Wednesday, March 29, 2006

From Cambridge to Harvard : a Political Journey

Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are lobbying to establish a 'Rajiv Gandhi chair' at Harvard University. TOI reports:

Congress president Sonia Gandhi has, of late, broached the subject with Harvard officials, the second time she has done so in five years...

Outgoing Harvard President Lawrence Summers remarked during his India visit last week that the university was planning to set up several chairs to honour distinguished Indians. India is of course far hotter today than it was 5 years ago. But, these things take time as many details need to be worked out.

"There are ... many strings attached in the establishment of a chair like the endowment the donor is ready to give, the department the chair needs to be established in, whether it is a bound or an unbound chair and how much control would each partner have in admission/nomination process," a source told TOI.

Demystified, if the chair is a 'bound' one, only an Indian student can be admitted/ nominated to it. Politically speaking, that would make the most sense. The chair is likely to be in the public health area.

For a moment, I wondered where the endowment (running into several million dollars) would come from. Surely the Gandhi family can't officially fork out that kind of money. Then I realised there would be plenty of industrialists who'd gladly step forward and volunteer funds. Certainly they wouldn't let go of such a golden opportunity to get into Mrs G's good books!

Now don't get me wrong. I think Rajiv Gandhi was a young and fairly dynamic prime minister. He did what he could, given his inexperience. He paid the price for some of his mistakes.

What I find strange is this: the assertion by TOI that "former PM Rajiv Gandhi may soon have a presence inside Harvard... an institution with which the family has had a long association".

Pray, what association? The paper notes that "Rajiv Gandhi was not an alumnus of Harvard - he studied engineering at Cambridge - but he had his son, Rahul, admitted at Harvard in 1990".

Also, the former PM had spent three days on the campus in Boston during the process to enrol Rahul for a masters in economics. Earlier in 1987, he had delivered a talk attended by Harvard's dons on India and its democracy.

Perhaps that qualifies as a 'long association' in political circles.

Of course one does not need to justify instituting a chair at Harvard by any kind of association. The Gandhi-Nehru family was an Oxbridge educated one, like most of the elite during the British Raj. But today, it makes a lot more sense to ally with a university like Harvard in a country like America. Because it is a Harvard and not an Oxford or Cambridge which wields more influence on public policy and global academic thought.

Even the venerable Amartya Sen has shifted base from Cambridge to Harvard...

The value of 'education'
Another interesting point to note is that the TOI now tactfully refers to Rahul 'taking admission in Harvard'. This is a shift from the earlier description of Rahul as a 'Harvard graduate'. A point which was hotly refuted by many .

As was Rahul's claim to the EC of being an M Phil from Trinity College, Cambridge.

Secondly, even Rajiv is now described as 'having studied engineering at Cambridge', acknowledging that he did not actually graduate. Which is the actual fact.

Now I find this intriguing because the Gandhi-Nehru family history depicts in a sense the 'value of education' declining over generations.

Motilal Nehru
Born 1861, Motilal Nehru was born in Delhi, to a Kashmiri Brahmin family. He became one of the first generation of young Indians to receive Western-style college education. He attended Muir College at Agra, but failed to appear for the final year B.A examinations. He then enlisted as a vakil in the English courts... became a barrister and settled in the city of Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.

Motilal Nehru became a noted lawyer. Education combined with his own hunger to succeed brought him success - and wealth.

Jawaharlal Nehru Born 1889, Jawaharlal was educated in the finest Indian schools of the time, Nehru returned from education in England at Harrow, Trinity College, Cambridge and the Inner Temple to practice law before following his father into politics.

Jawaharlal was a man with a thirst for learning throughout his life. He was also a man of letters who wrote many excellent books including 'Discovery of India'.

Indira Gandhi
Born 1917. Indira attended prominent Indian, European and British schools like Santiniketan and Oxford, but her weak academic performance prevented her from obtaining a degree.

Looking at her life-history you get a feeling she had a troubled childhood (father in jail, mother ill). Mother Kamala Nehru passed away when she was just 17. So her lack of application to studies may have had more to do with other issues than actual lack of grey cells. She later proved to be an an extremely sharp woman - at an EQ level for sure but even on 'intelligence'. She was nobody's fool.

Rajiv Gandhi
Born 1944. He finished his high school education from The Doon School and attended college at the Imperial College London and Cambridge University (but did not receive a degree from either university).

He chose to become an airline pilot until brother Sanjay died and he was anointed the heir apparent.

Rahul Gandhi
Born 1970, Rahul went to St. Columba's School in New Delhi. He was later home-schooled for security reasons. Rahul entered St. Stephen's College but after a year he left for Harvard. His academic pursuits are shrouded in secrecy.

During the parliamentary elections in 2004, Gandhi said that he had received an MPhil in Development Economics from Cambridge University, but where he received his BA has never been disclosed.

The point I am trying to make?
Motilal used education to become a 'sahib' or equivalent of yuppie in British days. Law was the ladder to social mobility, just as IIT/ IIM is today.

Jawaharlal had the best of everything and could have comforrtably led the yuppie life as a lawyer himself. But he chose to join the freedom struggle instead.

Indira grew up at a time when the value of a British education was suspect. A time when the struggle against the Raj was reaching its peak.

Rajiv was born into a world where he was the Prime minister's grandson. Education cannot buy a higher status than that.

In both Indira and Rajiv's cases, there were no parents to nurture and nag them into studying hard and 'making a future'. For one, the parents were busy with their own problems. And secondly, the parents had already created a 'future' for the kids which did not really depend on having a certain level of education.

Finally, we come to Rahul. When you come from a family where your grandmother and father have both dropped out of college and still been successful you don't think of it as a 'failure'.

Besides, there are extenuating circumstances. I don't know what happened at Stephen's but w.r.t. Harvard let us acknowledge that he joined in Sept 1990 and his father was blown to bits in May 1991. I wouldn't blame him for dropping out - and even being unable to return.

What I would like, however, is that at some future date he come clean about his academic record. And also, whether or not he ever gets a single degree, that he strives to be an open-minded person with a thirst for knowledge and different points of view.

That his lack of formal education should not make him insecure. That he should build a team of people far better educated than him and use them to advise him on expert matters.

As Anatole France once put it: An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't.

If more politicians followed that rule we'd be a far more robust country!

'Come to Axeland'

There are a lot of hot and stinky people in the world, which is why deo sprays were invented.

India is a little behind on the deo curve - soap and talcum powder have long been the accepted weapons against B.O. (although in crowded Mumbai locals there is often little evidence even of those). But thanks to efforts by brands like Axe, Rexona and Fa, deo is now on the must-have list of a far larger number of people. And young people for sure.

Of these, Axe has created the most interesting advertising by far. Most ads in the toothpaste-shampoo-soap category have a similar theme: Use my product and attract/ impress the girl/ boy of your dreams. Axe goes a bit further by implying that using the product will actually help you get laid.

The reason it works is that the brand does not take itself too seriously. The execution of the ads is therefore crucial. Invariably Axe ads are amusing, yet somewhat sophisticated. And they are risque without being cheap. To pull that off consistently, over a period of time, is quite a feat!

The Axe 'hero' started out as a stud but over time has become more and more of a geek. However, since he's a firang model he'll always be higher on the geek pecking order than his desi counterparts.

The latest series of ads however depicts a bozo who scores an accidental goal which knocks him out on the ground. And yes, a dozen girls come running and fall flat on him as well.

Now it was one thing when the Axe man stood up in a pub and made some silly dance moves which the girls thought was a fundu dance and copied. That was kind of cheeky and kind of smart. But showing the Axe boy as a complete loser? It's amusing but I don't know how far you can stretch this. Make him an even bigger loser next time?

