Sunday, May 27, 2007

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Enron is a name familiar to any one in this century, as one of the largest corporate scandals in history. But what exactly is this scandal? Why did the company which was a media darling on Wall Street, crash so badly? How did Enron manage to fool investors, consultants into thinking it was making profits? How did Enron manage to bully Govt officials, lawmakers, accountants, employees to have it’s own way? What exactly went wrong? Questions which have fascinated many but again no easy answers. The fraud was on such a massive level, that explaining it is beyond the scope here.

One of the best ways to get an insight into the scandal is the documentary Enron:The Smartest Guys in the Room by Alex Gibney. Based on the book of the same name by Fortune 500 reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind , the movie has a narration by actor Peter Coyote . The movie broadly looks at 3 areas – the rise of Enron, it’s role in the 2000 California power crisis and the actual scandal that bought down Enron. Enron is quite familiar to many in India, due to the Dabhol Power plant and the resulting fiasco.
The Rise of Enron

Enron started out in 1985 when the Omaha based InterNorth purchased the Houston Natural Gas, and the new company was registered as Enron. Former Houston Natural Gas CEO Ken Lay was given the charge, and he later moved the company’s HQ to Houston. Ken Lay wanted to completely re brand the entire business, and he was instrumental in getting the name. Enron started out primarily as an infrastructure company involved in power transmission and distribution. It was during this time we had that whole drama involving Dabhol power plant and one when looks at what happened in California , we should be indeed thankful, that we were spared Enron’s dirty tricks out here.

During the period 1998-2000, Enron grew at a rapid pace. It claimed its fortunes through marketing of commodities, derivatives and futures. So from a purely infrastructure based company Enron was now more of a trading organization. Now what exactly was Enron doing here?

Ok I am not a financial expert nor much into stock trading stuff. So I will try to explain in lay man terms. Say some one wanted to buy a certain quantity of steel, so he contacts another trader to purchase that steel. So in this case steel is a commodity which is being traded. Now you have organizations which act as a mediator between buyers and sellers, they help the sellers fix a price, and assist in negotiation between buyer and seller. This is what Enron was doing and from where it claimed it’s profits.

Enron became the media darling and Wall Street’s blue eyed boy. From 1996 to 2001, Fortune magazine named Enron as “America’s most Innovative Company” sadly unaware that the innovations were more to do with accounting. In 2000 it was rated as “One of the Best Companies to Work With” as the media got taken in by their plush offices, it’s employee policies and a professional management.

California Power Crisis

In 1996 the State of California signed a deregulation bill, which would free it’s energy market from regulation. Prior to 1996, the market in California was controlled by private players like PG&E, SCE and San Diego Gas, but subject to intense regulation, in order to prevent profiteering. These firms sold their power generation plants to private players like Enron and Reliant, who were not covered by the regulations. When de regulation took place it was more of a half hearted process. Wholesale prices were freed from regulations, while retail prices were still regulated.
So we had a scenario where the utility companies had to pay a fortune to buy power from players like Enron, but the retail prices did not see any consequent increase. So in effect it meant that company A would buy 100,000 MW of power from Enron for around 20$ million dollars( please not the figures are hypothetical), but in effect it could do nothing about the prices in the tightly regulated retail market. And this is where Enron took advantage of the loopholes. What it did, was stop power supply, manipulate the prices to it’s own advantage and cause artificial constraints. Most of the blackouts were not due to any power failure, but due to companies like Enron, free from the regulations, manipulating prices at will, and playing ducks and drakes with the state’s power supply. The FERC( Federal Energy Regulation Comission ) which was expected to step in and regulate this, became a spectator and just watched Enron merrily manipulate the prices.

The documentary has extensive interviews with then California Governor Gray Davis , who had to bear the brunt of this crisis. So bad was the situation during 2000 and 2001, that price rises and rolling blackouts made life a nightmare for residents of California. Governor Davis in fact had to declare an emergency in 2001 to deal with this crisis. We keep harping about power privatization in India as a mantra. But if not handled properly this is what is going to result. One interesting scene in the documentary is that of Arnold Schwarzenegger, present day Governor, meeting Ken Lay during the power crisis, and attending a board meeting of Enron.

The Fall
While Enron was busy charming investors and Wall Street journalists, in reality, the company was running into huge losses. What Enron did in effect was simple, it set performance targets for it’s executives. In this case the performance targets was creating an illusion that the company was rolling in profits. So in order to make it’s stock price rise, executives, accountants and top level officers started to indulge in financial manipulations and the targets were set to cover up more and more losses. With insider information, the executives started to trade stocks among themselves. In pure layman’s terms it means if you were working in Enron, and you knew that the stock was in reality worthless, you could trade it within the company making money for yourself, which is what most of the people there did. Sadly investors knew nothing about it, and still continue to hold on, believing that they were sitting on a gold mine.

