Indian Traffic – An Illustrated Guide

You break it, you buy the farm

Breaking these rules have a high probability of death or serious injury to self or car

1/ Stop at a red light, especially when there is cross traffic.

Dangerous, but it will never happen to me

Breaking these rules can cause death or serious injury but the event carries a low probability

2/ Wearing a seat belt in the front seat
3/ Not driving on the wrong side of a divided highway even if the U turn is more than 20 m. away

Dangerous to others (but not to self, although a car wash may be necessary)

4/ Stopping at Stop signs
5/ Stopping at pedestrian crossings (instead of speeding up) even when some pedestrians start sprinting across

Who’s going to catch me?

Pesky rules that are unnecessary. Break them if you can get away with it.

6/ Not using your cellphone without handsfree, especially when a cop is present.

These rules are a nuisance! (thank God there is no enforcement!)

7/ Using your horn only when necessary

Much of Driver Behaviour is not governed by Traffic Rules. But even there there is behavior that is rational, and behavior that is not.

8/ Praying to the gods to keep you safe before (or while) breaking rules 2 to 6.
9/ Leaning on your horn a few seconds before the light turns green.

Android India

For the last two quarters Android has outsold iPhones in the US. It has real momentum behind it. All carriers in the US offer multiple Android smartphones and the rate at which new ones are being introduced can be only described as a frenzy.

I think Android can conquer the Indian smartphone market. There are many, many things going in its favor. Android is supported by Google but is open source and free. India is a price sensitive market. Apple’s options are fairly limited with the price of an iPhone being what it is. You’ll find corporate bigwigs and finance types carrying an iPhone but really, with a $500+ price tag without a contract, it is just too expensive. So unless Apple introduces an “emerging market” iPhone model it has no hope.

And I don’t think that will happen. They’ll be too concerned about reverse flow of cheap, unlocked iPhones back into developed markets. In any case, Apple is used to being the BMW/Mercedes of consumer tech. They can’t play the emerging markets game. Also, they have no or little support infrastructure in India.

The only potential problem I can foresee is if the hardware spec for running Android becomes too expensive. As an OS matures it gathers features and bloats. But Google seems to have thought of that. Froyo, which is the latest version, is supposed to be highly performance-tuned and could even run on the first generation G1 hardware (I am considering it for my G1). Spice announced their Android phone range today. The entry level Mi 300 is priced at Rs. 10,000. That is a very nice starting point. Expect prices to go down from there.

So if you have a mobile apps strategy in India, better start thinking Android. And Nokia should see the writing on the wall and go Android.

Day One, Chennai

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I come to India many times a year. Yet the moment I set foot here, the mind starts racing with ideas, thoughts and sometimes rants. It is either because one is bombarded with new stimuli, or its the jet lag (today up at 330am. Groan…)

The day before I left the US, I called T-Mobile to see if I could activate data roaming. I have a prepaid Airtel number for phone calls in India. When I go to India, I just use data on my Blackberry or Android – using the phone within India for calls is not practical. They informed me that they could not since I had what is called a FlexPay account (which is anything but flexible. Don’t you just love the guys in Marketing). I have a FlexPay account because apparently my credit isn’t good enough. Go figure. And since I have what is essentially a prepaid account, I couldn’t have data roaming. I was hopping mad but in retrospect they did me a favor.

The thought of being without data on my phone was making me desperate. I posted a question on Facebook and sure enough, got the answer within minutes – get an Airtel GPRS monthly prepaid plan. So that’s what I set out to do on the morning of Aug 5th.

By 830 pm, well after closing time at the Airtel store, the Airtel CSR and I finally, through a series of random changes to the settings, were able to get data access on the phone activated. Neither of us will be able to reproduce the steps that led to success. Which means that I will have the privilege of repeating this exercise on my next trip.

It took me 3 hours at the Airtel store over two sessions to get it to work. While it was very frustrating, the irony is that over that period of time, the half a dozen Airtel reps I spoke to were all helpful and polite (although they would frequently lapse into Tamil when it got complicated.) The problem wasn’t that they didn’t know how to solve my problem. They didn’t know how to access that knowledge. Not knowing is OK. They probably don’t see too many Android phones looking for prepaid data plans. But not having access to a knowledge base or an expert is just not good business. They spent three hours, not including the time of the rep on the phone from their Mumbai office for what is a Rs. 98 per month plan! Yes, it is just Rs. 98 or about $2 for 2GB of data for a month.

