Monday, May 07, 2007

A gift of maturity

A gift of maturity

There comes a time when a modern nation succeeds in lifting the veil on its potentialities. A time, when what it says and does can be measured against objective yardsticks that place it among the emerging winners. That it should also coincide with the end of the fastest- paced century in history is indeed a most favourable augury. Year 2000 for India, apart from notching up 53 years of nationhood with its corpus intact, ends up telling us we haven’t done half badly.

Let us take food first- in a nation of a billion plus souls that might have fallen victim to a Malthusian spectre long ago, we seem to have enough surplus wheat to trade it for bruisingly expensive oil. Issues of clothing and shelter, the other two pillars of basic survival, have also been much alleviated. This despite the fact that we have grown up with a notoriously inefficient “command and control” economy for at least 44 of our 53 years. But still, roti, kapda aur makaan are no longer breast-beaters in the exclusive realm of political rhetoric and Bollywood melodrama. They need to be seen as issues being addressed and objectives attainable by most, if not all, our people in 2000.

We still can’t claim satisfaction in several other essentials like electricity, water, transportation, communications, medical care, education, environment and so on. But the fact is, there are new and relatively innovative moves being made in all these areas. We also have had respectable growth rates in year 2000, and the CII projects even better figures for next year. We are, in addition, sitting on the largest foreign currency reserves ever. So, even though the first private insurers are beginning to stir with all the purpose of pensioners, and DTH’s too-little-too-late advent seems as star-crossed as the expensive electricity from Enron’s Dabhol project-modernisation and globalisation are definitely here to stay.

They have become an aspirational thing, which, as every yuppie on the cocktail circuit will tell you, is worth twice as much as mere gold. Did we really expect cellphone toting sarpanches this soon, or cyclists hurtling away in their first Maruti 800s, or porter-carried refrigerators in the satellite dish speckled hinterland of Himachal? And what about the savvy we are displaying at international beauty pageants?

But how does this maturing nation of ours define itself now? Could it be that Dewang Mehta of Nasscom is right? He has been credited with floating the attractive notion that what oil has been to the Arabs, IT will be to India. And then there are other suitors in the wings. Think of the emerging Indian stories in bio-technology, genome tweaking, cheaper Viagra, multifarious medical research and virtuoso surgical techniques for a start. The fact is, in 2000, all of it somehow breathes with a new confidence. This is because, for the first time, India has high-tech things to sell at a price that the whole of the developed world unequivocally wants. We have skills that have come of age to propel us closer to the head table of that all powerful Group of 8. The bomb, no doubt, also had something to do with it, as did the masterful control displayed at Kargil, but these I cannot take into the accomplishments of the year 2000. Still, since greatness is often preceded by signs and portents, they merit mention as significant milestones.

We ourselves, may not even remark on the breathtaking rescue of our peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, nor on the trend of NRIs and Western expatriates coming to live and work in India, or on Indian managers being exported or even on MNCs salivating at the size of our markets. And again we may not even notice that the foreign coverage on India has become distinctly less disparaging. But we must admit to noticing a US President, one of the most charismatic ever, albeit in his last year in office, spending nearly a week, wooing, as opposed to condescending to us this year.

And talking past the platitudes on democracy, we should be proud of some of the liveliest debates in the world splashed across newsprint and screen daily. We should also take pride in our election process that counts 600 million votes, mostly by hand, with unerring accuracy and impressive speed. Ironically, our virtues are sometimes brought into prominence by the misfortunes of others.

And talking of misfortunes, we have, at length and with all due ponderousness, finally stripped bare the shenanigans of cherished cricketing heroes. In the process, more in sorrow than anger, we have also learned to distinguish between our love of the game and a few of its flawed practitioners. It may be a fine point to some, but this too we have discovered about ourselves this year.

And most recently, we have seen a prime minister who heads a large and unwieldy coalition giving voice to the explosive view that a particular mandir should be built where a certain mosque used to be. And this simultaneously with taking the boldest peace initiatives seen so far to resolve the festering crisis in Kashmir. He has done both these things with courage, and got the NDA to keep him on his horse, despite many among them only agreeing to disagree. This then is the acid test of maturity because since when has power been comfortable with principle?

The fact is, we are no longer afraid to look at things that contradict each other. And having admitted them to ourselves, we are prepared to press on as best as we can. This is surely a gift of maturity. A most valuable gift that has come us this year in accumulation to those gone by. And I have no doubt that it is this gift of maturity above all which will animate our progress into the bold new century to come.

( 978 words)

By Gautam Mukerji
First published in The Pioneer on Sunday, December 24th 2004 in the Dialogue column

Sunday, May 06, 2007

India cannot modernise without international help

India cannot modernise without international help

Time was when all we knew was frozen in time. We implemented Laskian socialism and gave every commanding height of the economy to the public sector. Typically, we did not throttle the private sector but put a strict watch on it instead. All around us we had either/or choices and life was as simple as the Fiat and the Ambassador. A man knew where he stood.

Time came when the citadel developed not just cracks but structural faults, serious enough to threaten the entire edifice. We were forced to change economic policies which had driven us nearly bankrupt, and that is when the confusion began.

Bureaucrats used to intoning shibboleths on “maximum employment” and “social objectives” underwent a culture shock when confronted with “return on investment” and “viability”. Manufacturers of goods made with pre-world war technology, when technology itself was young, scurried to modernise.

Foreigners streamed into our city hotels clutching shiny plastic credit cards, purveying all manner of enabling know-how, designs to revolutionise our infrastructure and multiply our options. Media folk coined images of springing tigers and lumbering elephants to depict an economy awakening. Think tank gurus extolled the virtues of the largest working democracy in the world, replete with an independent judiciary, a free Press and the “steel framework” of an extensive bureaucracy. Opportunity stared us in the face as we emerged from the socialist shadows, blinking in a market driven sunlight.

Now we are four years down the high road towards an open economy. Treasury coffers look genteel, far from over-flowing yet, but bound to grow, nudged by an annual GDP doubled since liberalisation began. Throughout our socialist years the gross domestic product managed to “grow” at no more than two per cent. A statistic dubbed the “Hindu rate of growth” by international sceptics, ironically contrasting India’s population explosion with her economic performance.

Even our present pace is not much faster than the proverbial pilgrim’s when compared to Pacific Rim economies posting annual growth in double digits. We could catch up if we wanted to. The bulls are indeed snorting behind the arras of cyberspace but the bears are still squatting in the arena. Four years down the road of our boldness we have developed cold feet wondering when we saw the last milestone and what was written on the gantry signs overhead.

Nostalgia hits us for that time past when it stood still. A time when all our deficiencies could be jettisoned at the altar of socialist ideology. When we comforted ourselves that after all, “social justice” did not come cheap.

Meanwhile the car we are in keeps rolling inexorably on towards the free market. It is no longer the familiar hold-all Ambassador, nor the constant Padding but a new fangled Maruti mutating into a Peugeot, a Cielo, an Opel Astra, even a Mercedes as the kilometres flow by. We look with distaste at this apology for a high road impervious to the high tech machinery straddling it. There is so much to update now that the citadel is breached!

Where do we begin? Fact is we already have-four years ago, but now we are not so sure. That is why there are3 anarchic winds blowing around and opinions like blades of grass sweeping left, right, and standing straight up, buffeted from all sides.

Change is scary, there, I have admitted it, but we can either make room for it or collapse under our cumulative burdens like our erstwhile friends, the USSR. Every civic and infrastructural facility we have today is an anachronism: roads, airports, stations, ‘phones, schools, colleges, hospitals, insurance, law courts like bedlam, gardens like garbage dumps, garbage dumps like mountains, adulterated food, contaminated water, sub-standard and expensive housing, inadequate and temperamental electricity- the list is so long we have grown apathetic to its ravages.

We cannot solve our problems fiddling like Nero as India gets mired deeper in the morass. Harking back to a mythical golden age in the long ago cannot wipe out the stench of a present decay-a symptom of a dying civilisation is to refuse to look upon the face of reality.

Ladies could not stop the industrial revolution. Hydra –headed fundamentalism will also, in time, be ironed out of the history pages, just as a wrinkle is smoothed away. Discarded, not because of its ideological debilities alone, but overtaken by independent compulsions to modernise everything, produce competitive goods and services, carve a niche for India, in order to survive in the global village.

We cannot modernise unless we take the international help that is being offered. We fed our hunger with the Green Revolution. As consequences we have growing surpluses after feeding a population doubled in the interim. We beat back drought with canals, irrigation, dams and wasteland reclamation. We did not do these things alone. The benefits are so profound that the word “famine” has been obliterated from the Indian lexicon. There were so many starvation deaths in the 19th century that it makes the losses of the holocaust look like a bus accident.

Reinventing the wheel will take too long. We have to take charge and pay attention to the terms on which we induct technology. Our intelligence must be harnessed to getting ourselves the best catapult to make up for the inward looking years.

