Monday, September 28, 2009
Saturday, September 26, 2009
The reactions to the ongoing gossip have been varied. Both Downing Street and White House dismissed this as utter rubbish - they both said that the President and Prime Minister keeps talking on a regular basis, and enjoy a 'terrific' relationship. A section of the media, including the Talking Politics blogger Ian Dunt, asserted that this probably is the end of the 'special relationship', which is indeed a good news for Britain, because they always had to pay the body price in a series of unjust wars. His piece was full of injured pride and a hope in denial, he said possibly this would not continue and David Cameron and Obama's successors will make it up. Mark Mardell, the BBC editor in North America, pointed out that the special relationship may indeed be over, though he did not see any reason for losing sleep over it. He pointed out that President Obama has the connections with the Pacific, being born in Hawaii and grown up in Indonesia, and he sees this as the principal theatre of American foreign engagement under his watch. Britain, though important and friendly, is no longer any more special in his world view than Russia or China, the 'runners up' of the global super-power race.
The High street view is that the Special Relationship with America gets Britain nothing, except for being the sacrificial lamb in different unjust wars across the globe. This is the view Ian Dunt espoused, and opined that Britain is better without the burden of the special relationship anyway. This is a rather ungrateful view, given that thousands of American youngsters fought in Europe in two world wars to protect the British sovereignty and empire. If nothing, Britain owes America one.
We also have to remember that the Cold War was a largely British construct - a brilliant one, complete with the Churchillian imagery of an iron curtain which materialized in the form of a real wall in the middle of Berlin eventually - which kept Americans committed to Europe, and American teenagers kept dying in various theatres protecting the old imperial property. Americans, seen across the world as the beacons of liberty and democracy, lost the plot to the British world view, which assumed the intellectual leadership of the world.
The 'Special Relationship' was also an essentially British construct. Many in Britain got offended when President Obama called France 'our oldest and closest ally' - somehow the Bush-Blair era convinced many that honour should go to Britain, forgetting the fact that it was France which supplied George Washington his arms and know-how, as well as political and moral support, against the red coats. Successive British administrations actively encouraged Americans to stay out of the world politics, and somewhat settled for a division of the world, leaving the Latin America to the Americans when they became too powerful.
The Special Relationship is a somewhat Churchillian construct. I am not suggesting a conspiracy theory, but this idea of Anglophone bonding sounds too old European to have come from the new world. The roots of this thinking goes back to the days of imperial rivalry in Europe, and came to the fore at the time of the face-off between the old and new European powers during the last century. Churchill's abiding faith in America, while the American ambassador in Britain at the time, Joe Kennedy, had little time for such sentiments except the special relationship he had with Churchill's daughter-in-law, had been severely tasted during the battle of Britain. However, in the end, he prevailed, possibly because the alternatives were far more scary for the American administration, and America came to war to fight on the side of Old Europe. The spirit of the special relationship, therefore, was aptly summed up by Churchill: One can always trust the Americans to do the right thing, once all the other options have been exhausted.
So, the world we lived in so far was constructed on a special understanding. The Americans long decided that they will supply the money and the materials to fight wars of 'freedom' as long as other nations supply the blood. The British added themselves into the equation volunteering to provide the ideas, a sort of old brotherly wisdom to its more dynamic and powerful sibling. What is being tested, since George Bush's ill-fated wars which exposed this world view far too elaborately and his naive faith in unregulated markets which came unstuck at the same time, is indeed the strength of that world view. President Obama's CHANGE is suddenly looking promising - he seems intent on winning the moral and intellectual leadership of the world for the Americans.
So, I would see more substance than style, more realism than the emotional bonding with the Pacific, in President Obama's current set of priorities. He has already expressed his sense of history in unconventional terms. He is an African-American leading the democrats, the party of the civil war, who idolizes Abraham Lincoln, a republican. So, the President does not seem to be contented to follow stereotypes and is set to acknowledge that we live in a different world, which needs to be governed with a different set of principles. And, by so doing, he is tearing down the principles international relationships have been governed since the days of Metternich, and engaging vigorously with the world with the intent and the focus needed to deal with the world.
I think it is fair to assume then that we are now entering an age of 'terrific' relationships than the special relationship. The old thoughts of an anglosphere and a eurocenric world may finally be passe, and a new age is set to begin. It will further quicken when the vacuous David Cameron takes over from the brooding Gordon Brown, further handing over the intellectual leadership to President Obama, a serious, thoughtful and brave man.
The end of a Special Relationship, that way, may mark the beginning of a truly global world.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
The general opinion, therefore, was that e-learning will continue to expand in scope and possibly replace most of what is done in classrooms today. The panel touched upon various media comparison studies, which proved, over a number of years [starting 1947, when such a study was first carried out, a comparison between video, paper-based and classroom training] that the learning outcomes do not vary significantly based on the media, or technology-assisted learning has slight advantages over tutored classes. We should not take it for granted that people would necessarily learn better when tutored by an excellent tutor than when taught through technology. Besides, one has to weigh in the fact that tutoring quality often varies, though it is possible to ensure a certain level of consistency in e-Learning.