Now there is a difference between investor and employee. When you say you have invested in Reliance, it means you have shares or stock of the company, you don’t work there. So while you are free to trade in their shares, you really don’t have much clue to what is going on inside. And this is precisely what was happening at Enron. The top management and executives sold their shares, while the investors were asked to hold on, claiming that the price would rise further after Enron hit a record 90$ per stock in 2000. Ken Lay mislead most of these share holders, by claiming all was fine, when in fact Enron was sinking like the Titanic. Jeffery Skilling it’s CEO, came down on those Wall Street journalists who saw the truth that the emperor had no clothes . When the stock fell to 15$, on October 2001, the game was up.

Enron lost billions in dollars, reputed accounting firm Arthur Andersen has been indicted, on it’s role in the shady accounting practices. Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Andrew Fatsow has been indicted for their role in pilfering the company’s assets, and financial manipulations. But what of the thousands of Enron employees and investors who lost all their savings, children’s college funds and pensions. Many of them are on the roads right now, for no fault of theirs. Why should so many suffer for the greed and sins of a few?

Enron holds out many lessons for us. Of what happens when corporate greed takes over man’s nature. It might result in short term benefits, but in the long run, this is what happens. Enron also proves that tags of being the “Most innovative company” mean nothing. This documentary is a call to us. Concepts like integrity, honesty and ethics are not outdated. You might gain something in the short run, but in the long run, you only lose. Enron is not over, having worked in the corporate sector for almost 7 years, I can very confidently say that there are Enrons waiting to occur all over India. And the tragedy is that we are still fast asleep, maybe till the next Enron happens here in India.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Speak From Your Heart

Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subash Chandra Bose, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Gen George Patton, Charles De Gaulle, Abraham Lincoln - Not a very exhaustive list, but what made these people such great leaders in their own right? What made these men motivate people to follow them? Why is that when an Abdul Kalam speaks, we listen to every word of his, while when some so called intellectuals speak, all they achieve is making the audience sleep? One common factor is the art of Public Speaking. Quite often when a nation or even a company is in crisis, we look forward to that one person, who could motivate us, who could make us feel, hey this man is the one who will lead us out from trouble. Public speaking is not about having the looks of a Greek God and the voice of a tenor. Nor is it about being a scholar or the world’s richest man. It digs down to more common things like integrity, honesty, sense of purpose and conviction. You might hire the best speech writer, get the entire media to do a PR job for you, but unless you have the honesty and conviction, your words will ring hollow.

Public speaking is different from writing an article or book. When you are penning your thoughts on paper, you are indulging in a one to one interaction with the recipient. But public speaking, is different, here you are addressing a mass of people. People of different personalities, mental capabilities, sensibilities. And this is where the tightrope walk comes into picture. Here you must ensure that whatever you are speaking touches the persons listening but at the same time the essence must not be lost. Dwellling too much on complexities could put off many people, yet dumbing down the speech to make it appeal to more,,could make the whole exercise meaningless. Being an active member of the Ramakrishna Mission , I attended a speech by Late Swami Ranganathananda . I remember his speech vividly, as he wonderfully simplified complex philosophical ideas, using a superb mixture of idioms, similies and metaphors, connecting it with the day to day life. Speakers often tend to show off their intellect and knowledge, and in the process, alienate the audience. The audience is not there to hear how much you know, but how much they can understand of you. You need to come down to the level of the audience, and communicate with them in their language. You need to connect your speech to their fears, desires and their life. Swami Vivekananda explored the complexities of Indian philosophy in his books, and discussions with other people, but when he addressed the common man, either in US or India, he spoke to them in a simple language which they could understand. This is I feel is the major drawback of many intellectuals of the current times. They have a sort of arrogance, conceit and contempt for the masses, which effectively alienates them. We might detest a Laloo Yadav, a Mayawati or a Bal Thackeray , but the fact is these people, speak to the masses in a language they understand, though its another matter that they often end up misusing that power.

