Thursday, March 22, 2018

Young India - Unsatisfied, Unscrupulous, Unstoppable

"Where you stand depends on where you sit" - Mile's Law

Over the past two weeks I have come across two views on where India is headed, both seem to contradict each other but at the same time, pointing to a common direction while reiterating Mile's Law.

The first was an Explained session organised by the Indian Express at New Delhi where Manish Sabharwal, the chairman of TeamLease spoke of great business opportunities in the India, while the second one was book by Snigdha Poonam titled, "Dreamers".

Sabharwal was amazingly optimistic and eloquent on the direction in which India was headed. Where most liberals saw clouds of doom and gloom, he saw opportunties etched in the sliver linings. Sample these facts and figures -

- Good Times Ahead: 50% of India's labor force is engaged in agriculture which contributes just 13% of GDP, while 0.7% of the workforce is into ITES which contributes 9% of GDP! With more than 600 international companies setting up captive IT centres in India, the workforce of 3.5 million in ITES is set to double over the next 10 years.
- "Cascading Regime Change": We are already seeing the synergystic impact of recent reforms (GST + RERA + DeMo). Before GST there were only 7 million enterprises registered for indirect tax. Now there are 10.5 million -- a 50% increase in just eight months!

Sabharwal's optimism as the leader of one of the largest employers in India contrasted with that of the journalist Snigdha Poonam who saw the great mismatch between aspirations of millions of young Indians, and harsh ground realities.

If you saw a pop-up on your screen warning you of an IRS investigation in USA or a virus in your laptop/PC/mobile, chances are that you are about to be scammed by an Indian. It seems there are hundreds of call centers in the obscure byelanes of urban India, using desperate job-seekers to con the most vulnerable people across the world --  elderly pensioners, single mothers struggling to make ends meet and all those who are already intimidated by technology.
According to Poonam: "Like it or not, young India is what it is - unsatisfied, unscrupulous, unstoppable. Few young Indians had a clear sense of right and wrong: fewer gave a damn about it. 
The idea of personal benefit over public good isn't owned by them, however. It is at the core of India's value system. Sure, some young Indians will cheat their way to their dreams, but they don't see how they are different from anyone in the news - politicians, businessmen, celebreties..."
Sabharwal's TeamLease claims to have hired someone for every 5 minutes in the last few years and provided employment to more than 1.2 million since 2002. And yet, he also admits that his hiring funnel is very narrow - out of every hundred applicants, less than 5 are hired, trained and placed in various companies.

So there you are - the desperation and angst Poonam sees in the 95 who got rejected is quite different from the optimism of those who did. The way you look at the future depends completely on where you stand.


* Explained by Indian Express -

* Reviews:

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Aadhaar - Biometric Mismatch

Last week I found myself in a bit of a fix while trying to book a ride back home late at night.
Standing on a lonely roadside waiting for a confirmation on my Uber ride, I found that I no money to pay for it - there was no cash in my pocket, and my e-wallet account balance was below the minimum INR 350.

My account with Uber is linked to PayTM, a popular e-wallet platform in India. Uber gave me two options for topping up - through my credit-card or directly through PayTM. The latter had been an easier process but this hit a wall with the message which said that my account was not yet KYC compliant.

Know Your Customer (KYC) is now compulsary for all e-wallet accounts as per the new rules set by the central bank. Introduced with the objective of reducing misuse and money-laundering, KYC requires submission of id proof -  details of Passport, Tax PAN or the Adhaar universial id number.  I was under the impression that Adhaar was the fastest way of fulfilling KYC norms. I had done it earlier for my bank accounts and for a JIO mobile connection. It had taken just a few minutes to get an online confirmation.

However, the process was quite different for the PayTM. As soon as I sent my 16-digit number, I got a message saying that a PayTM representative come an meet me personally for a confirmation. A confirmation? Why is additional confirmation needed when, according to UIDAI's own procedures, the number could be used to confirm my identity with their central database? Anyway, since there was no hope of completing the KYC standing by the roadside at night, I went back to Uber and transferred some money to my PayTM account using my credit card.

