Saturday, August 22, 2015

Why is India so ungodly?

Cleanliness is (next only to) Godliness- believed Mahatma Gandhi.
Why is it then that cleanliness is such an ignored aspect in India?, particularly in the context of the civic infrastructure about which I wrote in my earlierarticle wherein I requested signing of an online petition demanding "right to quality civic infrastructure' to be made a fundamental right (...this petition incidentally is still struggling at a piddling 98 signatures after a week in existence)
Despite the usual refrain one hears that Indians are such by nature, I'd say that our attitude towards cleanliness has been shaped over past many years by the complete lack of administrative focus on this essential aspect of providing uniformly clean civic infrastructure & diligent upkeep of the same - yathaa rajah, tathaa prajah!
The first step to changing our situation is to open our eyes to dirty reality around us & importantly make a habit of questioning it - what better way to achieve this awareness than utilizing the power of social media as a platform to enable social change?
What motivated me is the immense success of the "Ice Bucket Challenge" that went viral on social networks and helped create widespread awareness about a disease called ALS - What gives me hope is the fact that if awareness & action can be triggered for a disease that effects not more than 200,000 people worldwide, it is perhaps possible to achieve similar results for highlighting the disease called 'rotten civic infrastructure & upkeep' that impacts a billion plus Indians.
This is also a extension of the approach called Gandhigiri, a bollywood invention that went on to become part of popular Indian lexicon now - Gandhigiri is nothing but shaming a person/ an institution into action through a peaceful, legal and mockingly respectful form of protest.
It is time for affirmative action that forces the government to tackle this malaise immediately rather than wasting time trying to take political mileage out of this unfortunate situation through symbolic schemes like Swachh Bharat Campaign that hasn't yet been able to make the lethargic civic administration(s) clean-up its act even while exhorting the citizens to clean-up their neighborhoods themselves.
It is time the citizens do something other than perennially cribbing about the state of affairs - Like the later-age mahatma Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam once said "If you want to leave your footprints in the sands of time do not drag your feet"
This is where the Clean India Challenge comes into picture;

While this challenge already started its rounds in a small way on Facebook, it will take a lot more to make this go viral so as to make an impact and change the status quo for all of us. 
I call on all my fellow citizens to take up this online challenge in a big way and challenge the offline reality of the inadequate civic infrastructure & upkeep in India.
Let there be light!

