Urban Infra in Mumbai

Indian cities need some serious urban planning. What we have right now is a mix of sub-standard ideas, ad hoc decisions and delayed implementation. That is no way to treat cities like Mumbai.

Let us look at Mumbai. Yes, we got one Sea Link. Plenty of flyovers. An above ground metro and monorail are coming up. Some other random bridges are being talked about. But surely, we can do better than that. For one, the metro should have been underground for the most part and covered a lot more of the city. We need sea transport like how Hong Kong has. We need more bridges on the western and eastern sides of the city.

Who is thinking? Where is the vision for Mumbai? Are is our destiny narrow raids, traffic jams and crowded public transport?Who is responsible for making Mumbai’s urban infrastructure 10X better than what it is?

Wanted: July Vacation Ideas

Abhishek’s school vacation is in June and July – he goes to the first standard when school re-opens. We were planning to go to the US in mid-July for 10 days, but are rethinking that. Any alternative recommendations? Our travel dates are July 10-20.

Some ideas that have come up are: one of the Club Mahindra resorts in India (the ones which are available are Binsar, Corbett, Nawalgarh, Mussorie, Kumbalgarh), Bangkok-Pattaya or Bali. My one worry about some of the Indian destinations are the rains. We aren’t the beach, ocean-jumping people, and are looking for a nice relaxed place which has plenty of things for a 6-year-old to do.

Places we don’t want to go this year: Europe, Singapore, HK/China.

So, any suggestions of specific places and hotels/resorts?


Blog Past: Memories of Two Days

The Day I First Landed in the US….

Come May, and a memory that comes by is of a day almost exactly 18 years ago when I returned for good from the US to become an entrepreneur in India. And with that is the memory of the day I first landed in the US in September 1988. Let me start with the latter.

I landed in New York on an afternoon on the Labour Day weekend in 1988 just ahead of the orientation week at Columbia University. A friend was supposed to come and pick me up, but didn’t. This was in the pre-cellphone era, so I had no way to trace him. I had made a booking at YMCA, so went there by cab. The Lufthansa flight had left me very tired and with an upset stomach.

I reached YMCA and promptly fell asleep. The jet lag was taking its toll. I was feeling feverish, and was very hungry but didn’t want to go out on my own for some reason. My friend finally came in the evening, and that was a big relief. My first meal in the US was at Pizza Hut! It was my first taste of pizza. Post-dinner, I went off with my friend to stay at his graduate housing at Columbia – my housing request hadn’t yet come through.

For some reason, the memory of that day has stayed on. It wasn’t a particularly enthralling day.  But it was the first day in the land that was so different from India, and a start of a fascinating four-year journey.

and the Day I Returned from the US

My US stay that began in September 1988 ended with my return to India in May 1992. I had quit NYNEX six months ago and spent that period in California working at a company as a precursor to coming back (with a friend) in a possible JV.

My return journey took me via Singapore. That was the most convenient way to come to Mumbai from San Francisco. The transit time in Singapore was  about 12 hours. I went to meet a person who ran a big trading business out of Singapore. I still remember meeting him at his office and seeing the huge Singapore port in the window from his office. He talked about Singapore and all that it had accomplished. I was riveted with his success story — after all, I was en route to India to become an entrepreneur.

When I landed in Mumbai, I had a distressing experience. The Customs officers would not pass my PC  which I had got on Transfer of Residence. They arbitrarily assessed it at a high value, and wanted money to clear it. The odds were stacked against me given the discretionary powers vested in the officers.

I spent the next 6 hours (my first 6 hours back in India) at the airport going from one counter to another — I was determined that I would not pay them anything that was not official. My mother waited patiently outside. It took inordinately long to get the paperwork done – and I left the airport in the wee hours of the morning without the PC. For that, I had to come back the next day to meet some Assessment Officer, and pay money (by cheque) before I could get the PC out.