Today we might consider ourselves desirable because of a huge, potentially lucrative domestic market. We should be careful not to sit too long admiring ourselves. Suitors get tired of uncooperative damsels and settle for the charms of more pliable ones.

We should all get this clear-that a country of the size and importance of India has no choice but to clamber to its new tryst with destiny inside shiny buildings o0f chrome and glass at the free market. There is no mileage in looking wistfully at quaint mud huts rushing by the car windows because they, and their ilk, cannot meet our burgeoning needs, and if truth be told, never have! We cannot cling to a tattered dogma on the threshold of the second millennium.

Our very own Swedish Camelot is waiting for us on the round table of global cooperation now, not among the crumbling ruins of our socialist citadel. We have to learn to enjoy the new found choices given us by the gods of technology. Techno Gods who have abstracted the gold and jewels from sovereign crowns and replaced them with invasive inter-networked information beamed from the heavens.

If we go out and meet this brave new world head on we will not be intimidated by the glare. If we resist the inevitable, the tottering citadel will collapse upon us.

That would be the epitaph fit for a dinosaur – a country grown too tired to adapt, an ancient civilisation preferring to climb into permanent slumber on the pages of history encircled with encomiums and laurels.

( 1, 142 words)

By Gautam Mukerji
First published in The Pioneer on Monday 26th February, 1996 on the Edit Page in the main Opinion slot

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Sorry vessels for change

Sorry vessels for change

“When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide
There I stop and I turn and I go for a ride
Till I get to the bottom and I see you again…”

From Helter Skelter, The Beatles, in The White Album

There’s this déjà vu quality to progression that mocks the entire effort. Why, your philosophical self asks your prosaic side, do you bother to strive if all you really want is more of the same? In other words, if you are poor, you want to be poorer. No, not quite. You want to be the opposite. If you are weak, you want to be strong. If you are ugly, you want to be beautiful.

But what about if you already are, in some measure, what you want to be? Then you definitely want more of the same, not the opposite. You want more power if you are already powerful, better cars, if you already have them and so on.

This is fine as it stands, because it is understandable that you want to get all the things you do not have under your belt in short order. It is equally valid that you should want to preserve and enhance all your privileges. Change is a double-edged sword of freedom that can cut through Gordian knots that oppress you while whispering simultaneously of the whirlwind that can consume you if you are not vigilant. So, this is about recognising change either as an opportunity or a threat, depending on who you are and where you are located in the pecking order.

Since most of our crystal balls are singularly foggy about how change will affect us, quite a lot of us stick to the devil we know as opposed to new fangled devils one has yet to figure out. Tradition draws upon the status quo and seduces its adherents by reassuring them with the weight of times past when the premise has acquitted itself honourably, enhancing the established order, keeping the ship of life on course and shielded from the upsets of the ocean deep.

For the have-nots who constitute the whole world in one season or the other, because we can all point at various items lacking in our lives, the preservationist model is not par for the course. So, the duality of wanting more while hanging on to what we already have makes us take the plunge. Of course the resultant waves rock the raft of our primacy on whatever it is we do possess!

This brings us to the non sequitur of the “free lunch” and we readily agree we must pay for our cravings. You have got to give in order to get and such other homilies flood the brain. We are persuaded to take the plunge and become accomplices to rocking our raft, the very one we are perched on.

The ride begins and we feel strangely liberated, as if, just for a little while, we have demonstrated worth, as if we have dared to live up to our potential. Then the storm of uncertainty overcomes us, stripping away security, mocking our established order, destroying sentimental things. We are not very sure this was worth the trouble. We have done this out of pride, so now we have to take the fall. Our minds are sorry vessels for change clinging to vestiges of familiar things, revising pride into abject denial, bolstering it with Dutch Courage that hopes it is all a dream that we will awaken from and find everything is as it was before.

The Changemeister asks if that is what you really want because I can freeze your request and put things back the way they were. But are you sure, because I do not want to waste my time. A twinge of pride creeps back amongst the rising panic and we find ourselves saying no, carry on, but tell me it won’t hurt too much.

And thus mankind makes progress as a process of overcoming fear of the little known. Brave processes that plump for loss of primacy as a distinct possibility. We can prove we are not beyond redemption if we try to change. We dimly realise what will happen if we stand still. So we move on and after enough time elapses all the progress we have made becomes history, even tradition. Is it any wonder that we get the feeling that we’ve somehow seen it all before?

(750 words)

By Gautam Mukerji
First published in The Pioneer on Monday, April 8th, 1996
on the OP-ED page in the Analysis section, Musings column

Thursday, May 03, 2007

From a socialist dogma to a glimmer of hope

From a socialist dogma to a glimmer of hope

Significant beginnings are harbingers of the future. What “Rosebud” was to Citizen Kane, "The Meiji Restoration" to Japan, the “Long March” to China. “The whiff of grapeshot” to Napoleon, “Anand”, to the future of Amitabh Bachchan, the first five years of liberalisation will be, to the future of India.

In these five years, economics emerged as a political statement so powerful that the future will not be able to ignore the brief season when the reforms policy was introduced. The voter has spoken in several voices but the final tally consists of one part in favour of Hindu resurgence, one part in favour of modernisation, and a third, which is a fractured amalgamation of regional aspirations trying to meld itself into one entity.

The question before the country today is should secularism be upheld at great cost by an ostrich-like denial of the three pronged-popular mandate or should it be tempered by the compelling logic of blending all three verdicts of the voter? The United Front combined vote means that the States want more autonomy and they will have to be given it. Resources will have to be more equitably distributed. Decision-making will have to be decentralised.

The majority Hindu community will have to be given its demand for a pre-eminent position so that the insecurity bogey of becoming second-class-citizens in their own country is removed. Denied, this groundswell has taken the BJP from a negligible two seats to 195 along with its electoral allies. Denied some more, it will ensure the full manifestation of a saffron regime with a hard right agenda come the next election!

The country must continue on its path of modernisation initiated by the Narasimha Rao Government. Under his courageous leadership the Congress Party jettisoned the creaky socialism that might have garnered more votes but does nothing for the modernisation of the country or its hopes to play a significant role in the community of nations. It is not surprising that with the disturbance of the status quo brought about by the Rao administration, the other unresolved problems of over centralisation at New Delhi and the paranoia of the 82 per cent Hindu majority vis-à-vis the minorities, should also appear and demand to be addressed.

The apprehension that the century plus old Congress Party could disappear because of its departure from its original principles of socialism and swadeshi brings an example to mind. For the entire 19th century, the British parliament saw governments run by either the Whigs or the Tories. The 19th century was a time of remarkable economic stability with the economic index for the entire century pegged at four per cent! Then the new century produced the upheavals of the two World Wars, and after that, the world changed completely.

The old Whigs virtually disappeared to be replaced by the Labour Party. Since we have based our parliamentary democracy on the Westminister model, is there a case in point for us to expect elements of the BJP and Congress to merge into a party of the right while all the regional forces and other like minded entities coalesce into a party of the Left? It would certainly shrink the ballot paper from its bed-sheet like proportions and provide the electorate with clear cut alternatives hitherto denied.

Will this new formation which some people see emerging from the historic verdict of the people become the shape of things to come? It is interesting to note Mr. HD Deve Gowda’s outburst after being denied the opportunity to form a Government at the Centre on May 16th, 1996. He said, “I am leaving for Karnataka, we will not bother to vote against the BJP. After all, it is a Congress-BJP coalition.” Has he prophetically articulated the future? More importantly, is it after due consideration, the appropriate response to the verdict of the people for the 11th Lok Sabha?

On the matter of economics becoming a political statement, let us examine some recent history. After decades through which no Indian dared to visualise a strong resurgent economy on par with the best anywhere, today we are witnessing a growing band of industrialists asserting they will create transnational corporations, that they can modernise and compete internationally, that there is no need to hand over the country to wholly-owned subsidiaries of foreign companies. They might have an ulterior self-serving motive of course, but several of them mean what they say. It was not so long ago that many of the same worthies moaned endlessly about inferior manpower, inferior infrastructure, red-tapism, political interference, lack of commitment, constraints of growth owing to dogma, and ended up saying that India would therefore remain a Third World backwater for close to eternity. They implied then that they were thoroughbreds constrained and if their shackles were to be removed they could fly like the wind. Perhaps it is time to call their bluff and then we can see who is part of the wheat and who is only chaff.

The socialist years were like a long session of study and preparation for the day we would come out to claim our destiny. If we really could not stand the cant in that period we could join the bully-boy bureaucracy at home, or skip to foreign shores and become “clever Indians”. There was a virtue made out of mediocrity that coloured our thinking.

Internationally, we saw for ourselves the failure of systems that denied their citizens the goodies of life. They did not grow strong. In time, they were hard pressed to provide even the onions and potatoes of daily existence. The amazing thing is we saw ourselves as a variation on this theme of deprivation, thanking God for the fact that we had enough to eat, that we could at least buy inferior goods, that we could avail of indifferent education and health services. We gradually gave up on expecting anything more, thinking it would not ever come to pass.