However, though it seemed most people agreed on the effectiveness of e-Learning and seriously considered the possibility that it will replace most tutored classes in five years time, its detractors got some traction on one point: e-Learning misses out on the social features of learning. However, it need not be. One can possibly point out that synchronous learning, where a group of learners can attend a class virtually, is becoming more and more common, and fairly inexpensive with various free webinar tools. e-Learning is becoming as social as anything can be, as long as social features of learning do not mean free lunches.
I also think that these social features of learning can be enhanced in e-learning in a way it rarely works in classrooms. Leaving out a free elite institutions, how many times can one really have a 'LogicaCMG Six Sigma Class of April 17Th 2006'? It is getting some Phi Beta Kappa quality in the day to day learning, a bit of pride injected for achieving an additional skill at work. e-Learning can be recorded, displayed and a community can be built around it. It can help put pride and involvement back into learning. So, in this count too, I think e-learning will score, as upload/download web arrives in e-Learning and we are ushered into the brave new world of Learning 2.0.
Change is on the air. The old power alignments seem to be all changing. Consider this: The British Prime Minister requests for a private meeting with the American President, and does not get one. He has to do with a few minutes conversation around the Kitchen table at the UN, while the President holds meetings with the heads of states of Japan, Russia and China. Russia says that they may climb down from their opposition to a sanction against Iran. The President of Iran addresses the UN, as does Colonel Qaddafi of Libya. The President of Iran says that it will shake any hand that has been honestly extended to it. What is going on?
There seems to be a clear realignment of the United States Foreign Policy, and the shift is towards realism. Eight years of George Bush and a shaking up of the financial markets made it necessary to look at the foreign policy agenda with a fresh pair of eyes. That seems to be happening now. It is no longer the democracy in the middle east zeal; it comes from a realization that American Military power, while vast, is not inexhaustible, and it is indeed a terrible waste of men and material to find distant wars for flimsy reasons, while there are greater challenges to be faced in the world. It is also a signal that the US Administration realizes that by overextending themselves across the world, they are allowing other challenger powers to emerge, and if a partnership is not built, this will eventually lead to a crisis and conflict of some sort. It is not in the interests of the United States, the current leading power in the world. And, besides, there is a realism that the Military power is not the solution to all of World's problems. The cowboy days of US foreign policy is truly over.
One of the key victories of President Obama so far is to warm Russia up. In World Politics, there are no evil powers; it is only national self-interest so far, and sometimes these get oddly aligned. I am not denying the existence of the likes of Saddam Hussein or Than Shaw; but, if history is any guide, these monsters show their true colours in the domestic arena first. Many catastrophes like this could have been averted if the World's key powers cooperated and reigned in these monsters at the very start, rather than feeding and protecting them till they have become a clear embarrassment. That is the true failure of John Foster Dulles' world view: It traded principles of cooperation for an undue reliance on America's military and intelligence communities.
One good thing about all major powers is, ahem, they all want to stay major powers. So, they want the world to go on as usual. They don't want crisis, conflicts that create imbalances and erode their standing. In the modern days, Britain and France are prime examples of how you can lose the plot. No one wants a repeat. So, the alternative to the prevailing world view of inevitable conflict is to think in terms of inevitable cooperation. Yes, one would throw some game theory cold water on my optimism and state that no one wants to cooperate as long as they think they can get away without it. But, there are two strong reasons why we may be entering an age of cooperation.
First, because education and information are spreading, at least in all the major countries. This means the people of these countries are becoming far more involved in the political process. Most major countries in the world are democracies, though every country should be able to choose the system of governance that is most appropriate for itself. Wider participation and accountability in government always brings moderation in policy. However, this goes hand in hand with the assumption that the nations will be able to continually develop their standards of living and bring prosperity to their citizens if they have to have a stake in the world system. This is the responsibility of the international community, to ensure that there is fair system of trade and support available to nations when they embark on their journey. Under the George W Bush's system of thinking democracy was to be brought about by an war, and national aspirations were to be denied by the powers of American military. That was flawed thinking from the start.
Second, because there is a common demon. The climate. If we are not looking now, our children are going to sink. Their children will run out of breathable air. And, Climate provides us with such a clear perspective why national self-interests are no longer enough and why cooperation must happen at the world scale.
The current American foreign policy takes into account its own limitations and challenges very well. President Obama clearly shows that he is ready to engage Russia, give its due respect as a major world power, support it through its oncoming economic and social difficulties, but demand, in return, its cooperation in maintaining the world order. He has been more ambivalent to China, but China is not a challenger to the United States, not yet. One can be hopeful that President Obama will be able to get China out of their support of rogue regimes around the world, and give them their rightful place at the world head table.
In those scheme of things, Britain may lose some of its importance. The world order following the Second World War has rested on America's military hardware and Britain's flawed view of good and evil. That is set to change. There is some clear thinking coming from America, and in the changed world, the British hold over world's thinking will now inevitably slip. It will be hastened with David Cameron, the politically correct Tory leader, taking over Britain in the next General Election. This will obviously mean its isolation from Europe and the world will increase, coupled with its declining economic influence as hedge funds and other financial 'rogue' practises are reigned in.
