Aug 23, 2008

India -Visionary Rajiv

Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary was celebrated this week by the Congress party (and pretty much no one else). He was killed 17 years ago; so most people under 30 have no real recollection of him. Those who do, will have mixed memories. Looking back, it is hard to imagine a country as complex as India being led as prime minister by someone who was all of 40, and whose only real experience till then had been to pilot a plane. As might have been expected, therefore, his 10 years in politics had their peaks, troughs, and terrible mistakes (the Sri Lankan misadventure, overturning the Shah Bano judgment and then opening the locks on the Babri Masjid, and profligate spending). The question is whether the time has come for history to assess the man. So here is one thought: Rajiv Gandhi would not have thought of himself in such terms, but he was India’s last visionary politician.
You only have to look at his amazing list of initiatives, to understand why. He said India must computerise, in order to be ready for the 21st century, and the political class laughed. So did most others, at a time when the PC was barely born. But he was right. He saw the importance of telecommunications, and tried many new ideas: corporatise the phone service (thus was MTNL born), increase access and not just ownership (result: the omnipresent STD-ISD booths of the time), and so on.
He saw the inability of the government to deliver, and thought of the technology missions as an organisational innovation — focusing on such basic (and still relevant) issues as oilseeds development, drinking water supply and literacy. Indeed, he saw that the government was generally knowledge-proof and insisted that all government officers must go for periodic, mid-career training courses —every HR manager today would approve. As was his fate with even the most sensible suggestions, the wise guys just sniggered.
He saw that only privileged kids had access to good schools, so he thought of a Navodaya Vidyalaya in every district so that even poor children could have the best education; these now turn out the best results among all Indian schools. He saw the crisis engulfing India’s rivers, and started a “Clean the Ganga” programme. Unannounced at the time, he saw that Pakistan was close to nuclearising, and gave the go-ahead for weaponising India’s nuclear stockpile.
He was a bigger peace-maker than Nehru. He negotiated with President Jayawardene the best deal that the Sri Lankan Tamils will ever get, but the LTTE didn’t have the wit to understand that, and killed him for his pains. His whirlwind prime ministership saw peace accords to settle the long-running (in some cases, secessionist) agitations in Punjab, Assam and Mizoram; the first fell apart, the other two held; he showed daring and commitment in all three cases.
In the economic sphere, he was the original reformer — slashing the peak income tax rate from 66 per cent to 50 per cent in his first Budget. In the run-up to the 1991 elections, the Congress under him put together a manifesto that has not been surpassed since for the clarity and boldness of its action programme — including most of the steps that were adopted by the Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh combine for India’s second liberation.
Only Jawaharlal Nehru launched as many initiatives, on so many fronts, in five short years — all with an eye to the long-term future. If politics wasn’t kind to him, it was because of four failings: impetuosity, a style statement that hinted at rich-kid habits (fast cars, expensive holidays), the Bofors bribery scandal, and the fact that he was just too young. But those are not reasons for denying him his due.

Business - ICBC most profitable bank in the world

Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd earned a record 64.5 billion yuan ($9.42 billion) in the first half to become the world's most profitable bank as a focus on domestic lending helped it avoid the global credit crisis.

Net income rose 57 per cent, the Beijing-based bank said in a statement today, topping the $7.72 billion earned by closest rival HSBC Holdings Plc. Earnings per share rose to 0.19 yuan.
Chairman Jiang Jianqing has more than doubled ICBC's profit since 2005 as annual economic growth of more than 10 per cent bolstered corporate loans and services to the nation's growing number of wealthy people.
ICBC's domestic bias shielded it from the US sub-prime crisis that has led to more than $500 billion of writedowns and losses at financial institutions globally.
“This shows the rise of economic power in China,” said Yuk Kei Lee, an analyst at Core Pacific-Yamaichi International in Hong Kong. “ICBC's earnings power has already overtaken other global giants but we need time to see if this achievement can be sustained.”
The shares closed 2.9 per cent lower in Hong Kong today. ICBC's Hong Kong shares trade at about 2.5 times analysts' consensus estimates for book value, compared with 0.84 times for Citigroup Inc and 1.46 times for HSBC's Hong Kong-traded shares.

India - Andhra Model a trendsetter

When many millions of citizens are classified as below poverty line (BPL), a government needs to think twice before launching a health insurance scheme that intends to be truly inclusive. Andhra Pradesh did, and came up with a unique model — the Rajiv Aarogyasri Community Health Insurance Scheme.
It’s a public-private partnership that ropes in a private insurer, public and private hospitals, and women’s self-help groups, along with the heavy involvement of the government to provide quality health care to the bulk of its population.
Just 15 months after it was run as a pilot project in three districts, a colossal 65 million people are members of Aarogyasri, the largest cashless scheme of its kind.
“The first thing we decided was not to follow any of the existing schemes, which are group-specific and limited in coverage,” says Babu A, chief executive of the Aarogyasri Health Care Trust which runs the programme.
“Our learning from studying these schemes is that none of them is working very well.”
For Andhra Pradesh, the primary issue was to resolve “the contradiction between our philosophy of social inclusiveness and that of insurance, which is based on the principle of exclusion”, says the official.
What it designed was a scheme in which “the government had a stake in everything”. Each and every case is monitored 24 hours, 365 days, through the trust’s portal where the Aarogyasri workflow system can be tracked from the entry point to treatment and discharge.
The especially designed software and state-wide IT network cost Rs 4.8 crore, but it’s an investment well worth the cost, since the possibility of leakages is minimal. There are strict protocols on the treatment, with around 800 medical and surgical packages listed and the costs fixed by the trust’s panel of doctors.
Behind this model is a holistic approach to healthcare, ensuring that people are given free health check-ups by the network hospitals — it is mandatory for every hospital to run a health camp in its vicinity every month — and that a 24-hour health helpline is available to people seeking advice and assistance. Manned by 100 doctors and 1,600 paramedics, the call centre handles about 53,000 calls a day.
In this scheme, beneficiaries pay nothing. Since the state believes it is the government’s responsibility to provide healthcare to the people, Aarogyasri comes free to all the white ration-card holders — the BPL segment.
This is a controversial issue since most other health insurance schemes floated by the government insist on a participatory contribution. Trust officials say it makes no sense to collect part of the premium, simply because the cost of collection would far exceed the contribution.
While the argument for collection of a premium is that it confers rights on the insured, the move has a downside. It limits membership without, in any way, bringing down costs.
For instance, the Yeshasvini Cooperative Farmers Health Scheme levies a premium of Rs 120 but, more often than not, cooperative societies are forced to cough up the premium for their members, resulting in what Andhra Pradesh is determined to avoid — adverse selection. Only those with enough funds are able to pay the premium.
Costs are what make Aarogyasri a winner. Andhra pays a premium of Rs 330 per BPL family for a cover of Rs 1.5 lakh, with provision for another Rs 50,000 in case of major surgeries. In addition, cochlear implants with related therapy are reimbursed fully up to a maximum of Rs 6.50 lakh, while some complex surgeries are also reimbursed in full.
The rates laid down by the trust have been carefully evaluated and have avoided the pitfalls apparent elsewhere — uneconomic rates that force hospitals to do a fiddle. All the top hospitals have been empanelled and there is a long wait list to join the schemes, say officials.
Government hospitals, too, are beginning to reap the benefits of joining Aarogyasri. To date, public hospitals have earned Rs 22 crore in total claims of Rs 203 crore, which is about 13 per cent of the total.
Although critics claim that the scheme is intended to benefit private hospitals in the state, government hospitals are getting a fresh lease of life from the payments made by the trust.
In any case, the argument is not tenable since there aren’t enough government hospitals to provide specialised tertiary care for such colossal numbers. All the top-rated private hospitals in the state have already been empanelled and there’s a queue waiting to join in.
Aarogyasri’s biggest plus is that it affords a major saving for the state in every way. Officials point out that the spur for the scheme was the endless line of people queuing up at the chief minister’s house every morning, seeking aid for medical treatment. Between May 2004 and June 2007, says an official note, financial help of Rs 168.5 crore was doled out from the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund to meet the hospitalisation expenses of the needy.
That’s how Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, himself a doctor, decided that such help should be institutionalised to improve access to quality medical care for the masses.
The dramatic success of Andhra’s big-bang approach is having a ripple effect across the country. Officials from at least 13 states have visited the Aarogyasri office in Hyderabad for lessons on how to replicate the scheme.
Three factors appear to be absolutely essential for this — a complete database on the beneficiaries, which is one reason why the labour ministry’s Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY) is floundering already; the ability to regulate each and every case; and a strong commitment to meet the health needs of the disadvantaged.
Babu says the Aarogyasri Trust is willing to provide consultancy to the rest of the country because “no one can beat this product”. As other states begin to roll out similar schemes, it remains to be seen if this indeed is the case.

Business - Standalone restaurants giving Five Star restaurants a run for their money

Bangalore: Be it the Jamavar at The Leela Palace, Bangalore, or Bukhara at the ITC Maurya, Delhi, or Wasabi at the Taj Mahal Palace & Towers, Mumbai, they all have one thing in common — the ‘fivestar restaurant power’ of attracting consumers . And while these restaurants have built strong niche markets for themselves, giving them a run for their money are the new breed of standalone fine dining restaurants. In Bangalore, restaurants at five-star hotels, which typically account for 40% of a hotel’s revenues, have seen a drop in sales by 20%-25 % over the last year.