That's dangerous territory.

Meanwhile, the tagline has changed from the "Axe effect" to "Come to Axeland". I'm sure extensive and expensive market research must have concluded it was time for the brand to change from being 'outer directed' to 'inner directed'.

Or, the brand manager just woke up in the middle of the night with this great new line and went "Eureka". Then he woke up his entire ad agency and asked them to get to work straight away.

Creative vs clever
But seriously, if I had to be a brand manager in giant FMCG company in my next life I'd pray to work on a product like Axe. It's one of the few which strives to be fresh and creative.

In the case of the new campaign, a lot of creativity has gone into the website - I particularly liked this image of the island!

Also check out the Axeland 'subway' inspired by the London Undeground. A Brit designer has definitely worked on this. There is some amusing trivia under 'tourist info' such as 'On National White T shirt Day in Axeland, it's rained for the past 25 years.' But I'm afraid not all the humour is what you'd call subtle. Oh, not that come to Axeland is subtle either but take for example...

'National Costume' - "tight tops and not much else"
'National Flag' - "On independence day, panties wave proudly in the air"
'National Bird' - "The booby"

No, I'm not offended and I doubt Ms Brinda Karat or Ms Khushboo would take up cudgels for cartoon characters with blue hair on a website being projected as sex objects. But, you never can tell. The makers of Axe could well get into trouble for 'corrupting India's youth'. Which means a million more of them would go out and buy the blessed deo.

However I think soon enough we'll be back to the "Axe effect". Axeland is a clever idea but doesn't have as much appeal or stretchability. I could be wrong but that's my humble little prediction.

Localising a Global Brand

Indian adaptation of the 'Axe effect' taking off on the Gokulashtmi festival

Of course, even as it constantly attempts to 'push the envelope' the people who design ads for Axe do respect local cultural sentiments. It will be a long while before we see ads like the ones currently aimed at college students on spring break in America. One of which offers "rules of engagement" on co-ed showering.

And it will also be a long while before Indian women get to see something like this. reports that an ad for Alen's XtraPine cleanser features an 'online male-striptease video'.

The risque campaign stars a sexy young guy who turns up in an American housewife’s living room - and immediately volunteers to clean the house for her. The hunk strips off his shirt to use as a cleaning rag, and removes his pants when the fascinated housewife spills coffee on them.

In the TV version, the hunk keeps his pants on. In the Web version, he takes them off. This is apparently one of the popular 'viral' ads in America right now. Check their website - it's actually pretty cool.

A hunk in the house would be fantasy enough. A hunk who cares about housework? Now that's a fantasy you can live only through advertising!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

My final word on Placement, this year

So Sonia Gandhi has resigned from Parliament but life goes on for the rest of us. We're still grappling with mundane issues like "should I do an MBA" or not, and if I do will I really become a half-crorepati over night?

Yep I have written about it before but this is a more introspective look at the whole phenomenon. "Yeh aajkal ki IIM salaries" was the subject of my column published on yesterday. Pasted for your reading pleasure/ displeasure below.

Yes, I am taking a shortcut method to update my blog but sometimes there are so many things to write about but not the time or peace to do it... This is one of those times. Bear with me :)

Yeh aaj kal ki IIM salaries...
- Rashmi Bansal
March 22, 2006,

Politeness demands that one never ask a woman her age or a man his salary. Except in the month of March, when details of the number of zeros on paychecks of IIM grads becomes the stuff of dinner table conversation. And national debate.

Right after Barclays of London made a record offer of £ 105,000 to IIM Bangalore graduate Gaurav Agarwal, calculators were pulled out and another 'hail IIM' headline created. Rs 84 lakhs is a lot of money and the public is both fascinated and bewildered. What have these 20 somethings done to deserve this good fortune?

The media, which hypes these salaries in the first place, then decides it's time to introspect. 'Are IIM graduates worth their weight in gold?' asks NDTV. Seventy per cent of the viewers respond with a 'no.'

Of course, it does not really matter what the viewers think. Who is worth how much gold is really a question of demand and supply. As Amit Varma noted on India Uncut, the situation is quite like the media asking why certain authors are getting huge advances 'while so many writers starve in attics or Prithvi Theatre or wherever it's cool to hang out these days.'

He elaborates, 'What is the worth of a good or a service? Whatever a buyer is willing to pay for it. The publishers who pay big advances for a writer's book are doing so because, from a commercial point of view, they see value in it. They do it with their own money, not taxpayers' funds or something. If they've made a mistake, their bottomline will suffer for it. Similarly, the companies forking up these large amounts for these IIM grads clearly see value in the men and women they're hiring.'

I couldn't have expressed it better. The companies that hire these graduates think they are worth the price paid. If they are not, the 'going rate' will fall in the years to come. Or, recruiters will look elsewhere for talent!

Then and now
Value also depends on the time, place and circumstance. Today, an IIM grad is worth much more than he/ she was just a decade ago.

The class of 1993 -- which I was part of - would be hard-pressed to recall its average salary. Such statistics never received media attention back then.

The liberalisation process had just started, our senior batch was the first to be recruited by McKinsey. But the average Andy got a Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 salary in hand with shared accommodation, if lucky, and that was considered rather good!!

Things changed when:
a) Foreign recruiters, especially Wall Street, discovered the IIMs. They started offering salaries that sounded fantastic when dollars and pounds were converted into rupees.

b) As more students with prior work experience started joining the IIMs, it reflected in the salaries and positions being offered. This year's 'top dog' at IIM-Ahmedabad is an IPS officer of the 1988 batch who is joining the RPG group as a CEO, at a compensation of Rs 34 lakhs.

Similarly, Gaurav 'Rs 84 lakhs' Agarwal, is 29 and has an IIT degree, an MS from Berkeley and two years of work experience in the US.

Given that the average starting salary for MBAs on Wall Street is $ 100,000 and expected to rise to $300,000 in five years, his $ 193,000 is justified by his past profile. And his future value to the company.

Let's face it. Management pays more than many other professions because it is seen to create wealth. And, within management, investment banking pays a hell of a lot more than marketing or HR because of its extremely direct linkage with money.

If an MBA like Gaurav is great at creating complex financial models (which is what whizkids like him are hired for), he can earn his firm millions of dollars. His efforts can be quantified -- to an almost exact degree -- in terms of additional dollars and cents earned for the firm. That's not the case in every profession.

Say, a journalist writes a great article. It's unlikely that his or her actions result in extra sales of 20,000 copies. And even if that happens, attributing success to a particular individual is not all black or white. The marketing department may say they ran a special promotion, distribution may say they pushed it on the news stands.

Of course, over a period of time, great journalists will acquire a reputation and command a price. But journalists as a whole will always be paid far less than investment bankers.

Due to this, a lot of folks who might have made great journalists end up as Vice Presidents of Blah somewhere. But that's the individual's call. If you don't believe you have it in you to be 'outstanding', you prefer to stick where the averages look better.

Hopefully, you retire by 40 and start painting and discovering your inner child. Or, you get hair weaving.

All rise
And while we're discussing the 'obscene' paypackets to a few IIM grads, it's important to note the cascading effect these packages have had on salaries in general. Average salaries this year have moved up from the Rs 5-7 lakh range to the Rs 7-9 lakh range in the top tier of B-schools. At IIM-A and C the average has almost touched 10!

Indian companies in particular have become more generous - at NMIMS this year, the biggest recruiter was the Kotak group and it gave a 30% raise in packages. Marico not only hiked salaries but ran an entire image-building campaign to convince B-school grads that it was a company with 'uncommon sense'. A shift mere pre-placement talks to the era of pre-placement television!

