Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Sania Mirza & her Padmashri

As a rule I believe that Indian cricketers are an overpaid, over-recognised bunch and that other sportspersons should be given due recognition from the public, the corporates and especially the government.

However I find myself cold to the idea of the Padmashri award for Sania Mirza. I believe the Padma award is too much too soon.

Sure she has done what no other Indian woman tennis player has. Yes, she has had a fantabulous year in 2005. And there is no denying that she has captured the imagination of the nation like no other sportsperson has ever done before (excepting possibly a 16 yr old Sachin Tendulkar).

But if one were to take a hard look at the facts what would they reveal? A ranking of 34 on the WTA. (she was ranked No.32 last week) and some endorsement contracts from corporate India.

Surely a ranking of 34 on the WTA is nothing to crow about. I also get the sneaking suspicion that all the endorsement contracts that she finds coming her way are not due only to her sporting prowess but also for the visual appeal that she holds for the sexually repressed Indian male.

Sania’s only good year was 2005 and of course the last few months of 2004. She lost in the second round at the Australian Open 2006 and has done nothing of note as yet in 2006.

I am not saying that she does not deserve the accolades and endorsement deals coming her way but recognition of this kind from the Government is a bit too premature. Just to provide a perspective on how quickly Sania has been awarded a Padmashri by the Government; Sachin Tendulkar, a virtual demi-god in India was awarded the same in 1999. A good ten years into his career. By that time he had established himself as one of the all time greats of the sport. Has Sania Mirza done that?

And how do we know whether she would perform even as well as she has done up until now in the future? Can she keep up the momentum of 2005? It would have been much better to have waited a couple of years before awarding her the Padmashri.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Sodexho Story

I am motivated to write this piece in response to a comment on the post “Lunch Coupons, Warren Buffett & the Pot of Gold”. The gist of the comment was Lunch Coupons are merely a tax saving device so how does it matter if I “lend” some money to Sodexho at 0%.

Sure. But why not allow the same money as a tax-free allowance.

A company wants to provide food to its employees and instead of getting into the messy business of having a full-fledged cafeteria simply pays the employee an allowance.

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In comes the taxman to complicate matters. He insists that the company should ensure that the money is indeed spent on food. What does the company do? It approaches Sodexho to buy vouchers that can be redeemed only against food. It is a completely different matter that my resourceful kiranawala has put up a poster saying that he will accept Sodexho Lunch Coupons for non-food items as well, but will charge 3% extra for that privilege!!!!!

My point is that these food vouchers have no raison d'être.

The government allows Rs. 800 a month as conveyance allowance without asking the company to issue travel vouchers. Then why make the distinction for food?

As long as the person spends Rs.1500 on food sometime during the course of the month it does not matter what he uses to pay in any specific transaction. So long as the tax authorities are certain that a person spends Rs.1500 a month on food items why have these silly passes.

By insisting on Food Vouchers the govt. has inadvertently allowed a multinational to issue “Currency”. Also any company accepting deposits from the public at large is regulated by the RBI. Wonder if Sodexho’s books are open to such scrutiny.

Authored by Sameer Nair

Friday, January 27, 2006

Lunch Coupons, Warren Buffett & the Pot of Gold

All of us working in the so called “New Economy Companies” are quite familiar with Lunch Coupons that companies like Sodexho issue. Our employers’ issue these coupons as part of our “CTC” (that interesting invention of HR which makes us believe, erroneously, that we are earning more than what our parents did) and we go home without a second thought about them.

But have we ever wondered how all this works for Sodexho and others of its ilk?

Let’s make the extreme assumption that all the money that we receive in the form of vouchers is spent within 3 days of our receiving it from the employers. One can easily assume that the employers themselves had kept in their custody for three days at the very least. The retailer in turn presents it to Sodexho a day after the receipt for redemption. The money has thus earned zero interest for 1 week.
Typically Sodexho issues coupons against funds received while they pay the retailers only thirty days after receiving the coupons. Effectively Sodexho has paid 0% Interest for one month. And Next Month the cycle starts again!!

