Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Bicycles for the Last Mile





I am a Delhi Metro fanboy. Over the past few months, with the opening of the new Magenta Line, I have found it a lot more convenient to use the metro instead of driving a car.  The rising cost of petrol and parking charges, combined with the daily hassle of crawling through the traffic are factors that make public transport a more attractive option. However, one problem remains - last mile connectivity.

In my case the 'last mile' is about 5km (3.1 miles). So far, I have been covering this distance using buses, autos or the app-cabs (Uber/Ola). Recently, an interesting new option has turned up on the horizon.

A few weeks ago, I exited the Okhla Bird Sanctuary (OBS) Metro station to see an array of bright green bicycles lined up in the parking lot. An attendant at the car-parking lot looked blank when I asked him about the bicycles. There were no boards either to explain why ~20 bicyles were lined up there. 

Just as I was about to leave, a lady rode in, left the bicycle in the vicinity, checked something on her mobile and hurried into the station. This is when it occured to me that I was seeing the first batch of dockless, IOT-enabled "smart bikes" in NCR Delhi, from a company named Mobycy

A quick search on the internet tells you that Mobycy is a venture launched last year by Akash Gupta, the former vice president and marketing head of digital wallet firm Mobikwik. The smart-bikes are currently available in select areas of Delhi-NCR region, including Noida, Gurugram, Faridabad and Chandigarh.

Surprisingly, India is a late entrant into the dockless bicycle renting business. It seems the early bird was a German company called Deutsche Bahn which developed the first remote locking systems in 1998. A lot has happened since then:  over 30 companies operate in China, where Ofo, Mobike and oBike have become the world's largest bike share operators with millions of bikes spread over 100 cities. Ofo has 200 million users in 250 countries, Mobike has a similar number in 180 cities, and they are funded by Chinese tech giants Tencent and Alibaba respectively.

The going has been tough for many companies. Gobee - the first dockless bike operator in Paris - has decided to quit after more than a thousand bikes had been stolen or “privatised” and around 3,400 more had been vandalised. City councils in Lisbon and Melbourne have started removing their fleet of oBikes after they were found to be parked carelessly and obstructing roads, subways and staircases.

Mobycy, by launching its operations in the scrappy North Indian cities, seems to have decided to take the bull by its horns. It has made a cautious beginning by creating 'Parking Circles' - designated points where bicycles can be parked, and charging a 'convenience fee' for those that are parked outside these circles. 

This is a great new service and I really hope it succeeds. It remains to be seen if Mobycy has learnt the right lessons from the failure of Gobee and oBikes in other countries.

As for me, I am waiting for a 'parking circle' to appear closer to Sec-105 in Noida. Until then it makes more sense to depend on UberShare and UPSRTC for my last mile connectivity. 

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LINKS & REFERENCES:

* https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/small-biz/startups/newsbuzz/mobycy-launches-dockless-bike-sharing-service-app/articleshow/61961324.cms

* (05Dec17) - https://www.vccircle.com/bicycle-sharing-startup-mobycy-raises-seed-funding/
- Mobycy, has raised $500,000 (Rs 3.2 crore) in a seed round from a US-based angel investor

* (Mar2018) - https://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/are-dockless-bikes-the-future/

* 25Feb2018) - https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/02/25/wheels-fall-latest-paris-bike-scheme-thefts-vandalism/

* Bicycle sharing system - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle-sharing_system


* Deutsche Bahn, Germany - https://www.callabike-interaktiv.de/en?



Sunday, June 03, 2018

One Day in the Gulag




A hot summer evening in NCR Delhi, sitting on the terrace with a mug of hot coffee, a bowl of banana-chips, and a book: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

What could be be more incongruous?

The book describes a world quite difficult to imagine  - especially on a day when the temprature touched +46C! Bleak life within the Gulag - prison camps set in the barren, icy wastelands where the teperature dips to -41C; where the inmates are mostly those who offended the Soviet politial system, and are condemned to spend 10 to 20 years of their lives.   

It is appaling to even imagine a system that destroyed the lives of more than 10 million citizens for the most whimsical reasons. Many were prisoners of war who managed to escape Hitler's invading armies and return home only to be suspected of being counter-revolutionaries or spies. One man was sent as a military attache to Western Europe. After he returned back home, his patriotism and loyalty became suspect after he received a Christmas greeting from an aquaintance. This greeting landed him for 10 years in the Gulag.

The life of the protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Sukhov, is perhaps based that of the author himself who, as a young man, was arrested on the charges of 'making derogatory remarks about Stalin', and spent the next 8 years in labour camps: first in 'general' camps (Ust-Izhma?) with common criminals, and then later in Beria's 'special' camps for long-term prisoners. This book is set in one such camp in the region of Karaganda in Northern Kazakhstan.

