Saturday, May 30, 2020

Indian Migrant crisis – an avertable failure of business, government and society ?

The world has been fascinated by stories of migrant workers caught in the unforeseen COVID-lockdown in India. After Indian government announced a drastic country-wide lockdown on 24th March, stories of the plight of migrant workers began making the rounds.

Netizens around the globe were captivated by the plight of workers through pictures – thousand s of migrants marching on desolated highways with a few personal belongings and toddlers in tow. Indians were appalled when foreigners like Ivanka Trump tweeted pictures of the crisis - the picture of a migrant girl cycling thousands of kilometers with an ailing father.

We were also shocked but helpless to read about dozens of tired migrants being mowed down by a speeding train. (link) The plight of migrant workers was front-and-center during the initial phases of lockdown in India.

Failure of business, government and society

There is a lot of hand wringing and finger pointing about this crisis from politicians of different stripes and government officials. Much of it is attributed to the failure of government and bureaucracy; some of it justified. This was after all an unintended consequence of lockdown intended to save scores of Indians from the impending pandemic. What went unsaid was the role of business leaders and commercial enterprises in contributing to this fiasco.

 © Danish Siddiqui | Credit: REUTERS

The other day, I was zooming with a friend who owns a mid-sized steel rolling mill near Jaipur in Rajasthan. He was lamenting over the plans for reopening his plant that was challenging since most of his workers – migrants from Bihar – had returned back ‘home’ and were reluctant to come back to work.

When I casually asked why he couldn’t hold them back during the lockdown, he admitted that he had stopped paying them after the plant shut in March. Afterall he had a business to run and couldn’t pay workers when he wasn’t generating revenue. What went unsaid was the fact that his business generated tremendous profit margins during normal times, that was sufficient for him to tide over this crisis easily.

Businesses have been unwilling or unable to pay workers during the extended lockdown. This is a story that has been amplified across urban India millions of times, aggregating to a humanitarian crisis.

Commerce: at the intersection of Business and good Governance

This crisis has also exposed the dark underbelly of the Indian growth story – shiny new gated apartment complexes, malls, flyovers and Metros are being built by legions of faceless migrant workers – many from improvised states of Bihar, UP and North East who migrated to urban metropolis en masse.

These undocumented daily wage earners hired and managed by subcontractors and agents live in shanties hoping to save enough and eventually return back home. The construction companies, builders and factories pay these middlemen a tidy sum to source and manage these workers from other parts of the country.

The builders and industrialists also lobby governments to ensure a laissez faire hire-and-fire policy and scant social security for migrant workers. Creative hiring under layers of sub-contractors ensures diluted worker benefits and protections.

During past few months when images of mass migrations began surfacing, there were large debates on the ineptitude of the government and the lack of preparedness in addressing this humanitarian crisis. There was a grain of truth to this as the government machinery was totally unprepared. To be fair, the Prime Minister, while announcing the lockdown had urged businesses not to withhold worker wages. Such an appeal by the government leader didn’t come with a teeth of enforcement. Needless to say, the appeal was totally disregarded by business leaders – including my friend – who were focused on self-preservation. Such is the nature of commercial enterprise. 

Commerce beyond lockdown

Large hearted philanthropists from across the country have been announcing donations to help PMCARES and other charities. The Digirati and media has been tracking and applauding the donations, conveniently forgetting the root cause of this crisis. 

Forget donating to PMCARES and other crisis funds, one wonders if things would have turned out different if business enterprises had just paid their workers and assured them of normalcy during surreal times? Things may have been different as we look at the world beyond lockdown; businesses leaders – like my friend – wouldn’t be out struggling for workers to restart their operations.  

As we look at the green shoots of economic activity looking past the crisis, it may also be worth reflecting on the role of benevolent business practices. Pillars of commerce are dispassionately focused on numbers – topline and bottomline, profit and loss – but businesses are also run by humans. Perhaps business leaders should be taking a page out of noted industrialist Ratan Tata’s playbook. At the end of his entrepreneurial life, The Economist obituary (link) quoted the essence of Tata’s management philosophy "I want to be able to go to bed at night and say that I haven't hurt anybody."

Monday, May 11, 2020

When will the Covid-19 pandemic end? Looking at life beyond lockdown

With nearly half of mankind under some form of government-imposed lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, the end of the Coronavirus Pandemic seems to be front and center in our minds. Almost all of us are struggling with answers to questions like “When will the Covid-19 pandemic end? “how will this end?” and “when will life get back to normal?”