However, one George W Bush policy that President Obama may not want to reverse is emerging Indo-US partnership in various areas. Asia is indeed where the next decade or two would be played out, and it is important for everyone to create cooperation and prosperity between the great Asian nations of Japan, India and China. President Obama is surely committed to that, and despite his 'politically correct' statements on outsourcing etc, the process of two countries drawing closer did not reverse so far. One would hope that will continue.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Someone reminded me that training budgets were the first to go in recession, and obviously that does not mean the organizations are serious about learning. I do think that it is that straightforward, and current budget cuts may indeed have been prompted by real difficulties in the market place, but it gives out the wrong signal.
The point is, okay, that the organizations NEED to get more serious about learning. Because the world is changing again - from the way business is done, to the buyer-seller composition. New ideas and challenges will emerge now, as it always does in the aftermath of a bruising economic crisis. Deep recessions like this always keep claiming their victims long after they have lost prime time presence, possibly because of the panic button reactions sometimes stop organizations from learning and moving forward.
It will be interesting to study how successful organizations deal with deep recession. We have already got some literature on how the successful organizations dealt with the previous recessions of 1930s and 1970s. We also have some emerging research on the organizational response of the dotcom bust, and we are just about starting to get the perspective on who survived and who didn't. In all recessions, we have stories like Cisco and Sun, two star companies who were both hit, but follows two different paths thereafter. And Sony and Apple, I could have added, but they started at different points during the post-dotcom era. But, while we wait, we know the general strands - some put their head down, do their job and look for opportunities; others hit the panic button and freeze, which never helps.
Monday, September 21, 2009
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison.
Sunday, September 20, 2009
This recession, however, will have two long term impacts. While this crisis undermined the moral force of the theory that the market gets it right all the time, it has also severely undermined the governments' ability to bail us out of any future crisis. The pendulum seems to have run its full course, over thirty years, where we have moved from public spending to fiscal responsibility back to public spending again. So, in the coming years, we may go back to the old days of fighting inflation and high taxes and interest rates, as capital will become scarce in general. And, therefore, innovation and entrepreneurship will count more than ever, and every organization will need new ideas about what they do and how they do it - as arbitrage in the market becomes limited and every penny will need to be competed for.
In this context, the first impact of party getting over will be a return to the large paternalistic organization. Funny that I say this, with the backdrop of job cuts and redundancies. But the crisis will redefine some of the ways we look at employment. For example, bonus will attract people less and less, not just because of the apparently difficult economic climate, but also the new realization on part of the employers how bonus may have an adverse impact on long term value creation. And, indeed, we will come to realize that if employees and employers are interested in long term [which, one would guess will come hand in hand with higher cost of capital and limited number of opportunities to make a fast buck], one way to do so is to align the relationship to long term: by bringing back the out of fashion concepts of 'job security' and 'commitment'.
Second, the crisis will also highlight the need to have a 'discipline' than just a job for all those who work and bring back in fashion a professional identity before the work identity. Going retro again, it will be important for a person to achieve mastery over a professional area of work, and work continuously towards perfection and development just as a workman of old time would have done. So, while the old fashioned long term job contracts may make a comeback, the company man may need to reinvent himself as a master of a discipline rather than hide behind his company identity.
Apart from this change of heart due to economic realities, the next few years will also herald a demographic shift of the workplace. Consider this: By 2012, most people entering work would have been born around 1990, and gone to high school during the time of Internet boom; it will be expected that they would have encountered Internet in school, and conducted their lives on chat, email and increasingly, on Google, digital music and DVD. They will expect ubiquitous connectivity as a given and transactions online far less sinister than our generation did. This will mean an enormous shift, as this generation takes over professional work in the organizations and starts businesses. The balance will tip sometime between 2012 and 2015 to the Internet generation, people who were born after 1985 and entered college around the turn of the millennium and 9/11, who will ascend to leadership positions in most organizations.
These changes may seem paradoxical, but only if one is using history as a frame of reference and not looking forward. There is nothing paradoxical about an organization, with a millennial at the leadership position, looking for inspiration at the post-war models of paternalistic organizations in the middle of post-recession ruins. There is nothing confusing about an organization trading off longer term commitments to employees against longer term commitments from employees, and yet, employees developing their own individual entities, skills and disciplines at the same time as committing themselves. History actually is some guide: we have indeed moved from tribalism [which was too narrow] to chaos [where nothing was fixed and identities were trade-able] to citizenship [where we agreed to adhere to fixed laws and commitments against individual freedom].
While this is what it is today, this will come under tremendous pressure in the next few years. The ongoing tussle for budgets will intensify, as organizations experience a capital scarcity but the need to compete intensify. The command-and-control system will weaken with the realization of no-one-knows-anything, and the mystic of ROI will stand severely compromised when it becomes clear, in the context of colossal failure of mathematical modelling in the Wall Street, that certain things, like risks and motivations, can not be quantified. The new style of Corporate Citizenship will demand individuals to be treated as just that, individuals, free to pursue their 'discipline' while carrying out their responsibilities to their community. Competencies, necessarily constructed on a static understanding of the organization's business and a spatial view of what skills and abilities of an individual actually mean, will prove out of step with a far more uncertain, 'retro' world. And, indeed, a new paradigm will be needed to develop a learning organization.
