India at Davos: Advertising the unavailable

They advertised India’s $35 dollar computer in Davos during the World Economic Forum 2012. The photo on The HIndu op-ed page came as an  ‘eye-opener’ for me, in the sense that I didn’t realise our India-brand building specialists were capable of advertising abroad something that is not available off the shelf in India.  Anyway,  I don’t suppose anyone in Davos took up the computer maker on their  bargain offer (of $35) .

The advertising agency involved in the  ‘India Ingenious’  campaign may well be  justified if they say  they are in the business of marketing,  not a product, but  a perception.  The product in reference – Aakash tablet computer –  going by its  status reports,  is still  very much a work in progress.

The photo credit: Ravinder Kaur,  associate professor,  Modern South Asian Studies,  Copenhagen University,  who took the photo to go with her article : Dazzling images do not a shining nation make.  Notable among the points made  by the author  is that India,  in mounting the  image campaign through billboards,  and promos .  on city  buses,  cafes,  streets and, even half-empty parking lots,  of  Davos,  has  had to compete  with players such as  Mexico,  Thailand and  Azerbaijan,  for attracting foreign investment.  China, they say,  was conspicuous through its visual absence.


Of Team Anna and Arun Maira’s ‘fireflies’

Our industrial output,  slipping into a negative growth mode,  plunged to minus 5.1 percent in October (see headline).  The same month last year saw a robust 11.3 percent growth.  Economics alone wouldn’t  explain such  steep fall to dismal depths within a year.  Corporate leaders talk of a governance deficit.  The government (read PM),  facing the charge of  decision-making paralysis,  points to compulsions of coalition politics that resulted in the govt. having to put on hold FDI in retailing, despite a cabinet decision. Localised protests hold up commissioning of Kudamkulam nuclear power plant. Kerala and Tamil Nadu are engaged in disruptive politics over the future of Mullaiperiyar dam.  And then we have Team Anna  dictating terms to the govt. on drafting the  Lokpal Bill, and giving parliament a timeline for enactment of the Bill.

This then is the scenario in which I got to read  Arun Maira’s  ‘Transforming Capitalism.  The book’s sub-title – ‘Improving the World for Everyone‘ – sounds rather presumptuous , I thought.  But then I wouldn’t fault the author, for it is often the publisher who gives a book the title that   sells.  A  compilation of  Mr Maira’s  newspaper and magazine articles,  the book is designed to help business leaders and managers undertand the social issues they need to factor in,  while making business decision. Mr Arun  Maira,  a Planning Commission member,  has spent decades in the corporate sector –  in the Tatas and later at the Boston Consulting Group.

Transforming Capitalism‘ is the sort  of book  you choose to  read for ideas,  for professional guidance,  and for other info. of  your interest.  You don’t need to start at the beginning  ,  and plod through chapter, after chapter, to get at the guts of it , on Page 148 (as I did) . The chapters, reproduced from Mr Maira’s media writings  ,  are stand-alone pieces  that  people read on morning commute.  As the author says in the preface,  his chapters are longer than Tweets,  but they are short enough to be read during a brief plane ride. You can start anywhere, flip through chapters,  go back and forth. I did this all,  and also revisited a chapter,  in which Maira writes about  people’s movement led by Arvind Kejriwal  – Parivartan.

Reading of all  the good work he has done at Parivartan,  I couldn’t help wonder if too much TV does a person  any  good  for his  reputation or for  the cause he upholds .  Mr Kejriwal  of  Team Anna fame is all over on TV nowadays,  so much so that you can’t escape his  presence at prime-time  talk-shows,  by switching channels, unless  you switch to cartoon channel or switch off altogether.

Anyway,  even as the govt.  announced  the  date for moving the Lokpal Bill  in Lok Sabha  Anna Hazare  reiterated his threat to go on fast from December 27, if,  by then the Bill doesn’t get passed in parliament.  Team Anna may have zero trust in  govt., but their apparant intolerance with the ruling party,  and the ultimatum Anna Hazare sets for the parliament  do not set a healthy precedent  for growth of people’s movement in a democracy.

