31 August 2005

Equal rights

Democracy. Equal rights to all citizens. Civil liberty. That’s what India offers its people. And, the size of that people, in sheer numbers, beats any other country in the world. No other citizen in the world can claim solidarity with a group as large as India.

And, thanks to the government’s shift in economic and foreign policies, Indian economy is on an upswing. Liberalisation and globalisation are the driving forces today. Foreign investment and foreigners are welcomed. The economy is decidedly capitalist and there’s a fundamental shift in political ideology as well.

The conditions today are vastly different from what they used to be during our Independence almost 60 years ago. India now seems to have carved a niche for itself in the global economic and political arena. Businesses from the US and the UK are outsourcing key operations to India. Their governments are reviewing their relationships with us. Even benefactors are pouring in money from their generous funds. Corporate-driven globalisation now rules India.

There’s a self-confidence within India – particularly amongst the younger urban Indians. The middle class has now grown to impressive numbers – and has been empowered with greater income. Greater income has resulted in greater purchasing power. And, this has generated a plethora of quality goods and services, increasing employment opportunities for many… once again, in urban and semi-urban areas.

But, what about the rural economy? What about those surviving – sometimes not even that – below the poverty line? You know, the adivasis and the dalits? Those who are landless? Those who are denied access to electricity and education? And healthcare? How are they benefited by this economy? By this liberalisation and globalisation? By these market riches we talk of?

What happened to democracy? What happened to equal rights to all citizens? Where is the independence that was promised to everyone almost 60 years ago?

30 August 2005

Learning to serve the poor

If economic sociology deals with social networks, and if economic sociologists are at work trying to understand human behaviour, why can’t a part of their effort be put to good use for social issues? I mean, take poverty, for instance. Two-thirds of the world’s population suffer from poverty and yet, this huge majority is marginalised from the main economy… while economic sociologists continue to study consumer behaviour in their favourite urban markets, for the benefit of their multinational clients.

Most of the goods and services, today, are tailored for the urban population, and the economy benefits from serving this segment, totally ignoring those in low-income groups. Most businesses consider customers in low-income groups as unviable – too risky to serve. And, because the markets ignore them, low-income communities are at the mercy of inefficient suppliers, or are deprived of critical goods and services such as electricity, housing and healthcare.

In India, as in the rest of the world, this should be a serious concern for all of us. But maybe, there’s a way out. Maybe there’s a way to address poverty and understand the market dynamics of the low-income population. Maybe, there are approaches to solving the problems of those suffering from poverty… or are close to it. And, who can be better qualified for this job than the economic sociologists who understand human behaviour and market forces? Perhaps, it’s time for them to learn to serve the poor. And, in turn, we can learn from them.

29 August 2005

The economy is social

“Our economic decisions are shaped not just by financial interests but by relationships, history, and emotional bonds,” writes Virginia Postrel in a 24 July 2005 article called “Market Share” for the Boston Globe.

Ms Postrel introduces us to the topic of ‘economic sociology’ – a new science which seems to be taking over the minds of not just economists or sociologists the world over, but that of business executives as well. The descriptor “new”, of course, refers to the developments in this field in the last 15 years or so, although economic sociology has been in practice as long as economics or sociology has been.

The good news is, economic sociology seems to be mitigating much of the rancour that has clouded the differences between economics and sociology for many years. Rather than concentrating on the “rational-choice models” of economics, and doing away with the “unrigorous hodgepodge” of sociology, economic sociology focuses on the market as “a complex human endeavour”. Naturally, business houses have taken a keen interest in this, as the possibilities of economic sociology can be endless.

Applications abound in economic sociology – such as, in finding jobs through social networks, or formulating appropriate remuneration for job applicants. “In predicting wages, for instance, economists might include not only individual characteristics like education or experience but social relations. A well-connected person might expect higher pay than someone with similar skills but a narrower range of contacts.”

