Thursday, September 20, 2012

Randomness and Arbitrariness defines random as something "that has no specific pattern, purpose or objective"  The same website defines arbitrary as " determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle". Broadly similar definitions, but there is a world of difference between the two (at least in my eyes).

Randomness is God (More on that in a different post, may be. Or further down in this post itself). Arbitrariness is the poor cousin of randomness exhibited by people who claim to be handling the levers of supposedly random processes. There is a world of difference. Let me give a parallel with a quote from one of my favourite books- Catch-22.

History did not demand Yossarian's premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; WHICH men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war. Just about all he could find in its favor was that it paid well and liberated children from the pernicious influence of their parents.

Somewhere in this quote is sitting the idea that I want to elaborate on. Sooner or later I will get to the point. This is a post about randomness,so the least you can expect is non-linearity (which is not even a distant cousin of randomness - which as I have mentioned before, and will/might write a post on is God).

That a service tax inspector has to check some records is a matter of necessity. WHICH companies would be verified is supposedly random, but actually based on the arbitrary selection of the service tax inspector. Who, as they do, chooses the noble path of least resistance, and zones in on two kinds of people - 1) who will give him lots of hugs and cuddles for not looking into their records and 2) will be happy to pay an arbitrarily (not randomly) higher amount of tax because they realize that debating tax norms with said service tax inspector would give them as much joy as chopping their limbs off - one at a time, very slowly with a tiny compass from a stolen geometry box. So, said government employee meets his target by being a pain and gets his bonus by dropping the pretext.

And precisely because of this combination of arbitrariness and path of least resistance, government machinery is designed to be odious. It blesses the controllers of randomness engines with powers of arbitrariness and here the seeds of corruption are sowed. But let us not belittle a discussion on randomness with thoughts on government employees.

True randomness is painfully difficult to attain. Several proxies exist, and these are pretty good, but apparently a great many of them fall short of the tests designed to test randomness. Random selections should have no bias. But most proxies aim to achieve randomness by removing bias. Bias is removed by making things equiprobable. So, many randomness generators are just bias-removers. And these two are not quiet the same.

Randomness is the key reason why most statistical inferences are actually baseless. Let me give you an example - Statistical analysis of reams of stock price data might tell you that a three-day window of investment going from Thursday - Tuesday outperforms any other three-day window. Some 'analyst' will give us his genius reasons for this as well. But truth remains that if we compared returns over a three-day window across all known stock-market data, we are very likely to find one three-day window 'outperforming' the others. So, this is just one occurrence in a random series; not an underlying trend. This distinction is something that many people often overlook (some people calling themselves analysts willfully overlook this, others are often just blindsided)Nicolas Nassim Taleb, a famous author has written a book where he focuses (almost exclusively) on this distinction.

Back to arbitrariness. Human beings are diagnosed as having a fairness gene. So, seeing something as unfair grates. A lot. Randomness is something that we can accept. It would really help if some of these random processes were selected with randomness generators in a transparent manner. I hate it that the randomness generation is left to individuals. That just leads to arbitrariness. The traffic constable catching a 22-year old girl to check the license/RC book is an arbitrary selection. If the gentleman could be made to stop every 364th vehicle and check for all this, it would be wonderful.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

India and I

Einstein apparently said "Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind". Lesser mortals usually have less extreme views than Einstein on the issue of nationalism (and the related patriotism), but it is still interesting to see how this view gets formed and changes shape over years. Recently, I have read a slew of intriguing articles on India that have made me think about the relationship I have with this notion of "Indianness". More importantly, how this view has changed with time.

In my pre-teen and early-teen years, feeling of Indianness was manifest largely through fantasies of war heroics or sporting exploits. Rajesh the great would either lead India to triumph in an unimaginably tough war (against who else but) or play five weeks of tough cricket to take India to the world Championships. In the mid-to-late eighties, a "rubber-ball" placed in a sock and let hang from the heavens have been the setting for teenagers' dreams across many towns in India. I was no exception to this. What Sachin has achieved today would pale in comparison with what was constructed in my mind. Back then the idea of nationhood was very binary, I held an unquestioning belief in "India". There was no sense of evaluation of what India meant to me, no point in deliberating over what exactly I felt when I said I was proud to be Indian.

