Saturday, December 11, 2010

Secondhand Chemotherapy

Hummingbird came across this interesting video from Natural News TV.
What is secondhand chemotherapy? Why are pharmacists, nurses, doctors and veterinarians who regularly come into contact with toxic chemotherapy chemicals now getting cancer? Watch the video and find out the answers with Mike Adams, the Health Ranger!

This text will be replaced by the player

Saturday, October 9, 2010

How about agri-tourism?

When my friends from France and Spain wanted to visit my village in Bihar, Niraj Kumar, faculty of Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar writes (Business Line, July 6, 2010) that he broke into a sweat. Why..?

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Special harmony

Hummingbird came across an interesting article in Business Line (Life, September 17, 2010).  It talks about Tasleema who belongs to a family of musicians. She says that her interest in Shabad Kirtan took root when, as a six-year-old, she watched her father's Sikh students learning to play the tabla and harmonium for Shabad Kirtans. 

Tasleem Langoo sings (Source:  Business Line, Sep 17, 2010)
Some excerpts from the article -
Her high point was when she was asked to perform at the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 2007. Her sweet voice brought tears to the eyes of many. An old woman hugged her and kissed her hands, saying, “You are the voice of Sikh women and an honour to the Sikh community.” The woman then removed her gold earrings and gifted them to the stunned singer.
“That was so moving. It is one of the biggest compliments I have received so far,” says Tasleema. “But she didn't know that the girl she was praising was not a Sikh but a Muslim from Kashmir,” she chuckles.

Tasleema has never felt any conflict between her religion and her passion. “The basics of all religions are the same as they lead to one Supreme God,” she says and recites her favourite shabad — Kareema raheema Allah tu gani.
Hummingbird had visited Gurudvaras (Delhi & Ludhiana) and offered prayers without understanding one word of what was spoken there.  Hummingbird believes that all places of worship are sanctified by the presence of God and is happy to read about a soul doing something which appeals to her heart believing in the oneness of God even at a time when politicians/media are busy dividing people.

We are ready to sweep the medals...!

Even the usually dour Janab Cynic Ali could not help but smile looking at this cartoon in Mint (Sep 30, 2010). 

(Source:  Mint, September 30, 2010)

Recently KPMG identified 3 projects (KG-D6 project, 4,000 MW Mundra plant and IGI Airport Expansion at New Delhi) out of one hundred examples of great projects that are at different stages of development across the world.    

Hummingbird wonders if we have done anything well and within the right time, except for a few projects like Delhi Metro etc.  The efficiency and energy which we see in the private sector with clear incentive structure for good performance, is generally absent when government ends up implementing big projects.  We usually have delays, himalayan corruption, etc where Government is directly involved.   Sadly, that's the state of affairs of this country. 

Hummingbird lives in hope.  He still looks forward to better days... when this great country will be ruled by enlightened and visionary politicians and honest bureaucrats.  A time in the near future when we won't become the laughing stock of the world.  He is not asking for the best in the world.. he would be very happy to have something better than we have today...

Monday, September 20, 2010

And we expect corporate governance...

Hummingbird (HB) came across this news item (Rush of IPOs to beat SEBI results norm, Business Line, Sep 18, 2010) that says there are 12 issues coming this month to raise Rs 4,000 cr.  The highlight of the news item is this -
A SEBI directive and a soaring secondary market have led to a flurry of initial public offerings aimed at making it before September 30.

Some Rs 4,000 crore will be raised through 12 IPOs that are being pushed through during this period. Since September 14, any given day of the month has seen at least two ongoing IPOs to date, and the rest of the month is going to be no different, at least until September 27.

"A big reason for this flood of offerings is because of the September 30 deadline set by SEBI," said Mr Sanjay Jain, Executive Director and Head of the Investment Banking Division at JM Financial Consultants. SEBI has said that if companies have issuances that hit the market after September 30, then they will have to publish their June quarter results. Those that enter the marker before that can file the DRHP with their March-end annual results.

What is interesting is that the June quarter results of many of the listed companies were below expectations, and that of yet-to-list companies are likely to be the same, said analysts. It is not a surprise then that they don't want to raise funds using their June quarter results.

The message is contained in the last sentence of the above para - companies don't want to raise funds using their June quarter results.  But why?  Because, the June quarter results of many of the listed companies were below expectations, and that of yet-to-list companies are likely to be the same, said analysts.

Corporate governance philosophy of Infosys is based on the seven principles, out of which the first two appear relevant in this situation -
  1. Satisfy the spirit of the law and not just the letter of the law. Corporate governance standards should go beyond the law.
  2. Be transparent and maintain a high degree of disclosure levels. When in doubt, disclose.
HB doesn't want to comment on any individual company which is raising funds.  But HB cannot help wondering about corporate governance... these are the companies which ab initio wants to do something wrong (though they are within the boundaries of law) and we the common man expect them to behave properly and follow good corporate governance practices post listing.  Are we day dreaming?

Why are you always following me..?

A picture is worth a thousand words, is an old idiom.  Janab Cynic Ali could not help but smile looking at this cartoon in Mint (Sep 16, 2010).

Source:  Mint, Sep 16, 2010

Janab Cynic Ali remembers an old dialogue from Yes Minister -
Sometimes one is forced to consider the possibility that affairs are being conducted in a manner which, all things being considered and making all possible allowances is, not to put too fine a point on it, perhaps not entirely straightforward.
Well, he doesn't want to translate and give the meaning of this dialogue.  Before Janab Saheb went, he remembered this dialogue -
Hacker: Are you saying that winking at corruption is government policy?
Sir Humphrey: No, no, Minister! It could never be government policy. That is unthinkable! Only government practice.
Hacker: You're a cynic, Humphrey!
Sir Humphrey: A cynic is what an idealist calls a realist.
Janab Saheb wondered where this country is heading.  Being a old man, he preferred to listen to radio.  He closed the doors slowly and switched on the radio.  He was happy to listen to an old Tamil song.  In the silence of the night, Hummingbird overheard him humming a MGR song - "Ethanai kaalam dhaan yematruvaar indha naatile" from the Tamil film: Malai Kallan, 1954 (approx translation - for how long will cheaters exist in the country). 

