September 29, 2008

India over the weekend

Sanya, my daughter’s mathematics examination on Monday, September 29 2008 ensured that we were at home over the weekend. More so with the recent serial bomb blasts in Delhi, venturing out wasn’t such a bright idea unless one genuinely needed to get something.

So one spent a large part of Sunday reading an array of newspapers. The themes for my weekend reading and TV viewing was set by ‘The Big Fight’, a current affairs debate on NDTV, hosted by the dashing Vikram Chandra, on Saturday night. The discussion this time was on the findings of Justice G T Nanavati on the Godhra and post-Godhra riots in Gujarat and role of Chief Minister Mr. Narendra Modi & his ministers in the same. While the overall debate was along expected partisan lines with both Congress and the BJP well represented at the program by their respective spokesmen, one felt that the BJP guys were clearly lacking in conviction and it soon became apparent that lung power would take over since their brief was to defend the indefensible.

In this debate, when confronted with startling facts by media stalwart Ms. Harinder Baweja of Tehelka fame, the BJP team led by Prakash Javdekar and including media person Mr. Swapan Dasgupta, decided to shout her down. Mr. Swapan Dasgupta cut a sorry figure giving such outrageous arguments that he did, and on a debate that was telecast nation-wide. Ms. Baweja’s final remark that a Muslim youth in India today has very little choice but to pick up the gun was a bit over the top and designed to grab attention. Ms. Baweja, the total population of Muslim youth in the ages of 15-35 in India can be safely estimated at over 25 million. Surely if all of them had picked up the gun every street corner of India would be burning. You need to moderate your speech, Harinder, or else your utterances would be rated ‘Hyperbole’.

Even if one was to give credence to what BJP and their followers have been saying about a Muslim mob burning 59 innocent kar-sevaks alive in coach number S-5 of the Sabarmati Express at Godhra, it still eludes me how 59 dead kar-sevaks equals 2500 innocent Muslims killed in the aftermath of Godhra? I guess India is yet to learn modern Gujarat Maths.

Saturday’s bomb blast at a Mehrauli market, which is otherwise known for ‘Phoolwalon-Ki-Sair’ a procession taken out by flower sellers of all faiths to lay a ‘floral chaddar’at a nearby Sufi shrine, was the second theme of my weekend reading and TV watching. The death of nine-year old Santosh Kumar, who innocently picked up the plastic bag containing the bomb dropped by the motor-cycle borne bombers and chased them shouting ‘you have dropped your packet’ that left me thinking seriously about where we as a civil society are headed. This little child could not have been the target of the hate of those who plotted the bombing. I would like to believe they were targeting to bomb the deep-rooted bias that we all unknowingly harbor against the Muslims.

Ms. Rakshanda Jalil’s piece on Ghettoisation of Muslims in Urban India and different types of bias that they are subject to is illustrative of the above. Hindu parents are reluctant to send their children to a birthday party of a Muslim classmate in a Muslim dominated area. She talks about Pizza Home delivery firms sending Pizzas four kilometers away but refusing to deliver to her home though they are located less than a kilometer away from the outlet giving some excuse or the other. Her contention that there is no Mothers Dairy milk outlet or Safal vegetable outlet in ‘Zakir Nagar’ because these are Muslim dominated areas appears a bit stretched but I would like to believe that these decisions were influenced by commercial considerations of viability. Since the lady raised the issue in a national daily, it would be appropriate for the Government to order an inquiry and make amends. Punishing a few guilty junior officers of bias against Muslims would not solve the problem, opening these outlets would go a long way to assuage feelings of hurt and neglect. I am sure Ms. Rakshanda Jalil would agree.

There is one recurring thought that just refuses to go away. In the 1940s and 1950s, a Muslim actor aspiring for success in the Bombay Film Industry was given a Hindu name since it would increase his appeal. Thus we had stalwarts like Dilip Kumar and many others resorting to this tested formula. Not only that, they would never be seen publicly celebrating any Muslim festival. The fact that today a Shah Rukh Khan or an Aamir Khan or a Salman Khan feels no such need would have one believe that times have indeed changed. But have they? Have the underlying prejudices vanished?

I am sure that if the Khans start speaking or behaving as Muslims rather than as actors their popularity would begin to wane. We must remember that president A.P.J.Abdul Kalaam was loved by the whole country, not because he was a Muslim or a Hindu but because he was a good man with a clean soul and a gifted scientist. And a good soul by definition means he would have been a good Muslim first. But a good Muslim as defined by the prophet not by some Imam or Ayatollah.

The more I think about it the more I am convinced that it all started with the concept of the partition of India to create a Muslim state of Pakistan and a Secular state of India. Had India been declared a Hindu state the issues would not have arisen since then the various governments would not have resorted to using Muslims as a vote bank, which the Imams willingly allowed in exchange for a few pieces of silver. All policies then would have been created with a Hindu mindset and Muslims given a second grade citizenship with few rights as we see happening in most of the Arab world. But since we cannot yet travel back in time, erase and re-write History, we need to live with what we have been given and make the best of the situation.

In this I feel the Hindu community has to show a spirit of accommodation but at the same time the Muslims too have a responsibility. They need to shun visible symbols of their being ‘different’ because if they keep harping on their being ‘different’, the Hindus would keep seeing them as such and it would assume an air of ‘us’ against ‘them’.

Muslims must ask themselves why the Muslims in Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerela etc are so integrated with the local culture and ethos that one only gets to know their faith upon asking. They participate with equal fervor in Puja, Pongal and Onam Festivities. Even nature shows that animals and plants that adapt to their surroundings by suitable change in color or texture etc. manage to win the battle of survival.

I keep citing this example every time this subject comes up. Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan Sahib started his day with his musical offering at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Was he a lesser Muslim for it? Some of the best Hindi film bhajans have been written by lyricists like Jaaved Akhtar, Hasrat Sultanpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi etc. and composed by the likes of Naushad, A R Rehman etc and sung by the doyens of playback singing like Mohammed Rafi, Suraiya etc and filmed on Dilip Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan etc. Visualize the evergreen hit film bhajans like ‘Madhuban mein radhika nache re’, ‘Ram Chandra keh gaye siya se’, ‘Madhuban mein jo kanhaiyya kisi gopi se mile’ or ‘Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo’ and you would agree that while the people behind these works were Muslims they were able to create masterpiece bhajans since their own faith was strong.

It is indeed such an India I would like to leave for my children. An India that is Secular and Independent and truly free of all kinds of prejudice.
image courtesy

September 27, 2008

Asif Zardari in the US

Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistan President on his recent visit to the US made the biggest and historic blunder of flirting blatantly with his hosts. I guess he could have been given the benefit of doubt if he had stopped at his first remark to Ms. Sarah Palin, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, when he said he found her 'even more Gorgeous than she had appeared on TV'.