Then came college and as I was lucky enough to go to one of the places that was heavily subsidized by the central government of India, I was exposed for the first time to another view of what being Indian meant. Back then, in IIT Madras (my alma mater, a place that housed me from 1997 to 2001 just so that you have a sense of the timeline), around 70% of the undergraduates went to the US post their engineering and wherever you were you were not far from discussing some version of "Should this many of our students leave the country post engineering". There are many layers in this discussion, but the two extreme views are as follows

Some professors seemed to want to ask the Kennedy-esque "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country" to students and inspire us to contribute to homeland. Students seemed to hold the view "We busted our gut to get here. Cleared whatever benchmark you set for us. Now, it is time for me to do whatever is best for me". This can be portrayed as the idealist vs. the pragmatist. But it was never so simple.

The professors were never so consumed by ideology, at least a part of them had partly succumbed to bitterness. If I had to be very honest, there was less of "What can we do for the next next generation" and more of "What right do you have to leave the country?".  And whenever the question become one of "right", guilt comes right into the picture and the students could and did reply with "what right do you have to hold me back anywhere?"

One sensed that many professors were seeking vindication for their own decisions to stay back in India while exhorting students to do the same. On the other hand, students who had been brought up in a slightly more liberal generation were being less apologetic about taking their own decisions. But this to-and-fro undercurrent was ever-present, at least in the famed electrical engineering department.

Truth be told, I was never more than an observer in said discussion because yours truly was truly poor in engineering and had taken a prudent decision to migrate to MBA, and since doing an MBA abroad was not an option for muddle-class India back then, my lot had been placed with the "Stay back and do the country proud" gang, albeit unwittingly.

In my defence, I never milked my decision to stay in India as part of fulfilling a noble duty to the country. Not because I was above it, (let it be known very clearly that I am rarely "above" anything) but because I was not smart enough/aware enough to have thought about all this. I was a 20-year old with only-about-decent exposure to the world. My decision to attempt to do an MBA was based on my inability to do well in engineering and the confidence I had that I would clear whatever entrance exam was there for getting into a good B-School (This is the one ability I have built over years - the ability to do well in largely useless entrance exams :) ).

So, a series of default decisions later, I had reached another quasi-government institute keen to not repeat some of my mistakes from the previous 4 years. It was only around this time that I picked up enough maturity to even think about ideas like "nationhood". ( Very often I think we place the burden of taking correct decisions on people patently ill-equipped/too young to handle them. But that is a piece for another post).

This was also the time that India's views on brain-drain had mellowed down a little bit. This was a period of glorious NRI love-in. The NRIs loved the country, showered cliches on it, Indians made film for NRIs and made them the centerpiece of the diaspora. We co-opted many NRI achievements and gave them the Indian tag (it is a national pastime even now), and the IITs were told that there would be no Indian presence at silicon valley if it had not been for the IITs. A bit of all round self-congratulation never hurt anyone I guess and we indulged in this quite a bit in the late 90's, early 2000s. Think Pokhran and "India Shining" and you get the gist of what I am saying here. So, thanks to this love-in, the guilt of leaving the country had been alleviated and there was general feeling of well-being everywhere.

This was the time I was feeling at the most patriotic as well. I had the gung-ho feeling of contributing to something good as well. I wanted to believe in the story that India had just missed the bus and we could yet chart a great path. I desperately wanted to be on the right side of the John F Kennedy question. The tech sector had shown the way and rest of the country was eager to follow. I was prone to saying that after the immediately-post-independence generation, ours had been the luckiest in India's history as we were going to be given the opportunity of working in/shaping a modern India. (The silliness of a naive 22-year old knows few boundaries)

Post my MBA, I had a six-month stint in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Although it is a desperately poor region, I thoroughly relished the experience, felt as if I had earned my stripes and seen real India and was keen to give all and sundry an opinion about the goings on in India's heartland. 1-2 skirmishes with HR departments later, I landed in Chennai with a cushy job in the then-nascent KPO sector. As it was with a small firm, they had structured our salary in a very take-home friendly way and one was expected to game the system a little bit in order to claim maximum leave allowance or some such.