The contrast between Singapore and India that encompassed a single day could not have been more stark. And even today, as I look back 18 years ago, even though things have improved in India, I cannot but help think of our lost decades that stunted a generation. Even today, we are still not able to outgrow the wrong turns we took post-Independence.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Why Middle Managers May Be the Most Important People in Your Company: from Knowledge@Wharton.
  • Financing options for start-ups: by Fred Wilson.
  • On Innovation: Steve Denning blogs about a Malcolm Gladwell article. “What has emerged over the last decade is a group of firms like Apple, Amazon and Salesforce.com that have learned how to get to the root of the problem and combine continuous innovation with disciplined execution. They are managed in a radically different way from traditional management.”
  • Pratap Bhanu Mehta interview: on rediff.com. “I think Rahul Gandhi is making the biggest mistake in thinking that political mobilisation and outreach can happen independently of your record in government. That somehow you can be a big national leader without taking a clear public stand on the major issues of the country.”
  • Democracy, Elections and Voting: by Atanu Dey. “Do we really have to inform and educate all voters? Can we do something which does not involve educating everyone but that will have the same outcome as if we were to fully educate all the voters? Yes!”
  • India needs $110B in capital for solar report: WSJ on a KPMB study. “The solar sector has the potential to transform the Indian economy in the way the IT sector transformed the Indian economy during the 1990s.”

India’s 21st Century Infrastructure

I came across this article by Tavleen Singh (read it in The Afternoon, May 19), and it struck a chord:

Our most serious problem is the inability to build basic 21st century infrastructure without which there is little doubt that our great Bharat Mata will by the middle of this century resemble one, gigantic slum. More than 700 million Indians are expected to be living in urban centres by 2050 and to accommodate them experts calculate that we will need to build 500 more towns and cities. We have not started to build the first of these yet…It is our misfortune that the voice of poor Indians is only heard at election time. If it was stronger and louder all the time India would change more rapidly. It is our misfortune that the loudest voices in India are of educated, middle class Indians who are easily fooled into supporting some red herring like the Lokpal bill when there are much more serious issues to protest about. So in the near future India will continue to look like a broken down, decaying country despite impressive economic growth while little countries like Thailand go from strength to strength.

Where is the vision and will when we need it most to transform India?


I met a friend on one of my flights back from Delhi. He has a factory in Jammu and goes there often. One point he made in the conversation: doing business in J&K is different from doing business elsewhere in India. Case in point: the Indian Penal Code has a variant there called Ranbir Penal Code.

A simple point, but one that stayed with me: Kashmir is different from India. And then I thought: why should that be the case? Of course, there are historical precedents, but I think we ought to integrate J&K fully into India – one people, one of rule of law.

The conversation also brought back memories of my only visit to Kashmir as a 10-year-old with my parents and sister. We took the Jammu Tawi Express, and then went to  Srinagar, Gulmarg, Sonmarg. I still have a photo of all of us in the traditional dress. Hope to go there again soon.

Airport Blues

Given the travelling I do, airports are natural transit points. And I cannot stop complaining about the inefficiencies and stupidities. I want to add one more to the list – the dumb security check.

They have the scanners installed but absolutely ignore the results of the scan. Instead of only checking those who beep when they pass through, every passenger is hand-checked by the security staff. Why then install expensive scanners when their output is going to be ignored? The result is that at peak travel hours the queue to pass through the security check becomes quite long at some airports (definitely, in Mumbai).

My point in these rants is not to be a complainant all the time, but to see how we can improve simple things that have a logical solution – if someone spends time to question the process. Politicians and airport staff don’t have to wait in the queues, so they don’t feel the pain. But, at least, they can think when they look around.

Manohar’s Bookshop in Delhi

I read about Manohar’s in an article in Mint a couple months ago. I visited it recently looking for books on Indian politics and elections. Everything that Mint says about them is true – and more! The collection of books on India is absolutely amazing. I am still of the school that likes to look inside a book before deciding to buy it, so there could be no better way to spend an hour.

The staff (especially an old-timer, Rajaram) have an exceptional knowledge of books. All I had to go was to ask for a topic, and they would find me books.

