Governance is no “Indian wedding”

When India hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2010, the then-sports minister compared the event to an Indian wedding, saying that while preparations go on until the last minute, everything comes together on the day. I am reminded of that as I watch the stories coming out of India since the sudden demonetisation of two major currency notes on November the 8th, 2016.

The reasons why the move was made were unclear, and what one could and could not withdraw or deposit changed often. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) refused an RTI (right to information) request asking about the reasons, and with its response to another RTI request, managed to create an impression that the RBI had no idea how many Rs 2000 bank notes it had printed. RBI is the Indian analogue of the Bank of England in the UK or the Federal Reserve (“the Fed”) in the US. These are not confidence enhancing moves, for citizens or for investors. To cite economist John Maynard Keynes: “There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency.”

That is not the point of this monograph.

With my governance hat on, it is clear that no regulatory impact assessment was carried out before the demonetisation was announced. After all, the lives of so many publics – citizens, small and big businesses, state owned banks, private and multinational banks – were to be upended. If there had been such an exercise, RBI would have been more prepared rather than the ominous silence to which it treated the citizens before the Governor finally spoke nearly 2.5 weeks after demonetisation. (An alternative possibility, simultaneously more benign and more sinister, is that such an assessment was carried out but summarily ignored in favour of an “Indian wedding” type approach, and reliance on calls to nationalism and patriotism.)

Save for a top-down diktat, where was the country’s preparedness for such a massive transformation?

Does the “leadership” have experience of massive transformations involving both businesses and citizens? The committee to oversee it was announced nearly three weeks after the demonetisation. Other than Chandrababu Naidu, and possibly BCG’s Janmejaya Sinha, it is difficult to feel confident about the execution experience of the rest. Not least because the expensive failures presided over by some on the committee  are not easy to ignore.

What is the objective for this transformation? No, not the ones that changed daily, one increasingly jingoistic than the next! Minimising the black money in circulation? Reducing corruption? Making India a digital, cashless society?

For the sake of this argument, let’s assume a “digital, cashless India” was the goal.

Did anyone ask who will pay for the infrastructural investments needed? The National Payments Council of India’s (NPCI) Unified Payments Interface (UPI) is in the news but there is understandable confusion especially as different banks put out their own branded apps and the government adds to the confusion by launching its own app BHIM. The consumer-side apps are not the only solution needed. The government has asked banks to roll out 1 million POS terminals. No, nobody yet asking who will pay and how it will dent their profitability. Meanwhile, surcharges on the use of card payments have been introduced and withdrawn hastily.

(I am reminded of a friend’s wedding where a last minute Pashmina shawl purchase was made for over Rs 35,000 in 1996 money. Her mother told me, at weddings, expenses aren’t questioned. The “Indian wedding” analogy is still holding.)

Who thought ahead about the hundreds of millions of illiterate users who now not only need smart phones but also the magical ability to work their way through these apps to access and spend their own money? Apps to serve an illiterate user base will need inclusive design thinking, which is absent in the Indian public discourse, as I have written elsewhere.

What is the short and medium term impact on quality of life of citizens? Where is the mitigation for their loss of income or business? I am struggling to find any proof these questions were even asked.

There is no discussion whatsoever of who is benefiting the most at whose cost. My brief monograph on that question has remained on fire since it was published, suggesting I touched a nerve.

There is no evidence that the demonetisation was a considered policy move. There is plenty evidence that this is a case study for poor governance no matter how one looks at it. There was no clear goal, no plan. The leadership has no experience of delivering large transformations. Nobody has done any cost analysis or indeed asked who will pay. Citizens’ docility is assumed.

Governance is joined-up thinking. Absent that, it is just another “Indian wedding”.

[PS: About that Brexit thing ahead of us here in the UK, I am still looking for a culturally apt metaphor. Meanwhile, let’s go with “a giant omnishambles”.]

The real story in India’s demonetisation saga

“Who benefits if we all go cashless?”,  asked a friend* of mine. This is indeed the money question in India’s demonetisation saga with its moving goal posts. “I am not here for the enrichment of Visa, MasterCard etc.,” she added.

Apart from convenience and fraud protection, the economic case for an individual consumer is near impossible to make. Many problems solved by card issuers are those related to card usage, not arising from the transaction or commerce itself.

The benefits of consumers going cashless accrue variously to businesses, who can reduce the cost of cash handling; to various players in the payments ecosystem — card makers, technology providers, POS terminal makers, card issuers and acquirers, wallets, and schemes such as Visa, MasterCard and RuPay — who make a fraction of a basis point on each transaction; and to society at large, in aggregate and in the long run.

