Saturday, July 08, 2017

SpeedPost Courier Racket

India Post works like magic these days. If you pack a handloom saree and send it by SpeedPost it magically transforms enroute, into a cheap rexine handbag!

This is exactly what happened to us last week. My wife had been eagerly waiting for her first "Dubakka" cotton handloom saree sent from Maanini Vastra Samskriti India PL (MVSI), Bangalore. Photos had been exchanged on WhatsApp, a design had been carefully chosen and confirmed. When the packet arrived by Speedpost (no. CK 02481962 5 IN) yesterday, it looked like a saree packet, it weighed like one, but when we opened it, the packet contained a tacky, cheap rexine handbag.

SpeedPost packet no. CK 02481962 5 IN

Puzzled, we called up MVSI immediately. Had they, by any chance, sent us a handbag that was meant for another customer? The answer was an emphatic "No!". The company did not deal in anything other than handlooms. In fact it had carefully built a reputation as a reliable partner to a larger initiative by a group of handloom enthusiasts from "Kaithari", a social network that had been working tirelessly for the revival of handlooms across South India.

At a time when artisans in remote villages in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh were losing their livelihoods to a change in fashion trends, groups like Kaithari and MVSI had come together with a revival initiative, linking weavers in small towns like Udupi and Dubakka (AP) to markets in urban India. Over 1200 sarees of the "Udupi weave" had been sold by MVSI, and the "Dubakka weave" (aka Chitkula Sarees), was just beginning to notch up sales.

Convinced that this was not a mistake at MVSI we examined that Speedpost packet a little more carefully. The packed had indeed been tampered while in transit. The brown tape had been carefully sliced open with a blade, the contents switched, and the packed re-sealed with transparent cello-tape.

While a formal complaint is being registered with India Post / SpeedPost, the question is - Is this a one-off incident or does it represent a larger problem plaguing India's booming e-commerce industry?

Two years back in 2014-15, the postal department’s revenues from e-commerce majors had more than doubled to over Rs 1,000 crore, up from Rs 500 crore the previous year, and just Rs 100 crore in 2013-14. While the e-commerce majors get all the attention, fact remains that SpeedPost, with its unmatched national network, remains the first choice for entrepreneurs in remote corners of the country.

Many rural communities depend on Speedpost for their livelihoods. Unless strict action is taken against such pilferage "Make in India" and the fledgeling "Digital Economy"is bound to suffer. This is one magic-show that India Post customers can do without.



Dubakka Sarees aka Chituka Sarees -

Monday, June 26, 2017

Compromise Managers

"Angamaly Diaries" is a fabulous movie.

A 2017 crime-drama film in Malayalam, directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery, it tells the story of internecine conflicts, and gang-wars in a small town in Kerala. What makes the movie outstanding is the way it brings out the color and celebration of life - eating, drinking, singing, dancing - with the darkest of out instincts, of murder, vendetta, and strikes a fine balance between the two.

It is the last part that really caught my attention here - especially the role of individuals who are designated as "compromise managers" by the warring factions.  These are people who are allowed to step in when the cycle of murder and retribution reaches a stalemate where there can be no winners, or when it is clear that if the fight were to continue into a war of attrition, the winner would be an "outsider".

The one person designated as the Compromise Manager is an insider, a person who, despite being identified with one gang, has over a period of time, won the trust and confidence of the rival gangs as well. From this precarious position, he tries to make the key decision-makers, often the most violent individuals, recognize their own long-term selfish interest in agreeing to a compromise formula.

Thanks to this arrangement, the role of the state law-enforcement agencies and its ponderous legal system gets sidelined in favor of solutions that are more local. Money and business opportunities stay within the community, and the focus shifts from settling scores in the neighborhood, to putting up a joint front for challenges that come from outside.

Needless to say, CMs can be effective only when the costs (including bribes, jail-terms) of using the official legal system are much more than the benefits. In this case the town does have an active police officer, but the CM understands that in increasing crime-graph reflects poorly on the career of government officers. Similarly, the lawyers find it more lucrative to extract fees for striking a compromise rather than legal charges.

If the small town or village represents a microcosm, the UN perhaps represents the defunct legal system that is simply not in a position to resolve conflicts. This movie makes you wonder - who would be best positioned to be a compromise manager in conflict between nations-states?


* Movie - Angamaly Dairies (2017)

* Director - Lijo Jose Pellissery -

Friday, June 23, 2017

An Award Ignored

Strange are the ways of the Indian media.

A few days ago, an Indian scientist-entrepreneur based in Japan won the country's top environment award for 2017, and it was barely mentioned here. Bits of the news appeared on the web-editions of India Today and DNA, both apparently sourced from a newsfeed site called UNIIndia.

Dr. Shrihari Chandraghatgi, CEO of EcoCycle Corporation, was awarded the Environment Award for 2017 in Japan for "developing cutting edge technologies to address burning environmental problems". This award is the highest honour given every year jointly by the Ministry of Environment, Japan, National Institute for Environmental Studies (NIES), Japan and The Nikkan Kogyo Shinbun (a media group). What is more,  Chandraghatgi is the first foreigner to win this award.

What exactly is the cutting edge technology developed by Chandraghatgi to address 'burning environmental problems"? According to information available at his company website, EcoCycle has developed a unique technology for environmental remediation and recycling of organic solvents in semiconductor industries. It uses microorganisims to clean the soil and groundwater contaminated with chlorinated solvents and hexavalent chromium. The company has also developed unique on-site emission analytical techniques for semiconductor industries.

India does not have a significant semiconductor industry. Much of its requirements are imported. While this may have been a reason for the rather tepid response here, it fails to see the larger picture. In one of the interviews, Chandraghatgi gives an open offer aimed at India - "Now it is my turn to work in India where large scale health problems are reported because of consuming toxic groundwater. If any organization, government or NGO, wants to take up such cause with concern of public health, I am ready to provide my technology and vast experience free!"

Will this offer be taken up in right earnest? Or will we continue to wear our blinkers and look-up towards the West - USA, Europe - technological breakthroughs that are relevant to India?


* (20Jun17) -UNI - "Agri. Microbiologist Dr Shrihari Chandraghatgi gets Japan Award"
- Dr Shrihari is currently helping Ministry of Industry, Thailand in forming environmental regulations and educate with remedial technologies.
- In 2017 he established a NGO, Kibono Hikari literally means Ray of Hope to help under privileged children in India with educational and medical support.

* (21Jun17) - IndiaToday - "Indian Agri-Microbiologist given Environment Award in Japan" -

* (21Jun17) - DNA -

* (2015) - Son's donation for Scoriosis treatment -

* EcoCycle Corporation, Japan

Friday, June 09, 2017

"Tatkal" Railway Bookings

It is amazing how the Indian railway reservation system has evolved over the last two decades.

