Tag Archives: bangalore

Market forces

This morning I refused to board an auto rickshaw since it had one of those old analogue metres. Most autos in Bangalore nowadays use digital metres, which is the regulation. Except a few like the one I saw in the morning.

Now, given that most autos have digital metres people have a choice to choose only such autos. I’m sure the driver I met this morning will realise soon enough that he’s not getting as much business as he can due to his old metre, and make the switch.

It’s similar with usage of metres. In some parts of Bangalore it’s the norm for auto rickshaws to ply by metre. In such areas any driver who tries to make a quick buck by negotiating a higher fare is likely to lose customers. When a customer knows that after letting go of an auto which asked for excess fare, he had a good chance of finding one that will go by the regulated fare, he is less likely to heed to the demand for excess fare.

You can think of this being a case of what Malcolm gladwell calls the tipping point – once markets have tipped to one side (let’s say using regulated fares for auto rides) there is positive reinforcement that leads to an overwhelming move in that direction.

To get back to the metre example, when the fares increased a few months back traffic cops in Bangalore ran a drive where they checked for auto metres and fined those who had not made the switch by a particular date. Maybe that’s led to about 95% of the metres getting recalibrated. The beauty here is that market forces will take care of pushing this 95% to 100% and cops need not spend any more time and energy on enforcing this! Similarly if cops want to enforce usage of regulated  fares they would waste time by doing this drive in areas where most rides are by metre – the focus should be on tipping the other areas over!

To summarise, some parts of regulation gets enforced by sheer market forces, and regulators should not be wasting their energies there. Focus should instead be given to those areas where market failure is extreme – for that is where regulation has a role to play.

Landmark mismanagement

Yesterday’s Landmark Quiz in Bangalore was a major waste of time. No, I’m not talking about the quality the quiz here – the prelims was among the better Landmark Quiz prelims I’ve sat through, and given that we just missed out on qualification for the finals (AJMd, as we say here in Bangalore) I didn’t sit through the finals though I was told the questions there too were pretty good.

I’m talking about the transaction costs of attending the quiz. The overall management of the event left much to be desired. First of all, we had to show up at the venue at 11:45 for a quiz that was supposed to start at 1:45 pm. Teams with confirmed seats were let in at around 12:30 and only around 1 o’clock were us “waitlisted” teams let in. There too, the organizers did a major show of letting in waitlisted teams, calling them in order and taking over half an hour to let everyone in.

The point is that even after all the waitlisted teams had been let in, there was plenty of room in the auditorium. This makes me wonder about the wisdom of waitlisting so many teams, and then making such a big show of letting people in. Given that the total turnout was much smaller than the hall capacity, things would have been much simpler if people had been simply left in, with volunteers only ensuring that the seating was efficient (without leaving gaps).

Before the quiz yesterday i started writing a blog post on how the quiz registration process was itself flawed, and gave incentive to people to register zombie teams because the option of registering a team came free. So while the hall had been theoretically filled up many days ago, most of these registrations were zombie registrations thus leading to a long wait list and thus calling people early. Given that the quiz doesn’t have an entry fee, I can’t currently think of a good way to price this option.

But reaching the venue early was not the only waste of time. The written prelims of the quiz finished around 3 pm, including calling out the correct answers. The results, however, weren’t announced till close to 6 o’clock. In the interim time period there was the finals for school students, but that still doesn’t explain why they had to wait until 6 o’clock to announce the results of the senior quiz.

The way I see it, it was sheer disrespect on the part of the organizers of the time of the participants. Yes, Landmark might be a much sought after quiz, rated among the best in the country. Yes, most people come there for the questions and not just to win – and so stay on to watch the finals even when they haven’t qualified (it is indeed commendable that Landmark quizzes have managed to be great spectator events while not dropping quality). Yes, many participants have traveled from other cities and so having traveled the cost of their time might be “cheap” – in that they have little else to do in the rest of the day.

Even taking into account all these, the wastage of 5 hours of each quizzer’s time (2 hours for early reporting; 3 hours gap between prelims and results announcement; 4 if you consider that watching the Junior finals wasn’t a waste of time) is not a done thing. Given the quiz’s unparalleled reputation it is unlikely that market forces are going to tell the organizers that they are wasting people’s time, but the message has to go through.


