Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Listen up, Curlilocks!

Tarred with the same brush ...

Righth, ferry gooth, as Father Huart would say through his smile before he suspended somebody.

This is what India’s Instapundit has to say: “The government … couldn't care less about the bottomline. After all, we pay the bills.” Yeah right! (And there should have been a hyphen in ‘bottom-line’. Truly. Ask Lynne.)

Generalisations hurt. Granted that a generalisation refers to the majority of the subject-group, the minority who don’t fit the description are bound to take offence. There is a rueful acceptance that the criticism of the majority may be warranted; there is also pique at being tarred with the same brush. It can be a disincentive, too. There are days when the minority will think it doesn’t really make a difference anyway, since they will still be clubbed with the supposedly non-performing majority. Why bother to produce results when you’re regarded as no better than the lowest common denominator?

The “couldn’t-care-less” assumption may be misplaced even with regard to the Railways. By all accounts, He of the Silver Semi-Tonsure has actually taken some hard decisions that make good business sense. It’s been more than a year since his khullar idea and he seems to have moved on (just as he has moved on from “Hema Malini’s cheeks”, a quote that sticks with him though he said it ten years ago and more). India Today ran a story some months ago on the re-organisation of the Indian Railways and the emphasis on profitability. Their archives are only available to subscribers, so I can’t post the link here, but I’m sure some people will remember it. Worth a second look.

I do not hold a brief for either the Indian Railways or the Minister. I do, however, take issue with the general trashing of everything associated with government. Take this assumption that government organisations are not concerned with profits. For over four years, I worked in a Government-owned company that should be an example for turnaround wannabes. This is a company that lost money for almost 30 years. In five years from the mid-90s, a new combination at the top took it (with apologies to Neil Young) “out of the red and into the black”.

In the last three fiscals, this company’s turnover under a new MD and Chairman has further grown from 70 crore to 160 crore; PBT over the same period has been 42 crore. The bottom-line hasn’t done too badly, even after the customary cover under Sec 80[1(A)]. Business this year should grow even further. No pink slips, no pumping up revenues through sale of capital assets, just hard-nosed focus on building profit centres and cutting debt. And NPAs have been cut from 57% to 32%. Still a long way from ICICI’s claim of 2%, but a pretty steep improvement when one takes into account the legacy of 30 years.

As luck would have it, I now work with another Government body that has – surprise! – not made profits for (wait for it!) 30 years. Yes, déjà vu and all that, but I’d like to think that I can apply some learning from the last assignment. We’ve gone out on a limb and said we’ll increase the top-line five-fold (which I think is a braver target than bottom-line growth alone). There will be criticism when it’s not achieved, but it’s a target set only to expand the vision. Niall Fitzgerald, Chairman of Reuters, said in a recent interview that he’s happier with a man who sets his sights on 500 and achieves 400, than with a man who sets a target of 120 and “over-achieves” to 140. Insh’allah, we should achieve 300% top-line. And survive the barracking from well-meaning critics.

The point I’m trying to make (apart from blowing our own trumpet for a bit) is that these examples are now the rule rather than the exception. Even in my State, which is only just emerging from the common perception that it is ideologically mired in the ’50s, there are government bodies that have a two-word vision statement and the carte blanche to work on it. Profit + Quality. Makes sense? Only if you believe it, of course. And believe IN it.

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Believing in it …

So all government bodies are not run on lines acceptable to libertarians. Not all private concerns meet those criteria either. Think of the number of partnership firms and even listed companies that fudge the bottom line, transfer assets to sister concerns for pittances, lack transparency in their accounts and are run by and for coteries. Hell, think of the number of bodies in the public view that fit the same description. Do I need to spell out B – C – C – I, O Thou of the Uncut Locks?

The key difference, of course, is that every tax-payer is a share-holder in the public sector and therefore entitled to criticise and to demand change. Our forefathers fought for independence on the grounds of self-rule. Would that the salt tax had been a key issue and not a symbol. Would that we had had a Patrick Henry to instill a sense of proprietary pride in the state. “No taxation without representation” has made the majority of the population in the USA co-owners of the state; “I’m a tax-paying citizen” is a statement of proud ownership. Two hundred years of foreign rule, on the other hand, may have made the Indian tax-evader first a nationalist and then a loveable rapscallion rather than a traitor to the common cause.

The saddest part is when the existence of evaders is used to justify further evasion – “He’s doing it, so why shouldn’t I?” Playground logic. Applicable across the board whether we’re talking about littering or power theft or tax evasion. Think about it. Every time you throw that cigarette packet or gum wrapper or tissue on the street, every time you jump that red light, every time you look the other way when your neighbour runs a line from the street lamp to power his Diwali lights, you’re actually running counter to a set of rules that goes all the way down to a foundation called the Constitution of India.

