Friday, December 30, 2011

Yet Another Summit Meeting

The Japanese Prime Minister, Noda, visited India this week. As usual, there was much talk about boosting trade, technology transfer and maintaining high levels of ODA assistance for infrastructure projects. Despite all the special reports, exclusive interviews and sound-bites, there seems to be little evidence of any real change in the bilateral equation.

When the dust settles down one hard fact will still remain: Japan-India trade stands at $15 billion while Sino-Japan trade is chugging on at $340 billion per year.

Why is there such a huge gap between the rhetoric and reality? A part of the answer perhaps lies in the completely unrealistic expectations with which Indian's approach the Japanese. Take for instance, India's desire to obtain advanced technologies from Japan. On 28 Dec., an Indian Express report on bullet trains headline said, 'Japan Says Will Provide Latest Technology'. The crux of the report was a quote by one Toshihiro Yamakoshi, Director, Office of Project Development, Japan's transport ministry, who is aparantly stated, 'Japan would be offering the necessary technology' for the six corridors that India is planning to develop.

A transport ministry offers technology that does not belong to it and the report claims that Japan 'will provide latest technology'. This might have made some sense if the reporter was quoting a Soviet official in the erstwhile USSR. But Japan is not USSR and neither companies not technologies belong to the government to do as they please.

The Chinese officials understood this simple fact a couple of decades ago and focussed their attention, not on the MITI officials, but on Japanese companies that needed cheap labor and access to markets. They delivered what was promised in meetings, played transnationals against each other and, over the years,  built-up their own companies as formidable competitors.

At the end of this prime-ministerial visit, Indian politicians and bureaucrats will no doubt pat each other on the backs and hope that the private sector will  take a cue from the high-level discussions and "do the needful" - until the next summit meeting.

Joint Forum of Indian and Japanese CEOs - Joint Report (28 December 2011) -

Friday, December 16, 2011

Zebra Crossing

Ever wondered why there are so many jaywalker's on Indian roads?

Here is a part of the answer:

This is a 'zebra-crossing' in the heart of central Delhi. It takes you from a flower-bed to a high, layered  there is no point in attempting to cross the road from here - unless, of course, you happen to be a zebra! :)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


The Economist has come up with a term for China's single-minded pursuit of advanced technology - 'Techno-Nationalism'.

Techno-nationalism designates the restriction of foreign participation in domestic research and development. The focus is laid on national gains through accessing foreign technology and the monopolization of technology, rather than on mutual exchange with other nations.

China, of course, is not a pioneer in this business of linking nationalism and 'national interest' to the rapid assimilation of the latest technology, by all means possible. Countries in continental Europe did exactly the same thing after the advent of the Industrial Revolution in England; Japan did it immediately after the Meiji Restoration, while Taiwan and South Korea followed suit in the late 1960's.

There are at least two significant factors that seems to be unnerving people when China does a repeat performance: The scale and speed at which China is assimilating technology, and the fact that this is taking place in an era when the advanced countries imagined that they had got the rest of the world neatly bound & gagged under the new IPR regime.

In stark contrast, India's approach in this arena seems to be laid back, lacking in a sense of urgency or purpose in reducing dependence on imported technologies.

Will this change in the days to come?



Hughes, Christopher W. (2011) The slow death of Japanese techno-nationalism? Emerging comparative lessons for China's defense production. Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol.34 (No.3). pp. 451-479. ISSN 0140-2390, URL -

NBR Reports (May 2004)
China's Post-WTO Technology Policy: Standards, Software, and the Changing Nature of Techno-Nationalism by Richard P. Suttmeier, Xiangkui Yao and Alex Zixiang Tan

Book Review by Noriko Matsumoto: Gregory P. Corning (2004) Japan and the Politics of Techno-Globalism, Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, ISBN 0-7656-0969-X, hardback, 235 pages plus index.

Hughes, Christopher W. (2011) The slow death of Japanese techno-nationalism? Emerging comparative lessons for China's defense production. Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol.34 (No.3). pp. 451-479. ISSN 0140-2390

Edgerton DEH (2007): The Contradictions of Techno-Nationalism and Techno-Globalism: A Historical Perspective

Passive Surveillance, Active Apprehensions

Ever so often the word 'technology' seems like a synonym for 'magic'.

A few months back, I was fascinated by the case of the 'Stuxnet' virus. A computer programme so meticulously created, it spread through innocuous pen-drives all over the world until it lodgded itself in its target: a particular type of centrifuges purchased by Iran from Siemens, Germany, and which was being used to enrich uranium, allegedly for nuclear weapons. A few months after its launch the virus found its target, set the centrifuges on a wild spin and rendered them completely unusable.

And now WikiLeaks reveals that just about everything you say or do on the communication networks can, and is being monitored in real time by companies and government departments that operate beyond the purview of any regulatory authority. They just tune their equipment on to satellites orbiting 36,000km away and pick out conversations that end up changing the course of wars (Kargil); demolish carefully crafted careers of politicians, fixers and journalists (Amar Singh, Barkha Dutt, Vir Sanghvi), as and when the spooks (or their minders) decide the pull the plug on them.

WikiLeaks lists over 150 organisations who are engaged in this business, and, among them, two have been named from India: Shogi Communcations (Himachal Pradesh) and ClearTrail (Indore, MP). Google for ClearTrail and you are unlikely to find a company website easily, but they do seem to be hiring a lot of software talent. Their products are called mTrail, for mobile phone interception and ComTrail, which is
"devised for mass monitoring of IP and voice networks. It is equipped to handle millions of communications per day intercepted over high speed STM & Ethernet links. It doubles up as targeted monitoring system, speaker recognition, target location and instant analysis across thousands of terabytes."
Apparently there are over 33 such mass-surveillance sets with the state governments alone. The number of devices with private individuals and companies could be anybody's guess.

What is completely unclear, however, is whether these companies have build the equipment on their own (something commendable) or merely imported it from other countries like Israel. In the latter case, it is more than likely that the salesmen are playing the game both ways.

Either way, there seems to be plenty of trouble ahead!


Friday, December 02, 2011

Discovering Dhiren

In circa 1996, when Sree & I were rummaging through second-hand books at Daryaganj's Sunday-pavement-market, he suddenly picked up a shabby, damp, dog-eared book and said, "Buy this! If you don't like it, I'll take it from you whenever you want -- a buy-back guarantee!"

