Tuesday, 26 December 2017

'Your call is important to us ...'

'Your call is important to us, please stay on the line. All our operators are busy.' This cold impersonal voice at the other end of the phone is followed by instrumental music or announcement of discount offers.

Mind you this is what we get after undergoing a long drawn rigmarole of 'press 1 for this ... press 0 for that'.

By the time one of the 'busy' operators comes on line and says 'good morning my name is so-in-so and how can I help you' your systolic blood pressure may have travelled a great distance in the wrong direction.

Hence when they ask some questions like model of the gadget, its serial number or exact date of purchase - all essential from the manufacturer's or a service provider's point of view, but to the customer it acts like yet another turn of the screw and things reach snapping point.

One has to rummage through old bills, bend down or even go underneath the gadget to get the required numbers. After mentioning the number comes the assurance, "Thank you, your complaint number is so-in-so and our technician will rectify it within 24 hours," followed by a text message.

For some lucky ones their deliverance happens at this point, while for many others it is back to the Sisyphean grind with follow up calls.

Welcome to the world of answering machines, a contraption ushered in by the telecom revolution. It was seen as a as a posh device intended to ease customers' pain, but its too has its own penchant of being Kafkaesque and open to manipulation by human operators.

While bureaucracy of yesteryears took a toll on your legs with sundry babus making you run round in circles, the modern day answering machines does the same on your nerves by making you sit as your mental poise and phone balance take a hit.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

No Country For Old Men

While Indian employers are gleefully adopting the hire and fire credo by copy-pasting the American template, the HR recruiters, on the other hand, are pursuing ageism with a missionary zeal. With the country flush with young people (thanks to our rabbit-like breeding tendencies) fresh graduates are dime a dozen. Hence, our HR managers never had it so good.

In private and corporate sector no job at any level can be considered immune to pink slips. Nor do higher ups get any stray thoughts (bordering on altruism) "Oh, if I fire such a senior person he may find it very difficult to get a job. He has a family to run and EMIs to pay." In fact they are often the first to be sent off.

If the layoff axe falls and you happen to be on the wrong side of 30, your chances of re-employment are slim as the long shadow of experience makes your journey towards the coveted offer letter a gruelling marathon. And if you are above 40 then you are the proverbial camel trying to get through the eye of a needle.

They eagerly hire fresh graduates keeping in mind low wage bills and short shelf life. As these recruits hardly stay beyond a couple of years, they need not bother about doling out gratuity and other retirement benefits. Hence they do not want to suffer the toil of even considering a ‘costly resource’ with years of experience.

If at all a senior guy makes it to the personal interview stage, he or she will have to contend with patronizing interviewers and dynamite through an iron curtain of skepticism. Sample questions: How comfortable are you while working with young people? (ideal answer could be "As comfortable as former US president Bill Clinton with his interns") or “We have a very young team, are you sure you will be able to fit in?” (As if you came out of the womb as a 40-year-old, then lived rest of your life in an old age home!)

Unless you happen to be a ‘referral’ candidate or part for some crony entourage that follows a CEO when he moves from one company to other, then be assured you have been called due to extraneous factors like filling up a quorum of candidates (higher ups in HR department often ask 'kitne aadmi the') and not because they have any intention to hire you.

While many companies may wear their 'equal opportunity' employers tag on their sleeves and some may even carry out 'trophy hires' from sexual minorities and other disadvantaged groups, 'ageism' is not even considered a form of discrimination. In fact it is an essential requirement to retain 'competitive edge' and be 'nimble footed'.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Blurred Vision, Myopic Planning


It looked like the clip from a dystopian movie series Mad Max. A surreal looking video of an 18-vehicle crash near Delhi brought to the fore the chilling devastation caused by smog. Visibility on Noida-Agra Yamuna Expressway was so low that incoming cars at breakneck speed kept on banging into the vehicle pile up with drivers utterly clueless.

The winter season in north India, which used to come as welcome relief from energy sapping heat waves, is now turning into a smog season and the erstwhile gentle fog which used to blanket the region from time immemorial has now acquired a toxic dimension.

A doctor in Delhi told a British newspaper that half of his lung cancer patients are non-smokers. The air has heavy metals and other carcinogens at levels more than 30 times World Health Organization limits, conditions likened by medics to smoking at least 50 cigarettes in a day, the newspaper added.

The usual suspects used to be the rising number of vehicles and their emissions. But of late the paddy stumps burnt on the fields of Punjab and Haryana are also being pointed out as partners in crime. Esoteric terms like PM 10 and PM 2.5 have entered into common lexicon of the populace.

