Category Archives: infrastructure

Red bus

No, not that red bus. I’m talking about the red BMTC buses in Bangalore. They used to be red till 1998 or 1999, and then the government of the day decided that the buses were due an image change (red being danger and all that). This coincided with the spinning off of the BMTC from the erstwhile BTS (which was part of the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation). The buses were all painted blue.

Over the years, new kinds of services have been launched. There was the Pushpak – coloured beige. Then there was the slightly premium Suvarna, coloured a very light purple. And then there were the pass-only green buses, women only pink buses (yes, really) and the red Volvos. For some reason, red buses have started making a comeback to mainline BMTC routes, though I don’t quite know the reason for the reintroduction of the colour, or if they are any different from the blue and white buses.

So for the first time in fifteen years or so, I rode a “normal” red BMTC bus today (in the intervening period I either rode “normal” blue and white buses or premium Volvo red buses). Some pertinent observations from this rather momentous (!!) journey.

I was close to Shivajinagar, and had to come home to Jayanagar. Considering that it’s a pain haggling with auto rickshaw drivers in that area, I decided to take a bus (especially since I was coming from a place really close to the bus stand). I quickly walked up to the Shivajinagar TTMC (“travel and transit management centre” or something). The footpath on the St Marks Road extension on which I walked was quite poor – I hope the TenderSure project that is rebuilding roads and footpaths in the middle of the city reaches there soon.

Even navigation within the TTMC is quite bad – it’s badly designed in the sense that there’s no space to walk where you have no chance of being hit by one of the hundreds of buses there. A helpful official told me where I would get the bus to Jayanagar, but to get there (walking fast) was quite a challenge. Finally I got there and found a red 27E (going to JP Nagar) and hopped on.

The BMTC is definitely not cheap – the journey set me back by 19 rupees (to put that in context, I had traveled there in the morning by auto rickshaw and paid Rs 86). It’s definitely been a long time since I’ve traveled by bus as I handed the conductor a ten rupee note and looked expectedly for change. I had to shell out another ten bucks.

I didn’t get a seat but found a comfortable place for myself to stand (right at the back of the bus). The concept of having the door in the middle of the bus rather than at the fag end is a good one – it allows you to go deep into the bus and find good places to stand. Also, you are looking ahead while standing and can look out for any shuffling in the seats which might potentially get empty!

What I noticed during my journey (which took 25 minutes which is not bad at all for that time of the day) is that each of these longish distance buses actually serve several small markets – if we can figure out a metric for how many times the passengers in the bus “churn”  (it’s not too hard, just feeling lazy right now) it might help us plan routes better in terms of multiple short routes rather than a few long routes (that can help cut down uncertainty in timings, etc.).

So the bus for example completely emptied itself out at the Shantinagar TTMC (which is a very good TTMC IMHO, since no buses terminate there), and then got refilled a couple of stops later in Wilson Garden. Earlier, there had been massive churn near Richmond Circle. And so on.

This is perhaps related to the cost but there seemed to be a very different demographic that populated the bus (based on looks – I’m being judgmental and all that, I know) compared to the type 15 years back. In terms of social strata the bus seemed much less diverse today than 15 years back, and it worked both ways. It seemed like most bus travellers today could be broadly defined as being lower middle class – I hardly saw any labourer types (might be a function of the route also) or too many upper middle class types in the bus. It is interesting how these things change!

The Crow’s Designs

As I had mentioned in my blog post yesterday, I just finished reading Sanjeev Sanyal’s Land of seven rivers yesterday afternoon. And later in the evening I started reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Anti-fragile. And before you wonder, let me tell you that yesterday was a working day for me. Just that I had a long process running which gave me the flexibility to catch up on my reading.

