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Book Review – India’s Most Fearless

Published September 26, 2017 by vishalvkale

A BOOK LONG OVERDUE
India’s Most Fearless is a book that has been long overdue – a book dealing with the stories of some of India’s decorated Armed Forces Personnel. We are a nation that for some reason lacks the literary habit of documenting the exploits of the heroes who defend our borders and our people; not only that, we lack a habit of covering the stories of these heroes, these brave soldiers once the immediate relevancy of the situation fades, and the passage of time brings fresh memories to the fore. Therefore, it is great to see a rising tendency of documenting these heroes; the current book is the second book in that genre, with the first being The Brave -Paramvir Chakra Stories, the story of our Paramvir Chakra vijetas.


THE AIR FORCE AND THE NAVY
The other great part of this book is the equal prominence it gives to the three arms of the Forces : The Army, The Air Force, and The Navy. It is this which makes this book a must read, and not just for aficionados, civilians, but also for just about every Indian citizen who can read. For what is perhaps the first time, we get to read of the doings of our Naval Forces and our Air Force.  As a matter of fact, having read a news article on the IAF during Kargil as well as Gen Malik’s book on the war, there is a need to bring out the IAF side of the story and their contributions, if feasible under law.
The authors, or their advisors, or the forces, or whomsoever it was that gave this idea-  perhaps all of the above – deserve a standing ovation from all for this. The Air and Naval wings get the much-needed coverage, which brings out a full picture of the extent, scope and range of heroism on display; it also serves to put the required depth and understanding of the word  “Bravery”, as well as take us into at least some of the nuances of these wings of our Armed Forces.
WHY IS THIS BOOK DIFFERENT
How do you review a book that is centered on true stories of bravery, courage, sacrifice of the people we have entrusted with protecting us? You certainly cant analyse the content, not beyond a point; civilians don’t have the depth perception and understanding, domain expertise to pass judgement. In that light, I make no comment whatsoever on the content – I am not qualified. The question this review tries to answer is why should a reader read this book, what value it adds, and what extra does it possess? What is it that makes this different? I have raised one such point above.
The next point in this book is the coverage of the Air and Naval wings helps us appreciate the nature and context of these wings, a subject which we aren’t too aware of for various reasons. The difficulties of mounting operations in these wings, and the hardships and challenges they face in the conduct of their activities, the level of mental acuity, quick response and agility required, and the aspect of physical toughness required for even a sailer or a pilot is brought out well enough in these stories. You are left in admiration at all these qualities displayed by each officer in question in the stories, and how they saved the situation under the most trying of circumstances – Yemen evacuation, or be it near-crashes.
THE ARMY
Coming to the Army, what can I say – when I am reading the true and full story of a couple of events that are still fresh in memory- the two Surgical Strikes in Myanmar and Pakistan in the past 2 years? Here you will find their stories; but there is more. Oh, much, much more : and it isn’t all about war and fighting. As we saw above, here too, we see stories that help us understand what makes a soldier a soldier, and that it isn’t war alone that carries risks or requires toughness. This is the book that will drive home the hard point that our Armed Forces are required to be tough every day, every night, 24*7*365. Try doing that on your job, any job. Is this true? Being an Army Colonel’s Son, I know that for a fact. If you believe toughness and hardship is only in battle, read this book.
ABOVE ALL – THE FAMILIES
But above all of this; above the stories, above the courage – which by the way is of a mind-numbing variety; you will scarcely be able to believe what these heroes pulled off – rises the Armed Forces Family and their strength. Again, knowing my mom, I know this to be true. The stories of the families, their courage, their fortitude bring a tear to the eyes. You are left with no doubt in your mind that the real strength of these brave men comes from their families. A quiet and silent thanks is due to every single Army Air Force and Naval family… this book is a tribute to them, and my personal thanks to the author Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh for bringing this out in this tour-de-force.
CONCLUSION

Even in their deaths, these heroes end up teaching us something. In their courage, those who survived teach us something. The families teach us something. And I don’t mean patriotism, Jingoism or whatever. Being tough is essential – but each and every single one of these stunning stories is a tribute to the capability of the human mind, human spirit and what it can achieve if it can be trained to keep its cool, keep calm, as that brings out the toughest responses to any situation. Reading this book is like an adrenaline shot, as it teaches you the merit of calmness and reasoned response! 

