Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Eight years ago, on 31st of March

It was a call from my elder brother, a doctor himself, that alerted me to the possibility. It was a second call 10 minutes later that jolted me into action. I rushed to the hospital. And found my father on the ICU bed. He was no more.

On 31st of March 2002, I was on a routine visit to the Indore centre of Professional Tutorials. It was a Sunday, but an audit was overdue, and I was conducting it alongwith the entire team at the centre. Around 12:45pm, my mobile phone rang. Deep into the audit, it took me some rings before I took the call. "Come to the hospital, Dad is not well", said my brother from the other side. "Sure, I will", I said and continued with the audit, hoping to finish it in another 30 minutes. In just 10 minutes, the phone rang again and my brother, slightly more impatient this time round, said "Come NOW."

I rushed out of the office knowing fully well what that tone of voice could mean. And my worst fears were proven true when I entered the ICU of the hospital. My father was on the bed, and a doctor was desperately trying to arouse him from his sleep, pushing a big needle into his heart, with some medicine that's supposed to act as a life-safer in cardiac arrests. I realised that the time has come for me to realise what he had told me earlier on more than one occasions -"A day will come when you will have to realise that we all travel alone, and it is our duty to give happiness to as many as we can in this journey. We must give back to society much more than we take from it."

These were precisely the words I used while designing the obituary advt in next day's newspapers. I hope it gave him happiness that I remembered.

I also remembered that just 2 days ago, there was an advertisement of PT in local papers, and my father had called me up to congratulate me. That was his habit. Every time a news article or advt of PT would appear in media, he would make it a point to call on my mobile and talk to me. He liked to do that. In fact, those were the last words we had exchanged - "Sandeep, I liked today's advertisement. Nicely done. How are you doing, beta?" And I had sensed that he was unwell. His voice was low, and not upbeat. I had asked him about it, and he had brushed it aside saying it'll go. (In fact, when his obit advt was printed, I suspected he may call me from heaven congratulating me for a good design).

My father Dr Govind Shankar Manudhane had come from a very small village named Erandol (near Jalgaon in Maharashtra). He hailed from a very proud family of modest means. His father, my grandfather (a famous lawyer) wanted all his kids to have the best of education. And they did have the best of it. My father's medical education was completed in Pune, Mumbai and Britain, and then he returned to a city he had never been to before - Indore. Like a true entrepreneur, he started his career with almost zero capital, struggling to establish himself as a medical practitioner, and would go for days without a single patient walking in. My mother recalls those days and I can imagine what a struggle it must have been for both of them to manage the clinic with the modest means at their disposal. He got married after he had settled himself to some extent, in the new clinic at Indore, which he had rented at a princely (actually) sum of Rs 300 per month (in the 1960s that was a very big amount). My father always made it a point to publicly respect the first family that helped him settle in Indore - the Jajodias. I learnt a very big lesson - always be grateful for acts of kindness others show towards you.

The fact that my father came from a very small village always amazed me. I say this because he would speak (and write and understand) English extremely fluently and effortlessly. So much for those who crib about their rural backgrounds!

It was only after my father passed away, that the full impact of the depth of our relationship dawned upon me. Till that day, I had taken the relationship for granted. Here was this hugely successful ENT surgeon, a thorough gentleman, extremely fluent at three languages (so much so that he could easily be confused for being an Englishman, a Malwa native or a Marathi) - my father, who would always be available for advice. So it was a given. But when he suddenly was no more, a strong sense of vacuum hit me.

The first 72 hours after his death passed by in rituals, ceremonies and managing the nitty-gritty. It was strange to see a gentleman who would eternally keep smiling, remain still. Totally still. The body being brought home from the hospital, relatives and friends gathering at the home, the ice-slab and formaldehyde injections to keep the body problem-free, the string of visitors to pay their last respects, the final moments when the body leaves the home (that's really a painful one), the funeral, the post-funeral get-together to share emotions and remembrances, the 13 days.. and the final moment when we get on with our lives. It's all a set system. It's all pre-defined. Over thousands of years, the rituals have evolved so wonderfully, and they have been perfected so rigorously, there's hardly a scope for error. There are seniors who magically pop up and guide you at each step - it's truly unbelievable.

I distinctly remember a senior uncle telling me just before the funeral pyre was lit "Beta, chehre par ghee zor se lagao, aur khoob sara lagao." I was applying ghee very gently to Dad's face (just before the funeral pyre was lit) but that clearly does not work. They need lots of it. That's practicality for you. One may be emotionally distraught but the process has to be followed absolutely properly. And then the pyre was lit, and all physical contact was lost forever. It's so strange - we hold our dear ones in our hearts, but feel it through physical touch, and when that medium is lost, one really has to dig deep inside one's heart (or mind) and feel it from there. And that can be very painful! In fact, when we went the next morning for asthi sanchay (collecting the bones that remain after the funeral), I felt strange. These were my father's bones!! The asthi visarjan was equally painful. One realises the stupidity of clinging to material things only when one passes through this experience. It all ends, one day. We return to where we came from. Dust. Or call it Mother Earth.