Today I tried my hand, for the first time, at a system called "Tatkal". It is a system for last-minute bookings, for travelers who have not planned their journey in advance. The computerized system turned out to be a lot easier than expected.

I needed to make a quick trip to Mumbai, which is about 1400 km from New Delhi. There are about 20 trains connecting the two cities, giving you a wide range of options. You could start your journey at midnight, or take the last train after 11:00PM. You could cover the distance in 15.15 hrs in the fastest train, the Rajdhani Express (no. 12952), in 1st class AC comfort, for INR 4755, or reach there at a more leisurely pace in the Amritsar Express (no. 11058), which takes no less double the time - 31.15 hrs. A journey on the latter, on a 'sleeper' ticket would cost you just INR 600 (USD 9.30!).

You also realize that in the egalitarian world of Indian Railways, even the slowest train is called an "Express" :)

My travel priorities were quite straightforward:I did not want to start my journey at unearthly hours, and I waned to travel cheap. This brought down my choices to five trains, all of which were fully booked. So I opted to go for "Tatkal" which is a option that sits discreetly as a narrow banner, alongside the others: General / Ladies / Handicapped.

The first option was Paschim Express (22 hrs) and it showed 17 seats available when I logged in at 11:00AM. However, by the time I reached the payments page, the IRCTC website went into its 'daily maintenance' mode. When I returned an hour later, all the seats were gone!  The next best option seemed to be the 12284 'Nzm Ers Duronto' (20 hrs), and this too was running on a waiting list.

Now, a surprising thing happened when I opted to take a wait-listed ticket. The IRCTC servers now gave me a pop-up "Vikalp" option - in case this ticket was not confirmed, I had three other trains to choose from, all of which were the next available trains to Mumbai. This saved me the trouble of going back, retracing all the steps to make an alternate booking. Cool.

The ease with which the whole process was completed reminded me of the late 1990s when the only option was to line up at the railway reservation counters. You had to reach the station two months in advance, stand in a long line, and wait for your turn at the counter. There had been times when the bookings closed by the time I reached the window, or was shortchanged by the ticketing officers. Either way, you lost at least half a day for rail bookings.

Now, thanks to IRCTC, the online booking system has become amazingly simple. So much so that it is easy to forget that it represents just a small fraction of the effort put in by a government agency, CRIS (Centre for Railway Info Systems), to help railways carry 6 billion passengers, and 6 million tons of freight, every year!

Scope for Improvement:

* Acronyms are confusing - it would be useful to have the full-form appear on a mouse-over. Eg. Train no. 12172 s described as "HW LTT AC SF", which is no better than Morse-code. Turns out that this is "Haridwar Lokmanya Tilak Terminus Air-Conditioned Super Fast Express"!


* VIKALP Scheme -

* Raghuram (2007): Turnaround of the Indian Railways -

* Tatkal Booking Guide -

Thursday, June 08, 2017

GST Explained by the Revenue Secretary

In less than a months' time, the tax system in India will take a radical shift to a comprehensive Goods and Services Tax (GST) model. In most countries, GST is understood as a single indirect, comprehensive, broad-based consumption tax. In Singapore the GST rate is a flat 7% while in Australia, it is 10%. Other countries have a graded VAT system with different tax slabs.

The Indian model GST is going to be unique - and seems rather confusing. From 1 July 2017, we are going to have a GST with five different slabs, ranging from 0% to 28%. The norms for reporting and compliance too seems quite formidable. This impression is getting reinforced by 'expert analysis' on YouTube and the social media.

This was the background and context to a recent meeting organised by the Indian Express, to bring Dr. H. Ardhia, the Revenue Secretary himself, to interact with the pubic. It was a decidedly anxious audience  of about 400 people who assembled at IIC on 6 June, 2017.

It was a packed hall, ringed with people who could not find vacant seats. The two empty chairs on the stage were taken up Vishwanathan from IE, and Dr. Ardhia, who was described as a PhD in Yoga!

First came the big picture: The long legacy of Indirect Taxes (Customs, Excise Duty, Service Tax, VAT, Stamp Duty, Entertainment Tax, etc.,), how the division of responsibilities between the central and state governments had resulted in various inefficiencies, and how steps were taken to gradually move from VAT to a nation-wide, common GST system.

The total tax collection for FY 2015-16 was INR 14600 billion (Rs 14.60 lakh crore), of which indirect tax revenues was Rs 7.11 lakh crore and direct tax collection came in at Rs 7.48 lakh crore. In India, the ratio of direct vs. indirect taxes was 35:65 - just the opposite of what it ought to be, and the sheer absurdity of the fact that in a country of 1.2 billion people there are only 2.4 million people who earned an annual income of over INR 1 million!

A substantial part of the session was set aside for answering questions from the audience. Surprisingly there were hardly any long-winded queries - most of them were short and sharp, with matching responses from Dr. Ardhia, with a dose of good humor. At the same time, it was a bit disconcerting to note from the responses, that the Revenue-Secretary too was not entirely clear on how the government would cope with various interpretations of the GST Act 2017.

Starting from 1 June 2017, we are sure too see many months - and perhaps years - of GST-related turbulence and turmoil.


* Taxes to be subsumed in GST -

* (2017) - Dept of Revenue - collection during current year -
- 2011-12 Corporate tax 3.2 LCr -- Income Tax 1.7 LCr = Total 4.9 Lcr
- Customs 1.44 LCr -- Central Excise 1.4 LCr -- Service Tax 0.97 LCr = Total 3.9 LCr

* E&Y on GST Compliance -

* Global VAT / GST Rates -

* (2016) - Tax collection in 2015-16 exceeds target by Rs 5,000 crore -

* State Tax Revenues -
- Total for all states, 30,331 billion (30L cr)
- Top five - WBengal (4518b), AP+Telengana, UP, TN, Karnataka
- Kerala is at no.9 at INR 1382b

* (2017) Budget Explained --

* Revenue Secretary -
- Dr. Hasmukh Adhia

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Breathing Life into Statistics

There is lies, damn lies and statistics. And then there is Prof. Hans Rosling.

Rosling was Swedish specialist in Global Health, and a tireless evangelist for the cause of statistics - especially the art of presenting dull, boring numbers in stunning visualizations.

The first time I saw Rosling in action was in this TED video, made about 10 years ago:

Earlier this year, in February 2017, I was saddened to know that Rosling had died of pancreatic cancer. And today, for some reason, I found myself going through a BBC documentary on him, followed by an urge to revisit a few of the simplest statistical tools that I had learnt to use, but forgotten from disuse and disinterest, over a period of time.