Most prisoners did not survive their terms, and perished in the freezing labor camps. Chances of surviving aparently depended a lot on the team-leader of your unit:

"You've only to show a whip to a beaten dog. The frost was severe, but not as severe as the team leader...More depended on the work-report than on the work itself. A clever team-leader was the one who concentrated on the work-report. That is what kept the men fed. He had to prove that work which hadn't been done had been done, to turn jobs that were rated low to ones that were rated high. For this a team-leader had to have his head screwed on, and to be on the right side of the checkers. Their palms had to be greased too.."

Not an easy world to imagine while munching banana chips...  :(

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LINKS

* Book - https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17125.One_Day_in_the_Life_of_Ivan_Denisovich
*

Saturday, June 02, 2018

A Closer Look at Eyecare: Lenskart vs. Titan Eye+


I needed a new pair of spectacles desperately. The one I have been using for the past three years was in bad shape - both the lenses are full of scratches, one of its arms broken, and I felt my eyes had now reached the dreaded zone of bifocals or progressive lenses.

My search began in Kolkata early this year. I thought I was quite clear about what I needed: A sturdy pair of glasses that I could wear comfortably, both outdoors (mostly distance running or trekking) and while working at my laptop. Anti-glare lenses would be a useful feature while driving, and above all they had to be affordable. 

At Himalaya Opticals on near the Dhakuria flyover, I was greeted by salesmen wearing formals and fake smiles. Within a few minutes they figured out that I was not looking for expensive frames or fancy lenses with 15 coatings, and their attitude changed. Fake smles gave way to sneers. I realised their 'target market' was different and that this was not the shop for me.

Back in NCR Delhi I decided to focus on the options available in Noida. At the bustling Sector-18 market  there are at least 10 optical shops that cover the whole spectrum. Just on the street leading to the metro station there were four - Himalaya, Spectica, Titan Eye+ and Lenskart. 

Having scaled the heights of condescension at Kolkata, I skipped Himalaya Opticals and headed first to Spectica. I had been to Spectica earlier and had found them to be a local business run by an elderly avuncular gentleman. It is the kind of neighborhood shop that sends you New Year greetings, where the owner sits at a counter by the door with the fragrance of puja-agarbatti wafting through the doors. 

Today they were saving on the air-conditioning. At a tiny room on the first floor the saleman patiently explained available options: Frames starting from INR790, two broad options for lenses - CR39 and Polycarbonate (PC) - in three brands (R?, Trio, Crisal) with 
prices ranging from INR1450 to INR4100+. The prices of PC lenses were about 50% higher 
than CR39 which it seems were also less durable.





The Titan Eye+ was fancy and spacious. A Tata brand had keep up some standards -  brightly lit walls and shelves lined with frames, lens promos all over and lots of staff in blue uniforms. The gound floor was was only for shades and branded sunglasses while the basement was for prescription glasses, with an optermetrist on stand-by. 

For all the investment that had gone into Eye+ the shop did not offer many choices. Even those that were available seemed rather expensive compared to Spectica - a wire-frame that cost INR79o was priced here at INR3200! Of course the gave me some spiel about 'real titanium' and 'top quality'.

I got my eyes tested. The optermetrist examined my eyes through an Autorefractor through which I saw a colorful air baloon turn from a blur into sharp focus, and within a few minutes a print emerged from the machine with the test results - a confirmation that I had a near-vision problem as well. Now came the bit about lenses. Over here, CR39 with a narrow 'corridor' was priced at INR4750/lens and a one at INR8750/lens. PC lenses were about 50% more expensive and if I were to choose Crisal lenses they cost much more than the Eye+ brand. So, at the very least, it would cost about INR12,000 to get one pair of glasses. If you had deeper pockets you could opt for a custom made lens that would cost over INR29,000. Not my cup of tea.



Final stop: Lenskart. Located a few meters away from Eye+ this outlet was much smaller but the space was designed much better - plenty of choices with additional options shown on tabs, and a better equipped optermetrist. Unlike Spectica and Eye+ this place was also teeming with customers, most of whom had come here after checking out the Lenskart website. Also unlike any of the outlets I had seen so far the staff was better trained - much better on customer focus, with excellent coordination within the team.  

I was guided through available options, and to my delight they had quite a range within my budget and a "buy one, get one" option to boot. I selected two pairs and headed for my second eye-test of the day. Surprisingly, the autorefractor here gave a different set of readings though it did reconfirm that I needed bifocals/progressives. Now came the second surprise - the cost of two pairs of spectacles, one with progressive lenses (Kodak, wide transition) and the other one PC (Tokai Lutina), was less than the cost of a single pair at Eye+!