But at the last, The Entire Indian Army, Air Force and Navy deserves a note of thanks for their cooperation in allowing these stories to be published, so that we can all learn from the deed of our Brave men, so that we can all appreciate our protectors all the more… 
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My Bees and their Beehive

Published September 23, 2017 by vishalvkale

THE BEES COME TO ME…
I count myself lucky that I had a massive beehive right outside my living room window, on the window concrete sun-shade slab. For several months, the two of us- the harmful and dangerous human being, and those harmless gentle honey bees – co-existed without any trouble to each other. They didn’t bother me, and I didn’t bother them. But this period have me insights both into Honeybees as well as human behavioral aspects, insights that I shall carry with me my entire life. The images of this honey-beehive are given below, which can highlight its closeness to my habitat.
I first noticed them when a few came inside from the open window; I was at a loss as to what to do, till I figured out they were attracted by the light. Only then did I spot the Beehive, and nearly panicked & spoke to the society incharge for immediate redressal of this “grave” threat to my habitat and existence. The bees – they didn’t care too much for me, ignoring me as irrelevant, unimportant and useless, an observation I now agree with!



THE BEEHIVE
Note that-  both of us were close – very close, physically, to each other. And yet, I – the larger animal was scared, while they, the infamous stinging bees, were unconcerned. My existence was as much a danger to them; perhaps a greater danger – and yet they co-existed peacefully. We weren’t causing each other too much inconvenience; and yet the Human Being felt threatened. They didn’t sting me, or anyone in my certain knowledge – and yet, we felt threatened by them. Threatened enough by their mere closeness to us to have them removed forcibly. So who is the greater danger to whom? Humans to the bees or the bees to the Humans?



This interchange is emblematic of our overall interaction with the environment and the way we permanently reshape and alter it. While I don’t deny the presence of some risk, the chances of a stone hitting the Hive causing the bees to get irritated did exist, to be frank; the fact remains that the Bees, by themselves, had done nothing to harm or inconvenience us in any way. It only meant that we could keep the Jali windows open, that is all. Even if the bees came inside- they didn’t harm us humans at all. They committed suicide by getting pulled to the light. And yet, instead of finding ways of co-existence with the environment we seek to alter it, just so we can be slightly more convenient and comfortable.



Now move in a little closer – note the execution perfection of the hive, the complete and wonderful perfection displayed by the hexagonal cells and the way it all comes together. This has been achieved by over several hundred individuals working in tandem towards a common goal; I regretfully accept that as of now, I don’t see how we humans can achieve this incredible level of teamwork shown in these images above. And when the hive was broken – the perfection with which they removed the remains in a few short hours was simply breathtaking!