While I could sail past the concept of Averages, and even wrap my head around the Normal (Poisson) Distribution, I had forgotten all about Standard Deviations (SD), Statistical Correlation and Dependence..

As explained in this video, the SD process consists of (1) collecting data (2) calculating the average/mean of the data set (3) subtracting this mean from each of the data units, and squaring the differences, (4) calculating, once again, the mean of the squared units, and, finally, (5) calculating the square-root of the 'mean of differences' to get the Standard Deviation, which tells you how diverse the numbers in your data-set are.

Why exactly do we go through this five-step process? What is the logic behind all this squaring and subtracting? I still don't know...but it does remind me that I had asked the very same question in a classroom many years ago, and failed to get a satisfactory answer. Then, as now, the whole thing seemed like a form of gymnastics with numbers.

And yet, Hans Rosling seems like the sort of guy who would have given me a clear, logical answer, and triggered in me a passion for data. How wish I had come across such a teacher, a few decades ago!


TED Video - "The Best Statistics You've Never Seen!" -

Don't Panic: The Facts About Population -

Gapminder Foundation -

Obituary (Feb., 2017) - Hans Rosling: Data visionary and educator dies aged 68 -

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Travelers to Tibet

The Great Himalayan Range has always been a formidable barrier that limited India's interaction with Tibet and China.

Unlike the North West frontier, it has not been a thoroughfare for invading armies. Instead, it has always been the doughty traders, monks and herdsmen who connected the tribes living in the Tibetan plateau to those on the vast, fertile plains of India. The rivers that cut through the plains have always always been important for us, but did we really care where exactly they originated from?

Among the 20 longest rivers in the world, five flow though in Asia. Three of these have unique names: Yang Tse (no.3, 6300km), Huang He (Yellow River, no. 6, 6464km), Mekong (no.12, 4350km). The remaining two are hyphenated because they by one name in one country, and another name as it flows into a distinctly different region - the Brahmaputra–Tsangpo (no.12, 3848km), and Indus–SĂȘnggĂȘ Zangbo (no. 19, 3610km).

Charles Allen's book, "A Mountain in Tibet" tells the fascinating story of how these hyphenations came to be. It is about a few officers and agents of the British East India Company who are obsessed by shikaar (hunting), the desire to escape boring desk-jobs, and by the lure of the Great Unknowns. These young men (most, less than 27) venture into the mountains, hoping to accurately map new places, and opening new trade routes into Asia.

People and places come alive in Allen's narratives. It starts from the earliest expeditions by Moorcroft and Hearsey, the Schlagintweits, and then, to the undercover, spying expeditions undertaken by the Bhotia pundits from Milam village in the Kumaon mountains - Nain Singh Rawat, and his clansmen. It takes you through remote mountain villages and passes (Mana, Niti, Dakeo), across the the sacred lakes of Rakas Tal and Mansarovar, to Mt. Kailas and beyond.

One common thread that runs through Allen's narratives is that if it were not for the European - mainly British -  adventurers, armed with sextants, compasses- and musical snuff-boxes -  the world would not have known anything about the Tibet, or about the real origins of the great rivers that sustain life in South Asia.

Is this really true?

Some of the oldest surviving Sanskrit texts from India are being discovered in ancient Tibetan monastries. "Mulamadhyamakakarika", a 2nd century founding texts of Mahayana Buddhism, was found in Drepung Monastry. The Lankavatara Sutra was found in the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The Bhadrakalpika Sutra, dating back to the 4th century was found in Xinjiang. An Indian monk, Bodhidharma (5-6 century CE), is recorded as being one who popularized Buddhism in China, and then on, to Japan.

Obviously, a lot of people have been going to and fro, long before the first Europeans set foot on the Himalayas. And yet, Allen would like us to believe that until his heroes stepped in, Tibet was 'unknown to the world'.

Today, in the age of Google Earth and satellite pictures, this is common knowledge that can be verified by anybody sitting in front of a laptop screen. Yet, it is intriguing to know that despite a history spanning at least 4000 years, the origin of these rivers was not common knowledge.  People living in the Indus or Bramhapurta valley may not have known that their river originated in the barren Tibetan plateau, thousands of kilometers away. Then again, in the vast web of Himalayan rivulets and streams that feed a river, is it a significant discovery to claim a single-point source?

"A Mountain in Tibet" is a really interesting book. It is also another reminder that we continue to look at ourselves through the purple blinkers worn by the Europeans, and that this will continue until we start producing great non-fiction writers who tell our side of the story.


Friday, June 02, 2017

Microwave Ovens and WiFi Routers

I never cease to wonder about the electromagnetic spectrum. Much of it is invisible to our senses, and yet, we have reached a stage when it is quite impossible to survive without it.

The microwave oven in out kitchens sends out waves at around 2.45 GHz (2,450,000,000,000 vibrations/second!), heating up food at the molecular level. The ubiquitous WiFi that keeps us connected to the internet - and the rest of the world - are "harmonized" worldwide in the 2.4 and 5GHz bands. Even without getting into the world of electronic waves that send signals across great distances (radio, satellite and space probes), getting a grip on regular household devices seems complicated enough!

Both the equipment's - the microwave oven and the WFi router - produce signals in the Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) bands that have been allotted by ITU for non-communication purposes. There seem to be 12 frequency ranges in the ISM band that ranges all the way from 6.78 MHz to 245 GHz. Out of this, home equipment like ovens and WiFi routers use the frequency range 2.45-2.5 GHz.

Since a licence is not required for equipment produced in this range, the part of the spectrum is also crowded with radio-communication services, including amateur satellite services. Thanks to this dual-use, the WiFi equipment you purchase from one country country is likely to interfere with the microwave oven imported from another country. So, if you are heating a mug of coffee in your microwave oven, your internet connection may get disrupted.

International standards - especially IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n - tries to deal with this problem:
  • 802.11a supports bandwidth up to 54 Mbps and signals in a regulated frequency spectrum around 5 GHz. More expensive, usually used by businesses. Higher frequency makes it difficult to penetrate walls, so its best for open areas.
  • 802.11b supports bandwidth up to 11 Mbps, comparable to traditional Ethernet. Usually for home networks.
  • 802.11g supports bandwidth up to 54 Mbps; uses the 2.4 GHz frequency for greater range
  • 802.11n is an improvement on 802.11g in the amount of bandwidth supported by utilizing multiple wireless signals and antennas (called MIMO technology) instead of one.

It is still mind boggling to think that we have actually figured out ways to precisely control devices that produce more than a trillion vibrations per second! How do we do it? And why is it that microwave ovens need chunky magnetrons to produce the same kind of signals that are produced by lightweight WiFi routers?

In an emergency, can I rig up my WiFi router to heat up a mug of coffee? :)



Wireless Standards -

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Stake in Beef

India is a predominantly vegetarian country, right? A place where the cow is worshiped as a holy animal?