This is what I am trying to study about. In my mind, I see organizational learning in a shifting paradigm, from where organization came first to where individuals will come first. This is a future where learning agenda will become less prescriptive and more guided/ facilitated, and the competency-based framework will give way to a collaborative, developmental framework. Compare this, if you like, with the education provisions of a community rather than the military training, which, incidentally, is the model most L&D professionals are so reverential of. [But, even Military Training is changing, from that of an army mainly made of conscripts to the needs of an all volunteer army!]
I am not suggesting that all the last century ideas, training needs analysis, feedback sessions, training ROI, are going to go away all at instant. But, I think they will all be subsumed in the new paradigm of learner first paradigm. For example, we will have collaborative career planning and TNA will come in this context. The participation in learning will become more voluntary and feedback will automatically come from learner participation. The ROI thinking will shift from measurement at a central level, where L&D professionals try to determine whether they are using money effectively, to the continuous measurement at the level of an individual learner, where each individual will have a certain pot of money to use for their own development, learning vouchers, let us say, which they will utilize to further their career goals and to serve the needs of the organization. So, a more open, cafeteria model of corporate learning is what I vote for.
I have shifted my focus of study on organizational learning and I wish to specialize on this going forward. The essay above was a compendium of my initial thoughts, and I am trying to gather inputs from the people I know. So, in case you cared to read through to the end, I would love to hear from you. You can tell me why I may be wrong, or, where I am stating the obvious. One thing for sure: All feedback will be extremely helpful and will help shape my work going forward. So, thanks in advance for helping me out.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
This news was received well in India. This was always on the cards, but the previous drafts of the bill never saw light of the day because the previous education minister, Mr Arjun Singh, was never very keen on getting the foreign universities in. Instead, he allowed a corrupt License Raj to foster in Education, leading to rapid deterioration of quality of Higher Education in India.
The current Minister is keen to change things fast. He knows he can make an impact and leave a legacy, and is keen to do so. However, it may be worthwhile to reflect on the impact of this bill and see how this can change the education landscape in India.
First, we must remember that foreign education providers can, and do, operate in India already. It is possible to have a 100% foreign owned education institute in India. Besides, as many as 150 foreign universities already offer degree programmes in partnership with Indian institutes, where the students study part of the programme in India.
What this bill will change is this: It will allow foreign providers to set up Independent colleges which will be treated as deemed universities, offering independent degrees without having to seek affiliation from an Indian university or tying up with one in partnership. These colleges will then be under the UGC supervision, going through some sort of accreditation process and regular reviews.
Such a move will be fraught with dangers and Mr. Sibal must be well aware of this. The problem in India is not in the provision of education but in the regulatory framework, and this bill does nothing to change that. We shall hope that some change will be forthcoming, given that the AICTE has recently been busted and government has shown intent to crack down on corruption in education licensing. The problem is that allowing foreign universities is a two-way sword, and if it is not regulated effectively, it will invite in many rogue providers from across the world; on the other hand, if it is regulated too much, the top universities will stay away.
There were rumours about the top universities in the world - including many Ivy League ones and the likes of Oxford and Cambridge - waiting in the wings to set up shop in India. In fact, a Mumbai-based businessman took the pains of taking me to Lavasa to show me the site where Oxford in India will be set up. I don't know how much of this is true, but I do not see an apparent reason why Oxford will be terribly keen to set up a campus away from Oxford [or Cambridge, from Cambridge]. I am not sure Harvard or MIT or Berkley will also want to do this, since they have so far resisted the temptation to open in Europe despite the apparent size of their market here. Besides, I suspect that the whole talk in India about these foreign universities dying to open shop in India comes from an inadequate understanding of how these institutions might operate and how they earn their money. However, I would love to be proved wrong as it would be great to have Oxford in Lavasa, which is a rich men's playground so far and not a seat of learning in any sense.
However, I have no doubt that once this bill is in place, there will be a number of educational institutions which will be set up in India. I guess many middle ranked British and North American Universities will want to have an India campus, given the fact that they are not Harvard or Cambridge and can not attract Indian graduates to come to them by default. I shall also see a number of European ones, which have started teaching in English and will be keen to have Indian students, would want to venture into Indian markets.
All said, though, I am not sure how much money this will save the Indian exchequer, because I would think people will still travel abroad to acquire education - because education is far more than just the degree. The fact that the Minister is citing this as the reason for allowing foreign universities rings an warning bell: this is precisely the wrong reason and goes against the tide of globalization of education. I actually think that Indian campuses of foreign universities will compete with the domestic ones which overcharge, which is not at all a bad thing, and will bring some price rationalization to India's degree bazaar.
Since we don't know the details of the bill, we do not know whether this will make it easier for an Indian institution to work together with foreign institutions. It should, as this will possibly remain the preferred ways of collaborating between universities and institutions of higher learning. Besides, the bill should also find ways of encouraging original research. In fact, research is one area where the foreign universities can make a world of difference to Indian students and there must be ways to encourage some research funds available with these universities to flow into India.