So one topic that was mentioned both towards the end of Sanyal’s book and in the prologue of Taleb’s book was the issue of urban planning. And interestingly, the two agreed. In the prologue of Anti-fragile, Taleb has listed out a series of “fragile”, “robust” and “anti-fragile” systems. He has classified it by subject, and in each subject he gives us examples of the three systems. Being halfway through the first chapter, I understand that he is going to elaborate on each member of the list later on in his book, but I’m yet to reach the chapter (I’m still in chapter one, I told you) where he talks about urban planning. Yet, what he has written in that table in the preface on this chapter caught my eye. More so, given that it agreed with what Sanyal had written in his book. In the row on “urbanism”, Taleb has simply written “Le Corbusier” in the Fragile column and “Jane Jacobs” in the Anti-fragile column (the preface of the book is available on Taleb’s website. The relevant section of the table is on page 27).

In the last chapter of Land of seven rivers Sanyal talks about post-independence events that has affected the geography of India. One topic that he delves into is urban planning, where he contrasts the sterility of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh with the dynamism of unplanned Gurgaon. He mentions that despite careful planning, little economic value has been created in the city of Chandigarh itself, and one reason why it is supposedly clean is because there exist no space for the poor within the city! The city’s rigid master plan is actually a hindrance to economic activity as it allows for little space for entrepreneurial activity to take place. So whatever growth and innovation Chandigarh has seen, says Sanyal, has actually happened in its suburb of Mohali, which is in the state of Punjab.

Urban planning is a topic that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit in recent times, as I’m trying to figure out where to buy a house and “settle down”. Having examined several of Bangalore’s neighbourhoods, I’ve found a strong contrast between planned and unplanned neighbourhoods. The former (eg. Jayanagar) usually have wide roads, pavements, access to markets at frequent intervals (one thing where planning has failed, and for the good I think, is zoning. I wouldn’t want to walk to the main market for every one of my needs) and auto rickshaws. More importantly, they have people walking around on the streets all the time, which makes the neighbourhood safe. Unplanned neighbourhoods (eg. Sarjapur Road) usually have large condominiums, few shopping options and no auto rickshaws. You have either highways or small village roads and not too many people walk around. This makes the streets unsafe and makes you reliant on private transport, which in my opinion is not a good thing. Nevertheless, one must admit that given the massive influx into Bangalore in the last 10-12 years (on account of the IT boom), it is the unplanned neighbourhoods that have taken the lion’s share of housing the incoming population.

So the question is how much planning a city needs. Too much planning (as in Chandigarh and Delhi) can make the cities static, and not provide enough for potential immigration – which is necessary for increased economic activity. On the other hand, unplanned areas are inherently unsafe and don’t provide for a great urban quality of life (as far as I’m concerned one of the primary indicators of urbanism is public transport). Is there a middle ground of “light touch regulation” which derives the best of both worlds? How should urban planners approach this issue? How can we make our cities both dynamic and safe? As of now, I don’t have the answers.

PS: The title of this post is in reference to the name “Le Corbusier” which is French for “The Crow”.

The Problem with Smaller States

I’m a fan of smaller states. I think our states are currently way too large and we could do with more states since that could lead to greater administrative efficiency and federalism. So yes, I’m fully in support of the Telangana movement – only because I think AP is too huge and unwieldy a state (42 parliamentary constituencies) to be managed from one place.

I have one concern, however. I was thinking of the case of Karnataka and the possible demand by areas of North Karnataka for a separate state. While I support this demand (Karnataka again I think is too huge and unwieldy to be managed from Bangalore which is in a corner of the state) I was suddenly worried about power supply.

From what I last remember, Karnataka’s biggest source of power is the Raichur Thermal Power Station in Shaktinagar. Assuming that it breaks away from “Mysore” as part of a new “north Karnataka” state, what will happen to the energy security of Mysore (the smaller southern portion)? I guess there might be some agreements and long term power supply contracts put in place, yet the loss of this massive captive power source would significantly hurt Mysore.

My concern is that if the demand for a separate North Karnataka grows, the government of undivided Karnataka would be loathe to invest much in any area that may fall under a part of the state that wants to “break away”. And this could lead to concentration of investment in areas that are close to the seat of power, and further skew the development of different parts of the state. Power supply is just one example that I took here – it could be any other massive government investment – say SEZs or large industrial plants and so forth.

