Why Snap Soft Skill Courses Are Useless

Soft skills are always difficult to learn, especially in a snap attempt.  Each one of us have our own way of practicing these skills based on our natural (and sometimes acquired) style and personality types. You can’t talk like anyone else unless you consciously copy someone’s style and practice it but it may lead to  loss of your own style or a slow merging of your native and acquired style creating a new style altogether. It’s the same with thinking. Thoughts form in different ways in each one of us depending on how we perceive things – which involves both structure (how you place one slab of comprehension upon another to arrive at a whole) and depth. These are the building blocks of soft skills.  This is what makes all soft skill courses useless.

And the funny thing is people who conduct them know it. That’s why, if you notice, all soft skill courses are mostly fluff. It’s only stuff flicked from Google peppered with stories and anecdotes.  Some of them even use these courses as platforms to crib about their former colleagues and hear favorable reaction from an obliging audience. And they call it interaction.  I had attended a workshop on presentation skills and the trainer, a lady, was mostly talking about her former colleagues she didn’t like. I attended a workshop on creative troubleshooting and it was mostly generic talk on how to be out of box together with standard industry models of problem solving. Doesn’t discussing standard models defeat the purpose of a workshop which insists you to be anything but?

Then, why do companies spend money on arranging for these two-hour or one-day soft skill workshops and why we attend them? Because we cherish our technical skills and believe learning smattering of soft skills will help us further our career – be creative, good communicators and so on. The problem is soft skills are more intricate than technical skills. Technical skills are easy to acquire because they involve clearly defined instructions but soft skills don’t.

Sustained exposure to soft skill professionals where they are embedded in an environment (a close-ended one like a team) or a broader one like an organization and they closely observe people in action and discuss their findings with them later and then again observe as the latter apply them, will help. But the resource and logistics it will need may make it difficult to implement. That’s where you need creative problem solving.

Communism – 100 Years of the Revolution

A few days ago Russia celebrated 100 years of the 1917 revolution. In these 100 years communism has gone from  a leading political ideology to a failed one. In whichever country the ideology has been applied, there has been dictatorship, corruption, economic stagnation, bloodshed and so on.

Yet universal brotherhood, a world free of religion and other discriminatory ideas, selflessness, sacrifice for a higher cause, economic equality – are some of the loftiest ideals a man can ever live for.

Communism had looked like a panacea in a 20th century world torn by wars, bigotry, narrow nationalism and economic inequality. Soviet Russia’s impressive GDP year upon year had convinced world leaders of the merit of communist economic model. The global intelligentsia had appreciated its educational and social reforms. Their space projects had earned lot of global admiration (remember Sputnik?). But there were flaws in the system and the cracks began to show up soon.

Today it is surprising to see how the lofty ideals, when applied as state policies, degenerated into completely different things not just in Soviet Russia but also other pockets of communism in the world: a constant thirst for power expressed through annexing regions or bringing  them into communist sphere of influence, state censorship (and other forms of freedom-denying activities), ruthless directorship (Stalin, Mao and so many  other communist leaders), personality cults (Fidel Castro, Mao etc), state-level corruption, people in positions of power growing loathsomely wealthy (in China but there are numerous other examples), a dead economy (Cuba’s highest source of revenue is the remittances sent by Cubans staying in the US), the list is endless.

Frankly, if we compare them with the sins of capitalism, capitalism will hardly fare any better: two world wars, imperialism, Hitler, economic inequality, absence of financial support for the elderly (in purely capitalist societies like the US) and so on. But capitalism has bounced back each time. There wasn’t a third world war. The world didn’t see another Hitler (at least none who wreaked havoc on a similar scale). There is no 20th century scale imperialism any more.

Yes, capitalism is responsible for economic inequalities, but it has also created pockets of economic excellence, like Microsoft, Google, Apple and so many more, which provide economic opportunities to so many across various countries. (One can even argue the more capitalism the better: after all, less capitalist societies like Sweden and the Netherlands have not created these gems.)

On balance capitalism has done better than communism. But why? I think it’s because at the core capitalism is a simpler ideology which is mainly about economics (private enterprise and free market) and is silent on other aspects of life whereas communism seeks to control every sphere of life, the personal, professional and even the spiritual. (We know what happens of powerful religious ideas that lay out rules for every aspect of a man’s life and insist on complete compliance.)

