Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Dumbing down of Media

Media – the fourth estate – the pillar of democracy – the conscience keeper of the nation. These are indeed high expectations and the current state of the Indian media indeed leaves a lot to be desired.

The media is all around us both print and increasingly digital. Media plays 3 critical roles in a vibrant democracy (democracy is the important word here – in any other form of government the media merely plays the role of being the official mouthpiece) –

1.       Information – get the correct information, report the facts, prevent misinformation campaigns.
2.       Conscience keeper - Hold the mirror to the elected representatives on their promises, bureaucrats and law enforcers on their duties, guide the society as to what is happening and desirable.
3.       Take up causes – for issues of great significance, channelize the public opinion to put the correct sort of pressure on policy makers, bring the prominent public figures and the intellectuals on the same page so as to be able to educate our masses.

Let us look at what is “desirable” from the Indian media –

Lack of depth in the coverage -
I felt really let down by the token coverage on the two very important bills passed recently – the food security bill and the land acquisition bill. Both the bills (independently) can take us back by 50 years. And what did you read in the media – either the government version (Bharat Nirmaan – beats me why it is no longer Hindustan – more of that in a different blog) or the “skimming the surface” coverage that I have read in most newspapers – done by people who are too busy to spend time to study these pieces of regressive legislation and educate the masses on the real impact that these will cause.

The debates have got increasingly meaningless and the breaking news now borders around absurd –
Either we have too many news channels OR the hosts have run out of topics to ask their participants OR the Indian public sees news channels as a source of entertainment rather than information. Either ways, it’s a race to the bottom. The sooner we get there the better, at lease things won’t get any worse from there (hopefully)

Should the older unresolved topics be reignited once in a while? (my earlier blog – 10 questions that need answers) –
Sensationalism serves the media well. The problem is that there needs to be a newer, bigger story that needs to be frequently broken. And the stories that were once sensational die down – most of the without getting resolved. It may be a good idea to dig up the old graves once in a while. Public memory is short – a refresher every 3 months will be indeed useful.

Provide a platform for the eminent personalities of the society to come together for the greater public good –
Forces multiply when united. Can the personalities working for common/parallel causes come together? Can the opinion makers work together to spread knowledge through media? The answer is yes – if the medium is correct and the cause is noble.

Be sensitive and unbiased –
Know your limits. Exercise restraint and use discretion. Refrain from asking for comments from the dear ones who have suffered a great personal loss. If you have reached a place where a tragedy has occurred or is unfolding – help those affected instead of trying to cover the same live.

Show restraint- live coverage of terrorist acts/interviews of fugitives/promoting comments of foolhardy politicians (Digvijay Singh tops the list)
The handlers of the Mumbai attackers were able to guide the terrorists inside the Taj hotel about the positions of the security forces and the rescue of the people inside the hotel because of the live coverage of the event on TV.
Several operatives of Indian Mujahideen went underground because its founders Bhatkal’s arrest was breaking news on TV.
You know some leaders have a foot in the mouth disease and talk rubbish – you will still rush to them for comments – maybe if you stopped giving them so much of importance they will stop their tamasha – Lalu is a classic example.

TOI campaign for Nirbhaya/2G/Coal Scams/Ordinance against protecting tainted MP’s -  
Some recent examples of how a market leader swung into action by launching campaigns and kept up the pressure by channelizing the public support for these causes. Great initiative indeed, applause!! If you still haven’t, give a missed call on 08067730022 for a campaign against tainted MP’s retaining their seats.

Some positive coverage please -
It is difficult to believe that only bad things are happening in the society – can we have some coverage of the small acts of kindness that are making a large difference to the lives of people. I am sure there are a lot many unsung heroes amongst us and a little positive motivation will go a long way.

Great Power – Great Responsibility –
Classic lines from the movie Spider Man.
You have the power to make a great difference. In fact you are the keepers of “balance of power” the state of equilibrium that nature loves. Maybe this is because some also become power brokers – the Radia tapes have the names of some very successful anchors featuring rather in a sorry state. Use the power constructively.

The expectations are high and it is very important for them to keep the promise and deliver, given the pivotal role that they have in the society. In its current state the media is looking titillate the “dumb” masses – that is a gross misjudgement and self destructive path.

Next week – the election season is fast approaching and we will be wooed with many promises, very few of which will be kept. I would try to create a “desirable” election manifesto in my next week’s blog which would be practical and high impact for the country. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

What can we learn from other religions

At the outset, I hope that this blog is sensitive – for the right reasons. Ones religion is very dear to all of us and hence we feel very strongly about the same.

