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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Economics of a Rikshaw Puller in Delhi

On my recent trip to Delhi, I had the opportunity to travel in a cycle rickshaw (the Metro-town connections are still not good in some places like Dwarka) and I chatted up with all the rickshaw pullers I engaged with to try and understand their economic condition.

Turns out that they earn anywhere between Rs. 100 and Rs. 150 per day. Assuming an average of Rs. 125, they end up earning Rs. 3750 per month. Their monthly rents vary between Rs. 800-Rs. 1100 a month. Again, an average of about Rs. 1000 for accommodation and a Rs. 1000 for food (around the consensus figure) and some miscellaneous expenses, leaves them saving about Rs. 1200 per month. The guys I spoke to, shared their income with their families back home, but they admitted that end up sending something around Rs. 1000 a month for their families. So, as per my suspicion, it doesn't leave much for their families to survive on, forget the option of providing a brighter future for their children.

Those who had families in Delhi struggled even more with the incomes that they wished that their families could stay back in villages.

There was however one silver lining. All of them I spoke to, end up renting the rickshaws from the owner. That rent alone is about Rs. 30 per day. This amount includes the cost of a rickshaw plus any major repairs that might be needed, but any minor repairs will have to be borne by the puller himself. The owner also provides for 3 off-days, whether you take it or leave it, which means he has to pay only for 27-28 days of rent in a month. If you factor that in, that is Rs. 840 a month that the rickshaw puller could potentially save.

The average cost of a Rickshaw is anywhere between Rs. 8000-9000, which can easily serve a puller for anywhere around 10 years, and probably more. This cost can be recovered from the rent he saves for a year. So, for the next 9 years, he gets to save something around Rs. 750 more (I am setting aside Rs. 90 a month towards the expense of "major" repairs) per month for 9 years. That effectively increases the net income for the family back in the village by 75% potentially paving the way for a brighter future for the next generation.

Then, if the above mathematics looks reasonable to you, then you will agree that this funding fits the bill for a micro-finance institution, like RangDe, to step in. It is well within the standard investment levels they make. The return payments for the first year can be the rent that they are already used to and then once the repayment is done in full, the rickshaw is for the pullers to use.

Any hurdles? Yes. Lobbies. The rickshaw owners (the ones who rent out the rickshaws) are sort of local overlords with deep connections into the local political circuit. They wouldn't want these pullers to become self-sufficient, since it kills their golden geese. So, what is needed for RangDe to function in this space is a field partner that can potentially counter the owners through educating the rickshaw pullers and providing them with logistics help to make their experience smooth.

Will RangDe take up such an initiative? Anybody else?

(Disclaimer: The facts presented here are from a few interviews only, but there is enough consistency from different pullers and the lack of a motivation to lie about it, that I believe it is representative.)

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

RangDe follow up at the end of the 2010

In April this year, I wrote about how you can distribute any investments you make on RangDe and in effect reduce your risk of defaults. I was convinced this arrangement was very close to the right mix for anybody wishing to make investments. So, I had started toying around with the idea of gradually investing to see how the money came back and figure out any other thorny issues that could arise.

I am glad to announce that I have made a total of 104 investments amounting to Rs. 32,000 so far, almost all of it happening within the past 9-10 months. Out of this, Rs. 4,600 is through re-investments with direct inputs of Rs. 27,400. I have now stabilized around contributing Rs. 5000 every month, which funds about 10-15 entrepreneurs. The money generally comes back in 12 months, and so on an average, expect about 7-8% of your total investment to come back every money and hence available for re-investments.

What does these numbers mean? On an average, most Indian rural entrepreneurs ask (or get approved for) about Rs. 5000-7500 meaning that this amount might have touched 5-6 people's funding requirements. They might have grown out of the clutches of the money lender, albeit only for a bit.

In general, there is no dearth for enterprising folks in rural India, but they are severely handicapped by the lack of funding and infrastructure. Towards the funding issue, a peer-to-peer lending arrangement charging about 8% simple interest from the entrepreneurs looks like a good arrangement for me. If I did not do this, this money would be lying around in a bank, EPF, PPF account on utilized in the stock market, probably growing at a better rate (the effective money that the lender gets back is 2.5%, the rest goes to RangDe and the field partners), but the satisfaction in contributing towards "Knocking out poverty", which is RangDe's tagline seemed too tempting to pass. Hence the consistent association.

Did I bother when there was the controversy regarding MFIs and suicides? Somewhat, but when I started reading, I realized that much of it seemed related to pure-MFIs at play, like SKS, and not with Peer-to-peer lending arrangements like RangDe (though it could spread out, but let's forget it for now) and with enough vested interests from the moneylender lobby, who stand to gain when a controversy erupts against MFIs, I decided to apply my judgment and instinct to decide that I want to continue supporting MFIs. I could be proven wrong, but that's a risk one has to take.

How did I arrive at the Rs. 5000 p.m. investment number? At around SGD5 per meal on an average per day for lunch, I spend SGD100 per month. If you add in the cost for my teh-halia-kurang-mani-takeaway (ginger tea, less sugar, take away), Rs. 5000 is what I end up feeding myself just during the day for a month. Surely, if the same amount can be put to somebody's good use, why not? It also seemed morally prudent to contribute back to the society rather than increase my own standard of living, so instead of upgrading myself to SGD10 meals per day, I would chose spending it on improving somebody's life. Makes sense, doesn't it?

