Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What is better: FDI or FII?

For now, the debate on foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail has been put on the back-burner. But, there is a raging debate on whether to allow FDI in the airline industry. As of now, foreign institutional investment (FII) in airlines is allowed. So, what is the difference between FDI and FII? And which is more beneficial?

In FII, there are investment banks or financial institutions based on foreign soil, which invest their money in shares of various companies in India. While there are complex rules and regulations that govern in what and how much they can invest, they are basically like stock brokers. They invest in stocks, which they feel will fetch them good returns. They are betting on the good financial performance of the company. And since they can invest anywhere in the world, they will always invest money, when they feel there is an environment for good growth in the particular business. And, once they feel that the environment is going bad and not conducive for growth, they will begin pulling out. Remember, this money after being pulled out of the stocks, gets repatriated out of the country. Domestic institutions, even if they withdraw from the stock market, keep the money within the country. In short, on a phone call or at the click of a mouse, billions of rupees can either flow into the country or flow out of the country.

On the other hand, FDI implies that the foreign entity comes to India, either on its own or in partnership with a local company, and invests in the permitted sector by putting in manufacturing, logistics, marketing facilities and helping set up a host of ancillary units. This leads to creation of assets in the country, using foreign currency. Of course, the investment is going to be recovered over time, and some portion of the profits are going to move to the parent company's country, but then a large portion of the revenue gets spent within the country itself. Moreover, it is not difficult to dispose of these created assets overnight. The procedure is tedious. Thus, only those companies who can stay invested through the thick and thin times, will think of investing. Moreover, if the foreign partner wants to exit, they have to sell off the assets to some person. Again, while the profits might go out of the country, the principal amount invested, does stay back. Thus, FDI always allows for a substantial portion of the capital to remain invested within the country. Of course, businesses might not be amenable to FDI. The foreign partner may obviously want some control over business decisions and directions. They might also decide what technology to bring in and what not to. Moreover, if the foreign company opens a wholly owned subsidiary here, then with their deep pockets, they can resort to predatory pricing and give the domestic ones a tough time. But, in the bigger picture, it is FDI which brings in technology, assets and some of the best global practices in business.

In India, we wouldn't have been driving cars manufactured by Honda, Toyota, etc. without FDI. Nor, could we have seen the impressive returns on stock investments, without some contribution from FII. On the flip side, cold-drinks like Gold Spot vanished from the Indian market, once Parle sold their soft-drink companies to Coca-Cola. And the swings that one witnesses in stock markets or the price of the dollar, is partly induced by FIIs moving their money in and out of the country. An increase of both, though, signifies confidence in the government's policies, the ability of various government bodies to execute these policies and the capability of the local market to, at least partly, absorb their products. So, to sum it up, FDI is essential for bringing in foreign companies and allowing them to create assets, which will stay in the country forever. FIIs are essential to provide the money required for investment, without having to rope in a partner in the assets. Which one is better? Up to you to make a decision!
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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

To FDI or not to FDI (in retail)?

With its decision on allowing 51% FDI in multi-brand retail, the cabinet has set loose the cat amongst the pigeons. Everyone, from those for it and those against it have been running helter-skelter to justify their stand. Now, I do not know if FDI in retail is a good option or not, because opinions of both sides have left me confused. But here are a few things that I would like to throw open to the readers of this blog. Readers are free to make their own decision on FDI in retail.
  1. The Prime Minister said that FDI in retail would bring in modern technology and investment in back-end storage and logistics. This would help prevent damage to produce and thereby give a better price to farmers. But such technology isn't exactly any rocket science, that cannot be developed locally. More so, with Indian retail firms being there for long, why haven't they been able to invest in such technologies? Was it reluctance on their part or did government policies prevent them from  making such large-scale investments? Moreover, storage and transportation of fresh produce requires massive investments in infrastructure and streamlining of procedures. E.g., good roads that can endure heavy traffic, transparency in functioning of various toll nakas and R.T.O. check points, a reliable supply of electricity in small towns and villages, where farms are located. Why wasn't such investment made before? If India can develop technologies to send a spacecraft to the moon, such things should definitely be simpler.
  2. Better prices of farmers and producers is also touted as another benefit. But then, if retailers were giving good prices to farmers, why is the US and EU continuously subsidising agricultural products? In effect, the taxpayers of the US and EU are collectively paying for the produce indirectly, when such money can be used for the benefit of the society at large.
  3. Before bringing in FDI in retail, what has been done by the government to reduce wastage of food produce due to poor logistics and/or storage facilities? Everybody (at least the government) knows that farmers have to compulsorily sell their produce at the mandis or nearest APMC. All the wholesalers in these mandis are generally affiliated to some political party or the other. Even the workers at these mandis have unions which are affiliated to a particular political party. The elections to the office of these mandis is hard fought by political parties and used to show case their control over the local politics. This makes it quite clear as to why have these mandis not modernised. They never feared competition, because they patronised all those who were in power. They use their muscle in the legislature to see to it that nothing forces them to make investments and reduce cash flow. The wholesalers in these mandis have been responsible for loss of produce as well as its inefficient handling, leading to unnaturally high prices. Even if the government changes this law and allows the farmers to sell the produce to someone who offers them the best price, it would help the farmers, without the need for FDI. I have a suspicion here. With most mandis being dominated by regional parties, is the Congress trying to strike at their base by weakening their clout through the mandis?
  4. While FDI in retail will generate jobs for many, how many would be lost? We need to consider the worst case scenarios in both cases, i.e. the minimum number of jobs that can be generated and the maximum that could be lost. Once we have that picture in front of us, then we can make an informed decision about whether there would be a positive employment or negative one.
  5. The Amul model of co-operative involvement has been extremely successful in Gujarat and areas where Amul is operational. This means that Amul definitely has a lot of expertise in the areas of logistics and food processing, storage, transportation, etc. Why wasn't Amul called upon to provide their expertise to other agricultural areas as well? And can't others learn from Amul about the intricacies of logistics, storage, etc.? What prevents such learning, apart from no fear of competition? (Thanks, Dwaipayan Dasgupta for pointing this out)
  6. Back in the early nineties, when the Indian economy was being liberalised, there was a group of people, basically owners of various companies, which was called the "Bombay Club". They lobbied with the government against liberalisation, stating that it would spell doom for Indian companies. But, the government went ahead and many of those belonging to the Bombay Club now have companies which are successfully competing with foreign giants and giving them a run for their money. Why? Because these companies were left with no choice, but to adapt the global standards. Will the similar analogy hold for the current retailers and wholesalers?
  7. Despite the presence of many Indian retail giants such as Reliance Fresh, Big Bazaar, More, etc. my mother still prefers buying wheat and rice from her trusted aadatiya. At home, we still get our flour ground from the neighbourhood flour mill. And our family still buys fruits and vegetables from the vendor on the street or in the mandi. How difficult would it be for the big retailers to change this mind-set of the Indian consumer? Remember, Reliance Fresh, with perhaps the deepest pockets amongst the Indian retail giants, hasn't been able to shave off too much business from the small retailers.
  8. Can we afford to become a country, where people drive 10-15 km (one way), just to get their weekly/fortnightly supplies? This, at a time when petrol prices are going through the roof with every passing day! The small retailer saves us a lot of fuel when we walk down to his shop and buy stuff from there. So, will the saving on food prices be enough to compensate for this long drive?
  9. They say, a picture is worth a thousand words. I saw this picture at the Rumtek monastery near Gangtok. We need to learn a lot from this picture. It perhaps sums up the fact that we need to take a holistic approach on the issue of FDI in retail and not just look at it being able to provide more money to farmers and cost less to end consumers!!
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Thursday, November 24, 2011

The disadvantages of Big Brand retail shops

No, I do not intend to make a socialist case here, which is best left to political parties and activists. Here, I intend to spell the disadvantages that big brand retail shops have for me as a consumer. This is in the back-drop of the Indian government approving 51% foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail or hypermarts, as they are known in the west. This will bring in the big guys like Wal-Mart, Carrefour, etc. The benefits are being touted as big for consumers. They will bring in money, their expertise with supply chain management, etc. to sell goods to consumers at the lowest prices.

But for this, they need infrastructure, which the government would have to provide. Large warehouses would necessitate a smooth supply of electricity, well connected roadways to connect the warehouses to manufacturing centres and the stores, etc. This is woefully missing in India, where outside big cities, a minimum 6-8 hours of load-shedding is considered normal. The success of such retail firms relies big time on the availability of such first class infrastructure. But, whether they succeed or not, they have many disadvantages for consumers.