My friend* remains suspicious of ideas where consumers were required to participate without having any agency, since, she argues, we do have agency in using cash e.g. when hoarding cash as vulnerable women do.

This is a fair concern. But consumers accept the notion of a state-sanctioned currency as a widely accepted means of value exchange within a territory. Consumers make trade-offs to get things they desire while accepting certain loss of agency even if they do so holding their noses.

As it stands, the state has unfair power in determining whether the currency has the value it is supposed to have. It is a power imbalance where the consumer’s agency is considerably less than the state’s. Consumers begin first and foremost with the belief that the state won’t mess with them and their stash of wealth. This trust is essential to exercising the consumer’s agency in stashing away hoards of cash. Acts such as the overnight demonetisation and the cack-handed execution of it destroy trust. The cash hoards of those vulnerable women have been destroyed in value overnight. Their agency is hugely reliant on the state’s benevolence in this instance.

What happens when the state does mess with consumer trust such as by demonetisation or overnight devaluation of the currency?

This is where the conversation veers into virtual currencies such as Bitcoin that remove state as the holder of power and distribute power to the two or more parties transacting. It would be the subject of an altogether different essay on why we are happier trusting an algorithm than we are trusting elected representatives whom we can bring to account.

The chatter about the demonetisation of certain currency notes and going cashless — the latter being some ways off in India, given the lack of infrastructure needed to make cashless work — is just a sideshow.

The main game is data.

When the economy goes cashless, a lot of data will be generated and the aggregate economic case for society will begin to emerge. At the very least, there will be new money brought into the system with convenience reducing the friction in commercial transactions and money.

Professional — and armchair pro-am — economists have wondered a while how India’s GDP would change if the unorganised sector, including the vast cash economy of domestic and unskilled workers, quotidian daily purchases like cigarettes and paan etc were to be recorded formally. The probability of such aggregation will increase with more data collection, though it remains to be seen whether this newly counted GDP growth will weather, balance or exceed the drop in GDP predicted by many due to the demonetisation.

“Who benefits if we all go cashless?”.

The key beneficiary of India going cashless will be whoever can make sense of the gazillions of exabytes of data that these transactions will generate, and that will enable the study of deviation from patterns to identify funds that may fail ATL/AML scrutiny. In an ideal scenario, the money that otherwise goes unnoticed while transacting in cash will be noticed and people in possession of it brought into the tax net, netting more money into the state’s coffers.

Money in all this is still the distraction. The real story is data.

As consumers, this real story should worry Indians because Indian citizens have no guaranteed right to privacy and India has no data protection laws to speak of. Despite a massive universal ID programme, named Aadhar, the government appears to have very little appetite for change in this regard. The Government of India’s open government data platform was launched in 2012 but is rightly criticised for incomplete thinking. A consultation on it  was opened to the public in July 2016.

My advice to my friend and to those watching the demonetisation story in India is quite simple:

If you want agency, watch the main game of data — and what unfettered, unregulated  access to data might enable — not the sideshow — of moves towards cashless society.

If this be the only lesson of 2016, so be it.

Here’s to not fearing the anomie of 2016 and to rebuilding in 2017!

*(Thanks are due to my friend, whom I do not name, for asking the vital question that sparked the conversation on November the 27th and 28th, 2016, and for permitting me to use her words in this post.)

Design stories from recent travels in India

This post has no photos. None that I took anyway. Because taking photos is hard, while we navigate badly designed situations.

When we don’t understand or care about customer experience.

My flight on the world’s favourite airline ran out of disembarkation and customs declaration forms for India. For now, I shall refrain from commenting on this not-infrequent occurrence.

At Bombay’s International Airport arrivals, one had to pass immigration and then seek the customs forms. Near the desk called Customs, I asked where the forms could be found. I was told, in Marathi, “Near the flag”. The “flag” turned out to be a 1 inch by 1.5 inch plastic or paper thing hoisted on a 4-5 inch high pole, kept atop the counter, surrounded by so many things it was hard to see.

As it were, I took the last form they had. Since I was amongst the first to disembark, there was bound to be trouble after as many of us were without forms.

It is hard to imagine how such poor design decisions — organisation, choice of language of communication, quantities made available — helps those, who are not Indian, visiting India for the first time, and likely unfamiliar with the “jugaad” element so common to nearly everything in India.

When we sometimes use fancy new technology, but mostly not .. well, who cares?