Recently the Deccan Herald carried an article on how Basavanagudi was an extremely well-planned area. It showed the original plan of Basavanagudi (drawn up in the late 1890s in the wake of the plague that hit the Pete area), and showed how well planned it was – demarcating public spaces, market areas, clubs, schools and residential areas. What is remarkable to me is that an area that was drawn up in the late 1890s has roads that are mostly wide enough to take even today’s traffic (a contrast in Malleswaram, built in the same area, but with extremely narrow roads by today’s standards).

On Thursday, I had to go someplace in Gandhi Bazaar (in Basavanagudi) from my grandmother’s place in Jayanagar, and that was when it struck me how small Basavaanagudi is. South End Circle and South End Road actually demarcated the southern end of Basavanagudi, while the so-called “North Road” (also called Vani Vilas Road) marked the northen end of this area. And I ended up walking from my grandmother’s house (about half a kilometer south-east of South End Circle) to National College in about fifteen minutes – and if you go by the map shown in the article linked above, it is the entire span of Basavanagudi! If this was one of the “major” planned extensions of Bangalore in that era, it goes to indicate the city’s population at that time.

It is interesting to note in the plan (as published by Deccan Herald) that the area that is now MN Krishna Rao park was demarcated as a “public square”. While the area is still being put to public use nowadays I couldn’t help but think of New York’s Union Square, which is build on an area much smaller than Krishna Rao park, but which has multiple uses to different sections of the population. Krishna Rao Park, on the other hand, is now a typical example of a “Jairaj Park” (nomenclature I’ve come up with after the former BBMP Commissioner, who was responsible for populating the city with a certain kind of park). I wonder if people still play cricket inside the park.

Until I saw the plan of Basavanagudi I hadn’t realized the symmetry in design. If you notice, at each corner of the public square there is a large roundabout which is somewhat off-centre (Armugam Circle, Netkallappa Circle, Tagore Circle and Dewan Madhava Rao circle). Of these, Tagore “Circle” is actually a square which doesn’t particularly serve the purpose of the roundabout thanks to which an ungainly underpass had to be built recently. And if you notice in the map, beyond each of these roundabouts is a “diagonal” road. The symmetry in design is remarkable. As an aside, while I was walking back to Jayanagar from Gandhi Bazaar on Thursday, I realized that large roundabouts are pedestrian-unfriendly! Unless they allow the pedestrian to cut across them (like in New York’s squares), of course.

For a long time I used to wonder why there is a Muslim Ghetto in the south-eastern quadrant of Basavanagudi (area between RV Road, Patalamma Street and the extension of BP Wadia road towards “teachers college”). The plan explains this. In line with the sensibilities of those times, Basavanagudi had dedicated areas for different castes and communities, and this sector was probably the area “reserved” for Muslims. It is the same with other areas developed in that time – for example Malleswaram also has a “Mohammedan block”. What is interesting, though, is that even Jayanagar, which was planned post-independence, when secularism was in vogue, has its pockets of Muslim Ghettos. I wonder if they grew organically or were by design. Also, read the map carefully. You will see that different parts of Basavanagudi have been earmarked for different castes!

It would be interesting if someone were to dig up the original masterplans for different localities in Bangalore, and also in other cities. It would be instructive to see how cities were developed at different points in time (for example, immediately after independence came the massive localities of Jayanagar and Rajajinagar – neither of which can be walked across in fifteen minutes). Also, this plan for Basavanagudi indicates that there were no villages in the area where it came up – which was not the case with areas such as Jayanagar which were planned around such villages. Again it would be interesting to see how villages were co-opted into the city.

I can go on but will stop here. I encourage you to also take a close look at the map and make your own inferences, and share them in the comments section.


Ramzan Walks

Seven Arabic years ago, when I was still vegetarian, and a rather squeamish one at that, a friend had regaled me with stories of going on a “meat walk” on Mumbai’s Mohammad Ali Road, savouring delicacies (I took his word) like ox’s tongue and cow’s udders. It was Ramzan, he said, and it was the time of the year when delicacies which were otherwise hardly available would make their way to the markets. He was going to make it an annual ritual to “do the meat walk”, he had said. I’m not sure about him, but I know that people who accompanied him on that walk do make it a point to repeat it annually.