Now all that is changed. We know now that there is no glass ceiling we cannot break through if we try. The country has taken out its notebook and pencil to make its wish lists. The bourses indicate a yearning for economic growth never before witnessed and pessimism about retrograde steps that could be taken in support of socialist dogmas.

The Indian polity has grown up. We now no longer ally ourselves with the post-colonial have-nots in celebration of non-alignment. We do not shrug and say we just do not have the money to improve things and so must lump it as it is, resigned to deterioration and decay in the name of principle. We have been talking seriously of an integration with the world economy, of a free floating currency, of untold billions pouring in, to give us a chance to catch up, and be second to none.

Why has this happened? Is it because the polity is reflecting a broad consensus on this bid for prosperity? Has the evidence already before us convinced the electorate that there is every chance of becoming a first rate nation after all? If this is so, we should be suffused with hope for the future, because once we have dared to believe in our destiny, we have destroyed the mental shackles of a Third World apology forever. All that remains is to build detailed consensus on issue after issue as they hurtle past us towards implementation.

( 1,241 words)

By Gautam Mukerji

First published in The Pioneer on Wednesday, June 5th, 1996 in the main OPINION slot on the Edit Page.

Indian culture has little to fear from chips and cola

Indian culture has little to fear from chips and cola

There is a reasonably popular school of thought that needs to apply a brush to its thinking. The thought runs like this: why does India need potato chips, fried chicken, thick crusted pizzas, fancy apparel, fancier shoes, designer do-dads, imported pulp fiction, manners and mores via satellite et al, when it has substantial needs in infrastructure and considerable culture of its own? Which misguided soul permitted all of those baubles to strew our shores when we have such huge deficits in basic infrastructure? How much longer should the righteous endure this aberration of policy before setting it back on the tried and tested rails of our national needs? Frivolity is okay but should the national policy cater to it?

The drift of the above diatribe misses out the history of our sovereign democratic republic. We came in on a burst of ahimsa peppered with dead nationalist heroes and the factory siren dominated rule of a British Labour Party, weary from the War, not willing to get any more of its constituency killed over imperial lucre on distant shores. We jettisoned the “small is beautiful” policies of the Mahatma with enormous despatch, remembering, and generally believing, that it costs a lot to keep a nation in poverty, to paraphrase and twist Mrs Naidu’s famous remark on the Mahatma’s predilections. We built a command economy and watered it down to take into account the plurality of our thinking. Had Trotsky survived the purge he would have understood Nehru’s reluctance to wield a big stick.

We believed in social equality and enshrined it in the preamble and directive principles to the Constitution, and administered the country with a thicket of laws for a full 44 years before liberalisation; administering this bias, but without attacking the rich or demeaning their enterprise. We knew our ancient culture was replete with kings and serfs and a sinuous bonding held them together. Sometimes, more out of spite than governance, we snatched away privileges given solemnly at the hour of our nation’s birth from the princes, stripping away their titles and purses, and again from the people themselves during the Emergency, but soon remorse overcame these excesses and our rulers stood contrite in front of the populace to take their punishment. The princes became ambassadors, politicians, industrialists, hoteliers.

We are not quite fifty as an independent nation but have shown a remarkable maturity both from the point of view of the governing classes and the governed. Both have, in the ultimate analysis, forgiven the excesses of the other and learned to respect the flash points that matter to each. The populace threw out Mrs. Gandhi because of the Emergency but brought her back longing for her sincerity and ability when the poseurs and small-minded had had a go at trashing the portals of power. We threw out Mr. VP Singh for being opportunistic over Mandal but he will go down in history as the man who addressed the inequity of a system of democracy which carefully contrived to keep the backwards out of real power. Jagjivan Ram’s ashes must be giving birth to a sea of flowers at the thought. Had he been alive now in 1996, perhaps his ability would have counted for more than his caste. Ms Mayawati will heartily agree with him and so will Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav and Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav and many others.

The governing classes have their own story of noblesse oblige to tell. A home-loving pilot lost his life in the hurly-burly of a political legacy he was uncomfortable with. His mother refused to stop short of attacking the Golden Temple at Amritsar or paying for her sacrilege with her life in the security interests of her country. Her Army Chief, General Vaidya, died the unprotected death of a pensioner with a solitary guard who could not even unsheath his weapon to protect the great man. The BJP has never recovered from the ignominy of destroying the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. A well-known historical precedent for their logic was that of Auranzeb’s, and he did as much to destroy the Mughal legacy as Akbar did to build it. They both lived one solitary incarnation and made their owm historical statements for us to assess.

Less exalted men with good education and from comfortable backgrounds have donned the regulation terry-cotton pyjamas, updated from the nationalist khaddar pre-independence, to grapple with the shaping of a democratic ethos that is a far cry from the Churchillian sneer of us destroying ourselves in no time. I wonder if that was really a sneer or the lament of a lover who had been shown the door.

Bureaucrats and postal employees, workers and mill hands, farmers, engineers, doctors, computer experts, mechanics, sadhus, charlatans, clowns and tragedy queens, bus drivers and railwaymen, scooter wallahs, taxi drivers and ferrymen, fisherfolk and bootleggers, dacoits and saints, aesthetes and boors, we have all made up this fabric from Madna to Malgudi (Yes, I know, you have many more who need naming too).

In broader terms and reaching farther back into time, India has always shown a remarkable ability to take in the invader and his foreign influences and churn it up so mysteriously and well that the new one becomes an Indian too. We therefore should have little to fear from the pop culture and food coming into the country. It might not be long till peculiar Indian hybrids and adaptations rule the roost. It is difficult to dilute an ancient culture. It is much more likely that the new influence will get blended in with the rest.

Now to the moot point of infrastructural investment.Anybody knows that it takes years to build power plants, roads, railways, ports, bridges, drill for oil, establish telecommunication networks, and that masses of deadwood have to be shifted to make room. Our legal system may be very thorough but no one can accuse it of restlessness. So why should any investor in his right mind wish to get involved in such exercises with less than advantageous terms to compensate for the delayed gratification? And why should he not want to make a quick buck at some instant coffee sales at the same time? Going back to the FERA days will not help the process and did the electorate give their votes to the Bombay Club or to the politicians who stood before them?

From our own point of view, it is clear that we are in need of everything, even superior rubber bands, which our local industry on its own refuses to make without the prod of competition. Perhaps Indian industry can do many things just like Indian politicians or writers or film makers or bureaucrats can, but we can only do it if there is a perceived need to change something.

Today there is a need for the elected representatives to submerge their petty agendas in order to cobble together a stable government. The voter has spoken in many voices leaving it up to the representatives to interpret his wishes. The wish list implies a blending of the various aspirations of the populace. Can our elected representatives bear this in mind when they start their post-election negotiations?

Instead of demanding a selective and lopsided appreciation of our charms, why do we not plunge in wholesale, confident of our ancient legacy of survival and amalgamation of the best and the worst that anyone can bring to our shores?

(1,243 words)

By Gautam Mukerji
First published in THE PIONEER on Wednesday, June 19th, 1996 in the main OPINION slot on the Edit page

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Pinocchio profession

The Pinocchio profession

There’s this risqué joke about the little wooden doll, Pinocchio, only child to the childless dollmaker and his homely missus. Pinocchio went forth into the world to seek his fortune and because of his innate charm and cuteness was taken in buy a handsome widow who soon put him to work.

Pinocchio worked hard at his chores around the widow’s cottage but was puzzled by the bouts of demonstrated affection shown to him by the widow. She would snuggle him face down in her lap and sighingly implore him to tell another lie. Now we all know the little wooden boy’s nose grew perceptibly every time he told a lie, something his parents had warned him not to do or he’d have to carry around the evidence for all to see.

Thus a pleasant diversion for the widow poses a dilemma for the little wooden doll. He likes the widow and wants to do her bidding but does not want to tell lies, much less carry around the evidence on his face for all to see. It would not be much of a dilemma if it was agreed that lies which give pleasure are different from and not as bad as ones that cause pain. But Pinocchio’s parents had been unequivocal on the morality of lie-telling. There were no good lies and bad lies in their book. They wanted their child to be truthful, no more no less.

The profession of public relations is faced with the dilemma of Pinocchio. It is clear to all the dream merchants in creativity that the real task is to demonstrate a clear vision and state the relevant issue in a positive manner. Not one of the practitioners of any art wants to tell lies while they’re about it. The moral crisis arises when the facts are not so savoury and have to be packaged and air brushed. Is it legitimate to highlight myths and by inference enhance the stature of a deficient client? Probably not, but then again, in the real world, it might not be easy to decide these things in absolute terms. It might be necessary to position the salient facts in a becoming manner vis a vis the competition. This does not seem so bad and the action lets one skirt the moral issues that plague the little wooden doll.

The true relevance of the profession in present times is to shine light on the knots and gnarlies that block development. These snarl-ups are often a consequence of mindsets which have become outdated, part of ideological positions which have shifted not only stance but content, in short, when policies change but do not transmit.