The meaning of human relationships became clearer to me, as days passed by. I remembered who all had come to pay their last respects. They say that the measure of a man's success is not seen by the way he lived, but the way he died. I was stunned to see the huge number of very respectable people who kept coming in for several days to our home, sharing their feelings about how Doctorsaab had magically cured them of their maladies, how his gentle touch and smile was still fresh in their memories, and how his diligence has cast an indelible impression on their minds. You really can't see all this when your father is alive. Unfortunately, the deepest of emotions in people's hearts emerge only when someone passes away.

As days passed by, I was realising ever more deeply the various incidents that had shaped my relationship with him. I remember vividly how angry he was when I did not perform well in my 5th standard six-monthly exams. He was so upset, in fact, that from the next day (till the final board exams day - we used to have board exams for 5th standard also in those times) he spent 2/3 hours every day with me sitting in the small family garden, teaching me step by step. All those sessions helped me score 95% in the final exams, and to become the school topper, and also one of the state's toppers, winning scholarships. He clapped his heart out in that function. Oh, what love! I doubt if I would have the same commitment towards my children. I might lose patience midway. He did not.

I failed to learn from my experiences of the 5th standard, and he had to repeatedly remind me that I could do well only if I really wanted to. And he ensured that his strictness led to really good results all through my schooling. I cracked all exams, including the NTSE exam in standard X, which helped me win a lifelong scholarship (till I would choose to study). The government was lucky, as I stopped studying after my graduation (much to Dad's chagrin)!

I remember to this day the name of each newspaper and magazine that he ensured was subscribed to, for the 3 of us (2 brothers, and a sister). All our growing-up years we read tonnes of books, magazines and newspapers. The Times of India, Naidunia, Chandamama, Nandan, Champak, Tinkle, Tintin, Archies, Bal Bharti, The Illustrated Weekly of India, Dharmayug, Indrajaal comics, Amar Chitra Katha... you name it, and we had it coming to our home. Year after year. Today when I look back, I realise that most of what I am is because of that exposure. He would always say "Padho, khoob padho. I'll never let you face any shortage of funds for books and studies."

Like a silly fool, once I confronted my Dad with a simple question - "Daddy, all other doctors invest so much in land and property. Why don't you do that?" His simple reply was - "My entire investment is in my three children. I do not intend to leave behind anything but three good citizens." The full importance of what he said was lost on me that day. Today, it hits me hard everytime I recall this! It was perhaps the most profound thing he ever said to me.

Every single birthday in my home used to be a true celebration. The mood used to be joyous from the morning, with songs played in high volume (we had an LP record with songs like "hum bhi agar bachhey hote..") almost all day through. Then in the afternoon, everybody would gather for cake-cutting ceremony and a really sumptuous meal, with badaam ka halwa for sure! My Dad ensured that every birthday of each one of the five family members was celebrated with enthusiasm. And yes, he was a photography enthusiast. We still have albums preserved from over decades of every possible event that happened! I have carried that habit with me!

I remember my siblings often complaining to my father - "Daddy (and Mummy), you love him more than you love us!" And he would always tell them - "Come on, I love you equally!" And there was a naughty smile on his face. I guess he did love me a bit more ;-) In the very early days (when I was perhaps 3 years old), he would often put me on top of the dining table and say "Naach beta!" and I would dance, and he would sing a nice little rhyme (family copyrighted!), and everyone would have a jolly good time. I tried that with my kids also, but was not too successful!

All my life, I never heard him utter a single abuse, a single foul word. The only one was perhaps "rascal" which he would sometimes use when angry. Other than that, he was a total embodiment of everything civil, genteel, and polished. Always well-dressed, clean-shaven and soft-spoken, his company was much sought after by his friends. His daily work routine was one of high discipline - getting up at 4am, reaching the OT (operation theatre) by 5am, coming home by 9am, reaching clinic by 10:20 am, coming home for lunch by 1:45pm, reaching clinic by 4pm, and coming home by 8:15pm. Six days a week at least. I saw him do this for 30 years. Imagine - thirty years! He was that dedicated to his profession, and to the well-being of all of us.

Diwali was always a very very special occasion. At his clinic, there would be an elaborate Laxmi-poojan, and the entire family would reach in time, especially me. Although my motives were different. More than the poojan, I was interested in the special samosas we used to get from the corner-wali shop after the poojan got over. Till this day, I remember every poojan, every samosa I ate, every cracker we burst on the first floor of the clinic (in the middle of a very very busy street). Then we would reach home, and prepare for the evening bash. Daddy was very fond of bursting crackers (not the very loud ones) and he would give my brother and me a lot of money to splurge on this! I have continued the habit till date. And yes, one more thing - he loved Sachin Tendulkar!