When Subash Chandra Bose said “Give me blood, I shall give you freedom” thousands of Indians willingly gave up everything to fight for him. Why? Because he was not indulging in idle preaching. He was a man who gave up a comfortable job in the ICS, and later even resigned from the Congress, due to ideological differences. People aware of his sacrifices, saw the honesty in his approach. In other words, he was a man who practiced what he preached . You might hire the best speech writer, add in some high sounding words, but unless you are honest about what you are speaking, your words ring hollow. In other words, it comes down to 3 simple words- Walk the Talk. When Patton gave his by now famous speech to members of the Third Army, during the World War, why did those men die for him literally? Because they knew that this man was not an armchair strategist, he actually lead from the front. The 1970 movie Patton , starts off with this famous speech, where he gives the pep talk to soldiers. When Patton gave that speech, he had already lead from the front, taken part in real combat, and had inflicted crushing defeats over the Nazis in N.Africa . People knew that this man was speaking from experience. You have to be honest to yourself while addressing people. Today I can get some nice anecdotes, hire a speech writer, put in some pep stuff, and address a group of management students on how to manage a team. But the entire exercise will fall flat, why because I have not yet reached the level, where I can really give such a speech. I can address people on how to face interviews, because I have been through the process. Here I am speaking from my heart. Whatever you are speaking, make sure that is something you have experienced in person.

Gen Patton often spoke in language which would make a fisherman blush in embarrassment, calling it as colorful would be polite. Yet every time he managed to drive home his point. What he did was simple. While his language would appear coarse, unrefined and even embarrassing to a normal person, that sort of language was normal in the Army. In short he knew who his target audiences were . One of the greatest speeches of all time is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” to civil rights workers. Why did that speech awaken the conscience of a nation? Well consider this quote “ When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” I have taken this from Wikipedia for reference. King knew that for the average American “ life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were values he held the dearest. To put it simply, you need to know whom you are talking to. I had worked as a faculty for around 2 years, and as part of my job, I often had to take lectures for people from Govt organizations like BHPV, CISF etc. Now most of the audience were not technical in nature, so when I was addressing them, I had to explain how IT was relevant to their organization’s viewpoint. When Jack Welch addresses GE employees, he talks in terms of Six Sigma, productivity , the same person, talks on broader perspective when he addresses non GE persons. Before giving a speech, you need to do your homework well, understand your audience, understand what they need. And mind you this is an exercise to be done with honesty. I have seen people trying to fake interest in their audiences, pretending to be so concerned about their feelings, but the audiences are not fools, they can see through your pretence in 5 minutes flat.

Effective public speaking is not something that can be mastered in 15 days by reading a book like “How to become a public speaker”. Unless there is honest and conviction in what you speak, no amount of self help books, will make you a good one. And remember it is not necessary, that your first speech has to be a big success. Benjamin Disraeli, was mocked at in the British parliament, when he first spoke, later he was acknowledged as one of the greatest orators of all times. Mind you unless you are fully convinced of what you are speaking, your words will carry no weight. Too often we assume, that just because we won some prizes in elocution and debate competitions, we are good speakers. No way, those competitions, only teach you how to speak, but unless you are true and honest to whatever you preach, your speech will be meaningless fury and nothing else. Remember the best speeches don’t come from the speechwriter, they come from within the heart .

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Pure Science Battling Death in India

The Internet started off as a network to share information among people doing scientific research.

Television was developed because of the transistor technology which in turn owed its invention to Theory of Super-conductivity.

It was Johannes Kepplers’ law that made the invention of satellites possible.

If we take any great invention in recent times, we found that all of them had a foundation in scientific laws.

Basically, science has two streams

Pure or basic sciences , is the development of scientific theories. It is highly theoretical in nature, and does not consider the application. It is research for research sake.

Applied science is the art of applying these scientific theories for practical problems. For eg. Theory of Superconductivity belongs to realm of pure science. John Bardeen , used this theory to invent the transistor, ie Applied Science .

An inventor does not create something new, he simply uses existing scientific theories to solve a problem practically. Thomas Alva Edison was an inventor, he did not come up with any ground breaking theory. All he did was use the existing scientific theories to come up with his inventions.

But Isaac Newton was a scientist foremost, he did not invent anything, but he made ground breaking discoveries in science, and laid foundation for it. So we can see that ‘Pure Science’ and ‘ Applied Science’ have a very close relationship. Without Pure Science, Applied Science can not exist.

Had there been no Mathematics, we would not be using computers today, because a majority of computer software is modeled on mathematical principles. What is a database, but an application of the set theory we learnt at school. Unfortunately in the craze for BPO-IT , we are neglecting the pure science stream in India. As it is, we never strongly invested in research, and we are now totally neglecting it. The claims of us being a knowledge superpower are a big joke. Knowledge in what, using 3rd party tools to create an application. Ok we might create very efficient applications with good project management, but at end of day, we are simply doing screwdriver technology. Bill Gates and the US MNC’s may go wah wah over our supposed brain power and computing skills, but lets be clear. They look at us only as sources of cheap labor. We are no more than glorified cyber coolies . Unless we invest in research, we can’t claim to be a knowledge super power.

