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 has 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. 



* (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 -

Sunday, June 03, 2018

One Day in the Gulag

A hot summer evening in NCR Delhi, sitting on the terrace with a mug of hot coffee, a bowl of banana-chips, and a book: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

What could be be more incongruous?

The book describes a world quite difficult to imagine  - especially on a day when the temprature touched +46C! Bleak life within the Gulag - prison camps set in the barren, icy wastelands where the teperature dips to -41C; where the inmates are mostly those who offended the Soviet politial system, and are condemned to spend 10 to 20 years of their lives.   

It is appaling to even imagine a system that destroyed the lives of more than 10 million citizens for the most whimsical reasons. Many were prisoners of war who managed to escape Hitler's invading armies and return home only to be suspected of being counter-revolutionaries or spies. One man was sent as a military attache to Western Europe. After he returned back home, his patriotism and loyalty became suspect after he received a Christmas greeting from an aquaintance. This greeting landed him for 10 years in the Gulag.

The life of the protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Sukhov, is perhaps based that of the author himself who, as a young man, was arrested on the charges of 'making derogatory remarks about Stalin', and spent the next 8 years in labour camps: first in 'general' camps (Ust-Izhma?) with common criminals, and then later in Beria's 'special' camps for long-term prisoners. This book is set in one such camp in the region of Karaganda in Northern Kazakhstan.

Most prisoners did not survive their terms, and perished in the freezing labor camps. Chances of surviving aparently depended a lot on the team-leader of your unit:

"You've only to show a whip to a beaten dog. The frost was severe, but not as severe as the team leader...More depended on the work-report than on the work itself. A clever team-leader was the one who concentrated on the work-report. That is what kept the men fed. He had to prove that work which hadn't been done had been done, to turn jobs that were rated low to ones that were rated high. For this a team-leader had to have his head screwed on, and to be on the right side of the checkers. Their palms had to be greased too.."

Not an easy world to imagine while munching banana chips...  :(


* Book -

Saturday, June 02, 2018

A Closer Look at Eyecare: Lenskart vs. Titan Eye+

I needed a new pair of spectacles desperately. The one I have been using for the past three years was in bad shape - both the lenses are full of scratches, one of its arms broken, and I felt my eyes had now reached the dreaded zone of bifocals or progressive lenses.

My search began in Kolkata early this year. I thought I was quite clear about what I needed: A sturdy pair of glasses that I could wear comfortably, both outdoors (mostly distance running or trekking) and while working at my laptop. Anti-glare lenses would be a useful feature while driving, and above all they had to be affordable. 

At Himalaya Opticals on near the Dhakuria flyover, I was greeted by salesmen wearing formals and fake smiles. Within a few minutes they figured out that I was not looking for expensive frames or fancy lenses with 15 coatings, and their attitude changed. Fake smles gave way to sneers. I realised their 'target market' was different and that this was not the shop for me.

Back in NCR Delhi I decided to focus on the options available in Noida. At the bustling Sector-18 market  there are at least 10 optical shops that cover the whole spectrum. Just on the street leading to the metro station there were four - Himalaya, Spectica, Titan Eye+ and Lenskart. 

Having scaled the heights of condescension at Kolkata, I skipped Himalaya Opticals and headed first to Spectica. I had been to Spectica earlier and had found them to be a local business run by an elderly avuncular gentleman. It is the kind of neighborhood shop that sends you New Year greetings, where the owner sits at a counter by the door with the fragrance of puja-agarbatti wafting through the doors. 

Today they were saving on the air-conditioning. At a tiny room on the first floor the saleman patiently explained available options: Frames starting from INR790, two broad options for lenses - CR39 and Polycarbonate (PC) - in three brands (R?, Trio, Crisal) with 
prices ranging from INR1450 to INR4100+. The prices of PC lenses were about 50% higher 
than CR39 which it seems were also less durable.

The Titan Eye+ was fancy and spacious. A Tata brand had keep up some standards -  brightly lit walls and shelves lined with frames, lens promos all over and lots of staff in blue uniforms. The gound floor was was only for shades and branded sunglasses while the basement was for prescription glasses, with an optermetrist on stand-by. 

For all the investment that had gone into Eye+ the shop did not offer many choices. Even those that were available seemed rather expensive compared to Spectica - a wire-frame that cost INR79o was priced here at INR3200! Of course the gave me some spiel about 'real titanium' and 'top quality'.

I got my eyes tested. The optermetrist examined my eyes through an Autorefractor through which I saw a colorful air baloon turn from a blur into sharp focus, and within a few minutes a print emerged from the machine with the test results - a confirmation that I had a near-vision problem as well. Now came the bit about lenses. Over here, CR39 with a narrow 'corridor' was priced at INR4750/lens and a one at INR8750/lens. PC lenses were about 50% more expensive and if I were to choose Crisal lenses they cost much more than the Eye+ brand. So, at the very least, it would cost about INR12,000 to get one pair of glasses. If you had deeper pockets you could opt for a custom made lens that would cost over INR29,000. Not my cup of tea.

