100 smart cities: A giant opportunity for green economy

There are times in the life of a nation when a new opportunity knocks on the doors offering fundamental shift from the past while promising huge business opportunity. Smart city plan by the new government is one such move. It holds the key to completely alter India’s urban landscape, create a new engine of growth and move the country on the path of sustainable development.
As it is still a wish and not much long term thought has gone into it, it would be right to take giant leaps of imagination to visualise about how the smart city concept will or can unfold in India?
When the present Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, articulated his desire for creating smart cities in India during his election campaign, he wasn’t presenting any new concept. It has been around since the end of the last century. Only the country has lagged behind in embracing it.
However, the fund allocation in the budget 2014 (Rs 7060 crore) for the smart city project is a step in the right direction. On the face of it the amount looks small and it is. When we divide it with 100 cities it comes to around Rs 70 crore per city. Still, the initial amount shouldn’t deter the long term entrepreneurial thinkers and planners. This money will be invested in pre-feasibility studies, detailed project reports etc.
Critics may ask how it will help the cause of green economy. Well the answer lies in the nature and concept of smart city. These cities are built around a premise where Information Technology (IT) assist’s the urban local bodies in ensuring good governance with increased monitoring of resource utilisation, operations maintenance, quick public service delivery and efficient use of data to create better services.
IT forms the core of the smart city but is not the end of the story. With changing times the smart city concept is being upgraded continually. The threat of resource scarcity, increasing wastage, deteriorating urban conditions has forced policy planners to incorporated better planning and energy efficient technologies for power, building, water, transport and waste disposal in the concept.
This has widened the ambit of smart city. Together, the IT and other emerging technologies help an urban area to better coordinate among departments and offer focussed service delivery. It helps in achieving resource optimization, energy efficiency and minimum wastage.
When we look at the big picture the possibilities are enormous. These smart cities can act as magnets that attract opportunities for green business from around the country as well as abroad. Technologies like efficient lighting, new building materials, efficient town planning practises, public transportation technologies, waste disposal systems, renewable energy, water conservation, harvesting and delivery as well as Information Technology will see a boom in the coming decades.
Nowhere in the world has such an ambitious project has been under taken. China, which has made a habit of achieving grand successes, has been content with just four known smart cities.
However, not all of the 100 smart cities will be built from the scratch. The future smart cities will come in two packages – Greenfield and Brownfield. Greenfield cities would be built anew and this would be one of the biggest urbanisation drive of the 20th century. Right now there are seven cities proposed along the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC). Each of these cities will house 5 lakh to a million residents.
No formal calculations have been made about the financial implications of the entire project but a small example may indicate the gigantic opportunity. A smart city near Ahmedabad, in the advanced stage of construction in an area of 886 acres, will cost Rs 70000 crore. Even if we take this as the bench mark for the rest of the 100 cities we get the drift.
The biggest business opportunity will arise when the government shift its focus from Greenfield to Brownfield cities. This will include cities like Delhi, Mumbai and others with huge population and systems.
Seven years ago when the previous government initiated a programme to make Delhi a smart city the cost of the 3D city map using property survey, GIS maps and satellite imagery was estimated at Rs 100 crore. The integration of various department data (32 in all) was another project. After the work was over the Delhi government had to create a separate company Geospatial Delhi Limited (GSDL) to manage the data flow.
The smart cities will need large workforce in both the stages – during its creation and after it is complete. It would create an opportunity for training a large scale workforce to undertake new and specialised assignments.
During construction of new or up-gradation of old cities a large team of engineers, technicians and supervisors, landscapers, botanists, environment engineers and others would be needed. Once they are up and running the same team would be required to run the operations and maintain it.
The jobs would be created in the IT, big data, app creation, hardware maintenance, waste management, energy efficiency, renewable energy companies, transport and infrastructure builders, lighting (LED) and other service providers. Experts of green building code, energy auditors, green building companies, architects, renewable energy and waste management experts, engineers and managers will be in demand.
All the above fields are the drivers of green economy around the world. Take the case of LED lights. A couple of years ago, Delhi government study said that if the city shifted to LED lights it will save 250 MW (megawatt) of electricity daily. Similarly another study suggested that Delhi’s built up area offers a chance to generate 2557 MW of solar power.
It will open up a huge market for the LED bulbs, fixtures and solar panels, batteries, invertors etc. Trained and untrained people would be required for manufacturing, transport, installation, repair and replacement and disposal of new products.
Efficient lighting and renewable energy promote green economy by minimising carbon footprint and the need for conventional energy while creating space for clean energy and other sustainable practices. These efforts lead to a sustainable economic development. Both the examples from a single metropolis suggest the large scale potential and the impact of employing green technology. Similar opportunities exist in the other sectors mentioned above.
Going back to the emerging smart city in Gujarat, it is said that it will be able to generate 5 lakh direct jobs. It means 100 smart cities have a capability of creating 50 million jobs. This is a mouth watering data for any government. Job creation of this scale will ensure its stay in New Delhi for at least a couple of terms.
However, to ensure this the government and the policy planners will have to bold and futuristic in their thought and deeds. If ever there was a silver bullet to meet the twin but divergent demand of economic growth and environment conservation “smart city” is it. But the concept needs to be embraced in its letter and spirit with an aim to fundamentally alter the functioning of our urban centres.