Well, as usual, Hummingbird is optimistic.  He says that it may be dark outside.  But the sun will rise tomorrow and the darkness will go.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Can ends justify means..?

An interesting conversation with Sri Devdutt Pattanaik.  Hummingbird feels that it is not necessary that we have to agree to whatever he says.  It is a modern interpretation with which we may or may not agree.  That's the beauty of this ancient land - we can agree to disagree. 

East vs. West -- the myths that mystify

Hummingbird enjoyed this talk by Sri Devdutt Pattanaik.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What's in a surname?

Hummingbird came across an interesting article titled "What's in a surname? In Europe, quite a lot" (Earth Times).  Some excerpts from the article -
Many journalists applying for accreditation to the Spanish presidency of the European Union in January faced an unusual problem: they did not have enough surnames.

Most EU citizens make do with one family name each. But Spanish and Portuguese tradition gives its people two - and the presidency accreditation website was not set up with compromise in mind.

"Error. Field missing. Please fill in: Surname 2," the website announced curtly each time a non-Hispanic journalist tried to enter his or her details on the site without the crucial second name.

The results have not been published, but anecdotal evidence from the Brussels press corps suggests that second surnames such as "None," "Mickey-Mouse" and "Don'thaveoneyouidiot" have now been carefully logged by the Spanish government's press service.
Hummingbird is from Madras where the custom of having surnames have been dropped atleast for half a century now and instead the custom of having initials commenced.  While some families have one initial (i.e., first letter of father's name), some others have two initials (first letters of grand father's name followed by father's name or place name + father's name).  Hummingbird has two initials.  He has no clue why one or two initials should be there.  Just that, if you find names with 'initials' we can safely assume that the person is mostly from the South.  Hummingbird has figured out that if a person has a series of 'initials', a safe guess is that he is from Andhra.

When Hummingbird moved out of Madras, he was thoroughly confused with first name, middle name, surname name concept of North India. First of all, Hummingbird is so 'intelligent' he cannot differentiate between a North Indian 'name' and 'surname'. So, he was happy to know the confusion between the English and French tradition in writing names mentioned in the article cited above.  Some excerpts -
Anybody who thinks that globalization is making Europe more standardized need only look at the continent's surnames.
Take French and English, for example. In English, it is standard practice to write the first name before the surname on documents such as envelopes and e-mail addresses.

In French, the reverse holds true - leaving this correspondent to collect a series of communications from French-speaking bank managers and insurance salesmen addressed to "Dear Nimmo," "Dear Nimmo Ben" and even "Dear Mr Ben."
Hummingbird's mind raced back in time.  He came to Mumbai in July 1999 and his passport expired sometime in December 2003 and had to be renewed.  Unfortunately, Hummingbird had taken his passport in Madras long back.  The form to be filled up asked for name (with initials expanded) and accordingly Hummingbird expanded his initials (Grandfather's name... Father's name... Hummingbird's name).  It became such a long name.  The biggest problem was what's the 'surname'?  Hummingbird being an 'intelligent' person wrote Grandfather's name (under first name) Father's name (middle name) and Hummingbird's name (surname).  When the renewal came, it had to be filled up the same way, said the travel agent who warned of not getting renewal if the name did not match.

The first problem came with police verification.  When the passport was first taken in Madras, a police constable came home to check and thereafter the passport came.  In Mumbai, Hummingbird 'intelligently' assumed that a similar process would be followed (see.. India is one country and passport being a Central subject, Hummingbird 'assumed' that a similar process would be followed).  Weeks went and the passport did not come.  Hummingbird again approached the travel agent who said that in Mumbai, policemen don't have time for passport verification and so we have to present ourselves before the police station so that they can verify and satisfy themselves if we are the same people who are referred to in the passport!

Hummingbird went to the police station twice but couldn't succeed.  Finally, he went early enough to be ahead in the queue and when his turn came up, the police constable refused to accept that Hummingbird did not have a surname.  All office and name proof had only 'initials' followed by Hummingbird's name but passport contained a 'long' name.  How can there be a person without surname, thundered the constable, feeling something fishy.  Any amount of explaining him that in Madras, the concept of surname is dead, was falling on deaf ears.  Finally, Hummingbird's pride was touched.  In a fit of emotion, he told the constable that if he is very particular then he can add 'Bharti' as the surname.  Ofcourse, he was remembering 'Mahakavi' Subramania Bharti, the famous nationalist poet from Tamil Nadu.  This did the trick.  The policeman was finally convinced that there could be 'species' in India who don't have 'caste name' or 'village name' as their surname.  He cleared it.

Then started the next round of waiting for the arrival of the renewed passport.  Even after more than a month when the passport did not come, the travel agent told Hummingbird to check up in Post Office.  Atlast on a Saturday, Hummingbird was in the Post Office and was told (ofcourse after waiting for an hour!) that there is no cover from the Passport Office in his name.  With sadness, Hummingbird walked away.  After going some distance, it suddenly occurred to him whether the passport had come in the 'first' name.  He again walked back to the Post Office and this time he found a cover in the 'first name' which is his 'Grandfather's name'.  Proudly Hummingbird walked out with his passport, as the Post Office had a post man from Madras, who believed Hummingbird's words.