But while placements have been rocking, the process itself remains extremely stressful - because everyone can't get placed on Day 0 or does not wish to. An IIM student who is keen on a marketing job - the kind which does not offer headline-grabbing salaries - writes in his blog:

'At the end of the first day of placements, a television channel van came over to the campus. Those guys filmed the students with perfectly formed teeth and high grades and glorious job offers in London and Hong Kong and telecast it to homes around the nation, including my aunt's in Indore and another aunt's in Patiala. So aunts and uncles who talked to me sometime when Jesus Christ was still a kid are calling me up and deeply regretting the fact that I am jobless in spite of being at IIM.'

In fact, the chap had applied to 40 companies - 34 of which were still to visit campus at the time he wrote that lament. A couple of days later, he got a job with one of India's most respected marketing companies, but at a rupee salary. Aunts and uncles in Patiala and Indore will still be asking, "Bas, itna hi (That's it? Only so much)?"

Keeping up with the Jainses
The entire hullabaloo can be summed up in a single sentence: satisfaction with how much you earn is always relative to what your neighbour earns.

Graduate students of public health at Harvard University were asked: 'Which world would you prefer (prices remaining the same)? You get $50,000 a year and others get half that. You get $ 1,00,000 a year and others get double of that.'

A majority of people preferred the first scenario where they were relatively 'poorer' but better off than their peers.

That is why hearing about these tall salaries makes the aam junta uncomfortable. It does not matter how well you are doing, when someone is doing a lot better than you.

But then, life is a marathon. Many of us believe money isn't everything. But even if you decide to make money your number one goal, there's no telling who will actually race ahead of whom at which point in life.

Recently, I read in the papers about a batchmate who is getting a Rs 1 crore salary. He did not start his career with a high profile consultancy, foreign bank or HLL (which in its time was as sought after a job at IIMs as Lehman Brothers is today).

And yet, because he has five years of experience in a sector that is currently booming, he is extremely valuable. So much so that when a rival tried to 'steal him away', his current employer practically doubled his salary without batting an eyelid.

And oh, statistics are not against the Underdog either. A recent issue of Businessweek magazine asks the question: 'Is the MBA overrated?' The magazine studied the five highest-paid executives at each of the S & P 100 companies in 2004 and found that only one out of three had an MBA. Of the MBAs, only half went to top 10 ranked B-schools.

To sum up, an elite MBA is like membership of an exclusive golf club. It may, however, be the caddy who ultimately becomes a world champion.

And this just came in...
A report in says "MBAs may be a marketing liability"...

The study used scanner and panel data from VNU’s ACNielsen to show marketers from companies with significant market-share gains are far less likely to have M.B.A.s than those from companies posting significant share losses.

The M.B.A. factor wasn’t the only difference, but it was perhaps the most striking one between winners and losers among the companies, which included General Mills, Kraft Foods, Nestle, Pfizer, Clorox Co., Reckitt Benckiser, Energizer, Alberto Culver Co., Hasbro, Cadbury Schweppes, Kodak and Dunkin’ Donuts.

Hmm. Wonder whether that holds true for India as well. Someone should conduct a study, 'cause literally thousands of MBAs are joining the marketing arm of companies in finance, insurance, retail. But ultimately they are the foot soldiers who execute the strategy crafted by the 'brand managers' and 'marketing managers' who are usually from the elite MBA schools.

Of course, with time more and more of these MBAs are gravitating to other functions. At IIM B only 15% of the batch was placed in marketing. Whereas investment banking attracted 26% of the students and finance 16%.

Speaking of which, here's something I wrote for Businessworld on Why Investment Bankers Get Paid So Much. As this post is already too long, here's the link (you can access it free after registering, if based in India).

And yeah, if you're going to leave messages about 'why do you write about IIMs so much' what I'd like to know is - why have you been reading so far??

Monday, March 20, 2006

Brokeback boredom

Two blokes have a boring job eating baked beans and tending sheep on top of a mountain. One is strong and silent, the other dandy. On a particularly cold night the two find themselves in the same tent. Stuff happens.

My question is:
a) Do the two cowboys become gay because of lack of entertainment options? This is similar to the question that came to my mind after watching Deepa Mehta's Fire. Do people become lesbians because they have sick and abusive husbands??

This would imply that being gay is not pure biological disposition but also a matter of choices made under circumstances. That stuck on a mountain, far from society's prying eyes and with no other human company anyone might indulge in a same sex physical affair.

b) The fact that the affair continues long after means the cowboys weren't gay by accident but inherently so. At several points in the film Jack (Jake Gyllenhall) implies that he and Ennis (Heath Ledger) could have had a great life together on a ranch somewhere. Instead of meeting just a couple of times a year and making do with some 'high altitude f****.

A large body of research has shown that - with heterosexuals - the hormones which produce the 'high of love' last only 18-24 months. And that is why many humans flit from partner to partner in search of that initial feeling.

Why would it be any different for a gay couple? Here, the fact that Jack and Ennis see so little of each other might be the thing keeping their passion alive. If they were to actually live together, might not things change and sour - like in the regular man and wife relationship?

Also it's not clear what the relationship is about - besides sex. Given that men and women are always moaning that 'we are so different and don't understand each other', does that problem get solved with same sex couples?

Anyhow, I am no expert on this subject. But I don't agree with the experts who've put Brokeback Mountain on a pedestal. It a strictly ok movie.

The first half an hour almost put me to sleep. The two men mumble some dialogue on screen which you have to strain hard to hear (yaar subtitles hi daal dete!). Things improve a bit as more characters enter.

The predicament of Ennis' wife is particularly hard hitting. She realises pretty early on that her husband is not catching any fish on his fishing trips with Jack Twist. The scene where she confronts him - years`later - is one of the best in the film.

So, Ang Lee got the Oscar for best director. I guess he deserves it just for being to portray a subject like this without inducing puke from the audience. Showing two men kissing in an 'artistic' manner does take a high level of artistry

Apparently, after the release of the film a number of 'brokeback marriages' have come to light. A New York Times article notes that an estimated 1.7 million to 3.4 million American women were once or are now married to men who have sex with men.

Which is why I think the film touched a chord in that country. I am sure there are similar cases in India - but not at that scale. Yet.

So go watch the film just to see what the fuss is all about. And for the beauty of Brokeback - not the metaphor but the mountain itself. The old nature vs nurture debate takes on a whole new 'meaning' (the spectacular scenery which might put anyone 'in the mood' :)

Naturally, what's shown on screen is making many people - men, especially - squirm in their seats. But are they all getting grossed out by two men making out, or are some feeling uncomfortable because they're NOT feeling as grossed out as they think
they should?

In the United States during the 2004 elections, exit polls indicated 4% of all voters self-identified as gay or lesbian. Plus, you have bisexuals. If human beings really are 'similar', if homosexuality is not a cultural thing that means we have a large, large number of people here who are either not aware of being thus inclined or not acknowledging it.

And that, may be the real genius of Brokeback Mountain.

Update: Rituparno Ghosh, on Brokeback

As I skimmed through Mumbai Mirror this morning I realised film maker Rituparno Ghosh and I had pretty much the same reaction after watching Brokeback Mountain! He didn't like it at all...

He commented: "The director was apologetic about his protagonists' mutual attraction. The idea seems to be, ‘Look they aren't gay. But when two heterosexual males are thrown together in solitude, love may happen’. I found it contrived".

Yehi to mera point tha! The central relationship between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllanhall did not work for Ghosh.