I might have documented elsewhere about my transition to a carnivore back on our vacation to Greece two summers ago. At a streetside cafe there, the vegetarian stuff looked insipid while the meat looked succulent, and I converted. “If I’m to lose my religion I’ll lose it completely”, I had decided and started my meat eating career with some beef souvlaki. In the intervening two years (mostly in the last one year), I’ve tried several species, and nothing makes me queasy in terms of the source of my food – though I might change my mind after I complete the holiday I’ve been planning to the Far East.

My first “Ramzan walk” was in Bangalore two Arabic years ago. These walks (in each city) have their own ritual to it. In Bangalore, it starts at Albert Bakery on Mosque Road in Frazer Town, then proceeds across the road to Fatima House where they procure Haleem (flown in daily from Hyderabad). Then round the corner on to Madhavaswamy Mudaliar Road for some kebabs and then across that road for chaat and kulfi. I’ve done the exact ritual twice over already, and have quite enjoyed it (though the first time around I didn’t get down to eating Albert’s famed Brain Puffs). But people had so far told me that I hadn’t done “the real thing” until I did a similar Ramzan Walk on Mohammad Ali Road.

So this evening I made amends to that particular deficiency in my meat eating career. A bunch of people from my client’s office were planning their annual visit to the famed road for this evening, and I tagged along. I write this on a sugar high, after having stuffed myself with sweets through the evening.

The waiter at Tawakkal Sweets, off Mohammad Ali Road, reminded me of the priests at Mantralaya (of the Raghavendra Swami fame, in Andhra Pradesh). Priests and temple officials in Mantralaya are famed for their “maDi”, and their way of keeping themselves clean is by not touching anyone. So you have this ritual where one of the monks there gives you a stole, but in which he throws it over you from about a feet above your shoulders to prevent touching you. I don’t know if the waiter at Tawakkal had similar constraints in terms of keeping himself clean, but he kept plonking our sweets from about a few inches above the table, just enough to make sure that the Mango Malai (something like mango souffle with condensed milk) didn’t arrive on the table perfectly set. But I’m sure I ate more than my fair share of the Malai that arrived at the table, thus giving me the sugar high, which persists.

In Kannadiga Brahmin functions, I’ve never understood the concept of adding plain (unsweetened) milk to the sweet obbatt (aka hOLige). “Why add something that is not sweet to a sweet dish”, I’ve reasoned. After tonight I begin to suspect that the concept of obbatt with milk is borrowed from Malpoa with Malai. I used to think that the Malpoa is something like the “kajjaya”/”athrasa” but here at Tawakkal and elsewhere it seemed like a reconstructed French toast – where wheat flour is mixed with eggs and sugar to make a batter that is deep fried. And it is served with unsweetened thick cream – which perhaps my ancestors adopted as obbatt with plain milk.  It is possible that all my previous encounters with Malpoa have been at vegetarian sweet shops, and hence the absence of the egg.

We wouldn’t be done after the Mango Malai and the Malpoa. There was still space left for food in our stomachs and sugar in our blood streams for us to eat mango phirni (kheer made with mashed rice and mangoes). And it wasn’t even the first time in the day that we were eating sweets. The Mumbai equivalent of Albert bakery is the brightly lit Suleiman Usman Bakery, with boards everywhere claiming it has “no branches”. Except that round the corner at EM Road (perpendicular to Mohammad Ali Road) there are at least two other shops which call themselves “Suleiman Usman Bakery”, and which too prominently display that they have no branches.

We began the meaty part of our walk at EM Road (the one with the two Suleiman Usman Bakeries (with no branches). To celebrate the occasion of the holy month, the street was extremely brightly lit, and shops had put out makeshift tables and chairs under a canopy on the road to accommodate the extra crowds (normally, like at other Muslim establishments, food is cooked at the entrance but served inside the shop). Maybe to add to the effect they had strung up what looked like pieces of chicken in psychedelic colours, and for further effect, displayed cages with little chicks even!

Chicken has taken over the world. Traditionally, Muslim establishments are known for their mutton, and sometimes beef. In certain circles (again primarily Muslim) it is considered beneath establishments to offer chicken. But this particular establishment on EM Road only seemed to serve chicken, apart from the odd mutton dish. It’s not really worth writing home about. And the lack of a regular menu means that people who look like tourists are likely to be overcharged.

