Monthly Archives: September 2012

Retail FDI is not just about Farmers, Consumers and Traders

The much-awaited policy decision to allow foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail has become the most high profile reforms measure announced by the UPA government. It has not just been a booster shot for the UPA government—which seemed to be doing nothing right just a few weeks back—it has shifted the debate from corruption and policy paralysis to reforms, with businesses and middle class now finding themselves on the side of the government.

But what is the issue about? In short, those who support it argue that it will not only give consumers more choice (and hence more power), it will fetch better prices for farmers. Those who oppose it primarily argue that it will kill the small traders—the kirana store owners. So, the debate has essentially become one with small traders’  interest on one side and farmers’ (and to a smaller extent consumers’) interest on the other.

But here, we are missing out a really, really big point.

Wall-Mart is the largest civilian employer in the world, with more than 2 million employees. Tesco is the largest private sector employer in the UK. Woolworths and Wesfarmers are the two largest employers in Australia. Carrefour is one of the largest employers in the world, though because of its distributed business, it is not the largest employer in its home country, France. Sears, Target, Home Depot all feature among the largest employers in the US.

Wall-Mart employs more than two million people globally. In the US alone, it has 1.4 million employees—that is a little less than half a percent of the total US population. Tesco employs more than 500,000 people and Carrefour some 475,000 people. Both Woolworths and Wesfarmers in Australia employ more than 200,000 people each. Together, that is a little less than two percent of Australian population.

And how many employees does Futures Group—the largest retailer in India, a country of 1.3 billion people—employ? Just about 35,000 including its insurance and other businesses.

If you consider this aspect, there is not much to debate. The employment generation potential of organized retail sector is immense. And potentially widespread.

When IT came as a big bang service industry to India, it created a big employment opportunities. But that was restricted to a certain section of the society—the engineering graduates. And it created jobs in a few locations. The BPO industrt democratized it by providing opportunities to graduates, took the action to tier two cities, and reduced the time to impart right skill to these people to make them productive. Retail is the next logical wave. It will further democratize the organized services sector by  creating the jobs for those who have had some high school education, who can speak local language and maybe have some working knowledge of English. And the time to provide skill training to make these people productive reduces further.

The case of big box retail, hence, is justified, looking at it purely from an employment generation perspective.  It is sad our politicians and public commentators are missing the point.

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Can e-Literacy and Illiteracy Co-exist?

In the midst of a slew of big-bang reforms announced by a recharged government in the last few days, a small but crucial cabinet decision has escaped everyone’s attention. The cabinet has approved the National Policy on Information Technology 2012.

And those who have covered it have highlighted either the big numbers—targets of three fold increase in IT industry size from $100 billion to $300 billion by 2020, creation of a 10-million additional ICT manpower pool—or the more ideological stances such as commitment to accessibility and open standards and open technologies.

One point that has gone largely unnoticed is the the goal of making at least one e-literate individual in every household. On the face  of it, it is very well-intentioned. Unlike IT industry size and open standards, this is something, when achieved, would benefit the common people directly.  As more and more government services become available electronically, a better comfort level in accessing those services directly without the help of any middleman will not just be more convenient for common people, it will give them a greater sense of power.

But there are many questions that need to be answered. Unlike a lot of other points, the policy document does not go into any more details on this.

So, what is e-literacy? How do you define it? How do you measure it? It is a laudable idea but is it practical to have it at a goal? And especially in a country with such a high illiteracy rate? What are the broad possible paths to proceed towards such a goal, even if we do not have exact answers to all the questions, right in the beginning?

(To set the expectations right, I am not really trying to answer these questions, but am raising them to set a broad agenda for discussion)

For one thing, it is good that the policy has used the phrase e-literacy and not the dated term computer literacy. We have gone past the era of computer. “e” is no more synonymous with computers.

But that very fact also means that we have to start with basic definition. The definition of e-literacy is still vague. In fact, the more used term in the international forums is the phrase “digital literacy”, which I believe, by and large, represents the same idea, as opposed to something like “computer literacy” or “media literacy” or “internet literacy” which are somewhat restricting.