This is indeed a new point of view. And obviously, ‘social networks’ play an important part in the development of this new science. Economic sociologists are at work, trying to understand human behaviour from various aspects… like history and culture. They believe, as I do, “neither economics nor sociology alone can explain how real human beings manage their economic and social lives.”

28 August 2005

Innovation premium

What does it mean to now have India, along with China, as a major player in the global knowledge market?

According to Geoffrey Moore, leading consultant on technology and transformation challenges, and author of books such as ‘Crossing the Chasm’ and ‘Inside the Tornado’, the ‘innovation premium’ that the U.S. commanded all these years has now dwindled. In its place is a new knowledge market economy. The question is: For India, what does this mean?

According to a Wharton report on India:
Demand is expanding across industry groups to include programs to bring Indian managers up to speed with their western counterparts on business culture, professional standards and work ethics.

India’s top private sector companies rate high on management skills, notes Jonathan Spector, vice dean of Executive Education at Wharton, who has made India and China his highest priorities for international programs. “Senior executives at some of the leading companies in India are every bit as good as their counterparts anywhere in the world in terms of sophistication, knowledge of management, functional skills, strategic perspective and vision,” he says. “The biggest challenge is simply increasing the number of people who are globally sophisticated general managers. It’s a numbers game.” Spector says in that respect, India is dealing with a fundamentally different challenge than the one China faces. “There are many more role models at the top of Indian companies than there are at Chinese companies, although there are some in China,” he says, adding that this represents “a huge and significant advantage” for India.

But, in this milieu, what happens to the U.S. knowledge market? Are U.S. companies going to sit idle and watch their businesses slip out of their hands – and into India and China? Surely, they should respond.

Here, we turn to Geoffrey Moore again.

Jonathan Boutelle, a technology consultant himself, in his blog, reports a talk Moore gave at a TiE event a couple of months ago. Moore felt (and I quote from Boutelle)
the goal is to achieve “escape velocity”, to punch through the marketing noise and build a product that excels at one thing so spectacularly that your customers pay a premium to buy from you and your competitors give up.

Moore described products as
evolving over time, as value is continually extracted from the core of the product (as it gets commoditized) and layered on to the surface into specialized, customized products for ever-smaller, ever-more specialized markets. According to Boutelle, Moore presented 16 types of innovation which are likely to help U.S. companies achieve this “escape velocity”.

I feel these 16 types of innovation are worth considering, even if we are Indian. So, why not give Jonathan Boutelle’s 20 April 2005 blog a look see? [go to second-half of blog]

[Citation: from Wharton article ‘Can India Bridge the Knowledge Gap Needed for Research’]

27 August 2005

It's happening

“The sheer numbers of India’s talent force make a compelling case for outsourcing R&D to India.”

I got this from a recent article from Wharton titled ‘Can India Bridge the Knowledge Gaps Needed for Research?’ But this is just the beginning of the story. Obviously, there’s more. The Wharton article goes on to say:

“The rapid growth in the market for outsourced research services from India destined for the U.S. and Europe is beginning to expose weak links in the chain. Depending on the nature of the research being outsourced, Indian companies are preparing for the next level of growth by bridging gaps in skills across the organization with investments in training and development.

At one end of the spectrum are easily transferable, cookie-cutter skill sets in data collection and reporting formats. At the other are high-end research programs that involve extremely sensitive and closely guarded insights into corporate business strategies. Softer skills that involve communication, business culture and general professional standards also form part of the equation, separate from concerns about general business hygiene that keeps such work on the right side of business ethics.”

Lest you think it’s India’s cheap skilled-labour force – sorry, I meant 'talent' – which is making all the difference, the article corrects itself:

“The picture that emerges is one of a growing desire among companies in the U.S. to conduct sophisticated research projects in India. To be sure, this thinking is guided not just by issues of wage arbitrage, but also by Indian research and engineering education, the availability of large talent pools, and perhaps most significantly for the pharmaceutical industry, the relatively easy access to participants in clinical trials. American and European firms also feel more emboldened by the recent reforms in India's patent regime that bring protection of intellectual property closer to their standards.”