The tension over name did not end there.  Unlike some frequent flyers who regularly go abroad, Hummingbird doesn't get opportunity to go abroad.  He had been to Montreal and Manchester in 2000.  After that it was in 2009 that he got an opportunity to go to abroad - this time he went to Finland.  When the visa came, Hummingbird was horrified - this time, his first initial ie., Grandfather's name became a 'middle' name (which is technically his father's name) and Hummingbird became his 'first' name, though so far, it was his last name.  So, as per the visa, he became 'Hummingbird.. followed by Grandfather's name and father's name.  Thus, what was till now father's name (middle name) became 'surname'! Somehow, Hummingbird went abroad and came back without problem, though till he landed in Finland, he had tension.

Hummingbird keeps pondering about what he should do now?  But the sheer fear of getting into a government office is keeping him away from attending to sorting out the name trouble he seems to be having.  Ofcourse the lesson he learnt was good enough - in the case of his daughter, he has given name as per Mumbai practise, which is first name, father's name followed by surname.  But he couldn't convince himself to give a surname which is either a caste name or village name.  He still believes in one India - though we may speak many languages.  He is a nationalist.  So he cut his own name in half.  He gave the split first half as his daughter's middle name (father's name) and the 2nd half as his daughter's surname.  Hopefully, she will not face the same troubles which Hummingbird faced.

So, the next time, someone asks - "What's in a surname", please refer them to Hummingbird.  Now coming back to the article referred to above -
But the prize for the most eye-catching surnames must surely go to the Czech Republic.
There, most women's surnames have a feminine ending, usually -a or -ova, as in tennis stars Jana Novotna and Martina Navratilova. 
But the rule also applies to foreign women - including high- profile visitors and film stars. 
Thus the Czech press refer to Angela Merkel as Angela Merkelova, Michelle Obama as Michelle Obamova, and Marilyn Monroe as Marilyn Monroeova. 
Shakespeare once asked, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. 
"Whether Mrs Rose would sound as sweet if she were called Mrs Roze, Mrs Rosiene or Mrs Roseova is up to you.
Ofcourse Shakespeare can ask "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  He is an innocent person from an old era.  In today's 'identity' era, name is everything.  If not properly given, the experience of Hummingbird is bound to be repeated.  If you still don't believe the words of Hummingbird then as a sample read about the experience of Sravanthi Challapalli!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Rains + Bad roads + traffic jams = Tension!

It rained quite a bit for the last few days.  Hummingbird took a short video using his mobile (August 30, 2010).

It again rained heavily on August 31, 2010 yet fortunately, there was no traffic jam.  September 1st was a different day.  It didn't rain yet there was heavy traffic on the way to office.  Till the end, Hummingbird could never figure out what was the cause for the traffic jam.  However, he could take a few snaps using his mobile.  

Hummingbird reached office late   Yet he was smart enough to SMS his MD that he saw an investee company's 'building' on the way... and so should 'notionally' be counted as 'On Duty'...

Today was a good day.  For a change, it didn't rain.  It was a local government holiday on account of Gokulashtami and there wasn't much traffic on the roads.  Went to office peacefully.  Roads were almost empty in the morning.  Hummingbird wishes each day to be like this - less traffic on the roads... and peaceful.  Ofcourse, the roads continue to be bad.  Continuous rains haven't battered his spirit.  He is happy that there won't be drinking water problem this year.  Hummingbird hopes that the authorities would do something to restore the roads to a better condition.  

Hummingbird is an eternal optimist.  He still believes the government machinery would work, there would be less and less corruption in future, contractors won't cheat, roads would actually be laid and they would be of good quality and long lasting, entrepreneurs would be honest, politicians won't cheat... Well, Hummingbird is an eternal optimist. 

Why have a Planning Commission at all?

Sri B.S. Raghavan writing in the Business Line (July 7, 2010) says 
The Planning Commission had it coming some time or the other, if not from the Road Transport and Highways Minister, Mr Kamal Nath, then from any of the other Union Ministers or the Chief Ministers. Mr Nath has undoubtedly earned their gratitude by pulling up the Commission for indulging in ‘arm-chair' second guessing without any sense of ground realities and bringing out books and reports which are ‘well-bound' but low in content. He had the intellectual honesty to say this in the presence of the Deputy Chairman of the Commission, Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who had the sporting spirit to hear it out with a broad smile and take it as ‘constructive criticism'!

It claims to work out sectoral targets and play an integrative role in the development of a holistic approach to policy formulation in critical areas of human, social and economic development.

These are just grandiloquent words. But riding on their back are as many as 34 divisions, most of which are vestiges from Nehru's days and deserve to be scrapped. Actually, in the current environment, the Planning Commission has little or no role to play.

If it is a question of keeping information and databases and serving as a mediator and facilitator for Ministries and States, or effecting coordination among them, a small cell attached to the Cabinet Secretariat or the Prime Minister's Office can easily serve the purpose, without having to maintain the huge paraphernalia of a bloated bureaucracy at such great expense.

There have been periods in the past, such as between 1965 and 1969 and 1990-92, when the Planning Commission was in a state of suspended animation, with the country feeling no ill effects.
In the present context, dismantling it will have a wholesome effect, besides saving plenty of taxpayers' money.

