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From Calcutta, With A Frown

Posted on Wednesday, Dec 13th 2006

Apologies to my readers for not writing for a week. In India at the moment for the annual visit. As usual, taking stock, scouting opportunities, and assessing progress …

Today is a Bandh (strike) in Kolkata, in protest of the Tata Motors small car factory in Singur. Besides the fact that this small car is a bad idea (traffic and energy are both problems), the Bandh of course is a VERY bad idea. A fat, well-nourished politician called Mamata Banerji is on hunger strike. Good for her. Losing some weight may just be what the doctor ordered. Gandhi’s tools are used and abused rampantly in today’s India, needless to say. No progress there.

Yesterday, I sat drinking coffee with an old high-school friend at Crosswords, a Borders-style bookstore and cafe on Elgin Road. Such places did not exist when we were growing up, and thus, there was nowhere to meet, sit and chat. The cafe culture is now a few years old, and booming. They are not Starbucks-style wireless hotspots yet. I am sure that too is coming. Probably, Starbucks itself is coming soon, at the heels of Walmart!

The lack of a CitySearch equivalent service for Calcutta is irritating me endlessly. Hello entrepreneurs – is someone listening?

We had an evening of music, dance and poetry on Sunday with family and friends. One of my childhood friends is a super-talented singer. Yet, she knows nothing about digital recording, selling her music on iTunes, etc. What’s goin’ on with the long tail of ethnic Indian music? Please, someone, tell me you are working on it!

My father is in shipping and on the Board of the Calcutta Port Trust. From him, I am gathering updates on the status of infrastructure development – ports, airports, roads. Of course, the steel industry is booming, with coal and iron ore trading at its peak. Eastern India is limited only by transportation logistics on this front. Backwards states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa should fly soon, with the enormous influx of investment.

Retail and Real Estate, of course, are not just booming but zooming. The only problem with Real Estate as an investment vehicle is an archaic rental law that denies rights to owners, making it difficult to vacate tenant occupied properties readily. This needs to change, because it is a major headache for owners, and I know this first hand dealing with our family properties.

My father needs a private tutor to up his computer skills. I suspect, a lot of older Indian executives are in the same boat. Haven’t seen any offering for this segment so far, but then it is quite possible that it exists. Does it?

Will publish more of my notes later, especially the “open problems”. Ciao for now!

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Dear Mitra,

Good that u are in India.

1) Let us not get personal on politicians. She was fighting for farmers rights. As basic economics has taught us that let BUYER-SELLER deal directly with no intermediary or middleman for the best price to be arrived at.

In this case, the Govt is squeezing the lands at abysmal prices to dole it out to Corporates in the name of progress.

2) STRIKE is one powerful way of showing displeasure to the Govt for its policies.

3) As for Citysearch equivalent, I find down south teh TATA yellow pages very effective, both for detailed map search and every miscellany under the sun is given here.

4) Coming to real estate, the laws aren’t archaic. Unlike US, which is 3-4 times the size of India and the divide between rich and poor is less, India thrives on people who create land banks creating artificial scarcity. The laws prevent misuse.

As for the sector Zooming, t is an understatement. as Warren Buffets said, “even this bubble will burst.”

BSE Thursday, December 14, 2006 at 10:27 AM PT

I don’t really want to open a discussion on politics here … but this woman is a nuisance, and this Bandh business has earned West Bengal a bad reputation with industrialists and investors.

On Real Estate laws, I beg to differ. It’s a grossly unfair system that until you have experience navigating, you probably won’t fully appreciate why I said what I said above. Do you have such experience?

Sramana Mitra Thursday, December 14, 2006 at 12:04 PM PT

Sramana,

Saw your blog, your friend who is a singer can actually distribute and sell her music worldwide using:

  1. Divine Arts (https://www.divine-arts.com) which is one of the largest aggregators and digital distributors of music & video from the Indian sub-continent.

  2. SaffronConnect (https://www.saffronconnect.com) : a social networking platform that allows bands/musicians/labels/content owners to upload, price (or offer for free) and distribute their music to an audience looking for content from the Indian sub-continent.

Hope that helps!
Krishna

Krishna Reddy Thursday, December 14, 2006 at 3:16 PM PT

Hi BSE,

“STRIKE is one powerful way of showing displeasure to the Govt for its policies.”

  • Simply what kind of a statement is that? In a democracy, do you really think every person is going to agree with that particular person’s pet peeve against the Govt.? How can you simply inconvenience so many others who do not side with your displeasure against the ruling Govt?

I am a proud Calcuttan, born ‘n brought up there. But when as a NRI I go back year after year with raised expectations and hopes, such statements and seeing them actually implemented with unflinching regularity simply appalls me.

One expects such things to change over the years. But I guess Kolkata Bandhs are one constant thing in an ever-changing world.

How can you say that when so many businesses are impacted by such a Bandh? I totally agree with what you say about the poor farmers. But the way such an issue is dealt with is surely a true measure of the progress of the Land in question. And at which, I must say Kolkata fails. Today.

