Tuesday, January 31, 2006

OVL on the Prowl 

I came across this interesting story in the Financial Express that claims that the Russian oil giant Rosneft has asked ONGC Videsh to underwrite part of its upcoming $15-20 billion IPO. In return, Rosneft will offer OVL a stake in its substantial oil and gas fields in Siberia, according to ONGC sources.

I am no energy expert, so I don't know whether such an arrangement makes sense for OVL, but if any of you ZS readers know more about this deal, leave a note in comments?

In other news, in is rumoured that ONGC has struck a deal with Exxon, for about $1.5 billion, to buy its 30% stake in an oil field in the Campos basin in Brazil.

Google Rumour du Jour 

Is Google developing its own version of Ubuntu, which was initially developed by South African VC, Mark Shuttleworth? Rumour has it that Google has an internal version called Goobuntu or some such, but the question is whether Google will release it to the public as an alternative to Windows. I know there's more than one reader of ZS who resides at Googleplex, but you're not gonna open your traps, are ya? :)

In more mundane news, Google's stock took a pounding today. Apparently, even a 97% growth in revenues and an 82% increase in net income is not good enough.

Monday, January 30, 2006

JOB OPENING: Microfinance Open Source (MIFOS) at Grameen 

This is a great opportunity for the techies among you who are interested in building ICTD solutions, especially in the micro-finance domain. If you need any clarifications, please let me know.
Mifos Software Development Manager
Location: Seattle (working remotely from Bay Area an option)
Start date: Immediate

Grameen Foundation USA (http://www.gfusa.org/) is a global non-profit organization that combines microfinance, new technologies, and innovation to empower the world's poorest people to escape poverty. Founded in 1997, GFUSA’s global network includes 50 partners in 20 countries. GFUSA’s Technology Center is the process of developing Microfinance Open Source (MIFOS) to launch in late 2006. A global, industry-wide initiative, Mifos is a unique management information software system designed for MFIs. Mifos will capitalize on the open source model to provide MFIs unprecedented flexibility and opportunity to scale their operations in order to serve more of the world’s poorest individuals.

To catalyze development of this product, GFUSA has contracted a development firm to develop a first release. We are looking for a seasoned software professional with proven experience shipping software, developing well-architected systems, and managing development teams to oversee the continuation of this development effort. Post release, this position will manage a team of open-source volunteers to drive ongoing support and development of the product.

Essential Job Functions:

* Oversees outsourcing development effort to ensure high standards of technical architecture and code

o Technical Design: Oversees volunteer community to conduct reviews of technical design, identify issues, and drive to resolution.
o Code Review: Conducts code reviews and manages/collates volunteer code reviews to ensure coding guidelines are being followed.
o QA Acceptance: Defines strategy & resources for validating that off-shore team has delivered on functional & performance requirements. Manages V1 validation and testing process.

* Drives technical architecture of product

o Drives ongoing technical architecture and technical specification for product. Works to collect input from advisors and volunteers and drives consensus around architecture. Analyzes long term requirements, identifies options for technical architecture, builds out long term architecture strategy.
* Defines and drives open-source development process
o Defines process and structure required for managing open source development effort and product releases including development and validation of: functional requirements, technical design, coding, build processes, testing, and release.
o Develops communication plans & processes for fostering and managing the open-source contributing team.
o Works with PM to define schedule and functionality for ongoing product enhancements.
o Works to develop a product support and bug fixing process.

* Manages Developer Platform & Technical Documentation

o Builds and maintains developer center portal to manage contributions, bug tracking, code checkins and issue tracking. Drives use of bugzilla, CVS, wiki, and other sourceforge.net tools to facilitate community involvement.
o Drives documentation of technical decisions and direction to facilitate engagement of volunteer community.

Requirements and Skills:

* Strong program and project management skills. 6-8 years professional software engineering experience with proven track record of on-time delivery of complex products including the ability to effectively communicate priorities, delivery expectations, risks and concerns to multiple stakeholders.
* Experience managing geographically disbursed teams and working with offshore development teams preferred. Experience working on or managing open source projects highly desired.
* Superb technical software and architecture skills. 3 years of experience with Java/J2EE (preferably) or C++ enterprise applications. Experience with Struts, Hibernate and MVC design pattern highly desired. Exposure to Test Driven Development highly desired. Minimum of 5 years experience with OO programming.
* Passion for documentation.
* Excellent leadership and communication skills. Able to inspire confidence and trust in a geographically and culturally diverse group of contributors.
* Experience with accounting systems, banking processes, microfinance methodologies and operations highly desired
* Exposure to low bandwidth environments, rural development countries helpful.
* Willingness to travel internationally 4 times/year for 3 weeks at a time.
* Fluency in English an absolute requirement.

How to Apply:
Submit cover letter and resume in one document by e-mail to: Emily Tucker, Grameen Foundation USA, etucker@gfusa.org

Putting Exxon's Profits in Perspective 

Exxon-Mobil has clocked profits of $10.7 billion for the fourth-quarter, taking their profits for the year to $36.13 billion. To put that in perspective, Exxon's profits alone are bigger than the economies of 125 countries ranked by the World Bank. In addition, Exxon's annual revenues stood at about $370 billion, which is quite a bit larger than the economies of countries like Switzerland and Sweden, and half the size of the Indian economy. Amazing what an oil price spike (and low production costs) can do.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Federer is King. Again. 

5-7, 7-5, 6-0, 6-2. That score says it all. Give him trouble and he'll come back to steamroller you. As Baghdatis just found out.

I think I have watched Roger Federer long enough now to say he's the greatest player ever. 7 grand slams, and he's just 24. Unbelievable stuff.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

A Dream Day for Indian Sports 

First, Irfan Pathan records the second hat-trick ever by an Indian bowler in tests, reducing Pakistan to 14-4 in 6 overs. An hour later, Mahesh Bhupathi teamed up Martina Hingis to win the mixed doubles title at the Aussie Open. Not a bad day at all.

All Your History are Belong to Photoshop 

(Via Boing Boing) Using photoshop to warp history used to be a favourite past-time of mine. Early readers (circa 1995) of JAM may even remember Jerry Garcia clumsily carved into Mount Rushmore. Worth 1000, though, is the real McCoy. For instance, here's the legendary Beatles album cover getting, errmmm, a little help from Dean Kamen.