So, overall, many exciting possibilities - but still a future fraught with challenges. India must address its educational challenge soon, and the Minister is showing activism and intent necessary for the job. So, all credits of taking the initiative go to him; we shall wait to see how these changes unfold in reality.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
I would have tucked it away in my brain as another peculiarity of the strange country which is possibly the most religious in the world but holds the right to own a gun so dear to its heart. But, America's refusal to let its government spend money on health care is more serious than that and affect many people even outside its border. This is because the American health care doctrine is carried around across the world by the same insurance companies, their lobbyists and health care firms across the world, where many people can not really afford health care and their governments believe that spending money on health care isn't sound policy. In a way, the rest of the world is waiting to see what happens to Obamacare.
I think it takes a tremendous leap of faith and an extraordinary level of statesmanship to imagine universal health care, because the primary objection to this will invariably come from who matter most in its provision, the Health service providers themselves. Health care is indeed one of those prime examples of an area where the rule of the market does not work. Consider the principal objection against universal health care and you start to get it: Choice! As one of the observers of health care reforms in many countries succinctly put it in a private conversation: "Choice? What Choice? Indeed, choice matters if you are getting a plastic surgery and if you think of health care in those terms. But the patient who had a heart attack does not want choice; she needs care!"
The problem with the theory that Choice essentially leads to better service provision stems from two fundamental assumption. First, it assumes rational decision making. In most cases and countries, health care is a particularly nuanced and opaque area for consumers to make rational decisions. The scope of misrepresenting the available information is many and varied. On the other hand, the consumption of health care services is universal - one can not decree that you have to be educated and well-informed to be able to avail these - and hence, choice in this area may not essentially lead to better decision making.
Second, coming back to our beloved NHS and the lack of choice - long wait lists, which is oft cited as the problem, is primarily an issue about underfunding and not any other systemic malaise. Now, the usual argument was that private enterprise unlocks the funding which is usually unavailable to public efforts, but the same did not really held true when it came to bank rescues and all that happened in the last 24 months. So, lack of choice is not necessarily equated with public provision of a service, but the lack of intent on the basis of the provider.
This intent issue is so crucial that it needs a truly committed leader to push through this seemingly obvious requirement. It did take the post-war British government, who were bankrupt in the first place, some extraordinary leadership and conviction to put the NHS together [against bitter opposition of the health care community]. Despite the fact that Barack Obama's opponents tried to misdirect the American people about the social provision of health care by equating it with socialism, this was indeed sound capitalist principle that worked for Britain. One may argue that the advent of welfare state was the prime reason how the spread of socialism was finally contained, the domino effect of soviet occupation of East Europe was stopped and capitalism as a better economic model finally won the day.
However, as I think about it, I believe that this extraordinary reticence to let the Government do a good thing comes from a very American character - that of not coming in terms with the idea of mortality. Americans possibly think of health care in terms of plastic surgery, and not in terms of that moment when they may need critical care, because they believe, somewhere deep in their mind, that death is optional, and possibly can be postponed if you have enough money. And, besides, on the flip side, they possibly think that those who do not have enough money to pay for health care are not American enough, and they have no parts in an American dream. So, bankers are worth paying for, but not those who could not pay for health care - so goes the thinking, perhaps!
Indeed, I know that there are millions of Americans who do not think that way and would want to build a humane society like any other person. They are not joining this parade of selfishness cheered on by a few unscrupulous politicians, mostly on the payroll of the health insurers. However, the debate today is not about socialism versus capitalism at all; but about two versions of America and the message it sends out to the world.
And, I think, this is the missing bit that every one needs to see. For all its promise, we know Capitalism as we know it is a crisis prone system, which allows systemic manipulation of many by a few all the time. The redeeming feature of Capitalism, so far, has been that it allowed a fair chance of success, without being harsh to those who could not make it. Since the 1980s, however, it seemed to have changed: the company men with lifetime jobs withered away, public provision of essential services have gone out of fashion and a sort of jungle capitalism, not very unlike Upton Sinclair's days, have made a comeback. This recession is a stark reminder that the system itself is unsustainable, and if we do not change course, we may manage to repeat our history and destroy our civilization in a bloody repeat of what we managed to do during the last century. The great significance of this health care debate is whether one can win the agenda away from those failed prophets who got us here in the first place. We just hope that Barack Obama, a formidable man, can win this debate and change the course for us.
Tuesday, September 08, 2009
I have stated the reasons before and I love repeating this. Because Calcutta is home. That's it, really. Not because I was born there, but because it is the city where I shall never feel lost. I know Calcutta the way one gets to know one's own home: its alleys and corners, its sounds and smells. And, therefore, there is no other city for me like that. One can only love one city in one lifetime.
But I don't live in Calcutta. That's a sad truth. I keep saying I love London too. I love its parks and benches, its narrow roads and drizzles, its red buses and black taxis, endless line of umbrellas on the rainy days, libraries, Museums and theatres. I enjoy living here, but you can get the sense - I love London in the image of Calcutta. Or, Calcutta the way I saw it, remember it, fantasize it. This is true to what I said about loving one city - like women, you always love your first love and keep discovering her in everyone you meet.