There is another issue with smaller states but I think this is a problem for which a solution has been found and is under implementation. The problem with having too many states is that we will end up with too many inter-state boundaries and thus too many “checkposts”. However, the proposed Goods and Service Tax regime (if/when it were to get implemented) will ensure that India would become a common market and inter-state commerce would become more seamless. Nevertheless it is important to get the GST regime in place before we get too many more new states – for it also means less stakeholders to deal with!

The Problem with Unbundled Air Fares

Normally I would welcome a move like the recent one by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) that allows airlines to decrease baggage limit and allows them to charge for seat allocation. While I’m a fan of checking in early and getting in a seat towards the front of the flight (I usually don’t carry much luggage on my business trips), under normal circumstances I wouldn’t mind the extra charge as I would believe it would be offset by a corresponding decrease in the base fare.

However, I have a problem. I don’t pay for most of my flights – I charge them to my client. And this is true of all business travelers – who charge it to either their own or to some other company. And when you want to charge your air fare to someone else, one nice bundled fare makes sense. For example (especially since I charge my flights to my client) I would be embarrassed to add line items in my invoice to ask for reimbursements of the Rs. 200 I paid for an aisle seat, or the Rs. 160 I paid for the sandwich. A nice bundled fare would spare me of all such embarrassment.

Which probably explains why most airlines that primarily depend on business travelers for their business don’t unbundle their fares – that their baggage allocations remain high, that they give free food on board and they don’t charge you extra for lounge access (instead using your loyalty tier to give that to you). Business travelers, as I explained above, don’t like unbundled fares.

Which makes it intriguing that Jet Airways, which prides itself as being a “full service carrier” has decided to cut baggage limits and charge for seat allocation (they continue to not charge for food, though). Perhaps they have recognized that a large number of business travelers have already migrated to the so-called low-cost Indigo (it’s impossible for Indigo to have a 30% market share if they don’t get any business travelers at all), because of which Indian business travelers may not actually mind the unbundling.

Currently, Indigo flights have a “corporate program”, where the price of your sandwich and drink is bundled into the price of the ticket. I normally book my tickets on Cleartrip, so have never been eligible for this, but I can see why this program is popular – it prevents corporates from adding petty line items such as sandwiches to their invoices. On a similar note, I predict that soon all airlines will have a “corporate program” where the price of the allocated seat and a certain amount of baggage (over and above the standard 15kg) will be  bundled into the base price of the ticket. Now that I charge my flights to a client, I hope this happens soon.

The problem with real estate taxation

I spent a year working in an India-focused high frequency trading hedge fund. I used to trade stocks and equity derivatives there. We were primarily an arbitrage hedge fund, and our aim was to make money by trading on assets that were mispriced, in order to make riskless profits. For example, if the price of a certain stock at a certain instant was Rs 100 on the BSE and Rs. 99 on the NSE, we would buy the stock at the NSE and sell it at the BSE, simultaneously, thus making riskless profits. Contrary to what some of the “99%ers” say, we saw social value in what we did. We were making prices fairer for the rest of the market, and removing anomalies.

There was one big problem though, this beast called “securities transaction tax”. Every transaction in securities in India attracts this tax. While it seems to be a fairly small number, when you are trading large volumes and looking to arbitrage out wafer-thin margins, it ends up being significant. This tax, we figured, was a big hindrance in true arbitrage-free pricing of securities in India. The tax meant that assets could be mis-priced up to a certain limit, because wiping out that mispricing through a trade was unprofitable thanks to this tax. This “flow tax”, thus, makes financial markets inefficient.

The problem is bigger when it comes to real estate. Historically, property taxes have been really low, but property transaction taxes have been high. There is a good reason for this. Back in the old days where record-keeping was inefficient and incomplete, it was impossible for the government to map out who owned which piece of land. Instead, they figured that they would have a record on all property transactions, and thus put a tax on that. This is a worldwide phenomenon.

It has led to two big problems in India. First is the market inefficiency that I spoke about with my equities example. High transaction taxes means that property markets are illiquid, and this prevents more people from entering and investing in the market. This also means that any price changes in the broad market are not reflected easily enough across a vast majority of property. Secondly, the high transaction taxes means there is massive under-reporting of the actual prices at which transactions take place. Both the buyer and the seller have an incentive to do so, and deprive the government of tax money. This leads to creation of massive amounts of black money in real estate. The problem is similar to the creation of all those Swiss bank accounts back in the days of 99% marginal tax rates.