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This one CSR initiative can bridge the skill gap in India

About two years ago a FICCI-E&Y (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry and Ernst & Young) report said that nine of ten MBAs graduating from colleges were unemployable. Same is the case with many engineering and other general colleges. The quality of the graduates in both the hard skills (technical or job specific) and soft skills (presentation, conduct, interactive abilities, etiquettes and leadership qualities) are in short supply, to put it mildly.
The central, as well as state governments, have launched various schemes to improve the technical as well as general education. The central government has also launched a skill development programme in a mission mode and yet the skill gap refuses to go. On the contrary the gulf between the industry demand and what the schools and institute supplies have been increasing by the day.
A talent manager in a company was ruing the fact that they don’t find a fit for their company’s needs among the fresh graduates. So they take in raw talent and nurture it later when the talent is ripe where her potential can be fully utilised its already time for them to fly to greener pastures.
Over a period of time, a short and medium term solution is emerging which can act as a template for the beleaguered corporate and manufacturing sector before large-scale systemic changes take place sometime in the distant future.
Tap into ITIs
A few years ago Maruti Suzuki Industries Limited adopted the Elathur ITI (Industrial Technical Institute) in Kozhikode, Kerala. The private company helped the government education centre to spruce up its infrastructure, upgrade it, enrich the curriculum and trained the trainers at the centre as well as worked on the softer skills of the trainees to increase their chance of employability.
The result was that within no time all the 90 graduates were absorbed either within the company or got a job at private workshops.
However, this is just a beginning today’s corporate entities, as well as manufacturing giants, can benefit from the experiences of the early movers to fix all the bugs in adoption and its smooth as well as profitable execution.
Connect, Consolidate & Upgrade
As there is a wide chasm between industry need and what the educational institutes are churning in terms of human capital the corporate world should sit together and think through the problem of impending Industrial Revolution 4.0.
Using the fundamentals of backward integration a company can map out its need as well as the needs of its sector in the next decade. Based on that they should study the curriculum of an ITI that is closest to their manufacturing plant and adopt it either in full or in parts. They should then work with the ITI faculty to re-programme the curriculum to suit their needs and the need arising in their entire sector.
The curriculum should be renewed every two to three years keeping the fast pace of change in the sector in mind and the trainers should undergo simultaneous upgrade programmes through the year with the help of online training manuals as well as offline training sessions. But preferably they should not be conducted during holidays or long summer breaks as that would engender resentment. It should go hand in hand through the academic session.
Once the human capital produced is of a quality that fits the industry standards the company should make it known to other companies that they can tap into the resource base for good quality human capital. However, the first right of refusal to hire would be with the company that has been supporting or has adopted the said ITI.
This way they would not only be investing the lesser amount to train a raw graduate by hiring him or her for a salary and then going through the pain of seeing them leave, they would also help enlarge the pool of employable workers.
In time the number of graduates with the right skills and requisite experience will increase and the pool will keep enriching itself by the fresh dose of new talent. The moment company realises its intervention has created enough professionals where a glut is imminent it should recalibrate its focus on other skills where there is an existing or an emerging skill gap.

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Communication is Key for Effective CSR Implementation

There was a news item in the papers today that said the Delhi Government has embarked on a plan to treat to sewage water for drinking purpose. For this, it would take the sewage water upstream from Delhi and release it in Yamuna. Later the same water, purified due to natural flow, would be trapped at Pala village at the outskirts of Delhi and treated further before being released for consumption.
One reason for employing this expensive technique is because the mere thought of drinking the water which you flushed sometime ago is plain yuck!
But this is where communication comes in. The government should have invested a bit of its budget in creating awareness among the consumers. Groups of community leaders, old people, as well as women’s groups, should have been taken through the entire process and sensitized about the process of water treatment. A sustained effort for a couple of years involving many such groups would have softened them to the idea of accepting the treated water.
However, as the state government has lost a lot of time in putting the plan together and getting it off the ground for various reasons, now it has fallen on the tried and tested method of first completing the project and employing an expensive technique that they feel would automatically convince the end user.
The biggest CSR entity in any country (read the government) is not the only one that faces such communication challenges. Almost all the corporate entities who are into the CSR space have been in this space for some time or the other.
The challenge is two-fold. Convince the hierarchy within about a CSR plan and then go out to elicit the support of various stakeholders who would either be a part of the project on the ground or beneficiaries or both.
This calls for a stage-wise, staggered internal as well as external communication plan.
The first component of the plan should be to bring the company management, workforce and external stakeholders on the same page. Everyone should know where they are going.
The second stage should be to clearly spell out the shared vision and seek everyone’s approval.
In the third stage, consensus should be sought about what action, responsibility, and commitments are expected from each stakeholder. Deadlines can also be weaved in at this stage.
From then it would be about constant monitoring or as they say sticking to the plan, until and unless there is some major crisis that has hit the project. At this stage, you will have to go through the entire process once again to bring everyone back on track.

