Why, oh why, don’t they own shoes?

If one ponders the question of why cobbler’s children often go barefoot, one comes to the obvious conclusion that cobblers are traditionally poor and cannot afford the luxury of the same shoes that they produce for others. It is not that they don’t desire shoes; only that shoes lose out in a cost-benefit analysis.

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Why loving thy enemies is a flawed strategy

Here’s a story I heard some time ago, about a farmer who consistently won the first prize for his fine crop of corn every year at the county agricultural contest. Peculiarly, after the contest he would give away the seeds of this prize-winning corn to the neighboring farmers. This puzzled some people, until someone finally asked him why he shared his good fortune. He answered, “Well, growing corn in my field requires pollen from the neighboring fields. If they don’t have good corn in their fields, I will never be able to grow good corn myself. So I give them good corn seeds.”
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The Tathagata on “It’s the small stuff, stupid”

By and large, I am coming around to the conclusion that Indians must be amongst the most hardworking people on the planet. They are not lazy. At least they are not physically lazy. If there is an easy and simple way of doing something, that is not for Indians. Find a process that is tedious, complicated, involved, and pointless — Indians apparently will not only design such a process, but for the most part accept it without a complaint.

Thus have I heard that the Tathagata once said while sitting under the bodhi tree:

Hard work and hard thinking are substitutes, O Bhikshus. The harder you think, the less hard you have to work. Conversely, O Bhikshus, the less you think, the harder you have to work. Therefore, if you find someone working very hard at some trivial task, you will find that that person has not bothered to put any thought into whatever the **ck he or she is doing. Thus the Tathagata asks you to examine whatever the **ck you design very carefully so that all sentient creatures that are involved in the process will not have to work hard and can have some spare time to contemplate the universe and attain Buddhahood just like the Tathagata did.

So there you have it. Straight from the Tathagata’s mouth. You may ask why he keeps referring to himself in the third person. Atanu doesn’t know. Must have something to do with the fact that when you are a Buddha, you are allowed to refer to yourself in the third person. Atanu always says that. And then you ask what is with that “**ck”. Well, Atanu thought that he would clean up the Tathagata’s language a bit and replace the “heck” with “**ck”.

Thus have I heard that the Tathagata continued:

The Tathagata would urge you to examine, by way of illustration, you phone bill and your gas bill. Scan your bank statement. Notice how astonishingly brainless the whole shebang is. You will note that the more brainless it is, the harder you will have to work to pay your bills or to contact your bank. Surely, O Bhikshus, enlightenment will miss those people by a mile, if not more.

I take the Tathagata seriously. I examined my MTNL phone bill and my Citibank account statement. The Citibank statement was brainless as pointed out by the Buddha. It said on the back, “Reach us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” and below that it showed an icon representing a phone with the legend “Call Citiphone”. No phone number was mentioned. Lots of fine print followed. I desperately scanned it for a phone number. Finally, right at the bottom of the page, after lots of totally pointless text, in very very fine print, it noted the number for Mumbai as “(022) 9628962890”. I called that number and was promptly told that it was not accessible.

I examined the MTNL phone bill. It was crammed full of strange information in big bold print such as:

Mudrank 0415/745/CR143/M1 dated 20-02-2004″

On the back, it listed the names of five suburbs you could pay your bill by cash or check. It did not give any addresses; just the names of the suburbs. Thankfully, it did mention the times: between “10:00 hours and 16:00 hours.” It is the customer’s job to find out where their offices are. Included with the bill were a couple of glossy inserts.

One of the glossies said:
easy payments
Convenience is now closer to home!

What was the great convenience, you may ask. They had machines at some locations in Mumbai where you can go and enter your phone number, scan the barcode on your bill, stick in your check, and get a receipt. High tech solution to a trivial problem but one that involves traveling by car, train, or bus. I expect that it would take a person about two hours on average to pay the phone bill. It has not occured to the designers of this sainted system to allow people to put their checks into an old-fashioned envelope, stick a stamp on it, and mail it to then.

I examined my Mahanagar Gas bill. Same story. You have to travel somewhere to pay the bill in person. You cannot mail in a payment. Cost of mailing a payment: Rs 2. Cost of having to pay in person: Rs 30 for tranportation plus 2 hours of time. I estimate that there are at least half a million gas customers, 5 million MTNL customers, and a few odd million other customers of various services that require payment in person. Let’s round the total number of bill payment per month in the city of Mumbai to 10 million. In a year, about 120 million bill payment transactions have to take place. Let’s do the numbers.