This regimental nature of communism not only denies basic freedom but also stores too much discretionary power in the hands of those in power. And because communism doesn’t accommodate democratic practices like participatory politics, the power stays with a few who, to continue being in power, plug in all ventilations within the system blocking free passage of air – and slowly rot sets in.

In newspapers, we keep reading about corrupt and nepotistic high officials in China – and the Chinese administration trying to cleanse the system. Gorbachev had attempted Perestroika and Glasnost to cleanse the Soviet system of similar rot leading to an end of Soviet Union in December 26, 1991. The end of communism, however, had started a year earlier, on 9th November 1989, when the Berlin wall had collapsed uniting West and East Germany.

Is Bangalore Going the Bombay Way

On 1st Nov, on Karnataka Rajya Utsava, while I was entering a shopping mall, a person with a wad of thin books in his hand whisked one into my hand. I waved him away without any consideration. Few steps later, I stopped turned around, walked to him and asked for a copy of the book he was distributing free. It was a postcard size book on how to learn Kannada.

A day later I read the Karnataka CM’s (a Congress CM) Rajya Utsava speech in paper. He said everyone staying in Karnataka should learn Kannada and consider themselves Kannadigas. Karnataka is also going to become the first state in India to have its flag.

I am from Calcutta and have been staying in Bangalore for last 12 years now – and from time to time have seen manifestation of provincial sentiments through violence sometimes owing to something as innocuous as death of Kannada movie icons and sometimes slightly more tangible issues like water sharing with neighboring states.  The targets are generally ethnic groups to establishments like malls, restaurants representing a culture perceived to have overshadowed the local culture or representing  those who are insolent towards it.

But the best part about these conflagrations is they fizzle out in a day or two thanks to the fact that they are mostly carried out by small chauvinistic groups with little or no impact on mainstream politics.

Only twice, in my so many years in Bangalore, have I seen chauvinistic disturbances targeted towards a particular group or community go beyond their one-day routine.

One of them involved the Kaveri water sharing issue. The Kaveri water sharing  issue has been a source of disturbances for sometime recurring almost once every year but none has taken so long  to calm down. The trigger was a Supreme Court order asking Karnataka to share more cusecs of Kaveri water with Tamil Nadu than the state was ready to do.

My wife and I were touring Chikmagalur, a nice hill station in Karnataka with lot of coffee plantations but little known outside south India. We left for Chikmagalur a day after a state-wide bandh over the Kaveri issue.

Roughly two to three days later, sitting in a restaurant in Chikmagalur overlooking the road in front, we saw a flock of people shouting slogans, a column of black smoke rising up from amidst them. Curious, I asked the restaurant manager what it was.

He said they were protesting the Supreme Court order which had gone against Karnatka assuring us that they would not cause any harm, that it was just a protest.

Later we realized it wasn’t ‘just’ a protest. It took a week or so for normalcy to return. Some IT offices were forced shut by vandals, people killed, vehicles particularly those with Tamil Nadu number plates, set on fire.

The other one was over passing away of a famous Kannada movie star, Rajkumar. Within an hour of the death news becoming public, in anticipation of trouble, our office was called off and we were asked to return home. A few hours later, city life completely collapsed. Malls were attacked; foreign brand outlets were vandalized. It took sometime for normalcy to return.  (Some years earlier the same superstar had been kidnapped sparking similar reaction from his fans across the city.)

For the last 20 years or so, Bangalore has seen an excessive influx of migrants from different parts of the country mainly due to IT but also other industries and work streams. This influx of people from other places has meant the local culture now has to jostle for space with other cultures. This marginalization expresses itself through outbursts of regional sentiments whenever there is a provocation.

Another city where provincial chauvinism expresses itself through violence towards ‘outsiders’ is Bombay, another place which offers economic possibilities. Beating up poor migrants and attempts to force the local language on everyone are common.

The difference between Bangalore and Bombay, though, is in Bangalore the troublemakers don’t continue for too long. Also, the level of cynicism and organization that characterizes the chauvinistic flareups in Bombay is not to be found in Bangalore.

