Sunday, September 26, 2010

The boondocks of Krishnarajapuram

I had written about the great railway station of Krishnarajapuram sometime back. And yesterday I got a chance to revisit this great railway station once again in all its glory. My hunch is that currently there is some secret project in Krishnarajapuram to reduce the operating cost of the railways. If this is true, then the railways have hit on a splendid model to have a low operating cost. If that is not the case, a certain Kalmuddy must have used KR Puram as a trial balloon.

The entire station is powered by "Human Intuition Guidance System". This system requires no electricity and incredibly people were able to find their allotted seats in the trains at 10 pm in the night like they were guided missiles (or literate owls) but without the jhingbang hi-tech lasers. With this system in place, there is no need for any announcement (and obviously, there were none) and people just had to ask passengers in the train as to which train it was. There is exactly one toilet in the station which is hard to find or locked or dirty - I did not explore all the options, but clearly the system ensures that people never have an urge to pee as well - Smart. The ticket counters were shut - as were announcements - again, there was no need since the system takes care of everything. Indeed the single shop open at the station seemed to be the only surviving relic of ancient railway history. The digital displays that display train numbers and coach positions in other old railways stations seemed to exist, but they were not working. Like I said, they do not need to work - since we have the "Advanced Verbal Communication System with Fellow Lost Passenger" in place. Everybody was right in position of their coach to the accuracy of a micron. In one instance, the lights came on about 30 seconds before the train arrived and shut down about 10 seconds after the train arrived with people switching to the "Advanced Visual Display Mode with Cellphone Display Light Enable Option".

Truly an amazing railway station right in the heart of Bangalore!!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Super segmentation

Not satisfied with Junior Horlicks and normal Horlicks and a few other variants, there is now a super segmentation in the junior Horlicks segment with Horlicks 1, 2 and 3.

Not sure whose great idea this is, but Complan has followed suit too (or perhaps it is the other way round) with super segmentation variants in its range too.

Perhaps a way to capture the market in 2 kids households - by making them buy different (and hence more) packs?

Whatever the trick, not sure how many will fall for their tricks? Will it make a difference? One pack will get over faster, 2 packs will take twice the time, so will it really help? Is this just a me-too syndrome for both these drinks? Or will people end up getting more confused and buy Boost?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The market in bus tickets

Recently while we were on our way back from Udupi, we scouted for KSRTC bus tickets. The internet reservation showed an availability of 10 tickets, but there were none available to book. So, we decided to go there and find out if there are any agents selling tickets.

Sure enough, there were. They were selling KSRTC tickets at cost price. There seemed to be no KSRTC Counter at Udupi, so the agents are helping the corporation sell their tickets. But that doesnt explain the software glitch - I am pretty sure it is no glitch because it shows the right numbers for other routes.

What happens to these tickets if the agents do not manage to sell them? Does the corporation buy them back? But then they are also shown as booked tickets in the system, unless there is some other way to account for them? Cancellations mean only a 50% odd refund depending on when it is cancelled.

And as such there is no control at what price they sell them. So, theoretically they can sell them at a higher price - but they dont - atleast not that I know of. The more we thought about it, the less we got anwers...

So, how do these agents make money on these tickets? Apart from the commission perhaps (is there one)? And is there some sort of buy back arrangement? How does this market work?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Raj Thackeray and Geelani

Or why I like Raj Thackeray.

Imagine MNS wins the assembly elections in Maharashtra the next time around - with a landslide margin. That gives them absolute majority in the house. And on the day Raj Thackeray is sworn in as Chief Minister, he declares that Maharashtra will secede from the rest of India. Alright, constitutionally that is not possible, so he settles for silver. The Maharashtra government declares that you will need a permit to enter and work in Mumbai if you are not already domiciled in the state. (For the time being they let you work in other parts of the state, but Mumbai is a no-go.)

As a next step, they ask, politely at first, for a little more autonomy to Mumbai in particular and Maharashtra in general, failing which, they say, Mumbai will not pay its share of taxes to the Central Government. Considering that Mumbai does pay a lot of tax and buys a lot of tickets in the railways and generally pays all its bills standing in an orderly Q - that means a lot of trouble for India. Our fiscal deficit, horrendous as it is, will now become the equivalent of staring down the barrel of a very powerful gun. Maharashtra will become a rich state though, thanks to the financial muscle of Mumbai.

And they also pass a resolution that nobody from any other part of India can buy property in Mumbai. Let us also say, theoretically that he will drive out non Maharashtrians - if not by force, by frustration. (Actually he wont - he actually loves guys like me who can speak Marathi despite being born in another part of India). He would also want to wipe out every bit of non Marathi history of Mumbai - and that means that the Udupi restaurants, the Gujarati businesses, the Tamil markets, the Sindhi colony will all be given "secular" makeovers. And he wants to change the name of each and every town in Maharashtra. Or every street in Mumbai.