There have been periods in the past, such as between 1965 and 1969 and 1990-92, when the Planning Commission was in a state of suspended animation, with the country feeling no ill effects.  In the present context, dismantling it will have a wholesome effect, besides saving plenty of taxpayers' money.
Janab Cynic Ali is all smiles.  He remembers some old dialogues from Yes Minister -
"We dare not allow politicians to establish the principle that senior civil servants can be removed for incompetence. We could loose dozens of our chaps. Hundreds maybe. Even thousands."
"It is unthinkable that politicians should be allowed to remove civil servants on grounds of incompetence. Of course some civil servants are incompetent but not incompetent enough for a politician to notice. And if civil servants could remove politicians on grounds of incompetence it would empty the House of Commons, remove the Cabinet, and be the end of democracy and the beginning of responsible government."
"Politicians are simple people; they like simple people; they like simple choices and clear guidance."
"It is axiomatic in government that hornets' nests should be left unstirred, cans of worms should remain unopened, and cats should be left firmly in bags and not set among the pigeons. Ministers should also leave boats unrocked, nettles ungrasped, refrain from taking bulls by the horns, and resolutely turn their backs to the music."
Ali Saheb points out that there are 35 Cabinet Ministers (including Sri Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Nandan Nilekani), 7 Ministers of State (Independent Charge) and 37 Ministers of State.  Does India need so many Ministers, ponders Janab Ali.  What a waste of public money he feels.  Then why criticise Planning Commission alone as a waste of nation's resources, he wonders.  Too many Ministers, too many departments (what will a Minister do without a department to manage?), too many bureaucrats / officials... too much waste of public money.  

Janab Ali feels that even if on the efficiency front or effectiveness front, what Sri Raghavan writes may be true, India being ruled by politicians is too dangerous an idea.  Ali Saheb thinks about the idiom "Let sleeping dogs lie" and says knowing the way Indian politicians work, it's better to have checks and balances of the type of Planning Commission (or C & AG) even if what they do is termed as arm-chair' second guessing.  When we take up cost cutting, we should start from the top, he says. 

For once, Hummingbird concurs. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Airlines in trouble = Passengers in trouble + Banks in trouble

The heat of the problems that Paramount Airways has been having with the Directorate-General of Civil Aviation and the aircraft financiers (GE Capital Aviation Services) is now being felt by Andhra Bank which had to call its Rs 42-crore loan to the airline as a non-performing asset and make provisions for it says Business Line (Andhra Bank hits air pocket with Paramount Airways, August 26, 2010).  Paramount and GE Aviation say each owes the other.  The airline is aggrieved as to why the DGCA should take sides in a commercial dispute. The net result is Paramount has stopped functioning and has become a NPA in Andhra Bank's books. 

Hummingbird feels that if there is a contractual dispute, there are courts to sort out the problem and the DGCA shouldn't have intervened in a way that derailed the private airline and incapacitated it from repaying its dues to its bankers.  One can agree if its a matter related to safety. 

Hummingbird cannot feel bad at the irrational pricing and reckless expansion programme announced by almost all the airlines even as they were bleeding a slow death.  Hummingbird is pained at the reckless lending by banks to such suicidal airlines.  The net result is visible to everyone today -

Source:  Mint, June 28, 2010

The net result is that Banks are now doing a debt recast for airlines - so that what happened to Andhra Bank with respect to Paramount Airways doesn't happen to them.  Hummingbird wonders whether any of the banks seriously thought of 'risk' while lending.  Instead of thinking through the implications of the ruinous pricing policy being pursued by the airline industry before giving loans to the airlines, the banks are now stating various reasons including the cyclical nature of the industry, a tough operating environment, capital intensity of the sector and the long breakeven period, for justifying why the debt recast should be done entailing lower interest rates, conversion of overdue interest into principal, etc.  

Hummingbird is not convinced - this was a purely commercial (and conscious) decision to lend to the airlines.  Now that the repayments are not coming, banks cannot (and should not) do a debt recast, at a time when the peak of the problems faced by the airline industry is over.  A more honest and transparent way, is to recognise NPAs wherever it is, provide for in the books of accounts and spruce up the 'risk management' practices in the banks.  That would ensure that atleast in future such reckless lending doesn't happen.  

One more worrying factor is the citing of 'long gestation' periods / long break-even periods for the debt recast.  Banks are predominantly collecting deposits for the short term.  Hummingbird wonders as to why in such a situation, they lent to airlines which (they now say) take long time to break-even?  What was the role of 'Asset-Liability-Management-Committee' in such banks?  Or, are all these internal control(s) / process(es) a mere eye wash?  

Mint says that RBI has censured banks for not following prudent norms before lending to airlines and putting themselves in a tight spot. It has recommended that banks take tangible securities as collateral for future loans instead of depending on promoter guarantees and brand value. The reckless pricing war was visible to everyone.  Poor financial position of the airlines tempts them to cut corners (they call it cutting costs) and end up playing with lives of ordinary passengers. Recently it came to light that SpiceJet illegally allowed children, who should have been given separate seats, to travel on the laps of adults to accommodate more passengers on a Delhi-Mumbai flight earlier this month.

Mohan Ranganathan writing in Business Line (June 23, 2010) terms it as "Conscienceless on aviation safety".  After listing a series of near disasters, he concludes by saying - "Political interference and judicial apathy have contributed to the lowering of safety and moral standards in Indian aviation. Commercial considerations have been the prime focus. Unless all those involved in regulating the sector start listening to their consciences, the tragedy in Mangalore is not going to be the last."

Supporting reckless expansion in an industry which followed suicidal pricing policies was the mistake of the Banks.  What started as a problem of the respective airlines, has been converted into the problem of the lenders and passengers.  No one has a clue as to when the next air accident will happen.  If only one bank is in trouble, then the concerned Bank Chairman would be in trouble.  If all the banks are in trouble, then there is no problem for any single bank!  As far as the airlines are concerned, when they expanded capacities they wanted loans and they got it.  Today, when they want these debts to be restructured, they will get it.  What about the poor tax payer whose money gets blown in such reckless projects?  What about the passengers whose lives are compromised due to poor safety procedures?  Hummingbird has no answers and wonders where we are heading...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Diet of mud and despair in villages even as food grains rot in FCI godowns

Hindustan Times reported that heaps of food grains are rotting in Food Corporation of India (FCI) godowns across the country due to apathetic attitude of the authorities concerned, according to a Right To Information (RTI) query. According to the RTI information, as on Jan 1 this year, 10,688 lakh tonnes of food grains were found damaged in FCI depots, enough to feed over six lakh people for over 10 years. Between 1997 and 2007, 1.83 lakh tonnes of wheat, 6.33 lakh tonnes of rice, 2.20 lakh tonnes of paddy and 111 lakh tonnes of maize were damaged in different FCI godowns.