But the reality is something different. Currently not many opt for pure sciences stream, as IT-BPO pays more. No issues with that. And we cant blame the students also. The science departments in a majority of our universities suffer from incompetence, outdated syllabi, and nepotism. Ph.D.’s are copied outright, and if you can suck up to your mentor, you would get a good rating. New ideas are rarely encouraged, and what happens in most of these science departments is group politics.

Take a scenario . A young researcher comes up with a new idea, and presents it to his professor. Now the professor’s ego comes into picture, he can’t let his protégé appear brighter than him. So the young person, is subjected to a cycle of red tapism, and by the time the report appears, he would have lost all interest in it. In such an environment, is it any wonder that the best of Indian minds wouldn’t want to go into research. They would migrate to the West, where universities offer a much better environment for research.

Should we really feel proud of the fact that 70% of the employees in NASA are Indians, when we need those 70% to contribute to our space programme. It’s not just the academic community that’s to blame, India Inc , needs to take a large responsibility also.

Our IT giants like Wipro, Infosys, TCS earn so much money, but do they spend it on research. No they just blow it up on fancy campuses, which are not really necessary. Why doesn’t Narayana Murthy or Azim Premji or Kiran Karnik , set up a corpus fund for doing research? The truth is they are just interested in massaging their own ego. They don’t care at all for the deteriorating state of research in the country, as long as they get their dollars rolling in, and a fawning media, eulogizing them.

US Inc spends nearly 700$ billion on research, India Inc not even a fraction of that. I tell this, because I work in John F Welch Tech Center , which is GE’s R&D center in Bangalore. Why can’t our Indian companies, set up something like that? I guess our CEO’s and IT czars are too busy promoting themselves and their kids, or attending Page 3 parties to think of such things.

And last but not the least, the youth. Ok today we are making money with BPO and ITES , but in the long run that won’t last my friends. We have become obsessed with money, and care a damn for knowledge. We can never be a superpower unless we have the intellectual man power. Research is something where we need to think, to understand. Unfortunately in the race for quick money, we have stopped thinking. We want results that’s all.

Pure science is dying a slow death. Many of us are responsible for it. The academic community, the students, industry. Unless we step in and revive that field, we have no right to call ourselves a knowledge superpower. We are no better than a screwdriver technology nation or to put it more bluntly a coolie country.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Talent Shortage Hits India Inc

Beyond all the talk of 9% economic growth and a boom in sectors like IT, BPO, Retail, Construction, Hospitality to name a few, there is a serious problem being faced by all sectors in India. There are positions to be filled, and people are needed, but there are just not enough qualified personnel. Companies are ready with projects to build expressways, flyovers, metro rail systems, but where are the engineers needed to build them? For all the talk of airlines being affordable to common man, and the boom in the aviation sector, the shortage of pilots is so acute, that airlines are being forced to hire pilots from other countries. Hospitality sector is hit by serious attrition rates, and a lack of trained personnel. In my sector, IT, for all the hype about growth and profits, the talent shortage is critical. I have seen 4-5 people quit in the team where I work, and the gap has been filled only by persons working in organization. We have not been able to get suitable people and the result is that in our 3 member team, each of us, myself included, is handling the work of 3 people. I am not in the HR sector, but when I interview candidates, I am just shocked at the profiles. Many of them don’t even know the basics of their subject.

In GE , where I work, we outsource the work, to software engineers, from other vendors. And to put it mildly, the quality of most of them sucks. Most of these so called software engineers , cant even debug a program properly, and just not aware of the basics. Many of them cant even draft a proper mail, and too often, I have to end up doing their work, at the cost of my own, to meet deadlines. We cant bask in the glory of a 9% growth, and gushing headlines from business papers, and ignore the reality. And the reality is that, we are facing a critical shortage of manpower. If we keep ignoring this, it is going to hit us badly in our faces. The current shortage has led to a situation, where salaries have shot through the roof, and whether the candidates are really worth it, begs the question. Being in the corporate sector, I have witnessed many of these high profile persons, who earn, the fancy salaries, and believe me, a vast majority of them are not even worth 2 cents.

Why are we hurtling towards such a crisis?

I think the primary reason is the way our education system and even corporates( at least Indian ones) place too much emphasis on academic achievement. This is much unlike the US, where preference is given to track record and ability. Inspite of globalization, and exposure to India, people still feel, that academics is the be all and end all of everything. I want to give them my example, a second class Engineering graduate, and today in a leading MNC , I handle complex tasks and drive technical initiatives. Doing well in the corporate sector, has nothing to do with where you got your degree from and how many marks you have got. Its got to do with skills like team work, communication, handing pressure, dealing with client. As a software engineer, its not enough if you just know Java or J2EE or some XYZ language . Its how you are able to handle a critical situation. In many cases you would have to interact with a client, who is not tech savvy like you, how would you communicate your message effectively to him?