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Green Wall to Firewall Delhi against Dust-Storms

The Delhi government has initiated a programme to plant 3.2 million or 32 lakh trees around the periphery of Delhi as well as Yamuna flood plains. The move is seen as definitive step to combat the dust load that gets deposited in Delhi whenever there is a dust storm emanating from Western India especially Rajasthan.
Plan Details
All the government agencies have been given targets and have been requested to ensure that the survival rate of the plants is at least 70 percent. For the first time care is being taken that all the plants are of native variety including Pilkhan, goolar, mango, mahua, peepal, neem, banyan, berry, amla, jamun, amaltas, haara and, bahera.
There is provision of two audits one in March 2019 and the other in early 2020 by a third party to ensure maximum survival.
Uniqueness
The plan is unique as it insists on planting native trees. It also talks about third party audit for transparency. This is critical as there have been many green drives in Delhi during the last two decades with varying degrees of success. It has led to many claims and counter claims. People insist that if the earlier plantation drives were done rightly the green cover would have been enough to deal with the crisis of dust storms.
Challenges
Even in the present plan the Forest department which has the best results as far as survival rate of plants are concerned (on an average 70%) will be planting only 4.2 lakh (4020000) trees while the agency which has been tasked to plant the maximum number of trees is Delhi Development Authority (DDA). Plantation, raising forests, working on green covers is not its core competence. And yet it will plant ten lakh or a million trees.
Similarly the three Municipal Corporations which cover almost the 90 percent of the city population are tasked to plant four lakh (400000) trees while the NDMC or New Delhi Municipal Corporation which looks after only a small fraction of Delhi (Lutyens Delhi) will plant 3 lakh or 300000 trees.
So it would be interesting to see how the various civic agencies with different jurisdictions reporting either to the state as well as the central government are going to pull this ambitious plan off successfully.
The Way Forward
The Delhi Government initiative should be complement by the central government as well as the state governments of Haryana and Rajasthan. It is said that to weed out the problem strike at the root.
The dust storms emanate from Rajasthan. It’s an arid land with vast deserts. The winds blow from this region gather a lot of dust on their way in Rajasthan’s hinterland as well as Haryana, which too are arid and have sparse green cover, that lie in its path up to Delhi. These regions are Jaipur and Alwar in Rajasthan and Manesar and Gurgaon in Haryana.
The governments of the both the states should also initiate simultaneous green walls between Jaipur-Ajmer, Alwar-Neemrana at Manesar and then between Gurgaon and Faridabad. This will create four circuit breakers for the dust storm travelling from the west and absorb a large amount of dust before it reaches Delhi.
Green walls much before Delhi will not only help improve the local climate but also improve the qualitative and quantitative effectiveness of Delhi’s green wall.

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LET’S TALK SERIES: Why online activism doesn’t go beyond a point

The hyper-connected world is a doubled edged sword. Today it is very easy, quick and economical to launch an agitation, campaign or a revolution with the help of social media, smart phones, internet and telecommunication devices.
Be it Arab Spring seven years ago, or #metoo or #timesup or #iamwhatever campaigns they were created in a day and were all over the world within a short span of weeks. But the problem is it is becoming very difficult to sustain them beyond a season.
This maybe because once the revolution becomes global people from all walks of life start contributing to it. They bring their personal stories, interpretations and also react from their position of understanding and evolution. This sudden information avalanche leads to sensory overload among the followers or foot soldiers as well as onlookers who sit on the fringe gauging where to take a plunge or not.
Psychologists have been saying that humans are not programmed to such high levels of sensory and information onslaughts as is witnessed in the age of hyper connection over the last one decade.
This leads to a slight or complete shutdown among the recipient of the information. They either tune off or tune out of the constant barrage of information. This is reflected in their deleting information without reading it, blocking information source, or rolling their eyes with a silent “there you go” expression.
While they are shutting down from one hyperventilating issue another one crops up to demand their attention and before you know their attention is swept away by new surf of excitement.
In the new age of internet and social media, the crowd-sourced information is the king. However, most of the social media campaigns for change or justice begin with a personal hurt with a very personal villain as a target. And that is the Achilles heel of every modern day online revolution.
The moment personal hurt is resolved or the personal villain is punished or falls from grace the wider audience feels their work is over and it starts craving for something new. It leaves the basic issue simmering in the background.
Those who know the art of manipulating crowd behaviour know that the crowd is a like a primitive animal. It feels simple emotions of fear, anger and hurt. But its memory is extremely short. So they let the issue simmer for a week or two and then make a token action which is enough to assuage the feelings of a group or massage the egos of cyber warriors, revolutionaries and evangelists.
They feel empowered and experience a momentary sense of heightened self worth. Exhausted by a couple of weeks of cyber petitioning or sharing articles they now itch to jump to something new as the “inordinately long” engagement has drained their energy considerably.
This is first article in a series where I would be posing a question the readers. Everyone is welcome to present their views. I would request the readers to post their comments which would serve as the basis of other article on this particular strand of discussion.