And did you know Jay Leno was at Yalta?

The full series is here.

What is a Peaceful Nuclear Explosion? 

I was reading an interview with Homi Sethna about Homi Bhabha's legacy when I came across this oft-repeated nugget:
On May 18, 1974, India conducted its first nuclear explosion for peaceful purposes, at Pokhran in Rajasthan to emerge the world's sixth nuclear power.
Anyone who spent any time in India has heard this line at least a 100 times in the past, except noone seems to be sure what it really means. What on earth is a nuclear explosion for peaceful purposes? How exactly does exploding a nuclear bomb contribute to peace, unless you're using the long-range logic of strategic balance etc. Somehow, I doubt that's what it is; it's more likely that Mrs Gandhi's government was using a pathetic fig-leaf (since the nuclear fuel was diverted etc), and like a lot of things in India, this BS too entered the popular vocabulary with noone bothering to question it.

PS: To the Vajpayee govt's great credit, they did not feel the need for a sad cover-up when they tested the bombs in 1998.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Keeping Up with the WEF 

The webcasts from the World Economic Forum at Davos are available here, including several webcasts featuring heavy hitters from India. You can also check the WEF Blog, or best of all, head to Delving into Davos, the WEF blog maintained by the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, which is my personal favourite.

The Return of Emerging Markets 

According to the Economist, the global economy is beginning to return to it's pre-industrial revolution balance, in terms of the combined output of developing vs developed country economies. In 2005, the former's share rose to over 50% of the total global output (measured in PPP though).
This figure has been calculated from the International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook database. We have adjusted the IMF's numbers in two ways. First, we have taken account of China's recent upward revision of its GDP by 17%. Second, we include the newly industrialised Asian economies (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore). These countries might well now be classed as developed, but should surely be counted in any estimate of the long-term success of developing countries. If you exclude countries once they prosper, developing economies' share will never increase.

We have used the IMF's method of converting national GDPs into dollars using purchasing-power parities (PPPs) instead of market exchange rates. The latter can distort the relative size of economies, not only because currencies fluctuate, but also because prices are lower in poorer economies (so a dollar of spending in China, say, is worth a lot more than it is in America).
The graph below tells its own story.

JOB OPENING: Grameen Technology Center 

David Keogh, the deputy director of Grameen Tech Center sent me this opening at their Village Phone project in the Philippines. If you're interested in the ICT for Development space, with the added bonus that you will be working for the Grameen group, this is the ideal job for you. It will be based in Seattle and Philippines. If you'd like to contact David about this job, please let me know at nebuer AT gmail DOT com.
Project Manager - Village Phone

Responsibilities: The Village Phone team requires a project manager to oversee a pilot program in the Philippines. Key responsibilities will include:

* Development of project plan and ongoing management of pilot program to meet project plan goals and deadlines
* Overall on-the-ground responsibility for success of the pilot program
* Management of operations-level relationships with local program partners
* Communication to local program partners and GFUSA staff
* Ensure pilot program is executed in conformance with budgetary and other constraints
* Drive resolution of all field-related issues including equipment problems, partner concerns, and all other issues

Beginning: February 20th 2006
Term: 4 months initial term with possibility of extension
Location: Seattle & Philippines
Commitment: 37.5 hours per week
Remuneration: A stipend will be paid. Agreed expenses will be covered.

This position will be primarily based in the Philippines.

Qualifications: Successful candidates will be extremely self-directed and able to work independently in the field with limited direct support from GFUSA staff. Strong project leadership and relationship management skills are required. Candidate should have proven project management skills and the ability to drive results in partner organizations. Other key qualifications include familiarity with microfinance and international development concepts, solid written and verbal communication skills.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Be Careful What You Wish For: The Hamas Edition 

The Bush administration has developed quite a fetish for spreading democracy, especially after they discovered no WMDs in Iraq. The central thesis seems to be that the Middle East is ripe for democracy and democracy in one country will lead to a domino effect where one country after another will fall into the folds of democracy, which it is assumed will have a pro-American tilt. Well, it kinda worked in Lebanon, but the elections in Iraq Iran threw up a little surprise in the form of Ahmadinejad, he who seems to have no control over what he says in public. The icing on the democracy cake though has been the election results in the Palestinian election where Hamas has swept Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party out of power, winning 76 of 132 seats.

Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, and rightly so. Trouble is Hamas will have to be considered in any peace negotiations from now on, something that is absolute anathema for both the U.S. and Israel. In fact, the U.S. has threatened in the past to cut of all aid to Palestine if Hamas won, something that will be an even worse outcome since aid is what props up the Palestinian economy. Does this mean the peace process is buried? Heaven knows, but this would be a good time for the manicheans in the Bush administration to ask themselves if their little white/black world could use a few shades of grey as well.

Uh-Oh, Have We Lost the British Too? 

According to a MORI survey for the BBC, more than half the British population does not accept the theory of evolution. What's worse, more than 40% believe that creationism and inteligent design should be taught in school science classes. Ugh. And you thought America was the only place this battle was being fought.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Lessons from India for China? 

Yasheng Huang of MIT and Tarun Khanna of Harvard created quite a stir back in 2003 when they suggested in a widely discussed Foreign Policy article that India's chaotic development model may actually outstrip China's in the long run. Yasheng Huang is back with an op-ed in the Financial Times in which he points to what China can learn from India's quiet rise. Here are some of Huang's observations about the state of the Indian economy.
From April to June 2005, India's GDP grew at 8.1 per cent, compared with 7.6 per cent in the same period the year before. More impressively, India is achieving this result with just half of China's level of domestic investment in new factories and equipment, and only 10 per cent of China's foreign direct investment. While China's GDP growth in the last two years remained high, in 2003 and 2004 it was investing close to 50 per cent of its GDP in domestic plant and equipment - roughly equivalent to India's entire GDP. That is higher than any other country, exceeding even China's own exalted levels in the era of central planning. The evidence is as clear as ever: China's growth stems from massive accumulation of resources, while India's growth comes from increasing efficiency.
An economic litmus test is not whether a country can attract a lot of FDI but whether it has a business environment that nurtures entrepreneurship, supports healthy competition and is relatively free of heavy-handed political intervention. In this regard, India has done a better job than China. From India emerged a group of world-class companies ranging from Infosys in software, Ranbaxy in pharmaceuticals, Bajaj Auto in automobile components and Mahindra in car assembly. This did not happen by accident. Although it has many flaws, India's financial system did not discriminate against small private companies the way the Chinese financial system did.
With few exceptions, the world-class manufacturing facilities for which China is famous are products of FDI, not of indigenous Chinese companies. Yes, "Made in China" labels are still more ubiquitous than "Made in India" ones; but what is made in China is not necessarily made by China. Soon, "Made in India" will be synonymous with "Made by India" and Indians will not just get the wage benefits of globalisation but will also keep the profits - unlike so many cases in China.

