Friday, November 30, 2018

At the Mazar

At first glance, Mazar may not seem like much of a city. From the far distance it looks like a a dusty patch of low buildings set in a large desert plain bordering snow-peaked  mountains. It does not have the teeming crowds of Kabul or the towering pines of Herat, or for that matter any tree-cover worth mentioning.

Yet, to me it turned out to be a city of superlatives: it had the largest and neatest airport  had seen in Afghanistan; the widest roads, tastiest breads, the most amazing array of carpets sold by the sharpest traders, and the loveliest Sufi shrine I have ever seen.

Just as the Italian military has a strong presence in Herat, it is the ISAF German forces that dominate this area. A large base sits right next to the airport with its helicopters hovering in and out, but unlike in Kabul the show of force and dominance is not in your face; it is subtle and understated. Once you step out the airport there are long straight roads lined with numerous gas-stations. 

Apparently this part of northern Afghanistan has been a source of oil and natural gas. Until the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, natural gas produced from the Sheberghan gas fields was exported to the Soviet Union, but also supported the operations of a fertilizer plant, a power station and a textile mill in Mazar-e-Sharif. Remnants of a Russian pipeline can still be seen in the outskirts of the city, along with remains of war munitions - rusted, hollow tanks, APCs and MiG aircraft chassis.

The Mazar of today seems like a flat expanse of mud-walled buildings and wide roads that radiate out from the grand mausoleum that gives this city its name - the Tomb of the Prince, the Shrine of Ali or the Blue Mosque.

It is a lovely, sprawling complex that gives you an immense sense of space. You step off the crowded streets into a garden complex that leads you through large gates, into a vast expanse of marble tiled courtyard.  

Looking around the bustling market that surrounds the Mazar it is difficult to imagine how, until just a few years ago, this city had been witness to brutal cycles of violence. Today there is a sense of foreboding that the Taliban may sweep in to fill in the power vacuum, once again.

For now you can walk around the cold marble floors of the Blue Mosque, walk around the sanctum filled with incense, and pray that this bustling city with it cheerful people is not sucked into yet another round of senseless violence.


* Gas Pipeline (2013) -
* A brief history of natural gas in Afghanistan -
* Mazar-e-Sharif International Airport -

Friday, November 09, 2018

Herat - City of Spires and Pines

Ancient cities have a life of their own. We read stories about them and build a certain picture in our imagination. Ground realities however turn out to be something else.

Herat is no different. To a visitor coming from Kabul it gives you a glimpse of what cities in Afghanistan could be. Relaxed, dignified, and aware of its own stature and place in history at the crossroads of civilizations.

This was once a city of fire-worshipping Zoroastrians, an area famous for its great wines until the Arabs took over after 650AD. Here ruled the Macedonians led by Alexander, the Turks, Chinese, Mongols and, of course, the Persians. It was also one of the few cities of the Islamic world to be ruled for an extended period by a woman- Queen Gawhershad - remembered today as the builder of the grand towers of the Musalla Complex.

In present day Herat, the first thing that struck me is the pine trees. Almost all the roads are lined with towering old pines. Having seen these trees only above the "pine-line" in the Himlayas, I always thought they needed steep slopes to grow big and strong, so it was bit surprising to see them all lined up in a city that was as flat as a chappati

Unlike Kabul which is sectioned by 2000m high 'hills', and urban settlements that have grown along a meandering river, Herat has a clear grid-like layout. A straight road brings you from the airport, right into the city centre. The security footprint here is more subtle - fewer warplanes in the airport, hardly any buildings barricaded  with T-walls and barbed wire. There are no military blimps watching you from the skies or  helicopters constantly buzzing overhead, rattling the window-panes.

The streets and markets are bustling with men and women. Fruits seem larger, jucier and more colorful; the saboos naan a lot tastier; streets are less cluttered and far less dustier, the air crisp and clean. Children crowd around street vendors; strange looking, colorful three-wheelers fashioned out of motorcycles trundle on the streets, looking as though they are going to take off any minute into the skies.

