Monday, February 28, 2022

Time for a cold shower

Last week Russia invaded Ukraine and the western world reacted with alacrity to try and stop Russia. Not by launching a physical counter strike on Russian forces, because that could rapidly lead to an escalation, but by imposing a financial boycott which was eagerly followed through with other forms of cultural boycotts like exclusion from FIFA etc.

In the cascade of boycotts and exclusions that followed, a particular one caught my eye where Muscovites were stuck at the Metro because their Google Pay and Apple Pay systems stopped working.

It is the Hiroshima event of this century. A warning to others to know their place.

The logic in the West is impeccable. People will be inconvenienced by this and will call for a change in govt. So, the West is attempting regime change by non-violent means (Let’s be thankful for that, given their history).

What if this happens in India?

This brings us to India. What happens if the West decides to do this to India? Western tech companies will fall over themselves to please their respective Govts.

The famed digital India program will slow to a crawl as Western companies will invariably dominate the space. Visa/Mastercard cards stop working. Infra providers like AWS, MS, Google turn off their datacenters and cloud services. This is a clear and present danger to financial stability and ability of Indians to work.

We have the UPI system which is theoretically independent of Western networks. We have the RBI initiated Rupay network which is independent of the Visa/MC hegemony, but is a fraction in terms of cards issued and volume carried. But a lot of customer and merchant facing infrastructure is hosted on Amazon, Google and Microsoft clouds. In spite of having an independent underlying framework, the front end could stop working overnight.

What are the solutions?

At the very minimum, there could be market share caps on non-Indian companies (including an overall Foreign Tech Institution (FTI) cap like we have FII caps in domestic ownership) leading to potentially a complete ban on foreign companies participating in payments or critical infra.

Re the payment networks like Visa/MC, similar perils await us. We should thank the RBI for establishing the Rupay network and now it needs to take the next step and incentivize banks to issue more cards for the Rupay network. In fact they can mandate quotas, not just for issuance, but also volume travelling through the respective networks (including the aforementioned FTI cap)

Even in hosting and digital infra, payments companies using cloud services should be mandated to run a sandboxed duplicate on Infra owned and run by Indian companies.

Coming to cloud services, domestic firms should be given the charge to build out such infra. Public work (and downstream contracts) could be given exclusively to Indian Cos and those using Indian Infra. This will allow for some survivability. We have miles to go before such infrastructure can be used at scale. All the more reason that we start now.

There are many such services that can be termed critical and the same measures could be applied. The purpose of writing this is to start looking around us to see what is critical and how to de-risk India and Indians from a capricious foreign power(s).

The first reaction to a position like this is: We are not like that or we will not invade anyone. Better to respect human rights and everything will follow etc. Remember India has been threatened in the past trying to uphold these very values in 1971.  

The second reaction is that this will lead to more cronyism. Yes it would. But let's get real. And we are weighing of probabilities here. 

I need to reiterate that; the idea is not to be adversarial to foreign investment which is the traditional Indian mindset. But to build credible fallbacks to critical services.

The West has shown that tech and financial services are perhaps as big, if not bigger, weapons than even nuclear weapons. And it’s time we in India give up the laissez-faire attitude towards foreign-owned tech services and wake to the possible dangers posed by western firms. Yours truly has been an advocate for such a laissez faire attitude and I have changed my mind. So should you. 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

NSFP Ratings

It is time that Netflix launch a new rating scheme NSFP - Not Safe For Parents.  Since Netflix is primarily targeted at the younger set (read 40 or less). The older set is quite scandalised when a torrent of abuses is unleashed in the middle of family time. 

Keep in mind, they are adults and all, but still they are scandalised. I blame our nanny state for it. To make it easier on them, a rating scheme similar to the one for children will go miles. All you need to do is tag their accounts as parents and boom, all offensive content is filtered out. 

I remember having a similar moment when I was watching South Park with my cousin sister in the US around 15 years ago. My aunt walked in and both of us scrambled for the remote to switch it away. My aunt was puzzled and asked what happened. And we were like it is not appropriate content. She says for who. we said in unison, "for you".