He went on to put his foot in his mouth not once but repeatedly. Saying things like 'now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you' and shaking her hand without letting go after a decent interval was bad enough but doing so again for the benefit of camera crews and even mouthing a readiness to hug Ms. Palin were pure animal instint, Mr. Ten Percent, sorry Mr. President.

Asif Zardari is the husband of the slain Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who despite the fact that she was educated in the west and was highly modern in her outlook, was always seen in public with her head covered. She never shook hands with visiting dignitaries, forget embracing. In her personal life she was known to have many male friends but in the public perception she couldn't do any wrong because she realized that image was paramount for a woman in Pakistan politics.

She had the benefit of the training imparted by the Bhutto family to guide her on conduct in public life. Unfortunately Mr. Asif Ali Zardari had no such luck. I guess it was the training given to him by the friends he made in various Pakistani jails, mostly rapists and other assorted perverts, over the 15 or so years he spent there.

A matter of faith

India has been the target of terrorist attacks in the form of bomb blasts in crowded markets like the ones in Jaipur, Ahmedabad, New Delhi, Varanasi, Faizabad or Mumbai, attacks on establishments like the Ram Janma Bhoomi / Babri Masjid in Faizabad or the Akshardham Temple in Ahmedabad, attacks on places of worship like temples, churches or congregations of people for some festivity, attacks on symbols of nationhood like the Parliament or monuments like the Red Fort and the vicarious personal attacks on scientists and dignitaries to thwart a particular program or the other.

But no attack can be as devastating as the one on India’s secular credentials. The very notion that a group of fundamentalists can destroy the mosaic of India’s multi-cultural ethos by a few wanton acts of destruction of life and property shows how little these groups or their masters, wherever they may be based, know India and the Indian people. This lack of understanding and awareness on the part of these outfits would have been laughable but for the fact that their unpardonable acts destroy so many families.

I like a majority of Indians have believed that faith is a personal matter and is just one of the roads chosen towards the same destination. It would be a gross error on the part of anyone to believe that any religion can preach hatred and encourage violence against another section of mankind. Killing innocent people in dastardly bomb attacks by a group of Indian Mujahideen (or SIMI if you please) youth, trained across the border as per Government agencies, is despicable but so is the heinous crime of Bajrang Dal activists attacking churches in Orissa, claiming to represent the Hindu majority’s ire against ‘forcible conversions’.

The problem with the silent majority is that it is silent. Majority communities everywhere become so complacent in their numerical superiority that they unwittingly allow the extremist fringe elements to hijack the social agenda and those who don’t know better start believing that the fringe is actually the core.

Having spent nearly five decades breathing the Indian air and soaking in the Indian spirit, I feel my India is not the India that these radicals, whether Hindu or Muslim, claim to represent. I have friends who practice different faiths. I have spent many years living in Muslim, Christian or Tribal dominant areas in the course of the last thirty years of cross-country travels across India and made many friends who helped form my secular values.

In 1979, I was barely twenty-two and posted in Ranchi. Around Ram Navmi, Hindu-Muslim clashes broke out over the route of the Ram Navmi and the Muharram processions. I was at that time staying in a small lodge, owned by a Muslim gentleman, in the Hindpiri area of the town. The riots lasted nearly three weeks. Initially there were twenty odd boarders but after three days of rioting when curfew was relaxed all but six Hindus departed to the safety of their homes. I distinctly remember the lodge owner and his two sons standing between the agitating mobs and the Hindu boarders. We were certain that death awaited us in the coming days at the hands of the mobs thirsting for Hindu blood. We had we run out of money and food stocks of the lodge had been exhausted. These three guardian angels and their families must have gone hungry for a few days to provide us with an uninterrupted supply of all food that we desired without any certainty of payment. I feel that was the time of my rebirth.

Similarly in 1988, I was around 32 and posted in Guwahati when the ULFA agitation against non-Assamese persons reached a boiling point. At that time when the agitationists demanded that our landlord evict us, he stood firm his ground. That gentleman admonished the student leaders for harassing innocent people and told them that they would have to go over his dead body. I also saw Bijoy, my assistant and a famous Assamese film lyricist stick his neck out and bring back two traders, who were abducted by the rebels and held hostage, unharmed and without any ransom having to be paid.

When these fanatics and their agents claim to speak for their communities they make a mockery of such valiant individuals. I firmly believe India is a mosaic of many such brave people in every town, in every faith and race. It is time these courageous soldiers of ‘Mother India’ became vocal and wage a battle to preserve the secular, multi-cultural and multi-racial fabric of India, as we have known it.

September 26, 2008

Thank you Mr. Prime Minister

The Prime minister, Man Mohan Singh has again proved that he has a hand on the pulse of the nation and knows the mood of his countrymen much better than any career politician. In the matter of Oscar Fernandes' unfortunate and ill-considered comments about the brutal murder of Sh L K Chowdhary, CEO of an Italian auto components unit in Greater Noida on Monday this week.

As I had predicted in my last blog, Prime Minister played true to form, admonished Oscar Fernandes and made him apologise. He was given the usual fig leaf of 'I was quoted out of context' to cover his modesty.

The PM needs to be complimented for having shown great statesmanship in bowing to the public outcry and getting his labor minister to retract and apologise. However at the same time we also need to compliment Oscar Fernandes for having the courage to withdraw his unacceptable comments and having shown that there is no shame in apologising. Other career politicians would have viewed it as having to eat humble pie.

Mr Prime Minister, both you and your labor minister have gone a notch higher in my perception. May your tribe increase. I am sure that the captains of industry and various chambers of commerce, in India and abroad who had raised their voice in this matter would let bygones be bygones and move ahead.

The law must however deal the severest punishment to those found guilty of the murder so that such an unthinkable and brutal attack is never ever attempted in any part of India.

September 24, 2008

An Oscar for Oscar Fernandes

While inaugurating the Third India-EU Seminar on "Employment Relations and Resolution of Conflicts" yesterday, the Union Labor Minister, Oscar Fernandes, conveyed his condolences to the family of Lalit Kumar Chowdhary, CEO of Cerlikon-Graziano Transmissions India Pvt. Ltd, the Indian subsidiary of an Italian company in the auto-ancillary business in Greater Noida.

Mr. Chowdhary was killed in his office on Monday by an irate mob of over 150 laid off workers. Many other senior officers were also brutally attacked and are in the ICU, fighting for their lives. Mr. Fernandes said it should serve as a warning for managements. He appealed to managements that workers should be handled with compassion. He talked about the simmering discontent among workers and remarked that the corporate sector was seen to be lacking in compassion. He said that the number of organized workers had been decreasing. It has come down from 7% to 6%. He said he would raise the matter of hire and fire in the next labor congress. He also stressed that the workforce was unable to express its simmering discontent over the management policies, leading to strained ties between them and the management.