I am ashamed to say that I did try to game the system. But when the process seemed too odious I promptly gave up on it and told myself that as a well-paid Indian it is not such a bad thing to chip in with my taxes. Not cutting corners was the limit of actually expressing my feeling of nationalism, but those living in India (or perhaps with accounts in Guernsey or Mauritius) will realize what a big deal this was.

Then for a period of 3.5 years I lived in London. My first 12-months in London was very much about saying how India offered its own comforts and London was not that ahead of India.  

" The proper means of increasing the love we bear our native country is to reside some time in a foreign one" .  ~William Shenstone. I saw the full meaning of this quote. 

Every rabidly patriotic instinct of the Brits, I saw as triumphalism. In every excess, I saw strands of how a more balanced India would be better. For every success story, I saw how it was not borne out of genius, but out of getting a few basics right (and therefore replicable in beloved India). As I was working in the financial sector, I got to see first hand two things 1) that the British reputation for fair play was indeed specious and 2) The so-called top decile (the financial sector prides itself on these things) of Brits and global workforce were only about average, or at best mildly above-average intellectually. I was chomping at the bits to return to the motherland and do something useful here. 

And within a few quarters of that return-trip, the mystique began to fade. This is where this story will perhaps take a turn for the worse and the faint-hearted are better advised in going for the TV remote. My current opinions on India are closer to the ones held by Churchill than to Friedman.

My beloved country is slowly fading out. The numbers, scams, lack of governance tell a story. But as  Aaron Levenstein said "Statistics are like bikini, what they reveal is suggestive, what they conceal is vital". If Statistics about India do not tell the whole story, then the updates provided by Indian media are far worse. It falls right under the category of "It would be funny if it were not so tragic". Beneath all these stories lies a script far more tragic. 

There is a big secret about India that we do not disclose that easily. The country has been run by this wonderful "invisible minority". Quite unlike Nixon's silent majority, this is the group that has been making things move. The lady in the post office that makes sure that you get your money at least by the 3rd trip, the traffic constable who toils away at 1 in the afternoon in May-June of Chennai, the good Doctor who labours at General Hospital Chennai for 60 hours a week largely because he has something to offer. (This is my way of paying tribute to the three that I have come across. If you are that 6-foot 4 inches tall young traffic policeman doing duty near Valluvar Kottam and Ispahani center, take a bow. The other two would not care much even for this tribute). These guys fight hard, fight quite, stay low profile, pride themselves in staying low profile, do not do a pay-off analysis and keep turning up and contributing. 

This bunch is shrinking. The next generation has not turned up yet. This bunch is shrinking because their children are earning enough for them not take cr*p in a low paying job. But this is not the end of story. Every community reinvents itself. The sad part is that India's next generation is not fit to do anything. 

India's demographic dividend is one of the things some macro analysis moron who has not seen any part of India cooked up in one lazy afternoon's "work". India's demographic nightmare is what we see everyday. My country's twenty-somethings average IQ is still stuck in the 80's. The joke is on. As Warren Buffett said "it is only when the tide goes out that we know who has been swimming naked". 

When I was with Credit Suisse, the geniuses came up with this idea of writing a report on intangible infrastructure - the sweat and blood and people and little pieces of detail each institution holds, way beyond the story of bridges and schools. I haven't the faintest idea how arm-chair specialists would ever do this. But hell, if there was a demand for it, and sufficient pontification can be packaged suitably, then an I-Bank has a right to go for it I guess. The intangible infrastructure of India is disappearing, and rapidly.