The idea of writing this was to use my limited knowledge and think of ONE unique feature of every religion to highlight the same. So let the disclaimer be upfront – if I have missed out mentioning your religion here or if you feel that something else is much better feature than the one mentioned by me – please accept my apologies in advance. Any hurt caused is purely unintentional.

Also I had the greatest difficulty in writing about Hinduism in this blog, not because there was not anything to write about but to decide the one thing that I consider to be unique. Also, maybe because it is difficult to write about something that you know well – at least in comparison to the other religions that I have taken the liberty to write about.

Christianity –
The Christian faith of “Godparents” is a novel safety net for children – in case something happens to the parents or they separate. The Godparents are the legal guardians of kids and this is considered a great responsibility and an honour. Now that the families are getting nuclear and the social safety net is absent, this is a very good concept indeed.  

Islam –
The Islamic concept of “Zakat” is unique. It involves donation of a part of one’s annual income to charity and charitable causes. The percentages specified varies in various sects, the minimum is 12.5% - substantial indeed. Because the rewards can never be equally divided in a society, building charity into faith is indeed a great way to ensure that the society benefits from the well being of its members.

Jainism –
The Jain tradition of “Kshamavani” or “Forgiveness Day” is a day of forgiving and seeking forgiveness on the last day of the holy Paryausana festival. This day the Jains ask for forgiveness for all the hurts and mistakes committed by them – knowingly or unknowingly. They also forgive others and start the next year without this burden. A beautiful concept indeed – forgiveness if asked with sincerity leads to better relationships and fulfilling lives. So many lives and relationships suffer as emotional baggage’s are carried along for many years – forgiving and moving on is a very desirable indeed.

Sikhism –
The Sikh concept of “Langar” or community kitchen is worth emulating. People come together to prepare and serve food to guests who sit together on the floor and share the prepared food – for the needy and the well to do alike. Langar is practised by all Gurdwaras all days of the week. A beautiful tradition of the community coming together to help each other and break barriers of caste and rich - poor.

Parsis –
The “sense of community” is the greatest attribute of the Parsis. They are a closely knit community that does not think twice before helping others from the community and also build safety nets within the community for those who are not so fortunate.

Hinduism -
As I mentioned this was difficult for me. I guess “Tolerance” is our biggest virtue and a great differentiator. Where does it come from? Maybe because we have so many gods and it is ok for people in a family to pray to different gods. It is not uncommon to have many gods in our worship places at home and “temple complexes” to have various temples at the same place. This tolerance leads us to accept other religions, foreign rulers (I am not talking of only the past here) and even some blasphemy when some of our gods and goddesses are painted in the nude by some free spirited artist. The same artist will never have the courage to do the same to a god of any other religion – this tolerance is what makes us unique and also successful (more on the successful part in a separate blog). Mind you – this is not a weakness and should not be seen as one.

What is the idea of writing about these? To celebrate and respect other religions, I would say. If beauty lies in the eye of the beholder then let everything be beautiful.

Next week’s blog – “The Dumbing down of Media”  

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Many problems - One solution

There are many problems that we face every day – corruption at all levels, excessive and lethargic bureaucracy, apathy of the people in power, no system of readressal of the citizen’s grievances, lawlessness and increasing crime rates – most of these can be addressed in one stroke – by improving our judicial system. Sounds too simple, isn’t it? Let me explain.

Courts are meant to play a very important role in the society – that of the last arbitrator. Any person who has been wronged or thinks he has been wronged can approach the court to set things right. Currently only people who suffer grave injustice go to the courts for justice. And they normally suffer even more. Over 3 crore court cases are pending in the country today – most of them (2.7 cr) are in the lower courts and 40 lac pending cases in the 21 High courts of the country and about 60,000 cases in the Supreme Court (it also has the best track record in disposing cases).  

These high number of pending cases serve a triple whammy – on one hand the people who are wronged do not get justice and at the same time many suspects end up suffering more time in jails as the courts can’t decide if they are guilty or not. All this while their dependents spend their life in utter misery as a lot of money and productive time is spent in the visits to the courts amidst frequent adjournments and the wait for the hearings to get over. Companies or individuals who get into agreements are not sure if the terms of the agreement are not followed then whom to approach – courts are generally avoided for the delays involved. 

