Sunday, April 24, 2011

Edit: State of Health: We need to first make healthcare affordable to Indians

It is easy to label president Barack Obama’s exhortations to Americans not to travel to Mexico or India for cheap healthcare as protectionist. It presupposes that all is well with our healthcare. Far from it. We are still heavily dependent on imported technology, equipment and medicines. Obama cannot be faulted for trying to assure Americans that he is working towards quality healthcare at affordable cost on American soil. Maybe, India too needs to take a cue from Obama and realign our priorities to first provide similar healthcare to our 1.21 billion people and then look for medical tourists. Reaching healthcare to the masses is essentially — and will always be so — a government initiative. The government has been successful in extending low-cost but not necessarily quality medical services to some segments. Yet, the great masses do not have quality medical services. To make medical services within the reach of the masses, the government could look at the no-cost subsidy model. Healthcare is too sensitive a sector in India to be exposed to the vagaries of globalisation. India is particularly vulnerable: It has no public healthcare system to speak of. According to a World Bank report, public spending on health is under 10 per cent of total spending. This implies that the average Indian, including the poor, ends up fending for 90 per cent of his healthcare cost. “Health for All” as a goal remains on paper. The private and public sectors put together, the country is critically short of primary, secondary, speciality and super-speciality healthcare. Now health is once again said to be the top billing in the 12th five-year plan beginning next year. The investments, whether made through the public sector, private sector or in private-public partnership, have to be carefully calibrated to the goal of providing essential healthcare at affordable prices to our people. India will be much better placed to serve the world after it has met its own needs. But whether the low-cost, low-quality Indian model is a better option than the high-cost, insurance-driven American system is still a matter of debate. We agree that Indian medical tourism is exclusively a private sector enterprise and cannot be denied its profit incentive. Just like the IT and BPO sectors that thrive on wage arbitrage, medical tourism survives on the arbitrage between the high costs of treatment in the US private sector and the relatively cheap private sector world-class medical services in India. However, there is a side effect of promoting medical tourism. Foreign nationals come for treatment in India and are willing to pay top rates for service at the best hospitals in the country. This is one of the factors that keep rates high and unaffordable for average Indian citizens. A parallel exists in real estate where non-resident Indians pay top dollar that keep realty prices sky-high in certain pockets. The government must not hide its failure to provide quality healthcare to the bottom of the pyramid under the growth story of medical tourism. The rise in medical tourism shows that the quality of healthcare has enhanced in India, but it is just for a selected few. Therefore, instead of criticising Obama, the government needs to find ways to make quality healthcare available to the poor as well.

Columbia Law School to facilitate green investment in India

The centre for climate change law at Columbia Law School has received a $485,000


grant from Sujana Group, an Indian producer of steel, power and energy, to facilitate US investment in the clean-energy sector in India. The centre for climate change law aims to develop contracts and design legal instruments to set standards in this green energy industry in the country.

“There is an enormous potential for US companies to not only help India reduce greenhouse gases, but to take an active role in investments that can provide an excellent rate of return,” said Michael Gerrard, Andrew Sabin professor of professional practice and director of the centre for climate change law in a statement issued by the law school.

According to the founder of a venture capital fund that invests in green energy and an industry expert, “Standard documents are always useful. However, every deal in this green sector is of a different kind, which makes standardising difficult.”

“It would be useful if they can look at areas such as EPC contracts, contracts related to technology collaborations and consortium agreements. It will all depend on how creatively they use this opportunity,” another green energy expert added.

The project also aims to facilitate access of US equipment manufacturers as India begins increasing its power capacity by 80 per cent to meet its energy needs in 2030. It also looks at allowing US banks and investors to profit from clean-energy investment while fulfilling compliance requirements.

The move will also facilitate access to an estimated $1.1 trillion investment needed by India to install clean power and reduce substantial carbon dioxide emissions using available technologies.

“We recognise that as important as it is for India to grow, it needs to do so in an environmentally-sustainable fashion,” said YS Chowdary, chairman of the Sujana Group in the statement. “It’s vital that we figure out the most cost-effective ways to achieve that,” Chowdary added.

The legal tools developed by the project will be drafted by the US and Indian attorneys in consultation with experts in investment, project finance, and clean energy. The aim of the project is to make these contracts and legal documents available for free online so that these can be readily adapted for projects across India, thereby standardising the systems and processes in green energy market.

“Right now, there is a strong desire to pursue many clean-energy projects in India, but, too often, companies haven’t moved forward because of transaction costs that are both perceived and real,” said the project’s director Aarthi S Anand. “This is a way to streamline the process, so companies don’t have to draft contracts from scratch for each project,” Anand said.

Besides the contract-drafting efforts, the 18-month project will also include two international symposiums, in July 2011 and March 2012, to bring together major players in this sector.