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Corporate lessons from Birthday Party Games

Just the other day (actually a few years ago, this post was lying as a draft), I took my son to a couple of birthday parties back-to-back and was reminded of the birthday party games that we used to play as children . Thinking a little more about it, one realizes that there are some key corporate lessons you can draw from such party games. Here are some:

Passing the parcel
You get a project and you don't know what to do with it. So you push it off to the next guy. Till the music stops and a review happens. The guy holding it gets fired and the project goes around again. Till the last guy left holding the project finally completes it and boom... He wins a prize.

Pin the tail on the donkey
You are blindfolded and  you need to achieve something. What do you do? Take a big canvas and draw up a plan and then all leaders take turns to try and get the exact result as planned. Guess what. Eventually someone puts the pin...

Simon Says
The Boss is always right. nuff said. 

Musical Chairs
The company has some projects. Managers run in circles to get hold of a chair (err.. project). The one left without one is out. And the cycle repeats. Till everyone is out. Eventually There's only one project left. The guy who gets it is declared the CEO.  

There's chaos. do nothing. The first guy who blinks gets kicked out. The last man standing wins. Remember. Do Nothing.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Multiple IDs are a tax on Indians

 It takes a lot to be triggered these days. But what triggered a thought was this new panacea of the Heath ID. Which led me to the tweet: Why do we need a Health ID? Why can't we use any of the existing IDs?

Multiplicity of IDs is leading to the creation of quasi private bureaucracies. All of which will charge some fee or the other to justify their existence.

These ids have various expiry dates and need to be kept up-to-date and as such are a tax (both monetary & otherwise) on Indians.

Which of course led me to try and list down the number of IDs we may need as Indians to operate in this country. 

Turns out, by my count Indians need 10 ids to complete their day to day activities. Yes. 10. 

1) PAN or Permanent Account Number is issued by the Income Tax Department to keep track of your taxable dues. It is also used by lenders to keep a unified track of your credit score.  

2) Aadhaar is issued by the UIDAI (quite a mouthful.. eh?). it was touted variously as "an ID to end all ids". "An id for the undocumented". Ironically, it accepted any document as a base for registration. and the Indian state forced it down everyone's throat. The entire country was turned into a guinea pig to roll this out. Widespread fraud and data leakages forced UIDAI to iterate on the fly? why on the fly? Because not much deep thinking had gone behind it. So you got biometric lock, Virtual ids. The id was mandatory, yet not mandatory. Every tom, dick and harry started asking for this id. Yes, even your kirana wala (err PayTM verification wala).  Anyway, much has been written about this and it is pointless to go over this again (or maybe in another post). 

3) Passport - Issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, this is a global travel document. First created in 1414 in England, it became kind of mandatory in the aftermath of World War I. 1920 to be precise, by the League of Nations. It pretty much helped define citizenship. No getting around this one.  

4) VoterID - Issued by the Election Commission of India. It was introduced in 1993 and serves as an id that allows you to vote. Why a separate id for this? No clue. Why couldn't a ration card be used? No clue. Why couldn't any of the others be used? No clue.   

5) Driver's License - Issued by the Motor Vehicle department of your state, it was conceived in 1888 in Germany as an ad hoc permit and formalised in 1904 in the UK. This certifies that you are fit to drive a car. Given it's vintage and use by relatively affluent individuals, it is not too much of a burden then. Why do we continue with it till date is the more pertinent question. 

6) Ration Card - Issued by your respective state govt, it entitles you to purchase subsidised food. Again why can't this be merged with something else? No clue. Instead now there is a project to create a national ration card. Well done Indian bureaucracy. 

7) GST - Another central document. Your first thought maybe, wait I don't need this as an individual. Well. You do if you are consultant with an annual receivables of more than Rs 20, lakh. There are other advantages of this of course. But that is a post for another day.  Why can't the PAN suffice here? No clue. 

8) DIN - Issued by the Ministry of Company Affairs. if you happen to be the director of a company. You need this. Why can't your PAN suffice here? No clue.  