TEACHINGS BY THE BEES AND THE BEEHIVE
But above and beyond this – the Beehive taught me some other, pertinent and valuable lessons in management, human behaviour that left me speechless. Having observed them from so close for so long –  a distance of barely 2 feet from the 2 feet by 2.5 feet by 8 inches beehive gave me lessons that shall stay with me my whole life. Look at the images above now- and observe. Observe the stunning, nay – mesmerizing teamwork in the way these insects, which aren’t sentient beings, settle together on the hive; observe their focus and their commitment to the common good of the hive. And when disturbed – the speed with which they relocated and renewed taught me a lesson in execution in uncertain times.
This is something that is never found in us Humans – despite being sentient, highly intelligent, thinking, literate and in some rare cases – educated people. Despite this, Humans have rarely, if ever, displayed such commonality, speed and dedication as displayed by these bees. And whenever we have done so – either wonders or disaster has followed. The reason for that is our desires, ambitions play a major role in taking us away from the common purpose, and drive us towards individual achievements, thereby unmaking the good of teamwork. And this happens in almost every Human Endeavour.
Thus, while on the one hand, our higher intellect has made us capable of achieving wonders, our attendant desires have made us incapable of actually achieving those same wonders! Curiously, it is dreams / desires that aid in unlocking potential – unless you desire something, dream – you cannot figure out that such a thing exists -which is why bees will remain bees. But these same desires, when unhindered – binaa lagaam ke ghodaa,  a horse a without a rein – lead us astray, both on an individual level as well as collectively.
ANIMALS & INSECTS VS US
It is rather surprising and more than a little shameful if you think of it – animals and insects, operating without a high intellect, can pull off wonders with teamwork; and we Humans, with our high intellect, cannot do anything on a similar scale. When you consider that every Beehive, and many other animals / insects, do it universally, the Human folly of individualism – given to us by western civilization in some ways as well as  driven by our own nature & selfish desires – becomes all the more shameful. The thought of what we can achieve if we were to learn to work together for a common good is tantalizing, and highly attractive – but extremely hard to pull off in reality, considering the ground realities. At this point, take a close look again – you will find a few types of bees – all doing their own roles expertly.
THE POSITIVE POWER AND THE NEGATIVE PROBLEM OF OUR DESIRES
Human desires are our main strength – they drive innovation, and are indispensable. And Human activities are also hugely diverse; thus, the learning we can take from this above example is simple this: we have to find ways to marry the two – individual desires & individual abilities and weld the two into one powerful whole. Therein lies the gist of what leadership is truly about: it isn’t about getting those numbers, that bottom or topline, or whatever. It is about selecting, training and placing the right person for the right job to enable organizational performance and excellence. Each individual has strengths and desires – we just need to, as individuals and as leaders both, find the right sweet spot. In other words, we need to stop chasing the crowd, find what we are good at, choose from these what gels with our desires, control the both of them – and execute.
The above rarely, or rather, almost never happens. We go by rote, we follow the herd, be it education or be it jobs; we rarely analyse and understand either ourselves or our teams, or indeed the organization and the situation, and blindly ape the rest of the world : forgetting that it is the constant execution of the small tiny things that ensures excellence. Forgetting that control over desires, understanding innate talent and strengthening it is the way to succeed, not following the herd. Watching that Beehive gave me these powerful insights, insights that had laid dormant in me – as evidenced by my previous thoughts on this matter.
APPLICATION TO ORGANISED HUMAN ACTIVITY
This applies for organisations as well as individuals; I fact- all organized / individual activity – if you don’t have the right team to execute in a changed external atmosphere, or if your analysis is not as per ground realities – you are almost certain to fail over the long term. The difference between humans and bees can manifest here : a human beehive would probably not be built on the lintel of another species residence, as the inherent danger should be obvious to us. And yet, we always disregard, and build our beehives {individual lives / organisations etc}  the same way, unmindful of the long term risks posed by our approach and our strategy! As proof, we simple have to list the list of brand and company failures in the past…
SAYING BYE TO THE BEES AND THE BEEHIVE
But the worst part of this entire episode was that I had to, with great reluctance, let go of the Beehive as my colony and my society wouldn’t have it any other way. What is worse, neither would I; the long term risk of an irritated nest so close to home was too great. Yet, it is noteworthy that, left to their own devices, the Bees would not have troubled me at all. In fact, I had gotten used to them living a few feet away. The complete inability of our species to adjust for the environment, and how far we have gone away from it – is the saddest aspect of all.
I for one am very delighted that Parmatma chose me to see this wonder barely 2 feet away from  myself on a daily basis, with its rapturous perfection, teamwork, execution excellence and genius – and the superb beauty of the natural order of things… they have taught me the true meaning of leadership, the true purpose of a leader; they have taught me management; but more than that, above all – the Bees and the Beehive has taught me the power of the environment, and how it is we Humans that are a problem with our ever-increasing desires and selfishness, and lack of adjustment capability… 

Book Review – Assassins by Mukul Deva

Published September 21, 2017 by vishalvkale

Ravinder Singh Gill is back; and he is back with a bang! I, of course, refer to the character Ravinder Singh Gill from the Mukul Deva stable of fiction – the latest book under review is Assassins, a Ravinder Singh Gill Novel authored by the king of action thrillers himself – Mukul Deva. And, though I am frankly tired of saying so now, yet again – the novel is c.o.m.p.l.e.t.e.l.y different from the others; each novel of Mr Deva is different unique – and this is no exception. The story, the plot, the flow and the narrative are different yet again; only the pace is the same – again, a Mukul Deva signature.

