Monopolizing TED

This post is an opinion. It is important that I state this upfront given the probability that its likely to be taken badly. This post is an opinion. Re-Stated. Opinion. Period.

Lately, I’ve become a big fan of saying things ‘upfront’ along with becoming a fan of ‘staying in the loop’, ‘re-defining impact’, ‘being on the same page’ and the like, but all that is a story for a different day.

TEDIndia is happening. TED has been ‘happening’, in a better way – for longer. Years ago, when TED found me – I spent several days downloading mp4 (s) to my Ipod. Qualitatively, what made the videos/talks different, was the fact that they celebrated the ‘small fry’, voices that haven’t been heard before.

Now take a look at the TEDIndia’s speakers list.

If you work with development in India – almost all those names are familiar to you. Where are the new ideas? Where is the innovation? A huge percentage of the potential speakers represent the ‘social enterprise’ space, there are also the ‘microfinance guys’, the ‘development economists’ and all then some more.

Some of these guys have done great work in the past. They’ve shaped the development space into what it currently is. They’ve also run out of ideas. Not to mention the ‘legendary-ness” of Usha Uthup.

Clearly, many of these people are established ‘greats’ with good reason. They’re excellent speakers and ,yes, maybe those of in this niche ‘development’ sector do know them – but this is about Global Recognition (with G and R in CAPITALS).

I beg to differ – clearly this is about fund raising and hobnobbing. Nothing wrong with that, just state it upfront.

So here’s my quibble — the idea was for TED bring ‘inspired’ thinking to the rest of us. On this front, TEDIndia – well you’ve failed me.

PS: This post, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that boss(es) are also on the speakers list. ūüėõ


A friend who works with ‘Education’ (as we in the third sector often like to put it) once told me ” In India its difficult enough to obtain an education without having to worry about its quality too”.

I¬†like to believe in the potential of private enterprise¬†to do do wonders for education, professor James Tooley’s new book – the beautiful tree, does a great job of pointing how this might be plausible with primary education.

I’m also a long seasoned advocate of the Friedman argument that the Government has no business being in business.¬†In India there is no business quite as complicated (both on the regulatory¬†scenario¬†front and on the potential impact front) as the business of higher education.

The argument against the utility of certification and regulatory roadblocks to offering and receiving higher education more common sense than anything else.

Sadly though, when one takes sides one often (and I am guilty of this in more ways than one) — one forgets to account for the losers in the short-run.¬†Take the ICFAI mess in the cities of Hyderabad and Jaipur for instance.

So what can you do, as a student – while the rest of us sit and pontificate about the merits and demerits of who should be in the business of education or who shouldn’t?

Take a look at this article which suggests that students’ check the following four things before committing a good year or more of their lives to an ‘institution’ –

a. Is the Institution awarding the degree, either a valid University or Deemed to be University? If yes, is it operating within its authorized jurisdiction?

b. Does the course/ programme have the approval of the relevant professional council?

c. Does the institution have valid accreditation?

d. Is the institution awarding the degree a member of the Association of Indian Universities?

I recommend everyone who is contemplating any sort of higher education (in India) read this piece thouroughly!

As the author points out towards the end:

“…it is important that students know the regulatory environment in the field of higher education in India. Knowing the legal requirements and taking reasonable care in these matters can help the youth of this country avoid losing money and precious years to well marketed, money-oriented educational business empires. It is certainly better to be careful than to be sorry!”

The 29C Effect

BusEveryday in the morning I wake up at 07:00 a.m to the constant beeping of my cellphone. I then press ‘snooze’ and get back under my sheet.

I do this at least three times on average and end up waking up at 07:30 a.m. I then rush through a bath, put on a thoroughly unmatched Kurta over ancient jeans and walk through a mini-swamp, a pile of stones, huge piles of cow-dung and some lousy construction to reach the famous ECR road.

By this time it is usually exactly 08:20 a.m.

At this point I slowly melt into the motley bunch of fisher women, harried mothers’ with school bags and children in tow, men looking for casual labour, the day-shift call center executive and the proverbial IT kid. We all then compete with each other to stuff ourselves into already over crowded share-autos.

Share autos are just larger three wheelers with open sides that make up for the fact that they are not quite large enough.