There is a side-effect also, one that our socialist-minded government and the National Advisory Council (NAC) might be sympathetic to. Low reported prices of land transactions also implies lower realization for farmers and other villagers when land is forcibly acquired by the government. Though compensation might be declared as multiples of the “market value”, the true market value in most cases is so depressed that farmers usually get paid a pittance.

That aside, so what prevents us from dismantling these distortionary transaction taxes on property? Firstly, they are a massive source of income to state governments and local bodies, and if they are to be dismantled they need to be replaced with another equivalent tax. Economists usually advocate property holding taxes as a less distortionary and more stable means of funding local governments. Till recently, however, bad record-keeping meant those weren’t enforceable. You already have nominal property taxes that are collected, but reports in newspapers suggests that implementation is lax, and there is significant tax evasion there.

Even if all property records are formalized and computerized, there is another major hurdle in dismantling property transaction taxes and increasing property holding taxes. Higher property holding taxes means that the value of property will see a sudden drop (lower “free cash flow” each year, and all that). Markets might become more efficient and liquid, but real estate companies who have sunk in millions assuming a certain valuation of their properties will see a sudden erosion in that value, and see value in lobbying against this change taking place. In the long run, they will benefit, in terms of greater investment, greater liquidity and faster disposal of the properties they have built. But the initial “shock” in terms of reduced valuations will mean they will lobby against this change.

Thus, unless something drastic happens in terms of reforms, it is likely that we will be stuck in this inefficient regime of high property transaction tax.

Cross posted at The INI Broad Mind

Site Allotment

In Bangalore, you have two kinds of residential layouts, BDA Layouts and Revenue Layouts. The former are layouts that have been created by the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) or its predecessor the City Improvement Trust Board (CITB). These agencies acquired land from villages which were then on the outskirts of Bangalore, planned layouts with sites of different sizes, roads, “civic amenity sites”, etc. and then “allotted” them to applicants based on certain criteria.

To get a site allotted, you had to declare that you didn’t own a house in Bangalore, pay an upfront amount and wait for a few years before you would get your plot at a fairly subsidized amount in what was then the outskirts of the city. There were also layouts that were created and allotted to different PSUs. For example, you have ISRO Layout near Banashankari where sites were allotted at low prices to employees of ISRO. Similarly there are several “bank colonies” all over Bangalore. These sites were again allotted at subsidized rates. The government would acquire land from villagers, pass it on to the PSU employee association who would then allot them to employees. Interestingly, the resultant sale deed would be between the original owner of the land (typically a farmer) and the employee. The government and PSU’s name would be absent.

Revenue layouts did not have a government middleman. Original owners of the land (typically farmers) would cut it up into plots, allot area for roads and sell it directly to people to build houses there. Initially these areas would be deemed “illegal” thanks to their violation of zoning laws. In due course of time, they would get “recognized” by the BDA or BBMP and then BWSSB would provide water supply and drainage (till then people would rely on borewells and septic tanks).

If you drive a few kilometers out of Bangalore, especially in the eastern direction, you are likely to see a few mini Gurgaons. There has been absolutely no planning here, and so you have skyscrapers (either apartments or office complexes) interspersed with vast tracts of empty land. It is a sprawl out there, and there is no way one can live in these parts without a car. The vast empty spaces also mean these areas are ripe for criminal activity, and the buildings usually have private sources for their public goods (such as water or drainage).

While this makes a case for planned urban development (with its associated “site allotments”), there is also the issue of corruption. If you look at some of the corruption cases that have been filed recently against Karnataka politicians and bureaucrats, you will notice that they mostly have to do with land use and site allotments. Yeddyurappa went to jail in a “land denotification” case – that corrupt act was made possible because the government controls zoning. Former Lok Ayukta Shivaraj Patil had to resign because he got allotted a site when he already owned a house in the city.

So on one hand you get well planned and manageable cities, but significant scope for corruption and rent seeking. On the other, you have chaos and unplanned development, and several mini Gurgaons rather than proper cities. It seems like we have a no-win situation here. How do we handle it?