The day I made it to IIT was extremely special. In the summers of 1989, the IITJEE results were delayed by several months (due to teachers' strike) and we were on tenterhooks till July. Then came the results and bingo! I had earned JEEAIR 647 and made it to IIT Delhi. He was ecstatic as his dream had literally come true. I remember him prodding me since early childhood that "Tujhe toh beta IIT mey hi jaana hai". I did not even understand what IIT meant, but he made sure I realised it was something really worth aspiring for. It is important for parents to keep reinforcing the goals worth-pursuing in the minds of their kids, in their early years. Throughout my IIT preparation days, he was there by my side, at times making tea for me at 2 am in the night. Each one of those moments light up vividly in my mind today, though when I lived through them, they were just another day!

And then I passed out of IIT Delhi, and made it to all the IIMs. Again, he was ecstatic. I still remember him telling everyone this with tremendous pride! My mother would often remind him not to praise my achievements so much - "dimaag ghoom jayea iska, zyada taarif mat kiya karo!!"

But destiny had to strike its wonderful stroke of a seemingly irrational plunge. Like his true son, I went straight to the garage and started an education enterprise. I started Professional Tutorials (PT) in my family garage on 10th of July 1993, and all hell broke loose.

Dad was totally upset with my choice of a career. He thought I had gone mad, or that his misdeeds of past lives were catching up with him (the Bhagwad Gita philosophy). The mood at home was extremely tense for many months in 1993/94. But strangely, I was sure that I could create something meaningful in a teaching career, and maybe create even an enterprise out of it. I was ziddy, totally ziddy (after all, I was his son!). Slowly, in a few years, everyone saw clearly that there was no point in trying to convince me otherwise, and they all started praying for my success (hee, hee!). Ultimately, I did become successful to some extent, and Dad was very happy to see that I had purchased an office, and then even constructed a proper building (in the year 2000). That really made him very proud of me, and I was very relieved (I was scared that if I were to fail, he might feel truly bad about investing so much of emotions in me all through my early years, and it was imperative for me to succeed.) He even came to attend some conferences at PT, where he spoke. It was such a proud moment for ME! Finally, he had realised that I was not all that silly and wrong, and that I could actually do solid things.

In all this, I distinctly remember the tremendously inspiring incident of a senior Professor who came to our residence in 1994, called me for a counselling (by him, to me) looked into my eyes with a dead-serious face (that almost killed me) and said - "Young man, you really think you can make a career out of all this stuff you are doing?"  I swore to myself "Boss, kar ke dikhaoonga!" Ever since then, in my career as a mentor, I have never told any young man/woman such a thing :-)

My Dad kept advising me on money matters, which kept irking my mother always! But he would not stop - his advice would flow constantly. Children, after all, remain children always, for their parents. And that's how it should always be. I can totally relate with this sentiment, when I look at my own kids. There is no way I am going to stop advising them ever!!

I have realised a very deep truth about parents. The good deeds of our parents add to the social bank balance of children, that we keep encashing later. As I started working independently as an entrepreneur, I faced several challenges. On many occasions I came across people who went out of the way to help me because they knew and resepected my father. I realised that I had a very rich bank balance that my father left me - the bank balance of invisible blessings, good deeds, & solid karma. Trust me reader, there is nothing more powerful in this life than genuine positive karma. It leaves its indelible traces in the sands of time. Decades after my father helped someone in need, that 'someone' is always around to help me today. Awesome!

Another thing he told me on more than one occasion was "This human society is being run only by 10 - 20% of the good people. If they also turn corrupt, it'll all fall apart!" That really scared me.

In just another two years, two more of the most senior friends of my father also passed away. One of them, Shri H C Singh, was very close to me and had helped me through the initial years of PT through his strategic advice on various matters. A whole era had come to an end for me.

Given his strong sense of humour, on the 01st of April 2002, it was almost as if my father was smiling at all of us saying "April Fool everyone! I am going! Now you are on your own. You better behave well as I am no longer there to take care of you." I was badly upset on many occasions for several days after my father died. Of course, I kept it hidden from everyone (how could I show my weak face!!).

On the sands of time
Your love and blessings made me what I am
Gratitude would be too small an emotion
To repay and express what I feel
For we are not separate
For we are not spaced apart in time and existence
We are one, together
Our deeds, intent and goals make us one
The only way I can repay what you did for me
Is to do even better for others with all my emotions!

Monday, March 15, 2010

The 1000 days principles in Entrepreneurship

People often seek advice from others on Entrepreneurship. While a lot of those who do advise on such matters are obviously experienced people (having been there and done that), there is a general lack of broad guiding principles for an aspiring young entrepreneur who wishes to have a long term view of things. Keeping this in mind, I list below my learnings on the topic. The advice here will suit most businesses generally.
Before I begin, I must warn that what follows is not for the faint-at-heart. Enterprise creation is an adventure that's all-consuming. It cannot be done part-time, and it surely won't be successful that way.

The 1000-days principles in Entrepreneurship

The process of enterprise creation is a long one. But a structure does seem to work well, if followed rigorously. I feel that the following steps will stand a young first generation entrepreneur in good stead, as she tries to build her enterprise from scratch. The least it will do is minimise waste and senseless effort. Here goes!