On the contrary, for standalone restaurants , the sales are up. “Sales in the past eight months alone are higher by at least 15%,” says Sunil Kapur, MD of Blue Food, which runs restaurants like Copper Chimney, Spaghetti Kitchen and Noodle Bar. “People are increasingly drawn to speciality standalone restaurants as we’re on par with the five-star hotel restaurants on quality and quantity of food, ambience and service . So if a customer gets a five-star experience on three-star pricing, why wouldn’t he come to us?” Besides, with inflation soaring, people are seen to be getting more conscious about what they pay

Most fine dining restaurants are driven by chefs who were formerly with star hotels. Like Venkatesh Bhatt, who was formerly the head chef at The Leela Palace and opened speciality south Indian vegetarian restaurant South Indies 20 months ago. Its success spurred Bhatt to start Bon South, a south Indian non-veg restaurant earlier this week. “Restaurants run by chefs with experience in luxury hotels have an advantage as the chefs blend their culinary skills along with providing quality service ,” says Mohan Kumar, GM of Taj Properties , Bangalore. “Whether it is corporate czars hosting private or business lunches or socialites throwing a dinner party, standalone restaurants are increasingly becoming the preferred choice. In Bangalore, our customers rate Mainland China on par if not higher than the Taj’s Memories of China,” says Anjan Chatterjee, CMD of Speciality Restaurants that runs Mainland China and Oh! Calcutta. “Only actors or celebrities might still pick a fivestar hotel restaurant for the privacy they might offer, but standalone restaurants are catching up there too.”

He says that hotels have to work harder at building and more importantly sustaining , the brands of their restaurants. But it’s not all rosy for standalone restaurants either. “For fine dining restaurants to survive, they need to be positioned as specialty restaurants. Over 60% of the 100-odd such restaurants in Bangalore serve the same north Indian food. We have no fine dining restaurants catering to niche areas like say, northeastern food,” says Bhatt. Besides, standalone restaurants have to look into other facilities like parking, waiting areas and location, besides constantly innovating on their menu. And unlike the hotels, they have no captive audience. “It’s only a myth that we have lower costs,” says Chatterjee. “Be it in service, training or ingredients, our investments are the same. Besides, five-star hotels have the advantage of higher margins. Restaurants come under greater pressure to function on the premise of value and are driven more by volumes
Bhatt also feels that standalone fine dining restaurants still have some way to go to catch up with their star hotel counterparts in terms of gourmet appeal . “Taj West End’s latest offering, The Masala Klub, which is Indian food served with a contemporary flair of lightness, has just raised the level of fusion cuisine . It would take any restaurateur at least two years to achieve that quality,” says Bhatt. That possibly explains why when it comes to awards, it’s the restaurants at star hotels that get all the accolades. The Graze at Taj Residency Bangalore was featured in the Conde Nast Traveller , USA Hot List Tables 2008. Last year, The Jamavar at The Leela Palace had been ranked by Forbes among the world’s top 10 restaurants and the Bukhara at the ITC Maurya has been rated for the fourth consecutive year as the best Indian restaurant in the world by Acqua Panna.

Business - Best offers on shopping carts at Reliance Retail

Next time when you go to a Reliance Retail store the shopping cart might apprise you of the discounts and offers.Tech startup Blink Media has signed a deal with Reliance Retail to offer technology to power an intelligent interactive shopping cart. Apart from the shopping cart, Blink will develop products for other Reliance Retail formats such as Reliance TimeOut, Reliance Mart, Reliance Digital and Reliance Trendz. To optimise its offering, Blink has got access to Reliance Retail’s loyalty customer and transactions data. To execute the contract, Blink is looking at venture funding of around $2 million for which “we are willing to dilute up to one-third in Blink”, says co-founder Devang Raiyani. This will fund the expansion of their product team, marketing efforts and help them grow their data mining and analytics division. Blink already has a term sheet from a VC in hand. “We are open to angel funding as well as a non-VC strategic funding by an existing company,” informs Mr Raiyani. Blink was started in 2007 by Hemang Shah, Devang Raiyani and Sawan Ruparel. The technology uses an RFID-based sensor to track shoppers’ location inside a store and based on that location drives content to an interactive screen mounted on the shopping cart. Shoppers will get ads and offers on specific products as they pass through shelves. “The idea is to track the life-time value of a customer and see how we can make the customer more valuable for the store. We do this by analysing the customer and transaction data we have got from Reliance Retail,” he says. For fashion retail, Blink has developed a large interactive vertical screen called ‘magic mirror’, which senses your presence in front of it and asks what you are looking for. It visually shows you the apparel, which you could pair with others to see if they work well and whether a particular size and style is available. Here you could take a picture of yourself and using your mobile send it to a friend for advice. Blink has developed a non-interactive version of the intelligent shopping cart for Future Media that will be devoid of the location-based ads or touch interface. “These are being designed to be used in small town locations as the cost will be lower and therefore ROI will be better,” says Mr Raiyani. They haven’t agreed on pricing with Future Media yet but hope to close the deal soon. Rajeev Karwal, founder and CEO of Milagrow Business and Knowledge Solutions, recently bought a stake in the startup. Blink is looking at tapping international retail brands in markets such as Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai and Europe which are strong retail locations. “The return on capital is much higher in these mature markets,” says Mr Raiyani.

India - Get Business friendly

An international team of researchers has just released a Global Urban Competitiveness Report, which takes stock of 500 cities around the world. New York has been found to be the most competitive city in the world, followed, in that order, by London, Tokyo, Paris and Washington, DC. But what's shocking is that although cities across the world have been ranked according to seven parameters of competitiveness, such as enterprise competitiveness, industrial structure, human resources, business environment, living environment and so on, no Indian city features in any of the seven corresponding top 20 lists, with a solitary exception: Mumbai comes in at number 15 on industrial structure. Cities are the catalysts of growth and economic development. The poor representation of Indian cities belies India's status as a rising economic power. This should be an opportunity to look at what is wrong with our cities. Do they measure up to the other major cities' industries, people, multinational corporations, as well as living, social and business environments? Perhaps not at all. We need to step up to the plate and work hard to make our cities competitive. Let's face it, Indian cities lack many things that go towards making cities competitive - good infrastructure, enterprise management, business environment and quality of life. It's a good idea to benchmark Indian cities against criteria that make cities globally competitive, and then work on each of those criteria to improve a city's overall ranking. Bangalore is a good example of a city that has gone the other way. Although it gave rise to the phrase "being Bangalored", it appears to be losing its competitive edge due to poor infrastructure and lack of business environment. According to the report competitive cities are ones where local governments have autonomy and properly work out their relationship with the central government, engage market forces in government policymaking and maintain local features while expanding communications with the world. These are recommendations worth following. Local governments should take their jobs more seriously of facilitating balanced development of business and residential environment, besides developing multiple industries. Urban planners must outline development strategies clearly. They should encourage talent to come to their cities. It may be a good idea to have India-specific rankings of urban competitiveness as well, carried out by industry bodies such as the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Health - Popular BP drugs may cause Diabetes

NEW DELHI: If you are hypertensive and have been prescribed one of the widely used class of medicines called beta blockers—drugs like atenolol, inderal and metaprolol— you could be running an unacceptable risk of diabetes. Recent research in the UK indicates that these drugs could increase blood sugar in patients suffering from diabetes, and in some cases led to onset of the disease among patients of high blood pressure. The study, carried out at National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College, London, concluded that the use of beta blockers greatly increases diabetes risk in hypertension patients. The research proposed to determine the baseline predictors of new-onset diabetes in hypertensive patients. Among 19,257 hypertensive patients in the trial who were randomly assigned to receive one of two antihypertensive regimens using beta blockers, 14,120 were at risk of developing diabetes at baseline. Of these, 1,366 (9.7%) subsequently developed NOD during median follow-up of 5.5 years. Says Dr Anoop Misra, director and head (diabetes and metabolic diseases) Fortis Hospitals: "In patients with hypertension, beta blocker drugs are no longer frontline therapy. These drugs may not only increase blood sugar levels in those who don't have diabetes, but may worsen sugar control in those with diabetes and also blunt warning symptoms when low sugar occurs." Mishra, however, added that these drugs were still useful in patients of diabetes and hypertension with associated heart disease. Newer beta blockers may have some advantage over the previous generation drugs, he said. As a result, doctors have begun restricting the use of beta blockers among diabetics and those suffering from high blood pressure.

India - To Marry,Get a No-HIV certificate

MADURAI: It is not unusual for enlightened young women in Tamil Nadu to insist on their grooms being screened for HIV before marriage. But a wedding hall in Chinnamanur in Theni district has gone a step further. It insists that all brides and grooms solemnizing their marriage in the hall get a ‘no HIV' certificate first. The hall's unusual condition came under spotlight when a 25-year-old autorickshaw driver, Selvam, was spurned by his fiance on the eve of their wedding on Thursday after she came to know that he had tested positive for HIV. Selvam was surprised when he was informed that he and his bride-to-be had to undergo a HIV test before conducting their marriage at the Maravar Makkal Manram. The young man was in for a further shock when he tested positive for HIV at the Theni government hospital. Selvam hails from the same Chinnamanur village and a bride was chosen for him from Allinagaram in Theni. Their marriage was to take place at the Maravar Makkal Mandram on Thursday. On Wednesday, the management of the hall, however, told the parents of both the bride and the groom that they had to abide by certain conditions if the wedding was to take place in their hall. The two parties agreed and Selvam and his bride underwent the necessary medical tests at the Theni government hospital. When they got the results the same evening, Selvam came to know that he had tested positive for HIV. When the parents of the bride were informed about the results, they stopped the wedding and thanked the hall managers and left for home. E Muthu, member of the managing board of the marriage hall and also the state organizer of the Muvender Munnetra Kazhagam, said they had taken the decision to insist on HIV screening for couples about to be married as there were many women in Chinnamanur and the surrounding villages who had lost their husbands to AIDS.