Pessimism about India has often been proved wrong. Take, for example, the view that India lacks Chinese-level infrastructure and thereforecannot compete with China. This is another "China myth" - that thecountry grew thanks largely to its heavy investment in infrastructure. This is a fundamentally flawed reading of its growth story. In the 1980s,China had poor infrastructure but turned in a superb economic performance. China built its infrastructure after - rather than before - many years of economic growth and accumulation of financial resources. The "China miracle" happened not because it had glittering skyscrapers and modern highways but because bold economic liberalisation and institutional reforms - especially agricultural reforms inthe early 1980s - created competition and nurtured private entrepreneurship.

Kudos to Georgetown Law School Students 

Alberto Gonzales, he of the infamous torture memos, showed up at Georgetown University's Law School to justify the U.S. govt's surveillance of U.S. citizens. He didn't quite expect what came next. Some students got up, turned their backs to him while some others held up a banner with a simple message from Ben Franklin. I think the picture says everything that needs to be said. Now, if only more people could be as ballsy as these law students. In the meanwhile, I suspect that this surveillance business is going to backfire on the administration pretty badly, especially as the real significance of this move becomes increasingly clear to a wider swathe of Americans.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

JOB OPENING: BOP Consortium and The Solae Company 

Many of you know of the Base of the Pyramid (BOP) concept, thanks to its popularization in books by Stuart Hart and C.K.Prahalad. The Base of the Pyramid Learning Lab, led by Stuart Hart at Cornell University's Business School, is now working with DuPont's food division, Solae, to set up a BOP protocol project, with the initial pilot project based in Hyderabad. The project is looking to hire four dedicated interns to work on the pilot project, reporting to Solae's director of global accounts. This is a PAID position, with the significant upside that you will get to work on a one-of-a-kind BOP project with a global team. The job will include a significant training component with the Cornell/Solae team. Here is a brief description of the position:
The Solae Company has initiated a project to develop sustainable businesses in India that serve the needs of poor individuals and communities that comprise the “base of the economic pyramid” (BoP). For the first phase of this project, Solae seeks four interns to become members of a Solae BoP Protocol Team. The Team will include members from and be guided by a US-based group of leading BoP business professionals and academics affiliated with Cornell University’s Johnson School of Management who have directed the development of a BoP Protocol™. The BoP Protocol™ is a roadmap for engaging poor communities in co-developing business ideas that meet local needs and generate value for the company.
In terms of background, we are looking for someone with a serious interest in catalyzing economic development in India through sustainable private enterprise. Ideally, you will will have expertise in one of the following areas: business and social entrepreneurship; social work; development nutrition. Knowledge of Telugu is a plus, though not a requirement.

If you are interested or need more information regarding this position, please send me your resume asap at nebuer AT gmail dot com. Feel free to forward this to anyone you think might be interested.

India Uncut at the Bloggies 2006 

Fresh from having won the Indibloggies, my co-blogger at the IEB, Amit Varma and India Uncut have been nominated for the Best Asian Blog category at the Bloggies 2006. Much as I like Simon World, I am with Amit on this one, and I am sure most of you will agree. Plus, he's the only South Asian blogger nominated in that category. So head on over to Bloggies2006 and vote for Amit.

Monday, January 23, 2006

A Profile of Raghuram Rajan 

Back when I was working on the RISC project, I had the opportunity to meet and discuss the idea with Raghuram Rajan, who had recently joined the IMF as chief economist. After the meeting, I remember telling my colleagues that he was one of the smartest people I had ever met. Since then, Rajan has settled well into his role as the youngest chief economist at the Fund. The Chicago Tribune is carrying a story in which Greb Burns discusses the global economy with Rajan. In fact, it is a profile of one of the most important men in global finance today and one who could end up being finance minister of India in the not-too-distant future. So, if you don't know much about Rajan, this is a good place to start.
On loan to the International Monetary Fund, where he became the youngest-ever chief economist and the first from a developing country, the 42-year-old native of India sees risks on the rise in housing markets, hedge funds, pensions--all across the seemingly tame landscape of world finance. Difficult to track and often disguised, the steady accumulation of risks has increased the odds of what Rajan cautiously terms "a greater (albeit still small) probability of a catastrophic meltdown." A sharp decline in home prices, for instance, could cripple the job market, trigger loan defaults, hurt anyone invested in mortgage securities, and eventually undermine every moving part of the interconnected financial system.
What to do? Surprisingly for a dedicated advocate of free markets in the University of Chicago tradition, Rajan believes more government regulation is needed. After decades of deregulation and laissez-faire policies, "We are in danger of the pendulum swinging too far," he said. "The times have changed."
You could also read Rajan's magnificent book (with Luigi Zingales), Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists.

An Interview with Dean Kamen 

Emeka Okafor sent me this interview with Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway and head of Deka Research. To start with, Kamen was asked what drove him to create.
Life is really, really short. There was an infinite past before I was here--some would argue it was 20 billion years or so, but I am not so sure. Suffice it to say that there was a very long time before I was here, and there will be a very long time after I am gone. My life looks like a tiny dot on that continuum. This perspective gives me a sense of urgency. With that sense of urgency, I get up every day and think that I do not want to waste any time. And if you don't want to waste time, you look at all the problems you can work on and say, "I only want to work on the big problems. I am only going to work on the ones that matter." If you are not working on important things, you are wasting time.
Among other things, he was also asked about his obsession with the Stirling Engine.
I have had a life-long fascination with Stirling engines and with thermodynamics generally. But as you say, the Stirling has been fascinating scientists and engineers for well over 100 years, yet it has never been a competitive solution to most problems versus other kinds of heat engines out there, like steam engines, internal combustion engines, and gas turbines. Stirling engines are big relative to their energy density, expensive, hard to manufacture, etc. In short, they cannot compete with the power generators that are already a part of the infrastructure in the U.S. and other industrialized countries. However, there are a lot of places in the developing world that are waiting, and will continue to wait, for a top-down approach to provide power.