Update: 25th August 2015
One of the comments below made it pertinent that I explain the Why, Who & How of this challenge - here goes;
WHO ARE WE SHAMING? ------> We are shaming "us' - which includes the people as well as the government
WHO DO WE WANT TO SHOW THESE PICTURES TO? ------> We want to show the pictures to 'us' and to world as such
The rationale behind this being that unless we face (& expose) the reality in all its glory we wouldn't be motivated nor compelled to act on it decisively. After all isn't acceptance of a 'need for change' key to changing?
HOW DO YOU ENVISION CHANGE HAPPENING THROUGH THIS? --------> I envision change happening through the following process;
However before I explain the process, I need to list the following assumptions I made;
  • Creating Quality Infrastructure is the primary responsibility of 'the state' - Maintenance of the same too the primary responsibility of 'the state'. The citizen’s contribution towards civic infrastructure is primarily by way of paying taxes as required.
  • Citizen volunteerism towards maintaining cleaner neighborhoods can only be justified/ demanded/ expected ONLY when 'the state' did its job well - which I seriously doubt Indian civic administration does.
 *'the state' as defined in the constitution of India - I request you to read my petition on making 'right to quality civic infrastructure' a fundamental right to understand these assumptions more.
Sensitizing Indian residents to the quality of their neighborhoods. Provoking a sense of outrage among the citizens to this casual disregard to their right to quality civic infrastructure & hence create a sense of entitlement. Thereby vastly increasing their propensity to challenge the status-quo and create a citizen vanguard of cleanliness.
As the challenge catches up and more and more people upload pictures and hashtag them, a visual story the state of affairs in in each city, each colony will created - which will be the base-line for demand of change/ rectification
Utilizing the emerging sense of entitlement among citizens & encourage more and more people to sign the online petition for making "right to quality civic infrastructure' a fundamental right. Please note this demand aimed at amending the constitution is a symbolic act of saying the change of attitude required is at the very core, that in this current world, 'right to live' alone doesn't suffice a 'right to a right quality of life' is equally important AND that our dirty neighborhoods don't afford us that at this time.
Utilizing the hall of shame repository, the local neighborhoods can step up and demand the local civic authorities to clean-up their act & the neighborhoods in the bargain.
Through a sustained campaign bring about a social change that sustains than fizzle out after some fancy photo-ops
If one recalls/ searches up internet, the PM of India threw open a "Clean India Challenge" in October 2014 wherein he nominated a few CELEBRITIES?? (Sports, film et al) to pick up a broom clean their dirty neighborhoods and upload pictures (clean/ dirty) and tag other lesser celebrities to join - This was eventually supposed to have gone viral and in the bargain cleaned up India without a major burden on the government exchequer.
When did you last see this challenge in circulation: November 2014??? - This hasn't sustained since it played on cleaning up being a voluntary citizen act rather than the states responsibility & citizen entitlement - It failed since people realized this is more of a photo-op & a popularity contest (to be hand-picked by the PM to participate). Its unfortunate that none of the nominated celebrities bothered to asked the PM why they should also pay all the taxes and also wield the broom and why the local civic authorities never realized that their neighborhood needed some sprucing up?
This challenge is a relaunch of this misfired celebrity challenge. This Clean India Challenge 2.0 is our challenge, the peoples challenge and one based on facing reality before changing it & importantly one that puts the onus on the government first and then the citizen.
Finally, the worst thing that can be done to any voluntary social action is to let cynicism kill it. I exhort all to rest their doubts for this time and act instead - In a worst case scenario, this will be another aborted, ignored mission - but one that hopefully will leave a few more citizens with a higher sense of entitlement & responsibility.

'Right to Quality Civic Infrastructure' as a fundamental right

This is a reproduction of the petition I published today on For once, I'd be happy seeing more signatures on the petition there than seeing likes on my post here :-) - Happy Independence Day to all my compatriots.

