Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Cutting out the Middleman

A few years ago, Janagraha, a Bangalore-based NGO, started a website called "I Paid a Bribe". It was a hugely popular initiative with thousands of people logging in to report the bribes they had to pay to get work done at government offices across India.

Thanks to this initiative, finally some real data was being generated on how speed money was changing hands. However, limited awareness of the existence of such a portal, and, limited faith in its ability to curb the menace gives us a picture that may not reflect ground realities. For instance, it is difficult to believe that an overwhelming cases of bribery happen in Bangalore city (8300 cases; 10%), and that it is rare in North Indian cities.

A recent op-ed in the Indian Express by Philip Oldenberg has brought out an aspect which is overlooked in the hitherto black-and-white narratives of bribery and corruption. According to Oldenberg, even if an official is honest, all it takes is a the perception of fallibility, for middlemeen to makes piles of money.

Oldenberg gives the example of semi-literate villages who need to get their land valued by government officials. In the face of paperwork that looks formidable, they turn to the friendly neighborhood "dalal" (middleman) who  offered the farmer knowledge, access, and the willingness to dirty his hands, all for a modest commission, with a money-back guarantee.

"...When the officers of the land consolidation department come on their visits, the dalals would approach them in a semi-public way (with farmers watching), whispering perhaps some innocuous something, to give the impression of having a close relationship."

Then, after taking his "processing fees" from the farmers, he would just run the applications through the normal procedures and get the work done. So even when an honest official does not take bribes, the middleman walks away with all the money, reinforcing the public impression that nothing gets done unless you pay bribes!

Which is the most efficient way to cut the middleman out of the system, and prevent him from muddying the waters?

Perhaps it is worth replicating the models followed by MEA's Passport Offices and the Motor Licensing Offices in Delhi. In 1994, when I submitted my first application for a passport to the Regional Passport Office (RPO) at Bhikaji Cama Place, the whole building was teeming with middlemen. At every step, you would be urged to hire "facilitation services" for speeding your application through the red-tape. And sure enough, those who did not pay up would have their applications rejected for the flimsiest excuses. The cost of not paying a bribe would be widely offset by the time and money spent on making multiple trips to the RPO.

Then, in 2006, MEA brought in Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) to revamp the entire RPO system. And what a transformation it turned out to be! Now TCS manages more than 77 passport centres, and has created an efficient online system that handles 40,000+ applications everyday, and has already issued more than 13 million passports to citizens who never encountered either a venal passport official, or the hazards of dealing with a middleman.

What does it take to build similar, transparent systems for all citizen-state transactions?


* Oldenberg, Philip (2016): Why the AgustaWestland bribery scandal reminds me of Miss Marple, Indian Express, 9May16 -

* TCS Transforms India's Passport Offices -

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Domino's Hairy Pizza

Q - What is worse than finding a worm in your apple?
A - Finding half a worm!

I can attest from personal experience that this is absolutely true. A few years back, I was biting into a "Maharaja Mac" at the Noida outlet of MacDonalds when I spied something green and wriggly in the lettuce. It was half a catterpillar.

Not too keen on making a scene at the ongoing McD kiddy birthday party, I quietly went up to the counter, showed it to the floor manager. He held my half-eaten burger with an expression bordering on surprise and amusement, confirmed that it was indeed a creature that blended nicely into the green lettuce, apologised profusely and replaced it with a fresh burger.

I have often wondered what would have happened if I was carrying a camera or smartphone, or if I had called my journalist friends before handing in the incriminating evidence against MacDonalds India.

This question was partially answered last week when I had a similar experience with Dominos India. A quiet Friday evening dinner at home was interrupted by a shout from our five-year-old son - "Yuk! There is a hair in my pizza!"

Sure enough, there it was - evidence of a careless, hairy Dominos staffer firmly embedded in the pizza base.

This time I not only had a smartphone at hand but also a WiFi access to WhatsApp and Twitter. First I called up the Dominos outlet in Noida to log a complaint but nobody was picking the call. I sent a message to the manager (+91  99108 29258). This time he preferred to see the message (the blue double-tick!) and not respond.

The response on Twitter <@dominos> was marginally better with some show of concern ("not acceptable!") and a hint of possible redressal.

A week later, I am still waiting for a response from the local Domino's outlet.

India is now the second largest market for Domino's outside USA. Two years ago, it was already selling more than 120 million pizzas every year from nearly a 1000 outets spread across ~200 cities. I guess customer satisfaction is no longer a priority when you are already King Kong in the fast food market.

So there you are - Dominos India now serves fresh human hair with its pizzas. It pretends to be concerned, but, quite frankly, couldn't care a damn.