But there is no infrastructure in place, and it will probably take 20 years, 30 years, 50 years, or longer before centralized power and electricity will be available in these places--if it ever happens--for reasons that have nothing to do with engineering or technology. The obstacles are social, financial, and political, but they are not technological. Our goal is to use a bottom-up approach to instantly get people on to the ladder of technology, beginning with getting them electricity in their homes and villages. This enables them to take care of their basic needs, attain a better quality of life, and start creating wealth. We defined the problem: they need a generator that runs on any fuel, is very reliable and essentially maintenance free, is able to generate sufficient power for a small village, and is small enough so that a couple of people can carry it around. If we had an engine that could do all that, it would be a big deal. We realized that in developing world environments, the Stirling, despite a number of problems that had to be solved with it, could really be the core of a bottom-up way to build distributed point-of-use power generation throughout the world. It was as much an insight into the practical realities of the situation as it was about the second law of thermodynamics.

Friday, January 20, 2006

More on the Bengaluru Controversy 

Salil Tripathi, my co-blogger at the IEB, makes some interesting points in this WSJ Asia op-ed about the renaming controversy in Bangalore, that most cosmopolitan of Indian cities.
For Indian traditionalists, the name change is part of a bigger agenda. Modern businesses have threatened existing order. Software companies hire people on merit; they challenge traditional hierarchies and do not respect barriers of caste, faith or gender. Many women gain independence and feel empowered from working in the services sector. Talented professionals are drawn to Bangalore form all over India. They bring a new lifestyle: Pubs have proliferated, malls have arrived, and a "24-7" work ethic has developed in a city once known as a retirees' haven.

The city's heartbeat, the IT sector, has come under a more direct attack recently at the hands of H.D. Deve Gowda, a former Indian prime minister and leader of the Janata Dal, a political party. Mr. Deve Gowda has unleashed an entirely unsubstantiated assault on the IT industry, terming it elitist and detrimental to the interests of the masses, particularly poor farmers.
It's reassuring to think that Bangalore by any other name would be just as dynamic. But the cultural chauvinism that drove the decision to change the city's name is alarming, as it threatens to drive away the national talent and international investment that helped make the city what it is today.

I am too removed from local politics in Bangalore to comment, but maybe some of you closer to the ground can comment? Jed? Zem?

Guy de Jonquières on India's Apathetic Government 

Guy de Jonquières wrote an op-ed yesterday in the Financial Times in which he points to one of the most frequently debated issues on this blog, namely how long can economic growth continue at a fast clip while the reforms process stagnates. He lays out the case that the driver of economic growth thus far has been the private sector, while the best thing that can be said about the government is that it hasn't turned the clock backwards. Nonetheless, there are serious problems lurking right around the corner.....
There are signs that the economy is overheating and that recent growth has been stoked up by a consumption boom fuelled by lax fiscal and monetary policies. The result is a widening current account deficit, much of it financed by intrinsically volatile short-term portfolio inflows. Foreign exchange reserves are ample to prevent a crisis. But higher interest rates look inevitable. The central bank seems anxious to act but the government is resisting. That is hardly surprising. Not only is it keen to keep growth up; as a big borrower, largely to fund current expenditure, it wants to keep debt service costs down. Despite Delhi's efforts to restrain the states' spending, the consolidated budget deficit remains stubbornly above 8 per cent of gross domestic product.

More seriously, fiscal indiscipline limits public investment, above all to renew crumbling infrastructure. Investment, though rising, is still only 6 per cent of GDP - a quarter of the level in China. Lack of modern airports, electricity supply, highways and ports not only throttles India's relatively small manufacturing sector and exports; it cramps services, notably tourism, potentially a big job creator. Incredibly, fewer tourists visit India each year than Singapore [Ed: Something to keep in mind while reading those feel-good stories about increasing tourist arrivals].

Education cries out for investment. India's colleges are straining to meet exploding demand for top-flight graduates. Still more important, the country's literacy rate of just 64 per cent - compared with more than 90 per cent in China - underlines the scale of the effort needed to make the large numbers of rural poor employable outside agriculture. Finally, a sustained attack is needed on rampant official corruption and chronic public mismanagement, whose malign consequences Indians often blame on "democracy". That is a pathetic cop-out. Democracy has not prevented sound policymaking and clean and efficient government elsewhere. Nor need it do so in India.

Indian MNCs Eye Emerging Markets 

(Via Salil) Most of the coverage of India Inc's international expansion has concentrated on the expansion into first-world markets. However, the expansion into developing country markets are equally, if not more, important. Why? Most developing country markets are beyond even the peripheral vision of most first-world MNC's, except for ones interested in BOP markets or looking for BOP markets in order to fulfill a CSR agenda. In most cases, the cost-structures (and business models) of the big MNC's, as they stand today, makes it completely unviable for them to tap these markets. More importantly though, most of them fail to see large, untapped markets in places like sub-Saharan Africa. So, in that sense, these are great markets for Indian MNC's to gain major first-mover advantages. Writing in South Africa's Mail and Guardian about Tata Motors' foray into South Africa, Lloyd Gedye's piece provides proof of market potential in the south for ambitious Indian multinationals.
Indian vehicle manufacturer Tata, having quickly established itself as a leading player in the South African bus and truck market, is starting to make inroads into the car market. Tata’s distributor Accordian Investments launched its Indica and Indigo passenger vehicles in December 2004. In January 2004 it sold 255 Indica and Indigo vehicles. This doubled to 463 vehicles by April and rose to 813 in September. Accordian’s share of the passenger vehicle market is just short of 2%, but chief operating officer Phonie Cillier says Tata is aiming to get a 10% share of the hatchback market.
“Our value proposition is our advantage,” he says. “We have not brought in cheap cars, but rather cars that offer the consumer value for money.” The Indica retails from R69 995 and the Indigo from R92 995, which makes them affordable compared to most models, but it is features such as power steering, electric windows, central locking, air conditioning and remote-controlled side mirrors which Tata says distinguishes it from its competitors. Econometrix consultant Frank Beeton says Tata has done very well to establish itself and that consumers who think laterally are choosing an Indica or Indigo over older designs such as the Volkswagen Golf or Toyota Tazz as an entry-level car. Tata will add to its range of passenger vehicles in the next few weeks with the launch of diesel versions of the Indica and Indigo Estate.
Tata showed a 375% sales increase on 2004 in trucks with semi-forward cabins, an 84% increase in trucks with full-forward cabins and a 52% increase in bus sales. It holds 19% of the medium commercial vehicle market, a 14% share of the bus market and a 10% share in the heavy commercial vehicle market. Beeton says Tata appears to have established itself as a senior player in the truck market without stealing sales from established manufacturers but rather creating its own market. “They are very serious players,” says Beeton. “People laughed at them when they entered the market, which was a mistake, and now they are going to have to be taken seriously.” Fellow Indian vehicle manufacturer Mahindra & Mahindra has also entered the market, launching its high performance bakkie the Bolero and its 4x4, the Scorpio, in October 2004.