Perhaps a little bit of regional chauvinism is inevitable in a city which goes through economic prosperity on the scale Bangalore has over last 20 years or so. What is important is to avoid touching the raw nerve.

That’s why the chief minister’s brazen exhortation to everyone staying in Karnataka to learn and feel Kannada – doesn’t help unless he wants to convert Bangalore into Bombay. He should stop doing it.

In the meantime, I will try learning a little bit of Kannada using the book I got.

Whose Data is it?

Online advertising is going to change completely. Today online advertising works based on user data gathered from users’ browsing habits. This model places very less or no importance on the privacy of the average user. Apple and Google are rolling out updates to their web browsers, Safari and Chrome, which prevent a user’s browsing habits from being tracked with Intelligent Tracking Prevention.

Given how central tracking users’ browsing habits is to online marketing (and when I say marketing it’s not limited to products companies sell but also online campaigns, including political campaigns, how online news portals gauge reader preferences and target them with content accordingly and so on), the Google and Apple development is totally disruptive, which empowers the user undoubtedly but also severely disadvantages online advertisers.

But there is a bigger question here. Whether gathering my privacy data is bad or not is dependent on whether I’m okay with my data being tracked. Most people are okay with their data being tracked as long as the data is not financial. Apple and Google may have prioritized data privacy to arrive at a standard global model based on European preferences. (Google has been asked by European courts to ensure privacy of user data.) But a European preference for data privacy mayn’t reflect a global attitude towards data.

Today we happily share lot of personal data with governments for security, citizenship and welfare related reasons. Undoubtedly, it’s one thing to share data with government, another to share it with corporations, but we in India are comfortable with the quid pro quo philosophy of data sharing as long as it doesn’t endanger sensitive financial details.

There is another aspect to this development. Intelligent Tracking Prevention will help the internet giants prevent tracking of user browsing data by average online marketers, but will it also stop Apple and Google from capturing user data which is central to at least Google’s online business model?

Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

A book cover is the unsung hero of a book – because we don’t realize that designing a book cover is a great and very difficult art to practice. Jhumpa Lahiri in her book Clothing of Books deals with this aspect of books – and takes us behind the scenes to reveal how book cover designs are conjured up, how different designs work in different cultures and how sometimes book covers can be utterly shallow.

She starts the book by telling how as a child when she would visit India on vacation with her parents, she liked the sartorial discipline of her cousins – who always went to their school wearing uniforms unlike a young Jhumpa, who, back in the US, wasn’t burdened down by any uniform by her school – she preferred the lack of freedom her cousins had to the freedom she had back in the US. She grew up in an immigrant Bengali family and her mother was very keen on Jhumpa sticking to Indian clothes and culture while Jhumpa wanted to be American.

After establishing the importance of the outer appearance and its connection with what lies inside (or what it covers) through an autobiographical chapter, she moves to the role a cover plays for a book. She says a cover comes when a book is finished (from a writer’s perspective) and it is time for it to come into the world. A cover gives a book independence and freedom of its own. It tells her that her work is finished and now the publisher’s work starts. For the publishing house it signals the arrival of a book; for her it’s the farewell. She also tells how she reacted to various covers of her book and informs she approved some of them when approached by her publishers for approval with liking them.

When it comes to her books, her publishers readily commission covers with stereotypical references to India, like elephant, hennaed hands etc overlooking the fact that larger parts of her books are set in America. Once when she complained to her publisher about a cover of her book which had an Indian building in it saying it was too exotic for a book whose larger part was set in the US, the publisher replaced the Indian building with the American flag!

Where the book disappoints is it is only centered around Jhumpa whereas I had expected it to tell about covers of famous books by other writers and provide a wider perspective on book covers instead of only an individualistic view.

 

Is the International Community Acting Self Rightious on Rohingyas

Don’t you think the international community is acting self-righteously on Sui Kyi?  Those who are criticizing her for her inaction in the wake of atrocities on Rohingyas in Rakhine, in Myanmar, are not taking into account how the ground realities in Myanmar almost don’t allow any space to Suu Kyi to do anything. Suu Kyi operates under a constitution which confers overriding power to the army. It empowers the army to dissolve the civilian government anytime it wants without any obligation to justify its action, and restore Junta rule in Myanmar.