"The ambience was too pretty and it took away from the central relationship. Given a choice between the shots of nature and the human bonding, I preferred the former... Sanjay Suri and Purab Kohli in My Brother Nikhil were able to convey so much more without physical intimacy".

So it's not about being pro or anti gay. Sometimes a movie doesn't work for you. And this was one such time for both me, the Saturday night moviegoer and Ghosh - a seasoned director.

My other observation about the attraction remaining strong because they meet so rarely also applies to heterosexual couples. Often, illicit affairs give that kind of high - simply because two people don't spend quantity time and discover the bad side of each other. And the 'forbidden fruit' is always exciting!

Friday, March 17, 2006

Indian Idol 2: Please watch our antics

History repeats itself, so why not reality shows... After drama, controversy and walkouts spiced up viewer interest in 'Sa re ga ma pa', Indian Idol 2 had no choice but to follow.

Ameya Date, one of the guys expected to make it to the finals was voted out earlier this week. And his 'fans' protested loudly both on the show and off it. Once again, questions arise about the sms voting process. Here's what I wrote about it in my column on

Indian Idol's voting process is not designed to eliminate the 'worst' singer. Instead, viewers are asked to send in votes for their favourite singer - like in a popularity contest.

You might say it's one and the same thing - that the person with the least number of votes is eliminated and that's fair. But think about it more closely and you'll see that the 'elimination' approach may well produce a very different result.

The 'popularity' method often attracts people to vote for all the wrong reasons. As in the case of 'Sa re ga ma pa', it could be a case of regional/ home state voting. Or just a case of people getting obsessed with a particular personality whom they will support regardless of the quality of his/ her singing - as happened with Qazi on Fame Gurukul.

And it's not a problem peculiar to India alone. Commenting on the voting pattern on American Idol on MSNBC, Linda Holmes writes,"People don't really care about the performances week to week. They treat "Idol" like a horse race. Pick your horse, bet on your horse, cheer for your horse. And, in some cases, carry your horse across the finish line. Above all, tolerate no suggestion that your horse has shortcomings.

He acted like a jerk? He's misunderstood! He sang badly? He has a cold! He has irritating, cloying, obnoxious mannerisms? That's what you love about him! No one understands him! Everyone is jealous of him!"

She goes on to observe that people love geeks, underdogs, losers. And they love everyone who is picked on by Simon Cowell.

Well, we saw that kind of thing happen here as well with Ravinder Ravi - the painter from Ludhiana - getting votes week after week in Indian Idol 1, despite his atrocious singing. Conversely the people who are perceived as 'smart' and 'good singers' often don't get votes because:

a) The average not-so-smart and talented bloke who comprises the mass of voters does not identify with that person
b) The rest think woh to itna accha hai, usey meri vote ki zaroorat nahin. With the result that a deserving singer loses out!

Of course this format suits the makers of the show. Had they asked viewers to vote out the worst singer they would have gotten far fewer smses. There's more passion - and revenue potential - in supporting your favourite!

The other interesting phenomenon in the Indian context is that women don't seem to fare too well in reality shows. Again, from the sify column:

Indian Idol host Mini Mathur hit the nail on the head when she wrote in the Indian Express, “While a male contestant is judged on his vocal talent and the 'X' factor, for a girl, the audience will also note whether she's wearing too much or too little, got attitude, if her hair is too straight, or whether her eyebrows are plucked."

The girls certainly think appearance can make or break their chances. In the previous Idol season, when Prajakta and Aditi wore Western outfits they emerged at the bottom of the pile. Apparently from then on, they stuck to Indian clothes....

In fact, after Idol contestant Meenal's performance Farah Khan observed: "Because she's good looking and sang a song that's unusual and sexy, she probably won't make it." And she was right! At the semi-final contestant stage, Idol 2 turned into an all-male contest.

Venkat Iyer wrote in with an interesting theory on that front...

I wanted to share my observation with you on why female participants are not getting the kind of votes that males get despite being equally talented. I think Indian TV shows such as Indian Idol are watched by many more females than males. That directly translates to a greater female vote bank that votes on these shows.

Guess who the females are attracted to? The males. I feel more convinced about this especially after reading that female participants got fewer votes when the wore western attire. If men were voting, the result would have been different.

I'm sure gender-wise viewership data is available... Shall certainly try and lay my hands on it.

As for Indian Idol 2, I think all this is too little, too late. Better luck next time, Sony!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Backpacking, Indian style

I've heard of firang backpackers selling their Lonely Planets on their way out of India. Some, even as they're down to their last penny. But here's a first on a new species - the 'Indian backpacker'.

According to a report in the Hindustan Times, the 'great Indian backpacker brigade' is slowly making its presence felt in the UK. "The modus operandi is short term working holidays and student visas. Travellers stay at youth hostels and student hostels." But here's the interesting bit, from a source in the travel industry.

"They eat at Bangladeshi restaurants and Gurudwara kitchens and carry small amounts of medicine and expensive sarees from India which are sold in the UK to finance their stay."

Apparently sarees are all the rage in the US and UK. As curtains.

My mom has a cupboard full of 'expensive sarees' which have not seen the light of day for, maybe, 20 years. Anyone who's used the 'selling sarees' strategy to fund a UK trip - please do share the modus operandi!

On an unrelated note I'm not sure how many Indian backpackers carry only a backpack on their trips. It's a little against the Indian tradition of carrying every-possible-item-I-might-ever-need on a foreign trip. Because wahan mehenga hai. Ya phir milega nahin.

Please - share your thoughts and experiences!

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Eyeball-popping $ 193,000 salary

IIM Bangalore's Gaurav Agarwal just made history with the 'highest ever' salary for for an Indian b school graduate. His $193,000 (105,000 pound) job with Barclays in London featured prominently on every channel and in every newspaper. The funny thing, though, is this is not exactly 'breaking news'.

What Gaurav received was a Pre Placement Offer or PPO after a summer stint with the company. IIMB tried to keep it under wraps but the info leaked out long ago. Way back in October 2005 this is what I wrote about it in Businessworld's B school special issue

Placement is months away, but some lucky rats have already crossed the finish line. Ten international PPOs (pre-placement offers) have been bagged by students at IIM Bangalore. The average salary: over $100,000 p.a.

But the toast of the town right now is Gaurav Agarwal, a second-year student who has got the 'highest-ever offer' of £105,000 p.a. That's $193,000, or Rs 84 lakh, and beats the previous year's IIM headline salary of $152,000 (IIM-A's Ravi Singhvi, HSBC London) by a comfortable margin.

The stuff I wrote last year about
a) These guys not being fresh faced 22 year olds
b) Issues like Purchasing Power Parity, Cost to Company etc
All still holds true. So I'm not going to repeat it.

What I find interesting is that while soaring salaries make people go ooh and aah every March, the real action is now happening not at final placement but summer placement itself. Which takes place barely 3-4 months after you join campus.

The practice has always existed - HLL, P & G, Citi used to be the sought after PPOs. But with investment banks coming in and recruiting for summers abroad, the stakes just went that much higher. As one IIM A student puts it:

As far as the students are concerned, a summer internship in an i-bank means bypassing one and half years of hard-core, maddening competition to secure an i-banking career abroad. It's a short cut.

This is standard operating procedure. At Wharton, summer internships are jokingly called 'ten week interviews'.

All's fair in love and...
There are, however, murmurs about the selection process...

When the final placements happen, companies have an important number to base their selections on - the CGPA. But when the recruitments for summers happen, the number's not known yet, or the time period is too short for someone to be judged purely by the CGPA. In such a situation, various factors play a role in deciding a candidate's suitability for the job, one of which is the student's past profile.