* Rana, Preetika (2016): THIS IS HOW DOMINOS PLANS TO WIN THE PIZZA WAR IN INDIA, WSJ, 5 Feb., 2016, URL -


NOTE: The problem with hairy discoveries is that it encourages you to be more careful while eating packaged food. A few days after the "Hairy Domino's Pizza" episode, I found myself biting into a hairy Spinach Lavash Crisp from "Miss Chhotee's" manufactured in Delhi by India Cuisine Foundation PL.  The strand of long, thin hair was, of course, not among the ingredients listed by the manufacturer. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

All for a Foreign Degree

Over the last fiscal year (2015-16), there has been a sharp increase in the outflow of capital from India. Outward remittances tripled to $4 billion till February 2016.

According to an expert, "Higher limits for outward remittances, stronger domestic economy and also more and more students seeking education abroad could have contributed to the rise in these remittances".

Speculation moved to more solid ground when Amitabh Kant, a senior bureaucrat, tweeted:

Under RBI's Liberalized Remittance Scheme (LRS) 2015-16 has seen Indians spent $362 million on traveling, $875 million in maintenance of close relatives and $782 million on studies abroad, taking the total spending to $3.02 billion. Gifts amounted to $398.88 million in the period

So where are out students headed? According to the latest UNESCO reports, 300,000 students from India go to study abroad every year. A majority of them (56%) head to USA while UK and Australia attract ~ 15% each. The rest go to places where “education is considerably cheaper and part-time jobs are easier to secure.” This included Canada, Ireland, Scandinavian countries, Germany and Italy.

It seems Indian students have not yet started following the "Look East" policy. USA, Australia and Europe seems to be the first priority for full-fee students with a trickle of mostly scholarship-funded ones going to Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and China.


* (ET - 1Apr16) - Outward remittances triple to $4 billion till February' 16 -

* BS -

* Mathew, George (FE 21Apr2016) -  -

* (ET-2015) -

* ICEF Monitor (2012) -

* An excellent blogpost on life at NUS Singapore -

* IIE - Project Atlas (2010) -

* MyCollegesAbroad -

* HotCoursesIndia -

* IDP Education -

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Delhi Belly +

Last week, I had the most unusual of Delhi Bellies.

As far as I can remember, this is the first time I spent more than 24 hours with symptoms that went way beyond the usual stomach upset. Even after I thought my body had expelled the last traces of a mutton biryani, I continued to double up with a stabbing pain on my sides, moving restlessly from the bed to the floor, to violent bouts of vomiting, as though the body was trying to yank out a knife that had got stuck deep inside my empty intestines.

Finally when we go around to seeing a doctor, this seemed to be so mundane, so ordinary a case that I was out in a few minutes with this Rx in hand:
  •  Esoga RD (Abott) - Enteric coated Rabeprazole Sodium & Domperidone SR Capsules (BB 1-0-0 before breakfast) - ₹103 for strip of 10
  • Taxim-O 200 (Alkem House) - Cefixime tablets IP (1-0-1 after meals) - ₹130/strip
  • Drotin (Martin & Harris) - Drotaverine Hydrochloride (SOS) -
  • Floristore (Zyventus) - Probiotic culture concentrate not less than 2.5B CFU capsules (1-0-1 about 30 minutes after meals)

The relief was almost immediate. That little knife in my intestines seemed to melt away, the vomiting ceased and I was up and about with a few hours.

How did this little miracle come about? What did the pills actually do inside my body?

Domperidone, seems to have acted on the dopamine receptors and stopped me from vomiting while the Rabeprazole Sodium - a proton pump inhibitor (PPI) - reduce the levels of acid in my stomach so that the real hero, an antibiotic named cephalosporin (Taxim / Cefixime) busted the bacteria (most likely Helicobacter pylori) which was the root-cause of the stomach infection.

On the sidelines, Drotaverine Hydrocholoride (Drotin) acting as an anti-spasmodic, helping with the vomit-control mechanisms. It is interesting to know that the same drug is used to 'enhance cervical dilation during childbirth'!

Th last set of capsules (Floristore) contained probiotic cultures to restore the ecosystem of friendly bacteria in my stomach that would have got destroyed by the antibiotics.

Medical science seems to have got the entire game figured out. The experience leaves me wondering how people coped with food poisoning before the advent of antibiotics...and with rising levels of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), who will we cope with bacteria that have learnt how to deal with broad-spectrum antibiotics like cephalosporins?


Delhi Metro: The Odds of Being Intolerant

It has been a while since we saw our celebrities wielding the broom. What has become of the “Swachh Bharat Abhyaan” launched with much fanfare last year? 

Despite all the sporadic campaigns, many of us continues to cringe when we see children toss empty chips packets out of school buses; car drivers deftly opening the door of a moving car, to spit paan on the roads; shopkeepers tossing their garbage right on to the streets, and people nonchalantly walking past piles of litter on the streets. In our feudal mindscape it is still somebody else’s job to clean up after we have had our fun.

