Saturday, November 25, 2006

are you a man or woman?

this was a very fascinating question i heard ages ago. but before you start getting strange ideas about me, let me clarify.

this question was popped at me during a spritual/philosophy discourse i was listening to.

the question went something like this - when you are in deep sleep, are you a man or a woman? are you hindu or muslim? are you fat or thin? fair or dark? young or old?

and if your answer is 'yes', then it only means you were not in deep sleep :-)

and if your answer was 'no' to all of the above, then what or who are you?

any answers, anyone?

Friday, November 24, 2006

my fascination for plastic!

i think we must be the only country in the world where majority of the population are so fascinated with plastic. and i don't mean 'plastic money'!

look around you, and you won't need to go beyond your own house, and you'll know what i mean.

i don't know about you, but i still collect plastic bags. i just can't bring myself to throw away the plastic bags which you get when you buy almost everything ranging from clothes to food to jewellery and more. i firmly believe that some of these bags, especially the ones from high end stores, have been designed for you to collect and reuse. and being seen carrying these bags is almost like being seen wearing some designer clothes! ok, maybe thats carrying it a bit far, but i'm sure you will agree that we do have some kind of class hierarchy associated with the bags we collect. we would not want to use certain bags for some chores which we believe are far below the status of those bags. we would also not want to give away certain bags when we want to give some stuff to your friends/neighbours/relatives to help them carry it; unless you wanted to impress them in the first place, of course!

and i am also the kind who still feels that there is something very basic missing when i use the bathrooms when travelling overseas. i miss the ubiquitous plastic bucket and mug in the bathrooms. and in these places you don't get them even if you wanted to buy one. trust me, i've tried! unless you were living in an indian neighbourhood! and i realise that it is again a very indian phenomenon. (could those of you living in other parts of the world like the us and uk tell me how you manage life without these critical appliances in your bathrooms?)

and to be brutally honest, i have, on more than one occassion, been tempted to buy some of the plastic plants and flowers and trees that you find in our part of the world. its the picture i get in my mind, when i think of my wife's reaction when i walk home with one of these fascinating creations, that reins in my enthusiasm. but i am convinced that there are millions of people out there, my brothers and sisters with like tastes, since there are tons of such plastic macrocosms being picked up from the shelves across the country.

so there, i feel much better now that i've got that off my chest! you should also try this sometime!

do you have your 'plastic' stories you'd like to share?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

here's one way of ending corruption!

i was introduced to anil bokil in an article written by sandesh kirkire (ceo of kotak mutual fund) called 'abolish all taxes and kick out corruption'. this was a revolutionary idea proposed by anil bokil and i was intrigued enough to get more details from his website -

some of the startling facts mentioned in sandesh's article include :
- the fact that less than 3% of india's population pay taxes.
- the fact that mumbai's population is 1.2 crore but has only 17000 taxpayers with income above Rs.10 lakhs.

in this context the article mentions the proposal suggested by anil bokil which seems deceptively simple and is definitely 'out of the box'. what it does achieve is getting you to think and wonder if there is a catch in it somewhere.

the key highlights of the proposal are :
- abolish all taxes in the country except import and customs duties.
- remove all currency notes above Rs.50 denomination from the system by asking all holders of this currency to deposit it in the bank.
- make it mandatory for all transactions above Rs.2000 to be done through the banking channel, i.e. through cheques, or credit/debit cards.
- introduce a flat transaction tax of, say, 2% on every transaction in the banking system in the recipient's hand.
- such tax amounts recovered to be transferred daily to the central government, state government, municipalities in a pre-determined proportion at a fee.
- cash transactions of a lower value not to attract any transaction tax.