Soon we were back on Mohammad Ali road for the main course, which was at Noor Mohammadi. Nalli Nihari was consumed with Tandoori Roti and onions, and washed down with Thums Up. This is one of those old style establishments, and one that doesn’t get bells and whistles for Ramzan. There is this ancient Hussain painting hanging on the walls, and next to that is a large board with the menu. Service was quick and efficient and one was reminded of Bangalore’s Vidyarthi Bhavan as the waiter pronounced the bill without much thinking and with great accuracy.

I’ll probably do a formal comparison after I experience Fraser Town sometime later this month, but in terms of sheer numbers (of people) and atmosphere, Mumbai definitely trumps Bangalore. In terms of food, though, I’m not so sure. Those little paper plates of kebabs you get in that corner shop across the Mosque on Madhavaswamy Mudaliar road seem much better than anything Mumbai serves up. But then, your mileage might vary.

Political Parties in Karnataka

General consensus among pundits is that the Janata Dal (Secular) (JDS) is going to struggle to cross 50 seats in the forthcoming assembly elections. The general discourse is that they lack a presence outside of the Old Mysore region. However, you might remember that not so long ago, in 1994, the Janata Dal (which broke up in 1999, one of whose offshoots was the JDS) had an absolutely majority in the state assembly. So I thought it might be interesting to see where the JD was strong in 1994.

I decided to go back another decade, to the 1983 elections, and for all elections from 1983 to 2004 I’ve mapped out how each of the 3 principal parties in Karnataka performed. I’ve grouped all the Janata Parivar parties (Janata Party, Janata Dal, and their offshoots) and coloured them green. The Congress has been coloured blue while the BJP is saffron. Seats won by independents/others have been coloured in black.

Source: http://www.partyanalyst.com/

Source: http://www.partyanalyst.com/


1. Before the Janata Dal split in 1999, the JD had a significant presence even in Bombay Karnataka, where it is now supposed to have absolutely no presence.
2. The growth of the BJP has been outward from the Mangalore-Udupi area. One needs to remember that the Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts are extremely diverse in terms of religion, so perhaps the Hindutva card works better there than elsewhere? Also, the coastal districts are where the RSS first set up its roots in Karnataka.
3. In 1999 and 2004, the BJP actually won some seats in the old Mysore region outside of Bangalore. In 2008, though, the BJP was decimated in this region. It is unlikely it will regain some base in this area in the coming election
4. The Congress won a whopping 178 seats in 1989. And what happened? Intense jockeying for the post of CM. Three CMs over the course of five years (Veerendra Patil, S Bangarappa and Veerappa Moily) followed by a humiliating loss in 1994 when the Congress came third!
5. The JD split in 1999 hit it badly. In most constituencies both the JD (U) and the JD(S) contested. That probably played into the hands of the Congress which won a simple majority. By 2004, the JD (U) was virtually non-existent in Karnataka, and the JD (S) managed to consolidate all the Janata votes and did well.
6. Even in 2004, you might notice that the BJP was virtually confined to the western half of Karnataka. In 2008, thanks to the efforts of the Reddy brothers, in addition to Western Karnataka they swept the regions in and around Bellary, which pushed them past the target. With the Reddys in jail and their right-hand-man B Sriramulu having formed his own party, the BJP won’t come close to a majority this time.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get my hands on the shapefiles of the delimited constituencies (2008 and later), so I’m unable to include the 2008 results in this chart. If any of you can supply me the shapefiles, or at least the constituency map of the new assembly constituencies, I’d be most grateful.

KJP split is going to hurt the BJP hard

Most of you might remember that in 2008 the BJP didn’t actually get an absolute majority in the assembly, and had to rely on independents to form the government. This led to the now infamous Operation Lotus where the BJP got opposition MLAs to resign their seats and contest again on a BJP ticket. Successive rebellions kept the government on tenterhooks, and some say it is indeed fortuitous that it lasted its full term, but it must not be forgotten that the BJP’s “victory” was an extremely narrow one to begin with.

While the BJP ended up as the single largest party with 110 seats (with the Congress second with 79), the Congress actually had a larger share of the popular vote compared to the BJP (34% versus 33% respectively). However, it can be said that the BJP “picked its battles” concentrating on its strongholds in North Karnataka, Bangalore and the coastal areas, and thus managed to surge ahead of the Congress in terms of seats.

