Monday, June 27, 2016

India's War

Over the past few weeks two different authors launching two very similar sounding books: "India's War" by Srinath Raghavan and "India's Wars" by Arjun Subramaniam. Except for the pudgy looking elephant on the Srinath's book, both would have had similar covers too.

I picked the author was more familiar - Srinath. There are already a lot of glowing book reviews in the magazines and newspapers so let me just stick to the points that I found interesting or fascinating.

"India's War" makes a very interesting start with the author's curiosity getting piqued at the Indian Military Academy. At IMA, officer cadets were divided into groups named after distant, strange-sounding places in foreign lands. Battlefields where Indian units fought - and won - many significant victories.

Victories and defeats. The book does not attempt to whitewash battles where the British Indian Army suffered significant defeats. I liked that. I also liked the way in which the Germans and Japanese were given due credit for adopting significantly better strategies and tactics. Details of the logistics and costs involved in ramping up an army from 50,000 to 2.5 million, and the travails of moving the divisions from one corner of the world to another, makes fassinating reading.

It was also good to know that the supposedly "progressive" princely state of Travancore, under Divan Sir CP Ramaswamy Aiyer, fared no better than British Bengal when it came to providing foodgrains for its citizens. While the former starved for the want of imported rice from Burma, the latter just shipped off whatever it as reserve-stocks for British soldiers in Europe. During the Famine in Travancore (1941-43), a sack of rice cost Rs. 65. An Indian soldier fighting in North Africa or Southern Europe received a monthly salary of Rs. 17 while the British tommies in the adjascent trenches got Rs.67 - three times the salary for the same work.

Unknown names also came to the fore: Maruyama Daisaburo, the spy who lived in Gandhi's Wardha ashram in the 1930s went on to set up a superb school for espionage in Penang. And then there was Lt Gen Mutaguchi Renya, Commander of the 15th Army in Northern Burma. If it were not for the misclculation he made for for the main offensive "Operation U-Go (8 march 1944) and  Op Ha-Go (to stop and destroy the 5th and 7th Indian Division along the Mayu Ridge), the war could have turned out very differently indeed!

Delhi Metro: Blueline Blues

Stranded: Delhi Metro Blueline

Is the Delhi Metro unprepared to cope with its own rapid expansion? How do passengers cope with sudden disruptions in the suburban network?

Things that you read in the papers, shake your head in disappointment, and then flip over to the next page. It takes a first hand  experience to jolt you out of the detached, disinterested way in which most of us go through the daily grind. I got mine today.

At 15:30 today, I went down the ITO station to a business meeting at Dwaraka Sector-12 . On a normal day this journey takes about 40-60 minutes and I was quite sure that I would reach in time. About an hour later, at Uttam Nagar on the outskirts of Dwaraka, the train suddenly stopped. For the next one hour annoucements on the PA system mentioned a "technical snag", and then about "disruption in electrical supply" which would be "repaired soon". At 17:45 the train slowly crawled to the next station.

By this time it was clear that I would have to reschedule my meeting. So I went down for a chat with the metro staff before taking a return train to Noida. "Oh, this sort of thing keeps happening", said the man at the turnstiles, "There is no way to predict how long the repair work is going to take...40 minute, or four hour, your guess is as good as mine!"

A fee passengers who had stepped out to look for alternate transport came back dejected. As soon as news of the network failure got around, the taxi and auto drivers had promptly switched to "surrge pricing", a nifty term for fleecing helpless people.

Nearly an hour later, at 18:30 the train came to a stop at Rajiv Chowk. There was an unbelievable mass of humanity outside the windows, and as soon as the doors slid open, commuters exploded into the compartment, and then, the doors would not close because folks on the outside just did not want to let go. It took a lot of coaxing and cajoling from the guards to get the train rolling again. The same scene was repeated at the next major crossing - Yamuna Bank.

I got out of the Blue-Line at 19:30, full four hours after I entered into the network.

DMRC is clearly under severe strain. The Delhi network currently handles an average ridership of 2.7 million people a day, of which the Blue-Line (the longest with 44 stations) handles a million passengers - 64 percent of the load.

Is there a pattern to the network failures along the Blue-Line? Is there a better way of communicating such failures to the commuters? Is there a more cost effective way of evacuating passengers in emergency situations?

DMRC has an active PR department but it needs to go way beyond issuing the usual press-releases. Disruptions like these present opportunities to prepare the city for bigger emergencies.


* 27 June 2016 -

* 4 June 2016:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Look at Rexit

A day before Brexit, there has been a sharp drop in the number of shrill op-ed's and commentaries on "Rexit" - the exit of RBI Governer, Raghuram Rajan.

Reactions to Rexit have, by now, covered the entire spectrum of reactions and predictions, from the impending collapse of the Indian economy to 'good riddance'. As a man-on-the-street, I have been trying to understand why the governement decided not to extend Rajan's tenure, who, by all accounts seemed to be the perfect man for the job.