It is sad that a union minister expressed such feelings at a public function. Even to harbor such a sentiment would be against the norms of civil behavior. Since when has ‘murder’ become legal in India? Even more surprising is the fact that Sonia Gandhi, who must pride herself as the upholder of culture and civilized conduct, decided to keep quite in this matter. Surely the fact that factory workers constitute a numerically larger constituency than CEOs must have weighed down her catholic revulsion to such utterances by a Congress party member.

Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh can be expected to take it up strongly as he has shown by his conduct thus far that he cares little for petty electoral machinations. I am sure when it is brought to his attention he would suitably admonish his minister. Decent public conduct demands that he asks the minister to make amends. One can expect a press release from Oscar Fernandes’ office saying he was quoted out of context, the usual trick adopted by all public figures when they wish to deflect criticism for their controversial utterances.

Mr. Fernandes, the talk about the number of organized workers coming down is utter humbug. It appears that you are unaware that the service sector in India has grown from around 50% of a much smaller GDP twenty years ago to nearly 65% of a much larger GDP today. As any child knows the service sector is largely unorganized in India and thus any employment data would not show those numbers. Typically organized employment data is about the ‘brick and mortar’ manufacturing sector, which is going down as a percentage of GDP and where computerization has yielded tremendous productivity enhancements over last 15 – 20 years.

And when you talk of ‘Compassionate Corporates’ what stops you from enacting stringent laws of disengagement and implementing them in totality? In any case a country which never hesitates to pat its back for its IT revolution can not afford to talk ill of a small private enterprise outsourcing to cut costs to remain viable. India’s IT earnings Mr. Fernandes, are built on jobs outsourced from the west. When the American people protest about job losses in the US we are quick to rise in defense of the IT sector citing lower cost to the consumer but then talk about ‘simmering discontent’ when the troubles are closer home.

Mr. Oscar Fernandes, you should consider the context and totality of your utterances. Don’t forget that Mr. L K Chowdhary has a family who are grieving. You owe it to them to seek forgiveness for such blatantly inhuman and ill-considered speech.

Now I know what “Speech is Silver, Silence is Golden” means.
image courtest

September 20, 2008

What to do with SIPs now??

From Alok Sud

Since January this year the markets have seen erosion of stock values by a third on an average. In sectors like real estate and infrastructure the cut has been much deeper. The high inflation and the ever-rising crude oil prices have compounded the already grave situation even further. The collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, AIG and many more in the pipeline has not helped matters one bit and the sentiment appears to be at all-time low. The phenomenon is not restricted to the US, even Russia, Europe, China and South Asia has seen massive erosion in stock prices. The Insurance, Banking and the financial sector are on life-support systems almost around the world.

In contrast the RBI and other statutory and regulatory bodies like SEBI, IRDA etc have done a commendable job of managing the crisis and not allowing the confidence of the people to be shattered. Elsewhere we have seen runs on many banks, long queues for redemptions of invested amounts in Mutual Funds and Unit Linked Insurance Plans (ULIP) etc. The interest rate on US Treasury Bonds has dropped to an all time of 0.61 % per annum, which is lower than the 2% interest rate on Bank Fixed Deposits. So deep is the mistrust of the banking system that no one is making any Fixed Deposit. This is despite the insurance cover of US $100,000 per bank account that is in place in the US, payable in case of the collapse of a bank.

I have been asked by some of my younger friends about what one should do to one’s investments in mutual funds through the Systematic Investment Plan (SIP) route. Should one continue or buy more units or stop buying fresh units or exit altogether?

I hadn’t thought much about the issue and when confronted with this query I decided to study the issue in greater detail. I wanted to give an answer that would be seen as rational upon closer scrutiny and not harm the financial interests of friends.

I gathered data of six MF and ULIP schemes where I have some exposure and studied the quotes from July 2007 onwards till date. The basic investment has been kept at Rs 4,000 per month. An investor had two options when he started investing in July 2007. He could either invest a fixed sum per month or buy a fixed number of units per month. When the market crashed in January 2008 he again had two options. He could either continue as before or cash out. I have not analyzed the cash out option since cashing out at an all time low causes maximum loss and no other avenue appeared attractive.

Based on my analysis I can confidently say that continuing to make the SIP investments at the same rate as before would afford the best protection for one’s long term wealth in such times. The investor ends up picking up more number of units at subdued rates, which allow the average acquisition rates to be the lowest in this scenario.

The low average acquisition price allows one to exit at any time with minimum loss in a market heading downwards and maximizes gains in a market going up. So all my friends out there, who doubted their decision to stay invested in SIPs in these turbulent times wondering if they did the right thing, can let their minds rest. You would have the last laugh after all.

September 18, 2008

Customer equity - A fix for modern marketing

As a marketer one has heard the finance guys often ask aloud why a campaign or a promotion is required or what it would cost and the cost benefit thereof since by training the accountant understands only return on investment and is numerically driven. A marketer on the other hand understands that the customer's mind itself is like a nautilus, chambers within chambers. The sub-conscious mind plays a significant role in helping the conscious mind decide. The landscape becomes even more complex when the rational and the emotional aspects are taken in to account.
No marketer can ever hope to measure what works and how, forget how much. To compound matters further the stalwarts of marketing proclaim that one out of every two rupees spent on advertising is wasted, the problem is no one knows which one. Given this background, I was reading up on the subject on the web to see if I could find a model that can help the marketers address the queries the finance guys typically raise when a proposal for any marketing campaign is put up for approval. I chanced to visit 'Copernicus Marketing Consulting' website and read an article titled as above by Kevin J Clancy & Peter Krieg which I reproduce herein below.

The Rise of the Customer

Since the 1960s, the customer has taken an increasingly higher profile in marketing decision-making. In recent years, as the economy has become increasingly service based, the slow shift from a product-focus toward a customer-focus has occurred across a range of industries. The emphasis on building relationships rather than transactions has resulted in a greater awareness of the customer.

Yet strangely, the metric marketers use to evaluate and measure the success of marketing programs remains product-focused. Brand equity is still the most commonly used measure of success for brands and companies alike. It's the intuitive and commonsensical standard because everyone else is using it. The fact that managers can measure brand equity (although the components of the measure differ across companies) may be one of the reasons companies have continued to focus on brand building and other product-centered programs while merely paying lip service to being customer-centered. Yet if the goal truly is customer-centrism, both marketing efforts and marketing standards should reflect that goal.

Customer Equity: A New Approach
The concept of customer equity, which unifies customer value management, brand management, and relationship/retention management, has recently emerged from the work of Professors Roland Rust (Univ. of Maryland), Valarie Zeithaml (Univ. of North Carolina) and Kay Lemon (Boston College). They view customer equity as the basis for a new strategic framework from which to build more powerful, customer-centered marketing programs that are financially accountable and measurable.