World - Obama's running mate is Biden

WASHINGTON: US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has chosen his Senate colleague, Joseph Biden, as his vice-presidential running mate, CNN television reported on Saturday. ( Watch ) The network cited unnamed Democratic Party sources, but did not offer any details. Earlier, ABC News said a detail of Secret Service agents had been sent to assume Biden's protection in preparation for his possible new role as an official candidate for high office. Biden, 65, emerged on top after Obama, according to unidentified sources, broke the news to two other contenders -- Indiana Senator Evan Bayh and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine -- that they were no longer under consideration. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden would bring decades of national security experience on board, having first been elected to Congress at the age of 29 in 1972. On the campaign stump this week, Obama has singled out Biden for praise over his response to the crisis in Georgia and proposals to extend more US economic aid to Afghanistan.

World - Whitehouse hopefuls face image problem

Barack Obama, who is generally regarded as a gifted orator, would do well to find time to unwind before he delivers the speech of his lifetime to the Democratic party’s convention next week.
A new analysis of Mr. Obama’s voice patterns and the delivery of his speeches made available to and reported in the London-based Guardian, found the Democratic candidate somewhat restricted in his range of facial expression.
Specifically, Mr. Obama’s face is locked in an almost permanent attitude of anxiety, with his forehead muscles contracted.
“In all topics Mr. Obama displays a similar worried, serious-looking facial pattern. Even when talking about more positive subjects, his facial expressions do not signal positive affective states,” said a report on the analysis, undertaken by the Vox Institute in Geneva for the Clearwater consulting group.
The institute reviewed footage of Mr. Obama’s speeches and those of the Republican candidate, John McCain. It relied on footage from four speeches conveying a range of emotions, as well as digitised voice samples, to rate the effectiveness of the two candidates in connecting with voters on the campaign trail. The habitual worried look is a potential liability for Mr. Obama, undermining the image he is trying to project of a confident leader. The image could be disturbing for audiences, said James McBrien, the founder of Clearwater.
It also undercuts Mr. Obama’s outward appearance of extreme confidence.
“There is an element of the fact that he is on the edges of his comfort zone here,” Mr. McBrien said. “Going into a presidential campaign is not something he has done before, and you could say it is written all over his face.”
Despite that failing, Mr. Obama was the clear winner against Mr. McCain in the oratorical contest. The result is unsurprising, given that Mr. McCain’s own campaign team has gone to some effort to conceal his limitations as a speaker.
Mr. McCain has had problems adapting to the Autocue, that staple of public speaking. On the campaign trail he has favoured smaller venues, where he can take questions from audiences, rather than the grand venues and stirring speeches that have become Mr. Obama’s signature.
Mr. Obama had high scores on six of the eight voice values, including diction, fluency, speed and modulation. His voice could have been a little louder at times, although the study praised his ability to reflect anger, positive emotions and sadness.
The verdict on Mr. McCain was harsh. The acoustic analysis noted that the Republican’s voice was pitched slightly high, and that it remained flat, or emotionless, even while he was talking about sad subjects. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008

Health - Glimmer of hope;AIDS

The search for a safe and efficacious AIDS vaccine has received a shot in the arm. The Phase I trial, aimed primarily at ascertaining the safety and HIV–specific immune response of a candidate vaccine, has yielded encouraging results in the exercise conducted at the Tuberculosis Research Centre, Chennai. Unlike the vaccine tried out earlier at the National AIDS Research Institute, Pune — the first time ever in the country — the one used in the Chennai tri al, apart from returning a positive verdict on the safety count, threw up a remarkable outcome by way of good immune response in all the volunteers. The cent per cent immune response reported by those who had received the high dose places this candidate AIDS vaccine as far superior to any other tested so far on humans. But there were also some shortcomings. While the immune response has been across the board, the level of such response was seen to be not only modest but declining over months. Since the level and persistence of immune response is equally important, the Modified Vaccinia Ankara-based vaccine tried out at Chennai may not be the best candidate if used alone. The proposal to use, along with it, a DNA-based vaccine in the Phase I prime-boost vaccine trial to be started next year at NARI and the TRC makes eminent sense in this context. Efforts should be directed towards producing a DNA vaccine construct using HIV genes isolated from Indian HIV strains as in the case of the candidate vaccine used in the Chennai trial. Such a vaccine may well produce a better immune response.
The vaccine tested in Chennai is unlikely to prevent infection. It is not surprising, given that most of the vaccine candidates being tested across the world are designed more to keep the viral load under check, thereby delaying the progression to the diseased state, than to prevent infection. With no medicines available to cure HIV and with no vaccine to prevent infection at an advanced stage of testing, the time-tested measures to prevent infection gain utmost importance. Apart from producing a promising candidate vaccine for a prime-boost trial, the scientists attached to the TRC and NARI have gained valuable experience from their participation in trials of international standards. The Phase I prime-boost trial to be conducted at the same institutions, subject to regulatory approvals, will go a long way in further upgrading them and enhancing the level of competence of the scientists. This is a big gain as India is fast becoming an ideal field for undertaking various drug/vaccine trials.

India - Next wave in telecom

The recommendations made by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to liberalise internet telephony within the country have raised expectations that the next wave of pro-consumer growth in the telecom sector, represented by cheaper calls, will soon begin. The spectacular rise in the number of phone connections in recent years has created a massive base for internet telephony and value-added services. Of the 325.78 million phone connections as of June this year, 2 86.6 million are in the wireless category; the telecom regulator has assessed that 70 million mobile connections are ready for third generation (3G) service and broadband wireless access. The fast clip at which India’s mobile phone sector has grown, thanks to affordable ownership, is a well-known success story. With sustained competition, such as through internet telephony, call costs can go down further. TRAI’s objective to bring the fruits of technological innovation to a wider section of people is welcome. Towards this end, the regulator has opened up domestic voice calls service to internet service providers. Although the option of providing internet telephony has been available for sometime now to holders of basic, unified and mobile services licences, they have not rolled out the service. Obviously it is seen as disruptive to prevailing business models. But a protectionist stance can only stifle technological advancement and deprive consumers of better value.
The availability of good quality broadband connections and adequate bandwidth on all parts of a network is a prerequisite for voice calls to be made over the internet. Many among the existing 4.38 million broadband subscribers in the country are aware of the potential of the technology to drive down long distance and international calling charges; many already use it for free computer-to-computer and international calls. The business process outsourcing sector has welcomed the TRAI recommendations for their potential to lower call costs. If the new framework gets the green signal, it could attract a significant number of fixed and mobile phone subscribers. Globally, there has been a mixed response to internet calling in countries such as Germany and Britain, while a third of the households in France use the service. In the U.S., both phone and cable companies are adding a large number of internet phone customers. One reason cited for the slow adoption in some countries is resistance from large, conventional phone companies. But India has achieved fast telecom expansion with cascading benefits to the economy, thanks to a growth-oriented policy environment. Internet telephony will help millions of subscribers make cheaper long distance and international calls.

World - Furore over new carbon-trading plan

Developing countries and human rights groups are heading for a clash at a U.N. climate change meeting intended to stop the destruction of tropical forests. Diplomats from more than 100 countries are meeting in Accra, Ghana, to open talks on whether tropical forests should join the emerging global carbon market. This would allow countries and companies to earn money from not cutting down trees.
The felling is responsible for almost 20 per cent of annual global carbon emissions, making it a crucial target in the battle against global warming.
The move, which is backed strongly by many developing countries and the G8, is expected to greatly increase the financial value of forests, encourage governments and corporations to protect them, and would potentially transfer millions of dollars a year to some of the poorest countries.
Human rights and environment groups are warning that the over-hasty inclusion of forests in the post-Kyoto carbon market could trigger a “land grab,” leaving millions of people worse off. According to the groups, which include Friends of the Earth International, the Rainforest Foundation, and the Rights and Resources Initiative — a coalition of environment and justice groups, it would: undermine the world carbon price; damaging the effectiveness of the market; drive indigenous peoples from forests; and benefit only a wealthy elite and increase the risk of corruption.
Without clear guidelines on land ownership and the involvement of local people, the groups said, the money poured into preserving forests could also fuel violent conflict. “Sixty million indigenous people are dependent on forests for their livelihoods, food and medicines. These people have already been severely impacted by deforestation,” said Belmond Tchoumba, Friends of the Earth International coordinator of the Forest and Biodiversity Programme. “If the value of their forests increases, governments and corporations may be willing to go to extreme lengths to wrest forests away from indigenous peoples and others,” he added.
Slashing the price of carbon could even lead to a failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions overall, said the campaigners. “The U.S. could say that it will only join a post-Kyoto agreement on condition that they can offset emissions by buying deforestation credits. It would be a catastrophe,” said Simon Counsell, director of the Rainforest Foundation in London.
“It could crash the price of carbon and would mean the reduction of pollution in rich countries would become quite uneconomic,” he added.
Justice groups are disturbed that logging, soya and palm oil companies, who have been responsible for large-scale deforestation and who own vast tracts of the tropical forests in Asia and Africa, could now demand compensation for every tree they do not cut down. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008

World - Zardari tipped for Presiden't post in Pakistan

Islamabad: Pakistan’s ruling PPP leaders on Friday backed party co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari for the post of Pakistan President, elections for which will be held on September 6, but left a final decision to him.
Meeting four days after the former President, Pervez Musharraf, resigned from the post in the face of imminent impeachment, the PPP’s top leadership, the largest constituent in the ruling coalition, considered the party’s presidential candidate. At its central executive committee meeting, party members felt Mr. Zardari should take over as the next President as PPP is representing the federation and has a right to the presidency, said PPP leader and Information Minister, Sherry Rehman, after the meeting.
The meeting finally authorised Mr. Zardari to select the party’s candidate for the presidential election. “Mr. Zardari thanked the central executive committee for backing him and said he would announce his decision within 24 hours,” said Ms. Rehman, adding the meeting had not considered any alternative candidates.
Reports have suggested Mr. Zardari is not keen on the post being held by any other party till constitutional amendments are passed to repeal some of the President’s sweeping powers, including the ability to dissolve Parliament and dismiss the Prime Minister. At Friday’s meeting, some PPP leaders advised Mr. Zardari against assuming the post as it would become a ceremonial position after the abolition of such powers.
The members of the executive committee, however, insisted that the next President should be from the PPP.