some of the implications of this proposal are :
- reduction in actual tax paid by tax-payers; but increased tax collection by the government
- tremendous pressure on the parallel economy which thrives on the large denomination currency notes (ever wondered why you do not see the Rs.1000 denomination notes?)
- huge growth of the banking industry - higher deposits; rise in banking transactions; easier accessibility to funds for lower credit borrowers; cheaper sources of finance for the rural economy.
- fall in inflation since taxes/duties make up a huge component of prices of all goods/services
- resultant growth in demand for manufacturing sector
- complete removal of the entire bureaucracy managing the tax processes; also huge savings of time spent on tax management by corporates and tax payers

though this proposal sounds fantastic there are many questions and issues it raises :
- the parallel economy would move onto other foreign currencies like dollars
- the banking system would need to be geared to handle this enhanced role; it would also need to be able to reach out to a much wider audience than it does today
- even though funds would be available at lower rates it would not necessarily translate into credit for the farmers and lower credit rating borrowers; such segments which today depend on the cash economy would be starved of any funding
- the huge inflows of liquidity into the system (especially in the beginning when cash is converted into bank deposits) would put upward pressure on inflation
- government spending would still not necessarily become more accountable or efficient
- and most importantly - 'where is the political will to carry through such a revolution in the country'?

but what you cannot deny is the simplicity of the idea, and the fantastic scope of the vision behind this proposal.

i believe that with this proposal mr. anil bokil has at least suggested some solutions and has made me sit up and think. and that, in my eyes, is far better than my just griping about the problem of corruption!

do you have any similar, 'out of the box' solution to this problem?

Monday, November 20, 2006

how corrupt is the mumbaikar?

for those of us who live in india, especially in cities like mumbai, corruption is something that we see all around us. in fact it is almost a way of life; the fuel which seems to keep the city going. it is so strongly established and deeply ingrained in the psyche of the common mumbaikar that you wonder if most things would ever function without this all-pervading corruption! :-)

not for one moment am i claiming that everybody is corrupt and that there are no individuals untouched and untarnished by this scourge. but such individuals are more the exception than the rule!

and i have noticed that corruption is the greatest equaliser in our city where everybody from all strata of society have to make their offerings to this modern-day demon with an ever-increasing appetite.

and the corruption juggernaut is so amazingly well-organised and functions like a smooth well-oiled machine. i can not think of any walk of life which is not touched by the long arm of corruption (it most definitely reaches far beyond the 'long arm of the law'!)

let me list some of the places which seem to be so completely sold out to corrupt practices that it seems to have become the norm.

1. rto - have any of you readers ever managed to get your driving license or got a duplicate copy of your rc book in the recent past by going through the regular channel? i think the regular channels have long been sealed with over-grown weeds and thick cobwebs!
but mind you, you could never approach the rto officials directly and attempt to bribe them! that would be unpardonable and you could serve time because of attempts to bribe a government official.
there is a network of 'rto agents' who will get you a driving license or any similar such document for a fee, part of which feeds the entire rto bureaucracy in a very well-organised manner, with the money (rumored to be running into crores) reaching up into all the levels within the rto, all the way to the top. (i honestly don't know where the top is!). and for a fee you could get a driving license even if you didn't know your left from your right! i mean, what does that have to do with getting a license?

2. stamp duty/ deed registry office - this is another place where you could end up running in circles for days without getting anywhere close to registering your document/agreement if you want to buy or sell any real-estate! all the real-estate deals that i have come across, have had to use the 'services' of the friendly neighbourhood 'agent' who manages to move through the registration office as if he is the lord and master of that place! but you must give credit where it is due! they manage to get your registration process completed in the shortest possible time. and i am told that the amount of money the officials here make if far more than they could hope to make in the rto office. here too the money apparently moves all the way to the 'top'!

3. but the award for the most corrupt set of people i have ever come across goes to the customs department! i am told that many of the officers have to pay a hefty amount of money as bribe to get posted into this lucrative department. for the official it is now a matter of recovering his 'investment' and making a neat margin without over-exerting himself in the process!
i had to pay a princely sum of 1000 rupees for bringing in 'commercial' quantities (as defined by the customs officer) of some shawls which a friend had sent with me to be donated as gifts to some senior citizens! but he didn't want to dirty his hands and got a constable on duty to do the disagreeable job on his behalf. the constable told me that he would get a 10% cut and the rest of the money is shared by the officers all the way to the 'top'! he also confided that the daily earnings of the officers ran into tens of thousands of rupees!