I started thinking about this. In India today you have this confluence of high growth, low prices, low wages and low automation. High growth means that the number of transactions of any kind is growing rapidly, so the system is always stressed. Prices need to be low to compete and keep growing at that breakneck pace. Nowhere is this more evident than in telecom. But other sectors like banking and retail are similar. Low prices further fuel growth while reducing the ability of companies to invest in improving the quality or throughput of the transactions. Now, the conventional wisdom would be to use large doses of technology to automate stuff. Technology reduces human transactions, reduces errors, enables better exception handling and most of all helps a business scale. And I’m not even looking at other benefits like better customer sat etc. which aren’t germane to our current discussion. But the problem is that the cost of implementing and supporting technology is high and lumpy and the wages are low enough that most businesses (the one’s that aren’t that smart) will try and solve the problem of scaling by throwing more people at it.

I think India is a great future market for technology both software and services. But right now it is stuck in low gear because the cost of technology, which comes largely from developed economies and is priced to their benchmarks, and because of the low wages which make the productivity based RoI bar too high.

In the afternoon, I met a couple of analysts from a sell-side firm who cover IT Services. It was a delightful meeting with the conversation flowing. The two were not just well informed they had cogent viewpoints on the future of the industry. It was like a jam session. Thanks guys!

I walked around quite a bit yesterday in Shastri Nagar where I am camped with my in-laws. An important adjustment that you need to make quickly when you come to India and decide to walk the streets is to not assume that oncoming traffic will stop for a pedestrian. Or even slow down. Yesterday, I guess I took the adjusting process seriously. Towards the evening, my father-in-law who is 75 and has an artificial knee was taking my hand to guide me across the street.

Indians and Unpredictability

A notice at a neighbourhood Postal Annex. Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words. The proprietor is, you guessed it, Desi.

The notice is a microcosm of Indianness. If you get past the English (hey, its a foreign tongue, so stop being so fussy) it really is a reflection of our relationship with predictability.

There are three kinds of Indians:

– Those that are unpredictable and don’t care.
– Those that are unpredictable, but would like you to expect, and perhaps accept, their unpredictability. The store owner who put this notice up belongs to this set.
– The predictable kind. Within India, this is a very small set.

Indians are not brought up to be predictable in their behavior. The environment (Bangalore traffic for instance) doesn’t allow us to be. But this is certainly a phenotype issue not a genotype one. Because somehow, when Indians leave India they leave their unpredictability behind.

The great achievement of the IT Services industry has been to extract predictable outcomes for clients out of this morass of unpredictability. They erect these boundary walls around the company. Within these figurative walls there are no power cuts and meetings start on time. Defects are measured and deadlines are met. Because that’s what clients in the developed world expect. It’s gotten easier and easier over time, but in the early days the pioneers did the equivalent of moulding square pegs to fit into round holes.

Hinduism and Evolution

Today the Texas Board of Education voted on how American history will be taught in Texas schools. It is a version of history that fits the conservative world view. From the New York Times

The conservative members maintain that they are trying to correct what they see as a liberal bias among the teachers who proposed the curriculum. To that end, they made dozens of minor changes aimed at calling into question, among other things, concepts like the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the American Revolution.

Texas textbooks are important not just because Texas is a big state, but also because many small states just go with the Texas version of the textbooks because it costs less than commissioning their own versions.

Around this time last year the Texas Board voted to change science text books. Evolution, which is always in the spotlight when such matters are discussed, was saved by the skin of its teeth from being relegated to “one of many alternate theories”. However,

Failing to overhaul the curriculum broadly, conservatives instead attached a series of measures specific to subjects like biology, where teachers would be newly required to “analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of the cell.”


IPL on YouTube

From the FT today

Mr Walk said a recent Indian Premier League cricket series had notched up 55m views on YouTube – more in the US than in India – and it found a market for Bollywood in Estonia by offering Striker, a Bollywood film, either on a pay-per-stream basis or free with advertising support outside India.

I watched the IPL on for $60 for all matches. That sounds like a high hurdle for ad supported YouTube, but it isn’t. To pay $60 for is actually foolish. I paid $60 for the T20 World Cup and watched 15 minutes of cricket (the India-Australia match, if you must know). Granted IPL will be different because you won’t be that wedded to any team that you won’t watch the other matches. But even so, there is the matter of the quality of the video, which is consistent but average.