Lenskart did leave me puzzled though with items in the final bill. It had listed a 'Gold Membership'  fees (I never asked for one) for INR500 which was cancelled out by a 'Gift Voucher' of the same amount. It also takes much longer to deliver - the bills says 14 days but the sales team said it would arrive within a week.

On the whole Lenskart seemed to offer much better 'customer experience' and value for money, compared to its main competitor Titan Eye+ as well as the local opticals. Now lets see if the quality of the final products lives up to expectations... 

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LINKS & REFERENCES

* (9Dec17) - Lenskart news - https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/venture-capital/lenskart 
* Machines with the Optermetrist 
- http://www.goldenvisionclinic.com/vision-tools/
- https://www.verywellhealth.com/eye-examination-equipment-4020398
* EndMyopia on CR39 lenses - https://endmyopia.org/cr-39-vs-polycarbonate-lenses/

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Maps: Getting Your Bearings Right


A flick of your finger - that is all it takes now to zoom through the most detailed maps. Every now and then, whenever I call a cab from Uber or Ola, locate an office or eatery, wander through Google Earth or just seek the easiest way to dodge traffic jams, I wonder at the many conveniences we now take for granted. 

Come to think of it: Mapmaking has indeed come a long, long way. 

In India it started in 1802 as a project initiated by the East India Company to ensure accuracy when it came to exploiting newly subjugated territories, and for waging military campaigns. A project that started out from Mysore, after the defeat of Tipu Sultan, went on to be called the Great Trignometrical Survey.

Using nothing more than ropes, link-chains and theodolites, an infantry officer, William Lambton and his team calculated heights and distances across the entire subcontinent. It was during this survey that the highest mountain peak on earth was identified deep in the Himalayan ranges, and named after Lambton's successor, George Everest. 

Further north, when the surveyors were blocked from entering Tibet they sent spies who, dressed as buddhist pilgrims, would keep track of the steps they walked each day, to map the rivers and mountains of the Tibet, for the first time. The story of Nain Singh and nephews is now stuff of legend.


The organisation once headed by Everest - the Survey of India - became zealous custodians of maps, all the way from the 1800s to the early 2000 until it woke up and realised, like Rip van Winkle, that the art and science of mapmaking had been revolutionsed by satellites and the internet. You no longer needed a written permit from the Surveyor General of India to map your streets, villages, towns and cities - it was now openly available from satellite images with the finer details crowd-sourced by users.

Willingly or otherwise everyone with a smartphone is now a mapmaker. With location coordinates being uploaded in real-time, along with inputs from millions of accelerometers, we all now have access to fairly accurate information to help us plan better.

What are the ways in which your location coordinates are being shared over the networks?

* LatLong: Traditional ways of marking a location with lattitude-longitude coordinates with a little help from all the GPS satellites hovering in the MEO ~20,000 km up there. Online tools now allow you to get both coordinates up to 14 decimals!

* DMS: A standard developed by World Geodetic System (WDS-84) goes in the Degrees-Minutes-Seconds (DMS) format and is said to have an accuracy of up to 1cm!

* Plus Codes: Perhaps the latest format, this was developed by Google as Open Location Codes. A plus code is 10 characters long, with a plus sign before the last two. It consists of two parts: (1) The first four characters are the area code, describing a region of roughly 100 x 100 km, and (2) The last six characters are the local code, describing the neighborhood and the building, an area of roughly 14 x 14 meters – about the size of one half of a - basketball court.

Add any of these codes to a spreadsheet and you can easily create maps that get your bearings right, down to the 14th decimal!

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LINKS:

- Geolocation Coordinates -- https://www.maps.ie/coordinates.html
- GPS Coordinates - https://www.gps-coordinates.net/
- Google OLC - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Location_Code
Plus Codes - https://plus.codes/ 

- Data Visualizaition Tools - http://bigdata-madesimple.com/8-effective-and-useful-data-visualization-tools-for-mapping/
- Google My Maps - https://developers.google.com/maps/support/kmlmaps
- KML files - Keyhole Markup Language - https://developers.google.com/kml/documentation/kml_tut

- Importing Spreadsheets into Google Maps - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gYa8PtGi4GY

BOOKS:

* Keay, John (2010): The Great Arc: The Dramatic Story of How India Was Mapped and Everest was Named

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Meeting the Snakeman


About 16 years ago, while rummaging through the second-hand book market at Daryaganj, Delhi, I had picked up a biography simply out of curiosity - "Snakeman: The Story of a Naturalist". It was the fascinating story of Romulus Whitaker, the American-born Indian herpetologist who has done more for building awareness - and respect - for snakes and reptiles in India than anybody else.