Final stop: Lenskart. Located a few meters away from Eye+ this outlet was much smaller but the space was designed much better - plenty of choices with additional options shown on tabs, and a better equipped optermetrist. Unlike Spectica and Eye+ this place was also teeming with customers, most of whom had come here after checking out the Lenskart website. Also unlike any of the outlets I had seen so far the staff was better trained - much better on customer focus, with excellent coordination within the team.  

I was guided through available options, and to my delight they had quite a range within my budget and a "buy one, get one" option to boot. I selected two pairs and headed for my second eye-test of the day. Surprisingly, the autorefractor here gave a different set of readings though it did reconfirm that I needed bifocals/progressives. Now came the second surprise - the cost of two pairs of spectacles, one with progressive lenses (Kodak, wide transition) and the other one PC (Tokai Lutina), was less than the cost of a single pair at Eye+!

Lenskart did leave me puzzled though with items in the final bill. It had listed a 'Gold Membership'  fees (I never asked for one) for INR500 which was cancelled out by a 'Gift Voucher' of the same amount. It also takes much longer to deliver - the bills says 14 days but the sales team said it would arrive within a week.

On the whole Lenskart seemed to offer much better 'customer experience' and value for money, compared to its main competitor Titan Eye+ as well as the local opticals. Now lets see if the quality of the final products lives up to expectations... 


* (9Dec17) - Lenskart news - 
* Machines with the Optermetrist 
* EndMyopia on CR39 lenses -

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Maps: Getting Your Bearings Right

A flick of your finger - that is all it takes now to zoom through the most detailed maps. Every now and then, whenever I call a cab from Uber or Ola, locate an office or eatery, wander through Google Earth or just seek the easiest way to dodge traffic jams, I wonder at the many conveniences we now take for granted. 

Come to think of it: Mapmaking has indeed come a long, long way. 

In India it started in 1802 as a project initiated by the East India Company to ensure accuracy when it came to exploiting newly subjugated territories, and for waging military campaigns. A project that started out from Mysore, after the defeat of Tipu Sultan, went on to be called the Great Trignometrical Survey.

Using nothing more than ropes, link-chains and theodolites, an infantry officer, William Lambton and his team calculated heights and distances across the entire subcontinent. It was during this survey that the highest mountain peak on earth was identified deep in the Himalayan ranges, and named after Lambton's successor, George Everest. 

Further north, when the surveyors were blocked from entering Tibet they sent spies who, dressed as buddhist pilgrims, would keep track of the steps they walked each day, to map the rivers and mountains of the Tibet, for the first time. The story of Nain Singh and nephews is now stuff of legend.

The organisation once headed by Everest - the Survey of India - became zealous custodians of maps, all the way from the 1800s to the early 2000 until it woke up and realised, like Rip van Winkle, that the art and science of mapmaking had been revolutionsed by satellites and the internet. You no longer needed a written permit from the Surveyor General of India to map your streets, villages, towns and cities - it was now openly available from satellite images with the finer details crowd-sourced by users.

Willingly or otherwise everyone with a smartphone is now a mapmaker. With location coordinates being uploaded in real-time, along with inputs from millions of accelerometers, we all now have access to fairly accurate information to help us plan better.

What are the ways in which your location coordinates are being shared over the networks?

* LatLong: Traditional ways of marking a location with lattitude-longitude coordinates with a little help from all the GPS satellites hovering in the MEO ~20,000 km up there. Online tools now allow you to get both coordinates up to 14 decimals!

* DMS: A standard developed by World Geodetic System (WDS-84) goes in the Degrees-Minutes-Seconds (DMS) format and is said to have an accuracy of up to 1cm!

* Plus Codes: Perhaps the latest format, this was developed by Google as Open Location Codes. A plus code is 10 characters long, with a plus sign before the last two. It consists of two parts: (1) The first four characters are the area code, describing a region of roughly 100 x 100 km, and (2) The last six characters are the local code, describing the neighborhood and the building, an area of roughly 14 x 14 meters – about the size of one half of a - basketball court.

Add any of these codes to a spreadsheet and you can easily create maps that get your bearings right, down to the 14th decimal!


- Geolocation Coordinates --
- GPS Coordinates -
- Google OLC -
Plus Codes - 

- Data Visualizaition Tools -
- Google My Maps -
- KML files - Keyhole Markup Language -

- Importing Spreadsheets into Google Maps -


* Keay, John (2010): The Great Arc: The Dramatic Story of How India Was Mapped and Everest was Named

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Meeting the Snakeman

About 16 years ago, while rummaging through the second-hand book market at Daryaganj, Delhi, I had picked up a biography simply out of curiosity - "Snakeman: The Story of a Naturalist". It was the fascinating story of Romulus Whitaker, the American-born Indian herpetologist who has done more for building awareness - and respect - for snakes and reptiles in India than anybody else.

