Sunday, December 21, 2008

'Building' the future

Indians, because of the primarily agricultural roots, have immense respect for their land holding. The same concept has been extended to housing, and hence, we see the need to own a house before anything else. That explains why even large Indian cities have primarily independent houses, while similarly sized (both by area and population) cities elsewhere in the world have a culture of apartments.
As land availability goes down in Indian cities, land prices do go up. In the late 90’s and the early part of this decade, we saw the trend that created the first wave of small apartments. Individuals with relatively large residential sites enter into a joint venture with builders to build apartments. In return, land owners got a few units, depending on the valuation of the land and the investment made by the builder.
Recently, we see another solution adopted to increase the land availability within a city, based on the Greater-Mumbai (don’t use Bombay anymore; Sainiks are around everywhere!!) model. So, we saw the Bangalore and Hyderabad cities expanding tremendously. This created land within the city limits and the corporate world was quick to buy large amount of land at cheap prices, even though necessary infrastructure – like roads, water, sanitation, electricity- wasn’t completely available.
Ten to twelve years from now, the additional land created by expanding the city will be used up. I don’t see the FAR (Floor–Area Ratio, used to determine the amount of build up area in a given piece of land) going up greatly; definitely not outside the relatively quake-safe zone of the Deccan plateau. Then, I see people going back to the 90’s model, albeit with a difference. There will be few people holding large enough residential plots for an apartment. A small community of people will come together, say owners of two-four adjacent plots, to form a large enough area for a builder to start an apartment project.
So, if you are a builder and interested in such deals or need some more ideas, please contact me. Full version of the idea comes at a premium!!!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Urban Infrastructure Lessons from Railways

    Most cities in the country are witnessing high growth in population, vehicular density, energy consumption, sanitation, waste management and all other infrastructure areas. This has resulted in a strain on these infrastructure facilities. IT companies in Bangalore and Hyderabad highlighted the failure of local administration, and made good use of the media to canvas for their needs. Almost every major city has witnessed flooding in the recent past, with Mumbai and Bangalore standing out!! Today, we do not have funding trouble to carry out infrastructure projects, but have not been able to implement these projects effectively.

    Some time back, the Railways started a new scheme to name a few trains after corporate brands. This not only fetched the Railways some good money for the advertising provided, but also helped improve the amenities provided at the stations and the trains. Toilets were refurbished, internet access provided within trains and cleaning was done even during the journey (helpful for long routes). This scheme is really a win-win deal for all- the corporate companies, the railways and the travellers.

    You may be wondering what is the connection between the urban infrastructure and the scheme. Just like the railways used the private players to upgrade the facilities in the trains by naming the routes after their brands, city administrators could name a road/locality after a brand/individual, in return for a plenty. The corporate will then ensure that, in the area named after their brand, the quality of infrastructure built is good, and that they remain good. Before adopting a particular area, they will assess if the area has adequate drain and sewerage capacity, clean and smooth roads that can stand a few years and such physical infrastructure to estimate their cost in adopting the area. That will force the city planners to survey the areas that need attention and find out what ails the residents of the area.

    A similar system was tried in Bangalore during the erstwhile BATF days, where-in some public parks, lakes and government schools were adopted by some IT companies. That was a very successful attempt to improve these facilities. The one proposed above is just an extension of the same idea. So, shouldn't we get ready to compare Airtel-nagar with Idea-nagar or Infosys-nagar with a BigBazaar-nagar???

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Great Migration Debate

The rioting in Mumbai by Shiv-sainiks is too common (a tactic) to be deliberated. Despite that, I opine that migration is too important a topic to be ignored. Being a Bangalorean, I take the Mumbai and Bangalore examples to put forth my submission.

This is not the first time migration has been raised in Mumbai. Shiv sena has been bringing this issue into national forefront for more than a decade now. The 'Mee Mumbaikar' campaign was more than successful on that aspect. I support the Sena on this issue, since I find their 'grievance' valid.

The Sainiks have been opposing the influx of Biharis and UPites to Mumbai. But the same sainiks have accepted to share space with Gujaratis. The sainiks are not hostile to the large populations of Goans and Managaloreans in Mumbai, nor to the much smaller south indian migrants. Similarly, in Bangalore, Andhraites are acceptable. Despite the Cauvery dispute, Bangaloreans are not hostile to Tamilians and Keralites. But the same Bangaloreans consider the 'northies' as migrants. Why so?