This pathetic situation is prevailing even as news came that many children in Ganne are eating bits of dried mud and silica due to sheer poverty.  New York Times says that India’s eight poorest states have more people in poverty — an estimated 421 million — than Africa’s 26 poorest nations. The Indian Public Distribution System (PDS) is riddled with enormous corruption and inefficiency resulting in only a portion of the grains actually reaching the poorest of the poor. With studies showing nearly 70% of the approx $12 billion budget being wasted, stolen or absorbed by bureaucratic and transportation costs, the poor deserve a better treatment.

This is not the way we want India to shine.  Simply saying that the existing PDS is rotten won't solve the problem.  While action against corrupt officials have to be initiated, a quick introduction of the "food stamps" might also reduce the problem. 

One initial thought is to have Annadan instituted in villages.  In Tamil Nadu, this practise started by Jayalalitha through temples, though initially critisised as a gimmick, brought food atleast once a day for the poorest of the poor. Tamil Nadu also has the Mid-day meals programme for school children, started by Kamaraj initially in a small fashion, but made into a mass programme by MGR in the 1970s.  I am not sure if similar government programmes exists in other states. 

On the non-government side, Akshaya Patra programme comes to mind for its large scale distribution of high quality and hygienic food to poor school children.  Everyday, 12,28,580 children are fed by Akshaya Patra. 

The poverty and starvation deaths are generally not seen in South India, mostly due to better development schemes for the poor.  Foodgrains are rotting in FCI godowns.  It would be better to distribute the grains to the poorest of the poor free or the government either on its own or through public-private partnerships or through NGOs initiate public works programme where instead of wages, food grains can be distributed.  A single course of action wouldn't yield desired result.  It should be a decentralised multi pronged effort - with local resources being applied to solve local problems.  

From a long term perspective, there is a clear need for dramatic improvement in governance.  Without that happening, the poverty situation can become a disaster. The progress on the economic front would be lost, if millions of poor and under nourished people suffer from starvation.  For India to really shine, better action is required.

The Mind Wasters

Hummingbird enjoyed reading the article "The Mind Wasters" (ISKCON News).  Some excerpts from the article:
Many studies have looked violence on television and its impact on our minds, culture, and social interactions. How many murders, gun-shootouts, and violent responses to interpersonal conflict can we digest before it rubs off on us, and our children?
Here's some new evidence why we may want to turn the boob tube off, if not take it out of the house. According to recent studies:
- On average, an American who lives to the age of 80, will spend 13 years of his or her life in front of a TV set.
- For every hour we spend watching television each week, we are likely to spend an additional $200 per year on consumer goods promoted by TV advertisements.
- The more time we spend watching TV, the more likely we are to develop Alzheimer's disease in later life.
In short: watch more TV - waste time, waste money, waste your mind.
This is not to say that there's no value in television. Some rare programming may have educational or other benefits. The point is to be aware of the impact of owning and turning on, or off, a TV set. Its not just idle time we are wasting, it's our money, and our minds, too.
With great difficulty, spread over years, Hummingbird got out of the habit of watching TV programmes.  Hummingbird used to watch cricket matches on TV (till his 12th standard).  Thereafter, something strange happened.  A sudden thought struck Hummingbird one day that even as he busy wasting his time and life watching cricket matches, it is the cricket players who actually make the money.  Hummingbird thought why should he waste his time if he is not going to make money?  This thought effectively killed his interest in the game.

'The Hindu', used to cover sports (especially cricket) very well.  Hummingbird used to read every article written by R. Mohan (The Hindu) and Rajan Bala (Indian Express).  While Indian Express covered sports in its last page, The Hindu reserved its last page more for advertisements and also for a small special column on religious discourses which Hummingbird used to enjoy reading.  Sports used to be covered in the previous two pages.  Hummingbird developed a curious way of reading the paper 'ulta' i.e., reading from the last page first, which habit got ingrained due to reading sports articles.  All that interest in cricket vanished after Hummingbird stepped into college.

Later, the 'old' cricket which Hummingbird knew died its own natural death.  Match fixing controversy (remember Manoj Prabhakar?) wiped out whatever little interest Hummingbird had in the game.  It was rumoured that R. Mohan went out of The Hindu due to this controversy.  Rajan Bala passed away some time back. Hummingbird was thoroughly out of cricket (or for that matter any sports news) that one-day while travelling in a train (to Churchgate) his friend asked him what's the score?  Hummingbird was forced to profess ignorance - he had no clue which countries were playing, what's the tournament, where its being played etc.  Look there he said, showing the Stadium (near Churchgate) where India was playing!  Hummingbird was witness to another cricket match - this time from Aaykar Bhavan where he had gone for a tax hearing.  The Asst Commissioner was busy watching the match from the window of his cabin, with a radio commentary going on in the background!  Hummingbird was told to come again next day, as AC Saheb was busy (watching live cricket free, ofcourse).  Hummingbird is happy he got out of a bad habit.  But he is sad, he wasted so many years, during his childhood - which theoritically he could have used for studying well and scoring better marks.

Many years later, Hummingbird got introduced to CNBC after landing in Mumbai.  Even as one deadly habit went out, another got in.  It took many years to peak and equally took many years to get out of the habit of watching CNBC.  It took a great deal of reading of articles by Prof Ben Graham (eg., of the variety of 'Mr Market') which opened the eyes of Hummingbird and helped him in getting out of the habit of watching CNBC non-stop.  Those days, he used to think of those who watch 'normal' TV channels (news & entertainment) as silly people and only 'intelligent' people watch CNBC!  Needless to mention that Hummingbird thought of himself as 'intelligent'.

