Posted on 25-10-2009
Filed Under (PARADOX) by Shombit

The Indian EXPRESS/ The Financial EXPRESS article

Society at large is experiencing a contradiction between the open vs closed environment at the individual and industry levels. Digitization of technology has uplifted the value of human life even as it has created linearity across society, commoditizing all products and services in the happening open environment.

Take a look at how you, individually, have been groomed in your personal life. The education system expects you to write and talk English better than Britishers and Americans, with no grammatical mistake. Your family would rather you came first in class, take up a ‘decent’ job, and ‘settle down’ to a respected family life. All this comprises the opium of your closed, incest-like environment. It makes you practice prudence in professional life, satisfying the boss becomes a critical activity, and making decisions is no longer your problem. The trend is to tote up the money you make, the job offers that come your way, or wallow in your job stock options.

In earlier times security came when you clinched a government job for your whole life. Since the 1991 economic reforms, the young generation is flirting with jobs. In each new position they are again cocooned in the same kind of culture, as though they are in the closed, protected, family environment. People are averse to the discomforting risk of becoming an entrepreneur or having an entrepreneurial mentality. MNCs applaud this as they can hire people communicating in English here, which is very difficult in China.

So statistically, after China’s 1978 economic reforms and policy change in 1987 that opened up private enterprise, the number of individual new businesses grew 11.04 million from 1989 to 2004. In contrast, as per India’s Ministry of Corporate Affairs, from 1992 to 2006, the average number of companies formed per year was 33,835, thus taking the 15-year total figure to just half a million new companies.

How does one become an entrepreneur? We know Charlie Chaplin as a great comic, but he was among the first to take on incredible entrepreneurial challenge in cinematography. He became the producer, director, screenplay writer, composer, mime choreographer and principal actor in his films. He started early. His mother Hannah used to entertain rioters and soldiers in Aldershot theatre near London in 1894, when she suddenly one day developed a larynx condition. They booed her out of stage; her career ended abruptly. Watching her weeping and the audience angry, five-year old Charlie took matters into his own hands and went on stage alone. He sang Jack Jones, a well-known tune of that time. The audience was spell bound, and threw coins on stage for him.

Do our schools instill this confidence in our children, making them independent minded? I recently met over 1000 students, parents and teachers across India while working for a company into for-profit education. Parents expect high performance results having spent excessively on fees. Most secondary school students bemoaned that nobody understands their sentiments, or counsels them. They are forced to study boring subjects they don’t like and discipline is killing them. Teachers decry a loaded curriculum and lack of respect from students. I passionately listened to these daily life crises, and thought how fortunate I was to be born in an under privileged family. I could go to art college without any pressure even though art was considered a domain sans a career at that time!

From humble beginnings Charlie Chaplin’s entrepreneurial talent took him places. When his half brother Sydney tried to promote him to an American businessman travelling through England by boat, they suddenly found a young boy somersaulting towards them. So passionately engrossed was Charlie in his performance that he somersaulted into the water. Sydney had to dive in to save Charlie who didn’t know how to swim.

Chaplin went on to become an astute businessman determined to have full control over his creative career. He marketed his film persona as “The Tramp,” and in 1919 founded United Artists with several prominent stars of that time.

Corporate enterprises, to have control over productivity for efficient operations, carefully define their own culture, discipline, value system and principles in their closed, incestuous environment. Digital technology has gifted them the Excel sheet for this modern habit. Such internal discipline was relevant 20-30 years ago when industry used to command the market. Today people at large command industry. Stakeholders of an enterprise comprising end-customers, talent pool, suppliers, shareholders, distribution channel and financial institutes all reside in the open uncontrollable environment. Technology democratizes this happening space, expanding its power into endless infinity.

New trends, the media and rapidly changing lifestyles influence this open environment. Enterprises may find it difficult to control this happening environment, but employees engaging in entrepreneurial challenge can certainly intercept society to ingeniously navigate business through this bubbling cauldron. Unfortunately, most employees exhibit a subservient character at work, just the way Indian children are tutored into dependence by parents and teachers.