Schools have worse teachers, hospitals have worse doctors and nurses. Amounts of money on offer will not make the old-timers come and extend their careers by 10 more years. The next gen is drunk. Schools have smart classrooms, colleges can record their lectures and store in a hard-drive, hospitals can now afford any fancy equipment. But if the lecturers know bugger all, all of this counts for pishtosh. We can all go to posh schools and learn nothing. It wont show now if all our grades are inflated to be way beyond pre-modern-India levels. All of these ideas are so myopic that I am scared about when the tide does go out. And if the tide can go out on Greece, India cannot be that far away. 

Then there is governance, of which we have had none of in the past 10 years or so. We have become complacent, says the Economist. Complacent? Of what? Of the fact that we might finally be in a position to be considered to have potential? I remember the day when one of the professors was livid at our T-Shirt that said "Nothing left to prove". What we guys then dismissed as typical cantankerousness now resonates far better with me.

Now, beyond all this, there is a certain smugness that grates even more. As a nation we mirror the body language of Harbhajan Singh than Rahul Dravid. Understated is now just an old-fashioned word. I feel as if I am about 50 now. I am not able to identify with anything the young in my country do. All of the national institutions - ISRO, IITs, have all achieved nothing of note in the past 2 decades. Yet we bask in all this reflected glory of claiming our place in this globalized world.

What does all this have to do with Indianness, the idea that I wanted to discuss in the first place?. What does this have to do with my idea of being Indian? The answer to this it does matter an awful lot. I find myself subscribing less to this version of Indianness than the previous gen lesser-achieving India.

This piece that I read in the Open Magazine was a real eye-opener. This is an extraordinary piece, a stunning write-up if ever there was one. It should be mandatory reading for every Indian who can read (which sadly enough is a fairly low number) Almost everything the gentleman says is true. Down to the tragedy where a young boy's limbs go missing to the fact that we are 95 percent people (just that as a mathematician I think he is overstating the number).

It is with great sadness that I confess that I am not that proud to be Indian. I will still probably go down fighting for motherland, as the vestiges of pig-headed devotion to nation are still stuck somewhere in my system, but now I can unequivocally say that this version of "Indian" that the world will  come to see is not one I would wish to be known as.  It is with a reasonable amount of regret that I accept that my fantasy "Indian" and the real "Indian" barely overlap. What I would want my country to be seen as and what it will inevitably be seen as are miles apart.

Now, this leads us to a series of new questions. Should my idea of being "Indian" be inextricably linked to what "Indian" means at that point of time? Can the idea of nationalism be a function of time? Can I be a fair-weather Indian? Does the fact that my feeling of being Indian is linked to how well "Indian" is defined suggest that I am somehow less patriotic than my unquestioning compatriots?

I am disinclined to agree to the last notion. The idea of competing patriotism is abhorrent and dangerous (and has often sowed the seeds for war). Built into the idea of devotion is the premise that one can disagree with the nation, that one can feel peeved at where the nation is going. The following two quotes convey the ideas of patriotism very well.

Our country is not the only thing to which we owe our allegiance.  It is also owed to justice and to humanity.  Patriotism consists not in waving the flag, but in striving that our country shall be righteous as well as strong.  ~James Bryce

I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.
James A. Baldwin

Going beyond the idea of even patriotism,individuals who assess their lives by what they have contributed are the ones that achieve the most. And in most cases, what one accomplishes is perhaps more critical than where this achievement is. My country in its current state does not provide the setting for talented individuals to achieve much. For the past many weeks, I have been combating arbitrary power shut-downs because someone in my state forgot that electricity needs to be generated in order for people to run their businesses and lives. I have restarted my PC thrice because low voltage killed off the desire my UPS had in hoarding and re-sending power.

I guess many individuals ask themselves two questions (at least in their moments of introspection). Am I I doing enough with my life? Who is benefiting from my existence?

Somewhere in the answer to the second question sits the idea of "my country". But the very idea of going to the second question is valid only if the answer to the first question is satisfactory. Just like how distribution comes after growth, contribution comes after creation. Every ambitious individual's first allegiance is to excellence, then can come contribution. Only the guys who have unquestioningly chased excellence have meaningfully contributed anything.

