Archive for the ‘Settling down’ Category

Boiling the social enterprise ocean

May 20, 2011 1 comment

[Editor’s Note: A few months ago, I started a new blog ( focusing on social enterprises in India. This post was published on TechSangam a few days ago and am reposting it here to introduce you to my new blog. I intend to still blog in this space though the frequency is a bit non-deterministic at this point.]

Two months into my new gig, my view into the world of social enterprises is getting a little crisper. While it’s still a vast ocean, my method to navigate the waters has become more deterministic. There’s no danger of boiling the ocean anytime soon but  initial trends of focus have emerged and I’d like to describe them in this post.

The Great Migration: There are anywhere between 300 to 400 million Indians who will be migrating from villages to cities in 25-40 years. And let’s not forget that there are already 100 million Indians today who are in a partial state of migration – partial because they work 90% of the year in urban India as cooks, drivers, construction workers, etc. to support their impoverished families in rural India, whom they visit a few times a year. In spite of contributing to India’s economic growth in a non-trivial way (excess of $500 million of remittances by Bihari and Oriya migrants alone in 2006-07), migrants are sadly the missing link in India’s Development. Notwithstanding innovative rurbanization initiatives from states like Gujarat (see Rurbanization in Gujarat – early signs of success), much of the globalization trends point to increased urbanization world-wide, not just in India, whether current city-dwellers like it or not.

A fresh look at the migration narrative takes a closer look at this trend. While nearly everyone still keeps repeating “70% of India lives in its villages“, few have bothered to look at the latest numbers. Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Gujarat (states with the highest urbanization percentages) are already at 46%, 45%, and 43% respectively.

Rural Development: Even after accounting for the most aggressive migration forecasts, a very sizable percentage of India will continue living in its villages. The largest economically disadvantaged group is the impoverished small-scale Indian farmer. Improving the livelihood metrics of this group is the only sure way of bucking the migration trend. A key learning from this Duke University poverty alleviation study is that income diversification is the top correlating variable for households escaping poverty. The leading reasons for households descending into poverty are related to critical health expenses and high-interest private debt.

Much as the ruling Congress government would have us believe that the MNREGA scheme is a rousing success, the reality is far from that. There’s even growing evidence that far from improving the economic condition of India’s villagers, the scheme is contributing to inflation. This is not to say that all government schemes are missing the mark. The Ministry of Labour & Employment’s RSBY (Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana) program, rolled out in April 2008, provides a free health insurance card (including hospitalization costs upto Rs. 30,000) for Below Poverty Line (BPL) families. 23 million families are already benefiting from this program and the best part is that it has created a demand for healthcare services in areas traditionally considered unprofitable. This demand is creating an environment for a slew of private hospitals to compete with public hospitals in providing healthcare services to BPL families.

You can read the rest of this post here on TechSangam.

Freedom from Inertia

August 15, 2010 Leave a comment

As a sovereign republic, India turned 63 today. Today also marks our second anniversary in India – after 16 years in America. To mark this occasion, I tweeted the following:

2 years in India. The second year whizzed by even faster than the first. Me thinks we’ll stop counting now.

My biwi, who’s not active on Twitter, had the following Facebook status update:

2nd R2I Anniversary…content? yes; complaints? several; regrets? a few; no. of good days 2X no. of bad days; thought of R2A? twice; ready to R2A? nope. Best part of the experience, to R2I or not to R2I is no longer the question:)

Is it a coincidence that I left India on India’s Independence Day in 1992? And a double-coincidence that we returned on Independence Day 2008? Probably. But sometimes I feel like “manufacturing” theories… 🙂

In the past two days, I’ve been hearing local radio disc jockeys asking their listeners “On India’s Independence Day, what would you like freedom from?” I wondered what my answer was 2 years ago. It was definitely not “freedom from America”. As I wrote in an earlier post, we were leading a pretty decent life in the SF Bay Area but for an angst — which would surface every now and then. Inertia, as the wise have noted, is a powerful thing. We celebrate today “breaking the shackles of the status quo!”