In such circumstances, a new moral ground is discovered by the practitioners of the Pinocchio profession. They become modern day Galahads out to do justice. They purvey information, clearly, concisely, in balanced perspective, to clarify issues so that the audience can cut through the thorny brambles over the stone work battlements of a discarded ideology. In times of change, as in present day India, there is an immense need for a clear statement on the nature and content of that change. Not only is the concept to be understood widely but also the consequences, the meaning of everyday manifestations, of the new order.

Without this clear interpretation of the consequences of change, you get ironic situations where the architects of worthwhile progress become victimised for their authorship. It quickly becomes apparent that the forces of reaction do not sit idle when anything disturbs the status quo. The centrist approach has traditionally been to appropriate the moral high ground without batting an eyelid, and from this vantage point, try to bludgeon the progressives into retreat and denial.

Having assumed the mantle of righteousness, the reactionaries think nothing of distorting facts, creating convenient collages of selective myth and spuriously passing off the heady cocktail in terms of a defence of culture and character versus a new found and mindless decadence.

We are a nation of great diversity in every conceivable way. This is why it is important to build consensus towards change. Change which is inevitable in its very nature. The time has come to regard the profession of public affairs in its true perspective, not as fancy footwork and smooth talk, but as the method by which we can grasp the issues that affect our lives. If public affairs people can rise to this challenge so can readers of our newspapers.

The fact of the matter is the dollmaker and his missus were quite right. There is no such thing as a “good” lie.

(769 words)

By Gautam Mukerji
First published in THE PIONEER on Friday, March 22nd, 1996

Show more confidence...

Show more confidence in growth and efficiency

There are at least two ways to make up a deficit. One is to save, another is to earn more. The Government of India apparently prefers the feudal way, which was to tax the ryots! Now independent for 49 years, the Government has updated its list of victims. Today it is merit and achievement in industry and commerce it preys upon, in addition to the ubiquitous urban common man fixed in the popular imagination by the dhoti-clad and check-shirted Laxman character. Of course, the erstwhile ryot is now exempted from all tax as free India’s atonement for the yoke it has carried since Mughal times. Rich farmers are exempted too because the rural constituencies make up over 60 per cent of the substantial population. And which politician wants to look a voting horse in the mouth?

Foreign companies who flocked to India because of its potential are sitting here losing money because the thicket of different entry taxes is arcane and complicated despite steady reductions recently. Why can we not have a flat excise duty and a single customs slab? Would that not increase revenues from its great virtue of simplicity and do away with the arcane in import administration?

Waste and pilferage, on the other hand, is a constant in Go0vernment administration. Considering their track record, it is imperative they limit themselves to the true core provinces of the Government. Let us look at some examples. Electricity, already a rare commodity, is going up in price all the time to subsidise transmission and distribution losses which in some cases is as high as 50 per cent.

The sharp pre-budget petroleum products’ price hike was not just due to devaluation of our currency- which anyway is because of years of unbalanced budgets- but also due to tens of thousands of extra personnel that refine and distribute the stuff, working little and obstructing much. The pace of decision-making in the Government is so snail-like, that even a ruthless dictatorship of the Left, as in China, or the Right, as in Indonesia, with all their human-rights abuses, swarm ahead of us, at every turn becoming darlings of the international investor community in the process. Anything, it seems, is better than cobwebs growing on their files and mildew sprouting on their investment plans.

It comes down to this: No politician dares to address the issues on a holistic basis. Each one in turn makes his spot on the gaddi convenient and hurries away without a thought to tackling the problem root and branch. There is no denying that increasing taxes, provided compliance is enforced , is indeed a sure-fire methods to reduce Budget deficits, but reducing them to spur growth is a risk that could lead, after all to double jeopardy.

However, this cynical and short-sighted outlook has made a country the size and potential of India inferior to much smaller Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, not to mention tiny places like Singapore and Hong Kong. Before the first Budget proposals of the 11th Lok Sabha are finally canned, it is necessary for the rulers to commit themselves to the modern world. When the Prime Minister calls it a pro-poor Budget, and the reality is that the social sector spending allocations are the lowest in four years. I wonder who he is kidding? Can image ever substitute for reality?

The last Budget exercise was entirely defensive, with inadequate sops to various concerns of nation-building, akin to an attempt to feed a nation of Olivers with everyone holding up his bowl for more! How can the biggest and most productive industries be penalised for investing their profit into growth while the shamefully deficient public sector continues to squander the nation’s assets on lazy personnel and shoddy goods? Who is the Finance Minister actually putting on the mat? I would say it is the nation, because he is subsidising inefficiency and abetting sloth.

The sheer bulk of Government and its involvement in many things which are not its for province needs to be addressed. The CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) has already suggested how the number of ministers can be reduced but is anybody listening? Is a limit to hikes that can be applied to administered prices because it spurs inflation. There is actually no way out of the radical surgery to come if we go bankrupt- expect to make a beginning now. Otherwise, despite FII (Foreign Institutional Investor) interest and 12 per cent industrial growth, we are headed the USSR way.

The Government must show a sweeping will to privatise that puts pressure on the “lifer” government servants to perform or face the consequences. In other words, take away security of tenure and reward merit and achievement. This cannot be done without a catalyst and the agent of change is surely the private sector aided and abetted by foreign money. Large chunks of activity need to be taken away from government administration and the remaining core areas need to work with one eye on India’s place in the community of nations with emphasis on Asia in particular.

In industry, which has perked up considerably after the Rao administration loosened controls, the real growth will only come when the Government sheds its iron grip on monopolies and carefully structured bottlenecks from which vantage point it can reduce the private sector into a gibbering mess at will. The stock markets have long been waiting for some succour. The Government seems to take a sadistic delight in refusing to help. The Depository Act has taken its own sweet time and it is probable that the babus at SEBI (Securities and Exchange Board of India) will not lower their dignity by hurrying up to implement it. Still, it is very much welcome, even if it has taken too many years.

A fillip to investor sentiment could be given by removing double taxation on dividends. We should follow international practice in this regard and simply do away with this soft option of raising petty revenues. If this were done it would certainly attract a much bigger flow of funds into the bourses from domestic investors. The move to review MAT( Minimum Alternate Tax) is most timely as the reportage on 10 per cent of the PPF (Public Provident Fund) money being liberated from the clutches of Government approved securities for the bourses.

On the subject of exports our single biggest lacuna is a lack of quality. This is not necessarily a permanent indictment, but if we want to increase export earnings we have to offer quality goods and services. If the other much smaller “Asian Tigers” have done it, so can we. But we need the help of the Government to assist in a total modernisation programme. To paraphrase Professor Higgins, Oh! Why can’t the Indian Government be more like the Japanese Government?

Exporters are hampered by some of the highest indirect taxes and utility costs in the world. Imposition of MAT will not help them any more than the flat two per cent tax on all imports. Forty-nine years on, we remain an exporting nation of garment sweat-shops, diamond craftsmen, carpet sellers, software-supermarkets, commodity traders and handicraft vendors. The total hardly figures in the statistics of world trade. Nothing substantial is, as yet, exportable. Who on earth wants to buy Indian machinery?

So in the end, I have a conceptual formula to offer. One cut taxes to spur growth. Two, reduce the size of government and the public sector; and, three, emphasise quality in everything. Is anybody in the Government of India listening?

(1,260 words)

By Gautam Mukerji

First published in THE PIONEER on Friday, October 4th, 1996 in the main OPINION column on the Edit page


Services now account for 56 per dent of the economy. Software turned into more than a “supermarket”. Manufacturing exports still suffer from quality issues but India Inc. armed with the Government’s over US $ 200 billion in reserves is addressing quality, technology and market share issues in developed countries by buying up companies all over the world.

The Government has, at last, substantially, if not in full measure, started assisting Business and Industry and is delivering consistent 8 to 9 per cent GDP growth.

Many of the Stock Market bottlenecks are gone and total FII investment in the decade gone by add up to over 52 billion dollars. If all goes well, this fiscal could see US $ 12 billion come in. FDI is expecting USD 38 billion in 2007. India has just crossed into the rarefied ranks of a trillion dollar economy…

Agriculture is languishing (2 per cent growth) and 60 per dent of India’s population dependent on agriculture have benefited only marginally from her inclusion as a fast-track BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) economy and all the reams of newsprint devoted to exploring the ways and means of India and China being the greatest economic growth opportunities of the 21st century...

There is still no Provident Fund money in the Indian Stock Market.

Only savagery...

Only savages destroy art and antiquity

When Alexander the Great marched through Persia, victorious over King Darius, his men destroyed the great palaces and library in Persepolis, in a drunken show of savagery. They staggered around torching quiet wisdom and sumptuous beauty in an orgy of potent bestiality. It could have only made sense through the exaggerated eyes of liquor maddened bloodlust.

