Thursday, June 22, 2006

Indian Man vs. Indian State

You ask anyone on the street what is the source of problems with India and more than half of them will attribute it to the Indian politicians. The breed of Indian politicians has been blamed for every problem in this country.

I seem to differ with most of them. Not that I do not agree with them to some extent, but by blaming and accusing these politicians an Indian citizen is continually renouncing his/her responsibility. By blaming ‘them politicians’ we find a scapegoat to blame. Instead of owning up the problem we seem to conveniently place it on some entity called the ‘system’, as if it is something alien to us. I believe that this attitude doesn’t allow us to own the problem to rectify it. I for one believe that problem is with the Indian man- the common man, who looks, resembles and is actually one of us. My opinion is echoed by this saying: Like man, like state – Plato.

Contrast this with a popular Indian saying which many in India seem to believe: Yatha raja, thatha praja (as the king, so the subjects)

This saying conveniently places the blame on the king (or the Government in our case) and thereby we happily live our lives hoping for this king to change himself so that we can follow the suit.

Is it the people? Or is it the Indian System?

Is it us? Or is it them politicians?

Who is to blame for bad roads, rampant corruption, delayed trains, garbage on the streets, casteism and communalism, discrimination based on caste, religion and sex, and for everything bad with our society? Is it me or is it that damn politician?

I tend to take a stand that it is the Indian man who is corrupt, keeps his street unclean, and does not follow the law, and that the Indian System (or the Indian Government) is a mere personification of these ills of this common man. To rectify the system, he has to rectify himself. The change starts at him. It starts with the ‘man in the mirror’.

When a policeman stops me, I would rather pay Rs. 200 which goes into the policeman’s pocket instead of actually paying the Rs. 600 fine which goes into the Government kitty. I want this policeman to be corrupt. I hate it when he is not corrupt because the whole procedure is tedious. I have to wait till he writes me a ticket and then pay Rs. 600. If he is corrupt, it makes my life easy. I can get away in one minute by paying him only Rs. 200. Is it the system or is it me?

My father has an interesting story to relate. He wanted to tell me how we are legitimizing corruption and other ills of society. The story (which is true) goes this way:

(Start of Story)

A father wants to get his daughter married off. He interviews the first candidate who is an officer in a Government Office.

Father: “How much do you earn?”

Guy #1: “10,000 per month”.

Father: “How much do you earn ‘over and beyond’?”

Guy #1: “I am an honest officer. I don’t take bribe”.

The father lets that guy go telling himself how he can give away his daughter to a fool like him who earns so less and is not practical enough to adapt to this society. The next guy he talks to is a clerk in a Government Office.

Father: “How much do you earn?”

Guy #2: “3,000 per month”.

Father: “How much do you earn ‘over and beyond’?”

Guy #2: “I ‘manage’ to make 20,000 to 25,000 per month”.

The father is happy with this guy and marries off his daughter with him. During the wedding a friend of the father asks how much the new son-in-law earns and this father replies proudly that he earns “3,000 but ‘manages’ 25,000 per month”. The friend is happy and congratulates the father for finding such an excellent son-in-law and asks the father – “Can you help me find a similar boy for my daughter?” And this father and his friend are educated middle class men.

(End of Story)

What my Dad wanted to convey through this story is how we, as a society, are legitimizing the corruption through our words, actions and setting examples. Another aspect that is frightening (in my region) is how the rich people become popular when their house gets raided by Income Tax officials. It has now become a status symbol. “Oh! Do you know that they have been raided recently?” is spoken more in tone of jealousy and envy than what one would imagine. And the son or daughter of the house that gets raided suddenly becomes attractive for marriage. It is a matter of pride to get married into such a house. Even the dowry for the guy or the girl goes up skyrocketing. In most cases, the dowry amount is spoken with a sense of pride and achievement. The father who gives dowry is proud to tell it to showcase his capability and the father who receives it measures his son’s achievement based on the dowry he rakes home.

There are many such stories, and no politician is coercing them. The most corrupt official of our region is given such great welcome by the temple priests (while shooing away all other devotees) that one starts wondering if there is any place in India that is free from this sycophancy and praise of corruption.

The people who build new homes would like to use up as much land as possible to make the living space as large as possible. If one encroaches onto the street or bypasses all norms of construction, it is seen as an achievement. The other guy who wants to build home takes their advice to see how he can also flout the rules. If it so happens that the officials are very strict, they all complain, and make sure that official is transferred (by using their clout with politicians).