I was pleased when my city figured in the 100 shortlisted during the stage-1 of recently launched Smart City Mission. I was baffled though when I realized that this 'smart upgrade' is primarily about attempting to implement the following 'features'
  • Adequate water supply,
  • Assured electricity supply
  • Sanitation, including solid waste management
  • Efficient urban mobility and public transport
  • Affordable housing, especially for the poor
  • Robust IT connectivity and digitalization
  • Good governance, especially e-Governance and citizen participation
  • Sustainable environment
  • Safety and security of citizens, particularly women, children and the elderly
  • Health and education
Wait, aren’t the above 'core infrastructural elements' as labelled in this self acclaimed 'bold, new initiative' in reality the default amenities any tax-paying citizen would/ should expect?, let alone one living in a city but even by those in a town or village?
As I reflected deeper on this apparent irony, I realized how in the past 44 years of my existence I haven’t yet once walked around my house without getting depressed about the apathetic layout, bad roads, lack of usable footpaths, absent green lungs, unreliable garbage & sewage management systems and the general lack of finesse around where I live. My childhood optimism that things would greatly improve when I grow up was shattered when I found out in a recent visit that my native town is a far worser dump than it was a good 30 years ago!
It's clearly not a lack of ideas nor a paucity of requisite engineering capability to develop infrastructure at par with world standards, a fact clearly demonstrated by the amazingly executed projects such as Bandra-Worli Sea link; the Pir Panjal tunnel dug through the Himalayas; the multitudes of express highways such as the fully elevated one between Mumbai, Pune; the top-rated airports & terminals operational in Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai et al. As a highway commuter in India, you wouldn't want to reach the destination too soon, the infrastructure within the destination invariably is always a let down - This dichotomy is perplexing.
This dichotomy isn't limited just to civic v/s high-way infrastructure. All the governments over the past seven decades have created & nurtured a class system of human habitats across the Indian republic - consider the following;
  • Between urban; semi-urban and rural centers the quality of civic infrastructure is tellingly different from being inadequately maintained in urban centers to shoddily executed in semi-urban to non-existent in the rural habitats
  • Within a city there are pockets that are highly developed while some are semi-developed and some are completely ignored for example the sheer difference in the layout and upkeep of Lodhi Estate v/s Shahdara in N. Delhi; Banjara Hills v/s Nallakunta in Hyderabad; Bandra Bandstand v/s Dadar in Mumbai et al. The difference in the amenities in the elite v/s middle-class localities is shamefully blatant - It's as though one has to pay a price for not being economically strong enough to acquire property in a posher locality. This discrimination doesn't make any sense considering the property tax collected so aggressively by the civic administration is calculated and charged using the same unit rates across all localities, elite or otherwise.
I am not sad anymore, I am now furious with this senseless state of affairs. I think I am as entitled to good civic infrastructure as the denizen of any other developed country is. As a citizen of India I believed it’s my right to be provided enabling civic infrastructure.... Or is it?
Propelled by this desire to better understand my entitlements as an Indian citizen I looked up for supporting information only to realize that;
The word “infrastructure” occurs just twice in the Constitution of India......
…….quite innocuously only in context of a district &/or a metropolitan planning committee preparing a ‘draft development plan’ and submitting to the GOI. (Ref: Part IXA.—The Municipalities.—Arts. 243ZB—243ZD.)
Neither the fundamental rights nor the directive principles touched upon this aspect in any specific detail.
I do understand the times were very different when our sacred constitution was drafted, adopted and enacted. I fully comprehend the fact that all aspects covered under fundamental rights and directive principles were of paramount importance for a nation that just liberated itself from alien rule & as a diverse people that were yet to get the full import of governing themselves and in understanding what it actually takes to behaving as a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic.
Sixty nine long years hence though the rights as perceived by an average globally-aware Indian citizen are far more evolved though not very frequently voiced. A mere ‘right to life’ won’t suffice no more, there has to be necessarily a ‘right to a right quality of life’.
Even if as a symbolic gesture towards triggering an attitudinal change that we so badly need to make, I as a citizen of India request the prime minister of India & ‘the state’ (as defined in constitution of India) to initiate an amendment to the constitution that;
  1. Expands the list of Fundamental Rights by including of “Right to quality civic infrastructure”
  2. Expands the bandwidth of Directive Principles to reflect the above inclusion as a necessary duty of the state
  3. Expands the scope of Fundamental Duties to make maintenance & upkeep of civic infrastructure as much a duty of the citizen as it is of the state
Let's give the rational & ambitious gen-Y of our country a more compelling reason to be proud of their country than continuing to burden them with an expectation of unquestioned nationalistic pride.
I request all my fellow citizens to support this petition by signing it (& sharing it on their social networks) thereby making a meaningful impact on the 69th Indian Independence day!

The cat's on the prowl

First published on Linkedin on 10 July 2015
On 9/11/14 I published a rather longish speculation on Calico.
Almost an year since then, while nothing earth shattering some serious stuff is surely happening at Calico.
Towards making its journey to tackling ageing a smooth affair, Calico has started to identify some fun-n-fit travel-mates, hoard the essentials, chart-out the best road to take & mark-out the detours to make.
  • Partnered with The Buck Institute, which is the foremost Geroscienceinstitution & works on aspects as diverse as understanding & altering neurodegenerative processes; Dietary Restriction as a way to modulate ageing to pinpointing Stochastic aspects of cellular degeneration.
  • Collaborating with UCSF primarily on their focus area on understandingIntegrated Stress Response (ISR)
  • Partnered with Q3B, which is pursuing the biomedical promise by way of seeding dozens of start-ups in its incubators
  • Collaborating with Broad Institute that’s crisping up the human genome by resolving the operational portion of it & importantly is developing a new way to discover & re-purpose drugs
The above partnerships are a mix of investment into longer-term scientific breakthroughs and shorter-term stake in innovative biomedical start-ups challenging the routine (Q3B) and showcase Calico’s adherence to its core purpose. But looking at the high focus on neurodegenerative research at Buck Institute (6 out of 9 research components) and UCSF, it's likely the first milestone Calico wishes to reach is tackling cognitive decline linked to ageing.
Make it fast Art, age is catching up!