I was fortunate to make a number of trips to Calcutta in last couple of years. These visits were always short, constrained, full of conflicting commitments and some disappointments. But it was great to be able to walk around the city, discover the same old museums of my childhood [though I struggled to find my wonderment]. I spent time visiting my college, where I knew no one anymore; my school, which is now gated and covered by walls on all sides, and I could not get to the playground I spent so much time on; and also College Street, where I evidenced a dying industry and an withering identity.
But, then, indeed, we carry around Calcutta always in our expatriate life. We always talk about it, for a start. I did not know for a while that the great movie theatres of Calcutta, the New Empire, Lighthouse and Globe, were all shut down, and have turned themselves into cheap discount stores and shops of some kind; every movie I saw in Leicester Square Odeon reminded me of the days when we queued up at the back of New Empire for a cut-price ticket without a pre-arranged seating. We cook Calcutta food at our house in London and debate endlessly among friends about various variations of the cooking methods. And, in a few days, most Bengalees in London will congregate to celebrate Durga Puja, a very Bengali festival celebrated with unparalleled pomp in Calcutta, and we shall try to bring in the memories of our lost lives together.
But, then, if it is such, home, why don't we go back there? Why does one have to endure all the alienation, feel like strangers at work, face racist abuses on the streets and still live here? Economic opportunity is the easy answer, but it is not that straightforward for me. I am optimistic in nature and never actually thought that living in Calcutta will mean the end of my career. Besides, I firmly believed that one should create the opportunities rather than follow them, and that way, I have every reason to move back to Calcutta as soon as I can.
However, I think the problem in Calcutta is not with the economic opportunity, but with freedom. Surprisingly, because Calcutta should have been the most 'free' city in India, given the cherished claim of Bengalees that the new age enlightenment started in India here in this city, and people from Calcutta led the country in the sphere of thought for a long time. 'What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow' someone may have said, and it gets quoted everywhere and Bengali children grow up listening to these words. In fact, I remember the feeling of hurt we all endured when Rajiv Gandhi called Calcutta a 'dying city', somewhat poor judgement from his part, and how that brought out what all of us believed - that Calcutta has a special place in India, in terms of thought leadership, and that rightful place is being denied by a wide conspiracy.
But the sad fact remains that this talk about thought leadership is history, and all the instances we can give belong to past. The problem with Calcutta is that it is so deeply glued into its history; indeed it is lost in its history. The enlightenment has long faded. So did our revolutionary spirits, wanting to change the world. One must admit that the thought leadership was an unintended consequence of the British Colonial policy in the first place. They wanted to train clerks and we ended up taking those opportunities and discovering the wonderful world of Western liberal thought, advancing ourselves in various cognitive fields and even conjuring up, along with many other leading thinkers across India, an idea of modern India well ahead of the time.
Those days, we thought about future. We looked forward. But that stopped long time back. We have been looking mostly backwards since then, and keeping ourselves busy about the trivialities of the present. Everyday, we, as devout Bengalees, open up the web edition of Anandabazar Patrika, one essential ingredient of the Bengali middle class social life in Calcutta that we always carry around with us. And, one gets the sense immediately. Admittedly, all newspapers around the world display a certain level of seize mentality, perhaps a sign of their own age and impending mortality. But, yet, this Calcutta newspaper is truly unique - so deeply smug and self-contained, narrow and busy with non-news, so subjective and judgemental that it amply displays a somewhat dysfunctional social character - a whole society in denial and firmly fixated on its rear-view mirror.
And, as the rest of the World, India, moves on. In Calcutta, one can see the complete confusion in governance and the self-destruction and populism in the opposition. One can see no leader in any walk of life who can rise above the consuming obsession of day-to-day trivia and allow anyone to look to the future. All talk of progress today is only the weak, half-hearted attempts of followership of other Indian states. All imagination is borrowed from far-away China; if not, it is dictated by personal megalomania of a deranged matriarch. And, in order to live in our self-contained world, we have fortified ourselves with a gravity-defying mediocrity, at all levels and walks of public life.
And, hence, I come back to freedom. Freedom to think, do and act. Freedom to imagine and change. Freedom not to care about what one is compelled to do, and to do what one thinks right. By fixating ourselves to the past, by shackling ourselves to the present, by being smug and by conjuring up conspiracy theories, we have denied ourselves the freedom to dream about the future. The same freedom of thought and action that defined Calcutta.
We lost Calcutta. We let it become meaninglessly mediocre and almost without a purpose.
Monday, September 07, 2009
This is not to say that the party can begin any time soon. This recession caused many imbalances, which has to be corrected. The government has expanded its role in haste, and there is no clear plan underpinning it. Rather, the governments across the world intervened hoping, like a bad venture capitalist, that an exit strategy will arise. It is unlikely to happen. Besides, the huge liquidity that the treasuries unleashed, which is still being used to build up bank balance sheets and not so much to be given out as credit to businesses, will sooner or later reach the consumer and investment markets and spur demand. This will possibly happen sooner than supply expands sufficiently, resulting in huge inflation in most of the Western economies.