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Politics in the age of digital technology

Every ordinary mortal is a potential giant killer
In the last week of 2016 when the world was busy making New Year resolutions or was out celebrating on the beaches or in the hills, a low ranking Indian para-military officer stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest. He uploaded a small video clip on Youtube and on Facebook citing pathetic conditions in which he was being kept thanks to the alleged negligence and corrupt practices of immediate seniors. As if on cue two more such videos surfaced, followed by rant through video streaming by a very high ranking military officer who was superseded for the post of chief of Indian army.
The central government panicked. It resorted to quick and clumsy denial. Casting aspersion on the character and mental state of the soldiers and swiftly acted against them. Simultaneously soldiers and their seniors were transferred from their posts and an inquiry was ordered into the allegations levelled by the soldiers that raised a storm in the virtual world. It also openly threatened the senior officer of dire consequences.
The sudden information ambush by “lowly” and lonely soldiers elicited a predictable and interesting government response. Initially it was baffled and confused, then irritated and embarrassed and finally it regained its poise.
The initial confusion was due to the fact that the extremely hierarchy conscious security apparatus was suddenly, simply but brilliantly out manoeuvred by a single soldier. Thanks to Facebook a foot soldier who would have thought twice to even knock on the doors of his immediate superior was effortlessly connecting with a large audience. He made his misery a talking point among the people. The minister of internal security, belonging to a party that rode to power at the centre on their patriotic plank, balked under intense public gaze. David had humbled Goliath.
Tsunami of sensory stimulus
This is not the first time when social media has helped under-privileged or “weak” to take up cudgels with the high and mighty and come out trumps. And it won’t be the last.
Since the beginning of the 21st century and especially after 2006 with the spread of internet and digital technologies the political landscape has witnessed a quiet but decisive shift.
Politicians are realising for the first time that the digital technologies are breaking down hierarchies and making it difficult to control information flow. The proliferation of digital technologies, particularly in the field of communication like social media platforms and Youtube have created a situation where it is both very easy to create an image as well as call the bluff.
As politics is in most parts but the art of managing perceptions, to that degree conducting their affairs seem like a tough ask these days for the practitioners of this art.
Historically the channels of information were limited. Information dissemination was through the word of mouth or through king’s decree. During these times a politician could invest time in building their image by withholding inconvenient truths about themselves and accentuating their positive aspects or successes. As access to the tools and sources of information flow to the people could be easily controlled, most of the politicians kept a distance from the people and this gave rise to myths about a person. Dedicated team of story tellers would fan out in rural heartland or in city squares and narrated stories glorifying the person and his achievements.
Folklores would be created around a person and his or her ideas would be presented as revolutionary. Perceptions would take time to build and then grew and endured. People would be slowly worked upon and around an idea where it became an article of faith for a huge majority or a committed minority with enough power to change the tide of time.
In the 20th century the first wave of mass media – newspapers, radio and television – offered politicians a very powerful tool. The first generation mass media was a misnomer in a sense that masses had no control over it. It was under strict control of either governments or powerful business elites. However, they were deemed mass media as they could connect with a large number of people at the same time. This form of mass media was a one-way-traffic. Especially tailored information could be dished out to everyone in the society.
There was no way the public could participate in it. Newspapers had their letters to editor columns, radio and television too had their people’s comment programmes but they were heavily edited and controlled. Anything that didn’t fit the neat narrative of the ruling elite, seldom found voice on these mediums.
At times there were attempts by people to raise their voice by starting community radio, or small television channel or small scale newspapers but they were no match to the over arching power of the organised mass media. It was very efficient at muzzling the alternative voice.
The one-size-fits-all information packets that these mass media organisations were adapt at churning out were a terrific tool in the hands of the politicians to perpetuate a carefully crafted mono-focal perception among the masses.
For example during the Cold War both the US and Soviet Union employed mass media, first the radio and then the television, very successfully to vilify each other and project each other as villains in their respective societies.
However, during the last decade of the 20th century the rise of internet brought about a subtle change in the way things were being run around the world. During the last 15 years the spread of internet and the digital technologies it brought in general and three instances in particular have given the world a glimpse of what lay in store for the future.
The new mass media
In the early years of the 21st century the war in Iraq witnessed for the first time the power of digital technology called the blog. While the mass media was reporting a sanitised version of the war the soldiers on the ground who were given access to internet and were allowed to maintain their own blogs to remain in touch with their family members started using the platform to air their doubts, anger, frustration, dejection and general state of degeneration that accompanies any war. They started questioning the rationale of the war and brought the firsthand accounts of its horrors to the general public. It shattered the dominant narrative peddled by the “embedded” traditional mass media in the US and the West European nations.
Four years later during the presidential elections in the US a rank outsider called Barak Obama first upset the apple cart within his own party to win the presidential nomination and then out smarted much well heeled Republicans by marshalling the power of the social media and digital technologies. His Twitter, Facebook and web-based outreach programme gave him an edge in both reaching out to people as well as collecting donations. The small donations from a wide base of the society added up to make a big difference to his campaign kitty.
As the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close the regions of Middle East or West Asia witnessed people’s uprising against their autocratic governments in what is now know as Arab Spring. The people’s movement was spearheaded by young who were using social media, especially Facebook, extensively to connect with each other, informing people about impending government crack downs and deciding upon a venue. It was also used for impromptu meeting on a spur-of-the-moment decided venue.
These three examples have been replicated since in many societies and in different circumstances with varying degrees of success. These events also teach us lessons in the emerging social and political realities.