Instead of looking at the long term, CNBC by endlessly talking about every issue under the sun and how the sensex is going up or down, only ended up confusing him. Why the price of a share (or the market) is going up or going down - everyone had views - without compunctions they changed their views after a few days (with no apparent ground breaking change actually happening).  It took sometime to understand that they all had an interest in the share price - either going up or down. Many years later, SEBI insisted on "disclosure of interest" so that we the common people don't believe all that is said without actually understanding that people (can) have hidden motives too.

As markets went up and down, CNBC's TRPs also went up.  Everyone wanted to know why it went up or why it went down and whether it would go up or go down.  Hummingbird realised that this is not something sensible people do - people who invest for the long term need to protect themselves as much from the outside chatter / noise - as also from their own 'minds'.  We cannot remain idle.  We need to do something.  In our anxiety to do something, we end up doing the wrong thing.  Hummingbird realised CNBC may be good for 'day traders' but not for 'investors'. 

Later, Hummingbird got into the 'Budget' band wagon.  Budgets became a media event (post liberalisation) and channels started to telecast pre-budget expectations followed by the budget, post-budget analysis etc.  Hummingbird used to spend a substantial amount of time watching every such programme and reading articles in business newspapers. Again, it took many years to actually understand that what matters is the final bill that is passed by the Parliament.  All these discussions are a waste of time.  For almost 5 years now, Hummingbird remains in 'splendid isolation' free from garbage discussion on any topic (including budget).  He reads the Tax Referencer or BCA Journal, after the Parliament approves the budget, so that all pre-budget 'non-sense' talk doesn't pollute him.

During this phase, Hummingbird had slowly but steadily stopped reading the 'normal' news papers.  It was a torturous decision to stop reading 'The Hindu', since it was a childhood habit to read the paper.  'The Hindu' lost its 'balance' long back when the Sri Kasturi retired as Editor.  It has long been hijacked by Communists and atheists.  It was a equally torturous decision to stop reading Indian Express - the paper which Hummingbird used to like the most, especially when Arun Shourie (also click - here and here) and Gurumurthy were at the forefront exposing corruption in the Indian polity.

Times of India, never appealed to Hummingbird as a paper.  After reading 'serious' paper like 'The Hindu' and Indian Express, somehow Hummingbird could never take Times of India, as a newspaper at all, though Bombay people enjoy it a lot. Just as Hummingbird looked down upon TOI, he looked down upon Bombay people too - mmm.. these are not the 'intellectual' types like Madrasis, he used to muse.  Hummingbird used to feel that TOI is more an advertisement sheet wherein between different ads you find something filled up - mostly of the non-sense variety.

The English press whose hearts normally beats for terrorists more than patriots, helped Hummingbird in getting out of a habit ingrained from school days. After almost 30-35 years, Hummingbird became a free bird.  What he wanted was 'news' - what he got was 'views'.  Hummingbird did a 'Ganga-snan' for general newspaper reading and stopped watching 'news' channels.

Heavens have not fallen because Hummingbird has stopped knowing about which train met with an accident where, which politician criticized whom, who looted how much etc.  These things continue to happen all the years.  There are better things in life which happen all the time - our only problem is that the media has saturated coverage with the sensational and negative type - thus removing from scene the silent and positive transformation that is happening in many parts of the country.  How many of us actually know about the grass roots innovations that are happening?  How many of us have understood the difference micro credit funding has made to lives of women especially in terms of empowerment etc.

Hummingbird has travelled a long distance since the old innocent days to believe everything that the media says.  He reads on areas / topics of his interest, but reserves his judgement. Today, 'Mint' and 'Businessline' occupy the mind-space of Hummingbird.  Economist and New York Times remain the most favourite websites for Hummingbird. His readings have become more focussed on economics / business topics and general finance/tax/accounting/HR topics.  Hummingbird likes to read those news items that would enable him to learn something new that's of use for him / his companies.

Ofcourse, Hummingbird had to face many an embarrassing situation. For several months, due to sheer work pressure, Hummingbird just couldn't read even headlines (even from Mint & Businessline).  One evening he spent a few hours scanning the headlines (of many months) scanning the headlines in a RSS reader which he had installed.  In a passing he saw one headline mentioning "Jyoti Basu ill".  He wasn't interested in the news and so he did not bother to click the link and read the full news.  Casually (and quite innocently), he mentioned during a conversation about clearing the old unread links and especially the news about Jyoti Basu being ill. The next day, another colleague told him that Jyoti Basu died many months back!  Hummingbird provided a good case of 'being a joke' for friends on that occasion.

In any case, Hummingbird is not in the race for a popularity (or intelligence or General Knowledge) contest - so his not knowing about some happenings is perfectly OK with him.  Even if he knows, how is it going to help him?  Hummingbird often thinks like this - of what use is it for me to know what is the temperature or weather in Chicago and so why should I know about everything in the world?

When automobile sales zoom, the auto industry cheers the news.  But Hummingbird worries about the impact of pollution, the deaths due to irresponsible road driving, lack of space for the common man on the roads etc.  When salary levels go up, the middle class is happy.  But Hummingbird worries about the poor and the impact of inflation that the salary increase is going to bring on the lives of the poorest of the poor.  Sensex at historical peaks, doesn't bring happiness to Hummingbird.  But starvation deaths bring tears to his eyes.  The heart of Hummingbird has long been captured by Sairam and Sri Ramakrishna.  CNBC and news channels cannot enter his heart anymore.