The same book resurfaced while I was unpacking recently:  Dhiren Bhagat's "The Contemporary Conservative". It was dustier and more dog-eared than ever before. I sat on the floor and flipped through a couple of pages, read Vinod Mehta's cover note, the first essay, and then the second and third...and kicked myself for not picking this book earlier.

It is a style of writing that you rarely get to see these days. As the cover note says, nearly all the pieces are "unsparing, learned, meticulously researched and provocative". I liked, in particular, the way he yanks away the pedestal from under some public figures like Arun Shourie (Why Shourie Can't Think Straight), Mani Shankar Aiyer (PM's Press Aide) and Khuswant Singh (Khuswant: RIP, 1982).

Here is his take on Indian politics:
"...Consequently political culture has come to acquire quite a few unwritten rules and methods: you tell a lie when you have to: rarely, if ever, refuse to do someone a favour - it is permissible subsequently not to do the favour but you must pretend that you tried. When involved in negotiation or agitation, if you see a vacant space, occupy it; when it becomes difficult to stay there, retreat....The basic premise is that everyone has a price. The skill of the politician is to find out what that price is.."
Its such a pity he passed away in 1988, when he was just 31. There would have been so much to look forward to in the papers, if he were around!

  • Wikipedia article on Dhiren Bhagat - created today :)
  • Bhagat, Dhiren (1990). The Contemporary Conservative. New Delhi: Viking / Penguin India. ISBN 0-670-83789-X.
  • "Khushwant`s post mortem's". Business Standard, India. 2005-01-31.
    "Sena turns the heat on Aiyar". Times of India. 2004-08-22.
    "The Writer as a Young Man". The Hindu. 2002-01-20.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Mobile Broadband Circus

A friend working - rather unhappily - with a telecom company made a number of interesting observations that set me wondering about the telecom industry in India. Before I discuss the industry, let me first list out the observations:
  • CDMA is a better technology than GSM. All the talk about 3G being "the best" for mobile internet access is just a lot of hype. Connection speeds are anyday better on a CDMA network.
  • Tata Docomo is in serious trouble. Having sunk about R28,000 Cr to build its own transmission infrastructrure (each tower costs Rs80L!) it is now witnessing a serious erosion of revenue streams. So much so that it has recently jumped into the GSM bandwagon to try and make some money. Docomo, meanwhile, is left wondering when - or if - it would be able to recoup its investments in the JV.
  • MTS (another JV between Russia's Sistema and Shyam Telecom, India) is using the Tata network to offer high speed wireless internet connections.
It is actually his last point that grabbed my attention. I had purchased an MTS dongle a couple of months back. Manufactured by ZTE-China and branded "MBlaze", the choice was based on the assumption that a new company was less likely to have a congested network, and, hence, higher connection speeds. The salesman also made a strong case against the bigger companies by pointing out that even Vodafone used the MTS network for its data-packages. To drive home the point, he logged on to the Vodafone homepage and showed me the fine print. He was right.

Now my friend tells me that MTS itself is hanging on the Tata network! And like trapeze artists in a circus, the big players seemed to dangling on the smaller players, who in turn, are holding on for dear life to other big players.

When you dig a bit deeper it does make sense and many things fall in place - like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

The Mblaze USB-modems use the CDMA network, which is based on the 800MHz band. The GSM networks, on the other hand, uses the much higher 1800MHz band. Higher frequencies are a lot less efficient in covering distances and many more towers to cover a unit area, and hence, GSM networks are most effective for those living closer to the transmission towers.

Vodafone, Airtel and Idea have all  banded together to share their GSM transmission towers while the CDMA players, Tata and Reliance are on their own. Since CDMA is indeed a better technology - especially for data transmission - the big-three are now trying to offer "Mobile Broadband USB Modems" by tieing up smaller players like MTS who have already obtained spectrum capacity from CDMA players like Tata-Docomo.

So, without owning a single tower, MTS is focusing all its efforts in a marketing blitz and making money on the side by leasing CDMA spectrum to the bigger GSM players. A perfect case of having somebody else's cake and eating it too! :)

Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) Development Group -
GSM World -

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Why Japan's R&D scores over ours

 Article published in the Hindu Businessline, 23 November 2011


Why Japan's R&D scores over ours

Indian industry has shown little interest in overtures from public sector R&D labs.
Indian industry has shown little interest in overtures from public sector R&D labs. 

 Unlike in Japan, India's ivory-tower scientists are wary of working closely with private companies and factory workers.
Institutions dedicated to public research & development (R&D) activity often exist in a world far removed from the rough-and-tumble arena of private enterprise. To some, the very idea of using taxpayers' money to enrich the business class goes against the notions of equity and social justice.
One can, however, learn from the Japanese, who have created interesting institutional mechanisms to deal with this issue. Take the case of Koguchi-san, a young, mid-level scientist and troubleshooting ‘scout', working with the National Institute of Material Sciences (NIMS), a government-funded research lab located in Tsukuba Science City, 60 km north of Tokyo. On most days, you will not see him in his comfortable NIMS office, but on a factory floor elsewhere. Dressed in overalls and boots, he rubs shoulders with workers, technicians and scientists at a private manufacturing firm — usually an SME — trying to understand their technical problems, to make their manufacturing processes more efficient and their products more competitive.
Typically, discussions continue after office hours. Koguchi-san and his counterparts hang out together, share a drink or a game of baseball during the weekends. In the process, they build a camaraderie that is very valuable for their parent organisations. Jointly-funded projects emerging from such friendships have resulted in better alloys, stronger adhesives, superconducting magnets, super-capacitors, dye-sensitised solar cells, and a host of other specialised products that Japan's SMEs supply to the bigger keiretsu conglomerates as well as global markets.


Koguchi-san is a fictitious character. But NIMS is very real. So are the kind of working-level R&D partnerships that exist between Japanese public-funded labs and private-sector companies described above.

NIMS employs nearly 50 Indians. Most of them are post-doctoral fellows from our own premier universities and research institutes, with whom it has inked MoUs, and also offers ‘joint graduate' programmes.
Researchers from India and other countries spend a few years here working on focused research projects. The intellectual property rights (IPRs) resulting from this, of course, belongs to NIMS and the Japanese companies.
What is of interest for us here, though, is not ownership of IPRs or even the Indian connection. It is about public-private partnerships (PPP) aimed at meeting the needs of the domestic and international markets, that can be useful for Indian industry as well.