Once I succeed at getting into one of these I make my honking journey across ECR to Thiruvanmiyur bus stand. This entire painful routine usually ends up guaranteeing me a seat in my all-time favourite bus – the 29C AC special.

The AC specials are ultra-modern ‘low-floor, high-seat, music-blaring, air-conditioned, automated-swinging-door, uniformed conductor and polite driver’ specials. They are lovely.¬† They are also white with huge advertisements painted in bold colours across them. And there are just two leaving every hour.

I have a favourite seat, its in the back half of the bus. Second from the front, near the windows that the 29C occupants can see out of but that people on the road can’t see through. I wait to pay the conductor my 23 rupees and then listen to my iPod till I get to Sterling road.

The 29C community is a small bunch of people. A retired army officer who does strategic consulting at some shady Nungambakkam firm, a real well meaning middle-aged aunty who has a bad leg and requests an unscheduled stop at the Chola Sheraton, the three college girls who talk about the ‘worst lectures’ ever who get off at Stella and the quirky young chap with a stubble like Abhishek Bacchan — carrying a pink bag and reading a book on fashion design.

We see each other every day. Some of us smile, some of us even say good morning. Most of us know we are in this bus together sharing a journey. We wait together when our beloved bus is later and express surprise if even one us misses a day in the week. The 29C effect calmed me, prepared me for office and battles of the day, made me belong to a bunch of comfort-seeking yet poor members of the ‘middle-class’.

From 6th of March i will cease to be a part of these people’s lives and their stories. I will never know if the effeminate guy won his art competition, if the aunty managed to get her sons to fix the fuse, if the girls managed to bunk their classes or if the tired wage worker managed to save up to recharge his phone to tell his son in Perambur that he now uses an AC bus.

Another two days and the inexplicably comforting 29C effect will be history. No wait, it will go on to write histories that no one will ever read.¬† I will no longer be a character on its stage. Stop the bus, I want to get off…

Map Trap

I fail to understand why nobody has ever created a bus-route map of Chennai.

Creating a map should be a fairly straightforward business. Chennai buses do operate on time schedules — approximate time schedules yes, but still, time-schedules nevertheless.

Some 72% of Chennai’s population travels by bus thanks to obnoxiously high auto prices and yet first-time travelers or simply unseasoned bus users have no access to the simplest of all transportation information – which bus goes where and where does it stop.

Guaranteed, this is a difficult task and not one that can necessarily remain up to date, Chennai bus routes are plagued with way too many passengers and new diversions every now and then. Despite this, it ought not to be impossible to create a map with bus-stops and common bus numbers! Even if the effort turned out to be only an approximate representation of reality.

Common sense suggests that most rational people need a starting point, a reference or a flag-post of sorts from which they can extrapolate. This is how most decision making works. A proximate guide is as good an indicator as any in this case.

The lack of bus-route maps has nothing to do with the success of spontaneous order, it has to with a market failure of sorts; this is exactly what Hernando De Soto talked about- information is available and stored collectively (say in the minds of daily bus users) and yet for some odd reason there doesn’t seem to be any way to fix this information into a useful form; a map!

In the meantime, I appeared to have picked up one ‘American’ habit- listening to my i-pod on long lonely bus and train journeys to Kanchipuram and Nungambakkam occasionally amused by a cow, goat or a peculiar blade of grass.

PS: Here’s an excellent piece on Reason explaining the connection (actually, the lack of) between the bailout and free markets.

Capitol Quirks

Yesterday was Capitol tour day with Senator Lugar’s office. Senator Lugar is Indiana’s senator and the tour was a lot of fun. Funnily enough, one of the larger photographs in Lugar’s office was a close up of the Lugar, Bush and prime minister Manmohan Singh!

The Capitol building is beautiful especially the Capital Rotunda which is Constatino Brumidi’s claim to fame. It was (I was informed, by a cheerful intern at Lugar’s office) originally designed to be a presidential crypt. After Washington died earlier than his wife burial pans were altered. This left the Senate with too much space so they decided to throw in a couple of statues.

Like several Mughal buildings the Rotunda has excellent natural acoustics including a famous ‘whispering spot’, which didn’t work despite our many attempts. The cement floor is famous for ‘cat paws’, evidence of a famous tabby cat that crossed the senate floor in total contempt of authority when the floor cement was still wet!

