Singapores Economic Woes

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Singapore’s Economic Recession

Singapore has been a powerhouse of economic growth and icon of modernity and innovation in the East.  As recounted by everyone I met, it has been in recession for the last two years. One of the foremost and lead sectors of services is the oil drilling and exploration, oil rigs, and transportation of cargo.  These have been sluggish of late and seem to have affected Singapore also significantly. The sector has seen staff shedding of significant numbers as a result. As a result other service providers to them like legal services, audit services, banking, etc have shrunk a bit – may be quite a bit and have had to down size some staff themselves.

A significant amount of investments by outsiders into Singapore was in real estate. This has caused the real estate prices to climb up steadily. In the recent years native Singaporeans have complained of unaffordable real estate prices and living costs. The minimum house price for a middle class is about SG$ 1 million. They have contended that it is not possible to support such a capital cost/debt on a salary of SG$ 6,000 – 8,000 average salaries and started migrating out of Singapore to Australia and elsewhere.  To tame it down or reverse this, the Govt has put a 15% stamp duty – to discourage runaway property prices due to purchase  by outsiders. This in order to help the ‘locals’. Due to this extreme measure (this must now be the highest stamp duty anywhere in the world), the outsiders have virtually stopped brining in investments.  And construction industry ahs seen a steep slow down and large layoffs.

Added to this, Singapore has signed off on Fatca and other money laundering agreements spearheaded by US. As a result of tight monitoring and policing and KYC requirement, the funds that were managed for private wealth clients out of a liberal and efficient Singapore have seen a steep decline. And this has led to layoffs in this sector of high salaries curbing further their spends.

‘Singa’pore is a highly dynamic and innovative society. You can’t keep it caged for far too long. I understand that the DyPM who was handling economic affairs so far has handed over to someone else (i forget the name) to put back the economy on rails. And his mentor is Dr Y V Reddy who commands a high respect there – RBI for the way it has handled several world- wide crisis 1997 East Asia, 2002 internet bubble and 2008 by their conservative approach is respected the highest by Singapore Monetary authorities I was told by at least 3.

It will be interesting to see how they bounce back. I am sure there will be some lessons for all the rest.

It stands to reason the first thing to be hit in a recession will be the discretionary expenditure. Usually when i walk from my usual Hotel Park Royal to Komala Vilas, MTR, Ananda Bhavan etc – all within 100-300 meters for my dinner, i will hear the blaring music belching out of many Music clubs and Dance bars – Hollywood songs, bollywood songs, Tamil, Hindi, etc. But this time there was just a solitary one. I am sure one day the magazineEconomist will develop a Karaoke index to measure the level of economic activity a la the Big Mac index.   Or use the level of vouyeuristic activities to measure the Economy. 

 

Demonetisation Lessons from Brazil

An edited version of this article appeared in Financial Express today. Link: http://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/note-ban-lesson-from-brazil-best-way-to-demonetise-is-not-to-have-one/472432/

Public policies are best when a lot of reason goes into their formulation and passion into their implementation.Those looking for an effective recipe for formulation could learn a lot from Brazil. It has demonetised its currency 8 times since 1942 and thrice simply knocked off the last 3 digits of its currency overnight i.e. like a 10,000 Cruzeiro (then Brazilian currency) will be 10 Cruzeiro from next day morning.

Lessons from 1830s to 1942.

Even before from 1830s it has been compelled to experiment with its currency due to evolving politics. The early experiments are to do with metallic convertible bases like silver and gold, metallic copper coins, birth of parallel paper money,  etc.

In early 1830s in order to stabilise the external value of Mil-Reis (then currency), the centre starved supply of currencies reducing the circulation of copper coins in the provinces. The provinces responded by issuing their own notes to neutralise demonetisation. Promissory Notes issued by Commercial banks valid for 15 days by law began to be accepted far beyond their due dates. (Source: Page 39-43,  Monetary Statecraft in Brazil: 1808–2014, Kurt Mettenheim)

Some other time commercial banks were allowed to issue bank notes (like in Hong Kong where currencies were issued by Standard Chartered and HSBC till accession). This led to loss of control of central authority and dilution of monetary policies.

Brazil through its history has clearly proved that no one can ‘starve’ the people of currency for far too long.

1942-1994

This period was mostly about high government expenditure, unbridled fiscal gaps and high inflation. Brazil demonetised 8 times before the last one in 1994.

It has had to change its currency, the ultimate form of demonetization for every conceivable reason – to tackle black money (Indian objective), to tackle hyper inflation, tackle daily cumulating interest rates of 3% (which is nearly 50,000% p.a.), base erosion, commodity price volatilities especially in Copper or just to avoid confusion (if Brazil had retained its currency same as in 1942, it would be 1 US $ =  2750 followed by 18 zeros, a nightmare for the accountants). They have been far deeper than t he Indian type demonetisation – the entire spectrum was replaced and the currency itself renamed.

The last in 1994.

