Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Kalavati and Kankali

If there was a book that brings ancient India back to life, this must be it.

Kshemendra's Sanskrit classic, "Samaya Matrika" (The Courtesan's Keeper), presents the life and times of a Kashmiri hooker, more than a thousand years ago. For anybody who looks at the mess in Kashmir today this book is revelation of alternative realities that existed long before Islamic invaders, their pillaging and forced conversions transformed the valley into a completely different animal.

Written sometime between 990 - 1070 AD, the book begins - "In Kashmir, there was a famous town called Pravarapura (today's Srinagar). Its name is a byword for worldly pleasures."

The protagonist, Kalavati, is no ordinary hooker. She is a courtesan, a professional well versed in the arts, one who clearly understands the limitations set by an ageing body. When business takes a downturn she decides to seeks help from a friend who introduces her to an old, experienced lady who becomes her adviser, consultant and mentor.

The book brings to life a time when religion was a garment that was worn lightly. You could joke about Gods and their fallibility. It weaves humor and irreverence with homilies that would do AIB proud. Here are a few samples -

"One's youth must be devoted to a special, artful trade -- that of relieving the unintelligent of their money in various ways..."
 "One who has money is honored by everyone...And  the unlucky one who does not earn money, is always a malefic planet: the heartless Rahu, the slow-moving Shani and the crooked Mangala."
"Do not forget that youth, the friend of lovers, is ever passing. It disappears like the pretty spring creepers and the sun's warmth on the lotus pond; like the autumn moonlight...like a simpleton's money"
Along with tricks of the trade, the narrative carries you through cities and towns that existed long ago, and gives you a glimpse into the lives of traders who crisscrossed various kingdoms with ease. A saffron trader brings his son along and the youngster cannot resist the temptation of making a show of his father's wealth. Scenes that have not doubt, been repeating every year for the past 1000 years!

Many of the places mentioned in the book still exist but with truncated names. Pratapapura is now Tapar, Vijayeshvara is now Vijabror and Parihasapura is the Paraspor of today.

The book also opens up a world of possibilities in Sanskrit literature which, for some odd reason, is now co-branded and fettered with religious texts.

It also makes you look at today's Kashmiri's in a completely new light, for it is difficult to imagine that the ancestors of burkha-clad women, the stone-pelting students and gun-totting jihadi's of Kashmir once lived in an altogether different world!


Amazon - http://www.amazon.in/Courtesans-Keeper-Samaya-Matrika/dp/0143421476

Search Kashmir in Bits and Pieces - http://www.searchkashmir.org/2012/09/ruins-of-parihaspura-i-govardanadhara.html

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Spring Flushing Puzzle

Winter is giving way to Spring in Delhi.

Days are getting hotter, and longer; Sparrows are getting noisier as they compete for mates and nesting sites, and the lapwings have started doing aerobatics to keep stray dogs off their nesting grounds...and some trees are busy shedding leaves.

"Fall" is a season commonly associated with Autumn (Sep-Nov). It is easy to understand the logic behind trees shedding their leaves to prepare for a few months of cold winter. There is a need to conserve energy, to minimize exposure to the elements, especially when energy from sunlight is hard to come by.

Why then do so many trees retain their leaves right through winter, only to shed them in spring, just when the days are getting brighter?

In NCR Delhi, many avenues are littlered with yellow leaves time of the year. Neem (Azadirachta indica), Kadamba (Neolamarckia cadamba), and even the Rangoon Creeper (Quisqualis indica / "Madhmalti") go almost completely barren even while they are putting out fresh shoots and leaves. Why is this so?

Turns out that botanists and ecologists are still grappling with this puzzle. They call this phenomenon "characteristic and counterintuitive ‘spring-flushing’ of monsoon forest trees". Latest available research covering Costa Rica, India and Thailand seems to suggest that the trees do this because "it optimizes use of large subsoil water reserves for photosynthetic activity during seasonal drought and thus extends the relatively short, wet growing season."

This does not make sense. Neem trees thrive in dry, drought prone areas and it seems unlikely that Rangoon Creepers are capable of sending their roots deep down to the 'large subsoil water reserves'.

So this makes 'spring flushing' yet another of nature's puzzles, and the answers continue to be in the realm of speculation.


