Domestic Airlines in India: Pains and Gains

With the consistent growth in the India economy, domestic air travel has dramatically increased and competition among Airlines has become cut-throat. It is understandable given that there are plenty of new airlines and a glut of travelers. Unused to handling such high traffic, the airports around the country are struggling. The result is that over 40% of the flights are late according to a recent study. My personal experience with delays on domestic airlines in India was 100% and this includes flights on Kingfisher, Air Deccan, and Indian Airlines. In general, the travelers are not very demanding, and airline employees don’t seem particularly concerned about delays. It is common to find announcements about the departure time being made well after the previously scheduled time has come and gone. In general, a “chalta hai” mood prevails on both sides. The real concern however should be on safety standards. I noticed that several pilots on domestic flights in India were actually foreigners, a clear sign that there is a shortage of trained manpower in India in the airline sector.
Internet Booking: The good news is that there are many online booking sites that cater to domestic air travel in India. The bad news is that they are still very poorly developed. The user interface and reliability are way below the mark. After you enter your credit card number, be prepared for a blank screen! Sometimes you go through the process of completing an entire form and the “submit” button does not work! If you call their toll free number, in all likelihood, the customer service agent will hang up on you all of a sudden because (I hear) they have aggressive customer call duration metrics! Besides, they never call you back.

Positives: On the positive side, there are flights available if you wish to travel, unlike in the past where it was just Indian Airlines all the way. Day trips for business are a possibility assuming you can manage to get work done despite factoring in delays. A 1-2 flight to Bangalore, plus 2-3 hours in Bangalore traffic, plus a couple of hours of flight delays still leaves you with a few hours in the day to conduct business. When there are delays, airlines do call to inform you, though this happens quite often after you have arrived up at the airport. Kingfisher offers “really cool” check in services by airline personnel carrying a mobile device, like the car-return services in the US. A great way to cut down the lines.

India vs. England: Second Test Day 1

With intermittent rains cricket in England seems to be a permanent start-stop affair. Besides, playing under these conditions is a challenge in itself. Indian bowlers did well today to restrict England, though they could have done better if they had shown more consistency. When Zaheer bowls well, Sreesanth gives it away, when Ganguly bowls well RP gives it away and so the story goes. Different venue, different players, different times, but the predicament is frustrating similar. The story of Indian cricket. All in all, India appears to hold the upper hand at least until India’s famed batting line up caves in on day 2. Having restricted England on day 1, its obvious that India should wrap up the tail, notch up a decent lead and knock out England. But alas, India is not Australia.

If I were to guess, India would manage a small lead of around 50 runs and make this Test that much more interesting. Ultimately it appears as though the weather will hold the key in this Test match.

Book Review: Inspite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India

Title: Inspite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India
Author: Edward Luce

This is a well researched book that addresses the various changes happening in contemporary India on the social, economic and political fronts. The author has met with people from so many different walks of life in India ranging from politicians, god-men, bureaucrats, businessmen and women, IT employees, etc., and put together a very interesting book. He nicely combines these meetings he has had with historical aspects like India’s politics over the last 60 years to come up with observations and interpretations.

A very insightful book and highly recommended for anyone who has an interest in India. The author displays an excellent sense of humor throughout the book. So even though the book is 400+ pages there is never a dull moment.

Here are a few interesting parts of the book (there are too many to capture, but here are a handful):