The most recent in 1994 seemed Quixotic. It was aimed more at breaking the psychology of inflation. With 100% inflation consistently for 14 preceding  years (in 4 years over 1000%), shops had to revise prices 3 times everyday. That is when the government decided to use two currencies simultaneously – one virtual for counting the real value of currency and another for payments and settlement – and every shop having to display its prices in both and revise it 3 times a day.

But unexpectedly, people started anchoring their values against the real value (which was set near 1 Real Value unit = 1 US$).  Within a quarter or so, it was clear people were not rushing any longer to shops to avoid their currency buying less than when they started from home. Inflation abated and the real value became the Real the official unit. It was perhaps one of its most successful experiments that has lasted till date.

Lessons from Brazil

People will seek ways to settle transactions in the most cost and effort efficient ways. For many transactions in much of India, using currencies across the counter is still the most efficient option. In 1970s and 80s, when there was a coin shortage of sorts,  Chintamani co-operative superstore in Coimbatore used to issue their own tokens. These slowly gained acceptance with public so much so that even government owned busses and offices used them.

The parallel systems will start issuing notes and IOUs which will be strictly ‘enforced’ amongst its members through extra legal authorities.

One thing Brazil has always got right (between 1942-1994) is to have the 1,2,5,10,20,50,100 note sequence – considered the most friendly from transaction settlement point of view.

Currencies are as much about psychology and convenience as values for accounting and transaction, as the 1994 experiment so decisively proved.

The best way to demonetise is not to have one – avoid inflation, avoid unjustifiable or un-implementable tax systems, and not to issue too much of it anyway. Brazil has about 3% as currency/GDP whereas India’s is11-12%. Government should have incentivised and reduced it by 1% every year rather than force it in one lump.

A parade of demonetisations has not exactly curbed either parallel economy or corruption in Brazil. Corruption and black money is so rampant, their President was recently impeached for corruption, their biggest real estate tycoon is behind bars and may have to spend the rest of life there if not politically rescued.

Why black money or parallel economy, there is a near parallel administration being run by the mafia through drugs, extortion, violent thefts (one murder every 10 minutes i.e 140 a day, down of course from 600 a day not so long ago), etc. none of which will be happening through tax paid cheque money transfers.

Conclusion

In summary Brazil offers 3 ground rules (perhaps not with successful examples as much as negative narratives):

  • the way to tame inflation is not periodic demonetisations but curb state populism,
  • the way to curb black money and illegal economy is not starving people of cash but well thought out tax policies and effective punishments, and
  • the way to protect free trade from causing domestic unemployment problems is to maintain the external value of the currency which in turn is achieved by restricting external capital inflows to just what is required for financing current account deficits. (Donald V Coes, Macro Economic Policies and Growth in Brazil, 1964-90)

One would definitely give credit to both the government and RBI for curbing state populism within FRBMs. But given the levels of corruption in tax collection systems itself, black money curbing through demonetisation seems an ill fitting solution. Unemployment is rampant and growing due perhaps to highly overvalued Rupee and extra terrestrial real interest rates.

The daily dose of RBI circulars does indicate that someone is extremely alert at the wheel but whether he knows the destination and if it will deliver enough gains for the pains people are experiencing, time alone will tell.

The writer is CFO and author of ‘Making Growth Happen in India’ (Sage Publications)

Modi’s 500/1000 move may have sent him to stratosphere; but he has to be more convincing

 

I have a slightly negative view on the likely impact of demonetisation more especially the proportion of people who have to undergo the pain for catching a few (may be less than 1%) errants. In many cases the Govt may also know who those politicians/individuals are. So spoke to several people (besides several corporate types during the course of meetings) to gauge the mood; lucky I have not gotten beaten up yet.

First a Kaamwali (she wasn’t all that specific except that mentioned that she has just got Diwali bonus), a Receptionist in Mumbai at one the largest cement firms (she was inconvenienced but said that she supported Modi since it is required for the nation), an Old and frail Tamilian lady who needed some help with Kiosk check in, and my driver for the day. He with a bit of glee and satisfaction said “I had only Rs 3000 which I will exchange”. “Is it required? Do you support it?”. “Yes He has fixed all those **** (reference to some community). They have been asking for it, crooks. They were hoarding so much black money”.

A slightly serious looking Security staff who frisks you at Airport at CS in Mumbai.  When I opened the topic he was cross with me and put his finger on his lips to ask me to shut up. I trailed off with Modi’s name. His outlook took an about turn and asked in utter curiousness ‘Kya Kya Kya?’

I said Rs 500/1000. … he: yes yes. Me : Do u support it. Him: Yes sir.

Me: Why? Aren’t you inconvenienced?’

Him: ‘Yes sir. But that’s little’.

Me: So you can bear it.

Him: There is Hope sir now. I will bear it. His mouth was quivering. I was expecting an English response I was not prepared for an emotional response. I just patted him and said “great man Keep it up” and moved on.

 

2 jet pilots flying off duty. “Sir I can hope to buy a house now. They used to be asking so much cash… where will i go for that kind of cash. We support it”.