In refreshing contrast to present day,   the 2009 scenario   of   civil society awakening after RTI,  as articulated by Mr Maira in his book , appeared  conducive to the spread  of  Parivartan-type communities in various  parts of the country. The  communities were driven by  by varied causes –  provision of drinking water,  adult literacy,  village schooling,  micro-lending,  women’s issues and concerns.

Mr Maira,  terming them  ‘communities of practice’,  says the spread of such communities  would transform India from bottom up. The communities  (‘fireflies’, in Mr Maira’s book) that used the provisions of the Rights to Information Act  to help people get their dues and prevent grass-roots corruption can be connected to each other through networking, and not by hierarchies.  The  author would like to see the govt. (with its  power to facilitate ) as well as the corporates (with their  resources) stepping forward to promote a supportive framework that enables many more ‘fireflies’ to rise.  This, according to Mr Maira,  is the only way India can step up growth in a free market economy. This perceptive chapter in the book has been reprinted  from  Civil Society,  a monthly magazine.  Its publisher Umesh Anand  was the one who persuaded Mr Maira to do the book.

And I got to read Arun Maira through  this  programme of  book reviews by bloggers.  Anyone who blogs; and  has flair for books  can access Blogadda for details .

The Dr Raj I knew

There are numerous others,  with better credentials,  to write about the  Dr K N Raj they knew as an economist. I have been his student at the Delhi School of Economics (1958-60).  He took our post-graduate  class in monetary economics.  But it was outside the class-room that  I had occasion to interact with him,  not on  IMF or IBRD ,  but on our school annual day play  – ‘She Stoops to Conquer’.

Not many may know of the interest Dr Raj  took in   extra-curricular activities of his students. He guided us  in the choice of the play, did the audition,  and sat through the rehearsals after the School hours.  As head of the students Fraternity I was  in charge,  if only notionally,  of production of the School play to be staged on our Annual Day. As such, I tagged along with Dr Raj during several evenings of rehearsals.  We gladly let  him  call the shots. Looking back, I cherish memories of the DSE days spent with Dr Raj,  Putul Nag (who bet most of us in carrams played at the Fraternity room), and Dr M V Pylee, who was students advisor.  I remember a couple other faculty members such as Dr Padma Desai dropping in at the rehearsals of our play , if only to watch Dr Raj wearing a  director’s cap.

At DSE those days there was no students union.  We had the Fraternity,  a forum  comprising both students and the DSE faculty. The then director of the school,  Dr B N Ganguli,  was the president of DSE Fraternity; and I (then in MA Final year) was elected vice-president. Dr Ganguli, though friendly with students , was remote from student activities. It was Dr Raj who took active interest in the affairs of the School Fraternity. He was so pleased with the students performance at our Annual Day  that Dr Raj hosted a dinner to the cast of the play  at a Kashmere Gate restaurant,  Khybar Pass .

After graduation I met Dr Raj just twice,  as a newspaper reporter  –  once,  when,  as  Delhi  University vice-chancellor,  he was gheraoed in his chamber  by a section of students ; and, a couple of years later , on the corridors of New Dehi’s Connaught Circus, when  Dr Raj had quit VC’s post and  shifted base to Trivandrum.

MUDA telecast : passing the buck

Telecast of the Mysore Urban Development Authority (MUDA)  meetings has been shelved.  Its members  have passed the buck to Bangalore,  seeking  clear-cut directive from Karnataka government,  on whether or not the proceedings of MUDA should be open to the media via closed-circuit telecast.   MUDA isn’t particularly known for fair dealings when it comes to allotment of residential and other sites to members of the public.

To bring a measure of transparency in its public dealings MUDA chairman P Manivannan thought of opening its periodical meetings to the media.  Some MUDA members felt that presence of news reporters at the meeting hall would cramp their style. Meeting their objection Mr Manivannan  arranged for a  closed-circuit telecast of the proceedings to the MUDA press-room.