“But time is of the essence. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to keep greenhouse gas levels within target ranges,” Gerrard added.

Edit: Return to simplicity

It was my favourite wristwatch, past tense, because it is no more. Unfortunately, the maker is an unknown Chinese company, which has probably shut shop because it relied on simplicity in a complicated world. Three days ago, my six-year-old nephew, broke the watch that taught me the significance of simplicity. When my father gifted me the watch, it displayed, “in some time it will be six”. I remember, I had rubbed my eyes and looked at its face again. It just had a display screen with no hands or numbers. It was a simple timekeeper telling me what time of the day it was, roughly. I realised how futile in life is the exact time concept, something that makes us tense and serious, for no reason whatsoever. What would we lose if our watch tells us “it will be half-past-two soon”? It is ironic that this watch is not considered seriously by any horological society across the globe because, in watches, complications are sacred — Patek Phi­lippe grand complication or a Breguet classique complication are revered.
Every invention has gained complication over time. For example, the phone was invented so that we can talk; today, a cellphone has 3D, games, touch interface, TV, internet, music, camera and GPS — it is so loaded with features and applications that sometimes we forget that we actually just need to talk or send a message. To go back to simplicity, we need to become disconnected. Just the way ashrams and meditation centres do it — no TV, no mobile, no internet, no connection with the outside world. Unfortunately, just sitting and doing nothing, in Zen parlance Zazen, has become toughest thing to do today. Being simple is complicated. But people have started valuing simplicity. The move from marks to grades in our education system is a step towards that. It may be possible that in the future, if you miss your girlfriend, you would not go to Facebook or Twitter or to a mobile phone, you would just go and be with her. And when you ask for time, you should expect a candid reply, “it will be 10 soon”.

Edit: Time for government to address labour shortage due to NREGS

When development economist Jean Dr├Ęze conceptualised and drafted the first version of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, little did he realise that it would boomerang and impact the growth of a crucial sector like construction, which claims to be one of the highest employers of unskilled labour. When the scheme promises migrant labour from states such as Gujarat, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh a statutory minimum wage of Rs 120 per day for 100 days, there is no reason for them to take the trouble of moving to cities and take part in the organised labour market in construction. It is a catch-22 situation for the government. It is politically not viable for the UPA to abandon the rural employment guarantee scheme (NREGS). On the other hand, real estate, construction and infrastructure are the flag-bearers of India’s growth story, and should not be made to suffer from labour shortage. The government can revisit history for a solution. Back in colonial times, Indian indentured workers were shipped out to Mauritius and the Caribbean. Each man was required to appear before a magistrate and declare that he was going voluntarily and the contract was for five years with pay of less than Rs 10 per month plus rations. Lack of opportunities back home lured these unskilled labourers to move abroad and even settle there. In the recent past, unskilled and semi-skilled Indian workers have been moving to West Asia, Africa and Europe in search of work. It is the same reason why workers from poorer economies such as Nepal and Bangladesh have moved to India. India’s construction sector has seen a surge of Chinese workers in major projects. Their participation was so engrossing and overpowering that these project sites were transformed into Chinatowns. However, the government thought it wise to put a stop to this as it had the potential to shrink employment opportunities for Indian labour. As a result, the government restricted the entry of unskilled and semi-skilled labour from China. The government informed China’s policy leaders that it would only allow migration of highly-skilled workers to its industries. However, today, when the country’s booming sectors might be hit by a labour shortage, it is advisable to import manpower from down the value chain. It is time for the government to consider India as a booming economy where migrant labour from other countries will come in search of employment and may eventually settle here, just the way we did in the 1820s. It is time to let go the cautious approach of a growing economy and behave like a nation that has come of age and is not afraid of opening up its shores to people of other countries who are seeking a livelihood. There is also a need to take a fresh look at the rural employment scheme. The scheme has to go beyond just serving political needs. There is no need for the government to employ all available rural labour in this scheme. In any case, all they do is dig trenches or build dykes. They can be gainfully employed in major government-funded and executed infrastructure projects under the same scheme so that labour shortage in big projects in cities can be addressed. The rural employment scheme is a sub-optimal way of employing rural people and has the potential of further shrinking the labour market for construction projects, big or small, where their earning will be much higher. If the labour shortage becomes more acute it could impact the growth of the economy. It is time that the government explored ways of sustaining its political agenda without impacting the growth of the economy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Roar: Graphic Novels

Adults only

Adults only
There’s a world beyond DC and Marvel. The world of Maus, Sandman, Marv and Digital Dutta. Doesn’t sound familiar, right? They are the Batmans and Spidermans of graphic novels. A graphic novel is a form of comics with lengthy and complex storylines, catering to a mature audience. The term was popularised after it appeared on the cover of paperback edition of Will Eisner’s groundbreaking A Contract With God (1978). Here’s the journey of our protagonist in the world of graphic novels.