And you thought nothing ever changed in India! Shame on you.

[I’m a little concerned about the “participants in clinical trials” bit, though.]

26 August 2005

An environment for innovation

Innovation doesn’t just happen. It doesn’t drop out of the sky one fine day. It requires an environment that encourages the generation of new ideas… the creation and delivery of new products, services, processes, systems and businesses. And then comes the next vital step: adoption, without which no one can really profit from the effort.

“The adoption of innovations is a journey from one situation of equilibrium to another,” says Dr Bhaskar Chakraborti in an interview with Chirantan Chatterjee from The Economic Times [PDF version].

But, what exactly is innovation?

Once again, Dr Chakraborti comes to our rescue with a lucid definition: “I view innovation as any mechanism of change that has a real potential to disrupt the status quo and is a lever for achieving your strategic objectives. It must also have an element of risk embedded in it in terms of what follows after attempting to disrupt the status quo. That is what makes the innovation special and why every competitor or market participant does not automatically do it.”

Dr Bhaskar Chakraborti is author of ‘Slow Pace of Fast Change – Bringing Innovations to Market in a Connected World’, published by Harvard Business School Press in 2003, as well as a Partner and Thought Leader at Monitor Group, the global strategy firm from the Cambridge, Massachusetts in the U.S., which has had founders like Professor Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School. As a business philosophy, he believes, innovation “is never going to go away. We are going to continue to struggle to find ways to harness it and never quite get it right.” But the effort will be on. Globally or in the Indian context, innovation is going to play a critical role.

In fact, the other day, while reading up on innovation and enterprise on the Net, I came upon several webpages from
http://www.maltaenterprise.com (the Malta government’s information centre for attracting inward investment and supporting enterprise in Malta), and I found them simple and quite enlightening. I have reproduced portions from their website below:

"Successful partnerships between business, intermediaries and the public sector are key to the realisation of potential innovation, competition, growth and the development of an enterprise economy. In the new economy, strategic alliances enable business to gain competitive advantage through access to a partner's resources, including markets, technologies, capital and people."

"Collaboration through networking: Collaboration through the creation of business networks is key to the delivery of innovation, enabling companies to reduce their risk, gain access to new markets, attain knowledge and technology and generate new ideas.

Knowledge transfer: The transfer of knowledge from universities and other research centres to businesses is a stimulus for scientific and technological innovation. This drives increased competitiveness and generates growth within the business marketplace.

Creative, rewarding and inclusive culture: The most successful innovative companies create an environment within their business, which nurtures innovation. This is achieved through providing their workers with incentives to find better ways of working and rewarding the employees who generate new ideas."

24 August 2005

Rays of light

In India, the word ‘innovation’ is treated with some sort of awe. Innovation is something that happens somewhere else, not in India. Innovation is never encouraged in our centres of knowledge, our schools and colleges, which prefer to follow the beaten path… sometimes not changing direction for decades together.

The government is also lax in creating an environment for encouraging innovation, citing ‘lack of money’ as its main deterrent. Added to this is India’s poor understanding and appreciation of intellectual property rights and regulations. If our inventions are not protected by law, why would anyone even bring their invention out in the open?

Then, there’s the technology angle. India has never been known as a technology pioneer or leader. And most inventions seem to have a technology component to it.

But all that is changing. In the last couple of years, India has delivered a series of innovations, domestic and international, which has not only benefited specific segments of business and society, but has actually contributed to the whole world. Happily, the innovations have not only emerged from fields of technology, but also from rural needs and applications. These innovations are the rays of light that shine on India today.

But, I’m not going to give it all away in this blog post. On the contrary, I’ll recommend you to take the trouble and read an article (a 4-part series) by Arindam Banerji which appeared in rediff.com last year.

Arindam Banerji, a scientist and entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, has discussed the entire concept of innovation in India, calibrating its progress and taking it to the extent of presenting a framework for institutionalising innovation… which he believes India badly needs.