A few days later, and after a series of SMSs, a representative of PayTM's "partner" turned up at my door with portable fingerprint scanner plugged into his mobile phone. He passed me his mobile and told me to type in my Adhaar number. Soon I got a message on my mobile with a code and a URL with the message - "By providing this code to our agent, you agree to become a full KYC customer of PayTM Payments Bank and confirm acceptance." You have no time to check the fine-print so the agent gets his code.

After this, a mouse-like device is used to scan my thumb-prints. One by one, the scanner moves from my thumb, to the pointer and index, until all 10 fingerprints are covered. For each and every scan he gets a message (from where? UIDAI?) saying that all the authentications had failed!

The look of amazement on my face prompted the agent to console me - "Aise hota reha hai...fingerprint badal jaate hei" (This keeps happening, fingerprints change over time). WTF?? I had heard about farm workers losing their fingerprints to hard labour but my fingers were anything but callused, or even unclean!

How can UIDAI authentications fail in urban areas? A quick internet search reveals that mine is not an isolated case. While authentication failures have been quite common on rural areas - due to incorrectly captured fingerprints, poor internet connectivity or a change in biometric details because of old age or wear and tear - it is now increasingly common in urban areas as well.

The Adhaar UID is no doubt backed by the laws of probablity and complex algorithms but this experience has placed me firmly in the ranks of the Adhaar skeptics. Failing to get an Uber taxi ride due to an Adhaar biometric failure hardly makes a difference to me, but to think that millions depends on this flawed system for their rations is just unexcusable.

Other Unanswered Questions:

* Now that the private sub-contractor to PayTM has all my fingerprints scanned and saved, what are the chances of misuse?


* Scroll on KYC problems -
* How to link PayTM with Adhaar -
* Fingerprint authentication failure -
* Medianama rebuttal to N.Nilekani's claims -

Friday, January 12, 2018

Jaipur, 1727

"Where do the poor in your city live?
Are they consigned to shanties and ghettos, far from the 'gated communities', 
or do they share a common, egalitarian space?"

Earlier this week, I found myself at IHC, a refugee trying to escape the evening traffic, looking for something worthwhile do until it was safer to drive back home. On the boards was a talk titled, "Architecture and Society Series: Future City Jaipur". It was apparently part of a series initiated by M.N. Ashish Ganju, and the speaker who posed these questions was Sudhanshu Mukherjee, an architect who thought that city planning in 1600's was a lot better than it is today.

Having visited and stayed in Jaipur numerous times, this did seem like a tall claim - until the speaker explained how the city came into being. In the early 1700s North India was in turmoil - the Mughals had weakened considerably and Raja Jai Singh thought it was an opportune time to build a new city which would attract businesses away from Delhi, Agra and Mathura, along an alternate route to the ports of Gujarat. Like any modern SEZ, the city of Jaipur offered numerous sops and incentives to traders who were willing to relocate to the new city.

The city was conceived as a nine-box grid, aligned not only to the principles of Vaastu-Shastra, but also the existing temples to the Surya and Krishna/Vishnu. While common infrastructure and services were provided by the state, each Mohalla or quarter was allowed to design living spaces as they wished, after the plans were duly approved by the chief city planner, a Bengali named Vidyadhar Bhattacharya.

The advantage of this flexible planning was that it integrated citizens from various economic and social strata into common living spaces. This, in turn, fostered a sense of belonging and an egalitarian sense of solidarity amongst various communities in the city.  This approach to city planning was later abandoned in favour of Western style grids that separated living and working spaces, in creating cities like Chandigarh and Bhubaneswar that end up looking "more like army cantonments than bustling metropolises; cities built for automobiles rather than human beings".

It seems there have been attempts to revive this approach, such as Norman Foster's Masdar City in Dubai which aims to be a "a mixed-use, low-rise, high-density development" with an emphasis on pubic transportation. Another example is Khuda-Ki-Basti (Hyderabad, Pakistan), and Incremental Development Plan which won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1995.

As one of the few non-architects attending the lecture, I was struck by the pessimism of all the city planners present (were most of them Bengalis?). It also brought out the disconnect and the turf-wars going on between those who were teaching (mostly at SPA, Delhi), and those running their own studios.