F:Comics is so for kids. But it is bad that we don’t have something for adults.

M:Says who? Haven’t you heard of graphic novels? It is a form of comics that caters to a mature audience.

F:Is it? Does it have action, sex, violence?

M:You bet. You should check out Frank Miller’s Sin City series. You will meet professional killers.

F:Hi, do you have graphic novels? Which one do you recommend?

M:For starters, you can check out Pulitzer winner Maus, based on the holocaust where the Nazis are depicted as cats and Jews as mice.

F:But this is too serious how is Sin City?

M:It’s all about sin, written in a film noir style. The interesting ones are The Hard Goodbye and The Yellow Bastard. You should also check out Sandman series by Neil Gaiman.

M:So, which one did you choose?

F:Let me take Marv home today. Will keep my date with Sandman next week.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tale of Autograph

During my schooldays, like most teenagers, I was glued to fiction—both English and Bengali. It is an important phase in any person’s life because this is when you graduate from bed-time stories of Snow White and Rapunzel, which are imposed on you every night by your parents, to a more ‘mature age’ of superheroes, super detectives and super adventures. It is a time when you first exercise your choice in selecting the book you want to read. You are exposed to Sherlock Holmes, Tin Tin, Superman, and in a more vernacular context, my favourite detective—Feluda, a creation of a great filmmaker and a noted author Satyajit Ray. (Unfortunately, Harry Potter was not around then). With age, you become selective and get glued to your favourite authors. As school was over, I moved on and started focusing on more mature pieces, perhaps in an effort to prove I have grown up, by serious writers such as Faulkner, Neruda and Kafka, and not to mention mature graphic novelists such as Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman.

However, in my heart of hearts, Feluda remained and still remains my favourite hero. My childhood dream was to get a chance to meet Mr Ray and get his autograph on my favourite Feluda book. Unfortunately, even before I was old enough to travel by myself to his Bishop Lefroy Road residence in Kolkata he had passed away. Years passed by, but the desire of getting his autograph never died knowing fully well Mr Ray himself has. Last summer, I was going through piles of old books in the Kolkata heat at College Street, a place where all you get is books and more books. Suddenly, I saw a nearly-torn, dog-eared Feluda book. I instinctively picked it up as I couldn’t resist my hero’s appeal. I opened it and, to my surprise, saw Mr Ray’s autograph to a boy named Mukul dating back to 1981. I don’t know why this Mukul sold off this priceless copy but I am glad that he did. It was a miracle. Mr Ray lives on and still manages to delight his readers.

Off the mark: Forecasting is best left to professional agencies in private sector

It is time for the government to consider getting out of forecasting and leaving it to the pros. Forecasting forms an integral part of decision making in any organisation, especially if it has a client base of 1.2 billion. The Indian government has proved its efficacy in getting incorrect forecasting on a consistent basis.

Let us look at inflation first. Even if we keep aside a fact that the over-hyped figure has a very limited influence in our daily lives, it is interesting that the government even manages to estimate it incorrectly on a regular basis.

Another crucial area where forecasting is the key is weather. ‘Met gets it wrong, monsoon delayed’ is a headline that we encounter quite often. The excuse often sounds like “although IMD had prepared this year’s forecast over Kerala on the basis of improved statistical models applying six predictors, ground stations from the southern state have not reported favourably”. In a nation where majority of our population stares at the sky to find out whether they will survive this season, predicting the monsoon incorrectly failing to identify a possible drought can and has been very costly. And we all are aware of how monsoon impacts the farmers directly and the consumers indirectly, in the form of food price inflation. Thus a wrong Met prediction leads to wrong food price inflation estimation and the cycle goes on.

We totally agree that in weather, tiny differences in input could quickly become overwhelming differences in output, something called The Butterfly Effect—the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Tokyo can transform storm systems next month in Manhattan. But isn’t that why the taxpaying common man is paying through his nose for the supercomputers and the ‘superbrains’?

The irony is that almost every department has its own forecasting team comprising eminent statisticians and economists. The decisions that are taken by the government, which determines our fate, are solely based on these projections and they are at times way beyond the accepted level of statistical error of 5 per cent. The performance of our five-year plans is a clear indication of the potency of our forecasting prowess. Although you may wonder how is it possible to have a five-year planning process along with a market economy, let us not get into that. Even if we look at the government’s annual budget estimates, the poor marksmanship is obvious at the end of the year on a regular basis.

Business organisations that have a big stake in getting accurate forecasting in areas of their interest increasingly rely on private and paid sources rather than on free public data.