What next? I want the total investment I make to Rs. 100,000 which seems a few months away. Around that number, it seems that the paybacks will be enough to sustain a little micro-cycle of investments. At that point, I am going to review my strategy.

Anything else I learnt? To remember that this is not charity. This is using your money to improve somebody else' life and getting that money back. So, I consciously try to call the beneficiaries as entrepreneurs and not as borrowers, which seems right. They are taking money against a business purpose, be it cattle raising, vegetable selling etc, and not for marrying off their daughters or on hooch. And I want to respect that intent. I wished everybody else looked at it the same way.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

EPFO: Urgent need for reforms

The good old Employees Provident Fund Organization (EPFO), which has successfully enabled a comfortable retirement of millions of middle class professionals in India for generations is in desperate need of a serious round of reforms. For the uninitiated, EPFO is the primary agency for providing social security in India. Your employer deducted a percentage (around 12-13%) of your salary, added their own contribution, sent it to the EPFO and when you retired, EPFO gave that and the interest it gained back to you. It also allowed you to take out loans out of that contribution for certain, specific needs, such as a down payment for a house or marrying off your children.

All is good, right? No. The devil is in the details. Let me throw some light on the problems and see what we can do about this.

  • The first problem is that EPFO assumes that the relationship between you and your company (that of employment) is a constant. It worked for the past 60 years where people worked in the same company for their lifetimes (my father did), but it is a woefully misplaced assumption in today's world (I have been through 5 employers in my 7th year of employment). The EPFO current records your account on the basis of a company/employee basis. So if you joined a new company, you started off a new company/employee account and requested to transfer your funds from the previous account. This is unnecessary. The accounts should be opened in the name of individuals and let the companies ask for that account number and let them credit the money there. This will also solve the problem where the companies have to expend energies dealing with PF accounts which can be put to better use.
  • The EPFO allowed companies to either manage the corpus themselves (through trust funds) or let the EPFO do it. This choice, hoping that trusts would do a better job in handling the money and fetch better returns, I guess, was the reason why accounts were company/employee based and not individual based. In the new world, where the average size of employers is coming down, this privilege can be used by none other than a few employers (read Govt of India, Indian Railways.) It might be time to rethink this arrangement - do we need it? If so, then let the EPFO make special deals with those employers and work it out - no need to saddle the rest of the country with structural liabilities because of this.
  • Currently, if a company wishes to liquidate, they have to spend time dealing with transferring the PF accounts of all former-employees to their new employers. This is a unnecessary waste of resources. With the above suggestion of opening accounts in individual names, this problem should go away.
  • The option of "Withdrawing" your PF contribution if you leave your company should be scrapped. I understand that you want to use your PF contribution in case you are jobless, but the current options allows you to do it even when you are just shifting jobs. I understand that you are taxed when you withdraw, but that seems a retro-fit arrangement for a broken system. Here is what EPFO should do:
    • If you are re-employed within say 3 months, no withdrawals allowed.
    • If you are not re-employed within the first 3 months, then you should be allowed to withdraw parts of your contribution every month. What that percentage is, can be debated, and I am going with half your last drawn basic salary.
    • Since you are not withdrawing the entire amount, taxing this is pretty much useless - so let is just be non-taxed. As it is the individual is unemployed, why bother taxing him on the output? If the Govt. feels that this is abused, then they can let this be taxed as any other income.
    • As soon as one gets a new job, and the EPFO receives a contribution from the new employer for this individual, stop letting the employee withdraw any more money from his account.
  • And lastly, the EPFO is the perfect example of lack of transparency. Individuals cannot easily find their balance. What if the company hasn't been making the contributions as promised? There is some talk about online access to accounts, but it is normally a few months old figure. What if your company fudged it in the last few months? In the age where even small financial companies let you see every transaction in real time, the largest social security organization in India giving out months old information is purely unacceptable.
  • Also, individuals should be able to make voluntarily contributions directly to the EPFO. Currently, this goes through the employer, but for the same reasons mentioned above, this doesn't make sense. Individuals should be able to walk up to the EPFO counter and drop a cheque (or do it online.)
  • Strangely enough, the PPF scheme administered by SBI and others in India, has solved all these problems. It doesn't seem like such a bad idea to let the EPFO to be administered exactly like that with slight modifications (like having a Rs. 70000 limit as is currently applicable in PPF accounts.)
  • Lastly, as we have caught the attention of the PPF scheme, the limit of Rs. 70000 looks really really old. That number needs to go up, in step with the increased income levels - it is a very useful scheme.
I understand that the above doesn't cover all the edge cases, but I guess it could prove to be a starting point for a healthier EPFO - which is a necessity and not a luxury. Hope the EPFO does something about it.

(ps: Very interesting stub on wikipedia on the challenges faced by the EPFO - a must read addendum.)

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Bithoor and some notes on the Ayodhya matter

I am sure you must have heard about the Ayodhya verdict - one which has attempted to resolve a long standing dispute between Hindus & Muslims about the Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Masjid site. Thankfully enough, the verdict was considered fair enough that all the parties have maintained civility and peace in a nation not so well know for civility.

But, do you know Bithoor? Bithoor is a small village of purportedly great significance to Hindus - it is believed that Lord Brahma sat there and created the universe and hence it is considered the "center of universe" or Brahmavarta. Unless you studied in IITK, which is incidentally located close enough to Bithoor and located far enough from almost all other places resembling recreation, and hence forced to visit it over a bicycle ride or a scooter ride (as my parents did when they came to visit me at IITK after borrowing it from my senior Vaibhav Krishna), there is little chance you might have heard about it.