Another student says,"Sex, past academic performance, and past institute reputation is what I banks look at."

To put it bluntly, IITians and women are believed to have an unfair advantage when it comes to I banking summers in London and New York.

The simple mathematics of it is that if an I bank decided to pick up equal numbers of male and female trainees, the women have to face less 'competition' because there are far fewer of them in the batch to begin with.

The 'feeling' however is that girl are less deserving... The irony is that, at least in India, women have truly made a mark as I bankers! (think HSBC's Naina Lal Kidwai, J P Morgan's Vedika Bhandarkar, the ICICI women)

If you ask me, the entire process is anyways quite screwed. As one IIMB student describes it

Before being placed, I had to sit for GDs after GDs and interviews after interviews and companies passing rude comments "How is your work experience valid in our firm?" I was ushered in from one interview hall to another by volunteers enough to the extent that I sometimes had to strain myself to remember which company's interview i was sitting in.

In fact on one ocassion, a friend of mine forgot which company's interview he was in - he still managed to give those arbit globe answers and guess what! the company recruited him. I was god damn relieved to be out of the cruel process but atleast felt elated to have got a US placement.

A worldwide phenomenon
Incidentally, I have reviewed a book called the 'Running of the Bulls: inside the cutthroat race from Wharton to Wall Street' in the latest issue of Businessworld

The book focuses on students of the undergrad business program, which is extremely competitive. But change the names, locations and a few other specifics the attitude and mindset is the same - on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The idea of investment banking, not necessarily what investment banking is, but rather the idea of it, was sexy. It created delusions of grandeur of being a multi-millionaire in your twenties in even the most mild-mannered of students."

Chapters with titles like ‘Goldman or bust’ and ‘Battle of the Bulge Brackets’ would surely find resonance on IIM campuses. And the bit about 20 year olds magically discovering a 'passion' for finance soon after joining Wharton. There are also amusing details of students trying hard to impress the i-banker VPs who descend on their campus for Pre Placement Talks or PPTs.

Of course in India I haven't yet heard of information or woo-the-student sessions held at fancy restaurants over wine and cheese. But I'm told pizzas are now a standard fixture post-PPT and ensure a decent attendance.

The Wharton undergrads join as analysts at $45-55,000 salaries. After a few years they go back for MBAs and many rejoin the i-banks as associates at $100,000-120,000 salaries (the profile now also being offered to IIM grads).

Not all associates manage to claw their way up the ranks to the million dollar bonus positions. Many burn out, given the 80-100 hour work weeks.

But it works for many, and for the rest - there are always exit options. Right now, things have never been better for those angling for an i-bank/ overseas posting.

27% of IIM A's first year batch of 249 has been placed abroad while at IIM Bangalore the number of international offers is 41, twice the number last year.

Here's a fun read for that long haul flight.

Footnote: Shortly after I wrote this I was invited by NDTV to be on their 'India 60' show focussing on IIM salaries. Framing the question as 'Are IIM graduates worth their weight in gold' was a bit sensationalist I thought. But hey, I guess that's what TV is all about...

Have now had the unque experience of being on television 3 times in one week. The MTV CNBC Budget Fundas show was the most fun, besides the folks there were kind enough to make me look more presentable by doing my make up :)

Secondly, being physically present with the host/ anchor makes things a lot easier. The joys of speaking into a camera with a earpiece connected to New Delhi are highly overrated!

Anyhow, thanks to all this I have finally gotten over 'idiot box fright'. But any more appearances and I'll be competing with Mahesh Bhatt... ! Frightening thought.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

PETA goes dishoom

I may not agree with everything they say, but I do admire the way in which they say it. PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - are probably the most PR savvy activist group on the planet.

They have a fairly constant message - be kind to animals, don't eat them or wear them - but they find a way to put across that message in a compelling manner. Time after time after time.

Sure, part of it is smart use of page 3 people. Aditi Govitrikar dressed in lettuce leaves, John Abraham bare chested - but practically every communication the send out is eye-catching and interesting enough to get printed, especially in daily papers with supplements to fill up.

Even their non-celebrity communication is imaginatively done. Here's a still from their current international campaign about 'KFC torturing chicks'. Instead of showing dead chickens (killed, PETA says, by inhumane methods such as live scalding, life-long crippling, and painful debeaking), the campaign features a human chick braving the bitter cold to stand up for her non-human counterpart.

"Volunteer activists have been battling freezing temperatures and extreme weather wearing nothing more than yellow bikinis and earmuffs to proclaim, "KFC Tortures Chicks," in front of KFC restaurants across North America."

No, you won't be seeing bikini clad women outside KFC stores in India... Instead PETA India came up with a "Cupid chicken" who stood in front of KFC restaurants before Valentine's day carrying a sign saying, "Have a Heart for Chickens, Boycott KFC!"

What's more PETA is always quick to grab on to any topical opportunity. Check out this amazing Cheney inspired t shirt!

PETA on the web
It goes without saying that PETA is extremely net-savvy. The mother site is a repository of information, but again not dull or boring at all. They have features, videos, factsheets, all the ad campaigns, a media centre and even shopping.

But here's the fun part - PETA has dozens of websites devoted to different causes. Such as, and

That would explain why PETA India, which has a pretty cool website already, would launch a second site. This one is called and aimed at the youth. Yup, the issues are the same but it's much funkier in terms of both design and content. PETAdishoom has contests, and sections like Fashion, Foodie and Campus which give gyaan on how to live a cruelty free life. And it's all really well written and interestingly showcased.

But like I said at the very beginning, I don't agree with all that they espouse. The 'Vegan' way of life, to be specific.

I have been a vegetarian all my life. Yes, I was born into vegetarianism but chose to stay that way. And I am bringing my daughter up as a vegetarian - though she is free to change her mind at a later date.

In India, being a vegetarian comes naturally and easily. You don't feel 'deprived', because there are plenty of wonderful veg things to eat. And it's no big deal because it's so common - you don't stand out as someone who's made a deliberate ideological choice.

Like many vegetarians I do eat egg, but not on an everyday basis. In fact, if someone asked me to give up egg altogether I would not mind. Of late, I am in fact quite unenthused by omlettes. To be honest, I find they 'smell'.

But milk? Cheese and butter and paneer? I can't imagine life without ALL of those things. The life that PETA wants a true vegetarian to live. The idea of going 'vegan' is so alien it sounds like living on another planet (Vegan distinctly reminds me of Dr Spock on Star Trek!)

Of course PETA runs a complete website on how to live life dairy-free. And on PETAdishoom they even list things you can buy in India which are 'vegan' .

You can even eat out. Like at Smokin Joes , says PETA: Try any veg pizza without paneer and cheese.

Aaaaaaaargh! I'm afraid I shall remain meat free but milk-friendly for the near future.

PETA India says "milk in India has also been found adulterated with gross things like earthworms and urea". But the thing is every fruit and vegetable in this country has some grossness attached to its existence....

And who's to say who's 'right'? TheJains go so far as not eating root vegetables like onions and potatoes ostensibly because it might kill tiny living creatures. But they never had a problem with milk.

That's because in the past Indians did revere the cow. Today it is the butt of jokes - the whole 'do not kill the cow, let her wander on the road' thing. But there was a time when every household had a cow, she was worshipped by Hindus as 'gomata'.

The first rotis from the kitchen were 'gai ki roti' - I remember my grandmother would give them to us kids to feed to any passing cow. Um, not in Bombay this was in my native place, of course.

So the deal was we treated the cow well and she gave us milk in return. No exploitation, a mutually beneficial relationship.