We may not realise this, but in the quest for selling things at cheaper rates to us, these retail outlets rely more on volumes of business, compared to per unit margins. So, the brand that sells most is the one they will stock. Of course, there are a number of subtle tricks they use to entice us into buying certain brands or products, but then, that is a completely different topic. So, if you like a particular brand and fragrance of incense sticks, you might not find it in the supermarket, because they do not get good volumes on it. And you are stuck to buying from the ones available in the store. So, you tend to lose your favourite brands, if they do not fit in the strategy of the supermarket. The small shopkeeper, though, will keep a fairly diverse number of products. Smaller quantities of the less popular ones may be stocked, but nevertheless, you have a fairly high chance of finding your choice there, than the supermarket.

If a certain product is out-of-stock in the supermarket, you have no way of knowing when it will arrive. The mom-and-pop shopkeeper around the corner, will not only give you an idea of when the product will arrive but also keep it aside for you, once it is in. This personalisation of service is out of question for supermarkets! Their business model just does not have this feature.

Thirdly, the supermarkets stock only big sized products. E.g. shampoos in large bottles, toothpastes are available only in 400 gm. size or detergents in min. 1 kg stocks or buy-3-get-4th-free soaps and many more such things. A very huge number of India's people live on frugal income. For them, to spend Rs. 100 (for a shampoo) in one go is extremely difficult. That is why most of India's FMCG manufacturers have come up with small sized packs (sachets for shampoos, detergents, 50 gm. toothpastes, etc.) which cost very less and are affordable to that population. Such small sizes are not stocked by the supermarkets, as the margin is too low and their rate of sale unpredictable to justify the efforts required to stock them. So, (even if you have a high salaried job but) if you live alone, you won't be able to purchase these things. If staying alone, I wouldn't want to buy a pack of 4 soaps and be stuck with them for 6 odd months. I would rather buy a single cake of soap, which would last for well over a month and be free to choose a different soap every time. Plus, I would be left with liquid cash, free to spend it as I like, instead of being tied up in three soap cakes, which would be useful only after a month.

Such mass stocking of products also hampers the variety available and this is especially visible in the clothing sections. They will not stock premium products. E.g., here in Edmonton, people advise to get winter jackets from special shops, not from Walmart, as it doesn't stock those. These supermarkets won't stock out-of-season stuff too. E.g. no chappals or floaters are available in the supermarkets during winter. For that, you have to look out in the footwear shops only. 

This is a very simplistic analysis of what would happen to us as consumers, if big supermarkets are allowed to dominate the retail business scene. Most of it is my personal experience. In India, there is a certain social aspect associated with shopping, which will not be available in supermarkets. The shopkeeper and the shop is where the local news is exchanged. Moreover, the personal relation developed with the shopkeeper help us in many other ways. His/her network helps us access various other services. E.g., some of his relative or acquaintance might be running a travel agency, from where we would be able to rent a car. Or contract a plumber's services at discounted rates. These informal channels will not be available with supermarkets. Economic and social analyses tend to indicate contrary views, but as a consumer, will we get all that we want? I have my doubts. We might end up getting what the supermarket wants to sell to us and when they want to sell it. As consumers, if we would like to have wider choices, I think supermarkets should not have a free run in the Indian economy.
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Friday, November 11, 2011

How dumb-witted can articles get?

After having spent a wonderful holiday, I was browsing through rediff and came across this news article titled, "Why IAF does NOT need either Eurofighter or Rafale?", written by Ajai Shukla. Apparently, he hasn't listed his credentials while writing this article. Here is what he says and also why that is wrong to a great extent.

He says, Eurofighter and Rafale are in trouble, because they don't have too many orders from their partner customers. The British RAF and German Luftwaffe have scaled down their orders for the Eurofighter. His inference: There's got to be some problem with the Eurofighter. But then, he conveniently forgets that Britain has just introduced massive cuts in its defence budgets and so has Germany done that. The reasons for this are best known to them, but then with budget cuts, one of the things they chopped off, amongst many others, were orders of new fighter aircraft. Same goes for the Rafale, he says, which hasn't a single customer other than the French air force, which too has reduced the number of aircraft ordered. So, to conclude, one reason India shouldn't buy the Eurofigther or Rafale is that they do not have enough customers!!

Next, he says, with China having test-flown the J-20, its first fifth generation aircraft, India would be left with outdated aircraft. And so, he claims that India is wasting money on the Gen-4+ aircraft. Operational clearance for the J-20 is almost 10 years away. Once it receives that, it would be another 5-6 years before squadrons of the J-20 are ready. In the meanwhile, India to is collaborating with Russia. The Sukhoi PAK FA, which is the basis for the Gen-5 fighter has already done three test flights. So, if this project proceeds smoothly, India too can have its won Gen-5 aircraft. In the meanwhile, we need to replace the aging MIG 21s.

Third, he says, Japan, South Korea and Singapore are investing in the F-35, which is a Gen-5 air craft manufactured by Lockheed Martin. He says that Lockheed Martin and the US government have signalled that clearances for selling the F-35 would be granted expeditiously. But then, how wise is it to depend on the US for our air craft? Particularly, when it is known that the US does not allow complete transfer of technology and also ends up keeping crucial technology information with itself. This would mean that we would be tied to the whims and fancies of the US, once the contracts have been signed. And if the US Congress or Senate passes a bill restricting the transfer of crucial technology to F-35 in the Indian Air Force, where are we supposed to go?

To draw conclusions, this gentleman says that India shouldn't be purchasing the Eurofighter or Rafale for the following reasons:
  1. The Eurofighter and Rafale haven't attracted enough customers. Doesn't matter if the Eurofighter has 5 customers currently on its role. Rafale, unfortunately has only the French Air Force as its customer.
  2. Since China has tested a FGFA, we shouldn't order Gen-4+ aircraft. Never mind that we have a FGFA programme going on with Russia, which should show some results by 2017. 
  3. Since the US government has indicated that the F-35 sale to India would be expeditiously cleared, we should go for it. And since Japan, South Korea and Singapore are also investing in the F-35 we should buy it from the US. Never mind, the US habbit of keeping a tight leash on crucial technology and never committing to full technology transfer.
Could articles relating to crucial matters such as the country's defence have so shallow reasoning? And could they get dumber than this?
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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Team Anna has to be like Caesar's wife

 That the government would strike back at Team Anna members was a forgone conclusion when the anti-corruption movement gathered steam. And especially after Anna Hazare's super successful fast in Delhi. The government, and especially the Congress, feels embarrassed and lame as a perception was built that Team Anna brought the government to its knees and that without them, the government would have never passed a strong Lokpal bill.

Moreover, Anna Hazare and his team members were trying to take every opportunity to strike at the government. With the people supporting them and having created a favourable environment for themselves, Team Anna had tasted its success in the limelight. The Congress had to do something about it and show them, who's the boss. The Congress had a perception that it was cornered. And it decided to strike back with every weapon possible. Remember the Hindi idiom डूबते हुए को तिनके का सहारा. 

The first target was Anna Hazare himself. Digvijay Singh, who is inflicted by a perpetual foot-in-the-mouth disease constantly tried to prove that the anti-corruption movement is nothing but a front for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). And he used very lame evidences, such as RSS chief's letter of support to justify his statements. However, the people are reluctant to believe this. Even if RSS was with Anna Hazare on the issue of corruption, people will not mind because they are heavily affected by corruption and would want to see it finished once and for all.

The second case, which was presented was against Arvind Kejriwal. The RTI activist had applied for voluntary retirement from his services and perhaps left the job. The IT department, which was his former employer, refused to accept his application on account of some bond being broken by Kejriwal. The question is, why did the IT department take so long to give its decision. Moreover, how was Kejriwal  so careless in not realising that he hadn't fulfilled the conditions for retirement? After that, he first made a statement that he had not broken any bond. Then, after a few days, he said he will take a loan from a friend to repay the claims made by his department so that he can be released from service. These flip-flops strengthen the notion that he indeed was involved in procedural lapses and his employer was correct in dismissing his application.

And Kiran Bedi takes the cake of all. This was with evidence. She claimed business class air-fare for travelling to deliver talks, while she actually travelled economy class, whose fare too was discounted for her as she was a gallantry medal winner. If she had requested her hosts (some of which were NGOs) to pay her business class fare and she would divert the excess amount to the NGO, then it would have been completely acceptable. After all, the hosts had a choice in saying whether their money should be used in such a manner. Moreover, she could have requested the hosts to give the excess fare as donation to her NGO, which would have also resulted in further tax benefit for the hosts. But by not doing this, she has damaged her credibility to a certain extent. Although she says, there was no mala fide intent in claiming excess fare, as it was her entitlement, she is not supposed to submit false bills to claim the fare. Remember, those NGOs are many times funded by the government, through taxpayers' money and also through donations that individuals make out of their hard earned money. Bedi has no right to claim that money through submission of inflated bills.