In a recent NYT Article, Dr. Jeremy Greene, a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins explains that “pandemics typically have two types of endings: the medical, which occurs when the incidence and death rates plummet, and the social, when the epidemic of fear about the disease wanes.”
When people ask, ‘When will this end?,’ they are asking about the social ending. One can argue that we are already seeing the social ending to the Covid-19 pandemic saga.

New-normal: Social Distancing and telecommuting at work

During the past few months, nearly all economic activities around the globe came to an abrupt standstill for weeks on end as leaders began reacting to the outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic across the globe.

Business leaders, who quickly moved to shutter operations in line with national and local lockdown regulations, began watching the unrolling of the restrictions in parts of the world with reduced cases of COVID-19.  In many organizations, especially in the technology sector, telecommuting and work-from-home became the norm.

Company-men – self included – were quick begin parroting phrases like ‘new normal,’ surreal, once-in-a-generation and unprecedented times while trying to come to grips with the uncertainty of the pandemic.

What does end-of-lockdown feel? Not very different

By all accounts, the social ending to the lockdowns and restrictions isn’t going to be as dramatic or abrupt as the start. For one, people are willing and ready for such a change; and many are yearning to go back to life as it was.

The other day, I was in a zoom session with a colleague from China that was among the first nations to rollback lockdown restrictions. After weeks of working from home, employees there are back to work wearing masks, learning to live with additional social distancing norms and ubiquitous temperature checks at offices and all public places.

While people have begun to get back to work, and factories and manufacturing have resumed, the gears of the broader economy are slower in turning forward. Leaders around the globe are closely watching the Chinese blueprint to either follow along or modify as their situations dictate.

Onward to ‘new normal’ or back to old-normal?

After two consecutive nationwide lockdowns spanning one-and-half months, the Indian government announced a slow easing of the curbs with a ‘partial’ lifting of lockdown last week. By the end of the week, it felt like a giant had woken from its slumber. One can already see a few minor traffic jams accompanied by honking on roads by restless motorists. Shops have started opening, and it almost feels like ‘social distancing’ is a thing of the past. In the narrow grocery aisles masked-customers are back to shoving each other while selecting vegetables and fruits; the six-feet-rule be damned.

While it was jarring to see the American President abruptly rollback federal restrictions, leaving state governors to work through a hodgepodge of local regulations, he doesn’t seem to be alone.  After reacting strongly to address the outbreak of pandemic, government leaders around the world seem to be certain of one thing: they cannot indefinitely lockdown societies while awaiting a vaccine for Coronavirus, or for the death rates to plummet.

Commerce, just like life itself, must go on

States and cities around the world that have slowly lifted lockdown bans are beginning to see economic activity resume. While multinationals and large companies are being cautious in re-starting operations, small businesses are already rolling up their shutters.

Government officials are beginning to parrot how “people must learn to live with the virus” while following prevention guidelines.” Just as the crisis-management and pandemic-preparedness of governments across the globe was uneven, the way individual communities around the globe move forward after lockdowns is going to be asymmetrical.

With governments around the world finally abdicating their role in combating this deadly virus, the ‘end’ of the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be a bit of an anti-climax. And in a way, the much awaited new-normal may not look or feel very different. At least not in the short term.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Here is why Trump’s decision to pause WHO funding may be a good thing

The Trump administration’s recent decision (link) to withhold funds for World Health Organization (WHO), is generating a tremendous amount of media attention.  This week, the American president tried to blame the WHO for its role in COVID-19
“failing to adequately investigate early information about the virus’s ability to spread from one human to another and for not calling out China on its alleged lack of transparency over the virus.” During a news conference at the White House, Mr. Trump said “The WHO failed in its basic duty and must be held accountable. So much death has been caused by their mistakes.”

To be fair, the United States is a major donor to the UN and WHO. According to the world body, top voluntary contributors include United States of America, United Nations, Republic of Korea, Australia, Gates Foundation, Japan and European Commission. In 2017, America made over $100 contributions. (link: WHO) In addition, over $400 voluntary contributions were made from the United States.

It’s too early for finger pointing

To be fair, the WHO has been at the front and center in tracking the progress of COVID-19. After a couple of months of closely tracking the outbreak of the virus, the WHO announced on 11th March it was upgrading COVID-19 to a Pandemic
“We have therefore made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic. 
Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.” 