  • Sri Sri Ravishankar: “It was like Jesus was shooting a shampoo advertisement” referring to Sri Sri Ravishankar at his ashram; “His answers were more like that of an agony aunt than a prophet” referring to his responses to audience questions. Those who follow Sri Sri Ravishankar and his Art of Living philosophy are bound to be pretty upset with the author. He makes a “somewhat hasty” connection between the Guruji and the BJP, the RSS and the VHP. The book characterizes Sri Sri Ravishankar’s movement as “evangelical Hinduism” much like the Pat Robinsons and Bill Grahams of the West, though the Art of Living prides itself in being religion agnostic and supposedly does little to promote Hinduism. Surprisingly, Matha Amrithanandamayi does not feature in the book.
  • Sonia Gandhi: When Mrs. Gandhi offered to pour him some tea -“It felt like Queen Elizabeth was offering to massage my feet”; The author seems to have been in awe of Mrs. Gandhi. “Its hard to believe that Mrs. Gandhi would approve of such sycophancy”, the author writes following which he refers to the exaggeration of her oratorical skills by her biographer. It begs the question as to whether Mrs. Gandhi could not have influenced her biographer not to indulge in such sycophancy herself. In another discussion, the author characterizes the Cong-DMK alliance (despite the DMK’s soft corner for the LTTE — which was behind her husband’s murder) as “political pragmatism” rather than opportunism. The author portrays her entry into politics as one driven by deep dissatisfaction with the state of the country while its widely believed in India that she was just paving the way for the Rahul Gandhi (and/or Priyanka’s) entry into politics. He does however write later in the book that she “hopes for their success yet fears for their safety”.
  • Inter-caste Marriages: The author makes an interesting observation about inter-caste marriages. He writes that inter-caste marriages are very common in the IT sector in India while they are less common among the India software professionals in the US. “Long distant nationalism is often much more conservative than its parent”. In the same chapter titled “New India, Old India” he rightly points out that, “Many Indians take as part of their conventional wisdom the view that India’s traditional moral values are better than those of the west”.
  • Amar Singh’s Residence in Delhi: The description of Samajwadi Party MP Amar Singh’s residence was mind boggling to say the least. “In each of the main rooms Singh had given pride of place to one of the most expensive items of home entertainment in the world: the 60-inch plasma screen Bang & Olufsen TV. Each retails for $60,000 in India”; “We seemed like characters in a Bond film, with Singh about to feed us birds of prey” referring to the tour the author received of Mr. Singh’s residence.
  • Terrorists: The author’s theory that India’s Muslim community has not produced terrorists was an interesting observation though unfortunately this theory has become questionable in light of the recent findings after the Glasgow attack.
  • Tamil Nadu: The author provides a balanced and insightful view of the state of Tamil Nadu. “…it possesses something very valuable that is not evident in most of the north: a civic society. It is much more difficult to hijack public space in Tamil Nadu because there is a large urbanized middle class which accepts the need for rules that everyone should follow, even if they are not followed all of the time…” As someone who grew up in the state I could clearly understand and appreciate his analysis and admire his insights.
The book has no shortage of such interesting insights and its impossible to capture all of them in this review. The author is the Washington Bureau Chief of the Financial Times and is married to an Indian. He has lived in India for an extended period of time and this has helped him do extensive research and write the book. It is always very difficult to write about another country merely by living there for a few years in a manner that is whole-heartedly acceptable to everyone who has grown up in that country. Those who have deep prejudices one way or the other and hence dislike the book, should treat this as an outsiders view and give the author the benefit of doubt instead of accusing him of any bias. If you view this book from that perspective, its hard to deny that this book is a very interesting read and the author deserves all the kudos for his excellent research, analysis and insights.

Technology Irritants

Technology has become a part and parcel of our lives – email, blogs, software applications, cell phones, blackberries, sms etc. etc. This also means there are no shortage of irritants, courtesy of what has become everyday technology. Here are a few of my technology irritants:

  • Safari on Windows XP: I was required to install the Safari browser to test something but eventually gave up on it. The Safari browser for Windows looks cool but doesn’t work well on Windows XP. After a couple of installations I managed to get it to work, but soon found that it does not let you accept an https site unless the site has a valid certificate. Most browsers give you the choice to “continue” and access the site anyway. Also, I noticed that if you select Firefox as your default browser in Safari (settings), it will promptly fill your desktop with a bunch of shortcuts to Firefox which you can’t remove until you quit Safari.
  • Spam in Gmail: Gmail sends email to its Spam folder even when its not spam. Even after repeatedly marking them as “Not spam” it continues to do this. Having to go through the spam folder is a pain!
  • Support from Google: Can you find a way to send support email to Google from any of their free services? It is virtually impossible to find a support link on their site. I guess Google expects you to search and find your answers and not bug them with support email 🙂
  • Search in Yahoo IM: Yahoo has a nice feature of saving your chat transcripts, but there seems to be no way (at least that I could find) to search the transcripts!
  • Firefox Crash: Firefox browser crashes sometimes with no message whatsoever. It just vanishes from the screen! (happens to me on the Rediff site)

If anyone out there knows anything about any of these, I would love to hear from you!

BCCI Badly Needs A Professional CEO

The BCCI’s recent snafu with regard to the choice of the coach of the Indian cricket team is a perfect example of very poor management. Would a public announcement about an executive hire ever be made by a company before the individual has accepted the offer? Wouldn’t plan B have been discussed in the event of the lead candidate not accepting the job?

The net result of this sloppiness on the part of the BCCI, is that the team is presently without an official coach. The schedule ahead for the team is hectic and there seems to be no sign of a new coach either. However, more than a new coach, it appears as though the BCCI is badly in need of some professional management, starting with a capable CEO.

It’s a Business, Stupid!

Cricket in India is big, big business. And this is a understatement. It is no surprise that a seasoned businessman like Subhash Chandra is aspiring to try and grab a piece of the action by launching the Indian Cricket League (ICL). He deserves all the credit for attempting to accomplish (with a strong commercial bent, of course) what the BCCI has been unable to achieve. He has already roped in Kapil Dev, Kiran More and supposedly some international players. With his experience and hold over the media he is more than likely to give the BCCI a literal run for its money. As for the BCCI, there seems to be no clear plan or communication to the public at large about its stand vis-a-vis the ICL, barring some odd non-committal statements. The legendary Kapil Dev has already shown the BCCI the proverbial finger so to speak.

Culture of Personal Fiefdom

BCCI has historically been the personal fiefdom of some individual or the other. First, Jagmohan Dalmiya and now Sharad Pawar. Just take the current scenario. Sachin Tendulkar has been named vice-captain, Dilip Vengsarkar is selection chief, Sunil Gavaskar is everywhere, Chandu Borde is Manager, Balwinder Sandhu heads up the National Cricket Academy (NCA) and Pawar is Board Chief. Is this the Indian Board? It sounds more like the Maharashtra Board! Everyone related to the prior regime of Dalmiya such as Brijesh Patel, S. K. Nair, Kapil Dev and the like are all of out of favor. Past players who belong to different factions have started to openly bicker bringing back to life their past differences — Bedi vs. Gavaskar, Ashok Malhotra vs. Gavaskar to name a couple.

The biggest downside of this fiefdom culture is that almost all the positions in the board are held by former players and/or “yes men”, none of whom have any administrative experience whatsoever. With all due respect to these yesteryear stalwarts, their value is on the field and not really off the field. So expecting them to turn Administrative wizards overnight is completely unfair and unrealistic. Every organization within the BCCI, like for instance the National Cricket Academy, would be served best by a former cricketer as the outside face backed by strong seasoned operational management in order to set and achieve pre-defined goals and objectives. Without seasoned management at the helm of affairs, these organizations can never deliver quality results. The private sector has stepped up in the past to participate in cricketing activities, as in the case of the MRF Pace Foundation. However, after more than a decade of its existence, India is yet to produce even a single fast bowler who is guaranteed of a berth in the Indian playing eleven over an extended period of time! This is clearly a failure of the BCCI to leverage outside help and funding.

Mr. Dalmiya certainly deserves credit for putting cricket on the big stage: big money, big sponsors, television rights, the works (his success caught the attention of the WSJ which once published a story on this). His successor appears to have set his eyes on the big prize — the job of ICC Chief. Meanwhile, it is rumored that Lalu Yadav now wants to be BCCI chief. Given that both Mr. Pawar and Mr. Yadav are part of the same ruling coalition at the center, anything is possible in the constant give and take between political factions in power.