Reputation is like glassware. One crack and it is almost impossible to restore it. Integrity of the character is what made the people of India place their faith in Team Anna. Moreover, the media has placed them on a high pedestal, which the people view as worthy for only those with an impeccable character. Team Anna, therefore, has to be like Caesar's wife- above suspicion. Caesar divorced his wife, Pompeia, just because she was suspected of having an affair with Clodius. He did this to indicate that only a woman who is above any kind of suspicion is fit to be his wife. Will Anna Hazare become Julius Caesar? Strong character itself can earn you a place in history.
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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lettuce-strawberry salad

Strawberry-lettuce salad
Okay, at the outset, I am not going to be posting any recipes regularly. I'm not a very enthusiastic cook, but kya karein, paapi pet ka sawal hai!

So, I had this strong urge of eating a salad, but didn't know how to prepare one with lettuce. And then, I decided to improvise. Now, since I wanted it to be a healthy salad, this meant no dressings, no oil and sugar. And I do not like the taste of plain lettuce.

So, I dug into my refrigerator and found a box of Californian strawberries lying there. I pulled out the strawberry box and curd and decided to try out something. The final result is on your side. So, here goes the recipe:

Lettuce-strawberry salad
Serves: 1 voracious salad eater like me, 2 timid ones

Lettuce leaves: 4-5
Strawberries: 6
Curd: As per your desire (preferred quantity: 4 serving spoon size)
Salt: to taste (as usual)
Pepper powder: to taste (again, as usual)

  1. Wash the lettuce leaves thoroughly and chop them into small pieces.
  2. Wash the strawberries and slice them into medium sized pieces. If sliced too small, they might get squashed when you mix the salad.
  3. Take the lettuce leaves in a salad bowl and add the curd to into it. You may add a little water to loosen up the curd. Mix the curd and lettuce leaves thoroughly.
  4. Now, add the sliced strawberries and gently mix the salad. Be sure to do it gently, as you might end up squashing the strawberries under the load of the lettuce leaves and curd.
  5. Finally, just before serving add salt and pepper. This is to avoid all the water draining out due to addition of salt.

And ta-da!! The salad is ready to be devoured!

Note: You can definitely try any other fruit or combination of fruits.
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Saturday, October 08, 2011

What is wrong with IIT students?

In a country where something or the other is constantly happening to keep the breaking news ticker of the news channels running, there is a new storm in the tea cup. The co-founder of Infosys, Narayana Murthy, made a statement that the quality of students entering the IITs has deteriorated over the years, courtesy coaching classes. And then, some how channels caught hold of Chetan Bhagat, the 'youth icon' who bid good-bye to an engineering career, took up a investment banking job and  left that one too, to write famous books and be called a literary sensation, countered(?) saying that those who run body shops shouldn't comment on quality of engineers. Bhagat further states that the system should be fixed, no use blaming the students.

So, who is right or wrong? Well, Mr. Murthy's comments need to be looked in their context. And nobody is ready to do that. Yes, coaching classes have spawned all over the country where students are imparted training on how to approach the JEE. Most of the students end  up practising hundreds of problems, of which some similar ones are bound to appear in the exam, thereby increasing the chances of them answering these questions correctly. Nothing wrong in this, as long as the students have some passion to pursue a technical career. Many a times, aspirants are told by their parents- beta/beti, 2 saal man laga kar padho, ek bar IIT mein admission mil gayi, to zindagi ban jayegi. Admissions to the IIT are made to appear like the Holy Grail, on which only the blessed ones may be able to lay their hands on. Now, when bombarded with such advice, students generally slog hard to get to the holy grail. But, no one prepares them for the life in IITs. The coaching classes hardly advise the students on life at IIT, their jobs end once the students clear JEE.

Of course, IITs too haven't been very active in keeping up the students' enthusiasm. Professors and Ph.D. students at IIT should be involved in motivating the students to take interest in a technical career. No one seems to tell them that though you might end up using a certain percentage of the technical knowledge gained, it is necessary to understand the whole picture. This would also help when you rise in your career and would be involved more in managerial decisions rather than technical details. Any problem given to them is to be analysed using the mathematical skills learnt over the past years. But, provide them with challenges. Make them realise that all problems do not have pre-set answers. Let them use their engineering knowledge to build solutions to realistic problems. This will definitely improve their understanding about the problem and how to approach its solutions.

And at some stage, we need to stop glorifying people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and many more such persons. We always keep on saying Jobs and Gates were college drop-outs, yet they achieved so much in life. They might have not seen the face of IIT, but have the potential of employing so many IITians. Well, both Jobs and Gates spent hundreds and thousands of hours working on and sharpening their skills of design and coding. Moreover, a very few have the talent of becoming a Jobs or a Gates. In the tech. industry too, how many have risen to the stature of Gates or Jobs? The rest have to live with the fact that there are limits in their talent. It is, therefore up to the existing students to increase focus on giving an exposure to the students on the benefits of a technical career. At IITB, I have seen students calling many alumni to talk about their lives. Most of these people are non-tech people. Those who are entrepreneurs or in the finance sector or have taken a management degree are invited to talk. But the likes of Kota Harinarayana, who led the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project, do not get invited. Same with people from the Chandrayan project or any of the DRDO projects.

Faculty should use their network with the industry and other research laboratories and organise sessions on the benefits of a technical career. There have been many technical successes in India. These need to be marketed to the students, similar to the way Jobs used to market his products. Faculty should see this as a part of their work, so that students realise what they are gaining from the technical knowledge they gain at IIT.

And finally, the industry in India should be able to absorb this technical talent. When Mr. Murthy talks about quality deficit in IITians, people are definitely going to ask, what has Infosys done for this country? Apart from providing jobs to millions of people (directly and indirectly), there is nothing noteworthy to be said of them. Providing localisation of content, or IT services for solving problems faced in India or innovative IT products, where are the companies that would be doing this? Going beyond IT, how are the engineering companies doing? How much are they spending on R&D? And where is this R&D being directed towards? To solve big ticket problems that worry the West or to innovate for the benefit of the Indian society? If we are able to find answers to these questions, then we would definitely be able to bring out more from IIT students and Mr. Murthy wouldn't have to make his comment any more. That would also keep Chetan Bhagat in check.
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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The dangers of the face value

For almost twenty four years (discount the first five years) of my life, I have been used to conducting transactions with only the Rupee as a currency. And over these years, I have seen how things have become expensive (or the value of the Rupee has diminished). Moreover, I have been able to develop benchmarks for how much to spend on what item. And also rough benchmarks for monthly expenses and savings required.

Cut to September 2011. I am in Canada and suddenly, I have to spend in Canadian Dollars. Now, the game has completely changed. Suddenly, I have to adjust to the new currency and what can one unit of this currency buy and is buying of that amount, actually worth that value? But, the problem is that I haven't yet developed any benchmarks. One Canadian cent still has a lot of value, compared to one Indian paisa. But, then for many days, it is only the face value of the currency that registers in my mind. And with the mental framework wired to deciding the worth based on the Rupee, many a times doesn't register the gravity of the expenses incurred. E.g., a CAD 1.24 worth of coffee is far expensive than if I would have my own coffee maker. But this gravity doesn't register quickly, as for me the value 1.24 registers as a small number, because I am used to transacting in the Rupee. But, it is significant value for many Canadians. And hence, some of them might skip the coffee for a day and have it only on certain number of days.

This is the danger that the face value of the currency poses. For me to realise the gravity of the transaction, I have resorted to converting the amounts into Indian rupees. This helps me in also keeping a tab on the expenses involved. Moreover, it has led to looking for cheaper alternatives. But, the flip side is that I might not end buying something really needed or beneficial, just because its price in Rupees feels too much!
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Thursday, September 08, 2011

From where else can money come for AI?

Whenever I travelled Air India on international flights, I thought that they were doing a good job with the facilities provided on board. When compared with other airlines, they didn't seem too extravagant. Of course, they did offer a wider choice of meals, except that the special requests had to be informed earlier. And the portions served too are comparable to what is served on other airlines. So, what else could be done to improve the revenue of the airlines?