YouTube being free will attract an audience that could be 100 times larger. The asking average revenue from each viewer therefore is much, much lower. The opportunity for advertising is greatly underleveraged. There were banner ads around the video frame this time from some money transfer service but I’ll bet the inventory was sold super cheap, since those were the only ads I saw. But what about the interleaved ads between overs and during drinks? Why do folks in the US have to see an Indian cellphone ad? All this can add up to much more than what is taking in.

My guess is that IPL will be free next year on YouTube.

An Indian Passport and Indianness

M. F. Husain surrenders his Indian passport and takes up Qatari citizenship. As the drama plays out and now peters out in the media an interesting question to ask is what is it that makes one an India.

Now one could write a book on this subject (not me, I’ve already got a gig going but someone, I’m sure) but here’s a short blog post.

Whether you have an Indian passport or not is a terrible way to look at it. From the Husain media circus, it appears that surrendering the passport was really the event that made him unIndian. In spite of his protestations to the contrary, Barkha Dutt (link to NDTV above) seemed to think that was the case. It so happens that India does not permit dual citizenship. The OCI is not the same as citizenship. If like many other countries like the US, India did permit dual citizenship then Husain could have added the Qatari passport and no one would have cared.

I have many friends who live in India but hold a US passport. I think they would consider themselves Indian.

What about residency? Is that a good criterion? But then there are all kinds of Non Resident Indians. Short stays, long stays, those that are waiting for the kids to go to college to return. And then there are those who don’t intend to go back but still feel very connected to India.

I think that its just silly to try to draw these boundaries, and affix labels. Let’s just celebrate a shared culture with great diversity within it and fuzzy boundaries at the edges.

And it is downright hypocritical to celebrate Sunita Williams as one of our own, but decry M F Husain surrendering his passport as abandoning his country.

Sena Mobocracy

As the Shiv Sena stokes the fires of communalism, parochialism and other uglisms, Shahrukh Khan remains unfazed.

Siddharth Varadarajan writes

When confronted by the mob power of the Shiv Sena, MNS or other right-wing groups, the police in India invariably give in to their demands, no matter how irrational or unreasonable, and force the targets of their illegal pressure to give up their rights. So art galleries anywhere in India think once, twice and a hundred times before exhibiting a single painting by M.F. Hussain, movie hall owners agonise over whether to show ‘controversial’ films or not, screenplay writers and movie directors allow politicians, pundits, granthis and maulvis to vet their projects before they are launched, scholarly works of history are banned because their contents do not conform with the cherished hagiography of some group or sect, writers like Taslima Nasrin are hounded out of the country by mobs who claim to have been offended by books they have never read, shops fear to stock Valentine cards because of threats by self-appointed guardians of morality and ‘Indian culture’.

To me this is a law and order issue. Regardless of whether the protesters are right or wrong, if they go from protesting to rioting and arson, the police must act swiftly and decisively.

In India this is not as simple an issue as it might seem like. There are too many people, typically unemployed youth, who will gladly participate in a riot for the money. If the risk of being injured in a lathi charge goes up, all that will change is the asking rate for a rioter.

But letting the rioters destroy public and private property is just not an option. It subverts our freedoms and creates an alternate extra-governmental power center. Don’t feed the beast.

India’s Parliamentary Form of Government Rocks

Last week was a good week for President Obama. A State of the Union Address that was much more plain speak than his usual soaring rhetoric. Then he went into the lion’s den – the Republican Caucus – and demolished them on national television. Without a teleprompter, this time.

That said, the arithmetic in the Senate hasn’t changed. You still need 60 votes in the senate to prevent a filibuster and the Democrats don’t have them. So the stalemate continues.

The use of the filibuster has increased over time to where getting anything passed in a Senate with 100 seats requires 60 votes. Ezra Klein writes about how a supermajority of 60 votes is now a necessity for anything significant to pass in the Senate.

For someone who was educated in India (Civics used to be a separate subject in school) the filibuster and its evolution into a supermajority requirement in the Senate, seems odd. In fact there are many things about the system of government in the US that are odd and like the filibuster don’t really serve the purpose of furthering either democracy or good governance.

Start with the role of the President. There was a time in India when as impatient young people with ideas, my friends and I would look at the American Presidential form of government admiringly. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Presidential form of government that elected a President directly and then he or she would be able to rule wisely and justly and do what was right instead of being beholden to the party apparatchiks or coalition partners?