You are working in a team, some members might be better than you, some might be weaker than you. How do you handle such cases? I am not discounting the value of technical skills, but they are just a foundation, the soft skills are much more vital in a company. Ideally a candidate should have a good mixture of technical and soft skills. But while it is easy to blame candidates, what about the corporate’s role. I have attended many interviews myself, and sorry to say, a majority of them are on technical skills. I have around 7 years of experience in IT field so far, and some how, it really sucks, when I am asked on some vague concepts in my field. When you are interviewing people in Java or C or C#, who have experience, why don’t they keep in mind, that these languages are an ocean. Not even James Gosling or Dennis Ritchie , the inventors of Java and C, respectively, would have known every method in it.

Majority of the companies put up an entrance test, and most of them, contain questions, which can be answered by any one, who mugs up the entire Java or C primer . We work in an era of net access and information at our finger tips. A solution to a technical problem, can be got in an instant, by doing a Google search. There are thousands of tech forums out there. While technical competency should be evaluated for candidates with lesser years of experience, for any person, with more than 4 years of experience, the focus should be on other skills. During my interviews, when I tell, recruiters, that apart from doing development, I also work on design, development, build and release, many are at a loss. I am not sure, how many people, even know, that developing a software doesn’t involve just writing lines and lines of code, there are also other processes involved in it. During a recent interview, I was asked by a person, a question of what happens if, you write the code like this. Now how relevant is that to my work, I don’t understand. Real time development is understanding client requirements and translating them to an application specific level. The sad truth is that the corporate sector, instead of looking at practical knowledge of track record, is still stuck in a rut, when it comes to selecting people.

So before cribbing about lack of suitable candidates and not enough qualified personnel, isn’t it time, that corporates also take a look at their own recruitment process? Isn’t it ridiculous that a person with more than 7 years of experience, has to take a written test? I have seen majority of companies, come up with a one size fits all recruitment process for all candidates, irrespective of their backgrounds. There is a world of difference between a candidate having 7+ years of experience, and a candidate having 2+ years of experience. A majority of the questions asked, are not at all relevant to the work or the work profile. If corporates need suitable candidates, they have to tone up their recruitment process, simple and straight.

Again a common complaint, that corporates make is of employee loyalty. Now while I don’t support the gold digger kind, who keep jumping across, from one firm to another firm, I have seen cases where people who put in a considerable time with the organization also quitting. Have companies asked why people quit? Well one of the prime reasons I can say from personal experience is most of the time, especially in consulting firms, we have square pegs put in round holes. And most of the candidates find that they are working in a profile, which is not up to their profile. I want to ask a simple question, when you are having a heart problem, would you go to a heart specialist, or would you go to a normal doctor, hoping he could give a solution. Flexibility is good, when you are making the candidate be flexible, within his scope. However talented a player Rahul Dravid is, you cant expect him to bowl. Corporates rarely check whether a candidate is suitable for a position or not. It’s a question of hey this guy is free, lets put him somewhere. This is pretty bad especially in the IT field, I am not sure about other fields. Fancy campuses, gyms, swanky cafeterias are all like add ons, but if the candidate is not satisfied with his, job, nothing can stop the person from quitting.

Its time we understand that a human resource is more valuable to a company than anything else. You might have all the best and most modern equipment, but unless you have the people to handle them, they are useless show pieces.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Karmanye vadhikarasthe ma phaleshu kadachana

“Karmanye vadhikarasthe ma phaleshu kadachana
Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangotsava Akarmani”
The above lines are something which have been inscribed into my mind from long. Those lines from the Bhagavad Gita always guide me, whenever I am in an uncertain mode. Translated into English the above lines mean:

“You have a right to perform your prescribed action, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your action, Never consider yourself the cause of your results your activities, and never be associated to not doing your duty”
Now while I had been reading the book from the age of 17, some how this verse was always contentious to me. If we are not entitled to the fruits of our actions, then why perform the action in the first place. We are asked not to shirk from our duty, but yet at the same time, we are not asked to bother about results. Was this not a way of saying I am not accountable? I read as many books as possible on this, consulted with scholars, and even would discuss this with my friends, but somehow the contention was always there. Was not the concept of Karma, responsible for the fatalistic attitude of Indians? But yet what was there in that single verse, which has made it way into the hearts and minds of people.