They tell us that the new wave of digital media technologies is actually the “mass media”. Here the masses fully participate in generating information and accepting it. They are no more just passive consumers of information which is handed to them in top-down approach. They actively generate it and also reserve the right to listen, read or view it. In that sense they also have the power to be either a part of or the orchestrator of genuine or false information. They can be a tool or source of information, mis-information or dis-information.
Spectacles and echo chambers
This democratisation of levers of control in information generation and dissemination has hit the perception building mechanism created by traditional media. The oligarchy of control of traditional mass media made it easier for the politician to perpetuate themselves, black out others’ views and project their ideas as the ultimate truth. As crowding out the uncomfortable truth, a personal flaw or a group’s misdeeds was easier it helped the politicians in enduring their favourite perceptions for generations.
However, in the digital age and the social media perception management is becoming difficult.
Politics is a game of creating, managing and enduring perceptions. It makes personality cults and enduring ideas.
In mass media that was controlled by the few it was easy to maintain it for long but in digital real time technologies it has become difficult. It was visible during the recently concluded US presidential election where both the Democrat and Republican candidates faced extreme scrutiny and public opprobrium for even their slightest slips.
Republican candidate and now the 45th President of the US, Donald Trump, was specially targeted on Twitter and social media for his blunders. Even after his inauguration ceremony the controversy surrounding the number of people attending the event painted him in a poor light. His team tried to counter the claims of the media by putting forward bogus facts and when they were caught they said they were presenting “alternate facts”. The euphemism for lies was quickly denounced by Twitter and social media trolls.
As has been visible in the US elections as well as in other full, quazi or faux democracies around the world keeping people’s outburst under control in the age of digital technologies in general and social media in particular is becoming increasingly difficult. Similarly maintaining a perception for long is also turning out to be far more challenging than any other time in history.
To the curious onlooker it may seem that the age of politicians and politics is over. For the politicians and their spin doctors it may be trying times as they try to grapple with altered realities of their playing turf. But that’s just a part of the entire reality. The other side of the coin holds lot more promise than we think.
The idea that politics is nothing but management of perception has gained currency during the last few centuries. However, if we look at the classical meaning of the word politics it says, “The activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power. Or it means activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organization”.
This definition emphasises the role of action in the form of debates, positions taken in a debate and the follow up action taken on it. During the last two hundred years politicians have mistaken the call to action as just creating and managing perceptions. Too much emphasis has been laid on only one aspect of the political action. This has led to employment of subterfuge, double speak and deception.
Integrity the new currency
But the digital technologies are making this kind of politics of difficult. Now the space of saying something and doing something exactly opposite is shrinking.
Take the case of India politician, Lal Krishna Advani. Belonging to the right wing Hindu Nationalist Party, Bharatiya Janata Party, he cultivated a hard-line Hindu image. He projected himself as someone who was opposed to alleged Muslim appeasement practices of the more liberal Congress Party. After investing 50 years in that persona he tried to change it when he realised that strident positions will not earn him the coveted post of the prime minister. On a visit to Pakistan he praised Jinnah the father of Pakistan and a much reviled figure in India among Hindus. Within moments his comments went viral and people’s reactions came equally fast and thick. Fifty years of assiduous efforts in cultivation of an image went down the drain. In a matter of few hours he lost the plot and his core constituency deserted him. He became a pariah and his political career was gutted.
It served as a reminder to the rest of his ilk and when his protégé and current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was nominated as the prime ministerial candidate he didn’t make any mistake of being too many things to too many people. He stuck to a definite agenda and won. Later he tried to move away from his development plank and indulge in communal politics with disastrous consequences in regional elections.
These examples may make a person wonder that the space for politicians is shrinking as they are inherently unabashed liars and masters of subterfuge. But there is another aspect that reflects an equally interesting fact. The digital technologies are rewriting the rules of the political game and fundamentally altering the political landscape.
As the gap between the perception and the person is now easily visible and even easily exploitable it is creating a space for more honest and open politics. The new rules of politics are more upfront and the leader has to walk the talk. In that sense it is now demanding more accountability.
But people must not confuse accountability with morality or goodness of purpose but it means delivering and being what you promised.
In this game the right wingers are first off the block. They have understood the power of the medium earlier than the liberals. It helps as their in-your-face style connects easily with the person on the street. This is the reason we are witnessing the rise of the obnoxious and intemperate voices around the world. It’s always easy and spectacular to rouse people’s anger and base emotions than to convince them of cerebral ideas. Yet they will not be in the positions of power forever. Like the principles of yin and yang the liberals will return using the same medium.
However, the digital politics will demand a lot more involvement and responsibility from the people too. They will have to exercise care in choosing their representatives as what they see is what they will get. In a way it would be a fare game. When you choose a villain you will get a villain and will not have the luxury to blame anyone. The people in general will have to understand that those liberals who will work towards inclusive politics will by definition be called upon to find middle ground while managing disparate and at times divergent demands of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and economically stratified societies. In managing these contradictory demands to find a golden mean, at times, they would be seen eschewing populism, cherry picking from a bouquet of demands. People will also need to evolve to offer them that space for the greatest good of the greatest number.
In that sense the digital politics would be more active and evolved politics in which every section of the whole society would participate. Each segment (politician and the public) will have to bring their commitments to the table.
It would usher in an era of politics based on managing reality for a change rather than just perceptions.