But some say the reason for Suu Kyi’s indifference towards the suffering of Rohingyas at the hand of the Myanmar army is more ethno-religious than we realize. Buddhists don’t particularly like Islam, having been at its receiving end for centuries. Islam has always posed existential threat to Buddhism. Islam was responsible for preventing the growth of Buddhism in India, the place of its birth. Recently, among other things, Bamiyan Buddha statues were destroyed in Afghanistan by Taliban.

From the documentaries I saw on Youtube, there is clearly a divide among the two communities in Myanmar. Some of the popular religious/community leaders from both sides openly expressed their animosities towards the other community. There is a concern among the Buddhists, the majority in Myanmar, that they will be soon outnumbered by Muslims.

What further deepens the chasm between the two communities is the secessionist movement underway in Rakhine which seeks separation of Rakhine, home to Rohingyas, from Myanmar. There is another angle to the issue: the displacement of Rohingyas from Myanmar and their incursion into various neighboring countries. Even here the international community, particularly the UN, has stuck to their humbug attitude.

Given the current geopolitical challenges – transnational terrorism, lack of employment etc – any country would be reluctant to throw its door open to anyone seeking entry unless it’s in a desperate need to pump up its population. And even sparsely populated countries, like the Scandinavian countries, are wary of being too generous with migrants as we have seen with respect to those fleeing war-torn places like Syria and Iraq.

The idea of multiculturalism and no-holds-barred entry for everyone of the past decades has received a bad name not only due to terrorism as a security concern but as a social problem stemming from an unresolvable conflict between Western and Islamic values. India shares some of these concerns and in addition to them it has a huge population.

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh

Sometime back I had read this book – The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh – and written a blog on it. Seeing the floods that are taking place in different parts of the world (America, India and now Japan where an island saw a devastating flood) triggering displacement and devastation on a scale unimaginable, I think this book has something interesting to offer – it looks at various such climactic events from across time and from different parts of the world which together indicate that, thanks to modern development, nature has had enough and it’s hitting us back.

It raises important questions about our taste, preferences and lifestyle and explains how they have been shaped by forces of history that were responsible for setting the climatic disaster ball rolling, which slowly has rolled too far and if not stopped immediately will go over the edge. Read this review and enjoy the book.

———————-

There are very few books that fill you with a sense of urgency to write something on them before it’s too late. Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which marks the author’s return to nonfiction after a long while, is one such book. The Great Derangement…delves into history (literary and political), analyses contemporary practices, our choices and preferences…and tells us how they are collectively responsible for forcing the nature to unleash destructive forces – like earth swallowing floods, monstrous earth quakes, gales with never-heard-of speed and ferocity – and have brought us to the edge from where a return journey is not possible unless we immediately stop the ‘march of modernity’.

The book blames several things for the climate challenges we are faced with – one is history, another is indifference of serious fiction towards climactic matters, another is the apathy of governments to climactic concerns, still another is our lack of awareness about the havoc climate change can wreak in our lives although there is no dearth of evidence around us.

Ghosh is most morbid about the middle class when it comes to suffering from impact of climate change. He says the rich will fly away in airplanes, the poor will go away to their villages, but where will the middle class go given the fact that they have built their lives in cities? In other words, Ghosh says cities are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

And particularly those that are close to sea or other forms of water bodies, like Mumbai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Calcutta. Most of these cities were built in colonial period to act as good trade and commerce centers because of their proximity to water. And somehow this preference for proximity with water has crept into the elites of these cities, who tend to build their settlements close to water. The richer the closer.

This love of the rich for staying close to water makes the sea-facing locations most coveted real estate pieces. And, Ghosh observes, this desirability of these locations as real estate properties, anywhere around the world, makes it difficult for governments (or municipal bodies) to create awareness about the perils of staying close to water bodies, thanks to the political clout the real estate practitioners enjoy everywhere.