On the Legalization of Marijuana 

I have been in favour of legalization of Marijuana for the longest time, especially in India, where a very large proportion of the population uses it anyways under religious pretenses during various festivals (remember the bhang-laced lassi?). Of course, it makes no sense to keep marijuana illegal anywhere when far worse addictives like tobacco and alcohol are available freely. Not that I am suggesting banning alcohol and tobacco either; I just think it should be up to the individual to decide. And to the extent that these drugs impose externalities (violations of the harm principle), they should be regulated and taxed accordingly. Sauvik of AnarCapLib has an op-ed in the TOI today making a similar point. He makes his argument while relating a personal encounter with cannabis sativum up at Devprayag. And he's right, outlawing cannabis in India is as absurd as German parliament banning beer.
At the confluence, I was met by a solitary priest. He asked me if I wanted to offer a puja, and I agreed. I tossed some grains of rice and some flower petals into the Ganga and said some mantras. I then paid the priest some money. That is when I decided to perform 'an experiment with truth': I inquired of the priest: "Panditji, main is pavitra sthaan mein ek chillum peena chahta hoon. Aap kuch intezaam kar saktay hain?" Translated: "Respected priest, I would like to smoke a chillum at this sacred spot. Can you make the necessary arrangements, please?"

The priest immediately turned to some caves higher up the mountain slope and shouted, "Bhoothnath! Oi Bhoothnath!" Soon a tall sadhu with dreadlocks emerged. The priest told him to get me the needful and within no time Bhoothnath and I were blowing chillum after chillum at the extremely sacred spot. The priest kept sitting by himself in peaceful contemplation while Bhoothnath and I smoked. The point is this: Cannabis has always been an integral part of our culture, unlike alcohol. If I had decided to open a bottle of beer at the confluence, no doubt the priest would have thrown both me and the bottle into the Ganga. There are no words for "Cheers" in any Indian language. There are a thousand salutations to Shiva used when lighting a chillum. It is a shame that our democratically elected legislators have outlawed the one way of getting high we can truly call Indian. It starkly demonstrates the break between state and civil society.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Happy 300th Birthday, Ben Franklin 

Okay, make that belated birthday, since it was Ben Franklin's birthday yesterday. Of all the founding fathers, Ben Franklin is my overwhelming favourite because he embodies everything I consider awesome in a human being. He was unabashedly curious about everything, was an outstanding inventor, an exquisite wit, unbelievably visionary, founded the first lending library in the U.S., was an internationalist and a merry rogue. And remember, he was born not to privilege, but in poverty, and in some sense, embodies the American ideal that anyone with merit can make it to the top. On the occasion of his birthday, both the New York Times and the Washington Post carried tributes to the man. Since, the Times is behind a wall, I'll excerpt a bit from Stacy Schiff's piece.
His curiosity was matched by the suppleness of his mind, one singularly free of hobgoblins. (His ability to argue either side of an issue with equal vigor drove Adams to distraction.) Nor was there anything orthodox or evangelical about Franklin, who took his Puritanism as he took his Enlightenment ideals: with a splash of water, hold the doctrine. His religion was tolerance, his sect pragmatism.

When did he become so plushly, so comfortably, so voluptuously American? As the features are not aquiline, so the morals are far from impeccable. With equal genius Franklin codified good behavior and defied it. He was an organization man who was not particularly organized, a committee man who worked most effectively through back channels. With equal gusto he preached temperance and wrote drinking songs. He practiced frugality only, he admitted, so long as it was absolutely necessary. Diligence was his middle name, but few have made dilatoriness sound so attractive. A great deal of his famed industry consisted of getting someone else to whitewash the fence.
His role as a public servant was difficult to grasp, long submerged, at times unwelcome. His last public act was to petition Congress against slavery. Weeks before his death he reminded his colleagues that liberty should extend "without distinction of color to all descriptions of people." No one believed so deeply in an unfettered society, in free ideas as fervently as in free markets. Franklin managed to cast a vote for both, opting not to patent his inventions. It was preferable they be available to all.
If you'd like to read more about this outstanding man, a good place to start would be his autobiography (one of the best ever) or Walter Isaacson's excellent biography of the man who is now regarded as the first great American.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Nick Kristof on India Vs China 