4. the saddest form of corruption i have witnessed is the 'hafta' or weekly bribe paid by the street vendors in mumbai to representatives of various agencies including the municipality, the local police, the local don, etc. the vendor has to pay his share of hafta whether his business has done well that day or not. and in spite of paying this 'protection money' they are not assured of any protection when there is a drive by the local municipal ward to clean up the footpaths of the vendor menace. the truth is that these drives are just subtle reminders from the officers at the 'top' to keep coughing up the 'protection money'! the only protection this bribe provides to the hapless vendor is from the people who collect the money!

so whats the point i am trying to make here? that we must fight against corruption? that we must learn to accept it as a necessary evil which oils the wheels of bureaucracy?

i think corruption in society is a reflection of our own greed and selfishness! i think corruption will thrive and will always be present as long as we continue to opt for the easier way in life!

i think corruption in some way is also an unconscious, social mechanism of rationalising the disparities that exist. for example, the government would like to offer free or subsidised services to society. but corruption ensures that the beneficiaries have to finally end up, directly or indirectly, paying more realistic prices for the services they use. (most often they end up not receiving the services at all!)

no that doesn't justify corruption. i think there's definitely some lesson in here about proper governance, but i can't see it! can you?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

has the internet changed your life?

tons of newsprint and billions of data-bytes have been used up detailing the impact of the internet on our lives.

when i think about it, i realise the impact in our own personal lives is so immense and so pervasive that very often we are not even aware that we are experiencing one of the benefits of the internet.

the internet (and the more popular 'world wide web') is a phenomenon that we have witnessed in our own lifetimes and is something that has touched all our lives in some form or other.

let me list out some of the benefits of the internet that i have personally experienced. i am sure you would be able to add to this list. please do so and lets see how many diverse benefits we are able to come up with!

1. communication - do you remember the time when we used to write letters (i mean the handwritten ones!) to our friends and relatives all over the world? and i also remember wincing at the cost of sending a birthday card by courier to a friend in the us.
the internet has changed all that, and how!

today i can not just write instant emails which i can zap to a mailing list, but i can also talk to friends and even see them through a web-cam. and all this for free. i can send virtual cards for all occasions for free. some sites also remind me of birthdays/anniversaries for all the people (including my own!).

2. business - in my line of work the internet allows me to sit in office and get information on new markets that i would like to enter, i can identify business partners, i can contact potential clients, demonstrate our solutions and make presentations, send proposals, send and receive payments, etc. all this through the internet.

our software team is able to do product implementation, provide support by tracking the functioning of the application at client end and fix problems without having to move out of our office premises. all through the internet!

when i am travelling the internet allows me to keep in touch with office, clients, my team and my family on a real-time basis. i am also able to keep in touch with all the news through the net.

3. collaboration - i personally know a few medical cases where my friends and the doctors sent across all the test results and images across to doctors in the us or other countries who in turn have sent it to a network of other specialists and have got advice on the best course of action to adopt. all this through the internet and without spending a single rupee.

4. entertainment - today i am able to use the internet to download/share/swap music, videos, films, books using sites like napster, limewire, etc. and this has had a tremendous impact on the media and entertainment industry. (no, not because of the fact that i am doing this, but because such services exist and are being used extensively!)

what i've found even more fascinating is the phenomenon of MMOGs (massively multiplayer online game - where millions of people across the globe are playing online games where they take on 'avatars' and interact with each other in virtual worlds. i've never tried my hand at these but i can imagine how addictive they can get.

5. social networking - here i would include all the sites focused on dating, online communities, matrimonials, jobs, etc.

i personally know at least 5 people who have married people they have met through the internet, including a friend who married a bulgarian! if that doesn't count as significant social impact of the internet, then i wouldn't know what does!

most of the hiring that we are doing in our company today is through the services offered by various online job sites.

8. finance - when was the last time you visited a bank branch? i haven't been to one for almost 8-10 years! haven't ever felt the need to go to one. almost everything i ever needed, i could manage through the atm, phone or the internet.

i can pay for transactions online, i can send money online, i can request for a cheque book online, etc.

i can even (if i had the money :-) ) do all my stock market/mutual fund investments online and keep track of these investments online!

9. travel - one of the biggest benefits of the internet i have personally experienced is in the area of travel. i can plan my trip online, do all my train and flight bookings online (and get much cheaper fares), pay for them online and even do hotel bookings online.

10. charity/ religious activities - now i can make donations to various charities online, i can book poojas at key temples online, and even do online darshan!