Delhi Metro has been struggling with the similar attitudes for more than a decade now. It has been successful, to a certain extent, in persuading commuters to stand in lines while waiting on platforms - especially at large intersections like Rajiv Chowk and Mandi House. Inside the trains, while it has now become rare to find men occupying seats reserved for ladies, and yet, a lot of people do get away with littering, sitting on the floors (especially in-between coaches), and consuming food & drinks on the trains.

I had an experience last week that illustrates something that had escaped my notice – the dynamics of behaviour change in our public spaces. 

On an “Odd-Even” day and I was returning home on the Violet Line of Delhi Metro. At Khan Market, a young couple entered the compartment, their arms overflowing with eatables - two cans of cola, and packets of chips and biscuits. The man got a ladies seat vacated for his friend, and both continues chomping and drinking as the train moved on.
Eating and drinking is prohibited on Delhi Metro. Having seen numerous instances of spilled drinks and discarded food on the trains, I ventured towards the man, apologised for intruding, and quietly requested him to avoid eating on the crowded train and to put away the drinks until he was out of the station.

"Sorry, can't help it", he said loudly, "we are very hungry."

Duly rebuffed, and not wanting to make a scene, I backed off. A few minutes later there was a huge commotion. The fact that a polite request had no effect on the couple seems to have rankled a lot of nerves. A number of passengers had now taken on the couple, and their tone had swiftly moved from polite requests, to expressions of derision, disdain, and anger.

 Now the shoe was on the other foot. Left with no choices, the drinks and food packets were quietly tucked away, and tempers started to cool down.

As I stood there marvelling at the way in which a tired, disinterested group of commuters had suddenly rallied together to keep a coach clean, it suddenly dawned on me that in a city were littering is so commonplace, we often overlook the remarkable fact that that a vast majority of passengers on Delhi Metro do follow the rules. 

In general, there is also an amazing level of toleration for those who break the rules -- until a trigger makes people explode in rage. The incident also reminded me that there is very little visible effort from DMRC when it comes to enforcement of rules and regulations. Never once in the past ten years have I seen anybody getting fined for breaking the rules.

In countries like Japan, eating and drinking is permitted on the metro trains. These are societies that value virtues of tidiness, self-control, and care for the others, a value system is hardwired into children from a very early age. As children turn into adults, it is not surprising to see that they need very little external enforcement of rules. A stage is reached when people not only regulate themselves but also take on the onus of gently reminding others to do so. 
It is time we become more intolerant about the litter and garbage outside our own homes.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

India-Japan: Poised for Partnership and Waiting...

If there is a code that needs to be cracked, it is the enigma of India-Japan relations.

In a recent discussion with a retired Indian diplomat, one angle of this enigma was articulated - "For more than three decades now, there has been no doubt in the Japanese government about where they want the India-Japan relations to go, and they have almost always stood by us: Construction of Bombay High, 1991 Forex Rescue, Maruti-Suzuki, and Delhi Metro...Somehow, we Indians seem to have always fallen short of our own expectations."

So, as with a cart which has one one wheel moving faster than the other, we seem to be going round and round, in slow, large circles.

Over the years, there has been no dearth of grand promises -- A network of 12 Japan Industrial Townships across India; A Dedicated Freight Corridor flanked on either side by smart new industrial cities stretching all the way from New Delhi to Mumbai; There has been talk of greater defence cooperation, including the supply of Japanese amphibious aircraft (US2), to the Indian Navy; A deal paving the way to "clean" N-power; ...and yet, for all those bilateral declarations, and lofty commitments, there is precious little to show on the ground.

What explains this yawning gap between intent and action?

A recent book by Rohan Mukherjee and Anthony Yazaki (Oxford, 2016), titled "Poised for Partnership", seems to be analysing some of these issues.with the seriousness it deserves.

Mukherjee and Yazaki see a recurrent pattern where "lofty commitments of increased cooperation were often not matched by sufficient attention to the minutiae of how such promises would be turned into reality."

The reviews look good but the pricetag seems rather forbidding. I wonder in which library I could get my hands on a copy of this book.


* Book Review - Business Standard India -

* Anthony Yazaki -
* Rohan Mukherjee -
* Chapter-I -

Fitzpatrick, Michael (2015):  Why is hi-tech Japan using cassette tapes and faxes? BBC Business, URL - grin emoticon

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Lollipop or Marshmallow?

Earlier this week, I received a notification on my android phone. Google was offering to upgrade my mobile OS from Lollipop to Android 6.0 Marshmallow.

"Upgrade available!" is not exactly a great pick-up line - especially for those who have survived the whims and fancies of Microsoft OS upgrades. The message from Google also assumes that its customers are eagerly waiting for an upgrade. I am certainly not one of them. I am quite happy with my lollipop, and especially so when the advantages of moving from one confectionery to another is not quite clear.