It is truly the 'power of one'; of what a single committed, determined individual can achieve, despite all odds. Despite the cynicism and active discouragement of numerous people, he mobilized the Irula tribesmen into a cooperative that helps manufacture precious anti-venom serum which saves thousands of lives in India every year. It also provides valuable alternate employment to the Irulas who had been reduced to a life of poverty and destitution after a ban was imposed on their main livelihood - the export of snake-hides (Wildlife Protection Act 1972).

Last week, I had a chance to meet the great man himself, at an event organised by the Indian Express in New Delhi. 

There were so many things I did not know. I was surprised to learn (or be reminded, if that's a better word), that not all snakes lay eggs. Vipers give birth to live babies, and it is for this very reason that they get their name (vivus = 'alive' + pario = 'bring forth'); The deadliest snake in India is not the Cobra but the Russel's Viper; Biochemistry of snake-venom is still not clearly understood - the anti-venon-serum for vipers in Tamil Nadu is not quite effective for the larger vipers found in Rajasthan. I also did not know that the bite of a Krait is so painless that most people do not know that they have been bitten - until it is too late!

Here is a collection of three videos Rom Whitaker has made recently, to raise awareness on deadly snakes, snake-bites and rescue. Not many people seem to know about these educational videos, so here are the links:





* WIldlife Protection Act, 1972 -,_1972
* Irula Snake-Venom Cooperative -
* Chennai Snake Park -

Thursday, May 24, 2018

On Plumbing and Skilling

There are plumbers, and there are plumbers from Odisha.

A few years ago, frustrated with the number of times I had to pay for replacing ballcocks on our watertanks, I contacted a new plumber. He took one look at the the tanks and murmered, "Fir se nakli peetal!" (Fake brass, once again!). Turns out that the earlier plumber had been conning me by installing cheap ballcocks that actually corroded in water! 

Much like the puncther-repair guys who toss nails on the road to ensure a steady tyre servicing business, our plumber had been installing the cheapest stuff to ensure that he got called in frequently. The new plumber installed real brass ballcocks, and sure enough, water overflow and wastage became a of thing of the past.

Curious about this plumbers' unusual attitude, his Hindi accent, and to know why he was not the regular fly-by-night operator, I asked him where he was from. "Odisha", he said, "One of my brothers works in Dubai...a few cousins are plumbers in Bombay and Kerala."

After this exprience I have been seeking out Odia plumbers, not only for their aversion to cutting corners but also for a certain professional pride they all seem to take in doing a thorough job: using waterprood plastic tape instead of cotton threads for joints, insisting on getting 'heavy' quality spares because they would last longer.

How did men from rural Odisha decide to specialize in a skill-set - and thrive - in the plumbing profession all over India, and the world?

Turns out that there is a history to this. According to DTE, plumbing as a profession was once dominated by muslims. Following the partition of 1947, and the subsequent exodus to Bangladesh and Pakistan, a few Odiya plumbers based in Kolkata began to fill this vacuum with friends and relatives from their villages in Kendrapara district. The profession became so lucrative that an entire region came to be known as "Villages of Plumbers".

Look a bit closer, and as you would expect, it is just a few individuals who have changed the fortunes of these remote villages. One man picks up plumbing skills in Kolkata, hones it at a large company (Gammon-India), and then sets up his own contract-work firm. His nephews branch out to Delhi, set up a larger company (DD Pradhan & Co. PL), that not only takes up large plumbing contracts, but also serves as an agent to supply Odia plumbers to overseas employers. 

In 2006, the Odisha state goverment took the initiative of setting up the State Institute of Plumbing Technology (SIPT) at a village of the plumbing pioneers - Pattamundai. Formal training and certification now adds to their competitive edge. 

Are there lessons here for ongoing mission-mode programme for skill development in India? Our choices are quite stark. India would need 700 million skilled workers by 2022 to meet the demands of a growing economy, and yet, of the 15 million youngsters who join the workforce every year, more than 75% are not "job-ready". They simply do not have the knowledge or skills needed by various industries. With 54% of the population below 25 years,  the so called "Demographic Dividend" may turn out to be a nighmare haunted by unemployed youngsters.

Just as Odiyas from Kendrapara have built a reputation for themselves in the world of plumbing, what are the lessons we can draw here for the hundeds of other professions?


