India will develop, but when?

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Development takes time. America struggled for over 2 centuries before it became a rich & developed nation. The UK and other European nations had their own struggles over a few centuries. In contrast, Japan & Singapore developed fast in just about half a century.

How long will India need?

Despite our optimism, we may have to go through a very long and arduous journey, and the milestones & destination (if any) may be less than desirable.

We look at development as improving our incomes and living standards. Our benchmarks are the US, EU, Singapore, Japan etc. This implies we want to increase our national income from USD 1.6K (GDP per capita) to USD 50K. We also want inclusive and equitable growth. And we want this growth in income to be accompanied by growth in our living standards in areas like housing, health, food, education, public services etc.

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The population of our benchmark nations ranges from a few million to about 400 million. However, we are at 1.3 billion. What happens when 1.3 billion people are bent on rising their incomes and living standards to that of the US, at a fast pace? We will destroy ourselves & the world. Rising incomes and living standards depend on manifold increase in per capita consumption. We need to consume more energy, more food, more clothing, more soft drinks etc. before we can achieve our benchmarks. Despite all efforts to grow sustainably, adopt green energy, fight climate change etc., when 1.3 billion people are in a hurry to grow fast, pain, death & destruction cannot be avoided. Nature’s holding capacity will be exceeded and it will retaliate. For a nation of our size, we need different, achievable and sustainable goals.  1.3 billion people cannot achieve US standards of development without significant pain & destruction.

The US & EU nations had a leisurely development pace, compared to the likes of Japan or Singapore which were left paranoid after war, colonization and exploitation. A nation’s motivation, quality of its leaders, its political system and institutions impact its pace of development. India is in a hurry to develop. But our size and democratic system are natural speed breakers. They can be reformed, but we cannot easily achieve situations like a determined leader in a small nation like Singapore or leadership maturity over a few generations in a mid-size country like the US. We are large, complex, diverse. We may need more than a few centuries to achieve our benchmarks. And that’s assuming we attain the maturity and know-how required to navigate challenges which other nations may not have faced in history.

Lets not forgot many other nations are marching towards the same benchmarks, including the bigger and bolder giant China. There may not be enough for all. As we develop, we may cause destruction & pain elsewhere.

The journey itself may cause seismic upheavals in our society. Managing inclusive and equitable growth for 1.3 billion people is not easy.

We are trying to learn from other nations’ successes and failures, and leapfrog. That is possible in some areas like technology, business, policies etc. But the actual process and pace of development does take time. In our big & complex case, it may take more than a few centuries.

As we rush through our journey of development, its useful to consider the possibility we may not reach our destination at all.

We may have to recalibrate and reorient our maps, and change our destination.

 

 

 

India Goes To War

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We may soon become a war mongering nation, like the US, shattering the non-violent ideals which won our independence.

PM Modi’s $250 billion war chest is powering the aggression, even as millions of Indians struggle to survive.

Our private sector (Tatas, Ambanis, Mahindra, L&T, Hindujas….) is wagging tails & dripping saliva at the huge money-making opportunity, least bothered about the downsides of a runaway domestic defense industry.

We are following the American example, almost to a T, ignoring how the American defense industry lobby influences US government’s military and foreign policy to further its own interests. The more wars & conflicts US engages in and the longer they last, the better it is for the US defense industry. So might be the case in India soon.

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  • L&T’s Chairman AM Naik brandishes his Project Lakshya, which will generate an annual business of Rs.10,000 crores from the defense industry.  He sees opportunities worth Rs.70,000 crores.
  • Anil Ambani wants to pick up Rs. 2.85 lakh crores in defense business in the next 3-5 years. He sees opportunities worth 15 lakh crores over the next 15 years.
  • The Tata Group already generates more than Rs.2,500 crores from defense & aerospace. Defense is a key growth sector for the group.

Mahindra, Hindujas, Godrej and many other Indian companies, big & small, are eyeing the big government spending in defence.