Of course, one could start giving examples of how the politicians are corrupt and that it is them who start this whole process of degeneration. I am not sure where we would go by blaming these politicians. We have been blaming them for over fifty years now and nothing good has come out of it other than perpetuating the degeneration. How come we elect those who seem to be most corrupt? Having no choice of candidate is not a good reason. We had more than 10 elections so far- couldn’t we elect someone who is not corrupt or come up with a political party which is not corrupt? I don’t think that such candidates do not exist. I think such candidates get 100 to 500 votes and lose their deposit. Given a choice the common man of India votes the most corrupt candidate. No wonder Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu comes back to power again and again.

My opinion on this- (I know it is an extreme form and the reality is grey and not as black and white as I suggest) - it is the common man of India and not the Indian Government which should be blamed for bad state of India.

“Like man, like state”. I stand by it. I can’t change the politician. But I can change myself. A better and responsible man will bring in a better and responsible state. Blaming the state is tantamount to shirking one’s responsibility and, for all practical purposes, will not solve anything.

Only 3% Indians pay their taxes. Many guys take dowry. Most of us violate rules when it comes to traffic or building our homes. We like to bribe our way through and feel proud that we have defeated, or beaten, or maneuvered the system. The guy who gets ahead in the line to buy tickets considers himself an achiever and has no qualms about flouting basic norms of decency. The parents who, somehow, using political clout, bribing the officials, etc, put their kid in a top school take pride in it and are envied by other parents. Please don’t bring politicians into this. They are not forcing any of us to get corrupt son-in-laws, take dowries or bypass norms to build big houses. We have a choice to be honest and we just don’t take it.

There is an ad on TV from Pears soap. The mom uses a mirror to reflect blinding light onto another kid to help her son do better in a cricket game. It is supposed to be funny. I don’t find it funny. On the other hand I find it very offensive. Also, I feel sad, not because Pears has made such an ad, but because we all watch it and find no fault with it. We have legitimized wrong things through such small words, actions and setting examples.

[BTW, I don’t buy Pears soap and I don’t intend to buy one either]

Monday, June 12, 2006

Karan Thapar: Quibbler

I saw his show last night (on CNN-IBN) where he interviewed PC Chidambaram.

He was outright obnoxious! He went on badgering PC Chidambaram for no reason. He had an agenda and he wanted to prove it in the interview. When he was going nowhere, he kept taunting and badgering the interviewee. He had his facts wrong about PC Chidambaram's college and he unnecessarily brought in irrelevant information into the discussion.

Shouldn't the interviewee be allowed to talk? Karan Thapar abruptly stops PC from talking and unnecessarily derives wrong conclusions from his talks. Karan was petulant and he was bickering throughout the interview holding onto his pet theory or a preconceived notion about 'reservations' and 'PC Chidamabaram' and went on badgering PC throughout the program to prove that he is right.

After, what seemed like a marathon of incessant harassment, there was no clear output from the interview other than whas PC had already reiterated in his previous interviews (on CNN-IBN) - that he supports reservations and that he does not think a review of the reservations is necessary because it is already proven in southern states that they are effective. In the end, the output of such an interview is absolute nothing. It did not prove anything new nor brought out any new information for the viewer. It only highlighted how Karan was good at English and can impose his mastery and sophistry on the interviewee to make it seemingly appear that he is right.

The whole charade was childish. He made PC quite exasperated with continuous interruptions and protests and even the viewer shared the same feeling. It was exhausting; so much so that PC had to say during the interview that if he had no new question to ask, the interview could be terminated. PC asked Karan to be 'patient' and let him answer. And PC rightly pointed out more than twice that Karan was quibbling.

PC Chidambaram on the other had was calm and composed and kept his cool throughout the program unlike the interviewer. Karan appeared more like a child who asks for a chocolate, doesn't get it, and keeps asking and badgering the father- 'Why not! Why not! I want it now, I will not keep quiet till I get what I want!'

(more later)

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Reservations XI: Is there caste-based-discrimination in India?

Whom do you ask this question?

Yesterday, some of us were having a discussion on sexual harassment and I wanted to know how it is in the Indian industry? The question that I put across was to five other engineers, all male. Nobody had a clue whether it happens or not. All we could come up with were some noted examples which everyone knew. Unanimously we agreed that being male, how would we know? We should be asking a woman if we wanted to know the real answer.

Even if we did ask them, how many Indian women would actually come out and say they have been sexually discriminated? In a society which targets women since their birth, they grow up protecting themselves from various assaults of men, and in the process learn to ignore certain subtle and small attempts and thereby accept it to various degrees.