What was there in this book, that so inspired Robert Oppenheimer, that when he saw the first nuclear explosion, he quoted 
       “ Kalo asmi loka-ksaya-krit pravardho,
          lokan samartum iha pravattah”

English translation: “Now I am become death
The destroyer of the worlds, come to annihilate everyone”

What power was there in this scripture, that it inspired Mahatma Gandhi and  Bal Gangadhar Tilak in the fight for freedom? What is the moral authority of this book, that every one in court has to take an oath on this to tell the truth? Why did men like Adi Shankara, Madhavacharya, Ramanuja Charya write entire commentaries on the book? What made modern day philosophers like Aurobindo, Swami Vivekananda and  S.Radhakrishnan derive their ideals from this book? Questions which haunted me always.

It was Chennai, 2001. Like many other people at that time, I was preparing to leave for the US, my H1 visa stamped, all my papers in order, and my tickets booked. I had prepared for years for this dream of mine, working hard, planning every inch towards it. At last my dream would come true. And then at the last moment, the project was cancelled, and all my dreams just vanished in front of my eyes. I was shattered. I had spent a harrowing day at the US consulate, to get the visa, and now what all I had built up was crumbling. And worse was to follow, as a couple of months later,  I was laid off the job. I had to join a job, for a far lesser salary, and for a year and a half, it was sheer struggle for me. But yet I never gave up hope, kept trying, kept on improving my skills, and then at end of 2002, came the break I was looking for. Life from then on has never been the same for me.

It was then the full meaning of the first mentioned verse that hit me. When Lord Krishna advised not to worry about the results of our actions, he was not advocating that we are not accountable. The gist is that at the end of the day, we might plan something, we might think a lot about it, but there is something called as fate. We are responsible for the consequences of our actions, but only to a certain extent.  There are factors we cannot control, and when such factors derail our plans, we have to take it as it comes. Not a very easy thing to do, but that is the best option. And that’s when the full value of the Bhagavad Gita revealed itself to me. It was a book complex in it’s delineation of the truth, yet simple enough in it’s thoughts. A book of immense religious depth, and beautiful verses, it presents the facts of life in a manner, which could be understood by a layman.

And yet can any of us claim to have mastered the Gita. Even scholars would claim that they know hardly 5% of this book. We have had many books on the Gita itself, articles have been written around it, its value has been debated endlessly, but to date no one has mastered. That is because the Bhagavad Gita is like an ocean, an infinite source of energy and wisdom. This is a book that derives from the orthodox Brahminical traditions and the Yogic traditions. It is based on the 4 philosophical systems of  Vedic, Upanishadic, Sankhya and Yogic. The Gita also dwells on different kinds of yoga like Jnana, Bhakti, Karma.
The Gita basically starts off with Krishna, asking Arjuna to rise above his fears before the Battle of the Mahabharat. In course he explains to Arjuna the basic truths about Ishvara, the supreme God. And then  comes the vital discussion on the Jiva or the soul, where he contrasts the permanent nature of the soul against the temporary state of the body.

or the basic matter of the Universe, is what Krishna dwells upon next. And that’s where he differentiates between Tamas Guna( Ignorance), Rajas Guna( passion) and Sattva( Goodness).And the most important being Karma or action. The Gita in a way is significant in that Krishna  advises Arjuna to perform his duty as a Kshatriya, that is to fight a battle. The book emphasizes that every individual has a role and a duty to perform, and escaping from duty, would only result in cosmic disorder. In a closer way, if we relate it to management, every member of the team has a responsibility to perform, a slack performance by even a single person, could upset the balance.

Yoga is one of the foremost concepts explained by the Gita. Yoga here refers not to the physical exercises, but here it describes a unified outlook a sort of balance between sense and intuition of cosmic order. Self discipline and  engaging one a higher plane, is what makes a yoga. However the Gita is equally critical of abstinence from action. Abstinence here is not be confused with inactivity, but rather equanimity, the ability to handle success and failure, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain on equal terms. A true yogi is neither carried away by success nor weighed down by failure. The 3 main kinds of Yoga explained here are Bhakti( devotion), Karma( Selfless Action) and Jnana( Knowledge).
Karma Yoga
is to do one’s duties in life as per dharma, without concern of results. Bhakti Yoga states that mere knowledge of scriptures does not lead to salvation, devotion, meditation and worship are essential. Jnana Yoga, the highest form, learns to discriminate between real and unreal. The Gita is a work beyond the scope of reviews, ratings and comments. What I have presented here are only drops in an ocean.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Global Warming- A Real Threat

On May 4,2007, 105 nations met in Bangkok to come out with a report on Global Warming under the aegis of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , a UN backed body. The bad news, global warming is a serious threat, and we have just 8 years to get it under control. In effect, emissions need to reduce by 2015 to prevent a 2 degree rise in the earth’s temperature. And no this is not a conference of loony environmentalists and doomsday crackpots. Many of them are respected scientists, experts in field of climate change, in short people who have dedicated their life for this mission.