Dozens of foreign weapons manufacturers, military equipment specialists, defense contractors etc. are camping in India to win business.  Government has made it easier by allowing 100% FDI.  Many of them already partner Indian companies.

As the domestic defense industry grows and the companies taste blood, what will happen next? They will want more blood. They will lobby for the government to spend more on defense, as it happens in the US. How can the government justify more spending every year? By engaging in more wars & conflicts. India’s foreign & military policies, actions & engagements will soon be dictated by the Indian defense lobby.

We should not be surprised if we are actively engaged in a dozen international conflicts in the next 10-20 years. Throughout history, wars have been justified in many ways. Rest assured PM Modi and/or his successors will come up with interesting rationale to justify our increasing military expenditure & campaigns, and compelling slogans to whip-up our passions & support.

Can we avoid this?

L&T to make guns

Tatas in defence

Anil Ambani – big on defence

L&T in the forefront of defence

Get rich on defence

 

 

Modi’s Long Jump – Where Will We Land?

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PM Modi has exhorted his party colleagues to take a ‘long jump’ & hasten the pace of socio-economic transformation to achieve his vision of a ‘New India’ by 2022, when India completes 75 years of Independence.

‘New India’ is expected to be a world power and developed nation.

Can Modi’s long jump land us in the professed New India?

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Probably not, as we are following the destructive development path of the western world. The big idea underpinning our growth strategy is to invest more and consume more. The more we invest and more we consume, the more we will grow, just like the US & Europe did.

On the same day Modi talked about his long jump, we read about beer manufacturers gearing up to launch many more premium beer brands to bolster our pathetic beer consumption habits (2L per person per year) to world standards (30L per person per year). What will be the impact on an already water-stressed country? 50 – 300L of water is used (water footprint), depending on whom you ask, to make 1L of beer. Unregulated growth of the industry which beguile us with smart promotions is bound to increase our consumption over time. While the rich drink premium beer, the poor would be left high & dry, literally. Meanwhile, farmers may be motivated to switch crops, say from wheat to barley, as big breweries compete to pay more for quality barley. As barley requires less water compared to other essential food crops (like wheat) and as our farm lands get more water stressed, more farmers will be enticed to switch crops, and we will end up making more beer and less food. Suicidal for a drought-prone and famished country.

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The above scenario could be a remote dystopian possibility, but we still cannot dismiss it outright. If we don’t regulate beer production and consumption now, our long jump will land us in a future we don’t want to be in.

And that is just one industry.

As Indian industrial growth fires on all cylinders across multiple sectors, as spending & consumption go up their wonted hockey stick growth paths, the blended outcome may not be what was intended.

The Americans & Europeans invested, spent and consumed their way to their current style of living. The unintended side-effect was environmental devastation and climate change.

As PM Modi urges 1.25 billion Indians to dream and build a developed nation, riding on the same consumption-led growth model, where will we land? We are competing with many other nations, especially the formidable 1.35 billion Chinese, who are headed the same way. Can earth sustain such ambitions?

Nature has its own self-correcting mechanisms – natural disasters. Floods, famines, droughts, diseases etc. may help us learn the hard way.

Shepherding 1.25 billion aspiring Indians to a path of sustainable growth & living should be the goal of right thinking leadership.

Modi’s long jump looks dangerously like the same old western medicine bottled with some Indian flavors. Not a dramatically new formula the current ailment needs.

The long jump may enrich the already rich, improve living standards in pockets of India, while the rest struggle and our environment deteriorates further.

Time to take long jump : Modi

New beer brands to boost consumption

Barley finds new buyers

Beer’s water footprint

Barley is now a cash crop

 

 

Corruption : What Can I Do?

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A short commentary on corruption in the recent Supreme Court verdict on the Jayalalithaa case makes for interesting reading.

The verdict ends as follows.