Take a closer look at this graphic:

Amongst all the states in India, meat is consumed by more than 60% of the population in just four Westerns states - Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. In all the remaining 24 states, a vast majority of the population is non-vegetarian.

Dig a little deeper and you find that the meaning of "non-vegetarian" changes from state to state. While you can have eggs, chicken, fish and mutton anywhere, if you are inclined towards beef, legal slaughter of bovines is permitted only in nine states: One in South India (Kerala), and all the remaining ones in East India. In some states you could be jailed for up to 10 years for cow slaughter (!!).

This touchiness with cows is a fairly recent phenomenon. According to historians, "Brahmins who once had no compunctions against slaughter of animals, including cows, and were the greatest beef-eaters themselves". The elevation of the cow as a "holy animal" came as a political strategy to counter Buddhism which was predominant across India, until a 1000 years ago. It was the means of stealing the thunder from the non-violent Buddhists, and it worked like a charm.

Cut back to India today, and you find the government trying to push through a new policy that places severe restrictions on the use of agricultural markets for the sale of animals for slaughter. Over the past two weeks there has been an uproar in many states - protests by the meat and leather industries, political protests ending with the killing of a cow in a public square, and #beefcurryfestivals in South India - culminating in a High Court judgement yesterday, staying the latest government order for a few weeks.

Now that we have a breather, it may be worthwhile to examine both sides of the raging debate, which can be divided into two categories - emotional and rational.

The emotional argument is simple. It just states that "Cow is a holy animal for Hindus from time immemorial"; Cows are referred to as "Gau-Mata" (cow-mother), equated with human beings, and implies that harming the cows would hurt the religious sentiments of the Hindu community. There is little you can do to counter an emotional arguments hinged on hysterics, so let us move over to the next category.

The rational arguments come in different categories:

* Constitution, Law and Public Policy:
In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that a ban on cow slaughter violated of the fundamental right of butchers to carry on their business under Article 19(1)(g). Then in 2005, a bench of seven judges upheld the total ban on slaughter of cow and cow-progeny and stated that cattle never became “useless”, at the most, they became “less useful” (!).  The latest rules to regulate the cattle market - framed under section 38 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.
By bringing in all farm animals under the new rules, the stage has been set for challenging the SC ruling that was aimed only at protecting cows. Should some animals be more equal than the others?

* Public Health:
Excess of protein consumption - especially red meats - has been proven to have bad effect on health. Also, according to WRI, reduction in meat consumption can lead to lead to a per capita food and land use-related greenhouse gas emissions reduction of by 15 and 35 percent, by 2050.

* Animal Rights:
Clearly, there is a case for humane treatment of animals. As of now, cumbersome rules and regulations make cattle trade a surreptitious activity. This only worsens the condions in which the animals are transported, stocked, slaughtered and traded in different states.

* Economic Value:
Farmers invest in animals after considering life-cycle costs. Once cows stop giving milk, the farmers see no point in spending scarce resources for feeding the animals, so they are sold to the local butcher. In India the going rate is between INR 15,000 and 40,000, depending on the age and weight of the animals. If the animals cannot be sold they would be just abandoned on our roads and highways, resulting in traffic accidents. 

Ultimately, rational arguments seem to matter only if they can provoke a powerful emotional counter-argument that makes people vote in a certain way. As of now the argument on religious sentiments seems to have the upper hand.


Saturday, May 27, 2017

SMEs in India and Japan

Small businesses are often called the backbone of economies. Relatively low profile and unseen, they play a major role economic growth and prosperity, innovation and job-creation, in most countries.

Governments refer to these small businesses as Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). In most countries, they represent over 95% of all enterprises, and a significant chunk of national GDPs.

However, there are also significant differences in the way different countries view SMEs. Take, for instance, a comparison between India and Japan:

As we can see in this table, Japan sets the bar much higher for SMEs. A company with a capitalization of JPY 300 million (USD 4m) and up to 300 employees would qualify as an SME in Japan but would definitely be considered a "big" enterprise in India.

Also, in Japan, many SMEs occupy super-specialized niches that cater to a global market, while in India such companies are few and far in between. Some of these world class Japanese SMEs are:

  • K. Yairi - maker of hand-crafted guitars
  • Roland - manufacturer of electronic musical instruments - synthesizers, electric pianos and drums
  • Shimano - Bicycle components, fishing tackles and rowing equipment
  • Tamiya - Plastic model kits, educational
  • Molten - Sports equipment
  • Olfa - Cutting tool, DIY stuff
Many of these companies are over 70 years old, and have evolved through tough competition in the domestic market. High expectations in terms of quality and price from the customers at home helped them carve a niche for themselves in the global markets as well. Perhaps this is one of the key factors that has, so far, prevented Indian SMEs from creating world class products.


* Indian Ministry for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) -

- 23 million SMEs - provide 75 million jobs (two out of every three private sector jobs)
- They represent 99% of all enterprises
- less than 250 employees and less than €50 million annual turnover (or €43 million annual balance sheet).

- 98 percent of all identified U.S. exporters -- supporting nearly 4 m jobs through both direct and indirect exports

Thursday, May 18, 2017

GST in India: For Better or Worse?

Apple has started manufacturing iPhones in India. According to a WSJ report, the the iPhone SE series is being produced by Wistron, near Bangalore. Since the locally manufactured or assembled products will not attract import duties, it seems the prices are going to about USD 100 lower than imported phones.

Import duties and taxes make a big difference to a companys' fortunes. India's tax system is often cited as one of the top reasons why global manufacturers prefer to stay away from India. For instance, JCCII, a body representing Japanese corporate's, puts out every year "Suggestions to the Government of India". These suggestion have remained more or less unchanged for many years, and it is always complaints about the tax system that tops the lists.

In the latest 2016 list too, JCCII's tax-related suggestions include -
  • Removal of Permanent Establishment (PE) taxation
  • Easing of Transfer Pricing assessments by classifying Japanese Trading Companies (Sogo Sosha), not as traders but as Service Providers
  • Exemption from Minimum Alternate Tax (MAT) in the SEZs
  • Exemption from Dividend Distribution Tax (DDT) paid to foreign shareholders
  • Exemption of Service Tax on exports from India
In other words, the Japanese companies are saying, "If you don't let us take our profits home, we will not be able to invest more in India". In the official cover note JCCII also says, "While we await...the all-important GST bill, our concerns on the Tax system...remain."

So is the GST going to really improve our tax system and east of doing business? Much of what I have read so far has been gung-ho about GST, and about how it is going bind the whole country into one large happy market for goods and services.