Famous movies have been made on the inordinate delays faced by the common man when they approach the courts for justice. Today the law abiding and fearing citizens are afraid of both the law enforcement agencies and the courts. Traditionally courts in India have delivered some landmark judgements and have kept our politicians and the corrupt in check. Look at all the scams which have troubled the UPA II government – almost all of them were brought to light by the Supreme Court The CAG and SC are the only two institutions who the government (rightfully) fears today. They are one of the few institutions of the country who are respected and seen to be fair and independent in their approach. Why then are so many cases pending. Maybe no one notices. Or people notice and don’t care. It is not too difficult to unclog the arteries of our judicial system by –

·         Filling up all the vacant posts of judges in the courts
·         Making a framework o a timeline within which a case needs to be decided – cases should not get dragged forever
·         Setting up of fast track courts for cases like cheque bounce and other such cases
·         Increasing the number of judges - India has only 18,000 judges at the subordinate level, which comes up to about 13 judges per million. This is against 50 judges per million in developed countries and 35-40 in some developing countries.

If the courts function properly deliver justice within an acceptable time frame, all the wrongs that i mentioned in the opening paragraph can get corrected. After all, the thought that all wrongdoing will be punished will work well as a preventive mechanism against crime in most cases. The law enforcement agencies who choose to bungle up cases of the powerful will be held to account and so will the politicians who make laws favouring them or the privileged few. Public service departments will be required to do their jobs. Contractors who cause death due to negligence will be held accountable. The land shark who commits fraud to grab more land will need to follow the law. The builders who construct more than allowed and sell the same to hapless citizens will not be allowed to go scot free. Adulteration will not be tolerated. Rapists and murderers will not be roaming free on the streets. Hooligans will have fear in their heart. Drivers who are convicted of killing people on the road will not be allowed to drive again. Promoters of companies who commit fraud will spend the rest of their lives in jail and not enjoy the fruits of their exploits. People will generally not take the law into their own hands as they will be sure of getting justice.

Everyone knows that justice delayed is justice denied – what I hope is that enough is done to ensure that the delayed (and hence denied) part is addressed immediately. Come to think of it – there is indeed a simple solution to many problems. In fact if this is taken up as a poll promise it will reap rich electoral dividends as this issue affects all citizens of this country – both directly and indirectly.

Next week – What can we learn from other religions

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Senior Citizen Rupee – can it become young again

Headlines say that the Rupee has been weak. What is it weak against? Foreign currencies, notably the US Dollar, the British Pound and Euro. Why is the rupee weak and the weakness getting more pronounced? It is just a reflection of the underline fact – our fundamentals as an economy have worsened and the value of the rupee against the foreign currencies is just a reflection of that reality. And this is not a recent phenomenon – The exchange rate was 6 rupees to a dollar when we gained independence against 65 now – seems this has been an old problem that comes back to haunt us every 10 years.

Let us look at the reality – we have always imported a lot more than we exported. This leads to a negative trade balance. When we import, we have to pay foreign currency, as people who export to us will not (generally) accept the Indian Rupee as a mode of payment. This means that each year we are short of foreign exchange. Why do we import so much? Because almost all our petroleum products and precious metals demand is met through imports as we produce very little of these. Last year we imported almost 500 Billion dollars worth of goods and exported almost 340 billion dollars – leaving a gap of 160 bilion dollars to be funded.

How is this gap funded? Through invisibles – export of service (software/IT) and remittances of Indians working overseas/NRI’s and the flow of foreign money into India in financial instruments, to buy Indian assets or to start companies here. But for the last few years even this has not been enough, mainly due to the surge in the value of gold imports (covered in my earlier blog) and the faulty policies of UPA II leading to a surge in imports of other items.

What can be done? There are three measures that need to be taken in combination – encourage exports, discourage/substitute imports and make the country more competitive. We will look at them in detail below -  

Short Term Measures -
Coal Imports -
We have the world’s largest reserves of coal, still we imported 16 billion dollars worth of coal last year. Most of our electricity is produced by power plants which run on coal. The mining of coal is a government monopoly through a company called Coal India and like all government run enterprises, they are lethargic and inefficient. Private miners have to use coal for their own consumption and cannot sell in the open market. Those power producers who don’t have mines find it easier to import coal than to source it locally.
Solution – Ban all coal imports, allow private producers to sell in the market and give Coal India 6 months to either double production or broken up and privatised. In short, introduce competition in the sector.