The phases mentioned below are from the entrepreneur's perspective. The organisation will evolve on its own also, in parallel. As you cruise through this, it will be a good idea to remember the poetic punch that "A man who follows his heart does not expect the world to follow his point!"

A. The first 1000 days - Customers and Cash phase
For the first one thousand days of the enterprise being built, the only focus should be getting customers, and generating cash to meet the survival needs of the system. There can be no other pressing objectives. Since the issue of survival of the enterprise to the next level is the only one that matters here, hence these two objectives should override all other considerations. During this phase, if you are unmarried, good for you. If you are married, try getting your spouse onboard as well. During the first 3 years (1000 days), an entrepreneur should
  • Live with the simple driving dictum - Get customers, get customers, get customers
  • Focus on day-to-day revenues and cash generation activities
  • Personally interact with as many customers as he/she can to really understand their needs, offer on-the-spot solutions to problems, and build the first level of brand-confidence
  • Realise that 24x7 availability for customers (at least through phone) is a boon not a bane
  • Avoid thinking too much about profits - they usually won't happen now
  • Not think about other softer and grander issues - they'll follow later if you'll survive
  • Remind himself constantly that "if I don't survive through these 1000 days, it's all over. I'll be dead."
  • Get up early, reach office much before anyone else will, and not leave for home in the late evening until all followups for the day and next day's preparation is made
  • Make do with not more than 6 hours of sleep every day/night
  • Realise that work-life balance is possible provided he treats work as life!
  • Do not at all think about fancy software, fancy hardware, costly manpower, big a/c offices. The time is not ripe yet (even if you have enough money somehow)
  • Give up almost all "luxuries" of life that cost too much - take a train if flight is too costly
  • Realise that all that he/she does is creating a brand automatically - so branding, marketing and PR is actually happening without consciously being done under those 'verticals' and 'divisions'
B. The second 1000 days - Quality, and Systems and Processes phase
Congratulations! You have survived the first phase. Barely 10% entrepreneurs make it to the second phase, so obviously there's something special about you. I know what that is - total dedication you've shown to the cause of enterprise creation. So it is obvious that your customers have noticed it as well. Now you must realise that what you did on your own single-handedly through these first 1000 days needs to be institutionalised somehow, at least at a basic level. That's precisely where you need a quality culture to be created, and systems and processes to be built. This is what Raymond Kroc of McDonalds understood early in the evolution of the company, and hence went to extraordinary lengths to create the "Hamburger University" to train his people! Thus, in the second phase (the second 1000 days), an entrepreneur should
  • Constantly repeat what made him/her a success in the first phase
  • Start building a quality culture through his now-growing enterprise
  • Articulate a formal quality policy that's simple to understand yet powerfully worded
  • Tell everyone in the team what is simply not acceptable in terms of customer happiness and product quality - this is THE PHASE when your long-term culture will be created - mess with it now, and you have no culture left to bank upon and defend later
  • Realise that as the scale and scope of your business grows now, you need formalised systems and processes that capture the essence of what you as an individual did wonderfully well in your first phase, and which others in your team now need to do
  • Start communicating a lot, and aggressively (not impolitely) with his/her team members about the need for repetitive good experiences for customers (and that's possible only through processes and systems)
  • Realise that he needs to sit down on a PC personally to start documenting the various processes and systems that were used to reach this place
  • Create what we call the "Operations Manuals"
  • Realise seriously that this is the time when the very long term foundation of the entire business is being laid - it's not a joke, and do not treat it like a joke
  • Keep a parallel eye out for talented people, who will now start getting attracted to your enterprise (through market's word-of-mouth), and think of how you will recruit and retain them
  • Do not at all think about fancy software, fancy hardware, costly manpower, big a/c offices. The time is not ripe yet (even if you have enough money). Go for basic essential stuff only.
  • Avoid listening too much to costly "consultants" and fancy "management gurus" who can generally only talk big things, but can hardly deliver real value for money to struggling and upcoming entrepreneurs (like you are, at this stage) {remember what Dr Peter Drucker said - "I suspect the media calls me a guru because they find charlatan too much space to print!"}
  • Resist the temptation to expand aggressively - lots of people will praise you and show you the golden path to prosperity through rapid expansion! But listen ONLY to your heart - does it sound intuitive and ok to expand? Can you handle it, resourcewise? If no, then it's no!
C. The third 1000 days - HR and Team-building phase

Wonderful! You survived the second phase also. You have guts, and glory surely awaits you. For the six precious years of your life that you just invested in enterprise creation, now comes the time to build the next step for a bigger game ahead. In the third and very crucial phase of your enterprise creation adventure, you need to now religiously focus on building a core team of professionals, who are vertical specialists, and gel them together for a long play. Dhirubhai Ambani gave precisely this advice to both his sons, and also the liberty to create teams that they thought were best for their respective domains. In this third phase, you have to focus primarily on