11. information - there's more information out there than i can handle in my lifetime. my wife was able to help my son with his project on bears thanks to the internet with most of the credit going to google.
i found the lyrics to some of my favorite songs (which i couldn't decipher when listening to them) on

i believe we are experiencing only the tip of the iceberg here. in the near future, during our own lifetimes, i'm sure the internet will be impacting our lives in a far greater manner than we can even imagine!

Friday, November 10, 2006

at the end of the day, we're all driven by selfishness!

if you think about it, every thing we ever do, right from the moment we wake up till the moment we drop off into the sweet world of deep sleep, is driven by our own selfish desires.

i cannot think of a single thought, word or deed that is not driven by some 'essentially selfish motive'.

even the so-called altruistic actions that we perform and social service causes that we associate with are finally driven by some deep-rooted selfish desire in us. we feel noble/good/proud/useful/less guilty when we do such selfless activities. we often firmly believe that we have absolutely no personal agenda in performing such activities. but if we look deep within ourselves and are honest to ourselves we realise that we always do have some personal motive, some rub-off.

you may say that there are some relationships which are not based on selfishness. and the most popular oft-quoted example, of course, is that of the the relationship between a mother and a child. the argument is that the mother does things for the baby without expecting anything in return. i mean, how could you expect anything in return from the baby? but if you ask a mother, she will tell you that she too gets a lot from the baby; and that her actions for the baby too are driven by purely selfish (maybe not as selfish as wanting that irresistible diamond solitaire you've been eyeing, but selfish nonetheless!) motives. these motives could be as basic as the sense of satisfaction or fulfilment; or as far-fetched as wanting to be seen as a wonderful mother by the people around her!

ok, now the pertinent question is - is this bad? is being selfish a bad thing? (i know those are two questions, but they actually mean the same thing!)

in our society we are brought up to believe that selflessness is a far nobler state of being, something that we should ideally aspire for. but the problem is that there doesn't seem to be a practical, sure-fire way of achieving that. that's assuming first that you are convinced that selflessness is the way to be!

so how do we reconcile these apparently conflicting scenarios?

i believe the best thing for us to do is to work towards selflessness and try do the few 'selfless' activities that we do with as much sincerity as possible. my view is that it is far better to be doing some social service or working on some noble cause, even though you may be doing it for some purely selfish reason, than not doing anything even remotely selfless!

i firmly believe that slowly over time we will start widening the circle of beneficiaries for our actions and genuinely start becoming selfless in our day-to-day lives!


p.s. i must add here that the above observations do not apply to the great masters in our country who rose far above their 'selves' to a much higher plane of consciousness where they no longer operated on the 'plane of selfish motives' like us. they had risen so high that any action they performed automatically benefited a much wider circle of people beyond themselves.

their lives can be inspiration for us to try bring, in our selfish way, some selflessness in our own lives!

everybody was once a stranger!

if you think about it, every person you know today was a stranger once! every person you know from the day you started becoming concious of yourself as different from the people around you, from the day you became aware of your own identity, was a stranger to begin with.

and this is true whether the person is your best friend, your spouse, your relative, your acquaintance, your colleague, your teacher, almost everybody you can think of.

even your parents were strangers as far as you are concerned till you became aware of them and accepted them as your parents. (how do you know they have not adopted you and raised you as their own child?)

the only people who do not start as strangers from your perspective are your own children. you know them from the moment they are born. you don't need to be introduced to them, you don't need to get to know them and start accepting them within your circle of 'known' people. they become part of your life from the moment they arrive. no, they become part of your life even before they are born!

your child is not a stranger to you as much as your reflection in the mirror is not a stranger to you!

do you agree, my friend-who-was-once-a-stranger?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

i'm amazed at the investors!

my job requires me to travel around a bit, including overseas. now before you start saying 'wow' wistfully, let me assure you that this is not exactly the kind of travel that you would be enamored about.

i travel to a lot of third-world countries (the politically correct term is 'emerging economies'). these include places like sri lanka, thailand, philippines, indonesia, etc. i don't know about you, but my image about these places was very different from reality. i assumed that these places are worse off than india in terms of infrastructure, amenities, living conditions, standard of living, etc because of the fact that they are much smaller than india. but i was quickly disabused of these notions.