Kargil Day – The Least We Can Do is Remember

July 26, 2010 2 comments

Today is the 11th anniversary of the day India won the Kargil war against Pakistan. One of my fauji friends (and classmate from Xaviers Bokaro) forwarded an email with pictures of the brave officers who won this war for India, albeit with a lot of casualties. His email started with the statement – the least we can do is remember. Next related project: find the names of all the soldiers (not just the officers) who died in the Kargil war.



The least we can do is remember

Capt.Vikram Batra - Param Vir Chakra(Posthumous)

Grenedier. Yogendra Singh (Param Vir Chakra)

RFN. Sanjay Kumar (Param Vir Chakra)

Major Padmapani Acharya of the 2nd Battalion, The RAJPUTANA RIFLES (Maha Vir Chakra (Posthumous)

Lieutenant Balwan Singh, Maha Vir Chakra Of the 18th Battalion of GRENADIERS Regiment

Major M Saravanan, VirChakra, 1 Bihar

Lieutenant Kanad Bhattacharya, Sena Medal (Posthumous)(22 YEARS)

Captain Saju Cherian, Sena Medal 307 Medium Regiment

Captain R Jerry Prem Raj, Vir Chakra (Posthumous), 158 Medium Regiment

Major Sonam Wangchuk, Maha Vir Chakra Of the LADAKH Scouts

Lieutenant Keishing Clifford Nangrum, Maha Vir Chakra (Posthumous) Of the 12th Battalion of JAMMU AND KASHMIR

Hum do humare do…bina exhaust ke

June 27, 2010 3 comments

2-day old Blue Reva fresh after car-puja - in kissing distance of older sibling (SX4)

Title translation (for non-Hindi readers): Hum do humare do is an old 1970’s era government initiated family planning slogan to promote  family of four (hum do = we two, humare do = our two). Bina exhaust ke = without exhaust.

So… two months shy of our 2nd year anniversary of returning to India, we purchased our 2nd car – a blue REVAi. If you’ve not been tracking electric car trends, RECC (REVA Electric Car Company) has been selling REVAi electrics in India since 2001 and in UK since 2003. For possibly a few more years, RECC remains the only company in India selling electric cars. The wikipedia entry for RECC accurately describes REVAi as an urban electric micro-car seating two adults and two kids. Did I say accurate? I meant ‘nearly accurate’ because it should read two adults and two kids (under the age of 10).

Now that we’ve established how small the REVAi is, let’s move to other specs. For this, I shall borrow liberally from this 2006 review of the REVAi in The Hindu…

The first thing that hits you when you look at the car is its size which makes you think of yourself as Gulliver, the giant when you sit inside. The steering is a wee bit too close to your chest and the A pillars close in on you.

Ok – so I wasn’t done talking about the REVA’s size. If you don’t step in gingerly to the driver’s seat, you could easily brush the lever to make it high beam. If you turn your head around suddenly (to see what your 4-year old’s doing in the back seat), the rear-view mirror would need readjusting.

The Reva’s a full metre shorter than the Maruti Suzuki Wagon R but around 100kg heavier than Maruti Suzuki 800. The body is built of hard ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) plastic and a tubular space frame holds everything together. Eight deep discharge batteries sourced from leading American golf cart battery maker, Trojan, sits in the middle of the chassis, with the controller and energy management system parked under the rear section of the car. The motor itself, a Bulgarian 13KW DC unit from Kostov, sits beneath the chassis and powers the rear wheels. The job of the energy controller is to make sure current is drawn equally from the batteries, especially during high load requirements and there are no surges and spikes.

The golf cart lineage certainly shows with the quiet humming of the motor. Our li’l one’s take on that humming sound – “it feels like we are in an airplane on the runway”. By the way, the rest of the comments in The Hindu review are slightly dated since the new batteries are supposed to extend the driving distance to the 70-90k range depending on your use of air-conditioning).

The REVA buying decision was somewhat analogous to our returning to India decision. There are a lot of reasons why one would NOT want to buy this car and only a few reasons why one should. Turned out those few reasons were crucial.

Reason #1: (Zero emissions) This is a dead-obvious reason but needed to be stated. Until public transportation becomes a viable option in Bangalore (will it ever?), we needed a 2nd car and it just couldn’t be a traditional petrol/diesel one.