All these thoughts came to Hummingbird as a flashback while reading "The Mind Wasters".  There are well read people, more intelligent people, all around Hummingbird.  There is also a little Hummingbird in this part of the world - more as a specimen of stupidity, ignorance and isolation from the mainstream!  Hummingbird is happy to be in splendid isolation.  Let all intelligent people be happy knowing about everything under the sun - even without intelligence, Hummingbird is happy, in his own little ways, in his own little world. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Final Farewell

A moving article by Jeffrey Zaslow in WSJ (May 3, 2008) about how Randy Pausch, a 47-year-old college professor, came to teach his family about love, courage -- and saying goodbye.

Randy Pausch, a professor at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University, has become famous for the way in which he chose to say goodbye to his students and colleagues. His final lecture to them,  turned into a phenomenon, viewed by millions on the Internet. Dying of pancreatic cancer, he showed a love of life and an approach to death that people have found inspiring. For many of us, his lecture has become a reminder that our own futures are similarly -- if not as drastically -- brief. 

Randy was moved by comments such as the one he received from a man with serious heart problems. The man wrote to tell Randy about Krishnamurti, a spiritual leader in India who died in 1986. Krishnamurti was once asked what was the most appropriate way to say goodbye to a man who was about to die. He answered: "Tell your friend that in his death, a part of you dies and goes with him. Wherever he goes, you also go. He will not be alone." In his email to Randy, this man was reassuring: "I know you are not alone."

Randy rarely got emotional in all his hours with me. He was brave, talking about death like a scientist. In fact, until we got to discussing what should be in the book's last chapter, he never choked up.
The last chapter, we decided, would be about the last moments of his lecture -- how he felt, what he said. He thought hard about that, and then described for me how his emotions swelled as he took a breath and prepared to deliver his closing lines. It was tough, he said, "because the end of the talk had to be a distillation of how I felt about the end of my life."

In the same way, discussing the end of the book was emotional for him. I could hear his voice cracking as we spoke. Left unsaid was the fact that this part of our journey together was ending. He no longer needed to ride his bike, wearing that headset, while I sat at my computer, tapping away, his voice in my ears. Within weeks, he had no energy to exercise.

Randy is thrilled that so many people are finding his lecture beneficial, and he hopes the book also will be a meaningful legacy for him. Still, all along, he kept reminding me that he was reaching into his heart, offering his life lessons, mostly to address an audience of three. "I'm attempting to put myself in a bottle that will one day wash up on the beach for my children," he said.

And so despite all his goodbyes, he has found solace in the idea that he'll remain a presence. "Kids, more than anything else, need to know their parents love them," he said. "Their parents don't have to be alive for that to happen."

Hummingbird always feels this is a very emotional and inspiring Last Lecture.  To download the pdf version of the transcripts of the last lecture click here.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Confirming the worst suspicions..!

Came across an interesting article "Corruption in Taiwan" in Economist (July 22, 2010). Some excerpts from the article -
RUMOURS of corruption among the judiciary have long flourished in Taiwan. Yet the news on July 14th that three high-court judges and a prosecutor had been detained amid allegations that they took bribes to fix the outcome of a high-profile case, has brought public outrage to boiling point. On July 18th Taiwan’s highest-level judicial official, Lai In-jaw, who is in charge of the island’s supreme and lower courts chose to resign because of the outcry over the case.
For jaded Taiwanese observers the latest developments merely confirm long-held suspicions of graft in their insular and inscrutable judiciary. “The significance of this case is that it makes all the rumours a reality,” said Yang Tai-shuenn, a politics professor at Taipei’s Chinese Culture University. “It will push the government to do something.”
Well the article says this news brought public outrage to boiling point.

Mmm... How sad, wonders Janab Cynic Ali.  He still finds it difficult to understand why his dear brothers and sisters of Taiwan are angry. Please cool down, he says.  Come to India and enjoy corruption, Indian ishtyle. He is convinced that if our Taiwanese brothers and sisters visit India, then they will stop feeling bad about corruption in their country.  

In India, we have reached the state of Nirvana long back and nothing will push our government to do something... why something.. they won't do anything, he tells the world confidently. If only our Taiwanese brothers & sisters listen to Janab Saheb, their tensions will go away instantly - Amrutanjan style - It's gone.. poye poochu.. poyinde..!

Humko man ki shakti dena..

Hummingbird has limitations understanding Hindi.  Inspite of this handicap, somehow he feels that there is something beautiful in this song (or) bhajan, whichever way one might call, that keeps one engrossed. 

For some inexplicable reason, Hummingbird enjoys audio more than video - and if the tune is soothing, then he enjoys the song/bhajan, mostly closing his eyes and listening.  Hummingbird has no idea whether this is the right way to enjoy music.  This is something he enjoys - something that doesn't harm anyone - yet brings him joy and so once in a while he listens to Bhajans or old songs.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rains and more rains...

It has been raining since morning.  Its also quite cool.  From the weather map in Business Line (August 21, 2010), it is clear that it will continue to rain in many parts of the country and more so in the Western parts.

Cloud formation suggests its going to rain heavily

Interestingly, Mumbai has received maximum rainfall (in mm) amongst all 23 weather stations reported by Business Line (August 21, 2010) in terms of departure from normal for the season, though it is No.2 (after Panjim) in terms of total rainfall received since June 1, 2010.

Station Max Min Rain Total rain Departure
Mumbai 29 25 10 2420 824
Panjim 30 24 6 2656 468
Ahmedabad 33 26 5 960 422
Hyderabad 32 23 15 581 193
N Delhi 28 26 110 576 128
Chennai 35 27 -- 318 51
Bangalore 28 22 -- 225 7

Ranchi 32 24 6 405 -379
Patna 33 28 -- 385 -270
Lucknow 32 25 35 420 -176
Indore 29 22 -- 481 -135
Trivandrum 31 24 -- 543 -100
Guwahati 33 26 103 769 -93
Kolkota 32 26 53 793 -51

[Note:  The columns show maximum and minimum temperature in Celcius, rainfall during last 24 hours and total rainfall in mm since June 1, 2010 and departure from normal for the season.]