I used a bathroom in a swanky new-built commercial building in Bombay’s famous Bandra Kurla Complex.

When I entered one of the loos, the light turned itself on. “Clever use of motion sensor technology”, I thought. Pun unintended, and not applicable, as you will see next.

Then I saw a manual flush handle in place. So the user of the loo touches the flush with what may not be clinically clean hands. “Could this not have been a sensor driven flush?”, I wondered.

Needing then to wash my hands at the basin, I saw the tap needed manual turning on. “Another lost chance to use a sensor”, I thought.

To dry my hands, I couldn’t find either tissue paper or a dryer. The attendant in the bathroom had to show me a broken almost hidden sensor with which I was to turn on an air-dryer. The dryer was located just above a bin where people had been discarding paper towels. Uh, ok.

In a tropical country teeming with dust, dirt and possible infections, all opportunities for fomites have been left intact in this fancy bathroom. Random things have been sensor-ised.

Well done. Not. On the obvious incomplete thinking in designing the bathroom.

When we don’t care about accessibility and safety.. 

Arriving from Bombay late at night, I was reminded why I avoid taking domestic flights to Delhi’s T1 terminal. As an able-bodied person, I was required to navigate a trolley amid 3-5 lanes of taxis and cars speeding toward the break in the Metro barrier, where I was to get out to wait for my car on the main road. Along with a gazillion other people.

Forget pedestrian priority, the awful road surface was its own challenge. Tough enough to push a baggage trolley till I saw a young airport staffer pushing — struggling with it actually — an old lady in a wheel chair towards the same exit, navigating the same cars coming at him and her at some speed.

When you get out, you find yourself on the road with many others, no identifiable markers anywhere. This means your driver has to inch closer, driving while on the mobile phone call with you till he visually locates you. Nice one, eh?

I thought about this airport experience for a while, but soon I had occasion to experience a new hotel and an orthopaedic hospital.

In India, nearly all bathrooms are wet rooms. This means that the probability of slipping is finite.

One might think this necessitates some mechanism for steadying oneself both in hotel and hospital bathrooms — not to mention a hospital, where people are suffering broken bones already.

None of the bathrooms had any grab bars or any support. In the hotel bathroom the shower area was treacherous, complete with black marble floor on which it is  hard to distinguish dry and wet areas, while the bathroom in the orthopaedic hospital had no grab frames around the loo seat. This is a picture of the bathroom in the hotel [(c) Cleartrip].

The Hotel BathroomThe absence of empathy in all these places, caring for neither accessibility nor safety, was quite disappointing.

Can we blame legacy?

None of these bad design experiences in these stories could be blamed on legacy. Each of them took place in a newly built, plush looking facility. The hotel is so new that as of October 2015, it had not formally opened. The hospital is about twenty years old. Bombay’s international airport opened for business in February 2014 while Delhi’s T1 is being renovated.

This was doubly disappointing.

So much money and material spent on building things comfortable and modern and pretty, but not a lot of time spent on thinking about making things that are fit for purpose!

There is a long way to go before the world is made at least comfortable for all of us.

 

 

Four For Friday (26)

For me, this was a week full of books, reading about books, and headlines about publishing. A new publishing house, called Juggernaut Books, was launched in India with unusual fanfare. There is much promise, albeit not much detail made public yet, of revolutionising publishing using the magic of tech. The business is of interest to me as someone who reads, “techs”, is interested in business model innovation and financing of new business models, and watches women in leadership roles in creating such innovation.

Over here in London, the first volume of Niall Fergusson’s two-part book about Kissinger was finally delivered. In hardback. I am sure I will only ever read it at home because it is so heavy.

Kissinger by FergussonA personal pattern however is becoming evident. My recent purchases have all been paper. I have company. Digital books have stopped evolving, but why? The rational argument about closed ecosystems resonates with many of us, perhaps, but most of us are committed (read: locked-in) to one or the other closed ecosystems.

In other words, digital books and the ecosystem in which they live are software, and software feels most alive and trustworthy when it is actively evolving with the best interests of users in mind. An open stack is not strictly necessary for this, but it certainly helps.

But the main, and I think the real, reason for some of us falling back into the arms of physical books is emotive.

The object – a dense, felled tree, wrapped in royal blue cloth – requires two hands to hold. The inner volume swooshes from its slipcase. And then the thing opens like some blessed walking path into intricate endpages, heavystock half-titles, and multi-page die-cuts, shepherding you towards the table of contents. Behbehani utilitises all the qualities of print to create a procession. By the time you arrive at chapter one, you are entranced.