To the local people (of Bangalore, Mumbai or any other place), migrants are those who are not culturally similar to them. This is the reason that people from some part of the state moving to the larger cities within their state are not considered migrants by the local population, even though they are technically migrants. While Gujaratis, Goans and Mangaloreans have integrated with Mumbaikars, the Biharis live as a separate community. Similarly in Bangalore, the northies are those who live independent of the local mix of kannadigas, tamilians and teluguites.

In Bangalore, the VV puram area was traditionally habituated by the telugu-speaking Shettys. Shankarpuram had only Brahmins residing, Ulsoor probably has the highest percentage of tamilians outside Tamilnadu. Hardly anybody in Shivajinagar is a non-Muslim. Today the times have changed. VVpuram and Shankarpuram have more Marwaris/Jains than the local mixture combined. Infact, the Jain College has often been blamed for loss of moral values amongst south Bangalore youth, though the same is not said about the colleges run by other communities. A good indicator of this change is the places of worship that have sprung up in recent years. It is not for no reason that the majority population in Bangalore subscribe to these views (rather I subscribe to the majority opinion).

As long as theses communities are separated from the mainstream, they will continue face this opposition. Even though I 'migrated' to Singapore 6 months ago, have I made an attempt to join the local population? No, but for speaking in the local English accent, only to make fun. I understand that this adaptation is not easy, but is highly necessary.

Having said so, the 'migrant' communities have played a very important role in building their adopted homes. Some of the best Kannada litterateurs (DVG, Maasti and many more) were born non-Kannadigas. Some of the entrepreneurs who have built the country were migrants. They deserve a place in their adapted/adopted (if they adapt) home.

As far as Bangalore is concerned, language is the main barrier for the migrant northies to mingle with the majority population. I had a classmate during my engineering days, who was born and brought up in Bangalore, but could hardly speak or understand Kannada. It wouldn't have happened if he had played with the local kids as a child. Probably his parents were afraid of him mingling with the locals. Or probably the parents of locals did not trust him. This mutual mistrust still exists, probably to a larger extent.

To build this trust, schools can play a very useful role. They can put a little extra effort to make sure such kids learn the local language properly. They should be made to play games with the general population. Group assignments can be given to students, with groups consisting of diverse individuals. 'Unity in Diversity' should be inculcated in the children, not just taught/told to them. Such constant interaction in the formative years of the children will help such 'migrant' communities join mainstream.

Another important action is to curb migration। The main reasons for migration are better quality of life and better employment opportunities, to name a few. So the primary cause for migration is lack of inclusive development. If better education, jobs and social infrastructure (water, electricity, roads, police etc) can be provided in the less developed districts, the migration from those places will reduce. This will not only allow development of these regions, but will mean less 'friction' in the already 'cramped' cities of the country. I recently read that the NREGS (the UPA brainchild) implementation in Tamilnadu had reduced the migration from the particular region.

Hope these measures will help...

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Boosting the Rural Economy. Incomplete, Dump of my thoughts

I happened to read the June 11th issues of the India Today. The cover story Grain Drain provides a gloomy picture of the nation?s food reserves and production capacity. Some of the issues ailing the agro sector are

i. Land holding of a typical farmer has decreased significantly over the years. This means a farmer today has a smaller piece of land, and finds it difficult to produce enough quantity (of crop) to get back his costs.

ii. In the past 6-7 years, all the regions of the country have witnessed atleast two droughts/floods, if not more. This means that for those two years, the farmer has not been able to repay his loans, and hence has a bleak possibility of getting further loan. This is the driving factor for farmer suicides.

iii. A critical problem is that around 70% of the population is dependant on agriculture. It is very difficult to deliver any benefits on such a large scale.

Given these problems, a primary school student will provide a solution like ? increase land holdings of farmer, help him get enough money and reduce the size of farming community. What we need is a solution as simple as that!!

The government should allow, and mandate, large private companies to invest in agriculture. Obscure! Is it? Let me tell you the benefits for the parties involved.

It?s not a new idea for private companies to invest in agriculture. Tata has been doing it for its tea business, much like other tea companies.

The telecom revolution started initially in the metros and soon spread over to the large cities. Even as the telcos started growing in the cities, they had spread to the towns. Now that the telephone connections have stagnated in the urban areas, the growth is being driven by the demand in the small towns and large villages. You will surely witness the same pattern in retail. Now, have a look at the companies operating in the telecom sector ? Reliance, Bharti (Airtel), Tatas, Birlas (Idea). You will see that these business houses are going to drive retail sector also. They need to build efficient procurement and delivery systems. Still not clear?