PS: I know that revenue layouts also involve heavy corruption, in terms of “regularising” or changing land use. However, surprisingly given the amounts involved, this kind of corruption seems to have remained at the lower levels of bureaucracy

Metro Notes

One of the advantages of being jobless is that though you’re poor in terms of money, you’re rich in time. So you have all the time you want to do things that give you random kicks, such as riding the new Bangalore metro on the second day of operation. The reason I chose to go today was that I had to anyway go to the MG Road area on some work, but also that the second day is a good time to see things early, while not getting caught in a mad rush.  My decision to go today was reinforced by a report in today’s paper that while there was much clamouring to get on to the first train yesterday, the second train was half-empty.

The supposedly showpiece MG Road station is not yet complete. You still can’t get to the station from the Plaza theater side, which is the “logical” side to get in if you’ve come to MG Road for shopping or generally hanging out, or even if your office is there. You need to cross over to the parade ground side at the Cauvery signal and then make your way through some narrow barricades before you get to the entrance. You get frisked at the entrance (this might end up being a bottleneck) after which you get to buy tickets. There was a queue of about 10 people when I got there.

There is still scope for the ticket staff to become more efficient, and for people to learn to carry exact change (especially given that you have tickets for Rs. 12, Rs. 14, etc). However, I would imagine that in the long term, most people would end up using a travel card, so the pressure on the counters may actually decrease. One disappointing thing was that they didn’t sell return tickets. I would have to stand in queue again at Indiranagar.

You have escalators only for going up, and you have to take the stairs when you exit the station. I don’t know if this is a method to cut costs or lead-time, but it would be a letdown if you had to take the stairs down each time, especially since the stairs were a major bottleneck in exiting the station when I disembarked from MG Road on the return journey. Another bottleneck while exiting at MG Road was the turnstiles. On your way in, the ticket booths are the bottlenecks so the turnstiles are free. Not so on the way out. However, I don’t see much scope for putting more turnstiles there so I don’t know how the metro will cope with increased demand.

The train is quite small (3 bogies long) but I’m told it’ll be increased to 6 soon. Maybe the train wasn’t as full as expected but I found the temperature in the train too cold on the way to Indiranagar (it was ok on the return journey when the train was full).  The indiranagar station was incredibly convenient and not crowded at all. Entry, exit, ticket purchase and turnstiles were all extremely smooth, and the view from the station platform is stunning, especially towards the ulsoor side. Speaking of views from trains, the metro has now given scope for a new set of hoardings for the city. These hoardings can be put up at the “metro level” along the metro line. I’d be surprised if no businessman were to take this opportunity.

The train itself doesn’t move too fast, especially since there are so many curves on the route. On the straight MG Road stretch, however, the train moves well at a faster rate. The announcements on the train still need some work. The grammar of the Kannada announcements is atrocious, and the funniest bit is when they try and explain “mind the gap” in Kannada and Hindi. The hindi announcements also carry a very strong Kannadiga accent.

There are some other measures that the metro corporation has taken in order to get people acquainted with the metro. There is usually an officer standing at the turnstiles who tells you how you should swipe (on entry) or deposit (on exit) your token. Then, there are security guards at the platform itself who make sure passengers are standing back when the trains arrive, and that they are not blocking the doors when it’s closing.

The journey from MG Road to Indiranagar was extremely quick and painless. I believe that the metro has already demonstrated its ability in making the city smaller, and I can now only hope that the full stretch of the metro (including the underground stretch at Majestic) gets completed fast. I can’t wait for the day when I take a short walk to the Jayanagar metro station and do two quick journeys to reach MG Road or Indirangar easily, safely and painlessly.

The problem with private provisioning of public goods

… is that private players who are providing those goods have an incentive in blocking attempts by the public sector to provide those goods. For the purpose of analysis, let us take the example of Gurgaon, both because I’m reasonably familiar with it and because it has been in the news in the international media thanks to a recent profile of the city by the New York Times.