It is truly the 'power of one'; of what a single committed, determined individual can achieve, despite all odds. Despite the cynicism and active discouragement of numerous people, he mobilized the Irula tribesmen into a cooperative that helps manufacture precious anti-venom serum which saves thousands of lives in India every year. It also provides valuable alternate employment to the Irulas who had been reduced to a life of poverty and destitution after a ban was imposed on their main livelihood - the export of snake-hides (Wildlife Protection Act 1972).

Last week, I had a chance to meet the great man himself, at an event organised by the Indian Express in New Delhi. 

There were so many things I did not know. I was surprised to learn (or be reminded, if that's a better word), that not all snakes lay eggs. Vipers give birth to live babies, and it is for this very reason that they get their name (vivus = 'alive' + pario = 'bring forth'); The deadliest snake in India is not the Cobra but the Russel's Viper; Biochemistry of snake-venom is still not clearly understood - the anti-venon-serum for vipers in Tamil Nadu is not quite effective for the larger vipers found in Rajasthan. I also did not know that the bite of a Krait is so painless that most people do not know that they have been bitten - until it is too late!

Here is a collection of three videos Rom Whitaker has made recently, to raise awareness on deadly snakes, snake-bites and rescue. Not many people seem to know about these educational videos, so here are the links:

* FOUR DEADLIEST SNAKES OF INDIA


* SNAKEBITE


* SNAKE RESCUE - THE EXPERT WAY


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LINKS:

* WIldlife Protection Act, 1972 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wildlife_Protection_Act,_1972
* Irula Snake-Venom Cooperative - http://tcdc2.undp.org/GSSDAcademy/SIE/Docs/Vol3/Snake_Venom.pdf
* Chennai Snake Park - http://www.chennaisnakepark.org/

Thursday, May 24, 2018

On Plumbing and Skilling



There are plumbers, and there are plumbers from Odisha.

A few years ago, frustrated with the number of times I had to pay for replacing ballcocks on our watertanks, I contacted a new plumber. He took one look at the the tanks and murmered, "Fir se nakli peetal!" (Fake brass, once again!). Turns out that the earlier plumber had been conning me by installing cheap ballcocks that actually corroded in water! 

Much like the puncther-repair guys who toss nails on the road to ensure a steady tyre servicing business, our plumber had been installing the cheapest stuff to ensure that he got called in frequently. The new plumber installed real brass ballcocks, and sure enough, water overflow and wastage became a of thing of the past.

Curious about this plumbers' unusual attitude, his Hindi accent, and to know why he was not the regular fly-by-night operator, I asked him where he was from. "Odisha", he said, "One of my brothers works in Dubai...a few cousins are plumbers in Bombay and Kerala."

After this exprience I have been seeking out Odia plumbers, not only for their aversion to cutting corners but also for a certain professional pride they all seem to take in doing a thorough job: using waterprood plastic tape instead of cotton threads for joints, insisting on getting 'heavy' quality spares because they would last longer.

How did men from rural Odisha decide to specialize in a skill-set - and thrive - in the plumbing profession all over India, and the world?

Turns out that there is a history to this. According to DTE, plumbing as a profession was once dominated by muslims. Following the partition of 1947, and the subsequent exodus to Bangladesh and Pakistan, a few Odiya plumbers based in Kolkata began to fill this vacuum with friends and relatives from their villages in Kendrapara district. The profession became so lucrative that an entire region came to be known as "Villages of Plumbers".

Look a bit closer, and as you would expect, it is just a few individuals who have changed the fortunes of these remote villages. One man picks up plumbing skills in Kolkata, hones it at a large company (Gammon-India), and then sets up his own contract-work firm. His nephews branch out to Delhi, set up a larger company (DD Pradhan & Co. PL), that not only takes up large plumbing contracts, but also serves as an agent to supply Odia plumbers to overseas employers. 

In 2006, the Odisha state goverment took the initiative of setting up the State Institute of Plumbing Technology (SIPT) at a village of the plumbing pioneers - Pattamundai. Formal training and certification now adds to their competitive edge. 

Are there lessons here for ongoing mission-mode programme for skill development in India? Our choices are quite stark. India would need 700 million skilled workers by 2022 to meet the demands of a growing economy, and yet, of the 15 million youngsters who join the workforce every year, more than 75% are not "job-ready". They simply do not have the knowledge or skills needed by various industries. With 54% of the population below 25 years,  the so called "Demographic Dividend" may turn out to be a nighmare haunted by unemployed youngsters.