Iron Ore Imports –
We used to be an exporter of Iron Ore. After the (justifiable) ban on imports in the states of Karnataka and Goa we have started importing the same.
Solution – Lift the blanket ban, start the mines which have been compliant and auction the licences of the non compliant ones to fresh bidders. Have a clear time line for the start of mining leases – awardees should not be allowed to sit on the mines without production.

Crude imports from Iran
Our Oil import bill is about 170 billion dollars. The western governments have imposed sanctions on Iran as they believe that the Iranian government has been running a secret nuclear weapons programme. Like all middle eastern countries, their main output is crude oil that they can’t export to a lot of countries of the world because of the sanctions.
Solution – Iran is willing to accept Indian food grains, medicines and other items in exchange for the crude oil that they will send to us. The Indian government can take a special approval of the West and import about 10 billion dollars of crude annually from Iran, saving precious dollars.

Import restrictions on luxury items
Luxury cars, yatchs, perfumes, fashion accessories, cosmetics, wines and alcohol, bath equipments, furniture, fixtures and fittings – practically everything luxurious is being imported. The duties on these items should be so high so as to discourage their imports and make them in India.

Import ban on non essential items
Every Diwali we use Chinese made electrical equipment to light up our homes. Similarly there are a lot of non essential items that are imported instead of being made locally. All these should be immediately addressed.
Last year we imported electronic goods worth 30 billion dollars – TV’s, mobile phones, laptops and computers. Why cant they be manufactured in India? All these items which are being sold here should be manufactured here or part payments made in rupees to these manufacturers.

Long Term Measures -
Transport policy
We import a lot of crude oil and will keep importing the same since we hardly produce it in the country. However we need to seriously start thinking about curbing the wasteful usage of petroleum products. There is no reason why more and more Indians should drive SUV’s on subsidised diesel. Fuel prices need to be decontrolled immediately and the government needs to seriously think about creating world class public transport infrastructure – more rails, buses, water transport which people can use to commute. Increasing the use of private vehicles is not the solution. Encourage innovation in usage of solar/hydrogen powered vehicles. We are an import dependent and fuel starved economy and sincere steps are required to be taken to correct this imbalance.

Export promotion
There are few sectors where we are world beating – Textiles, chemicals, IT, auto and auto components, pharmaceuticals – the government should sit with these industry bodies and chart out a mechanism to help the companies in these sectors to become more competitive and gain export market share.

More remittances
One in every 5 persons in this world is an Indian. We are settled all over the world and are successful due to our qualities of hard work, common sense and the attitude to save and invest. The government should encourage these people to send more money to the country – it’s a good solution for both the expatriates and the country.

Defence/Capital Goods/Telecom equipment spending
Most of our defence equipment is imported. Same is true for capital goods for power and nuclear plants and telecom equipment like servers. The companies bidding for these should be made to adhere to a clause – either source 50% of the order value from India or invest 30% of the order value in India or take 50% of the payment in Rupees – generally these orders are so large in value that global giants line up and lobby with our government to supply these and meeting these conditions should not be a problem for them at all.

More competitive India
Encourage entrepreneurship. Make it easier to start and close factories and hire and fire workers. Create stable policies. Provide the basis like good roads and continuous electricity. Reward people who create employment and bring foreign exchange. Let the government get out of all businesses and only run the utilities. Create and encourage competition.

We must understand that we will always remain a foreign exchange scarce country and hence the same should be treated like ill things which are scarce are treated – with utmost care.

Also wishing all readers a very happy Ganesh Chaturthi. May the vighanharta take away the many troubles that face our country.

Next week –  Many problems? One solution (I will not be talking about Garnier Naturals J)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Business of Bollywood

