Saturday, September 27, 2008

Of bombs and beasts...

A bomb explodes, one child dies, millions of souls shudder, the roads are dark, the cars are few, the cops are distinctly visible, reservations are cancelled, dates are postponed, parents call, emails flood the inbox, barricades are being erected, drivers being questioned, bikers viewed cautiously, children asked to play within the gated communities, news channels replay the morbid scenes, public wastage dumps viewed cautiously, pedestrians maintain distances from citizens wielding lunch boxes, speculation spreads, pizzas are ordered, shops close early, terror feels closer and life more precious, fear approaches closer, cynicism gains momentum, the administration questioned, a greater empathy for terror victims from Baghdad to Barcelona emerges, citizens seek to understand the role they can play in curbing further attacks, politicians admonished, the country seeks answers, wonders if it is asking the right questions and tomorrow is another day of hope, faith, courage and determination............

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Silver Lining

The global banking and financial services landscape has witnessed the demise of blue blooded brands over the last couple of months. The ripple effects have been felt closer home in the stock markets and with some leading banks having taken moderate hits on account of their exposure in international instruments.

The sentiment has turned for the worse as FIIs withdraw their positions in the stock market. The peaking delinquencies in the retail assets market is coincidental and not linked with the other chain of events. Hence the need for a reality check....

The India story is not disappearing but taking a breather. A GDP growth in excess of 7% is by no means a poor achievement, when most advanced economies are fearing a deceleration if not a recession. The key imperatives for the nation...

1. Infrastructure : It is imperative that the government does not lose sight of its plans in investing in infrastructure. Public private enterprise is the key to ensure timely and cost effective implementation. This would ensure that the fiscal deficit is kept within manageable levels and impetus is provided to all round development

2. Rupee Valuation : The RBI would do well in supporting the rupee over the next 6 - 9 months. The substantial dollar reserves can be optimised to support the value of the rupee and tide over the uncertain global exchange fluctuations in the months to come

3. Real(i)ty Check : A price adjustment may not be as detrimental as one might fear. With lease rentals and housing prices inhibiting rather than fueling economic enterprise (Indian metros currently sustain one of the higest rental expense contributions to the overall operating expenses in organised retailing globally). A price adjustment may just fuel organised retailing once again, and also nudge the anxious middle class towards house ownership once again. Time for the speculators to make way for the home makers.

4. Services : As Indian corporates achieve global level scale, the IT & ITES players are slowly but surely finding a rapidly expanding domestic market.

5. Retail Lending : Banks and financial services players are going to go through a rough patch till at least the mid of next year. This is perhaps going to be that one key factor in sustaining the growth through next year

6. Telecom & Inclusion : The telecom explosion will continue through the next two years, further catalysing mini industries and entreprenuers across the country. Financial Inclusion is gaining momentum as a serious business initiative rather than a CSR initiative to look good in annual reports. Corporates have clearly realised the opportunities ouside the top 6 metros and are quikly adapting their technqiues and approach to understand and serve these markets

7. Sort Out the Land Acquisition Process : The cumulative amount of investment slated for the development of SEZs in India exceeds the GDP of several countries. Singur is a single instance. The government needs to quickly define its role and charter an action for the way forward. Else the SEZs would remain a blueprint forever.

The task lies in not losing sight of the larger opportunity but in constantly questioning and redefining the way business is conducted. You can still potentially sell a Rolls Royce in Nandigram (even in these tough times)

As the global banking and financial landscape lies littered with the casualties of the sub prime experiment, the gloom has descended on Indian shores. The impact has been felt on the sensex, the rupee, some leading Indian banks and also with leading companies in the ITES space that had been servicing the blue blooded royalty of Lehman, Bear Stearns and others.

As the doomsday proponents propogate widespread economic gloom, believe some sound rational arguments need to be
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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Measure Performance!

As organisations conclude their mid year performance appraisals at work and revise their goal sheets for the year ahead for each of their employees, I cannot seem to track down any document that explains the performance or the performance goals for the current year, of a single bureaucrat or elected representative across the country. As shareholders question and evaluate every rupee that is invested / spent in the delivery and growth of the organisations' services, how are citizens and corporates empowered to question and debate the performance of their elected representatives in an objective and organized manner? ( without being affiliated to a lobbying group or an affluent business family that contributes to political parties).

As responsible citizens and companies pay taxes on an annual basis within the stipulated norms, and contribute to the country’s “equity” , it would be a rational expectation to have the ability to measure the performance of the government on social and developmental initiatives on a regular basis. Just as we participate in the equity of a leading corporation and become a shakeholder, we are citizens and hold equity in this country.

We can vote for a change or continuance of our representatives in government and hence the administration every five years, but if we are legally obligated to pay our taxes annually and corporates are required to share their performance with their shareholders on an annual basis, then I quite often wonder why the time frame for evaluating, commending or assisting in the governments performance should be five years?