And now the good news, about the report released by the document. Instead of just giving a doomsday scenario, the report has actually come up with suggestions to cut down on emissions and improve energy efficiency, without actually hurting the global economy. There would be a slowdown in growth, but not to an alarming extent. The target is to reduce emissions by 2010, in such a way as to limit emissions to a range of 2-2.4 degrees. More than that could lead to disastrous consequences. The report highlighted the need for factories to cut down on emissions, any delay would be only adding up to the risk factor.

One of the biggest problems is emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. CO2 has a tendency to stay in the atmosphere and accumulate like a bad debt. And the biggest culprits in this regard have been US, India and China . These 3 countries account for a large amount of CO2 emissions, and they are refusing to cut down, citing economic growth. The US needs to make it’s gas guzzling auto industry accountable. 80% of the world’s oil is consumed just by the US, why to feed it’s huge automobiles, and the lobby. Totally unacceptable. Public transport as a concept has been long forgotten there, except in some major metros like New York, Chicago and Detroit. Unlike Europe, where every city is well connected by a railway network, in US it has become non existent. India, China and Russia, in their quest for growth, are recklessly ignoring the environmental costs.

It can be felt back home in Bangalore , one of India’s coolest places, which is now reeling under a torrid summer, never felt before. It can be felt in hill stations like Ooty, Mussorie, Nainital, Simla which have become devoid of green cover, and are now like any other small town in India. I can give the best example of my home town, Vishakapatnam . When I was staying there, due to the green cover, temperatures rarely exceeded 35 even during peak of summer. But now most of the trees have been cut down, and temperatures of 40 plus are common there. I remember going to my college, along the beach road, it was a lovely drive, with the sea, sands, and the casuarinas trees. When I visited the same place recently, most of those groves have been cut down, and the whole stretch has become ugly.

More visible signs of progress can be found in Gurgaon, India’s mall city. Huge apartment buildings dot the skyline, and it is studded with malls. But the truth hits you, when you face water shortages and power crisis there. I am not anti development or anti progress, but we need to strike a balance somewhere. All over Bangalore layouts are built by developers to make a quick buck, many don’t even have a park. Our kids are growing up in cities where there are no playgrounds, no parks to relax. Do we seriously want to bring them up in such an environment? I am not anti industry. Let there be factories, we need them. But why on prime agricultural land, forest area and ecologically sensitive spots. There is so much waste land where the industry can be set up. But our businessmen and industrialists, are only interested in short term profits. Socially responsible business leaders like JRD Tata are the need of the hour.

Do we really need to waste gallons of water in water parks, when we are suffering from a water crisis? I am not being a spoilsport, but its high time we thought it over. Now the trend is coming to exclusive communities where power and water are available 24 hours, for a price of course. Is it no wonder that such exclusive places, also witness the largest wastage of power and water? This is not an issue involving countries or business or industries. This is an issue, involving every one of us. We cannot allow a few privileged people and nations, to get away with sheer plunder. Achieving a balance between economic growth and ecological conservation is always going to be tough, but then the easiest thing in the world is to sit and crib.There are no easy answers for this, nor any easy solutions. We might have to make some sacrifices in the short term. We need to, we are running out of time. Let not our children turn to us and ask us what did we do to prevent this tragedy.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Brave New World

How does it feel like to be in a world where there is no poverty, war or disease? A utopia where every one is smiling, happy and cheerful.What if to achieve that utopia, we would have to eliminate things like culture, art, literature, philosophy, family? Can we as human beings survive solely on pleasure, with no capacity to think? Is there any difference between a technologically advanced society where people are not allowed to think and a backward society where people don’t have the luxury of thinking?

Quite interesting questions, and explored in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World . It is set in the distant future sometime around 2540 A.D . But technically the novel starts off with London in the year 632 A.F.( year of our Ford 632). The globe is a single entity called the World State, administered by a peaceful world Government. Poverty, war, crime, disease have been eliminated by creating a homogenous high tech society, and Fordism is the ideology of the day. The entire society has been divided into 5 classes- Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon . Sexual promiscuity is norm, individual rights are not allowed, and soma, a narcotic, is the only means of recreation for it’s citizens. Natural birth is condemned as a primitive act, and children are created artificially from factory made embryos. The destiny of every individual is pre determined. This section is narrated through Lenina Crowne , a Beta Caste member and a lab worker in Central London Hatchery, and Bernard Marx , an upper caste Alpha psychologist. Life in World State is described through these 2 people, and another character Helmholtz Watson , an Alpha Plus lecturer.