Columnists - Barkha Dutt

The war cry for ‘azaadi’ in the volatile valley of Kashmir has suddenly found a chorus among some of Delhi’s sharpest thinkers. Ironically, and unnoticed in the current breathless discourse, the advocates of azaadi come from two entirely extreme positions. There is the ultra-liberal faction that has always seen India as the oppressor and the Kashmiri people as her throttled victims. While they propagate self-determination in the Valley, for many of these commentators, the citizenship of a Nation-State is at best an irrelevance and at worst a jingoistic anachronism. Arundhati Roy, for example, famously declared herself to be an “independent, mobile republic”, while protesting the nuclear tests.
The other (and opposite) lobby is batting for freedom precisely because it believes in an idea of an India that should no longer be held back by the violent and contentious history of Kashmir. These writers, (my friend and HT’s Vir Sanghvi prominent among them) make a cold cost-benefit analysis to argue that India has spent more political energy and taxpayers’ money in the Valley than in any other state, but with no results to show for it. India, they say, doesn’t need lecturing by two-bit countries on Kashmir; it’s time to leave the past behind and embrace the future.
As always, it’s a healthy democracy that can be at debate with itself. It’s also a sign of how much has changed. A few years ago, I remember doing a television report on how greater autonomy, across all its regions, may be the antidote to alienation in the state. The mere suggestion evoked general indignation. My report mentioned that the state has its own flag and constitution, to underline its unique place in the federal structure. This was not opinion; it was fact. Even so, whether from ignorance or denial, everything I said was received with outrage and resistance.
Today, as we witness both mainstream and fringe voices debating azaadi, even if for opposite reasons, perhaps we are looking at an India that is less scared of itself. Or perhaps a new generation of Indians that is not haunted by the scars of Partition and has a greater detachment on the issue.
But let me strike a note of serious hesitation. Many of us agree that the democratic process in the state has not worked as it should. It is clear that conventional approaches that have alternated between dangling carrots and brandishing sticks are ineffective, and in some cases, self-destructive. And yet, isn’t there something discomforting and horrible about middle-class ennui being the driving force for change? Should urban fatigue or textbook liberalism now set the agenda for what should happen next? More importantly, if the problem is rooted in alienation, is the solution to tell an entire people to effectively go wherever the hell they want to? In my view, bleeding heart solutions that dismiss the very notion of boundaries and maps don’t have much resonance either. Yes, successive governments have been in denial about the extent of alienation. And yes, you can’t want the land (and its three rivers that you tap for electricity) but be indifferent to its people. So, should the solution be to throw your hands up in the air and say we-just-don’t-give-a-damn?
It’s kind of boring to be a realist in these times when more provocative ideas on Kashmir have given birth to a thousand television shows. But it’s my sense that the changing rhetoric on the state will not bring it either peace or solace at this time. Jammu and Kashmir has been on the boil for two months and yet this is a government that has not even thought it necessary to call in the firefighters. It’s unlikely to engage in philosophical debates on whether India is strong enough to accommodate secession, when it hasn’t even begun talks with protestors on either side of the Pir Panjal.
So, I’m going to be old-fashioned and say, if we still care, let’s start with the basics. Our politicians need to stop treating Jammu and Kashmir like a security challenge. We need to acknowledge that a regional divide is in serious danger of growing into a religious one. Identity politics in the Valley are driven by a deep disconnect from India, and in the Jammu region, by anger at the kind of attention Kashmir gets, from both politicians and the media. The Prime Minister either needs to step in himself or appoint a peace envoy who will talk to both the Samiti in Jammu and the separatists in the Valley. Commerce may provide an unlikely clue to peace. Opening trade across the Line of Control was something New Delhi was in favour of. If Islamabad is the obstacle to cross-border business, the government needs to hard-sell that fact so that it can strengthen the moderate separatists against the rabble-rousers who are loyal to Pakistan. The time for diffident press releases from the Home Ministry is long over.
Our politicians also need to pay much closer attention to the sense of neglect perceived in Jammu. You can’t let its people feel that just because their sentiment is not separatist, it figures lower on the list of priorities. And if azaadi is now a palatable word in drawing-room debate, how about making a more realistic start with autonomy? Autonomy proposals for all three regions of the state have been gathering cobwebs for close to a decade. How about wiping the dust off those files and resurrecting their suggestions?
In the end, that old fox Pervez Musharraf may have had it right. Before you can seriously look at sub-nationalism, you have to first find a way of making borders irrelevant, or at the very least, porous. But the government has to first react like it understands the gravity of the problem. And we need to pull our political class out of its slumber instead of pushing them deeper into stupor by going on about how tired we are of a dispute called Kashmir.Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

Columnists - Khushwant Singh

India’s first gold ever won by Abhinav Bindra should be seen alongside its failure to even qualify for the Olympic Games in hockey in which we were once world champions. Our record in the arena of international sports makes for sorry reading. We are not a sporting nation. We are mere spectators of others’ achievements. A nation of a billion people is outdone by countries with populations less than any of our metropolitan cities.
Don’t we have it in us to do better? I am sure we have and could do a lot better if we went about it the right way. We have to face the unpleasant fact that we can never hope to match people who have more muscle power than us — Americans, Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, Japanese and the Chinese. They are physically stronger because they eat better, live better, train better to outrun us, outbox us, lift heavier weights, jump higher and longer, throw iron balls and javelins across longer distances. But there is no excuse for us not to be able to get the better of them in games that require more skill than stamina: shooting, archery, table-tennis, badminton and others. Initially, we should concentrate on these to achieve world-class status before we take on others.
I have a few half-baked notions on how to go about doing so. You may or may not agree with me, but spare a few minutes considering them.
First, keep politicians out of sports bodies.
They are more interested in self-promotion and publicity than in games. A simple way is to disqualify MPs, MLAs and office-bearers of political parties from holding any office in sports administration. The likes of Sharad Pawar, Suresh Kalmadi and Vijay Kumar Malhotra should stick to their chief pre-occupation. Sports bodies should be administered by civil servants who are dedicated to sports.
Second, take sports consciousness down to the village and school level.
Every village should have annual sports meets where boys and girls race, jump, shot putt, wrestle etc, and award winners with momentos. Every school should have provisions for indoor as well as outdoor competitive games such as table tennis, rifle shooting, archery, judo and jumping, rewarded with trophies on school annual days. This should go on through college with greater emphasis on individual competitive games rather than team games.
By then, it would be evident which of the boys and girls have it in them to become world-class. They should be given prolonged and expert coaching till in fact they come close to Olympic levels. And then only pick up likely winners of medals to compete in Olympic games.
Try it out and watch the results.
A left-handed compliment
The first thing I note while watching international tennis tournaments is whether the player is left or right-handed.
I have noticed many of the better players who get past the quarter-finals are left-handed. I thought that the principal factor for their doing better was that right-handed players’ assumed that if they aimed their shots on the opponents back hand, which is usually weaker than the front hand, they would win the rally.
I was wrong. There is more to being left-handed than meets the eye. Lefties or Southpaws, as they are known, have innate qualities that the right-handed do not have. It is not only in ball games that they do well but in other fields of activity they do well.
Both Barack Obama and John McCain running for the presidency of the United States are left-handed. In 1992, all contenders for the US presidency — George Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot were left-handed. So were some other incumbents: Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. Besides politicians, Spanish painter Pablo Picasso as well as American statesman Benjamin Franklin were Southpaws.
It is time we revised our notions that being left-handed is a handicap and stop forcing our children inclined that way to use their right hands. The prejudice has got into our language. Words like ‘adroit’ and ‘dextrous’ are derived from French and Latin: droit (right). French for left is gauche, which also means gross.
Then there’s the use of the word ‘Left’ for those opposed to the government, socialists and communists. It is not surprising that ‘weak’ and ‘awkward’ are synonyms for the Left.