The latest columnist to join the India Vs China debate is Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. The column itself is mind-numbingly boring, except possibly to readers who are only just waking up to the India/China story. Nonetheless, Kristof is one of 2-3 of the most influential columnists at the Times and that is reason enough to at least bookmark this story. After all, the book by that other influential columnist has proved pretty darned beneficial in promoting the India story, no matter what else you think of Friedmanomics. So, keeping that in mind, here's Kristof.
President Bush's trip to India next month is important, for we in America must brace ourselves to see not only China looming in our rear-view mirror, but eventually India as well. India was the world's great disappointment of the 20th century, but now it's moving jerkily forward with economic reforms, reminding me of China around 1990.
India has a solid financial system, while China's banking system is a catastrophe. And India is in better shape demographically for long-term growth: China has already reaped most of the economic benefits of population control and is now rapidly aging, but India's population will be disproportionately working-age for many decades to come (a factor that strongly correlates with economic growth). India's democracy, free press and civil society also provide a measure of political stability.
Yet if democracy is one of India's strengths, it's also a weakness. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh knows exactly what to do, and I've rarely met a leader more competent (or less charismatic). But his reforms are stalled or slowed in the Indian political labyrinth. India's basic problem is that its economic policy-making isn't nearly as shrewd, pro-growth or farsighted as China's. That's a tragedy: we should all want India to demonstrate that democracy is an advantage. But Indian lawmakers aren't helping. Foreigners are still blocked from directly investing in some sectors in India, like retailing. Privatization is lethargic. Food subsidies are soaring and are so inefficient that it costs 6.6 rupees to transfer 1 rupee's worth of food to the poor. Restrictive labor laws mean that companies hesitate to hire, and regulations tend to suffocate entrepreneurship.
The Verdict?
Over all, my bet is that China will still grow faster and win the race of the century. I'm going to tell my kids to keep studying Chinese, rather than switch to Hindi.

Talking Parrots are Fun, You Say? 

Noone carries funnier human interest stories than the Beeb, and this one is better than most. All you parrot lovers, here's a good reason to never, ever keep a goddamn parrot at home, not even one named for David Bowie. Or any other talking creature for that matter.
A parrot owner was alerted to his girlfriend's infidelity when his talkative pet let the cat out of the bag by squawking "I love you Gary". Suzy Collins had been meeting ex-work colleague "Gary" for four months in the Leeds flat she shared with her partner Chris Taylor, according to reports. Mr Taylor apparently became suspicious after Ziggy croaked "Hiya Gary" when Ms Collins answered her mobile phone.The parrot also made smooching sounds whenever the name Gary was said on TV.
I suppose you could also not cheat, but it's more fun to blame it on the parrot.

UPDATE: Amit reminds me that Zoo Station featured another talking parrot not so long ago. Best topical blog, eh? :)

Monday, January 16, 2006

How To Write About Africa 

I came across this remarkable extract on the Granta website:

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).

The Anoniblogging Wiki 

For those of you living under repressive regimes, be it in Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Iran or China, and would like to blog without too much interference from the Central Scrutinizer, head over to Anoniblog. The caveat, of course, is that it's not 100% foolproof and a dedicated government can come after you. Nonetheless it's way better that anything else out there. If you know of any bloggers who have run into trouble with the authorities in their countries, please forward this wiki to them.

The China Mania 

Out of Australia comes news that Lonely Planet has just inked a deal to publish its famed travel books in Chinese, in a nod to the booming outbound Chinese market. In England, Brighton College in Sussex has announced that it will start teaching Mandarin compulsorily, become the first college in England to do so. In New York, in the meanwhile, Chinese nannies are in extremely high demand, not for their nanny skills but for their ability to make their wards competent in spoken Chinese. According to revised estimates of Chinese GDP, China is set to become the 4th largest economy in the world this year (behind the U.S., Japan, and Germany). Expect the China mania to grow.

Quote du Jour 

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and then misapplying the wrong remedies.

-- Groucho Marx

I can think of a lot of governments that fit Groucho's definition perfectly.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Women Presidents 

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia. Michelle Bachelet in Chile. Seems like Tarja Halonen in Finland. And this is just in the last couple of weeks. Is America set to follow at long last?

The Moral Police Strikes in Bangladesh 

Sometimes, the truth is way stranger than fiction and this story clearly fits that bill.
Bangladeshi authorities have ordered mobile phone operators to stop offering free calls after midnight, to protect the morals of young people.
They said children were losing sleep and some indulged in "vulgar talk".
The phone companies weren't completely cowed down.
One spokesman has been quoted as saying that if the authorities wish to stop young people meeting each other, by the same logic, fast food restaurants and universities should be shut down, too.
EXACTLY. And some governments might do just that.

More Doublespeak from the Left 

Most of you that follow news in India are probably aware that Jet Airways has been involved in talks to take over Air Sahara in an attempt to increase its marketshare. Now, it turns out that the Left parties have decided to spike this deal and they have a very curious reason for not wanting Jet Airways to buy Sahara. Over to Comrade Abani Roy of the RSP.
One of the Left parties that supports the UPA Government has alleged that the Sahara acquisition deal, along with a strategic alliance between Jet and Air Deccan, would result in one cartel controlling around 60 per cent of the domestic aviation market in the country. In a seven-page letter to Finance Minister P Chidambaram, and Law Minister H R Bharadwaj, RSP leader Abani Roy, said that they should intervene immediately in this monopolistic attempt and motives to capture the Indian skies, which would not only be anti-competitive, but anti-consumer.
Eh? Since when have the Left parties been concerned about the Indian consumer, or providing her with non-monopolistic and competitive markets? And if they are seriously interested in competition, why not open up the retail sector, airports, railways and every other sector that they alone have been holding up to protect their constituents in organised labour? For that matter, has it occured to them that the PSUs that they refuse to privatize are also monopolies -- with marketshares well in excess of the 60% Jet-Sahara may have -- and that the consumer is in fact hurt by the monopolistic practices of these state-run firms (think telecom sector before 1995)?

At times, I wonder if these Lefties actually think before they make these proclamations or whether they're just permanently in vacuous motormouth mode, confident that noone will call them on their bullshit.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Saudi Conundrum 

The last issue of the Economist has an interesting survey of Saudi Arabia. The very first story of the survey carries, I believe, a line that describes the Saudi conundrum better than most long-winded analyses I have come across.
Like other people, Saudis want to be modern but also to retain their identity. At present, they are torn between those who seek to “modernise” Islam and those who prefer to "Islamise" modernity.

Discworld Movies? 

Well, they turned The Guide into a movie, not to mention LOTR and Narnia. But what's this I hear about Terry Practchett's awesome Discworld novels being made into movies? With Sam Raimi as director, at that??
Rumour has it that his hit book the Wee Free Men is being made into a film. The book tells the story of a girl who has to rescue her brother from fairies with the help of brawling pixies.
Pratchett admitted to Newsround that "happy discussions" had been going on about bringing the book to cinemas.