In a hall that seemed full of articulate, long-winded experts, if there was one person who made an impression, it was the elderly Ashish Ganju. A practicing, teaching architect who had been staying for the past 18 years in Aya Nagar, a crowded village wedged between Delhi and Gurgaon, he seemed to be the only one walking the talk!

References & Links
* Book - Jain, Kulbhushan(): Indian City in the Arid West -
* SlideShare -
* Norman Foster's Masdar City, Abu Dhabi -
* Khuda-Ki-Basti, Hyderabad, Pakisan -

More Qs:

* How did Vidyadhar Bhattacharya end up in Jaipur? Is there a link between Jai Singh's tenure as Akbar's Subedar of Bengal, and his presence in the desert kingdom?

* In 1739, within a decade of Jaipur coming into being, the Persian marauder, Nadir Shah plundered what remained of Mughal Delhi. In Delhi alone, he is recorded to have massacred over 20,000 people. How many of the survivors ended up in Jaipur?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Power of One

This is one obituary that refuses to leave my mindspace.

It is not often that we see touching, personal tributes to politician who passed away but E. Chandrasekharan Nair seems to have been a very unusual politician indeed. He is being refered to as the driving force behind Kerala's public distribution system which is not just functional (an usual thing in India), but also super efficient in delivering essential provisions (grains, fuel) to those who need it the most.

My own mother is a big fan of ECN. For a citizen who is not below the poverty line (BPL), even she can get 2kg of raw rice, 2kg of chemba (red) rice, 2kg of wheat atta and 0.5L of kerosene - all for just INR 100. "Where else in the world can you walk into a PDS shop and get so much for INR 100?" she asks, "Folks with BPL cards can get foodgrains at INR 1/kg!...even migrant labourers from other states are eligible for this facility!"

In most other states, foodgrains meant for the PDS is regularly siphoned off to private millers who, in turn, package it and sell it as branded stuff. How did one politician manage to fight off the usual lobbies and pressure-groups to put in place a welfare system that actually works?

The key to building an efficient PDS apparantly lies in the government agency that runs it. In this case, ECN was responsible for implementing key reforms as the minister in charge of  Kerala's Department of Food and Civil Supplies, for three long stints (1980-81, 1987-91 and 1996-2001).

Under this department, a public company, Kerala State Civil Supplies Corp Ltd (SupplyCo) runs a vast machinery for efficiently procuring foodgrains directly from the farmers at minimum support prices, of getting the grain processed in contracted mills, and, finally, getting them distributed through 14 district depots, 56 taluk depots and around 1500 retail outlets (Maveli Stores). The sales turnover of this company was nearly INR 4000 crores in 2015-16!


- Obituary (NewsMinute) -
- Obituary (The Hindu) -
(2000) - Interview -
Maveli Stores -
SupplyCo, Kerala -

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Air We Breathe

Over the past one week, I have been analyzing the market for air purifiers in the NCR Delhi region. It is just the right time of the year for an assignment like this - the quality of air here takes a nosedive with the onset of winter.

Today the reports of suspended particulate matter - especially PM 2.5 - were particularly alarming. It peaked at over 715 mg/m3 when the prescribed limit is below 60 mg/m3!

Just before the festival of lights, Diwali, farmers in Northern India harvest their summer crops and prepare their fields for the winter sowing season. Since it is too expensive to physically remove the post harvest residue from the fields they just burn it.  A huge cloud of smoke then slowly drifts over Delhi and settles down with all the smoke from Diwali firecrackers, turning the national capital into a gas chamber.

This year, a one-off intervention by the Supreme Court resulted in a ban on the sale of firecrackers, so there was a marginal reduction in the smog and haze, but it still left most of us teary eyed, and with a niggling irritation in the throat.

Pollution is not bad news for everybody. There has been a spike in the number of companies selling air purifiers, big advertisements in the newspapers point to the fact that 15 odd companies are all set to make hay while the sun shines dimly through the smog.