The second part deals with Bernard’s visit to a Savage Reservation in New Mexico , to meet an ancient tribe the Malpais. Here he meets Linda, a World State citizen, who has now become part of the Savages, and her son John, the protagonist. John though a savage, has been educated by his mother and is well versed with Shakespeare .

John wants to see the world outside, and Bernard agrees to take him. John gets a culture shock on visiting the New World , and his experiences is what form the next section of this novel. It also deals with Bernard exposing his director’s hypocrisy, and their revolt against the World State.

Brave New World is a dystopian novel , a sort of work, which looks at a dark future, controlled by a powerful authority. It is similar to George Orwell’s 1984 . But while 1984 was about communism, Brave New World, was more an attack on the US and specifically on Henry Ford. It was based on Huxley’s visit to US, and he hated the youth obsession, blatant commercialism and the “I, Me,Myself” attitude prevalent there. Also Henry Ford’s observation of “ History being junk ” and the inability of the average American to look beyond his own borough were some of the factors. Also the novel concentrates more on themes, and issues than on characters.

The main thread is that of the World State , a single monolithic entity which runs on principles of Henry Ford. Its principles are Community, Identity and Stability . Fordism is the ideology and dates are taken as Before Ford, After Ford . So where we had Anno Dommini( Year of our Lord), here we have year of our Ford. The calendar begins with 1908 , it was the year in which Ford came up with the model T . We know of a Nine Years War that had broken out and the Great Economic Collapse. These could be alluding to the World Wars and the Great Depression . We come to know that this state has been established by closing down museums, banning all forms of literature and destruction of monuments.

Though Huxley centers this around Ford, many aspects of the World State are eerily similar to our current day world. The concept of savage reservations is close to the Indian reservations all over US, where the Indian tribes have been placed and ghettoized. Social equality is engineered, by dividing people into Alpha, Beta, Gamma castes, somewhat similar to today’s world, where the richer people have more privileges. Again natural birth dying out, and artificial breeding, points to the cloning, artificial insemination gaining ground in today’s world. Old age has been eliminated, using advanced techniques, and we see it in the youth obsessed culture around us. While economy is regulated by the state, mass consumerism is encouraged. People are encouraged to throw away the old, and get a new one. Is it not similar to what is happening out here? People are not encouraged to think, as it would lead to unrest and instability.And we see the dumbing down of media all around us. We live in an age, where being intelligent is frowned upon, and being dumb is seen as a great honor. Again the concept of TV, movies, and fast paced games for recreation has been explained well in this novel. Witness the way TV has slowly dumbed down our minds to such an extent, that non issues become the burning topic of discussion and how moral police claim their 15 minutes of fame. We claim we are living in a free society, but are we really? In a very subtle way, it is being thrust on us, that unless we don’t drive a certain brand of car, we don’t own a particular gadget, we don’t wear a certain bran of dress, we don’t belong. Freedom means the right of an individual to live life the way he wants, but in today’s society, when we are asked to conform and stop thinking, let us reflect whether we are really free.

We see the seeds of dictatorship in the character of Thomas Tomalkin , the director of Hatcheries and Conditioning, who enforces morality, but is exposed when it’s found he fathered an illegal son. The illegal son is John the Savage , a man who belongs to neither the Savage World nor the civilized world. He is born in the reservation, but his mother educated him. He is taken as a freak in the World State, and he knows the Complete Works of William Shakespeare , a book which has been banned in the World State. His character echoes those of immigrants who try to strike a balance between their native country and adopted land. He loves Lenina, a Beta Plus, who is totally conformist to the rules of the World Society, and has no mind of her own.

The other two vital characters are Bernard Marx , an Alpha Plus psychologist, who is not accepted within his own group, due to his odd looks and refusal to socialize. Helmholtz Watson on the other hand is good looking, handsome, virile, yet his intelligence isolates him from other people. In a way these two people are misfits in the World State. Brave New World is a novel which is set in the distant future. But much of it mirrors a frightening reality. We may not be living in a World State, but we have a unipolar world dominated by a single country. While we have not eliminated culture, literature, art we are slowly getting there. Either we do it the Taliban way or more dangerously, the way we are slowly dumbing down. This is a novel, which needs to be read. Only issue is that it requires repeated reading, and can be confusing at times.