9) CKYC - Issued by CERSAI (another mouthful), this is to help you navigate the financial world. Say MFs, Credit Cards etc. but wait, isn't that what a PAN is supposed to do? Why do we have this as a separate document? No clue.  

10) PRAN - The latest entrant on the block This is an acronym for Permanent Retirement Account Number. Why do we need a separate PRAN and why can't a PAN suffice here? No clue. 

I doubt we are done yet. The health ID is next. Very soon we will have an education ID, a kitchen ID, and perhaps even a loo ID. I mean sky is the limit when it comes to the imagination of the Indian bureaucracy to create new ids. 

Mind you some ids have other variants depending on how poor or how privileged you are. For eg if you are extra-poor you get a special ration card (and some officious official trying out his graffiti skills by painting your house with "main gareeb hoon". If you are in the Govt you get a special passport (grey in colour), which allows you all sorts of privileges like skipping immigration lines etc etc. 

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Case Against Electronic Voting

There is a lot of debate on the pros and cons of electronic voting. Those promoting the idea point to the fact that we will get results quickly, that the chances of errors are fewer, less cumbersome, cheaper, saves paper etc. But here are some reasons why electronic voting is a terrible idea.

I'm not making a Luddite argument here. The fact that paper voting is centuries old, means that nearly every attack against the process has been thought of and countered. It takes too much effort and too many people to rig at the scale needed to make it feasible in a country as large as India. And whenever you have too many people involved, that conspiracy is bound to break down sooner than later.

With electronic voting, you may not need as many people to do this, If you have access to the machines at the right time, you could replace the software and even the hardware that can steal an election without anyone being any wiser.

Auditing the software

Right now the software that drives the EVMs is closed source. The Election Commission believes that hiding the source code is a way to ensure sanctity of the electoral process. The problem with this is that you and I and most certainly the average voter do not know what goes in the software - whether it is designed to steal a certain percentage of votes - is baked into the software. The counter-arguments to this are: a) that machines are tested on the spot; b) randomized; and c) there is no way to input anything except the ballot button.

The software could be designed in such a manner that the malicious code stays dormant till a certain sequence of votes are cast which instruct the malicious code to activate and start stealing votes for the party in question. For example, let's say there is a five-vote sequence, which goes ADBCB, with the last button in the sequence carrying the instruction to steal votes for button B.

You could write malicious software that lights up correctly, while what gets recorded is something else altogether.

Let's say we make progress from here and the Election Commission decides to open-source the software and everyone goes over it with a fine-toothed comb. Does it solve the problem? Well, not really.

There is no guarantee that the software audited is what has been burned on to the chip that is running the machine. Who created the chip? Was it done by the EC? No. Was it done by a government-owned company? No. Was it done by an Indian company? I honestly don't know the answer to this.

Between the point at which the software gets audited and is sent to the chip factory, did it get changed? Is there an audit trail that guarantees it hasn't been changed? No.

The machine that is in front of you, does it run the same software as the one that was meticulously audited? Did the software/chip get replaced during the maintenance cycle? If your answer is the voter should check the checksum, you now need to trust the software that checks the checksum. And honestly, checksums! That's pretty much beyond 99.99% of the electorate.

The next defence of EVMs is the VVPAT (Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail). Except, the EC NEVER plans to count them all. They have arrogantly resisted all suggestions that we do indeed count 100% VVPAT to ensure transparency and voter satisfaction. If everything is hunky dory, what is the EC afraid of? Count everything. Right?

However, there's the possibility of yet another layer of software interference here. The problem with VVPATs is not only the non-counting of the slips. The problem is also that we have no way of verifying if the machine has printed something other than what you voted for.

Now we have two things to worry about. The possibly incorrect electronic record and the possibly incorrect VVPAT slip. There have been reports by various people on the social media site Twitter, including a retired police officer, who have said that the VVPAT slip showed a symbol different from the one they voted for on the EVM.

There is no way to remedy this. People who complain are threatened with jail. There is no provision under Indian laws to do this. But this doesn't prevent the EC from citing incorrect laws to shrug off or suppress complaints.