- Sahoo, Namrata (2016), Caravan: Flush with Cash - Inside the unofficial plumbing capital of India -

- Duggal, Sanjeev (2016), The Hindu: Bridge the Skill Gap -

- Ranganathan, Aruna (2013): Professionalization and Market Closure: The Case of Plumbing in India, ILR Review -

- Indian Plumbing Association (IPA) -
-- also trains through PEEP : plumbing education and employment programme

- National Skill Development Corporation -

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

India's External Debt

According to a recent issue of the Economist, India's financial health is in trouble. 

Rising international oil prices and a decline in exports is straining on our forex reserves, and on the other hand, a large chunk of the country's external borrowings (USD 500 billion now), is due for repayment in a few months. 

Having administered Yen Loan projects a few years ago and seen first hand the frantic to and fro that goes on between external lenders and India's Department of Economic Affairs (DEA), Ministry of Finance, any article or report that sets such borrowings in a larger context was bound to get my ready attention. This one was no diferent.

How accurate was the TE analysis? Which are the external borrowings due for repayment. and what are our options at a time when Donald Trump is churning up the Middle East?

I looked at two sources for getting a better understanding. The first was the latest available DEA Status Report (Sep., 2017) on External Debt, and then QEDS - the Quarterly External Debt Statistics collated by WB & IMF. 

While the the DEA report placed overall external debt at $ 472 billion, the QEDS, which has data from 2017-Q4, puts it at $ 513 billion. So TEs $500b was a fairly good indicative figure.

Here are some other points that emerged from the DEA report, across various parameters:

  • Duration: long term debt was 81% while short-term ones were mostly trade related credits;
  • Types: commercial borrowings (36%), NRI deposits (25%), government sovereign external debt (SED) was $95 billion  (20%);
Source: DEA report

  • Currency composition: US dollar (52%), Indian rupee (33%), SDR (5.8%), Japanese yen (4.6%) and Euro (2.9%); 
  • Concessional debt was just 9.3% of the total - mostly from SED;
  • Debt Servicing: Gross debt service payments  was $ 43.3 billion during 2016-17, a decrease of 2.2 per cent over the previous year;
  • India’s debt service payments are dominated by the External Commercial Borrowings (ECBs) which accounted for 75.1% of gross debt service payments during 2016-17;
  • Interest rates: External assistance (1.4%), NRI Deposits (4.4%) and ECBs (4.7%) -- overall "implicit" interest rate on total external debt - 2.8%;
  • Sovereign External Debt (SED) - $95b in March 2017
  • Debt from multilateral sources - 73% (external assistance) - $44b in absolute terms, of which:
    • Multilateral: IDA ($23b), IBRD ($9b), ADB ($10b), IFAD ($0.3b)
    • Bilateral: Japan ($15b), Germany ($2b), USA ($0.1b), France ($0.4b), Russia ($0.9b)
So when it comes to external assistance by way of concessional loans, they added up to just $44b (9.3%) of the total debt of $471b. Out of this Japan contributes $15b which, at second position, is larger than what we get from ADB but significantly less than the soft-loans from the World Bank. In overall terms, Japanese Yen Loans make up 3% of India's external debt!

It also turns out that there is indeed going to be a sharp increase in loan repayments. However this process started a year ago. Projections on long-term debt service payments shows that repayments were $33 billion for 2017-18, and they are going to be $29 billion for 2018-19, and then declines progressively for the next 10 years.


* DEA Status Report (Sep., 2017) -

* QEDS - Quarterly External Debt Statistics collated by WB & IMF -

* (22 Mar 18) Mint -

Comparison of gross external debt to GNI (source: DEA)

Japan provides the lions share of bilateral loans (3% of total debt)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Apasmara and the Loss of Recollection

Representation of Siva as Nataraja, or the 'God of Dance', is supposed to be the acme of classical Indian sculpture. 

Having seen it hundreds of times, in temples, museums, and even government offices (there is fine specimen in the North Block), I have always been drawn to  its face. Composed and serene while engaged in callisthenics within a ring of fire, he seems rather cool about a little guy getting squashed underfoot. 

As children we had always been told that this was the demon of ignorance being trampled, and that the dance itself represented the three cyclic states of the cosmos - creation (srishti), preservation (sthithi) and destruction (samhara). All this highbrow symbolism has been beyond my comprehension, and I could only marvel at the sheer dedication, effort and patience that had gone into making each of these amazing Chola bronzes.

Today, my own veil of ignorance was lifted a bit - thanks to a tweet from @ARaganathan72 that let me to a remarkable article in the Swarajya magazine - "Nataraja and Epilepsy: An Interpretation of the Cosmic Dancer".

The author, Anand Venkatraman is a neuro-surgeon, no less, at the Harvard University. His focus is on the little man getting trampled by the Cosmic Dancer and who goes by names such as Apasmara and Muyalaka. AV goes into the etymology of 'Apasmara', translates it from Sanskrit as "Loss of Recollection". Apasmara is also the term for epilepsy which is one among the  eight 'Mahagada' or dreadful diseases in Ayurveda texts.