22 August 2005

The "brain power" gap

A recent TV commercial from NIIT caught my attention: A young man with a GNIIT qualification is suddenly kidnapped by a team of suited executives in broad daylight. The tag line said something about not enough GNIITians are around to fill the growing IT job vacancies… presumably in the country.

If this was true, it was a remarkable situation. There’s a huge gap in IT and we aren’t doing anything about it. Leaving aside the NIIT brand being advertised, what this means is that, today, there is a boom in the country for IT jobs, with not enough qualified IT professionals to fill the positions. Now, if this isn’t an indication of the change that has engulfed our country, then I don’t know what is.

It’s not that the Indian economy hasn’t changed since Independence. Although India chose to follow a socialist style of government, with its protectionist economy, building industries and infrastructure through government-controlled enterprises and the public sector, it did invest in modernization. Albeit, very slowly.

In this process, the private sector was neglected, prohibited from investing in major industries like power, oil, mining, steel, transportation – thereby ensuring that the private sector contributed only a small portion to the Indian economy. Added to this were strict controls on industrial licensing and a badly managed labour market.

And, of course, there was always a high priority on agriculture. India has always relied on agriculture and the livelihood of millions depended on it. The agricultural community made up a huge chunk (more than 60 percent, even now, I believe) of the labour force, and there was no way the government could overlook this. With half the population living below the poverty line, poverty and rural development were important issues.

Collective well-being was on the government’s mind. Hence, a natural inclination towards socialism. Computers came in slowly, and only since the introduction of personal computers twenty years ago, did Indians see any major change in business.

All that has changed now. India has figured out a strategy for jumping many of the hurdles of industrialization – straight into the information era. And, the private sector has suddenly found breathing space and opportunity for growth… literally in leaps and bounds. India has once again relied on the son of the soil – this time, an educated one – to create wealth for the country. As you can guess, I’m talking about the IT revolution.

What’s interesting is that India has suddenly become attractive to a lot of developed nations. Companies like Intel, Microsoft, IBM, HP, Oracle, etc. want to do business not just with India, but also in India. Thereby, creating an important position for India in the global market and contributing significantly to the brand India. Not to mention, creating a huge demand for an IT-trained force to address this opportunity.

This is indeed a matter of national pride. However, all is not hunky dory. With growth comes opportunity… and obstacles as well. How does one produce such a huge force of IT-trained professionals? And, interestingly, the demand has increased to skilled professionals in many knowledge-led fields. “If India has to continue and build upon its recent growth success, an educated workforce is critical,” says Rajesh Jain of Emergic. “Across the space, India will need an educated and trained youth.”

As reported by The Financial Express, even our Prime Minister alluded to this at the launch of the National Knowledge Commission earlier this month. India’s place in the world will be determined by its “brain power,” not by the military or economic powers, said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “Brain power” should certainly be reflected in a country’s economic competitiveness as well as military prowess, he said.

And, there you have it. A wake-up call from the Prime Minister himself, confirming the state of affairs… or those to come. Although the IT industry has made this all possible, the need for “brain power” will not only be in IT, but in many other fields.

20 August 2005

Nobody likes change very much

It’s human nature to avoid change of any kind. What if the new thing didn’t turn out the way we expected it? What if the new situation was worse than the one we’re in now? What if everything went drastically wrong?

What about all the money it’s going cost us? And, we aren’t even sure of the outcome!

Change means risk. Change means facing – and dealing with – things unknown. Change means hard work. It’s human nature to look for an easy way out. After all, that’s what makes us efficient, right?

Look at the way we’ve been progressing as a nation. India has always been good at living off the land. There’s agriculture. There’s mining of natural resources (coal, copper, iron ore, granite, gemstones… to name a few). And, there’s ‘body shopping’ in the IT industry. There’s even our history and our heritage, our wildlife and our spirituality – doing wonderful things for the tourism industry. If it’s easily available, and low cost, India knows how to make the most of it.

But, isn’t this a drain on the country?

So what if it is! There’s plenty to go around. And, didn’t we just say we’re being efficient!!