So, if you have time some time next time you are in Delhi,  stop by Ansari Road and spend time at Manohar’s.

Indian Elections Data

I was looking for data on past Indian elections – Lok Sabha and Assembly elections over the past 10 years. One obvious source is of course the Election Commission site but what they have is mostly PDFs and some XLS files (could not find XLS files for 2009-2011 Assembly elections). I am looking for the following:

  • a website where I can do drill-down analysis , at the constituency level, see how the voting patterns have changed across Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in a particular constituency
  • Raw XLS files for all Lok Sabha and Assembly elections from 1998 onwards (including the most recent ones). Like I said, the EC website doesn’t seem to have the last three years assembly elections XLS
  • visualisation software recommendations that can help present the data in a way that can support decision-making

Any recommendations? Would any one of you be willing to work together with me to help create this by aggregating bits that are available?

My goal is to make a site that has all the info readily available for analysis and comparison. It will allow us to see how voting patterns have changed in India. Ideally, we should overlay this with socio-economic data at the constituency level.  If something exists, I’d like to see it. Else, let us work together to create it!

Blog Past: The Change India Needs

From two posts (Part 14 and Part 15) in the series “It’s Up To Us Now” that I wrote a year ago:

Let us first think about the change India needs.

India needs political leadership of the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Lee Kuan Yew. From that leadership will flow policy changes that we need as a country. The hard and soft foundations of a nation has to be engineered. The soft foundation encompasses national interest, the elimination of corruption, the elimination of artificially created divisions of castes and communities (which are today being used as ‘vote banks’), the creation of a truly modern education system, real economic, personal and political freedom, efficient markets, and so on.

The  hard foundation is about infrastructure that will ensure the urbanisation of India:  modern high-speed nationwide rail network, sufficient power generation capacity to meet the needs of an industrializing economy, ubiquitous affordable broadband access, efficient ports and airports, etc.

The hard and soft foundations will not only eliminate poverty but actually propel India to become a truly important participant in the global scene. To bring that about, India needs foresighted, intelligent, and dedicated leaders.

This kind political leadership exists in India. Such leaders are born once in a lifetime. India is fortunate to have a few such leaders. But they are not where they need to be.

Just to be clear: this leadership is not about photo-ops, but about getting things done. It is about working against the odds and delivering results. India has had many such leaders – but somehow they have been lost in the maze of cut-throat politics.

That is what Middle India’s change agents need to change. We need to ensure that these leaders can get to the top. We need to give them an environment for them to succeed. This is where the passionate few need to come together.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Social Media’s secret weapon – Email: by Fred Wilson. “The rise of alternative notification channels; sms, mobile push notifications, direct messages on twitter, facebook messaging, etc are going to move some of this kind of thing off of email over time. But today, if you want to drive retention and repeat usage, there isn’t a better way to do it than email.”
  • A Long-Wave Theory on Today’s Digital Revolution: An interview with historian Elin Whitney-Smith in strategy+business. “There have been six information revolutions in human history. Each represents a major change in the organizational paradigm — a change in how people form themselves into groups.”
  • Social Protection for a Changing India: A World Bank report.
  • The perfect state: from Pragati. “What would a “Ramarajya” administration deliver? A good quality of life, where people live in good health, enjoy a good livelihood and dignity, appears to be the first element of good governance by Ramarajya standards.”
  • Illusions of Democracy: by Esther Dyson. “The newly freed people of the Middle East must toughen their idealism with hard realism.”

Verdict 2011: The BJP’s Path to 2014

Let us start with two facts. First, if one actually analyses the BJP’s Lok Sabha performance through the years (and a similar analysis can be done for the Congress), it will be seen that the party has won at least once in about 300 of the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies.

Second, the BJP is in power directly or with an ally in 9 states which account for 170 seats. The party is competitive in states with 219 seats, and almost absent in states with 154 seats. Thus, for the BJP, the pool of seats where it can hope to win is about 389 (170+219), with about 55-60 seats going to its three current allies (JD-U in Bihar, Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and Akali Dal in Punjab). That leaves the BJP competing to win in about 330 seats.