The Government has a critical role in this process — not by establishing newer institutes and perpetuating a bureaucratic paralysis — but by acting as a facilitator and catalyst. Another fine example to quote here is the case of Hiroden in Hiroshima.
Hiroshima — long before it was devastated by the atomic bomb codenamed ‘Little Boy' — was home to a tramway network run by this company called Hiroden. Their network was among the first utilities to be rebuilt after the attack. The city gradually became famous as a ‘living museum of tramcars'. In 1999, the local manufacturers got a rude shock when Hiroden decided to replace its aging fleet of single-car trams with the latest imported German models.
Manufactured by Siemens, these were the sleek LF-LRT (Low Floor-Light Rail Transit) Combinos. Their modular, barrier-free, interconnected and low-floor design not only had a much bigger capacity, but also made passenger movement easier and faster.
Japanese tram makers had refrained from improving their designs for several reasons till then: Overseas manufacturers held patents for many of the basic technologies and the low domestic demand increased development risks.
This changed in 2000, when a new Barrier-Free Transportation Law was brought in by the federal Government. It provided tax relief and exemptions to compensate for the price difference between conventional cars and the more expensive barrier-free designs.
In 2001, two years after Siemens had won the Hiroden contract, Japan's Ministry of Land Infrastructure and Transport got together a group of eight manufacturers to come out with a 100 per cent Japanese product. It eventually led to three of them — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kinki Sharyo and Toyo Electric Co. — forming a consortium, JTRAM, for creating an improved tram better suited to Japanese conditions. MHI produced the bogies, brakes and inner/outer riggings; Kinki Sharyo focused on the design, car body, articulations, and driver's cabin; and Toyo took responsibility for the electrical parts and control drive units.
The result was ‘Green Mover Max', a vehicle that had more seats, wider aisles and lower dependence on foreign technology and component-makers than the Siemens Combinos, which, meanwhile, started developing problems.
In 2004, the German company admitted that their body-shells were developing cracks after high mileages (15,000 km-plus). By now, JTRAM was ready and waiting. In 2005, Hiroden accepted the first LF-LRT built entirely in Japan. And today, JTRAM not only dominates the local market, but also gives Siemens a run for its money in the international markets.


In India, the Japanese PPP model — which we have seen at work even in the more recent period — would be looked upon with a mixture of suspicion and disdain. Our scientist-administrators are wary of working closely with private companies or discussing technical problems with mere factory workers. What is the point in soiling one's hands, when promotions are linked to more ‘intellectual' activities like filing patents or publishing papers — preferably in Western journals!
There are, of course, exceptions that are often the result of one-off individual initiatives. The rice miller, Anil Mittal's chance visit to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi turned a promising basmati strain called Pusa-1121 into a commercially-cultivated variety that now earns India more than $1 billion in annual export earnings.
But in many cases, it is industry that has shown little interest in overtures from public sector R&D labs. When the Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute at Durgapur found no takers for its indigenous tractor design in the late 1960s, its own scientists led by Chandra Mohan took the lead to commercialise ‘Swaraj' tractors through Punjab Tractors Ltd.
On the other hand, a CSIR laboratory tried to collaborate with the cashew industry in Kerala, to jointly develop a better technology for mechanical roasting and peeling of raw nuts. But high-level discussions yielded nothing, as the industry was happy working with cheap labour. Today, high labour costs have forced mechanisation and cashew makers import the necessary equipment — from Vietnam!
A top-down approach has been a characteristic of our public-private interactions in R&D. It is high time we created incentives for our middle-level managers to seize the initiative. If, as with Koguchi-san at NIMS or the people at JTRAM, our R&D institutions make concerted efforts to build relationships and to understand the industry's needs, India too, can emerge as a hotbed of innovations.
It's time we stepped out of our institutional silos and stirred an inter-disciplinary cauldron of ideas. Our academics need to step down from their ivory towers, roll-up their sleeves, and empower their younger colleagues to bridge the yawning gap between ‘research' and ‘development' in India. 

(The author is an independent technology transfer consultant.) 

(This article was published on November 23, 2011)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

I Never Knew..

As far as experiences go, is  there anything better than a short, sharp trip? After a quick, week-long visit to Kerala, I am convinced that intense road-travel is the best way to know soak in the contrasts that a place has to offer, without getting getting sucked into a vortex of ennui, nit-picking and petty politics.

This particular trip started with Indigo flight 6E-177 from Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram; it included a 650km drive across the length of the state, from Tvm to Kodungallur, Guruvayur and Trissur; a family get-together, and a return flight by the same airline back to Delhi.

All along, I found myself getting surprised time and again, by things I thought would never change, and by questions that never popped up earlier. And it all started at the new airport complex in Delhi.

I never knew the IGI Terminals had transformed so much. A drive down the airport road, past the Tibetan monastery, and suddenly you see that shabby buildings and ugly roundabouts have been swept away and replaced with a swank new building, with better security and much more efficient staff. Even the toilets sensors have little homilies on them! And just in case you feel completely disoriented, all you have to do is to look outside the glass windows to see "Airport Hotel". The relic is still there, perhaps as a reminder of the bad old days.

I had wondered why Indigo flights emerged as top-dog in the Indian skies until I checked in. The answer seems quite straightforward - over the past few years, while the competition has been falunting shorter skirts and pretty faces, Indigo has been hiring smart people and training them well in the art of continuous improvement. Who cares for hot meals and steel cutlery when the flights are handled efficiently and arrive well ahead of schedule!

Back on terra firma, the next big surprise was the highways in Kerala - they have improved so much! Except for a few, relatively short, painful stretches, both the trunk roads - the Main Central and the National Highway - have made road-travel so much more reliable.

And there were the elephant-questions. Until I sat for an hour gawking at the pachyderms, I never knew how leverage their tusks to crack palm fronds, or that they prefer to eat the stem like foot-long pieces of sugarcane, while completely ignoring the green leaves. I noticed this for the first time inside the Guruvayur temple during the Seiveli Puja. It never ceases to amaze me - the sight of five bedecked elephants standing in a confined space, amidst hundreds of people, in close proximity to oil lamps and their long, flickering flames.

Finally, I never knew that Trissur city was built around a huge 'traffic island' hillock, housing the famous Vadakkunathan temple. I always imagined it to be on a flat plain, separated from the Parasumeikkavu temple by the famous "pooram" ground. Even more suprising was the sheer size of the complex with its numerous sub-shrines. Most of these are in bad shape, thanks, no doubt, to the usual suspects - a Dewaswom Board with a damn-care attitude and the local populance which is unable or unwilling to take responsibility for its own heritage.