Lacking this spirit of entrepreneurship, Indian business houses have not made a dent in world markets. Only the monopolistic, family driven businesses make it, enter new areas even without domain competency. I salute the handful of exceptional people with no traditional business background who became successful in big business after Independence. Here I am not referring to the trading community with entrepreneurial mindset.

Small and medium enterprises form the backbone of most economies. A US study shows that 35 years after World War II, more than 1 of 4 young men and 1 of 5 young women became self-employed in the 1980s. But in India I’ve heard many SME owners say they don’t see the future of their business as their children are not interested; they are happy working in someone else’s major enterprise. So SMEs remain contained instead of ballooning big. According to Business Today reportage, just 13% of small family businesses survive till the third generation, and only 4% go beyond that.

The closed environment culture, whether at the individual or enterprise level, is the dope that kills the entrepreneurial urge. Being able to adapt to, integrate with, and flawlessly navigate the uncontrollable open environment will bring Indian education and business the platform on which to survive the future with entrepreneurial challenge


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Posted on 18-10-2009
Filed Under (WOMAN) by Shombit

The Indian EXPRESS/ The Financial EXPRESS article

Europeans often ask me about the female foeticide tragedy in India; but I’ve always considered it Western exaggeration from an incidental case or two. Until I read about Revathy (21), an autodriver’s wife in Tamil Nadu, whose prematurely born twin girls were put on incubators last month. Within 2 weeks Revathy slit one baby’s throat while her mother, Thennila (45), strangled the other. They confessed they could not bear the heavy expenditure of medical treatment today and dowry tomorrow.

This horrible socio-cultural practice in ‘Incredible India,’ the world’s biggest hub for IT services, kills 750,000 girls every year as per UN figures. Shockingly, gender detection technology innovations like ultrasound, scans and amniocentesis contribute to the rise in genocide of unborn girls. Such killings took me back to Adolf Hitler’s order for mass scale euthanasia of invalids in 1939. Brandenburg, one of 6 mercy killing centres to eliminate "life unworthy of life" was the first Nazi experiment with gassing. Disguised as shower rooms, the gas chambers were actually hermetically sealed chambers connected by pipes to cylinders of carbon monoxide. Mentally retarded, physically deformed and chronically ill patients were drugged and led naked into the gas chamber. Families were falsely informed the cause of death to be heart failure or pneumonia.

My European life started as a sweeper in a lithography printing shop near Paris. Not conversant with French, my colleagues and I would gesticulate exchanges about World War II films. I’d adventured into France in 1973 at age 19 to find Art, with nothing more than $8 in my pocket, and somehow managed basement residence at the Cite Univercitire campus. The common room TV set, something I’d never experienced before, engrossed me with war movies about Germany against the Allies. As they were in French, I gauged them as simple Hollywood entertainment. A French colleague called Jean used to say, “Ce n’est pas marrant ” meaning “It’s not fun.”

Ten years later when I’d shifted from shopfloor wage worker to a strategy making designer, I met and worked with several Jewish people in France, Europe and US. Till then the difference between Jews and Catholics had escaped me. My Paris-born 7-year-old son started narrating Holocaust stories he learnt about from Jewish friends in his private school. When he was 13, he obliged me to take him to Poland, describing concentration camp atrocities at Birkenau and Auschwitz. It appeared like American propaganda to me.

Crossing Poland’s beautiful countryside, we discovered an unused, grass covered train track. Advancing further a T junction appeared, the train track forming the vertical bar, and Birkenau entry gate the horizontal bar. From a distance this extermination camp looked like holiday resort chalets housed in 175 hectares. Actually, the compound was designed for 200,000 prisoners and at its peak, 4000 exterminations were done per day. This infamous Birkenau and Auschwitz death factory is the world’s largest cemetery where 1.6 million fatally gassed Jews are buried. Just before the war ended, Himmler ordered the gas chambers be destroyed to erase evidence of Nazi crime.