Apart from the religious significance, there is also some historical significance, specially in association with India's freedom struggle with stays by Rani Lakshmi Bai and Baji Rao Peshwa II during their attempts to free the country. So, one would assume that it would be a well maintained tourist and religious attraction, right? Of course not.

The last I visited it, it was in total shambles with little or no maintenance. Nobody (ASI or the Hindu Mahasabha) had promoted it or bothered to put up informational signs. The way to reach there from say the nearest railway station or airport was extremely chaotic. The Ganges, which flows by it is as dirty as you can expect it to be after it accepts the dirtiest and most polluted by-products of human inhabitation and that inhabitation's attempt to survive through industries which are inconsiderate to everything except short term survival.

Bithoor is but one example of such neglected places. Try taking a bath in the Ganges at Haridwar (the last I attempted it in 1998 left me with skin rashes for 6 months) or try staying hygienic in one of the other places of Hindu pilgrimage and you will know what I mean.

The Hindu Mahasabha has spent tons of money and time to fight out the Ayodhya case, and still, has little inclination to improve such places. Why? Just because there is a dispute with Muslims, Ram Janmabhoomi is more important than other places of worship? You probably guess where I am going here. Ayodhya isn't about religions, but it is about politicians. Ayodhya isn't about worship, but about the hunt for power. It is just a means for firing up the emotions of countless Hindus and Muslims, even sacrificing a few at the altar, just so that certain others can either gain or hold power.

And just to complete the picture, if you believe that this politicizing is only at the Hindu end, think twice. I am sure there are Masjids around the country being neglected as money was poured by the Waqf board to fight for the Babri Masjid.

Such is our society. And unfortunately, apart from declining to participate in the hypocrisy, there is little else you, and I, can do.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Quick updates - Change of Jobs, Mukul Deva's books, Frasier etc

I have somehow managed to stay away for so long from blogging despite having many thoughts that I wanted to put into words. In an attempt to break away from the rut, I will put together a few quick updates from my side.

As most of you might know by now, I have left Yahoo after almost 3 years with them and moved to Vocanic. It was quite a good experience working with some very talented people there while also being a part of a large family that gave support in more ways than one. It was probably the toughest departure of my life, but I believed, with strong conviction, that the time had come for such a move. I will have more to say about my experience there, but for now, I will close this by saying that I am very excited to be at Vocanic and looking forward to flexing my brains towards a different set of challenges there.

I have been reading a bit recently, but the most remarkable reads of the recent past has been the books "Lashkar" & "Salim must die" by Mukul Deva. Both are remarkably well written books. Well researched, racy and written with focus both on action and philosophy, the two books are precisely the kind of books I'd like to read from Indian authors in the future, not the kind of new age crap that is getting served out sometimes.

On the movies/TV front, I have managed to watch many seasons of Frasier, all picked from library@esplanade. I have always liked the show, but watching them back to back has left me liking the series even more and I believe that the 8.5 stars it is holding on to at imdb is totally justified.

In other news, I am somewhat disappointed that our cricket team had a rather dismal performance in a tournament so close, both in time as well as conditions aspects, to WC'11. Before any big tournament, the general hope is that their countrymen will lift the trophy and the Indian team have been arguably in the rough range where a few good performances could have led to a positive result and hence justifying the hope. This time, I am not sure if I should be hopeful at all. At this rate, any decent result (like reaching the SF) would be a very great achievement and winning seems too far away. But things could change. For the positive. Let us hope for the same.

I guess the consolation is that we do not seem to be as steeped in controversy as our brothers from across the border seem to be.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Meter Jam and my proposal to fix the Auto menace

So, today was Meter Jam day in Bangalore, an attempt to protest against Auto drivers in Bangalore. (For the uninitiated friends of Singapore, you might know them as tuk-tuks.) It is a noble attempt and if I were in town, I would have definitely supported. But there was probably no need for me to do so anyway, since I was in a constant Meter-Jam-State (MTS) all through out my stay there. And the reason for being in MTS was not because I wanted to be in MTS, but simply because it was too demeaning to try and hire an Auto. I shouldn't have to tell my life history and still bargain the hell out of my brains just for doing something as mundane as commute from point A to point B.

I wish every success to Meter Jam, but a part of me feels it won't be successful. Rather than focus on explaining why "a part of me" arrived at that conjecture, let me proceed on to something radical - a theory on how the menace of overcharging and under-plying of Autos might actually be fixed.

Ban Auto-Stands.

And now that I have made you sit up - let me try to explain my thought. The way an Auto driver operates today is to wait for exactly the right fare that he wishes - be it to the right destination or be it the right price, and then waits at an Auto stand or at some crossroad till he gets comfortable enough to go. Now, if he is in a clearly defined Auto Stand (as against de facto stands that crop up in major cross roads), he is also swayed by the idea of standing with other drivers and forming a union-like structure where they can decide to charge as per their wishes.

The big incentive for the driver while waiting is that he is not spending anything except his time, which considering the average earnings of Auto drivers, is not costly, while the returns, in terms of a premium fare is fairly reasonable.