Savagery can be noble only if it is unpremeditated. Hanumanji, the loyal, ascetic and celibate monkey god must be repulsed at the recent burning of 23 works of Hussain’s art in his name. This is the typical soft target attack of the cowardly fascist coming down through the drains and sewers of recorded history and certainly not the work of any friend of Bajrangbali.

The depiction of naked womanhood, exalted in a goddess, is a legitimate conception, neither helped nor hampered by clothing. This nudity can only be perceived as a threat in faint hearts, because to the rest of us it is an image worthy of exaltation. To those of us who respect the shakti of womanhood, in a land where the yoni is worshipped formally, there is nothing to do except draw strength from a goddess depicted in any form.

Goddesses are not sexual objects of flesh and blood that we can outrage our hypocrisy over. They are founts of divine energy that the human mind gropingly gives form and substance to. What dignity can an artist steal from godhead by disrobing it? Did Pope Julius II not come to terms with Michelangelo’s conception of a naked god on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?

The Mussalmans, through the ages, have refined and extended the entire field of calligraphy, permissible inside mosques. In Islam, let alone inside mosques, images of Allah, or his Prophet, in fact, the human form, including the female shape, are anathema. But the urge of mankind to embellish and exalt divinity found outlets in mosque architecture including tremendous advances in geometric design, jail work etc…. Precious jewels were embedded in the walls on occasion to add majesty. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, from where Muhammad the Prophet ascended to heaven, has a golden dome.

In contrast to these aesthetic expressions, throughout history, arbitrary savagery has had to impose itself by force of arms. There is honour in a martial sense in that. But in India today, we are witnessing a flaccid fascism that resorts to prurient mockery of the calendar-art-and-logic variety. And this type of bully picks soft targets via the back door.

This is no triumph of the lotus over the muck it springs from. What is being offered to an unsuspecting public is a poisonous cousin that attempts to reduce everything to its bestial minimum. Destroying symbols of another’s accomplishment is an impotent deed that deserves nothing but condemnation.

What does the controversy over temples and mosques in Kashmir, Mathura, Varanasi and lesser known hot-spots have in common with Ayodhya? The commonality lies in the threat of destruction and the demeaning malice that accompanies that thought process. But what bahaduri can there possibly be in bullying ancient and often revered stones as proxy for the targeted minorities?

Is such bigoted thinking not on the same train with abominations like ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe or Iraq? Such provocative ideas ignore the potential for utter outrage that can result in riots and mayhem. Pushed far enough, even a mouse can, at last, learn to roar. Did the bomb blasts in Mumbai not follow on from the destruction of the Babri Masjid? Where were the pyjama clad agents of saffron righteousness then? Should Hindu militancy not worry ( very seriously) about its ghee-fed underbelly?

Is the respite in Punjab and Kashmir to be treated as a thing of no consequence? Do we learn nothing from the tribulations of neighbouring Sri Lanka being ripped asunder in a jihad between Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese? Not satisfied with the miracle of Indian style coexistence, savage and unthinking agent provocateurs wantonly play at shattering the calm in our body politic along religious lines.

Reasonable as these thoughts might be, I am not advocating appeasement, merely good sense. Whatever is good for the goose is indeed likewise for the gander. Having said that, it is very important to realise where it is all headed when savagery is allowed to lead the way. Dulcet toned Goebellesian logic is palavering up the intellectual rearguard. The cart and horse of Hindu assertion is tangled and unjustifiable. One rule of law is a laudable objective but so is the right to personal choice. How can selective logic be trotted out like the random killings of Jews shown in the parade ground scene in Schlinder’s List?

If we, the public, don’t watch our rears with all due diligence, we may soon be ruled, not by Ram in any kind of Rajya but by Asuras wearing Ram masks and laughing up the points of their devilish little trishuls.

The bush fires sought to be lit by cynical agent provocateurs could tear asunder the fabric of our young nation by undermining its secular credentials. Nehru said he did not want to create a Hindu Pakistan and indeed, one has only to look at the state of play in Bangladesh or Pakistan to realise that religion outside one’s home or place of worship can be a dangerous thing. As state policy, it becomes the hand-maiden of power hungry philistines no more interested in right and wrong than they are in purity of purpose.

India has done a lot better than its neighbours in this business of nation building and will continue to do so if we stick to the course chosen by our founding fathers, which of course included Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar.

But there are grave threats to the national eiderdown with boorish and uncouth savages attempting to trample on the dignity and grace of a well endowed and tolerant people. Before this gets any worse, let us demand a proper accounting of the motivations involved, so that we are not consumed like so many collaborating Jews in the furnaces of our own complicity.

(1,000 words)

By Gautam Mukerji
October 28, 1996
First published in THE PIONEER in November 1996

Post script

Then came the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and 9/11 and 7/7 and Godhra and Afghanistan and Iraq... Also Varanasi, Sarojini Nagar and countless strikes in Kashmir

Maqbool Fida Hussain, now in his nineties, feels safer living in Dubai. Dalai Lama, now in his seventies, feels safer living in India...

Kashmir is still burning but most, if not all, the terrorism is coming in from across the border now and very few Kashmiris see any merit in becoming part of Pakistan.

We are not popular in Bangladesh, or in Sri Lanka for that matter, but are better liked than we used to be in Pakistan, and China, and the United States... surprise, surprise!

Samuel P Huntingdon and extracts from his essay “The Clash of Civilisations” (1993) has become familiar to most armchair intellectuals, specially those who see a 100 year war against terrorism ahead...

We have learned very little from the examples set by Aurangzeb. This either makes us slow learners or wiser than we look.

In seeking affirmative action and reservations for the poor and "caste challenged" we probaly have bigger fish to fry than minorityism even if most of our minorities are nation builders we need to be proud of. Our mussalmans, more populous than in almost any other country,prefer, on balance, to be Indians and live in India rather than anywhere else, particularly Pakistan...

Through all this, savagery continues to be alive and well in 2007 but the good news is it's not winning and the way things are going for it, it probably never will.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Not enough mechanised slaughterhouses in 1995

An argument in favour of mechanised slaughterhouses

Eighty two per cent-it is the same number for the percentage non-vegetarians and percentage Hindus in our polity. So all the anti-meat and slaughter noise is coming from no more than a significant minority. The question is, should the tail be allowed to wag the dog?

There are 3,600 antiquated municipal abattoirs today and a mere five, yes, just five, modern, mechanised ones in India. It is self evident that when antiquated slaughterhouses operate, they create pollution, disease, stink and offence. The critics, as a consequence, have forceful appeal, whether they are green, religiously motivated, swarajists, against export of our animal resources, ahimsa police or assorted camp followers.

It would be callous not to denounce the processes by which most of our “meat” animals are herded to brutal slaughter at municipal establishments with scant concern for their suffering. Where, behind crumbling walls housing inadequate and crude facilities, a grim carnage takes place every single day; where, blood and offal are released into open municipal drains. Where and whereabouts, carcasses piled high on groaning ox carts are thrust along neighbourhood streets as flies buzz and maggots feast.

Still, the demand for meat from the non-vegetarian population both domestic and external won’t go away. If official slaughter is not permitted and organised proficiently, then let us be prepared for illegal and slip shod methods to take their place. And other related issues like the possibility of depletion of our animal resources through mechanised and efficient despatch of animals in modern slaughter houses are valid only if taken in isolation. But then, there are arguments to match against the export of rice or fruit or even cement and steel for that matter. What is the spell that prevents a comprehensive supply side resource mobilisation approach which can address problems like these instead of turning them into taboos?

We could, when it comes to animals reared for meat, insist on accelerated breeding programmes supported by wasteland cultivation of ecologically friendly fodder. We could “beef” up this fodder with vitamins and food additives from our pharmaceutical factories. We could have our cake in terms of draught animals, (though these are almost always bullocks with a lesser role in the procreation process), and eat it too, literally as meat on the table. Because with an 82 per cent preponderance , it should be acknowledged by all parts of the political and economic debate that animals are going to be eaten despite health warnings against excessive meat consumption and religious proscriptions, however strict.

Consider also that it was Prohibition, perhaps, that led a young Mohandas Gandhi to try forbidden meat even though the alleged goat that he clandestinely consumed seemed to bleat in his ears all night!

Mechanised and automated facilities are nothing new after all and cannot be looked at as trail blazers in 1995. Wherever they have been put in, they have reduced the opprobrium associated with animal slaughtering and met a persistent demand in an efficient way.

And for those who criticise all animal slaughter let it be said that being humane calls attention to both ends of the stick. Goats and chickens are part of the religious ritual, particularly as “sacrifice” to several of our religions. And as for cattle and swine, let us ask if it is enough to rush in to protect our cows and pigs against slaughter while letting their brothers and sisters wander on arterial roads causing hazards to human life and limb, half-starved and badly neglected, often diseased and suffering, eating garbage provided by an uncaring populace and always sloppy municipalities?

(600 words)

By Gautam Mukerji
First published on the Edit page of The Economic Times in 1995

Post script

Today you do have a very vocal PETA ( People for the ethical treatment of animals) and other famous and not so famous animal rights activists. You also have bird-flu outbreaks from time to time. Meat eating, both the "white" and "red" kind goes on unabated and I'm sorry to say the plight of the slaughteree and the state of the abattoirs is no better than when I wrote the above article in 1995.