One of the biggest problems today?s farmers have is the scale of operation. The farmers more or less continue to operate on the same land for attractive salaries (yes, you read it right!) by Reliance (Reliance, as a synonym for innovative business practices). The Reliance, in turn, gets the right to dictate the farmer what crop to grow, collaborate with neighbouring ?salaried? farmer, share resources like well, bore-well, motors, tractors etc.

Long ago, my father was working for a nationalised bank and pursuing his law course as well. My grandfather, a businessman, took a promise from my father that he will not practice law, only because a bank job would guarantee a ?known? monthly income, irrespective of competence and other factors such as luck, business environment etc. Similarly, the farmer would be happy to take a salary, and get insured against drought, flood or any other natural calamity and be absolved of loan, buying seeds and fertilisers and so on.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Happy New Year to all fans of reservation politics

Even as people were busy exchanging greetings for the new year, I was engrossed thinking about the some of the issues that will for sure make headlines in the year.

The year-end (of course, he may continue as a ?dummy? till mid-Jan 2009), will see the end of George Bush, atleast as President of USA. That could mean that the Indo-US nuke deal should be sealed by October or it would be lost forever. The Manmohan government will be under pressure to finalise the deal. That is enough reason for the Left to call for early elections( yes, they call the shots..not the centre or PM)!!

Whether or not this happens, reservation is going to be a sure-shot tamasha. No party got much mileage from the 27% reservation for OBCs in premier educational institutions. Much noise has been made about reservation in private sector, with more to come in 2008. But then, calm down, it wont be implemented, thanks to an ?hyperactive? judiciary, industry and the UPA , which ?wishes? to come back to go on with its unfinished job. Vote for UPA!! Vote for hunger!!

I truly believe that reservation can be an effective tool for uplifting the less developed sections of the country. But, I do not subscribe to the UPA school of thought. Such a system, over the last five decades, has not financially helped the underprivileged much. What it has achieved is to instil leniency in the so-called ?backward? classes and frustration in the so-called ?forward? classes. Let me share my experiences.

I was preparing for GATE 2005 with my friend, my namesake. A ?backward? classmate of mine told me he ?pitied? us,? for you have to work hard to get decent scores like 95. If I get 80, I will be happy?. Knowing well that had irritated us a lot, he repeated that frequently, and laughed to get sadistic pleasure.

More than a year later, I had applied for MSc at 3 departments of IISc. I met him again, when I had been there for an interview. He came in atleast half an hour late and the first candidate had already come out to tell us the horror of 15-20 professors pouncing on the poor fellow with near-simultaneous questions. As soon as he came in, he saw me and walked towards me. I expected him to ask me about the procedures, the venue or just talk pleasantries, for we had met after a long time. Instead, he asked me who was in-charge of the interview, and I pointed to the person, sitting close to me. I was expecting him to ask the in-charge a similar set of questions. Instead, he asked about the travelling allowance that he was entitled to, only to get a rude reply!!

As he came back to the seat next to me, he asked ?How many calls have you got??, quite politely, I must add. ?One, only this? I replied. ?That fellow, the other Srivatsa?? he asked, rather audaciously. ?Two, EEE and CEDT? and I had to stop when he started a long ?Hhhheeeeeeeehhh?. ?I got three? he said, with contempt clearly visible. This after the fellow was just happy, err got 80 percentile, while I managed around 96 and my friend around 98. Even a year after graduation, despite numerous attempts, he had not managed to get a job in Bangalore?s IT industry, where we jokingly say ?trespassers will be recruited?.

Those were not the only time I was agitated about reservations. Immediately after PUC(12th), we had to take up an entrance test for getting admission into any of the engineering colleges in Karnataka. Any 3-digit rank was definitely considered good and I was happy to have ?achieved? it.

A good friend of mine, who attended tuitions with me and had a ranking of around 2400, could have utilised reservation to get into good engineering colleges. His father pestered him into getting a caste-certificate done. He was against it, saying he would get into a college ?he deserved?. He said this to his father even after he got his results. Less than a month later, two days before my turn for selecting seat (on basis of our ranking, we were called to select the course and college),I called him, only to know that he had already finished his under the 2A quota. The same day evening, when I went to play cricket with neighbourhood friends, another person with a rank of 8500, told me that he had secured a seat in a top Mysore college. There were three main categories of seats, subsidised, general merit and payment (some kind of cross-subsidisation). Just to put things in perspective, while those two got seats with subsidised fees, I could not opt for the same courses even by paying a much higher fee, almost 5-7 times the fee they paid.