Let us take this a little further. Assume that he assembles an army of stonepelters and brings the city to a stop as per a pre-distributed schedule. Which is possible, once he arranges the funds to encourage his army of stonepelters who take aim and break every glass fa├žade in Mumbai. And specifically target non Maharashtrian assets? And blockade the JNPT port? And the Mumbai airport? And let industry suffer losses worth hundreds of crores. What would happen?

Would the government sit silently and wait for it to happen? Would it send in the army to Mumbai - to protect its other citizens who are not in favour of seceding from India? And what if the army kills a few stonepelters? All of this is hypothetical. For all the negative publicity he gets, one thing Raj Thackeray is, he is a patriot and supports the idea of the Indian nation.

But would our media which is currently screaming and supporting the stonepelters in the valley through broadcasts and on twitter and various social communities, rise in support of Raj Thackeray?

The answer is that they would not. Obviously, that is where the twitterati and glitterati live and make money, for one. For another, we all believe every Indian has equal right over Mumbai. If it is true for Mumbai it is true for any other part of India. If Mumbai cannot secede and Raj Thackeray does not have support, why can Kashmir secede and Mr. Geelani and his band of stonepelters have any support? If article 370 is the bone of contention, this is the time for the Indian state to grow a spine and give it some rigidity as well. Both Mumbai and the valley are as much a part of India as Mizoram and Krishnagiri. And if that is so, I would like to know how right it is for the media to support and air the demands of a few paid stonepelters and their leaders who are holding a state and its citizens to ransom?

Remember this - if Kashmir can get Azadi, Mumbai definitely can. And if you encourage one, remember that you encourage the other as well.

Which is why I like Raj Thackeray. And which is why I think that every state of India should have a Raj Thackeray or more. People like him are the perfect antidote for people like one Mr. Geelani who encourages the creation of a nation of stone pelters while silent chief ministers and passive central governments allow him to.

Failed salesman

India has failed to sell the idea of India to Kashmiris (In the valley, to be specific. Jammu, Leh/Ladakh seem to have no such issue).

What is the idea of India? As per our constitution, India stands for a plural democratic country where seven fundamental rights are guaranteed. The Right to Equality, Freedom, Freedom from Exploitation, Freedom of Religion, Cultural and Educational rights, Constitutional Remedies and the recently added Right to Education. As rights go, they are the fundamental freedoms that are essential for both individual and community. These are the rights that are enforceable in a court of law. That's what our constitution says.

At a practical level, what has India meant to us? India, the country is an ancient country that has shaped itself on a pluralistic platform. It is a country which has seen the birth of more than a few important religions and movements. It has welcomed numerous religions, races and peoples into its folds. In the land of a million gods, a few more were more than welcome and this tradition has continued in the general tolerance and adopting belief systems in its populace The country has seen off numerous invasions and murderous invaders apart from diseases and natural and man made calamities throughout its history.India has been a melting pot of cultures, each entity providing a distinct nuance to what India is today.

What else does it mean? Media is free in India (if they chose to be), women have equal rights as men (in general), there are a multitude of schools and colleges available, property rights are relatively well enforced and yes, while we are not perfect as a country we are a relatively free nation. We have progressed ever since the economy was opened in 1991 by the venerable Narasimha Rao. And from then on, with the strength of our GDP, we have created a decent name for us in Information Technology and Services. India is also home to a good number of private companies that have created a name and space for themselves in the world space. It is a country where there is no thought police or religious police and in general, your god can go with you. You can worship anything, almost anywhere. So, that's India for you in a nutshell, a quilt woven across the centuries, religions, cultures, languages and people.

Yet, think about it, did we give Kashmiris a fighting chance to join this idea of India? To be honest, we did not. We failed to sell the idea that Kashmir would survive and thrive in its own identity as much as a Rajasthan or a Kerala does. Article 370 ensured that Kashmir would be trapped in a limbo - never independent, yet not completely sold onto the idea of India. We failed in selling the idea of India to Kashmiris despite sending in crores worth of development every year. Despite building railways at tremendous cost and risk. And then again our salesmen were not the best. They were corrupt or inept or both. The whole idea was to integrate it into the Indian Union at some point of time - that can happen even now, but given that we have constantly selected invertebrates as our leaders, this is not likely to happen anytime soon. And so with Article 370, we left the doors open for persuasion of another kind - a persuasion that will literally create a desert in paradise.

Sure, as a country we are not perfect. Is it worth fighting for? Clearly yes, because given all the imperfections, the opposite of this is quite unimaginable. And this is exactly what will become of Kashmir under the leaders they so religiously follow because of the strings that their masters have religiously (pun intended) attached to these leaders. I can imagine fighting for freedom, but fighting for the opposite of it and claiming it is a fight for freedom?