My next victim was a 5th std Master Kavya studying  in Singapore Public School in Dahisar seated next to me. Slightly on the studious side but very eloquent and fluent for his age. I took his mothers permission to talk to him for a few minutes.

He would have liked Clinton to come back, since she would have succeeded Obama who is a great friend of Modi. He likes Modi because he is the one to start Swatch Bharat which will clean up India.  They debated the effect of Rs500/1000 in the school.  The teacher briefed them on what ‘black money’ is. They had concluded that black money is not a fair system that some people bear and some people go free, it is cheating. He said that his parents would be greatly inconvenienced but still he supported Modi wholeheartedly.  ‘Its required for the Nation’. Views were erudite but he made his point in a manner befitting his age.

 

I was zipping thru most of Delhi and India Gate at 9.45 which was deserted like someone had announced that a nuclear bomb is going to be dropped there in an hour’s time. ‘Aaj Kya hai?’ I asked the Mega cab driver. ‘Logoan ke pass paise nahi hai’ he refrained. I thought I had at last found an ally and started a conversation. But he was more than a fan of Modi; he almost looked an appendage to him. Next 15 minutes he gave me a lecture on how Modi is good and how what he does is good and how it will benefit in the long run. I had no choice as his captive audience.

 

With 6 -7 others also, Modi seem to have scored a perfect 10 with this move – somewhat surprising for a debative society…he has managed to whip up a frenzy to ecstasy in support of his action. ‘Sock those Black Money B***ds’ seems to be the mood.

 

I did not expect such a one sided view from lower /middle income people.  So when I write this piece i know I’m in a minority. But still i present my sour grapes.

 

And Now the Sour Grape

Someone asked Deng Xio Ping the architect of Chinese reforms, on the 200th anniversary of French Revolution as to what its impact on Democracy was? He replied, ‘Too Early to Tell’. My instinctive reaction is to reserve my judgment on this recent chest thumping by Modi fans on his recent salvo (Mandatory Disclosure : I am a Modi fan myself, except i want to temporarily suspend that status on this issue till i get convinced on the benefits of his recent action).

What has been done is bold, no doubt. His speech was more patriotic, but it needed to be convincing more than being patriotic is my opinion. He could have told the nation on how much Black money he thinks is in circulation, how much the Government aims to garner thru this action, how much Taxes the Govt hopes to get as a one-time measure and how much on a running long term basis,  how much additional growth its going to create.

Most of all how am I as an individual going to benefit for the pains imposed on me – at least in qualitative terms. I have not earned a penny with tax dodge – rather I am yet to get so many I Tax  refunds (petty though) from the Govt since 1995-96. This is a pure compliance measure; so to impute any sense of patriotism is unwarranted, i reckon.

Half way into Modi’s term, i am far less convinced about his (or rather his cabinet’s) ability to deliver on the one most important thing – growth and with it employment for the rural, youth, newly graduating. I don’t think there is even a plot or story line leave alone a convincing plan. So i am not willing to be mesmerised by side shows, however impressive. If MMS was lack of action, Modi’s cabinet seems to be lack of ideas. Growth seems to be in an anaesthetic state. Just excessive focus on a few things  alone is not enough to run the country. And he hasn’t addressed the core issues causing black money – unreasonable stamp duties and Capital gains taxes alongwith election funding… in that sense the monster will sure take rebirth and start from zero again

When some Isreali said that even they would have been proud of India’s surgical strike, sure my chest went up 560 inches. Sure he is doing a great job of whatever he is doing; but then is he doing what all needs to be done?

While resolving strictly to comply with the rules, i am tempted to suggest the following actions:

Devalue our currency also – to may be around Rs 76/$ which is its true value. Impose a 30% tax on Chinese imports citing national security interests (their actions on Brahmaputra and POK).

It will create all the jobs that our youth and country needs.

To give a sense of balance, sure Demon’n will ease inflation and hence interest rates. It will make real estate more affordable and not prone to periodic price spirals and so people may not invest in them out of desperation but only when needed and look for better alternative investments. May reduce fees and prices of sectors thriving on black money like doctors and lawyers and some professional classes. It will motivate me more to pay taxes…but that alone may not convince the 99% abiding citizens to strain themselves (i thought so… but quick survey exposed my hollowness) to facilitate the government to catch the errant few.

With some serious disgust i should also mention that balanced debate seems impossible on this subject. Modi baiters throw all kinds of silly bile  … it won’t work, too draconian; what happens to A, AA, MA, BA,him, etc., will not succeed using anything from vile adjectives to heavy invectives. On the other hand Modi fans are rather obsessed – they talk as if this is the best thing that could have happened to the country since independence, this act required stature of Go… or such terms. You utter your reservations, abuse is not far away in time.

I am sorry. I am a big Modi fan myself. But i refuse to back him wholesale. I retain my right to be critical on certain issues or as in this case certain aspects of proposed action. To surrender this right of mine is an assault on reasoned debates and a vacuum of balance.