*(2006):  Leaf flushing during the dry season: the paradox of Asian monsoon, Global Ecology and Biogeography -  http://ctfs.si.edu/Public/pdfs/ToDelete/Elliott_etal_2006_GlobalEcolBiogeogr.pdf

* Spring Flushing - https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00468-002-0185-3
- Establishment of new foliage shortly before the wet growing season is likely to optimize photosynthetic gain in tropical forests with a relatively short growing season.

- Deciduous - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deciduous

Indian Infra: Untold Stories, Lost Lessons

I always do a double-take whenever I spot an article or new item on the Delhi-Mumbai Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC).  Call it nostalgia, or just plain curiosity that comes from close association a few years ago.

I was working with JICA in the 2000s when this project was conceived, and when the proposal passed through the labyrinth of North Block before being taken up by the Japanese government. As a part of the numerous surveys and site visits that resulted in the master-plan, I worked with various consultants and traveled extensively - especially in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

One thing that had always puzzled me was the insistence from Indian Railways that the dedicated freight line be "double stack" and "electrical traction". This meant that the engineers and planners had to work on Star Trek mode - to 'go where no man had gone before'. Such a combination had never been implemented successfully anywhere. Getting the electrified pantographs over and above the height of double-stacked containers, and then to get these trains to run reasonably fast across the baked scrublands of Rajasthan, seemed particularly difficult.

Another clear challenge was to get the freight lines through the super densely populated areas of Mumbai, to the JNPT Port.

After 2009, I had lost touch with this project since not much was coming into the public domain by way of news. I did read that the Japanese had - very strategically - limited their ODA involvement to the Western Corridor, and that too from Rewari to Vadodara, instead of going all the way till Mumbai. The Eastern Corridor was subsequently taken up by the World Bank.

Cut to 27 Feb., 2017, to a symposium organised the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and the Embassy of Japan on "Quality Infrastructure: Japanese Investment in India". At this event, I was quite surprised to hear Mr. Amitabh Kant (now CEO, NITI Aayog) say that five new cities would be commissioned by 2018, along the DFC.

Was this my own Rip Van Winkle moment? What had I missed? Was the Industrial Corridor coming up faster than the freight corridor that supported it? How was this great development being ignored by our hyperactive media?

A subsequent presentation confirmed a long-held opinion that the focus of the Indian media remains firmly on negative reporting. Good news is no news.

Mr. Anil Kumar Dutta (MD, DFC 2014-15) spoke of the close coordination with state government that had resulted in smooth transfer of land to DFC. He talked of 'bombshells' that had been defused during his tenure. One had come from the environment ministry (MoEF) demanding that the route alignment be shifted 140km to save the Balaram Ambaji Wildlife Sanctuary on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border. Another one from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) that had objected to the use of a piece of land in the Rewari for the main rail-yard because it had traces of a Harappan settlement dating back to 3000+ years.

Contrary to popular notions about both MoEF and ASI, Mr. Dutta declared that they were "most cooperative...all you must do is to listen - and take action - on their concerns!"

In the case of the suspected Harappan settlement, the discussions had yielded a time-bound, pragmatic solution. DFC hired the services of IIT Kanpur and had the whole rail-yard zone scanned with special ground penetrating radars. A small portion was found to contain ancient remains and  ASI had agreed to go as deep as required to extract all the material it needed. Once this was done, all the clearances were promptly given.

This symposium had quite a number of takeaways. Clearly, we seem to be hiring the right people for the right jobs and they seem to be doing great work, far away from the glare of the Indian media.

Unfortunately, it is also clear that we continue to be pathetic when it comes to documenting lessons learnt from mega projects like the Dedicated Freight Corridor. Great lessons learnt by JICA, DFC and DFCCIL remain locked in project reports, and in the minds of the pragmatic people who cut the proverbial Gordian knot, and then moved on nonchalantly to the next task at hand, or just faded into retirement.

If the lessons we learn are not shared in the public domain, the task of pioneers in other sectors are bound to become so much more difficult.


* DFCCIL - http://dfccil.gov.in/dfccil_app/Home
* Axis Capital PPT (Jan., 2016) - http://www.indianrailways.gov.in/Railways%20report%20-%208%20Jan%202016.pdf
* Balaram Ambaji Wildlife Sanctuary - https://forests.gujarat.gov.in/balaram-sanctuary.htm
* (2012) - http://www.financialexpress.com/archive/environmental-issues-may-delay-rail-freight-corridors/1030135/
* (2013) - DFCCIL PPT by R.K. Gupta -- http://www.i-cema.in/past_event/DFCC-Project-Status-Opportunities.pdf
* Nippon Koei India - http://www.nkindia.in/transportation.html

Sunday, February 19, 2017

DHL Express - Amazingly Slow

What is it that makes leading global logistics companies nervous about handling food consignments to Japan?