I have nothing personally against the two. I only envy them. They were born lucky (You will agree that it?s not my mistake that I was born in a particular sub-caste!!!). But then, I do complain about the system, for which I have my remedies.

As already illustrated, individual progress, and hence the progress of the society he/she lives in, is not determined by caste. Nor can economics be the sole determining criterion. If reservation has to be implemented, it should be based on socio-economic and regional factors. Just because some society is ?backward? in a particular geographical region, it doesn?t imply that the same community is ?backward? in some other region as well. Politicians have successfully marketed this fact as a majority-minority distribution issue, going on to suggest that minorities are ?backward?.

We need to balance the adverse impact of reservation with merit, so as to ensure inclusive and sustainable social growth. To put it simply, reservation should not hamper the growth of any part of the society. For this, quantum of reservation (for a particular section) should be determined by the performance of that particular section in the recent past.

In Karnataka, during my years as a student, there was a common entrance test(CET), for admission into engineering and medicinal courses. That was hailed as a fair and transparent system. Based on performance in the CET and other academic, ranks were allotted to students. Of the tens of thousands of people who took the exams, consider only the top 5%-10% performing students. The social distribution in this set of students should determine the quantum of reservation of the community. So, no community can afford to be complacent, since if the students from that community do not much representation amongst the top performers, they do not stand to gain much. This will ensure that one group will not eat into another, more meritorious, group.

The drawback here is that if some section of the society has very small representation in the first (present) sample, they will take a long time to improve their position, or may even lose the battle completely. To ensure a fair chance for everyone, we should gradually move from the fixed reservation system (the Arjun Singh school of thought: 27% reservation for OBCs in IITs, IIMs and AIIMS, irrespective of whether or not they are inclined towards the kind of education) to the merit-based floating reservation system proposed above.

Having proposed the floating reservation system, I do not believe that any form of reservation is an effective means of achieving inclusive social growth. Though this can be a short-term solution, affirmative action remains the only long term solution. India, not only needs affirmative action, but can also afford to take the route. Over here, I am only seconding the views of the Constituent Assembly. Since India of 1950s couldn?t afford affirmative action as a means to provide good quality education, jobs and standard of life to all sections of the society, reservation was expected to be a low-cost alternative for a period of ten years. As a matter of fact, the concept of reservation has to be approved by the central cabinet for a maximum of ten years, with the last extension of ten years approved by the NDA government in 2001.

Wait for more suggestions on affirmative action?.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My Toughest Prayer

    My primary school civics book emphasised the fact that the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian constitution is one of its salient features. One of the rights provided by the constitution is the right to live. This primarily implies the following two points

  i. An individual may (not) exercise the right. A right is a kind of a privilege, and the decision (not) to utilise the privilege should be made by the person.

 ii. Live doesn?t mean medically alive. It means any citizen has the right to live with all the necessary human dignity. This interpretation was made by the Supreme Court.

    These two points together do not imply that suicides are legal (nor do I support suicide). Any right can be exercised only under certain situations and constraints (Eg: Right to vote doesn?t mean I can vote whenever I want to cast my vote!!). Hence, the abovementioned points only mean that under certain situations (on deathbed, with lot of emotional pain for family and self), an individual can exercise his/her right to live.

    If an individual can provide a power of attorney to another individual for running his/her business and voting by proxy are legal, then my contention is that an individual should be allowed to empower somebody else to exercise his /her right to live, although within defined restrictions. So, in cases where doctors see no point in trying to save life or if the doctors believe that the individual?s right to live with human dignity is severely impacted (both present and in future), then the individual (or his family as a proxy) should be allowed to die with little or no further physical and emotional pain.

    I have experienced negative affective state more than once in the past two years. It was these situations that gave me enough emotional courage to pray God (who takes his own sweet time to see sense) for the death of my loved ones. An even greater amount of courage is needed to accept this. This, along with our social setup and upbringing, restrict people from coming forward to support euthanasia.

    As already mentioned, the present constitution doesn?t bar euthanasia. But, we still need to bring in the laws to define the implementation procedures (answer the how, when, who and more such questions). And when that happens, a medico-legal jury may answer my prayers faster than God.