Having invested money in a Kolkata firm to get some project work done and sitting up all nights here, is when I am faced with the horror of a Bandh – it is when I realize why I feel robbed even though I am so far away in Toronto.

Admittedly, your statement leaves me open-mouthed and I have rarely been so stumped in a while. Hats off for making my day.

Anand Thursday, December 14, 2006 at 8:13 PM PT

Krishna,
Thanks, I will certainly check those two sites. I also received a very nice private email from Anand Subramanium about a new project that he is working on along these lines. Happy to see activity on this front. The inherently political nature of the music business in India seems quite unnecessary and outdated to me, in this age of MP3 and iPod.
Sramana

Sramana Mitra Friday, December 15, 2006 at 12:24 AM PT

BSE and Anand,

The problem with Mamata Banerji, Bandh, and other activities of that ilk, is that they’re focused on destroying, not building.

You see, causing anarchy is a much easier thing than building a system that works. When Mahatma Gandhi brought down the British Government in India, he turned his back on some significant responsibilities that none other than Gandhiji himself had the power and positioning to accomplish : a peaceful settlement of the Pakistan issue. We are still, 60 years later, struggling with that ommission. George Bush has brought down Saddam Hussain, but has left Iraq in anarchy.

None of these are desirable.

And Mamata Banerji’s thoughtless poking at the West Bengal Government’s efforts at rebuilding a robust economy through industry, investments, etc. is one, that, at this stage of the game, simply is not right.

Sramana

Sramana Mitra Friday, December 15, 2006 at 12:31 AM PT

Hi Mitra & Anand,

I am not biased to anyone or any reforms. I Recently moved back to India after 6 years in US.

I am right now working for an NGO trying contributing my bit at reforming and trying to bring about a change (Now, I do not look at how many $$$/ hour I earn)

“On Real Estate laws, I beg to differ. It’s a grossly unfair system that until you have experience navigating, you probably won’t fully appreciate why I said what I said above. Do you have such experience?” – Mitra

1) While in USA, i used to advise my Indian colleagues on the failed expectations and hopes of India, the same way PWC, Mckinsey would give recommendations, but the plain truth is “walk your talk.” Do we want a Chinese economy where PROGRESS at any cost is the ONLY mantra, or we want an economy where the major participatns participants opinions are taken into consideration and a middle path is arrived at.

2) My family has been in the real estate business for the past decade and I know how unethical the practices there are. I disagree with their views. Just yesterday, the chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, had declared that he had enjoyed 618 acres of Govt land for the past 30 years like a ZAMINDAR, and now feigned ignorance at having broken 4 Central govt. acts and handed them over to Govt. This just the tip of an Iceberg as more skeletons are going to tumble out.

=====
I am a proud Calcuttan, born ‘n brought up there. But when as a NRI I go back year after year with raised expectations and hopes, such statements and seeing them actually implemented with unflinching regularity simply appalls me.

Having invested money in a Kolkata firm to get some project work done and sitting up all nights here, is when I am faced with the horror of a Bandh – it is when I realize why I feel robbed even though I am so far away in Toronto.

Admittedly, your statement leaves me open-mouthed and I have rarely been so stumped in a while. Hats off for making my day.

Dear Anand,

1) For any proud Calcuttan, the views might be baised and would sure evoke retaliatory response. I appreciate your love for Calcutta, but let us not forget that every move by the Govt should not be construed as progress.

2) Every firm with an offshore base here has the hiccups to deal with mediocre talent, high turnarounds, extended deadlines, no concern for project deadlines.

Businesses are inherent with risk and to deal with them ASAP is a leader’s first priority. This is where a PLAN-B works. Companies do not give enough priority to such factors (Contingency Mgmt) when setting up bases for which should the Govt be blamed? Such Bands happened in Bangalore during Veerapan case, Hyderabad riots, Mumbai floods, but shrewd CEOs have a back up while, while others start the blame game.

3) Yes, truth is difficult to digest, I do not blame you for that.

No Flames please!

BSE Friday, December 15, 2006 at 10:32 AM PT

The lack of a CitySearch equivalent service for Calcutta is irritating me endlessly. Hello entrepreneurs – is someone listening?

Sramana,

Hope this helps… https://burrp.com/

Search engine Burrp! has entered India with the launch of its Mumbai and Bangalore portals. These portals enable users to search, review and recommend local eateries, nightclubs and related businesses in specific cities.

The site will soon expand to include new categories such as local events and movies. “Our plan is to span 12 cities in India within a six-month timeframe.

Now, with Mumbai and Bangalore sites up, we can focus on the next two cities. Research and data collection is currently under way for Kolkata and Delhi/NCR,” said Mr Anand Jain, co-founder and technology head.

Burrp! was launched by a team of expatriates from California and is based in Mumbai.