No doubt modern dairies do not follow those practices. But can't we look at more humane milk - rather than give up milk altogether?

Tofu butter masala? Soya milk rabdi?? Kuch hazam nahin hua.

But it has worked...
One final point about the 'effectiveness' of PETA. Sometimes, given the mileage they get, one is tempted to dismiss it as a mere publicity mongering outfit. Or an organisation which is attempting to create education and awareness. Which in itself is a good objective but PETA has achieved far more.

Internationally, PETA's efforts have led to some historic breakthroughs, esp regarding use of animals for testing cosmetics and in scientific labs.

"PETA’s animal protection work brings together members of the scientific, judicial, and legislative communities to halt abusive practices. Such cases, aided by thorough investigative work, congressional involvement, consumer boycotts, and international media coverage, frequently result in long-term changes that improve the quality of life for, and prevent the deaths of, thousands of animals".

The organisation is yet young in India and may not have really managed to impact policy. As regards the ban on performing animals at circuses, for example, I am unsure how much credit goes to PETA and how much to our animal-loving aunty Maneka Gandhi.

Take corporates. Note not a single Indian cosmetic company is listed as 'animal-friendly' or cruelty-free on the PETA Dishoomwebsite.

But I guess the only way to change that is to get consumers to demand cruelty-free products. And targetting the youth is the smart thing to do. They are, after all, the ones who are more likely to passionately espouse such a cause.

PETA, being an activist group, do tend to become overzealous at times. But as long as they don't come across as cranks - it's OK. People will get sensitised, pick and choose how cruelty-free they wish to be. And hopefully, even that change in behaviour and lifestyle will have a considerable impact.

Of course, in this country we also have a long way to go as regards the ethical treatment of human beings... But that, is another cause, a whole different story!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Blog everywhere?

Will there be 500-600 million blogs in a few years time? Sabeer Bhatia thinks so and has launched a toolbar application called 'Blogeverywhere' to make that a reality.

I tried downloading the program yesterday afternoon at the office and failed. Tried from home last night and failed. Finally, I did manage to download the file but the toolbar does not show up on my desktop.

Shayad mera bad luck hi kharab hai, so I can't offer a user experience. But based on what the site itself offers as a description it sounds more like 'comments everywhere'.

A potentially powerful idea but I think equating the writing of comments with writing a blog is misplaced. It's clever marketing, since the term 'blog' has come to stand for the unfettered expression of opinion. But blogging is not something that you do only as a reaction to what other people write!

A blog is a medium which can and does bring up issues completely ignored by the mainstream press. As well as foster creativity and original writing.

It can and is being used as a medium for people with certain points of view or causes to express themselves. Take this page started in support of Jessica Lal, or this one by striking doctors.

And a blog - taken in totality, over a period of time, has a unique voice and personality. That of its writer. Comments scattered on a hundred websites do not.

So like I said, enabling surfers to comment on every web page that exists could work... but it's adding to the confusion about what blogging is about in the first place.

That is, assuming people even know what a blog is...

When I told my mom I was invited on CNN IBN's 'Face the Nation' last night to discuss 'Should blogs be banned' she was puzzled. "What do you know about dogs?"

Um, not dogs mom - blogs! Yep 98% of India is still unaware of what a blog is and so is a large part of America - the world's top blogging nation.

A scant 9 percent of users read blogs frequently, with 11 percent reading them occasionally. Out of the thirteen activities Gallup measured in its poll, reading blogs finished dead last. Email rated first, followed by checking news and weather, shopping, and planning for travel.

Although as the Chicago Tribune reported:

"[M]any bloggers will argue that the influence of blogs is immeasurably greater than their readership statistics would suggest," Gallup says, "because of the disproportionate influence they have on opinion leaders, political insiders and modern news media."

Secondly, the 'whole 28 million blogs in the world' statistic. Or 29 million, or whatever.

Well, first of all, we need to discount the huge numbers of blogs which are created but never updated. Here are some interesting statistics from the popular blogging site
- The number of blogs which are 'active in some way' is just 20% of the total.
- Those updated in the last 30 days number just 13%.

Now let's look at readership.
As Trevor Butterworth pointed out in an insightful FT article, the number of blogs with a significant number of readers every day is barely 1000.

According to the monitoring done by, only two blogs get more than 1 million visitors a day and the numbers drop quickly after that: the 10th ranked blog for traffic gets around 120,000 visits; the 50th around 28,000; the 100th around 9,700; the 500th only 1,400 and the 1000th under 600.

By contrast, the online edition of The New York Times had an average of 1.7 million visitors per weekday last November, according to the Nielsen ratings, and the physical paper a reach of 5 million people per weekday, according to Scarborough research

So the answer to Rajdeep's question - are blogs the 'new media'? Will they replace the traditional media?? Nope, he won't be out of a job anytime soon and neither will I.

The FT article makes another interesting observation:

The dismal traffic numbers also point to another little trade secret of the blogosphere, and one missed by Judge Posner and all the other blog-evangelists when they extol the idea that blogging allows thousands of Tom Paines to bloom.

As Ana Marie Cox says: “When people talk about the liberation of the armchair pajamas media, they tend to turn a blind eye to the fact that the voices with the loudest volume in the blogosphere definitely belong to people who have experience writing. They don’t have to be experienced journalists necessarily, but they write - part of their professional life is to communicate clearly in written words.”

Blogging takes time, energy and talent - all three have to come together and hence, although the entry barrier to starting a blog may be low the barriers to sustaining a blog and a sizable audience remain very high!

So a majority of blogs actually cater to 'nano audiences'

What is below the water line are the literally millions of blogs that are rarely pointed to by others, since they are only of interest to the family, friends, fellow students and co-workers of their teenage and 20-something bloggers. Think of them as blogs for nanoaudiences.

Nanoaudiences are the logical outcome of continued growth in blogs... in practice many blogs have no more than two dozen readers.

Now this, I think, is where the 'problem' really lies. The bloggers who build 'brands' and sizable readership are generally going to use their power in a responsible manner. But when a frustrated or smart alec individual decides to use a blog in a corporate environment - that can become a serious and prickly matter.

One of the reasons CNN IBN put this relatively geeky issue on prime time TV seems to be to send a strong internal message.

A blog called the 'War for News' has been critically evaluating the 3 English news channels - CNN IBN, NDTV and Times Now. It started with discussions on the shows themselves, then moved to the anchors and reporters (also fair game - as long as it was about their professional competence).

But over time the War for News has turned into a forum to exchange gossip on the personal lives of TV journalists.

War for News is inspired by the now-defunct Mediaah - but it can never reach those standards because of its anonymous nature and the fact that it allows anonymous comments (far more damaging and vitriolic than the writing on the blog itself).

This is an issue many companies will have to deal with - especially media companies (remember the FT observation about journalists making up some of the most lucid bloggers ...). I have had a taste of this bitter brew myself.

As the boss you know there are always going to be a few people who have issues with you. They bitch behind your back. But seeing stuff written about you on a website really really hurts. If the blog is anonymous it's worse because you start getting paranoid about who the malcontent might be...

And no, the answer is not to 'start another blog in retaliation'. As the boss you cannot dignify the original blog with an official response.

Ironically, IBN is the first Indian media company to start 'official' blogs - which is a good idea because it allows journalists an outlet for their creativity. The fact that journalists discuss issues they feel strongly about or what happens behind the scenes makes them more human and accessible to the viewers and ultimately, I think, builds the brand.

But there are those in the organisation who'd rather be snipers in this proxy 'war'...

And yet, I don't think blogs - or the internet in general - can be or should be censored.