Such is the militant dominance of this sprawling evil, that majority of the sensible, rational and discreet constituents of the society imbued with moral values and groomed with disciplinal ethos find themselves in minority, besides estranged and resigned by practical compulsions and are left dejected and disillusioned. A collective, committed and courageous turnaround is thus the present day imperative to free the civil order from the suffocative throttle of this deadly affliction.

Every citizen has to be a partner in this sacrosanct mission, if we aspire for a stable, just and ideal social order as envisioned by our forefathers and fondly cherished by the numerous self-effacing crusaders of a free and independent Bharat, pledging their countless sacrifices and selfless commitments for such cause.

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The courts took over 20 years to decide this case. Given the poorly equipped state of the judiciary, important verdicts like this may not come faster.

Crime, corruption & other evils are rampant and rising. The elected politicians show no urgency to change the situation. The bureaucracy is unreliable. The courts are slow.

What can the common man do?

If he is apathetic, as most of us are, the situation will worsen.

If he is spirited, he should (& will) wage a war. A personal war against the evils he sees around him, with available tools & means. It may or may not be a big fight. It may or may not be fought alone. It may or may not succeed.

But such a personal war will certainly make a small difference.

A million such personal wars will bring about a big change.

A change most of us want, but few are willing to fight for.

Supreme Court Verdict

Wanted : Top-Notch Regulators

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We are lagging behind so far on so many fronts that the only way we can catch-up and excel is by leapfrogging. Our best home-grown example is in telecom where millions of Indians have directly leapfrogged to 3G mobile communication, skipping landlines & 2G altogether.

How can we leapfrog in other fields?

By cultivating a new kind of talent. A talent which is becoming increasingly critical in today’s fast-changing world. A talent which can perform an important missionary role in the no-mans land vacated by our politicians, businessmen, scientists & bureaucrats. A talent which can fill in the gaps and enable leapfrogging.

We need top-notch world-beating regulators. And we sorely lack them.

In the past, the regulatory role was to constrain and limit the exploitative tendencies of unscrupulous businessmen and technocrats. Politicians and bureaucrats acted as quasi-regulators. But now, the role is being redefined world-over. Regulators can become change agents & social enablers. They can be visionaries who look into the future of business & technology and figure out actionable policies which improve lives now. They must ensure safety, but at the same time can also speed-up progress and development. Politicians are too busy politicking. Bureaucrats are too busy pushing files. Scientists are too busy doing science & creating technology. Businessmen are too busy chasing profits. The public are too busy with their lives. Who can bring them all together? An independent regulator can.

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Lets consider a few plausible disruptions in the next 10 years. Disruptive innovations which have the potential to dramatically change our lives. Innovations which provide the biggest leapfrogging opportunities for India.

  1. Energy storage.
  2. Electric vehicles.
  3. Self-driving cars
  4. Solar energy

The above areas, in isolation and in any combination, have the potential to disrupt almost all industries. They show the biggest potential to change what we consume, how we live, how we move, how we work and so on, not in the distant future, but within the next 20 years.

Can we leapfrog in these areas? Yes. We could potentially leapfrog directly into a future where clean energy is available on tap & is dirt cheap, cars are not owned but just used, our cities are less congested and polluted, and so on…

But who is working on these areas? Not the ministers who announce a policy today, are transferred to another department next month and lose their job in the next election. Not the businessmen who are busy making quarterly profits & are willing to invest in R&D only if it promises easy and quick profits. Not the bureaucrats whose loyalties are typically tied to the ruling politicians. Not the scientists who hesitate to step outside their labs and into the real world. Not the planning bodies, intellectuals, policy wonks, think tanks, pen pushers….

We need top-notch world-beating independent regulators with a missionary zeal to leapfrog in different fields.

Regulators who are willing to constantly benchmark themselves with countries like US, Japan, China, Singapore & Norway, which are already powering ahead. Regulators who are paranoid of being left behind and are willing to risk & experiment, even as they ensure safety & protection.