Over the past few weeks, I have been witness to an uncharacteristic display of tardiness from one of the big boys in logistics - DHL Express. Until now, my experience with this German company had been pretty good. Even though they charged a premium they have been able to deliver documents from Japan to India in three days' time. Food samples, however, seems to be an altogether different ball game.

Japan is one of the leading food importers in the world.  The country's total food self-sufficiency ratio based on calorie supply was just 39% in 2015. Based on production value, it was just 66%. So the country relies almost entirely on imports, not only for staples like wheat, barley, corn, and soy, but also a wide range of raw materials for its food processing industry.

Half of the meat products consumed in Japan is imported. According to a survey by the Japan Frozen Food Association of 31 member companies, 200,634 tons out of 315,436 tons of precooked frozen imported food in 2006 came from China. Farm ministry data show that of the roughly 778,000 tons of frozen vegetables imported that year, about 326,000 tons came from China and 285,000 tons from the U.S.

Despite these high volumes import regulations are strictly enforced. The key organisations involved are -

  • Ministry of Health, Labor an Welfare (MHLW) -- sets standards for chemicals in food -- monitors compliance
  • Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries (MAFF) -- Registers agricultural chemicals -- Approves and controls Veterinary drugs and their uses -- Set standards for feed. The key department here is the Dept of Food Safety under the Pharma and Food Safety Bureau of MAFF.
  • Food Safety Commission
  • Consumer Affairs Agency

Fronting all these ministries and agencies is the Japan Customs Office which keeps close watch on all the international airports and ports. Even before a food consignment is loaded on a ship or aircraft, a 24-hour advance notice is to be send to the customs office. This rule, referred to as the Japan Advance Filing Requirements (AFR/JP24) has been enforced since March 10, 2014. Under this, a 10-point checklist is to be submitted along with the Bill of Lading.

All these rules and regulations have been around for over three years. Despite this, what explains the repeated delays by DHL, in dispatching a consignment of food-samples to Japan?

Consider the case of a 5kg packet sent on 7 Feb., 2017, by an exporter of Moringa plant products (dried leaf, powder and seed oil) to Yokohama, Japan. The DHL office at Theni (TN) accepted the packet after confirming that all the necessary paperwork was in place. This included a signed declaration by the exporter, a Sanitary & Phytosanitary Certificate (SPS) from the authorized government agency at Tuticorin, and a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).

The packet (waybill no. 7840177741) then moved to Bangalore, and stayed put for the the next three days. When asked the reason for the delay, DHL stated that it needed each page of the declaration to be signed by the exporter. Yet this requirement was not informed while the packet was being accepted, nor did DHL bother to inform the exporter from its Bangalore office. It was only when the customer contacted DHL that the response came up - "Oh, yes, by the way, we need some more paperwork!".

After a weeks' delay, a fresh Shipment Waybill (No. 7840177262) was raised with the signatures on all the pages. Then again the packet got stuck at the DHL warehouse in Bangalore. This time they came up with yet another requirement -- over and above the "non-hazardous" certificate given by the Indian government agency, DHL needed another self-declaration from the exporter stating that the seed-oil was non hazardous in transit the flight to Japan.

Today, nearly two weeks after the packet was handed over to DHL Express, the packet has finally reached Yokohama.

So the question that begs an answer is: Is it Japan's Customs Office that is making shipments from India difficult, or is it the DHL office in India simply incompetent when it comes to handling consignments to Japan?


FAO requirements of Phytosanitary Certifications - http://www.fao.org/docrep/004/y3241e/y3241e06.htm

(2008) - The Tokyo Foundation -- the Perilous decline of Japan's agriculture -- http://www.tokyofoundation.org/en/articles/2008/the-perilous-decline-of-japanese-agriculture-1

Food Exports from India to Japan - Phytosanitary Requirements -- http://phytosanitarysolutions.com/japan/

Japan's Import dependency - http://www.businessinsider.com/japan-will-be-asias-superpower-in-2040-2017-2

Japan Customs website - http://www.customs.go.jp/english/summary/advance/

Procedures for Private Import Cargo - http://www.customs.go.jp/english/exp-imp/privatecargo/private.htm#courier


How does one view a South Indian monarch who stood up to the British? Is he really worthy of all the negative press he has been getting from the newly empowered echo-boxes of the right wing, especially over Twitter and Facebook? These are some the questions that crossed my mind while picking up Kate Brittlebank's book, "Tiger - The Life of Tipu Sultan".