Mukul Deva

THE PLOT,
The plot essentially carries on from its predecessor – “The Dust Will Never Settle” {Reviewed on my blog here}. The main protagonist – Ravinder Singh Gill has now retired, and is in effect convalescing after the personally shattering events of that mission. Unfortunately, intelligence is received on a forthcoming attack on the Pakistani ex-dictator as well as the Prime Minister during a visit to India. That brings to India one of the close friends of Mr Gill, now a top British Lawman, who manages to get Ravinder Singh Gill involved in the hunt, given that the suspected hitman is their common once-best friend.
The 3 share a personal tragedy – which has clear ramifications for all during this hunt; the hunted killer – Leon Binder – blaming Gill specifically for a sad tragedy; Edward Kingsley – quiet but disturbed on this matter; and Gill – for whom this tragedy was going to increasingly come back, just as for Binder. To make matters more interesting, Leon Binder is getting all status reports from within the hunter team of law enforcers, making for a terrifying climax to this story.
THE ANALYSIS
As you can see, there isn’t much of a plot that I have stated; the book blurb on the back of the book says even less, almost nothing in fact. And for that, there is a reason – no way I can tell more without lessening your reading pleasure, so let us leave it at that. The book is, from page one, a classic hunt novel, right till the last page – one unbroken, breakneck speed unputdownable book; the story of a chase. And not just any chase – for all the key characters, it is the chase of a lifetime, of a career.
The plot unfolds from 3 perspectives – the hunted killer perspective, as Leon Binder goes about laying his plot to kill; the treachery perspective as the traitor – who is revealed from the start – goes about betraying his own pals colleagues and seniors, and the hunter perspective, that of the story of the hunt. If this reminds you of Forsyth – stop comparing, for it isn’t similar. The admixture of human emotions, frailties, tensions and past history makes this not quite so simple a story. And the classic admixture of desires, fears, ambitions and personal plans of each main actor in the story makes it absolutely unique.
Each perspective is detailed exhaustively, building a complete background as you are able to relate to each character as a human, a real living person rather than a bare literary figure. Each character comes alive in front of your eyes as you  read, which is the highlight of this book. The way continuity has been maintained in the character plot is sheer class, a point where several top authors of chain novels falter, as I have noted for one previous chain series earlier.
As the hunt gets personal, the tensions ratchets up fiercely as no quarter is asked for and none spared; the hunted killer and the traitor staying one step ahead of the hunters for the most part, making for a very highly tense and riveting read. However, the narrative doesn’t feel dark, unlike one other novel of the same author, which is quite an achievement. The pace is simply too fast, too frenetic, as parry and thrust, counter and counter-counter come one after the other from each of the three sides of the equation.

Adding to the tension is the exhaustive detailing of each strategy as the players do their best to emerge on top in this novel – one of the finest hunt and chase novels I have ever read, to be completely frank. You will be forced to control your impatience, forced to stop yourself from peeking ahead and skipping a few pages to see how things turn out, as the tension builds, yet – the pull of the narrative keeps you glued to the current page. As I said – one of the finest hunt novels in a long, long time indeed!

Book Review : India – Priorities For The Future By Bimal Jalan

Published September 10, 2017 by vishalvkale

India – Priorities For The Future is a book that can be best described as being at the cross-roads of politics and Economics, which makes it quite unique. It is a very thought provoking and deep analysis of this intersection of these two vital aspects of our nation, concerning itself with the Economy of the country, its performance through the years in numbers as well as Macro Factors; and the political aspects of this, that is – the decisions, involved decision makers, systemic weaknesses and plus points as they exist and what needs to be done.
Bimal Jalan