I also found the¬† train which travels between the three senate buildings- Heart, Russell and Dirksen- rather amusing because it was toy-like. The chamber where one enters the train is also rather representative of federal affairs! There are large trash-can like containers placed strategically under falling bits of ceiling with a hand-tacked sign saying “these bins are NOT for trash!” ūüėÄ

The Apotheosis of Washington is probably the one thing that caught my eye more than anything else at the Rotunda.¬† It is Brumidi’s fresco that decorates the underside of the dome. I still find the foundations of liberty, in the American tradition astounding – and this was doubly so when our guide deciphered the fresco for us.

The fresco apparently depicts the ‘becoming of a god’ which is roughly what the ‘apotheosis’ means. The fresco has George Washington surrounded by paintings of classical roman mythology including the goddess of victory and interestingly the goddess of liberty to his immediate left and right. Washington also has thirteen women (why women?!) in a circle who apparently represent the thirteen original colonies.

The Rotunda is full of beautifully carved statues and the walls have what is called the ‘Frieze of American History’. The Frieze is nineteen colourful panels which depict scenes from American history and include an entertaining anecdote of how Brumidi was suspended upside down for a whole fifteen minutes while he fell off the scaffolding one fine day. The panels cover a whole range of historical milestones, except the first which includes the goddess of liberty again- I found Columbus,¬† William Penn and the Wright brothers on the fresco.

The Rotunda also has eight huge paintings and several other sculptures including some presidents. The paintings have what you would expect- the declaration of independence, the arrival of Columbus, Mississippi and the Pocahontas – all breathtakingly beautiful.

Possibly of the two quirkiest parts of the Rotunda is the permanently stationed George Washington Statue, which lacks a left ear! Brumidi apparently forgot the ear- and while our guide told us the ear was missing, I heard several other guides claiming that Washington’s hair covered the missing ear-lobe!

The second interesting and quirky statue depicts the women’s suffrage movement which led to the 19th amendment and consists of portraits of the leaders of the women accompanied by an un-carved marble section at the back of the sculpture.

I am told, the un-carved section is reserved for America’s first woman president- that would be Hillary if she wins or another eight years of empty marble which is more likely.

The start to the Capitol tour too was rather fascinating. It consists of being confronted by a rather bizarre statute by Alexander Calder. The structure is supposed to be representative of¬† ‘Mountains and Clouds’, and was followed by Calder killing himself by jumping off a building.

The atrium of the Hart building also includes four miniatures representing the original designs of the capital building including the first design which was essentially a re-make of the Pantheon!

Now all I need to figure out is why the average person from Indiana is called a Hoosier. Senator Lugar’s office had a large board that swung from side-to-side saying welcome ‘Hoosiers’. All my friends of Indiana, however, don’t have the slightest idea why they are all called ‘Hoosiers’…. hmmmm.

Possibly, the funniest anecdote I can relate is about the large and beautiful chandelier which stands at entrance of the Rotunda. Our guide asked us to guess how much it cost the senate to buy the chandelier. After a bunch of wrong guesses, he told us it was bought off the local church for a mere 1500 dollars and was probably the only fiscally responsible the Senate had ever done!



Washington Metro StationIts taken me almost ten days of travel on the Washington metro to realize that it is a public transportation system that actually uses peak-load pricing rather effectively. Traveling from Crystal City to Dupont Circle everyday at office hours (between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.)  in the morning, for example, costs $2.16. Coming back the same way not at office hours (sometime in the afternoon) costs $1.60.

The difference between prices seemed curious at first and I was baffled how someone would potentially calculate and plan their expenditure for the week on transportation if the prices changed so arbitrarily. For a while I even thought it was gas prices causing the price to go up till I discovered the lower price on a fine Thursday afternoon, only to feel stupid when I realized that these metro trains run on electricity not gas. That would be all too unreliable in India where electricity outages are an everyday phenomenon, not true here though.

Prices change depending on the time of the day you travel. Rush hour tickets are more expensive than taking an empty yellow line to Georgetown in the afternoon. Peak-load pricing is a great example of how economics uses incentives to better everyday existence. At office hours in the morning, a train on the metro line is a scarce commodity with a lot of people competing for space on it. Those who ‘really’ need to get to work on time pay the premium and access the metro, those who can wait- do, and get the benefit of lower price when the commodity is not so scarce and therefore not so fiercely competed for.