Extreme reasoning? Perhaps, but how else does one get it across that we’re all in this together? That we work according to laws made by people WE elect. That we can’t expect the government alone to enforce simple rules that we should all live by. Like cleanliness. And orderliness. And paying one’s dues. That we all own the government, so if it doesn’t work, then we’re all responsible to some extent. Another extreme example – if you think the vast majority of politicians are crooks, would you take the trouble to run for public office yourself? Fish or cut bait, my moralising friends.

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Why won't you lurrvve me ...

There are countries where corruption is practically unknown. These would also be countries where the crime rate is low, where there is a high level of public ownership of the state and its facilities, where orderliness is high. This does not necessarily mean a low level of individual expression, it just means that such expression occurs within the framework envisaged by law. The Scandinavian countries largely fit this bill.

There are also countries where public order is preserved by force. Think China. Think Singapore. It’s a trade-off. Would you rather sacrifice some of your freedoms for a more ordered life? I wouldn’t. Come to think of it, they’re not doing too good on the corruption count either. And some of them don’t even publish accounts, so how do we know whether they’re really profitable? Who’s going to ask, anyway, when it could mean the midnight knock?

Yes, we need to point out the errors made by government. Yes, we need to make known, as widely as possible, where public money is going and whom it benefits. Yes, we need to call a spade a bloody shovel. That’s where Amit Uncut and his ilk are performing a public service, more power to their keyboards. Let us also be thankful that in our country, for the most part, they do not need to worry about their futures if they criticise the powers-that-be (did anyone say “Tarun Tejpal”?)

On the other hand, when Nochiketa sings in Bangla about the shorkaari kormochari and my friends snigger about it, it doesn’t seem to make sense to get into office on time. When every other film depicts the police as corrupt, does it make the average policeman more determined to prove his honesty or does he happily relax into the mould we’ve created for him? Think it over.

The best piece of legislation I’ve heard about in recent times is one regarding prostitution – the client will finally be held culpable for prostitution and soliciting. Think it over – who are the clients responsible for government inefficiency? The man who cribs about it in the evening over a single malt will be found next morning in the corridors of power, entering some room with an ingratiating grin. And an oblong gift-wrapped package in a paper bag. Think it over.

(There is a certain type of civil servant who wears his honesty on his sleeve. I detest this creature. Honesty is not an optional extra. It’s a given. At the same time, I do not like it when some rotten apples make the whole barrel stink. Or when I am willy-nilly dumped into the same stinking barrel when it comes to sorting and labelling.)

So, to take it from the top, not all of government sucks. A lot of it does suck, and needs to be told it sucks. It’s not very smart, however, to say that all of it sucks. You make the parts that do NOT suck that much sadder and less proud. Finally, before telling them that they all suck (or even WHILE telling them) it might make sense to check whether we / you do the same things. Is honesty a matter of degree? You decide.

Good my lords (and lords you are, for I am paid by you to be your servant), do not assume that all your servants are malingerers or thieves. “He who steals my purse steals trash” etc., so my lords and ladies, if you clothe me in the same knave’s livery, what do you leave me with? Not my pride, not my reputation, nor yet with much of my good intentions.

Think it over.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

Images from a big country (thank you, Bill Bryson)

Seven airlines I'd never heard of. Fleets and volumes I couldn't believe.
Yet again, I am humbled by my ignorance.

A visual parable?

Glimpsed in passing

Col. Sanders has joined the PLA?

... and what is this? (Shall think of something nice for the first correct, precise answer)


Thursday, November 17, 2005

A day in the life (OR, watch out, Kubla Khan)

And she's riding a stairway to Heaven ...

How can I concentrate on a meeting with views like this from the windows?

From Victoria's Peak at twilight

Stepping out

Murphy's. A chamber-pot on the mantel?!

1 a.m., and they're leaving when I walk in

From Acqua, twenty-something floors above the harbour


“Is this a non-smoking room?”


“I asked, is - - this - - a - - non - - smoking - - room? A room where one should not smoke?”

“Yes Sir, you have a probRem, Sir?”

“Not exactly, I just want to know whether one can smoke in this room”

“Sir, it iss a ron-smocking froor, Sir. You have probRem, Sir? We send up rrum-freshener”

“No, I just want to smoke in this room!”

“Right, Sir, then we send up ash-tray”

Welcome to Hong Kong.


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Tuesday morning, 6 a.m.

... from the pale downtrodden

And the words that they say that we won't understand.

Don't pretend that what's happening
Is just a case of others suffering
Or you'll find that you're joining in
The turning away.