one of the first things you notice in any of these countries is the airport in these countries. and i completely agree with the phrase that 'first impressions count'. the airports at singapore and hong kong are, not surprisingly, very, very impressive. but what is definitely surprising is the fact all the other countries i mentioned above, no matter how small, have far more impressive airports and facilities than the key indian airports at mumbai and delhi.

right from the moment you step out of the aircraft you become painfully aware of the differences. right from signages, to baggage handling, to help & information, to transportation services, to staff, etc.

but stepping out of an aircraft in mumbai or delhi for an indian is such a depressing experience.

let me take the example the airport in my home city, mumbai. to be fair, i must mention here that the customs and immigration facilities in the mumbai airport have improved phenomenally. its far more efficient and speedier than it was a couple of years ago.

but once you step out of customs you feel like you have landed up in some jungle. there's absolute chaos all around. and the worst of the lot are the touts who are trying to catch hold of unsuspecting people and make a quick buck by offering you taxis, hotels and whatever else they can push at you. and the police obviously are nowhere in sight. there's no clear planned demarcation and signages for visitor areas, car drop and pick-ups, public transportation, etc.

and even if you do manage to extricate yourself from the crowds milling around the exit gates and reach the taxi/auto stand you still have to deal with the unique specimen of the indian taxi/auto driver who will measure your worth based on your luggage and the distance you want to travel. and they would always assume that it is their god-given birthright to charge you a fat premium because you happened to have just returned from a trip overseas! and, of course, the assigned policeman is very considerate and is studiously involved in something far more interesting at a safe distance so that your negotiations with the driver are not disturbed!

and once you manage to arrive at some understanding with the immovable mountain and sit in whichever mode of transport you chose, you then get to see the first sights of the great city of mumbai. and that's when you realise that the depression you experienced at the airport was nowhere as bad as what you are felling now as your vehicle navigates through chaotic traffic, slums, beggars, children defecating along the roads, foul-smelling gutters, etc.

now what does all this have to do with investors i mentioned in the title, you ask? well i always wonder what my reaction would be if i were a foreign investor visiting india for the first time to evaluate the investment climate and opportunities here? i shudder to think of the first impression created in such an investor's mind based on the experience of the airport and the ride from the airport to the hotel. i am surprised that most of them do not want to turn and head back home.

it speaks volumes about the companies, the people and the markets in india that the investors continue to flock and pump money into our country inspite of all the drawbacks. but there's so much more to do. and so much of it depends on the will of the government and the attitudes of people.

some of you might say that the focus of our government should not be in improving infrastructure in metros and cities to make india an attractive destination for foreign investments but in removing poverty in the villages. the money that flows in as investments into the country could also flow into the villages, but for that we need a government which works honestly to make this happen!

but all said and done, i still feel restless when i am away from india for some time and its a strange mix of gladness and pride and comfort i feel when i finally land in india. and i realise that i would rather be here than any other place in the world! i look around and i see the energy, the enthusiasm, the confidence, the buzz, and most importantly i see the hope of a new and better tomorrow in the eyes of people!

do you also see what i see?

Saturday, November 04, 2006

why are the trains cleaner down south?

i know this posting is going to sound controversial and offend some people.

but its just another theory that i have, and i couldn't resist sharing my views with you. i mean, what choice do you have? :-)

i believe there is a strong correlation between the levels of cleanliness in our trains and literacy levels in different regions in our vast country.

i have been fortunate to have travelled by trains from pune and mumbai to most parts of the country including kerala, tamilnadu, karnataka, andhra pradesh, uttar pradesh, west bengal, gujarat, delhi, punjab, himachal pradesh, madhya pradesh, etc. and of course within maharashtra.

i have noticed a clear correlation between literacy levels and the levels of cleanliness in trains!

the trains going to or originating from states which have literacy rates higher than the national average tend to be cleaner than the trains to/from other states. therefore as a general rule the trains down south tend to be cleaner than the trains up north. do you agree?

i have come across mails earlier which tell us that we are fairly hypocritical when it comes to cleanliness. we are paranoid about cleanliness within the four walls of our homes but don't care too much when it comes to civic cleanliness.

these mails also remind us of how we are very particular about littering and using dust-bins in foreign lands while not giving a second thought to dropping the candy wrapper (or gutkha pouch/ cigarette butt, etc) on the street/pavement in our country.