The remedy that the central bankers have planned so far is based on cutting back on extra liquidity with a combination of measures. The problem is that no one knows when to start all this. The bigger problem indeed is that anyone is unlikely to EVER know what will be a best time, given the interconnected nature of the global economy and the fact that we are possibly in the middle of great structural shift. This makes an inflationary run on Western economies almost a certainty. This will worsen the government finances drastically, and they have to cut back many public services and expose their people to hardships they have not seen in many generations, leading to political upheaval in many European countries.
I could have proclaimed that this will be India's moment, but I shall stop short of it at this time. Rather, it is possibly more appropriate to make a more qualified statement - that it will be an enormous opportunity for Indian companies if we can address our structural imbalances quickly. The Indian economy has enormous domestic demand, which should act as a balancing factor all the time, but the Indian government is already huge and deeply indebted, which limits its ability to raise money and attract investments. If, however, the government can go through some of the long-planned reform programmes, which, it is already showing, the current administration is committed to, it will cut the government debt and make Indian Rupee an attractive currency. This needs to be coupled with a clampdown on corruption and even greater transparency in all dealings, and India will indeed become a very attractive place to invest in. And, soon, we shall see investments coming in not in our stock markets - that bubble has now burst and will remain burst for a while - but in our real, value and job creating, businesses.
Apart from attracting foreign investment, though, this should mean an world of opportunity for Indian businesses, provided they are up for it. I put that qualifier as taking these opportunities will essentially mean shredding the old mindsets and gearing up with a new perspective.
Let me explain. For example, it seems, everything going as expected, Indian rupee will start appreciating by early 2010, going back to its pre-recession levels of Rs.40/$1 before the end of next financial year. One can see that it can go even further, if the Indian government can indeed push through its reform agenda, cut government debt and yet push through its infrastructure upgrade programme through public/private partnership, solve its power problems through upgrade and expansion of nuclear energy production capability, earn a little peace dividend through expanded engagement with China [and not give in to rhetoric on both sides] and gain further leverage through the current free trade initiatives with ASEAN countries. I am conscious that this is a rather long wish list, but all of them plausible and currently in the works. With that scenario, it is not unlikely that the Indian rupee can go up to Rs. 32/$1 by early 2011.
Now, this will obviously be tough for those who sold Indian products and services on the basis of costs alone. The appreciating rupee will make Indian products and services dearer, though this will possibly be dampened somewhat by labour market weaknesses in India, where employment is unlikely to expand back to the pre-2008 levels quite soon. Besides, India will also benefit from returning workers, who will come back from the Gulf regions, Europe and United States, for a variety of reasons: job cuts, more difficult immigration rules and increased chauvinism in these societies. This will add to India's skills inventory, keep the costs down and service levels higher.
However, coming back to the key point, the changed realities will mean that the Indian businesses have to upgrade themselves, almost across the board, from low cost providers to higher end, high skill providers. In that sense, the recession and the oncoming inflation without growth troubles in Western economies may actually present an opportunity for Indian businesses. The optimistic scenario looks like the Japanese companies gaining their bridgeheads in the 1970s. [That is, of course, dependent upon avoiding another, rather grim, scenario, where the world spirals into a great war like 1930s, with a resurgent China trying to earn its rightful place].
I think the picture I paint above is indeed plausible, though it makes a number of assumptions about how the government will behave. However, I think the challenge lies elsewhere: The ability of Indian businesses to adopt a new, premium category vision than the government pulling the strings. India, in this brave new world, will have significant advantages over China, because of its trained managerial manpower, who knows how to take on an emerging opportunity without the government support. Of course, for India, to realize this vision, peace with China remains key, and this is where the government must play a big role. But, otherwise, it indeed seems that India's moment have arrived.
Sunday, September 06, 2009
However, it is only now, after the death of Prabhakaran and the elimination of entire Tamil Eelam leadership, the true cost of the war is becoming apparent. It is not just the scale of human atrocities and the fact the Sri Lankan Army conducted itself in a genocidal manner that should worry us, it is also the way the government of Sri Lanka conducted itself since the war.
Sri Lanka is a modern day tragedy. After gaining Independence roughly around the same time as the rest of the subcontinent, the country represented democracy, stability and progress in the region. It was well ahead of India, its big neighbour, in human development terms, and we would have studied the Sri Lanka as a model of development in college in the 1980s. However, it lost way since the early 80s, when the Tamil separatist movement became bloody, and the country spent enormous resources fighting this one unnecessary war.
This indeed dragged the country down to the bottom of the league table, creating an enormous scale of poverty and destitution, and helped in creating an uncertain environment in the whole region. Indeed, the conflict claimed the lives of many leaders, including an Indian ex-Prime Minister and a Sri Lankan President, and a number of promising Sri Lankan and Tamil leaders. Over time, Prabhakaran, the Tamil leader, earned himself a name for his dictatorial manners, his culture of eliminating anyone who disagreed with him and his complete lack of intent to arrive at a peaceful solution. In this process, he lost the sympathies of the rest of the world, and became a problem by himself. This is indeed the problem the Sri Lankan government finally managed to resolve with the military efforts this year.