The day WHO upgraded COVID-19 to pandemic there were about 1629 cases in America as per the CDC. President Trump also announced a ban on travel from Europe on 11th March, and followed up with a National emergency declaration on March 13th

Source: CDC

The trump administration is under tremendous pressure as the number of cases in the US escalate and the response has been patchy. They are looking for points of failure and perhaps a scapegoat. After initial attempts to call it a “China virus” backfired (link), the world health body is emerging as a convenient scapegoat.

Who is WHO?

Trump’s move may turn out to be a good thing as headlines on the decision to pause WHO funding generates a renewed attention on the role of the world health body in the modern world order. Trump’s announcement on WHO is also stirring a political debate in America, which will also generate interest among Americans. The average American Joe and Jane, who hadn’t heard of WHO will be curious to know more about the world body.

While America donates over $100 million of WHO’s $2+ Billion budget, it is not the only donor. All these headlines continue to generate interest in WHO and its activities, which in turn will lead to other donors stepping in. Large global donors like the Gates Foundation with billions at its disposal can easily make up the shortfall if America backs out of its commitment.

The risk of not contributing its dues to the world body is greater for America. By not donating, America and its researchers risk losing their standing. Part of the aid to world bodies comes in the form of contributions in kind, including time and experience of American doctors, researchers and CDC. Such experiences are mutually enhanced by collaboration between researchers; and the world will be a better place if American researchers and CDC continue to collaborate with their global peers.


Saturday, March 28, 2020

Is a recession due to the coronavirus inevitable?

First things first: what is Recession? “In economics, a recession is a business cycle contraction when there is a general decline in economic activity. Recessions generally occur when there is a widespread drop in spending.”
What keeps an economy buzzing? It is the consumer; and a positive consumer sentiment that motivates us to shop for new cars, houses , household stuff and services.
Consumers are humans. With the #COVID19 induced barrage of news, uncertainty, and lockdowns humans around the world are feeling overwhelmed. The consumer and business sentiment is far from positive. Check out United States Consumer Sentiment index
The global economy is already in recession. Why do you think the governments around the world have stepped up with bailout plans? (ref: The bill for saving the world economy is $7 trillion and rising).
Let’s look at the light at the end of this tunnel: Humans are resilient when facing uncertainty. Recessions eventually lead to extended periods of growth. We will certainly get past this economic slump.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Career advice: What are the jobs or domains that would thrive in the future, with the advent of AI, robotics, automation and all?

Here is my response to a recent question from an online forum.

Assuming you are asking about techno-functional role, a System Integrator is going to be in demand; and will thrive with the advent of AI, robotics, automation and other digital technologies.

So, who is a Systems integrator?

A systems integrator (or system integrator) is a person or company that specializes in bringing together component subsystems into a whole and ensuring that those subsystems function together, a practice known as system integration. Systems integrator - Wikipedia

Why are they going to be in demand?

AI, ML, Analytics, Robotics, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and other automation, blockchain and other emerging digital technologies don’t operate in isolation. To deliver innovative solutions and business processes, they need to be integrated together and operate with existing processes and systems either in the enterprise or across enterprises.

A system integration engineer (or Enterprise Architect) needs a broad range of skills and is likely to be defined by a breadth of knowledge rather than a depth of knowledge. These skills are likely to include software, systems and enterprise architecture, software and hardware engineering, interface protocols, and general problem solving skills.

People with a good grounding of technology and business processes who can customize, configure and integrate such emerging technologies and bring together people with depth of individual technologies are going to be in demand. 

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Bengaluru, then and now: How was Bangalore 30-40 years back?

Thanks to my dad’s career in defense service, we had an opportunity to relocate to the city about three decades ago. And after retirement, my parents continue to call Bengaluru their home. After graduation, I moved to Mysuru for my Masters, and continued to come back to the city after my stints around the world.

Let’s look at the question from two dimensions – what’s changed in Bengaluru; and what remains the same.

What’s the same?

