Tag Archives: India

The umbrella test

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There have been numerous Bollywood songs with the humble umbrella at the centre . One song tied the umbrella to the spirit of the nation, claiming we as a country put aside its plethora of problems to happily share or even give up umbrellas. But ofcourse cinema has not often done justice to India. If you believe Bollywood, you would be led to think that our colleges are full of gorgeous kids in designer clothes who dance in sync to any random song. If you believe Hollywood we are still a nation infested with cholera and copulating snakes. But there was an element of truth in the umbrella song. Or so I grew up believing. A small town upbringing in the nineties gave you a tinted view of the world. Because there people did share umbrellas. Or ate tiffin sitting together. Or played silly games. And sharing umbrellas is no mean feat. It is a ready test of one’s character. Because there standing in the heavy downpour, your new shoes sloshed in mud and your precious school bag getting drenched, being a good Samaritan is difficult. But then the sight of that poor friend trembling in the rain or even that strange kid getting helplessly drenched melted your heart. And you extended the umbrella. Till sharing became a habit. Or even the occasional giving up of things. So I grew up believing in the umbrella test for character. How does one behave when one has the umbrella in hand? Because in the heavy monsoons the humble umbrella metamorphoses into an object of power. Ask the question on a larger scale and you can test the character of a city or a nation. And sadly Bollywood has again got it wrong. For nobody offers an umbrella these days. And the strangers you offer to share it with leave without saying a thank you. As I waited umbrella-less for a rickshaw in the first Mumbai rains, men and women with umbrellas wielded the umbrellas like a sword to cut through the crowd and get to the autos first. I shook my head. Umbrella courtesy has obviously reached its lowest point. Maybe it is more fashionable to offer a coke these days – you can see your face go up on the cola’s walls with much less discomfort. And meanwhile I am getting a raincoat- I can then be selfish without the pangs of umbrella guilt that only afflict romantics a little out of sync with time.

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Colour me black -Of painted faces and fairness creams

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  I remember being taken to see what the cheery guide kept referring to as the ‘whore house’. I had subscribed to a city walking tour being offered by an outfit which promised the glimpses of a subterranean city. My urban bred sensibilities squirmed at the idea of parading these women as props, the dingy quarters they were battered in as a tourist attraction. Of course beyond our suave veneers lurk the voyeur which almost enjoys the deformities of a well polished society. What caught my eye in the area was the display of colours. The quarters which looked like no sunlight ever entered them were painted in loud colours. The windows were bright green or red. The doors were covered in  bright motifs and so were the walls. The women themselves wore red flowers and brightly sequinned saris. Their faces were painted in bright shades which hid bruises and despair and helplessness. The juxtaposition of the colours and the palpable sadness underneath made the place overwhelming. But then as a nation we liberally use colours as an integral component of the show that we put up for the world. Colours dominate every aspect of our life. The bright vermillion that the married women put up to signal they are now to be exempted from the male gaze. The colourful clothes that young, marriageable girls wear. The bright rangolis they put up on the courtyard. The orange turbans the men wear to signal their power. The pale cloths that men of lesser stature use to cover their heads. Colours are used to discriminate along a number of dimensions. Power, position, wealth, or the state of your marriage. The dominance of colours is so absolute that the lack of it carry inauspicious overtones. So a woman in white, her forehead sans the vermillion is carefully excluded from a ceremony where everyone else is in bright colours. In a colour crazy nation, denying a person the exuberance of colours is the worst form of segregation you can practise. So the sex workers, marginalised as they are still don the brightest of colours to signal a coexistence with a dichotomous society. Ofcouse the mandate is to notch the brightness of colours even a notch higher than that is accepted in the society. So that colours which elsewhere signify the attractiveness of women or celebrates her fertility or marital status here signals the availability of the fallen woman.

But it is not only the put on colours that you are judged by, it is also the colour of your skin. For a brown nation obsessed with fairness. Which extend beyond old fashioned villages to suave urban bastions. So dark women are doomed to pay higher dowries or stay unloved by their husbands. A plethora of fairness creams promise to make you fair and live happily ever after. Playing on the psyche of a nation which so categorically labels the good colours and the bad colours. So a dark skin is to be despised. And the white sari to be kept away. Strange that a colourfully vibrant culture denies its citizens the freedom of choosing colours. Or their absence thereof.

I blog with BE Write

26th January – Making sense of a dry day

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‘Dry Day’ admonished the waiter giving me a slightly quizzical look. Realization dawned. Republic Day. Ofcourse. Not just another mid-week holiday. I still could not make sense why it needs to be a dry day though. Oh yes we are a prudish nation who lets Sunny Leone on prime-time TV but cracks a dress-code whip on women colleges. As usual I failed to make sense. Like I fail to make sense of the contradictions we accept without batting an eye-lid. For instance why the cow is more protected than women and other animals. Why the choices for drinking water are either packaged bottles that come at a price or contaminated water. Why is Hussain hounded out while Advani can repeat his rath-yatra. Why 600 crore is spent on a Dalit park while 600 babies die of encephalitis. Why is 26th a dry day in upmarket pubs. While hooch-sellers still sell posisoned salvation to the daily-wage workers. “Madam”- my chain of thoughts is interrupted by the well-behaved waiter. The special moktail of the day had arrived – the concoction sported the brilliant shades of the tri-colour. I looked around. The hip joint had brought the tr-colours out in full vigour. Even the back-ground music which usually consisted of Enrique and Shakira, comprised the feel-good patriotic songs. The giant plasma screen played footages of the republic day parade in the capital. The patriotism was too obvious to ignore. Possibly I am the lone sceptic in a sea of proud Indians. If so many people can find reasons to celebrate 62 years of democracy, so can I.