However, analysis shows that even this surge in terms of seats was rather shaky. It was a result of coming together of a number of forces – a united BJP under Yeddyurappa’s leadership, the support of the Lingayat Mutts and Reddy brothers, and good candidate selection. Today, we will analyze how the 2008 Elections would have gone if Yeddyurappa’s KJP and B Sriramulu’s BSR congress had split from the BJP ahead of those elections.

The KJP and BSR Congress played key roles in the recent urban local body elections. Based on the local body elections, we project in each parliamentary constituency how much of what might have been the undivided BJP’s votes have gone to these breakaways. We assume that all the vote that the KJP or BSR congress got came from what the united BJP would have otherwise got. Next, we look at the 2008 Assembly election numbers and for each constituency, allocate the BJP’s votes among the BJP, KJP and BSR Congress proportional to their performance in the urban local body elections in that area.

The results, given below are rather surprising. While the KJP itself would have won not more than a handful of seats and the BSR Congress would have won nothing, our analysis shows that the BJP’s seats would have almost come down by half, with the Congress getting the lion’s share of what the BJP lost!

Red bars show actual performance in 2008. Blue bars show what the seat distribution might have been had the BJP been without the KJP and BSR Congress

Red bars show actual performance in 2008. Blue bars show what the seat distribution might have been had the BJP been without the KJP and BSR Congress

It would be interesting to see where the BJP lost the seats. The following graph shows, by Parliamentary constituency the number of Assembly constituencies that the BJP lost thanks to the parting with the KJP and BSR Congress.

This graph shows the number of seats the BJP would have lost in each parliamentary constituency had it been separate from the KJP in 2008

This graph shows the number of seats the BJP would have lost in each parliamentary constituency had it been separate from the KJP in 2008

So what are the implications? The big insight is that it is indeed bad tidings for the BJP. Even if the party were to have the same public sympathy that it did in 2008 (highly unlikely, given its government’s performance), it is going to struggle to get anywhere close to a majority. Currently the Congress is in as much of a mess as it was in in 2008, with rampant infighting and a battle between Parameshwar and Siddaramaiah for control of ticket distribution. Our analysis shows that even if the Congress does as well as it did in 2008 (remember that our ULB-based analysis showed it would do better), it stands to gain an absolute majority. There is no surprise why there is so much clamour for tickets within the Congress.

Depression and Stimulus

Ok so this post has nothing to do with macroeconomics, though it borrows its concepts from there. As the more perceptive of you might have figured out by now (ha, i love that line!) I was diagnosed with clinical depression about a year back. Actually that was the second time I had been diagnosed with that diagnosis, the first being a full six months earlier, when I had suddenly stopped medication after I had lost trust in that psychiatrist.

For over a year now, I have been on anti-depressants. It started with 37.5 mg per day of Venlafaxine (brand name Veniz), which got slowly bumped up until at 187.5 mg per day I started going crazy and having crazy mood swings and had to be scaled back to 150 mg. I was at that level for over six months when I realized that I had plateaued – that there was no real improvement in my mental situation thanks to continuous intake of the drug and perhaps I should consider getting off.

I proposed this idea to the psychiatrist when I met her last month and amazingly she agreed without any hesitation and quickly drew up a plan on how I need to get off the drug (you need to decrease dosage slowly else you’ll have withdrawal symptoms which are pretty bad). I found it a little disconcerting that she so readily agreed to take me off the drug, given that she had herself not given any indication of wanting to take me off the drug. I was disconcerted that I had been taking the drug for much longer than necessary, perhaps.

The doctor, however, paired the paring of my anti-depressant with doubling the dosage of the stimulant that I have been taking for my ADHD for the last six months. As it happened, though, I went through a major bout of NED that evening, and didn’t muster the enthu to go to the one pharmacy that legally sells Methylphenidate (the ADHD drug,  supposed to have similar chemical composition as cocaine) in Bangalore. That I managed to function pretty well the following one week, including the three days spent at my client’s office, meant that I probably didn’t need teh ADHD drug also. So as I write this I’m off all mind-altering substances (apart from my several-times-a-day doses of caffeine and occasional ingestion of ethanol).

Recently I met a friend who told me that I had been too generous in my praise of psychiatric drugs in my blog, and that I hadn’t taken into consideration their various side effects and addictive symptoms. I’ve heard this from other people also – that I probably wasn’t doing the right thing by taking anti-depressants. So do I now regret taking them, given that I’ve chosen to go off them? Probably not.