A case for roads in Bangalore

When you visit Mumbai, yes, Mumbai after a few years in Bangalore, something strikes you about the width of the roads there. The roads in Mumbai seem like you are abroad. And then those old Fiat cabs remind you where you are.

Bangalores roads are narrow. These roads served their purpose well when there were few cars and fewer buses. But today that is not the case. Bangalore registers nearly a thousand new vehicles each day. And considering that this is the case for the past few years (as has been the case for most of India), that is a lot of vehicles. The result is very clear. During peak hours, the Outer Ring Road - a road that was so empty when it was built about 10 years ago that people used it for drag races - is now chock-a-block with vehicles. The road is pockmarked with intersections and during peak hours you will spend a good 15 minutes at each intersection. The road leading to Majestic (or Kempegowda Bus Station) is another example. Getting there on time to get your outstation bus or train has always been a nightmare. Pick any road in Bangalore and you will get the same reaction.

Under the earlier (Congress, JD et al) governments blessings, there was little or no road upgradation work - ostensibly because that would cost them rural votes. Cost them it did - both rural and urban votes. And a BJP government came into power about 2 years ago. And since then road upgradation work has happened in full swing. Quite a few underpasses, flyovers have been built and roads are being widended. Under the newly elected corporation, this work has been going on at a pace that would do Bangalore proud. And the public transport system today is unrecognizable from what it was about 10 years back.

But of course there are issues. People are not happy parting with their property for widening roads. Which is understandable. Road widening means trees on the sides (and Banglores narrow roads were beautiful) and that means they need to go too. The greens are upset. But then Bangalores greens need to look closely at where the trees are. See Bangalore from the air and trees are either in large public spaces or in the cantonment or on the roads. Few Bangalore houses have trees - real estate is far too pricey to support trees today. Trees have to be saved, but it is not just from the Metro or widening roads.

But the real problem is not about widening roads. Given that vehicle numbers are increasing, narrow roads will result in more pollution. Pollutions levels will go up as vehicles stall for longer periods of time waiting for signals to turn green or for intersections to clear up. And living in a property along a narrow congested polluted road is a health hazard in itself. It will also result in those very trees falling in even very light rains. And this is a common problem in Bangalore. And then there is parking. Many houses have no parking facilities for cars - so they park on the roads. Ditto for business establishments. And that results in one lane of most roads being lost for actual usage leaving just one odd lane for traffic. Traffic enforcement in Bangalore is poor. It is getting better now, but it is a long away from the enforcement (or harassment - depending on who you ask) levels in Mumbai or Delhi.

Bangalores problem has to be solved at many levels. Roads need to be widened - public transport needs to be beefed up - car usage needs to be discouraged with high parking fees or road taxes. Both these are equally important. Given the weather of the city, walking paths need to be created alongwith cycling paths and these are ideal given the size of the city. Overall environment awareness needs to go up. Traffic enforcement needs to be sharper. People need to follow traffic, parking rules diligently. The gentle Bangalorean is capable of doing all this - just opposing road widening will not get the city anywhere. And the Metro rail is the future of the city that should have been here 20 years ago. The Metro is one of the cleanest solutions that will result in reducing pollution via transport for Bangalore.

Without wide roads, the problems will continue. With increased levels of both public transport and private vehicles these very roads will be choked beyond imagination. Even for efficient public transport, one dedicated lane is required - which is all that most roads are today for all forms of traffic. Every city has to transform and it is now Bangalores turn.

Where are the videos?

A few weeks ago, a so called aid convoy from Turkey set sail to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza. The flotilla did not break the blockade and ended up with a few causalities. As usual, the world media lapped up the story that those who were killed were peaceful protesters. And then the IDF released videos which called their bluff. These were videos shot from the helicopter which was monitoring the Mavi Marmara. The footage showed activists attacking soldiers with weapons. These videos may or may not make Israel's position in the world any more or any less credible, which is a different story in itself, but remember they are fighting a war with proof, not bromide.

This is not new to IDF. In the last "war" with Hamas, IDF videos clearly showed rocket launchers positioned amongst civilians and in schools; it showed how civilians were being used as cover as well. These videos were presumably shot from planes. Indeed, IDF has a youtube channel where it puts up its videos for the world to see and decide for themselves whether they are merciless killers or they try and do an as clean job as possible given the state they are in.

Sure, videos can be doctored and photos can be doctored (as we saw in the Mavi Marmara case), but not any more or less than statements from so called sources can be genuine. War, as we all know by now, is just not a war fought with weapons. It is also a war about propaganda.