Quantitatively speaking, a firm's customer equity is the total of the discounted lifetime value of all of its customers. In their new book Driving Customer Equity : How Customer Lifetime Value is Reshaping Corporate Strategy, Rust, Zeithaml and Lemon state that customer equity has three drivers:

* Value equity, "the customer's objective assessment of the utility of a brand, based on the perceptions of what is given up for what is received"

* Brand equity, "the customer's subjective and intangible assessment of the brand, above and beyond its objectively-perceived value"

* Retention equity, "the tendency of the customer to stick with the brand, above and beyond the customer's objective and subjective assessments of the brand."

The customer equity model enables marketers to determine which of the three drivers—value, brand or retention equity—are most critical to driving customer equity in their industry and firm. Using this approach allows marketers to quantify the financial benefit from improving one or more of the drivers.

For example, if a regional grocery chain wants to evaluate whether or not they should spend $2 million on an advertising campaign that will improve ad awareness by 1 percent, the customer equity model translates the percentage improvement in ad awareness into the percentage improvement in brand equity (a component of customer equity). The percentage improvement in customer equity then translates into dollar improvement. Comparing the advertising expenditure to the dollar improvement allows the company to calculate its return on the advertising investment.

When Brands Are Commodities, Owning the Customer is Essential
Recently, Copernicus Marketing Consulting undertook a joint research study with leading researcher, Market Facts that investigated whether brands are becoming more similar and commodity-like over time. The study examined consumer perceptions of similarity in 48 pairs of leading brands and 51 different product and service categories - from both the Old and New Economy.

Our research found that in categories as diverse as hair care products and rental cars, a nationally representative sample of adult consumers perceives the leading brands (#1 and #2) becoming more similar rather than more distinct. Of the 48 categories evaluated, the leading brands in 40 of these categories are perceived as becoming more similar. Moreover, in 28 of 37 categories, consumers indicated price was more important than brand when making a purchase. In six categories, price and brand were about equally important, and in only three categories was brand more important (automobiles, liquor and beer).

Given this research, it is clear that brand equity alone is becoming an increasingly weak measure for marketing efforts. The customer equity model provides a basis for projecting the ROI of any strategic investment that improves customer equity whether as a function of value, brand or retention equity. It provides a catalyst for companies to become truly customer-centric and to make marketing programs more successful and accountable.

It's a mystery to us why managers seem to spend millions of dollars on marketing programs without knowing if their investment produces a fair return. One possible explanation, however, is that managers simply do not know how to project the return on investment for their marketing programs. They have lacked a basic model that links marketing actions with customer spending actions, and instead use intuition to make decisions. The customer equity model has the potential to forge that missing link.

Becoming Truly Customer-CentricThere is no question that customer-centrism is essential for a business to thrive - customers, after all, are what keep companies in business. But customer-centrism must be much more than something that managers talk about. Companies claiming to be customer-centered should evaluate whether they are practicing what they preach and use the customer equity model as a check on their actions. Rust, Zeithaml, and Lemon's customer equity model enables companies to understand the drivers which are most important for influencing the buying behavior of their customers and will help make managerial actions accountable to their ultimate impact on customers.

September 16, 2008

Merrill Lynched & Lehman Broke

One has been a stock market player for over 20 years. My investments may have been small but I feel I know more about the goings on behind the scenes than the man on the street. As any stock market veteran would tell you, never be guided by hearsay while deciding your stock calls and exercise due caution.

Similarly one has learnt to be suspicious when anything goes up or down too fast or too soon. There is always some insider trying to manage some smart returns. SEBI and the like usually catch up with them but regrettably after a few months of investigations, during which time the gullible have been suckered and the crooks have stashed the ill-gotten wealth safely in some tax haven.

The financial sector in the US, by various estimates, lost between US $ 800 – 1200 billion in the sub-prime housing scandal that broke almost 15 months ago. The US Federal Reserve tried their best to bail out the large financial powerhouses, by a series of rate cuts and other measures, obviously influenced by the social, financial and political clout of the big daddies of these corporations. Another fact to consider is that the US Presidential campaigns need a lot of money, which these financial giants control in large measure.

How do the shareholders of these loss-making corporations take it? They are expected to gun for the CEO since he is the captain of the ship that is sinking. To avoid large stakeholders baying for the CEOs blood at the next AGM, these losses must be wiped off the balance sheet and quickly at that. Or else the multi-million dollar bonuses, generous expense accounts, stay at swanky apartments, permanent suites at fancy boutique hotels and resorts, membership of by-invitation-only exclusive clubs, latest yachts and travel by private luxury jets would be a thing of the past.

The ominous coincidence of international crude prices rising alarmingly from around 70 dollars to around 150 dollars per barrel in a short period of less than a year was unexpected and unprecedented to say the least. OPEC was an easy target to pin the blame to. Some western news and current affairs analysts even labored to cloud rational thinking by creating scenarios of how part of oil gains by OPEC was finding its way in to the hands of Islamic fundamentalists and being used to finance terrorism, particularly against the West.

The real story may never get told since so many vested interests would be working overtime to zealously guard the guilty. The scenario that I present for consideration is simple. These financial superstars entered the oil futures markets buying up all oil on offer and placing more orders than could be delivered by traders, who normally hedge future deliveries against future purchases. It led to crude prices rising rapidly with no shortfall in supplies. To allay fears of a shortage OPEC did what could be expected, they announced periodic hikes in production. Bear in mind, that for the later part of 2007 and early 2008, Iran complained of no buyers for crude and the Arabian Gulf was choked with oil supertankers, loaded, ready and nowhere to go.

The financial wizards thought that after oil is pushed to dizzying heights, the various Governments would swing into action and buy large quantities to offer the comfort of oil security to their populace. An alternative scenario was a war in the middle east to ensure long term oil security. They planned to offload their positions and book billions of dollars of profit to square up the sub-prime losses. And the party would have continued.

Alas, the governments did things differently. They passed on the oil price increases to the consumers and the consumers cut back on car usage leading to a severe drop in oil consumption across the world. This led to oil supplies greatly improving. These financial institutions did not have more funds to pick up the additional oil that was now available to shore up the prices to have an iota of a chance to sell their positions for a profit. They had to square up positions since holding on to them would have meant even more losses.

So now you know, who to blame for oil prices spiking and why Merrill got lynched and why Lehman went broke.

First image courtesy and second image

September 13, 2008

Thank you. Oh ! Master

I write this piece to thank Raj Thackeray, chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), the munificent, magnanimous soul that he is, for the most charitable and noble act of his life, of granting a pardon to the one and only evil force in Mumbai, Amitabh Bachhan and Jaya Bachhan, who dared to raise a banner of revolt while staying in Mumbai. How dare he ?

I fully agree with you, Raj, that they deserve no mercy and the Bachhans along with their progeny must be crushed at any cost, for the ‘Marathi Manoos’ to live in peace and breathe easy after you and your ‘staunch supporters’ have removed all traces of the Bachhan influence from the sacred Marathi domain.