The departure from normal for Mumbai also matches with the general observation of almost continuous rains since June 2010.

What is interesting is that Ranchi, Patna, Lucknow, Indore (if we can broadly read them as the old Bihar / UP / MP areas) show a decent deficit rainfall from normal.  Will this have an impact on the agricultural production?

Generally, Kerala and North East areas receive good rains.  The above table shows deficit rainfall for the season in both Trivandrum and Guwahati. 

Business Line's editorial (Furrows of worry, Business Line, August 16, 2010) comes to mind.
With nearly two-thirds of the southwest monsoon season behind us, it is time to take stock of the kharif crop situation. The news is at once good and disappointing from the point of view of overall precipitation and area planted. Although the all-India area weighted rainfall is still in negative territory as of mid-August, 28 of the 36 meteorological subdivisions have had excess (nine subdivisions) or normal (19 subdivisions) precipitation so far. But the disaggregated picture is somewhat worrisome. Even as Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh as also Gangetic West Bengal face deficiency, Punjab, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Orissa and Eastern Rajasthan, currently in the normal category, risk falling into deficient category. This raises the possibility of yield losses and the concomitant effect on production of cereals and cash-crops, although it may be premature to put a number on this.
In my school days, I used to read in text books that Indian agriculture is dependent upon monsoons.  A few decades down the line, it appears not much has changed at the ground level.  What has changed is that the population has exploded, joint families have split, flat culture has taken root, life styles have changed and requirement for more water has arisen.  Water table across the country has gone down and States fight with each other (eg Karnataka Vs T.Nadu; Kerala Vs T.Nadu) for water.  We would rather allow river water to go waste (into ocean) but won't allow it into neighbouring States! 

Crop cultivation patterns need to change in a very big way - it requires a big effort in educating the agrarian population to move away from crops which consume water in a big way into those which consume less water or use better methods (eg drip irrigation) of using water.  These steps would improve water table, reduce uncertainty of loss of crop - either due to inadequate rainfall or drought etc.

The rainy season is not yet over.  Hummingbird hopes that the deficit areas too receive rains, but not of the unseasonal variety and farming community doesn't suffer.  

Friday, August 20, 2010

Rains...and furrows of worry

Before the rains started, we were looking eagerly as to when the rains would start.  Hummingbird was also one of the avid watchers with a series of posts "Clouds have come ... can the rains be far behind?).

As expected rains came.  Unlike previous year(s), it has been raining quite heavily, almost all through the rainy season.  The last time, Hummingbird saw something like a clear sun, was on August 14, 2010.

It's the last sunset which I saw... and that was on Aug 14, 2010

Thereafter, it has continued to rain especially in the evenings.  The rainy season seems to be quite active all through the country.  Heavy rains have been predicted for the hilly regions of north-west (Business Line, August 19, 2010).

Raining... all over India!

There have been floods in Pakistan, Leh etc.  Looking at the India map and the cloud formation, it appears that more rains are ahead, this season. 

Business Line reports that the Climate Prediction Centre (CPC) of the US National Weather Services has assessed increased chances for above-normal rainfall for the region extending from South Asia to the Maritime Continent and this would bring the south-east coast of India and the Bay of Bengal under rain cover during this period.  The CPC has extended the wet weather outlook to the following week (August 24-30) as well, with the rain cover over India's south-east coast digging further into East-central India.

The prevailing La Nina condition would be more long-lasting than thought earlier and may continue until early 2012, according to updated forecasts from the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Global Change (RIGC) reports Business Line (La Nina may extend into early 2012, say Japanese experts, August 18, 2010).  This is likely to give above-normal rainfall in many parts of the world including India and predictions are that we may have a colder than normal winter.  

Today it rained again, quite heavily in the evening in Mumbai and visibility was poor as I left for home.

Heavy rains and poor visibility... (blackberry picture taken from a moving vehicle)

On the positive side, good rains have brought some respite from the drinking water crisis.  They have also brought cheer to automobile companies with improved sentiment and boosting auto sales.  On the agricultural side, while the kharif harvest could be better than in 2009, it may be far from bumper. And the price implications are self-evident, says Business Line in an Editorial (Furrows of worry, August 16, 2010).  With inflation raging uncontrolled, prospect of a food price linked boost to inflation is worrying.  Some excerpts from the Business Line editorial: 
The risks to crop size and quality will increase if the forecast of more rains in the rest of August and in September turns out to be correct.
Excessive rains, especially when crops near maturation, can be damaging. So, while the ensuing kharif harvest may be better than in 2009, it is unlikely to be anywhere near bumper.
The price implications of the emerging scenario are self-evident. Do not expect any miraculous relief from high food prices. There may be a slight softening of prices in October, with the harvest and arrival pressure; but the sentiment can quickly change for the worse.
The Government must be in a state of readiness to deploy the buffer stocks of rice and wheat for effective market intervention. The poor will need a credible and effective safety net in the form of access to food (fine cereals, pulses, cooking oil and sugar) at affordable prices.
Liberal, duty-free imports will have to continue. Policymakers must exercise abundant caution while considering changes in trade and tariff policies.
Globally too, grain prices have rallied to new highs because of weather aberrations in some regions, including the Black Sea port area and Canada's grain-bowl of Saskatchewan. This is raising the spectre of a 2007/2008-like food price situation. And such price cues can cause ripples here too.
Unlike in the past when droughts were more or less common, this year it has been raining... and raining almost regularly all through the season.  Hummingbird fervently hopes that farmers don't lose their crops due to unseasonal rains or too much rains.  It could lead to large scale misery, not only to the farming community but to the nation as a whole, as the inflation monster which has been dancing all around without any control so far, would get an added boost due to crop failure.