It's the old question of the 'negative' side effects of technology and the answer is the benefits of blogging far outweigh the few rogues and screwballs out there (although not all of 'em see themselves that way!).

And please, do not bring up the IIPM issue in the same breath as 'are bloggers accountable'. I am tired of repeating it but the IIPM story started as an investigation by JAM magazine which took us 2 months to complete. Keeping all the rules and procedures of responsible journalism in mind.

Yes, the fact that bloggers linked to it and endorsed our findings added fuel to the fire and resulted in threats of lawsuits.

But the latest IIPM ads stand testimony to the truth in what we reported. Each and every point we raised about the misleading nature of their advertising has been removed from the copy!

One last question:Wouldn't it make more sense to launch an application called 'blogeverywhere' in the US where the audience reading and writing a blog - and sheer number of people consuming content online - is far far greater?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Art of 'CP'

Most of us get by through school and sleep through college without opening our mouths in the classroom. But as you inch closer to graduation, start applying for an MBA or go for job interviews you discover the need for a whole new skill. The skill of holding forth in 'group discussions'.

The fear of opening your mouth in public and saying something 'stupid' or saying nothing at all is so high that it has spawned a whole new industry. Yes, there are loads of coaching classes now which hold mock GDs where people can practice shouting each other down, making sure they speak 'enough' but not too much, get noticed but not for the wrong reasons etc etc.

Now in case of an MBA your tryst with 'group discussion' does not end after getting admission. The next two years are spent in a few hundred more. At institutes where the 'case study method' is favoured, students become acquainted with a new term - class participation or 'CP'.

Some of the institutes helpfully provide name tags on desks so that profs can actually call you out by name and bark,"So Ms so and so - what do you think?" But in practice, it doesn't happen that often. Because the day is usually saved by folks who specialise in 'arbit CP'.

These are the handful of souls who have an opinion to offer on any and every subject. While a few, very few have a point to make, most speak for the sake of speaking. Hence the term 'arbit CP'.

Every class has its kings and queens of arbit CP. Ours was awarded the title 'Bubka' (after the erstwhile Soviet athelete who broke new records every time he jumped)

All this comes in handy at the time of summer and final placement interviews when most companies once again hold GDs.

Then, you join a company and what do you find? You still need CP. Every time a meeting involving more than 4 people is held you need to make a point every 12.5 minutes or so, just so the Boss knows you are a valuable resource to the company, especially when awake.

A few years down the line, you are now VP-sales and guess what, CP is more crucial than ever. You will be invited to 'conclaves' along with 6 other VPs where you will all discuss the changing face of the Indian consumer in class C, D and E towns with special reference to their milk boiling and wife swapping habits.

What's more, some of these debates and discussions are now televised. In fact there is a whole new genre of programming which can be called 'CP television'. This consists of getting 4 or 5 or 6 people with real or imagined expertise on a subject to get together and yak about it in a studio.

When that gets boring, occasionally, the venue shifts to a heritage building.

'CP television' can be interesting - or deadly dull - depending on the subject, the experts and the audience. If the moderator lets things go out of hand it can resemble a 'fish market' - like the average b school entrance GD. At other times, the discussion is as cold and dead as the fish on sale at that market...

And the reason I am inspired to write all this? My own recent tryst with yak-yak-television - as a panelist on the MTV-CNBC Budget Fundas 2006 show.

Overall, it was an interesting experience and I learnt many things. Including the fact that I still have a long way to go before I master the art of speaking on 'CP television'.

Friday, March 03, 2006

AICTE: Waking up from 61 years of slumber

May a million flowers bloom, said Chairman Mao. And one day, on a whim, he went and razed the garden.

In India, flowers and gardens remain scarce but a million other things bloom. Illegal construction. Unregulated educational institutions. Until one fine day, someone wakes up and commands, "Hatao!"

But this is not China, so people take to the streets in protest. Like the students of Satyabhama engineering college and SRM Institute of Science and Technology - both deemed universities. Hundreds of students of these colleges held demonstrations demanding to know the status and validity of their degrees.

This follows a notice from AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education) which apparently states that B.Tech degrees awarded by deemed universities would not be recognised, unless the courses were approved by the council

Students of the Dr MGR Deemed University and Bharat Engineering College had gone on strike for four days on the same issue, a few days ago.

The colleges are battling it out in court, and say that since they have UGC approval they do not come under the purview of AICTE.

What took so long?
The sad part is, in all these ‘technical’ discussions of eligibility and approval, the fate of thousands of students who took admission in good faith hangs in balance.

We do need a regulatory body but clearly, AICTE is like an old and toothless ayah running around and shouting, “Children, don’t be naughty.” What else can one say about a regulatory body which, Kumbhakaran-like, awakes from its stupor once every 5 decades or so?

Did you know that All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) was first set-up in November 1945??!!! Yup, that’s what it says on their website and honestly it was news to me.

AICTE was meant to be: "a national level Apex Advisory Body to conduct survey on the facilities on technical education and to promote development in the country in a coordinated and integrated manner."

But something, somewhere went awry. So…

The Government of India (Ministry of Human Resource Development) constituted a National Working Group to look into the role of AICTE in the context of proliferation of technical institutions, maintenance of standards and other related matters. The Working Group recommended that AICTE be vested with the necessary statutory authority for making it more effective, which would consequently require restructuring and strengthening with necessary infrastructure and operating mechanisms.

Wonderful. Is that why AICTE is suddenly getting so active? Er, not exactly. These recommendations were made in 1987 !! The AICTE Act came into force a year later…

The statutory All India Council for Technical Education was established on May 12, 1988 with a view to proper planning and coordinated development of technical education system throughout the country, the promotion of qualitative improvement of such education in relation to planned quantitative growth and the regulation and proper maintenance of norms and standards in the technical education system and for matters connected therewith.

Phew – quite a mouhful. But no one has a clue where AICTE was in the 1990s when engineering, management and medical colleges were mushrooming all over the country.

Many of these colleges were started by politicians, and flouted every conceivable norm (‘technical institutes’ in sheds with tin roofs for example – that was the state of some colleges in New Bombay when they first came up). Money and muscle power ensured AICTE looked the other way.

Now, the powers that be are keen to rectify the situation. AICTE is publishing notice after notice in newspapers imploring technical institutes to apply for accreditation – and threatening legal action against those who do not comply. But colleges are thinking, we’re all in it together – can they really shut down hundreds of us?

Well, Amity Business School’s flagship PGDM course actually lost its AICTE accreditation in September 2005 after failing to meet prescribed norms. Amity also lost the subsequent case in the Allahabad High Court challenging the AICTE order.

But surely in the course of an entire year it could not have been the only institute found unworthy of accreditation? Why was so much speed shown in revoking Amity’s accreditation while others receive only threats and warnings??

The point being that unless AICTE is perceived as being fair, impartial and speedy in its actions it will never be taken seriously.

Secondly, however badly a college may have sinned revoking accreditation in the middle of an academic year is senseless. All such announcements must be made before the start of a session and must apply to new admissions – not students already enrolled!

The Tamil Nadu tangle
I don’t have an intimate knowledge of the scene in Tamil Nadu but I do know that SRM and Satyabhama were – at least till a couple of years ago – well respected colleges. Students rated them in the top 10 in the state and SRM even produced ‘state rank holders.

Then, they became deemed universities and according to this news report, went in for reckless expansion

The Tamil daily Dinamalar, in its report dated 2 September 2003, has highlighted the massive expansion of capacity by the SRM Engineering College: "on obtaining the deemed university status, SRM Engineering College has admitted 2000 students netting in Rs.300 crore. In the much sought-after ECE course, 600 students had been admitted. A complaint on this had been sent to the chief minister's office, which has initiated an enquiry."