According to the Philips salesman at GIP Mall in Noida, air purifiers have been flying off the shelves as Diwali gifts. The company is barely able to keep pace with the demand. From what one could see, in their enthusiasm to sell, their glib sales pitch is also barely in touch with scientific facts.

"We human being consume about four kilograms of food everyday", said the Philips salesman, "But do we know that we also breathe in about 24 kgs of air, with all the pollutants in Delhi?" I did not know that. Having been under the impression that the volume of air is measured in liters or cubic feet or cubic meters, I have been trying to figure out the actual volume of air consumed by us everyday.

The World Health Organisation and US-EPA has some clear figures on this. Considering the fact that the air contains 20-23% of oxygen, and that an average human being breathes in about 0.5 liters of air with each inhalation. At about 20 inhalations per minute, we are consuming no less than 6-8 liters of air while we are sitting around doing nothing. This jumps up to 60 liters/minute while running at 5 miles/hour. So it turns out that we are breathing in no less than 14,400 liters of air every day (0.5 * 20 * 60 * 24). This volume would take up all the space in a room measuring about 500 cubic feet!

The Philips salesman might have been talking through his hat, but there is no denying the fact that most of us are unaware of the sheer volume of contaminated air entering our lungs every day!


*  WHO  Factsheet - Ambient air quality and health -

* USA - California Env Protection Agency research -

* YouTube video - How much oxygen does a person consume/day? -


* Oxygen intake -

Thursday, October 12, 2017

On Owls and Idioms

This is one of the most intriguing idioms I have come across.

Translated from Hindi to English, it means, "To straighten one's owl", and the common understanding of the idiom in North India is "get one's work done", in a sneaky kind of way.

For instance, when you are in a meeting that has been called to discuss, say, a cleanliness drive. If you see some participants holding forth on an issue that has little to do with cleanliness but more to do with settling an old grudge with somebody specific, it could be said that he is  'straightening his owl'. He is using the meeting as a means to achieve a goal that is narrow and personal.

It is similar to 'Shooting off somebody's shoulder' but it goes beyond taking advantage of a person or a friend, to achieve you own purposes.

While this idiom is pretty apt in a lot of situations - especially at a workplace, or in politics - it origins remain mysterious. The owl (Uluka in Sanskrit, and Ullu in Hindi), despite being the vahana of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, is considered a stupid bird in North India. So if you do something idiotic, you might be called an Ullu in Delhi, or an Ullu da Pattha (son of an owl!), in Punjab.

Perhaps this is because the bird looks quite lost and disoriented during daytime. However, unlike bats, it never perches upside down. So how on earth did this idiom originate?

Also, are there similar idioms in other languages?


  • Hindi Idioms -
  • 25 Hindi idioms inspired by food -
  • Vahana - (Sanskrit - "that which carries, that which pulls" -

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Nature Watch on the Kugti Trek

Its amazing how the flora and fauna changes in the Chamba Valley, as you ascend from 10,000 ft to 16,500 ft. It starts with compulsive greenery, a riot of colorful flowers and the chirping of unseen birds in the pine forests, then, as you climb, the vegetation first thins down to the bare minimum, and then to none at all.

Here are some of the scenes we managed to capture along the way.

A Monitor Lizard basks in the sun. As you cross Kugti village and trek towards the Kaylong Kartik Temple, they seem to be all over the place - basking in the sun, staring at you warily atop boulders, or just slinking out of the way quietly. 
Why are they so numerous in the vicinity of the village? Is it because of insects that are attracted to the terrace crops? 

Wagtails of all kinds! 
When you are driving from Bharmour towards Kugti you can see them swooping and diving in front of the vehicles. These are mostly Citrine Wagtails with their distinct pale yellow undersides. Beyong Kugti, you see two others: White Wagtail (Motacilla alba) with- white wedges around their eyes, and 
the White-brown Wagtail (Motacilla maderaspatensis), the ones with slick white 'eyebrows'.

Tiny glossy leaves, red berries, cushiony on rocks - Cotoneaster microphyllus (Bhedda)

 And the ones that are yet to be identified:

Yellow flower with a hundred needle like petals - Inula grandiflora (Daisy family)