Formal Communication Channels

In this day and age where media in India is completely berserk, the BCCI, unfortunately, seems to have no formal “corporate communications or media relations” structure. This often leads to constant leaks (remember Chappell’s email that was leaked to the media?), contradicting statements by all and sundry and overall poor communication ranging from the officials to the present Indian team. A communications team and formal procedures for what is communicated to the media, how and by whom is a part and parcel of any professionally run organization. This is evidently non-existent in the BCCI.

Contracts

The BCCI contracts with the players is a permanent source of contention. It is almost always pushed to the 11th hour and finally settled as a compromise. These contracts are only a stop-gag arrangement until the next scandal breaks out.

The advertising contracts are another sore point for the players. The recent pronouncements by the board about restricting the number of contracts, number of players per endorsement etc. make no sense whatsoever. Cricket is a commercial sport and it is natural that the players strive to make every buck they can while they are riding high. Television rights are another perennial “tamasha”. (remember Doordarhan’s telecast with a 7-minute delay!)

Again, negotiating contracts and arriving at mutually agreeable terms is a common corporate function. Given the BCCI’s complete lack of professionalism, it is not surprising that the BCCI and the players are in a permanent state of negotiation.

Performance Metrics

BCCI is the by far the richest board in the World, and there are more cricket players in India at the first class level than any country in the world. In other words, the BCCI is an organization that has the talent pool and the money, but lacks the commensurate results for it! New Zealand selects its national team from a pool of 150 players. That is the size of the entire pool they have to chose from! Yet they consistently make it to the World Cup semi-finals. India on the other hand, Oh well…

Team India’s performance is far from consistent. Precise planning and execution is required to ensure that the game is nurtured at the grassroots level. The quality of pitches in India need to be drastically improved. Ranji cricket for instance is played on dead wickets, leaving little scope for good bowling talent to develop. Most importantly, proper systems must be in place so new talent can bubble to the top without needless zonal pressures and politicking. Currently, there is no clear vision as to where Indian cricket is headed. Having crashed out of the World Cup, there is no better time than now to look ahead, set goals and make plans. Seasoned professional help can certainly make this a reality.

Accountability

Last but not the least, there is no accountability whatsoever at any level in the BCCI. When was the last time someone resigned a post willingly taking responsibility for some failure? Unfortunately, this is not part of the BCCI culture. Accountability is an automatic by product of a corporate setting. If you fail to deliver, you take responsibility and quit or be prepared to face potentially dire consequences.

There have been allegations of financial wrong-doing by Dalmiya and his associates (which Mr. Dalmiya claims is a witch-hunt). While these charges have yet to be proven, there is no doubt that a professionally run setup can go a long way to minimize such issues.

All in all, there is a dire need for professionalism starting with the highest level of the BCCI. It has big bucks to chase, big egos to appease, and an obsessive, fanatic following to cater to. Unless a drastic change is made soon, the mess will only worsen and team India will continue to wallow in mediocrity.

Cedar’s: Great Lebanese Restaurant in Chennai

If you are interested in non-desi food in Chennai, check out Cedar’s in Kotturpuram (I don’t know the exact location, if I am not mistaken its not far from Gandhi Mandapam) which serves Lebanese food.

The food is excellent. The restaurant feels more like a house with an upstairs, terrace etc., so you don’t feel like you are eating at a restaurant, which is nice. There was nice middle eastern music playing all along. To add to this, when asked, the cook and the waiters (all Indians trained under a Lebanese cook who worked here for 2+ years) are capable of "radiating lots of fundas" about the food and the cooking, like you normally observe in western countries. The costs average about Rs. 300+ per dish. Sheesha (hookah) is also available at the restaurant.

The picture shows the cook (Sundar) and the waiter (Milton), both were very impressive with their knowledge of Lebanese food.