With the proposal I make, Auto drivers cannot stand anywhere, but they will be forced to keep plying empty till they don't find a fare. This way, the cost of not picking the next upcoming fare while waiting for the premium fare is not just the driver's time, but also the cost of running his vehicle in the meanwhile, which is significantly higher.

For the commuters, since the Autos are going to be driving around, there is every possibility they will find an Auto where they want one rather than having to find the nearest standing one. This is definitely a big plus for the commuters, apart from getting Autos who ply at the prescribed fares.

The pertinent question, then, is wouldn't it reduce the overall profit margins of all the drivers in the city and drive them to poverty? No. The simple reason being that once the Autos are willing to come down to plying at the prices set by the city and not demand any more, then more commuters would be happy to use their service instead of replacing it with he next available commute option and hence increasing the overall revenues for the drivers.

What's the source of this thought? Singapore taxis. The cabs in Singapore are not allowed, by law, to stop at any place. They are supposed to be driving around. And then it stuck me that it is a good ecosystem for both the drivers and commuters.

There are many other nice features of the cab ecosystem in Singapore that ensures the good service they provide, but I feel that if Indian city governments can bring about this one change and enforce it, then it has the potential to make a significant difference.

Any thoughts?

[ps: The 3 comments I see so far on this blog are also interesting. If you got a few more minutes, read them as well.]

[pps: After commenting on this blog, Deppe went a wrote a fresh blog which generated a lot of interesting thoughts. Check that out as well.]

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Potatoes and Ravi Bhaiyya

[Author's Note: This blog was originally written in Feb, 2010 on my tech blog by mistake and in the interest of consolidating my general blogs from the tech ones, I am migrating this here. ]

I was at the neighborhood NTUC and the wifey wanted to pick up potatoes. Now, every indian knows that potatoes are a key ingredient in Indian vegetarian cuisine and every time I make a visit to the vegetable store, potatoes are in the list, along with tomatoes and onions, of course. But to my surprise, there were no potatoes, not even one, zilch. That was an absolute shocker. As it is I have been cribbing about the potatoes being super costly in this Island, but not finding one was too much for me, and my wife's culinary future, which was now in uncertain land, to take. So, we threw caution to the winds, and our loyalty to NTUC up into smoke, and decided to hunt for potatoes elsewhere.

We finally found some not-so-good-looking-but-who-cares-for-vanity-in-an-emergency potatoes at a mom and pop store nearby and my wife's heart, which had stopped functioning the moment she saw the potato counter empty at the NTUC, started chirping away nice and easy.

But, once potatoes come into limelight, I have to relate the anecdote of a certain Ravi Bhaiyya. It was the year 1995, and I was still in high school when an unfortunate demise in the family had lead my parents to head to Chennai leaving me in Delhi. But they found Ravi Bhaiyya, who was brother of Omkar Bhaiyya, who was physiotherapist or Sharma Aunty, who was wife of Sharma Uncle, who was a long time friend and senior of my dad. Ravi Bhaiyya had just moved into the capital to pursue a career in theatre and he didn't mind baby sitting me for the time my parents were gone.

My parents assured me that Ravi Bhaiyya could cook and if I helped him out, things should be smooth sailing. Well, it wouldn't have been smooth had it not been for a tiny glitch - Ravi Bhaiyya COULD NOT cook any shit without potato. Seriously. He had to cut in, boil in or mash in potatoes into EVERY single edible thing he had ever created in the insides of anything resembling a kitchen. He could cook the potatoes with anything - tomatoes, onions, eggplant, cauliflower, cabbage and diversify the potatoes with dishes like Kashmiri Aloo, Dum Aloo, Dari wale Aloo and various other incarnations, but never without it. It got so bad that the neighborhood subziwala stopped selling us potatoes in the suspicion that we were hoarding them. Only our innocent faces and smiling demeanor prevented us from getting arrested.

And for somebody who was brought up on the concept of balanced diet and green vegetables and neo shit like that, I just couldn't take the potatoes. Thankfully, Ravi Bhaiyya had a great voice and he practiced his singing every now and then and his beautiful renditions of hindi songs of 60s and 70s, which I totally digged, smoothed me out. Else, I was gonna murder the dude, by stuffing his potatoes into his throat.

From Ravi Bhaiyya's favorite song:

Teri duniya se hoke mazboor chala
main bahut door bahut door bahut door chala 

ps: Ravi Bhaiyya finally succeeded to get into mainstream theatre by the time of our last meeting, which was many years ago, but we have, unfortunately enough, lost touch with each other since. If you happened to know a dude from Bhaliya, who could sing and act well, and could not cook without packing in a few pounds of potato, tell him to read this blog and leave a comment. :-)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Something to ponder about

If you haven't read it yet - the son of a shoemaker - Abhishek Kumar Bhartiya - has made it through IIT with a fantastic rank. Having failed at an attempt at IITJEE and then consequently ending up at IIT and having seen how difficult life is for even a middle class student in India is, I can appreciate the achievement of coming from his background and making it through JEE exams and the subsequent opportunities he would have in improving the life of his family, and potentially the society around him. Hearty congratulations to him and I wish him all the very best.

Having said that, I want to show you a picture of his family (minus the father) (photo source: Rediff.com):

Do you spot anything odd here? Anything at all?

I do - I see a family of four kids - been conceived by a shoemaker somewhere in the early 90s time period. Let's dissect it a bit. Coming from his background, the shoemaker wouldn't have had too much money to survive and afford a reasonable, hygienic lifestyle for himself, but he thought nothing of procreating 4 kids.