I saw this on the Lufthansa, Air Canada and Dragon Air flights. The cabin crew literally hawk duty-free stuff. After you have been served a nice(?) meal and drink, the cabin crew come out with a trolley of duty-free goods. And they literally keep on calling 'Interested in buying duty-free?' Of course, coming from a beautiful air-hostess, it sounds seductive, and many a times I feel sorry about not being in a position to buy something from her. But then it is same to the 'chaaayee aaa' call of a tea-vendor on railway platforms. Except that the chai wala is viewed as a nuisance, while the air-hostess isn't. However, this is additional revenue for the airlines. On every flight, I have seen passengers buy a thing or two from the airlines' duty free catalogue. And mind you, these aren't stuff that are cheap. Things like a Calvin-Klein perfume or a Jack Daniel cannot be readily bought by anybody. Moreover, I have seen Air Canada entice passengers by showing them some 'good reasons' to purchase duty-free items on the personal entertainment system in their aircraft.

And the entertainment system brings another source of revenue. Why not show advertisements on the personal entertainment screens? Air Canada does that. Before you start a show or movie, a 15 sec advertisement is played. This can range from sports equipment to credit cards. So, basically Air Canada is selling advertising space. Mind you, these can be easily customised. E.g., the kids' section like cartoons, et al. can have advertisements targeted towards kids, the movie or TV show section can have different advertisements. And yes, advertisements in business and first class can still be different from those in economy class. It is similar to public transport authorities selling space on the exterior of the buses for advertisements. All this brings in additional revenue for the airline.

I never see such things happening on Air India flights. The crew just serve the meals and go to their resting stations after they have cleared the tables. Air India does have a catalogue, which mentions the duty free items available, but then you have to contact the crew for that and they will have it delivered to your address. How many passengers will be willing to do that, compared to when the duty free trolley is wheeled past your seat? Moreover, its entertainment screens do not advertise anything. These revenues may seem too trifle, but then, there isn't much effort involved in generating them. A Boeing 777 carries more than 300 passengers. Imagine, being able to advertise for such a captive crowd. People plug into their entertainment system by default, and even at 70% load, it is a big crowd to be targeted. Moreover, the flights last for more than six hours and if it is a hopping flight, you get a total of many more passengers to be advertised to. And margins from selling duty-free stuff should be pretty high. The Air-India management needs to have some strategy on this. It might involve a lot of work with the RBI, with regards to the payments made, but in the long run, it is worth these efforts.

Of course, none of this substitutes to running the airline in an efficient manner. These earnings are like icing on the cake, which just makes the cake more attractive and bring in better margins. But, for that, the cake itself should be perfectly baked. Hope someone in Air India is listening to this!
From where else can money come for AI?SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

वो सात साल

A hot summer day Don't worry, I'm not typing a post in Hindi. But, Romanised Hindi is something that I hate, and hence have put the title in Hindi. It's been almost seven years, since I entered the lush green campus of IIT Bombay. Coming from a college(?) where no one cared about its teachers and lectures and were only governed by University regulations, I was in for a cultural shock. Suddenly, professors were very important. Attending lectures and classes was necessary, since the syllabus didn't remain standard but on what and how much the professor desired to teach. Moreover, most of the professors were caring enough and took their jobs of teaching very seriously. They enjoyed the activity of teaching, which made me respond back equally(?) well.

I came here for a Masters' degree. The plan, initially, was to get the IIT brand name on my resume, which will help me jump start my career, which would have been a non-starter considering the college that I studied in, during for my undergraduate degree. One thing led to another, and I don't know when it happened, but I decided to enroll myself for a Ph.D. Of course, many ask me why didn't I go abroad for doing one? The truth is that it is extremely difficult for a non-IITian (meaning, someone without a B.Tech. from IIT) to get into those top universities, where the best researchers are. Moreover, I didn't want to grind myself through the GRE and that Barron's word list, from where 90% of the words are never used post-GRE.

And so began my tryst with IIT-Bombay. I enrolled for the Ph.D. programme in July 2006. It has been a long and painful journey. As it happens with almost every Ph.D. student, my work too began as a treasure-hunt. And it has taken five long years to gather the treasure, properly document it and lay adequate claims on it (submit papers for publication). The duration seemed so long, for myself as well as others, that even the security personnel, mess workers, staff, etc. started asking me, "अरे, तुम्ही अजून इथेच?" (translation: Oh, are you still a student?) or "अजून किती दिवस?" (translation: how much time more?)

But equally interesting has been the life apart from research. From the experiences of my seniors, I had realised that an active extra-curricular life is necessary to stay sane in IIT. No, I didn't actively participate in extra-curricular, but  did make an attempt. It is here, that I started taking exercising seriously. I trained myself and ran the Mumbai half-marathon twice, enrolled myself in swimming classes and trained to clear the intermediate level camp conducted at IIT. The Sameer hill became my favourite destination, to give some stress tests to the heart and muscles. I have encircled IIT so many times, that my jogging shoes never lasted beyond one year. Hostel activities, Research Scholars' activities, etc. took up a good chunk of my time at IIT. I was introduced to many facets of life here. Students' struggles at research, apathy towards common courtesies and sensibilities, politics being played to the extent that it hampers research work and also, some faculty genuinely fighting it out for students. It is here, that I got to listen to extraordinary talk from Nobel laureates to Fields' Medallists and realised what makes them special. I also got to listen to eminent personalities who have made a difference in India. Through the Institute Colloquiums (which also had awesome refreshments), I got to listen to great talks from researchers around the world.

 It is here, where I learnt more about friendship, about give-and-take. About bonding with an extended family. About the importance of building relationships, with your family, your neighbours and those in your workplace. Building of relations has helped a lot in times of need and times of crisis. These are important when you are at the nadir of your confidence or at the peak of your success. Good relations help you reduce anguish and increase the joy. IIT gave me a few important lessons in life. Not only about academics, but also about non-academics and these are equally important when I shape up my career.
वो सात सालSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Experiencing the jetlag

Almost everybody who has travelled across the Atlantic or the Pacific have a jetlag story of their own. Some brag about how they didn't feel the jetlag at all, while some sheepishly admit that they suffered for days together before they overcame their jetlag. Why does someone have to feel sorry of suffering from jetlag? It is a natural phenomenon and can affect someone more than the other. Just like common cold. Some get better overnight, while some struggle for days.

But, once you've experience it, you begin to realise that each one has his or her own unique scenarios. E.g., now that I travelled across the Atlantic, I experienced jet lag for the first time. Not that I couldn't sleep in the night, but there were other signs that indicated that I am experiencing a jetlag. The first and foremost thing I did was to sleep whenever possible on flight. So, while I missed a meal on one leg of the flight, I wasn't groggy and tired when I reached my destination. But then, the internal body clock hadn't yet adjusted. So, I didn't feel like having dinner during regular dinner time and ended up feeling hungry at odd times in the night. Moreover, my bowel movements went for a toss. I was using the wash room at odd times and had a clean movement only by the next evening!! My host must be wondering about my frequent visits to the washroom. Fortunately, I didn't have too much trouble with sleeping. When I landed here, it was in the evening and went off to sleep at night. But I ended getting up early in the morning and hence, the following afternoon, I slept for almost three hours.

So, like everyone else, my story of jetlag too turns out to be unique to a great extent.
Experiencing the jetlagSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How tennis has changed over the years

Just have a look at these two videos.

1. Bjorne Borg vs. John McEnroe, 1980 Wimbledon final

2. Federer vs. Nadal, 2008 Wimbledon Final

See the difference? Forget the big fibre-based racquets of Nadal and Federer, forget their improved athletics. Notice the grass on the Centre Court in both the videos. In the first video, you will see that the grass is considerably worn out even near the net, indicating the dominance of serve-and-volley type of play. Watch how frequently McEnroe and Borg rush towards the net in order to play their volleys and remove the sting out of the opponent's returns.

In the second video, you will still notice green grass near the nets. But at the base line, the grass is completely worn out. This is the change I am talking about. From the serve-and-volley type of game to booming from the baseline itself. Notice how rarely do Federer and Nadal come close to the net. Both try to hit towards the base line and from there itself.

Tennis has changed over time and as usual, Wimbledon is there to remind us about it and help in etching these changes in our memories.
How tennis has changed over the yearsSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, June 06, 2011

My experiences with the Maharaja

Photograph ©: Vinay Bavdekar
It was conference time, and since I was being funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India, it was compulsory for me to travel Air India, at least till its hub in a foreign country. Beyond the hub, I was free to travel any airline, preferably a code-sharing partner of the Maharaja.  I was flying international with the Maharaja for the second time. Last time too, I had taken Air India to travel to Frankfurt and back.