Air knows no boundaries and even neighbouring Pakistan is affected. But if you watch our TV channels you would be forgiven for believing that only Delhi is affected by smog. An India Gate blanketed with toxic air may be a good TV footage, but the problem is actually more acute and much more unpalatable in some of the smaller towns.

For instance, the air quality index in Moradabad is worse than Delhi, but this town and the lives of its inhabitants is of little interest to our TV anchors and talking heads.

Setting aside the Delhi-centric view of our news anchors, it must be said the prevailing smog over most parts of north India is a also a pointer towards the government's and society's failure on two fronts.

Firstly none of our towns, big or small have a viable public transport system. This has only led to proliferation of private vehicles. It began with Hamara Bajaj in the 1970s to Mera Sapna Meri Maruti in 90s and now to much more high-end offerings. In every city the number of vehicles are way beyond the carrying capacity of their roads and traffic jams are ubiquitous in almost all cities no matter the size.

Secondly our agricultural scientists and governments have done little to provide the farmers with a economically viable alternative to burning stumps. They still continue to do so as the farmers in Punjab and Haryana are short of time and have to sow wheat within a fortnight after the paddy harvest.

Amid all this shortcomings the desperate people have stopped expecting anything from the political and bureaucratic class. Many from middle and upper classes are trying to find individual solution such as air-purifiers, pollution masks to keep toxins at bay.

But they are at best desperate measures with limited effectiveness. Air does not care about social strata either!

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Demonetisation: When Rumours Gained Wide Currency

It is often described as India’s 9/11 (our date writing convention is different from Americans). On November 8, 2016 night the Indian public was subjected to the now momentous ‘Mere Pyare Deshvasiyon …’ speech. Unfortunately I was deprived the privilege of hearing that historic address as I had just stepped out of my office hall to attend a phone call. During my telephonic conversation I could overhear loud shrieks from the hall.

After I returned I came to know about the momentous decision by the Union government to make high value currency notes of Rs 1,000 and Rs 500 denominations illegal tender from the following day.

The next day during my morning errands I came across queues in front of all banks with the public sector ones being thronged by much larger number of people. So when I decided to deposit the illegal tender under my possession, I chose to deposit in my Yes Bank account, as it was a low key bank, when compared with public sector banks and its more popular private sector peers such as HDFC or ICICI banks.

However, even there I was greeted by an unprecedented crowd, though not as intimidating as in other banks. Fortunately Yes Bank had provided separate queues for deposits (for account holders) and exchange (open to general public), a luxury not offered by many banks.

Hence the lives of account holders were made less miserable as they could opt for the less torturous deposit queue. But each transaction was taking longer time. And I got stuck behind one fat cat couple.

They had come with a backpack full of demonetized currency notes. It still beats me under what provision they were able to deposit that much amount, easily running to around Rs 15 lakh, without inviting scrutiny of taxmen.

While the cashier was busy putting bundle after bundle into the currency counting machine, the couple got into a small talk with the relationship manager, a twenty-something woman and probably a freshly minted MBA, who was standing nearby.

The couple started off by asking her how she and the staff were coping with the work overload. The woman readily conceded about the work load and then prattled on to a morality trip, betraying her upper class entitlement and admiration for demonetisation.

She sounded very gung-ho. “It is very good for the country,” and then marveled at how the prime minister was able to keep everything under wraps and took all ‘dishonest’ people by surprise. Those with unaccounted wealth would have no option but to destroy them, she asserted.

With a patronizing giggle she continued, “Oh god, what all tactics people are using to turn their black money to white.” Some are depositing money in their second wife’s name. Some of ‘these people’ (no points for guessing which community) have so many wives, she guffawed and the couple too giggled in agreement.

Then she trained her guns on the opposition. She accused them of ‘playing politics’ and how they were putting so much ‘pressure’ on the prime minister who was trying to ‘do something’ for the county. That was a day after he made his lachrymose ‘Meri jaan khatre mein hai’ speech, which would make yesteryear tragedy queen Meena Kumari proud.

Thankfully by that time the bundles got counted and my turn came. The relationship manager retreated to her cubicle.

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Those were the early days of demonetisation and even hardened pessimists thought all this chaos due to cash shortage would subside within a week. Almost everyone had underestimated the government's lack of homework to carry out the exercise, especially with regard to arranging for new currency notes and re-calibrating ATMs to accommodate the new notes, as they had a different dimension.

It was also an open season for myths and bluster with wide circulation of 'forwarded as received' messages in the social media, especially WhatsApp. The government's much vaunted premise of panic stricken black money hoarders flowing their unaccounted stash in the Ganges or setting them on fire enjoyed wide currency. A few who decided to stick their necks out were trolled into silence.