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Politics in the Age of Digital Technology

 

Every ordinary mortal is a potential giant killer

In the last week of 2016 when the world was busy making New Year resolutions or was out celebrating on the beaches or in the hills, a low ranking Indian para-military officer stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest. He uploaded a small video clip on Youtube and on Facebook citing pathetic conditions in which he was being kept thanks to the alleged negligence and corrupt practices of immediate seniors. As if on cue two more such videos surfaced, followed by rant through video streaming by a very high ranking military officer who was superseded for the post of chief of Indian army.

The central government panicked. It resorted to quick and clumsy denial. Casting aspersion on the character and mental state of the soldiers and swiftly acted against them. Simultaneously soldiers and their seniors were transferred from their posts and an inquiry was ordered into the allegations levelled by the soldiers that raised a storm in the virtual world. It also openly threatened the senior officer of dire consequences.

The sudden information ambush by “lowly” and lonely soldiers elicited a predictable and interesting government response. Initially it was baffled and confused, then irritated and embarrassed and finally it regained its poise.

The initial confusion was due to the fact that the extremely hierarchy conscious security apparatus was suddenly, simply but brilliantly out manoeuvred by a single soldier. Thanks to Facebook a foot soldier who would have thought twice to even knock on the doors of his immediate superior was effortlessly connecting with a large audience. He made his misery a talking point among the people. The minister of internal security, belonging to a party that rode to power at the centre on their patriotic plank, balked under intense public gaze. David had humbled Goliath.

Tsunami of sensory stimulus

This is not the first time when social media has helped under-privileged or “weak” to take up cudgels with the high and mighty and come out trumps. And it won’t be the last.

Since the beginning of the 21st century and especially after 2006 with the spread of internet and digital technologies the political landscape has witnessed a quiet but decisive shift.

Politicians are realising for the first time that the digital technologies are breaking down hierarchies and making it difficult to control information flow. The proliferation of digital technologies, particularly in the field of communication like social media platforms and Youtube have created a situation where it is both very easy to create an image as well as call the bluff.

As politics is in most parts but the art of managing perceptions, to that degree conducting their affairs seem like a tough ask these days for the practitioners of this art.

Historically the channels of information were limited. Information dissemination was through the word of mouth or through king’s decree. During these times a politician could invest time in building their image by withholding inconvenient truths about themselves and accentuating their positive aspects or successes. As access to the tools and sources of information flow to the people could be easily controlled, most of the politicians kept a distance from the people and this gave rise to myths about a person. Dedicated team of story tellers would fan out in rural heartland or in city squares and narrated stories glorifying the person and his achievements.

Folklores would be created around a person and his or her ideas would be presented as revolutionary. Perceptions would take time to build and then grew and endured. People would be slowly worked upon and around an idea where it became an article of faith for a huge majority or a committed minority with enough power to change the tide of time.

In the 20th century the first wave of mass media – newspapers, radio and television – offered politicians a very powerful tool. The first generation mass media was a misnomer in a sense that masses had no control over it. It was under strict control of either governments or powerful business elites. However, they were deemed mass media as they could connect with a large number of people at the same time. This form of mass media was a one-way-traffic. Especially tailored information could be dished out to everyone in the society.

There was no way the public could participate in it. Newspapers had their letters to editor columns, radio and television too had their people’s comment programmes but they were heavily edited and controlled. Anything that didn’t fit the neat narrative of the ruling elite, seldom found voice on these mediums.

At times there were attempts by people to raise their voice by starting community radio, or small television channel or small scale newspapers but they were no match to the over arching power of the organised mass media. It was very efficient at muzzling the alternative voice.

The one-size-fits-all information packets that these mass media organisations were adapt at churning out were a terrific tool in the hands of the politicians to perpetuate a carefully crafted mono-focal perception among the masses.

For example during the Cold War both the US and Soviet Union employed mass media, first the radio and then the television, very successfully to vilify each other and project each other as villains in their respective societies.

However, during the last decade of the 20th century the rise of internet brought about a subtle change in the way things were being run around the world. During the last 15 years the spread of internet and the digital technologies it brought in general and three instances in particular have given the world a glimpse of what lay in store for the future.

The new mass media

In the early years of the 21st century the war in Iraq witnessed for the first time the power of digital technology called the blog. While the mass media was reporting a sanitised version of the war the soldiers on the ground who were given access to internet and were allowed to maintain their own blogs to remain in touch with their family members started using the platform to air their doubts, anger, frustration, dejection and general state of degeneration that accompanies any war. They started questioning the rationale of the war and brought the firsthand accounts of its horrors to the general public. It shattered the dominant narrative peddled by the “embedded” traditional mass media in the US and the West European nations.

Four years later during the presidential elections in the US a rank outsider called Barak Obama first upset the apple cart within his own party to win the presidential nomination and then out smarted much well heeled Republicans by marshalling the power of the social media and digital technologies. His Twitter, Facebook and web-based outreach programme gave him an edge in both reaching out to people as well as collecting donations. The small donations from a wide base of the society added up to make a big difference to his campaign kitty.

As the first decade of the 21st century drew to a close the regions of Middle East or West Asia witnessed people’s uprising against their autocratic governments in what is now know as Arab Spring. The people’s movement was spearheaded by young who were using social media, especially Facebook, extensively to connect with each other, informing people about impending government crack downs and deciding upon a venue. It was also used for impromptu meeting on a spur-of-the-moment decided venue.

These three examples have been replicated since in many societies and in different circumstances with varying degrees of success. These events also teach us lessons in the emerging social and political realities.

They tell us that the new wave of digital media technologies is actually the “mass media”. Here the masses fully participate in generating information and accepting it. They are no more just passive consumers of information which is handed to them in top-down approach. They actively generate it and also reserve the right to listen, read or view it. In that sense they also have the power to be either a part of or the orchestrator of genuine or false information. They can be a tool or source of information, mis-information or dis-information.