And yet you are constantly reminded that this city is not peaceful as it looks. Violence and robbery on the streets is not rare. A colleague was recently coming out of a restaurant, chatting on his mobile when a car stopped in front of him. He thought the driver needed directions, until he saw a pistol aimed at his head. Within seconds, his mobile was snatched, his purse taken out of his pocket and car was gone.

Things may not be what they seem, but I would like to think that the people of Herat hold one of the keys to peace and prosperity in this war-torn country.

Friday, November 02, 2018

The Hindukush

"When we were children we used to play here and drink water straight from the river - it was so clean!"

The best years of Kabul are often described in past-tense. People talk of the glory days of the kings, of a city that was once a hub of trade and commerce across Asia, of dogged resistance to 'foreign invaders' who could never ever conquer Afghanistan..

The elderly in Kabul have happy memories of the city in the 1950s - those wonderful days when water was clean, when the country was peaceful and winters were what they ought to be - freezing cold. It is amazing to think that this country, proud its aversion to foreign invaders, was also the home of invaders who left an indelible mark on the history of Northern India.

Driven by the zeal of a new religion, Mahmud of Gazni was the first plunderer to make a career out of invading infidels in India. He systematically raided and plundered kingdoms in east of the Indus river to west of Yamuna river, no less than seventeen times between CE 997 and 1030. After a brief pause of two centuries, another ruler emerged from Ghor, nested in the Hindukush mountains. The Ghurid empire led by Mu'izz al-Din was influential in creating the Delhi Sultanate.

Then came Timur-the-lame and his army as they crossed the Hindkush range, to launch the 1398 invasion of northern Indian subcontinent, plundering and killing all the way. Such was the number of slaves who were forced to cross the freezing cold of the Afghan mountains that Ibn Battutta refers to them as the "Killer of Hindus", or Hindukush.

Inspired by stories of Timur, one of his descendants, Zahir-ud-din Mohammed - aka Babur ('tiger') - decided to follow suit. As a young man of 21 years, he had taken control of Kabul in 1504. Having failed time and again to regain control over the Ferghana Valley, he turned his attention south-eastwards. In 1526, he made his move into north India, won the Battle of Panipat, ending the last Delhi Sultanate dynasty, and starting the era of the Mughals.

The slave trading operations continued during the Delhi Sultanate and through the Mughal era. It became a standard practicee to send thousands of slaves every year to Central Asia to pay for horses and other goods.

Looking at the condition of Afghanistan today you wonder... after all those centuries of plunder and flogging of slaves across the Hindukush: Where has all the loot gone? 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Afghanistan - An Election of Independents

Tomorrow is Election Day in Afghanistan. 

This is going to be the culmination of a long process of institution building in one of the most trying circumstances. It has a process that has also seen the creation of an independent election commission to oversee a process to bring in 249 representatives from 34 provinces to the Lower House of the Afghan Parliament.

Last week when I landed at Kabul the city presented a familiar, festive sight - colorful stickers, posters, placards and banners filled every possible public space. Posters carried unique logos and numbers, and it took me a while to realise that most of the prospective Members of Parliament were competing as independent candidates. 

According to a WaPo report, there are 2,565 candidates vying for 249 seats, including 417 women candidates. The IEC aims to set up more than 19,000 polling stations in 33 provinces. Out of Afghanistan's estimated total population of 30 million, 8.8 million people have registered to vote. Kabul city alone has more thans 800 candidates competing for 33 seats! 
An overview from AFP

Unlike in India, the system here is that of a single non-transferable vote valid in one constituency. Each voter casts just one vote for one candidate in a multi-candidate race. Posts are filled by the candidates with the most votes, and so in this case, candiates who get the maximum number of votes get to become MPs. 

Voters in cities like Kabul would be extra careful tomorrow - they would have to sift through a ballot 'paper' that looks more like a newspaper centrespread, and choose one candidate out of hundreds.