When we were descending I asked Kavya as to how he would like to be told by the teacher on any issue (i) Just be told by the teacher what to do in a stern way or (ii) she explains the matter, tells him about the risks and benefits and recommends that he acts. He didn’t hesitate to vote for 2nd option.

At last some consolation for me. Modi could have taken the convincing route than the prescriptive school teacher approach.

Demystifying GDP numbers – as articulate a statistician as you will ever find

Demystifying the confusion around GDP figures

Attended an address today by Dr Pronab Sen, former Chief Statistician of India and Chairman National Statistical Commission. I must admit despite his slightly absent minded looks, he is the most articulate economist I have heard in a long time. Some excerpts. He threw a lot of light of issues generating lots of heat in the press nowadays. (Errors in figures if any is entirely mine).

Should we believe the new GDP growth rates reported

People confuse output for income. GDP is not the sum of turnover but income. A consumption good may be traded at 4-5 intermediate stages before it reaches the final consumer. Then GDP is not the summation of the turnover of the 4 intermediate trades but just the income (Value added) at each of these stages. Example: if an auto mfgr imports components of Rs 30, assembles and sells the car at Rs 55, the dealer to retail showroom at Rs 70, and the retailer to customer at Rs 80… the GDP will be Rs 50 (25+15+10) not Rs 235 (30+55+70+80) or Rs 205 (55+70+80).

Thus GDP is not summation of  Value of Outputs (VO) but summation of Value added (VA) at each stage.

GDP = ∑VA  or = ∑VO * (VA/VO). i.e output into Value Added ratio at each respective stage.

In India the long term average (1950-1998) VA ratio was 16% for manufacturing industries. Between 1998 & 2003 it increased to 18%. By 2011-15 this has increased to 22.5%. Thus a lot more value addition is taking place in our output than anytime in the past. Even if our output may not have grown at higher rates, the value added component in that output has gone up … giving higher GDP numbers. This is what is being witnessed now.

2             Typically in a downturn, industries invest in efficiency improvements rather than investments in physical assets. In Boom time they invest in physical assets (may be indiscriminately). During 2 crunch times of 1998-2003 credit squeeze and 2011-2015, India has invested and become far more efficient and is achieving higher VA in its output. We are lot more competitive globally today than 10 years back.

3             China also invested heavily in physical assets during boom years. Their VA/VO ratio was also fortunately high in mid-20s which has fallen and stands over the last decade to 19% now, less than India’s in several sectors – a sign of over investment. They are now investing in efficiencies and technologies. The World average (long term) is 18-19%. India is well placed now on cost competitiveness and more industries should identify their strengths and grow; they should not worry too much about our size being 1/5th or 1/10th of China’s in their industry.

Why corporate profitability is low in spite of higher value added

4             The VA  has 2 large components – (i) what is paid out as wages and salaries (WS) and (ii) other operating surplus(OS) (paid out as interest, dividend, retained surplus, etc.). In the last 5 years the average rate of growth in WS for India as a whole is 17% p.a. meaning far more is paid out as salaries and wages and the share of OS is 10% p.a. of which the share of interest has been high. Dividend payout has also increased dramatically affecting Corporate profitability and retained surpluses. Wages and salaries in rural India has risen faster than in urban areas/industries.

Shift in manufacturing profile

5             The share of unlisted firms is growing faster than listed companies. Unlisted firms are growing at 12% CAGR while listed firms output is growing at 7% CAGR. The share of informal sector has quietly reached 40% today.

India is becoming more entrepreneurial. It would not be surprising to see that in the next 5/10 years, the top 20 of the 40 construction companies will be totally new and unheard of now.

6             Black money distorts asset allocation.  Most of it is kept in black assets – gold and real estate. Now that there is drive against black money, real estate is suffering.

On Why IIP numbers (index of Industrial production)  don’t reflect our higher growth    

7             IIP numbers are constructed from select industries. Those mfg industries/product which contribute at least 2% of total is selected first. Some of these may have 8% some 5% and so on. 14 such products contribute 80%.

For these products/ industries, just the top 6 firms (turnover wise) are selected. Their rate of growth is taken and averaged and reported as IIP numbers. The index we are using has a base 2004.

During the last 10 years between 2004/5 and now, the small and medium scale sector in these industries have grown far faster (at 14% p.a) than the corporate sector (7% p.a) and the sample 6 have grown even slower. The share of small firms have grown from 30% to 50% in the last 10 years – a fact not captured by the index.

Construction of any index is a time consuming and costly exercise based on extensive surveys. Thats why they are not done frequently. A new series with base 2011 is in the offing, which might set right the anomaly between GDP and IIP numbers.

Why Indian industry is not investing even if it is growing

7             Informal sector which is growing the maximum does not have much savings – it is squeezed out by the money lenders – their main source of finance.

More is paid out as wages and salaries, who may not have the same investment urges as retained earnings.

and of course the High interest rates (see below)

Interest rates

8             Indian interest rates are very high. It attracts a lot of portfolio flows which come in and keeps Rupee artificially high and un-competitive. The way to correct it is to let the interest rates fall which will enable the industries to invest and absorb these flows. If the flows are properly absorbed the currency will find proper level ($ may be Rs 72/75 instead of being Rs 67-68) and portfolio flows will be moderated. This has not been allowed to happen and our real interest rates have been kept artificially high.  We are just accumulating reserves instead of putting it to productive use.