I had to fly to Hangzhou in China. Air India said that I would have to fly to Hong Kong and from there to Hangzhou. The Maharaja would drop me in Hong Kong and from there I was supposed to fly any other airline. It turned out that if I were to book any other airline, my ticket would have been way cheaper than that it cost me on Air India. Why does this happen, I do not know? But, since DST had agreed to pay me whatever it costs, I didn't have to worry too much. It turned out that even Cathay Pacific is cheaper than Air India.

Most of Air India's international flights now begin from Delhi. New Delhi T-3 has become the hub for Air India's flight operations. Many flights routes have been converted into via Delhi routes. So, although my flight was numbered AI-310, I had to fly to Delhi on a Airbus aircraft (possibly an erstwhile Indian Airlines aircraft used for domestic operations). The Mumbai-Delhi leg was pleasant. The flight took off after a 20 minute delay. However, AI staff announced this well in time, so that we didn't have to keep wondering what happened to the aircraft. AI should retire its Airbus A320 fleet. The aircraft looks aged, the interiors speak volumes of its age. When most aircraft (including AI's new Boeing fleet) are donning white coloured interiors (not seats), the A320 has yellow interiors, which makes the atmosphere seem dull. Anyways, once that's out of the way, I enjoyed the flight, except for the toilets, which were stinking like those on railway stations. The food was good, and most importantly, the flight landed in Delhi 5 minutes before the scheduled time. Delhi-Hong Kong was on AI's new Boeing 777. The interiors were well maintained. The ambiance is way better than the A320, with soothing lighting and spacious seats. The in-flight entertainment system was functioning well, with new headphones kept in the seat-pockets. The movie stock was nice and the music collection, too, was great. The crew was mild mannered and polite. The air hostess in our part of the flight deck was extremely polite and tried to cater to passenger demands with utmost care. The flight took off on time and landed in Hong Kong 20 minutes before its scheduled time of arrival.

After the conference, on my return leg from Hong Kong to Mumbai, it was again time to be served by the Maharaja. This was against the back drop of the news when oil companies had refused to give fuel to AI aircraft, because AI hadn't cleared their bills. My worry was whether we would be able to even take-off from Hong Kong. But, we did take off on time. Here again, the crew was well-dressed, well-groomed, strict, yet polite and mild mannered. At this point, I would like to point towards the behaviour of passengers. Almost everyone in the flight were Indian citizens or persons of Indian origin. A Gujarati family, the moment they entered the flight, started saying "Air India hai, kuch bhi ho sakta hai", on anything that didn't happen as per their desire.  The desire might have been completely impractical or misplaced. E.g. when dinner was delayed due to turbulence, they got agitated and restarted their rhetoric against AI. A kid (hardly 5 years old) of the family told her father that she had been given non-vegetarian food. The father immediately began a rant against the steward without any verification. The steward just looked and said, "Sir vegetarian hi to diya hai, aap khud hi dekh lijiye."  After sometime, another passenger got drunk and began creating nuisance. Because of his nuisance, I couldn't concentrate on my movie. When the steward tried to calm things down, the drunk passenger became more abusive. At this moment, the senior steward stepped in and gave a nice mouth lashing to the passenger, who really deserved it. It also perhaps helped in sobering him down.

For the Delhi-Mumbai leg, we had to change aircraft and we were back into the A320. When boarding in Hong Kong, we were allotted seat numbers on our boarding passes. But when we entered the plane, we were told it is free seating. The saying, "Early bird catches the worm", worked well for me. I was the third person to enter the aircraft and got into the seat that was printed on my boarding card. The later ones faced problems and there was a lot of chaos that led to the flight taking off almost 20 minutes late. Families got separated, those allotted window seats insisted on having one, and those who didn't find a favourable seat walked into the business class as a protest. AI should have managed this better. They should know before hand, what aircraft would be pressed into service. Seat configurations are different even for different A320s. Or else, allot seat numbers only after the aircraft is finalised. This would have helped saved passengers a good 20 minutes apart from the troubles and agitations that they had to face. At Mumbai airport too, the aircraft was not parked at an aero-bridge, but in the parking bay of AI aircraft. This bay, is closer to Kalina side, whereas the airport terminal is at Sahar side (i.e. Andheri side). We were ferried across in a bus.

All in all, it was a mixed experience. The flight performance was good, almost on time everywhere. The crew did behave well, with me at least. Considering the fact that they know the dire straits in which the airline is and that their future is completely dependent on the whims and fancies of certain IAS officers and central government ministers, rather than strategic business decisions. But some mismanagement on the airport side, caused stress to certain passengers. And I didn't have to worry about food. Moreover, the route is inconvenient. Why ferry everyone to Delhi and then take them out of the country? Another flip side is that AI hasn't yet joined Star Alliance, which means passengers are bereft of benefits such as seamless connectivity, accruing travel miles for travelling partner airlines, etc. But so is the case with Jet Airways and Kingfisher, India's other two international airlines. Once this happens, it would be even better flying with India's airlines.
My experiences with the MaharajaSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Asia's World City: Part 1

That is how Cathay Pacific calls the Hong Kong state. And indeed, it is a world city. Hong Kong's development and current state traces its roots in the deep water harbour. Hong Kong's location was unique, as it allowed smaller ships and barges from the Pearl river to ferry raw material upto the deep water harbour, from where it would be loaded onto the large ships for further transportation. Thus, being a port, Hong Kong was visited by lots of ships and its crew. Further, being a British territory for a long time, it saw settlements from various British colonies such as undivided India, some parts of the African continent, etc. And as Hong Kong transformed itself into a financial centre of the Asia-Pacific region, it saw further influx of various nationalities from around the world.

Hong Kong's economy is heavily loaded with financial services, followed by tourism. And they have pulled all stops out, to attract tourists to the city. The connect begins even before you have bought a ticket to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) has a website in place for you to plan the journey. To start with, they offer free tourist visa on arrival for citizens of various countries. So, you can buy your ticket, take your passport and board the plane and enter Hong Kong in a jiffy. Even at the airport, the HKTB goes all the way to ensure that you get to know about the tourist spots in Hong Kong.

One thing that amazes you about Hong Kong is connectivity. The airport is around 25 km. from down-town, on a separate island. It is connected by Airport Express buses, which can take you to almost any part of Hong Kong and by Hong Kong's famous MTR. In effect, if traffic permits, you are not away from down-town Hong Kong by more than an hour.

If you are a tourist in Hong Kong, Tsim Tsa Shui (pronounced as chim cha sui) is the place to stay. Why? Because it has all sorts of accommodation options, ranging from budget hotels to luxury ones. And because of its proximity to most tourist locations in and around Hong Kong island. Also, staying in Tsim Tsa Sui lets you avoid the office crowd that pours into Hong Kong island. Tsim Tsa Sui also has connectivity to two MTR stations: Tsim Tsa Sui and East Tsim Tsa Sui, which further connect to the outer islands and other tourist locations of the SAR.

Must do in Hong Kong: Take a harbour tour on the Star Ferry to experience the colonial history and activites of Hong Kong. Go to the Avenue of Stars and take a picture along with Bruce Lee, Hong Kong's most famous international superstar. And on a clear night, if there have been no thunderstorm warnings, you can watch the Symphony of Lights show, which involves an orchestra of lights being beamed from more than twelve buildings from Hong Kong bay and Kowloon Island.

I will follow up more details about Hong Kong tourism in the next post.

Asia's World City: Part 1SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands: S. H. Zaidi and J. Borges

The mafia dons of the Mumbai underworld are quite well known and perhaps even romanticised. The careers of Haji Mastan, Karim Lala, Varadarajan Mudaliar, Ashwin Naik, Bada Rajan, Chota Rajan and of course, Dawood Ibrahim are colourfully, yet well documented.

But, behind the curtains, in the backdrop, were quite a few women, who were so resourceful and determined to stand on their own, that some of them almost challenged the supremacy of the reigning dons.

The book, Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands traces the lives of thirteen such women, who made it big in the underworld. Some, who were forced into the underworld due to their circumstances, and some who were determined to carve their own place in the underworld. Their exploits have perhaps led to unknowing consequences. E.g., when Haji Mastan wanted to get into real state business, he sought Jenabai Daruwali's help. She suggested him to bring Dawood's gang and Pathan gang together. With this formidable alliance, Mastan did manage to get a foothold into the real estate business of Mumbai, but the collateral damage was done. The formidable alliance of Dawood and Pathans might have accelerated Dawood's rise in the underworld, creating a menace that we have to still bear with. Similarly, Arun Gawli seems to have lost a big time opportunity to get even with Dawood. Sapna didi, who harboured a grudge against Dawood, wanted to align with Gawli as she felt she was too small a force to inflict any harm on Dawood's operations. But Gawli's distrust about Muslims, led him to reject aligning with Sapna didi.