As can be seen from the short preamble above, this is quite wide a scope, and seems daunting. The best part is that the entire scope has been dealt with remarkable aplomb and sufficient depth, while at the same time not exceeding too many pages. This is a very short, {well – relatively short anyways, considering the topic and the scope – 180-odd pages} book, and all the arguments are presented in a superbly logical and yet delightfully succinct manner.
The book is divided into two logical sections – “India Then”, reflecting the period from 1980 – 2000; and “India Now”, reflecting the period from 2000 onwards till 2015. The first section highlights the initiation of the reform process that started in the 1980s, and the second section looks at the situation and strategies taken up from the 2000, till almost the present time, 2015. While looking at the economic side, the book also consistently looks at the political side as well, taking pains to analyse the impact of the political situation and the political aspect of economic decisions.
This approach is what sets the book apart, and elevates this into the realm of one of the finest books to be written on the Indian Economy, as it creates a complete picture in broad strokes of where we are, where our weaknesses lie, and where we need to go in order to develop and take the nation forward. In fact, in more ways than one, it highlights the politico-bureaucratic bottlenecks and problems, and looks at how these can be overcome. That is the main thrust; the arguments, however, are economic and developmental in nature rather than political.
THE FIRST SECTION- The 1980s onwards
It is the general impression that the Indian Economy was reformed from 1991; this book puts paid to that impression, and takes one into the reality: the reforms process which started in the 1980s, the reforms taken then with steps like loosening of direct controls especially in Industrial Licencing. Several committees were set up on trade policy, PSU Policy, and shift from physical to financial control. Several of their recommendations were implemented. The result was industrial growth averaged 8% from 1985-1990 as an example.
Despite all of this, by 1991, the situation was dire, and the Economy was in doldrums. This is where the book acquires a life of its own, so to speak – and does a hard-hitting fact based politico-economic analysis of the fall of the Indian Economy’s reasons in three hard hitting chapters. The stunning aspect is that this fall happened when the Agricultural production was at its peak, and Industrial production was showing good growth.  The fact that the Economy despite that is a wonder, and needs explanation – I recommend you read the book for that.
Also in this section is a superb analysis of the Economic Strategy of the 1950s onwards, with solid reasoning, proving how no other approach was feasible given the overall conditions then in presence. This is a welcome correction, given the public misapprehension regarding this. As it moves into the late 1980s, we run into the paradox of good Industrial and Manufacturing, good Agriculture, in the run-up to the crisis. Here, the impact of the Gulf War, Oil Shocks, BoP situation. Collapse of the USSR, combined with our export scenario and unstable internal political environment In 1989-1991 – and how these carried into the crisis is a lesson in MacroEconomics for all readers.
THE SECOND SECTION – 2000 Onwards…
In my opening remarks, I had noted that this book is right at the intersection of Economics and Politics; the second part is where this book comes alive to transform into one of the most pertinent blunt and factual take-downs of our approach it has ever been my fortune to read. The author has gone deep into the Indian Economic-Political scenario, pulling out problems that we all  knew existed – but no one wanted to talk about… until now. The first section was a build-up, analyzing how we got where we are today, and what has been done. The second one takes off from there, building a classic case for some hard reform, and tackling the issues head-on.
As early as in the 3rd chapter of the first section, the author has identified lack of exportable products, the systemic problems plaguing us and the problems in the Public sector as contributory causes. Che goes much deeper in the second section, building the case for strong systemic reform, outlined in the magnificent last chapter of the book. The erosion of quality in the Public Sector has been discussed at some length again, pointing out the inability of the Public Sector to generate surpluses for investment over the past. Also noted are the growing Private-Public debate.
The most significant part of the book is the longest chapter, the 6th one – Politics and Governance, which forms the meat of the analysis in the book. It goes deep into the system of governance- looking at the Judiciary and its relationship with the Executive, and Legislature; the erosion of the values {or conduct to be specific} of the political class, accountability of the Cabinet – the myth versus the reality, noting with candid clarity that the Parliament and the Legislatures generally do what the Government wants them to do, rather than the other way around. He identifies the 3 key impediments – Deadweight of the past, power of distributional coalitions and growing disjuncture between Economics and Politics; concluding with a stunning observation on Pg 112-113 : Alleviation of Poverty is not an important criterion in determining electoral outcomes!
The next chapter – the 7th – is the shortest; but deals with the most fundamental aspect – the myth of the separation of powers, and once again in typical candid and dispassionate form. This looks at Centre-Judiciary Relations, Collective Responsibility,  Lack of accountability, Problems in Parliament and its functioning, and the Politicization of Administration. As can be seen, each and every one is a deep, systemic and fundamental issue where we need to introspect… The last chapter – well, I recommend you read it for yourself.
CONCLUSION

In conclusion – this isn’t a book on Economics, or on the Indian Economy per se. The title says India – Priorities for the Future; and that is precisely what this book is all about. As the books notes candidly in our development record as on date, our performance has many deep seated issues. These issues – the most important ones – are on the intersection of Economics and Politics; or rather – squarely in the Political Zone. Economics enters into it as we measure growth in Economic terms. Administrative reforms, Decriminalisation of Politics, Federation, Subsidy Rationalisation, Ministerial responsibility – if made more efficient, can have a defined impact on our nation and its Economy… 

Book Review – The 30 Something CEO by Vineet Bajpai

Published September 5, 2017 by vishalvkale

This is not a book for everyone – and these aren’t just my words; this is what the author has also opined in the course of this very thought-provoking book. This is for ambitious; hard working people; people willing to sacrifice; and people with a dream – and the willingness, courage and mental strength to continuously follow that dream for the elusive sweet smell and taste of success. This isn’t a book meant only for the corporate chap; anyone who has all the above – even one less wont do – can learn a lot from both, what has been mentioned in book, as well as what hasn’t been mentioned.
Vineet Bajpai
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Any book has both positives as well as negatives; in fact – anything in life has both aspects to it. This book is no different; rather than call them negatives, I will them them things the author has missed – for silence on an issue is not the same as disagreeing. There aren’t many of them, to be honest; but nonetheless, I would be being less than fair if I did not mention them. Hence, let me first tackle the task of the issues of silence.

