Tuesday, 26 April 2011

In IT, we are not as good as we might think!

The Global Information Technology Report 2010-2011, just released, puts Sweden and Singapore at the of top the rankings of economies adopting and implementing ICT advances for increased growth and development. The official statement of the 10th anniversary edition of the report says that it "focuses on ICT’s power to transform society in the next decade through modernization and innovation".

Finland now comes third, while Switzerland and the United States continue to be fourth and fifth respectively.

India’s position is not miserable, but it is not what you and I should expect.

We have dropped from 43th to 48th overall, while China comes 36th.

We come 21st in Individual Readiness, 33rd in Business Readiness, 41st in Market Environment, 45th in Business Usage, 47th each in Government Readiness and Government Usage, 52nd in Political and Regulatory Environment, 81st in Infrastructure and 98th in Individual Usage.

That's out of 138 countries....

The full report is at: http://www.weforum.org/issues/global-information-technology

Is caste discrimination making a comeback in our largest cities?

One of indfia's top executives tells me of an incident when he went to one of Mumbai's upscale shopping areas, with a short list of items to buy at one shop while his wife was busy in another shop and they were under time-pressure.

At "his" shop, there was a well dressed woman customer already in the shop, with five or six items packed in front of her, and she proceeded to ask for another ten or so - with the shopkeeper and her chatting in the most animated and friendly fashion.

Having got all she wanted, she asked the shopkeeper to ring it all up, and he did so on the till.

She reached into her handbag to pull out her purse to pay and, as she did so, asked him his name.

As soon as she heard his name, she dropĆ¼ed her purse into her handbag, said "Thau tho hum tumsay naheen khareegenge", turned around and walked off.

What was the shopkeeper's sin? Simply having indicated, through the name that he gave, that he was of untouchable origin.

The shopkeeper threw up his hands in despair and said to my friend, "What am I to do now? I have already rung up everything on the till!"

My friend immediately offered to buy the lot, and added whatever else he needed from his list, and went home with much more than he had thought he was going to buy.

A not-so-bitter ending for the shopkeeper as it might have been, but I am sure it is not an experience that he would like repeated.

My friend's comment on the incident was: "And this in one of the most upscale shopping malls - and in the middle of India's most cosmopolitan and Westernised city!"

I was even more shocked than my friend: even though I am well aware of caste discrimination in the villages and even in the small towns, I have long harboured the idea that caste discrimination is declining in our largest cities.

But perhaps, if guruism and idolatry make a comeback, we should not be surprised at caste discrimination also making a comeback - at least in those parts of the population.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Report of a visit to a training session run by the Adarsh Rashtra Vikas Party (ARVp9

Last month, I mentioned that I was going to check out one of the few systemically hopeful signs that I can see for India: the Adarsh Rashtra Vikas Party (ARVP).

In Lucknow, off a side road, next to a “marriage lawn”, I arrived at a typical Indian building: run-down though it can’t have been very old.

I found the entrance draped with a temporary banner proclaiming in Hindi the equivalent of “Not to rule, but to serve”.

Such a sentiment emblazoned on the masthead (so to speak) of an Indian political party, raises in an Indian either a skeptical guffaw or a moment of epiphany.
In my case, I confess, it was a mixture. I wanted it to be an epiphany, and I wasn’t sure how skeptical I should be. I decided that all I could do was to keep an open mind.

I was slightly late, as my train had been delayed. The meeting had started with lunch and it was now a short while after proceedings should have started.

Discovering that the ground floor is used as a dormitory and that the meetings are held on the first floor, I trudged up the stairs – the building has no elevator. The entrance area was relatively clean and well maintained, at least for an Indian structure. Coming on to the first floor, I found in front of me over a hundred people (the exact head count, I was told later, was 120) in small groups, seated Indian fashion on a carpet on the floor, in intense discussion.

Mr Mohan Philip, the President of the Party, came to greet me, and walked around to the back of the hall with me, inviting me to take a seat on one of the chairs that were lined up at the back for observers, guests, and so on. Apparently, there are enough chairs to seat all the participants, and they bring the chairs in for speeches, but the room is too small to have chairs if they wish to have small group discussions, so they take the chairs out for those.

Mr Mohan explained to me that the ethical training programme takes place every month, and all the leaders are expected to spend their own money to come. The Party has provided at least some minimal training to some 3000 people. Giving me a copy of the programme for that day as well as the next, he showed me what was in progress.

Soon, it was time for that group discussion to close. Mr Mohan went forward, took the mike and said in his soft voice “Shaant ho jaayen” (“let’s bring the discussion to a close”) a couple of times, and the discussion swiftly stopped. Then he asked the participants to sit in lines, and they did so comfortably but quickly. I was impressed. In most Indian gatherings, few people respond to any instructions ….

I was also astonished to see how punctually everything ran, in spite of the fact that most of the time was spent in small group discussions. All the speeches too, though they all seemed spontaneous, were delivered with a sense of time – again, astonishing in an Indian context.

The training uses stories (excellent for grassroots people) which pose ethical dilemmas and have questions for group discussion. The stories seemed quite realistic to me – and, I suppose, to the participants, or they would not keep coming month after month at their own expense. However, the ethical dimension is not confined simply to the “story-discussion”, which actually took up only one session. Rather, the ethical dimension imbues all aspects of the event, as the Party seems to want to structure that into its very DNA.