Reason #2: (Automatic transmission car) Ever since our adventures with The Janus Man came to an end, we haven’t employed a full-time driver. I’ve  become scarily comfortable driving the SX4 in various types of Bangalore traffic conditions but the kids’ dropoffs and pickups from school, ferrying them to after-school activities has required a combination of part-time drivers from EZiDrive and auto-rickshaw rides. P has been on the threshold of to-hell-with-these-drivers-but-I-cant-drive-a-stick-shift-car. Getting the REVA is expected to be a watershed moment for her. First the learner’s license, then driving in Sunday traffic, then driving in Saturday traffic, then driving solo on weekends, and…voila! one day she goes solo on weekdays as well. We are not sure if she or the kids are more excited with this prospect.

Reason#3: (Minimalism) What’s the smallest car that can get us around and keep the kids protected from the air pollution? Turns out the only answer in 2010 is REVAi. Small is indeed beautiful.

The things you can learn from an auto driver…

June 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Taxi drivers anywhere in the world are a chatty bunch. Well, guess what? Auto drivers in India are no different. Below is the exchange between my wife (P) and the auto driver (AD) after the younger one had been dropped off to school. The conversation took place in Hindi but I’ve transcribed Hindi & English for AD’s dialogues and English only for P.

AD: Is school ke liye kitna donation lagta hai? (What’s the donation to get a child into this school? School in question is NPS Koramangala)

P: This school doesn’t require any donation.

AD: Kya? Donation nahin lagta? (What? No donation?!)

P: No, thats one of the good things about this school – one of the reasons why it is in demand.

AD: Fees kitna hai? (How much is the fee?)

P: Annual fee for first year is Rs. 7o,000 but, for subsequent years, the fee actually reduces.

AD: Acchha. Maine Rahul Dravid ko teen bar dekha. Uska beti yahan jaata hain nan? (I see. I saw Rahul Dravid thrice recently. His daughter goes to this school, right?)

P: No. His son goes to this school. It’s Kumble’s daughter who also attends this school.

AD: Aakpo pata hai Dravid kahan rahta hai? (Do you know where Dravid lives?)

P: (vaguely recollecting) Indiranagar?

AD: Nahin. Indiranagar mein to uska maa baap rahta hai. Dravid to Forum ke pas bada building main rahta hai. (No. It’s Dravid’s parents who live in Indiranagar. Dravid lives in Koramangala, near Forum).

P: I see. At the Prestige Acropolis?

AD: Haan. (Yes.)

AD: Kumble to Basavangudi mein rahta hai. (Kumble lives in Basavangudi)

P: (exclaiming) Wow! he comes to drop his kid from that far?

AD: (continuing) Jis building mein Kumble rehta hai, woh usi ka hai. (Kumble owns the building he lives in)

P: (now impressed) Is Dravid a Kannadiga or Tamilian?

AD: Arre! Dravid to Madhya Pradesh se hai. Bas – uske maa baap yahan aake settle ho gaye! (Dravid’s not even from this area – he’s from Madhya Pradesh – his folks came and settled down in Bangalore!)

AD: Haan! Kumble yahan ke lagte hain! Kannadiga hain. (Kumble, on the other hand, is a bonafide Kannadiga)

And I thought I knew Koramangala Roads…

April 17, 2010 Leave a comment

What are those serpentine patterns?

On closer inspection... studded belts perhaps?

For someone who’s done a lot of running (and walking) on Koramangala roads in the past 2 years, I was surprised to discover these patterns on the stretch of road right opposite Raheja Residency. The ‘what is it’ mystery was solved quickly enough — Koramangala’s tall majestic trees shed seed shells that are similar in appearance to the imli (tamarind) – see middle picture. I hope one day a botanist will stumble upon this post and educate us all on what kind of tree this is.

For some strange reason, the most inane things pique my interest. I started to wonder how so many seed shells were impregnated on this road. I recalled that sometime last year, 7th Cross Road (first two pictures are of that road) was relaid. What may have happened is that these seed shells dropped on the road between the road-laying phase and the road-rolling phase. I felt satisfied with this theory for a few days until… I realized that this seed-shell-impregnated-onto-roads phenomenon was not localized to 7th Cross Road. Almost every Koramangala Road I walked in the next few days sported the studded belt pattern — it seemed almost that they were spiting me for my lack of observation during the past few years. The original theory was still credible but I wondered if this seed-shell-impregnation process was also happening well beyond the road laying stage – especially on hot summer days when the tar starts to turn semi-solid.