As a Keralan, I have always had a dim view of this father-son duo who invaded Malabar and Kochi, and along the way, slaughtered, enslaved or forcibly converted the locals, apart from the legacy of one of the most odd place-names in the region - Sultan Bathery (Sultan's Battery). It also brought back memories of an odd sight I had seen in the dense forests of Talavadi, in the Western Ghats. A long line of huge Banyan trees marked the remnants of a highway built across the mountains, by Mysorean army to reach the port cities of Kerala. 

The book is a quick, easy read. Right at the outset, it sets the tone to readers' expectations by stating clearly that the focus is on the Tipu the person - a son, a father and a leader - rather than weighty matters related to state policy, military strategy and ethics. 

This works pretty well. For one thing, it confirms that Tipu Sultan's identity as a Muslim was hardly an issue within his own kingdom of Mysore. He lavished funds and patronage to the shrines of all religions - Hindu, Muslim and Jain - located in his territories. His own palace in Srirangapattana stood next to a Vishnu temple dedicated to Sri Ranganatha, and he referred to the head of the monastery at Sringeri Math as "Jagatguru".

Outside his realm, he played the usual policy of Divide and Rule. He allied with the Marathas of Pune and the Nizam of Hyderabad whenever it was convenient. At other times, he actively encouraged infighting within their territories. Tipu instructed his agents in Pune to trigger fights between Hindus and Muslims, to weaken the Marathas - "Let the fire of discord, therefore, be kindled amongst them, to the end that they may, in this manner, waste each other".

There is good reason for his enemies to hate him -- especially after what he did to the Nairs of Malabar, the Coorgis of Kodagu, and the Christians of Konkan. Yet, as the author notes, "Warfare at this time was brutal, and the punishment for those who resisted often cruel. It was common practice to set examples to forestall further opposition". It is certainly not different from military intimidation described today as "shock and awe".

In the end, Tipu does manage to come through as a fairly good ruler, until he put all his eggs in the French basket, and then, ran out of luck. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

An Appetite for Steel

Recent newspaper headlines proclaimed that India is now poised to overtake Japan as the “second largest producer of steel in the world”. This sounds quite impressive - until you see the numbers in perspective. The largest producer of steel in the world - China - produces over 800 million metric tonnes (mmt) while India’s 'record production' was less the 90 mmt in 2015.

The current situation is like that of a huge kitchen that needs to keep itself busy. Excess production capacity is now at odds with low appetite. Over the past 40 years there has been a massive increase in global steel production - especially in China. A country that produced just 37 million metric tonnes (mmt) in 1980 produced more than 21 times that amount - 803 mmt in 2015!

Similarly, on a much more modest scale, India which had been producing 9.5 mmt in 1980 , increased its production to about 90 mmt in 2015.

China’s domestic appetite has been a bit satiated now, so now we are seeing a sharp increase in its steel exports. As with numerous other Chinese products its prices are super competitive, and this is triggering “anti-dumping” measures from other countries, including India. About two years ago, India’s DGFT set a Minimum Import Price (MIP) for 66 types of iron and steel products, while at the same time, imposed duties up to 20% on a number of steel products.

The main countries affected by these measures were China, South Korea and Japan, which accounted for 63.6% of total imported steel volume, and 54.6% in terms of value. As expected, Chinese imports are the largest at over 37%.

Yet, strangely, it is not China or South Korea, but Japan that is at the forefront of the campaign against the restrictions imposed by India. It has threatened to take India to WTO over the import restrictions, and various interpretations of the provisions of GATT 1994 and the Agreement on Safeguards.

What explains this unusual stance?

Some commentators claim that for Japan, India is  just the proxy country used to fight a larger war against MIPs and other border taxes. According to others, this is just a reflection of political clout wielded by steel exporters in Japan. Either way, one thing is clear - higher steel prices is not good news for downstream industries, or for the consumers who end up paying more for cars and cooking utensils.

Lobbies like the Indian Steel Association (ISA) and their counterparts in Japan will always try their best to influence governments for their own benefit. Ultimately, it is for the government to strike a balance between the long term costs and benefits of bowing to the pressure of industry lobbies. And that, unfortunately, is linked to election funding...