The complaint pointed out that the college, which until last year had a total strength of just 2000, has admitted more than 2000 fresh students this year. Against the optimum strength of around 50 per class, this year it has admitted 80 students in each section for the ECE course collecting Rs.2 lakh per student. It is gathered that the principal has opted to resign unable to cope with this crowd.

Can current students throw some further light on the situation? Are they satisfied with their course?? And if all is above board what is the institute’s problem in applying for AICTE accreditation anyways???

Expansion by itself is not a bad thing - doing so without inadequate teachers, facilities etc is what needs to be checked.

Between the out and out commercialism (of colleges) and the out and out bureacucracy (of AICTE) lies a middle ground which desperately needs to be explored.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Budget 2006 - my two bits

I am not in the habit of following the budget speech. But there's a first time for everything and I did tune in this year. Mainly because I had to write 500 words on 'what the budget did/ did not do for the youth' for the Financial Express by 5 30 pm, the same evening. Here's what I wrote:

Let us build castles!
- Rashmi Bansal

Listening to the FM's budget speech in full evoked in me a feeling similar to watching the annual Republic Day Parade. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, rural employment, mid-day meal and assorted other schemes named after members of the Gandhi-Nehru family were the first to march past.

I felt like making a trip to the nearest electrified village and doing a jig to the tune of 'thodi si dhool meri, dharti ki meri vatan ki'…If there is a road to reach that village in the first place.

Call me a cynic but this is how most of young India feels when politicians rattle out statistics about 'development'. Seeing is believing and we don't like the dump of a country we see around a few islands of opulence and excellence.

Ironically, the FM made a statement about young people building 'castles in the air'!

But sir, we're glad you used the word 'castle' and not humble jhopdi, or 1 room PWD apartment. We're glad that you approve of young India thinking and dreaming big. So are you.

Leaving aside the 'announcements' on duty cuts and tax tweaks which experts are better placed to analyse, what pleased me were some of the vision statements. Imagine an India where you don't have to stand in line to file a police complaint, get a birth certificate or register as a voter. Where you can demand information from government departments under the Right to Information Act through an online application.

No science fiction, that. The FM plans to bring sarkari services online under a National E-governance plan. A more efficient and accountable government? Now that is something we will thank the FM for long after we've forgotten about cheaper soft drinks and Santros.

Speaking of thanks, students of Mumbai, Madras and Kolkata universities will be pleased with the Rs 50 crores allocated to each institution, in recognition of their completing 150 years. This is great news, except for the fact that the FM wants this money to be used for 'a specified research department or a research programme' when the problems that need to be addressed are far more basic!

And yet, as the minutes tick on, as achievements and proposed achievements parade by, you can't help getting carried away by a sense of pride. This is more just a 'budget', it is a document defining hope.

Because a budget implies 'living within one's means'. To which the young person's answer is I am not satisfied with that. Allow me to grow.

India is now a growth story and there is no looking back. What's more, the Finance Minister ended his speech with the immortal words of Swami Vivekananda, "We reap what we sow. We are the makers of our own fate. … our own destiny." Which is exactly what the young people of this country now believe.

For the underprivileged, the budget must continue to sow opportunities. And for the rest of us, allow us to enjoy the fruits of our own harvest.

There was more I wanted to say but could not due to the word limit. So here goes...

On education: The thrust of the budget outlay in education is towards primary and rural - rightly so. But higher education can't be left to fend for itself.

IISc Bangalore recieved Rs 100 crores in last year's budget towards upgradation and modernisation. This year another well deserved Rs 100 crores went to Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana

But what about a comprehensive policy that aims to upgrade all mediocre institutes to excellent ones, and the excellent to outstanding?

And also a quality control mechanism for private education. These are issues which of course need a whole separate forum for debate but if the primary schooling program is successful - imagine how many fold demand for higher education will increase say 10 years from now. And then, universities and colleges can't be set up or upgraded overnight!

On entrepreneurship: The Ministry of Finance has a pretty cool website where you can actually watch a webcast of the FM's speech and access budget speeches from previous years.

If you run a word search through this year's speech you will find the word 'entrepreneur' used no less than 4 times. It was not mentioned even once last year.

This year's speech specifically refers to young people building castles - and the FM says it is 'our job to lay the foundation for those castles'. So we enable you and you go out and create your own future.

Hope this translates to better power, roads, public transport - and other infrastructure which will allow us to be productive, not hassled citizens.

I am intrigued by this statement in particular: Recognize SMEs in the services sector, and treat the small scale enterprises in the services sector on par with the small scale enterprises in the manufacturing sector.

If this means access to credit for entrepreneurs in the service sector it would be a great step forward. The idea of a world of commerce where you don't have plant and machinery to pledge as collateral remains alien to the loan officer in the average PSU bank. And this is a stumbling block for entrepreneurs, young and old alike.

On accountability and follow up: Not to say the FM is lying but achievements like '10,366 villages electrified' are - I hope - published separately and verified by independent agencies.

Lastly, this article in FE raises the pertinent question: Where are yesterday's budget ideas?

Before today’s budget comes up with another list of new schemes for rural India and the environment, it may be worthwhile to look at where we have progressed with regard to some of the big announcements of earlier budgets.

The restoration of water bodies, the launching a horticulture mission, subsidies for micro-irrigation and the launching of a mega bio diesel plan were some of the major initiatives meant to breathe new life into India’s rural economy.

Unfortunately, by the time these schemes made their way through several ministries, it was already December 2005. With the end of the financial year round the corner, there is the usual rush to release money. In terms of actual work, however, there is very little to report.

Hope the media, NGOs and development agencies continue to discuss, debate, push and nag the government every week, every month tio implement its plans and show results for allocations. And not just wake up next year on Feb 27th!

Aamir ko gussa kyun aaya

Aamir Khan is suing Bennett Coleman and co, publishers of the Times of India and Filmfare magazine for running this ad using his photograph and a 'quote' without his consent. Aamir is demanding Rs 21 crores and an apology.

A 'close associate' of the actor told Midday: "One can’t attribute quotes to someone or use his picture to promote or endorse something without permission... After all, they are cashing in on his reputation and image, and he has the right to choose what he endorses."

And Aamir would never endorse the Filmfare awards because he 'does not believe in awards'. Or any others, for that matter except the National Awards. And, I guess the Oscars.

This, I think, rankles the folks at Filmfare. Other stars were featured in the series of ads but note how staid the copy is. Woh to award lene aayenege, unhe naraaz thodi kar sakte....

The one with Amitabh reads: Amitabh Bachchan has been nominated for 'Black'. On Feb 25, the Lady in Black will decide.

And the copy in junion B's ad is identical! Abhishek has been nominated for 'Bunty aur Babli'. On Feb 25, the Lady in Black will decide.

Had they similarly written 'Aamir is nominated for 'Mangal Pandey' I doubt the star would have bothered to sue them. But implying he 'incited a revolt to win over the Lady in Black' (the Filmfare statuette) is a bit over the top.

I think if an actor does not believe in awards you should respect that and not nominate him in the first place. Organisers, please keep this in mind next year - there were other fine actors in Rang de Basanti besides Aamir.

But of course if it isn't a major 'star' the nomination will only be for 'best supporting actor'.

Besides, this year sees both Karan Johar and Rakesh Roshan releasing films which means the competition will be Shahrukh vs Hrithik.

And oh, KJo's film also features Amitabhji and Abhishek.

Sigh! Wish more stars would revolt against these 'I Love You-You Love me, We're One Big Happy Family' series of awards...

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