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An Outsider’s Perspective From The Inside

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Archive for December, 2007

From each according to his ability, To me according to my need

Posted by anandrr on December 28, 2007

The Economist talks about the slums of Dharavi, and one quote made my day. Talking about young Marxist Raju Korde:

A decade ago, he bought his slum-house, on the western edge of Dharavi, for 450,000 rupees. Its value has almost doubled. “I am a Marxist and also an entrepreneur,” he says, a trifle defensively, in the nearby office of the Communist Party, seated beneath colourful portraits of Stalin, Lenin, Engels and Marx.

Most people don’t understand this about us Communists. We take our cues from our masters in China and the erstwhile Soviet Union. Externally, Communism might be about “from each according to his ability…” and that sort of rot, but at the core it’s about making as much as you can while you still can and then sitting on it. See also The Economist’s glowing profile of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.


Posted in Business, Capitalism, Communism, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Roadside sign fun

Posted by anandrr on December 27, 2007

traffic rules

I hate to do this kind of post, it’s too easy in a country like India to mock street signs for not being up to snuff on their English. But this had so much irony  packed into it, I couldn’t resist. The sign teaches us citizens to “Obey traffic rules, Save yourself from uneventuality [sic].” Unfortunately the sign is sponsored by an English teaching schools. Graduates of the school are certainly coming soon to a telemarketing call near you.

Posted in BPO, English, Funny, Traffic | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Setting the bar low

Posted by anandrr on December 22, 2007

I wish I had my camera with me, but this poster in the Madras airport cracked me up. It was for a property developer advertising one of those developments that are meant to look like a US suburb rather than anything Indian. The target audience of course is Indians returning from the US. The poster featured an Indian kid in an obviously American airport asking her dad, “But Appa, will Madras be like New Jersey?”

You can run from New Jersey, but New Jersey will never let go.

Posted in Business, Funny, Real Estate | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Day Trading

Posted by anandrr on December 19, 2007

Just like the big boom in the US in the 90s, cheap money and a booming stock market and online trading websites have combined to create a boom in day trading in India. Uncles, mothers, grandparents: everybody is in on it. Gardeners want tips on which stocks to buy, people read the stocks page for entertainment, workers spend more time gazing at their trading screens than their actual work, some people quit work altogether and buy and sell at Internet terminals all day long. Of course, I have little doubt about how it will all end up. They all end the same way. But the most interesting thing to me about all this is how the brokerages are actively encouraging day trading. Here’s the sample brokerage rate sheet for an online brokerage:

Brokerage fee for sale/purchase: 0.75%

Brokerage fee for purchase if sold the same day: 0.4%

There’s an old reason behind all this, the settlement problem. Shares that are bought aren’t actually delivered right away. It takes up to a day to get delivered. Selling them on the same day saves the brokerage the trouble of having the shares delivered, and they’re quite happy to pass the savings on. But you can see how this encourages people to do exactly the opposite of how they should be acting.

Posted in Business, Trading | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

ShahRukh Khan endorses this blog!

Posted by anandrr on December 16, 2007

srk ponytail

Apparently the great SRK will appear in an ad for anything. This is quite amazing. With a brand as strong as his, you would think he would be selective about the products that he endorses. But no! He will pimp for anybody willing to pay him money. And even the ads aren’t of particularly high quality. Hollywood stars are a little smarter about this, they have ads that they appear in that they are proud of, and those that they are not so proud of. The first category is seen in the US, the second only in Japan.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen SRK in ads for cell phone service provider Airtel, satellite TV provider Dishtv, the Hyundai i10 car, Belmonte Suitings (complete with pony tail, imagine if you will a ponytailed man telling us how to look stylish), Fair and Handsome cream (for men natch!), Pepsi, Omega Watches, and worst of all Pasta Treat (which seems to be some kind of cheap microwave dinner).

Posted in Films, Mobile Phones, Showbiz | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Daudke Jao

Posted by anandrr on December 10, 2007

Staying with my brother who is an officer in the Army, exposed me to a whole new way of looking at people. The Army of course has too many people in it. If there is something that can be automated, the Army will find a way to do it with people. What this means is that every officer deals with a number of people every day engaged in some menial task or the other. But there’s a thing about menial tasks and the people that do them, apparently you have to give very precise instructions. Take for example this conversation between Col. brother and unidentified lackey (helpfully translated from the original Hindi for your reading pleasure).

Col. Brother (stops car outside officer’s mess): Hey Unidentified Lackey.

Unid. Lackey: Yes sir.

C.B.:  Go in and check if my newspaper has arrived, and if so get it to me, and also tell the newspaper guy to deliver it directly to my home from tomorrow on.