But, what about innovation? What about creativity? What about the power of the Indian mind which we were so proud of? What happened to that country that gave the world its ‘zero’ and changed everything for everyone, forever?

Nobody likes change very much. Change means risk. Change means facing – and dealing with – things unknown. Change means hard work. It’s more comfortable to let things be as they are.

18 August 2005

India, cheap and plentiful

India, with its cheap and plentiful skilled professional workforce, not to mention its ample natural resources, is likely to be an attractive proposition for a lot of foreign investors.

If a global strategy for India – such as the one I presented in my post day before yesterday – were to come into play, what would it mean to other countries? I don’t mean other countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh or China which would compete with India to attract the same foreign investment; I refer to developed countries like the U.S. and the U.K. which are likely to invest in India?

And, in turn, how would it reflect on India?

From what I can see, investment in services of the kind I’ve mentioned earlier (see my post of 16 August) can only mean more profits for foreign investors – for countries, companies and individuals. This will benefit both India and the investing countries as business continues to grow between them. Which means, economic growth in India will beget economic growth in these foreign countries.

In turn, these countries will push for more market access in India. More Pepsis, more McWorlds, more Nikes and more IBMs – even Samsungs and LGs – will flood Indian markets to help Indians spend their money earned from their enhanced incomes. This, of course, will benefit everyone on this new path to free enterprise, economic development and prosperity… presenting India with a perfect solution to alleviating poverty.

A win-win situation, if I've ever seen one!

16 August 2005

A global strategy for India

The Indian strategy for the global market seems to be to occupy the position of the most coveted supplier of low-cost knowledge workers. By knowledge workers I mean IT-trained persons with the ability to communicate in English. It’s a resource India has in surplus and, from what I can see, the world needs it.

I’m not sure if this has been a well-thought-out strategy for the last twenty years, but for the last twenty years, India has been supplying the world – mainly the U.S. market, of course – with low-cost IT-trained persons who could communicate in English. These were mostly programmers, and a few higher-level systems professionals. Twenty years ago, it used to be called ‘body shopping’ and companies like Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and Infosys were its main propagators. There were many others, big and small.

Body shopping (a term the industry didn’t like very much for its negative undertone) evolved to offshore assignments, and later paved the way for BPOs. More importantly, it established India’s strength as a qualified supplier of IT professionals for the developed countries. At a cost they couldn’t refuse.

In the last ten years, with IT adopting the role of a business process enabler, and supported by telecom infrastructure, the opportunities – and, therefore, the demand – for the knowledge worker has sky-rocketed. Although the focus is still on IT-enabled services, the knowledge worker today doesn’t necessarily have to be a programmer. A quick look into a call centre will tell you that you just need to be able to speak English fluently and know the fundamentals of computer operations to be a part of this industry.

But, it doesn’t have to end there – and that’s the magic of this strategy. The strategy bandwidth now includes knowledge workers and skilled professionals from other service sectors. Professional skills reach into areas such as engineering, design and analysis services, healthcare, clinical research, pharmaceuticals, financial services, construction … apart from the usual call centre and data processing services. Besides these, many more areas are likely to evolve over the years.

Most of these services will be delivered from India to other locations instantaneously through IT and telecom connectivity. However, there’s going to be an influx of business opportunities where the customers will come to India to consume services on offer. For instance, people will visit India for medical treatment at low costs compared to what’s available in developed countries.

This is going to create a double income for India – first, from the consumption of the service; and also from tourism as millions of people will be arriving in India to consume these services. The swing is going to be away from exporting services from India, and into importing customers for local consumption.

What this means is that India has to prepare itself to produce these low-cost skilled professionals by setting up educational and vocational institutions. Keeping in mind the fact that the service areas are quite widespread, there’s plenty to do here. Moreover, India has to invest heavily in infrastructure… IT, telecommunications, airports, railways, local transport, hospitality services, medical centres and shopping facilities. This also means developing manpower for these infrastructure industries… creating employment opportunities never before expected in India.

Maybe, there’s an Indian way, after all.