For Ghosh the peril of this proximity was best exemplified when he travelled to Andaman and Nicobar islands to report on the impact of tsunami.  He visited an army settlement located close to the sea. He noticed two things: a) the higher the rank of the occupant, the closer his dwelling was to the sea leading to the highest rank holder staying closest to the sea (and vice versa); b) those closest to the sea were affected the most by tsunami.

Ghosh observes that in the pre-colonial period people lived away from water, but with the city-building projects the colonial masters took up, the preference slowly reversed.

One of the most original points Ghosh makes in Derangement is the indifference of literary fiction to the concerns of climate change. According to Ghosh, some of the practitioners of serious fiction in the 19th century consciously moved away from using fantastical elements – like flying carpets or a rising sea gulping a landscape – as a means to tell stories, in order to focus on more prosaic day-to-day affairs of life. This prosaic-ity fulfilled the requirements of serious fiction. So describing minor details of landscape and how people lived their lives became fashionable. Amitav Ghosh says this shift from writing about fantastical occurrences to more mundane motions of life had to do with the emphasis of the Industrial Revolution on betterment of human lives.

This shift made the fury of nature, like floods, cyclones etc., an untouchable terrain for serous fiction – because, as Ghosh observes, the gigantic scale of these furies of nature lends them a fantasy-like incredulity not to be dealt with in the type of fiction which swears by credulity.

Writing on furies of nature fell to less-respected a form of fiction, genre fiction. And, Ghosh rues, it continues to this day. That is why thrillers and science fiction have addressed climactic concerns; but sadly, the author says, because genre fictions hardly receive any serious literary award, the issues they address don’t receive the attention they deserve.

One of the things responsible for pushing us to the brink is replacement of coal with petrol as a fuel. Petrol is a more versatile fuel than coal but that is not the only thing which explains why petrol usurped coal’s position as a primary fuel: the reason is petrol is a politically safer fuel than coal – and what makes coal a politically volatile fuel is the highly visible mining process involved in it unlike the refinement process of petrol which is very opaque.

Remember the blackened face of the 20th century coal miner melancholically looking at you from a black and white photo? This visibility of the plight of coal miners is responsible for the revolutions that coal mining has led to unlike the plight of petroleum refinery workers which suffers in obscurity. And the political elite of the Anglosphere the Churchills and Roosevelts of this world knew about this disadvantage of coal mining, Europe having experienced many of the coal-triggered revolutions, and ensured that coal was replaced by petroleum as a primary fuel.

But as always Ghosh’s favorite whipping horse is once again colonialism. He says Britain made sure that the benefits of the industrial revolution were denied to its colonies – and that’s the kind of development that took place in the Western world didn’t take start in Asia until the 1950s when the colonies started getting independence. But, according to the author, the earth can’t withstand the rigor of another round of Western-style development.

That’s why, in climate negotiations taking place among nations, the Western nations insist the poorer nations to take a different route to development.

Ghosh says governments across the world, particularly the democratic ones, come to power on the promise of fulfilling people’s aspirations – and therefore are ill-placed to ask their citizenry to view their actions in the light of their moral responsibility towards saving the earth from going over the edge. It’s only religious groups that can do that. And Ghosh praises the book Laudato Si written by pope Francis in this regard and does a comparative study between the papal book on climate and another important treatise concerning the same subject, The Paris Agreement – and concludes that Laudato Si is much more lucid and readable of the two.

You can take The Great Derangement in many ways – as a book which preaches, prophesises, disparages – by asking us to happily forgo the type of modern development the Western nations have taken for granted. And I am afraid seeing the book in any of these ways will obscure you to its merit as a well-researched book which forcefully holds a brief for climate and makes some unique points along the way. But it does so not without occasionally sliding into ideological slots avoiding which would have ensured a wider acceptability of its views which are certainly worthy of attention.

Swami and Friends by RK Narayan

I have never quite understood the best end to start reading a writer’s body of work from if you want to experience a writer completely. Is it the works coming from the beginning of a writer’s career or those towards the end or from the middle? All of them are significant in the writer’s literary landscape – the works at the beginning of a literary journey tell you the ideas the writer dealt with before coming of age, those in the middle see the same ideas shape into fuller themes or if the writer digressed while the ones towards the end are generally on the same lines as before but more ambitious, more skill-intensive.

