Thursday, November 20, 2014

Weeding out Rampal-like fake gurus: what India and Modi should do

The recent episode of a self-styled godman holding thousands of “devotees” hostage in his sprawling ashram to avoid arrest in a contempt of court case has once again left a lot of people agape with wonder mixed with disgust and disbelief.

The drama unfolded over several days in the north Indian town of Barwala in the state of Haryana and left five women and a child dead and scores of people injured. The long arm of law (too long for anyone’s comfort I would say) is said to have finally caught up with the belligerent Baba Rampal.

Details of the entire episode are available everywhere on the web, including here, here and here.

But this article is not about those details—ghastly, horrendous and shameful as they are.

This article is about a serious contemplation on the rampant darkness, ignorance and poverty in one of the world’s fastest growing economies that is also home to one of the largest collections of illiterate, disease-ridden or mentally bankrupt people anywhere in the world.

It is about a mass of humanity that shares a common glorious past but which, at the moment, is as far removed from glory as the Milky Way is from the remotest black hole in the universe.

It is about a burgeoning elite class of people with money and access to power who are so intoxicated with their own sense of power that any idea of retribution or justice makes them laugh the rambunctious laughter of Ravana: only there seems to be no Ram in today’s India, only scamsters of the ilk of Rampal.

It is about a media that kowtows to the high and mighty rather than pursue its true calling: which is to investigate and bring to light instances of corruption and social injustices on a constant basis (and not on the whims and sudden revelations of vested interests), among other things.

And finally, it is about the poor, uneducated, often hapless people of the country who are misled by the politicians, fake godmen, spurious gurus or anyone with an ax to grind: again and again and again...

It is highly possible—as it has been made possible by the politics-business-religion-nexus countless times before—that the Rampal incident would be forgotten in a few days of hysterical TV coverage, full-page paper reports and the usual politics-inspired chest-thumping, clench-fisting and mud-slinging.

It is almost a cinch that the media would lose interest and start groping for other stories that can keep people (and advertisers) “hooked.”

And—alas—it is more than a certainty that a few years or perhaps months down the line, another Rampal-like godman would pop up somewhere in the vast topography of the country.

“Why do I say these things will be certain to happen again?” you ask?

Because India is not a (largely) homogeneous, educated, developed society but a weird mish-mash of abject poverty (anywhere from 30 crore to 70 crore poor people depending on whose stats you take), gross illiteracy (28 crore people, largest in the world as per UNESCO) and towering wealth (1.8 lakh dollar millionaires in India as per a Credit Suisse report—including a $1 billion tower-monster-of-a-home for a certain guy I choose not to name).

So, where does Narendra Modi fit into the picture?

Before I go on with the rest of the piece, let me make some honest admissions: I have some grudging admiration for this guy whom the hundreds of millions voted to power as the prime minister of India. And my admiration has nothing to do with his designer beard or outfits but everything to do with a re-ignition of hope for the youth of the country who see him as an icon and role model. It has also to do with the disgust with the stockpiles of corruption cases, scams and indecisiveness that the previous, Congress-led government and its putative PM engendered in their 10 years of misrule.

So, where Modi gets into the picture, or rather, should get into the picture (even if it’s a movie not of his own making) is a series of quick measures he and his battery of ministers and bureaucrats are required to take, in my opinion:

  • Get a list of all the ashrams currently occupied all over the country.
  • Start the arduous but necessary process of examining the land allocations.
  • Look for trouble spots or signs that would betray the black sheep from the flock (most of them, but NOT ALL, in my own spiritual and personal experience, would turn out to be black).
  • Arrange for a systematic way to interview and record the experiences, motivations and involvement of a fairly representative sample of their followers (with the vast army of central and state employees, this should be doable).
  • Set the process rolling on laying down the guidelines for media on how godmen or gurus who love to get in front of cameras for giving sermons, fortune tellers who tell (and make) fortunes, etc., should be covered or “involved” in/with media. (Again, in my own spiritual experience, though most of the real gurus, rishis and munis have long disappeared from the soil of India, the few remaining ones, who are true to their own spiritual quest as well as to those of their devotees, would rather sit contentedly with a small group of people in harmony than blare out their decrees or show off their “scriptural knowledge” to a bloated, dumbstruck audience. See a related post here that I wrote on the subject when Asaram Bapu was arrested).
  • Closely examine the source of funding of ashrams and where and how the money is spent.

These steps (and the impact they will create) may not root out the problem of fake godmen appearing and reappearing completely, but I think we need to make a start somewhere.

While much of what I have written above portrays India and most of its people negatively, the country also has a large number of educated, right-thinking (and I don’t mean right-wing only!) people who can contribute not just ideas but time and money to cleaning up India spiritually as well.

We may need many more Swachh Bharat Abhiyans—where sweeping is done not with a broom in hand but with a high beam of light shone upon the darkness of the mind.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

It's a SMAC, SMAC World

Crazy as it may sound, the entire world is going to be SMAC'ed.

Now, now, I'm not a futurist, not even a technologist. But as one who often writes and talks about tech trends that affect enterprises big time, I can bet a few shirts on this: Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud will shake things up like hell. (Or heaven, if you are on top of the stuff.)

It is hard to pinpoint when these four potent forces began to coalesce but, according to an article on, it was Cognizant Technology Solutions researchers who coined the term “SMAC” as recently as 2013. But let's not confuse terminology with technology (I remember one firm had coined a similar but rather ugly “SoMoClo,” for Social, Mobile and Cloud; and there are others who use “Nexus of Forces” and “the 3rd Platform” for similar concepts).

Irrespective of the term, the four mega trends are transforming how technology is developed, purchased, deployed and used. And how employees, partners, clients, customers and other stakeholders behave. It is the combined behavior that is slated to make the most impact—which is why it is difficult to put a dollar value to it and why impact estimates vary so much. To cite but one figure, a report quoting Nasscom director Rajat Tandon says that the value of outsourcing contracts for SMAC is set to soar from $164 billion last year to $287 billion by 2016.

No matter how you cut it, SMAC technologies are slated to leave a lasting impression. A Cognizant report, titled “The Value of Signal (and the Cost of Noise): The New Economics of Meaning-Making,” summarizes the situation neatly. “Nearly every aspect of our daily lives generates a digital footprint. From mobile phones and social media to inventory look-ups and online purchases, we collect more data about processes, people and things than ever before. Winning companies are able to create business value by building a richer understanding of customers, products, employees and partners—extracting business meaning from this torrent of data. The business stakes of “meaning-making” simply could not be higher,” it says.

I often hear murmurs of dissent: “There is more hype than substance to SMAC.” Or, “Big data (or cloud or mobility or social media) is not for us.”

It is possible that one of the big social platforms as we know it ceases to exist one day. Or some term other than SMAC will prevail (like cloud prevailed over service-oriented architecture). But does anyone seriously think people won’t be more mobile going forward? Or the human instinct to extend their socializing to new, emerging media will lose steam? Or, for that matter, we will stop analyzing this and that and what not, for business and for pleasure?

Crazy as it may sound…

Monday, July 21, 2014

Railways, Connectivity and Governance

The trio, in their intertwining ways, may be set for a big leap forward if the new Modi government follows its intent with propelling power
Like a lot of people who chug along a nostalgic track at the mere mention of Indian Railways, I also imagine a black chhuk-chhuk engine billowing smoke as it majestically pulls on the sturdy red bogies in the uplifting backdrop of verdant hills.

I'm also reminded of an old slogan played numerous times on Doordarshan: Bharat ki rail: hum behtar issey banayein, aur iska laabh uthayein. (Indian Railways: let's make it better and benefit from it.)

As we all know, the idyllic image of yore gradually gave way to a realisation that the world's largest rail network also became one of its most burdened, creaky and squalid. What primarily happened over decades was that nobody made it better (not the passengers, certainly not the government) while everybody used and abused it to the hilt.

There were a few attempts at betterment in the form of Rajdhanis and Shatabdis, but largely, much of what exists today was built or enabled by the British (with Indians as labourers, true)—with occasional tweaks, tricks and “expansions” by the Independent babus and netas.

To me, one of the most useful and significant changes came in customer service through electronic ticketing. (The guys at CRIS have done a humongous job.)

So it came as a whiff of fresh air when the Modi government announced its intent and a few ideas to modernise the Indian Railways and make technology a driving force for that endeavour. Among the things that the PMO has suggested are Wi-Fi connectivity on all passenger trains in three months and the use of closed-circuit television for monitoring cleanliness (in addition to security, of course).

Earlier in July, the government had announced a Diamond Quadrilateral of high-speed trains (that some in the media referred to as semi-bullet trains!)

The most important announcement, in my own view, concerns the mandate for different but allied ministries and departments to work together (highways, water resources, transport, etc.) As most people in IT know, silos are often bad for agility and performance—and governance couldn't be any different.

In another positive sign last year, RailTel, the telecom arm of the Railways, launched Railwire broadband service in certain areas of the country. Around the launch, RailTel MD RK Bahuguna had said that it is designed to provide “an open source content delivery platform for providing various services, including broadband internet, eHealthcare and eEducation,” among others.

Imagine what Modi & Co could achieve if they were to expedite the process and get the maximum out of RailTel's 50,000 or so kilometres of fibre optic network: for the benefit of the Railways; for the sake of better and wider Connectivity; for what is the raison d'ĂȘtre of Governance—benefit of the masses.

Maybe it's time to dream a different dream.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Abki Baar, Technology Apaar

When you sit down to write a post on the very day election results in the world's largest democracy are announced, it is hard not to be touched by the surge in people's mood.

But that's just about how much I'm going to give it leeway for. Like Kejriwal would have said (or should have said): Miles to go before we sweep.

While we have seen and heard a lot of I-told-you-so's, cries of wolf and not-fairs in the past few days (ever since the upswing for Modi/BJP appeared on the horizon), there is so much work to do that any victory parade is not only premature but uncalled for.

It is hight time the conversation moved to setting things right: the sooner, the better. And time it moved from the prolonged kerfuffles on caste, religion and laddoos to a well-reasoned discourse on nation-building, mess-clearing and forward-moving.

The key pillars of such a conversation, in my opinion, are legislative, industrial, technological and environmental—which, if taken cohesively together, will lead to a rise in India's stature and improvement in its human development index.

In the tech aspect, which is our concern here, there have been several lost opportunities in the past 10-15 years. To give but one hint, we celebrated the year of broadband several years back, but are we a broadband nation yet?

Sure, we have done really well in software exports and the BPO sector, but as a consumer and “owner” of technology, we are way, way behind others.

Thankfully, things are at a stage where they can take off big time—and if the new decision makers in government would just give them a nudge, it would help.

Already, India is said to be the No. 2 market for Facebook in terms of user base. Over 40 million smartphones were sold in the country in 2013—a three-fold annual increase. And around 250 million Indians use the Internet.

And yet there is no IT manufacturing to boast of. Much of the apps and content used here are either developed elsewhere or their IP is owned by firms abroad. Most of the young IT graduates entering or working in the industry are “code mules” rather than cutting-edge programmers, creative types or risk-takers.

To put it straight, even if tritely, the ICT scenario in India is not developing holistically.

For some initial years of its growth and recognition on the world stage, it might have been all right for India to follow a lopsided or opportunistic model. But for India to stake the claim as a true IT power,  the ICT story needs to be accelerated as a whole. What the government must do is press the pedal and shift the gear.

Files to go before we tweet.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Is Twitter Losing Its Chirp?

The problem with Twitter is not just financial numbers; it is not generating enough user interest

Microblogging site Twitter recently announced its results for the first quarter of 2014. Soon after, its stock took a beating of about 11%, even though its topline grew to $250.5 million compared to $114.3 million in the year-ago quarter. It also added 3 million active users compared to just 1 million in Q1 of 2013.

The financial reasons for the thumbs-down by Wall Street are obvious: despite growth in revenue and users, losses widened from $27 million in the year-ago quarter to over $132 million in the recent one.

But even otherwise, there have been signs of trouble for the social media biggie for some time. Apparently, its efforts to cast itself more and more in the image of Facebook (by improving profiles, adding features such as Twitter Cards and Nearby, etc) are not getting it enough traction.

There are other reasons as well. At one point, breaking news was touted as a big pull, but now Facebook and YouTube seem to be ahead in the game. Pew Research, for instance, is said to have found that only 8% of Twitter's entire user base (it has over 240 million active monthly users) uses it to stay updated with news. This is against 30% for Facebook and 10% for YouTube.

Another weakness, say critics, is that Twitter is not generating as much interest in markets outside the US as other social giants.

While sites like Facebook, YouTube and even LinkedIn are capturing the imagination (and engagement) of people worldwide, Twitter continues to be seen as a niche vehicle with limited utility (how much can you pack in 140 characters or less, for example). Twitter has certainly caught the fancy of celebrities, politicians and others who like to broadcast their views to their fawning hordes—but the average Joe or Jane is still keeping their distance.

There is another silly thing happening in the dark corners of Twitter: I have come across several Twitter profiles that appear robotic, superhuman, idiotic or a mix of all. A typical such profile reads: 23 tweets, 19,265 followers, 20,897 following (with weird handles I would rather not name). Besides, there are millions who created a profile out of curiosity but then went into a deep slumber.

Some of them do wake up once in a while to tweet something sleepy. (What I find more annoying is when even these folks get followers in triple digits!) Frankly, to me these tweeters, their tweets and followers look like the T-equivalent of click frauds.

Not that other social media sites are free of fakes and inactives, but the situation seems acute with Twitter.

Will the bird get its chirp back next season?