MISSES
This is a book that identifies and gives insights on how you can succeed in any endeavor; given this theme, the most vital ingredient should be – values. There is no mention of this in the entire book; the second aspect that is needed is integrity and honesty – again, no mention anywhere. I am not a CEO; but basis my life experience, these three are among the most vital ingredients. In order that you run a clean organization, you cannot hope to survive without having these three – not with the pressures of running a modern organization. Compromising on these three will give short- to mid- term results, not long term. It may be that the author considers them a basic quality, that does not need mention. However, given the world we live in, it is vital that a straight linkage between these three and sustainable victory is established through the example of a role model.
PLUSES
Too many management gurus have neglected to mention quite a few of the points that find a mention in this book; and yet – it is a fact that what has been mentioned by the author is gospel, of that there is no doubt in my mind. Backbreaking hard work, sacrifice, work-life balance, belief in your dreams, persistence and resilience are all small-sounding words, and yet – there is no escape from even one of these; and no – these are not in abundance – I am in total agreement with the author here.
These aren’t so simple to understand; hard work, for an excellent example. This doesn’t mean staying late; you can stay and do nothing productive, trust me. How do I know that? Because I have on occasion seen people goof off, while adding no value. Hard work means actually working; it means making those extra sales calls; clearing those 5 extra documents from your desk and so on. Resilience doesn’t mean dogmatism – it means using your experience and judgment and effort to keep at it longer than others have been doing; this I know from personal example. I once turned around an area cause I wouldn’t admit defeat; and just doggedly kept at it. Result was an area that hadn’t performed for years gave its potential numbers. And trust me – no high-faluting management fundas worked; just hard work and resilience, just keeping at it.
These are the elusive soft skills trainers should be talking about; these are the learnings that managers should be trying to inculcate in their juniors, these are the qualities one should be looking for; sadly, these are the qualities that are far too often taken completely for granted. And these are core habits – in my opinion, you cant have a management training schedule that teaches you even one of these; you have to do it yourself.

The question will arise in the mind of everyone that why are these so important? The ones I have mentioned, and the others in the book that together create a powerful plus – these offer a person, a leader that slight edge over the competition; and in the modern world, a slight edge is frequently all that you need. There is much that is wrong with the business world; and doing all the things may not guarantee you success; but it will ensure you keep fighting fit and gung-ho even if you don’t succeed as much as you could have. For, realistically, to be at that height, you also require – as the book correctly spots, enterprise and the mental aptitude to take risk, and the education & intelligence to be among the fastest to spot an opportunity… 

Indian Economy – Problems as on Sept 2017, and Way Forward

Published September 4, 2017 by vishalvkale

The enclosed article {Biblio. 1} by Mihir S Sharma, one of the few straight talking Economists on Indian Media, does raise some excellent questions. It is a superb analysis of the shoddy economic management – and also raises the fact that something is indeed broken. The economy requires deep seated reforms at core levels-  not vacant sloganeering grandiose plans. Quite correctly, the need of the hour is attending to the real issues that confront on the Business, Trade and Economic Front; as well as a straightforward analysis of what is wrong, devoid of Jumlaas and vacuous statements.
  