After all this we have the totaliser machine. Again you have software, with all the same problems as before, that will read bits on the EVM and pronounce the result-whether this count is okay, or not. No one knows, because we don't know how the software behaves inside the black box. So now you have three pieces of software to worry about - the one running the EVM, the one running the VVPAT, and the one running the totaliser machine.

The one thing we must all remember is this - if the stakes are high enough, someone will invest time, energy and resources to win those stakes. And no stakes are higher than to influence the process of who gets to govern India.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Reactions against Rajasthan repealing minimum education rule for civic polls show India’s crisis of democracy

A few days ago, the newly formed Congress Govt in Rajasthan headed by Shri Ashok Gehlot, repealed a rule by the previous Sangh Brotherhood Govt, that prevented people without a secondary education from contesting Panchayat and other elections. A move that should have been drawn universal applause, except from the usual suspects in the Brotherhood’s ecosystem. The Brotherhood and their supporters were predictably up-in-arms about it. What was surprising, however, was that some prominent social media commentators NOT affiliated with the Brotherhood termed this repeal as ‘regressive’.

The Brotherhood is on record, both in word & deed, to reduce democracy. They see it as an inconvenience. They don’t practice it internally, preferring ‘consensus’ to a show of hands. They want to reduce it for the general public at levels as far as possible. One nation one election, minimum education qualifications, imposition of non-native languages in official communications are all attempts to disempower citizens.

The opposition to this move by voices in the non-Sangh quarters is a bit puzzling. Or perhaps not. It shows how far the Brotherhood’s propaganda has seeped into the national psyche. The ideas, that a literate person is educated, or that a matriculation certificate makes you better able to represent your constituents are both false. This is borne out from the fact that the most bigoted supporters of the Sangh Brotherhood come from the well-off sections of society with access to education. Also, by the fact that the clearly demonstrated by the support for demonetisation by a section of ‘the educated’ & ‘the affluent’

One rationale is that segments that attain relative affluence and get a share of power, seek to prevent others from attaining the same. The opposition to RTE is another offshoot of this. This comes from the belief that political power is more-or-less a zero-sum game. Whether this is true or not, I leave it for greater minds to debate, but the fact is more democracy is better than less.

It is only the latest attempt by the privileged to deny the unprivileged a share of power. Using Education to discriminate, instead of the much-reviled tropes of Religion and Caste.
Case-in-point, the minimum education rule excluded (as per the 2011) census, 70% of the rural and 93% of the women ST population of Rajasthan ( A shocking disregard for people’s right to choose leaders of their choice, to say the least.

Incidentally, this debate is not new. During the founding years of our country, no less than Rajaji was on record wanting to deny illiterate people a vote, let alone the right to contest. There were other voices that sought separate electorates basis religion and caste. No less than Dr Ambedkar championed the cause of a separate Dalit electorate. Thankfully, better wisdom prevailed then and we must to strive to understand the basis and uphold those values.

Deepening of democracy

The ever-deepening of democracy should be an ongoing-goal of any democracy. The last major such acts were the 73rd & 74th Amendment to the Indian Constitution which enacted former PM Rajiv Gandhi’s vision to devolve power to the Panchayat and the municipality respectively.
Someone who does not believe in this continual deepening of democracy is not really a democrat. He is using it to seize power before undermining it.

It also reflects poorly on democrats like us that we haven’t been able to communicate the values of democracy, both in letter and spirit. The idea that one-man-one-vote is that defines a modern democracy. Those of us who are taken in by the idea of minimum qualifications must recognise that it is a slippery slope, the next milestone of which is to deny illiterate the right to vote, the next those of a certain religion, caste, gender etc. This is no different from denying people the right to access to a village well.

During the demonetisation disaster, an ‘educated’ CEO lamented “Our problem is that there is too much democracy in India”. Our real problem is that we don’t have enough.

This piece appeared in the Leaflet on January 2 2019

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Partition is a civilisational wound on India. It's time we deal with it, by moving on...

Partition is a civilisational wound on India and till we don't acknowledge it, we are going to come to the wrong solution every time. I’ve come to the conclusion that there cannot be reconciliation with Pakistan as long as the Pakistan army is in control. You can’t beat them into submission or dismember them any further, a la 1971.