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The Thrissur Roundabout

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Lakes wedged in between Mukurthi and Silent Valley National Parks

Monday, November 07, 2011

Reliance and a Weak State

I just finished reading Hamish McDonald's acclaimed book, "Ambani & Sons -The Making of the World's Richest Brother's and their Feud". Its an amazing piece of work.

It is surprising that it took an Australian journalist to dig out murky details of corporate India and present it in such an eminently readable form. On the other hand, perhaps this is something only a foreigner could do: cutting through entrenched biases of individuals and holding up a mirror to demolish self-serving myths of an emerging nation; acting like the little boy who shouted, "But the Emperor is naked!"

Yet, the author could hardly be called a neutral observer presenting the facts - he is self-serving too, in his own way. McDonald is meticulous while naming the numerous politicians & bureaucrats who were in cahoots the Ambani's during the period 1977-2009. At the same time, when it comes to folks of his own ilk - journalists - MacDonald is more coy. Instead of naming the Indian journalists who systematically planted stories and subverted the truth for three decades, he repeatedly refers to them as just the "dirty dozen".

In the final analysis, McDonald quotes Gurcharan Das to conclude that -
A large part of the problem might be cultural: a 'bias for thought against action', or that bureaucrats 'value ideas over accomplishment'...The Indian state no longer generates public goods. Instead it creates private benefits for those who control it.

Some of the most important post-1991 reforms succeeded because of the regulatory institutions established by the state. While India needs entrepreneurs like Mukesh Ambani, it also needs a much stronger state to apply rules against any abuse of market power. Businessmen will do what they can get away with...A strong state should devote more resources to relevant and updated policies, better revenue collection and accountability and effective policing of rules, rather than persisting with so much effort in micro-managing affairs. It should strengthen its bureaucracy, not with great powers but with better resources, education and discipline so as to be truly the 'steel framework' that Nehru envisaged, or the rule-keepers prescribed by Hayek.

Das, Gurcharan (2006): The India Model, Foreign Affairs (Jul., 2006), Reprinted in NYT. URL -

Cream Weaver: Review in the Outlook (Oct., 2010) URL -

Review at CNN-Go, URL -

Monday, October 31, 2011

Steve and the Perfect Staircase

Steve Jobs is listed as an inventor in 317 US  patents.

Most of them are, quite predictably,  related to computers and peripheral devices, but there are notable exceptions - and one of them is a patent for the glass staircase that adorns Apple stores!


Ifo Apple Store - Glass Staircase -

Patent Document - PDF file -

Seven Iconic Patents that Define Steve Jobs (TechCrunch, 25 Aug 2011) -

Apple Patents show Steve Jobs's Attention to Design (NYT Aug., 2011)

Steve Job's Patents (NYT Interactive Feature, 5 Oct., 2011) -

A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs By MONA SIMPSON (October 30, 2011) --

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Formula-1 in the Fields of Dankaur

View Larger Map

The race is over. Vettel won.

Mayavati, representing the 'head of state', has handed over the gleaming trophies while the ministers of the central government have been acting like petulant children, claiming that they were not invited and threatening tax raids at the same time. Given their handling of the Commonwealth Games, its a small mercy that they were not directly involved!

The English newspapers and TV channels have been going on and on about the success of India' first Formula 1 Series. There are breathless descriptions of the assorted celebrities studding the stands; of the roar of engines and incredible speeds.

However, but I have been looking for the more mundane details :
  • First of all, who conceived the plan for transforming a sleepy Delhi suburb into a world-class F1 circuit facility?
  • Why is it that Mayavati's Uttar Pradesh succeeded while the big boys of Mumbai and Bangalore threw in the towel and fell by the wayside?
  • How did the Jaypee Group engage the best international expertise to design and implement a project of this scale?
Some information that has emerged -

Project cost: Jaypee spent $200m for the construction and paid another $200 as license fees to F1
Key Player: Vickey Chandok, President, Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI)
I am yet to come across a story that ties all these loose threads. The search continues...


Will F1 put economy on fast track? - V. SUMANTRAN (Business Line, 2 Nov., 2011)

Formula 1: India GP to 'Break-Even in Four Years (ET, 1 Nov., 2011) -

Wikimap of Dankaur, Noida

NCR Delhi: Pics & Unanswered Questions

Garbage Bins, Janpath: Right in the middle of the most touristy street market in Delhi, these two garbage-bins have been placed upside down for the past four years. Why? - because Delhi Police is afraid that some terrorist might place bombs in them. If so, what can be reason for not removing them permanently?

Open drain bordering Harola, Sector 5, Noida: The plastic bags are floating atop noxious drain-water, and yet, the entire stretch is a blind spot. Food-carts and restaurants continue to cook and sell their stuff nonchalantly, all along this stretch, amidst swarms of flies...and nobody seems to care. Why?

Un-Fare: Autos with UP number plates are harassed and bribed by policemen in Delhi and the compliment is returned by their counterparts in Uttar Pradesh. The drivers have the convenient choice of making monthly bribe payments (~ Rs. 1500), at any five designated point. Since they are not obliged to go by the meter in any case, the cost is passed on to the passengers. Nobody complains - why?

In Delhi Metro, why are many cars marked with the number "6"?
Also, why are two painted "bulls-eyes" kept dangling from the roof of Laxmi Nagar station?

Do eavesdropping tigers also get dunked in Yamuna after the puja-season? ;)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

'All Architecture is Political'

At a time when the rest of the English-language media is busy  flinging mud at Mayavati's "Dr. Ambedkar Memorial Park" in Noida, here is a refreshing, contrarian view from Jerry Rao:

Rao, Jerry (Indian Express, 2011): The Elites Don't Get it

Media pundits and self-appointed experts forget a central theme in human affairs: all architecture is political. Tirumala Nayak’s palace in Madurai, the Red Fort in Delhi, Herbert Baker’s Parliament in New Delhi are all political statements meant to overawe subjects or impress them in other ways. By the way, this is also true of Trajan’s Column in Rome, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Washington Monument in DC and St Paul’s Cathedral in London. With the rise of nationalism and the excessive interest in “identity politics” that has characterised the last two centuries, architecture has been used consciously or otherwise, by elites, to create, enhance and sustain pride in group identities.
Somehow, you realize the magnitude of what she is trying to achieve only when you take a look at the bigger picture. A good way to get this is through Christophe Jaffrelot's book, Dr Ambedkar and Untouchability - Analysing and Fighting Caste.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

A Tablet Called "Aakash"

"This marks India's leap into the future of PC technology"
- Kapil Sibal, Minister of Science & Technology at the launch of Mobilis (priced at Rs.10,000, launched in May 2005)

"This is for all those who are disempowered. This is is for all those who have no access. This is for all those who are marginalized...The Akash is proudly made in India, and is destined to revolutionize computing and internet access for the world."
- Kapil Sibal, Minister for Human Resources Development at the launch of Akash, "world's cheapest tablet computer" (Rs.1,750; 5 Oct., 2011)

One is tempted to call this the "Hall of Damp-Squibs" sponsored by the Government of India. First it was the Simputer, then came Mobilis, and now we have Akash. The last two were launched by Kapil Sibal while he was heading two different ministries in a span of six years.