MACROECONOMIC BACKGROUND – OVERALL
All Macro-Economic Parameters are in the doldrums, as should be evident to all but the most devoted Bhakt; the time is now ripe for us to rise above narrow parochial statements, and try and get to the root of what ails our nation on an economic front. High NPAs, Low Credit Offtake, Slowing growth for 6 straight quarters, slow export growth and an economy on Government steroids… and many other parameters that we can assess – all point to the facts that this are not right, and there is something wrong somewhere that need correction. What is more, we are already at 93% of the fiscal deficit target for the financial year, and this is just the first week of September.
A glance at the Economy does not inspire much confidence; and this isn’t cyclical in nature. Sure it will turn around on its own – some parameter/s in the external environment are certain to get positive over time – allowing another burst of high growth, which will push the required structural changes into the background. It is just a question of time. Question is -we now have the opportunity, and a clear political mandate, to get some real reform going; can we take advantage of this? This does seem unlikely, as Media and public is once again focusing on the small good news of GST July Returns, which is like celebrating a 4 in an ODI when you require 22 runs an over to win!
MACROECONOMIC BACKGROUND – THE BIG BOYS
The Big Boys of the Indian Economy have no appetite for investment; neither do they have the required resources in their Balance Sheets to take further risk. The small boys, always under-represented in voice in Media, with little or no public imagination behind them, go unnoticed. Their performance, with both Profit and Revenue slippage in 16-17, is also rather worrisome; all in all, a bleak picture. Add to this  the rather unfortunate fact that access to Institutional Credit for these small players is still far from as good as it should be, a fact that goes woefully under-reported. Thus, we arrive at a situation where it is Government spending which is driving growth; rather a sorry state.
MACROECONOMIC BACKGROUND – THE SMALL BOYS
Another article, again by Mihir Sharma – kudos to him for a series of stunning analyses – points out : “A recent analysis of listed companies by the Reserve Bank of India showed that companies with paid-up capital of under ~50 lakh saw net profits fall by 23 per cent in 2016-17. Companies with sales of less than ~25 crore saw revenue fall by 44 per cent. This doesn’t look like a sector capable of reviving the supply of jobs. Nor is investment here going to be easy; commercial bank credit has slowed so much, and the government has been so slow to resolve the banking crisis that alternative forms of financing investment will be needed: Corporate bonds, for example. But, naturally, that helps only larger companies. If there’s a revival, it will come at the top end of the scale.” {Refer Bibliography}
GST
Sure – the GST will deliver its benefits over a period of time, be it tax base, regulated transactions, cost savings for businesses et al – but that does nothing the change the fundamental problem – low credit offtake, high NPA, declining sales and investments and so on. The problems of the SMEs will remain as they are – access to credit, low technology adoption, distributed ownership and operations, managerial skill issues and so on. That leaves us two choices – treat this as cyclical, and applaud GST… or push our sleeves and get to task of attending to what is wrong, avoiding grandiose statements and plans.
AGRICULTURE
To make matters more interesting, 233 of 633 districts are monsoon deficient as on date, and adding to this is other detailed analyses of precipitation distribution, making things uncertain, though not a cause for Alarm yet. One can only hope for a decent precipitation September month. Agriculture is just coming out of a long rut, and has seen a spate of loan waivers; further, it is a contributor to only 19% of GDP. Its issues are a debate unto themselves, and are far longer terms horizon solutions, which we do need to take – but that is another story, to be taken up later. The question in this overall backdrop – what can be done, firstly for immediate respite and secondly for longer term improvement?
WHOSE RESPONSIBILITY?
 At this point, the Bhakts get personal and state – why don’t you suggest a solution? That is a fallacious approach to take, as it  diverts attention from the issues, and shrugs off responsibility from the leaders we have in Parliament, in various think tanks, institutions, and other similar places. It isn’t my place, a part of the public voice, to suggest solutions which require data, and access, and power – neither of which I possess. We have these institutions for a reason – and I can only point out basis hardcore facts and data that things aren’t going smoothly, that a course correction is long overdue. I and people like me can only serve to try and direct public and Media attention towards the right path.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE, AND BY WHOM?
On the longer term, one thing is clear – the SME sector needs to both upskill, upscale as well as get far better institutional support; some changes are being made in that direction, but far more is needed in various support terms from institutions. This is clearly a longer-term solution, and has further deep institutional process and structural reform that will be needed; not an easy thing to attempt, strong politician or not.  And thus, expecting an immediate revival in GDP, Jobs etc from this sector in the short term is expecting a bit too much.

That only leaves us with, as Mihir Sharma correctly points out, the larger boys – the ones who have scale, and established operations. In order that the NPA scenario gets clarified, credit offtake improves, and so on – it is essential we focus on these – or in other words, the domestic environment; rather than chase foreign money and investments, the need is to ensure local money gets mobilized for local investments, demand improvement steps be taken, private investment uptick starts post-haste; for, with the Government already at 93% of its fiscal deficit this year, it has little scope left in its balance sheets for any further activities – and last year, it was government investment that was a key factor in growth!