Bollywood – The stuff that dreams are made of. A place where the most creative minds in the country come together and create magic. Where the most beautiful and recognisable faces of the country find employment. An industry that is larger than life and should remain that way.
It is said that every year thousands of young boys and girls come to Mumbai with stars in their eyes, to catch a glimpse of their favourites and also to replace them some day at the crown.
Lets see how Bollywood compares to Hollywood in numbers -
Hollywood (HW)                                    Bollywood (BW)
Started                                                  1910                                                          1913
Movies/yr (2012)                               200+                                                           100+ (only Hindi)
Revenues                                              USD 10.7 BN (1 BN = 6,500 cr)              2,500 cr
Some Interesting trends –
Remakes of old hits – Don, Himmatwala, Sholay (more than a couple of times), now Zaanjeer. We seem to be quickly running out of ideas.
No Villains – Rich men used to be villains earlier, now mostly policemen and politicians (both heros and villains, if heros they are mostly seen battling people from their own department). Society has changed, wealth is now celebrated. Heros and heroines in movies are generally well off.
Videshi Heroines – Ladies who can’t speak or understand our mother tongue become leading ladies so easily – is talent so short here or is fair skin the only calling card to success? But then, a foreign lady married an Indian prince 43 years ago, has been living in India since then, ruling the country by remote control for the last 10 years also can’t speak our mother tongue!! We really are very tolerant lot.
Everyone believes in over the top promotion now – Before every major release all the stars/directors/body guards HAVE to be present on maximum possible shows to promote a movie. Totally unnecessary – enough expectancy builds up before a good movie and word of mouth takes care of the rest – look at the recent hits will prove the same – A Wednesday, Vicky Donor, Kahaani, Aashiqui – no over the top promotions but very good collections. If this was a sure shot way, no big budget movie would fail – ask the Himmatwala/Lootera/Once Upon A Time In Mumbai/ Dobara producers.
2 big movies can’t release together – If they do, one of them is doomed – When I was in college, two cult movies released on the same day – 15 June 2001 – Lagaan and Gadar. Both of them went on to do roaring business and broke many records. Not because they catered to different audiences – the cinema going public is necessarily the same. Most people watched both the movies – when one doesn’t get ticket of one movie, they prefer to watch an alternate instead o going home. Of late that alternate has been a Hollywood movie.
100 cr is THE figure to achieve – (reproducing from last week’s blog) the 100 cr club is serious underachievement – at a population of 125 cr and the govt figures of middle class + population of 30 cr, even if 2 cr people watch a movie the collections should be 100 cr at Rs 50/- per ticket. I think more than 2 cr people do watch a movie, especially over extended weekends with holidays. If BW is serious about its business, they should be targeting a 1,000 cr business per movie – it will happen soon after the mindset of producers change. This year 4 HW movies have already done 1 billion USD collections – and we think BW is having a great year!! The fact of the matter is that more and more people across the globe are looking forward to watch good content, we Indians included.
Stars are pulling the industry down – Budget of the movie – 80 cr. Cost of a star – 30 cr. No industry can sustain this. Because you spend so much on a movie, you definitely want to to stick to a “workable” formula. So the same crappy stuff keeps getting dished out, where “success” is guaranteed – only the measure of success is all wrong. If this is continued, many will just stop going to a BW movie altogether. When only 10% of the movies produced make money, you have to make sure that even if your movie dosen’t work, you lose small money. That can’t happen if the stars keep charging the fee that they currently do.
We need to move to studios – soon – We go out and watch an Excel Entertainment (Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidwani) movie irrespective of the starcast (loved Fukrey as well). We also don’t watch a Sajid Khan production irrespective of the starcast. Studios matter in HW, they should also start mattering here. The good studios will start recognising that the trust in their content will take them much longer than the few hundred crores that a studio might earn by promising a movie that fails to deliver.
Movies reflect society – they are no longer about struggle and triumph (Bhaag Milkha was a notable exception). The lead players are usually rich and happy go lucky. Villains are absent. Characters are grey instead of black and white. Item numbers are seriously in (some movies even have 2). Most characters are uni dimensional. Movies reflect society. They should also lead society by showing desirable virtues – after all good always triumphs evil.
Where is the fresh blood – SRK and Akshay Kumar were the last rank “outsiders”  who made it big. That was 20 years ago. Heroines have been more lucky – some non Godfather backed names do get launched every year. The industry should encourage diversity.
We are going South, in a hurry – lot of ideas and successful movies are being re made successfully in BW.
 Like any industry in India, BW has not only to be world class, but world beating.
As an industry, BW is also very exploitative in nature. And the rewards are disproportionately stacked in favour of the big stars. For people who complain that the payout ratio of a CEO to a manager is too high – the same for a star to a technician is staggering.
And yes, how could I not mention the “inspiration” that BW derives from HW – songs, stories, characters, posters and what not. Not they should not be complaining, after all the name Bollywood was also inspired by Hollywood.
AM happy to note yesterdays Economic Times front page story that RBI is talking to large temple trusts to lease/sell their gold holdings. For those who read my second blog “Is Gold the problem or the solution” will know that it was one of the solutions offered. There are 5 more for those who might be interested in knowing what else can be done. Although I should not take credit, I am happy being a part of the “solution”
Next week, I go back to economics – Senior Citizen Rupee – can it become young again.
I would be happy to know your thought and feedback.