14 August 2005

The Indian way

Whether at work, at home or somewhere else, while attempting to accomplish a task – and perhaps encountering or anticipating difficulty – we often say, “Let’s do it the Indian way.” I’ve often wondered what this means. I mean, is there a specific way Indians do things? Do we solve problems in ways which are so unique that they set us apart from others? Do we, Indians, follow a set of principles different from the rest of the world?

Of course, the context in which the comment on “the Indian way” is made gives it meaning. For instance, it could simply mean greeting someone with a ‘namaste’. It could refer to wearing Indian clothes to a social gathering – a sari and a blouse for a woman; a dhoti and a kurta for a man. It could refer to cooking up a menu of Indian dishes at a party or a picnic. It could point to the use of toilet facilities – which would mean squatting on a flat pan dug into the ground and using water and soap, instead of the Western commode and toilet paper.

The Indian way could also mean a whole lot of customs and practices deeply rooted in our lifestyles and in our psyche: respect for elders, family attachments, worship of all things and creatures, spirituality, nurturing a rich heritage of arts, music and literature… even conducting business with another person, entirely on faith.

And, on the negative side: being late for appointments, a disregard for deadlines or commitments to tasks at work, dropping in to see friends and relatives without prior notice, embarking on a journey or an important task unplanned, breaking into a conversation with a friend or a kin in a local language in front of others who do not understand that language… to practices concerning health and hygiene.

Yet, these instances or practices are not uniquely Indian. Many others around the world follow similar practices routinely. Moreover, over the years, Indian culture has been greatly influenced by many other factors: growth of several religions in the country, invasion of the Mughals and the British, tribal traditions which remain strong from days gone by, and the economic changes happening around the world.

What, then, is the Indian way? Is there one unique way that joins us Indians together?

From the perspective of the city dweller to the small town aspirant to the rural farmer… from the perspective of the older educator preserving ancient traditions… to the perspective of the CocaCola, McWorld and MTV generation… “the Indian way” is likely to have different meanings.

What’s yours?

12 August 2005

The spiritual tourist, 3

I was travelling through Orissa by road, when my driver suggested a visit to Dhauli Giri. Although I had been to Orissa several times, I had never visited Dhauli – a hill on the banks of the river Daya, not far from Bhubaneswar – where a Buddhist shrine exists. I knew nothing about Dhauli, and since that’s exactly how spontaneous my earlier trips to Rajgir and Bodh Gaya were, I knew this was the perfect moment for the spiritual tourist in me.

In the midst of green paddy fields and trees with fresh green leaves, atop a hill, was Dhauli Giri, a Buddhist shanti stupa. It shone from a distance, all white, as if a star had fallen from the sky. As the car manoeuvred the hill, I got off to admire the rock-edicts and the rock-cut elephant a short distance away. On reaching the shrine compound, I looked up to see the Buddha himself, in solid gold, sitting pensively to receive me.

The shrine was white, circular with a dome, and four golden statues of the Buddha facing in four directions… very similar to the Vishwa Shanti stupa at Rajgir. I strolled along the path around the shrine, and then, stood on the edge of the hill watching the river Daya, silver and silent, meandering below. Everything was quiet. A soft breeze caressed my face. Thoughts just appeared and then disappeared from my mind. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. It was simply peaceful.

I have no idea how long I stayed there, but on no other time in my life have I been so much at peace with myself… as I was on that day at Dhauli Giri.

09 August 2005

The spiritual tourist, 2

Bodh Gaya was a paradise for a spiritual tourist like me. I visited several Buddhist temples within a few square kilometers – all in the course of a single day. Wandering the streets, I discovered temples from Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, China, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan… each reflecting its characteristic architectural style. Each one contained within it a beauty and a sense of peace I had rarely experienced.

But, the most important one was the Mahabodhi temple, belonging to India. This was where Buddhism began. This was where the Buddha achieved his enlightenment, under the Bodhi tree, some 2500 years ago. Inside the temple was a huge statue of the Buddha, said to be over 1700 years old. In front of the Buddha was, of all things, a Shiva Linga, said to have been installed by the great Hindu sage Shankaracharya. This was, indeed, a dampener to my spirits, and so I stepped out.