Pointing to the fact that the Aztecs and the ancient Greeks considered epilepsy a sacred disease, AV highlights the link between epilepsy and memory:
"Memory is what links our existence from second to second. Memory provides us with a sense of continuity, a perception of an enduring self, and gives meaning to what would otherwise be seemingly random events."
Inside our brains, epileptic fits emerge from the Temporal Lobes where memories are encoded, and the Hippocampus which is "ground zero for the intersection of mind and brain, of the environment and the organism, as memories are etched into its structure like a DVD"

So the Nataraja reminds us to overcome our epileptic fits of forgetfulness, to reach out to the inner conciousness that unites us with the whole cosmos.

If 'Apasmara' has such a deep meaning, I now wonder what 'Muyalaka' means...also, why is the little demon doggedly holding on to a little snake?? 

- Swaraj Article - "Nataraja and Epilepsy: An Interpretation of the Cosmic Dancer" -
- On Apasmara / Muyalaka -

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Apathy Towards Water

When we moved to NOIDA a few years ago, among the various bills we paid came one from the Jal Nigam or Water Authority. Annual charges for water supply was Rs. 1800 or just Rs. 150/month. This was a flat charge since no meters had been installed. 

This seemed rather odd especially when the other essential utility service - electricity - was carefully metered, with digital bills coming in every month based on a minimum base charge.

Thanks to this apathy towards water nobody cares about the volume of water that overflows and goes down the drain everyday. Water overflowing from the storage tanks in fact had a nuisance value only because it caused seepage from the terrace. This problem was solved, not by getting residents to install 'ball-cocks' to prevent overflows, but by fitting pipes that funneled overflowing water down into the drains. Cheap solutions for cheap resources.

The quality of the water is, of course, questionable. Despite government claims of supplying a mix of river water (Ganga 80%) and groundwater (20%), it comes so loaded with salts and impurities that every household has to either install Reverse Osmosis (RO) machines, or buy water cannisters of RO water for Rs.25 each.

Summer months in North India are characterised by squalls - dust-storms driven by sharp winds that, at times, tear through at over 120 km/hour. It uproots trees and homes, and this season, has caused over a 100 deaths in Uttar Pradesh alone. One such squall knocked out my solar-panels, and one of the water-overflow pipes on the terrace.

Curious to know how much of the overflowing water was disappearing unseen down the drains, I set a bucket under the broken pipe and did a quick calculation. Water overflowing from a set of four tanks was filling up a 15L bucket in just 3 minutes. Extrapolate this to eight sets of tanks receiving municipal supply for at least four hours everyday to 12 residential towers with eight sets of tanks each, and you have a staggering 115,200 liters of water being wasted every day. So, in just one residential colony with a mere 192 houses in Noida, is wasting no less than 42 million liters of water every year!

The optimistic or pragmatic way of looking at this rather grim situation is that barely-treated water is going down the drain to ultimately recharge groundwater aquifers. 

Yet, one cannot help worrying about amount of energy, manpower and other resources that are being deployed to supply water for bathing, washing clothes - and filling the drains of Uttar Pradesh!


Friday, May 18, 2018

Paz on India

It is interesing to view India through the eyes of Octavio Paz. 

A few days back, a tweet got me searching for the book "In Light of India" at the Dayal Singh Public Library. I had not heard of the book so when went across and mentioned the name of the author to Pankaj, the ever helpful librarian, he looked as though I had reminded him of along forgotten childhood memory. And when he pulled out the book from a corner bookshelf, I understood why. The last time anybody had borrowed this book was in 1997 - more than 20 years ago!

The book itself is a monograph of memories from 1954, the time when Paz was posted to India as a young diplomat. As can be expected, he reflects on the prevailing attitudes and biases of the time: an admiration for Nehru and the "secular" Congress party, and wariness towards the "Hindu nationalist" BJP; a sense of bewilderment over the cacophony of colors, smells that greet a visitor, and the diverse set of people who called themselves citizens of a newly minted republic. One has come to expect such reactions from visiting foreigners but Paz turns out to be slightly different.

Unlike the typical Western view of India what you get here is a unique view of a South American poet and traveller. India's caste system, for instance, is a puzzle he tries to decipher - how did it manage to survive two millennia of foreign invasions and proseletizing? 
"Castes... are not only cooperatives, such as ours, but also solidarity groups, genuine fraternities...this fabric of religious, economic, political, territorial, linguistic, and familial relations gives the castes their extraordinary solidity... Hinduism does not convert individuals; it absorbs communities and tribes, their gods and rites."

Paz notes the strong influence of Mesoamerica in India's cuisine - the word "chili" is of Nahuatl origin for the plant originally came from the Americas...- Another Mexican import "Chico-zapote" is called Chiku is North India and Sapota in the South!