Entertainment - Newschannels;The question of balance

The public have an insatiable curiosity to know everything. Except what is worth knowing. Journalism, conscious of this, and having tradesman-like habits, supplies their demands.
- Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)
The great playwright passed away over a hundred years back, but the essence of the statement is being much debated in India. With reason.
Over the last few months, a section of the news channels have been showcasing content that one would’ve never quite expected to see on an offering that’s supposed to air news and current affairs.
Purists are aghast, but many in the business see nothing wrong.
With peculiar Indian curiosity to know about the minutest detail of the lives of the others, the appetite and consumption of news is on its growling pounce. News channels – at least a section of them - satiate the curiosity which derives voyeuristic pleasure from gossip and rumours.
Because it is this cacophony of subjects of coverage that offers something for everyone, that is driving up not just the ratings, but also revenues for Hindi news channels. And while there are those who wonder when the Hindi news engine will start to lose its steam, most are in agreement that it is not going to be any time soon.
The statistics though are telling. The advertising revenue of the new segment in the fiscal year 2006-07 is Rs 9.8 billion. In FY 08 it has touched Rs 12 billion and expected to grow to Rs 14.5 billion by the fiscal end.
According to industry research body Tam, in the January-June 2008 period, 54.2 per cent of the content on Hindi news channels was not news. And among English channels, the number is 38.4. This evidently seemed to help the ad volume. As per Tam Adex, ad volume growth in Hindi and English news channels which stood at 47,449 seconds in 2006 jumped to 62,173 in 2007. In the six-months period from January to June, it has already clocked 36,398 seconds.
The share of ad volumes of news channels in the overall TV advertising pie has been growing steadily. It went up 16 per cent in 2007 from 15 per cent in 2006. Says MCCS CEO Ashok Ventaramani, “The advertising revenue of the market has been growing with a CAGR of 18 per cent since the last five years.”
There is no doubt that advertising is the fuel that drives the satellite boom and India’s burgeoning news channels trade.
The consumption of news too has increased. From 6.9 per cent in 2006, the Hindi news genre has surged to 7.4 per cent to end-2007 (Tam, c&s, HSM, 15+). In the first half of 2008, it is well-placed at 7 per cent as compared to 32 per cent covered by the Hindi entertainment channels (GECs).
With the genre of the TV news consumption getting expanded, the advertising trend has also changed in a short span of two years. In 2006, the top advertisers rooster which was ruled by categories like car/jeep, corporate (brand image), social advertisements, suiting, hosiery and pan masala or gutkha no longer feature in it . The top categories in 2007 and 2008 have been replaced by categories like cellular services, internet and SMS services.
In 2008, direct-to-home (DTH) service and real estate are the unique categories that feature in the top advertisers. Advertisers like Biswanath Hosiery which topped the list in 2006 have been replaced by cellular services like Reliance Communication, Vodafane Essar in 2007 and 2008. In the first half of 2008, the top five advertisers slots are filled up by cellular services.
The entry of a new set of viewers is attributed as the reason for newer categories of advertisers mostly targeting mostly to Sec A and Sec B. They have higher purchasing power, making them more attractive clients for advertisers. As per Tam, 51 per cent of news channels viewers are from 35+ years, 28 per cent comes from 15-24 years and the rest 22 per cent are from 25-34 years.
What’s on the menu?
To a large extent, revenue flows determine how content is produced, packaged and put on airwaves by news channels. This leads to a permanent tension between the journalistic and commercial imperatives of media entities and affects the very nature of news programming.
According to Tam, from January to June in 2008, Hindi news channel have covered 45.8 per cent of news bulletin followed by reviews and reports (15.8 per cent), religious and devotional stories (9.9 per cent), cricket match (9.2), action and thriller (4.9 per cent), comedies (4.1 per cent), film based magazines (2.6 per cent).
English news channels have covered 61.6 per cent news and bulletins, reviews and reports (8 per cent), film based magazines (7 per cent), cricket matches (6.8 per cent) and comedies (1 per cent).
In various Hindi news channels, cricket has been featured differently in Ye Cricket Kuch Kehta Hain (Aaj Tak), Nach Le Cricket (Aaj Tak), Disco Cricket (Star News) while Khali has seen a variety of presentations like Khali Ki Khalbali, Khali Karega Khatma and Khali Sae Bali. Gods blessed the news channels in shows like Zinda Hain Rawan, Sabko Mil Gaye Ram and Kaise Dekhe Ram.
Star News claims that in the week ending 1 March, 41 per cent of the content in its channel was news bulletin while the rest was religious, crime and cricket-centric stories. Religious stories were 8 per cent while sports reviews, comedies, business shows, crime and thrillers were 7 per cent each. Cricket-based shows grabbed 10 per cent while film shows managed 1 per cent of the entire content pie.
Times Now editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami scoffs at the suggestion that viewers go away if channel don’t go strong on soft stories. He cites the example of the Khali episode. “Times Now did not devout a single second to Khali, yet we did not lose out on viewers and market share.”
News channels are realising this fast enough. Recently, Zee Group chairman Subhash Chandra announced that his channel is bringing news back in its original form . With the new positioning of ‘Zara Socheye’, Zee News promises to shun stories on godmen and superstitions.
Says Zee News CEO Barun Das, “It is high time someone realise that a news channel is meant for only news. He stresses on the fact that after the repackaging of Zee News, he has managed to make it “non-entertaining” yet “non-boring”.
How channels stack up?
In the Hindi news genre, from January to June 2008 six month period, long-time leader Aaj Tak still rules the roost with an average relative market share of 18.98 (Tam, c&s, HSM, 15 +) per cent, followed by Star News with 17.94 per cent. In the third spot is India TV in terms of average relative market share (14.43 per cent).
However, a closer look on month-on-month index puts India TV on the forefront in the month of May and in June shares the top spot with Aaj Tak (19 per cent each). Aaj Tak has been almost consistent with 19 per cent market share in the six month period. Its sister concern channel Tez has averaged 5.55 per cent.
India TV opened the year with 14 per cent to gradually move upto 19 per cent. Star News which was so far on the channel is meant for only news. He stresses on the fact that after the repackaging of Zee News, he has managed to make i t “non-entertaining” yet “non-boring”.
The six-month average of IBN7 is 8.92 per cent while NDTV India has an average of 8.11 per cent. Samay has 4.91 per cent from January to June. Newly launched channel News24 has an average of 4.42 per cent, Live India average 3.24 per cent while public broadcaster Doordarshan managed to pull 3.14 per cent.
The English news segment still continues with a three-way tussle. Six-month average places CNN-IBN with 29.09 per cent (Tam, c&s, All India, 15+) , NDTV 24X7 with 28.91 per cent while Times Now is at 28.58 per cent. Headlines Today stands at 13.34 per cent.
Blame it on distribution?
Advertising is central to privately owned news businesses across the world and in India Indian TV channels derive roughly 70 per cent of their revenues from advertising and about 30 per cent from subscriptions.
Venkataramani says, “Depending upon the band preferences of the channel, the distribution cost of a national channel can range anything between Rs 200-800 million.”
A large proportion of subscription revenue is consumed by cable operators and since broadcasters do not control their own distribution they can not pinpoint the exact number of viewers. Ratings therefore become vital as the currency of success.
A senior executive at a news channel who request anonymity vehemently opposes the Tam rating system. He argues that content is mainly driven by the Tam ratings. Explaining further, he says that most of the time, the editorial is forced to do stories which categorically caters to the places or states where Tam peoplemeters are placed.
The ratings, however do not represent all the states with a limited number of peoplementer which are absent in states like Bihar, North East and Jammu and Kashmir. This factor alone has tremendous impact on the content, programme packaging and imperative of selling airtime advertisers.
A man hit by a bull in the streets of Delhi will get more coverage and footage than five men killed in Darjeeling or Assam. The reason is only that peoplemeters are located in Delhi and not in the hill zones.
For a Delhiwallah, the neighbourhood report naturally gets more hits in the peoplemeter. "The content is thus decided by the geographical placement of the peoplemeter to get spikes in the ratings.
Hence, some parts of India (where the peoplemeter is absent) and some stories are left untouched or given very little importance," says the executive.
Over and above this constraint, with most news channels being free-to-air and hence not making any monies from subscriptions, their dependence on advertising and hence ratings is total.
A frequent complaint of news broadcasters is the heavy distribution cost.Broadcasters say more than half of the outlay goes in paying for reach, which cuts other costs like human resources. That is why a reporter cannot be placed in the interiors as it has its own costs. A virtual studio ultimately becomes the easy answer.
Says IBN7 managing editor Ashutosh, "Distribution costs have gone up tremendously because of the clutter of channels. This is in fact affects quality as a lot of money from a fixed budget goes into distribution, and channels compromise on quality. If only we could be patient, a lot of difference could come in."
“The single biggest problem in the industry today is distribution. It is getting more and more competitive, as more and more channels come into business. The cost is enormous and growing wildly, and it is hurting every broadcaster from the biggest to the smallest, free-to-air (FTA) or pay.
“In this battle, multi-system operator (MSO) and local cable operator (LCO) point fingers at each other, but either way it is costing the broadcaster. And money that could and should have been spent on content is getting spent on distribution instead, and it weakens the industry,” said a the broadcasting executive.

India is the only country in the world with more than 80 24-hour TV channels broadcasting programmes on news and current affairs, barely a quarter-century after the world's first 24-hour TV news channel (CNN or Cable News Network) came up in 1980.
The challenge for the news broadcasters in 2008 would be to turn the tables - lower the carriage fees and churn out revenue from subscription. Till the dependence on advertising revenue hangs on, there will be more breaking stories, exclusive stories, Amitabh Bachchan going to Shirdi, Siddhivinayak Temple et al, Salman Khan’s doings and live do or die, battle between godmen and rationalists.