I later asked how leaders are chosen. Mr Mohan drew my attention to a large poster-type display in the front of the hall, and explained that the Party worked systematically through all the administrative districts of the State of Uttar Pradesh, visiting key officials and community leaders in order to identify people who had a reputation for ethics and social responsibility. They approached these people to challenge them to join the Party on the basis that if good people do nothing, then the less good will end up dominating the political process, and that all the good that NGOs and civil society organisations may do is as nothing compared to the power and reach of government for good as well as for ill.

Everyone who joins (as well as observers and guests) are taken through the Party’s strategy - which is to reject the use of the four bases on which politics is at present conducted in the country (money, muscle, religion and caste) and to stand instead for a secular, anti-caste and clean government, working on the basis of financial transparency, and the good of the people.

At the next elections (in 2012), the Party intends to field candidates for 160 or more seats, and to appeal to the electorate on the basis of the Party’s track record of relationship-building and service to the community.

Each leader is asked to identify 10 men, 10 women, 10 young people, and 10 people with an ethical reputation in each village in “their” territory, and to visit these individuals in order to explain the Party’s vision and strategy, and to invite them to join the Party. The membership fee of Rs 2 a month is so low as to be laughable. Mr Mohan explains that it is set low so as to be affordable even by the poorest in the country - and the fee is meant to be only a token of the commitment. Each month, the leader visits these members in order to collect the membership fee, to communicate new developments, and to explain and encourage the implementation of the Local Self-Government System (“panchayat” system) which has been subverted and “captured” by unethical people in most parts of the State. Local members of the Party work to improve the functioning of the Panchayat System and to make the Party better known, using the 40 members in each village as the core. The membership fees that are collected are properly receipted and used to defray expenses for activities approved by the local membership. Mr Mohan explained that it was not normal for people at this level to keep accounts, and to be accountable for the use of money, and that this is part of the training that is essential to inculcating the right habits in the Party.

At the monthly meetings, all the local leaders report to the next level's leaders what activities they have organized during the last month, show the receipt books and account books, and share what issues they have discovered or they are facing in “their” area. This is then consolidated and reported up, till the top group has a monthly face-to-face report and discussion with Mr Mohan. I was interested to see that, at each level, the “reportees” were challenged if their books were not properly maintained, or showed evidence of the work not being done properly. Laggards were introduced to best-practice leaders, if necessary from other groups within the Party, so that performance could improve. The Party appears to be trying to create a culture of performance that is entirely alien to every other Party that I am aware of in our country.

It was also interesting to note the sense of urgency that the Party is inculcating. Right in front, on a board was the number 375 written in large letters. That’s how many days are left to the next State elections… On the 2nd day of the training, the number was adjusted to 374, with a powerful emotional appeal to the participants, reminding them that if they did not work hard enough to succeed in the next election, the State would continue to go down the wrong path for another five years, damaging even further the health and prospects of their family and neighbours.

The Party’s openness to outsiders is fascinating. Everyone who is new to the gathering is asked to introduce themselves. I (a non-member) was asked to share a bit about myself. My nephew, who happened to be there along with a family friend only to see me, was asked to read an inspiring poem that the family friend took the occasion to show Mr Mohan. Outside speakers, well known for having paid a cost for ethical actions, are invited to share their experience, even if they are determined not to be supporters of the Party. For example, on the second day, a top executive of one of India’s largest companies, having explained that the company never supports any political party, presented the company’s position, structure and activities in the field of ethics as a demonstration of the fact that no individual or business is forced to pay bribes and that it is perfectly possible to be successful and honest, provided one is prepared to be patient.

Party members were thus encouraged in their quest for ethics and justice. People who have retired from senior levels in the administration, law, police and the professions, are also invited to share their experiences and wisdom, even though they too may never become members or support the Party in any other way.

I can’t pretend that everything went well or that there are no deficiencies in the Party. I happened to speak to a Deputy Superintendent of Police in the city, and he had no idea that the Party existed. Not surprising, given that the Party’s real base is in the rural areas at least at present. And the Party does not even have a proper website. Nor does it have anyone able to issue Press Releases, so it can’t communicate its existence via the print and broadcast media either. At one point, the programme had a film, but the technology did not co-operate, even though everything had been “checked twice”, and everyone ended up wasting perhaps as much as 30 minutes.

The programme lasted till 11.30 at night, and started again at 6.30 a.m. In the 27 hours or so that they are together, they pack in a lot. It is clear that the event is no picnic. Their low-decibel passion to see things improve is impressive. Their strategy is right, their planning is incredibly detailed, their implementation is thorough, and their view is that, if they keep their focus on the main task, then others with the right skills and abilities will be motivated to support them.

Will I?

I have certainly become an admirer.

And I am thinking about what sort of support I can best offer.


Saturday, 2 April 2011

Three kinds of Indians

One of my relatives tells me that there are only three kinds of Indians:

- those whose homes are dirty inside, and outside which there is filth (the poorest, mainly in urban slums)

- those whose homes are clean inside, even though there is dirt outside (the vast majority)


- those whose homes are not only clean inside, but they live in a context where there is cleanliness outside too.

He opines that the last and most privileged category may number only a few hundred thousand, at most.