And then a week later I found several seed-shells impregnated on concrete pavements off 80-Feet Road – whoa! How to explain this??? Time to call Guy Noir I say…

Changing Mobility of Four Generations of Kurugantis

April 3, 2010 2 comments

If you haven’t inferred from my surname already, my lineage is from the state of Andhra Pradesh. My great grandfather was a Sanskrit scholar and taught Sanskrit in Visakhapatnam (aka “Vizag”). He lived in Vizag his entire life. Mobility score: [1 state, 1 city].

My grandfather was schooled in Machilipatnam (a port town which dates back to at least 3rd century BC) and attended college in Calcutta. Attending an out-of-state college was a big deal in the early 1900’s. If you consider the fact that he was being raised by his mother (a widow at that time), a progressive and remarkable lady, it’s even more impressive. My grandfather completed his B.Comm degree and joined Andhra Bank and worked there until retirement. He proved his mettle as a branch manager and, as a consequence, was frequently transferred to new towns to open and stabilize branches. Partial list of towns he lived/worked in include Vijayawada, Guntur, and Kakinada. Mobility score: [2 states, 5 towns].

My father attended school in Vijayawada and engineering college in Kakinada. He worked for two Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) – SAIL (Steel Authority of India Limited) and RIN (Rashtriya Ispat Nigam). He started his career in Bhilai (Madhya Pradesh->Chhattisgarh), then moved to Rourkela (Orissa), a long stint at Bokaro Steel City (then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand) and finally retired in Vizag (Andhra Pradesh). Mobility score: [4 states, 7 towns].

I grew up in Bokaro Steel City, completed my high school from Vizag, attended college at Ranchi (Bihar->Jharkhand), worked for a few years in Jamshedpur (Bihar ->Jharkhand), 16 years in America (Houston->Chicago->San Francisco Bay Area), and presently in Bangalore (Karnataka). Mobility score: [2 countries, 3 states, 5 Indian towns, 3 American cities].

The fourth generation (our 2 boys) haven’t quite hit their 7th birthdays yet but their mobility score already reads: [2 countries, 2 cities]. I wonder what their score will be by the time they hit their 40’s. Me wonders if new mobility dimensions like planets and space stations need to be added by then…

The Three Bubbles Revisited

March 27, 2010 Leave a comment

When I wrote The Three Bubbles back in Oct 2008, the perspective was biased around cushioning the India landing. Clearly the 3 bubbles represent a fairly minimalistic view of life. If one were to just shuttle from the “living bubble” to the “working bubble” via the “commuting bubble”, there’s a strong likelihood of slowly going mad… unless you are one of the workaholic types who’s all-consumed by work. For the rest of us, a fourth bubble is what the the joie de vivre doctor ordered.

The fourth bubble is an activity you do at least once a week, usually on weekends, and is something that delivers large doses of joy, pleasure, and exhilaration. Physical pain may be a side effect sometimes but..(heck) it would have been worth it. Lest the hyperactive imagination of my readers go off in strange directions, let me cut to the chase and elaborate on what I’m talking about 🙂

Pranshu Gupta (buddy and ex-colleague from Yahoo who returned to Delhi in 2002) spends weekends offroading his custom-fitted Jeep up-and-down steep ravines and sloshing through muddy swamps on the outskirts of Gurgaon. For company, he has 8-10 other folks vying with each for bragging rights on offroading adventures, jeep modifications and towing equipment. For a taste of what these guys do with whinnying machines, check out Offroading in Behrampur/Gurgaon.

Soumya Banerjee (who returned to Delhi from Boston in 2001 to start Sapient’s India operation and is now working on a startup in Mumbai) is a thoroughbred wanderlust who doesn’t let a single weekend go by without exploring yet another picturesque part of India. After experiencing the best of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh (during his Delhi days), he’s now busy exploring Maharashtra and the southern states. For photographic evidence, check out his travel blog at – be warned! the travel bug might bite you.