Cellular telephony: India 1997

Cellular telephony will soon be as common as carrying a pen or wearing a watch

India opened up its telecommunications sector to modernisation only three years ago. The privatisation of basic telephony has been mired in teething troubles and is beginning to reach the starting blocks only now. The first manifestation of the new policy therefore has been the entry of private operators, typically joint ventures between reputed Indian companies and global majors in the field, in the relatively high-tech area of GSM based cellular telephony. Cellular telephony was introduced first into metro cities, fanning out to the circles in a year or two. The total number of cellular subscribers at the end of year three is rapidly approaching the million subscriber mark. This compares favourably with China, in the context of the first three-year time frame. Looking ahead to the first decade, say by the year 2004, given the size of India’s potential subscriber base, cellular telephony usage in India may well resemble China’s 8 million subscribers, making it among the largest cellular telephony markets in the world.

The ITU( International Telecommunication Union) has recently urged India to view the advent of telecommunications, both basic and cellular as an engine to fuel “economic activity” rather than the rather socialistic accent on providing telephones in “every village or home,” enshrined in the National Telecom Policy of 1994.

The manufacturing of telecom equipment in this country has anticipated this trend. Growth rates range from a healthy 120 per cent for certain product categories to a phenomenal 2,500 per cent for brand new technology introduced for the first time into India. While these figures pertain to both fixed and mobile telephony, consider present phone density as a measure of the road ahead. In 1997, the average is only 1.5 telephones per hundred of the population. Is is as low as 0.2 phones per 100 persons in rural areas and still paltry at 3.4 phones per 100 people in urban areas despite 84.7 per cent of all the telephone exchanges being located in urban areas. The need and potential for growth are therefore immense.

There has been a flurry of activity on the infrastructural front despite political instability. DoT( Department of Telecommunications) is in the process of restructuring itself to compete with the private sector and has been divested of its regulatory functions. These have been invested in the TRAI(Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) and this organisation has demonstrated its vision and independence by taking a number of bold and visionary decisions in short order. Other government monopolies such as MTNL( Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited) and VSNL(Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited) are raising funds to carry out ambitious value addition programmes to prepare for an era of competition now well underway. The cellular operators themselves have banded together to project their industry issues via the COAI(Cellular Operator Association of India).

Meanwhile, prices of cellular handsets have tumbled in India, mirroring the global development of this easy way of staying connected. The latest trends are towards the bulk purchasing of cellular phones to bring down the prices even further. Cellular operators are offering ever better schemes which bundle more and more free airtime with the purchase of a handset. In some instances, the schemes are so attractive that they actually make the first year or eighteen months of cell phone usage virtually free of charge. In addition, the airtime rates themselves are reducing rapidly in the search for both a higher subscriber base and increased airtime usage. Technology protocols to permit roaming between circles and other countries are being implemented at a rapid pace. Entry barriers are therefore receding into history.

One clear consequence of liberalisation is the influence of global trends coming into play, whether it be in terms of expanding bandwidth in digital satellite technology or other forms of convergence, between telephony in all its fixed, wireless and GSM modes on the one hand and television and the computer on the other. Future trends indicate multiple access and interactivity, which will be impossible to restrict or legislate against. It is already possible to make an overseas Internet phone call at the price of a local call and the technology is improving as I write. The advent of the mini-M satellite telephone sets is another case in point to illustrate the unstoppable. Cellular operators are now turning their attention to greater value addition by way of interconnectivity with other media like the PC( personal computer) and the Internet so that the customer can be mobile and still have the ever increasing benefits of the multimedia environment.

The survival of the telecommunications sector in its broad and global sense will depend more on expanding its user bases. Technology itself is proving to be the great opener of doors, and governments, monopolies and the like can do nothing to stop it.

The present companies which have entered the sunrise industry of cellular telephony operations in India have grasped the nature of the sea changes to come and decided to defray the start up expenses as early birds. They know the only direction possible is straight ahead to spectacular long-term growth and profits. Fixed telephony will grow exponentially through the WLL (Wireless-in-local loop) route, and there will be an ability to switch between fixed and cellular networks at will on the part of the user. Tariffs will tend to converge as well, making it less and less relevant to make the switch to effect economies. The golden age of cellular telephony will come when the subscriber base is sufficiently expanded to lower tariffs to levels approximating those of fixed telephony. This will have to be viewed in tandem with the drastic reductions expected in the costs of long distance communications via the benefits of the world-wide-web and its multimedia capabilities boosted beyond present belief by the rapid proliferation of broad banding satellites.

It won’t be long, no more than a decade, before cellular telephony becomes as common as carrying a pen or wearing a watch. India will be among the front runners in this phenomenon, because the world is going to see to it. A practically virgin frontier of unending possibility is not a chance that telecom majors can afford to pass up.

(1,011 words)
By Gautam Mukerji
First published in THE HINDU in December 1997

Post script.

The shape of the future circa April 2007:

Witness the advent of Vodafone-Hutch and the stellar prosperity of the Bharti Group but have we almost reached the end of the line for fixed line telephony and even a lot of cellular telephony?

MTNL and BSNL( Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited) have announced plans to provide free broadband and city-wide wi-fi connectivity by 2009. These government agencies are very good at driving down prices as we have seen.

The days of cellphones as we know them today using the services of operators to connect may give over and to a some extent, already have ( viz. Skype) to Internet video telephony.

All the private cellular operators are scrambling to take a position in 3G( high-speed wireless broadband) and the Government is considering bandwith resale and allowing privates and new players to bid for spectrum. It will bring down costs... The more things change, the more they seem the same but I can't see the consumer complaining.

Friday, April 27, 2007

The turn of the middle class

The turn of the middle class

America leads the world in press freedom. From the clutch of dailies run by early press barons like William Randolph Hearst to the mass circulation weeklies like Time and Newsweek nowadays, The Americans set the agenda on global issues. Attitudes and opinions worldwide are subliminally governed by what the American journals decide to think and write.

The American Press has long assumed the role of a constitutional watch-dog, forever asserting the founding principles of liberty, equality and fraternity derived from the French. This high moral tone sustains through the entire gamut of media presentation, acting as a yardstick by which the global village is judged.

For a developing country like India, living with one foot in our feudal and caste stratified past, and the other placed tentatively in the democratic and republican present, it results in an inferiority complex. A complex that makes our pundits hector the masses as if to say, I know better but you don’t. You don’t, because you live in a feudal mind-set while I am a modern thinking internationalist.

The Americans, who are the arbiters, find it discordant that our intelligentsia won’t take responsibility for the state of affairs. We sound focussed and intelligent and yet cannot translate our perception into effective action. Excuse making is a national pastime at which we happen to be very good. Implementation, it is readily conceded, is faulty because the hoi-polloi don’t understand.

Everywhere in India, capable people glibly expound a doctrine of despair and cynicism. The underlying thrust of the commentary is that we are rapidly going from bad to worse. All talk of progress is hog-wash directed at the dumb masses to manipulate votes and make money willy-nilly.

The question is, who is responsible for the situation, assuming the cynical consensus to be true. With easy facility, each one of India’s intelligentsia feels sure that they themselves are not to blame. They don’t answer the next question that springs to mind- that is, if they are blameless, and there is much not working properly, why don’t they fix it? This is when the crowd thins rapidly as the cynical consensus breaks down. Everyone is too busy with his own life to change the country.

It is high time that the educated middle classes, now 250 million strong, come to terms with their ostrich-like mentality. High time they realised that the masses look to the “sahib” for direction, not contempt. Educated Indians are in charge of the country’s destiny. It is their duty to drive the country forward safely and with responsibility.

This sense of responsibility is the only way for us to shed our inferiority complex. The middle class may have an enormous task ahead, but the sooner they get started, the better. If inspiration is required, look back at history. In the first half of this century, less than 30,000 Brits, Viceroy and Tommy included, ran an Indian Empire stretching from Burma to the Arabian Gulf.

India Gandhi once expressed the opinion that corruption is found everywhere in the world, among rich nations and poor, and so we should look at the issue as a global social evil, rather than flagellate ourselves for being particularly venal. The truisms in this remark are quite obvious, but there is another important message buried in her attitude. She did not think we had anything to apologise for to the world, while readily conceding there was much to be done.

Self-regard is important for the middle class to form conviction, but this is not a clarion call to Swadeshi jingoism. India cannot be right in all seasons, but neither should its best and brightest form the opinion that it is beyond repair.

After nearly 50 years of self governance, we have taken a great many strides. Consider the swollen ranks of the middle class itself. This number of 250 million, up from a total population if 350 million at independence, has significant skills and impressive buying power, and is being targeted with great interest by most advanced economies. The middle class population in India is, after all, the entire population of the US.