It is your greatness that you still thought it fit to pardon sinners like Jaya and Amitabh Bachhan. It speaks volumes about your large-heartedness and spirit of charity. That you even spared that police officer Prasad, who dared to question whose father this land belonged to, is the epitome of your spirit of accommodation for fellow Indians. That he can never move around without his badge and uniform would ensure that Mumbai law and order would improve in days to come. Even R.R.Patil didn’t have the guts to challenge your supremacy, though he claims to be Deputy Chief Minister. I guess even he wants to continue to live and work in Mumbai.

Raj sir, I doff my hat to you for your initiative and courage of conviction in taking up the causes that are so close to the hearts of the common ‘Marathi Manoos’. These hapless people were suffering in silence for long, while these Bihar and UPwalas were raking it in. Amitabh is said to command a fee of 10-12 crores per movie and he doesn’t even give a few lacs for the MNS. He expects to live in this wonderful metropolis of ‘Aamchi Mumbai’ without paying the rent to the real owners of Mumbai? How silly can these UPwalas get?

Your name would go down in history as one of the greatest warriors in service of Maratha pride, probably next only to Shivaji. There would be a slight difference though. While he only adorned the female attire to gain entry in to the mughal palace, you actually turned chicken when faced with the challenge from that man named Amar Singh.

Image courtesy

September 12, 2008

A glaring contrast

When the Kosi river breached its embankments, changed its course by over a hundred kilometers, flooded vast areas in North Bihar, caused a great amount of destruction of standing crops and uprooted millions of people from their homesteads. One saw people scampering from their fragile habitations, which were on the verge of collapse, with their frugal assets be it a few heads of cattle, a bit of jewelry or some utensils. We saw the Indian army mount a mammoth rescue and relief effort, securing vast areas to avoid loot and plunder by the unscrupulous elements who like vultures feast on human misery, in their effort to make a fast buck. The government agencies responsible have been largely missing in all the action.

This is in stark contrast to what one saw in US when Louisiana was flooded after Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of young and not so young men and women volunteered in the run up to Katrina hitting the US east coast. One saw the civil administration gainfully utilizing their efforts in sand bagging the embankments of the River Mississippi, making public announcements, informing the general population about the preventive measures to be taken, helping convince people to evacuate to safer areas and actually helping in the evacuation process. The police was seen intensifying patrolling to ensure there was no loot or plunder by robbers. After the hurricane hit the coast and flooded vast areas, the volunteers were engaged in rescue work and once the storm abated the same groups helped in providing relief and in re-building homes devastated by nature.

We have witnessed a great outpouring of sympathy from the Indian people. Millions of employees, in places thousands of miles removed from Bihar, have contributed a day’s salary for the Bihar Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. Many more have sent their contributions through special funds set up by large media groups. Many non-governmental organizations have set up relief camps and offered cooked meals, set up temporary camps and arranged medical facilities. It speaks volumes about our desire to do good for those less fortunate.

One also read reports of jewelers in small towns buying gold ornaments at a fraction of the current gold rate taking a moral stand they are helping preserve lives by providing instant cash in time of need and that life is more precious than gold. While nature’s fury is known to abate with passage of time, human greed knows no such limits. It only intensifies with each passing day. The stories one hears each day are more ghastly than the stories one heard yesterday.

‘Why is it that natural disasters and calamities always bring out the beast of greed amongst us?’ is a question that has bothered me since the time I read reports of the calamity in the press. If as a community we want to be seen as highly concerned and charitable then why is it that on a personal level we look at such disasters as a means of getting rich quickly at the expense of someone devastated by nature’s fury? Frankly I could think of no one single reason.

Social scientists tell us that in attempting an answer to this question one needs to look at the psychological, sociological, moral and financial reasons responsible for such behavior. Since I have no pretensions to understanding these complex issues, I can only say what appears to be commonsensical. The distribution of economic resources in India is unequal among social groups and also amongst various geographies. The effects of such catastrophes are felt most by those in a certain geography and belonging to a certain social grouping.

The well-heeled buy mental peace and social comfort by giving away a few thousand rupees, usually some discarded garments and soon-to-expire medicines and looking the other way as if to say their job is over. These resources then reach another group who pocket the proceeds from selling a major part of it, throw some crumbs at the hapless and believe their job is done. The government agencies are normally the last to arrive and show the audio-visual media evidence of large piles of relief material arriving at special roadside camps. These agencies, their camps, the relief materials and the politicians disappear as soon as the media goes away.

Strong moral values imparted through ten years of structured moral education will definitely help. A strong sense of community, socially useful and productive work would become a norm. Every child would be encouraged to put in at least a hundred hours of community work per year. The marks scored in academics and the grades earned in social work would be considered at the time of admissions for higher education. I believe moral education in one’s years at school would help forge strong character. It would also ensure that the Indian people would volunteer for such charitable and humanitarian missions.

images courtesy

September 11, 2008

Rock On !! Live your dream

One has grown up hearing parents chiding their children to study hard and achieve something in life. ‘Achievement’ typically signified becoming a doctor, an engineer or a chartered accountant. Parents were usually seen to be reluctant to allow the children to follow passions like singing, dancing, painting, writing, sport etc because these pursuits were seen as the shenanigans of the offspring of rich and famous people since they provided no guarantee of future employment.

It was in the last decade or so, when Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and M. S. Dhoni became high-grossing and much sought-after stars that parents actually started pushing their children, who showed even an iota of interest in the game to pursue cricket on a serious note, often accompanying them to pre-dawn coaching camps run by ex-cricketers. The children were eyeing a fulfillment of their passion and the parents were guided by the possibility of greater financial accomplishment than previously thought possible.

This pursuit of cricketing passion, for whatever reasons, resulted in creating a full bench of serious contenders for the Indian test and ODI cap and brought about a situation where even the erstwhile star cricketers could not take their place in the national team for granted. It generated a wave of young stars from the smaller towns of India, who struck it rich. This caught the imagination of an even larger number of youngsters in the country who have started to believe that if these guys from Allahabad, Barielly, Baroda, Hissar etc could make it so can they. This crop of young talent, fired by self-belief, has done India proud at the junior level. The young stars inside the team can never become complacent, as they have an even larger number of equally talented players breathing down their necks, eagerly waiting for them to fail.

What has happened in cricket is slowly beginning to happen in other walks of life as well, be it other sports like tennis, billiards, squash or badminton, painting and other crafts like sculpture, poetry, theatre or films, hospitality business or event management. Parents’ desire to see their children settled and financially secure in life and the options offered by these seemingly unusual vocations has gradually brought about a greater acceptance of the fact that one need not be a doctor, engineer, chartered accountant to be deemed successful. The irony of the situation is that these unusual pursuits usually offer greater earning potential and a superior lifestyle to its proponents, I guess primarily because these kids are chasing their dream and when your heart and soul is in something, you always do a damn good jo of it. One would rather be a top-notch chef than a mediocre engineer.