Which wasn’t okay with some MUDA members,  notably MLAs   who don’t feel comfortable with anything short of in-camera proceedings.  In the government if someone doesn’t want to get anything done,  the issue is referred to the higher authorities.  Papers are put up for approval. And a file is created,  to move from desk to a bigger desk,  till the file finds itself on CM’ s desk.

The issue whether or not to telecast  MUDA meetings has been referred to the department of law and parliamentary affairs.  The file would then move up the bureaucratic and ministerial ladders.  If the matter pertains to policy direction,  which the telecast issue,  presumably, is,  it goes to  CM.  If he deems the issue is worthy of wider consideration,  he could set up a committee.

My hunch is, a matter needing  ‘clear-cut direction’ would  call for a committee deliberation.  Besides,  if they  okay MUDA ,  you can’t stop  GUDA,  DUDA and BUDA (Bellary)  wanting  to  go  ‘live’ in the interest of transparency .

Mysore: Airport in search of flights

Now that the city has an airport with no flights,  Mysore is faced with the problem of generating passenger and cargo traffic that would make it worthwhile for airlines to come in here.  A recent seminar on the issue came up with the idea that Mysore-based IT corporates and other business establishments should hold out a promise of minumum seats occupancy to lure the airlines.

The idea doesn’t seem all that bright or workable because no airline can be expected make its business decisions on the minimum seats guaranteed  by a few corporates. Anyway,  no such assurance can be binding on individual companies.  Besides, airlines are reported to be looking for a state subsidy by way of a cut in fuel tax (27 perecent in Karnataka).

Air-traffic projection by Infosys has it that 800 of its employees  would use air services every week to Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore. To be meaningful such projection ought to be able to give a break-down, city-wise, and also in terms of seat-occupancy on weekdays,  and weekends.

It doesn’t require much study to say that much of the corporate employees traffic out of Mysore is on weekends. Check the Chennai Shadabthi bookings from Mysore on Friday/Saturday. Viewed in this perspective, Mysore could at best function a weekend airport, to start with.

Among other wild ideas that spring to mind:
1) Make Mysore a cargo hub for carrying  vegetables, fruits, flowers, and other perishables from distrcts and nearby Nilgiris to  major market centre. This would need deep-freeze storage facility.
2) Airlines operating from Mysore would do well to  look at traffic to tier-2 destinations such as Coimbatore, Madurai, Trichy, Bellary, Mangalore, Tirupathi, Cochin.
3) The Airports Authority of India  could consider developing  a shopping complex for air passengers and also local residents, in view of the relative proximity of the airport to the city limits.
4) Doubling the railway track could attract air traffic from towns on railway route.
5) Early completion of the Mysore-Bangalore expressway would make Mysore a credible alternative for air passengers in Bididi, Kengari and other Bangalore suburbs on the Mysore-end.

A global edit on climate change

A Maldives cabinet meet on  seabed,  Nepal meet on Mt. Everest,  and now a common global editorial on climate change .  They are all geared to get world leaders meeting at Copenhagen to deliver, and not merely deliberate.  The common editorial has been  published on page one, of 56 newpapers from 45 countries in 20 different language.  Notably,  the only newspaper in India to carry the edit is The Hindu.

The Guardian of London that led this unique media initiative could not persuade any other paper in the UK . In the US the only English daily that published the edit is Miami Herald. The only other US paper to do so is in Spanish – El Nuevo.  In fact, the response of one US paper to the initiative was :  “This is an outrageous attempt to orchestrate media pressure.  Go to hell.”

It took the Guardian leader writiers – Tom Clark and Julian Glover – three drafts,  after much e-mail to-and-fro-ing among the participant editors to finalise the text.  Reflecting on how the shared editorial project emerged Guardian’s Ian Katz wrote , ” Given that newspapers are inherently rivalrous,  proud and disputatious, viewing the world through very different national and political prisms,  the prospect of getting a sizeable cross-section of them to sign up to a single text on such a momentous and divisive issue seemed like a long shot “.