9             Indian industry is crying hoarse on high real interest rates. What they should be screaming at is the differential interest rates. Between 2008 and now these have moved significantly against India.

Our corporate interest rates were 9% average towards end of last decade when the global interest rates were 4.5 % – a gap of 4.5%. Today our interest rates are 10.5% when the global interest rates are kept at 1.5% a gap of 9%. Not an ideal situation for investments. It is better to invest overseas, even if to supply to India.

Thus Indian industry is caught between artificially high interest rates and artificially high forex rates which does not enable them to raise prices in line with costs.

Difference between Planning Commission and the current NITI AAYOG.

10           The previous planning commission had a 15 year, 5 year and 1 year plans/horizons.

15 years – There was a broad perspective plan which was not generally well known or publicized.

5 years – Better known as 5 year Plans. This was an approach paper.

1 year – laid out the expenditure for various programmes.

The NITI AAYOG has a 15, 7, 3 year cycles.

15 year. Vision document – the Government has asked the Niti Aayog to come up with this.

7 year – plans and programmes.

3 year – implementation plans for the above.

NPAs

11           The current NPA is entirely that of Corporate sector. The priority sector NPAs have remained at their usual 1.5%.

12           From financing just working capital needs from retail savings our Banks are now financing long term loans from the retail savings. More than 50% of lending today is for long term loans.  This is inherent mismatch. Our commercial Banks are not just designed to deal with NPAs.

13           It is not that we were without NPAs earlier. The long term loans were earlier met by DFIs (IDBI, ICICIs, IFCIs) which financed themselves with long term Bonds (15 year types) and were far better able to deal with temporary fluctuations in business and time taken to rectify/reconstruct even bad decisions. It is simply not feasible to deal with them on a quarterly basis, which is what the banks are expected to do now.

Choice does not necessarily bring Welfare, Dr Sen.

IMG_0896.JPGWhen it comes to Cars I was a bit like Madhuri Dixit who claimed that ‘it is just a device to get me from place A to place B – nothing besides’. Yes she does look for comfort but does not care that much for looks, prestige, colour, gizmos, etc. It was the same with me … but only till recently.

My first five cars were hatchbacks from Maruti and Ford. I must have spent a total of fifteen minutes in selecting them – cumulatively that is. Initially there was no other choice as one would have had to deal with Ambassadors or ‘on the way out’ Fiats. Choice was about the colour alone.

My last car was a Toyota Altis. I was sort of told what to buy by my employer and so i went to the showroom and looked at the car for about 15-20 minutes mostly to familiarise myself with its features. The only choice was the colour and by that time i had had 3 blues, and 2 whites and so was sort of bored with those colours. I selected Grey.

Three – four days after i took possession, i happened to meet my boss at the office park. He asked me how my car was doing. I told him that i would have rather taken a Wagon R or repeated my earlier Ford Fusion (FF) both hatchbacks and comfortable to sit. FF also had a thicker gauge of metal so wasn’t really a problem with minor dashes and kisses while parking, so frequent in Delhi. He did not relish the answer at all. He said, ‘No. You should get a good car you see. It is necessary’. He seemed to convey much more than what he said. Guess he had played a part in upgrading my values to make it affordable even if I was otherwise ineligible.

That was my last psychological engagement with Altis. 5 years of trouble free running, faithful servant, i slowly got used to sedans and the low seating. I always preferred the high seating hatchbacks or SUVs. In fact SUVs are too high to get in and out and Crosses are better. I had never measured the mileage, never bothered to do up the minor scratches, my driver had to remind me to change the perfumes (in fact he only bought them), the garage fellow will tell me to change the tyres. The only thing that i did get worked up about was eternal cleanliness. Any deposit of delhi’s dust for more than a day would send my tempers up. I finished 5 years but was not really looking for a replacement when suddenly the break pads started giving loud noises, was not reliable any more while breaking. The workshop had started warning me in the last two visits over six months.

It was time to change the car. By this time i had seen some of my colleagues graduate their cars … significantly up to Audis and Mercs. I thought i should spend some time and make a properly researched, well informed, decision after comparing all available choices and not rush into any decisions or feel left behind.

So began my search. In the 3 months that followed i would have visited several garages of Honda, Hyundai, Toyata, Audi, Merc, BMW, Jaguar and Land rover, and Porsche (not that i could ever afford one… but gave me a nice feeling that i can get into their showroom), and Marutis… some at 2-3 different places. Spoken to 2-3 recent buyers of high end cars to get their take, … a close friend provided with a comprehensive comparison sheet of all such cars.