And he did it despite the time being 1990s (the eldest son should be around 18 and hence I am backtracking his procreation dates to 90s), which was about a decade and a half after Sanjay Gandhi had become infamous for pushing family planning. By early 1990s, as a 10-12 old kid, I was exposed to so much messaging about family planning that I fail to believe that he didn't see it, unless he was in a cave all along.

And even the standard explanation of "he wanted a son" doesn't stand here. All his children were sons - so that doesn't work too.

So, in a society where the government clearly is warning against having too many babies, and when you can't afford it, and when you have procreated 2 sons already, you still go ahead and have 2 more babies!

Now, let me be clear - this kind of behavior isn't isolated to this person, or to this strata of the society, or to this time period. (Even a classmate of mine decided to have 3 kids well into the 2000s AFTER being educated at IIT). I am just trying to highlight the fact if this is the mentality of our populace, we don't have much chance of improving our nation. We should at least learn to do what our government is telling us, whose benefits are clearly beyond doubt.

But in a country, where people routinely die (and quite often kill others) because they don't have the basic sense of following traffic rules laid out by the government, I guess I am asking for too much.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The good books from new wave of Indian authors

When I wrote last time about the new Indian authors not setting high standards for themselves when setting out to write, I felt that I was only saying one side of the story. There is the other side of the coin - one where authors produce a good story, where they use good grammar and employ sound research on any facts/situations they might be writing about. So, which books were those?

Top of my list:

  • Both "If God was a Banker" & "Devil in Pinstripes" from Ravi Subramanian.
  • "Keep the Change" by Nirupama Subramanian (I don't think she is related to Ravi in anyway)
  • "A Romance with Chaos" by Nishant Kaushik
Both of Ravi's books are written in a racy style with well carved out characters etched in the world of banking. I was so often so immersed in the stories that I found myself wishing to be a lifer with New York International Bank (NYIB), the setting for both the books. Both were unputdownable. Ravi concentrates more on the stories and how they evolve. Places and emotions are described less, but the context of every scene was well laid out. I enjoyed both of them.

"Keep the Change", is this hilarious book about, presumably, a Tam Brahm lady from Chennai transforming herself into a career woman in Bombay trying to find love on the way. If you happen to be a Tam Brahm, the comedy presented in the story is just amazing. There were more than one occasion when the other commuters in the train, where I have my date with books, could hear a loud laugh or watch a wide grin. A must read for a Tam Brahm or those who are in relationship with one. A compelling read for others too.

Nishant Kaushik has taken simple settings of a standard software company, adding in characters of all hues, each trying to achieve their own goals. The characters are all well built up and complemented each other. The turns in the story were quite unpredictable and my best attempts to guess what might be coming were thwarted by Nishant's imaginative sequences. The philosophical dilemma, under which the protagonist is lost, as well as the possible outcomes were well presented, without it being dumbed down, nor making it too complex that the reader had to flex his brain muscles too much.

All in all, these reads were definitely worth the money I spent on them.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Circle line and confusion at Paya Lebar station

Its been almost a month since the Circle Line of the Singapore train system was opened connecting Marymount to Dhoby Ghaut and more importantly connecting Nicoll Highway, Suntec City and the Esplanade areas to the rest of the island through trains. Previously, you had to walk anywhere between 10-20 mins to get to City Hall/Bugis stations to catch a train. More importantly, with a twisted set of one way paths, bus support and frequency was also nothing to talk home about. So, in all, huge win for these localities. (Yahoo's office is in Suntec city and hence I was overjoyed to have the link, though we are relocating to a traditionally connected part of the city very soon.)

However, what has baffled me has been the design of the Paya Lebar station on the circle line. They have 4 platforms serving three lines. Two of them being the standard up and down links, but a third line to connect Marymount to Paya Lebar. I caught up with the staff at the station and they explained that the purpose was to increase the frequency of that section during peak hours.

I don't get it. Seriously. I don't get it at all. Not one bit. Here are the problems I see with it:

  • Why should a higher frequency service be limited only to that section of the line? Why not extend it all the way? Every single day, during the peak hours, I have to wait 5-6 minutes to catch the train at one of the most important business centers of the city (Suntec City). 
  • It creates confusion at the Paya Lebar station itself. On one aisle, board any train and you head the same direction, and stand on the second aisle and the chances of you missing the next train for your destination (towards Marymount) is very high since the next train could be from the other aisle.
  • Boarding and alighting a train is generally one of the tasks needing minimum flexing of your brain muscles. But if you are coming from Marymount and heading to Suntec, not only do you need to worry about which train to take (terminating at Paya Lebar or Dhoby Ghaut) but also about changing the train though all you are doing is extending your journey on the same path. (If I have guests from outside of Singapore, I tell them to take the train since there is no confusion involved, but I will reserve the judgment when it comes to connecting them to the Circle Line).
  • All this confusion also means that SMRT has to place staff at the aisles all the time, which is a permanent drain on the company's resources. Add to it the constant announcements they make to indicate "the train on the middle platform terminates it's service at Marymount" making it the noisiest and busiest stations in the city, pretty much for no reason.
Personally, I believe it is one of those cases where a simple and elegant solution (higher frequency for the entire route) would have been orders of magnitude better than a more complicated solution. 