Just as Odiyas from Kendrapara have built a reputation for themselves in the world of plumbing, what are the lessons we can draw here for the hundeds of other professions?

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LINKS

- Sahoo, Namrata (2016), Caravan: Flush with Cash - Inside the unofficial plumbing capital of India - http://www.caravanmagazine.in/lede/flush-with-cash-unofficial-plumbing-capital-india

- Duggal, Sanjeev (2016), The Hindu: Bridge the Skill Gap - http://www.thehindu.com/features/education/Bridge-the-skills-gap/article14556912.ece

- Ranganathan, Aruna (2013): Professionalization and Market Closure: The Case of Plumbing in India, ILR Review - http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/001979391306600407

- Indian Plumbing Association (IPA) - http://www.indianplumbing.org/home.php
-- also trains through PEEP : plumbing education and employment programme

- National Skill Development Corporation - http://www.skilldevelopment.gov.in/nationalskilldevelopmentcorporation.html

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

India's External Debt


According to a recent issue of the Economist, India's financial health is in trouble. 

Rising international oil prices and a decline in exports is straining on our forex reserves, and on the other hand, a large chunk of the country's external borrowings (USD 500 billion now), is due for repayment in a few months. 

Having administered Yen Loan projects a few years ago and seen first hand the frantic to and fro that goes on between external lenders and India's Department of Economic Affairs (DEA), Ministry of Finance, any article or report that sets such borrowings in a larger context was bound to get my ready attention. This one was no diferent.

How accurate was the TE analysis? Which are the external borrowings due for repayment. and what are our options at a time when Donald Trump is churning up the Middle East?

I looked at two sources for getting a better understanding. The first was the latest available DEA Status Report (Sep., 2017) on External Debt, and then QEDS - the Quarterly External Debt Statistics collated by WB & IMF. 

While the the DEA report placed overall external debt at $ 472 billion, the QEDS, which has data from 2017-Q4, puts it at $ 513 billion. So TEs $500b was a fairly good indicative figure.

Here are some other points that emerged from the DEA report, across various parameters:

  • Duration: long term debt was 81% while short-term ones were mostly trade related credits;
  • Types: commercial borrowings (36%), NRI deposits (25%), government sovereign external debt (SED) was $95 billion  (20%);
Source: DEA report

  • Currency composition: US dollar (52%), Indian rupee (33%), SDR (5.8%), Japanese yen (4.6%) and Euro (2.9%); 
  • Concessional debt was just 9.3% of the total - mostly from SED;
  • Debt Servicing: Gross debt service payments  was $ 43.3 billion during 2016-17, a decrease of 2.2 per cent over the previous year;
  • India’s debt service payments are dominated by the External Commercial Borrowings (ECBs) which accounted for 75.1% of gross debt service payments during 2016-17;
  • Interest rates: External assistance (1.4%), NRI Deposits (4.4%) and ECBs (4.7%) -- overall "implicit" interest rate on total external debt - 2.8%;
  • Sovereign External Debt (SED) - $95b in March 2017
  • Debt from multilateral sources - 73% (external assistance) - $44b in absolute terms, of which:
    • Multilateral: IDA ($23b), IBRD ($9b), ADB ($10b), IFAD ($0.3b)
    • Bilateral: Japan ($15b), Germany ($2b), USA ($0.1b), France ($0.4b), Russia ($0.9b)
So when it comes to external assistance by way of concessional loans, they added up to just $44b (9.3%) of the total debt of $471b. Out of this Japan contributes $15b which, at second position, is larger than what we get from ADB but significantly less than the soft-loans from the World Bank. In overall terms, Japanese Yen Loans make up 3% of India's external debt!

It also turns out that there is indeed going to be a sharp increase in loan repayments. However this process started a year ago. Projections on long-term debt service payments shows that repayments were $33 billion for 2017-18, and they are going to be $29 billion for 2018-19, and then declines progressively for the next 10 years.



---------------------------------------------------
LINKS:

* DEA Status Report (Sep., 2017) - https://dea.gov.in/sites/default/files/External%20Debt%20%28English%29_0.pdf

* QEDS - Quarterly External Debt Statistics collated by WB & IMF - http://datatopics.worldbank.org/debt/qeds

* (22 Mar 18) Mint - https://www.livemint.com/Industry/4yerAga6HW5Z1KbvYdnRLO/UBS-sees-Indias-external-finances-at-risk-despite-high-rese.html

Comparison of gross external debt to GNI (source: DEA)

Japan provides the lions share of bilateral loans (3% of total debt)