He dives deep into classical Indian poetry and is amazed to find in Vidyakara's anthology of poetry, erotic poems written by Dharmakirti, a Buddhist philosopher and logician who lived in the 7th century.

Yet, Octavio Paz has his failings. The clarity with which he looks at India clouds up when he compares the influence of 'Western Civilization' on Latin America. In his view, the Spanish conquistadors did a great thing by uniting the various tribes in South America, and weaning them away from cycles of war and blood-sacrifice, and introducing to them a new religion in which "sacrifice of a god who became man and spilled his blood to redeem the world". Not a word about the massacre of the Mayans, Zapotecs, Aztecs and Teotihuacanians, or the systematic destruction of a unique civilization, its unique art and architecture, or of the shiploads of gold and silver looted and taken away to enrich Europe! 

If the world is a kaliedoscope, the designs and patterns seen by Paz are unique, but his book leaves you feeling a bit shortchanged, of expecting a real South American perspective, and finding instead, merely another European dressed in a poncho.


- GoodReads -

Friday, May 04, 2018

Pulp vs. Recycled Paper

"Did you notice?" A friend asked me recently, "We have reduced the number of pages in our newspaper". I had noticed not such thing.

Two newspapers get tossed on our balcony every morning and I had certainly felt that either of them was any lighter. The cost-cutting measure apparently had come about because the cost of newsprint had shot up 35 percent in the recent months.

This too had escaped my attention. What could possibly be the reasons for such a significant hike? A quick search on the net throws up the following facts:

  • In 2016, the gobal demand for newsprint stood at nearly 24 mmT of which 10.6 mmT came from Asia.
  • Yet, in terms of quality and value, US has always been the top market with the highest per-capita consumption of 200kg/year (India - just 13kgs)
  • The global newsprint industry has been on a steady decline despite big-ticket mergers (eg. AbitibiBoWater Inc.) due to a steady decline in demand from the US market, which is declining 10%+ YoY.
  • Decline in global demand, combined with fluctuations in cost of energy and transportation costs has resulted in the prices fluctuating from $320/T (2002) to over $1000/T. At present the prices hover around $770/T.
  • Considering the fact that newsprint costs account for 55-65% o the total cost of producing a newspaper the future does indeed look gloomy for the newspaper industry.
However, the demand for newsprint in India has been rising steadily, thanks to increasing literacy rates and incomes. Yet the global sellers are not exactly rushing in because we are not yet willing to pay the rates they have been getting from USA and Western Europe. 

Also more recently, China, one of the major suppliers of newsprint decided to import pulp instead of waste-paper as a raw material for the the newsprint industry. While this move led to a fall in the prices of imported waste-paper, Indian mills have not been able to use them because all these years, thanks to the print-media lobby, zero-duty on newsprint imports had driven many Indian papermills out of business! 

One thing however remains unclear: If India is consuming about 2 mmT of newsprint every year, why is it not being recycled? Is the process way too expensive or does it go elsewhere? The going rate for used newspapers being collected by the local "Raddi-wala" is Rs.10/kg or Rs.10,000/T whereas newsprint is being imported at about $760/T (INR 50,000/T).

It seems only 20% of waste-paper in India is recycled, compared to over Germany's 73 %, Japan 60 %, Western Europe 56 % , the US 49% and Italy 42%. So much so that we imported USD 1 billion worth waste-paper for our mills in 2011. Surely there is a case for more efficient recovery and recycling in India?


* 2016 - Global demand for Newsprint -

* 2018, March 18, The Print -

* 2018, 12 March, Mint -

* 2018, Feb - India Paper consumption -
- The domestic market / consumption of paper is over 16 million tonnes per annum (TPA), with over 2 million TPA being imported.

* 2018, Jan - BS - Rising costs of paper -

* Newsprint import policy -
- List of scheduled newsprint manufacturers/importers -

* 2018 - Care Ratings -
- India consumes about 18 mmT of paper every year which is about 4% o the global market

* 2015, FE - Wealth from Waste -

* Newsprint -

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Mucous Cyst Rx

"Its just a local trauma..."
"No, its a bacterial wart! be careful, it infectious...certainly needs a surgery and biopsy..."
"Oh, just a simple mucous cyst!"

Two months, four doctors and three hospitals and many thousand rupees later, we have gained a few insights into the way in which our medical system works. It give you a glimpse of how private medical care is designed to make a mountain out of a molehill, to scare and fleece the gullible.

Two months ago, our son Aki got a cut on his upper lip which, instead of healing, developed into an eruption. Flesh etruded out of the cut which bled profusely from time to time. One day it would seem to be healing with a black scab but return to a a fleshy, bleeding nodule the very next. About 10 days after it showed no signs of healing, we took him to a doctor at the nearby Jaypee Hosptital. The pediatrician said it was just a "local trauma" and prescribed a  an anti-inflamatory syrup.