An interesting contrarian view is held by Aravind Datar, who is quite convinced that GST, in its present form, is only going to worsen the ease-of-doing-business scenario in India. Here is the video -

The critical points are -

* More Laws, More Confusion: As of today, 29 states in India have their own VAT / Sales Tax laws, and separate laws for Service Tax and Excise Duty (total 32 laws). When GST is adopted by all the states we will have 29 StateGSTs (SGSTs), one Central Service Tax (CST) and one Inter-State GST (IGST). In all, 31 laws instead of 32.

* Lack of Checks and Balances: The GST Council can make only recommendations, which cannot be enforced. The state governments are free to make GST laws as they please (as per the 101 Amendment, Article 246A, and the Supreme Court judgement of 11 Dec., 2016)

* Cumbersome Reporting Requirements: Service providers currently file their returns twice a year. Now they will have to file 49 returns every year! (3 returns per month online - 10, 15, 30th + 12 TDS returns + 1 annual returns = 49)

* Discouraging Economies of Scale: Any company earning more than INR 2 million will have to file returns. So this will only encourage those who want to stay below that threshold, as in the old "License Permit Raj" days.

* Enormous potential for tax evasion, and tax-related harassment: Unlike other countries which have one single GST rate (eg. Singapore - 7%), we are going to have slabs - 0%, 5%, 10%, 28%. This encourages ambiguity, and the discretionary powers of tax officers.

* More Ambiguity, Not Less: Lack of clarity on General Anti Avoidance Rules (GAAR) and Place of Effective Management (POEM) is sure to discourage manufacturers and FDI investors.

Datar is a great communicator and his speeches, articles and arguments are quite convincing. Is there anybody in the establishment who has come up with a point-wise rebuttal of the concerns raised by him?


* (2017) WSJ -

* JCCII's Suggestions to GoI (2016) -

* Aravind Datar on GST -

* (2015) Aravind Datar, IE - GST's Seven Deadly Defects -

Sunday, May 14, 2017

To OBOR or not to OBOR

A grand summit is now on in China. Around 65 countries are participating in the One Belt One Road (ORBOR) meeting which envisages construction of international trunk passageways and an infrastructure network connecting all sub-regions in Asia, and between Asia, Europe and Africa.

There is big money promised for these projects - China has committed a total of about $100 billion to three new infrastructure funds: a $ 40 billion fund to the Central Asia-focused Silk Road Fund, a $ 50 billion fund to a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and a $ 10 billion fund to the BRICS-led New Development Bank.

India, however, has opted out. It is anything but enthusiastic about the CPEC, a highway that cuts through territory that has been illegally occupied by Pakistan.

What does this mean to countries that are enthusiastically participating in OBOR? Perhaps they expect a windfall by way of investments and market access. Or perhaps they will take a closer look at countries that have already borrowed tons of money from China, and ten contemplate - like Sri Lanka - whether they did the right thing.

Sri Lanka is currently in $58.3 billion debt to foreign financiers, and 95.4% of all government revenue is currently going towards paying back its loans. Of this, about $8 billion is owed to China alone, of which $1.4 billion was borrowed by the Sri Lankan government for constructing the Hambantota port.

Since these investments are not bringing in revenue as projected during the - rather hasty and secretive - planning & approval, the state is handing over its assets to Chinese companies on long-term lease:
  • 80% of its Hambantota port has been handed over for 99 years, to China Merchants Holdings.
  • Colombo’s South Container Terminal is a 35-year Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) arrangement with the same company
  • IZP, a Chinese informational technology company, has been put forward as a potential purchaser of Mattala International Airport.

So is there a pattern here? Borrow on easy terms, belatedly discover that the revenue model was flawed, and grudgingly hand over your land and assets to the foreign lender?


* (2017) ET -

* (2017) IE -

* (2017) IE - Belt Road Initiative -

* (2017) FT - One belt, one road and many questions --

* (2017) - Bloomberg -

* (2017) Wanda Bullish on India -

* (2017) Express edit -

* (2017) The Guardian -

* (2017) Dawn, Pakistan - CEPC for Pakistan - A Colonial Enterprise?  -

* (2016) Wire --

Hanbantotta - China's own port in Sri Lanka

* (2017) Forbes - India Tells Sri Lanka: You Can Take Your Port And Shove It -

* (2016) Forbes --

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Solar: Upstream and Downstream

Amazing things are happening in India's renewable energy market - especially solar power.

Yesterday , it was reported that at an auction of a 250 MW capacity plant at Bhadla (Rajasthan), South Africa’s Phelan Energy Group and Avaada Power bid INR 2.62 (USD 0.04) per kilowatt-hour (kWh) to win contracts to build capacities of 50MW and 100MW, respectively, at Adani Renewable Energy Park Rajasthan Ltd. This is a new record low. The bidding wars seem to have now reached a point where experts are wondering if it is commercially viable to produce produce power at these rates.

If the unit price is surprising, so is the sheer scale of the new 'solar farms' that are coming up. The current world record the world's largest solar project in a single location is now held by Adani's 648-megawatt Kamuthi plant (near Marurai, Tamil Nadu), which went online in September, 2016. The second largest solar plant, the Topaz Solar Farm in California, has a capacity of 550 megawatts.

For a country that located in the tropics, India has a huge potential for switching over to solar energy. Consider these facts -

  • The solar  radiation incident over India is equal to 4–7 kWh per square meter per day with an annual radiation ranging from 1200–2300 kWh per square meter. 
  • It has an average of 250–300 clear sunny days and  2300–3200 hours  of sun shine per  year. 
  • India's electricity needs can be met on a total land area of 3000 km2  which  is  equal  to  0.1%  of  total  land  in  the country 
  • Currently  India is  generating  4.59%  of solar energy  of  total  produced  renewable  energy  installed capacity in India

Over the past few years, thanks to a concerted push by the government, India has quadrupled its solar-generation capacity from 2,650 MW on 26 May 2014 to 12,289 MW in 10 March 2017.  Yet, behind all these impressive numbers, fact remains that present and future growth is completely hinged on the import of equipment from China. In 2015-16, the value of imported solar cells and modules tripled to $2.34 billion, with China accounting for 83 per cent ( $1.9 billion).

Despite having a dedicated Ministry for New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) for the past 15 years, why is it that India has not been able to it own supply chains? Why is it that Indian manufacturers have no access to domestic upstream raw material supplies of poly-silicon and wafers?

According to a KPMG report (2015), India has not been able to create economies of scale in solar manufacturing, mainly due to insufficient government support - loans, tax holidays, subsidized utility services, easy access to land and technology support.

Is that a rather simplistic view?