I would go to the extent of saying that contribution can be damned if excellence is achieved. An individual who achieves excellence in chosen field is in and of himself/herself something to be cherished. This is why Viswanathan Anand is a genius. He should be revered. Any individual who chases excellence deserves to be encouraged. Any factor inhibiting this pursuit of excellence is an encumbrance. Even if it is the notion of nationalism/patriotism.

Right now, my country accords one the luxury of living in an illusion. Barring this, it offers little. There is not much joy in even being a part of the invisible minority. Any pursuit of excellence can and will have a component of somehow beating the system.

A few years ago, I told myself that I would slowly dissuade friends of mine from working in the financial sector and ask them to try something else (built into this something else was the idea of something else in India). There is no greater waste of talent/a life than looking at excel sheets and conning people in the name of derivatives. I am still going to do that. But I am going to tell them to find something useful to do wherever they are. There is no rush to return to India. India can wait for your contribution (India does not seem particularly interested in it anyway). What one can achieve cannot be at the price to be paid for achieving something in home country.

The optimist in me still thinks that things go in cycles, and somewhere down the line my dear country will see some light, climb down from the high horse and actually do something of note (apart from screaming from rooftops). Until then, dear friends plug away wherever you are. I will shout from a rooftop the moment I feel that the country is ready to let you contribute.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

It is all about the processor

What should an education system deliver? As parents, what do we want our kids to learn? These are broad, profound questions, and I am sure the answers will cover the whole range -  good overall behavior, strong value system, a set of good friends, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, grand all-round development (this is the holy grail these days) will all feature in the wish-list. Given my preference for discussing things within a specific framework, I am going to think about what an education system gives a child from a purely academic point of view. I Want to think about what should kids learn.

I am going to classify learning into three sub-headings - Processor, Hard-drive and Apps. I am sure most guys are familiar with these terms, but a little bit of elaboration never hurts.

  1. Processor would be a proxy for raw processing-power - a proxy for how well a brain can sort data, process that and arrive at conclusions.
  2. Hard-drive is proxy for storage space/memory. How well and how much information can the brain store? How well this information can be accessed and cross-tabulated will depend on the processor again, but let us come to that later
  3. Apps are simple layers that are added on top that rest on some part of processor and hard-drive and simplify the data processing and execution. Just to give an example, learning how to use Tally or how to use log tables is an app.
Now, it is clear that we need all three - but the relative importance of the three and the ages when we should focus on each is what should determine the education system. In my mind, easily the most important component of the three is the processor. Especially for kids below the age of 15, processor is going to be the key. Every school should obsess over just one question - How is my course going to improve the processing power of these kids?

The way the world is going, the value of hard-drive is dropping by the day. Anything that needs to be stored away is going to be made accessible. Our parents had to remember telephone codes, we had to remember log 2, these kids wont have to "remember" much. Instead of saying the kids of the current era dont have patience, bandwidth, we should be thinking - Now, that the hard-drive is less important, I need to crank up the processor even more.

Now, there is a critical difference between the computer analogy that we have chosen and the way the human brain works. Our computer analogy somewhat makes these three bits as separate silos, whereas in the human mind, these three are very inter-linked. In a computer framework, we will be sacrificing one of the three for gaining the other two. On the contrary, for the human brain, best way to improve processor might be through working on a memory-building app. Some apps can be very very processor-enhancing.

Schools need to go for the best approaches that target the processor. Schools should obsess over the processor. 10-year olds should be given very challenging questions that build on their analytical capability. This is where the original frameworks are very helpful - the 3R's - Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. One focuses on comprehension, one on articulation and one on analytical frameworks. If these are drilled in, then loading apps will be a piece of cake.

