The Indian Railway King


Indian Railways was in trouble: in 2001, a report by the BJP—a government dominated by the Brahmins who are Lalu’s permanent foes—predicted it would hemorrhage cash at a rate of $12 billion annually by 2015. (The whole budget of the Indian government, by comparison, is $128 billion.) Indian Railways was barely managing to cover its daily operating costs, to say nothing of paying for the new equipment and strengthening bridges. The report concluded: “It is very likely that Indian Railways would be a heavily-loss-making entity—in fact one well on the path toward bankruptcy, if it were not state owned.” Outsiders whispered the word “privatization” but were hushed: Indian Railways has been a source of national pride since before independence, and statist sentimentalists could never let it fail.

Lalu’s term as railways minister has been shockingly successful. Instead of turning India’s most prized national institution into a basketcase and a ruin, Lalu has led one of most spectacular economic turnarounds in a country bursting with economic miracles. Indian Railways began raking in cash and posting surpluses in the billions. And the intelligentsia and technocracy, at first shocked and dismayed that a shameless populist had seized a fragile and unwieldy national institution, have largely come around to acknowledging that India Railways has been transformed into a respected institution—and so, possibly, has Lalu.

I have always wondered how exactly Lalu turned around the Railways but somehow never bothered to look it up. Turns out Lalu was smart enough to appoint a shrewd businessman (who idolized Jack Welch) as his deputy and getting out of his way.  That sounds pretty similar to what Michael  Dell had to say about leadership- identifying good leaders and letting them lead.

This is a very well researched and authored article on the Indian Railway King by Graeme Wood.

Posted in India, Politics | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Italy’s Biggest Business

Here is a nice trivia question. In 2008, which was Italy’s biggest business in terms of revenues generated? Was it Fiat- with its impressive automobiles and agricultural equipment? Nope. One of those glamorous fashion houses from Milan? Nope.

The answer? The Italian Mafia.

According to this study, Mafia income increased to $167 billion, up from about 90 billion euros in 2007. To put that in perspective Microsoft made about $60B in 2008. Revenues surged 40 percent in a year when many businesses suffered major losses.

Impressive Segment Results

According to the study, extortion and siphoning money from businesses is the largest source of revenues for the Mafia (an incredible $117B). Other sources of revenues include drug trafficking and selling arms. What is interesting is how the mafia continued to make money even in such terrible times! Maybe small businesses were using the mafia goons as a source of competitive advantage.  All this means that the Italian Mafia siphoned off nearly 10% of Italy’s total GDP.

I am wondering how really the researches carried out this study- and didn’t the Mafia try and derail them? Surely, they don’t want people knowing how much they make.  All this has gotten me wondering, how much money gets siphoned off in India thanks to bribes/kickbacks etc etc? Now that would be an impressive study.

Posted in Business, Trivia | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Oscars


Some quick thoughts on the Oscars:

1. How awesome was it to see AR Rahman up on stage? I know this sounds silly, but for me it was like seeing an old and dear friend celebrating the greatest night of his life. I cant think of too many other people who command as much as respect and receive as much adulation as he does from Indians all over the world. I don’t think too many people in the audience would have been aware of the significance when he spoke about his mother or about his choice between love and hate. Nevertheless, its fantastic to see AR Rahman get the recognition that he has been getting, Indians have always known just how brilliant he is. Now, the rest of the world will see the genius which we have known all along.

2. It was good to see the entire cast and crew of Slumdog Millionaire- from the little kids to the producers to the technicians and even Vikas Swarup up on stage for the best picture Oscar- It almost seeemed like one big fat Indian wedding! Totally opposite to the usual best picture acceptance speeches- which has one stereotypical white male producer thanking a bunch of studio heads. Kudos to the producers for getting all the kids to fly over for the ceremony.

3. I was happy to see that there were no cringe worthy moments such as Anil Kapoor doing the bhangra up on stage.

4. I thought Hugh Jackman did great but somehow missed the usual long opening- where the MC pokes fun at all the celebrities. Hopefully, the academy will go back to John Stewart next year.

5. Why wasn’t the Dark Knight up for Best Picture? I don’t think it was worthy of a best picture Oscar but it certainly merited a nomination.. No wonder the Oscars just don’t get good television ratings- the most successful movies of the year never seem to be up for any awards. As Tom Shone observes in his book, “Blockbuster”, Hollywood spends nearly all its money and energy working out what teenagers want and cravenly giving it to them. Then, once a year, it pauses to ask: “But is it art?”. It is hardly surprising that its conclusions are often so dismal.

 No wonder this ceremony had the third lowest rating of all time. 

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

A Slumdog Millionaire Sweep at the Oscars?

The academy awards ceremony is just around the corner (this Sunday) and the big question is just how many awards will Slumdog Millionaire win. It is up for 10 awards and the movie has built the perfect momentum leading up to the Oscars. Slumdog was the big winner at the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild and the BAFTAs.