This country now feeds itself, all 950 million people, with surpluses to export. A far cry from over 50 million famine deaths in British-ruled India in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

The roads, railways, air travel, telecommunications, armed forces’ capabilities, technical and management abilities, distribution and marketing, planning and forecasting, music, art and entertainment, health and legal redress, have all undergone changes for the better.Consumerism has been unleashed, making us hungry for improvements and competition.

The intelligentsia sneer at all this, calling it names, comparing our inept handling of issues to the streamlined West. They point a finger at all the urinating in public, the dirtiness, the smell, the vandalising of public property, bureaucratic inertia, callousness, apathy, violence, lawlessness, instead-almost in counterpart. They imply nothing can save this country except some sort of pest control, themselves exempted of course!The fact is, this haw-hawism will not carry the middle class very far. To display more ennui than purpose is a good way to be over-run.

It is no use whining about the uppity Mandalisation of the polity if there is no will to lead. There is too much hollow posturing and abdication instead of responsibility and action. A facile adoption of Western ideas qualifies us as Wogs, no more no less. Uninvolved rejection of affirmative action programmes amount to dilettantism, and will lead to decline, even dismissal.

The Indian middle class needs a banner under which it can unite. This flag need not be a political party. It definitely does not need to be a religion. The unifying factor can be a change of attitude. This is a crucial juncture in India’s progress. It is the turn of the middle class to take charge. They need to apply all the things they know, in everyday life, and stop blaming everyone but themselves for the shortcomings of the nation.

(1003 words)

By Gautam Mukerji

First published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES on Sunday February 25th, 1996 in the PERSPECTIVE column on the Edit page

P.S. Infosys Technologies, the greatest Indian middle class success story was not very well known in 1996... nor were most of the top twenty companies we see today. Eleven years can indeed be a very long time.

Under-utilising bourse power circa 1997

Under-utilising bourse power

Nobody said an economy has to be in the pink before the investors get interested. But it is necessary to look promising if there is to be any enthusiasm. Money being an essential coward has no desire to languish in uncertainty. The pressing need in India is investment in infrastructure, as the deficits in areas like electricity threaten to engulf us. However, no seasoned investor feels happy to venture into a long term investment if policies are half-hearted and deeds do not match words.

The world regards India and China as the two greatest potential markets where even a low penetration rate for goods and services could dwarf much higher percentages elsewhere. But there is a proverbial catch–we Indians cling to a host of provisos and codicils when we liberalise our economy. This way we land up being neither fish nor fowl. China, on the other hand, has brazenly divorced ideology from economics and created a vibrant growth scenario as a consequence.

Take the progress of the Indian stock market in recent times by way of contrast. The Government has studiedly inferred that the stock market is no barometer of the real economic ground realities. What this means is quite unclear. It implies that the bourses should fend for themselves without government aided succour. Yet, it predicates its own investment plans on what they can hive off in the self-same bourses. They also regulate it mercilessly. This is truly baffling. Do we want to make money or do we not? Is it a free market operation or the old licence-permit Raj?

Realising from time to time that it has gone too far when the stock market heads steeply southwards, the Government makes conciliatory noises. Lately, there are new hints and portents and the market is somewhat enthused but the measures are never more than half-loaves. The badla issue has gone the whole distance for two years only to come back to the point where it started. An ill-conceived MAT and tax on exports has proved counter-productive because they are virulent anti-growth measures. Where does this retrograde thinking come from? Is it because of some confused notion of social justice, in theory! Because, in practice, we have one of the most profligate governments in the third world with no care about its own expenditure whatsoever.

The powers-that-be must realise that the share price indices are not only a product of speculation and the gambling instinct but also of solid achievement in one of the top 20 among industrialised nations. The sensex is like a referendum on the performance of the economy of-the-day, as the potential of the nation. Should it then be treated so cavalierly- being wooed one day and spurned the next?

Once again, we are on the threshold of a rescue package of sorts expected in the budget presentations of 1997. We are also in the 5oth year of our independent nationhood. It might be opportune to divorce political short term gains from the workings of the greatest potential engine of growth the country could wish for. The stock market could surpass the banks and lending institutions if the Government made the right moves to encourage it.

It is true that the foreign investment which could flow into a resurgent stock market cannot build power plants or ports for us. But if the FIIs are able to make money in a buoyant stock market, they can work as goodwill ambassadors in favour of India. There is a well worn adage that goes “money talks”. If India is seen as a destination second to none in 1997 on the stock markets, it is likely that the foreign direct investment waiting in the wings will follow suit. The paranoia which attends the idea of “capital flight” has more to do with no hope situations than a bright bouncy capital market.

The situation is ripe because masses of well configured company stock is beaten down to historic lows and the price earning ratios are very tempting. The worry is that bottomed-out as the market may be, how long will it be before the gravy train rolls around! The Government has the answer to this question.

Are they going to take out double taxation on dividend? What about MAT? Dare we hope for the old badla which everyone understands? Will they put in a small 10 per cent of the vast reserves of providend fund money into the bourses? One sincerely hopes that the Government makes some bold moves.

The small investor who used to wait patiently in the sun in serpentine queues to invest in primary issues has been vanishing fast. Many are nursing grievious wounds from a stock market that has eroded their capital by over 50 per cent. Apart from naively believing in the much touted “equity cult”, he had brought himself to risk his arm but has been looking at his stock market affair as one of the more ruinous things he ever did. Why should this be allowed to continue if the Government objective is to make companies raise their own capital from shareholders?

A buoyant stock market will also bring down the high interest rates on fixed term investments which is dangerous in the long run. A thriving equity cult can do wonders for revenue deficits with low taxation as a mate. In the end, equity is shared risk in the enterprise that people can take. What they want out of once and for all is the strangulation provided as an unwelcome bonus by inconsistent government policy.

(915 words)

By Gautam Mukerji
First published in THE PIONEER <>as the lead Edit article on February 15th, 1997

Justice delayed is justice denied

Justice delayed is justice denied

There are close to a billion Indians. Assuming that about 50 per cent is age compatible to litigate and file, or are respondents in, just one case each, there would be half a billion cases in our courts. To compound the clutter, reflect on the fact that cases are constantly being filed. It is par for the course that an average case takes up to 10 years to settle between court dates and other myriad impedimenta. So who’s afraid of the judicial process?

Not the civil-case litigant because it will be years before the verdict rolls around and then with appeals and moves to higher courts he can safely bank on another decade of indecision. The criminal is somewhat worse off, because he’s often arrested and remanded first and the questions begin only afterwards. But even for murderers and their ilk, once bail is obtained, they can look forward to years of freedom no matter which way the verdict eventually goes.

It was interesting to see the Government trying to look after its own peace of mind by seeking to impose penalties and non-refundable and steep deposits on public interest litigation. Because apart from the exercise of the vote, the common citizen has no grip at all on his netas and “administrators”. However, as a move to restrict “mischievous” litigation in general, the proposal has merit.

What can be done to preserve our fundamental right of being equal before the law and yet move towards speedier justice? We definitely need to decongest our courts. This can be done by steeply increasing the costs of litigation and simplifying the law itself. It might be worthwhile to expand the size of the judiciary and the size of the penal awards as well.

Many innovations can be taken from the American system which caters to an incredibly litigious population of only 220 million people. When an American threatens to sue someone it carries weight because the law guards individual liberty and the awards, if successful, can wipe out the loser. American lawyers are permitted to take a case on speculation, arranging to take a cut of the award money rather than legal fees, letting the poor litigate. Perhaps we also need to reintroduce juries. Juries introduce commonsense because they comprise of non-legal people. The only recourse to battle rising corruption is an efficient judicial system so that the righteous can stand their ground and the crooked make their moves at their own peril.

Today, the system is too slow for both sides and so most of the inequity takes place outside the portals of justice with little or no relationship between the two. Too many litigants are abusing the judicial process, taking advantage of its archaisms and legal cul-de-sacs to place things in limbo. A new judicial commission needs to sit down and prune the deadwood from the law and its administration. Too often the law is made but not enforced. There are layers of laws on top of outdated or colonial ones or even Mughal ones, which are no longer relevant. All this deadwood must go. If we could have simpler and clearer laws and rapid enforcement of them we could start to build the order that every decent individual craves. To bring about the changes calls for a glasnost that will shake the foundations of our judicial probity. But to not do so will make a mockery permanent. Justice may be purposely blind but there is no need to turn it into a cripple. What can be done? Should court dates be set by clerks or computers? Should unintimated absences of litigants, judge, registrar, witnesses etc. result in adjournment?

Two things are clear. The Indian judicial system and laws need to be modernised and the citizen of India deserves speedier justice. Because a lot seems to be happening to bring crooks to book of late perhaps this is the right time to get the system itself geared up to deliver.

(664 words)

By Gautam Mukerji

First published in THE PIONEER on February 14th, 1997 under the headline CONCERNS

Direct selling: everybody gains

Direct selling: everybody gains

Tom Peters, the management guru, lives in Montana on a salubrious ranch and runs his office in California with the help of a GSM telephone, modems, internet, computers, e-mail and faxes. He visits his organisation from time to time, just to put faces to names and assess body language.