Arriving at Birkenau I strayed far in search of those gas chambers. Suddenly the fog rolled in, the light started fading, and I couldn’t see much ahead. Shivering, I started walking fast. Misty clouds enveloped me, the horrors of torture invaded my mind, and I felt besieged by hordes of people in striped pyjamas, chasing me as I started to run, stumbled, falling 8 times, until I arrived panting to my worried family.

At Auschwitz the next day “Arbeit Macht Frei” meaning “Work makes you free” was written on the entrance gate . Adolf’s ghastly work had high precision, meticulous command and communication. An orchestra would play music to welcome unsuspecting prisoners to the concentration camp. They had no idea of their impending fate: would they be labourers or tortured, shot or gassed?

This macabre experience touched my inner depths. Never being able to forget it, I regularly go to pay homage there. I realized now why Jean, my shopfloor friend, said those films that so enthused me were not entertaining, but painful.

Walking the Jewish district of Kazimierz recently in Poland’s 7th century town Krakow, waves of Yiddish songs led me to a synagogue. A bookstore sold me a DVD by Bernard Offen, tattoo number Process B7850, on surviving the Kracow ghetto holocaust.

When Offen was brought to Birkenau in 1942, a dictatorial thumb indication sent his father one way, and him the other. He later discovered that old people were directly sent to gas chambers, and the young to labour camps. Goose pimples run through me as I vividly experience his horrible sufferings. A fellow prisoner saved his life by saying: “You must run when the inspector calls you, and look at his shoes.” That would establish he is fit for work, and obedient. With fifty family members exterminated, Offen was lucky to miraculously find, after 50 years, his brothers in Italy. One brother’s concentration camp job had been to move dead bodies after Nazi court martials. One day this brother went under a pile of dead bodies and hid there. When the Nazis left at night, he wiggled out before suffocating there, and escaped.

Statistically, a million girls will be murdered at birth in India every year. My discomfort refer to decisive killing of baby girls, not to normal abortion that is a human right. According to UNICEF, "A report from Bombay in 1984 on abortions after prenatal sex determination stated that 7,999 out of 8,000 aborted fetuses were females. Sex determination has become a lucrative business." Slaughter of girls is different from Nazi euthanasia only in that a parent commits murder, not the State Establishment. What does this say of people in the world’s biggest democracy?


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Posted on 11-10-2009
Filed Under (PARADOX) by Shombit

The Indian EXPRESS/ The Financial EXPRESS article 

Traveling with MindTree’s Gardener Subroto Bagchi the other day, he reminded me of a tea-break tete-a-tete 12 years ago when we met in Bangalore for some work. It seems I’d said that whatever business strategy or best thing in life we come up with, if an ELA problem arises, existence becomes hell on earth. He remembers that as powerful truth.

What’s this ELA balance, so crucial for living life, irrespective of countries, politics, religion or economic condition?

Eating, the E factor of ELA balance, is surely our most prior subject. Popular French singer Alain Souchon made famous the song, “On est foutus, on mange trop” meaning “we are f….ed, we eat too much!” But some control food to retain their body beauty, while those suffering illnesses have genuine eating problems. I hope 21st century’s technology advancement will abolish the disadvantages of the world’s 963 million under-fed, so food truly becomes a human right.

In India, taste overpowers any trepidation over food not being hygienic and healthy. Let me illustrate from my professional work. Visiting mom&pop (kirana) stores across the country I was shocked to find 76% edible oil being sold loose into tins or plastic jars that consumers bring in. Retailers use the same large, sometimes open, containers with taps and funnels, year after year, in their overcrowded small shops infested by rats and cockroaches. It’s deplorable that three-fourths of Indian consumers, their doctors and nutritionists, are oblivious to this unhygienic oil usage in daily cooking.

A renowned doctor explained that Indian medical studies do not factor in dietetics in the curriculum. So there exists no structured discipline about diet in the doctors’ recommendation. Nor is there any stringent government regulation, unlike in developed countries, towards a nationwide program for the upkeep of people’s health. When will we develop the pleasure of eating hygienically?

Let’s enter the L factor through the unpredictable distance Indian truckers cover in their everyday life. Our first priority should again be to ingrain them with hygienic sense. Here’s why.