With RK Narayan I have made a reverse journey. I haven’t read his Guide (which is one of the books on my must-read list) but watched the movie. Many years ago, I read a RK Narayan omnibus and glimpsed snippets of his memorable works. Then I read his Financial Expert written when the author was in his mid-career. And recently I finished his Swami and Friends, which marked his literary debut and is among the first batch of English books to be published by an Indian.

I haven’t read a simpler book and there are very few books that have touched me so much. Swami and Friends is about growing up – all the challenges and fears and insecurities, and lows and highs we experience in our formative years. Several times it left me ruminating about my days in school and friends. Albeit, as the story progressed, I realized I had very little in common with Swami, who is much more rebellious and much less tolerating of the oppressive world that school can be than I ever was.

Swaminathan is growing up in a small imaginary town in South India, Malgudi. Swami goes to a missionary school (Albert Mission School) where his Brahaminical beliefs often come into conflict with the Christian theosophical lessons imparted on children. Swami and his group of friends are equals in every sense, educationally and in terms of economic background they come from, leaving very little scope for ego conflicts. But this tranquility is broken by the entrance of Rajam into their school and their lives. Rajam’s father works in police and due to his transferable job Rajam has been to many places and several good schools – and therefore comes from a wider base of experience than Swami and friends who have never stepped beyond Malgudi. He leaves Swami and friends intimidated with his superior spoken English, clothes and with many other aspects.

In the background, the winds of freedom struggle, sweeping across the country, enter Malgudi and ruffle the quiet world of the small town. A handful of youth, carrying the message of Quit India Movement, hold demonstrations exhorting Malgudians to shun foreign clothes and embrace khadi.

Suddenly, the crowd turns violent and starts attacking every sign of foreign presence in Malgudi – and Swami’s missionary school inevitably comes at the receiving end.  Swept by crowd emotion, an impressionable Swami also joins the trouble mongers and pelts a stone into the headmaster’s window pane only to be spotted by the headmaster in the act.

 

Next day, in his class, Swami is spanked by the headmaster and after bearing it for some time he snaps up – snatches away the cane, throws it on the floor and runs out. There is only one more school in Maldugi.  Swami takes admission there but again manages to run into a complication attracting punishment of the same nature as meted out to him in Albert Mission School – and reacts in the same way as he had done earlier: snatching the cane from the teacher’s hand, throwing it on the floor and running way. This time, however, Swami also runs away from home, only to return later following a harrowing experience and due to a stroke of luck.

How RK Narayan had got a publisher for Swami and Friends is part of Indian literary lore. The manuscript had been rejected half a dozen times and then somehow it had ended up in the hands of Graham Greene, thanks to a friend of Narayan’s who was studying in England.  This friend had luckily met Greene, in Oxford, and shown the manuscript to him and been assured by the famous writer that he would find a publisher for it.

But before Narayan knew about this breakthrough, heartbroken that his manuscript wasn’t meeting with any success in England or in India, he had written to his friend that he weight the manuscript with stone and throw it into the Thames. Three months later his friend’s response had arrived from England informing him about Greene’s assurance.

Like any first book, Swami and Friends is highly autobiographical. The world Narayan set the story in isn’t very different from the world Narayan would have grown up in, in Mysore, quite a small town then. Having read about Narayan, I found Swami’s rebellious streak very similar to that of his creator. Narayan’s first rebellion was when he had announced that he would only be a writer, nothing else. Later he had said writing was the only profession that would have given him complete autonomy.

Swami’s reluctance to accept a freedom-denying school life, his rebelling against it first by lobbing a stone into his headmaster’s room and then by throwing away the cane on floor and running away to freedom – are reminders of his creator’s personality.

Recalling Demonitization

I had written the blogs below when effects of demonetization were at their peak. Almost no ATMs had cash. The very few that had would attract interminable queues. Sometimes after standing in a queue for a long time (it could be anything between half an hour to an hour or more) when your turn would be just a person away, the security guard would announce the ATM wouldn’t have cash beyond the person in front of you in the queue. You would go to another ATM to try your luck.

It was the same situation everywhere. The government had suddenly decided to starve the country of cash. Normalcy looked far off; some even wondered if it was the new normal. Reports of people staying in rural areas travelling to distant places for cash and returning home disappointed, people standing in long ATM queues dying of excessive heat, were coming in.