Pakistan is also unlikely to go to war with us. Nuclear Armed neighbours, MAD etc. It suits Pakistan to fight a low intensity war of attrition in Kashmir and other places if it can foment trouble. It’ll always be under the threshold of conflict

Pakistan’s strategic planners have done a fairly good job in setting and achieving their objectives

What are the solutions?

Foment trouble in different regions in Pakistan by large scale arms supply to secessionists and trouble makers of all hue. This includes small arms, hand held anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles. This will, with a little luck, balkanise Pakistan. Giving Pakistan army to worry about something else than India. This may be happening on a small scale in a somewhat half hearted way. No reason, this can’t be stepped up to a more serious level.

Abrogate the Indus water treaty

Doing this, as far as Pakistan is concerned, is an act of war. So instead of taking the direct route, kill it in stages. First, utilise the entire extent our share of the rivers in the Indus Waters treaty. Channels, reservoirs, tanks. We are a water deficient country as it is. Set up giant water processing and bottling plants. Rail heads for water trains. This will have the added effect of satisfying the Right Wing’s fascination with large scale civil projects & keep the contractor nexus that funds the BJP happy.

As this infrastructure comes up, Pakistan will be howling away to glory. They can be ignored, as we are entitled to this under the treaty. Second stage is to siphoning off the tributaries to the rivers in Pakistan’s share of the treaty. This can’t be done in any seriously large scale though.
Build small dams where possible. At this stage Pakistan will start threatening to go nuclear (literally!). Blow hot and cold, cite flood control etc. Key objective of this civil engineering project is to be able to control the waters. Release at will for maximum leverage. Think of what happened in Kerala. There we were forced to open the dams due to excess flow. Here we can do so to inflict crop damage, precipitate, with a little luck, famine . This is serious leverage.

Build a wall

Finally, build a wall and forget about that country. We already have a fence. We need to make the fence higher, stronger and more multi-faceted. Cut off cultural contact, sports, trade. Stop flights, trains, buses. Diplomatic ties. Everything.

Anything living (human or animal) that crosses the border fence into India from the other side should be dealt with extreme prejudice.
This may seem drastic, but for the reasons outlined above seeking peace is a pointless exercise. It’s a pipedream as long as Pakistan army controls that country.

Ending vested interests

There will be some vested interests. They need to be addressed pro actively.

There will always be families divided. Partition was 70 years ago. So come on. Sania Mirza has shown the way. Settle in the middle east.

Some pilgrimage for Sikhs will be affected. All pilgrimage should be routed through a third country, someplace far like the Central Asian Republics. Think of it as a tax. A small price to pay IMO. Ideally shut.

Cultural & Sports ties
There is no need for either of these ties with an enemy state. There are several multi-lateral for a this can happen. We don’t need anything more than this.

Sangh Brotherhood
Sangh Brotherhood has always had Akhand Bharat dreams. Has called Pakistan an estranged brother at various points. This is a convenient garb for imperialist ambitions. This puts paid to it.

This is the most corrosive of the lot. As long as there are business interests, they’ll always have a stake in trying to have some sort of normal relations.
Businesses should be forced to sell of all assets and interests in Pakistan. Possession or engagement directly with Pakistan or Pakistani interests should be declared as an act of treason. This includes multi nationals doing business in India. Anyone who wants to trade should have to trade through Dubai or some such. Driving up cost and hopefully making trade unviable.

How will a wall help?

If there is no contact, the Sangh Brotherhood’s use of Muslims in India as a bogey won’t hold water. It will infact direct anger outwards instead of inwards.

We don’t waste unnecessary resources trying to ‘engage’ with the other side.

Make no mistake, I’m not advocating going to war with Pakistan. Just cutting it off, as one would a gangrenous toe. It’s hawkish  in a passive, aggressive way. If you see what I mean.

Time for a cold shower

Last week Russia invaded Ukraine and the western world reacted with alacrity to try and stop Russia. Not by launching a physical counter str...