Moreover, coming out in the open to disclose such details is a taboo in itself. There could be thousands of such cases and we would never know anything about them. (If one were to go by the number of reported cases, it is easy to conclude, by miracle, that India is sexual-harassment-free country, an unique achievement.) I think very few cases are actually reported; even those are handled in a hush-hush environment limiting to very few involved people. Only when it concerns really top officials like Phaneesh Murthy of Infosys or KPS Gill, would everyone know about it.

This brings me to the current topic- If I wanted to know whether there is a caste-based-discrimination in India, whom do I ask? Supposing all the upper caste people vouch that there is no such discrimination and that they have never resorted to such discrimination (which they do vouch for pretty strongly), should I satisfy myself and conclude that there is no caste-based-discrimination in India? It’s akin to asking only males whether there is any sexual harassment. To get the right answers to such questions, I need to ask those who are possible victims of discrimination, not the possible perpetrators. Asking educated and rich SC/ST/OBC does not give good results either. They are a minority and tend to grow up with other upper caste kids in elite schools and colleges and may never have faced outright discrimination. So, how about asking those in the rural areas where the bulk of the population resides? This poses even bigger problems because most of them do not even know what ‘discrimination’ is. They grow up accepting it as a way-of-life. That’s how they accepted it and endured it for thousands of years and they continue to do so. (The cases that are reported are usually the ones from educated SC/ST/OBC who seem to have grown out of accepting such things or the ones that have gone so brazen, like, stripping a woman naked and parading her through the streets. Million others go unreported).

In my region of Telangana, there’s a phrase Nee Baanchenu which is often used by rural or lower caste person when addressing a rich or upper caste person. Nee Baanchenu is Telangana Telugu equivalent of Nee Banisanu of Andhra Telugu, which literally translates to ‘I am your slave’. They include this in each of their sentences. Though there would be many out there who would caution me not to take such things literally, I do not think they can be brushed off so easily. To understand discrimination, one has to understand and acknowledge the importance of such literal usage and their history, because they are a consequence of something more innate to our society and has come into existence reflecting the ground realities of our times. We need to understand why and how terms like Nigger have become a denigrating aspersion in US or how Chamar has now become an insult in Northern India. These words and phrases give clear indications of attitudes of that society.

Most of the rural low caste people accept all kinds of discrimination explaining it away as their fate. When people do not know what is discrimination, and have no clue what is self-respect, a question posed to them is of no use. It does not produce any results. Then how do you know if such a caste-based-discrimination exists?

One could spend time with them in rural India and get to know their daily life and report it. That alone will have thousands of instances of discrimination. One could go to various government offices and institutions of India where they have SC/ST/OBC employees and ask them various questions (and please don’t give this task to CNN-IBN. They can frame the question such a way that the result of the poll, based on SMS, would actually conclude that it is upper caste who is discriminated). One could ask rich and middle class SC/ST/OBC or those who have recently come to good positions. When prodded they may tell you few stories of discrimination, meted out to their relatives in villages or their forefathers. Or go to small town universities and check how rampant casteism is. They are all educated people with PhDs but their vocabulary consists of many expletives and insults based on caste. The caste-based discrimination is a part of their everyday decision process.

If the media was little more inclusive and was comfortable airing the views of some of these lower caste people, they will hear more such stories. I have one sample here. It is from NDTV, reported by Harsha Kumari Singh, dated Thursday, June 1, 2006 (from Amarpura Village).

Dalits continue facing social bias

“…In a break from tradition Bansi Lal Meghwal, a Dalit bridegroom in Amarpura village dared to ride a horse to his wedding but was forced to dismount. But what the Dalits hoped would be a step towards social equality turned out to be an incident that exposed how deep caste prejudices run in society. His wedding procession was pelted with stones and the guests attacked by the upper caste in the village… Their water supply has been stopped and the village shops refuse to sell them rations…”

Siddharth Varadarajan writes (in THE HINDU, June 3, 2006, titled ‘Caste matters in the Indian media’):

“In 1999… from University College of Medical Sciences (UCMS)… the Scheduled Caste students were confined to two floors and not assigned rooms elsewhere…In the dining hall, they were forced by the forward caste majority to sit together at one end… would be abused ‘Bloody shaddu’…”

I could go on adding many such examples but I don’t think it will serve the purpose. Those who want to deny discrimination will continue to do so in spite of the overwhelming evidence; or they come up with excuses to explain it away (saying that it was just division of labor and nothing to do discrimination). Watching Nuremberg trials (post-WWII), one can judge the extent of this human stubbornness. The Nazi war criminals refused to believe that any of the crimes against Jews, Poles, gays, gypsies, Russians, ever took place. In spite of huge pile of evidence that was brought before them through audio, video and witness accounts, they maintained that it was all a conspiracy; and even if some of them did concede, they refused to believe that it was done at such massive scale.