Now, Gurgaon has a major problem with power supply. It is said that (I don’t have first hand info for reasons you’ll soon understand) the “city” faces about four to six hours of regular power cuts every day. I don’t know the exact reasons for it (surprisingly, Haryana sells power to other states so it appears there is no power deficit per se in the state), but it could be a pricing issue, with free power for farmers and all that. Anyway, the reason for the power cuts doesn’t matter so much.

In reaction to this, apartment societies have taken it upon themselves to provide “power backup” to the residents (for a fee of course). Even in that, there are three grades. I used to live in a DLF complex that had “one hundred per cent power backup”, which meant that I was assured of 24/7 power supply. Every time there was a power cut, the generators would start in a matter of a few seconds, and with “one hundred percent backup”, I could run just about any device on the “backup” power supply. In return, I would pay the apartment association six rupees per unit (as opposed to 3 rupees I pay here for sarkari power in Bangalore).

Then, there as “eighty percent backup”, in which you could use the generator-power supply to run all appliances except air-conditioners and geysers (both extremely important in Gurgaon given the weather). Then, there was another level with fifty percent backup, though I didn’t particularly understand it. The individual houses in the city, though, had no backup, and people living there had to make do with inverters.

Now, suppose that magically Haryana were to become a power surplus state, would the state government be able to provide uninterrupted three phase power supply to Gurgaon? I would think not, for there are several “private players” in that city whose source of profits and wealth is derived from the fact that they provide backup power supply. Think of all those people who invested in DLF flats because they had “one hundred percent power backup”. Now, with power backup not being a distinguishing factor, these flats will lose in value since they cannot command the same kind of premium as they used to (rather, the supply of “apartments with assured power supply” goes up, thus reducing demand for the only ones that offered this luxury earlier). Then, there are scores of generator and inverter dealers in Gurgaon, who again depend on the power shortage for their livelihood. And so forth.

It doesn’t appear as if Haryana has power shortage any more (recently, Karnataka bought power from that state to tide over its power crisis). However, there are enough powerful lobbies in Gurgaon who depend on power cuts (!! ) for their income and wealth, and it appears they have managed to lobby the government there (officially or unofficially) to block the provision of assured power supply. The moral of this story is that once “public goods” start being provided by private players, it is hard to displace them, and this results in a lifetime of inefficiency.

The curse of geography on Air India

International flights are regulated by a strange agreement, in which at least one end of the flight should be in the country that is the “home” of the airline. For example, Jet Airways runs flights along the Mumbai-Brussels-New York route, but is forbidden from carrying passengers solely from Brussels to New York (that market is a monopoly for airlines based in EU or USA). However, if Jet has flights from Mumbai to say Brussels and Singapore, it can carry passengers from Brussels to Singapore, since they’ll be touching the ground at Jet’s home country.

Secondly, airline ticketing is usually done on a “source-destination” basis, and not based on each leg. For example, the price of  a Brussels-Singapore ticket on Jet Airways has nothing to do with the price of Brussels-Mumbai and Mumbai-Singapore tickets. As far as the airline is concerned, all these are independent “markets”, and the price for Brussels-Singapore is set partly based on what other airlines charge for Brussels-Singapore (taking into account flying time, layover time and all that).

These two together give an undue advantage to airlines that are situated in countries that are “in the middle”. The best example for this is Emirates, which flies, on the one hand, to several destinations in Asia, and on the other to several destinations in Africa, Europe and the Americas. This allows Emirates to effectively aggregate demand from all these destinations and connect them up in the form of a hub.

For example, there may not be too many people who want to fly Bangalore-Venice. However, if you aggregate all destinations Emirates serves to the West of Dubai (in Europe, Africa, US, Middle East, etc.) there will be a lot of people who will want to fly from Bangalore to all these places put together. Similarly, if you aggregate all destinations in Asia, there will be enough people from Venice to fly to all these places put together and thus Emirates, by providing a hub, creates an effective market. This is what I mentioned earlier as the advantage of geography, of being situated “in the middle”.

Now, if Air India were to be profitable in the international sector, one way of doing so would be to create a “hub” in India, where Air India connects up passengers to the east to those in the West. While that sounds simple enough, what we need to see is if any place in India is situated conveniently enough to function as a hub. Now, look at the map of India, and see what is around.