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Book Review – Flight Of The Unicorns: Lessons From India’s Startup Bubble

Published September 2, 2017 by vishalvkale

Startups are the in-thing in India, indeed – in the world nowadays; thus, when I spotted a book on the Startups in India and lessons to be drawn from them, I not just picked it up immediately, but also placed it at the head of all other to-read books; I normally have a stack of 4-5 new books which I routinely pick up on my surfing and touring. This book was of so current & important and so relevant a topic, that it moved to the top of the pile on the strength of its premise alone – being titled “Flight Of The Unicorns: Lessons From India’s Startup Bubble.”
Som Paul



The book is a look at the start-up scenario in India, divided into two parts : Rise and Fall of the Startup Ecosystem, and Trends and New Rules of the Game being the second section. The first section is way too short, concluding in all of 54 pages, around 25% of the book; this is too short a space and time devotion to this rather vital aspect, as it tries to cover too wide a scope in short, summary format. There are advantages to this approach as well; it creates a great overall picture, suitably buttressed by real examples and anecdotes from RedBus, Snapdeal, Flipkart, IndiaPlaza and many more.
The book sets the trend of the book early on – Going Global – with the very next chapter, with anecdotes on Sulekha, Justdial etc, and very correctly analyzing the trend of a success in one industry / nascent industry by a startup leading to hotting up of competition from the international players, and how the digital world is a global space. It is here that the first problem emerges in the book – it implies startups as being synonymous with cutting edge-technology & internet / cyber-space, ignoring the scope for other industries where digital and technology is not the be all and end all.
In the next 24 pages, it winds up the initial section, moving on to section two; while this is in keeping with the objective of the book as stated in the introduction / foreword, it is nearly diametrically opposite to the title, which implies a study of how we went wrong and why as the primary focus. Here, my humble submission to the author – how many people read the introduction and the foreword? Precious few do; thus, the intent of your work will, or rather, might, create mild dissonance in the reader.
To be fair, the book has, in this short but exceedingly sharp analysis, summarized most of the problems ailing startups in India {This includes; inefficient operations; overestimate market size; Tier-2/3 city issues; scalability issues; compensations; systemic inefficiencies; process issues; shoddy Busines Plans} … an achievement of some note, and shows the research and effort that has gone into the book. I hate to give it a comparatively low rating – but am forced to rate it only 3 or 3.5 stars – it certainly deserves more. The reasons will become apparent as we go ahead in this review.
Domestic Vs Global : It does make a few errors, though : for one – identifying Domestic Market focus as an error. With the deeper pockets of established companies of the Developed World, it is of primary importance that you home market be well penetrated and you be well-established in it. Going global with inadequate resources, or taking high funding just to go global without first having a strong brand internally does not make sense to my mind. As we saw in my review of The Google StoryReviewed Here– the dynamics abroad are very, very different, with deep university / research / incubation, talent, opportunity and funding support being readily available.
The Second Section  starts off with a nice revisit to the fundamentals, and tries to arrive at a set of principles of what make a good startup, and how to go about it. This is a first effort – subsequent research will of course break new ground – but the model presented is worth a look and does make a lot of sense. The best part is that it doesn’t stick to the superficial – but goes deeper, looking into specific process areas for focus, which is very welcome. Then it moves into completely unrelated territory, with a rather too detailed look into the Indian realities, background, SME Sector and its pitfalls, and so on.
The last part of the second section look into 3 example areas where Startups can add value – Education, Healthcare and Financial Inclusion. While the areas identified are excellent – the presented arguments are not as perceptive as in the paragraph above, with its look at deep fundamentals of how to set up a successful process-oriented, lean, fit startup that has a viable business model. This part comes across as merely a telling of anecdotes – sure, anecdotes that have deep learning; but anecdotes all the same.
The book then concludes with a section – a rather detailed and long lecture on the upcoming technologies and developments, keeping to its assumption of technology being the sole main plank for a startup. The problem in that is too many people have focused too much on technology – it is the application of the technology that matters, the business model, the market- present and future trends;  the processes; the GTM strategy. Technology by itself is just an enabler – and while we do need to keep updated, or risk obsolescence {Kores, Nokia} – by itself, it is nothing.

Any number of examples from business exist when technologies have failed to succeed in the market without the attendant factors being present in the ecosystem. What was required was a detailed look at the startup scenario – not basis Anecdotes – but detailed case studies. This is present – the problem is the anecdotal and friendly narrative style, that lessens the impact of the book. The points are all there; the research and the brainwork is clearly evident – as is the expertise of the author. The presentation, though, I am sorry to state, leaves a lot to be desired for. That said – all in all, this is a must read for anyone who is a startup entrepreneur, or a student of the Indian Startup scenario, or manager in startups in India or indeed, the world. a