Monday, June 8, 2015

Don’t serve noodles al Dente

Like for most of my generation & the later ones, Maggi has been an integral part of my growing up and I felt it’s my nostalgic duty to put up a defense in favor of its beleaguered maker. However as more details started emerging, it became clear to me that an outright defense will be an aberration. So here I go serving up a steaming bowl of instant wisdom to Nestle.
React don’t respond
When trust issues like these crop-up, a quick reaction from the effected brand, however half-baked, will still help assuage the consumer fears than a measured but delayed response would – a typical consumer will only view this time-lag as hesitation (stemming from guilt..) and hence lose faith.
Now again, even this measured response shouldn’t come across as an ill-articulated stand that raises more questions than it answers. CEO Paul Buckle says “NestlĂ©’s safety measures and standards are same all over the world” - Safety measures, perhaps yes but this statement can’t be factual when it comes to standards as these can differ depending on the market – If Paul meant to say NestlĂ©’s compliance adherence is the same all over the world, he should say that. This clarity becomes that much more significant given the lack of clear-set of applicable standards in the Indian context & hence one sees FSSAI oft-quoting FDA while interpreting various facets of the results.
Screw brevity, be verbose
Any attorney worth his salt will vouch for the fact that there are no short cuts to drafting safe harbor clauses & the more verbose; the lower is the chance of it being interpreted unsuitably.
It’s perhaps not a lie when Nestle says ‘No MSG added” & it is absolutely possible that the proteins within the noodles & taste-maker put together can throw up a peak for glutamic acid on the chromatogram. But considering FDA clearly considers this label as misbranding and as misleading the consumer, Nestle should’ve used some discretion and printed a more elaborate disclaimer to the effect
‘No MSG has been added to this product during manufacture. It is however possible that the product does contain trace quantities of Glutamic acid that occurs naturally in many proteins’
Challenge the rulebook, but before breaking the rule
I believe there is some merit in Nestle contesting the test method(s) used by FSSAI et al to ascertain lead-content in Maggi and its good they want to ‘engage with the authorities’ on the same. Why wasn’t this done early on Paul? I’m sure the inadequacy of the method prescribed by FSSAI &/or BSI was crystal clear to Nestle for over two decades as compared to their probably superior internal STP – what’s the consequence of talking about method integrity after failing?
It is also a valid contention that applying lead-limit set for noodles to the separately-packed taste-maker isn't logical and that it should be sufficient if the combined ingredients meet the limit. But again it's not clear why Nestle chose to ignore this potential risk of regulator considering both as separate products while enforcing limits.   
Finally, isn’t it a regulatory thumb rule that in order to comply with a specific standard, product should be tested using the prescribed method of the regulator & not by the manufacturer’s internal method?
Don’t serve noodles al Dente
That’s for pasta. So rather than quoting technicalities, tell the consumer clearly what they can expect and expect consistently. The consumer deserves to know that your latest variant is approved or if it is still a test marketed item.
Trusted brands need to work on keeping the consumer trust – it’s a double edged sword. No company let alone a top brand like Nestle can afford to get complacent in any market about quality, compliance and transparency however lackadaisical the enforcement is &/or however half-aware the consumers there are of their rights - This is tantamount to a brand-harakiri & for no noble purpose either.
A final dash of taste-maker
Since my intention was a defense to start with I would still close it thus – I believe Nestle has the requisite stature, maturity and still sufficient consumer trust to pull itself up from this mess and shine again.
This war-on-Maggi by the Indian regulators will hopefully stir other slumbering giants in food & pharma industry who have gotten used to using the Indian regulatory lacunae & its ineffective enforcement to their advantage and instead start prioritizing consumer interest above all.
As for the warring lords in the Indian regulatory arena, my appeal is three fold
  • Keep up the heat and not just on Nestle
  • Demand compliance but only after setting & implementing standards
  • Let science prevail not sentiment
Wake-up and smell the soup!
Post thought - 08 June '15
It's imminent that the Maggi saga will rake-up a huge public debate with respect to the general quality of the mostly uncontrolled unprocessed food out there in India. While this sounds great, I’m worried this unplanned extrapolation may bloat-up the debate & dilute its impact.
Before throwing in unprocessed food into the simmering pot of processed-food debate, it should be noted that the challenges with unprocessed foods are a very different devil and it's more an public distribution issue while Maggi noodle fuss is all about enforcement & adherence to quality standards for processed food.
Also, this is a more immediately addressable consumer rights issue as problem with quality of processed food amounts to a breach of contract between seller/ maker & buyer/ consumer. A much complex scenario however will be in play for unprocessed food where such clear definition of roles isn’t easy and the debate cannot solely happen on the merit of what an end-consumer expects.
For the sake of efficiency I think it'd be ideal for regulators & activists alike to channel the current enthusiasm towards addressing the gaps in processed food segment first - else it could be a classic case of biting off more than one can chew.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Negative yield ecosystem