This is where the analogy of economic depression and clinical depression comes in. In an economic depression, there is a halt in economic activity thanks to which there isn’t much circulation of money. When people start earning less, they start spending less, which further depresses their income and the whole economy goes into a tailspin. Going by Keynes’s theory, letting the economy slowly repair itself would take an extraordinarily long time (in the course of which we will all be dead, as the joke goes), so it is recommended that the government steps in and spends heavily in order to “stimulate” the economy and break the vicious circle it was getting itself into.

When you suffer from clinical depression, there is a shortage of flow of this chemical compound called Seretonin in your brain. Thanks to that, your mental energy is at a much lower level and you get tired and stressed out easily. Moreover, depression also leads to a significant drop in your confidence levels. You start believing that you are useless and not capable of anything. But then, your lowered mental energy levels mean that it is tough for you to be good at work, and do things that are likely to give your confidence a boost. And this in turn leads to further lowering of confidence and there is no way out for you to break out of this vicious circle.

A number of people believe that depression can be conquered with “willpower”, but this is applicable only if you’ve recognized it in its early stages. In most cases though, you realize it only when it’s deep into the vicious circle, and your “willpower”, much like “normal economics” during an economic depression, will take way too long to break you out of the vicious circle, and by then half your productive life will be gone.

Hence, to draw the Keynesian analogy, you need a stimulus. You need some sort of an artificial stimulus that breaks you out of your vicious cycle of low self-esteem and low performance. Sometimes, there can be a fortuitous life event which by matter of chance gives you a sudden sense of achievement and helps you break out of the cycle (for example, I was quite depressed (most likely clinically) through most of my life at IIT, but success in CAT proved to be a good stimulant in helping me break out of that cycle). But then, most of the time, life is structured such that there are few opportunities for such positive black swans, especially when you are older and especially when your mental energy levels are in general quite low.

Under these circumstances, I believe, there is no way out but chemical stimulants to help you get out of your depressive state. Clinical researchers and psychiatrists over the years have found the answer to be this molecule called “SSRI” which slows down the rate of seretonin uptake into the brain, with the result that there is greater flow of seretonin in your nervous system (continuing our economic analogy this is like the government cutting taxes as a form of stimulus). Greater seretonin in the system means greater mental energy, and sometimes the difference in energy levels is itself enough to push up your self-esteem levels, and the new energy levels means you have given yourself a chance to perform, and the cycle breaks.

Keynes said, as part of his theory, that it is important that a stimulus is short and targeted, and that in good times a government needs to be fiscally conservative so that, if not anything else, it has the necessary firepower to deliver a stimulus when necessary. Similarly, it is important that you don’t get yourself addicted on these anti-depressants and that you don’t become immune to them. Which is why psychiatrists typically wean you off your anti-depressants six months to a year after you started on it. By then, they expect, and in my case it did, that the stimulus would have been delivered.

Pot and cocaine

Methylphenidate, the drug I take to contain my ADHD, is supposed to be similar to cocaine. Overdosing on Methylphenidate, I’m told, produces the same effects on the mind that snorting cocaine would, because of which it is a tightly controlled drug. It is available only in two pharmacies in Bangalore, and they stamp your prescription with a “drugs issued” stamp before giving you the drugs.

Extrapolating, and referring to the model in my post on pot and ADHD, snorting cocaine increases the probability that two consecutive thoughts are connected, and that there is more coherence in your thought. However, going back to the same post, which was written in a pot-induced state of mind, pot actually pushes you in the other direction, and makes your thoughts less connected.

So essentially, pot and cocaine are extremely dissimilar drugs in the sense that they act in opposite directions! One increases the connectedness in your train of thought, while the other decreases it!

I’ve never imbibed cocaine, so this is not first-hand info, but I’ve noticed that alcohol when taken in heavy doses (which I never reach since I’m the designated driver most of the time) acts in the same direction of cocaine/methylphenidate – it increases the coherence in your thoughts. Now you know why junkies in your college would claim that the kind of “high” that pot gives is very different from the kind of high that alcohol gives.

Farmers as businessmen

My association with the Takshashila Institution took me on a field trip today to trace the story of the not-so-humble potato. The journey actually started last night, as we checked out potato prices at retail stores near our respective homes. And we continued the journey this morning, in reverse order as we went first to the APMC Mandi in Bangalore and then to the potato growing areas near Arkalgud, in Hassan district. As an aside, today was the first time I visited (or rather passed through) my mother’s native place Holenarasipura (the H in her initials stood for that).