In some sense this is the market allocating a scarce resource efficiently through prices as the signaling system. Its also a great de-congestion method, providing a disincentive to travel on the metro on peak times- the higher costs mean that at least some people will look for alternate ways to travel- by road, bus or walk. I sometimes wonder why heavily congested roads in India aren’t just converted to toll roads with peak-load pricing. Electricity too is a commodity that responds well to the idea of peak-load pricing and actually encourages the conservation of electricity well.

In India peak-load pricing works beautifully for the Internet and Telecommunication- most Indians’ are familiar with free calls from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. schemes on cellular services and free night-time surfing from Internet Service Providers. Watching peak-load pricing work in a public transportation system that I use everyday is fascinating and makes me wonder why this powerful tool isn’t used more often in Indian infrastructure and public utility provision.

The American Panoply

On balance I like what I’ve seen so far. I’m awed by the enormous amount space, the lack of people and the profusion of trees. I like the sidewalks too and the fact that average car drives by the traffic signal. I also find the accuracy of directions, colour-coded metro lines and GPS guided cab services fascinating.

In the last week I’ve decided that Walmart is palatial, Starbucks is overrated but makes for an excellent landmark for just about anything.¬† I also think the Churchill sleeping system is meant for tall people and contains one too many duvets for the ordinary soul.

I’m now a Tom Palmer fan and am utterly convinced that is¬†one of the world’s most fascinating people and perhaps one of the best teachers of history. I also like the efficiency of the average day in DC, though I think the claim that¬†American society is flat is a rather bogus one- hierarchies are invisible¬†which doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

I also find the obsession with the classification of intellectual traditions slightly odd, my understanding and therefore concern stems from a focus on what works in the policy world not necessarily from what forms an artificially constructed set of coherent belief systems.

With these trivial observations I shall now sign off. More later.  

The Passport Chronicles

I now have a new shiny passport with a really strange picture.

Here’s what I learnt through the process:

1) Never ever lose your passport! Do not carry it with you for identification purposes, lest some evil soul steals your bag – ’cause the mountain of pain to follow is so excruciating that it might well be termed a ‘life changing’ process; you’ll be marred, scarred, irritable and exhausted beyond measure.

2) If you do end up having to apply for a new passport be prepared to encounter the holy trinity of Ps in the A ; the passport office, the police station and the post office.

3) Do not assume that there is anything such as a ‘Tatkal’ service, things are only relatively tatkal – meaning instead of one month, if you really really tried your passport might reach you in ten days time; but wait; the fee you paid was for ‘3’ days delivery – yes sir!¬† Well it did take three days – three days to make, another three days to dispatch, another three days to travel from post office A to post office B (four km apart!) and another three days to reach in all probability, except they forget that really ‘determined’ people have voices that can shout.

4) Be prepared to discover that the climate consistently conspires to make you perspire; also be prepared to discover that all vendors conveniently located near the passport office will only sell thirst enhancing fizzy drinks, not thirst-quenching water or juice.

5) Discover the joy of bribing police men to write down a complaint and blame the bribe on ‘the boys’ who will get the job done.

5) Learn how to keep your patience with impolite passport officials who express surprise at your ignorance about passport procedures that change once every ten-days without any public announcement.

6) Meet Mr. PIS-ON (yes, that is gross), the ‘Passport Information System On Net’ – which is accessible only to the holy passport officials. Further, discover how the inefficiency of the PISON can help you in unfathomable ways- for example, solve a complicated issue with a non-expired passport that is wrongly declared expired!

7) Discover how absurd regulations like a photo copy of a lost passport is required to apply for a fresh one, or how an under secretary is required to vouch for your character, or how affidavits are prepared with ruthless efficiency in the informal market or better still how you have to self-attest the authenticity of your own documents!

8) Be prepared for an unpleasant three days between which you will have no clue where your passport is – the undocumented journey of the local post across four kilometres.

9) Understand that applying for a passport is a valuable experience because its the closest you’ll ever get to living a cross between a Salvador Dali painting and a Kafkaesque nightmare.

10) Be prepared to let out delighted whoops of joy when you dash across dusty roads in a rickety vehicle (with a poised pen-tip) to reach home and sign for your passport finally, where an unwilling post man is held hostage by a family member dangling currency notes.

This is what hell must be like, no?