This blog is only directed to those genuine upper caste Hindus who seriously ask themselves- ‘Does caste-based-discrimination exist in India?’ They might be reasoning to themselves- ‘I never discriminate. Neither any of my friends who are SC/ST/OBC seem to have experienced this’ and quickly conclude that no such discrimination exists.

What I want to say to them is this: Stop asking those people who have not experienced it. The India that you know is different from the rest of India (which is more than 75% of India). Even if you did visit a village, you went there as a tourist. It’s like a European who comes to India for a short trip and finds everything amusing and quirky but never understands the deep undercurrents. Just because you did not know it existed till yesterday doesn’t make it unreal or a figment of imagination of some writers and some speakers. It is not something the politicians have conjured up out of an empty hat. It is not something the media and the politicians have thrust on you all of a sudden. It is just that you are waking up to the real India which you never knew existed. It’s something similar to many ordinary Germans waking up to the horrors of Holocaust after the end of the war. They couldn’t believe that such things ever happened in their midst and were in denial for a long time. [I can easily foresee some ‘smart’ comments which forbid me from comparing our discrimination to heinous crimes of Holocaust]

Why do I think diversity is important to all of us even if it means paying a small price?

I get these nasty jokes in my e-mail inbox ridiculing SC/ST/OBC reservations. When I look at the chain of addresses to see where it has been circulated before, I realize that they have been through companies like Infosys, Wipro and other top IT companies. The senders assume that all their co-workers are upper caste. This assumption is either out sheer arrogance or sheer ignorance, and in this case both are dangerous.

Being oblivious to sensitivities of other communities and their travails is as bad as committing discrimination itself. Why do I think so? Because by being ignorant of the sensitivities we continue to perpetuate certain notions that indirectly condones caste-based-discrimination. Continued ignorance and apathy desensitizes us and we tend to devolve ourselves of our basic duties when it is warranted. This desensitization is one of the main reasons why so many ordinary Germans tolerated and allowed oppression, subjugation and extermination of so many Jews during 1933-45.

Would that guy who sent that e-mail at that top IT company would have been so callous (or careless) if he knew that there were at least 30% lower caste employees in his campus? I believe he would have been more cautious (I am hoping that he sent it out of ignorance rather than arrogance). Would media (like CNN-IBN) be reporting highly biased reports supporting anti-reservations protests completely sidelining and deliberately ignoring pro-reservation protests if they knew that their own staff had at least 30% of SC/ST/OBC?

Siddharth Varadarajan continues:

“The insensitive and casteist forms of protest some of them adopted – the ‘symbolic’ sweeping of the streets, the shining of shoes, the singing of songs warning OBCs and others to ‘remember their place’ (‘apni aukat mein rahio’) – were put on air without comment by the channels.”

“When B.N. Uniyal surveyed the scene in 1996, he found not a single Dalit accredited journalist in Delhi… an informal survey had found that the number of accredited North Indian OBC journalists in Delhi was under 10…”

He adds:

“… journalism that has little or no space for the majority of citizens is bound to end up missing out on the complexity of the society it seeks to cover…”

Diversity, by including SC/ST/OBC/Muslim in the media, would bring in certain degree of tolerance towards ‘other kind’ of people and teach them to respect the sensitivities of these groups. Next time, when they want to air a completely biased report, they may be a bit cautious and make sure they are covering all sides. Diversity, by promoting a good % of SC/ST/OBC in IT companies, would make that guy who sent out that mail think whether it was the right thing to do. That little caution is worth paying a small price.


CNN-IBN : Indian media caught in a caste warp.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bangalore and Silicon Valley

Abinandanan has put links to Paul Graham’s articles on ‘How to be Silicon Valley, and prompted me to write this article.

For the last three years I am living in Bangalore. Prior to that I was living in the Bay Area in US (close to Silicon Valley). I have always wondered how we could ever achieve anything close to Silicon Valley here in Bangalore. Keeping all that hype aside, where Bangalore is called ‘Silicon Valley of India’, the ground realities suggest a complete different story. Bangalore is not even remotely close to Silicon Valley in any respect. The factors like number of IT companies, the number of engineers employed, etc, are not the right parameters for the comparison. I am citing some of reasons below. I don’t want to be exhaustive.