Unanswered questions:
  • How & where was the Akash field-tested in the hands any of the "dis-empowered or marginalized Indians", before it was launched?
  • Since the battery-life is only three hours, is there an option for solar-charging? If so, how much does this cost?

* DataWind homepage -

* Kurup, Saira  (2011): 'We want to target the billion Indians who are cut off',  Times of India, 9 Oct., 2011 url -

* Saxena, Shobhan (2011): Miracle Pill or Cheap Gimmick?, ToI, 9 Oct., 2011, url -

* Sunderarajan, P (2005): Here comes the no-frills, mobile computer system, The Hindu, 11 May 2005, url -

More links:

* Chopra, Ritika (8 Jan 2012): Aakash Proved to be a Dud
* Singh, Sanja (13 Jan 2012): Sibal's Aakash Tablet May be Shelved

Friday, October 07, 2011

Cultural Myopia

Why is it that most of the scholarly work in Indian Social Sciences arena, actually originates from outside the country? Is anything new and original coming out of our own universities?

Perhaps a more recent and popular example of this is William Darlymple's book, "The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty" - a research on the events leading up to the bloody conflicts of 1857. This piece of work is almost entirely based on documents that had been gathering dust in the National Archives of India for a few centuries - until Darlymple and his research team used it to demolish popular myths and re-write history.

Here is a collection of other acclaimed research, which I hope to read one by one:

Hardgrave, Robert L. (1970): The Nadars of Tamil Nadu (Amazon)

Jeffery, Robin (1994): The Decline of Nair Dominance: The Society and Politics of Travancore, 1847-1908, Manohar (at Google Books, and Amazon)

Ito, Shoji (1966): A Note on the Business Combine in India with Special Reference to the Nattukotal Chettiars, The Developing Economies, Vol IV, No.3, Sept., 1966, p.369 (Link to citation here)

Markovits, Claude (2004): The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750-1947:  Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama (Google Books

Osella, Caroline and Osella, Filippo (2000): Social Mobility in Kerala : Modernity and Identity in Conflict (Book on the Ezhava Community in Kerala), Pluto (Amazon)

Stein, Burton (1989): 'Vijayanagara'. The New Cambridge History of India, Cambridge University Press (Amazon)


Thursday, October 06, 2011

Two Great Pieces

Steve Jobs passed away yesterday at 5:00AM. Amidst the cacophony of tributes that was let loose by the audio-visual media, the one I liked best was a short, crisp piece by K. Venugopal in the Business Line:

The second piece was a scathing critique of the Planning Commission by Bhanu Pratap Mehta in the Indian Express:

"...The Planning Commission has long been a victim of its own name. It has this illusion that it can neatly order India's economy. It does so, but often as a kind of conjuring trick, where real credible objectives disappear under a set of entrenched assumptions."

"...the  commission is still not reconciled the fact that that the very scale at which it plans militates against innovation. And by not giving ministries, state governments, local governments enough space or ownership, it dooms proposals to failure."

"The commission has taken in a dazzling array of talent and sucked them into this illusory world of its own making. Thought leaders who should have been at the cutting edge of thinking about growth, or a new welfare architecture, or new data, have now become the object of easy scorn."
More Articles by K. Venugopal:

ENERGY: Furnishing much less than what people need (The Hindu, 15 Aug., 2007)

Pro-farmer or pro-consumer: Govt would like to be both, but can it? (BL, 8 Jul., 2006)

Tributes to Steve Jobs:

Steve P Jobs: His Live, His Companies, His Products (NYT, 5 Oct 2011);

Tools of Trade

Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses have got swankier, the staff are now seen in uniforms and the conductor no longer trapezes all over the bus distributing the tickets. Despite all these changes there is still one thing that always makes me squirm: The sight of conductors struggling with both hands to pinch out numbers from the tiny paper-tickets!

Why on earth do the conductors make a habit of doing something so utterly inefficient? 

In Mumbai, the BEST bus-conductors solved this problem decades ago by handing out simple paper-punches to all their conductors. Apart from making a distinct clicking sound which tells you where to find the tickets in a crowded bus, the punches leave a neat, star-shaped mark on the paper.

In Kerala, the KSRTC city buses have already abandoned manual ticketing. All the conductors carry around a compact electronic - and very obviously sturdy - machines, and hand out tickets printed on thermal paper.

Today, for the first time, I saw a Delhi conductor who preferred to use a paper-punch. DTC, he said, does not issue this simple contraption, so he purchased one on his own because "It makes my job a lot easier - I can punch out multiple tickets a lot faster!"

It would be interesting to know why DTC, which spends millions on AC buses, salaries and uniforms, chooses not to issue simple paper-punches to its bus conductors...

 Rajeev Kumar, DTC Conductor: Bringing his own tools to work

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Picking the Brickbats

This post is an attempt to collect & respond to feedback received on my OpEd article (Business Line 30 Sep., 2011), titled - "Where Delhi Metro Went Off-Track".

First of all, the caveats:
  1. I am just a curious fellow and not the 'ultimate authority on urban rail transport technology'.
  2. I am from IRMA and my main area of interest is Development - especially the use of technology for, and by the 'bottom billion';
  3. The article is an extract from my Master's thesis at University of Tsukuba, Japan (2009-2011), titled, "International Technology Transfers and the Role of Governments: A Study on Japanese Official Development Assistance for the Railway Sector in India". This document and can be accessed at the university library, and perhaps at the World Bank Library (the sabbatical was on a WB-GSP scholarship).
Now, to the brickbats:

"The article is an indirect criticism of Dr. Elattuvalapil Sreedharan and his work"

Nothing could be further from the truth. Dr. Sreedharan is one of the few people I admire in Indian public life, for what he has accomplished despite being swamped in a sea of mediocrity and cynicism. He is the unassuming nature-lover I often ran into at the Jahanpanah City Forest in Delhi, and a man, who, in Kipling's words, truly 'walks with kings without losing the common touch'.