However, my visits to Sri Lanka over last few years and conversations with my Sri Lankan friends convinced me that while the government may have solved the Prabhakaran problem, they have a real Tamil problem to resolve. Tamils in Sri Lanka used to be the privileged lot, the educated middle class that run the country for its colonial masters and in the period immediately after the independence. The Sinhala majority took it over, empowered by the democracy, and this led to the Tamil separatism step by step. One can see this whole problem in the context of India, where there were some communities better off than the others, and the Indian government had to solve its own ethnic problem with a combination of affirmative action, federal control and some sort of provincial autonomy. The Tamil demands in Sri Lanka started in the similar way - demanding autonomy for the North-Eastern region with a clear Tamil majority. However, the refusal of the Sri Lankan government to deal with this started the problem in the first place.
The point is that it is not going to be resolved any time soon. The Sri Lankan government failed, so far, to act like a gracious victor and separate the Prabhakaran problem from the Tamil Problem. This myopia may actually cost them dear, and may indeed lead to a second, more vicious round of Tamil struggle as a leader will surely again emerge if the problems are not resolved soon.
The broader consequences of the failure to deal with the Tamil problem will be felt across the region. The South and South-East Asia has many nations with a significant ethnic minority and they need to all acknowledge this and operate within a certain set of rules. We all know by now the genocide does not work and you can not wipe out a complete ethnic group without having serious moral and political consequences for your own society, and it is impossible to do so in the modern world. It needs to be understood that progress, social and economic, can not be achieved unless a country has ensured broad participation of all its population in the common goal and created a fair, equitable, meritocratic but humane system of participation. People like Prabhakaran was always a problem for a national reconciliation of any kind. But with him gone, there is very little excuse for the Sri Lankan government not to attempt this, and if they get away, it will establish precisely the wrong model of governance that we don't need.
Indeed, Prabhakaran was fascist and this is exactly why he failed to represent the legitimate demands of the Tamil autonomy. But that is a tragedy by itself and it should not allow the current Sri Lankan government, or for that matter anyone, should be allowed to get away with mindless marginalization of the minorities. Because, if that happens, soon we will have another country which will get away with murder and effectively go outside the international system in a few short years. None of us need a new Myanmar or North Korea at our hands; but, more than that, I guess everyone needs to look at what a wasted opportunity Sri Lanka has been and bring it back in for everyone's sake.
Saturday, September 05, 2009
One good thing that NIIT did to me is to attune me to this October/September cycle of the year. For me, 30th September is always the end of the year, and 1st October, a completely new cycle starts. This goes well with my Bengaliness, this is usually the festive time and time to meet people and recharge ourselves, and starting October with a new spirit was always good. The timing of this deal signals something similar - I have worked through a difficult year and it seems that the work I was trying to do will be complete in the next few weeks, allowing me to make a fresh start in early October.
Indeed, I long decided to pursue a different career at the end of August, but needed to postpone that date as things were not sorted out. In course of the last year, I made a few commitments to people I know and cared for. I have, so far in my life, always tried my best to keep the commitments I made, and I did not want to make it any different this time. And, hence, despite the fact that I am no longer enjoying the travel, and have completely ruled out the relocation to Northern Ireland as a possibility, I decided to stay with my current employers a little while longer, till I have sorted out the job at hand. I am feeling quite relieved that it seems things will now work out that way and we shall soon start making significant breakthroughs in India - and I shall be relieved of the burden of responsibility that I seem to carry.
The demands of work has now resulted into a bit of writers' block as well - I just could not manage to write anything, even a decent email to friends, for the last couple of weeks. I am hoping that I shall be able to get more normal soon, and resume my usual lifestyle, and I am sure next time I make a meaningful post here, it will mark my return to normalcy.
Thursday, September 03, 2009
I lived in Bangladesh before and my experience, a fairly common one for most visitors to the country, was that the officials, particularly Government officials and Ministers, were always very well dressed. Mostly in suits, that is. This was a big change for me coming from India, where one would not find a politician in suits normally and even most civil servants will usually wear half-sleeved shirts. Even businessmen in India would prefer Safari suits, with its half sleeves and more climate-friendly texture, over business suits. Bangladesh was odd, given that the tempertures will be close to 40 degree celsius in the summer and it will rain endlessly most of the time. However, I had to get used to wearing suits and as the word passed on, I remember one colleague coming over to Bangladesh with 11 pairs!
Recently, it seems that Government has suggested to all Civil Servants to ditch suits and wear half-sleeve dresses to save power. Yes, indeed, cut the 24x7 use of A/Cs, which one must do if they are in suits given the climate. Again, from personal experience, I think this will indeed happen, though I have already heard critics saying that no one is going to turn off A/Cs because they are not in suits. But then, again, a personal aside: I think many of them will freeze to death if they are using A/Cs the way they do and not wearing suits. So, I guess this will mean A/Cs being used more reasonably, and I am sure this will save power for the country and do some good for the environment.
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