States in which the BJP can get allies are states where the BJP has little or no presence. Thus, there is little benefit for a party to ally with the BJP prior to the election. In fact, the perception has been created that an alliance with the BJP may cost the ally votes from specific communities.

So, the BJP’s best bet is to focus on these 330 seats and aim to win 225-250 of them. With the three present allies, they must aim to reach the half-way mark of 272 on their own. Only then can they deliver the governance and development to the country that they have been doing at the states.

For this, the BJP does not need a leader who can win more allies. In fact, according to me, it needs no more allies because none will come. On the contrary, the BJP needs a national leader who can help the party win the maximum number of seats in the ones they contest.

Verdict 2011: Allies or Alone

Much of the narrative that I have read post these Assembly elections is that the national parties (Congress and BJP) need to factor in coalition politics as the way forward since none of them are strong across the country. The Lok Sabha elections will be but an aggregation of the state electoral math – as has been the case in the past few elections. In fact, the last time a single party got a majority on its own was the Congress in 1984 led by Rajiv Gandhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

I have a different take on this. I think various factors are coming together to create the foundation of a possible wave election in 2014. For one, look at the 90% hit rates that have happened in places in Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. (Assam came quite close.) The same concerns and issues have resonated across a state. I believe that something similar can happen nationally in 2014.

I will analyse the situation from BJP’s perspective. Currently, it has 116 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha. (The Congress has 206, and with its alliance partners about 273.) BJP cannot win by trying to ape the Congress. It has to tread a different, bold path – one that is counter-intuitive to what the commentators are saying.

The refrain seems to be that the BJP can only win about 150-175 seats on its own – the best performance came in 1998 and 1999 with 182 seats. It doesn’t have a presence in states with 150+ seats (TN, WB, Kerala, Andhra, North-East) and therefore needs allies, and therefore a leader that is acceptable to the allies. In other words, the BJP should opt for a leader who can maximise allies.

This approach is plain wrong.

Tomorrow: The BJP’s Path to 2014

Verdict 2011: The Powerful States

The way India’s political system is structured, elections happen every year, sometimes multiple times in a year. So, some state or the other is always going to the polls every few months. In this situation, there is a sort of N+1 syndrome that creeps into policy-making – the hard decisions are put off because the next election is round the corner.

As a result, it is almost as if the Union government in India stumbles along. Because of these state elections, the oil companies haven’t increased the price of petrol and are losing hundreds of crores daily. Key reform bills are stuck because of either lack of initiative or because some regional alliance partner doesn’t want it to disturb the equation due to elections.

As a result, the engines of India’s growth have now become the states. With a central government that is paralysed and almost seems to be working on auto mode, the states are where the real innovations in policy and service delivery are taking place. We are seeing many states now starting to focus on better policies – for them, they have five years of clear runway to deliver.

Tomorrow: Allies or Alone

Verdict 2011: The Lessons

There are three takeaways that I see in this election.

The first is the importance of good governance and development, as perceived by people (the voters). They want more – well-paying jobs, better lives, greater opportunities. The government that can deliver this to them can hope to get re-elected. Anti-incumbency is not the norm. We are seeing this time and again – a government that can deliver can expect favourable verdicts.  In other words, performance matters.

The second is that corruption matters. For long, the belief was that voters are for the most part blind to corruption. But this time around, something tripped. Perhaps, it was the figure of Rs 1,76,000 crore in the 2G scam case, or it was a series of never-ending scams coming out one after another. Blatant corruption will never become the only issue, but it is an important consideration. In other words, politicians have a choice – be clean and hope to win, or be corrupt and make money for a single-term only.

The third takeaway is that local leadership matters. It is still astonishing how many elections are fought without strong leaders at the helm of their parties.  National leaders are important, but is also very important to have regional leaders who understand issues in their state better than the ones in Delhi ever can. Political parties will need to encourage the emergence of this second- and third-line of leadership if they want to create a sustainable advantage.