This was the week that celebrated Urvashi Butalia, founder and publisher of Zubaan Books, for her path-breaking contributions to publishing women’s and other marginalised voices.

Concerns over the growing acceptability of violence against women – in their homes, in workplaces and public spaces, in conflict zones, by fundamentalist and communal forces – fed directly into today’s ongoing debates on women’s freedoms and the attempts to truncate those freedoms in the name of safety.

Through these tumultuous times, Zubaan and Kali for Women functioned also as archivists and as participants in the organically evolving network of disparate groups that formed the Indian women’s movement.

“We’re putting together an archive of the interviews we’ve recorded with authors, organisers, women on the front lines,” Urvashi says.

Recorded over the decades, these will be an invaluable oral history of Indian women, many of them far more focused on getting the job done in any given moment than on chronicling their thoughts.

A recurrent theme in conversations with my erudite women friends is about frivolity. Or at least perceived frivolity. Can feminists be interested in fashion and style and clothes and jewellery? “Yes, they can and they should,” is my answer. If for not much else, then to redress this.

But can feminists enjoy romance novels? Sure, they can, argues this piece.

‘I am of the opinion that a genre that is written by women, for women, about women, about the female experience, even if that experience is codified and structured within patriarchal, established boundaries, is inherently feminist,’  says Sarah Wendell, co-founder of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, a US-based website devoted to reviewing romance novels through a critical lens.

Wendell grants readers of all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds permission to enjoy their fantasies – be they feminist, sadomasochistic, paranormal, or male-on-male. For Wendell, this permission is the genre’s beating heart. ‘With romance, you are placing a centrepiece, a focus, on women’s sexuality as a healthy and important thing,’ she said. ‘Her orgasm is important! And so is her security, and so is her ability to access birth control.’

The eagle-eyed amongst you have noticed there are only 3 links here. There is a fourth link embedded in the text which is my sneaky way of making it good on the promise of the post.

The design challenge called Indian traffic [2]

An earlier, admittedly ranty post documented the weirdness that is Indian traffic. Though it focused more on vehicular traffic than on pedestrians, any good traffic system design should enable peaceful co-existence of both vehicles and pedestrians.

I have spent some time thinking about traffic systems since I have been able to observe traffic in several countries outside India, especially the UK, for a few years now. I’d say it largely works well in the UK. Except when it does not, say, when we have the wrong type of snow. Roads don’t work, trains don’t work, almost nothing works.

Yet, some sincerely wonder if traffic in India can be improved to the level it is in developed countries.

Jokes apart, traffic in developed countries, when it flows, has mainly three component parts, although not all developed countries are created equal in their traffic discipline. These component parts exist in a Nash Equilibrium, which keeps the traffic flowing.

Rules

Unlike India — where most people with driving licences have done few, if any, lessons, and most driving licence owners have never been subjected to a rigorous examination of car knowledge and driving skills — it is near impossible to get a driving licence in most developed countries without passing multistage tests of road rules, car knowledge, and driving skills.

As far as I know, road rules — that would cover speed limits, lane discipline, overtaking procedures, use of indicators and other functioning lights on the vehicles, driving behaviour during egregious weather or road conditions, prioritisation of emergency vehicles, required civic behaviour during emergencies — aren’t even fully documented in India. Documenting them and then making them available in the many Indian languages would have to be the step that precedes training and testing for licensing purposes.

Licensed trainers and an incorruptible testing procedure would be the next essentials.

Then the state of the roads. It shouldn’t be down to a High Court to pronounce that citizens have a right to good roads. Because, so what?

Rule followers aka the social contract

Then comes the harder part. Of making a citizenry — of whom many are accustomed to saying “do you know who I am?” and “ok, do my work first, here is the cash!” — follow the process of learning and being tested to obtain a licence, with knowledge and humility, and not by sending someone else to get the paperwork done.

Some positive change, led by citizens themselves, is in evidence so there is hope on this count.

Enforcement and punitive measures

The third crucial part of a functioning traffic system is a traffic police force that catches, penalises and prosecutes if necessary the violations, no matter how minor, of road rules. This is helped by clear rules, along side specification of punitive measures for breaking them. This is further supported by a judicial system that lets traffic violation cases be tried swiftly instead of dragging them on for years, as Indian courts often do with many court cases.

So to return to the question, whether road traffic in India ever be improved to the level it is in developed countries, the answer is both Yes and No.

Yes, if India can arrive collectively at a new Nash Equilibrium of the above-mentioned factors.

No, if any of the above is missing.

The challenge for India is where to start.