Zheng He, Back Again 

Back in July of last year, I had written a post about the great Chinese admiral, Zheng He and his epic journeys with the Ming imperial armada. As I was reading BBC News today, I came across this interesting story about an ancient Chinese map, that seems to imply that General Zheng may have discovered the Americas before Columbus did. This is quite a jump from the accepted wisdom that the imperial navy actually visited large parts of S.E.Asia, India and Africa.
The map, which shows North and South America, apparently states that it is a 1763 copy of another map made in 1418.
The map, which is being dated to check it was made in 1763, faces a lot of scepticism from experts. Chinese characters written beside the map say it was drawn by Mo Yi Tong and copied from a map made in the 16th year of the Emperor Yongle, or 1418. It clearly shows Africa and Australia. The British Isles, however, are not marked.
The map was bought for about $500 from a Shanghai dealer in 2001 by a Chinese lawyer and collector, Liu Gang. According to the Economist magazine, Mr Liu only became aware of the map's potential significance after he read a book by British author Gavin Menzies. The book, 1421: The Year China discovered America, made the controversial claim that a Chinese admiral and eunuch, Zheng He, sailed around the world and discovered America on the way.
There's still the small matter of a certain Leif Ericson, but we'll deal with that later.

Spot the President 

A number of prominent news outlets including the New York Times and the CBC have carried this stock photo (from both AP and Reuters) along with the story of Bush's recent visit to New Orleans. Interesting juxtaposition, yes. Deliberate? You decide :)

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Real Estate the New IT? 

In the past few months, I have met several prospective investors who have expressed an interest in India's real estate sector. This should come as no surprise since real estate funds (to funnel private equity) were allowed into India back in 2004 and REITs are currently under consideration and likely to be approved soon. Noone should doubt the untapped demand in the real estate sector, be it in the metros or in Tier 2, 3 and 4 towns. To take a small example with hotel rooms, it's assumed that Manhattan has more hotel rooms than the whole of India and that Las Vegas has 5 times as many hotel rooms as India does. The conservative estimate is that about $8-$10 billion dollars of private equity alone will flow into the sector in the next 2-3 years.

So, how big is the real estate opportunity? Does it justify all the excitement it's been generating in recent times? In fact, is it as big an opportunity as IT, as some enthusiasts point out (interestingly, part of the opportunity is being created by demand for real estate in the IT/BPO sector)? Andy Mukherjee has more.
An undersupplied market means that the net yield on office property in India is 11 percent, says London-based brokerage Knight Frank LLP. That yield is among the highest in Asia. Add to that a 20 percent to 40 percent price appreciation in the past 15 months, and office space in Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore starts to look like a very attractive asset class. Supply is expanding, though demand is rising at a faster pace.
It's reasonable to expect that in the next year or two, the government in New Delhi will allow overseas retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Carrefour SA to enter the Indian market. As hypermarkets and shopping malls jostle for a slice of the country's total non-residential property stock, office space will get scarcer and dearer. The Indian property market may get a further boost when the regulator allows real estate investment trusts, or REITs. A committee set up by the Securities and Exchange Board of India, or Sebi, has recommended that REITs should be allowed to be set up as mutual funds.
India has understood that big-ticket foreign investment in real estate will follow internationally established developers. In February last year, the government significantly relaxed investment norms for overseas developers. ``Foreign investment,'' says Magazine of CB Richard Ellis, ``will change the face of the Indian real estate industry.'' Retail participation will be the icing on the cake, though for REITs to work in India, stamp duties, which vary from one state to another, must be aligned and brought down significantly to 1 percent or so from 5 percent to 15 percent at present.

St Lawrence of Mountain View? The Economist thinks so. 

The Economist is carrying a profile of Larry Page in its current issue. The hype machine is clearly in overdrive now, though I have to ask why Sergey Brin wasn't profiled. Anyways, here is the relevant paragraph.
If Google is a religion, what is its God? It would have to be The Algorithm. Faith in the possibility of an omniscient and omnipotent algorithm appears to be what Messrs Page and Brin have in common. It's “in their DNA,” says Michael Moritz, a venture capitalist famous for investing early in both Yahoo! and Google. Whereas Yahoo! was started by two Stanford students who turned a hobby into a business, Google was started by two Stanford students who turned an intellectual obsession into a quest, says Mr Moritz. And what is that quest? Merely upstaging Microsoft would be almost banal. “We're not trying to build a better operating system,” says Mr Schmidt (although that will not kill the rumour). Part of the plan is certainly “organising the world's information”. But some people think they detect an even more grandiose design. Google is already working on a massive and global computing grid. Eventually, says Mr Saffo, “they're trying to build the machine that will pass the Turing test”—in other words, an artificial intelligence that can pass as a human in written conversations. Wisely or not, Google wants to be a new sort of deus ex machina.
Hype or not? You decide!

Letterman Tears O'Reilly a New One 

Bill O'Reilly is a character so worthy of caricature that he merits an occasional blogspot. As it is, Stephen Colbert and the Colbert Report do nothing but rip O'Reilly and his ilk apart day after day, week after week. But even so, David Letterman called O'Reilly on his BS in a way that I haven't seen anyone do on mainstream TV, including suggesting to him that about "60% of what you say is utter crap." You can now watch that entire glorious interview, courtesy of Onegoodmove. Enjoy.

Nominated Yet Again! 

It's hard to come up with a post that beats a *post* by Shammi Kapoor. The best I can do is to point to the Indibloggies, where Zoo Station has been nominated for the second year running. Old-time readers will know that Zoo Station won the Team Blog of the Year award last year. This time, Zoo Station finds itself nominated in the Best Topical Blog category. My jaw dropped when I saw that, because I consider ZS anything but topical, unless random esoterica in Reuben's head qualifies as topical. The voting is over, as I understand it, but I certainly hope none of you have wasted your vote on Zoo Station and have instead voted for the Indian Economy Blog, which I genuinely believe is the best topical blog of the year. Plus, hey, you could potentially vote for both me and Atanu Dey by just voting for IEB. For my own part, I am just happy with the nomination...I just don't this ZS deserves to win anything in a topical category.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Britain and its Holocausts 

George Monbiot had an excellent piece on British-era atrocities. Parts of the article are quite graphic. Not for the weak of heart.