Monday, May 10, 2010

Thoughts about wave of new Indian fiction writers

I have spent the last few months reading a lot of new Indian authors - all product of the "post-Chetan Bhagat era", which instilled a confidence in professionals of various hues that they can all narrate interesting stories and that there was an audience waiting for them. And I am talking about Anuja Chauhan, Tushar Raheja, Abhijit Bhaduri, Nishant Kaushik, Neeraj Chibba and the likes. And this post is a few initial thoughts about such books.

Firstly, the good thing is that most of the authors are drawing upon stories from their own life experiences or their knowledge of their industry or profession and it is a welcome peek into fields and backgrounds that would have otherwise been difficult to grasp. (Would you get to know about living and studying in Russia? Would you happen to be an Advertising executive?) Its akin to peeking into the American Law field through the prism of John Grisham novels. The other good thing is that some of these stories, though spiced with drama obviously demanded by a wide audience fiction publication, is a reflection of what a lot of us have gone through in our lives - struggles with education, jobs, relationship, money and so on, and not at a superficial level, but at a level that I can easily appreciate.

That said, I feel there is a lot that this generation of authors need to learn. One of which is that writing clear English with proper grammar is a must. You can let a character talk SMS-speak, but you can't write a novel in a that lingo. Thats just pathetic, for lack of a diplomatic word to express my frustration. I read one novel which was full of "...". Every single page had 2-3 of these. To believe that a professional editor let this be published without demanding that it be corrected speaks very poorly of the quality of editors we have. (That novel is successful enough to boast of being a "National Bestseller" and has a "Special Anniversary Edition")

I know that we live in an era where the newspaper with most circulation, Times of India, is so full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, starting from the first page, on every single day's publication, that it is clear that values such as proper English is too much to ask for, but to believe that the nation, which so thrives on it being a good English speaking populace for its global interactions, can get away with filling up popular fiction genre with pure junk is completely unacceptable. We shall pay for this when the next generation of our workforce comes with no understanding of what a proper english sentence is, while other countries, who aren't there now, will undoubtedly get better than us.

The more frustrating attribute for me is the lack of basic research by any of these authors. You can't blame some of the newbies when a hugely successful Chetan Bhagat can get away from wide gaps in his  research. I read another book where the Indian cricket team suffered an upset defeat in the third round of a knock-out tournament by Bermuda. What wasn't explained was how Bermuda got to the third round.
I know that fiction is about exercising creative freedom, and that creative freedom as exhibited in Bollywood, our primary source of expression, is taken to extremes, but an intelligent set of readers, as I believe our readers are, would be better served by a set of authors who take their research and their fiction seriously enough for it to be gripping stories of coincidences and extraordinary events, all of which shall be explained nevertheless.

Or am I asking for too much?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

BCs MCs and colorful Delhi

You think you are a Delhiite because you were born in Delhi? Or perhaps because you were raised there? Or perhaps because you spent your best years there? Or perhaps because you found love/success/money there?

I don't give a damn. The only way to be identified as a true blue Delhiite is by the quality of the B****-***ds and the M****-***ds that you can hurl at people. Quality is defined by the intonation, attitude, eye moment etc projected at the time of delivery of the said honorable statements.

Nothing replaces a good BC or an MC. Not even C*****a or for that matter B****di-ke. Only wusses who don't have the guts to say BC or MC use C..a anyway.

So, now that you know that saying that is the key ingredient to assimilating yourself into the Delhi crowd, you need to know how to perfect it (The number of "that"s in the sentence boggles my mind).
  • Don't say it too fast - shows nervousness and lack of ambition.
  • Don't make the "d" silent while saying it, shows that you don't care about doing it right.
  • Even more wrongly, don't replace the last d with a k, as a honorable woman close-to-me does. It shows you never cared to learn the words right.
  • Don't look down while saying it - again shows you are a rookie.
And of course, the right way to say it is to give a short pause for dramatic effect, then to utter it slowly and intentionally stressing on each vowel and consonant (some thing like B X X X X - X X X D), while looking the audience in the eye and then giving another short pause to complete the dramatic effect. Your audience shall demand an encore, I promise.

That's what makes you a true blue Delhiite. I must know - because I am one. And while you are it, try staying out of my way for the next few days as I wander north of the Vindhyas, but south of Himalayas, in a full mood to practice the art I had perfected during school and college days, but don't exercise often enough these days because of my habitation in a more firangi environment.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Use RangDe to distribute your microfinancing investments

I tried RangDe, an online micro-credit intermediary a while back. The idea is simple: You chose a borrower to whom you provide an investment of anywhere between Rs. 3000 - Rs. 5000 (USD66-USD110 for the rupee-challenged) for some very poor, but entrepreneurial borrowers in rural India who repay the amount with interest to you over a period of about a year or more. RangDe keeps a share of the interest (I presume that it is to cover the expense of running the operation) and passes on the rest of the interest to you, which you can chose to keep, invest back or waive off completely.

The purpose of the site for people like me, is not to make interest (it is quite low anyway), but to help the poorest of the poor, who shall otherwise be devoid of a source of capital. We all know that micro-credit actually works, in spite of being no guarantees to hold the borrower to and it enables some of the poorest people in making their lives better ("livable" would be a better word).

I wanted to invest, but the catch was that there is a 3% failure rate, which means if your borrower happens to be in that 3%, your money goes kaput. And that was precisely the reason that I didn't venture into it.