Spectacles and echo chambers

This democratisation of levers of control in information generation and dissemination has hit the perception building mechanism created by traditional media. The oligarchy of control of traditional mass media made it easier for the politician to perpetuate themselves, black out others’ views and project their ideas as the ultimate truth. As crowding out the uncomfortable truth, a personal flaw or a group’s misdeeds was easier it helped the politicians in enduring their favourite perceptions for generations.

However, in the digital age and the social media perception management is becoming difficult.

Politics is a game of creating, managing and enduring perceptions. It makes personality cults and enduring ideas.

In mass media that was controlled by the few it was easy to maintain it for long but in digital real time technologies it has become difficult. It was visible during the recently concluded US presidential election where both the Democrat and Republican candidates faced extreme scrutiny and public opprobrium for even their slightest slips.

Republican candidate and now the 45th President of the US, Donald Trump, was specially targeted on Twitter and social media for his blunders. Even after his inauguration ceremony the controversy surrounding the number of people attending the event painted him in a poor light. His team tried to counter the claims of the media by putting forward bogus facts and when they were caught they said they were presenting “alternate facts”. The euphemism for lies was quickly denounced by Twitter and social media trolls.

As has been visible in the US elections as well as in other full, quazi or faux democracies around the world keeping people’s outburst under control in the age of digital technologies in general and social media in particular is becoming increasingly difficult. Similarly maintaining a perception for long is also turning out to be far more challenging than any other time in history.

To the curious onlooker it may seem that the age of politicians and politics is over. For the politicians and their spin doctors it may be trying times as they try to grapple with altered realities of their playing turf. But that’s just a part of the entire reality. The other side of the coin holds lot more promise than we think.

The idea that politics is nothing but management of perception has gained currency during the last few centuries. However, if we look at the classical meaning of the word politics it says, “The activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power. Or it means activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organization”.

This definition emphasises the role of action in the form of debates, positions taken in a debate and the follow up action taken on it. During the last two hundred years politicians have mistaken the call to action as just creating and managing perceptions. Too much emphasis has been laid on only one aspect of the political action. This has led to employment of subterfuge, double speak and deception.

Integrity the new currency

But the digital technologies are making this kind of politics of difficult. Now the space of saying something and doing something exactly opposite is shrinking.

Take the case of India politician, Lal Krishna Advani. Belonging to the right wing Hindu Nationalist Party, Bharatiya Janata Party, he cultivated a hard-line Hindu image. He projected himself as someone who was opposed to alleged Muslim appeasement practices of the more liberal Congress Party. After investing 50 years in that persona he tried to change it when he realised that strident positions will not earn him the coveted post of the prime minister. On a visit to Pakistan he praised Jinnah the father of Pakistan and a much reviled figure in India among Hindus. Within moments his comments went viral and people’s reactions came equally fast and thick. Fifty years of assiduous efforts in cultivation of an image went down the drain. In a matter of few hours he lost the plot and his core constituency deserted him. He became a pariah and his political career was gutted.

It served as a reminder to the rest of his ilk and when his protégé and current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, was nominated as the prime ministerial candidate he didn’t make any mistake of being too many things to too many people. He stuck to a definite agenda and won. Later he tried to move away from his development plank and indulge in communal politics with disastrous consequences in regional elections.
These examples may make a person wonder that the space for politicians is shrinking as they are inherently unabashed liars and masters of subterfuge. But there is another aspect that reflects an equally interesting fact. The digital technologies are rewriting the rules of the political game and fundamentally altering the political landscape.

As the gap between the perception and the person is now easily visible and even easily exploitable it is creating a space for more honest and open politics. The new rules of politics are more upfront and the leader has to walk the talk. In that sense it is now demanding more accountability.

But people must not confuse accountability with morality or goodness of purpose but it means delivering and being what you promised.

In this game the right wingers are first off the block. They have understood the power of the medium earlier than the liberals. It helps as their in-your-face style connects easily with the person on the street. This is the reason we are witnessing the rise of the obnoxious and intemperate voices around the world. It’s always easy and spectacular to rouse people’s anger and base emotions than to convince them of cerebral ideas. Yet they will not be in the positions of power forever. Like the principles of yin and yang the liberals will return using the same medium.

However, the digital politics will demand a lot more involvement and responsibility from the people too. They will have to exercise care in choosing their representatives as what they see is what they will get. In a way it would be a fare game. When you choose a villain you will get a villain and will not have the luxury to blame anyone. The people in general will have to understand that those liberals who will work towards inclusive politics will by definition be called upon to find middle ground while managing disparate and at times divergent demands of multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and economically stratified societies. In managing these contradictory demands to find a golden mean, at times, they would be seen eschewing populism, cherry picking from a bouquet of demands. People will also need to evolve to offer them that space for the greatest good of the greatest number.

In that sense the digital politics would be more active and evolved politics in which every section of the whole society would participate. Each segment (politician and the public) will have to bring their commitments to the table.

It would usher in an era of politics based on managing reality for a change rather than just perceptions.

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What’s the tearing hurry to dis-invest Air India?