Aki found the syrup tasty but it nothing to reduce the eruption, or the bleeding. So off we went for a second opinion, to pediatrician at Patparganj, one strongly recommended by doctor-friends. The clinic was crowded and, from the number of vaccine adverts on the walls, quite popular with pharma companies as well. The doctor here came through a fair, honest, consciencious physician. "This looks like a wart", he said, "It needs to be surgically is just an Out Patient (OP) procedure in any government hospital, but given the crowds, you won't be seen unless you know somebody personally. If you go to any private hosptial, make sure you get the estimates clearly, in writing, before you get the child admitted". He also graciously returned - to our amazement - his consultancy fees (INR500) because, in his words, "I only advised you to go elsewhere." 

Next stop, Max Hospital. Here we got to meet our first pediatric surgeon. One look at Aki's lip, and he declared that it was "mucous cyst". Pulling our a couple of blank sheets, he explained in detail how it developed. "Sometimes, the process of healing ends up blocking the flow of mucus cells...and instead of keeping the lip surface moist, they end up discharging mucus under the skin. This develops into a cyst which ruptures and bleeds easily." Surgery, apparently, was the only way to get the cyst removed.

How much would surgery cost? Well, the answer depends on whether or not you have a mediclaim insurance cover. If you do, then it would cost about INR 25,000 if you got it done at Max Hospital. The cost of booking an operation theatre, anaesthesia specialists and a days' stay at the hospital, we were told, made a relatively simple procedure expensive. 

Would this be defenitely covered under mediclaim? Guys at the billing office were not so sure. "Lets see", they said, "We will submit all the papers and then know in a couple of days". Not quite reassuring.

So now we went for fourth opinion with a surgeon at Kailash Hospital, Noida. The diagnosis at Max was reconfirmed. This certainly was a mucus cyst that needed to be 'surgically excised, or cauterized'. The cost was a couple of thousands less but, given the crowds at this hospital, nobody wanted to an operation date, or the insurance coverage.

Back at Jaypee Hospital, the feedback from the billing office was the same. The procedure would cost not less than INR 25,000, which included no less than INR 8000 for 'micellaneous consumables'! The cost of the biopsy, of course, would be extra.

Since none of the pediatric surgeons said that it was emergency procedure, we thought about it for a couple of days, checked with other hospital, and settled for a surgery at Felix Hospital. This was the only place were we met a pediatric surgeon who inspired confidence in us with his surgery-as-last-resort approach. This was the also only hospital that had an OT readily available, did not insist on conning insurance companies and came up with surgery cost estimates at INR 5500. The only down side at this hospital was that they charged thrice the amount for consultancy fees for pediatric surgeons, compared to far more reputed hospitals. 

Anyway, sometimes when all is not so well also ends well. A supposedly common medical condition was misdiagnosed, received inflated cost estimates for the surgery, and was finally sorted out for one-fifth the estimates. One thing is clear, the nexus between private private, medical insurance companies, and TPAs is designed to fleece patients - especially those who may not have the luxury of time to seek a fair deal.

After the final follow-up visit, our doctor requested that we evaluate him online. I received three sites on WhatsApp -- Practo, Lybrate and JustDial. This is an interesting new trend - doctors want to create a reputation that is independent of the hospitals in which they serve. I am not sure if this is good for the patients because we now have one more broker in between, and the additional costs are built into the doctor's fees :(

* Practo: Verifies feedback with an OTP sent to mobile number, collects proof of visit (bill/prescription), and creates a login for you, on the sly. 
* Lybrate: Does not have a clear section for doctor feedback. Verified using OTP. No need to login.
* JustDial: Badly designed site. The doctor's review page forces you to post your comments on FaceBook and Twitter (default option). Crazy.


- Oral mucocele -

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Young India - Unsatisfied, Unscrupulous, Unstoppable

"Where you stand depends on where you sit" - Mile's Law

Over the past two weeks I have come across two views on where India is headed, both seem to contradict each other but at the same time, pointing to a common direction while reiterating Mile's Law.

The first was an Explained session organised by the Indian Express at New Delhi where Manish Sabharwal, the chairman of TeamLease spoke of great business opportunities in the India, while the second one was book by Snigdha Poonam titled, "Dreamers".

Sabharwal was amazingly optimistic and eloquent on the direction in which India was headed. Where most liberals saw clouds of doom and gloom, he saw opportunties etched in the sliver linings. Sample these facts and figures -

- Good Times Ahead: 50% of India's labor force is engaged in agriculture which contributes just 13% of GDP, while 0.7% of the workforce is into ITES which contributes 9% of GDP! With more than 600 international companies setting up captive IT centres in India, the workforce of 3.5 million in ITES is set to double over the next 10 years.
- "Cascading Regime Change": We are already seeing the synergystic impact of recent reforms (GST + RERA + DeMo). Before GST there were only 7 million enterprises registered for indirect tax. Now there are 10.5 million -- a 50% increase in just eight months!