but i think this is not completely correct. its a very small proportion of such people who tend to do this. i think most people who have a basic understanding of civic sense (and i firmly believe its not to do with literacy alone) are equally careful about civic cleanliness, whether they are in the country or travelling abroad.

i think, in the final reckoning, its got to do with your attitude towards your surroundings. the sense of responsibility and sensitivity that you demonstrate when you realise that all the amenities around you are meant for the general public, including you.

if this sense of belief is not deeply and strongly rooted in you, you could be easily shaken and disheartened when you see the law-enforcers and custodians of public property themselves breaking these same laws with impunity!

i think the way you and i can make a difference is by ensuring that we do not demonstrate such hypocrisy in our conduct and also ensuring that we educate the people we can in our circle of influence!

lets start with ourselves and clean up our country!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

one man can make a difference

most of us usually feel that there is not much change in society that we as individuals can bring about. we blame the system/government/bureaucracy/lack of infrastructure/lack of time for our 'inability' to make any significant, meaningful contribution.

but its amazing how one man with vision and inspiration can make a big difference and a significant contribution to society!

today i happened to read the brochure of the 'parivaar education society' and was not just thoroughly impressed but also deeply touched and humbled.

i was introduced to parivaar through my wife who's an iim-kolkata product (read on to know why this bit of info is relevant). she is a regular contributor and used to keep trying to share details of parivaar with me. i only had a vague idea about what it did. it was only after reading the literature today that i realised the scale of the work being done. i would like to share some of the details of this institution with you and would sincerely implore you to check it out for yourself at (most of the info that follows is reproduced from the brochure.)

parivaar was started by an iit-kharagpur and iim-kolkata alumnus, vinayak lohani (1991-93 batch) who was inspired by the teachings and ideals of sri ramakrishna paramahamsa and swami vivekananda. he did not take up final placement on campus and instead decided to dedicate his life to the upliftment of homeless children. parivaar's motto is to provide 'home, family and future for homeless, family-less children'.

starting in january 2004 with just 3 children in a small rented building with almost no financial resources, there are currently 204 children at the parivaar ashram at bakhrahat (quite close to the iim-c jokha campus). a facility is now under construction to accommodate almost 500 children!

the children admitted into parivaar ashram are destitute/homeless/family-less and are from categories like orphans, street/pavement dwelling children, children of critically/terminally ill mothers (with no father or other family support), abandoned children, children from rural areas and also from red-light areas. the children are admitted at a very young age (3-8 years) and they come with no educational background. they are then trained in the ashram to get them admission into a quality formal education school.

since parivaar works for total rehabilitation of the children, it provides everything a child needs including food, clothing, education, recreation, etc. parivaar focuses on the all-round development of the child, including physical, emotional, intellectual as well as spiritual growth. parivaar works with the idea of providing support to each child with a minimum commitment of 12 to 15 years, right from their kindergarten stage till he/she grows up and makes good in life.

parivaar has been fortunate to have many contributors (over 350 iim alumni itself). (you can contribute through their website where details are provided.)

vinayak could have become a successful professional like most of us. but he chose to do something far nobler, and something much bigger in life. and according to me he has achieved far greater success in life. how many of us can claim to have positively contributed and changed the life of another human being?

what i also appreciate about his model for the organisation that he has founded is that he has very clearly established the spiritual principles that seem to be inspiring and driving the ethos of parivaar. he very openly acknowledges the spiritual support that he receives from the ramakrishna mission. as part of their spiritual development, the children are exposed to pranayam, dhyana and a 'sanskar siksha upadesh' session which includes imparting teachings on moral and spiritual lines. they have a prayer hall with images of sri ramakrishna, mother sarada devi, and swami vivekananda. they celebrate the anniversaries of these saints.

but vinayak has clearly established parivaar as a non-spiritual organisation with no formal, direct involvement of any of the above-mentioned spiritual organisations.

and thus he has managed to achieve a wonderful balance between the secular and the spiritual and managed to beautify the lives of so many deserving children.

i only wish there are many more such vinayaks who get inspired and create many more such parivaars across our country. and that could bring about a revolution - an educational, spiritual and nation-building revolution!