And ofcourse I did. The very fabric of the world’s largest democracy. Patched, frayed yet held together. By the love for cricket. And the animosity for Pakistan. By the search for a messiah. And the disappointment of being let down by the ones they do. By the rising prices. And the occasional sales. Threads of commonalities in the huge list of differences. Because lets face it – diversity does not unite. Look at the fumbling, bumbling EU reeling under an unequal union. The basis of unity has to be a common dream, a a feel-good factor everyone can share . Standing in the 62nd year of sovereignty this ancient nation does give me some of those happy moments I can share with a Madrasi or a Punjabi without the happiness getting lost in translation. The fact that India shined inspite of the political inertia. The nation now is strong enough to be offering bail-out packets to mightier nations. The progress, the success has come on the dint of the strength of a billion Indians who have risen over scepticism to take themselves and the nation forward. The strength of the democracy. Which can vocally attack the men and women in power without the fear of a backlash. The strength of humanity and compassion. The extra-ordinary stories of courage, conviction and compassion curated from all over the country. A young girl in Bengal who canvasses against child-marriages. A middle-aged man from Chennai who overcame social stigma to manufacture affordable sanitary napkins for rural women. People sectioned into states on the basis of differences. People united into India by a strong hope. Of a better tomorrow. Of a democracy where equality and justice transcend the preamble. Of a republic which respects humanity. The country may then truly evolve to be the nation Ambedkar conceived. A nation which does not require reservations and delineations and segregations. A nation which does not require a dry-day to enforce respect for the tenets of democracy. A democracy of the people, by the people and for the people. Have a meaningful republic day!

India’s outsourcing industry – From jugad to strategy

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2011 – 20 years of the economic reforms. 20 years of the India story. A story scripted to a large extent by the booming service industry. India became the IT, ITES, BPO outsourcing hub of the world. Low costs, a huge talent pool contributed to make India the darling of the sector. The sector has generally ridden over issues such as language barriers, attrition rates, service complaints and scams such as the 2005 BPO scam involving Citibank accounts. To stay in a position of supremacy. Until recently when Phillipines pipped India to be the number one BPO destination. Greater China threatens to pip India’s KPO supremacy. The Indian IT players have been hit by global recession and a tightening of outsourcing rules in the largest markets: Europe and North America. India in general is struggling with the ghosts of corruption, red-tapism and a general policy paralysis. Factors such as low cost and a surplus of human resource are not working anymore. A failing global economy and rising competition from Latin America, East Europe and the Asian counterparts mean there are more players now competing for a slice of a smaller pie. And the Indian companies are forced back to the drawing boards to devise counter strategies. And jugad is not one of them.

Indian IT and BPO industry has consistently been a volume play. Leveraging the strengths of low costs and surplus of human resources. A closer look at the resource pool however does not present such a rosy picture. A high percentage of graduates passing out of colleges are still not employable. Nasscom puts the employability figure at a meager 25%. The huge diversity in India and the lack of uniformity in education policies have undermined a consistent profiling of resources. Inflation, consumerism and attrition have all pushed up salaries, operational costs. The factory shop-floor kind of approach which powered the IT juggernaut has started showing its clinks. The emphasis had traditionally not been on differentiation. The strength factors were cost and volume. Not insignificant factors. But when there are countries like China competing on volume and Latin America/ East Europe competing on cost plus the advantage of less distance(near-shore) and more cultural congruity; cost and volume will not be our tipping factors. The juggernaut has to change gears. The emphasis has to shift to quality of service, differentiated offerings, positioning up the value chain. Offer what no one else can offer. At competitive costs. Offer for example umbrella offerings covering every aspect of a process chain for a given sector. Concentrate on the value of the outsourcing deal brings to your clients. As the west grapples with unemployment and recession, outsourcing will be a carefully thought out decision. India has to go beyond being a low cost destination. It has to start with a comprehensive structural change from bottom up. Invest in skills by partnering with educational institutes. Lobby for educational reforms. Invest in new ideas and products/offerings. Move from a ‘I will do it anyhow’ to a ‘What is the most effective way to do it’ approach. Example you may want to create platform based solutions which will accelerate the process and reduce the probability of human errors. Move up the value chain by positioning yourself as a strategy partner. Your customer then opens up a larger part of the pie to you. Tighten operations and quality control – stiffer competition means the leeway for error is almost zero.

For all this to happen, the change has to be driven not just top-down but bottom-up as well. The leadership now has to be shown at the middle management level whose targets need to move from mere volume to emphasise quality, sustainability and innovation. Middle management has been the weakest link in the service outsourcing industry as it has struggled to bridge the gap between upper management vision and the operations on ground. This has to change. The vision and mission statements have to come down from the walls to water-cooler conversations. The change I am talking about is not a change in the boardroom policies alone. It is a collective, conscious and shared change to overhaul the perception. From a cheap provider of services. To a cost-effective provider of value.

Ofcourse as the emphasis shifts to moving up the value chain, margins will reduce. Niches will be carved out. Volumes will be hit. However let me tell you all this is already happening due to the global realities. Taking initial cuts and making strategic investments to tide this storm is now a survival decision. The choice hinges on whether we will be beaten at the own game by players who are better prepared than we thought. Or change the game by reinventing ourself as a more strategic player?