Manjula Sridhar (a budding entrepreneur and endurance athlete who returned to Bangalore from Silicon Valley) has a menu of endurance activities to choose from every weekend – from running to cycling to “Lost-style” adventure competitions. I kid you not! This gal chalks up cycling and running miles like…well… I don’t know what to compare her with. As though this were not enough, she’s also a trained martial artist and she teaches karate. Clearly she has conquered time.

Sridhar Ranganathan (serial entrepreneur and good friend who moved to Bangalore ~ 7 years ago) does not miss his Sunday morning round of golf at the KGA links for anything! His golf handicap is steadily getting better I’m told but I strongly suspect he’s sneaking in an odd round during the week as well (there! that’s how rumors are started).

Ajay (my colleague who moved from San Diego to Bangalore 3 years ago) gets his weekly dose of adrenalin by playing several games of squash at his apartment club house.

When we moved to Bangalore ~ 2yrs ago, I had grim forebodings that my dormant asthma might flare up (see Asthma, Bangalore and me) so I had to choose a physical activity wisely. My choices narrowed down to squash (which I absolutely LOVED) or running (which I kinda sorta liked in a bursty irregular way). Running eventually won out because there were no squash courts within reasonable driving distance. Boy! Did I get lucky or what? I was introduced to a rabid Koramangala/HSR running gang and before I knew it, had run ~ 1200 km in 2009 – completing my second and third marathons (see Running the Course – Mumbai Marathon 2010) were merely a side effect.

The Three Bubbles will keep you nice and cozy during your initial year (a ‘necessary’ condition in The Art of Returning to India) but I now believe that it’s the fourth bubble that’s the high-order bit (‘sufficient’ condition) in staying-put for the long haul.

Would you go on a boat ride or cruise if there were no life jackets?

March 10, 2010 2 comments

I ended  the The Value of Life in India post with the question: “Is it possible for us Indians to snap out of our collective amnesia and change our attitude before the next major calamity or the minor tragedy?”

My wise biwi thought it wasn’t fair to leave the post hanging like that. Our ensuing conversation (transcribed below) inspired the sequel and yes – I have a good reason to title it the way I did:

Biwi: “What is YOUR answer to the above question? Why aren’t you including THAT in the post?”

Me: “Well! I do have an answer but it’s not quite baked yet..”

Biwi: “Also, instead of framing the question around ‘us Indians’, it might be more fruitful to pose the question to each ‘individual’ Indian.”

Me: “You mean like Gandhi-ji’s Be the Change You Wish to See In the World’?”

Biwi: “Kinda sorta. What are YOU (Indian, American, anyone for that matter) doing that’s potentially endangering your or other people’s lives?”

Biwi: “For example, when you are speeding down scenic Interstate 280 South at 90 mph, whose lives are you endangering?”

Which brings me to MY answer to the original question I posed – “Is it possible for us Indians to snap out of our collective amnesia and change our attitude?”

My answer is YES. But first… do you recall that scene in Satte Pe Satta where Hema Malini arrives at that pig-sty-of-a-house where Amitabh Bachan lived with his 6 other brothers? She exclaims “What a mess this place is! Where do I start?” The next 2 frames are a fast time-lapse so we don’t really get to see how she pulls off the gargantuan cleanup job. Replace the pig-sty-house with India (with its zillion problems — not just hygiene related) and you still have that question – where to start? I wouldn’t be presumptuous to say that we are at the beginning because there are hundreds (maybe even thousands) of civic-oriented initiatives underway which have galvanized citizens. But the reality is that if we are not seeing a difference (no, scratch that), if we are not participating in at least ONE of them, it is simply not enough. After all, we are talking about a billion-plus people here.

My other belief is that the granularity (or specificity) of the cause/initiative is paramount to eventual success — dotted on the way with tangible progress points. For example, “improve the safety standards of tour boat operators in India” is too lofty a cause whereas “ensure the sea-worthiness of tour boats in Kerala” or “mandate that boat operators in Kerala do not exceed the carrying capacity” or “mandate that all boat passengers in Kerala HAVE to wear life jackets while on board” are achievable goals. As I said, not fully baked so would love your feedback here…

Which brings me to the second question — “what am I doing that may be endangering myself and my family?” Before I answer this, let’s go back to the Thekkady disaster. Nearly all (if not all) who drowned that day weren’t swimmers. The survivors were either swimmers or were lucky enough to be close to swimmers who saved them. Turns out there were life jackets on board – nobody knows how many though. I haven’t read reports of passengers using any so clearly they weren’t handing them out at the point of embarkation. Which brings us to the personal responsibility question — Why didn’t anyone ask for life jackets? This, my friends, is the life-or-death question.