The films of the time also amply portray this changing reality. I chanced to see Rock On! yesterday. It is a film starring Arjun Rampal, as Joe, the lead guitarist and debutantes Farhan Akhtar, as Aditya, the singer, Luke Kenny, as Rob, the keyboardist and Purab Kohli, as KD, the killer drummer who form the rock band called Magic. It has been written and directed by Abhishek Kapoor and produced by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani. It is a story of this young group splitting apart, when ego clashes arise upon getting the first album contract but re-uniting years later after leading miserable lives doing other things. Of the four, two continue pursuing music with nothing great happening in their lives. The other two are shown pursuing other vocations and are seen to have achieved great financial success. Yet their passion brings them together to create Magic on stage, in the end of the movie. I thought the names and situations were rather symbolic.

While you can achieve name and fame and material success doing anything else it is only when you pursue your passion and chase your dream that the end result becomes meaningless. The pursuit itself becomes so fulfilling that attain Self Actualization. You continue and try harder and struggle to attain perfection and that is when Magic is created.
The above image is the poster design of Rock On. I am sure the producers of the film wouldn't mind my using it.

September 10, 2008

Mumbai wants rule of law, Raj

India has been witnessing the utter disregard that Raj Thackeray, chief of the Maharshtra Navnirman Sena(MNS) has shown for democratic values. It his trademark style he and his 'supporters' first went about vandalising the various english language signboards, hoardings and the like in Mumbai, which prides itself as the commercial capital of India. Mumbai plays host to a large number of business travellers from across the world. How does Raj Thackeray expect his 'Aamchi Mumbai' to prosper in the backdrop of such utter contempt for the convenience of those travellers who bring business and opportunity to Mumbaikars?

After his misguided tirade against Amitabh Bachhan, who being the man that he is refused to buckle and stood firm his ground, Raj has gone and picked on Jaya Bachhan's innocuous comment at the 'Drona' music launch. When Jaya Bachhan was called to the stage, she ribbed her son and his producer / director friend, Goldie Behl both of whom addressed the relatively small audience in english, by saying that she would speak in hindi since she is from UP. Mr Raj Thackeray, a comment at a private function is not a political statement. You need to explain to the Indian people what was so disturbing in her comment that you took offence as the guardian of the marathi language and the marathi speaking people. Is the vast legacy of a rich language like marathi and the culture of its people so fragile that it would be damaged by a celebrity making a speech in hindi. Would you be happier if Jaya Bachhan had spoken in english instead? India demands an answer from you and the MNS.

It is indeed ironic that the likes of Raj Thackeray forget that to be good Mumbaikar one needs to be a good Maharashtrian first and to be a good Maharashtrian one needs to be a good Indian first and it can not be any other way. Sane and rational people of our country would not allow it to be any other way. Raj Thackeray and his brand of 'leaders' must be made to realize this truth by the democratic people of Maharshtra. Mumbaikars must uphold their long-cherished democratic traditions and make these misguided 'youth' leaders realise that parochial and chauvistic politics will only destroy the social fabric of a throbbing metrolpolis, a truly world city like Mumbai. The Raj Thackerays of this world must be made to pay a price for their follies. The political leadership ensconed in their ivory towers, for fearing of rousing passions, would not like to precipitate matters by branding Raj Thackeray a 'goon', a 'troublemaker' and putting him where he belongs : behind bars, but the secular and liberal democratic people of Mumbai and Maharashtra must do the best they can : say 'NO' to his brand of chauvinistic politics in the next elections which he contests.

image courtesy

September 8, 2008

Emerging Asian Superpower

The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) worked overtime, often late into the night with a few meetings lasting all night and in to last weekend to find an honourable and mutually acceptable forward path to meet India's nuclear ambitions. That this move was spearheaded by uncle Sam speaks volumes about India's growing credibility as a mature and responsible state which has a right to peaceful exploitation of the atom to meet its energy requirement, that is growing exponentially and has the potential to wreck havoc on international crude prices and can lead to considerably increased global warming.

It is also an acknowledgement that though India may not have signed The Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), it remains a nation where the world need not be afraid to transfer sophisticated nuclear technology since there is no chance whatsoever of the same flowing into wrong hands irrespective of which party is in power in New Delhi. Indian political establishment may have conducted the extensive negotiations, which saw the NSG and the Western nations often bending over backwards to accommodate India's aspirations but in reality it is the Indian democratic tradition that has really won the day for us.

I congratulate all fellow Indians on this historic occasion and look at the future with tremendous hope. The contours of a golden and rosy future, where power is available 24x7 across the country, where Rs 10,000 laptops can be plugged in at a roadside internet kiosks, where nuclear medicine would help pharma research scientists conquer the yet pervasive diseases, where IT companies would explore newer frontiers with nuclear capability and take India to an even higher level, really excite this generation of Indians.

It is also an earnest desire that while we try to conquer the power of the atom, we would also parallely endeavour to conquer hate and erase all forms of dogma, fanaticism and racial or communal bias. Then we could rightfully call ourselves a glorious nation. Then the Indian innings would have truly started.

It is now imperative upon our leadership to simultaneously attack illitracy and poverty. Imagine the might of a billion plus enlightened and secular Indians. They could then rule the minds of all mankind backed by a wonderful legacy of tolerance and co-existence, values that are so intrinsic to Indianness.

I see India emerge as a real 'Sone ki Chiriya' (Hin. Litt The Golden Bird : Prosperous and soaring high) in the 21st century.

September 6, 2008

Of feudal lords and blood money

The concept of paying blood money, to compensate the victim’s family for accidentally or intentionally extinguishing the life of a person started in the middle ages. It has been called by different names in various parts of the world. The purpose was to ensure that the absence of a breadwinner and a source of livelihood for the victim’s family did not lead to starvation and to ensure that they were economically secure for life. The emotional loss obviously could not be compensated, so no effort was made in that direction.

In earlier times
These fines completely protect the offender (or the kinsfolk thereof) from the vengeance of the injured family. The system was common among the Scandinavian and Teutonic peoples previous to the introduction of Christianity, and a scale of payments, graduated according to the heinousness of the crime, was fixed by laws, which further settled who could exact the blood-money, and who were entitled to share it. Homicide was not the only crime thus expiable: blood money could be exacted for all crimes of violence. Some acts, such as killing someone in a church or while asleep, or within the precincts of the royal palace, were "bot-less"; and the death penalty was inflicted. Such a criminal was outlawed, and could be killed by anyone on sight.