* (2017) Wire - Why Increasing India’s Solar Energy Capacity Won’t Work --

* (2017) Mint -

* (2017) - Solar panel imports - -- HSCode - 39209919

* (2017) -

* (2016-Dec) --

* (2016) - BL - Import of solar panels triples in 2015-16 -

* (2016) - Adani's Kamuthi Solar Power Project -

* (2016) - India's solar energy push to generate 1 mn green jobs --
- Report by Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) -- ‘Filling the skill gap in India’s clean energy market: Solar energy focus’
- The country will need new skilled workforce & training to achieve its ambitious national target to add 100 gigawatts (GW) of installed solar energy by 2022
- one million new engineers, technicians, solar installers, maintenance workers and performance data monitors
- International Solar Alliance (ISA) -  alliance of more than 120 solar-rich countries aims to facilitate widespread deployment of solar power and supporting knowledge exchange on manufacturing and skills.

* (2015) - DTE - WTO rules against India in Domestic Contents Reqirements for the Solar Industry --
- Indian manufacturing capacity of solar cells and modules is limited to 1,386 MW and 2,756 MW respectively. The Mission's target at the time of the complaint stood at 10,000 MW to be achieved in the period from 2013 to 2017.
- Since the solar target has been revised to 100,000 MW or 100 GW by the Modi government, the target now stands at 29,000 MW.

* (2015) - Research Paper - Potential of Solar Energy in India -
-  The solar  radiation incident over India is equal to 4–7 kWh per square meter per day with an annual radiation ranging from 1200–2300 kWh per square meter.
- It has an average of 250–300 clear sunny days and  2300–3200 hours  of sun shine per  year.
- India's electricity needs can be met on a total land area of 3000 km2  which  is  equal  to  0.1%  of  total  land  in  the country

Potential of Solar Energy in India
- Currently  India is  generating  4.59%  of solar energy  of  total  produced  renewable  energy  installed capacity in India

* India Solar Resource Maps -
* NREL - National Renewable Energy Lab -

* International Solar Alliance (ISA) -

* (2016) Yes Bank - Compendium of Global Success Stories in Solar -

* (2015) - KPMG Solar Manufacturing Report -

* Wiki - List of solar manufacturing companies -

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Water Diviners

“There is water here,” the old man from Kasaragod said simply, after reading the landscape and its botany, and placing his hands on the earth.

I was struck by this line from recent article by Lalitha Sridhar in the Hindu. She was describing C. Kunjambu Attan, a highly regarded 76-year-old water diviner from Kerala and his visit to Bidar, a drought-prone city in Karnataka, India.

It is not uncommon in India to come across stories of great mystics who had special powers to commune with nature. The book, "Autobiography of a Yogi" contains numerous instances of sages who developed a capacity to communicate their thoughts to their people sitting thousands of kilometers away, and of yogis who could "create" fruits out of thin air. In a more recent book, "Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master", tells the story of a Muslim boy who was impelled to find his life's calling a Nath-panthi yogi.

A water diviner may not be categorized as a Yogi, but unlike the seekers of the ultimate spiritual Truth, they seem to be putting their talents to good use -  not in some distant afterlife but in the immediate here and now. What could be more useful that helping thirsty people in parched lands quench their thirst?

This also makes me wonder if there are mystics and diviners who try to prevent the colossal wastage of water we see all around us -- especially in urban areas.Take Noida for instance. Potable drinking water for the city is sourced from the distant Ganga river (80%), and from groundwater aquifers (20%).

Despite the huge expense involved in transporting, cleaning and distributing water to the cities, the UP Jal Nigam seems to care little about wastage. Users are charged a paltry one-time annual fee that creates no incentives to prevent overflowing water from literally going down the drains.

Are there any Kunjambu Attan's who can help prevent the mindless wastage of water in our cities -- especially in the scorching summer season?


* Sridhar, Lalitha - How Bidar Beat Back the Heat --

Kashmir: Any Lessons from Shin Bet?

An article by Virendra Kapoor in the Sunday Guardian presents a contrarian view to the prevelant doom-and-gloom scenario painted by the usual op-ed writers in the English press. He essentially points out that the "Kashmir Problem" is centered on just five of the 22 districts in the state, covering 15% of J&K's land area and less than half of the state's population of 12.5 million.

One of the tweets that came in response, suggested a documentary for essential viewing: "The Gatekeepers", based on an interview of all the surviving chiefs of Israel's secret service, Shin Bet.

Directed by Dror Moreh, this ~90-minute video contains many elements you would expect -- grainy clips from drones following vehicles used by Hamas operatives, dramatic recreations of some famous "targeted assasinations", especially that of Yahya Ayyash, and of interrogation techniques used by Shin Bet.

What is, however, completely unexpected is that clarity of understanding amongst all the spook-chiefs' that a solution to the Palestenian Problem cannot emerge out the ongoing cycle of violence and revenge. They are all for talks with anybody who is willing to negotiate a settlement. As one of the them puts it memorably. "We need to talk to each leads us to understand each other better...he may realise that I do not eat glass, I may find that he does not drink petrol."

It may not be entirely fair to equate Palestine with the Kashmir valley, but some elements are indeed common: The sense of being dis-empowered and alienated; of being under an army occupation; of midnight raids and the disappearance of young men, and stonepelters .  However, unlike Palestine, separatists in the valley are driven by an ideology inspired by radical Islam. This has resulted in an ethnic cleansing of Hindu Kashmiri's who continue to live in refugee camps elsewhere, and now the perpetrators of violence claim to be victims themselves who say, "Victory is to see you suffer!"

According to Clautzwitz, "Victory is simply the creation of a better political reality". While the Modi government finds news ways of overcoming the cycle of violence, it may be worthwhile to keep in mind Prof. Y. Leibowitz's prediction for Israel, one year after the Six Day War, in 1968:
 "A state ruling over a hostile population of one million foreigners, will necessarily become a Shin Bet state with all that this implies for education, freedom of speech, thought and democracy. The corruption found in every colonial regime, will affix itself to the State of Israel. The administration will have to suppress an Arab uprising on one hand, and acquire Quislings, or Arab traitors on the other.."


* Kapoor, Virendra (2017) - Rest Assured, Kashmir is not lost for India -
* Documentary - "The Gatekeepers" on Wiki -

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Not-so-Holy Buffalo

The lunatic fringe in India now has a new avatar - "Gau Rakshaks" - the self-appointed cow-protectors who patrol our roads and highways like the thugee of yore, seeking out the weak and the meek to bully, intimidate, and kill.

Yesterday night they set upon a Gujjar family in Jammu, pulled down a police picket in which they had taken shelter and beat them up for plying their trade. Last week another mob attacked a truck suspected of transporting cows to slaughterhouses, and after beating up the driver, found out that their cargo was not cows but buffaloes.  A clear case of mistaken identity but how does one explain that to a mob targeting muslims?