BSE Friday, December 15, 2006 at 10:44 AM PT

BSE,

Here’s why your argument doesn’t make sense:

Companies like IBM, Microsoft, Intel, SAP, Cisco, and others have made Billions of dollars of investment commitment into India. At the moment, I don’t think there is any ambiguity in anyone’s mind that a solid percentage of this investment needs to come into West Bengal and it is highly desirable that each of these global technology giants have a major presence in Kolkata. This doesn’t require any middle-path discussion, no bandh, nothing.

The West Bengal Chief Minister is fighting hard to create an image of the state that is investment friendly, and one of the objections to this image is that the state often comes to a standstill due to frequent strikes.

In Sales, what we do more than anything else, is objection handling. Have you ever sold anything? Especially vision? That’s what entrepreneurs do, mostly. And in selling the vision of Kolkata as a viable alternative to Bangalore (a positioning that Pune, Hyderabad and Kolkata are vying for), this strike phenomenon is a major objection.

And if you take a magnifying glass and look into Mamata Banerji’s psyche, her goal, besides the stated objective of defending the rights of farmers, is to embarass and sabotage the Chief Minister’s efforts.

This, I find, self-centered, partisan, and downright stupid.

Sramana Mitra Friday, December 15, 2006 at 7:19 PM PT

BSE,

Thanks for your pointers; just in case you forgot, the original topic was Kolkata, Kolkata’s progress walk and the impact of Bandhs.

Your other-worldly sermon on Corporate Risk Management and Project Management was well received. Having had some global experience in these areas and also being a Calcuttan, I actually had not one but two backup plans in place. Not to say that still didn’t bite my ass. It did. For, the question remains – I really wouldn’t have had to think of a backup plan had I worked with some other place where Bandhs were a non-issue. One less problem to tackle. No?

I actually plan to start a separate division within my startup to deal with the Contingency Mgmt issues you so gracefully allude to and the perils of doing business in such times – times of Bandhs I mean. Great things these – the Bandhs. If not anything they would surely create more corporate positions whereby a few people can get employed in the IT sector in “Bandh Management”. Seriously.

You talk of Bangalore Bandhs. I have worked there too . Difference is that during the 2+ years I was there, I noticed one Bandh for a day (when Rajkumar was kidnapped). Your comparing that to Kolkata Bandhs speaks volumes about our mutual synchronization as goes talking/discussing the same issue. Your correlation powers amaze me. Again.

BSE: I shall take the liberty to end my side of this thread here. No offense meant whatsoever, but I dare not converse with anyone who has the hots for Mamata Banerjee or Bandhs(And if someone has the hots for both – then God save the world.), no matter what the context. Period.

Best,
Anand

Anand S Saturday, December 16, 2006 at 12:11 AM PT

Hi Sramana,

Just ran into your blog while googling. Burrp! will be launching in Kolkata in a couple of weeks. Even we faced the same frustration when we came down to India a couple of years back. As with most entrepreneurs, we started Burrp! to scratch our own itch and now it has become a full blown product.

Anand Jain Saturday, December 23, 2006 at 8:04 AM PT

Hello Sramana and Everyone,
I would not like to comment on Ms. Banerjee — she’s quite a nuisance no doubt. However, there are certain issues with investment that the ruling govt. cannot deny; one of the first being the choice of Singur. See nobody is objecting to investment and prosperity but the fact remains that if a land closer to Kolkata was at all a need Kharagpur and its acres and acres of barren lands would have been an excellent choice; not to mention it’d be easy to source help from IIT if need be. But one of the reasons the govt chose to abandon the fertile tracts of Singur is the fact that it is an opposition party bastion; and this would be a neat way of harming the opposition’s chances in the next election. It is to this that Ms. Banerjee is objecting, you can’t quench personal vendetta and play the investment game simultaneously. If you do that the result is a public embarassment for the entire Bengali community.

Arka

Arka Thursday, December 28, 2006 at 3:44 AM PT

Anand,

Burrp doesn’t suffice for what I was looking for. I’d like to have known, for instance, what were the scheduled shows for the entire month of December at Academy of Fine Arts, Rabindrasadan, Kala Bhavan, and other major venues – Theater, Exhibitions, Concerts, Recitals, etc.

I urge you to look into providing this a la CitySearch, including the ability to buy tickets online a la TicketMaster.

Sramana

Sramana Mitra Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 12:33 AM PT

Thanks for your feedback. We are looking at the possibility of providing local event information. The problem (or the opportunity) lies in the fact that there is no reliable and consistent way to get event information in either an online or an offline format.

Anand Jain Sunday, March 4, 2007 at 3:21 PM PT

A good article.
To satiate your curiosity, an old friend of mine,Naveen Tewari, who is an entrepreneur in Mumbai, has started his own company called mKhoj or mobile khoj.You can search for information like cafes,hospitals etc.
He has taken the right direction.Lets see what the market response is.

Pawan Sahay Tuesday, March 13, 2007 at 7:47 PM PT

I happen to see you blog … I don’t have that much of time to get into the topic…but one thing is sure this insane lady is destroying Bengal…no rational person can support her … her birth is a HISTORICAL BLUNDER of God

Sanjay Wednesday, May 16, 2007 at 5:49 AM PT