My first dream was the curvaceous Camry. Or the spacious Honda Accord. Someone who knew me well had suggested Santa Fe. I was told Accord has been withdrawn in India for sometime. Went to the Hyundai next door and had a look. Although i did 4-5 trips in the next month or so to get an additional car – i10, i was not impressed with their reception at all. Their complacency showed : there was 3-4 months waiting for most of their cars. I would have almost bought the new Creta if it was available off the shelf. But the minimum wait was 4 months. The beautiful Camry – my true infatuation – had given way to the feature rich but extremely geometric and boring design. One look and i decided that the lady had become wiser with age but not more vivacious. Toyota was also much like Hyundai … not too bothered. To get a test drive of Camry i had to visit them 3 times. Finally promised and when i reached apologised that they had only a car to show but not to drive … great customer care!

Then i started with the European/German Cars – Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Jaguars.   All great to drive and almost read your mind to drive but i was still hesitant on the value – money proposition till i talked to my friend of mine, a CEO of an Auto component MNC. Just a decisive sentence, ‘German cars are German cars. Don’t even entertain any doubts. It is the ultimate driving pleasure’. That done one more round, this time with prices included.

I asked my driver to chat up some of the other drivers and give me a feed on Audis. He came back with ‘people are saying there are issues with their service, Sir’. That more or less sealed its fate. I am surprised till date how so much information search and experience did not make up my mind in certain respects but a single minute 3rd party ‘expert’ feedback closed my mind on one of the dominant choice. About BMW i took some feedback from a friend, ‘Have no doubts my dear friend, don’t even have second thoughts’. Again that sealed by choice decisively ultimately. Regarding colour one of the many salesman i met remarked on my favourite Red, ‘Sir, its a beautiful colour no doubt, but your eyes tend to get bored with it in six months, and you tend to get sick with it’. That more or less sealed the colour choice for me. Mercs showroom was staid and somewhat non caring i thought and there was no sense of urgency about them. In any case the back seat width in most of their models is too narrow – I can barely place my bums, i thought.

The car arrived and it was looking gorgeous in my garage slot. Two more than middle aged business ladies who live in the same building and have never spoken to me in the past 10 years came and complimented me on the new car especially the colour. And so did some drivers in our office with some well meaning gratuitous advice on how to take care of it, etc.

After 3-4 days of gloating over it, the discomfort of getting in and out of low seating sedans was beginning to singe. I am most comfortable placing my foot flat on the floor of the car… but then the low seats don’t allow that unless you have your knees almost level with your chin. You have to stretch your feet if in front seat. Without anything to rest my foot firmly, i felt that any sudden breaks i would slide down my seat and the discomfort of resting the weight of my foot on the heels of my shoes…

To incentivise, I had told my driver that the new car is expensive and every scratch will cost me a bomb and if at the end of the year there is no scratch on the car he will get one month’s additional bonus. He is not exactly race track ready but i have never had any issues: he is as fast as any ‘stick to your lane’ driver can be. But nowadays he is a unsure wreck – looking in 32 directions every now and then before he pushes ahead.

My Ford Fusion was a bully – with its thick gauge i was not afraid of the autos, or two wheelers or other cars. I would just nose my way in, honk and elbow out others and create my way. These days when i am at the wheel, i am afraid of every auto, speeding car… motor cycles and even cycle rickshaws, nervous that they may come and kiss my vehicle… DTC busses are a menace …and in general the lower the value of the other nearby vehicle the more my scare. I have caught the virus of looking over, ahead, sideways, rear view mirror… from my driver.

And a few days into my purchase, my car was stuck somewhere and i had taken a ride with a colleague on his Ciaz. A high seating sedan, I could firmly root my foot, there was all the electronics one could think of… the rear cameras, navigation, voice recognition … big boot space with Stepney properly hidden… it appeared a superset of all features I had noticed in all other cars. All at 1/4th the price… cheap price the thing that makes most Indian mouths water the most. And my sense of regret was complete.