Essentially at all times Sodexho has one month’s equivalent of lunch reimbursement on which it pays no interest. Out of an estimated 1 million employees in the IT and ITES space if we assume that 10% are issued coupons worth Rs. 2000 a month then at the very minimum the industry is lending Sodexho Rs. 20 cr. at 0%. Not a bad deal at all. What say?
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And the moment we change our assumption from “immediate use” to an average of “15 days to use” the effective money lent changes to Rs. 30 cr. at 0%.

An elementary knowledge of finance tells us that if one borrows at say 6% and lends at 8% one makes money. If we borrow relatively large amount of money at 6% and lend it at 8% we make large amounts of money.

Simple enough is it not? Banks across the world work on this basic principle.

The flip side is if for some reason we borrow at 6 % and are able to eventually lend only at say 5% we end up losing a lot of money. Financial experts call this the Power of Leverage. Leverage magnifies both profits and losses many times over.

Here we have a Sodexho that “borrows” money from us at 0% and we do not even think of how the process is benefiting them. If I were to ask you guys to lend me money at 0% interest you would think I am completely crazy. Why would any individual in his senses want to park money with me for no returns? But for a Sodexho you are game, aren’t you?

One rule of making pots of money that Financial Experts on channels like CNBC forget to tell us is that one must try to borrow money for as long as possible preferably at 0% interest. And after a few years one is likely to be stinking rich.

Much like a famous gentleman who goes by the sobriquet, “The Oracle of Omaha”.

Warren Buffett at the beginning of his career controlled a company called Blue Chip Stamps that had an estimated 100 million dollars of money on account of vouchers issued. Some of the companies that he acquired in the early years were through these moneys.

While it is always difficult to estimate, surely a lot of the spectacular returns that he made were because of the zero cost funds he had at his disposal.

Most of us know that he is considered to be amongst the greatest investors around. No one would argue that he was not.

However very few would know that he was also amongst the best in identifying and using low cost capital, a point that is equally important but is seldom discussed with the seriousness that it deserves.

Maybe this is so because if aam junta like us sees that all that he achieved was possible only because he was shrewd enough to see and acquire a cheap source of funds he will look less like an Oracle that he is proclaimed to be. Probably this is why “Magicians never tell”.

A glance at the operations of the Oracle and Sodexho shows remarkable similarities and is obviously the road to riches. Now if only I could get onto this gravy train.
Authored by Sameer Nair

Monday, January 23, 2006

Tag Line for Mumbai

The organizers of the Mumbai Festival 2006 are looking for a Tagline for Mumbai. After all, London has it, New York has it and so on.

Well! I have one for them:
The Spit Capital of the World.

How does that sound? Gross probably but quite close to the truth, ain't it?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Deve Gowda & the Theatre of the Absurd

The more I think of it the more I am convinced that the events in Bangalore represent the “Theatre of the Absurd”. As if the father son duo was not being theatrical enough the daughters jumped into the fray as well. They went over to H D Kumaraswamy’s place and made an emotional appeal to return to the family.

And then the Bombshell! They conveyed to their brother that if he did not return, Deve Gowda would swallow poison. Even as a flustered H.D. Kumaraswamy was trying to fashion a response to this rather unexpected political gambit, the legislators proved that they were no less than their erstwhile master, H. D. Deve Gowda. They countered by saying that they would swallow poison if Kumaraswamy returned. Such is the cut and thrust of intellectual debate in the corridors of power in India.

I just can’t help thinking though, what would have happened if Kumaraswamy went and stayed at a place that was half way between Deve Gowda’s place and the resort where the legislators were holed up.