U.L.:  Yes sir, right away sir. (turns around and begins to walk towards the mess)

C.B.: Run to it (eponymous  Daudke Jao)

(U.L. dutifully commences to run into the building)

At one level, this seemed bizarre. Surely, U.L. could have been told to do it quickly, and presumably he would have run in. But no, U.L. was told to run in, the philosophy there being, don’t just tell him what you want, tell him how you want him to deliver it. But when I got to thinking about it, that’s exactly right. When you have a large mass of people like India does and many of them are engaged in tasks that don’t exactly stretch their brain power, you need one guy who comes up with the process and decides who does what and how, the rest of them just do it. Some of them will actually rise to the occasion and prove themselves worthy of being the guy who gets to make the decisions, but most of them just won’t. Either they aren’t smart enough or literate enough or whatever.

This of course doesn’t apply just to the army and its vast numbers of orderlies. It applies just as well to the masses of people working in various BPO operations around the country. India’s advantage is large numbers of English speaking people who can do the same job as a call center operator (or MS Word jockey, or what have you) in the US for about 1/10th of the cost. So don’t waste your time picking the right operator, just hire 3 of them of about average abilities to replace the 1 in the US, and here’s the kicker: write up a detailed, very detailed process telling them what to do. Bonus points for including such details as “Ctrl-C the text, click on the other window, type Ctrl-V,” etc. This seems quite derogatory, surely we could hire Indians who would understand that they need to cut and paste. But the thing is that we have millions people who will be quite happy to do the robotic work for much less money than the smarter guy who actually knows what cut and paste is. And it takes much less training if you have detailed instructions.

I’m beginning to see why detailed process is so important.

Posted in Army, BPO, Business | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Fun In Traffic

Posted by anandrr on December 9, 2007

auto rickshaw

This one time I returned from Chennai quite late, around 10:30 pm. Not wanting to risk walking home as I would have if it were a more reasonable time, I decided to take the pre-paid auto home. Unlike other pre-paid services however, this is not one that you pay for in advance. At Bangalore airport, a pre-paid auto is one where you have a cop regulating who gets into which auto and ensures that there is no pre-auto haggling. The assumption is that the rickshaw driver turns on his meter and you pay whatever shows up on his meter. My turn at the rickshaw stand produced an auto, I hopped in and off we went. Needless to say, after we were out of sight of the cop, the rickshaw driver turned to me and said, “you’ll pay me Rs 50, yeah?” Of course I wouldn’t. “Turn on the meter,” I ordered. He looked at me, glared and grudgingly turned on the meter. About 1.5 km away from the airport, he turned around again and said, “but you’ll pay me 1.5x the meter, yeah?” Normally I might have agreed, it was late after all. But in this case, I noticed that the meter had already started ticking past its minimum. The meter minimum is supposed to last 2 km. This annoyed me, and I refused to pay him anything more than the meter. This was too much for the rickshaw driver, and he refused to take me any further. But you’ve got to, it’s a pre-paid auto I reminded him. “Oh,” he replied, “I’ll take you right back to the pre-paid auto stand.” “Very good,” I replied. So he turns the auto around, and back we go to the airport. On the way, he tries to take a rash right turn. We almost die as a huge Tata Sumo barrels into us. Somehow we escape with mere scrapes on the auto. He drives up to the pre-paid auto stand and complains to the cop that I’m not paying him his 1.5x meter. The cop looks at me like I’m an alien being and orders me to pay the 1.5x. “Didn’t you notice that we’re past 10pm,” he asks. I immediately agree to pay 1.5x meter. Now of course the faulty meter has been running all along, and we’re now at Rs25. So I tell the auto driver to reset the meter. He can’t take this any more. It was my fault that he had to come all the way back, how dare I try to shortchange him now. But you’re the one who almost killed me in that scrape with an SUV, I protest. We squabble some more, and now the cop takes a personal interest in us. But much to the driver’s horror, he now sides with me. “Reset the meter,” he orders, “the gentleman has agrees to your 1.5x demand!” With much grumbling, the driver resets the meter, we drive home, I refuse to let him drive me all the way home, lest he see where I live, his meter of course has ticked up all the way to Rs 25 (where a real meter should really be around Rs 16), I pay him his Rs38, we glare at each other, and I walk home.

 The cruel irony in all this is all pervasive in India. I had just returned from a trip to Chennai where between the airfare and the hotel, I had spent a total of Rs 10,000. And here I was haggling over Rs10.

Posted in Auto Rickshaws, Traffic | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Even More Adventures in Mobile Phones

Posted by anandrr on December 5, 2007

Now this Airtel number I have is merely a transient number. Something to tide me over until I get a permanent post-paid number. If I may, a brief digression here into the word post-paid. This might be an Indianism, or it might be something that people do around the world but Indians certainly assume that the opposite of a word that starts with post- is the same word starting with pre- and vice versa. Hence, we sometimes have to pre-pone an event. Similarly, if we used to have pre-paid cell phone plans, and we want  to get a cell phone plan that we pay for after we use, we go ahead and get a post-paid plan. Never mind that the word post and the word paid are two entirely “opposite” tenses. The really exciting thing about this is that even if it is currently poor English to use the form post-paid, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes perfectly acceptable. In very short order, more people will use the post-paid formulation in India and the sub-continent than there are English speakers in the rest of the world. How could it possibly be bad English if so many people are using it exactly that way? The Queen can wince for all we care, it’s our language now.