There are plenty of apps that can be used to enhance the processor, especially for critical skill sets. Schools should use these, but they should keep in mind that these apps are there for a purpose - to improve processor. And not get carried away about the app itself. So, if you are teaching kids excel sheets, convey how it can sort, rank, manipulate numbers easily. Give kids 10 numbers and ask them to write something in excel that will find the average of the 4 largest numbers. But, do not get an excel tutor and teach them vlookup. If they can do the former, they can figure out the latter. In almost all jobs, we want guys who can figure out, there are very few jobs where we need guys who know.

App-loading is a process that can be done from the age of 18 upwards. There are a number of professions that will require specific apps. But the first 18 years should be spent obsessing over processor speed.

I have moaned about how Chennai's education system has become poor and discussed the some of the reasons behind it. My specific peeve is that the system does a good job on the hard-drive and a decent job on apps. But processor sucks. Most of the students I interact with have a range of apps, heavy hard-drive but a processor that is only a few MHz strong. The more you load this with apps, the weaker the system gets. Learning-fatigue sets in within 20 minutes and system craves for more apps to fill the gap. In math, the mind wants short-cuts, in English the mind wants plug-and-play rules.

The best minds I interact with are the ones that think of a counter-example the moment you state a rule, and the ones that want to figure out why a short-cut works and when it would not work. The more unsure minds are always ready to load up on apps that the processor cannot really figure out. It is like playing Age of Empires on a PC 486. I would rather play Minesweeper on a dual core.

Will give some more practical examples on how we can work on the processor in future posts. In my mind, the most important part of the jigsaw lies in not underestimating the processor that a 10-year old has (they are brilliant by the way). And taking the liberty to push that brain as hard as possible. I am sure kids will love it if it is done right.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

SOPA, PIPA, Kapil Sibal and Ad Hominem

In recent times, we have seen a huge furore against policing on the internet, both in India and globally. In the US, SOPA and PIPA have been positioned as instruments of state control (even Wikipedia went on a 24-hour black out against this); while in India everyone and their dog has cried foul against Mr Sibal.

Now, neither Mr. Sibal not the US Congress are saints. But we need to see what they are saying instead of attacking a framework just because it has been presented by them.

The US wants to expand the current copyright framework and clamp down on online piracy aggressively. I cannot see how this is against freedom of expression.

The whole issue boils down to the issue of "user-generated content". Over the past 18 months, we have seen many forums that host content contributed by the user - Blogs with comments, facebook, youtube, etc. This has been a magnificent addition because this has democratized creativity, so to say. One does not need to have a grand distribution system to launch a video/album. You put something together, get it up on youtube and it will take off if it is good. On good websites, the comments section has increased the value of the article to the reader immensely. They have taken this urge in people to express and converted this into a wonderful positive externality. So, user-generated content has generally been a huge positive.

However, the provision of this platform has lent itself to two forms of abuse - copyright violation and hate commentary. Anyone who feels compelled to do so can upload highlights of a football match or streaming video of a concert. Thanks to technology the costs of doing this is very low. And most people do this in order to increase traffic to their blog/channel. This is not user-generated content - this is called IP theft.

Facebook, youtube and co have found a wonderful way to help ordinary people find a platform for expression. What they have also found is an equally wonderful way to monetize this. Even if they were not monetizing this, they should be held responsible for content that gets aired. I cannot imagine a legal framework where some movies cannot be aired but can be showcased on youtube,

The cloak of anonymity gives many cowards the "courage" to air their thoughts. This is why the internet is more hateful, shameless and edgier than real life. Facebook, youtube should provide all details to help nail the offenders. They cannot simply shrug their shoulders and hide behind freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression has established limits in almost every country. In India, one cannot incite religious hatred in the name of FOE. Even in the far more liberal Euro-land, holocaust denial is a crime. In almost all countries, freedom of expression does not include the right to air content created by someone else. That is Intellectual Property Right violation. The internet need not adhere to stricter standards than the real world. But, it most definitely should adhere to the basic tenets agreed upon in each country.