Sabharwal's optimism as the leader of one of the largest employers in India contrasted with that of the journalist Snigdha Poonam who saw the great mismatch between aspirations of millions of young Indians, and harsh ground realities.

If you saw a pop-up on your screen warning you of an IRS investigation in USA or a virus in your laptop/PC/mobile, chances are that you are about to be scammed by an Indian. It seems there are hundreds of call centers in the obscure byelanes of urban India, using desperate job-seekers to con the most vulnerable people across the world --  elderly pensioners, single mothers struggling to make ends meet and all those who are already intimidated by technology.
According to Poonam: "Like it or not, young India is what it is - unsatisfied, unscrupulous, unstoppable. Few young Indians had a clear sense of right and wrong: fewer gave a damn about it. 
The idea of personal benefit over public good isn't owned by them, however. It is at the core of India's value system. Sure, some young Indians will cheat their way to their dreams, but they don't see how they are different from anyone in the news - politicians, businessmen, celebreties..."
Sabharwal's TeamLease claims to have hired someone for every 5 minutes in the last few years and provided employment to more than 1.2 million since 2002. And yet, he also admits that his hiring funnel is very narrow - out of every hundred applicants, less than 5 are hired, trained and placed in various companies.

So there you are - the desperation and angst Poonam sees in the 95 who got rejected is quite different from the optimism of those who did. The way you look at the future depends completely on where you stand.


* Explained by Indian Express -

* Reviews:

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Aadhaar - Biometric Mismatch

Last week I found myself in a bit of a fix while trying to book a ride back home late at night.
Standing on a lonely roadside waiting for a confirmation on my Uber ride, I found that I no money to pay for it - there was no cash in my pocket, and my e-wallet account balance was below the minimum INR 350.

My account with Uber is linked to PayTM, a popular e-wallet platform in India. Uber gave me two options for topping up - through my credit-card or directly through PayTM. The latter had been an easier process but this hit a wall with the message which said that my account was not yet KYC compliant.

Know Your Customer (KYC) is now compulsary for all e-wallet accounts as per the new rules set by the central bank. Introduced with the objective of reducing misuse and money-laundering, KYC requires submission of id proof -  details of Passport, Tax PAN or the Adhaar universial id number.  I was under the impression that Adhaar was the fastest way of fulfilling KYC norms. I had done it earlier for my bank accounts and for a JIO mobile connection. It had taken just a few minutes to get an online confirmation.

However, the process was quite different for the PayTM. As soon as I sent my 16-digit number, I got a message saying that a PayTM representative come an meet me personally for a confirmation. A confirmation? Why is additional confirmation needed when, according to UIDAI's own procedures, the number could be used to confirm my identity with their central database? Anyway, since there was no hope of completing the KYC standing by the roadside at night, I went back to Uber and transferred some money to my PayTM account using my credit card.

A few days later, and after a series of SMSs, a representative of PayTM's "partner" turned up at my door with portable fingerprint scanner plugged into his mobile phone. He passed me his mobile and told me to type in my Adhaar number. Soon I got a message on my mobile with a code and a URL with the message - "By providing this code to our agent, you agree to become a full KYC customer of PayTM Payments Bank and confirm acceptance." You have no time to check the fine-print so the agent gets his code.

After this, a mouse-like device is used to scan my thumb-prints. One by one, the scanner moves from my thumb, to the pointer and index, until all 10 fingerprints are covered. For each and every scan he gets a message (from where? UIDAI?) saying that all the authentications had failed!

The look of amazement on my face prompted the agent to console me - "Aise hota reha hai...fingerprint badal jaate hei" (This keeps happening, fingerprints change over time). WTF?? I had heard about farm workers losing their fingerprints to hard labour but my fingers were anything but callused, or even unclean!

How can UIDAI authentications fail in urban areas? A quick internet search reveals that mine is not an isolated case. While authentication failures have been quite common on rural areas - due to incorrectly captured fingerprints, poor internet connectivity or a change in biometric details because of old age or wear and tear - it is now increasingly common in urban areas as well.

The Adhaar UID is no doubt backed by the laws of probablity and complex algorithms but this experience has placed me firmly in the ranks of the Adhaar skeptics. Failing to get an Uber taxi ride due to an Adhaar biometric failure hardly makes a difference to me, but to think that millions depends on this flawed system for their rations is just unexcusable.

Other Unanswered Questions:

* Now that the private sub-contractor to PayTM has all my fingerprints scanned and saved, what are the chances of misuse?


* Scroll on KYC problems -
* How to link PayTM with Adhaar -
* Fingerprint authentication failure -
* Medianama rebuttal to N.Nilekani's claims -