As the attendance levels of the elected representative consistently declines each year in parliament, citizens are unable to arrive at the productivity metrics of our eyes and ears in the government. There is increasingly a distinct need for a transparent and frequent dialogue between citizens and elected representatives which needs to be complemented with a clear and comprehensible evaluation framework and simple metrics that can be referred to and understood by the common man. This would, I hope result in understanding better how our representatives and administrators are performing and simplifying the maze of political machinery.

Can our representatives in Government participate in an annual performance evaluation exercise? Have outlined below a few thoughts on the structure and approach that could be adopted for the same, leveraging the reach and transparency offered by the Internet.

The performance appraisal process of our members of parliament to be over-viewed by a panel of supreme court judges, a leading audit firm and a set of citizens from corporate and social streams rotated annually. The role of the panel would include the formulation of a standardized goals template to be developed incorporating development indicators reflecting progress in agriculture, employment, pollution, education, healthcare with predefined weightage ranges. The roles of a member of parliament can be broadly classified into two areas, the first being the design and introduction of new policies and the second being in driving the development of their respective constituencies. The goal sheet should focus on the latter thereby laying greater emphasis on action oriented tasks that have resulted in development in the appraisal year.

The representative is to define his performance objectives in line with the political manifestos of their respective parties, and the developmental aspirations for their constituencies. The goal sheet to be made available on the Internet on a website managed and overseen by the panel.

The members of parliament to provide their mid and year end appraisals with a self score in the year end self appraisal. Citizens should be able to post queries and views at both appraisal stages and rate the performance of their representatives at the year end on each of the parameters.

The final scores of each member and the aggregate performance of each of the political parties to be published

The challenges are going to be in arriving at macro economic data such as employment, inflation and fund inflows which may not be available within the appraisal timeframes, but we should suffice with estimates which are subsequently adjusted and published.

This might sound quite audacious and probably lacks a global precedent but could hopefully trigger a revival in the political conscience of Indians the world over and a greater appreciation of the complexities of the political and administrative processes. However even more importantly would probably catalyze a greater sense of accountability and performance orientation that is much required to fuel the all round growth and turn around the increasing cynicism and indifference to politics in India amongst the mass affluent.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

You've Been Nanoed!

The quest for the common mans low cost car has unfurled and unleashed a can of worms that is not too unsurprising in current day India. As the world grapples with the role of private capitalistic entrepreneurship guised in the shroud of development in a communist state, the experience of the Tatas in West Bengal is amusingly awkward and borders on being almost senile.

The very fact that we as a nation still refer to the archaic laws set in the 1800's to acquire land from farmers to further the cause a 21st century feat of engineering is in itself a reflection of the cross roads at which India stands today.

Is it perhaps time that we as a nation take a fresh perspective on the laws of the land and thereby the Indian constitution and perhaps provide a clearer context making it more relevant and less susceptible to interpretation.

As is often stated, mathematics is the only language that ensures no misinterpretation across the world, the need to arrive at a set of governing rules that truly lays down clear guiding principles is the need of the hour. This need would be even more felt as the country hurtles towards quantum levels of infrastructural development and industrialization in the upcoming decades.

The debate on the allocation and methodology of allocation of natural resources including land, water, minerals and even manpower for industrialization vis a vis agrarian purposes would continue to rage till a clear debate and policy is established that spans the Union and the states uniformly. As SEZs across the country meander their way through public outcries, disputes, agitations and accolades in the same breath, the need for coherent policies and guidelines to cater to the objectives of industrialization and environmental protection is all but apparent.

The Tatas indeed have an economic objective to commence production in October 2008, in West Bengal or elsewhere. But the moot question would be if that objective would be met inspite of rather than with the relevant forces of the state. In the melee and flutter created in Singur, we appear to be forgetting the advances made successfully by some other states in India in inviting and establishing industries from the private sectors with a bounty of long term sops. Quite clearly there are portions of this jigsaw puzzle that appear to be working in silos, but require to be woven together.

It is obviously clear that for large scale industries and SEZs to successfully emerge, the need for related infrastructure would also arise. These would require the acquisition and development of land, large chunks of which would be in private ownership and in agricultural use.

The government would do well in having a five point agenda as follows...

Establishment of clear land ownership titles : This has been spoken and debated at length, but quite clearly huge gaps exist in India today. A fundamental building block, as reinforced by Hernando de Soto, is in the establishment of clear ownership records
Define a policy for conversion of agricultural land to non agrarian purposes
3. Have agricultural output targets for each state, ensuring that decisions on industrialization are balanced with meeting the nutritional needs of the people

4. Have a clear environmental conservation policy, else we have another amazon rainforest in the making

5. Define a sale conversion process ensuring that the government is not directly participating in the transaction but merely enabling the same........