  • Building a team that will stay with you for a long time ahead (at least 10 years)
  • Find vertical specialists who will create the "departments" or "divisions" or "verticals" that will define the key parts of your enterprise for all times to come (at least for next 10 to 15 years)
  • Get these key team members involved in the documentation and systems-design process - and be ready to face resistance, it's not easy!
  • Start focussing on HR processes that will sustain on their own without your personal intervention always
  • Make sure you interact with each new joinee at least once before he/she is approved by the "HR dept" and reserve your veto on their joining (or not joining) - nobody knows the enterprise's DNA better than you do
  • Start focussing on your personal wealth. This is the first time you will be doing so
  • Get a very good wealth-manager (advisor). A regular CA alone won't do. You need someone who is monetarily and asset-wise rich - only he/she can advice you on wealth matters (if that person happens to be a CA, good!)
  • Continue motivating the team for the things that made you reach the third phase
  • Keep interacting closely with all key business partners. No one should say you have grown big enough to not interact with them!
  • Do not indulge in vulgar displays of your wealth. It will adversely affect your image and make enemies out of friends. So if you can make do with a smaller car, no need to think of the Mercedes yet!
  • Be on the watchout for frauds - people who are trusted by you, but are actually not worthy of that. You will have your fair share of experiences; learn quickly!

D. The fourth 1000 days - Expansion, Branding and Finance phase

Now the game turns serious. You have an organisation that's beginning to stand on its own, you have revenues and profits (hopefully!), you have team-members whom you can trust, you have a decade of experience (how time flies!) and you have seen ups and downs to even out your animal spirits to a reasonable level (again, hopefully!). Having successfully done it at the national level, Sunil Bharti Mittal is now passing through this phase in terms of global expansion for the company. So what should you personally focus the most on, now? Three things basically.

  • Start thinking of expansion, if your business model allows for it
  • Expansion can take place in any manner - more offices, more locations, bigger teams, newer business venture(s), etc.
  • Since the organisation is likely to have a lot of positive energy at this stage, you are most likely to get good results from expansion
  • The biggest caution - keep a watchful eye against systems dilution. That can kill your brand in the long run otherwise
  • Secondly, focus on concerted efforts regarding "Branding and PR"
  • Become media savvy - start appearing for media interactions, press-meets, national PR and TV coverage
  • Get a really good PR agency to work for you, and if possible, develop a long-term relation with them
  • Get your branding language consistent and right. It's going to reap rich rewards for you soon!
  • Thirdly, focus on big-ticket Finance. It may be the time to go for private equity (PE) or a public issue (IPO)
  • At the same time, it may not be! All depends on your personal ambition regarding growth
  • These three areas are all strategic - and must be handled personally by the entrepreneur as much as possible
  • If done right, the fifth phase can be a totally different experience altogether for the organisation and the brand!
  • By the way, this is also the time when some serious investments will need to be made into creating the I.T. backbone for the organisation. Again, the magnitude of investments depend on what you expect from I.T. for your organisation
If you navigate these four stages properly and successfully, you can then focus on your personal life and wealth, and enjoy it to the maximum. After all, you are the elite member of probably less than 1% of those who started this journey several years ago.

Company-specific exceptions to the above description will always exist - WalMart invested aggressively in creating an aggressive I.T. backbone much before it expanded globally.

These are the most crucial four stages for any enterprise. Most of the embroynic action happens here. Of course, the years ahead are also full of action, adventure, suspense and drama! But the start-up phases get over with these four I have described. 

Finally, let me say this - if you are not the adventurer-type, please don't go in for all this. Your hair will turn white in a decade, your personal life will be messed up and all happiness and cheer will be lost - you truly need to have the unending passion and insanity in your DNA to be able to do all this, and live life to the fullest while doing this. It is not easy at all - so the next time you see a successful entrepreneur, salute her!

Wishing all young, budding entrepreneurs success in life! 

A comprehensive list of Questions and Answers on various topics is available here for your perusal - Click! 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Nandan's UIDAI dream - Imagining India truly!

His greatness lies in his all-surpassing intelligence blended with humility. One of the most successful Indians by any (all) standards, Mr Nandan Nilekani made a lasting impression on the audience today by his candid assessment of what he thinks of his UIDAI project.

First things first. Nandan is an IIT graduate, an icon of the Indian industry, India’s services-sector face to the world, one of the richest Indians, Über-cool (given his style and the way he carries himself!), and of course, one of the men who created Infosys.

Wow! What a story.

And then he gave it all up on one call from the Primer Minister of India. For what? For a government project. But wait a minute. This project is far bigger in scope and impact – it will touch every Indian’s life. It’s the UIDAI – Unique Identification Authority of India project.