I’ll be presumptuous enough to answer the question. Nobody asked for life jackets because nobody was thinking of the probability that the boat could capsize, and if it did, the life jackets would really come in handy. We all go through life constantly making decisions based on risk – some are deliberate while most others are purely automatic. I will not buy a house with a swimming pool because that clever economist in Freakonomics convinced me that swimming pools are more unsafe than keeping a handgun at home. I won’t ride a motorcycle in California where the speed limits are so high and the car-to-motorbike ratio so high that if I get into an accident, it could well be fatal. I might ride a Bullet Classic 500 in Bangalore someday (after my slipped disc fully heals) because I will drive very carefully and don all my protective gear and if I do get into an accident, there’s a good chance it will be minor. And so we go on and on…

Why am I so sure that nobody asked for life jackets? Because I/we have  done the exact same thingjust 2 days before the Thekkady accident – on the Hussain Sagar Lake in Hyderabad. The only difference is that our boat didn’t meet with an accident. Our family of four, my brother & his younger son boarded the boat with nary a thought about life jackets. Group size = 6. Number of swimmers in group = 0. Need I say more?

Would my wife or I board a boat or cruise ship in future if there were no life jackets? No. At least until the entire family learns swimming. In case you didn’t know, my goal for this summer is to learn swimming — in 7 days or less. A dear friend has promised me that it indeed is possible and he’d be my personal coach. I, on my part, have promised him a suitable guru dakshina. So shall it be written, so shall it be done!

Closing question: What % of Indians do you think know swimming? (knowing defined as “enough to save one’s life) I used to think it’s a lower percentage compared to the Western world primarily because of the low number of urban area swimming pools but.. 70% of India lives in villages where, due to their proximity and close habitation with water body, the swimmer % must be close to 100%. When you come to the cities and towns, again this might differ from state to state. A couple of Keralite colleagues (over lunch) thought the percentage for largely-coastal Kerala is probably 90%.

Don’t Be Alarmed!

March 5, 2010 Leave a comment

This is your first month back in India after half a lifetime in America or Europe or… you are an expat who’s landed in India on a 2-year assignment. You have done the wise thing by hiring a driver but you still have to watch the movements of the heterogeneous traffic – with morbid fascination! Don’t be alarmed…

If you see a motorcyclist riding the wrong way on a one-way road,

He knows that the odds of him getting caught by a cop are very slim.

If you approach an intersection without a traffic light,

India has crowd-sourced the traffic light and the results are stunning.

If you see a motorcyclist standing on the stirrups,

He probably has an hour-long commute and his orthopaedician has advised him to rest his back.

If you see helmets slung on motorcyclists’ forearm instead of their heads,

The helmet law is really about preventing fines, not saving heads.

If you see a slow-moving moped piled high with bales of vegetables and no driver,

Look again – he’s draped on top of the bales miraculously still clutching the handlebars.

If you see three women holding hands and crossing an uncrossable stretch of road,

If Moses could separate the waters, millions of Indians can separate traffic.

If you see a motorcyclist riding with his head at a 45 degrees angle,

No – he doesn’t have spondylosis. He has tucked his cell-phone between his helmet & ear and is on a conference call.

If you see a woman walking in the middle of the road and she’s NOT crossing the road,

She’s a great poker player. Has computed that it’s safer to walk in the middle of the road than on the side.

If you see an auto-driver using his turn-signal indicator,

His electrical system is shot – otherwise why would a self-respecting auto-driver use turn signals?

If you see hand gestures from the back seat of an auto rickshaw.

No – the passenger is not related to the auto driver. He’s simply pulling his weight as a navigator.

If the stray dog sleeping in your car’s shade doesn’t budge even after your driver starts the car,

The dog knows precisely when the gear shift happens and will only move at that time.