For the rest, Peters fishes for trout as he weaves his books or seminars in his head or on a lap-top, rides horses, plays with his children, has candle-lit dinners with his wife, all in a surfeit of quality time that he has created for himself. Quixotic as this sounds, the man must be doing something right if you look at the kind of bucks he makes.

What has this got to do with direct selling? Well, here’s another idea-think of those New Zealand bungee jumpers. Sure, it takes courage to leap off bridges into the abyss. It takes the jumper upside down to within scraping distance of doom, jerking him practically half way up again. It’s the elasticity one is referring to, and the excitement.

Direct selling has these two virtues. Freedom and privacy, even as you are one digital connection away from help, should you need it. And, elasticity. You can work as much or as little as you like. You can choose the size, heft and ingredients of your sandwich, determine your pay packet, find ways to pat yourself on the back or kick yourself in the shins.

From the customer end, there’s an element of luxury involved in the shop coming home to sell to you. Rich people who bought jewels and furs had this sort of service. Now the Americans have found ways to democratise it. Even in India, direct marketing from the glossy mailers to the VPP post parcel is making rapid inroads. Catalogues are being advertised. There are televised exhortations to buy direct. There are price advantages, lower overheads. Keen, entrepreneurial, self-employed people. Internet banking is here too. What lies beyond the next bend in the Ganga?

Home offices, Home PCs certainly. These are already entrenched. Direct marketing is growing in relevance in this new world of informed choice.

In India, we are used to vendors and tradesmen. Traditionally they have brought fruit and vegetables, pickles and fish, crabs and sweet meats and offered to refill lumpy cotton mattresses. But the mattresses all turned into Dunlopillo and Coir and the victuals are better a short drive away. What remains an attractive proposition is the catering to one’s wants rather than one’s needs, brought, as of yore, to our doorsteps, but with a difference, a high-tech spin.

Probably the biggest of the direct mail successes internationally has 2.5 million distributors spread over 70 countries pumping up a turnover in excess of 6 billion US dollars. These are people from a variety of professional backgrounds, different economic and educational levels and a multiplicity of cultures.

So what does it mean to the customer? Home delivery really. The neighbourhood Kebab Walla isn’t a patch on the home delivered pizza. That is why one tips the pizza man and argues with the Kebab Walla, unkindly casting aspersions on the meat he uses.

Direct marketing, tele-banking, 24 hour access, all singing “customer is king”. It is going to be a long-term phenomenon, growing wings with time.

The good part is that anything that provides some comfort to all will find its place in the sun. Manufacturers are happy that their products are taken off their premises; distributors are earning margins without having to pay for inventory; the company, like the hen mother, is supplying bon mots and know-how, scrutinising products and developing networks. And the customer is getting pampered.

Welcome to the world of making your own sandwich and liking it too.

(624 words)

By Gautam Mukerji

First published in THE PIONEER on December 6th, 1997 in their Second Opinion column

Have card, will spend

Have card, will spend

Young people, in transition from adolescence to adulthood are caught with a foot in both worlds. They tend to have two tastes at the same time. One responds to quality enshrined in international branded products, like Reebok, Nike and Benetton. The other pays homage to the whacky, the “cool”, the kitschy poster, grunge music, chatpata tastebud teasers, shock value!

It is important for a teenager to surge towards adulthood, wear grown-up make–up, shave at least once a week and be up-to-date on things like the price of Mercedes Benz cars and Mont Blanc pens-things that they are clearly not in the league of. At the same time, it is equally important for them to leap into parental laps with their coltish bodies, complaining they are not hugged enough anymore.

The young person is a seething mass of awareness and retrogression, a whirling manifestation of the chrysalis to butterfly syndrome. They pose a great challenge to the creative art of marketers who target their seemingly shallow pockets. It is no easy job to attract, let alone keep their interest. The pitch has to be one part teddy bear, one part Schwarzenegger and one part Sharon Stone. The kitsch can be Indianised of course, but woe betide any prosaic soul that plays fast and loose with the ingredients!

The spending power of youth is demonstrated by the size and opulence of the music and entertainment industries. In India, it is surging towards adulthood, crossing over from fillum music to techno-bhangra, pop, rock and back, like a hyperactive gymnast. The underbelly of booze, drugs and sex may not be of epidemic proportions, but certainly has a role in drawing the flies to the honey pot.

On the wider canvas of clothes, computers, cars, cosmetics, sports things, myriad gadgetry, the youth are a well-informed set of influencers. Besides, the traditional divide between earning and spending has become blurred in the age of plastic credit. This applies to their parents, bless their dependent card providing hearts. Pocket money is a dinosaur. Impulse buying is in. Have card, will spend.

Marketing to youth has to be a responsible activity. You cannot sell blood and guts revolution. You can sell environment and AIDS awareness. Young people are allergic to companies jumping on the bandwagon, intrusively pushing their messages as they piggyback on a promo. They are equally resistant to blatant product advertising, responding much more gamely to a pitch that seems to encourage them to make their own choices. The language is important. It makes the difference between inclusion and alienation. AR Rehman has scored this 50th year with Vande Mataram but only because he understands the pulse of the young.

Sports and the lure of the body beautiful is a ‘90s phenomenon. Still, the important thing is to pitch the endorsement of the sports celebrity right. Imagination is everything. It is life enhancing. Rationality is boring. Between these extremes lies the challenge, right in the centre of the cleavage. Understanding the mind-set is important. It is international in perspective but has to be rooted in local symbolism. The start line is important and so is the implication. Anybody who takes these near adults for fools will soon encounter the comeuppance to his pride. This is an aspirational and sensitive market, fashion conscious and quality savvy, fun loving and given to hormonal surges. Enter at your own peril if you have no sense of humour…

By contrast, if you happen to be possessed with the missionary zeal of a reformer, the sensitivity of an artist, the idealism of a prophet, or the unbridled imagination of a Spielbergian genius, come, and welcome, to the magic theatre. Your audience is sitting on the edge of its seat, agog, waiting to bless you with gold for your coffers.

(631 words)

By Gautam Mukerji

First published in THE PIONEER on November 19, 1997 in the Second Opinion column

Direct Selling: New way to push sales

New way to push sales

Multi-level marketing (MLM), an advanced form of Direct Selling, with its rapid growth pattern, may well emerge as the most common method adopted by marketing experts in the 21st century. It is a wonderful blend of the personalised contact method of direct selling coupled with the high-tech tools of the Information Age. Since 1991, global retail sales in the direct selling industry have nearly doubled, and the trend is very bullish. The motivation of over 22 million distributors in 90 countries currently generates a phenomenal estimated US $ 78 billion in sales. Still, large as this figure undoubtedly is, it is small compared to the global retail sales made from showrooms, shops, supermarkets, boutiques and spot promotions.

Direct selling internationally is stretching to encompass more and more innovative areas. Products and services as diverse as air treatment systems, discount telephone services, credit cards, vacation packages, apparel, stereo equipment, and a wonderland of other catalogued goodies, all from reputed manufacturers, are now within its ambit.

India represents an enormous potential for direct selling. Six leading international companies have already marked their presence in India. They are: Amway India Enterprises, Avon Beauty Products, LB Publishers & Distributors, Lotus Learning, Oriflame India and Tupperware India. This early bird list represents a heady blend of international market leaders.

Amway, shortly to commence operations in India, employs over 13,000 people directly and has over three million distributors worldwide. The Amway approach is to build on the personal contacts of its distributors. Distributors sell to those they6 know and sponsor new distributors who also do the same thing. Thus one gets a continuous outward spiral of growth and a substantial multiplier in sales. Other forms of direct selling include door-to-door canvassing of potential customers within a given territory and the party plan, in which the sales person identifies a host who gives a party where the products are demonstrated and result in sales.

Multi-Level Marketing is the ideal vehicle for entrepreneurs seeking a new opportunity. It offers flexible hours and a low cost entry to being one’s own boss. No special educational qualifications are necessary. This provides a window of opportunity to a host of individuals including executives, housewives, the self-employed, anyone who wants to enhance their earnings with a part-time enterprise. Distributors earn their money through commissions and bonuses.

Direct selling dispenses with intermediaries and is an efficient mover of goods directly to the consumer. The direct sales distributor is free to concentrate on what he or she can do best: identify new customers, demonstrate products, take orders and deliver the merchandise. The company meanwhile takes on the crucial responsibility of developing new products, promoting them and making them readily available. It is the company that forecasts sales and does most of the forward planning.

The future of MLM in India will depend on to what extent it satisfies consumer needs and aspirations. The availability of quality products, reliable after-sales service, competitive pricing and a highly motivated set of distributors should be decisive. Direct selling is a perfect fit for the unique entrepreneurial instinct and originality of the Indian businessperson.

(536 words)

By Gautam Mukerji
First published in The Hindustan Times in the AD-MARK section on November 13, 1997.