The simplest definition of digital literacy is, I believe, the Wikipedia definition—the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology. It involves a working knowledge of current high-technology, and an understanding of how it can be used.

The question is how to create measurables, action plans, and monitor the progress. Going by the international practices, the approach has mostly been through embedding it with traditional education or through integrated small programs. Both could be effective but the first approach is restrictive, as it excludes a large part of the population. But not impractical considering the goal is to have one individual e-literate per family. Integrated small programs are not scalable in a country like India and the progress is difficult to measure.

The challenge before India is that every one out of four people are illiterate. Going by the latest Census (2011) figures, the average household size in India is between 4 to 5. This, in pure arithmetic terms, means we have to make one-fourth of the population e-literate. However, since the current level of comfort with digital technologies and Internet is fairly high in a section of people in urban areas, the task of making at least one person e-literate is far more challenging than just achieving a number.

I believe  RBI’s National Strategy for Financial Education can be a good reference to start with as it addresses the question holistically; some of the challenges are similar; and the plan takes into account the Indian realities. In fact, it is not a bad idea to find the synergy between the two plans. Because, at the core of it lies a desire to achieve inclusion.

While today, no social inclusion is possible without financial inclusion, tomorrow, the same can be said about digital inclusion. Without digital literacy, there cannot be digital inclusion.

If we are starting now, we must take a holistic approach that takes into account the socio-economic factors while formulating any plan of action for e-literacy.

I am happy that the government has considered this to be important enough to include it as an objective in the National Policy on IT.

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Sibal’s Supercomputer Dream: Putting It in Perspective

So, Kapil Sibal has decided on his new obsession for the next few months. And this time, it is not a still cheaper tablet or, for that matter, a new mobile operating system to challenge Apple or Android. The lawyer-turned-minister has set his sight on nothing less than building the fastest supercomputer on earth. Sibal has reportedly written to the Prime Minister detailing a plan prepared by the state-owned research & development outfit, Centre for Advanced Computing (C-DAC) to achieve this feat by 2017, at a cost of some Rs 4,700 crores.

Critics may link it to the speculation of his possible removal from HRD ministry in the imminent cabinet reshuffle. But to be fair to Sibal, reshuffle or no reshuffle, he is never short of big ideas.

Kapil Sibal is a dreamer. That is a good thing. Few of the politicians at his age are. And we surely need a few of those dreamers.

But that also is his problem. He still has the hangover of his extremely successful past as a lawyer, and often has excessive confidence in his own ideas and abilities. So, even when his basic intention is laudable, it is seen as maverick-ism. While he has the ideas, the dreams, the passion, and a rare sincerity of approach, he lacks the vision to realize those dream. All his dreams, from Right to Education to low cost laptop, are low on vision. They lack a practical approach (that is they do not take into consideration the ground realities), but more importantly, they are not aligned with the shared vision of the government. So, depending  on who is talking, these ideas get dubbed as wishful thinking to megalomania, and a lot many things in between.

Take the Aakash tablet.  Using affordable technology to enhance education quality is a great dream. The government stepping in to help in whatever way possible to the private sector to make that happen is also a good approach. But why should the government align itself to a single brand? A single project? No one could explain this to Mr Sibal.

Now comes the supercomputer dream. While we don’t know the exact details of the “blueprint”, based on whatever media has reported, it already sounds flawed. Here is why

1. The focus is purely on speed. It is a petaflops speed supercomputer that the minister and C-DAC want to build. The application is secondary. While performance is not a bad objective to have, spending Rs 4700 crore to just be on top of the table sounds a little too much. I am still refraining from dubbing it megalomania. But will not quarrel with those who do.

2. Why do the vision and nuts-and-bolts have to come together? Why should it be assumed that C-DAC will build it? The same question was asked in case of Aakash. No bias against C-DAC. They have great capability. But for those interested in facts, though, C-DAC Param has not featured among the top 500 supercomputers in the last two years.  But should not a thrust on high performance computing through policy initiatives be a better approach to encourage the building of such supercomputers than adopting a project?