The payment of weregild, the word literally means "man price", was an important legal mechanism in early Northern European societies, such as those of the Vikings, and Anglo-Saxons; the other common form of legal reparation at this time was blood revenge. The payment was typically made to the family or to the clan. If these payments were not made, or refused by the offended party, a blood feud would ensue.

The size of the weregild in cases of murder was largely conditional upon the social rank of the victim. In early Anglo-Saxon Britain, an elaborate tariff was prescribed. A prince, was worth 1500 shillings, a yeoman farmer was worth 100 shillings, a serf was worth between 40 and 80 shillings. Thralls and slaves technically commanded no weregild, but it was commonplace to make a nominal payment in the case of a thrall and the value of the slave in such a case. A shilling was defined as the value of a cow in Kent or elsewhere, a sheep. As the Northern European tribes were a nomadic people, great importance was placed on the survival of women and children, as they were integral to the propagation of the tribe. The killing of both women and children were also dealt with severely, usually bringing on the larger of the fines.

Early Germanic law forms were very specific to differentiate between the wergelds for free people as opposed to bonded servants. Payment of the weregild was gradually replaced with corporal punishment, starting around the 9th century and almost entirely replaced by as late as the 12th century throughout the Holy Roman Empire.

Weregild was also known to the Celts, who called it ericfine in Ireland and galanas in Wales, and to Slavic peoples, who called it vira in Russia and główczyzna in Poland.

Qisas is an Islamic term meaning retaliation, similar to the biblical principle of an eye for an eye. In the case of murder, it means the right of the heirs of a murder victim to demand execution of the murderer. As execution for murder was conceived as the retaliation of the victim's heirs, traditionally the state could carry out the execution with their permission only, and they were free to forgive the murderer, either as an act of charity or in return for compensation. However, the Quran also prescribes that one should not demand retribution but seek compensation called Diyya (plural Diyat). There is no specific amount for Diyat and the fine should not differ based on the gender of the victim, or state of freedom of the victim. However, the Qur'an left open its quantity, nature and other related affairs to the customs and traditions of a society. Today one sees Diyya for women being half that for men. Those who fail to raise the money to pay Diyya are executed. Qisas is enforced today in many countries which follow the Sharia, such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.

In modern times
All over the world the rich have been known to be somewhat arrogant since they seem to have vast quantity of something that the rest of us don’t; Money, Riches, Maal, Moolah or call it what you will. In the more civilized parts of the world this arrogance is reflected in the rich seeking special favours from the state including special tax status. In the developing world, this mindset is reflected in their breaking every rule in the book, rash and drunken driving, at speeds in excess of laid down traffic and speed limits, running over ordinary mortals, be they policemen on duty or pavement dwellers and showing no remorse whatsoever, being one of the prime examples of this mindset.

The sentence in the infamous Sanjeev Nanda BMW hit and run case by a New Delhi court and some comments made by the eminent judge bring to mind the earlier times when the law treated those who could pay, and those who could not, differently. So, even today, as in earlier times, all over the world, most of those executed happen to be poor folk who could not hire top-notch lawyers or pay the penalty while the rich hired the best legal teams, paid and walked free. It matters little whether the incident happens in Mumbai (Alistair Pariera, Salman Khan, Niel Chatterjee and many more) or in the heart of Delhi as in the instant case, they always manage to get away cheaply.

For the judge to say that the sentence was guided by the mitigating circumstance, of the Nandas paying compensation of Rs 1,000,000 to the next of kin of those killed, and Rs 500, 000 to those injured, soon after the date of occurrence of the event, is a travesty of justice. The whole world, seeing their attempts to create a confusion of a truck instead of the BMW car, tamper with evidence, bribe witnesses, strike unholy deals with prosecution lawyer etc believes they did not pay compensation to make the lot of the victims’ families any better; it was their attempt to buy silence.

Image courtesy IBN Live

September 4, 2008

Did the PM mislead India ?

At the height of the debate on the Nuclear deal, the PMO was consistent in its assertions that the 123 deal would in no way compromise India's security and sovereignty. The assurance given to the Indian people and parliament was that the Hyde Act would not apply since the various clauses of the 123 deal covered all US concerns and those of the NSG and that India would retain the right to test and that the latest nuclear technology and reactor designs would be forthcoming.

From the US State Department's letter to the US Congress, it now emerges that is not the case. So did the PM mislead the Indian people and Parliament?

The Congress (I) upon the insistence of the PM went as far as risking the government and faced a vote of confidence riddled with, then seen as wild, accusations of a sell-out to US business interests and the PM, Manmohan Singh staking his own position at the altar of his word given ostensibly to US President George Bush. The Left parted ways with the Congress after nearly four and a half years of a somewhat turbulent liaison. It appears the inhibitions of the Left were not without reason.

In a hostile environment and ever-changing geopolitical realities, a large country such as ours, with thousands of miles of International borders and coastlines to guard, can ill-afford to give up its right to test. Tying the Indian nation for ever to a situation of no-testing for the sake of a few thousand megawatts of nuclear power and a few billion dollars of US investment may be the greatest disservice that Manmohan Singh has done to India in his otherwise glorious and unblemished career. Only the future would show if his moves were right or whether the PM would be held accountable by history for compromising India's security and sovereignty.

The above image is courtesy Outlook.

September 3, 2008

A Sign of our times

After a long wait of over nine years, the Indian Judicial system yesterday delivered its verdict in the infamous Delhi BMW Hit and Run case. As everyone knows by now it involved Sanjeev Nanda, a young man of 19 years, the grandson of the erstwhile Chief of the Indian Navy, Admiral S M Nanda and son of Suresh Nanda, a leading businessman of New Delhi, driving under the influence of liquor. He is now convicted of running over 6 bystanders including three policemen in the middle of a foggy winter night in early 1999. A verdict of Culpable Homicide not amounting to murder has been handed out. This carries a maximum of ten years in jail.

That the young man's rich father attempted to bribe his way to secure acquittal for his son is despicable for the sheer audacity of trying to circumvent the legal system. Think of the message the father's actions must have sent to a young impressionable mind of a budding teenager studying business management in the US on a vacation in India. Gifting such an expensive car, costing more than a lifetime's earning for an average Indian, was bad enough but allowing him to show off his driving skills, impaired by alcohol, to a bunch of his friends on a foggy winter night was an unpardonable crime.

After that the father attempts to remove evidence, bribe witnesses, strike unholy deals with prosecution lawyer and even obfuscate matters to try and make it appear that a truck caused the accident. The legal system has shown exemplary courage to act against it's own by disbarring R K Anand and I U Khan, two well known names in legal practice in New Delhi and imposing fines.

The court would pronounce the sentence today. May be Sanjeev Nanda would be sent away for ten years. But can civil society ignore the fact that it was the father who is the actual perpetrator of the crime for the manner in which he tried to buy freedom for his son Sanjeev Nanda and also setting up a distorted value system in his son's impressionable mind. By not acting against him, the courts would be shying away from their duty.