Still, curiosity got the better of me and I checked the web for possible advantages of an upgrade. According to the Android homepage, Marshmallow offers -
  • more control on permissions for apps
  • fingerprint recognition - more secure
  • more intuitive user interface
  • better battery management 

Well, so?

I already have some control of permissions for apps from the Setup; Fingerprint recognition may help me in keeping my kids off my mobile, but do I really need it all the time? No. Also,"more" and "better" does not give me sufficient data on either the new user-interface, or battery management.

The final clincher comes from a number which is readily available: the download is 1657 MB. Data download costs money and when the download is more than 1.6 GB you certainly want to wait until there is spare data

Google also promises you that the upgrade process will take "a long time" during which the device will restart several times.

So there you are. Time and money. The Lollipop tastes even better now...

POSTSCRIPT (22 April 2016)

A few days ago, at the fag end of my monthly data subscription (25 GB), I decided to take the plunge and upgrade. Despite a connection speed of 5mpbs+ the download (1.78 GB) and upgrade took about eight hours.

Since I had been warned that all the contents of my SD card would be erased, I had taken a backup. Even after taking the required precautions, it is quite disappointing to see the following bugs after the upgrade from Lollipop to Marshmallow:

  • CamCard - My entire collection of visiting-card scans has disappeared. I get an image of the cards on Google Contacts, but the CamCard app seems unprepared for Marshmallow
  • Scheduled Power On & Off: After the upgrade my phone does not turn itself on at the designated time - 05:30 . Now it has to be turned on manually.
  • Many app now show that they were "designed for an earlier version of Android"
  • The contact list has got messed up - each entry seems to have got duplicated :((
  • There is no sign of the promised "Fingerprint Security" option
  • In "Scheduled Power On & Off", I have my mobile turned off between 12:00AM and 05:30AM. Ever since I upgraded to Marshmallow, the phone does not turn on automatically. I need to do this manually, every morning :(
  • Everytime the mobile reboots, "Data Comm." gets turned on automatically, even if the WiFi is already on. Very annoying.




Monday, April 04, 2016

Kirana Broadband

A few years ago experts had predicted that the arrival of malls, hypermarts and then the online stores would spell doom for the Kirana shops - the tiny mom-and-pop corner stores.No such thing has happened, at least in our corner of the world.

In Noida, corner stores continue to thrive, even while charging premiums, or at the very least, the Maximum Retail Price (MRP) for their goods. Unlike the mega-malls and online stores, they continue to be better tuned in to customer needs. Their range of goods tends to be rather limited but with longer hours (06:30 - 22:30) and options of making monthly payments, the strong point continues to be personalised services.

Something similar is now happening in the broadband services space.

The first-mover here was the state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). They were the first to lay an extensive optic-fibre network and had a captive market of residents with fixed-line telephones. It was a great business opportunity and they blew it - thanks largely to their amazing line-men who just could not kick the habit of demanding bribes, making shoddy wire-connections, just to ensure failures and, in turn, to keep the speed money flowing.

Repeated complaints to senior BSNL officials had absolutely no effect. This was the classic Rhett Butler approach to customer satisfaction - 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn!'

The local entrepreneurs soon sensed a business opportunity. Now we have three competing broadband entrepreneurs - Paramhans Internet, Fiberworld and RT Radiaant. Each of them offers competitive prices, access to an optic-fibre network, and built in multiple redundencies to ensure minimum down time.

For instance, Fiberworld uses an optic fibre network with a set of six Radio Frequency (RF) antennas providing a backup. It was using the optic-fibre network from Triple Play until it switched over to Perfect Internet, a few weeks ago.

The good thing about these local service providers is that they operate on the Kirana work-ethic. Quick response to customer complaints, customised services with no demand for bribes. On the down side, their wiring is messy and ugly, not unlike the cable-TV guys who had a cobweb of cables dangling across buildings. Exposed cables also tempt the companies to keep competition at bay by cutting cables, and corners.

Now all the Kirana Broadband guys are looking over their shoulders, anxioulsy awaiting the arrival of Reliance-Jio, the King Kong in broadband arena.

Reliance Jio claims to have laid more than 250,000 kilometres of fibre-optic cables, covering 18,000 cities and over 100,000 villages, with the aim of covering 100% of the nation’s population by 2018. In the first phase itself, Jio aims to have 100 million wireless broadband and 20 million Fibre-to-Home customers.

Will the Kirana Broadband service providers be able to survive the Jio marketing blitz? Will they fare better than the cable-TV companies that had got decimated by DTH services?

Whatever the outcome, the customers are like to get better, more reliable options, as the days go by!


* Reliance Jio -
* Triple Play -
* Perfect Internet -