and can't say I got it yet. This is why I keep moving on, thinking about 'next'. I always had enough confidence in my ability and never wanted to work for fear - of losing job and livelihood. And, hence, even in the middle of this recession, I am still searching for the purpose, which, I have now come to realize, is outside the kind of work I do.

This is another thing I learnt in 2009: That I belong to some other kind of work. Work that makes a difference for others. Yes, indeed, earns me a living, without which I can't manage, yet. But I have realized that I should indeed look for a career shift - to that of a writer and an educator - and leave my commercial past behind. There are many values of the world of business I shall take with me - that of discipline, of accountability and of continuous quest of value and better ways of doing things - but I am zeroing in on a more knowledge-based career than one I have today.

Which helps solve another ongoing tussle that I had to handle: Where do I want to live rest of my life? I was inclined to leave England in the next few years, and return to Calcutta. However, I now realize that I need the freedom, of space and of perspective, that this life away from home offers me. I still need this for a little while longer. Yes, indeed, I shall need to settle down some day, with family and all that, but I can possibly give myself another three to five years before I start thinking about that.

So, in summary, that's what 2009 got me. A purpose, which I need to explore outside work, to become an educator and a propagandist of some sort, to make a difference in other people's lives. A sense of community and friendship through my blogging. And, a certain love for England, which allowed me the freedom to think and do what I like to do, and a plan to live here for next few years and use this opportunity to see the world. That's a lot, actually, for one short year: In fact, it may turn out to be the most meaningful year of my life.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Late Stage Industrialization: The Curious Case of West Bengal

The West Bengal government, one run by the Communist Party of India [Marxist], is on its way out. Well, almost - they look almost as clueless as Gordon Brown. Their opponents, not exactly as smooth as David Cameron, are united and single-minded, and has the political momentum. Indeed, the West Bengal elections have one additional year compared to the British one, which is due by June 2010, but at the current state, one can't say whether the additional time at hand is an advantage or a liability.

May be a liability, as everything is going wrong for the government. The administration has lost control over the party, and the latter is busy undoing whatever little credibility the government was trying to build by creating a momentum in terms of industrialization and job creation in the state. In the meantime, the opposition seems to be gaining brownie points just by watching the fun - by sitting in sidelines while Maoists take over a number of villages in the state and threaten the sense of security of the Babus, or by making improbable proposals to government regarding the industrialization of the state.

So, every passing day, it gets worse for the government. Once you are in power for more than 30 years, you tend to run out of ideas. Besides, if you have won six elections in a row, you tend to develop a bit of sweet spot, you forget how it feels to lose an election and rule out the plausibility that this could ever happen. Similarly, the West Bengal government seems to be in denial - they are hoping against hope that something will surely get wrong with the opposition in the next few months and the public opinion will turn again. There is very little chance that this will actually happen, though.

Somehow, the government strategists are pinning their hopes on negative possibilities. One big hope is that the temperamental and inconsistent leader of the opposition, Mrs Mamta Banerjee, will fall out with Congress, the mother ship she came out from almost a decade earlier and the one she is now aligned with. This is a realistic possibility, given that the Congress has taken a conscious strategy of asserting itself in many states and undermining its regional allies in a systematic way. And, besides, Ms Banerjee has proved to be as inconsistent as ever, pursuing petty rivalries with state Congress leaders and even proving herself unreliable in the federal cabinet, where she holds an important portfolio.

However, this seems unlikely to happen. While Congress wants to create its own base in some of the other states, it seems ready to wait in West Bengal. The Congress leadership seems to be showing an infinite patience to Mamta Banerjee, in the hope that she can plausibly unseat the CPIM government in the next election. There may be a cynical calculation somewhere in the Congress Policy-making ranks that she will soon burn herself out after winning the election, as she neither has any coherent policies nor any commitment to ideology, and eventually her party will disintegrate and return to Congress fold. Besides, the current Congress leadership include a few prominent leaders from West Bengal, who are happy to hold onto their cabinet portfolios and keep away any challenge within the party to their supremacy. They are better off ceding the state to Mamta Banerjee, at least for the moment.