Some critics may argue that this is perverse justice, a trial by the media or even a witch-hunt, where a rich man is expected to pay a stiff penalty for a crime committed by him whereas the same crime if committed by someone who is not so well off earns a lesser penalty or even an acquittal. Well, they may have a point about uneven application of the law but does it in any way take away from the fact that Sanjeev was responsible for the ghastly accident that killed six innocent people while, Mr. Nanda, your son was sozzled ? For you to say today that Sanjeev has suffered enough is ironic indeed.

Sanjeev, all men make mistakes in life. Greatness does not lie in running away from them, hiding them or trying to have your rich dad bribe witnesses or all things you and your dad have been doing. Real courage would lie in admitting wrong-doing, expressing remorse and making amends and rising above your follies like a phoenix. I am sure you have a long bright successful career ahead of you after you have erased this dark chapter of your life. So take heart and come back a stronger man, a real brave man.

The above image courtesy

September 1, 2008

Airlines, Flights and Cabin crew

My friend & erstwhile colleague Sudhir Bisht wrote in from Nigeria to give feedback on my blog. I refrain from putting the rest of his comments here since I may be accused of blowing my trumpet. He also asked me to include one of his articles in the blog which I willingly do since I found the matter exceedingly relevant for a larger group. The story just goes to show that we need to take pride in the success of our friends to experience joy.

This story by Sudhir was first published in The Business Day, Nigeria’s respected business daily of May 11 .

The Virgin Nigeria flight, VK 302 from Johannesburg to Lagos, on 20th April was expected to be a long and boring one. The plane is rather staid with no personal TV screens in its economy class section (unlike Emirates). The first morsel is served at 11:30am and by then the stomach starts to grovel, if you have not eaten breakfast before you enter the flight.

To catch the 10:30am flight you need to be at the airport by 8:30am which means that if you have stayed in Pretoria, you need to start at 5am to be the airport on time, given the traffic between Johannesburg and Pretoria.

I was lucky to find a place to sit in the crowded lobby opening into several boarding gates. Tired from the exacting business tour, I immediately dozed off only to wake up minutes later when my fellow traveller and friend informed me that the boarding was announced.People rushed towards the boarding gate and waited a full fifteen minutes before the boarding actually commenced. This is one aspect of customer service where all the airlines need to improve a lot. Why must boarding be announced when those in charge of boarding aren't ready to receive the passengers? This is quite annoying but is something which happens all over the world, in all airlines and it involves the passengers queuing up restlessly before the boarding actually begins. An elderly lady who was a bit of a heavyweight and was fifth in the queue complained bitterly about her aching feet. Standing in the queue for fifteen minutes is much more painful than walking for fifteen minutes.

I could have slept for 15 more minutes, I thought.The flight was full. The passengers were of all hues. There were Lagos bound businessmen from South Africa, tourists returning to their homeland, well recognizable Political leaders, Cricketers on their way to London via Lagos and thirty school children with their teachers. Travellers from different origins going to different destinations were all ushered in the VK 302 flight by the smiling Flight stewardesses whom I instantly recognized. It was the same set of crew that flew with me on the onward Lagos-Johannesburg flight VK 303 on 17th April.One lady said, "Welcome back Mr. Bisht. Hope you had an excellent stay in South Africa." I was surprised by this reception. I may not be the most nondescript person on the earth but I am not famous either. May be because I was the last passenger to enter the flight VK 303 from Lagos to Johannesburg and that I had asked her for beer thrice on that flight, that she remembered me!

There are no in-flight magazines or newspapers for those who travel economy and I had forgotten the Jeffrey Archer’s book that I bought at Pretoria, in the taxi that took me to airport. This meant that I would have to watch the movie on the main screen, I thought.

The plane took off on time and after the mandatory safety demonstration, I waited for the drinks to be served, which were served very well. Time to watch the main screen, I thought but there was no sign of any entertainment there, much to the dismay of the school boys some of whom were flying for the first time and couldn't wait for the movie to start.

The controls of main screen entertainment were on the baggage space near my seat. The stewardess was trying to fix something and from her exasperated "Oh No! Oh me Gosh!" sounds I could make out that the big screen wouldn't work.

The announcement to that effect came soon, much to the disappointment of the school children. But the apology that followed from the cabin crew was straight from the heart. The stewardess who apologized said that the big screen system failure had happened for the first time and that she wasn't able to fix it because the system was a new one and she wasn't an "Engineer" by training and that she was really sorry about it.

The apology was so sincere that it melted the hearts of all concerned. Many questions started flying in my mind though. If the system was a new one, why was the crew not trained on fixing up small problems? Are the Flight attendants of other airlines "Engineers"? The moot point however is that the stewardess had saved the day for the airlines. The food was served which was OK to me since the chicken n rice meals had run out of stock and only beef n rice was there to be served. As I don't eat beef, I thought that I would have to remain contented with just bread, butter, salad and the dessert. Suddenly a steward with the most honest smile sprang to action and said that there was a vegetarian meal in their stock and that the same could be given to me. The flight attendants of Virgin Nigeria are really very good human beings, I thought.

Having taken my customary two cans of beer and eaten the delicious vegetarian meal I went into a deep slumber. I must have slept for the next 3 hours and when I woke up, the landing was being announced.

And then came a very important announcement."Ladies and Gentlemen, the man walking down the aisle is Flight Attendant Adebola. He has completed 2 years and 2 months with Virgin Nigeria as Flight Attendant. Today is his last flight with our airlines" The voice was dramatic and there was a momentary silence and then it went again, "As a flight attendant that is! From tomorrow Adebola starts his paid leave and would be going to the Pilot Training academy in Florida. So Ladies and gentlemen, if after a few months, you find a certain Captain Adebola flying your aircraft as a co-pilot, please remember that it would be the same Captain Adebola, who is presently walking down the aisle as a Flight Attendant."

There were thunderous clapping and shouts of "Congrats man. You’ve done it man. Keep it up, Captain." The old lady who had complained of her feet aching while she stood in the queue for fifteen minutes exclaimed, "Wow. What a nice company to work for. Looks after its employees so well! " I heard one schoolboy say that when he grows up, he would want to work for Virgin Nigeria.

The "Captain-in-waiting" shook almost every passengers’ hand. I felt elated when he came to shake hands with me. There was a standing ovation for the young man and I could see that all his colleagues were genuinely happy for him. What was it that was most remarkable about the last leg of the journey? What aspect of it impressed people the most? That the airline was sending a deserving employee for training so that he could move up in life is indeed remarkable. However what was most remarkable was the way the other colleagues celebrated his success. This is what impressed me most. I don't know if they were trained to celebrate the success of Flight Attendant Adebola like they did and even if they were it doesn't take away any credit from that set of joyous cabin crew.

With a crew like that Virgin Nigeria can afford many big screen failures.