I got a chance to listen to Nandan Nilekani live, at Indore today. He was invited to Indore for a Guest Editor assignment with Dainik Bhaskar group. Before I go into that, here is what the official website of UIDAI has to say about the project :
The key points I learnt from his speech, and personal interactions with him are as given below (these may not necessarily be his words, but my interpretation of what he said) :
About us
The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) has been created as an attached office under the Planning Commission. Its role is to develop and implement the necessary institutional, technical and legal infrastructure to issue unique identity numbers to Indian residents. On June 25th 2009, the Cabinet also created and approved the position of the Chairperson of the UIDAI, and appointed Mr. Nandan Nilekani as the first Chairperson in the rank and status of a Cabinet Minister. Mr. Ram Sewak Sharma has been appointed the Director General.
The Mission
The role that the Authority envisions is to issue a unique identification number (UID) that can be verified and authenticated in an online, cost-effective manner, and that is robust enough to eliminate duplicate and fake identities.
The Timelines
The first UID numbers will be issued over the next 12-18 months counted from August 2009. The first number would be issued between August 2010 to February 2011. Over five years, the Authority plans to issue 600 million UIDs. The numbers will be issued through various ‘registrar’ agencies across the country.

  1. The government of India realizes that the entire idea of public welfare through government intervention rests on some assumptions – the primary one being that various moneys reach the right persons through the right channels. Given the tremendous size of the nation and its myriad complexities, this is of course a compromised ideal, the level of compromise depending again on a host of complex factors.
  2. Over years, various kinds of technologies have been deputed to serve the need of speed, simplification and easy service to every stakeholder in the system. For ex: every government department has its own set of hardware and software installed, that is supposed to deliver some standardized output year after year. This has worked in some cases, and failed miserably in some others.
  3. There are hundreds of government departments that serve the public, and govern the public. Some of these are Central level, some State, and some others Local level departments. A citizen of India may interact with these departments at different points of contact, throughout his lifetime.
  4. The databases generated and collected through these different departments, over years, are full of limitations. Some parts of these are outdated, some are misleading, some are plain and simple wrong, and most are in no position to interact with each other. So there are clearly severe limitations in the way data is serving the public’s needs. And even the departments’ own needs.
  5. An all-encompassing vision in data-management has been missing. That’s quite natural, given the sheer scale and diversity of applications, and the different governing structures prevailing in a country the size of India.
  6. But there is one simple realization dawning on the policy-makers of India : Unless there is a single common system of identifying every Indian, most of the social welfare schemes (NREGA, Indira Awas Yojana, Mid-day meal schemes etc.) will only produce half-baked results due to continuous leakages. Since these schemes have taken a huge shape with the introduction of the massive guaranteed employment scheme called NREGA, the need for honest and reliable identification of beneficiaries has become a total must.
  7. So in simple words – we have to ensure that a Mr Ramkishore of Village Pratapgarh who is taking benefits of 7 different government schemes is actually the same Mr Ramkishore of Village Pratapgarh who is eligible to take those benefits!
  8. Thus, the Unique Identification Number of each Indian is the first step in ensuring quality, reliability and consistency of any social welfare scheme (or any other scheme for that matter). Every Indian must have a number associated with his self, that identifies him uniquely.
  9. So, the UIDAI is creating the “soft infrastructure” needed to power social welfare schemes and public bodies of tomorrow.
  10. To the question of how this “uniqueness” will be ensured, it is obvious that biometrics is one of the best solutions possible. The biometric parameters to be used will be – 10 fingerprints (from 10 fingers in both hands) + the Iris map of both eyes + the picture of the face. These data sets will create a unique set against which duplication etc. will be impossible. The Unique Identification Number will be thus mapped with these biometric datasets.
  11. The UI number will be demand-driven. The government will not force it upon the citizens, but will make a lot of services use this number, thereby increasing the need for everyone to have their own UI numbers.
  12. The UI number will not be a card, it will just be a number, that can be used on any other card – PAN card, Ration card, School Admission card, Scholarship card, Job card, Guarantee cards – anything!
  13. Once the unique number is created, and used on ALL types of other cards (databases) that the user is interacting with, these databases can then start interacting with each other, with at least this one thing in common. Till now, that mutual interaction was totally missing. So a common profiling of any user was not possible. Now, it will suddenly become possible.
  14. Put simply, the benefits of a Unique Identification Number will be
    1. Each one of us will be uniquely recorded in the government registers
    2. No confusion and no overlapping would mean clear, correct data
    3. Lots of databases can start interacting with each other meaningfully (this is far tougher than it sounds, as legacy issues and incompatibility issues will need to be sorted out, something that the UIDAI is not meant to ensure)
    4. The last person in the line (the poorest of the poor) will be officially and properly recorded in the government’s records. So good news for the marginalised and destitute, in our population
    5. Portability of a Unique Identity will become possible – something that’s largely missing today from the system
    6. Unique Identification Number will not offer any special privileges
  15. The UIDAI is created to ensure a unique identity for each Indian, nothing more. They do not promise any miracle out of this. They are only creating the basic backbone on top of which other Application developers can now creatively start building useful products and services. But the UIDAI is limited in scope to creating a unique number. That’s it.
  16. So the UIDAI will ensure that whatever and whoever a person claims he/she is, he/she actually will be.
  17. How will the Unique Identification Number help the Police department? That is for the Police department to figure out. They have the great tool for identifying people – now they have to work out ways to use this soft infrastructure.
  18. Over the next decade, several private sector application developers will emerge who may offer good solutions for various domains. That’s all in the future!
Wow! So many things I was not really aware of.