When I visited the same site recently, I found a nice feature. Every borrower's requirement can be split into multiples of Rs. 100 (USD 2.2) each and sourced from multiple investors and you in turn can chose to break you intended investments into many borrowers. You spread your risk and the borrower still gets the money.

As soon as I saw that feature, I made my first investment (tiny amount) to test the waters and have now pledged my second round of a slightly higher number. My first investment will be in the borrower's hands in 2 weeks time, but I am eagerly waiting for the repayments to start coming in, which obviously is a good source to make further investments from.

This is not a comparative review and I am led to believe that there are other such sites like Dhanax, United Prosperity (which has a guarantee based model) and Kiva (Global micro financing), but rather a post on how you can spread your micro finance investments and feel safe in sponsoring some budding entrepreneurs. I might test the others in coming days to see how they compare to RangDe.

[As much as it happens to be posted on April 1st, no fooling is involved in this post. :)]

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A techie equivalent of Sachin's innings

Some of my non-cricket-following colleagues won't understand all the fuss about Sachin Tendulkar's historic feat of scoring a 200* in a innings in an ODI. So, I am going to take a shot at converting it into a programmers achievement to see if I can make get across to them. Here it goes:

Imagine you are a programmer who has mastery over any one programming language (take your pick). Now, there is a guy or gal who comes in the morning and gives you a spec, one which may take about 1000-1200 lines of code in a highly structured language (e.g. Java) and less if you can use a concise language. You have to implement this in exactly one day with only two breaks allowed - 20 mins for lunch and 15 mins for coffee in the evening. You are not allowed any references (Internet and types). You have to implement the spec - but the catch is that you have to write it in one go - you can keep editing the same line as many times as you want, but once you press enter, you are committed to keeping that line. You compilation is allowed to fail only once, but as long as it keeps compiling, you can keep redoing it.

For starters, imagine that you are given the same spec every single day and you have keep opportunities to master it out (a la net practice), but on the actual judgment day, you can be given any random spec.

Now that you get the context, Sachin Tendulkar, in equal terms, was given the spec to write the real time OS for the next space shuttle and he did it, in one go, without his compilation ever failing, with only those breaks. Thats why all we cricket fans are creating such a fuss.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

[Summary Post]: HK holiday, iPad and Parents in Singapore

Many apologies for not posting for such a long time. It has been a rather interesting period since my last post, but I have just not come around to writing about any of it. In the past 5 weeks since I wrote about my mexican food experience, a lot happened, but I am going to do a quick summary (and probably come back to address a particular experience in detail later on):

  • I took my wifey out for a 4 day holiday to Hong Kong. Hong Kong was superb. The location, climate, geography, look and feel, transportation and the overall outlook makes it a great urban destination. Having come to Singapore earlier as tourists, and with the general perception as HK and Singapore being similar cities, owing to their past as British colonies and both being successful city-states, the comparison between the two became an obsession for us on the trip, and the conclusion we arrived at was the HK was a far better destination.
  • The iPad got launched and as with the general sentiment, I am confused on its prospects - useful device for moms and dads or an useless device lacking in basic features.
  • My parents made the trip across the Indian Ocean and into Singapore for a week long visit to the island during the Chinese New Year time (which also happened to be our first ever CNY celebrations) and they had a nice time in Singapore. I hope they finally understand why I decided to make the move from Bangalore to Singapore. 
More as I find time (and topic) to write.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A foodie note on Mexican food in a food court in Singapore

One of my colleagues had been raving about a mexican stall in a kopitiam food court near Dhoby Ghaut. He had even lead a bunch of other colleagues to the place last week. It was enough of a incitement for me to try out the same. So, on a sunday afternoon, after a lazy morning, me and the missus got our lazy bums out of the house and took the MRT to Dhoby Ghaut station. I knew that it was somewhere between there and SMU, but we didn't have an exact address, and it was searing hot and humid and we were both quite hungry. We did find a kopitiam at the intersection of Bencoolen and Bras Basah, but we didn't find a mexican stall, and so we kept going further ahead. The Maps app on the iPhone showed another kopitiam a block away on the left and so we thought that must be it. It wasn't. Actually, there was no kopitiam. Curses to the Google Maps ensued and sighs from the missus followed. Not.Good.Signs.

Then, I decided to disturb AK, my said colleague and he promised that the last he saw the stall, it was still in the same kopitiam that we found at the intersection of B & BB. Now, my wife dispensed curses aimed at me. By now, I had this ominous feeling that Murphy was playing strange games with us, punishing us hard for dreaming to eat Mexican food.

We trodded back to the same place and on careful investigation, found a place called "EXICANTACOBAR", not really a mexican place, but if you looked carefully, you would notice a sombrero hiding an "M" and on even more careful observation, you could see a space between N & T and O & B. So, there we were, two Indians staring at a caucasian lady in a Singapore food court looking for Mexican food.

We asked her for vegetarian options and the kind lady suggested we have quesadillas and burritos and suggested that one serving of each should be good enough, with the quesadillas normally more than good enough for one person. We settled for those options, waited for the food to arrive, and broke into them like a pair of hungry wolves. Those two dishes were gone in 60 seconds, and we had to order a plate of fajitas to get us close to two full stomachs. 20 minutes and 20 singapore dollars later, we had eaten our best food for a long long time. This was the one time we weren't eating Indian food (I am bored to death with Indian food in an island full of esoteric possibilities) and still both enjoying it (my wife can't appreciate anything but Indian simply because she finds everything else too bland). Today, we learnt that mexican food is awesome, there is at least one food court stall being run by a caucasian in Singapore, that the mexicans eat with their hands too, and that there may be more interesting similarities between Indians and Mexicans despite us having no obvious historical connections.