But enough English talk, let’s talk postpaid plans. For a permanent phone number I’m going to go get a BSNL number. Only because I’m told they have the best deals. You would think instead of being told this, I should be able to verify this for myself. You would be wrong. Look at this matrix of plans available from BSNL. This is ridiculous. Never mind the studies that say that more choice is actually a bad thing and that people like to choose from a menu of 4 or 5 choices. Just from a marketing stand point, at what point does the company decide that they need to stop scaring their customers and start acquiring new ones? So all I’m going to do is ask my brother which plan I should get and go get it. Presumably after I get a few itemized bills, I’ll actually sit down and plug it into an Excel spreadsheet and figure out that changing my plans will save me about Rs 20 a month. For as long as I was in the US, I railed against the fact that service providers (cable, cellphone, you name it) rarely gave me a unbundled service or a reasonable array of service options and instead asked me to shoe-horn myself into one of 3 or 4 preset patterns. Now that somebody is actually giving me what I asked for, watch me turn and criticise them for exactly that. Brilliant!

The actual BSNL process promises to be exciting. Combine the salaried employee problem, with a complete lack of automation, with all the efficiency of a Government organisation. Neither the person servicing me nor the company providing me the service is motivated by profit. It’s a perfect storm.

Posted in Business, English, Mobile Phones | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Adventures in Mobile Phones II

Posted by anandrr on December 5, 2007

Or why salespeople should be paid by commission. Turns out that my misadventure at the “Airtel showroom” was unwarranted. What I should have done is gone to the nearby guy who’s not an Airtel owned showroom but is an Airtel agent reselling their service. He had a refreshing attitude to the sales process. He immediately seated me, had me fill out a form, pick a phone number, told me that he didn’t care to compare my passport with the copies I was giving him, and as I sat there, called the Airtel centre (crashing servers be damned) and activated my SIM card for me. 10 minutes for a cell phone number. In my previous post, I had assumed that the problem was insufficient technology. On the contrary, it might just be that the chaps at the showroom are paid salaries, while our man of the moment here at the agency gets paid a commission. All hail Adam Smith.

Posted in Business, Mobile Phones | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Adventures in Mobile Phones

Posted by anandrr on December 3, 2007

airtel 100ft road

The one truth about modern day India. Doing anything: getting a broadband card, getting a cell phone, getting a tax id card, requires, “One Id proof sir, one address proof and two passport size photographs.” Somewhere an unseen bureaucrat is amassing the world’s largest collection of photographs and corresponding names and addresses ever assembled, it’s an anthropologist’s dream. I right now have some 40 photographs and 10 copies of my passport lying in my backpack. Those guys with the photocopy shops and the passport photograph stores are making out like bandits.

This is also a country with some 100m+ cell phones in use. Every month an additional 8m are sold. One would think that getting a cellphone number and getting all set up would be easy. One would of course be wrong. First stop was the BSNL place. I was asked to submit a form with an id proof, an address proof, and two passport size photographs and wait 10 days for the SIM to be activated. Not entirely happy with this situation I repaired to the AirTel showroom. This is after all a private company, surely things would run along smoother and quicker? First he asked me to take a token and await my turn to speak with a sales guy. I then waited some 2 hours to speak to said sales guy. The sales guy assured me he would set me up with a phone number right away, and went on to get a form filled up by me (along with an id proof and address proof and photograph, natch), issued me a phone number, sim card and sent me off to go pay up some money and walk out with a phone. I go to the guy to pay up, and he assured me quite cheerfully that he couldn’t put any money in my sim card because the, “servers were down,” but he would be happy to sell me the sim card. I wasn’t really clear why I would need a sim card without any money on it, so I cursed him quite a bit for making me wait 2 and some hours just to tell me something he could have told me at the outset, “No cell phone for you!”

A quick observation here, this happened on a Monday morning. And there were all these people clearly waiting in line for a cell phone on a weekday. If each person who got a cell phone in India had at some point spent 2 hours getting one, can we talk about the lost productivity here? I believe an economist would point out that that is the exact problem. So many people in India work at such low productivity levels, that it is actually quite ok for them to spend two hours for a Rs 500 (US$ 10) transaction.

But there has got to be a business here. Think of the immense opportunity to streamline the flow. You walk up to a guy at a counter, he takes your passport, keys your name and address into his computer, his webcam takes a passport sized picture of you, he prints out a filled out form with all the details and your picture printed on it, you sign it, pay him for the sim card, and you’re off in under 10 minutes. The equipment pays for itself on the first 100 cards you sell, on the evidence of things about 3 days of operations. Just the interest of saving time should have customers beating a path down to your store. And yet, and yet…

Posted in Business, Mobile Phones | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »