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?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Sri Sri, Kejriwal, Modi - aur aap, the voter

The political climate in India has been highly charged in the past few months, to say the least.

There are different types of camps: of people who staunchly support one of the three top bigwigs/parties (Modi of BJP, Rahul of Congress and Kerjriwal of AAP); of those who are taking a party-specific approach irrespective of candidates--and vice versa; and those who are pulling their hair out on whom to choose for the coming elections.

The debates are fierce, the arguments and counter-arguments vehement and the tripartite mud-slinging distasteful--on social, anti-social, local, global and all types of wobbly media.

I was watching all this uproar, trying to make up my own mind as a voter (as a journalist I'm avowed not to side with any party), when I came across an eloquently written piece by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of The Art of Living in Hindustan Times.

Before I go on, a disclaimer is in order: I have undergone the basic course of AOL and do Sudarshan Kriya regularly and have personally benefited from it in physical and mental well-being. But I have heard contradictory accounts of Sri Sri and AOL (not unlike what you hear of politicians) and I neither support nor denounce them blindly.

Like my new-found interest in politics and spirituality, I'm exploring the options. But then, I digress...

In his opinion article, which is provocatively titled "AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal has left the country choiceless," Ravi Shankar relates how AAP and Kejriwal started with the noble mission of rooting out corruption and giving voice to millions of Indians who are sick and tired of corrupt and criminally tainted politicians. And how they subsequently got consumed with political ambitions of their own and are no longer proving to be different from the political class they seek to dethrone.

He also writes that "While Gujarat may not be 100% corruption-free, I have no hesitation in saying that it is much better than what it used to be. Instead of being honest with facts, Kejriwal has chosen to put down BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi on flimsy grounds," referring to Kerjriwal's high-octane four-day visit to Gujarat in which he hurled criticism at Modi at the slightest opportunity.

Talking about his own visits to the state in the 1990s and comparing them to the situation now, Ravi Shankar says the situation in the Modi-ruled state has improved visibly in infrastructure and economic terms.

Coming from someone of the stature of Sri Sri, the assessment is sure to lend credibility and godspeed to Modi's campaign and promise of taking the governance experiment in Gujarat to the national level (if he becomes PM, of course).

Personally, I have also heard contradictory views on to what extent Modi has been able to make a difference to the infrastructure as well as the people of the state in his three terms as chief minister.

All the same, I'm astonished at the apocalyptic statements issuing forth from the mouths of a whole battery of politicians, religious groups and others on what will happen if Modi does become the prime mover of a country of 1.3 billion people. They depict an inferno-like situation, riots, wholesale destruction, and what not.

It is arguable that Modi's conscience should prick more (than to the extent it has) at the loss of innocent lives in riots that happened in the aftermath of the train-burning incident in Gujarat. Court cases have gone on for long and disputes about Modi/administration's role in handling the situation are still arising. But on Modi becoming PM, to say things like "Aag lag jayegi"?!

Crazy.

When the Aam Aadmi Party initially entered the scene (following its split from the Anna Hazare anti-corruption/Lokpal movement which itself was an amazing sight to watch, though it peaked in a whimper), I could feel a sense of rejuvenation in the electorate, especially the youth and white-collar workers. To its credit, AAP and Kejriwal brought corruption to the forefront as a political issue and impressed a whole swathe of Indians with their candor, nimble thinking and swift mobilisation.

But when the ticket-giving for seats began, many of the candidates have been found to be of dubious record or get-elected-quick types who just want to ride the AAP wave.

So again, what we have is a mish-mash of (mostly) bad apples to choose from--be it AAP, BJP or Congress.

So, in a way, Ravi Shankar is right in saying that the initial promise of better choice exhibited by AAP is dissolving into a haze of disillusionment and hunger for power.

I think a lot of people will make their choice thus: since there are no best or even good choices, they might try opting for the "least bad" as per their perception, media projection and past experience or record.

If the prevalent view is that Congress has ruled the country for the maximum number of years (first without and then with alliances) AND India is a messier country than it was 60 years back, most people would certainly vote against the party.

Many would not vote at all or caste their vote for nobody (not sure if the ballot allows that option).

Unfortunately, a huge mass of Indian humanity would just choose whoever was in their good books on election eve (gifts, liquor, freebies, etc.)

"Choiceless," did Sri Sri say?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Time for India to Take a Close, Hard Look at e-Waste

My first recollection of waste recycling is that of disheveled kids roaming the streets of Delhi. They have large plastic bags and whenever they spot a discarded but “valuable” item—a plastic bottle, a rusted iron rod or the like—they toss it into the bag and move forward in search for more.

At that time I was amused by what I saw (I knew they would sell their stuff to the local kabadiwala, the scrap dealer, for a paltry sum.)

Now, several years later, amusement about a curious aspect of waste collection has turned into a loathing for how the entire “waste situation” looks. As I came to know about the trash piling up in landfills, about chemicals from discarded objects leaching into soil and water (often winding their way into the bloodstream of humans and other animals, with toxic effects), and about the devastatingly fast-growing proportion of e-waste in the overall junk, my disgust only intensified.

An estimated 40-50 million tons of all kinds of electronic waste (from computers and phones to TVs and washing machines) is generated globally each year. In India, it is around 1 million tons, but growing faster than many developed countries.

What is more appalling is that much of this e-waste—a whopping 85-90%—is either dumped or handled hazardously. And while advanced economies such as the U.S. regularly consume and discard the bulk of electronics, the trash ends up in third-world countries of Asia and Africa.

But there is a glimmer of hope. A growing awareness and sense of responsibility at government, corporate and individual levels is driving home the need to deal with all that e-waste in an environmentally friendly manner.

In India a right step in that direction was taken in 2011 in the shape of the e-Waste Management and Handling Act. A key part of this regulation is the EPR (extended producer responsibility) clause, which puts the onus of responsibly warehousing or disposing of the e-waste on manufacturers.

Another green development is that several watchdogs, recyclers and e-waste services firms are cropping up in the country.

However, all this is still a small start to a very large and complex problem. For one, recycling should not be equated with passing on the collected e-waste to the unorganized sector (which often employs women and children to retrieve metals and components from the devices through burning or manual dismantling).

In addition, both the government and the corporate sectors should make efforts to grow awareness about the regulation and product take-back programs—and there should be a proper mechanism to monitor such programs and provision for punitive measures, if necessary.

Managing e-waste well is more than a matter of health for all those directly affected by toxicity of the materials: it is a big question mark over the survival of the whole planet.