In the comparison between the Delhi Metro and the Bullet-Train (Shinkansen) project, I had described the stellar role of Shinji Sogo, the president of JNR. Sogo's right-hand man was Hideo Shima, a brilliant Chief Engineer and Manager who was actually responsible for implementing the project. Dr. Sreedharan's role can be compared to that of Shima. What he lacked in the Indian context was the backing of an experienced statesman like Sogo, who looked beyond project deadlines, with a clear vision of long-term National Interest.

"Indigenous manufacturing of such complex infrastructure needs for railways, airlines etc is still at least 20 - 25 years away in India"
"The simple fact is Indian engineering is just not ready to offer world class products without significant external help."-- Venkat

Maybe it is 20-25 years away--  if we make a start now. The point I am trying to make is that unless we encourage the domestic manufacturing industry, we will get stuck with expensive imports. Have you noticed how, after buying a nifty printer at a bargain price, you are forced to pay through your nose for the cartridge refills? A metro may be no different.

"For DMRC the target was not the promotion of indigenous technology but providing masses friendly mass transit system....Sheer number of engineers and their talent does not deliver on R&D...R&D may be or should be the next level of evolution for DMRC once phase III is functional." - Diwaker Srivastava

I agree with the first two points but not the last one. R&D cannot start as an afterthought - it has to be based on a continuous learning strategy, right from the very beginning. I am not sure if RDSO or DMRC has such an institutional mechanism in place.

"The amount of Rs.1016 crore is a minuscule amount if you see the operational efficiencies and quality of coaches being used in DMRCL" - Vijay Nair

The current operating profit of DMRC is less than Rs. 350 Cr. Would you still say that the forex expenditure on contracts & consultancy fees (Rs. 1,1316 Cr. 2009-10), is a "minuscule amount"?

Also please see:

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Where Delhi Metro went off track

 Article published in the Business Line OpEd. (Friday, 30 Sep., 2011)
Business Line : Opinion : Where Delhi Metro went off track

We need to take a leaf out of the Japanese experience in achieving technological self-sufficiency.
We need to take a leaf out of the Japanese experience in achieving technological self-sufficiency. 

Delhi Metro preferred to put its faith in foreign consultants, unlike Japan which encouraged its own rail companies.

29 September, 2011

It is now almost a decade since the Delhi Metro commenced its operations in the National Capital Region. A project substantially financed by Japanese soft-loans has grown with time to become a ‘lifeline' for the people of Delhi. Yet, the entire network continues to be heavily reliant on imported equipment and spares.
While there cannot be too many doubts regarding the utility and efficiency of Delhi Metro's services, or even the project execution standards laid by it, the question is: Have we been effective in leveraging this project to create a vibrant domestic manufacturing industry in urban railways? Has it facilitated domestic Research and Development (R&D) and innovations to suit the diverse working conditions across India?
From Delhi Metro Rail Corporation's (DMRC) own annual reports, progress in this field has been peripheral, at best. Manufacturing is limited to coach shells and bogies being built by Bombardier-India and Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML). 

Under the head ‘Technology Absorption', the 2009-10 report mentions fire retardant low-smoke zero-halogen, low-voltage cables, fire pumps and 25kV rigid overhead electrical systems and “other items which were imported in Phase-I (and) have since been developed by Indian industries and supplied in Phase-II”. But the core technologies — electrical traction systems, rolling stock and signalling — remain firmly under the control of foreign companies.

All this is reflected in the huge forex outflows towards expenditure for contracts and consultancy fees (Rs 1,316 crore in 2009-10). The strategic and financial implications of this kind of dependency cannot be ignored.


In this context, perhaps we might take a leaf out of the Japanese experience in achieving technological self-sufficiency. Take Japan's famous ‘Bullet Trains' (Shinkansen), which actually emerged from a World Bank-aided programme in the 1960s. For that time, the Shinkansen concept, which was not just new but also revolutionary, introduced innovations that are standard features for all high-speed rail networks.
These innovations came when Japan was still under a US-led occupation through General Douglas MacArthur's Supreme Command of the Allied Powers (SCAP). In the late 1950s, a team of visionary leaders emerged in Japan National Railways (JNR). Foremost among them was Shinji Sogo, a former director of the South Manchuria Railways (Mantetsu), which had, for more than half a century, been funnelling out raw materials from China for imperial Japan's war efforts.

Following Japan's surrender in 1945, the SCAP imposed measures to ensure effective de-militarisation of the country. The aeronautics industry, responsible for creating legendary fighting machines like such as the ‘Zeros' (Mitsubishi fighter planes), was dismantled. Rendered jobless, a large number of aeronautical engineers and designers moved into the railway sector. Next to the military, the railways now had the largest number of engineers.

By the early 1950s, the main Tokaido line, connecting Tokyo to Osaka, was getting congested. Although it represented only three per cent of the railway system by length, it carried 24 per cent of JNR's traffic and 23 per cent of its freight. The highways, too, were congested, while the existing narrow gauge railway was already operating at full capacity.


The stage was then set for building the Shinkansen. Under Sogo's leadership, JNR and the Railway Technical Research Institute (RTRI) prepared a feasibility study. The government was persuaded to fund the project through a WB loan. When ‘experts' from the Bank recorded their reservations on the ambitious project, Sogo stood firmly by his own engineers' side and reiterated his confidence in the technical capabilities of RTRI. 

The Bank ultimately agreed to furnish a loan of $80 million, which was more than a quarter of the project cost.When it was finally unveiled in 1964 — well in time for the Tokyo Olympics — the new railway system symbolised the coming-of-age of Japan's technical prowess and self-reliance. The project's success also boosted the confidence of RTRI as an institution and it went on to be a global leader in rail innovation & technology. Three technology elements were critical to the success of the Shinkansen project, all of which came from RTRI: Dedicated high-quality tracks, minimal curves along the route, and the special rolling stock. The tracks were composed of long-welded rails, each measuring approximately a mile in length, and linked together by expansion joints, with double elastic fastenings on pre-stressed concrete ties. The track curves were designed to be gentle, permitting the maintenance of higher speeds. 

Unlike conventional railways, the Shinkansen did not have dedicated engines — they relied on ‘distributed power' with motors and axles all along the train, rather than having them concentrated at either end. This reduced track wear and tear, improved braking and reliability.