At the end of it all, the food was so awesome that me and the wifey agreed in consensus (which itself is as rare as a blue moon), that the effort was well worth the super awesome food experience. Three cheers to the Mexican Taco Bar.

For those who plan to go back there:
Stall Name: Mexican Taco Bar (might be spelled as EXICANTACOBAR)
Location: Left corner (sandwiched between Chicken Rice and Economic Rice stalls)
Address: Ground Floor, Plaza by the Park, 51 Bras Basah Rd. Map Link.
Average Cost: $10 per person ($6-$8 per dish and average of 1.5 dishes if you are really hungry)
Rating: 4.5/5
My most liked dish: Quesadillas

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Quick notes from the middle of the week

A few interesting things have been happening, both inside and outside of my world, but none of them singularly interesting enough to merit a full post. Just a few quick notes then:

The 3 Idiots Controversy:
Let us ignore, for the moment, the conspiracy theory that the issue has been wrought upon by the parties to increase the publicity ahead of the movie release. I have already mentioned in a facebook thread that the reason why 3 idiots is so good (and I believe it is quite good) is all the changes in the script brought in by the film makers and hence the 70% credit, as Chetan Bhagat, would like to fight for, is undeserved for. There is enough semblance with the book that he definitely deserves credit, which he has received.

Self Serving MPs:
The fact that the Indian parliamentarians were a bunch of self serving maniacs was a long gone conclusion, but their latest act of unlimited travel for family members and companions of MPs is taking it a little too far. Read TJS George's brilliant, to-the-point write up on the topic.

Here, in Singapore, all parliamentarians are paid corporate grade, high-end compensation, meaning that no MP ever needs to worry about either earning illegal money or resort to such menial measures to live a comfortable lifestyle, forget a reasonable one. All Indians know that their representatives live in comfort (and why shouldn't they?), so why not make it a legal and straightforward for them to do so in the form of healthy remuneration? None of these stupid perks would be needed then. It would also mean that a professional in any other field, but worthy of representing and leading the public, would have a honest means of maintaining his income standards despite entering politics. (A guy like me can never make in politics what I make today, which is a lowly engineer's salary in a tech company, if I resorted to only the legitimate income of a full time professional politician). Something for all of us to ponder about.

A meaningless driving license:
I gave the Singapore's basic theory test for driving license and converted my Indian License into a Singapore Driving License, valid for a good 5 years. I neither have a vehicle nor do I intend to buy one in the foreseeable future. So the natural question is why did I get a license for myself?

Hidden behind all the highly structured and logical rules of the Singapore administration is a rather vexing rule that foreigners who wish to convert their home country license ought to do so within the first year of their coming into Singapore and would be disqualified from doing so later. They would have to go through the entire process (basic theory test, lessons, final theory test, practical test etc) to get a license thereafter. Is there any reason for burdening a guy just because he did not convert it within the first year? What benefit does the system gain from it? I couldn't guess the reasons.

Nevertheless, since I was in no mood to endure the entire process (and pay for the costly affair) at a later point of time, I chose to spend the effort right away in obtaining the license. Hence the conversion.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Trek to MacRitchie to begin the year

What could be a better way to start the new year than a healthy 10.5k trek in a tropical rain forest? So, me and Shyam (aka fox2mike) did exactly that for New Year 2010. We headed out to trek around the MacRitchie Reservoir, Singapore, which is classified as a rain forest. The MacRitchie reservoir is connected by bus 157 from Toa Payoh MRT station. If you plan to go there, you should try to carry sunglasses, caps, sunscreen lotion, loads of water and energy drinks and possibly a raincoat. Between us, we had everything except the rain covers and as Murphy would have it, it rained quite a bit for us. :)

First, have a look at the reservoir from the front (the barrage side).

The trek is not too steep and it should be easy to maintain a steady rhythm. The canopies cover you well in case of a light shower. Don't depend on it if it rains hard, but there are rain shelters every half km or so.

Being a popular destination for hikers, don't be surprised to find company.

The first leg of the trek, about 5km, should end when you reach the HSBC treetop. Its a very narrow, wire suspension bridge, where you can walk only one way.

Dress for comfort, not vanity. It can get hot, humid and sweaty (specially because of the sun screen lotions).

The view from the treetop walk is quite excellent. There is a wide variety of flora to be appreciated and there is also good views of the reservoir and a distant view of the city to be appreciated.

Stop every now and then to check out and appreciate the variety of plants and trees around you. You would normally not associate such diversity with something thats right in the midst of a bustling city-state, but this is Singapore and anything is possible here!

This was on our way back through a different route, along the reservoir, where we stopped every now and then to soak in the nice views of the water body.

We were stuck in the rain a couple of times and this snap was shot to capture the ripple effects of rain droplets on the water surface. Nice pattern.

It took us a total of 3:40 hours to cover the 10.5k including the stops. As per Shyam, Singapore is only one of two cities, other being Rio De Janeiro, where you can find a rainforest in the middle of a city. So, its a worthwhile treat to your body and senses to head out once in a while and do the trek.

More photographs on my flickr profile with tag macritchietrek.

Administrative note

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