My observations about Mr Nandan Nilekani, and what success truly is all about
  • Humility – I was amazed to see the way he was carrying himself – no airs at all. Totally at ease with everyone, all the time.
  • Talking straight – I appreciate the way he said “I only promise you a Unique Number, nothing more.” That’s corporate candour for you! The Indian government surely got the right man for this job.
  • Domain knowledge – Nandan surely knows the way software, hardware and humanware have to work together to make a project of this mammoth a scale successful. His track record is all too visible.
  • Guts and Glory – Nandan took a bold decision to chuck his corporate innings and dive deep into new territory – full-time government assignment. That’s boldness for you!
  • Personal credibility – Someone said beautifully once “The messenger is the message.” Mr Nilekani stands tall and his presence itself is the guarantee.
Thanks Dainik Bhaskar for this wonderful opportunity and experience! I stand enriched today after this enlightening experience.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tharoor doesn't Budget his words while driving a Toyota, but CAT Topper was a real Holi!

I have five distinct themes to write on, in this posting. And the best way I could remember them was through the sentence that's the title! The themes I will write on are
a) Shashi Tharoor and his controversies
b) The Union Budget 2010
c) The Toyota fall-from-grace and learnings
d) CAT Topper (100 percentiler) from PT education, and
e) Holi 2010

Although each one of these deserves a full-fledged posting of their own, still!

a) Shashi Tharoor and his controversies
It is amazing to notice the speed with which this gentleman kicks up dust that ought to remain settled. He is handling one of the most sensitive portfolios in Indian government, and the terrific use of social networking site Twitter to share his hour-by-hour life is quite a revealing act. As a minister who handles such a key portfolio, either he does not have a lot of confidential work to do, or he is quite cool about the ways he should be adopting. To be sure, Tharoor is the first ever Indian politician (of this caliber and level) to use a public service like Twitter. This was also acknowledged in a high-profile programme hosted by a leading TV channel where the founder of Twitter Mr Biz Stone (speaking through video conferencing) thanked Mr Tharoor for popularising Twitter in India. So given the fact that this is the nascent stage, the rules for using such a medium aren't set yet. But the Indian political sensibilities demand that

  • he does not share too much stuff with the common man (too much to handle for many)
  • he remain politically correct always, and
  • in light of the continuous controversies he is raking up, either he sticks to his stand and does not apologise (which will show his determination and correctness) or he should quit his controversial ways.
Of course, things change with time. And people like Mr Tharoor can be the catalysts for such change. But right now it seems that the change is coming too fast, too dangerously! Honestly, post the Pune-blasts, I expected Mr Tharoor to tweet something solid and sensible, but it remained inane. So do we assume that public servants and public personalities will find their limits of expression fairly quickly in this much-touted medium?

Talking of Biz Stone, I was amazed at his sure-footedness when he replied to the query by Mr Anand Mahindra about buying shares in Twitter, by replying that "Well you are on the list whenever we go public, if we ever!" I knew that they had refused a mouth-watering offer from Facebook, but their sheer confidence is stunning. History is littered with unfortunate examples of seemingly unstoppable rising stars that just fizzled out before the owners could cash the cows. Let's hope this one doesn't.

No matter what happens. Biz Stone sure must have been delighted by that evening's massive attention.

b) The Union Budget 2010

It was quite a presentation! Anybody who needed a lesson in communicating under difficult situations must watch the recording of this show.

The affable, amazingly sagacious, and clever Finance Minister handled the budget in the manner his decades long experience told him he should - read fast, don't pause too much, bury the controversial stuff deep inside arcane economic jargon, and don't crack too many jokes (that start to involve others, and wake them from their slumber). I was reading the body language of the MPs when the FM was reading his text. For the entire first hour, there was hardly any reaction. In fact, many of them were dozing, yawning, looking cluelessly at their neighbours who were equally clueless, or plain simple staring in the promising nothingness that's empty space. Surely the FM knew that very few will try to actually follow his speech and the intricacies, and still fewer will understand anything. So he raced past the several potential hurdles. On some instances, I suspect, even Madam Speaker took a nap (at least that's what I saw!). And then came the bombshell - the petro-hike. The FM even finished that part easily, and raced to the next page. But suddenly, some MPs realised that they had reached the point they were waiting for. The FM dished out his well-prepared statement at least 8 times on that occasion - "You can't stop me from presenting the Budget. It is a constitutional requirement. You can debate later, but you can't stop me."