In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, published in 2001, Mike Davis tells the story of the famines which killed between 12 and 29 million Indians(1). These people were, he demonstrates, murdered by British state policy.

When an El Nino drought destituted the farmers of the Deccan plateau in 1876 there was a net surplus of rice and wheat in India. But the viceroy, Lord Lytton, insisted that nothing should prevent its export to England. In 1877 and 1878, at height of the famine, grain merchants exported a record 6.4 million hundredweight of wheat. As the peasants began to starve, government officials were ordered "to discourage relief works in every possible way"(2). The Anti-Charitable Contributions Act of 1877 prohibited "at the pain of imprisonment private relief donations that potentially interfered with the market fixing of grain prices." The only relief permitted in most districts was hard labour, from which anyone in an advanced state of starvation was turned away. Within the labour camps, the workers were given less food than the inmates of Buchenwald. In 1877, monthly mortality in the camps equated to an annual death rate of 94%.

As millions died, the imperial government launched "a militarized campaign to collect the tax arrears accumulated during the drought." The money, which ruined those who might otherwise have survived the famine, was used by Lytton to fund his war in Afghanistan. Even in places which had produced a crop surplus, the government's export policies, like Stalin's in the Ukraine, manufactured hunger. In the North-western provinces, Oud and the Punjab, which had brought in record harvests in the preceding three years, at least 1.25m died.

L'affaire Ganguly 

I have been watching the whole affair with Ganguly with increasing bemusement. Why include him now for the tour of Pakistan since his performance has hardly redeemed itself, and since there are better choices for the side than him? Peter Roebuck says what needs to be said.

India has been playing some spirited cricket. Irfan Pathan has become a talented all-rounder whose abilities might allow the selectors to play five bowlers without weakening the batting, Dhoni has emerged as a fine stumper, Zaheer Khan is a reformed character, even Ajit Agarkar has improved thanks to bowling from closer to the stumps. Virender Sehwag has been told to slim down. These are steps in the right direction.

Ganguly's role in Pakistan must be defined. Presumably Yuvrav will be dropped and he will take his place, a decision likely to affect the morale of the side. Yuvraj scored runs in his last match and deserves a chance to establish himself. Alternatively Ganguly could be left twiddling his thumbs which seems worse than omitting him altogether. If a reserve is needed it is better to give an emerging batsman the chance to sample the atmosphere of Test cricket.

Supposing Gangles scores a few runs, what then? In a year's time the whole process will begin again. Indian cricket has made a rod for its own back.

Some intrepid citizens put together a petition to protest Ganguly's exclusion. While I sympathize with the sentiments therein, having been something of a Ganguly fan myself, I would say that, at this point, all that Ganguly is owed is an apology. The case of Ganguly has not been handled very well, but surely that does not call for a place in the team. Perhaps what we need is a counter-petition :)

Update : As Amit quite perceptively pointed out, the title ought to be "L'affaire Ganguly" and not "L'affaire de Ganguly". MDR. Merci :)

Sunday, January 08, 2006

ICICI Bank Goes Rural 

Sucheta Dalal, in her editorial today reports that ICICI Bank, India's second largest, is looking at taking banking to rural India. They aren't looking so much at crop loans, as they are at product innovation and customer clarification. I think this is an excellent trend and one that will open up not just consumer financing, but will stimulate rural aspirations and eventually rural wealth.

ICICI’s challenge was to find affordable technology and new delivery mechanisms for appraisal, lending and recovering tiny loans of Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 each. Creating these structures meant getting past social and infrastructure bottlenecks such as illiteracy, lack of electricity and telecom connectivity. So a solar-powered ATM, operating on wireless technology which uses biometric identification instead of the standard PIN cards was one answer.

However, ICICI Bank is more likely to pursue a better and lower cost alternative more aggressively in the form of point-of-sale terminal attached to the local bania store. This involves the same biometric identification, but since the bania uses and deposits cash extensively, it will marry his financing needs with that of the bank customer.

The challenge is to build these systems at extremely low costs. Fortunately, says Kamath, ‘‘Big name hardware and software companies are seeing the rural market as a huge opportunity’’. And they have put in a great effort to develop low-cost solutions. The business potential is huge: it is common knowledge that unorganised enterprises and rural folk pay usurious interest rates to money lenders. Also, in the absence of funding for value addition, there is large-scale wastage especially in the process of getting agri-produce from farms to markets.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Shekhar Gupta On The Lohiaites 

Writing in today's The Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta has praised a moribund bunch of power-grabbers that I honestly never expected worthy of praise. But it turns out the Lohiaites, as much a reality of Indian politics as the Steel Frame and archaic rules, have actually begun to change, and are actively encouraging reform in the states they rule.

I have maintained for a long time that among the last sectors to be reformed in India will be the railways and real estate. That is because of the great political vested interest in discretionary powers, patronage and, consequently, the scope for money-making both provide. That is why Laloo Yadav's stint in the rail ministry has been such a pleasant surprise. Please do not be blinded for one moment by his obstinate refusal (so far) to increase passenger tariffs, or inconsequential populism like promoting milk, lassi and earthen kulhads in his trains. One look at the railways' financial performance, even in two years of rising fuel prices and increased competition from truckers on rapidly improving highways, and you know there is a good news story in the making.

The cynical explanation, of course, is that just because Laloo has been so embroiled in Bihar politics, two elections and his court cases, he may not have had any time for his ministry and so its officials have been free to do the good things. But that is not how things work in our system where bureaucracies tend to be even more possessive of state power and control than politicians. In fact, no reform ever takes place unless pushed and supported vigorously by the political leadership. Ask any senior member of the Cabinet and he will tell you Laloo has been a particularly good minister, particularly on economic issues. He has almost never blocked any reformist decision and has taken a very constructive view on new ideas of public-private partnerships, special purpose vehicles (SPVs), even outsourcing of services, all things that Rail Bhavan bureaucrats would normally abhor.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

HAPPY NEW YEAR: Postcard from Chesapeake Bay 

Folks, sorry for the infrequent blogging, but I've been taking a break from the Net, blogging etc. Just resurfaced for a bit to wish all of you a fantastic year ahead.

And yes, I cannot recommend the Chesapeake Bay enough, especially in the less populated parts of Virginia. This picture above was taken from the backyard of the house we've rented.