Conclusions

  1. i want to convey I have bought a ‘luxury’ (according to me) car and arrived in life. (Even if i didn’t say this, most readers would have concluded anyway that it is the only purpose of this article. So why should not i get the pleasure of saying it myself instead of starting with being defensive).
  2. Choice does not necessarily bring welfare, Dr Amartya Sen. You got it wrong. Some of the most happy people i have seen, come from the poorer communities, nations, neighbourhoods, families… wherever there is a sense of brotherhood, trust, stability of things, relatively stable balance of things with others/neighbours/colleagues including income and wealth, etc. (I don’t want to include ‘success’ in that category and contaminate the rest. It seems to be a bigger pollutant of happiness than wealth).
  3. I think the more the choice of goods available and we see them all and analyse each and every feature (obviously no single thing that offers all that everyone desires) the mind constructs a super set of all features at the same measly price i paid and starts suffering in comparison. Absence of choice may not have led me to these desires in the first place. I don’t know if Einstein, Chaplin or Rockfeller or Russian Czars would have ever regretted that they didn’t have the latest iPhone or Jaguars or such like. It seems so simple: ‘what the eyes don’t see… the hearts don’t grieve’.
  4. Mostly objects seem to have some high ‘utility value’ so long as they are not in our hands and the moment it comes into our grasp (or after the first use) its utility seems to plunge so steeply. The fall seems inevitable …only the rate depends … so perhaps the saying ‘a satisfied desire can never be a good motivator’. So we see divorces after 56 hours, 56 days or 8 months… objects bought with so much urgency or passion etc lying unused in our cupboards or show cases for long un-opened, books lying unread, etc.
  5. Lets not get things mixed up. There is nothing wrong with the vehicle. It has delivered almost on all parameters it claimed. 17 km per litre is a steal on diesel … it is less than ½ the cost of travel by auto for similar distances. It packs the power of a well built mid-fielder and has the languorous grace of a David Gower or Lionel Messi. At normal speeds it stalks like a tiger on the prowl and when required it lunges forward at will like a feline hunter which has decided on its particular kill. So overtakes and high speeds are not a problem if you have the stomach.
  6. It is more my core need which is to be seated with knees bent like when you are seated on your dining chair or office chair. It is the most comfortable position for me and that’s what my previous cars have ensured. When the seating gets low and i bend my knees only half, it is uncomfortable, although i gather low seating makes for a lot better stability and balance on highways and on turning. Once this is compromised i think our psyche starts screaming which only grows with time on you. All other benefits and conveniences features and comforts meekly surrender before it. I am sure the core may be different for different individuals. Unfortunately quite often i am not able to figure out what the core is exactly before the inevitable or irreversible decision or event or purchase and use.
  7. When i see Audi SUVs these days, the mind starts wandering … would it not have been a better choice…the comfort of high seating… being able to put my foot down firmly flatly, … so what if they had put a lower engine (same as in Skodas and VWs), I am not going to be racing; so what if the service is bad, the car is not going to be in the garage every day; should i have blindly relied on the Driver’s advice, shouldn’t i have thought about it myself… my mind has now to fight every reason it used to reject it in the first place.
  8. Oh! Come on. ‘But then the Audi’s front grill looks like the smile of a lady without her two front upper teeth, grinning from ear to ear. However beautiful the face, the smile – the ultimate embellishment/jewel on a human face, on such a face always looks horrible’ this is my ego defending my action. My ego the only true friend i have … never ditches me… always springs to my defence unlike my friends, wife, siblings, teachers, relatives, colleagues, et al who all ditch me for logic (the stupid logic) sometime or the other, sooner or later. Even if i were to commit a murder one day, i am sure it will still stay thick with me and be a judge who always rules in my favour.
  9. There is the core need and there are the peripherals. I think the speed and levels of satiation, frustration or disgust or boredom depends perhaps on how far out from the core the peripheral need is. With some core needs may be satiation perhaps never sets in or sets in ever so slowly like a biological process.

Finally, with all this wisdom i am still not sure if i will get my next decision right the first time. Should i have researched more. Perhaps yes. But then more knowledge is what seems to have led to dissatisfaction, discomfort and regret in the first place … so what will it achieve but the opposite. May be lack of choice leads to more happiness … but i am not sure if i am there yet. But it looks like the absence of too much external stimuli and temptations by way of alternatives enables me to discover and stay close to my core need. Or discover myself better. If true i pity the rich… poor souls!

Rats and the Bureauc’rats’

Rats and the Bureauc’rats’

This is not a fib. Shows me in an awkward light. But it is OK.

I have been living in a flat in the 4th floor which belongs to a MP, in a fairly decent locality of East Delhi for the last almost 10 years now. His wife in whose name the flat stands has visited our house 3-4 times in the last 10 years and he – never. I have attended his Iftars a couple of times and met him once in his office. Very decently behaved.

The first 9 years we have not had much problems with the flat – no problems from cockroaches and other insects or rats. In the last year or so a lot of people have started remodeling their kitchen or bed or toilets and have had to work upon the pipelines and drainages. And suddenly rats started invading our house about 4-5 months ago. From being an occasional visitor to weekly to daily their familiarity with us seemed to improve with time.

My wife is mortally afraid of them and exhibits a near phobic reaction seeing them. The store is somewhat tucked in and I don’t need to go there for my daily routines. So whenever my wife used to complain or start discussing their presence or disgust I will simply bark back at her and put her down or somehow make it out that she is more of a problem than the rats. From being a weekly routine, it sort of became a daily scene – with the watchman coming to take the trap and leave them in the nearby park. The more frequent their visits, the more frequent my wife’s screams for help and more intense my reaction. But apart from the occasional help with setting the trap – grumpy and grumbling – not much of an intervention from me -at least they were not crawling on our dining table or bed or drawing room.

And suddenly one Wednesday about a month ago my wife had to leave for Chennai for some urgent work.

I prefer to cook my own food whenever she is out. I sort of like it for its meditative value. I need to concentrate to get it right, mixing or clubbing various activities so as to optimize time, scheduling them etc. and during that time, normally I don’t think of thinking about my boss or meddlesome colleagues or irksome tax authorities or Kejriwals or Arnab Goswami or the plethora of scarecrows and demons in our daily life. The 40-45 minutes is a pure yoga for me.