While standing in serpentine queues in front of banks and ATMs (which became a national duty) many self-righteously speculated about how much of the Rs 16 lakh crore demonetized currency will not return. And a widely held guesstimate was that between Rs 3-4 lakh crore would stay away from banks. Even sceptics thought close to Rs 1 lakh crore may not come back to the banks.

Another popular myth that died an early death was that of nano-GPS chips embedded in the new Rs 2,000 notes. Some TV channel anchors waxed eloquent about its magical powers claiming that they can provide precise location of the currency and every note can be tracked. 

They bragged that the chips are so powerful that even if they are buried 120 metres below the ground they can send signals to satellites! Once those pink Rs 2,000 notes arrived, the myth was given a quiet burial.  

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A strong sense of Schadenfreude pervaded through all sections of the society. The poor who were the worst hit took cold comfort from the fact that their 'maaliks' too were struggling. They were amused to see them spend sleepless nights over getting their cash stash in old currency exchanged and even approaching them to deposit in banks for a commission. 

The TDS weary salaried class was happy that businessmen, whom they perceived as congenital tax evaders, were being made to come clean on taxes and wet dreamed of lower income-tax in the next Union Budget. Some fake news sites also floated the yarn that income-tax may be even abolished, which further warmed the cockles of their hearts.

For the rich it was a feeling of relief as they did not have to stand in queues. No famous personality was ever seen standing in queues, but all obviously got their money exchanged - courtesy jugaad.

Those with money parked in tax havens abroad were patting themselves on their backs for their foresight and tweeting in favour of demonetisation with missionary zeal.

For a long time Reserve Bank of India played coy saying it is not yet done with counting the amount of banned currency notes deposited in banks. When it became very jarring like a battered kettle tied to a dog's tail (my apology to W.B. Yeats) they came out with the 'projected' numbers which was nearly 99% of the demonetized currency, not considering the banned currency lying in Nepal and Bhutan vaults, which is yet to come. 

No wonder they were so secretive. Nobody got browbeaten enough to torch their currency stash, and thankfully the already polluted Ganges was spared of further influx of toxins in the form of printers ink!

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Monday, 2 October 2017

Elphinstone Road: An Inevitable Tragedy

They are often touted as Mumbai's lifeline, as these suburban trains bring millions of commuters from suburbs as far as 60-70 kilometres to their offices and businesses located in the central business district. But it has also been a reason for grief to many as death and injury lurks at every step while these trains go about their humongous and unwieldy daily grind of gorging and disgorging thousands of passengers at various stations.

Nearly 8-10 commuters die on a daily basis while boarding or alighting the coaches, which are crammed four times their capacity, or while crossing the tracks. But these deaths rarely rise above being a mere statistic. And we all shrug it off saying life is cheap! The only time the death in trains become 'breaking news' is when there is a bomb blast or if a certain gentleman from across the border decides to do some target practice at one of these stations.

However on Friday the city and the country were jolted out of its festive Ayudha Pooja stupor by a stampede in Elphinstone Road station, a low profile mill district which of late has metamorphosed into a corporate hub.

For those not familiar with Mumbai suburban rail network, the city has three rail lines - Western, Central and Harbour. Western and Central lines intersect at two points and Elphinstone Road on the Western line is one of the options for commuters to change to Central line, as it is linked to nearby Parel station on the Central line by a foot overbridge.

The other option is Dadar station which has platforms catering to both the railway lines. However, the volume of crowd at Dadar is far too intimidating and it calls for the strength, aggressiveness and endurance of a rugby player to board and alight trains.

Its too early to find the actual reason for this calamity and newspapers are still flush with 'eyewitness' accounts and political slanging matches played, often on social media with hashtag jousts.

From the newspaper accounts it appears that Elphinstone Road and Parel stations continue to be interconnected with a lone overbridge that is barely eight feet wide and was built decades ago when these two stations were catering to a fraction of the commuters they handle now.

This is despite the fact that the transformation of Elphinstone Road and Lower Parel as an extended central business district has been a work in progress since mid 1990s. Those were the early days of gentrification of mill districts and I remember when a well known advertising agency shifted its office from upscale Nariman Point to Lower Parel, it was acutely coy about the down market location of its new premises and mentioned it as 'Worli East' in its invitation.

However, the Railways remained oblivious to large scale shifting of corpoate offices to these areas, most of them in order to cut costs, or the burgeoning number of skyscrapers being built to accommodate them. The rising number of office goers and the resulting congestion in these stations no way stirred them from their Rip Van Winkle slumber.

As the overbridge was woefully inadequate, many started taking a chance of crossing the tracks, thereby risk getting run over by trains.