Do the likes of our National Solar Mission, National Electric Mobility Mission Plan etc. make the cut?

Clean Disruption – Video

The Mind of Modi

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Modi: I want to demonetize

Modi in the mirror: What? Are you sure?

M: Yes

MM: There will be chaos

M: So what. People will bear the short-term inconvenience

MM: Why not go after the big rats instead?

M: That will be suicidal. I have to hit at them indirectly.

MM: Shrewd of you. But there may be a revolt in your party. Your supporters may abandon you.

M: I don’t need them now so much as they need me. I have grown out of that.

MM: Are you sure?

M: Yes, this is my big and perhaps last chance to make a difference. Another term is not a sure bet yet.

MM: Is this what you have been gunning for all your life?

M: My thinking has evolved. I want to rise above lowly political ends.

MM: But you are a politician

M: I am getting old. I have to think about my legacy.

MM: You want to be the next Mahatma?

M: Why not?

MM: Hmm…

M: Too many leaders have been forgotten in the gutters of history.

MM: Demonetization requires sheer guts.

M: I got it in tons.

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MM: Ok, so what next? Building roads, feeding the millions, eradicating poverty…

M: Too small for me…my team will handle those. I wanna do the real big stuff.

MM: Wow, like what?

M: I want to see India become a first world country in the next 20 years.

MM: But you may not be around.

M: Gandhi wasn’t around to see India grow & bloom.

MM: So, you wanna sow the seeds?

M: You can say that.

MM: Opposition will scream. Your own party may attack you. People may lose patience.

M: I will show them the grand vision. They will come around. I got some runway and I intend to use it.

MM: You are a changed man

M: India needs some strong medicine. And I am going to administer that. I am tired of going too slow. We will continue to play catch-up if we don’t bite the bullet.

MM: You really want your legacy.

M: I am not a small town politician anymore. I don’t want to be known for my past foibles.

MM: How are you sure what you do will be right & good for the people?

M: I know whats good for the people. They are too poor, busy or incapable to think through what’s good for themselves. Some opposition is par for the course.

MM: Are you overstepping democracy?

M: If something doesn’t work, it has to be corrected.

MM: Democracy doesn’t work?

M: I didn’t say that

MM: But what you want to do is undemocratic. You will bulldoze opposition & terrorize people.

M: I cannot satisfy everybody

MM: So you expect casualties?

M: I wanna wage a war.

MM: Are you prepared for bloodshed?

M: Yes, if that’s what India needs to leapfrog.

MM: Have you heard the word ‘megalomaniac’?

M: Have you heard of ‘Kurukshetra’?

MM: Is that how you think of it?

M: Why not?

MM: Ok, I give up. You seem to have thought through it.

M: You have no choice.

MM: I guess so, at least in the short-term.

M: That time is sufficient for me.

MM: To perform your magic?

M: Yes.

MM: Hmm…

M: What do you say to that?

MM: Well, remember I am only MM – Modi in the mirror…not Minister Mentor.

M: So long. I got work to do.

MM: Good luck. God save the people.

 

Invert the Inequality Problem

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India is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Even worse, 25% of the poorest people in the world are Indians.

What can we do about this?

The two common tools used to address this problem are increasing incomes & re-distributing wealth. More & better-paying jobs increase incomes. Government schemes & taxes are used to re-distribute wealth. But the experience of the last few decades is these tools are of little help. The worrying fact is that income inequality is widening.

Its more critical for India to consider bold & innovative solutions, as we have a bigger problem to solve. It’s quite possible that, by following the well-trodden path, we might aggravate the problem.

When faced with a difficult problem, ‘Invert, always invert’ – a maxim made popular by the German Mathematician Jacob Jacobi.