What explains this sudden touchiness for the well being of cows? In the North Indian Gangetic belt, life has evolved around a pastoral economy. Wealth was measured by the number of cows you owned; Gods were created from iconic cowherds and much loved stories woven around their adventures with the "Gopikas" on the banks of the Yamuna; communities and intra-caste divisions were based on "Gotras"...and yet, even when the cows were pivotal to life in ancient India, our scriptures (eg. Taitriya Brahmana) say that beef was a special treat reserved for honored guests.

The problem with inconvenient truth's is that they lack the emotional appeal, and the political power that can be squeezed out of it. Consider this screenshot of recent tweet. Cows qualify as "harmless, giving animals", but, not other farm animals!

The mobs - and their puppeteers - choose to ignore the face that times have changed. Cows are being rapidly replaced by buffaloes on Indian farms. Compared to cows, buffaloes are a lot more valuable now the north Indian farmer for the simple reason that they provide a higher RoI. The water buffaloes do not carry the cultural baggage of "holiness" associated with cows in North India. So they are treated like the usual farm animals - valuable when they are lactating or pulling carts but easily sold off to the nearest abattoir the moment they cease to be useful on the farm.

So it comes as no surprise that buffaloes provide more than 55 per cent of the milk that Indians consume. They are also the backbone of India's thriving meat export industry. One single company - The Allana Group, processes no less than 7000 buffaloes a day. Last year, we exported about 1.2 million tons of "carabeef" worth INR 23,646 Cr (USD 3.6 billion)!

Despite being one of the original homes of the water buffalo, why is it that in India this animal considered less holy, less worthy of any of the sentiments associated with the cow?

Mythology provides some pointers and clues.  One of the many villains in Indian mythology is "Mahisasura", that unseemly combination of a demon and a water-buffalo who is ultimately slain by Durga, the celebrated Mother Goddess. In many temples there is nothing irregular about offering animal sacrifice, and the buffalo tops the list of blood offerings. At the famous Kalibari temple in Kolkata I remember being taken aback by the sudden sight of severed buffalo heads in the sanctum. Ditto for temples in the Kathmandu valley and the Kamakshi temple at near Gauhati, Assam.

Perhaps the only place where I have seen buffaloes raised to an iconic status is at the Achaleshwar Mahadev Temple in Mount Abu, Rajasthan.

On the banks of the temple pond, stand three stately buffaloes, overlooking a herd of their real-life brethren cooling off in the muddy waters. As with most historical places in India, there are no plaques telling you who took the trouble of putting up the statues, and for what reason. The tourist-guides, will, as usual, tell you some cock-and-bull story that fits the contemporary bias against buffaloes.

It is a sad sign of out times that political revival of the 'Hindu Identity' is being built on regressive, shallow symbolism.

If the celebrated Polish artist, Pawel Kuczynski,  turned his attention to contemporary India, he might have replaced the cat in this painting with a cow, and added a few people (bearded, skull-capped) into the barn! :/


* ENS (2017): Where Indian Meat Exports Go --

* Damodaran, Harish (2012): Cow Belt or Buffalo Nation?
More than 55 per cent of the milk that Indians consume now flows from the udders of buffaloes, which are neither born holy nor have holiness thrust upon them.buffaloes constituted 34.6 per cent of the country's total bovine animal population (male plus female) as per the latest 2007 Livestock CensusAn average Murrah buffalo produces 2,000-odd litres over a 300-day lactation period, which is more or less what comparable elite indigenous cattle breeds such as Sahiwal yield. But buffalo milk also fetches higher price, as it contains 7-7.5 per cent fat – almost twice that from cows.In 2010-11, 7.1 lakh tonnes of buffalo meat, worth Rs. 8,413 crore, was officially shipped out from India.
* Bovidae Family -
* Devdatt Pattnak: In Defense of the Buffalo -

* Allana Group -
57% of total buffalo population of the world, India is considered as the home track of some of the finest breeds of buffaloes

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Zero Energy Building

A rather unusual looking building came up in South Delhi a couple of years ago. Amidst other, conventional government buildings in the Jor Bagh area, "Paryavaran Bhavan", the new office of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), looks as though its wearing a graduation cap.

A  closer look reveals that the cap is actually an elongated, cantilevered roof which holds a vast array of solar panels. This seven-storied tower covering 32,000 sq.m, and accommodating over 600 government officials is India's first "Net Zero Energy" building. The solar panels generate 930 KWp of power, which is more than enough to meet its annual energy requirements of 1.4 million Units at 9KWh. The building actually generates a surplus of about 70,000 KWh which diverted back into the grid.

According to MoEF, this "Multi-storied Building with 100% Onsite Power Generation", is the first of its kind in India. Apart from those solar panels on the roof, it uses a Chilled Beam System of air conditioning which saves more than 50% in energy consumption. The building incorporates a Geothermal Heat Exchange System as well as seven "Machine Room Gearless Lifts (OTIS) that converts braking energy into electrical energy (regenerative brakes, as in automobiles). The building also has its own plants for water and sewage treatment -- in other words, it neither takes any energy from outside, neither does it dump its waste into the city's drains.

Who were the people behind such a pioneering effort? How did the usually hidebound CPWD, with its record of making dreadful looking public buildings actually undertake this leap of faith and technical flourish?

Unfortunately, there seems to be nothing in the 'public domain' that either chronicles, or celebrates this achievement. The CPWD website (accessed 19 April 2017), does have a  button titled "Click Here for Old PPTs", and this does lead to a list of projects that includes this building. None of the URLs work.

Dig a little deeper at other websites (ICFILD, CSE) and you would find that CPWD did indeed lack in-house expertise for such a project. So the government did the the next best thing - it employed competent consulting agencies for each of the specialized aspects of this project. CPWD then brought in its formidable project management skills and completed this building in just two years' time (Jan. 2011-Oct 2013). Among them was Deependra Prashad's DPAP -  the architecture firm that designed this building.

Is this new approach going to be the new norm in public works? Have we finally graduated to better designed public buildings?


- MOEF Pamphlet - "A New Benchmark in Sustainable Built Habitat"
- CPWD - PPT - Technical Presentation -
- Case Study (2014) -
- Ramachandran, Smriti Kak (2012) - A Green Revolution in Letter and Spirit -


Capacity of power generation: 930 KWp
Annual energy requirement and generation: 14 Lakh Units 9KWh
Total area covered by solar panels: 4600 sqm
Building plinth area: 32,000 sqm
Structure: G + 7 floors + 3 basements
Solar Panels: Covering 4600 sqm, monocrystalline with 20% efficiency
Amenities: 440 TR HVAC Air Conditioning; Lifts, Fire Alarm System; DG Sets, UPS, IBMS and CCTV Systems; Fully automatic robotic car parking for 330 cars
Architecture, Planning and Execution: Central Public Works Department (CPWD)
Cost: INR 209 Cr. (USD 32.4 million)

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Climbing Mt. Fuji

Every now and then nostalgia bumps into wobbly memory cells, leaving you a bit tongue-tied. This happened to me last week when a friend, an ultra-marathoner,  suddenly asked me -  "I want to climb Mt. Fuji - do you know anybody who can arrange it in the off-season this year?"