The stories of the wives of Dons are even more fascinating. They all took active interest in their respective husband's work, once they were on the run. The dons trusted their businesses in the hands of their wives. And these clever women learnt the ropes quickly and also realised how to protect their husband from harm. The likes of Asha Gawli and Neeta Naik joined politics to ensure their husbands, Arun Gawli and Ashwin Naik respectively, aren't gunned down by the police. While some others joined their husbands in their flight from law.

More such stories, some fascinating, some sad, find place in this book. It is worth grabbing a copy and driving through the untold stories of the Mumbai underworld. Certainly, crime is much more fascinating to read.

Mafia Queens of Mumbai: Stories of Women from the Ganglands: S. H. Zaidi and J. BorgesSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

VFS: The most expensive courier service

The first thing you need, if you have to travel abroad, is a visa to the countries you have to visit. And so, begins the hunt for what is the type of visa you need, the checklist of documents, photographs, etc. In India, most of the embassies, those who witness a large amount of visa applications for their countries, have now begun outsourcing part of their work to VFS.The VFS centres of the particular embassy/consulate collects your visa documents and passport, on behalf of the embassy, sorts them in the order required by the embassy and deposits those with them. On the scheduled day, VFS collects those documents and brings it back to its centre for you to collect those.

For all this business, VFS charges every applicant a processing fee, which ranges from Rs. 600 onwards. If the embassies themselves were to do all the administrative jobs that VFS does, they wouldn't be charging us any service fees, as it is included in the visa fees. But we pay these fees to VFS, because it helps us escape those long queues that we might encounter at the embassies/consulates. Also, it helps us realise whether our form is correctly filled and the right set of documents are attached, thus reducing the chances of visa being rejected due to incomplete documents, incomplete forms, etc.

This means, the VFS website listing the document requirements itself should be updated with the latest visa application requirements of the concerned embassy. If not, then there is a chance of a ruined trip to the VFS office. E.g., take the VFS website for the Chinese consulate. To apply for any visa, it does list the requirements. But, after you have gathered everything and gone to the VFS centre, you are told, "Sir, for the business visa, you need to submit your savings bank account statement." You tell them, that isn't mentioned on the website. Then "executive" says, "Sorry sir, the website might not have been updated." So, how am I supposed to know about what documents are required? I cannot have the latest requirements planted into my dreams. Then, she says, "If your airline isn't a Chinese/Hong Kong airline, you need to get your ticket stamped by the airline office." Again, you tell her that this isn't mentioned anywhere on the website.

You start feeling helpless. You have double, triple checked whether all the documents are in order. And you have referred to the website of the organisation authorised by the consulate for the document requirements. And for all this outdated information, VFS charges you Rs. 610 as service fees. Plus, costs you a futile journey to the VFS centre. Makes you wonder, is VFS only a courier service, transporting your documents to and from the embassy for you? Seems to be a pretty expensive service.
VFS: The most expensive courier serviceSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Friday, May 06, 2011

U.S. turn around on 26/11 and the MMRCA deal

The US state department spokesperson, Mark Toner almost went to say that the terror acts of 9th September 2001 and 26 November 2008 are not comparable. How did he justify Operation Geronimo? He says "What we've said all along is that this was an individual where, when we had actionable intelligence against him, we acted upon that because we believed he was a direct and imminent threat to the United States."

But the United States appeared reluctant to support India, if it chooses to carry out a similar operation against terrorists who have engaged in (proxy-) war against us. So, even if we have concrete information about Dawood Ibrahim's location and decide to carry out a similar operation, US won't support us. Why?

Now, if we try to connect the dots, what emerges is the fact that just last week, India rejected the bids of two American firms, namely Boeing (F/A-18 Hornet) and Lockheed Martin (F-16), from the $126 billion MMRCA deal. Had this deal been through, it would have generated lots of jobs back in the US, besides giving a fillip to either Boeing or Lockheed Martin. Add to that, a continued business in terms of spares, re-fitting, weaponry, etc. Alas, that was not to be. No matter how many times the US repeats that it respects India's decision, they are definitely hurt. There is a growing section that feels that India is ungrateful. They feel that the US has done a huge 'favour' to India by working out the 123 agreement, which ends India's isolation from the nuclear world. In reality, there was no 'favour' but purely business considerations. But, the US still has to see the economic benefits of the deal, as no concrete agreements have yet been signed with any of the American suppliers of nuclear power generation equipment.

So, a sore United States doesn't want to extend any more 'favours' to India. They are definitely hurt. One, the MMRCA deal has gone to Europe, with American businesses losing more than a $ 200 billion business over a long span. Two, the nuclear agreement hasn't led to any economic benefits as yet. Three, India abstained from voting on the UN Security Council resolution against Gaddafi in Libya. And hence, they are trying to distance themselves from being committed to helping India, in case it decides to carry out direct operations on Pakistani soil, in a manner similar to what they did. This denial, would boost Pakistan's confidence and shrink India's to a certain extent. It exposes the double standards of the US, where they are allowed to violate the sovereignty of any country in order to kill a person they call as their enemy, but other nations cannot do so. Of course, a few American citizens too have lost their lives in the terror attacks and the US may pursue the terrorists, to avenge killing of "their citizens", with none in the world questioning its aggression.

Note: This portion added as an afterthought
But, it now makes me wonder, what would America's position have been, had India short-listed either Boeing or Lockheed Martin in the final rounds. Surely, not as cold or opposite to what it appears today in the newspapers. No doubt, they would have further pressurised Pakistan into "taking action" against the perpetrators of  26/11 and then also went on to say that they are parallels between 9/11 and 26/11. At the very least, Mark Toner would not be make these statements in the media today.
U.S. turn around on 26/11 and the MMRCA dealSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Mapro Farms: Mahabaleshwar

Cold Stone Ice cream
It was a one-day trip to Mahabaleshwar. Now, if you are not too interested in shopping around, there are very few things that you can do in Mahabaleshwar. There are various points in and around the city, which offer a glimpse of the Sahaydri valley from various angles. Then there is the Venna Lake, in which you can go boating, or ride horses on its bank or just idle around the bank. But, you can spend an ample amount of time at Mapro Gardens. 

Mapro Gardens is a diversification by Mapro Foods, which is very popular in Maharashtra state for its processed fruit products like fruit crushes, squash, etc. Mapro has also diversified into products like chocolates, honey, gulkand and many more. Mapro Gardens is located on the  road from Panchagani to Mahabaleshwar. It is an open garden restaurant, almost like a resort. The garden restaurant serves various food and (non-alcoholic) drinks to keep you busy through the day. The best part of their menu are the ice-creams and juices. Since Mahabaleshwar is pretty famous for its strawberries, all their ice-creams have generous portions of fresh strawberries. And the portions are large enough to fill you up.

Fresh Strawberry with whipped cream
You can enjoy the foods and drinks at tables spread in an area shaded with trees, over looking the farms and valley across Mahabaleshwar. The choice of food, though, is  limited. They serve a few types of pizza and sandwiches, strictly vegetarian stuff. But, the good part is, the pizza base and bread loaves are freshly baked in Mapro's kitchen. You can see the guys rolling the pizza bases and bread and bake them in the ovens in front of you. The choice of juices too is good, it varies from soda-based juices to thick shakes.

And while you sip your juice or milk shake, or enjoy your ice-cream, you can have a look around the Mapro gardens. They have a nursery where they've planted strawberry. You can see the strawberry in various stages of growth. You can also enjoy by the fountain in the garden.

The best part is that most of the ingredients used to make these food stuff come from the area in and around Mahabaleshwar. And it has provided an employment and business opportunity for many locals in the local area.

Mapro has also conveniently placed a sales counter in Mapro Gardens, which sells most of Mapro's process food products. It is good to buy them here, as you get a 10% discount on the M.R.P. mentioned in there. It is good to go for fruit crushes or squashes, as they are locally made. Mapro also makes chocolates under the Mazzana brand. You might want to take home a few of those too. And their chocolate factory is located right next to Mapro Gardens. Take your little ones there to see how their chocolates are actually made.