But the railways chose the easy way out to treat the symptoms and not the disease. It fenced off the tracks to prevent trespassing, but did nothing to ease the passengers' difficulty in moving from one station to another. It was like putting a patient in quarantine, but providing him no treatment whatsoever and leaving him to the mercy of fate.

Hence even a mundane task of commuting to and from offices located near these stations has become a high-risk, life threatening affair.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat


Wednesday, 23 August 2017

RBI - Ha, Ha, Ha!


RBI was never a laughing matter until Urjit Patel came along. Before that the Central Bank job used to be a very boring and staid affair with jaded, bald headed men in grey suits and grand-fatherly air appearing on business TV channels from time to time and talking about the intricacies of monetary policy and announcing interest rates. Apart from bankers, pensioners (as their fixed deposit income was at stake) and the Sensex driven class, it went totally over the heads of the plebeian masses.

Along came Raghuram Rajan, who added some pizzazz to the post with a touch of glamour. The pink press and the society ladies were swooning at his good looks (he was probably the first governor with full crop of hair) and athletic prowess. He was a keen marathon runner and TV cameramen used to keep an eagle's eye to spot him among the teeming runners during Mumbai marathon.

His financial wizardry and his gumption to stand up to the political bosses were dismissed as a mere footnote. He left the stage for good and with his integrity intact. Though it left many female fans heartbroken and their nascent interest to differentiate between repo rate and reverse repo rates, to impress their peers at kitty parties, died a premature death.

After his exit many names started doing rounds and most were the chip of the old block - the bald headed grey suited mandarins who had graced various posts in finance ministry and the now defunct planning commission.

The mantle finally fell on a totally unknown commodity - Urjit Patel. Political commentators yawned: Oh no! Not another Gujju. As all key posts were already cornered by them.

Patel came across as what the TV comic character Mr Bean would have been if he had gone easy on calories. Unlike his predecessor he is extremely wary of media and sometimes even provided Bean like moments when confronted with TV flashbulbs. During the high noon of demonetization, he almost succeeded in making himself invisible. When nosy TV journalists once made a rare sighting of Patel, their Salim Ali moment lasted a few nano seconds. They had to rest content witnessing his rare ability to sprint away!

The then Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das held forth on behalf of the government and the unenviable job of announcing changes in rules regarding deposit and withdrawal of money from banks on an everyday basis.

Those were the early days of demonetization and the much vaunted premise of panic stricken black money hoarders flowing their unaccounted stash in the Ganges or setting them on fire did appeal to many and sceptics were bullied to silence.

However, after the initial shock and awe the deeply ingrained jugaad mindset of the Indian populace took over. New money laundering techniques were improvised and demonetized cash started flowing into the banks. RBI, which used to reveal the exact inflow of money on a daily basis, suddenly clammed up.

Now more than eight months after the exercise, RBI continues to be coy about how much money actually got deposited in the banks. “They are still counting,” is what our Finance Minister would like us to believe. And Patel too like 'his master's voice' continues to parrot the same line in one Parliamentary committee after other.

Also Read: Bangalore Beat

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Return of The Prodigal

First it was the hoardings, then the front page advertisements in newspapers of a well known bespectacled and smug face. For the first time I noticed he has a mole on his forehead. 

After a hiatus of six months, post-truth icon Arnab Goswami was coming back to TV screens, and his fans began feeling giddy and delirious. With their echo chamber bereft of its favourite nightingale, they were battling cold turkey conditions all these months.

After all how long can one make do with cheap imitations like Gaurav Sawant! Even during his earnest display of machismo (being clad in battle fatigues at newsroom) Gaurav seemed like Ben Stiller trying to pass off as Rambo Sylvester Stallone. 

Now the fans wanted to make up for the lost opportunities of the inimitable Arnab fix that transports them to a feel good delirium. His force multiplier vocal cords, which he uses to decimate Pakistani panelists, were sorely missed while the country was going through tumultuous events such as surgical strikes, demonetisation and UP elections.

As the launch date of the Republic TV channel approached the hype was gradually built up. His fans regrouped under various hashtag battle formation across all social media platforms, ready to blow Republic's trumpet and pounce on detractors in a manner which would make even Goebbels blush.

True to the hype he began from where he left off. For fans and worshippers their echo chamber was once again vibrant with the hyper-ventilating jingoism they were addicted to. The template continues to be same: Find an 'other' and attack him or her in a pack, never allow them to put their views across. What amazes me is how some of the panellists, especially the Pakistanis, even agree to appear for the show considering its pointlessness.

So finally it is achche din for the fans, with onerous tasks like trolling (read act like keyboard lynch mobs, intimidate and even issue rape threats) the detractors and playing cheerleader to the anchor thrown in. For them he remains the minstrel of utmost happiness!

Also Read: Bangalore Beat