While most of the posters feature men in sharp suits or in traditional attire, it is interesting to note that there are a significant number of women candidates in the fray. This is not surprising given the fact that the Afghan constitution guarantees 68 seats - or 27% of the total - for women MPs, regardless of their vote share.

A lot of hopes and aspirations are hinged on this elections process, and everybody hopes that it passes off peacefully.


The Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan-

Report by Washington Post -


Saturday, October 06, 2018

Apostille of Fake Degrees

Last week I signed up for a UN assignment in Afghanistan. It was the culmination of a long drawn out selection process - online applications, verification of credentials and interviews. I need to be in Kabul for two months for the independent evaluation of an FAO project.

Having visited, worked and stayed in a few countries over the past 23 years, I thought I was familiar with the formalities involved in international travel. In this case, instructions from FAO were quite clear: "Approach Embassy with all relevant documents - Passport, photographs, degree certificate photocopy and original , signed contract document, MOFA reference number. Ticket is not necessary for visa".  

At the Afghan Embassy visa counter however, the officer flipped through my documents and asked me a question that left me quite stunned. "How do we know", she asked with genuine concern, "That your degree certificates are not fake?"

I tried telling her that, in the first place, I would not be selected by the UN for an assignment if I had fake degrees. I had two Master's degrees - the first from IRMA and the other from Tsukuba University, Japan. Both could easily be verified online on the official alumni pages. Also, I had got the second degree on a full scholarship from the World Bank - a fact that could be easily verified on a Google search since my entire Master's thesis was available online. 

The visa officer was unmoved. "Rules are rules", she insisted, "If your highest degree is from Japan, it has to be endorsed by the Japanese Embassy in India. All Indian degrees have to be verified by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)". She also added helpfully that applicants got it done at Patiala Courts where extra fees was charged for 'fast service'.

One of the lessons I had learnt is that there is no point arguing with with a Visa Officer. I walked out of the Afghan Embassy, crossed the road, and checked at the Embassy of Japan. They did not have any facility for "endorsing" certificates from Japanese universities. All they could do was to check with their registry and give me a letter saying that the university seal was genuine. This process would take at least three working days, and cost Rs. 2300. 

What next? I had no idea that MEA had anything to do with certification of education documents. Outside the Japanese Embassy, I set my files on a concrete blast-barrier and googled "India MEA education certificate endorsement". I got this page and learnt a new word: apostille.

It was a two-step procedure. First, the degree certificate had to be endorsed by a state government authority, and under Step-2 "MEA legalises the documents on the basis of the signature of the designated...authorities. Hence it does not take responsibility of the contents of the documents". MEA charged Rs.50 per document for this service. As expected, there was no mention of the time-frame involved.

Strapped for time, I now headed towards Patiala House Courts Complex, into the den of brokers, middlemen and lawyers dressed in 50 shades of black. In one of the many hole-in-the-wall offices, I presented by predicament to one of the broker-lawyers.  He feigned deep concern, quickly gauged my desperation level, and quoted his fees: Rs. 3000. 

So, for a government service worth Rs.50, I had to shell out Rs. 3000. Within this margin lies the thriving new economy of the apostilles. An education certificate from IRMA, an automomous education institution in Gujarat, is endorsed by a Sub-Divisional Magistrate in another state, Delhi, who proclaims it as genuine. Based on this, MEA legalises it 'without taking any responsibility of the contents of the documents'.

Come to think of it, this is a racket no different from that of the Public Notaries who blindly attest any document with a Government of India seal. The only difference is that you get a fancy sticker with a flurry of seals and signatures behind an education certificate.

Why would any Embassy encourage this kind of daylight robbery? Is this merely the game of passing-the-buck between bureaucrats of different countries?  A friend who has worked in Afghanistan for over a decade said this rule was introduced in 2013 to avoid fake people with fake degrees from getting posh jobs in Afghanistan. It seems there are many such guys already in the country.  Also, it seems Afghan nationals too have been using fake certificates to enter the job market. He also added that brokers charged anything from Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 10,000 for a one-day service.