India - What's caste got to do with Business

Capitalism is all inclusive. Or is it? “Capitalism in India has evolved a long way since Independence and is fairly well-diversified today, not just in terms of production profile but also social base. Capital is not a privileged bastion of a few mercantile castes the way it was; its base has expanded to incorporate a wide spectrum of communities. However, this ‘inclusive capitalism’ has been more a feature of southern and, to some extent western India,” writes Harish Damodaran, in his book, India’s New Capitalists - Caste, Business, and Industry in a Modern Nation. He explains to Vivek Kaul the link castes/communities have had with Indian business over the years.
What were the reasons you got around to exploring the possible links between caste and business?I have been reporting on commodities for the past 15 years or so, during the course of which I have had the opportunity to travel and visit mandis, sugar mills, dairies, etc. What used to strike me most was the difference between the South and North. In the North, I used to see that all the owners of sugar mills, edible oil/solvent extraction units, dairies, etc were mostly either Banias or Khatris.Take for example, sugar, where you have Bajaj Hindusthan, Balrampur Chini, K K Birla, Dhampur Sugar Mills, Dwarikesh Sugar and DCM Shriram Consolidated (all Bania-Marwari) and Triveni Engineering (Khatri). Similarly, take the big branded basmati rice players: India Gate and Shrilal Mahal (Bania), Daawat Kohinoor and Lal Qila (Khatri).It is the case even with media: India Today-Aaj Tak (Khatri), Punjab Kesri (Khatri), Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar, Amar Ujala, Aaj, Zee Network (all Bania/Marwari). The striking thing here is that all the owners of sugar mills, rice mills, edible oil units in the North are Banias or Khatris, whereas the farmers who grow sugarcane, mustard, paddy or wheat are all Jats, Yadavs, Gujjars, Bishnois, Kurmis, Koeris, Sainis, etc.This was case surprisingly even in Punjab, where the so-called rich farmers are all Jat Sikhs, whereas the big players in industry in Ludhiana are all Khatris (the cycle majors — Hero, Atlas, Avon) or Banias (the various Oswal factions who control the knitwear business).The above pattern does not apply in the South, where it is difficult to identify industry with any particular caste. Again take sugar: KCP and Andhra Sugars (Kamma), Sakthi, Dharani and Bannari Amman Sugars (Gounder), Rajshree Sugars (Naidu), Thiru Arooran Sugars (Mudaliar), GMR Industries (Komati), Gayatri Sugars (Reddy), Empee Sugars (Ezhava), Ponni Sugars and Ugar Sugar (Brahmin).Similarly in the media business, we have Eenadu (Kamma), Daily Thanthi (Nadar), Malayala Manorama (Syrian Christian), The Hindu and Dinamalar (Brahmin), Deccan Chronicle-Andhra Bhoomi (Reddy), Deccan Herald-Prajavani (Idiga), Sun Network-Dinakaran (Isai Vellalar), Asianet (Nair) and TV-9 (Raju).Simply put, what I saw was a diversity of ownership by caste in the South, unlike in the North where every industrialist is a Bania or Khatri. In the South, the farmer could be Gounder or a Kamma, as much an industrialist could be from these castes. All this set me thinking and, around mid-2004, I started researching and examining the database of BSE-listed companies to try and trace the caste origins of the promoters. I ended up creating a database of around 5,000 companies and all this eventually led to my writing the book.Which castes/communities originally got into business in India in the nineteenth and the twentieth century? What were the reasons for their success? The old merchant communities in India are the Gujarati Banias/Jains, Marwaris and other non-Gujarati Banias/Jains, Parsis, Nattukottai Chettiars, and the Lohanas and Bhatias of Kutch-Kathiawar-Sindh belt. The trading and banking networks of these communities have historically been spread out much beyond their home base.One of the main reasons for the success of these communities was a mechanism for remitting large sums of money to remote corners of the country. This financial instrument was a very old Bania invention called the hundi. A hundi is akin to a bill of exchange. Let me give you an example. A merchant from Vidharbha who brings raw cotton to Mumbai to sell, instead of taking payment in cash could decide to take a hundi of an equivalent amount drawn by the buyer of the cotton in his favour. This saved him from the risk of carrying cash during the journey back. Once he was back to Vidharbha he could present the hundi to the Mumbai buyer’s agent or correspondent there and collect his money.What this system did was that it made possible the transfer of cash across the country without the need to physically carry it.Over a period, hundi became much more than just a remittance facility. It became a credit instrument. The seller of cotton could use the hundi to take a loan by transferring it through endorsement to the lender. The lender would give the loan at a discount to the value of the hundi and when the loan became due, he could encash the hundi on par. To use modern legal, jargon, the hundi became what we call a ‘negotiable instrument’. One community that business in India is associated with is the Marwaris. How do you explain the rise of the Marwaris?The Marwaris were originally a group of Bania castes from Rajasthan. Besides being involved in money lending and trading, they acted as modis or army provision suppliers and bankers to the various Rajput princes. Building on this by the eighteenth century, Marwari banking firms established there presence outside Rajasthan as well and started financing numerous-cash strapped independent principalities that had risen on the ruins of the Mughal empire. However, once the English East India Company started making inroads across India, these Marwari houses seamlessly switched sides. As the British rule expanded across India, so did the migration of Marwaris across the country. The commissioning of the railway line between Delhi to Kolkata in 1860 led to movement of the Marwaris eastwards all the way to Bangladesh and from there into Burma. Another large migration was to parts of Central India. The migration to Central India reached its peak during 1820-1860, when Malwa opium trade reached its peak.By the middle of the nineteenth century, Marwaris were present all across India. This led to them becoming a truly networked group through the indigenous hundi as well as the British-built railways and telegraph. At this point in time, large multi branch trading firms run by the Marwaris also started to emerge. Some of the famous firms during that time were Tarachand Ghanshyamdas of Kolkatta, Sevaram Ramrikhdas of Mirzapur and Bansilal Abirchand of Nagpur. These firms were magnets attracting fellow Rajasthani clansmen and many of them were ancestors of today’s famous Marwari industrial houses.Ghanshyam Das Birla’s grandfather, Shiv Narain, was a clerk in a Hyderabad trading firm and the grandfather of the steel tycoon L N Mittal worked with him.The community that seems to have made the most of the British rule were the Parsis. How did that happen?From the late seventeenth century, the Paris evolved a very good working relationship with the British. At that point most Paris lived in the Surat-Navsari stretch of southern Gujarat and worked there as agriculturalists, artisans, small-time coastal traders and shipbuilders. They were not a part of Hindu or the Muslim mainstream. Other than this, they had been exposed to commercial influences because they lived very close to the ports of Bharuch, Daman and Surat. Therefore, to the British, they seemed like an ideal recruitment as native brokers, agents and shippers.In 1735, Lowji Nusserwanji Wadia, a shipbuilder from Surat was invited to set up a dock in Mazagon. For the next 200 years, nearly seven generation of Wadias, built around 400 ships in Mazagon and Bombay dockyards.In fact, the rise of Mumbai is very intimately linked to the Parsi migration to Mumbai. Almost as a part of a deliberate settlement policy, by 1800 the community owned half of the city and was even known to rent out property to Europeans. The Parsis also gained tremendously when the East India Company opened up the Chinese market for opium and cotton, in order to pay for the tea exported to Britain. In fact, a number of Parsis were even imprisoned by the Chinese authorities in the Opium War of 1839-1842.However, unlike the Marwaris, the Parsis were direct participants in export trade as shippers. Take the case of Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy. He used to send opium and cotton from Mumbai and Kolkotta to Canton, export Chinese tea and silk from there to London, and then reroute funds from China to India by importing textile and iron goods from Britain. However, over the years, the importance of Parsis as a business community has diminished. This is primarily because of Anglicisation and the thrust of economic activity shifting from foreign trade to producing for the domestic market.Brahmins in the western and southern part of the country have been fairly successful despite coming from a non business background. What are the reasons for that? In 1713, the beleaguered Maratha King Shahu appointed Balaji Vishwanath Bhat as his peshwa (prime minister). This led to the family of this Chitpavan Brahmins from Konkan becoming the defacto rulers. Over time, Chitpavan Brahmins became the biggest moneylenders in the western part of the country. They accumulated capital by financing the empire and supplying stores and munitions for its war machine. However, all this came to an end when the last peshwa Baji Rao II was defeated in the third Anglo Maratha War of 1818. This was a setback for Brahmin enterprise in Western India and the Brahmins were nowhere to be seen when the Mumbai started to develop as India’s commercial capital.Having said that, the community retained its grip over education and bureaucracy. Take the case of Ranchhodlal Chhotolal, a Gujarati Nagar Brahmin from Ahmedabad. During his stint in the government, he conceived the idea of starting a textile mill. However, it took him almost ten years to realise his dream. The problem came while arranging the finances for the venture. The Ahmedabad Spinning and Weaving Company was finally registered in August 1858, just four years after a Parsi, Cowasji Nanabhai Davar, floated the first Indian owned mill at Mumbai. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Ahmedabad had 25 mills, though 21 mills were controlled by Banias and Jains. Just as was the case in the west, in the south too, Brahmins had a head start on education - particularly English education, the master key for opening the doors to the professions and service appointments.The Tamil Brahmins’ entry into the industry happened in the 1920s. Take the case of T V Sundaram Iyengar, whose group has become a veritable metaphor for Tambram capital. He had a middle class background and in 1908 he invested Rs 25,000 he inherited as share in ancestral property in timber trading. Profits he made on this were deployed four years later to launch a bus service in Madurai. In 1923, TV Sundaram Iyengar and sons was incorporated with its business centred around the sale and servicing of automobiles. Starting from this, over the years the group has started a series of auto-parts making companies like Sundaram Clayton, Sundaram Fastners, Sundaram Brake Linings etc.Some of the communities/castes that get into the business first taste big money through agriculture and then deploy the money into business. Given this, why haven’t we seen the Jats (Sikhs and Hindus), the biggest farming community in northern India, get into business big time? Why does business in north India continue to be dominated by Banias and Khatris?Yes, this is indeed a big mystery. My research shows that the only two big Jat industrialists we have in this country are KP Singh of DLF and Sameer Gahlaut of India Bulls. The main reason for this, I believe, is the fact that in the North, the Bania always had a ubiquitous presence right from the level of the village grocer-cum-moneylender to the arhthia in the mandi, the big city financier, and the factory owner. This was a network very difficult to break into, even if you are a big farmer.My theory about Khalistan is that it was a product of the Jat Sikh farmer’s frustration — his inability to break into a field dominated by Banias and Khatris. It led then to demands for a separate Khalistan state, which they felt would enable them to make the transition from farm to boardroom.In the South, there was no equivalent of a Bania caste. The Chettiars were mostly moneylenders and who actually preferred to venture out to Burma, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. So, there was always this ‘Vaishya vacuum’ that could be filled by any enterprising community. This absence of strong entry barriers, therefore, facilitated the entry of several industrialists from non-traditional business communities — including not just the Gounders and the Kammas, but even Brahmins. There was also an additional factor: access to education, in turn, facilitated by reservations/social justice movements right from the early twentieth century. As a result, communities such as the Kammas, Naidus, Ezhavas and Nadars were able to take advantage of educational opportunities, unlike the Jats or Yadavs who remained educationally backward until recently. In a way, it can be said that the South and West got ‘mandalised’ even before Mandal and this, on hindsight, was not a bad thing at all. It also helped in another way: the Brahmins, for example, realised earlier on that they had no guarantee of government jobs. So while affirmative action by the state provided a ‘pull’ for farming and other backward communities, it also gave a ‘push’ to Brahmins and other upper castes to look for avenues beyond government jobs. And many of them turned entrepreneurs.