While trying hard to remember details of my trip in 2009, I just said, "It all depends on when you are planning to climb..."

For a moment, I could not recall the dates when I climbed that iconic mountain. Nor could I remember the route I took, or the total expense for that trip. Instead, the memories that floated up immediately were -  the taste of the most delicious hot curry rice I'd ever had, at a quaint wooden inn high above the clouds; of the long lines of climbers trudging uphill in pitch darkness at 3:00AM; the cold wind and rains, and of a spectacular sunrise we saw, perched precariously on steep, dark slopes dotted with large chunks of pale, white ice.

Memories of the trek had receded to the bye lanes of my mind. It did pop up occasionally whenever I came across a painting, a photograph, or even an emoji that featured Mt. Fuji. A fleeting thought would then cross my mind - "I have actually been to the top of that mountain!"  A sense of awe and wonder that was, perhaps, bigger than the actual experience.

I had to go back to the notes written six years ago, to be reminded that I owed the trip to a gentleman named Sakata Yoshinori, and to an organisation named JISEDAI. In July 2009, I had responded to a notice that came up at Tsukuba University. I was the only one who registered, so  Sakata-san had traveled all the way from Tokyo, just to brief a single guy.

When we met at the Tsukuba TX station, he was standing next to the ticket counter, soaked in sweat. At a Starbucks table nearby, he had carefully handed me his visiting card, and then spread out his laptop, plugged in a thumb-drive, to explain how I should prepare for the trek.

"It would be a nine-member team this year", he had said "All the others were university students from Tokyo". He explained the itinerary, detailed the expenses (~JPY 20,000 which included bus-rides, boarding, meals), and pointed out the precautions to be taken and then offered to help me find the right equipment for the trip. I definitely needed a 35L backpack, a pair of waterproof trousers and, if possible, ankle-length hiking shoes.

Mr. Sakata even insisted to helping me get the right equipment and took me to a few shops at Tsukuba Centre. Apart from being amazed at his helpfulness, I remember thinking that his well-meaning advise bordered on being fussy and over-cautious. Having done some trekking in the Western Himalaya's, climbing a gentle-looking 3776m peak did not seem like a big deal. And then there was the cost of buying all the new gear...It is only later that I realized that Mt. Fuji was different, and that each item was necessary.

Eight of the nine-member team turned up. We all met outside the Shinjiku station and discovered that an interesting mix of people -- Yeo, a dude from Singapore; Melissa, a budding dentist from Indonesia, along with her two batchmates Pat and Thuy; A South American named German (pronounced Herman), and two other experienced Japanese trekkers - Chiaki and Hiroki.

We all took a bus from Tokyo to the Gotenba (2 hours), and then a local bus to a large facility called Fujinosato, an 'education facility' right next to the JSDF Takigahara camp. It was a sprawling campus with scores of tatami-matted dormitories, forest trails, an archery complex, camping sitesi in the woods, and even a spacious Onsen (hot-spring bath). School children, baseball teams, and various other groups in assorted uniforms milled about the place, waiting for their turn to climb uphill.

Our turn was early next day morning. After breakfast we walked to the base of the 7.8 km Subashiri Trail, downed a few cups of green-tea, and started trekking on  pathway that cuth through the thick forests.

At this point the ground was gently undulating - pathways that cut through the deep, dark volcanic soil and lush vegetation. As we climbed to 6th Station (2400m), and the 7th Station (3000m), forests gave way to sparse scrub vegetation dotting the slopes, and then none at all beyond the Old 7th Station (3200m). We rested for a while at this point at the Miharashikan Hut.  By this time it was cold and windy outside, and, at a time like this, what could be more welcome than a plate of hot curry rice? :)

Shadow of Mt. Fuji on the Clouds (Old 7th Station)

Early next morning, we padded ourselves with warm clothing, fitted head-lamps and walked out into the pitch darkness, to join a steady stream of climbers going uphill. It was between the 8.5th Station - 3450m (Goraikokan Hut), and 9th Station that we noticed that we were far above the clouds. This was also the meeting point of the Yoshida Trail (Yamanishi Prefecture) and, suddenly, it felt like we were all commuters at the Shinjiku Station!

Torches and lights were switched off as everybody settled down on the steep slopes, sitting down wherever they could find some space. As the clouds gradually gathered light, we all seemed to be sitting in a massive amphitheater, waiting for the drama of the rising sun to unfold...and what a sight it was!

Within seconds of the sunrise, a blanket of clouds rolled out reducing visibility to a few meters, and drenching us all in icy rain. We continued moving up at a snail's pace now, a part of a long line of colorful raincoats slowly bobbing to the summit. The last few hundred meters were rather steep and the ropes helped. Finally, when we reached the top, got past the crowds and eateries and looked down the caldera, it seemed so... ordinary.

After offering prayers are the Kusushi Shrine we started our descent. It was a lot faster than I expected because we were just wading down ash-laden slopes. Often our legs would just dig in, right up to our knees with each step.
Wading down the ash-slopes
This is where you realise that Mt. Fuji was quite different from other non-volcanic mountains. The weather was fickle, and the terrain even more so. Each and every item listed by Sakata-san turned out to be essential - the layered clothing, raincoats, and ankle-length boots. Our friend from Singapore made the mistake of coming in shorts and sneakers, and paid the price for it. He had been shivering from the 7th Station, and now, with the ash filling up his sneakers, he was feeling quite miserable all the way down.

In a couple of hours we were down at the Subashiri base station, and then on to the comforts of Fujinosato. After a soak in the steaming Onsen, a hot meal and a nap in the bus back to Tokyo, none of us doubted that Mt. Fuji looked a lot prettier from a distance!

For friends who are trying to climb Mt. Fuji during the off season, my suggestion is simple -- please don't. During the off season, all huts, toilets and first aid stations are closed and most of signs on the trails are removed. Unless, of course, you are part of JSDF, a scientific team or a team with special permission, your are quite unlikely to get beyond the 5th Station.

The climb is not difficult, but given the way the weather changes suddenly, the chances of getting lost in the forests, rain or in the cloud-covered slopes, is quite high, unless, of course, you are travelling with experienced climbers, and following a long line of colorful raincoats all the way to the top!


Official Website for Mt. Fuji Climbers -
  • Climbing season: Early July to Mid-September
Subashiri Trail -

For info on other trails -