The latter was confirmed by a lawyer at Patiala Courts. There are thousands of Afghans studying in India, and it seems their government does not accept any education certificate from India unless it is attested by by MEA and the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD)! 

No wonder the brokers at Patiala Courts are laughing all the way to the bank.


* Afghan Embassy - Visa Rules -

* MEA, India - Procedure for Attestation of Education Degrees -

Apostille Convention -

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Oil Wars

It takes humor to make truth palatable.

What is it that actually triggered the first World War? What lies behind USAs grand plans to "bring Democracy to the Middle East"?

Robert Newman uses the stand-up comedian's routine to teach us a thing or two about history and realpolitik.

Clearly worth 45 minutes of your time.

Books Mentioned:

* Knight, Ian (1999): MARCHING TO THE DRUMS -

* Heinberg, Richard (): THE PARTY'S OVER - Oi, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies -

* Brow, Lester (): WHO WILL FEED CHINA? --

Friday, September 07, 2018


Sitting in our metro cities it is difficult to imagine a world of alternate realities. The internet and our access to it, is perhaps one such world. One where screens suddenly blank out and you end up with a digi-dinosaur hopping over cactus.

At a panel discussion organised by the Indian Express yesterday, a group of experts sat on the stage to discuss what seemed like a rather vague and tenuous topic - "Is Internet Shutdown a New Order for Law and Order"? The fact that this event - IE Thinc - was sponsored by Facebook made me all the more skeptical about its relevance. 

The panel had an interesting mix:  a young bureaucrat responsible for an internet shutdown at Ranchi; a representative from the Intenet Freedom Foundation, one from the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), and an economist. Except for the last one, who seemed long winded and disconnected like most economists, the other three made sense. 

I was surprised to know that the Government of India is very secretive about sharing data on internet shutdowns. Data accessed from other sources (mainly UN) indicate that there have been at least 254 shutdowns in 19 states during the period 2012-2018. 

While the initial intent of many had been to prevent riots and loss of lives from the the rumours spread on Facebook, Whatsapp etc., internet shutdowns were now being implemented for reasons that could only be described as flippant and irresponsible. In the most recent case, in Udaipur, Rajasthan, the internet was shut down for a few days to prevent cheating in a government recruitment exam!

Considering how internet shutdowns affected the lives of millions of citizens - loss of business, access to basic services, education, payments and so on - what was the legal basis for such disruptions? Here are some of the laws/rules enumerated:

  • Article 19(2) - places "Reasonable restrictions" on freedom
  • Section 144 CPC - "Unlawful Assembly" -- used against freedom fighters during freedom struggle to confiscate Gandhi Caps, now used to shut down the net.
  • Rules for Temporary Suspension of Telecom Services, 2017 -- just requires an SP+ officer to issue order
  • Section 95 CPC - banning of books
  • Section 6.2 of Telegraph Act - used for phone/network tapping

I am glad I decided to attend this event. If not anything else, it was a sobering reminder that it takes very little to turn the smartphone in our hands into a useless lump of plastic and metal.


- Rules for suspension of telecom services, 2017 -
- Internet Freedom Foundation -
- Report on IE event -7 Sept., 2018 -

Saturday, August 25, 2018

On Electoral Constituencies

"What are electoral constituencies?", asked my daughter today.

She had in her hand a copy of the Class IX Social Sciences textbook and seemed completely lost. The whole country seemed to be divided into consituencies - panchayat, assembly, Lok Sabha - and the term seemed to have overlapping meanings.

Overlap was the right word, I explained to her. We fished out a map from the net that showed all the 543 Lok Sabha parliamentary constituencies and 4120 state assembly constituencies, and then correlated it to the color-coded assembly constituencies. Each colored patch on the map showed that it had sent one member of parliament to the Lower House and each of them also sent 4-10 MLAs to the respective state assemblies.

Her cousins in Changanassery and Tiruvalla belonged to two separate parliamentary constituencies -  Mavelikkara and Pathanamthitta respectively - but the same electoral units also elected seven MLA each to the Kerala State assembly. Maps from ElectionsInIndia were particularly useful in getting the concept across.