And the rest is, well, too boring to write home about.

c) The Toyota fall-from-grace and learnings
Almost every Car-manufacturer in the world has tried to learn from the Toyota way of doing things. Tomes have been written on the efficacy and efficiency of the Toyota system of manufacturing. Scores of management gurus have dissected the Toyota philosophy. Eulogies, encomiums and plaudits have flown in ample measure for decades, raising Toyota to the level of almost a God of Modern Manufacturing. As a graduate from the IIT Delhi who studied manufacturing engineering, I could truly appreciate the marvel that was the Toyota way.
So it came as a total shocker when a few months ago, news started appearing that maybe, the God wasn't in good shape. And then came the President of the company, who accepted in broad daylight (just a few weeks ago) that Toyota was in a state of decline. That was truly shocking. And then all hell broke loose. In the most premium market for the car-maker, the US, the media went to town with news of hundreds of accidents (and scores of deaths) on the American highways in past few years due to inherent problems with Toyota cars.

It so emerged that Toyota had manufactured cars that has this unusual problem - 'unintended acceleration'. This was either due to a mechanical failure of a rod in the system, or the improperly fitting floor-mats. For years customers had been reporting to Toyota, but the revered car-maker just did not take the complaints seriously. The problems grew so dramatically that the entire machinery threatened to topple over.

It was then that the President stepped in, publicly accepting that they had messed up big time by not listening to their customers for several years, and by not taking the complaints as seriously as they should have. In the following days, lacs of Toyota vehicles had to be pulled off the roads for repairs ('company recalls'), and complying with the US norms, several best-selling models had to be pulled off the showrooms (you can't sell any model that has a proven potential problem).

In a brilliantly written 1 page article, the recent issue of The Economist analysed the reasons for the Toyota debacle. It is worth reading; I recommend it strongly.

Toyota got it wrong, big time. It's not just sad, it's criminal. The simple lessons we learn are
  • Never take your customer for granted. She is never wrong. Listen to her.
  • Do not assume that high-tech gadgetry can be a substitute for plain simple feedback.
  • Do not let your sales pitch exceed your manufacturing capabilities.
  • Do not compromise with the fundamental values that have made you what you are, in a race to beat others, or a blind race for higher numbers.
  • Never ever lose the most precious thing a brand can possess - Mysteriously beautiful high-quality.
Toyoto will surely rise from the debacle. But the mystery will be lost forever.

d) CAT Topper (100 percentiler) from PT educationIt was in 2004 that we got the first set of Toppers in the prestigious IIM-CAT. It was the first year that score-cards were issued to students. Toppers were students who scored a clear 100 percentile in the written test.

This represented a huge victory of our entire process of teaching and mentoring. Ever since then, each year, without fail, PT education has been producing Toppers in the IIM-CAT without fail. It's been six years now, and we have not failed once!

And so it was this year! The moment that I most wait for the whole year - arrived on Sunday afternoon, when my colleague (the PT Centre Director Mr Ram) from Nagpur called me and ecstatically informed me - "Sandeep sir, we have the All India CAT Topper with 100 percentile score - Pushpak Pusegaonkar!"
Wonderful! Proven once again. For the sixth year in a row, we did it again. Lagataat chhathey saal, kar ke dikha diya. In all, we have had 14 CAT Toppers so far. That's a big number. The reasons that I think we have been so successful are
  • very strong focus on systems and processes, across the network
  • dedicated team of Centre Directors (Franchisees) who are personally involved into teaching and mentoring
  • a never-say-die attitude that helps us stay and flourish in diverse markets despite stiff competition from 4/5 players in each one of them
  • conviction, and the "Kar ke dikhayenge" spirit!
Consistency is a big plus in any venture. I am personally glad I could witness the creation of 14 CAT Toppers from PT education in 6 years. Wonderful work, team!

e) Holi 2010
Nothing can capture the spirit of gay abandon that the Indian festival of Holi can! I love the day so much, that everytime I miss playing, there is a sense of loss! This year was very special. We planned out the day well in advance. Actually, my daughter - who is old-enough to make demands that cannot anymore be wished away by her Dad - told me in no uncertain terms some days before Holi that we were to enjoy it to the fullest. "Your wish is our comman, madam!" is the reigning dictum in my home when it comes to her.

We started the day by visiting my brother's place - and what a riot it was. At least 8 kids got together from the neighbourhood and in no time, all hell was let loose on us (and everyone else too). My mother who is recuperating from a minor accident, enjoyed the show and even participated in it! Colours flew freely as everyone took their annual revenge on each other in ample measure. Our faces turned red, blue and green and the experienced hands of the mellowed Holi-enthusiasts left their indelible impressions on various organs of our bodies.

We rushed back to my home soon thereafter, as I was expecting my colleagues and students to come over for the second round of colour-riot! And what a show it was. We all played like mad, enjoying every moment of togetherness, joy and unbridled fun. And yes, we enjoyed the ample supply of snacks too (I suspect many had come only for that!).

Everytime I think of Indian festivals, I wonder at the sheer consistency with which they have stayed and refused to perish into oblivion. Each season brings with it a new festival, to symbolise the joy that's life in its umpteen colours.

I looked around with my mind, and found nothing
Till I saw my friends who were celebrating with all their heart
The rain, the harvest, the homecoming
Oh, these wonderful moments of togetherness, solidarity and growth
The survivors of eons, the festivals of India!