The famous Bodhi tree – a huge pipal tree – was behind the Mahabodhi temple, standing on a raised platform, a few Buddhist monks praying at its feet. This, of course, was not the original tree, but a descendant. Countless strings and ribbons and triangular flags, mostly white and yellow in colour, were tied around the Bodhi tree; the bark of the tree shining dark and oily from the hands of millions of pilgrims.

A gentle breeze was blowing and a few heart-shaped pipal leaves fell around me.

I stood there and wondered. What did all these turns of strings and ribbons around the tree signify? What did these hanging flags point to? What did it mean to touch this sacred tree or pray at its feet? Was this devotion? Was this piety? Faith? Are rituals and devotional acts absolutely necessary to achieve enlightenment? What spiritual metaphor was being communicated here that I failed to understand?

I found no answer. With a heavy heart, I carried my baggage to Gaya railway station and onwards to my next destination.

07 August 2005

The spiritual tourist, 1

For the spiritual tourist, the obvious choice for adventure is India. The land offers a delight of religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Zorastrianism and even Judaism, not to mention faiths and following in various gurus and godmen. In spite of its chaos, gruelling travel and pungent food, there is no better destination than India when it comes to spirituality.

Everywhere you go, you can be assured of seeing some symbol or act of devotion. The country is scattered with temples, mosques and churches, most of them architectural exhibits of a certain period or place, defining India’s history and culture through the ages.

The people are remarkable too. Hindus seem capable of worshipping just about anything: from clay, stone and metal icons to trees, stones, monuments, sacred spots, and even accomplishments like a birth in the family, girls achieving puberty, a new car, harvests and industrial production. They celebrate religious events like nobody’s business, revelling in loud festivals through the year.

Other religions, on the contrary, keep to themselves, celebrating special events on special dates, strictly by the calendar. But there is spirituality, and knowledge, here too. Whether you are a sociologist, a historian, an architect, a culture buff, a layman, a spiritual tourist or a devout worshipper, India’s mosques and churches, agiaries and synagogues, rituals and practices, sacred traditions and texts, are sure to keep you occupied for a long time.

But what fascinates me most is Buddhism – for its kind, quiet and compassionate ways. Once, a spiritual bug had bitten me and I had travelled to Bihar – first to Rajgir and then to Bodh Gaya.

In Rajgir, or in the hills just above Rajgir, is the bright and shiny Vishwa Shanti stupa. I was not alone, but one among many spiritual tourists, jostling in the town of Rajgir before boarding a ropeway to reach the hill top. A breathlessness had caught me off-guard and I couldn’t be sure whether it was because of the condition of the ski lift, the view, or in anticipation of Buddha himself.

The Vishwa Shanti stupa was a most amazing sight. I saw Buddha larger than life, bathed in the golden sun of the late winter afternoon, and would have settled in had it not been for the hundred-odd other tourists crowding and talking all at the same time. Sadly, I gathered, peace was not to be found here.

Instead of taking the ropeway back, I chose to walk down the circuitous path from the hill, to absorb what I had seen and felt. It turned out to be a good decision as no one else followed me… and I had the time and the path to myself. What more could anyone want?

05 August 2005

Cultural relativism

I don’t know what "cultural relativism" means, but I became acquainted with this phrase yesterday when an anonymous visitor to my blog used it while commenting on my post ("Showing it like it is") of a few days ago. Thank you, anonymous visitor, for visiting and commenting on my blog. I would have enjoyed a dialogue, but alas, my blog only allows me to publish my words… and so, here are some more.

If you are a new visitor and find this puzzling, then let me explain: The anonymous comment on my blog was on account of a description "... you may witness an embarrassing scene: a white European or American woman sunbathing in her bikini, topless, and a gathering of Indian men hanging around, watching." And later, "… the shameless topless exhibitionism of the foreigner..."