543 Parliamentary Costituencies in India (Image source - Wikipedia Commons)

20 LS constituencies in Kerala (Image: ElectionsInIndia)

This discussion reminded me of an interaction, a few years ago, with a rather notorious MP from northern India. I was working as the Outreach Coordinator to Members of Parliament at the Centre for Policy Research , and had found myself at the home of this MP, responding to his request for inputs on the Nuclear Liability Bill.

This MPs' claim to fame was that he had one of the highest number of charge-sheeted cases in his name. In other words, he was one of the prominent thugs who had deftly gamed the electoral process, had muscled his way into the parliament. For a imposing figure with a piercing stare and an intimidating mien, he had turned out to be surprisingly sharp and genial. He already knew the Nuclear Liability Bill inside out and just wanted to sharpen his arguments with facts and figures, over a table laid out with tea and biscuits.

After our discussion he wanted to know where I was from, and the answer, 'Kerala', led him to his say something interesting. "Not many people understand", he said staring out of the window, "the pressures on an MP. People like me represent more than 3 million citizens, most of whom are illiterate, poor and volatile...It is only when I am seen participating in parliamentary debates that they feel I doing something useful".

The MP had a point. In the age of live TV and Social Media it is not easy to balance the local, ground-level expectations of those who elect you to power, with the broader, national-level perspective you are supposed to have while sitting in the parliament.


The Election Commission of India -

Elections in India -

Map showing all 543 parliamentary constituencies -

Friday, July 13, 2018

On Dogs Lovers and Power Illiteracy

Stray dogs protecting their turf (Pic source: DNA 14Dec17)

I have always found it difficult to understand the dynamics and the power of "Noble Intentions". How is it that when two sets of well meaning people, both trying in their own way to create a better society, end up making it more dysfunctonal?

Let me illustrate this with an example: stray dogs in our cities. 

Most people are wary of stray dogs, and see them as a threat, and a health hazard, while there is another set of folks, the 'Dog Lovers' who see nothing wrong in having stray dogs share our roads, parks and public spaces. If anybody gets bitten it is because they 'provoked' the dog, and therefore deserved what they got. 

Does their love for dogs extend to other animals as well? Not quite. Nobody would raise a finger, let alone filing a police case, if a harmless rat snake was beaten to pulp, or if pigs drowned in the sewers. But dogs? They are a 'man's best friend', and therefore, special.

Quite unlike the folks who get bitten on the streets, the Dog Lovers are superbly networked, and well organised. They are loud and vocal; they have the ready attention of not only the local newsreporters but also the sympathies of the Supreme Court. So when they take up cudgels on behalf of the strays, filing police reports against those who are violent towards stray dogs, naming and shaming people, all that the opposition can do is to roll over, and play dead.

How did the Dog Lovers come to weild so much power and influence? Why does our overstretched police force take on the unikely role of protecting stray dogs? The answer is simple: the law requires them to do so. 

As per Indian law, street dogs cannot be beaten, killed or driven away or displaced or dislocated. Under the Animal Birth Control (ABC Dogs) Rules, 2001  enacted under Section 38 of the Indian Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1960 (A Central Act), stray dogs can only be sterilized, vaccinated, and then returned back to their original locations. 

What happens when the state ABC department does not have the capacity (funds, personnel, infrastructure) to deal with an explosion in the population of stray dogs? Nobody seems to know, or care.

In NOIDA along there are an estimated 13,600 stray dogs. A few months ago, a child got severely mauled by a pack of stray dogs . When alarmed citizens got together to drive away strays and ended by beating a stray dog to death, police cases were promptly filed against them. So, at present, the very thought of messing with the Indian legal system, with its backlog of cases, is enough to deter any sensible citizen from messing with stray dogs. It is better to get bitten than to get stuck in the Indian courts.