On a less facetious note, I agree with the thinking gaining ground that whatever has happened is with the blessing of H.D. Deve Gowda, who has engineered this to ensure that his son gets the Chief Ministership. What does he care what happens to his party. And I am sure nobody is under any illusion that he might actually have even remotely thought of what is good for the state.
I wonder what Mr. Narayana Murthy has to say to all this. His views on this madness would be interesting.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

IIM Bangalore and its Memorandum of Association

Quite a few newspapers and Television channels reported, in angry voices, that the autonomy of IIMs’ was under siege again. How can MM Joshi oops Arjun Singh not allow it to set up a campus abroad? Former Singapore PM Goh Chok Tong jumped into this debate and said it was "India’s loss". Mr N.R. Narayana Murthy, ever ready with a quote, spewed venom at the government decision while receiving an honorary degree in Kochi. Tsk tsk. The poor IIMs, held hostage by a madcap government.

But hey! Just a second. It turns out that the Memorandum of Association of IIM Bangalore does not allow it to establish a brick and mortar campus overseas. Oooh! I wonder why nobody is talking much about this humungous slip-up by IIM Bangalore. Surely something as elementary as this should have been taken care of even before thinking of venturing abroad. And if this is the same thoroughness with which IIM B will do things then may be they should not be allowed overseas after all. ;-) Juuusst kidding guys. But seriously, if someone working in a corporate entity goofed up like this he/she would have definitely got a black eye.

I guess in all this it helped that the reason given was so asinine. The IIMs are expected to handle all demand in India before venturing out. Sure! So it does it mean that all aspirants should get a seat?

Let’s wait and watch how things develop on this front. Should be interesting viewing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The women in Nehru's life

Note: This is an excerpt from the Best Seller "I was Nehru's Shadow" by PV Rajgopal. The book is an edited version of the diaries of KF Rustamji, the Chief Security Officer of Jawaharlal Nehru.
A lot has been written about in recent years about the women in Nehru’s life. Nehru was a man, who, like all men at the top, was very lonely. He was often alone. He longed for exchange of ideas with women. I am not sure that justice has been done to JN by all the insinuations and statements that have been made about him and his friendship with Lady Mountbatten and Padmaja Naidu after the death of all the three persons. Having been so close to him, I should know.

Nehru and Lady Mountbatten were good friends. What was the relationship between them? Obviously one of an intimate friendship. One (JN) had been moulded and influenced by England. The other (Lady M) had been influenced by India. Both were friends because they found something novel in a person affected by the thing he or she loved. He was aristocratic and so was she. And both were in love with people, feeling for them, wanting to help them, dedicating their lives to the service of others.

There was forthrightness about Lady M which was typically English, and so was the clipped accent, the high-powered smile and the short, sudden gasp of breath with which ‘pucca’ English women indicate surprise or boredom, or do it merely because they do it so well, so often.

Her feminity was utterly charming. The sweet kisses to the ladies, the testering high heels, the smart frocks, the nail polishing in the plane (“my nails are all clipped trying to pull the ashtrays out in this Russian plane”), the exquisite perfume and the totally unconcerned manner of the gay ‘20’s with which she powdered her face at the breakfast table - all these - I noted with fascination.
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‘Dickie’ always hovered about the edge of the conversation. ‘Dickie’ said this or that - was interested in this - was always right about military affairs, politics, fishing, whatever you want. And, of course, there was always something which could be taken back for him - paintings from the caves, guide books of Ajanta, a mango from the fruits served in the Aurangabad Hotel, gifts presented by village children. He was there all the time with us in the tours; if not in person, in the desire to please him.

Lady Mountbatten had a very young figure although her face looked elderly. Once seated next to her in the plane, I could not but help looking at her feet—delicate, thin, with a most pronounced arch – in fact an exaggerated arch, but very attractive. She was very particular about her clothes and appearance. She was the type of woman whom the PM seemed to like—independent, opinionated, cheerful, even brilliant in conversation but affectionate and sympathetic.