Entertainment - Kamal Hassan's Marmayogi

CHENNAI: After the multi-role mega Tamil film `Dasavatharam', actor Kamal Hassan is preparing himself for his next big budget multi-lingual venture, `Marmayogi' (mysterious saint). The film, to be directed by the actor himself, would be produced by his Rajkamal Movies in association with Pyramid Saimira Theatre Ltd. And as with many of his films, speculations are ripe in the Kollywood (Tamil film industry) about the story line of the new project while the film unit is tightlipped. While one theory is that it is a children's film where the actor dons the role of a guide, another predicts that the movie is a remake of the Val Kilmer-starrer `The Saint', where the Hollywood hero donned multiple roles. The actor is known for his panachea for multiple roles, as he did in `Michael Madana Kama Rajan' and `Dasavatharam'. It is also speculated to be a competition to the multi-crore Rajni-starrer `Robot'. Kamal Hassan has already donned the role of director in his critically-acclaimed `Hey Ram,' a plot intertwining pre and post-Independence India, `Virumaandi' and `Mumbai Express." With the actor sporting a thick beard and film stills showing him with long, undone hair and wearing classic battle robe, rumour mills has it that `Marmayogi' could be a remake (read `Inspiration') of Mel Gibson's `Braveheart'. Yet to go public on his project, all Kamal Hassan had to say was that he would make the official cut soon, and the aim was to "make a quality offering to the people." In a release here, Kamal Hassan said, "our aim is to make a quality offering to the people by way of the multi-million dollar venture and the producers are committed in this direction." The producers said the film is in its very nascent stages. According to a release from Saimira, the cast and technical crew are yet to be finalised for the film. "The project of this size and nature could not be implemented without a proper exploitation plan and a viability study," P S Samynathan, Chairman and Managing Director, Pyramid Saimira Theatre Ltd, said adding the same applied for the cast and crew. "Utmost care will be needed to decide on lead artists and technicians," he said. He said the film would be made in three langauges-- Tamil, Telugu and Hindi-- and there were also plans to make it in English `natively'.

Mktg -3 examples that redefined OOH innovation

OOH media can start conversations, create spectacle and influence employees, the artist community and entire cities if used strategically
Last week, I was at the Goa airport. And I couldn’t help noticing the lazy way in which a major telecom brand had used the OOH property in the airport’s vicinity.OOH is very often used as a plain-Jane reminder medium. The lack of imagination in planning and execution often underutilises the medium. Let me talk about three international examples which have challenged the definition and boundaries of OOH communication in the recent past.
1. Create brand spectacle & buzz.HBO’s Voyeur project: This Cannes Promotion Grand Prix winner was a theatrical multimedia experience and marketing campaign, which used voyeurism as a vehicle. Content was scattered online in fictional web pages, on Flickr and YouTube, in blogs, on the HBO channels and through mobile content. But the focus was on people living in eight fictional apartments on the corner of a New York Street. The display was projected on a massive never-before-scale on the side of a building. OOH was used dramatically to bring to life the brand promise of - “See what people do when they think no one is watching.”HBO Voyeur was one of the most buzzed-about campaigns that crossed all media and categories. And while OOH was just one vehicle in this multi-media campaign, it was the building-sized peep show that gave the campaign scale, spectacle and buzz value. A magnificent case study of how OOH can allow consumers to interact with the brand on a much deeper level through story-telling.2. Cause meets commerce The 59th minute video art project at Times Square: It began with a special screening of video artist Tibor Kalman’s work in 2000. The 59th Minute has been a consistent platform for the presentation of new and historic video art. The 59th Minute’s goal was to offer artists a special opportunity to present their work in the public forum of Times Square and allow them to stand out in the midst of the commercial clutter. The site and the 59th minute of every hour were donated by Panasonic. Panasonic got a lot of positive PR for this programme. The brand also connected to museum shows, artist performances and lectures! The press loved the project and Panasonic received accolades as well as PR that cannot be bought. This example demonstrates that OOH can be used innovatively so that it lends a support to artists, to civic institutions and causes and yet generate PR mileage for the brand. 3. OOH as a brand identity toolBloomberg’s corporate headquarters in Manhattan: It glistens with video terminals and lobby displays. The displays combine informational aspects as well as atmospheric and styled data visualisation video content. The internal sign system is part of Bloomberg’s brand and identity. The image that the brand wants to convey is that it is a stimulating place to work. So, basically, it fits within the internal brand communication to have a lot of different television screens, showing information and content flowing about... highlighting that they are not a staunch conservative company.The examples above demonstrate that OOH can start conversations, create spectacle and influence employees, the artist community and entire cities if used strategically. To use OOH as an influence medium for Indian brands, we must follow the principles of intrusion, transformation, installation, illusion, infiltration, sensation, interaction and digital. But more about these in a later piece.
(The author is senior vice-president, Mudra Marketing Services, and head of strategy, Prime Group, the specialist OOH company of the Mudra Group)

World - Britain & Children

Britain is the worst country in the Western world in which to be a child, according to a recent UNICEF report. Ordinarily, I would not set much store by such a report; but in this case, I think it must be right—not because I know so much about childhood in all the other 20 countries examined but because the childhood that many British parents give to their offspring is so awful that it is hard to conceive of worse, at least on a mass scale. The two poles of contemporary British child rearing are neglect and overindulgence.
Consider one British parent, Fiona MacKeown, who in November 2007 went on a six-month vacation to Goa, India, with her boyfriend and eight of her nine children by five different fathers, none of whom ever contributed financially for long to the children’s upkeep. (The child left behind—her eldest, at 19—was a drug addict.) She received $50,000 in welfare benefits a year, and doubtless decided—quite rationally, under the circumstances—that the money would go further, and that life would thus be more agreeable, in Goa than in her native Devon.
Reaching Goa, MacKeown soon decided to travel with seven of her children to Kerala, leaving behind one of them, 15-year-old Scarlett Keeling, to live with a tour guide ten years her elder, whom the mother had known for only a short time. Scarlett reportedly claimed to have had sex with this man only because she needed a roof over her head. According to a witness, she was constantly on drugs; and one night, she went to a bar where she drank a lot and took several different illicit drugs, including LSD, cocaine, and pot. She was seen leaving the bar late, almost certainly intoxicated.
The next morning, her body turned up on a beach. At first, the local police maintained that she had drowned while high, but further examination proved that someone had raped and then forcibly drowned her. So far, three people have been arrested in the investigation, which is continuing.
About a month later, Scarlett’s mother, interviewed by the liberal Sunday newspaper the Observer, expressed surprise at the level of public vituperation aimed at her and her lifestyle in the aftermath of the murder. She agreed that she and her children lived on welfare, but “not by conscious choice,” and she couldn’t see anything wrong with her actions in India apart from a certain naivety in trusting the man in whose care she had left her daughter. Scarlett was always an independent girl, and if she, the mother, could turn the clock back, she would behave exactly the same way again.
It is not surprising that someone in Fiona MacKeown’s position would deny negligence; to acknowledge it would be too painful. But—and this is what is truly disturbing—when the newspaper asked four supposed child-rearing experts for their opinions, only one saw anything wrong with the mother’s behavior, and even she offered only muted criticism. It was always difficult to know how much independence to grant an adolescent, the expert said; but in her view, the mother had granted too much too quickly to Scarlett.
Even that seemed excessively harsh to the Observer’s Barbara Ellen…
Incidentally, here is a good column on almost the same subject by George Will.
Paternalism is the restriction of freedom for the good of the person restricted. AIPCS [American Indian Public Charter School] acts in loco parentis because Chavis, who is cool toward parental involvement, wants an enveloping school culture that combats the culture of poverty and the streets.
He and other practitioners of the new paternalism — once upon a time, schooling was understood as democracy’s permissible, indeed obligatory, paternalism — are proving that cultural pessimists are mistaken: We know how to close the achievement gap that often separates minorities from whites before kindergarten and widens through high school. A growing cohort of people possess the pedagogic skills to make “no excuses” schools flourish.
Unfortunately, powerful factions fiercely oppose the flourishing. Among them are education schools with their romantic progressivism — teachers should be mere “enablers” of group learning; self-esteem is a prerequisite for accomplishment, not a consequence thereof. Other opponents are the teachers unions and their handmaiden, the Democratic Party. Today’s liberals favor paternalism — you cannot eat trans fats; you must buy health insurance — for everyone except children. Odd.

World - French Champagne lightens its load

Champagne bottles are so thick and sturdy they are sometimes deliberately weakened before being thrown at ships to avoid the bad omen of a failure to smash. But, faced with dizzying increases in production and transportation costs, champagne houses are making them thinner.
Champagne bottles have been made of thick glass, with most weighing about 900g empty (more than double the weight of a standard wine bottle), since the 19th century to ensure the spark­ling wine is safely contained.