How did a small band of Dog Lovers manage have such a disproportionate influence on the law of the land? A part of the answer lies in what has been articulated so well in Eric Liu's TED Talk - "Why Ordinary People Need to Understand Power"

Liu rightly points out that power illiteracy all pervasive and that citizens have depressingly low levels of civic knowledge, civic engagement, participation, and awareness. They are naive about all the forms of power that are at play: money, people, ideas, information, misinformation, the threat of force, the force of norms.

Those few who do understand how power operates in civic life, those who understand how a bill becomes a law, how a friendship becomes a subsidy, or how a bias becomes a policy, or how a slogan becomes a movement, the people who understand those things wield disproportionate influence.

Clearly, Dog Lovers in India belong to the power literate elite who weild a disproportionate influence in our cities. In many ways they themselves are like the proverbial dog in the manger - they will not ease the burden on state ABC departments, nor will they stop barking at those who act against stray dogs.


Kerala, seems to be among the few states where stray dogs do not enjoy a special status. It has citizens groups that actively participate in anti-stray dog campaigns and support the culling of strays. Across India, only the High Courts of Kerala and Karnataka have taken the position that local municipal laws prevail over the PCA ActIt is not a state of affairs that pleases the stray-dog lovers.

Thanks to this awkward state of semi-rebellion the state sees a lot of parodies centered around the helplessness of the civil society. In this one, a local alpha stray-dog, "Tiger Sabu" is being interviewed by a nervous TV news anchor, a few days after demonetization: 


* Jaagruti - Indian street dogs and their rights -
* Noida - child mauled by stray dogs -
* Animal Welfare Board of India -
* (4 Jan 2018) Hindu: Stray dog victim still in ICU -
* (1 Apr 2018) ToI: Noida: Residents, security guards booked for thrashing stray dog to death-
Eric Liu's TED Talk - "Why Ordinary People Need to Understand Power" -

Monday, July 09, 2018

Digital Media and its Echo Chambers

The Japanese have a phrase to describe Indians - インド人 "Oshaberi Indo-jin", which translates politely into 'Chattering Indians'. A term reserved for insensitive folks who talk for the sake of talking, without consideration to others.

Nowhere is this more painful than at public lectures, seminars, workshops and conferences. At international events, it is often a nightmare for the organisers that unfolds at three levels: First, the embarassment about key speakers not arriving on time, leading to announcements that the event is delayed because so-and-so got held-up at an "important meeting"; Once the meeting starts, it is about speakers who ignore the clock and carry on blaberring, ignoring frantic signals to cease, and finally, the pain of enduring a Q&A session. Here again the organisers plead for short, pointed questions from the audience, and what they get instead is long speeches from folks who refuse to let go of the mikes.

Last Friday, I participated for the first time, in a seminar where the organisers tried a novel way of dealing with the Q&A problem. This was an event organised jointly by IIC, CPR and the Niti Aayog called Metamorphoses - part of series that calls itself "a modest effort to try and bridge the gap between digital technologies, which are transforming our lives, and our understanding of their multiple dimensions".

Despite the absence of one of the main speakers, the event started more or less on time. As expected, the event had its panel of heavyweights on stage: the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister, along with representatives from Twitter, the Silicon Valley, and think tanks. The format for Q&A came with a digital twist. 

A slip of paper placed on each chair in the hall had a certain number to which you had to send an SMS, if you had a question for any of the panelists. A representative from IIC/CPR would then choose from the messages received, and convey selected questions, to the panelists on stage.

Much like the Twitter algorithm discussed in the seminar, this Q&A format created an echo chamber in which the panel received only sanitised, insipid questions that gave an illusion of public engagement. The organisers may have suceeded in sticking to timelines while nipping out presky mike-grabbers and their long-winded questions, and but it also robbed the event of its human touch. A podcast may have served their purpose just as well.

SMSs at the Q&A Session@IIC, New Delhi

After this event, I now have a greater appreciation for the "Explained" events organised by the Indian Express. It starts with a public advertisement in a newspaper (not a mere mailing list), attracts SMS confirmations from a fairly broad spectrum of the public (not just retired bureaucrats), and their Q&A sessions are orderly without being overbearing. 