Slumdog Millionaire is the odds on favourite to win the best picture award and my guess is that it will lose out only if the Academy decides to reward Milk in a big way. Milk is about Harvey Milk, the first ever openly gay politician to be elected to public office in the U.S. This could just be the Academy’s way of stating its opposition to Proposition 8. But my gut tells me that the academy will instead reward Sean Penn for his portrayal of Milk with the best actor award.

Why Slumdog Millionaire will win

I know I am rather late in expressing my love for this movie but I have to say that one cannot help but be pulled in by the frenetic energy of the film. Yes, there is a lot of poverty, garbage and general hopelessness about life in Mumbai but that definitely isn’t the point of the movie. The fact that an underdog comes from nowhere to beat the odds, get the money and win his girl and in such a novel manner isn’t something that is rare in Mumbai. It happens ever so often. The movie has a lot going for it- from the kids, to the plot, the soundtrack and of course the brilliant direction. And all this is from a movie which was shot on a budget of $13 Million and almost didn’t get picked up by any major distribution houses.

I don’t think Slumdog will win 10 Oscars- the technical awards should be split among the rest including Benjamin Button and The Dark Knight but I think it will win the big ones- Best Movie, Direction, Adapted Screenplay and of course Score & Song!

I must admit that I am not particularly looking forward to Anil Kapoor doing the bhangra every time the movie wins an award but I guess I cannot complain, after all he is responsible for the lovely Sonam Kapoor

Some Interesting Links:

1. Nate Silver’s predictions. If you haven’t heard of Nate Silver- let me tell you he is no movie critic. He is a stats geek/wizard who started where he predicted the results of the U.S. presidential elections correctly for all 50 states using historical data and logistical regression. He calculates that the odds of Slumdog winning is a rather heady 99%.

2. Wall Street Journal takes a break from covering the doom & gloom of the business world and instead wonders if Marisa Tomei will join a long list of actresses who won an Oscar for playing a stripper or a hooker.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Just why the U.S. economy is so important


This map is slightly dated but its absolutely brilliant. The U.S. states have been replaced by the names of the countries with similar GDPs (all numbers from 2007). It just goes to show why the U.S. economy is so important. And every job lost in a state like California or Utah leads to problems in other countries.

Obviously, the population in these states is a lot lower than most of the countries they are compared with it and the average wealth of citizens is a lot higher. Which means, if people stop spending int he U.S. (in a consumer spending driven economy) businesss in China and India start to hurt.

You can find the map at its original link here

Posted in Economy, USA | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Pakistan’s deal with the Taliban


As a country we have a lot going for us, but stable and friendly neighbours most certainly isn’t on that list.

In a desperate move, the Pakistan government has signed a very controversial peace deal with militants in the valley of Swat. In return for ceasefire, the government has agreed to enforce Sharia law in the region.

The Swat valley is a mountainous region just 100 miles away from Islamabad and over the past year much of the region has witnessed a battle between the Pakistan military and the local militants. The Swat valley was traditionally an independent kingdom (much like those in India) until it came under the Pakistani government in 1969. The ceasefire and the move towards Sharia law might result in peace in the short term, but this might have big consequences in the longer term.

The big problem is that these militants are loyal to the Taliban just across the border in Afghanistan and this deal is definitely going to embolden them to try and expand their influence over the rest of Pakistan. That could just mean – no education for girl children over the age of five, and a return to truly fanatic atmosphere similar to what we saw in Afghanistan. And the fact that these men are just 100 miles away from the capital is going to give the international world a massive headache.

What this deal also shows is just how little power the civilian government in Pakistan truly has. India cannot continue to expect the Pakistan government to do what it expects them to do with respect to across the border terrorism- cause quite frankly – they don’t seem to have any authority. Also, it seems to me that the new U.S special envoy to the Afghanistan/Pakistan region Richard Holbrooke now has the second hardest job on the planet (no prizes for guessing who has the hardest job!)

On a very interesting side note, the Swat valley voted for the secular governments and not the Islamists in the recent Pakistan elections.

Posted in Pakistan | Tagged , | 1 Comment

It starts all over again.

It’s been nearly three years since I stopped blogging for reasons I don’t quite remember now. I just figured that it might be a great time to start this again. I moved to a new city in June 2008 and its a city that I have really started to like.

The main reason why I have decided to jump on the blogging bandwagon again is well, I really enjoyed the first stint! Met a lot of new people, had a lot of fun discussions, all good reasons to start it again.

I plan to write on areas that interest me – and this includes politics, business, the media, internet and current affairs in general. Of course, there will be a lot of links to good articles here- especially if I get a decent net connection at home! There might be a couple of rants about Pune and its many problems now and then.

Posted in General | Tagged | 3 Comments