Transportation costs: 30 times 120 million is Rs 3.6 billion, or Rs 36 crores. Time cost: 240 million hours, or 30 million 8-hour working days. Or about 2 full working days for every man, woman, and child living in Mumbai paying utility bills. An estimate of the money cost of the time: assume that working adults spend time in paying bills and that the average productivity of Mumbai adults is Rs 50 an hour. So 50 time 240 million hours works out to Rs 120 billion or Rs 1,200 crores.

Here is the punch line: it is a numbers game. It may appear that I am going on about a trivial thing: the ability to pay utility bills by check instead of in person. But because of the numbers of people involved, it adds up rather quickly. That represents economic waste — waste that a poor country such as India cannot afford. Mumbai’s transportation systems are overloaded beyond imagination. Requiring people to travel to pay bills is asinine to put it mildly. No doubt the idiots who design the system don’t have to travel and stand in line to pay the bills perhaps. But why don’t the millions of customers complain? Because, I suspect, that they are hard working people. Unthinking certaintly but they are not lazy.

Two things keep getting reinforced in my head the more I observe India. First, the economy is not focused on how to get things done with the least effort. Maximizing effort is another side to the whole issue about employment. The focus is not on production, it is on employment. Because so much of the effort is totally pointless and wasteful, we don’t have sufficient production. Another way of stating “less production” is “more poverty”. We are poor because we don’t produce enough because we are busy doing things which could easily be avoided.

The second, the people in India have not paid sufficient attention to what the Buddha said. The Tathagata was a very sharp guy. He did not become enlightened for nothing. (This ‘nothing’ is not to be confused with the concept of shunyata or emptiness which is central to Hinduism and Buddhism.) We should heed what the man said. For instance, check out Einstein & Buddha: THE PARALLEL SAYINGS which “is an inspired effort to meet the 21st-century challenge of developing a synthetic world view” according to a reviewer. I close this one with a favorite quote from the Buddha.

Multitudinousness of objects have no reality in themselves but are only seen of the mind and, therefore, are of the nature of maya and a dream.
— Buddha

Democracy in India

Just like India is the world’s largest potential market, India is also the world’s largest potential democracy. I don’t think what we have currently in India to be a true democracy. It is what I would call a cargo cult democracy. It is instructive to examine explore the two ideas of democracy and markets in the Indian context.

First, markets. One of the most important lessons mankind has learnt is that markets work. There are, however, very important pre-conditions for markets to work. When those pre-conditions are not met, markets fail. That means, the workings of markets in the presence of failures leads to socially sub-optimal, and even harmful, outcomes. Indeed, if the necessary conditions required for markets to function are not met, market fundamentalism can lead to positively disastrous results.

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Dollar Auctions and Deadly Games

Some years ago during the Kargil episode, I had analysed the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir as a dollar aution (DA)and written a piece called Dollar Auctions and Deadly Games.

I believe that the model has interesting implications and is worth pondering. The DA game involves the auctioning of a dollar bill similar to an ordinary auction where the winner gets the dollar but with the special requirement that the second highest bidder has to pay the second highest bid amount to the auctioneer.
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As India Develops

My business partner at Deeshaa, Rajesh Jain has been focusing his Tech Talks under the heading As India Develops where discusses challenges and opportunities along the road to a developed India. The topics he introduces in these series of Tech Talks lie at the core of what needs to be done for India’s transition from an underdeveloped to a developed economy.

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India’s primary concerns

The Slimes Times of India is a widely read English newspaper in India. It perhaps reflects the concerns, the choices, the culture, and the mindset of those whom I refer to as the residents of India (as opposed to the residents of Bharat, the larger non-English speaking rural population). The print edition of the paper lands on my desk every morning.
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Nani Palkhivala’s Vision for India

This weblog is about India’s development as seen from my personal viewpoint. Like many others, I too have a vision for India although it is not as well known as the famous Vision 2020. Among all the visions that I have had the privilege to see, Nani Palkhivala’s has resonated the most with what my vision is.

I had found it on the usenet some years ago. Unfortunately, now I cannot trace exactly when it was that Nani delivered this address to the Australian College of Defence and Strategic Studies. Most likely it from around 1999. I include it here, for the record.