Mapro Gardens is a wonderful place, where you can easily relax for 3-4 hours. They could do with some entertainment options for children. Otherwise, it is a wonderful place. And a must do, when you are travelling to Mahabaleshwar.
Mapro Farms: MahabaleshwarSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sibal's foot-in-the-mouth disease

Do you think that the New Telecom Policy being formulated by the Ministry of Telecommunications and IT help in fighting corruption? Do you feel that the Women's Reservation Bill, if passed by the Parliament and enacted by the President of India, will help you lodge an FIR in the police station without any of the current hassles? Also, do you think that, if passed, the Government Services (Declaration of Assets and Investigation) Bill will help those below poverty line get their full share of ration food and fuel from the neighbourhood PDS shop?

If your answer to all these above questions is "yes", consider yourself in the elite company of Shri Kapil Sibal, the Minister for Human Resources and Development, as well as the Minister for Telecommunication and IT. In the video shown below, the honourable (and highly educated; he is a lawyer in the Delhi High Court) minister states that the Lokpal bill (either in current form or that proposed by Anna Hazare and others) will not provide education to the poor children, nor will it stop policemen from taking bribe, nor will it provide for basic infrastructural facilities. And he is the same person who went on record saying that the arbitrary 2G spectrum sale hasn't caused any loss to the government. Why, Mr. Sibal? Is it because the government employees as well as politicians will stop working for they cannot take a bribe, fearing the wrath of the Lokpal? Will a government employee say, "I cannot take a bribe, because the Lokpal might prosecute me and I cannot work if I do not take a bribe"? If so, our system really needs to be dumped into the sea and a new fresh start is needed. Yes, Lokpal bill will not be able to provide these things. But then, it will ensure that the development funds are actually spent on development. Prince Rahul's father, Rajiv, once famously said "Less than 15 paise out of every rupee actually reaches those it is meant for". The Lokpal bill is supposed to increase this amount from 15 paise, to ideally the entire rupee. Only then, will the poor children receive education, the people will get good infrastructural facilities. The Lokpal bill won't cure you of a heart attack or a simple cold too, but it will see that someone who needs these medicines, gets them on time and in the right quantities.

Towards the end of his talk, he urges the common man to take up cudgels against corruption as they are the only ones who can fight it.  Yes, Mr. Sibal, we will fight it. But, all we need from our government (remember, we voted for your return) is a strong legal backing to nail the culprits, without fearing for our or our family's safety. Remember, we are not yet a banana republic, else we could have dealt with some of the corrupt in accordance with the laws(?) of a banana republic. So, do not connect unrelated issues.
Sibal's foot-in-the-mouth diseaseSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The cup is ours!!

Yes, Team India has done it for us. 28 years in the waiting. That is twice the time Lord Ram or the Pandav spent in the woods, banished from their kingdoms. And captain M.S. Dhoni, fittingly, lead from the front in the finals and finished off the game with style!! It isn't more hurting for the opposition than scoring the winning runs by hitting a seam bowler for maximum. If you do not believe it, ask a certain Chetan Sharma. Or those who watched Javed Miandad clobber him for a boundary off the last ball. And I was witness to every moment of the final. From Zaheer's tight spell, to Perera's hitting. From the agony of losing Sehwag in the first over, on a duck to the joy of  a solid Gambhir-Kohli and Gambhir-Dhoni partnership.

All said and done, through the series it was a team effort. Team India certainly deserves this cup, as everybody contributed their bit for the team in the entire series. Tendulkar and Sehwag did it with the bat, Yuvraj provided crucial all-round support. Gambhir, Kohli and Raina provided consolidation when it was most required. Zaheer was crucial with the ball and broke partnerships for his captain. Dhoni backed his team-mates solidly, in their highs and lows. He accepted the limitations and tried to circumnavigate those. And he was brutally honest with his assessments, which perhaps led the team in giving a bit more. His team selection was criticised, batting form was a concern, but the team's performance made the critics swallow their own words. Yes, ODI cricket is a game of chance, and had things been the opposite way, everyone would have bayed for Dhoni's blood. And Mahi was honest about that too, in the post-match presentation. But he took the risks, and the team justified his gambles. Those who do not dare to loft the ball (and thereby risk being caught out), will never hit a six.

Very very special thanks and gratitude should be reserved for Gary Kirsten. He took up coaching after Greg Chappell had left it fractured and demoralised. Chappell's so-called reforms led the team from disaster to disaster, not only on-field, but in the dressing room too. He has built a superb atmosphere in the dressing room and rallied around with the players. He and Dhoni together instilled a lot of self-confidence in the team, but that wouldn't have been possible if Gary hadn't inculcated the spirit and ways of Indian cricket. Chappell thought Australian cricket is most professional and hence Australians dominate the word scene. He thought the same "professionalism" could be brought into Indian cricket. And the same Chappell is the chairman of selectors in Australia, has selected a team that lost the Ashes at home and for the first time since 1996 didn't enter the World Cup final. In this light, Gary's contribution is immense. I sincerely desire that Gary changes his mind. If not, let's find someone who imbibes Gary's methods in going about his job.

And finally, to the man (God, I would say) who has shouldered the expectation of a nation for more than two decades- Sachin Tendulkar. He finally has that elusive World Cup winning team medal in his showcase along side the countless man-of-the-match, man-of-the-series and other awards he has received during his glorious (for my lack of vocabulary) career. He deserved it and the team has done it for him.

Once the frenzy has died out, the celebrations have ended, there are a few points that India has to ponder upon.
  1. We lacked a decent pace attack. To be frank, Sreesanth isn't exactly a reliable bowler. He was lucky to get into the team, thanks to an injured Praveen Kumar. Zaheer shouldered the responsibility almost single handedly. Even Munaf and Nehra were mostly off-coloured in their bowling.
  2. Spin too, wasn't quality spin that is expected from an Indian side. Harbhajan looked to contain rather than attack, Chawla was spraying the ball all over the pitch. Ashwin bowled nicely, especially when asked to bowl in the mandatory power play.
  3. Dhoni has accepted that India aren't a great fielding side. But then, we need to work upon our fielding and get better with it. In the final, crucial 30 odd runs were saved by Yuvraj and Raina's brilliant fielding.
  4. Gary Kirsten is going back to South Africa. Pray that the person who replaces Gary, carries on what Gary has been doing and the way he is doing it. Do not try anything suicidal like Greg Chappell.
  5. Finally, let us show the same zeal and support for other sports persons too. Hockey, tennis, badminton, athletics, etc. They too bring laurels for India at world stage.
The cup is ours!!SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bring on the obituaries for nuclear energy

The tragedy of the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami in Japan has given all the so-called experts and environmentalists to pressurise governments around the world to give up power generation using nuclear energy. And they have forced many editorials, which are virtually writing obituaries for nuclear energy.

Thanks to the 24 hour breaking and sensationalising news channels, those opposing the Jaitapur nuclear power project have got a new lease of life. They have been claiming that the earthquake has shown how dangerous nuclear energy is and are asking the government to think of other sources to generate electricity. What other sources? None have a clear answer about it. Many of them say that renewable sources of energy should be used. The proposed Jaitapur project would generate around 10,000 MW of electricity, once fully operational. Do the opponents have an idea, how much land would be required to generate the same amount of power using wind energy? A rule of thumb indicates that roughly 60 acres/MW are required if wind farms are built on land. This means, roughly 6,00,000 acres of land will be required to build a Jaitapur equivalent of wind farm. Do we have that much land to spare, even when farming is possible alongside a wind turbine?

If catastrophic disasters were to shape events in history, we perhaps would never be driving cars or flying in aeroplanes.The debris of Air France flight 447 hasn't yet been recovered. The crash caused a loss of 228 lives. Over the decades, commercial aircraft have crashed for various reasons and we have lost precious lives in these unfortunate incidents. This hasn't prevented the civil aviation sector from expanding like never before, nor has it stymied the development of new, better, larger and faster aeroplanes. So, why does nuclear energy invoke such fear?

Why isn't similar (or greater) contempt reserved for coal-fired power plants? Though they do not pose a threat of radiation contamination, but contamination of the environment due to fly ash and smoke has had an adverse effect on the people residing near such power plants for over generations. And when people talk of problems in disposing nuclear waste, they conveniently forget the havoc caused by fly-ash waste, which is gathering in landfills. In India, less than 50% of fly ash is recycled. Isn't it a problem? We do not have technology to safely dispose fly-ash, yet do not oppose coal-fired power plants.

The point I want to make here, is that we cannot wait beyond a certain limit to get started with enjoying the benefits of technology. We have to use and develop it side-by-side. Anticipate problems, solve them early and if mishaps or disasters occur, we should learn from them and improve designs and procedures accordingly. Writing such premature obituaries is not going to help in any manner. Nuclear power is currently cheapest among the clean methods to generate electricity and if India desires to achieve all-round development, it will have to make use of this source at some point of time. And the earlier it does, the better it would be.