It also helps to have an alert moderator on stage, who also directs a team that passes wireless mikes to the audience. Since the norms are enforced with an even hand, the post-event discussions turn out to be lively and spirited, giving you a much deeper understanding of the issues discussed. 

When it comes to organising real public engagements, perhaps it is time IIC, CPR and Niti Aayog learned a thing or two from folks at the Indian Express. We could all then step out of our echo chamber's and have a discussion that is really worthwhile.


* Centre for Policy Research and its Metamorphoses -
* Explained by the Indian Express -

Thursday, June 28, 2018

A Tale of Two Retailers

A 3in1 phone-lens at Miniso - solid Value for Money

"Oh, Miniso?", said the sales-person at Muji, "You could call them our 'poor cousins'. Our prices are higher because we sell high quality products".

We have all heard this quality spiel before. Every fruit vendor in Delhi uses that line to sell his wares. At Muji, apart from sounding contrived and utterly unconvincing, it also presumes that the Indian customer is a fool.

Miniso and Muji are two retail brands with a lot in common. Both proclaim their Japanese pedegree in design aesthetics and quality while getting most of their products manufactured in China; both have 'affordable quality' as their USP, and both represent the changing face of Japanese FDI in India which is trying to diversify from its hitherto narrow focus on the automobile sector.

In their approach to the Indian market, however, Muji and Miniso could not be more different. 

Muji @DLF Mall of India, NOIDA

Muji is a company that started in the early 1980s in Japan. It is 
positioned as a "reasonably priced" brand, keeping the retail prices of its 'no-brand' products "lower than usual" by the materials it selected, streamlining its manufacturing processes, and minimising packaging. However, in India, it has chosen to tie-up with the Reliance conglomerate and positioned itself as an upmarket brand. 

Miniso, on the other hand, is a relatively young company, started in 2011 by Miyake Junya, a Japanese designer, and a Chinese entrepreneur, Ye Guofo. Unlike Muji, its sells quality products at prices that are actually reasonable by Indian standards.

The difference between the two retailers is quite telling at the DLF Mall of India, in NOIDA. Here, Muji has take up a large space on the first floor ('International Boulevard') while the Miniso outlet is about a fourth in size on the lower ground floor, at the same level as other budget shops, BigBazaar and Store99. While the Muji store exudes a lavish sense of space and luxury, Miniso is cramped with overflowing shelves and narrow aisles. 

Perhaps the biggest difference is that while Miniso is full of customers stuffing their baskets and lining up at the payment counters, Muji remains desolate in comparison. A handful of people saunter in as though they are visiting a museum, and most of them walk out without making a purchase.

Miniso @ Mall of India, NOIDA
What expains this difference? The price-tag could be one. In India, Muji's products have drifted far from their motto of being "reasonably priced". Most of the products in fact come with a two price-tags, and, amazingly, the Japanese JPY price is less than the equivalent INR price! For instance, a simple ruler carries a Japan price of JPY150 (INR93)and its India price is INR150! 

It is when I asked the Muji guys about this that I got the Miniso-is-our-poor-cousin comment. When I ask them about the rush in Miniso stores compared to Muji, their answer was - "Oh, that must be because this is NOIDA, where people cannot afford Muji quality!". 

Having lived in Japan for two years, and interacted with the impeccably polite and tactful staff at Muji stores at Tokyo and Tsukuba, one thing is certain: For all the investments they are making in India, staff training in India is far below Muji standards.

This summer, while Muji tries to weave a snooty cocoon for itself and attempts to attract customers with "upto 50% discount", Miniso, the 'poor cousin', has already expanded to 19 stores in NCR Delhi alone, and is laughing all the way to the bank.


* (2017) - How Miniso became a mega success -

* (2017) ET - Japan's investments in India is getting diverse -

Friday, June 22, 2018

Delhi Metro: DAR vs. LUD

How does one calculate a ride on the Delhi Metro?