(26Jan17-BL) - http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/economy/policy/russia-says-steel-exports-to-india-dipped-by-a-third-due-to-curbs/article9503240.ece

(25Jan17, BT - India to be global no.2 steel producer by 2020) - http://www.businesstoday.in/current/corporate/india-closes-japan-second-largest-steel-producing-country/story/244963.html

Reuters (23Jan17) - http://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-india-steel-idUSKBN1541DX

Forbes (23Jan17) - http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2017/01/23/japan-threatens-india-with-wto-action-over-steel-good-it-should-to-benefit-indians/#561e021a53ae

(22Jan17 - Taiwan) -- http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/economy/policy/taiwan-wto/article9496340.ece?ref=relatedNews


DGFT Notification on MIP (4Aug16) - http://dgft.gov.in/Exim/2000/NOT/NOT16/noti2016.pdf

(4Dec16, IE) - Indian Steel Association (ISA) for extension of MIP for 6 months - http://indianexpress.com/article/business/business-others/extend-mip-on-steel-products-for-six-months-indian-steel-authority-4409972/

(30Mar16 - VCCircle - Timeline on MIPs) - http://www.vccircle.com/news/engineering/2016/03/30/india-extends-safeguard-duty-steel-imports-till-march-2018l


* http://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Trends/Japanese-steelmakers-switching-to-lower-grade-raw-materials?page=2
- Japanese steelmakers (Nippon, Sumitomo) use better technology to lower costs. They process cheaper, low grade coke to better quality before replacing 50% of high-grade imported coke...this keeps their steel competitive in the world markets.

(2Dec2016) - http://www.infracircle.in/indias-coke-import-financial-year/
> India imported ~ 3 million tonnes of metallurgical coke in 2015-16 --- of which 2 million was from Chine alone!...Metallurgical coke, a key raw material for the steel sector, is used for smelting iron ore in the blast furnace. Around 0.7 tonne of coke is required to produce 1 tonne of steel and it constitutes 40-50% of the total cost of crude steel.
The government on 25 November imposed anti-dumping duty in the range of $16.29-$25.2 per tonne on imports of low ash metallurgical coke from countries such as China and Australia for a period of five years.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Open Sesame

In an interview reported earlier this week, India's Minister for Commerce and Industry, Ms. Nirmala Sitharaman, requested Japan to take steps to increase Indian exports to Japan of sesame seeds, Surimi fish and generic drugs.

This was quite puzzling. Why were two specific items - "sesame seeds" and "Surimi fish" - mentioned in the same breath as Generic Drugs, which is a whole category in itself?

Perhaps it had something to do with the commercial value of the items being imported by Japan...

Sure enough, it turns out that Japan is one of the world’s largest importers of sesame seeds. It is mainly sourced from African countries. Nigeria is, by far, the biggest source, accounting for 28% all sesame seed imports valued at about JPY 11.4 billion (USD 96 million or INR 656 Crores in 2014). This means that Japan imports seeds worth about USD 343 million annually!

In recent years, India too has seen a sharp rise in sesame seed production. In 2014-15, over 0.43 million tonnes was produced, mainly in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. However India has not had much success in exporting the seeds to Japan. This is apparently because of high pesticide residue levels.

In other words, it is India that needs to take adequate steps to ensure that the sesame seeds it produces, is not only cost competitive, but also meets phytosanitary standards in the export markets.

The second item - Surimi fish - . I had heard of "Surmai" (Indo-Pacific Mackarel) but not this one.

It turns out that Surimi not a type of fish but something that Japan exports to other countries - especially USA. It is the term used for  "minced fish paste, made from a cheap fish in abundant supply, usually Alaskan pollock, frequently mixed with sugar and sorbitol, a sweetener. The paste is combined with other varieties of fish and fish flavorings, preservatives such as sodium tripolyphosphate and binders such as wheat flour or egg white, and then restructured and colored to look like higher- priced crab, scallops, shrimp or lobster." 

So, is this a case of a minister who was not properly briefed, or was it the IANS/Business Standard reporter who misquoted what has actually transpired?

Either way this is a fine example of the cross-talk, and communication gaps, not only within India, but also between the two countries.