The other intimate friend of JN was Padmaja Naidu. One could write a lot about her and still fail to describe her kindness, her inimitable sense of humour, her poetic expression, her frankness and “say-what-you-will” attitude with JN, her undying love for her mother (Sarojini Naidu) which brought a tear in her eyes whenever she talked about her; her indefatigable championship of the Muslim widows of Osmanabad, and her tirade against Union officers, her interest in solid social work, her love for Hyderabad and her interest in pornography or her desire to wash her hair every day on tour. There was much about her that was noble and kind – and yet petulantly feminine. Padmaja Naidu was a good friend who was already to help with the type of advice that only a good woman can give.

Another woman who tried to get close to JN was Mridula Sarabhai. She became an absolute nuisance to the security people. Mridula Sarabhai, the heavy browed, tight-hipped woman with straight bobbed hair—heavy shoes, and a deep melancholy eyes seemed to be a frustrated woman. She seemed to have loved only one man—grandly, unapproachably, even unattainably - Nehru.

Her frustration found relief in “protecting him.” Every few days she circulated a letter to people high up, informing them of some vague secret conspiracy, which she had heard casually from a boy in the street when she was passing by. Or if it was not a conspiracy, it was some slackness in security in Parliament, in the PM’s house or in the Delhi Police.

One reason for the letters was her desire to protect JN and another and perhaps more important reason was to attain influence in the political and official world. To everyone in the Congress and the Secretariat, she was a friend of Nehru, although JN himself could see through her game.

Monday, January 16, 2006

"Rang De Basanti" vs Maneka Gandhi

What is it with Maneka Gandhi? Now she has objections over Aamir Khan riding a horse in Rang De Basanti and the three bulls, two dogs and half a cat used in the same film. Good God. Not again!

It is not my contention that these animals were not treated badly. May be they were, may be they weren’t. I do not know. But has Maneka Gandhi noticed how the film industry functions in general? Or the way junior artists and stuntmen are treated in the Indian film industry? Forget junior artists even someone like Amitabh Bachchan shot two years for Kaun Banega Crorepati “with some of my most medically complicated shortcomings”. He shot for Sharaabi with his hand in the pocket because in an earlier accident a bomb went off and turned his hand into a “meatball”. Such is the nature of a shoot and the film industry. It just doesn’t matter who/what you are or how you are feeling that particular day – the work just needs to get done. And if in the process actors get inconvenienced, tough luck. Now is Ms. Maneka Gandhi going to object to all these too? I think not.

This does not mean that I believe that animals should not be treated kindly. Of course they should be. I have seen documentaries where elephants were trapped, stunned with electric rods and the flesh on the foot sawed – yes sawed, to prevent them from attempting any escape. It was a heart rending sight. Such incidents and the rampant poaching that takes place in India show that a vigilant SPCA is absolutely necessary.

But, and here is a big but, there is something like going overboard. And the problem with doing that is the legitimate concerns espoused later get laughed at. Objecting to animals being used in film shooting is to my mind ridiculous.

In my humble opinion it is better to let these minor misdemeanours be and go after the big ones. Why is it that Maneka Gandh does not create a huge ruckus about the rampant poaching of the big cats? The proliferating trade in animal parts and skin? These are issues that need to be dealt with and not cosmetic ones such as supplying “supporting artists” to the film industry.

Incidentally was she not a Central minister not too long ago? What did she do about these issues at that time? It is probably time for her to go after these real issues and stop sensationalising an obviously serious problem.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

People of Indian Origin & their Hyderabad Conclave

Now that the dust has settled on the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas held in Hyderabad, what struck me was that every state Chief Minister who came to address the gathering had only one thing to say, “Give us your money”. Of course some were a bit more dignified and also said, “Give us your expertise” but the thrust of the session was the same. How do we gouge some moolah out of these chaps? Not one word was said about what could be done for the People of Indian Origin (PIOs). Not a pip about how the problems of the Diaspora could be solved.

Yes, a fast developing country like India does need its Diaspora to invest in its economic development but harping on it to the exclusion of everything else did leave a bitter taste.