I was greeted by our esteemed visitor when I was preparing to cook that evening. Seeing one run to hiding in the store …I was overtaken by a sort of hesitation… in opening the doors or store, drawers or even the Microwave as if one will jump out at me. From thinking of my cooking routine most of my time went in thinking about my ‘athithi’. After dinner, set the trap and caught one and handed it to the watchmen. Not that they fall for whatever you bait. They have their own taste (hope it does not differ from one to the next) and are highly choosy. But from my wife’s harangues I had learnt some tricks about what gels with them.

The overhang of thoughts about coming face to face him made me lose some sleep. And it sort of visited my thoughts during the office hours next day. Thursday the problem persisted … looming larger. Half the sleep gone and torments from pure imagination invaded me during much of those wakeful hours in bed. Rats had become my new source of meditation.

Friday morning … and evening… it was sort of I had to do something about it kind of situation. I called my driver and society’s plumber on Saturday morning to see how to resolve the issue. Both of them were kind of amused, suppressed though since they may have learnt to live with the problem.

We searched all the possible openings in the house, the drains, the inlets of water, the electrical lines, those which had been recently re-done by others… The plumber was smirking half the time. My driver is a sort of serious but irresponsible kind of fellow. No smirks from him but blindly followed instructions…the plumber became an expert of sorts offering his own logic (mostly counters) to whatever I suggested. He kept saying where there are no droppings there is least likelihood that it may have been a point of entry. (makes sense but to me it did only in retrospect; not then). ‘Do as you are told’ was my shout and refrain and insisted on his plastering or filling whatever it was under scanner. I guess both of them must have been pretty exasperated with me.

My driver pointed to a small gap in the junction box of electricals high in the dining area. There indeed was a gap of may be one cm – good enough for a cockroach I thought but hardly could agree that a rat would be able to squeeze through. But not having made much headway, I told him to get the ladder, open it and see. He did and also saw their droppings. The ply board used as cover to the JB had wilted due to age and bent creating some gaps. I told him to put brown tape around its borders. I sealed the electrical switch box as well which was right inside the store.

Phew! For the rest of the day no rattling noise form kitchen store. Not in the night either. Not the whole of Sunday … and then Monday. I asked the plumber to seal and do up all the damage done during our investigation. And there has been no visitor since then…in fact for the last whole month.

Reflection

My wife of last 25 years was not able to get my attention at such close quarters what a 48 hrs direct encounter did. I am sure most men of my age around the world would behave similarly (at least to their wives I guess!). Unless regulated by rules, social values, culture, policing and punishment, peer pressure, etc. our reaction to others problems are likely to be equally lethargic and insensitive.

Given the current level of insensitivity to others (my neighbors park their car sometimes in mine, in Delhi the whole road however wide is a parking lot, rickshaws can drop or pick up passengers any place – right in the middle of a road busy with vehicular traffic), moral degradation, lack of work and duty consciousness, dilution of values at least in India, our model of bureaucracy perhaps has run out of context.

I don’t see similar degradation in many other democracies, some military regime and communist countries. May be this is representative of countries where corruption is high or they are both two sides of the same coin. May be around independence our Bureaucratic model of governance was appropriate but the background assumptions have so changed that it no longer looks appropriate.

So you have a defence secretary who denies snow boots to Siachen soldiers, bullet proof vests to frontline armymen, and now a massive cumulative deficit of even basic ammunition; Judges and your own lawyer least concerned about administering justice in a hurry, regulators not deciding on price hikes for Delhi Metro (actually problem I am told is a little deeper) for the last 6 years.

Given this should we not insist that for anyone to be eligible to be defence secretary s/he should have spent at least one stint of 4 months in Nathu La pass eyeball to eyeball with Chinese soldiers, one winter in Siachen and at least 3 years with other stations taken together.

I am sure if a son or daughter of the then Cabinet Secretary was in IC 183, we would not have wasted precious 2 hours at Amritsar Airport and we may all be talking of a different scenario than Kandahar.

We should also provide for 10-15% lateral entry into our bureaucracy from end users so that they can sensitize our system.

People say that we should impose a hefty fine on people asking for stay orders in Courts. But me thinks it is a waste of time. People who can pay (the rich) will impose it on the other unfortunate side pining for justice. I think it is the decider whose shoes should be made to pinch. The decider of stay orders is the Judge and we should impose a fine (or fees) on him. Even in a corruption free environment, the day we say that judges will be allowed a quota of 12 in a year and every additional grant will come at the cost of his promotion and increments, he will think deeply before granting one. (or may be he will trade his quota also).

Of Pathein Wildrats and issue of sustainability

Of Pathein Wildrats and the issue of sustainability

Myanmar is a Buddhist country which is primarily non vegetarian in diet. Prawns, shrimps, snakes, wildrats, rabbits, fish, and poultry along with rice make up their staple diet. Wildrats from being widely available became a delicacy, then pricey and now a rarity due to excessive ‘harvest’.

The irony is that once the catch started diminishing due to its demand the prices Continue reading