* BS (2017) - http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/india-japan-fta-implementation-needs-to-be-expedited-sitharaman-117011000351_1.html

* Surimi exports from Japan to USA - http://www.nytimes.com/1984/07/25/garden/surimi-what-kind-of-seafood-is-it.html?pagewanted=all
* (BS, 2014) - Sesame production in India - http://www.business-standard.com/article/markets/india-s-sesame-seed-output-to-rise-by-126-shefexil-114110200688_1.html

* BS (2016) - http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/sitharaman-urges-firms-to-exploit-free-trade-accord-with-japan-116100600675_1.html

* CEPA - RIS Report 2016

* Mint (2014) - http://www.livemint.com/Politics/Nv3BR8VYZ9zLJwwGeFAlWJ/EU-team-to-inspect-sesameseedprocessing-units.html

* SHEFEXIL - http://www.shellacepc.com/
-  About Sesame seeds - http://www.shellacepc.com/products/sesame-seeds/

* IARI - All India Network Project on Pesticide Residues - http://www.iari.res.in/?option=com_content&view=article&id=185&Itemid=531

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

MPesa India: Wrong Time, Wrong Place?

According to a recent article, there are 271 different mobile money services offered in 93 countries worldwide. Among these, the most successful one is Kenya's M-Pesa.

Launched in 2007 by Vodafone for Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania, M-Pesa has spread quickly, and by 2010 had become the most successful mobile-phone-based financial service in the developing world. By 2012, it had about 17 million M-Pesa accounts registered in Kenya alone.

M-Pesa's key advantage is that it does not need a 'smartphone'. Apart from being relatively expensive, smartphone tend to be battery guzzlers which need to be charged frequently, quite unlike the older mobiles which are cheap and far more durable.

In India, 61% of Indians own a basic mobile phone while only 17% of own a smartphone. Why, then, has M-Pesa not caught on in India?

Perhaps the answer to this question lies in a closer look at the Kenyan mPesa model.

The idea behind M-Pesa has its origins in 2002 when researchers found that the Kenyans had been using talk-time on pre-paid mobiles to make small payments across the country. People were purchasing everyday necessities - provisions and services - and paying for it by adding talk-time to the service provider's mobile phone. Thanks to code written by a student, this was expanded into a payment-transfer service.

Vodafone was the first to spot a big opportunity here and purchased the code. It then improved upon the model and created a wide network of agents across Kenya, selling this as a service. Within 10 years, M-Pesa transactions have grown so fast that they account for 20% of Kenya's gross domestic product.

Yet, when Vodafone tried to replicate the same M-Pesa model in neighboring Tanzania, it bombed. What was so different between Kenya and Tanzania?  An IFC report suggests the following reasons:

  • Demand - urban migrants sending money back to family is not as prevalent in Tanzania and since there is less crime and insecurity in Tanzania
  • Access to Financial Services - Only 9% of the population has access to formal financial services and 54% don’t use any form of financial services. When compared to Kenya, we see that 19% of the population there has access to formal financial services and only 38% don’t have access to any form of financial service
  • Strength of Economy and Banking System - Kenya also has a stronger economy, a higher GDP (USD 890 per capita in Kenya versus USD 520 in Tanzania). 1.38 bank branches per 100,000 inhabitants in Kenya versus 0.57 in Tanzania
  • Geography and distances - Tanzania is a large country with a dispersed population so quickly reaching dealers in rural areas was difficult
  • Competition - Tanzania as Zantel’s competing service - ZPesa -- Tanzania also faces competition from informal money transfer channels such as the use of airtime as a currency
  • Business Model -  Vodafone decided that the service would be offered to local subsidiaries on a license fee model instead of the shared revenue model that was agreed with Safaricom in Kenya. 
  • Population and Customer Base - Tanzania has a population of 40 million - dispersed across Vodacom’s market share in Tanzania (41%) is significantly less than Safaricom’s in Kenya (79%) which translates into a base of 13 million customers for Safaricom as opposed to only 5.9 million for Vodacom
  • Technology - M-Pesa is delivered in Tanzania using USSD which does not require any application to be stored on the SIM card. The user dials a short number to receive a set of menu options.
  • Laws & Regulations - no national id in Tanzania -- cumbersome Anti-Money Laundering procedures -- 
  • Lack of preparation - no market survey -- pilot test only covered one aspect: The main focus of the pilot was to test the USSD gateway since the USSD channel was not used in the Kenyan implementation. 

So the key factors that prevented this useful technology from crossing borders were - population dispersion, crime rates, financial literacy and mobile penetration.