When we build narratives about farmers in India, we talk about the “humble farmer”, the “poor farmer”, the “farmer dying in Vidarbha”, the farmer exploited by zamindars, and of India itself as a “nation of farmers”. The one part of a farmer’s job that never makes it to the popular narratives is his role as a businessman and entrepreneur. A farmer we met at the APMC yard at Bangalore this morning had delayed his journey from Bettadapura by four days, only to realize a lower price than what he would have got on Tuesday. Another near Arkalgud had grown tobacco late in the season, not knowing the complications that could arise due to rainfall patterns.

Back in school when I studied Hindi, I read a story by Munshi Premchand about a young man who moves to a village because he wants to be a farmer. That story ends with him returning disgruntled to the city, claiming there is more to be done by the farmer in the city than just doing his job as a farmer. That story, which I remember as being beautifully written (though I don’t remember its name), is a good primer into how much of a business farming really is.

Consider the decisions that a farmer has to make, and decide if this is closer to being a businessman or being a tiller. First he has to decide what crop to plant. Next, he has to decide what exact variety to sow, and what variety of seeds to procure. Then comes the rather big decision about the timing of the sowing of the crop, comes as it does with dicey predictions and forecasts of rain which even the Met department can’t get right. That done, the farmer has to decide on the labour he needs to employ for the sowing season, and whether he needs to hire a tractor. Then towards the end of the season, there are decisions about hiring of labour with respect to harvest, decisions on where to sell and most importantly, timing the market right in order to realize the best possible price for his crop. And the farmer is his own salesman also, having to negotiate the price at which he sells.

Commenting on the pittance that the farmer stands to make (in terms of a profit) on what he grows, one of my colleagues on today’s field trip said it was a  no-brainer – in the long line of businessmen who stand between a crop and the customer, he said, the farmer is the worst businessman, so it is no surprise that he is the one who gets squeezed the worst.

From a “corporate strategy” standpoint, the amount of management required in the farming profession suggests that it makes eminent sense to separate the roles of the farm manager (who plans inputs , labour hire, sales, crop mix, etc.) and the farmer (who does the day to day job of tending to the farm and looking after the crops). Unfortunately, the fragmented nature of land holdings in India doesn’t allow us this luxury. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that back in the days of unequal (and supposedly unfair) land-holdings, this was perhaps actually the case, with farm managers (zamindars) taking the risk and making the big decisions, while leaving the actual farming job to the specialist farmers. Unfortunately, supposedly pro-farmer initiatives such as the Land Reforms Acts and the “land to the tiller” movement served to defeat this separation of responsibilities.

The other big problem with farming is the amount of risk in the business. At one of the farms, we saw heaps of potatoes which had been cast aside because of blight (wasn’t that the same culprit that caused the Irish potato famine back in the 1800s?). In another farm, lack of timely rain had meant that potatoes hadn’t grown to the size to which they had been expected to grow, thus resulting in much lower realizations in terms of output. Even with the best possible management, exposure to the elements means there is always a significant amount of risk in farming. Current land holdings, though, don’t allow a farmer to diversify his risk by planting more than one crop.

Fragmented land holdings creates a further problem – the produce from one farm is usually way too small to make it viable to take it to the market 200 km away in Bangalore, where an auction at the “mandi” can help the farmer realize the best possible price (more on this auction in another post). Instead, the farmer is forced to sell to local aggregators and simply accept the price the latter is willing to offer (in small centers such as Arkalgud, there isn’t much choice the farmer has in who he sells to). We met a local farmer there with considerably bigger holdings than others in his area, and he told us that he had enough to make a trip to Bangalore viable, and there was no reason he would sell locally.

From a purely business perspective, the logical way forward for farming in India would be consolidation. Consolidation of land holdings would solve several of the problems that I’ve mentioned above, and also make it viable for the farms to appoint specialist managers. One possible way forward I see would be for a bunch of farmers with contiguous farms to get together and form a private limited company (with their respective shares being proportional to their land holdings). The farmers can continue managing their own pieces of farmland, while they appoint a professional manager to do business for them (think of it as being similar to geeks Sergey Brin and Larry Page bringing in professional CEO Eric Schmidt to run Google).