How is this of interest to us? Every summer there is an uprising in Kashmir. This is a clear pattern emerging in the past few years. I don't know why it is summer rather than winter, but there must be something. Perhaps it is the weather. This summer is seeing cycles of street violence yet again. But the question that begs answering is that, despite a clear pattern emerging there, why are our troops not prepared? Not with guns, not with soldiers, weapons, but with hi-resolution cameras? Why are the streets of towns most liable to violence not dotted with cameras? (Again, same holds good for places susceptible to terror recces and attacks.)

News reports originating from Kashmir would have us believe that it is the CRPF that is out killing people - civilians as they claim. The home secretary on the other hand, has said that anybody who breaks a curfew and indulges in violence is not a civilian by length of imagination. On the web there are file pictures of troops being harassed by the crowds, pelted stones on, bloodied in battle, being hit by many people while having just a lathi in their hands. Why are these pictures not in newspapers? Why are these videos not on breaking news on our ever fulminating channels? Why is there no big picture like site in India where we put up pictures? Why are these videos not on youtube? Why are the troops unable to counter this propaganda attack?

One standard argument has been that our troops are meant to fight real wars, but please, they have been in Kashmir for a few years now. And they have been called out in our cities many a time to counter mob violence. So, by now, they should have been experts in fighting mobs in cities and organizing guerilla attacks.

Heres how the CRPF could counter it - without guns. Given that breaking a curfew is illegal, can they not videoshoot it using hi-res cameras from their vans? And send it neatly packaged to the Chief Ministers office (apart from media houses)? How difficult is this today given the prevalence of easily available technology? Even a ten year old can upload videos on youtube today - why cant our troops? This will ensure 3 things. One, it will call the bluff of helpful "sources" who would like us to believe that the troops go berserk when all they are possibly doing is doing a thankless job and saving their lives while they are at it. It would also, take away the anonymity of these stone pelters - who go out pelt stones, collect their money and go back to pretending that they are peaceful normal guys like you and me who can type as well on a laptop as well as throw stones. When hi-res pictures are available, those who indulge in violence will have hell to pay, unlike the anonymity that they revel in today. Third, it will force the government to take action on these so called peaceful protesters.

And don't think this is a recipe for Kashmir only. It is not. Each place that the army or the police are called to battle mob violence, they will need cameras more than guns. And the sooner our troops learn to fight the propaganda war, the better it is for us. And enabling vehicles with camers and software is far less complicated and daunting than manufacturing the LCA or buying a howitzer or submarine or a vintage aircraft carrier.

The videos will kill two birds with one stone - it will keep the forces themselves in check while taking away the anonymity cloak the mobsters take shelter under.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Bangalore Volvo lesson

When I came to Bangalore about a decade back, public transport in this city was a mess and continued to be so until about a year or so back.

It is partly an attitude issue - people here don't use much of public transport - and prefer the convenience of their bikes and cars - and partly an issue of poor service as well. So, it was a vicious circle. Bad public transport, low usage and hence there was no reason to increase or improve the public transport services. Roads were in a sad state too but that's a different story. About 4 years back or so, BMTC introduced Volvos as an experiment on some routes. And for a while, they weren't making money. Buses ran empty - those who got into them were happy to have an entire bus to themselves, but for the corporation, I am sure, it was not a pretty sight.

And in the last couple of years, BMTC has taken a some more initiatives to ensure that Volvos are appreciated and accepted. This, in a city, that loves its bikes and cars is no mean feat.

First, they flooded the roads with Volvos so one did not have to wait forever for a bus to come by their way. Second, they targetted the high density routes - the routes that service the IT sector areas in Bangalore. These are the people who don't mind paying for good quality transport. And these are also the people who don't mind using public transport - most IT companies have their own transport routes too. They came up initiatives like Bus-day working with IT companies to publicise the usage of buses. They introduced new routes - there are routes that originate from large apartment complexes. There are private public partnerships where organizations work with the BMTC to introduce new routes and many of them are successful too.

There are a few lessons from this. First, you remove waiting time and hence improve predictability of reaching work and back. Second, you promise a comfortable ride each way. Third, it is way better than a bike and sunburns and traffic. Fourth, there are no arguments with rickshaw drivers to endure. And then again, it is a green way to work too. Once these issues are tackled there are no excuses left for not using public transport.

Most transport corporations fail because they don't give enough bus services for people to use them. If somebody has to wait 20 minutes for a bus to come their way, that is a long time in a commute time of possibly of an hour. And this is where it is a great story for Bangalore. On some peak routes, there is a bus every few minutes - timings even a metro railway service would be proud of.

And all their efforts have been rewarded with those great buses turning in a profit!

Bangalores volvos are turning in a profit, ridership is increasing and this gives rise to a positive vicious circle. More ridership means more money which in turns means better bus services. But the trick is to get to the tipping point and ride over it.

All this augurs very well for the upcoming Metro service. Now can somebody increase parking  fees and road taxes for private vehicles, create bike lanes and walking paths too?