RTRI-JNR also conducted extensive research to create light-weight bogies. Bodies were made of aluminium rather than steel; special welding techniques were used to dispense with heavy fillers in the body shell; and the axles strengthened by metallurgical elements to avoid the need for extra weight. Several prototypes were designed and tested for coming up with the best possible equipment for the local running conditions, which, of course, included measures against earthquakes and high-speed winds. It is worth noting that none of the R&D and testing involved any of the leading Western railroad companies.


In India, the equivalent of Japan's RTRI is the Railway Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO). However, as the title suggests, its emphasis has been more on testing and approval of standards than in any breakthrough innovations. RDSO's limited role in urban transport systems is apparent from the fact that the chaotic construction of Kolkata Metro in the 1970s yielded few lessons. More than two decades later, Delhi Metro preferred to start on a clean slate, putting its faith in foreign consultants rather than RDSO or building local institutional capabilities.

Unlike India, Japan, from the very outset, encouraged its own rail companies. The Shinkansen project involved five of them — Nippon Sharyo, Hitachi, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Kiki Sharyo and Tokyu Car Corp. A healthy competition within the private sector ensured that innovative ideas emerging from the national labs were quickly adopted, leading to a continuous improvement of Japan's railway infrastructure.
The absence of close collaboration between public R&D and the private sector has been India's Achilles Heel. Unless local manufacturers are encouraged to participate and compete in the railway sector, our dependence on foreign equipment suppliers, their expensive spares and consultancy services will only grow.

Update - 30Mar15 - ToI - Make in India: Most Metro trains are desi --

Friday, September 23, 2011

Delhi: The More Things Change...

South Extension - a park has been replaced by a parking-lot

Ricks at Futt-fattia's in Noida

Clunky coolers in chains..

A horse stalls at Triveni Gallery

CP aka Rajiv Chowk

A few years ago a bomb exploded in a dustbin. Since then all the dustbins have either been removed (!) or turned up-side-down. Feel free to litter...

Metro terminal at Gurgaon

Chandni Chowk

Waiting for a bus - a Q of shadows

Pavement Artists :)

Sikandar Lodhi's Tomb, Lodhi Gardens

Red Fort & Barricade

 Haus Khaz and Tuglak's tombs

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Opium Wars & The River of Smoke

In the history of International Relations, the Treaty of Nanjing (1842) marks a watershed in world history. Signed at the end of the First Opium War (1839–42) between representatives of Britain and the Qing Dynasty of China, it was the first of what came to be known as the unequal treaties

 A Chinese professor at Tsukuba-U often pointed out that Western academicians often suffer a blind spot, a certain unexplained reluctance when it comes to research on the socio-economic events and circumstances that led up to the Opium Wars.

Now we have an acclaimed writer, Amitav Ghosh, turning his attention on this touchy subject and bringing it to life in  the "The River of Smoke", a book which is also the second part of his Ibis Trilogy.

The book is set in Canton (now Guandong) of the 1830's, a decade when the Qing rulers decided to take firm action against Western traders (and their Parsi cat's paws), to try and prevent them from smuggling in opium and turning China into a country of drug addicts (and draining its coffers), in the name of "Free Trade".  Here are some snippets which illustrate the condescending mindset which brought matters to a head:
M. Slade (a British Trader) thundered...'After two centuries of commerce, it is impossible that we should abandon our factories and retreat from Canton. It is here that we must make our stand; we must show that if they attempt to curtail foreign trade they will find their boasted power shaken to pieces. Is it not time to ask what may be the consequences to this empire of the ignorance and obstinacy of its rulers? Ignorance of everything beyond China, obstinate adherence to their own dogmas of government? The answers are clear: we must remain here, if for no other reason than to protect the Chinese from themselves (!!). I do not doubt that it will soon become necessary for the British government to intervene here as it has elsewhere, merely in order to quell civil commotion.'

....Burnham sank back into his chair...and said calmly. 'An open threat has been issued against us: our lives, our property, our liberty are in jeopardy. Yet the only offense cited against us is that we have obeyed the laws of Free Trade - and it is no more possible for us to be heedless of these laws than to disregard the forces of nature, or disobey God's commandments.'

'Oh come now, Mr. Burnham,' said Charles King. 'God has scarcely asked you to send vast shipments of opium into this country, against the declared wishes of its government and in contravention of its laws?'

'Oh please, Mr. King,' snapped Mr. Slade, 'need I remind you that the force of law obtains only between civilized nations?' And the (Chinese) Commissioner's actions of today prove, if proof were needed, that this country cannot be included in that number?'

'Are you of the opinion then,' said King, 'that no civilized country would seek to ban opium? That is contrary to fact, sir, as we know from the practices of our own governments.'
The River of Smoke is great piece of work. Its the sort of book that makes wonder about the life and times of  people in distant lands who had a role to play in just about everything that you take for granted -  everything ranging from the flowers that decorate your garden and in the lopsided laws that govern international commerce (think WTO & TRIPS) today.

It had taken Ghosh almost three years to publish this book. If the next book is going to dwell deeper into the Opium Wars, I wouldn't mind waiting another three years for the concluding Part-III of the Ibis Trilogy!  :-)

The 13 Hongs (Pics: Wikipedia Commons)

  • Amitav Ghosh Website -
  • Pearl River Delta on Wikimapia:

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Wasps and Waistlines

Why do wasps - especially Mud Daubers -   have such elongated waists?

What is the evolutionary advantage of having an abdomen located so far away from the thorax? Does it serve as a rudder during flight?


For A Driver's License

My driving license expired in 2010, while I was in Japan. Since I could not renew the Delhi-issue licence from Tsukuba my application for a Japanese Unten-Menkyo (driving license) was jeopardized and my trips to the issuing centre at Tsuchiura ended on a disappointing note.

The Test Course at Tsuchiura, Japan

The experience, however, gave me the opportunity to understand the protocols in the Japanese system; the seriousness with which DL applications are screened and the manner in which tests are conducted. The effectiveness of such a system are more than apparent in the extremely low incidence of traffic accidents in Japan.

Now, back in India, I found myself going through the motions of getting my licence renewed. It was no simple matter. Despite all the computer networking in India, a driving licence issued in Delhi could not be renewed in Kerala unless you produce an NOC (no objection certificate) from the Delhi RTO (even if you produce one it has to be cross-checked manually, over snail-mails). Its a strange rule because if I intended to go to Delhi for the NOC, I could get the licence renewed there itself! So the only alternative was to go through the motions of applying for a fresh licence.