Yes, that paragraph might sound too grand and fantastical, but I don’t see any other way out for Indian farmers to do better. It is time that policymakers recognize the amount of management that goes into farming, and understand that keeping farm sizes small does no good for the lot of the farmer. A comparable example would be the Indian textile industry, where labour laws have served to keep manufacturers tiny, and has resulted in them losing out to larger competitors from the Far East (who have no such constraints, and are thus able to do better business).

So what policy interventions do we need to enable better management of Indian farming? Undoubtedly, the one decision that can potentially go the farthest in this direction is to make purchase and sale of farmland easier. So far, laws that have been designed to keep “evil capitalists” out of the noble farming profession have sought to make farm-holdings illiquid, and hard to purchase or sell (making farm land sales more liquid will also ease land acquisitions for industrial purposes and infrastructure projects). However, the fact of the matter is that there is a significant amount of management skills required to successfully run a farm, and the best way to achieve that would be to be inclusive of “evil capitalists”.

The narrative about the Indian farmer needs to change, and change in a way that recognizes him as being a businessman. The sooner our policymakers recognize the business aspect of farming, the easier it would be in making farming a viable profession in India.

The Bangalore Advantage

Last night, Pinky and I had this long conversation discussing aunts and uncles and why certain aunts and uncles were “cooler” or “more modern” compared to other aunts or uncles. I put forward my theory that in every family there is one particular generation with a large generation gap, and while in families like mine or Pinky’s this large gap occurred at our generation, these “cooler” aunts’ and uncles’ families had the large gap one generation earlier. Of course, this didn’t go far in explaining why the gap was so large in that generation in the first place.

Then Pinky came up with this hypothesis backed by data that was hard to refute, and the rest of the conversation simply went in both of us trying to confirm the hypotheses. Most of these “cool” aunts and uncles, Pinky pointed out, had spent most of their growing up years in Bangalore, and this set them apart from the more traditional relatives, who spent at least a part of their teens outside the city. The correlation was impeccable, and in an effort to avoid the oldest mistake in statistics, we sought to identify reasons that might explain this difference.

While some of the more “traditional” relatives had grown up in villages, we discovered that a large number of them had actually gone to high school/college in rather large but second-tier towns of Karnataka (this includes Mysore). So the rural-urban angle was out. Of course Bangalore was so much larger than these other towns so size alone might have been enough to account for the difference, but the rather large gap in worldviews between those that grew up in Bangalore, and those that grew up in Mysore (which, then, wasn’t so much smaller), and the rather small gap between the Mysoreans and those that grew up in small towns (like Shimoga or Bhadravati) meant that this big-city hypothesis was unfounded.

We then started talking about the kind of advantages that Bangalore (specifically) offered over other towns of Karnataka, and the real reason was soon staring us in the face. Compared to any other town in Karnataka (then, and now), Bangalore was significantly more cosmopolitan. I’ve spoken on this blog before about Bangalore having been two cities (I’ve put the LJ link rather than the NED link so that you can enjoy the comments) but the important thing was that after independence and the Britishers’ flight, the two cities got combined into one big heterogeneous city.

Relatives growing up in Mysore or Shimoga typically went to college with people from large similar backgrounds. Everyone there spoke Kannada, and the dominance of Brahmins in those towns was so overwhelming that these relatives could get through their college lives hanging out solely with other people from largely similar family backgrounds. This meant there was no new “cultural education” that college offered, and the same world views that had been prevalent in these peoples’ homes while they were growing up persisted.

It was rather different for people who grew up in Bangalore. Firstly, people from East Bangalore didn’t speak Kannada (at least, not particularly fluently), which meant English was the lingua franca. More importantly, there was greater religious, casteist and cultural diversity in the classroom, which made it so much more likely for people to interact and make friends with classmates from backgrounds rather different from one’s own. Back in those days of extreme cultural conservatism, this simple exposure to other cultures was invaluable in changing one’s world view and making one more liberal.

It is in the teens that one’s cultural norms are shaped, and exposure to different cultures at that age is critical to formation of one’s world-view. In our generation, this difference has probably played out in the kind of schools one goes to. However, the distinction in conservatism (based on school/college/ area) isn’t so stark as to come up with a unified theory like the one we’ve come up here. Sticking on to the previous generation, what other reasons can you think of that makes certain aunts and uncles “cooler” than others?