The time has come for the government to realise that forecasting is a professional job, which is best outsourced to forecasting agencies. Collecting data in a vast country of great diversity and 1.21 billion people it is not easy and government agencies such as the CSO, which collects national accounting and industrial production statistics, and RGI, responsible for conducting Census of India every 10 years, are doing a fine job on that front. However, they are not so proficient when it comes to forecasting key numbers. While data collection and population enumeration has to remain with the government departments and data made available in public domain, forecasting should be left to professional agencies which have to compete and be accountable to their paying clients, including the government, for the accuracy of their forecasts. Public policies and programmes would stand to gain the most if forecasting is on the mark.

Off the mark: Forecasting is best left to professional agencies in private sector

It is time for the government to consider getting out of forecasting and leaving it to the pros. Forecasting forms an integral part of decision making in any organisation, especially if it has a client base of 1.2 billion. The Indian government has proved its efficacy in getting incorrect forecasting on a consistent basis.

Let us look at inflation first. Even if we keep aside a fact that the over-hyped figure has a very limited influence in our daily lives, it is interesting that the government even manages to estimate it incorrectly on a regular basis.

Another crucial area where forecasting is the key is weather. ‘Met gets it wrong, monsoon delayed’ is a headline that we encounter quite often. The excuse often sounds like “although IMD had prepared this year’s forecast over Kerala on the basis of improved statistical models applying six predictors, ground stations from the southern state have not reported favourably”. In a nation where majority of our population stares at the sky to find out whether they will survive this season, predicting the monsoon incorrectly failing to identify a possible drought can and has been very costly. And we all are aware of how monsoon impacts the farmers directly and the consumers indirectly, in the form of food price inflation. Thus a wrong Met prediction leads to wrong food price inflation estimation and the cycle goes on.

We totally agree that in weather, tiny differences in input could quickly become overwhelming differences in output, something called The Butterfly Effect—the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Tokyo can transform storm systems next month in Manhattan. But isn’t that why the taxpaying common man is paying through his nose for the supercomputers and the ‘superbrains’?

The irony is that almost every department has its own forecasting team comprising eminent statisticians and economists. The decisions that are taken by the government, which determines our fate, are solely based on these projections and they are at times way beyond the accepted level of statistical error of 5 per cent. The performance of our five-year plans is a clear indication of the potency of our forecasting prowess. Although you may wonder how is it possible to have a five-year planning process along with a market economy, let us not get into that. Even if we look at the government’s annual budget estimates, the poor marksmanship is obvious at the end of the year on a regular basis.

Business organisations that have a big stake in getting accurate forecasting in areas of their interest increasingly rely on private and paid sources rather than on free public data.

The time has come for the government to realise that forecasting is a professional job, which is best outsourced to forecasting agencies. Collecting data in a vast country of great diversity and 1.21 billion people it is not easy and government agencies such as the CSO, which collects national accounting and industrial production statistics, and RGI, responsible for conducting Census of India every 10 years, are doing a fine job on that front. However, they are not so proficient when it comes to forecasting key numbers. While data collection and population enumeration has to remain with the government departments and data made available in public domain, forecasting should be left to professional agencies which have to compete and be accountable to their paying clients, including the government, for the accuracy of their forecasts. Public policies and programmes would stand to gain the most if forecasting is on the mark.

Anything for MIB

Moving to a new city is never easy. You have to get used to a new set of unwritten codes that define every city. And ‘neighbour laws’ play a very important part in that. Your neighbour-onomics determines the future of peace in your house. You are lucky if it is rented as you can leave anytime, and ‘god have mercy’ if you have bought.

Till date, I have maintained a very safe distance from all my neighbours, without exception and across geographies, to avoid any unwarranted issues. After moving to the capital, I naturally followed the same law.

Things seemed okay until I realised that India might bring home the World Cup and my TV was still in transit.

I didn’t mind not having a TV as long Sri Lanka was holding fort and things were looking pretty dismal after Sachin and Sehwag walked back to the pavilion. But, hell broke loose when Dhoni started turning the match around. And the only thing I could hear was my neighbours cheering for India and screaming on every single, leave out fours and sixes, with a decibel level well above 65. I started frantically calling my friends for the score. But then, as true friends, they switched off their mobiles. I was helpless, asking God ‘why me?’.

My neighbours cheered again. I shot out of my house and rang the doorbell. I didn’t know their names and even before saying hello I asked for the score. However, they were sweet enough to tolerate my intrusion and invited me to watch last few overs.

Together we saw Dhoni leading the country towards making history. We cursed every dot ball, cheered every run and when India won, we screamed with joy, just like a family. Instead of champagne, we celebrated with family pack of a cola.

If cricket can bring two hitherto unknown neighbours closer, what can it do to the country? I saw what it did to the nation in the papers the next morning.

Cricket makes us crazy. We love the game so much that we can do things that we normally wouldn’t even think of doing.

It certainly taught me that you can’t have fixed rules in life.