In 2013, mPesa was launched by Vodafone India, in collaboration with ICICI Bank. From the look of it, this seems to be based on the menu-driven USSD model that was used in Tanzania, and not the faster, more efficient SIM-based model that was a huge success in Kenya. Over and above the challenges faced by Vodafone in Tanzania, the Indian market was already groaning under severe competition by the time Vodafone stepped in.

Perhaps the biggest advantage it still retains is the fact that unlike other leading e-wallet services like PayTM and Oxigen, M-Pesa users do not need to have a smartphone or 3G/4G internet connectivity, to use the service.

Howver, this advantage has also been diluted with the launch of the national Universal Payment Interface (UPI now renamed  BHIM). ICICI Bank too is offering this as a service independent of Vodafone.

So, is it just a matter of time before M-Pesa turns belly-up in India?


* mPesa India FAQs - https://www.mpesa.in/portal/customer/FAQ.jsp
* Smartphone penetration in India (2014-2019) - https://www.statista.com/statistics/257048/smartphone-user-penetration-in-india/
* mPesa launch in India - 2013 - http://gadgets.ndtv.com/telecom/news/vodafone-india-launches-m-pesa-mobile-wallet-with-icici-bank-355406
* IFC Case Study mPESA in Tanzania - http://www.ifc.org/wps/wcm/connect/3aa8588049586050a27ab719583b6d16/Tool%2B6.8.%2BCase%2BStudy%2B-%2BM-PESA%252C%2BTanzania.pdf?MOD=AJPERES
* Padmanabhan, Vishnu (2016) - http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/GOqw0yvSZqFbIB5Oxd1J2O/Transforming-the-digital-payment-infrastructure.html

Sunday, December 11, 2016

An Era of Darkness

A book launch was held yesterday at the former residence of the Commander-in-Chief of British India, now called Teen Murti Bhavan. At an estate that placed symbolically behind the imposing Viceregal Lodge, two Indians sat on the stage to launch a book, and to demolish the notion that 200 years British rule was "good" for India.

The venue at Teen Murti Bhavan - NMML auditorium - was packed. Folks who lingered outside to tuck in a few more chai-pakora's had to stand by the doorway as the author, Shashi Tharoor and historian R. Mukherjee too the stage to discuss the book, "An Era of Darkness - The British Empire in India".

The discussion took on a predictable course with Tharoor outlining the reasons why he thought a such book was necessary; the realization that most of his countrymen were blissfully unaware of the methods used by the British to systematically reduce the country from an global economic heavyweight to a basket-case, and of contemporary notions of nationalism.

One point that stuck in my mind came up in the Q&A session. An elderly person sitting on the front row asked, "Throughout history, why is it that we were betrayed by our own people?"

Tharoor skirted this question, and restricted his answer to the usual suspects - the Mir Kasim's and Mir Jaffer's - of the British Era. In introduction to his book he tosses the ball back to the other court by saying, "...when a marauder destroys your home and takes away your cash and jewelry, his responsibility for his actions far exceeds that of the servant who opened the door for him, whether hout of fear, cupidity or because he simply didn't know any better".

It is difficult to imagine that the grand quislings in our history were acting out of fear, cupidity or ignorance. The Mir's of Bengal seemed to be driven primarily by ambition, greed and self-interest. Ditto for Jaichand, the king of Kannauj, who allied with Mohammad of Ghor, to settle a personal insult, or political score with the Chauhan ruler of Delhi.

Clearly, there is something more basic at work in our minds. In a country that has always been a slow-cooking melting pot of different races, languages and habits, almost every ruler would have sought out existing fissures, divisions and rivalries to consolidate their own power-base. It is a trend that continues to this day.

Greed and self-interest was also apparent in the manner in which the audience jostled around Tharoor, doggedly ignoring all pleas to come in an orderly line. A singular lack of concern for others that was also being played out at the traffic roundabout outside where vehicles refused to give way, and slowing themselves in the process; along the footpaths where bikes and scooters rushed into a space that belonged to pedestrians, and, finally in the metro trains where perfectly healthy men squatted on the train floor, while others struggled to find space to stand upright.

Clearly, the era of darkness is yet to disappear into our history books.


* BL review - http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/books/uday-balakrishnan-reviews-an-era-of-darkness-by-shashi-tharoor/article9391768.ece

* IE review - http://indianexpress.com/article/lifestyle/books/shashi-tharoor-book-an-era-of-darkness-british-colonialism-in-india-3741446/