Nothing could be a better situation for the opposition. Yet they failed to seize the opportunity. People somehow had believed demonetization was good for the country. Observers said the poor felt the rich were suffering more than them; that people indeed believed demonization would bring better times and so on.

When the nation was still discussing whether demonetization was good or bad, UP elections arrived –  and BJP won. Whatever little flak the government was receiving from the opposition parties and the media died down. In a country where the success of policies is measured in terms of their electoral effects, there could not be a more decisive answer than a win in UP, the most politically important state in India.

Slowly cash returned to ATMs (it took roughly two months). People forgot.

But demonetization is back into news after a substantial drop in GDP has been attributed to the effects of demonetization by experts.

The following blogs will help you recollect the period after the November 8th announcement: that 500 and 1000 rupee notes would no more be legal tenders.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The I and We of Demonitization

It’s been sometime I have been at the receiving end of the effects of demonetization. I still am confused whether what the government is telling is right, that it’s today’s pain and tomorrow’s gain. Or what the opposition parties are claiming is true, that it’s not going to serve the intended purpose of eliminating black money, that it’s legalized loot, that nothing will prevent counterfeiters from counterfeiting the newly introduced notes and so on.

Whichever side of the argument you are on, a few things are very clear. It’s almost a month since  demonetization and the situation on ground is still not back to normal. Most ATMs are not functioning, barring a few located in prominent places per area. The load on these few functioning ATMs is so high, as a result, that they are running out of cash within a few hours of refill. I stood in long queues of several such ATMs and the cash ran out when my turn was two to three people away. The luckiest ones walked away with 100 rupee notes, the luckier with 2000, some (including me) had to return emptyhanded. Even if you are lucky to get some cash, there is restriction to how much you can draw. Until some time ago ATMs cards from banks other than the host bank were not working. Now they are.

Like many of you, I am tracking this development closely and have read several articles and heard some interviews. Posthumously, they say a range of things which could have prevented or at least brought down the scale of the crisis. Instead of banning both 500 and 1000 rupee notes, they say, the government could have banned one – preferably  1000 – and left the other, which would have given them time to replenish the banned notes and also the option of targeting the 500 rupee denomination later. If they had taken some time to make all the notes the same size, which is how it is in many countries, the ATM machines would not require recalibration, they say.

These ‘should have beens’ may not bother us much now that it’s too late, but at a national and personal level there are a few possible outcomes of them. The happy political consensus over GST seems to have dissipated and reorganized itself as a pan India opposition against the government over demonetization. No one seems to mind the purported goals – end of black money, cashless economy etc – of demonetization; given their lofty nature, they are slightly unchallengeable. The opposition parties seem to smell a political opportunity in how demonetization has been carried out. And that seems to be the bone of contention for the amm janta too…who may think, if the mainstream media reports are to go by, that little bit of pain is worth the long term gains. But as each day goes by without the situation coming under control, the concern that’s becoming bigger and bigger is: how long the patience will hold out?

The answer to that lies in several things. How long will the government take to pull the situation under control? How soon, in what forms and how tangibly will people see the benefits of the pain they are undergoing? How long the government will be able to prevent the growing voice of a uniting opposition into becoming a nationwide roar (something like the G scams)?

A lot of this will require perception handling. Also, as the government works towards getting things in order, care has to be taken to make sure that nothing undermines the ground which is being covered on the way to normalcy. The system has countless holes through which illegal money can travel back and forth having a termite-like effect. And there is enough evidence that this is happening. New notes worth over Rs 4 crore have been seized in income tax raids in Bengaluru. Similar incidents have been reported from other parts of the country. And there are inherent challenges. One of them is the unorganized economy in India is intricately entwined with the mainstream economy and the former is mostly (unless it is illegal) cash based.