To the north-east lies China. There is a lot of nothingness between India and the parts of China that generates high airline traffic (the coast). To the northwest, you have Pakistan, Afghanistan and barren republics of Central Asia. The “business parts” of Russia, again, are quite far away. To the South of India you have vast oceans, the south-east and west already have thriving hubs (Singapore, KL, Bangkok, Dubai, Doha, etc.) and India is again not well placed to compete effectively with any of them. I know this isn’t a rigorous analysis, but look in any direction, and you’ll find it hard to believe that there is reason enough for people living there to fly internationally using India as a hub.

This is the curse of geography that India suffers from, and there is nothing we can do about it, and this is something we need to accept. Given this scenario, the best airlines from India can do is to connect various places in India to places abroad where there exists a “direct market” (for example, Kochi-Dubai by itself is liquid enough so you can have Indian carriers operating that route). Thus, airlines from India can never aspire to achieve the scale and connectivity of an Emirates or a Malaysian. The sooner the airlines accept it, the better.

The moral of the story for Air India is that it should recognize this curse of geography and give up on its dreams of connecting the world. It should stick to connecting destinations within India, and “direct markets” from India  to destinations abroad.

Government finances versus public interest

In an op-ed in Business Standard (I think) yesterday, Praveen Chakravarti (he’s with Anand Rathi now, used to be with UIDAI when I met him at the Takshashila Conclave last year) argues that fixed price allocation of telecom spectrum wasn’t such a bad thing since it kept prices for customers low and reasonable. As part of his argument, he mentions that due to the auction of 3G spectrum and licenses, prices of 3G services have been really high, way over the reach of the common man. Similarly, after the auction of the 4th telecom license in 2001, mobile telephony prices remained high, and came down only after the backdoor entry of Reliance and Tata Teleservices a couple of years later.

One of the points that the CAG mentioned in his report on Air India a few days back was about the granting of “sixth freedom” rights to international carriers flying from India. For example, twice this year I flew west (once to the US, once to Europe) from Bangalore, stopping over at Dubai. For both trips, Emirates sold me a single ticket (i.e. I purchased a Bangalore-New York ticket, not separate tickets for Bangalore-Dubai and Dubai-New York). The granting of this sixth freedom to carriers such as Emirates, points out the CAG, has resulted in substantial loss to Air India since no one flies Air India for international flights anymore. I didn’t believe it when I read it but one of the recommendations for the CAG was to cancel sixth freedom licenses to carriers such as Emirates. Another report around the same time recommended that “interior markets” (Bangalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, etc.) be made Air India monopolies in order to protect its finances.

Now, there is a fine balance that needs to be achieved between government revenues through grant of licenses, and the economic impact on the general public because of the grant of such licenses. For example, the government (through Air India) may have lost significant amounts of money thanks to the grant of sixth freedom licenses to carriers such as Emirates. That has been counterbalanced with lower fares and easier flying options for travelers from hitherto less connected sources like Bangalore or Hyderabad. The government may have lost significant revenue by granting backdoor entry to Reliance and Tata Teleservices, but that was compensated by sudden drop in charges for mobile telephony, and the subsequent growth of the sector.

Given Air India’s history and performance, the government could have never invested enough to make Bangalore and Hyderabad as well connected with the rest of the world as, say, Bombay or Delhi. In that sense, granting of sixth freedom rights to Emirates was a cheap way for the government to provide international connectivity to these cities. Similarly, it would have been hard for the government to invest in MTNL or BSNL in order to take mobile telephony to the masses. Backdoor entry to two operators was a “cheaper option” to achieve this objective.

So what was the problem with what Raja did, you ask. The problem there was the creation of a playing field that was not level. He blatantly favoured certain players against others, and made hefty kickbacks from the process. That is the real tragedy of a non-auction process – in that there is “consumer surplus” left over with some of the companies after they’ve paid the fixed price for the resource, and some of this consumer surplus can be channeled in the form of kickbacks to government officials. I don’t know the parallel for this in the aviation space so I’m not able to comment on that.