Selling family silver is in vogue these days. Sell your ancestral land. Sell old gold jewellery as it does not fit into the fashion trends of today. The government, media and the consulting companies too have jumped the bandwagon and have been clamouring for selling off anything and everything that has value. This selling mania goes by the name – disinvestment. Editorials are being written as to why the central government needs to sell off Air India.
“The government’s job is to govern and not run airlines,” is smart line thrown at unsuspecting reader. Consulting companies have always been in favour of selling family silver as they have nothing to lose as they have already got their consulting fee for making a strong case for disinvestment. Government too seems favourably inclined towards off loading this so called “Albatross” around their neck.
People in general can be divided into two categories – the intellectual herd and the disinterested fence sitter. The former makes instant opinion based on who has yelled more loudly in media and hogged limelight. Whether there is any merit in their argument or not is not his or her concern. The fence sitters are normally silent lot who feel powerless and seethes within with apparently no voice.
However, two questions that beg answers from the powers that be — why family looms need to be sold? And to whom?
Air India is in deep financial red. We all know that but the question is why and how did it land in this mess in the first place? Why nothing was done to arrest the slide at the right moment? And why an action shouldn’t be initiated against the guilty?
If the news in today’s Times of India is any indication CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) has opened an investigation into how the airlines, which was once one of the top airlines’ in the world, has met the fate it is suffering today. They are focussing on three questions – Why 111 planes were bought when there was need for only 28? Why the profitable routes were given to private airlines? And why domestic and international operations were merged?
I think this is the way the department, ministries and the government should go about in dealing with all the ailing PSUs (Public Sector Undertakings). Government should constitute a committee that should ask questions with all the secretaries and CMDs (chairman and managing directors) of PSUs.
Hindustan Machine Tools bosses should have been asked when there are 67 percent people engaged in agriculture and the government is pushing modern agriculture then why aren’t you being able to make good quality tractors and sell them? Why is it that with a market of 1.2 billion people you can’t sell watches and Titan can? Why is it that when India needs to build infrastructure which is double that of what it has made in the last 70 years in next 15 years then cement corporation of India is struggling? Why do ITDC hotels located at prime locations (Hotel Janpath in Connaught Place, Delhi and Centaur at Indira Gandhi Airport) have to run in loses.
Instead of fixing responsibility and taking the culprits to task the government of the day and its predecessors have taken easy path — to sell the stuff. It’s like throwing the baby with the bath water.
The venerable bureaucrats, technocrats and other consulting agencies as well as political leaders should at least be asked why did they fail? What plans were made to tackle the competition? How did they handle marketing and PR?
Accountability needs to be fixed on those who have failed to deliver. After all these entire edifices are built on tax payers money and you just can’t turn them into dust and walk away as if nothing has happened.
To add salt to injury then the very people who have destroyed a robust marquee organisation turn around, hire a consultant and make a case of selling them saying it’s a drain on government exchequer(Oh really!).
They should be the ones who should be taken to task. They should be fired or their pension benefits should be curtailed or some sort of punishment should be meted out.
Secondly, the people should also pressurise the government that these organisations were built from their money. They have been around for the last 50 or more years. They have created a wealth of experience, a brand name, huge and talented workforce as well as immense real estate around the country.
After putting in that kind of resources and time and building a brand it would be sold for a song because a handful of people who were tasked to run it failed due to their ineptitude and total disregard towards the opportunity and responsibility they were entrusted with.
We all know that bureaucrats and political bosses have for long used these PSUs as personal fiefdoms. But these fiefdoms can also be profitable while serving your interests. Take the case of Emirates Airlines. It’s run by the royal family of UAE and so it’s a government enterprise. But in less than 25 years of its operations it is the most successful airlines in the world which earned a profit of $2 billion in 2015-16. It made the royal family richer and their airlines a feather in their cap. Their international reputation has soared too.
Even in India with online shopping portals gaining ground among the new buyers the postal department has seen a resurrection as their unmatched reach and workforce is acting as a backbone to the portals’ delivery operations in rural and small town India. The department which was close to declared a dinosaur is now alive and kicking and may soon be contributing to the government exchequer as a profitable venture.
The government should abandon the idea of selling the family silver and instead tweak its approach. They should hire professional bosses from the market at market price or on a retainer basis (with attendant perks of house car and other things) and link their financial emoluments to performance linked bonus. The same should be done with the IAS officers who are appointed during their tenure.
Retired IAS officers shouldn’t be a natural choice in any case. They may be great administrators but they are not necessarily the best of managers. Even if they have done their MBA from IIM Ahemdabad (which these days many of them have) their training as administrator comes in the way of being a cutting edged marketing person who understands the quick changing world and the power of quick decision making, risk taking and constant communication.
Government or rather political bosses who fear losing control can create a safety net for themselves by insisting that the CSR spend would be only in government run programmes and they can also ask for a 5 to 10 percent quota for government officers and political bosses for hotel rooms, airline tickets and other products or services.
This much flexibility is available even in private sector. With their pie secure the government should then transfer the operations, goal setting and vision planning of the PSUs to world class professionals driven by market realities.
Government can remain the majority stakeholder and the company can still run like a professional enterprise, nimbly negotiating the twist and turns of the market and earn profit for the state. With little tweaking in their approach and enthusiastic support from an emerging economy these mature and powerful companies (PSUs) can script a formidable story of success and quality and can also create opportunity to absorb large workforce.

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