On ground a few things need to be made smooth so that after I get a 2000 rupee note it’s easy for me to find change or there are enough 100 notes in ATMs. The number of functioning ATMs should start growing so that I don’t have to stand in queues for too long. If the problem is to linger for a few more months, then special arrangements should be made on payment days, either by pumping in more currencies or devising ways to identify and move as many as possible to crediting their stuff salary into their accounts.  None is easy. And what makes it difficult is this hydraheaded monster has to be tamed FAST.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Where Are We with Demonitization

It’s been sometime since I wrote the earlier blog on demonetization – and the situation has changed since then. We have got used to the new normal – that ATMs will not be the same again, that some visits to ATMs will be disappointing, some fruitful, that 2000 rupee notes will be in greater use than 1000 rupee denomination ever was and therefore getting it changed will always be a concern, that although a complete cashlessness may still be some years away, more and more number of small shops, the most formidable bastions of cashbased transactions, will offer digital options for payment. In sum, liquid cash will become less and less part of our day to day lives.

Well, all this is good news, but is it the whole picture or just an urban snapshot? From the reports that are emerging, rural India is still smarting under the effects of demo. A few days ago a news portal solely reporting on the effects of demonetization on rural India reported that in Maharashtra prices of some vegetables have dropped substantially due to over supply resulting from the inability of middle men to buy them due to lack of cash availability  (these transactions are almost always cashbased). Some rural regions are not receiving enough cash supply in their banks – and it’s a bigger concern in rural areas than in urban ones.

And even in urban areas, even by the standard of the new normal, order has not completely returned. Most ATMs are still out of cash. Most of those that are working are mostly dispensing Rs 2000 notes.  Many have concluded that visits to banks to draw cash via cheques is a better option than depending on ATMs; but then if that is so, then does it not defeat the whole purpose of demonetization?

By now it is undeniable that the implementation has been a disaster. How the government and various financial institutions have reacted to situations suggests they were not foreseen and planned for earlier. Surprisingly though, as it appears, demo hasn’t hurt the government politically, although many would suspend their judgement about it until UP delivers its verdict.

Apart from Modi’s thunderous speeches, what has helped the government is that the opposition continues to be hopeless. To start with, there is hardly any opposition unity. Some parties are ambiguous about their stand on demo, some are half-heartedly supporting it by maintaining silence, some are mindlessly hurling accusations none of which is sticking.

Amidst this chaos, though, one thing is becoming clear: emergence of a new order of payment methods, networks etc. The problem is how fast people can get used to the emerging order. The lightning speed with which demo was brought by the government will keep people on their toes, causing them to rush to the new transaction practices, in terms of learning them and making them an integral part of their day-to-day financial transactions.

Good or bad, this attitude towards government-brought changes is another bequest of demonetization. In the past, whenever it came to matters relating the government, people felt things would largely remain the same and they would be able to bypass the minor changes and survive the effects. Such comforting assurances have become a thing of the past.

In the meantime, stories will keep emerging, some funny, some tragic. Let us look at this one from Karnataka. To raise funds, to help a depleted exchequer, the government is invoking an old law where pubs will have to achieve a minimum target of liquor sale set by the government, falling short of the target will attract penalties.

An Encounter with a Pickpocket – short reads

Taken from pixabay

I was in a bus when I felt a hand on my trouser pocket. It was a young chap trying to slide his hand into my pocket for the five rupee note which lay crumpled in its furthest corner.

I decided to stay calm and have fun. I twitched my thigh muscles loosening my trouser so that the pickpocket could dig his hand in and fish out the note easily. The pickpocket slid his hand gently, but just when he was at the half way mark I released my muscles and gently moved the leg in his direction. He hastily withdrew his hand.

I pulled my thigh muscles again loosening the trouser inviting another attempt. The same sequence followed. We replayed the cat and mouse game three times. Finally, I decided to let go the money. It was just five rupees, I felt. I repeated the act the fourth time. He dug his hand and fished the note out.

He was slight of built – half my height, straw-thin with a narrow frame. The difference of our heights meant our eyes wouldn’t meet denying him the knowledge that I knew what he was up to. I was standing next to the exit door, he in front of me.

The bus drew up at a stop.  My attention was drawn to people boarding and unboarding it. I suddenly felt something thrown at my chest. Something light. I looked down. It was my five rupee note. I looked up – the pickpocket was getting down the bus. He turned back; our eyes met. He smiled at me disdainfully and melted into the crowd.