Any relationship, if it has to be successful, has to be symbiotic. If the PIOs feel that the only reason they are being called is because they can shell out some money then they will stay away. In fact this is already happening. The number of PIOs attending this conclave has reduced drastically and will reduce further unless there is a change in governmental attitude.

The tragedy is that the concept itself is such a wonderful one and can be used so effectively. A conclave of this nature is a great (social) networking arena and can help all PIOs to find and interact with each other for their mutual benefit. Not just when they are here in India but also when they go back to their adopted lands.

It can be used by the young generation of PIOs to explore their country of origin and to find their roots. Imagine if we were to help in this voyage of self-discovery, how very grateful these young people would be. Instead what do our politicians do? They tell the PIOs, “Give us your money”.

A Better Farewell for Saurav Ganguly

On the eve of the India-Pakistan cricketing encounter I find myself thinking about Saurav Ganguly. Oh! Saurav, what a sad sad come down. From captain of the Indian cricket team to its most unwanted player. All in a matter of a couple of months.

I am the first to admit that I am not a great fan of Ganguly. He is vulnerable to the short pitched stuff, is bad at running between the wickets and I am definitely a better fielder than he is. But having said all that one has to admit that he brought in a fighting spirit to the Indian team. He gave as good as he got and taught the team to do it too.

People say that the way he behaved with Steve Waugh in the 2001 series – not turning up for the toss on time etc – was not very professional conduct. True, but that was his way of getting under Steve Waugh’s skin. And by god did it help. Aided by Laxman’s and Dravid’s fantastic batting India won a series that nobody expected us to even put up a semblance of a fight.

Saurav was pugnacious, overbearing and probably too opinionated. But that was the requirement of the time. His opponents may not have loved him but they, especially the Aussies, knew that they were in a fight when they took him on.

Which other Indian captain has done that in recent times? Azhar was a thorough gentleman. He even tried making up with that crook Hansie Cronje on-field, when he was abusing Azhar on our tour to S.Africa. Sachin Tendulkar was also a very mild captain.

Enter Ganguly and all this meekness changed and he won matches for India both as captain and batsman both at home and overseas.

Given this background I think he definitely deserves a more dignified end to his playing days. Hopefully he will get it on this tour to Pakistan.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Tehelka II

Another day another scandal. This time it is about politicians taking money to ask questions. And good old Aniruddh Bahal (Yeah! the same chap who won the bad sex writing award) has got another scoop to his name.

The breast beating that has followed is really funny. This episode has apparently “lowered the dignity of Parliament” and “angry members” demanded “stern action against the guilty”. I am sure!! Laughable.

A few of them would have gone back to their govt. bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi after their bouts of indignation and anger was demonstrated in Parliament and heaved a sigh of relief that they were not caught on tape. Bad for business all this sting wing thing. What now. I am sure there is a bunch of very annoyed Parliamentarians bemoaning a loss of yet another avenue of income. Pity these poor chaps.

But really, on a slightly more serious note, is it all that bad. Sure they did take money. And to ask questions about Catch 22 Cotton etc. So what? Why has the political establishment got its khadi pyjamas in a twist? He is merely asking a question. This highlights an issue. An issue that is close to the heart/wallet of the interest group concerned. If it is against national interest what are the other politicians doing? What is the government of the day doing? Surely they can ensure that nothing nefarious happens? Or can’t they?

If we are so aghast at this why does the Indian Government hire Lobbying firms on Capitol Hill and to lobby with the Parliamentarians in UK? Is that not the same thing? If Somanath Chatterjee, Pranab Mukherjee, L.K. Advani et al believe that what has been exposed is a shameful thing then what we are doing in the capitols of US and UK is just as shameful and the Indian Government is paying these firms the taxpayers money - our money. So maybe they should stop that too.

Or best get rid of the hypocrisy and recognize that these things happen in a democracy and ensure that it is done in a transparent manner. After all that immortal question remains, “Who will guard the guardians?”