Why not moderate the demand for goods & services, instead of just increasing incomes? Of course, we need to grow and growth is fueled by desire for goods, services & wealth. But we don’t have to grow like the west. We don’t need to pursue massive consumption-led growth which is typically accompanied by equally massive environmental destruction, chaos of urban migration, social upheaval, crime etc. We have not been successful in self-regulation to strike a balance. The consumption-led growth model we pursue today relies on Indians buying & consuming more and more. To sustain & increase the current 7% growth, we need to buy more cars, eat out more, holiday more, work more, earn more. More industries will be setup. More jobs will be created. More people will migrate to urban centers. More people will earn more and consume more. And this is exactly what the west did over the last few decades.

Higher incomes & GDP don’t automatically translate to a more equal society. Singapore, Japan, Sweden or Netherlands are exceptions, and even they are facing challenges today. Human greed & our incapability to regulate ourselves will ensure the problem of inequality aggravates. Further, pursuing this high-growth & high-consumption path in a hugely populated country like ours can be a massive political gamble & administrative nightmare. Even merely satisfactory results may take decades. Provided, of course, the associated problems of a consumption-led growth like environmental disasters & social upheavals don’t wreck havoc.

Can we invert our thinking?

  1. Why can’t we opt for a slower growth with moderate consumption?
  2. Why can’t we name & shame people who over-consume?
  3. Why can’t we have a high consumption tax to act as a deterrent?
  4. Why can’t we distribute growth & development evenly across the country, and avoid potentially unmanageable urban migration & chaos?
  5. Why can’t we celebrate all professions & vocations equitably?
  6. Why can’t we slow down and relish life?

Rather than just increasing incomes & re-distributing wealth, its time we figure out a different way to grow & reduce inequality.

We need a uniquely Indian approach to solve the biggest problem we face.

The western approach has been tried & tested, and it has failed.

 

Whither Demonetization?

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Now, we again have an opportunity where every citizen can join this mahayajna against the ills of corruption, black money and fake notes. The more help you give in this campaign, the more successful it will be.  – PM Narendra Modi, 8 Nov 2016

That was the call for public support for one of the most radical political actions in recent times. About 85% of cash in circulation was made illegal in one stroke.

Outcome is uncertain. Will it really help the cause to root out black & counterfeit money? Its a bold political, social & economic gamble.

Many questions linger.

  1. If one of the aims was to go after black money, why didn’t the govt go after the big perpetrators? The govt must certainly know the individuals & entities who dabble in black money. We got many agencies – revenue intelligence, CBI, enforcement etc. – who must have been monitoring such activities for decades. Why aren’t the top suspects being publicly named and investigated? That would have certainly sent shivers down the spines of other offenders, besides conveying government’s seriousness to clean up the system.
  2. The move seems have been well planned, preceded by moves like Jan Dhan Yojana and Income Declaration Scheme. Why is the government ill equipped to handle the public outcry & inconvenience?
  3. How responsible would the public sector banks be in lending out the money flowing into their coffers? Loans worth about INR 2.5 lakh crores have been written off in the last 11 years by public sector banks. Will bulging low-cost deposits encourage irresponsible lending & borrowing behaviors? Will well-connected individuals, entities & corporates exploit the situation?

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Modi is known to be a shrewd politician. He is playing his cards close to his chest. He possibly has other strikes up his sleeve.

The course of history is often severely influenced by unreasonable men, in good & bad ways – think Lee Kuan Yew & Adolf Hitler.

Modi seems to be unreasonable, but is he benign?

 

 

What can Azim Premji & Ajit Isaac do?

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Celebrity businessmen and corporate salarymen in Bengaluru are rightly enraged by the dismal state of affairs plaguing the ambitious city.

Ajit Isaac, the venerable CMD of Quess Corp and model entrepreneur, has condemned government inaction during the recent violence in the city which threatened, as he puts it, ‘the right to livelihood’.

Azim Premji and other CEOs have criticized the government on various occasions for many reasons, and most of their barbs are fully justified.