At the Thiruvananthapuram RTO, the DL process involved the following steps:
  1. Applying for a Learner's Licence qualifying test (45 days waiting time)
  2. Qualifying the LL test and getting a date for the Driving Test (64 days later)
  3. Qualifying the Driving Test & the Road Test (half-day 8:30AM - 12:30PM)
  4. Qualifying the Road Test
  5. Obtaining the Driving Licence by registered post (10 days)
The whole process was painful and frustrating. At the same time, it was a study of contrasts and a great lesson on how a government department can manage a complex exercise in standard-setting with the absolute bare minimum in terms of manpower and investments.

In Japan the Unten-Menkyo centre had a large facility of its own - buildings with waiting areas and vending machines; test-vehicles in all categories; a custom-built ground for testing the candidates, qualified personnel and an arrangement with the bus companies to ferry applicants. On the other hand, in Kerala the onus rests entirely on the driving schools. The test facility at Shangumugham is just an open ground that belongs to another government department. A few shacks on its periphery provide refreshments and a semblance of shelter from the rain under tarpaulin sheets.

The RTO officers arrive after 8:30 AM in a single official vehicle and from then on, everything is "taken care of" by the 20 odd driving schools who flood the ground with about 200 applicants everyday. The officers sit on furniture brought in by one school; they sit in vehicles provided by another for observing the applicants as they go through their H's and 8's; they sip on refreshments others buy for them, and finally, the road-tests are conducted in vehicles provided by the schools.

Test Course at Shankumugham, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala

Is there a conflict of interest here? Of course. However, I could find no serious evidence of any deviation from the RTO's ultimate objective: to ensure that well trained drivers are issued licenses. For a state government that tops in financial mismanagement, its RTO seems to be doing excellent work with the bare minimum of resources and infrastructure. With just a handful of officers it is able to manage a large volume of applicants with the help of all the registered driving schools in the city.

Unlike in some other states, where you can easily get a driving licence in exchange for a few of bottles of rum, the system here seems to have got completely transformed over the past few years. Touts offering to "fix" things for you without a real test, have completely disappeared. The driving schools do all the running around but the fact that there are so many small players seems to ensure a system with its own checks and balances. The chances of an undeserving candidate clearing the tests are very low indeed.

There is, of course, a lot of scope of improvement. For starters, the RTO could at least construct some waiting sheds for the applicants; it could invite local vendors to set up regular refreshment stalls. In the test procedures it could do away with the test for archaic "hand-signals" which have long been replaced by electronic indicators in all vehicles.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Two Highways in Kerala

For anybody traveling out of Thiruvananathapuram by road, there are essentially two choices - the national highway (NH-47) or the Main Central (MC) Road. Both run through the length of Kerala with the NH mostly hugging the coastline and lagoons, while the MC is a roller-coaster snaking through the central hills and valleys.

Yesterday we had to make a round trip to Chertala (literally "Swamp Head"), around 180km from Tvm. For the onward journey we drove down the NH and returned in the evening using the MC. It was a journey that provided a glimpse into the patchwork of intentions that marks infra development in Kerala.

The National Highways are built and owned by the central government, with its management being outsourced to the state. In Kerala it follows the minimum national standards so we have a two-lane configuration all through. The poor quality of construction and maintenance is apparent in many places - potholes, loose gravel and traffic jams. The MC road, on the other hand, is now a strange animal - something of a cross between an autobahn and a bullock-cart track.

The stretch from Changanaserry to Pantalam is the bullock-cart patch, with the traffic crawling at snailpace through narrow, broken roads and single-lane bridges. Then, suddenly, as you approach Pandalam, you have stretches that are so perfect that it is difficult to believe that you are on the same highway! The two-lane highway now comes with clearly demarcated shoulders, lanes and crossings. The stretch is so good that you now have the time to take in the lush green hills and paddies dotting the countryside.

Strangely, there is no sign of any further effort to make the MC Road consistently better.  The complete absence of road construction equipment along the way makes you wonder what brought about this patchwork quilt where excellence and mediocrity sit side by side.


World Bank Project & Operations (2009): India: Kerala State Transport Project; URL -

Status Report: India - Kerala State Transport Project : P072539 - Implementation Status Results Report : Sequence 21; URL -

Kumar, Sanjeev V (2006): Kerala State transport project second phase to be launched next month, The Hindu BusinessLine 20 Jan 2006; URL -

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rescuing a Snake

Q: How does one rescue a trapped, tangled snake?
A: With a lot of trepidation!

Yesterday morning, our domestic help, Ramani, was fretting about a big snake that she'd found trapped on a neighbor's fish-tank netting. She said it was just a matter of time before the crows descended on it. My curiosity aroused, I tagged along with a camera in hand, hoping to get some frames before it was too late.

Attempting a rescue was something that never crossed my mind - until I saw this magnificent creature twisting helplessly. About five feet long and yellow-brown in color, it was lying entangled on a nylon net, atop  a rusty, metal grill. Ramani expressed her sympathies from a safe distance, along with the house-owner, a middle-aged lady  who kept saying this was a "pambu" not a "sarpa" (a hooded cobra), hinting that there was no sin in ending its misery by just killing it.

Luckily my enthusiastic  nephew, Appu, turned up and volunteered to run and get the necessary things to attempt a rescue: a pair of scissors and some sticks. While waiting for him to return, the snake too seemed to sense that we meant no harm. She stopped twisting wildly  and moved her head below the metal grill, flicking her forked tongue close to the water surface. By the time the equipment arrived, the chances of getting bitten during the operation had diminished and we set to work.

The snake remained absolutely motionless as we slowly snipped at the nylon wires. The outer ones were easy to cut but the ones closer to the scales were difficult to reach. These wires had cut deep into the skin squeezing out white tissue and blood. The snake remained absolutely still while the scissor blades dug through the scales to reach the wires.As soon as the tightest wires were snipped, the snake sprang up, sending us both jumping backwards!

Finally, after slithering out of the nets, it rested for a couple of minutes outside the tank, savoring freedom, before slithering out of the gates, into the undergrowth.

The crows were, no doubt, upset about being deprived of a feast but I just cannot stop wondering: how did the snake figure that we meant no harm?


Last week I had sighted another snake - and a dozen snake-eggs - while clearing some backyard rubble. It looked like a krait so I had called up Vava Suresh, who is apparently the preeminent volunteer-snake-catcher in Thiruvananthapuram (contact - +91-9387974441). A tall man with a restless mien, he was dressed in black shoes, formal trousers and a full-sleeve shirt, and looked  as though he had rushed out of an office meeting. One look at my specimens and he pronounced that the eggs belonged to a rat-snake. My "banded krait" was demoted to the rank of a wolf-snake - a danger only to lizards!