Tomorrow: The Powerful States

Verdict 2011: The Results

After almost exactly two years, it was the day when lots of votes get counted and political fortunes are decided. This time around, it was the four major states of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam, along with Puducherry. All the national political parties had plenty to fight for – some more than the others.

That West Bengal would go the TMC way was a foregone conclusion. It was only a question of how much the Left would be destroyed after 34 years in power. The answer: almost completely. The hard work starts now, and Mamata Banerjee will need to show that she can run a state better than she ran the Railways. The Left still has 40% of the votes in the state.

Tamil Nadu also saw an annihilation that most pollsters had failed to foresee. Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK alliance notched up a 90% hit rate and destroyed the DMK-Congress combine across the state. Obviously, corruption matters and Jayalalithaa did a great job personalizing the impact of the scam on people.

Kerala ended up being much closer than was expected a few months ago. Here too, the corruption issue played a role in denting the final Congress-led UDF’s majority. Assam was a great win for the Congress, with Gogoi winning a third time. He was helped by peace and development, and also by the ineptness of the Opposition parties (AGP and BJP) to officially ally and take a positive message to the people.

So, what are the key lessons?

Tomorrow: The Lessons

Blog Past: It’s Up To Us Now

A long series I wrote a year ago. Here is how I ended the first part:

Focus on the future of the country and our children. We are watching what is happening. If 10-15 years from now, your then grown-up child were to ask you, “You saw what was happening. Why didn’t you do something about it?” What will be your answer? That answer – and the action we take (or choose not to take) now – will determine the fate of this country.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Atoms, Not Apps, Will Power the Next-Gen Phones: by Christian Lindholm on GigaOm. “By “atoms,” I mean widgets, essentially, that provide contextually relevant links to service APIs. You may have an atom in the phone book for instance, which provides a contextual link to send a Facebook message right from a contact’s entry in the phone book.”
  • IT Disruption: from WSJ. “Technology is bursting out from the shackles of its desk-bound past. It has the power to disrupt business like never before.”
  • The Merits of a Liberal Education: by Arthur Dudney in Outlook. “India will be a fairer and more productive society if more students graduate with not only a set of specific skills but also a liberal arts-inspired capacity to acquire new ones.”
  • Democracy, Elections and Voting: by Atanu Dey. “Let’s look around, at the very least, to see if other ways of implementing democracy have been figured out by others.”
  • Why is Sonia Gandhi scared of Narendra Modi? by Francois Gautier in DNA. “Because, he seems to be the only alternative to her son Rahul Gandhi becoming prime minister in the next general elections.”

Five Results

In a few hours, we will know the results of the five states that went to the polls and many questions will have answers:

  • Will it be 5-0 for Congress? Or does Corruption matter to people in India?
  • What will be Mamta’s margin in West Bengal?
  •  Which way will Tamil Nadu vote?
  • Is this the end of the road for the Communists?
  • What will be Jagan’s victory margin in the Andhra by-poll?

With high voting percentages in all of the states, the results are eagerly awaited. Two years ago, I sat watching the Lok Sabha verdict. Today, I will watch which way the wind is blowing in the Assembly polls.

Mission 300

I wish the two national political parties in India would set themselves a goal of winning 300+ seats in the next Lok Sabha elections (2014, or when the UPA Chairperson decides).

Congress won 206 and BJP 116 in the last elections. BJP’s highest has been 182 in 1998 and 1989. No single party has won 300 seats since Rajiv Gandhi’s landslide in 1984.

The reason I mention this is that from a governance perspective, it would be a lot easier. India needs many tough decisions and big ideas to be converted into action. That doesn’t seem to be happening now. The approach to winning 175-200 and getting 25 more than the other national party puts parties on one approach path. If, however, they decide that they will aim to win 300 on their own, the approach will be very different. And that will set in motion a chain of events that can only work for the good of the country.