Why aren’t many of these ambitious go-getters not doing much to change the status quo, other than occasional criticisms and part-time engagements with quasi-government forums & citizen bodies, both of which are neither fully effective nor efficient in bringing about visible and lasting changes? Bangalore’s corporate elite have been waging this vociferous battle against bad politics & governance for more than a decade and nothing much has changed on the ground. Yes, the city has gained more companies, jobs, buildings, & roads over the years, but the quality of life has worsened significantly.

We should admire the job-creating, wealth-creating and philanthropic activities of Ajit Isaac, Azim Premji and many other business folks in the city. But, have they taken the safer route? If they really want a change, why have they not jumped into the thick of things, which (in Indian context) means getting their hands & collars dirty in the world of politics?

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Of course, politics is not for everyone. Azim Premji has openly admitted he lacks the ‘insensitivity’ which he thinks a politician has to cultivate. Some socially sensitive CEOs are busy self-actualizing their lives and satisfied with limiting their contributions to some social, cultural & philanthropic causes. Some may even argue politics is not the only way to bring about big changes. We do have ex-CEOs who are full-time involved in social impact initiatives. And, of course, we have some ex-corporate men in politics, too few to make any impact.

Politics is a dirty business. But most businesses themselves are not immune to dirty politics. A successful CEO has to be a savvy politician within his organization to navigate myriad people, cultures, needs, ambitions etc. and yet achieve common goals which are good for the company, its employees, shareholders, & society.

Politics may not be the only way, but it perhaps is the most effective & efficient way. Effective in making the right changes. Efficient in making the changes right. Politics is perhaps faster in driving changes than CSR, philanthropy and other social impact initiatives. And what India needs now is both top-notch skill & good speed in getting things done. More than a billion people are waiting for the right CEO to get them out of this giant quicksand.

Who wants to vote for Narayana Murthy as the President of India, Azim Premji as the Prime Minister, and Ajit Isaac as CM of Karnataka?

I would.

Ajit Isaac on Cauvery row

Azim Premji on politics

Cauvery – Water, Sweat, Tears, Blood

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The century old Cauvery river water-sharing dispute between TN & Karnataka is a good example of how capable we are at complicating our own lives.

A good place to understand the background and the issues involved is the excellent document available on the website of the Indian Ministry of Water Resources (see link below). It is useful to read & digest this document before exposing oneself to other (possibly colored) opinions of journalists, experts, politicians, lobbies, armchair commentators & others.

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A few predominant thoughts come up repeatedly while reading the 130+ page document.

  • The humongous amount of time & effort sucked by the dispute over the last 120+ years
  • The extraordinary number of intelligentsia (judges, advocates, water experts, scientists, agriculturists, engineers, farmers, politicians etc.) involved to help settle the dispute
  • The escalating complexity of the issues involved
  • The apathy and incompetence of some individuals who could have made a difference
  • The snowballing crises of rapid & uncontrolled industrialization, consumption & urbanization
  • The stark reality of the convoluted issue which may never be fully resolved

Simply put, the dispute is about how to share a fast diminishing resource – water. While the formula for water-sharing may not be easy, we do know what other measures can be taken to lessen the distress. Some of these measures are known to politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, water experts & agriculturists for decades.

  1. Price water based on usage
  2. Conserve water
  3. Explore alternative sources – desalination, rain water harvesting etc.
  4. Improve irrigation
  5. Penalize wastage
  6. Improve water management in urban & rural areas, etc.

Why are we not doing any of these? Because these are painful & unpopular decisions which require courageous leaders. The present (& previous) leaders at the state & centre don’t have the courage to enforce such policies for the fear of losing political support.

We need leaders who are willing to take the long view, stake their reputation & career, take difficult but essential decisions, talk & convince people on the need to endure temporary pain such policies may bring about, and execute well.

In a democracy, such high-calibre leaders are created typically at times of dire circumstances.

The waters of Cauvery are already at boiling point.

Cauvery Dispute – Backgrounder