G.H. Mumm, the champagne house owned by French spirits and wine group Pernod Ricard, has completed a trial production run of 2.5m champagne bottles weighing 835g each when empty. Filled, they weigh almost 2kg.
Mumm has put the lighter bottles it has produced in its trial run in caves where they will age for at least 2 ½ years.
The house ran the trial at the request of the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, the French trade association that represents grape growers and champagne producers and oversees the sale of 330m-340m bottles annually. Mumm cannot sell its bottles to consumers until it receives approval from the CIVC that they will not explode.
If the trials are successful, the CIVC may recommend its other members start using the bottles. “If you put more bottles on the same truck, obviously you save petrol,” the CIVC said.
The trial at Mumm was being watched by other champagne houses. “It’s creating a lot of interest.”
Pommery, the champagne house owned by Vranken-Pommery Monopole, is the only big champagne group to date to use 835g bottles. It adopted them in 2003 and says it can now load 4,000 more bottles on every truck. It estimates that if every Champagne house switched, there would be 3,000 fewer trucks on the road every year
British sparkling wine producers have been warned that traditional 900g bottles will become harder to get hold of as more champagne producers switch to lighter bottles.
Michael Roberts, founder of British sparkling wine group RidgeView Wine Estate, says his French oenologist told him to expect to receive supplies of lighter bottles as early as next year. Mr Roberts said the cost of glass bottles had risen 40 per cent over the past year as glass makers pass on higher energy costs.
There is also a shortage of glass bottles globally as people in emerging markets such as Latin America and eastern Europe drink more bottled soft drinks and alcohol.

India - Wealthy Indians desert planes for trains

India’s affluent middle class is rekindling its affair with long-distance train travel, as sharp jumps in domestic airline ticket prices push many former frequent fliers back to the railways.
India has seen a boom in domestic air travel, as low-cost carriers – led by Air Deccan – brought the once-seeming luxury of air travel within the reach of a far greater number of Indians. They had previously relied on the country’s colonial-era rail system for most long journeys.

However, sharp rises in the cost of fuel have pushed India’s domestic airline ticket prices up in some cases by 20 per cent, prompting many cost-conscious Indians to keep their feet on the ground.
In July, India’s airlines carried 12.6 per cent fewer passengers on domestic flights than a year earlier, at 3.04m. Meanwhile, Indian Railways, the vast state network, saw traveller numbers in its more up-market, air-conditioned cars surge by nearly 50 per cent in the same period.
“We feel that some passengers are diverting to the trains from planes,” said Anil Kumar Saxena, a railways spokesman, although he said it was too early to know whether the trend would last.
Pankaj Gupta, a partner in New Delhi’s Outbound Travels, said, “a lot of people can’t believe that so recently it was x-y-z to fly somewhere and now it’s up by 20 per cent. It’s a shock to them. A lot of people are deferring their travel, saying: ‘We’ll think about it and let you know.’”
Since the 1990s Indian Railways has sought to upgrade its service to appeal to more demanding consumers, introducing measures such as online ticket sales.
Raajveev Batra, head of KPMG’s transport practice in India, said leisure travellers were those most likely to forgo flights and return to the trains while business travellers were still probably willing to pay a premium for a quick, efficient journey.
“The low-cost carriers helped people appreciate and realise the value of time,” he said. “People who still wish to pay more and save time will not go to other modes of transport ... The drop is largely for those passengers who were leisure travellers. I am sure that they must be shifting back to other modes of travel.”
Mr Batra said air carriers must now focus on boosting their efficiency, and predicted a period of industry consolidation. “It’s a good opportunity for airlines to introspect and look at their business but I don’t see doom for the carriers,” he said

India - New fish to fry

For many years, India’s fishery exports (the largest component in the broad category of agro-exports) have had an unhealthy dependence on shrimp. So it is good news that this dependence is now reducing, the export basket diversifies. Also reducing is the dependence on the two principal markets (Japan and the United States), as other markets are being tapped. While these are positive developments, it cannot unfortunately be claimed that the woes of the marine fisheries sector are over. There has for years been a near stagnation in output, and deceleration in the growth of seafood exports. Even the growing domestic demand for fish and fish products is being met increasingly from inland fisheries.

The export trends of the past five years reveal that the share of shrimps in total seafood shipments has declined from 65 per cent to 52 per cent in value terms, and from 32 per cent to 25 per cent in quantitative terms. Shrimps have yielded ground to other marine products like frozen finfish and cuttlefish, whose share in exports has expanded. However, squids have not done too well despite their good potential. The narrow seafood export kitty — still largely black tiger-prawns, and only a small buyers’ club — has proved baneful for this sector though exporters have taken a long while to realise this, and have paid the price for their failure to do something about the problem. The US in particular has been taking full advantage of this situation by putting forward various kinds of riders, raising objections on sanitary and phyto-sanitary issues, toxicity levels and antibiotic residues, and even levying anti-dumping duties and other fiscal penalties. It is of course an unfortunate truth that Indian export houses were quite lax on sanitary and phyto-sanitary norms some years ago, but many of them have put their houses in order and some have secured endorsements from the US inspecting teams. Still, the disputes settlement body of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is still to be approached frequently enough against unfair US trade practices. The emergence of the European Union and several other South-East Asian and West Asian markets as export destinations may, therefore, ease pressure to an extent by offering fresh avenues for fisheries exports.
Nevertheless, the way forward is not easy because, along with the expansion of export markets, the competition has also grown. Countries like China, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia have emerged as tough rivals, and seem to be offering cheaper products. Besides, the US, Japan and even some European nations have begun importing vannamei shrimps, which are priced lower because of their smaller production cost, as a substitute for the black tiger-prawn. India has begun vannamei culture only this year. Thus, the cost advantage that India enjoyed in the past has largely been eroded. Moreover, domestic seafood production costs have gone up on account of higher freight, power, labour and infrastructure expenses, as well as frequent outbreaks of epidemics in shrimp farms. It is clear that India’s seafood exporters have to go in for better farming methods and enhanced operational efficiencies, besides cutting costs, in order to remain competitive. Only then can this sector draw upon the new diversity in its export basket for a sustainable seafood export boom

Columnists - T C A Srinivasa Raghavan

Farewell to Okonomos

This is going to be the last Okonomos written by me. Over the 10 years that I have been writing this column, many people have asked me whether I had mis-spelt the Greek word for economics, oikos (house) and nomos (custom or law). Actually, what I had in mind was a paper by Edmund Phelps on growth, published eons ago, in which he talks about growth on an island called Okonomos.
When, back in 1998, I had mooted the idea of writing a weekly commentary on research in economics I had suggested that it should be written by different people each week. But the editor thought differently, and I ended up writing it every week.
The aim, originally, was to write only about Indian research. But after only a few weeks I ran into a problem: There just wasn’t enough of high quality research going on. The theoretical stuff from places like the Indian Statistical Institute and the Delhi School of Economics was good, no doubt, but hardly the sort of thing one could write about in a newspaper.
The universities were comatose and the think tanks, which had had to go commercial over the 1990s, produced status reports, which was not really research. As such they were more suited for the news columns, rather than the Okonomos. The empirical stuff was limited by the fact that there just wasn’t enough data around. The exception was the RBI and its publication, Occasional Papers. But that was mainly because the staff had the data. Sadly, it has become too occasional now. The website link was last updated in February and the last volume is dated Monsoon 2007.
Those were also the days when the Internet hadn’t quite become what it has now. It was really a problem finding — on a weekly basis — something interesting enough to write about. I started visiting the think tanks about then, and although nothing much resulted in professional terms, there was an important positive externality: I made some very good friends.
One of the most striking things was the frequent assertion by the economists I met was that they didn’t read the business papers. This strange approach doesn’t seem to have changed much. Just two days ago, I met a university professor who said the same thing. I wondered about the point of the research they did. If, like their counterparts in the US and the rest of the west, they didn’t address live problems, what did they do then? And why?
That was not all. I also discovered how easy it was for very powerful interests, both vested and wannabes, to use naive but competent economists to further their cause. The whole “reform the financial sector now, at once, now, now now” campaign then fell into proper perspective.
It was in 2001, I think, that I discovered the NBER site. It was a real eye-opener in at least three ways. First there was the idea itself, of letting it all hang out on a free website (no longer free, though). Second, there was the sheer volume of American research. And third was its extraordinary variety. You can find some guidance on practically any subject on the NBER website. How I wish the Planning Commission or some other agency would promote something similar in India as well.
But the law of diminishing marginal utility is inexorable. It always comes into play and by about 2005 I had begun to tire of the NBER website also. The reason was that the method of research posted on it was numbingly uniform, frozen as it were in a template: find a data set, run a few regressions, and come up with some fairly banal conclusions. Moreover, you never, ever find a theoretical insight at NBER. Also, the rapid increase in the number of posts on it seemed to have diluted the standards somewhat.
One thing that needs mentioning is the amazing preponderance of research on financial markets and the scarcity of research on the real sectors. Good microeconomics research is almost non-existent and the great Indian rope trick called macroeconomics dominates. There is a lot of pointless development economics research, probably because the World Bank funds so much of it. In my view it is complete bollocks.
I should also mention that of the nearly 600 Okos I wrote, I received less than 10 submissions from Indian economists. I finally had to conclude that the people for whom it was originally meant — economists — were not interested in reading about what other economists were saying. I would be remiss, though, if I did not mention that non-economists did find it useful.
I understand the column will continue, which is great news. Now I can sit back and let someone else bring me up-to-date on what’s going on in the confused world of economists. Better do a good job of it, lads.