Covering the country’s every corner, lorry drivers stay long days away from home largely in badly engineered trucks, miserable road and weather conditions. They catch naps in highway dhaba string cots, try to meet impractical arrival time deadlines, and eat in cultural regions they are unused to. In this harrowing journey, a trucker’s only pleasure is engaging a sex worker. But he lays down a condition: he will not use a condom. His reason? “When I pay full value, why should I compromise on fulfillment?” The sex worker agrees for fear of losing this on-the-spot earning when starving children are at home.

The Centre for Media Studies indicates that almost 40% of India’s 6 million truck drivers are infected with AIDS virus, and only 18% use condoms. Of the18 to 45-year-old truckers surveyed, 80% were married. So they bring the fatal disease back to their families.

The UNO estimates 25 million in India to be AIDS contaminated by 2010. So the challenge of Love, the central factor of ELA balance, is to first make the trucker want to use a condom when making love. As a designer I am yet to observe easy availability of condom dispersal and systematic communication that’s symbolic, aspirational and noticeable in economically backward areas to train people to change their mindset and enjoy love with protection. Surely poverty and lack of education cannot take away the human right for love?

To touch the A of ELA balance, I’ll take you to a senior management leadership program I recently conducted. It was on creating sustained emotional connect to a brand. I asked the participants, who had 18-20 years of work experience in different industries, how they liked Ablution. There was stunned silence. Is this something for discussion? Do they enjoy it personally? Would they love to hear more about it? In that sophisticated Harvard-school type conference room in Hyderabad, nobody knew what to say. “Will you have the passion to create branding that is relevant to ablution?” I asked.

Everything that has inner value can be branded, I told them. This inner value should have some benefit that consumers can see, experience and enjoy. I then introduced Japan’s Toto, the sanitaryware company that inspires employees to think and dream about ablution to innovate incredible products. Toto has teamed up with Daiwa to develop a bathroom that lets users monitor their health. It analysis urine samples, measures blood pressure and checks body fat even as the user is sitting on the ‘throne.’ Toto’s Internet representation has pictures of posteriors of different colored people, each adorned with a smiley human face drawing.

When working for a food giant in Greece, I happened to meet a super rich Greek at Pireaus beach near Athens. He loved India, became a good friend, and started calling me Frenchie-Indian. Over dinner with his beautiful 35-year-old wife, he invited me to accompany him to Doussikou Monastery built by St Vissarion in 1522 near Salonika. Women are not allowed there. A 10-metre high wall encircles this 3-storied northern Greece structure comprising 366 cells. Reservations do not easily fructify in this exclusive holy place that commandeers people into regimentation, to live in prison-like cells without electricity, wear in-house robes, and not talk. I became curious about the affluent struggling to experience the exotics of a degraded lifestyle.

Returning to Greece on work a few months later, I met my 60-year-old friend when his wife had just left for the US. He said he’d already visited the monastery twice and insisted I come. Seeing my hesitation, he suddenly started crying: “I live in this palatial home, have untold wealth, but my life is wretched,” he confessed. “Work pressure tension has deteriorated my health so badly that my restricted diet allows me nothing I enjoy, and I’ve become unable to satisfy my lovely wife. She loves me but I have to free her for affairs with young boys. My worst suffering is the terrible hemorrhoids. You can’t believe my hours of pain at the toilet everyday. Believe me Sen, to escape from all these troubles, Doussikou Monastery has become my most pleasurable place. There I am commanded to abandon all greed, love and passion.”

This, since 1994, has been my real learning; that the ELA balance is vital for every life situation, whether you are rich, poor or possessed of whatever characteristic, inherent, learnt or acquired.

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Posted on 04-10-2009
Filed Under (PARADOX) by Shombit


For foreign tourists, there’s exotic charm in India being unpredictable in multiple senses. Developed nations are oh! so boringly predictable! Business people from the West, Japan or even China plan strategy from 5 star hotels or high-rise corporate houses for developing business in India. Armed with their global success statistics, they try to put India in the same frame. In fact they consider economic reforms in highly populated countries to be good for their future business growth. But they don’t measure instability, and unpredictability of such societies is very rarely at the foundation of their business rationale.