Whether I fall into the trap of cultural relativism or not, I am embarrassed to see Indian men hanging around, watching topless women sunbathing. It’s an intrusion of privacy. So, the embarrassment is selfishly mine. I am ashamed that Indian men engage in such blatant voyeurism and, when I see this, I feel ashamed of being Indian.

Still, by Indian culture and law, topless sunbathing on Indian beaches is not permissible. If the woman had only looked around, she would have noticed this. If she had asked around, she would have found out what the culture and the law of the land is. Hence, the foreigner is an exhibitionist on Indian soil. And, through Indian eyes, yes, she is shamelessly exposing her body and femininity.

However, my blog was not about this at all. By using the "topless woman" description, I was merely trying to illustrate the naturalness of India which India offers its tourists… commenting on how Indian tourism has been able to retain this flavour of our country, undisturbed, in simple everyday scenes. I was merely presenting the "topless woman" to describe a commonplace happening, contrary to canned, artificial presentations that other countries offer their tourists.

And therein, I believe, lies India’s beauty. It’s not just in the landscape or the wildlife or the history or the culture or the people. It’s in the freedom India offers everyone. In a way, it’s cultural relativism of another kind. And, there is no yardstick to measure this. It can only be done through metaphors, and the "topless woman" was nothing more than that.

03 August 2005


In his book, "The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America," published in 1961, Daniel Boorstin introduced the term "pseudo-event." A pseudo-event, he said, was a staged and scripted event that was a kind of counterfeit version of an actual happening. According to Boorstin, a pseudo-event is not intrinsically significant but is created in order to make news. For instance, a press conference called by a public relations firm on behalf of its client.

Sadly, most PR firms and university curricula shy away from discussing this topic. But, there are a few who do. Here are some excerpts from Professor Michael Turney’s class on the ‘Principles of Public Relations’ from the Northern Kentucky University:

Public relations practitioners routinely stage events and try to control the situations in which their clients and their publics interact so that their client is presented in the best possible light…

One of the most frequent and effective ways public relations practitioners control situations and the circumstances surrounding an organization's interactions with its publics is by conducting special events. Instead of waiting for happenstance to provide a situation in which the organization and its publics encounter one another and which may or may not turn out positively, they orchestrate a situation that occurs when the organization wants it to and proceeds in ways that favour the organization.

Public relations practitioners and their clients are enthusiastic and laudatory about special events. And, for the most part, the publics who participate in them are also fairly accepting, and sometimes highly appreciative, of them…

A pseudo-event is certainly not a popular term among public relations practitioners, especially those who frequently rely on special events to generate news coverage for their clients, but it is a perspective would-be practitioners need to be aware of and be prepared to address.

02 August 2005

Novelty news

Our demand for novelty and news seems to be at a height now. So much is our boredom that the newspapers have taken it upon themselves to entertain us… at no extra cost.

Take, for instance, the coverage of the recent rains and flooding in Mumbai. There was loss of life, property, damage and a lack of essential services… not to mention inconvenience to hundreds and thousands of people. In spite of that, some newspapers chose to present the lives of several public figures in the city on their pages – commenting on whether they received copies of their favourite newspapers in the morning, or whether they’ve had a bath in the last two days because of a water shortage in their homes.

Is this news relevant? Is this news of any consequence to the population at large – many of whom suffered during the rains? Can this be the state of our favourite newspapers – the ones we’ve grown up with? Wake up! There are some who feel this news is as important as their morning cup of tea. They enjoy the novelty of it – much more than they enjoy flooded city streets or stranded traffic or death. In fact, there is a portion of the population which gobbles up this news with alarming appetite. And, this population is on the increase.

I guess this kind of novelty news offers much more excitement than reality does. Sometimes, I even feel that the quantity of this novelty news is not enough for this population. So, the search for news is on… and the media are there, prowling around for novel ways to entertain us. Soon, to be well-informed by a newspaper or a television channel may be a difficult proposition for some of us.