We don’t have technology VCs

VCs who have presence and money in Bangalore do not fund product making startups. Why? Because they do not have people on board who have been product making entrepreneurs before. They invest in companies they are good at, like, IT services, BPO services, .com, etc. When they hear the word ‘technology’ or ‘product’, they balk. Not because they are not interested, but because they do not understand the implications and the consequences of such businesses- there have not been many precedents out of India. Most other VCs in India are pure private equity players, bankers who have opened a small arm of VC. There nothing ‘venture’ about them. They don’t take risks of funding early stage companies. Instead they continue to stick to private equity. I am not complaining. They do what they know best. Unless we see a major chunk of technology companies in Bangalore go successful, we will not be able to spawn new technology companies. Those US-based VCs that have an office in Bangalore, they are still unsure on what to do. Should they invest? If they should, should they stick to Indian model (of being a private equity player) or should they stick to Silicon Valley model (but then there is no ecosystem)?

We don’t have rich technocrats

We do have rich people in Bangalore but we do not have rich technocrats. Even those supposed technocrats, after achieving the success, tend to believe that they were an exception and that the norm is ‘Bangalore cannot produce technology companies’ and hence continue the trend of supporting less-risky businesses.

We don’t have too many nerds

Nerds are those people who don’t care much for the employment but rather work for sheer thrill and kicks they get out of doing something extraordinary, however impractical. Many engineers in India, even those would-have-been-nerds, get into the pressures of financial security, family issues, building a home, buying a car, etc, and seem to suppress their nerdy characters to become normal.

We don’t have good university-industry collaboration

I cannot say we do not have good universities. There are good universities in India, but I think we do not have university-industry collaboration which is vital for getting the right kind of ecosystem.

We don’t have the necessary infrastructure

While Bangalore is good for a technology startup in many respects, despite the drawbacks I listed above, it is not ideal for travel, commute, and is less preferred by people who have made money and want to relax. Infrastructure of Bangalore is not conducive for a smooth life and poses lot of impediments. Not that any other city in India is better, but if we want to see anything close to Silicon Valley here in Bangalore, proactive, concerted and aggressive measures need to be taken up to make this city conducive for such a ecosystem.

I am radical in my approach. I propose we move the entire defense units out of Bangalore and use that space to create approachable parks, large and wide roads, government and corporate buildings with wide parking spaces. With proper planning, and without being too greedy about filling it with concrete, one can come up a much better planned city for Bangalore. For every tree that is cut down, plant four new ones. Also, please don’t throw garbage and plastic on the streets. They clog up the drainage during monsoon season and damage our roads perpetually.

We have too many service-oriented companies

This is my pet peeve against Indian companies. We have been able to produce great service-oriented companies through Infosys, TCS, Wipro, etc. But that’s where we stopped. All the new companies that spawn in Bangalore take them to be the role models and continue doing the same. Even VCs and the so called technocrats want that. What is wrong with services? In short, it is not a scaleable business. If a services company does $2 Billion revenues with (say) 50,000 engineers, to get to $20 Billion in revenue, they need to hire 500,000 engineers. How can this city support such an organization?

And size is extremely important for services industry. IBM, Accenture, Infosys, TCS, etc, leverage their size to bag more and more orders. Compare this with a technology startup. A small group of individuals can make a big difference and if successful can create mega industries with very few people. This will throw out rich technocrats who in turn can spawn more technology companies.

From my own experiences as an entrepreneur, I can say that there is lot of truth in what Paul Graham has to say. You can’t create Silicon Valley where there are no rich people to fund your startups. Also, you need an atmosphere of nerds. Both are lacking in Bangalore. Does that mean we just sit back and say, ‘Yes, we lose the fight’? Not really. In spite of all the data and all the indications that you can’t recreate a Silicon Valley here in Bangalore, we ask ourselves why not?

Some look at things that are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not? - George Bernard Shaw

An entrepreneur starts out asking himself why not.


One can create
Silicon Valley here, and it may take a long time, and may be, it will take a different shape and form and may not necessarily follow Paul Graham’s Silicon Valley. For anything to happen, someone has to start and persevere. If some of us succeed, and in turn spawn many such companies here in Bangalore, then another Paul Graham will write an article 20 years from now as to why Bangalore cannot be recreated anywhere else.