   In the Fynbos shrub lands of South Africa, an occasional forest fire is essential for survival of majority plant species there since their seed is released from its woody encasement only after being burnt (obligate seeders). By analogy, the on-going negative yield inferno that’s rapidly destroying investor wealth too may crack open a few seeds of hope and redemption - The core assumption of a fiscal conflagration ecosystem.
Unlike in a natural phenomenon though, any positive outcome from this dismal fiscal scenario has to be necessarily a derivative of human behavior in face of risk. The Prospect theory explains this when it says ‘the decision makers will be risk averse when choosing between gains and risk seeking when choosing between losses’ – This could mean the investing universe over next few months (& once the ECB buy-back bubble in 2016 too is suitably burst…) would stop sinking more money in government, sovereign bonds and look at riskier options like equity that don’t at least start with a chilling promise of sub-zero return – many articles like herehere & herecovered this possibility quite convincingly.
But again, just as forest fire burns down dry tinder first & then progressively dehydrates and engulfs vegetation that was relatively less-drier & safer before, the investors’ new found appetite for risk gradually could expose the relatively self-correcting equity and other asset classes to the risk of long-term under performance. While this eventuality may not be completely unanticipated by the investing junta, the reason why they’d still ignore it in the shorter term once again is explained by the prospect theory’s ‘reference level dependence’ characteristic, whereby a poor performance of a much riskier equity investment would still look eminently better than a known negative yield of a bond.
So if it isn't even equity, what seeds of hope would crack open?
In their quest for the feel-good investments, it is likely the investor interest in PE will spike in the short to longer-term. This expansion of the PE pie will of course be helped by its historically steadier IRR as compared to other asset classes (@ annual return of 15% calculated across 10 years)
While any such incremental flows into the PE may still be a blip compared to what’s at stake in traditional asset classes, considering the critical nature of capital availability in building/ growing companies that’d eventually feed the future equity market, I’d think Private Equity in its glow of new found investor love will turn out to be the quintessential seed that’ll regenerate the fiscal ecosystem.
Well it just might be that the hot winds of negative yields could prove a windfall for the VCs & FoFs currently raising funds.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

#TheDress gave me #EcomStress

White n gold?
.....I tentatively responded when my sister shared the now viral picture of #TheDress. I soon realized I was the odd ducky (in my sister's words..) in a family/ gene-pool that firmly stood behind the blue n black verdict.
It wasn't the dearth of any other more-pressing topics to deal with (like my brand new car's freshly smashed front bumper) but I too rapidly contracted this abundant online virus and embarked upon a quest to prove to myself (and to my sis’ n others...) the correctness of MY color perception, only to realize that I'm barking up the wrong tree this time around - National GeographicDailymailWiredScienceDirect all said the same… damn! No amount of coaxing could make my retina change its perspective nor my brain it's opinion.
Even as I started bothering myself less and less about what made my brain/ retina perceive the blue as white & black as gold & made me a color-duh, I decided I will never ever trust myself again with online purchase of clothes.
Amazon, the loss is yours and yeah do blame Facebook & Google for it!