A recent article in the Indian Express was hinged on this question, and it came up with a politically charged conclusion from a minister in the Delhi Government who said it was "Extremely worrying" to see a 17% drop ridership in the months of March, April and May, as compared to 2017.

So, what exactly is ridership? 

Ridership here refers to "Daily Average Ridership (DAR)", a metric used by Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) across its six corridors — Yellow, Blue, Red, Green, Violet, and Magenta. 

An RTI filed by the newspaper came up with the following data on DAR for three months in 2017 and 2018 for five corridors (Yellow, Blue, Red, Green, and Violet):

  • March 2017 - 2.76 million; March 2018 - 2.2 million 
  • April 2017 - 2.75 million; April 2018 - 2.26 million
  • May 2017 - 2.65 million; May 2018 - 2.25 million
This alleged drop in ridership is important because DMRC had brought in a sharp increase in fares in October 2017, a politically charged decision that was strongly opposed by AAP, the ruling party in Delhi Government, which is also a stakeholder in Delhi Metro. DMRC has been clamoring for a fare review for more than a decade in order to cut dependence on government subsidies, and to be at least operationally viable.

On 29 May, 2018, a day after opening the entire Magenta Line (Botanical Garden to Janakpuri West), DMRC stopped using the DAR metric and started a new one called "Line Utilization Data (LUD)". 

Unlike DAR which was calculated based on the entry and exit made by a passenger at the automatic fare collection (AFC) gates, LUD logs only overall utilization data. Double-counting is avoided and a passenger moving from one corridor to another is counted as a single trip only. For instance, a trip from Noida to Gurgaon across the blue-line and yellow-line would count as one trip, not two.

It is unclear when exactly the LUD metric started getting used. If it started after the fare hike, this could easily explain the alleged drop in ridership in March-April-May 2018. 

Strangely, while the Financial Express says one thing, its sister concern, the IndianExpress reports the opposite. On 30 May 2018, FE reported "Delhi Metro had posted a steady rise in the average ridership, with nearly 27 lakh (2.7m) commuters taking the rapid transit network daily in February this year". Three weeks later, IE tells us that for the very same month - Feb., 2018 - ridership was 22.18 lakhs (2.2m)!

As expected, AAP, the ruling party in Delhi, is highlighting the latter to prove that the fare hike is driving people away from the metro. 

Regular metro users like me find it extremely difficult to believe this. Far from seeing a drop in commuters I see crowded trains even during off-peak hours. In fact, within a month of opening the Magenta line, it has become impossible to find car parking at the nearest OBS Metro station!


* (30May18), FE -

* (21Jun18) IE - Metro ridership plummets 5 lakh -

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Bicycles for the Last Mile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PostScript - User Experience - 19 June 2018

Last Friday, I tried out a Mobycy bicycle for the first time. I walked across to the Parking Circle outside HCL office, and amidst the hundreds of motorbikes and cars parked by the roadside, found two Mobycy's.

It took less than a minute for me to access the app, scan the QR code and open the locks. After quickly adjusting the seat-height, I set off towards the OBS metro station 4km away. The ride was quite smooth - the bicycle feels sturdy and reliable, the tyres are tubeless and puncture resistant/proof, the front basket is useful for keeping stuff but it takes a bit of getting used to, and the bicycle has a neat mechanical bell built into handlebar.

Once the ride was over it took me a few minutes to lock and exit because internet connection here was a bit iffy. This may also explain why so many bikes (~30) remain unused on the racks. Since the ride was completed in less than 30 minutes, it cost me just Rs.4.15 on Paytm, after a 15% "Summer Discount".

Overall its a great convenience, and I look forward to seeing more Mobycy parking-circles in the city! 

Lots of dockless-bikes - I hope more people start using them!



* (05Dec17) -
- Mobycy, has raised $500,000 (Rs 3.2 crore) in a seed round from a US-based angel investor

* (Mar2018) -

* 25Feb2018) -

* Bicycle sharing system -

* Deutsche Bahn, Germany -