So far, the many opinions rationalizing Rajan's exit centred on a handful of points: The RBI governor was exceeding his brief; he was playing to the gallery by taking on the role of a public intellectual and a government functionary at the same time; He was not being senstive enough to the plight of rural India by refusing to lower the interest rates, etc..

Today I came across an entirely new angle presented by Gurumurty. According to him, Rajan, with his Western education did not sufficiently understand the importance of small towns, the unorganised sector. He illustrated this with two examples:

  • Morvi, Gujarat: The town produces 70 % of ceramics, 80% of CFL lamps, and the largest producer of clocks in India. It has the highest per-capita income in the country.
  • Tirupur, Tamil Nadu: Here, entrepreneurs with less than 10 years of formal education export more than USD 4 billion worth of knitwear garments.

According to Gurumurthy, towns like Morvi and Tirupur account for more than 58 million unfunded, unorganised businesses that needed a capital of INR 12 Lakh Crores (USD 184 billion). A new financial architecture called the Mudra Bank, to fund these unorganised businesses, has been stonewalled by Rajan at RBI citing regulatory arbitrage and systemic risk.

Obviously there is more to Mudra than meets the eye. Finance is certainly a problem for SMEs, especially for those located in rural areas where the going rate from local money lenders ranges from 30 to 120 percent. If RBI under Rajan was not too keen on having yet another banking/regulatory body (apart from NABARD, SIDBI and NHB) what were the arguments against it?


* Micro Units Development and Refinance Agency (MUDRA) - wiki -

* Mudra Bank - Genesis -

* Unnikrishnan, Dinesh (Firstpost, 2015) --
- National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard), Small Industries Development Bank of India (Sidbi) and National Housing Bank (NHB)

* Gurumurty -
* Sanjay Baru - Interesting -
* Harish -

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Marthanda Varma's Legacy

Padmanabhapuram Palace

A casual visitor driving on NH-47 from Kerala to Kanyakumari (aka Cape Comorin), Tamil Nadu is stuck by two things: firstly, the roads in Kerala are now much, much better, and that despite change in language, climate and topography, close linkages continue to be forged between the two southernmost districts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

My last visit to the Cape was more than three decades ago. It was a journey in an Ambassador taxi packed with cousins from Bombay and I have vivid memories of the large ponds and hills along the way, the visit to the Vivekananda Rock and the long line of vendors selling polished sea-shells and packets of multicolored sands.

Almost every accessible site of historical interest seems to have strong connections with one king of Travancore - Marthanda Varma (1705-1758) .

Marthanda Varma was perhaps the most proactive and agressive of Travancore rulers. He had inherited a weak state surrounded by enemies, at a time when the Europeans had just promoted themselves from supplicants and spice traders, to power brokers and conquistadors.

Varma survived numerous assasination attempts before striking back to decimate his enemies, and to make strategic alliances that would make Kerala what it is today.

It was also during Varma's reign that the Padmanabha Swami Temple in Trivandrum became a major repository for state treasure. Recent discoveries put the value of this treasure at more than USD 1 Trillion!

Yet, when you look at the map it is difficult to understand why Varma made his capital city at Padmanabhapuram, a city far from his hilly hinterland in Kerala and one that was vulnerable to attacks from the land and sea.

Perhaps due to this vulnerable location European traders thought it was logical to start their conquest of Travancore from Colachel port. In 1741, Dutch East India Company forces led by Admiral Eustachius De Lannoy landed at Colachel port and marched north-east towards Padmanabhapuram Palace, hoping that a quick, dirty battle would force a surrender leading to a full control over the spice trade.

Vattakottai Fort, Kanyakumari Distt, TN
Unfortunately for De Lannoy, superior weapons and battle tactics were not of much help when the Travancore kind, Marthanda Verma called in reinforcements from his coastal domains. The Dutch army was not only defeated but the captured European soldiers were offered terms which turned out to be a lot more attractive than the incentives being offered by their employer which was also the richest MNC of the time.

De Lannoy became the Chief Strategist of the Travancore army and, over the next 20 years,  went on to oversee the construction and reinforcement of a number of forts Kerala. He was also instrumental in building a defense line that stopped the Mysorean army led by Tipu Sultan from conquering Travancore.

The original question, however, still remains unanswered: Why did the rulers of Travancore place thier capital city so far away from the hinterland?


* USD 1 Trillion Treasure in Kerala Temple -

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Life in the Paddies

Nostalgia drove me to the erstwhile paddy fields of Thrikodithanam in Kerala.

A few decades ago a river of fluroscent green rice saplings stretched as far as a child's eye could see. Neat fields separated by narrow strips of slushy mud, clear streams teeming with Manatthu-kanni (eyes-to-the-sky) fishes and the smell of overturned earth.

All that has disappeared now. As in much of Kerala, paddy fields have been abandoned, filled-in, turned into tiny parcels of land and sold as residential plots. A little patch that now remains of my grandfather's paddy fields is now home to hundreds of unfamiliar insects.

A ten minute walk along the edges of this wild patch revealed these new inhabitants. What are they called?