If it is considered illegal to say random stuff about religion in India, it must be considered illegal to post it on facebook on Indian accounts. And if facebook cannot take responsibility for this, I do not know who else can. Facebook, youtube, etc should be asked to monitor content aggressively. And a government agency should be given the powers and liberty to impose hefty fines if some violation sits on the website for more than, say, 6 hours. I would go to the extent of saying FB and youtube should be able to share their overall dope for the government agency to continuously screen the content with some sophisticated software. If any user can come up with a screenshot of offensive content, they should be able to send it to some government agency. If FB/youtube do not agree to this, said websites should be asked to take a hike.

Just because the odds of Kapil Sibal saying something sensible are very low, we should not take it that everything he spouts is incorrect. In fact, his reasons for wanting to monitor the web could be spurious, but the point still remains. Hiding under the garb of "user-generated content" is a lot of copyright violation and hate-speech. The sooner we face up to this reality and handle this the better.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

India's inverted risk pyramid and FDI in retail

90% + graduates from India's IIMs take up jobs with the corporate world. 95% of entrepreneurs (most working in the so-called unorganized sector) are guys who would definitely not be among the top 10% of India's wealth (who will collectively hold 90% + of India's wealth)

Vijay Mallya runs a so-called risky business where his personal fortune is perfectly hedged. Apparently for every Re 1 that Kingfisher loses, assorted creditors and banks lose Rs. 14. Your vegetable vendor borrows Rs. 1000 at the beginning of the week, buys vegetables & fruits, makes Rs. 1600 -ish through the week, repays Rs. 1100 and then keeps Rs. 500 for himself (If everything works out).

In a rational world, we would see well-off people taking more risk and the less well-off settling for steady-income jobs. In India, the setting is the exact opposite. The well-off fall in two categories - 1) ones that are happy with a steady role and see enormous wealth-accumulation opportunity in that and 2) ones those find themselves in a position to take healthy risk with other people's money.

The poorer ones, on the other hand, are forced to take risk on an everyday basis. They take every kind of risk - business risk, financial risk, life risk (have you seen how our buses/trains overflow), health risk, etc. etc. The organized sector shuns these because they lack polish and good communication skills, they do not have inherited wealth and make a choice to run their own vegetable shop rather than being someone's office boy. Many take the route to Dubai or East Asia. (very risky options).

Now, what has this got to do with FDI in retail? Everything. Forget the big shops, forget the consumer benefits, forget how the big western guys can scr*w the happiness of dear Reliance retail. Expansion of organized retail can de-risk India's working class. And it is worth pursuing for that reason alone. A week's effort from a vegetable vendor can be erased if one small scooter runs into his tricycle by mistake. If you have seen the utter look of horror on the face of a vendor when they see looming clouds on the horizon, you can get a sense of what I am getting at here. What is 2 hours of pain for most of the salaried-class is a debt-crisis for the vegetable vendor. Especially, when you keep in mind how tough it is to maintain vegetables and fruits fresh during rains.

A lot of chatter has been seen on how Mom and pop stores can get squeezed out by giant discount stores. This is irrelevant. Lets face it, our mom and pop stores are not great entrepreneur stories anyway. Lot of these stores are being run because the people who are running them could not get "other" jobs. If these people could get employed at a big store, stay in AC store rooms for 10 hours, get paid a salary, get 15 days off a year and get trained on consumer-handling, it is going to be great for them. They no longer need to worry about their mini-store getting flooded when rain crosses 12 cms level in Chennai. For the love of god, someone should be selling the idea of this de-risking. Instead of saying this is Satan by another name.

Quite inevitably, India being India, either the Ambanis or Ruias or Mallyas will get into some JV with some global player and make tons of money for just existing. But for all this, if retail chains come through and convert India's hapless unorganized sector into salaried class, it is worth pursuing.

India's poor are exposed to way too many risks than they care about. If trickle down can make their life more steady, even if not richer, that alone is worth pursuing. India's poverty cannot be eradicated in 10 years. If we can create a setting where the next generation has hope, that is something to shoot for. Reduce risk, give people good salaries and bend over backwards to convince them that this is the better option for them. Instead of doing all this, we are protesting against organized retail.