3. The focus is entirely on the speed of one supercomputer. What India needs is many such supercomputers in all aspects of our economy: oceanography to identity verification; drug research to weather forecasting. Just for the record, in the last six-monthly list (June 2012) of world’s 500 fastest supercomputers,  India had just 5 of them, up from 2 in November 2011 list. In contrast, China had 68. And we thought China just scores in physical infrastructure, India is the IT superpower!

In 2007, China was just slightly ahead of us. In November 2007, China had 10 of the world’s fastest supercomputers, while India had 9.  In June that year, China had 13, while India had 8.

See how we compare now.

At one time, China was just a little ahead of India. Now, it has overtaken Japan to be at No 2 position

China comparisons apart, India’s supercomputing journey has not been anything laudable as such.  Based on the Top 500 data, India’s share of fastest supercomputers in the list has not really increased. The average number of India’s supercomputers in the Top 500, between 2003 to 2007 was 6.8, with as many as 11 featuring in June 2006. Between 2008-2012, that average has come down to 4.4 per list, with highest being 8 in November 2008.

INDIA’S PERFORMANCE

MONTH NO OF SYTEMS IN THE LIST RMAX (TFLOPS) TOP RANK ORGANIZATION
Jun 2012 5 303.9 58 CSIR
Nov 2011 2 132.8 85 Tata Sons
Jun 2011 2 132.8 58 Tata Sons
Nov 2010 4 132.8 47 Tata Sons
Jun 2010 5 132.8 33 Tata Sons
Nov 2009 3 132.8 26 Tata Sons
Jun 2009 6 132.8 18 Tata Sons
Nov 2008 8 132.8 14 Tata Sons
Jun 2008 6 132.8 9 Tata Sons
Nov 2007 9 117.9 4 Tata Sons

Even the top performance has not seen any great improvement. In November 2007, the world’s fastest supercomputer was about four times faster than India’s fastest supercomputer. In June 2012, that ratio had increased to 54. Yes, the fastest supercomputer on earth was 54 times faster than the fastest in India.

Indian computing has not been able to keep pace with the world.

All this is not to suggest that Indians do not have capability to build a fast supercomputer or the dream to build a fast supercomputer is misplaced.
Far from that, India needs a lot of effort in high performance computing so that Indian companies and organizations can build many such supercomputers for application in all areas. The country badly needs that. And if the fastest one happens to be Indian, that would be an icing on the cake. The icing, however, should not be confused with the cake!

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FDI in Multi-brand Retail: E-Commerce Will not be the Same

Whether it is a desperate attempt to secure a place in history or a genuine attempt to break policy paralysis, the Cabinet has taken the bold decision to allow 51% FDI in multi-brand retail, albeit with a provision that state governments would decide if they would like to allow it in their states.

Though many see this as a compromise for somehow moving ahead, one feels it is a masterstroke.

Firstly, it suddenly takes away the legitimacy from the opposition to FDI in retail by CMs like Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi. An average citizen of Delhi or Mumbai, who wants global brands in his city, is bound to ask, who is she to come in the way of our access to the global retail outlets?

Secondly, if the implementation happens well, soon the citizens of states that have not allowed FDI will see the difference it makes, as they visit cities in other states with such outlets.  It will be difficult to resist the “middle class” pressure for the governments then. Imagine, for example, in the National Capital region, Gurgaon having all the big global retail brands, with Noida not having a single one of them!

Finally, if the government and the supporters of FDI in retail, play it well, it should be sold to citizens as a farmers-friendly rather than large business-friendly policy which it actually is. With the farmers and the middle class supporting it, it will only be the small traders who will be opposing it. While they are a powerful community in states like Gujarat, UP, and Tamil Nadu, states like Karnataka, Odisha, and Bihar will not find any strong reason to oppose FDI. Most of India’s potential locations, such as Delhi, Mumbai, Gurgaon, Pune, Hyderabad, and Jaipur will have the new brands. The large cities that will be left out will be Chennai, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, and Kolkata.  Out of which, it will be interesting to see how things unfold in Bangalore, as the state has no logical reason to oppose it.