The other great hope of the CPIM was that Ms Banerjee's ambivalence to industrialization will be exposed once the West Bengal government made some progress in their own projects. Ms Banerjee has earned her anti-industrialization credentials by fighting against allocation of land to the Tata Car factory in Singur. She took a lot of support from Maoists during the time, and as Maoists are now fighting an often violent, low intensity war in the state, she has found it difficult to extricate herself from the association. However, this anti-progress credentials are not sticking yet, as there is very little progress to show on the other side. After Tatas decided to walk out of Singur and open the factory in politically safer [and sensitive] Gujrat instead, the government's efforts to encourage setting up other industrial units ended in a whimper. Since then, a number of projects have been quietly abandoned; some, like the promised land issue for Infosys and Wipro, two of India's largest IT companies, blew up on the government's face when disputes surrounded the land earmarked for them in Calcutta outskirts. Instead of exposing Ms Banerjee, the recent events ended up exposing the government's own indecision and ambivalence on the industrialization issue.

Yet, this could indeed have been the Government's biggest vote winner. The government could have built a positive argument around this, make a break with its own past and could have projected Ms Banerjee, indeed, in a very poor light. Yes, notwithstanding the Tata withdrawal from Singur, all of these could be done; it can still be done. However, the problem of the West Bengal government is neither luck nor its internal rift - the cadres are mortified and they would do anything that will keep them in power - but a complete lack of understanding of the challenges involved in the late stage industrialization.

For example, the West Bengal government did not fully appreciate that it is not operating in a vacuum, and unless political will to keep the Tata project on track is displayed, they will be incentivized to move to another state. They were in denial even when the Tata Motors management started talking about it: they were expecting that the quantum of investment will keep Tatas tied down in West Bengal. There was no understanding that another state, in this case, Gujrat, can offer so many incentives to shift this prestige project away that Tatas in fact made up their losses upfront from the incentives they received.

Besides, the West Bengal's industrialization programme was too dependent on inviting businessmen from elsewhere to set up units in West Bengal, and too little on encouraging local entrepreneurs starting up. I would consider the success of some of the West Bengal based PC manufacturing units exemplary, but these make no news and completely go under the radar. This also makes the Government's success limited, open to interstate competition and restricted in terms of shirt term and long term impact. The industrial policy of the state failed to take cognizance that there is no value in copying what Maharastra, Tamil Nadu or Karnataka did two decades ago, and will need complete rethink if one has to start industrialization today.

Lastly, the West Bengal government also failed miserably to work on three enabling factors of late stage industrialization - Energy, Education and Environment. The state has become power deficient, and too dependent on coal-fired thermal power plants. This makes the power supply unreliable, and difficult to scale up at the time of demand. The gas from Bangladesh remained unavailable; the Communist Party itself campaigned against nuclear power at the federal level, and as a result, the state is unlikely to benefit from the expansion of nuclear energy infrastructure which will happen in India over next few years. The state has also neglected education, allowing the state-funded schools and colleges become bastions of party politics and removed the last vestiges of meritocracy in favour cronyism in selection and appointment of the teaching cadre. And, indeed, the state did not have an environment policy nor thought it is important to have one. Calcutta became one of the most polluted city in India despite its low level of industrialization, and one in six people there suffered from bronchial diseases. It is only recently, pushed by environmental activists and the Supreme Court, the government has started taking some action, though as reluctantly as ever.

It is indeed possible to turn a page in industrialization and make a fresh start. Eighteen months is still good enough time to get some momentum. But as long as the policymakers of the state continue to take their lessons in industrialization from early twentieth century Soviet Russia and not adjust themselves to the realities of the late stage industrialization, they are unlikely to make any headway. They will only continue to supply brownie points to the opposition; worse, they will also continue to supply wrong ideas, which the opposition will pursue when their time comes.

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"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

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And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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