Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Twitter and RSS feeds

So, Twitter, in all its intelligence has stopped support for RSS feeds.

I am probably one of the few affected. I follow a good number of people on twitter. And since one cant live life watching the timeline, I would use Google reader to asynchronously follow the tweets of a few good people on it.

It was nice, very useful to bookmark, to be on top of just one persons timeline and also in a restricted workspace environment I could get to see important tweets.

And now, these intelligent people have stopped RSS feeds on twitter.

Sigh!

Update:RSS feeds are indeed available, just follow this post on how to do it...

Friday, October 12, 2012

The crony capitalism management theory

Reams of paper have been spent writing management theories for companies in growth markets.

I remember in one of my early lectures in management school, I asked the professor, “While we talk of core competence, how is it that groups like Tata, Reliance, Birlas diversify and continue make money in places like India. According to the definition of core competence, they should not be in these markets”. The professor quasi-dismissed my question – and this was a question asked post 1991 reforms (the real ones).

But later on I read that in growth markets Core competence may not be a great strategy to work with as newer markets and opportunities open up. For example, in India when the telecom sector opened up, a bunch of our erstwhile conglomerates stepped in with their mobile phone service offering. And a similar trend happened in the infrastructure sector. And when retail FDI happens, you will see a similar story there as well.

But then again, as the goings on the last couple of years have shown us, any company following any established management theory is sure to come cropper in the face of the newest of all management theories. And it works. Especially in India. Especially with the UPA in power.

It can cock a snook at core competence. Monopolize and capture markets better than any marketing campaign, check. It can dance on the five forces model of Michael Porter. It can get exclusive licenses, first mover advantages and deliver better results than Business Process Re-engineering. It is far more accurate than Lean Six Sigma. It is even more just-in-time than JIT. It can arrange finance at your door step when Accounting Standards tell you that you are not eligible for finance. It can win contracts when you are not even in the industry.

It is, in short, the baap of all management theories. A theory management theorists and consultants has never quite managed to put on paper: The theory of crony capitalism. It works on a simple tenet.

As Ogden Nash said,

Heights by great men reached and kept,
were not attained by exertion,
but they while their companions slept,
were busy contacting the right person.

Indeed, the theory of crony capitalism works on a simple model. The number of influential people, who have your number on their phone is a good indicator. If they are movers and shakers in the government who decide policies, float and award tenders it means you can easily grow to stratospheric heights. If it is a minister who is deciding to give off coal blocks or spectrum on the cheap, you are in the league to become a billionaire. If you cannot fulfill this first step, then sorry – the crony capitalism theory may not work for you. You will have to make it on your own. Tough luck. Don’t forget to pay taxes, though.

Second. Have you heard of the word ethics? If your answer is yes, then please stand aside. If you think ethics is for everybody else, crony capitalism is for you.

Fourth: You need to pull strings. In the olden days of license distribution, some companies always got licenses no matter what. They set up all possible industries and made money. In these new days of liberalization it is not that easy. You may have to find a foreign partner especially when all you do is own land and you know a license to build a metro railway is up for grabs. But foreign partners are not too difficult to find – after all, India was a growth market, before it fell like a ton of brics (pun intended). Or you may be asked to submit a tender in 15 minutes – but this is the information age – it can be done. Sometimes, you have to create a need, like all you do is sell metal, while the tender is for building a hospital. That, has to be arranged. Meaning, if the chap who floats the tender can add the golf course expertise as a pre-requisite to acquire land for a hospital, all you need to do is find a real estate firm which has built a golf course in its prospectus. It also helps to know lobbyists. These days lobbyists can be anybody – they are in disguise after the rather infamous expose of a lobbyist. The best disguise for them is journalists for example. Ministers can also double up as loyalists – like, if a tourism minister can vouch for your howitzers.

Third : You need to have a penchant for shells. Shell companies. Especially in Mauritius. Or Maldives. Or Cayman Islands. Some smart guys have shell companies in India itself. You can even sell shell companies.

So, how do they make money? Oh simple. You get spectrum for cheap, you sell it at a fortune. You get coalblocks for cheap, you sell it for something. You get land on the cheap and then you get some ultra luxury penthouses in return. Return on investment, you see. Some kickback is involved, but usually it is lesser than the taxes you would pay if you are a normal income tax paying geek.

Prerequisites: Some knowledge in creating trusts, NGO’s and a basic course in money laundering and tax planning. A penchant for throwing parties is appreciated. Attendance at big bashes is a must.

As you can see, many (shell) companies in India have made their fortunes this way.