In my 35 years of global experience, I have found the West to be highly predictable. People even plan their own funerals, selecting before they die the quality of marble to be placed in their graveyard. The thousands of years of the inventing European mentality has been based on how to bring in predictability to improve the quality of life. The most vivid example is in medical science where predictability has changed people’s lifespan. Two hundred years ago the average lifespan was under 30 years, today it has risen to 67 years. By 2050, it is projected to increase from the current 64.7 years to 75.6 years

Extreme predictability can have a negative rub off too. Sometime back, to discipline road traffic, the French government hung cameras at strategic points to catch motorists not respecting the road code. Often the radar pictures captured the driver in compromising positions with the opposite sex. A lot of extra-marital affairs were exposed when the photographic evidence of violating traffic rules, with the love affair being incidental, reached the home. It led to such public revolt that this manner of discipline had to be done away with. Instead the government had to change its policy and photograph the back of the vehicle only, recording the time and date. Now it’s highly predictable for the Government but not satisfactory for car owners because the penalty will come to his driving licence even if his son or friend was making the mistake on the road with his car.

Let’s check out a perspective of unpredictability in India. A farmer owning 2 acres of land lives from hand to mouth because he has no knowledge or capacity to fructify his land holding to make it high earning and profitable. And should his bullock unpredictability die, his crop will go for atoss as he cannot afford a tractor.

In contrast, when I was doing some research in Sacramento, California, to strategize on farm equipment in the US, I met a hobby farmer with 2 acres of land who produces heirloom tomatoes. He said farming these tiny button tomatoes earns him more money than from his regular profession as an architect in the city.

You’ve got into the habit of fruits from a fancy modern air-conditioned retail in India. Suddenly one day you see the same fruit of similar quality being sold in a cart in front of the fancy retail at half the price. How will you react? Won’t you go ahead and buy it outside? So you can imagine the dilemma the modern organized retailer is facing when a cart seller unpredictably snatches away his customers, inspite of his having invested in an extraordinary ambience and expensive supply chain. The problem, of course, is that the tough route of unpredictability has been totally ignored. Most of India’s organised retail business is run in a theory of statistics.

Actually unpredictability runs in our culture, and the Indian industry does not have a grip on it. I don’t think business seriously considers gates of unpredictability, let alone applying tactics to overcome them. To give an example, in a logistics and supply chain company I was working for, a certain unrealistic time is committed to the client for door-to-door delivery. But the many kinds of problems the driver who takes the merchandize faces on the long route is not taken into account. The result? Unhappiness, anxiety and delay.

Of course resolving the unpredictable cannot be entrusted to the private sector, the government has to take its responsibility. Mr. Nilekani’s excellent mission of universal biometric identity cards for all Indians will be a serious drive to reduce Indian unpredictability. Unless of course it’s being done only from the pressure of bodies like IMF (International Monetary Fund) on the pretext of strengthening financial regulation or for accountability of the masses as a measure against terrorist attacks. If it’s voluntarily being done to increase predictability, the whole country should wholeheartedly support this most noble and pragmatic field work for the country’s growth and future. I am sure the homeless people will be counted as well. This will provide us the first semblance of predictability.

Advances in technology and auto mechanization are created to reduce unpredictability. A professional pilot I was traveling with confessed to me that he prefers to pilot a small plane with propellers, the way he started to learn flying. There’s more thrill when everything is under his control and risk. He is an Airbus 320 pilot today. It seems Airbus guarantees that this extremely modern aircraft is 99.9% risk free. In fact, a chain of action can happen with modern technology without too much human interface in the cockpit. So, he says, he is not a pilot any longer, but a cockpit operator. Statistically if you look at how many planes fly in the sky today, the number of disasters is marginal. The aviation industry has worked in such a way that every system has been automated and everything is predictable. Except, of course, the human factor of pilot strikes.

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