Ian acknowledged  The Hindu was in on the project  right from the start –  ‘an early, enthusiastic,  conversation with the editor of one of India’s biggest dailies offered encouragement’.

The media initiative may not alter policy positions held by most countries,  notably,  the major ones that already have their minds  made up even before going to Copenhagen.  What is notable is that the initaiive represents a measure of  acceptance by the world media that there are  issues that  call for beyond-the-border thinking.  Next, the progressives in the media ought to come up with a common edit on combating  jihadi terrorism ; even if someone out there says,  ‘go to hell’.

TED-India Mysore meet

‘Nice, but not excellent ; and TED is in the business of excellence ‘ –  this is how  a  participant  summed up the recent TED-India Mysore meet. The participant,  describing herself as a TED virgin,  blogged the five-day meet.

Excerpts : Easy applause was abundant and standing ovations proffered to individuals who,  in all reality, were small fry in the scale of the battle which India faces.

Some  people whose ideas are most radical and influential in the developmental world – whether through NGOs,  the law,  journalism and activism – were conspicuous by their absence.

Shashi Tharoor,  in his talk, used a ” pedestrian cliché about India’s pluralist democracy, which was true but missed some extremely important political points and was as smooth as Tony Blair in 1997″.

A qawwali  would have been far more illustrative of India’s holistic musical culture than the Sindhi-African dance troupe whose entertainment value was,  at best, dubious.

I wondered, a fair few times,  how many people noticed the women sweeping the lawns with back-breaking brooms, or how many people smiled and spoke to the women waiting to clean the loos in the Infosys campus, where no one is allowed to drink, have sex or walk on the lawn (Did anyone actually read those House Rules).

The  excerpts,  selective,  and, arguably,  taken out of context,  put  TED meet in a negative light. This wasn’t the  blogger’s over-all  impression –  “there was so much positive about TED India that fills my last five blog entries that it was important for me to reflect on what could have been different.”

I plead guilty to highlighting  her negatives.   As a Mysore resident with a sense of entitlement ,  I have my own grievance. TED-India meet was held on the Infosys campus,  Mysore .  It could as well have been held at Melbourne or Manhattan,  so far as Mysore residents were concerned. Here was a unique global event  hosted in our town,  and we weren’t allowed to be a part of it. That most Mysore residents hadn’t even heard of TED   was reason enough to initiate them to such unique  happening .

Shouldn’t Mysore residents benefit from the proceedings ?  Head of the district administration saw merit in this,  and took up our plea with the event managers.  As an upshot ,  I had a call from  Sameer (who said he  took care of  webstreaming  TED talks ) .  And I suggested to him that the TED proceedings at Infosys campus could be  relayed through closed-circuit network on  a screen set up  at a public place  (Institute of Engineers hall)  for the benefit of  interested local residents.

Sameer  mentioned something  webstreaming  TED talks live, for free,  courtesy IndiaTimes.  All one needed was the password and Internet connection.   Sameer couldn’t have known the Mysore realities – 1) most of us here  subscribe to  ‘limited’ broadband access, which is cheaper ;  and  2)  power supply, subject to routine shutdown , was particularly erratic  in Mysore those days.

Hence, the plea for  close-circuit telecast at a public hall.  Wouldn’t it  further  the TED agenda of   ‘spreading  ideas’  ?  ‘Yeah,  but these ideas are expensive,’  quipped  Sameer.  Those coming to the TED India meet from the world over are believed to have paid $2,500 per seat ; and the Mysore meet had been sold out weeks in advance.  Sameer ,  however,  said I could listen to TED talks  free on my PC ; and  offered to e-mail me the relevant password.  I wasn’t pleading  my individual access,  but  thanked him,  nonetheless,  for the  offer.  But then  I didn’t hear  from Sameer after that call, anyway .