But the most interesting thing to watch will be e-commerce. Initially, the policy was vague about e-commerce. But in April this year, the government clarified that all the rules that are applicable to offline retail would be applicable to e-commerce as well. This clearly meant that all the plans of companies like Amazon had to be shelved. With the new policy change, they can enter in India. So, expect a new era altogether in e-commerce. Good luck, Flipkart!

But interesting will be to see how offline retail brands such as Wal-Mart or Tesco unfold their India strategy in this policy regime? Access to the top two cities and some of the other biggest markets will surely make India entry attractive. But once they enter and build their supply chain, especially the procurement network, there is nothing that is stopping them from selling online to the entire Indian population, irrespective of where the buyers are located. They will not violate any law as they will not have to open any “outlet” in those states.

Question is: will that happen? Will the politicians still not try to hound them? Or as many optimists hope, all this is meaningless discussion, as soon, most states will open up FDI in multi-brand retail.

In either case, a vibrant, more competitive retail market has implications for the e-commerce market.

The fun has just begun.

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Officially Open: India Launches Open Data Beta Site

India has finally launched the beta version of its open data site, data.gov.in. The site is part of the country’s plan to provide open and transparent access to data collected by various government departments and agencies, as outlined in the recently formulated  National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy – 2012 (NDSAP-12).

The stated advantages, as envisioned by the policy, include maximization of use of data, avoidance/minimization of duplication of efforts on collection, facilitating integration by leading to common standards, providing ownership information, faster and better decision making, and of course, equitable access to information by all citizens.

Ever since the then Federal CIO of the United States started in May 2009, many counties have launched similar sites. India is the latest country to join the bandwagon.

The data.gov.in site has debuted with 13 raw datasets provided by seven departments and four apps provided by four departments. As part of the plan, data management offices are being created in each of the departments to be headed by a senior official called data controllers. Five ministries/departments have already identified their data controllers, whose names are available in the site. These are Department of Public Enterprises under the Ministry of Heavy Industries & Public Enterprises, Department of Disinvestment under Ministry of Finance, Department of Fertilizers under Ministry of Chemicals & Fertilizers, Ministry of Food Processing Industries, and Ministry of Micro Small and Medium Enterprises. The departments will be responsible for uploading the datasets directly, for which NIC is helping them by providing training and technical help. It is conducting a workshop on 5th October focused on this.

India, however, is not a part of open government partnership, a consortium of more than 50 countries. The initiative was started by nine countries, including India, but India withdrew just before launch. India was reportedly “concerned about the Independent Review Mechanism” which opens participating countries for reviews by outsiders.

However, India has been supporting the open government community by helping create what is called an open government platform—an easy-to-use toolbox that allows smaller countries to go for similar portals without worrying about technical challenges. The platform was launched in last March.

The launch of data.gov.in marks a new chapter in governance. It is a pity that it has got almost no mention in the media, especially when corruption and the role of public institutions are being debated so intensely.

In the US, the opening up of government data to public has seen innovative applications being created by third party organizations using the data (maximizing use).

Many say a more laudable goal in India would be the avoidance of duplication of efforts and resources in collecting data. This, however, is a lofty expectation to have from a transparency initiative like this, because it is not lack of availability/knowledge but personal ego battles and/or lack of coordination between departments that are the reasons for this duplication of efforts and resources. A recent example is the tussle between Home Ministry and the UIDAI on collecting data for National Population Register and Aadhaar.

But the private sector, academics researchers, and NGOs/advocacies can surely benefit from getting easy and timely access to government collected data. With analytics and data vizulazation becoming the hottest areas in technology, an initiative like this could not have been more timely.

 

 

 

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