I would like to end with an interesting quote, I heard the other day. "The earthquake and tsunami have resulted in the deaths of more than 10,000 persons in Japan. But the failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plants hasn't yet cause a single death."
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Friday, February 25, 2011

Fifty years of James Bond (continued)

The year 2012 will see the Golden Jubilee of the James Bond series. Out of my interest in James Bond, and a habbit of analysing, I have tried to compare the actors who played James Bond over the past fifty years. This is the link for the first part.

The James Bond series was produced by EON productions. This then further passed on to MGM studios, who retained Albert Broccoli as the producer. From Dr. No onwards, the key ingredient was a person or organisation pitting Soviet Union against Britain or USA in some way or the other. The Bond series made good use of the Cold War. And that is why, there was a question about Bond's effectiveness, when they decided to make GoldenEye. With no Iron Curtain, whom would Bond be fighting?1 GoldenEye did see Bond pitted against the remnants of the USSR, but the changed dynamics of world politics did provide Bond with new enemies to save the world from. So, this is my view of how the remaining Bond actors stand.
  1. Pierce Brosnan: The person, whom most people born in the late 70s and 80s recognise as Bond.  If he is Bond, he is Brosnan. Brosnan had a huge task in hand. With Dalton's movies being panned by critics and people terming Dalton's Bond as one of the worst till date, the fate of James Bond, completely rested on Brosnan's shoulders. And he surely didn't disappoint. Brosnan's Bond was a huge improvement over Dalton's Bond. And he was much more humane than Connery and Moore. He did feel pain, both physical and emotional. His body language conveyed the emotions of very slight nervousness when in a difficult situation. He was much less vulnerable to seductions by women, when compared to Moore's Bond, perhaps comparable to Connery's Bond. His attitude was way better than Dalton's Bond. Brosnan's portrayal of Bond is considered crucial to the revival of the James Bond series.
  2. Daniel Craig: Craig's selection as Bond met with a lot of criticism. Most people thought that Craig is not what Bond is, tall, suave and handsome. And they had the right to be apprehensive. After all, Dalton's failure as Bond was fresh in memories of many Bond fans. Craig débuted in Casino Royale, which was used to reboot the Bond series. In this movie, Bond was shown as a novice, aiming to earn his 00-stripes. Hence, he isn't the hardened 007, portrayed in the earlier Bond movies. Daniel Craig has performed the role of a novice Bond to perfection. He isn't the cool and dispassionate Bond, shown in the earlier movies and M has to remind him to not get emotional when on a mission.  Neither did he have the legendary Q's gadgets to assist him. Casino Royale was about the moulding of a 00 agent and Quantum of Solace saw the continuation. Now, it all depends on the next Bond movie  (which has been postponed indefinitely) to see if Craig can play the Bond we know. Cool, dispassionate and typical British in behaviour.
That was my take on the James Bond series. Wish that the latest Bond movie gets completed on time, to be released for Bond's 50th anniversary.
    1. Courtesy Wikipedia
    Fifty years of James Bond (continued)SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

    Wednesday, February 09, 2011

    James Bond over the period of 50 years

    The year 2012 will mark 50 years since the first James Bond movie appeared in theatres. The series was a run-away super-hit and Bond spawned a series of  secret agent movies. From Dr. No onwards to Casino Royale, Bond hasn't failed to charm us. The gadgets provided to him by Q were simply marvellous, for the lack of better words in my vocabulary. They bordered on the thin line between reality and sci-fi. In each movie, Bond uses Q's gadget only once and most of his cars (from Aston Martins to Lotus) aren't in a position to be used again. Here is my take on the actors who have essayed the role of the legendary secret agent.
    1. Sean Connery: The first Bond. And the legend is etched in peoples' minds. Connery's Bond was stiff upper-lipped, a typical British characteristic. He maintained his cool even in the most adverse situations. Or perhaps didn't display any emotions even then. The only time Bond's nervousness showed out, was in Goldfinger, when the laser beam was slowly edging towards him and he would have died if Goldfinger didn't shut down the laser. Strictly businesslike attitude, though often seduced and got seduced by women. Even while seducing women, he carried a strict business like attitude. His humour too, was typical British humour. In short, a Bond who strictly went about doing his business, without any outward display of emotions.
    2. George Lazenby: The guy got to play Bond in only one movie, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. So, he hasn't been able to leave a trend behind. To me, he appeared more humane than Connery's Bond. Although his Bond maintained a strict business like attitude, his emotions were more visible in some of the emotional scenes. But, he did seem uncomfortable in the last scene, where Bond holds his dead wife, Tracy, and says "We have all the time in the world". At that moment, Bond's voice isn't able to convey the true emotions of sorrow and pain.
    3. Roger Moore: The man who played Bond in the most number of movies, seven. Moore's Bond was humorous, compared to the previous ones. His Bond also appeared a little careless, when on duty, but always managed to get out of difficult situations in a cool manner, which is typical of Bond. He also appears more prone to being seduced by women. Moore' Bond peeled off the typical British stiffness and made him more affable.
    4. Timothy Dalton: Dalton got to play Bond in two movies. He tried to bring back a serious Bond, departing from Moore's Bond, but perhaps failed in doing so. According to me, Dalton is the least impressive of all Bonds over the years. Dalton's Bond appeared a harried and nervous character. The 'cool' attitude that defined Bond, was seldom seen in Dalton's Bond movies.
    I think, I should stop here. Too much for one post. I shall write about the remaining two Bonds- Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig- in the next post.
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    Saturday, January 22, 2011

    IITs propose to hike fees by five-fold

    In a recent news by, there is a story that IITs have proposed to increase the fees for the UG degree course by five times. The proposal says that this will allow IITs to become independent of government funding and hence more autonomous. The committee headed by Dr. Kakodkar made this proposal to the government. The committee based its recommendations on the way IIMs charge fees in which, course-oriented degree programmes are financed completely by the students and research-oriented programmes are funded through various sources, like MHRD, DST, other government organisations and private industries.

    But, how much justified is this? In another report, that appeared in the Times of India, the logic used was that one-third expenses should come from students, one-third from government and one-third generated through research projects. And there is a provision for extending low-interest loans to economically backward students. However, unlike foreign universities, where scholarships and tuition waiver are given to certain students, the committee doesn't make any mention of the same to students coming to IIT. Scholarships  in foreign universities are based on various criteria, ranging from academic excellence, sports excellence to ethnic origin. IITs already extend tuition waiver, free accommodation and free basic messing to students from the SC and ST category, irrespective of their economic status. Why don't they apply the economic backwardness criteria to these students?  If their parents are economically well to do, why should they be extended such privileges.  And there is nothing in store for meritorious students. Additionally, in foreign universities, the students have the opportunity to work on campus and earn some money to substitute their living expenses. The way IIT curriculum is designed today, it leaves the students with very less time to work and earn some money. Also, there exist no opportunities on IIT campuses, where students can be employed as part-timers. IITs, ironically, pride on the fact that their course structure is so intense that students have to over-work and under-sleep to stay on track.

    Another point, the committee's report doesn't mention is the plan to increase revenues through research projects and technology licensing. Research projects, currently, are mainly available through government agencies like DST, DRDO, BRNS, etc. So, indirectly it is the government and tax-payer who are funding the research work. Contribution for research and consultancy projects through private industries is very low, when compared to the government sources. How do the IITs plan to change this scenario? Will there be an increase in contribution towards research from private firms and endowments? And, what about earning through technology licensing? How much do IITs currently earn through technology licensing? Will the committee set any reasonable revenue targets from technology licensing that IITs should aim to achieve?

    And finally, IITs should reduce the stuff they dole out for free. Through its Centre for Distance Engineering Education Programme (CDEEP), IIT Bombay transmits its courses for free to institutes that are interested in beaming those to their students. Similarly, other IITs too have such distance education programmes. The question is, when IIT students pay fees to attend these courses, why should others view it for free? Why doesn't IIT charge them too for it? If financial autonomy is desired in running degree courses, then such free doling should be completely brought to a halt

    To sum it up, costs of education have increased. But,the government has to play its role in keeping the cost incurred by students at a reasonable level. Schemes to bring in meritorious students should be there in place, in form on scholarships and not only low-interest loans. IITs can augment its earnings through other sources too, but there needs to be concrete planning to enhance those earnings. And finally, esteemed individuals and trusts in the Indian society should try and create endowments or chairs in IITs, rather than donating money to foreign universities. This would definitely attract some talent to the IITs.
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