  • Air quality and Pollution issues – In the nineties and early part of the millennium, there were lot more open spaces. Parthenium menace would plague the city and those with Bronchitis and Other lung diseases would be advised to move out or cope with it. Thanks to urbanization, the city has turned into a concrete-jungle; and Parthenium and pollen pollution has given way to C02 and sulfur pollution. Those with Bronchitis and other lung diseases are still advised to move out or cope with it.
  • Kannadigas vs Kannada-gotilla Camps – Bangalore always enjoyed a large influx of migrants from across the country. Thanks to the large presence of military, research and Public Sector undertakings (HAL, NAL, DRDO, ISRO, BEL, BHEL, BEML, HMT etc etc), the city has always had a cosmopolitan feel. Some new migrants have tried to assimilate by learning the local language, while others in transferable jobs have also managed just as fine without doing so.
  • A few tree lined streets – A stretch in Malleshwaram, Basavagudi, Jayanagar or CV Raman avenue and a few other pockets continue to be tree-lined. Similarly, the city continues to enjoy a few lung-spaces like Cubbon-park, Lalbagh.

What’s changed?

  • Gardens have given way to tech parks – Bengaluru has long enjoyed the moniker of ‘garden city.’ But the gardens have given way to massive tech parks, especially in the South and South Eastern part of the city. This is perhaps the greatest change we are seeing around. While the influx of folks in Defense and PSU sectors continue, influx of millions of tech-generations has transformed the southern part of the city.
  • Tree lined Houses with gardens in residential neighborhoods have given way to multi-story flats. Influx of lot more people in the same parcel of land is increasing the population density
  • Unregulated construction, citizen and builders flouting zoning regulations. Large multistory apartment complexes have mushroomed in the interiors. Builders don’t bother to work with civic authorities to provision access driveways to main-roads leaving new residents scratching their heads in frustration.
  • A generation ago, lot more people used bikes, scooters and even bicycles to commute. Now most middle-class families living in small apartments and houses have cars but nowhere to park. They park their cars on streets in front, further choking narrow streets.
  • Cyclists are almost extinct on main roads. I loved riding a bicycle for the four-kilometer stretch to Malleshwaram during my college days. It is unthinkable to even imagine navigating that stretch in today’s busy traffic!
  • Perennial construction and digging around – you can’t drive a few hundred meters on a major road without seeing some roadwork or construction debris from adjacent lands blocking parts of the road. But isn’t it the same in rest of the country?
  • Cost of living has increased – Old timers complain that housing is much more expensive, eateries and darshanis charge more etc.; But isn’t it the same in rest of the country?
  • Density of population and traffic chaos - Outer, peripheral and other ring roads are choking. But isn’t it the same in rest of the country?

So, what does all this mean?

With all the chaos one sees around the sprawling metropolis, I am inclined to give A+ to the civic authorities including BBMP, BWSSB, BESCOM and even local Police. For a population of 13+ million
  • Residents don’t experience frequent blackouts like in other third world Metropolis. A few power-cuts are primarily due to constructions in neighborhoods, not because the system is failing!
  • A large portion of the city gets fresh Cavury, ‘corporation’ water, which is not a small task
  • If you are so inclined to go green, BMTC and Namma Metro continue to provide an above-average service for commute within the city. Taking public transit beats riding a bike or driving a car on choked roads any day!
  • Although residents come to grips with occasional incidents of robberies and theft, the Police by-and-large keeps the city safe!
City continues to grow. Now that the ring road is choking, the city is already planning for a peripheral ring road Four-year plan to implement 65-km peripheral ring road in Bengaluru

Monday, December 23, 2019

Yet another Kleptomania story: Mexican ambassador caught shoplifting in Buenos Aires resigns

A recent incident involving a Mexican diplomat who was caught shoplifting a $10 book from a high-end bookstore in Buenos Aires made for international headlines. The society holds professionals like diplomats in high esteem; and when a member of that cadre strays from the straight and narrow, we all take note.  According to news accounts
Mexico’s ambassador to Argentina resigned on Sunday citing health problems following new allegations of shoplifting after video from late October showed the diplomat attempting to steal a $10 book.
Ambassador Óscar Valero Recio Becerra “has been ordered to return home,” said Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard. The diplomat will be investigated by a government ethics committee. 

El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires - GETTY IMAGES
“Ricardo Valero is a great person, he’s undergoing neurological treatment and I wish him a speedy recovery,” Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard wrote in a post on Twitter. We are all taught from an early age that stealing is wrong, and such an urge must be suppressed. The incident also brings up the debate on whether shoplifting and Kleptomania are symptoms of a mental and neurological disorder or simply an un-suppressible urge to steal things one covets. According to Mayo Clinic "Although there's no cure for kleptomania, treatment with medication or talk therapy (psychotherapy) may help to end the cycle of compulsive stealing."

Also, the viral video of "Indian family gets busted for stealing hotel accessories in Bali"