Wrong. The American President is the head of the Executive, but any significant change involves legislation, which is what the US Congress does. And the US Congress can oppose or stymie the President, or just tie itself up in knots trying to pass legislation. When it does, it is full of compromises and earmarks. And the President, as you can see, can do almost nothing about it.

The Indian Parliamentary system actually is dead simple in comparison. The majority party or coalition in the Lok Sabha gets to rule. Their leader becomes the Prime Minister who is the head of the government. Bills from the government, may be opposed vehemently by the opposition, but they need only a majority to pass which the ruling party already has. If a bill is defeated on the floor of the Lok Sabha, a no-confidence vote might follow which could bring down the government. Something that happens only rarely.

The Rajya Sabha, the other house, is involved in law-making but doesn’t have any teeth. Neither does the President of India. In general, if you are elected into a majority, you can rule unhampered. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t other challenges – coalition politics does weaken the government – but that is more related to the politics of the moment, where regional parties are much stronger than they have been in the past, than a structural issue with the functioning of the legislative process.

The American Congress is bicameral. Both houses are powerful and actively involved in shaping legislation. Districts that elect the House of Representatives are drawn based upon population, just like the Lok Sabha. But the Senate is a completely different animal. There are two senators per state. Wyoming with a population of half a million sends two senators to the senate and so does California with 37 million people. Because of this, the composition of the Senate is not really representative of the American people.

At the state level things can get even weirder. The symmetry in how democracy functions in India at the state and national levels is absent in the US. A state like California whose finances are in shambles is unable to do much about it because every important piece of legislation can be forced to a referendum. This law was inflicted upon California by Californians themselves. To change this law you need a 2/3rd majority in the Assembly. Till that time, you can’t raise taxes and you can’t take on the public employee unions. The result is deficits galore.

Matt Yglesias has another problem with American elections. It is with the number of officials that people need to elect.

Consider, for example, America’s staggering quantity of elected officials. If you live in Toronto, you vote for a member of the Toronto City Council, you vote for a member of the Ontario Parliament, and you vote for a member of the Canadian Parliament. That’s one large Anglophone city in North America.

What happens in New York City? Well, you’ve got a city council member, a borough president, a mayor, a public advocate, a comptroller, and a district attorney. You’ve also got a state assembly member, a state senator, an attorney-general, a state comptroller, and a governor. Then at the federal level, there’s a member of congress, two senators, and the president. That’s sixteen legislative and elected officials rather than Toronto’s three. New Yorkers don’t have three times as much time in their day to monitor the performance of elected officials. Instead, New Yorker elected officials simply aren’t monitored as closely.

So the next time you feel like we should seek a different form of government in India, count your blessings. It could have been much worse. We could have adopted the US form of government instead of British parliamentary democracy in 1950.

Photo by thecnote

Management Consulting in India

A new research paper Management Matters: Evidence from India suggests that the average Indian company can be improved significantly with the help of modern business practices. The study involved offering free consulting to a set of mid sized companies in the textile industry. The companies that availed of the free consulting showed a significant improvement in efficiency, lower inventories and higher profits, after they implemented the recommendations. The paper is long but is an interesting read. Also read Ajay Shah’s take on it.

The first thing to ponder is if Indian business practices are less modern. They may be technologically behind the best in the world and they might suffer on account of the creaky infrastructure that supports them. But is it also true that even in the context that they find themselves in, their business practices leave much to be desired?

The paper implies that this is indeed the case. I tend to agree with its conclusion. This is not to say that there aren’t well managed Indian firms – the research focused on mid-sized family owned businesses. But I think that it is safe to say that like technological innovation, management innovation is largely centered in the western world. A lot of it is applicable even to the Indian context, but it’s penetration is not too deep.

The authors then go on to say that the reason why Indian firms are not well managed is because management is not well informed about modern management techniques. They distrust outsiders and rarely use management consultants and so leave themselves in a low information cocoon. They don’t hire business school grads and there isn’t much mobility within the industry that could disseminate best practices.

One of the recommendations of the authors is that a robust management consulting industry could solve some of these problems. The research was supported and partly financed by a management consulting firm, Accenture. So this conclusion is somewhat self-serving, but not necessarily incorrect because of that.

After employee mobility in the industry, management consulting is perhaps the most successful way of disseminating new business practices. My sense is that Indian companies are not very open to management consulting in general. The cost is perceived to be very high. The change they bring about is thought to be too disruptive. And the improvement in the business, too chancy.

Maybe its management consultants who need to look at themselves to see if they are responsible for the underuse of their services in India.