Now, what if you are not an industrialist. You can still use crony capitalism. All you do is write bad things about BJP, Hindus or Gujarat 2002 (though this is fast approaching its sell by date) – and you will get funds. Another great option is to rant about persecution in Kashmir by the Indian authorities and somebody (related to a friendly neighbour's spy agency) will sooner or later invite you for all expenses paid conferences and some free shopping. If you are lucky, the government itself may put you on a plane and give you an all expenses paid holiday to Kashmir while you get to write a report nobody reads. And if you are a leftist, that works too. Sooner or later, you will be invited for a corporate funded junket to spew leftist speeches on an unsuspecting audience.

As for me, I know this column just ended my chances…

(Weblished yesterday on Niticentral, slightly edited)

Monday, October 08, 2012

Just a handful of waste

BBMP has started off what is perhaps one of its greatest initiatives. From sometime last week or so, they have refused to pick up unsegregated garbage from homes and businesses. Houses and Business now have to segregate waste before they hand it over to the BBMP. This is perhaps a fallout of the problem that BBMP has had with landfills et al. But whatever the genesis of the problem, to an environmentalist this is great news. Garbage now has to be segregated along wet waste, dry waste among other things at source.

This is not so difficult to do. Indeed, it is a good things for people to do it rather than expect others to sort our their garbage. This from my own experience has been great.

Over the last couple of years, we have been composting our kitchen waste. The whole process is magical so to say. The kitchen waste, biodegrades into some amazing smelling compost which is great for gardens. We use this product from daily dump which occupies a small space in a balcony. It works beautifully.

So, if we compost the kitchen waste (presumably the biggest source of waste) and separate the dry waste - which is mostly packaging material of various things we buy, what we are left with is a handful of waste each day. And much of the dry waste is recyclable - paper, plastic, glass, thermocole etc.

That is just great when you think of it. Otherwise, there would be people who would have to rummage through the waste to collect recyclable things and all that. And it is almost inhuman when you think of it - that we expect people to rummage through waste and recycle while we callously toss stuff into the waste basket. It is great the BBMP has enforced this across the city and will also collect fines (or refuse to pick up) from those those who still do not segregate garbage.

If each household or apartment complex or locality did its own composting, we would have greener gardens all around, much less waste and pests and even manage to give off compost to the villages where our farmers can use them (for free) a lot better than chemical fertilizer.

Tread lightly on the earth - we can all do our bit and teach our children to do so...

Saturday, October 06, 2012

BRTS Thoughts

The idea behind BRTS (Bus Rapid Transit Corridors) is a nice one. The whole idea is to provide dedicated lanes for buses so that their progress is not delayed due to the other traffic. This results in better average speeds. Atleast in principle. Bangalore is on the cusp of experimenting with a BRTS system on the Outer Ring Road – according to the reports I have read http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Bangalore/article1087368.ece. There is however a slight disconnect in the way it has been planned right now.

Disclaimer: I don’t know how it will pan out when the entire planning for the project is done, but this is a general observation of how it works in its state today. Though unless something miraculous has been planned, the state wont change.

The entire outer ring road will have a signal free corridor for about 21 kilometers. The BRTS is planned on this road. How this works is that there are flyovers over all the signal points, but the BRTS lanes are not on the flyover. They are under the flyover and hence, BRTS and bus passengers have to suffer all the intersections. Agreed, that with much of the traffic going over, the times at the signals will be less, but Bangalores intersections are mad (yes, there is no better word for it). If the signal free corridor makes it ‘easier’ for people to drive, why would people take buses? And if cars have a signal free corridor, why cant buses use it as well?  I am sure the powers that be have an answer for it, but take a look at the Agara intersection today.

Case in point: The Agara intersection has lifted two directions of traffic while the buses take the path below the flyover. Unfortunately, this intersection is a busy intersection with atleast 3 more directions of traffic – resulting in a bottleneck for – you guessed it – only the buses – especially the ones coming in from the Silk Board side. Ideally, one of more of those intersecting traffic lines should not be allowed to cross over and provided some sort of an alternate path. If this is a future BRTS system, buses will be slowed down and cars will go over, enjoying the signal free intersections. This defeats the idea of the BRTS – the buses should also get the benefit of signal free intersections – which the present system doesn’t.

Now this is not a isolated example – at the HSR BDA junction the next one after Agara, right now, buses go over the flyover since the roads below are not yet opened for the buses. When the roads below do open, it is no secret that this is another busy intersection. No point explaining, those who use the road know how or why it is so. And the buses inevitably, will wait for the traffic to clear. And this will be the story at all other intersections, give or take a few. But in totality, it will add more time to a bus journey than it should if the corridor were signal free for the buses as well. One can very well argue that the overall time will go down and all that, but think why would a car owner prefer to take a bus when it stops at every single intersection and bus stop while the cars zoom over?

On the other hand, there are systems built in other parts of the world which take this exact idea of giving the signal free benefit to commuters in buses. (Must read piece, From @aadisht). If and when Bangalore BRTS comes to fruition, this must be considered for it to be successful...