Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Progress. Justice. Peace

Last Sunday, I had the opportunity of attending a lecture delivered by Dr. A. K. Shiva Kumar, member of the National Advisory Council (NAC), a development economist,  a teacher at Harvard and whose PhD supervisor at Harvard was Dr. Amartya Sen. The lecture was this year's presentation at the Dr. Yuhanon Marthoma memorial lecture held annually by our church in Delhi.

The inaugural address was made by The Most Rev. Dr. Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar Thoma Valiya Metropolitan (also known as the man with the golden tongue ;))  and presided by Rt. Rev. Dr. Abraham Mar Paulos, our bishop for Delhi. It was also the occasion where Advocate Lilly Thomas (who is unbelievably down to earth :)) was honored for her bold stance against tainted legislators which resulted in a landmark judgement by the honorable Supreme Court of India.

I will intersperse my notes of the main lecture by Dr. Shiva Kumar (may not be verbatim) with some interesting references from the web and some of my inferences.
Going beyond GDP as an indicator of human progress. 
GDP is today the de-facto performance indicator that is used to benchmark national progress. The wikipedia link and countless economics textbooks provide quite a few explanations on how exactly this number gets determined. However, the point being made is that the GDP perhaps misses out a lot more than it is believed and perceived to cover. It apparently measures "all except what is really worthwhile".
For example, capital cities usually have the maximum in terms of these economic indicators but fare the worst in some of the human indicators indicators. Beyond wealth, is the value of wealth. For example, access to education, freedom and other such indicators may be a better measure. This is what the governments must have provided to its citizens. GDP does tell something; for example, it took 40 years to double India's GDP but the next doubling happened in the last 10 years!
This is where I read about a very interesting alternate indicator. GNH or Gross National Happiness. GNH is apparently a very serious and a central indicator for our tiny neighbor Bhutan.

View Larger Map

Do read this article titled: Is Gross National Happiness more important than the GDP? by Josh Clark. It has many interesting links and insights into how GNH works. Here is an excerpt:

"...Rather than submit to the conspicuous consumption that characterizes much of the developed world, Bhutanese leaders chose to join the global economy on their own terms by measuring how the facets of its economy affect the positive outlook of its residents. Beginning in November 2008, all the economic factors used to measure gross domestic product are analyzed for their impact on Bhutan's residents' happiness. The factors of production are still there -- unemployment, agriculture, retail sales -- but GNH represents a paradigm shift in what's most valued by Bhutanese society compared to the rest of the world. In short, happiness matters, not money. The ultimate goal is economic support for the four pillars of Bhutanese society: economic self-reliance, preservation and promotion of Bhutanese culture, good governance and a pristine environment. [source: Mustafa]..."

Popular wisdom teaches us to measure happiness in monetary terms. While it is indeed true that the lack of access to money does restrict many and may force hardships on them, confusion arises when money becomes the sole object of pursuit and happiness takes a back-seat. Poverty is undoubtedly capable of becoming a viciously crippling cycle and that I believe is not being debated.

There are five types of growth failures. [I guess there was some reference to Human Development Reports here to which Dr. Shiva Kumar has been a contributor]. 
1. Jobless growth
92 million employment generated in the first 40 years. From 2005 to 2010, only 2 million net jobs added, despite the relatively high GDP growth exhibited in this interim. 
2. Ruthless growth
Gaps between bottom quintile and top increasing. Growing inequality. Apart from the obvious issues with this disparity, fundamentally, aggregate demand in the economy decreases. For example, consider the top 10 millionaires deciding to increase their consumption by 1% viz providing 10 million people with even a few thousand rupees of additional income. The scale and distribution of creation of economic opportunities is manifold in the second instance. Therefore, proper growth should result in proper distribution of wealth. 
3. Voiceless growth
When majority have little say in their own affairs. Prevention perhaps involves decentralized and distributed allocation and governance of public resources. Central schemes may miss out local needs and nuances. Also the pyramid will always be skewedly massive as it reaches the bottom rendering the top as perhaps ineffective 'representatives' of the collective.
4. Rootless growth
Honesty, integrity trustworthiness- when the intrinsic value of these words decreases, it results in rootless growth. Where people do not, from the inner-self, realize what is 'wrong' with corrupt or illegal or immoral practices. There is a limit to policing and enforcement. There needs to be a stress on the importance of an ingrained sense of fairness and justice. 
5. Future-less growth
The present generation using up resources as if there is no tomorrow. The way some of the mining deals have played out have been short-sighted to put it slightly. Results in squandering away the wealth of the nation.  
In short, growth as we know it is necessary but not sufficient. Quality is growth is what completes the growth story. Need to recognize that income is only a means, and has no intrinsic value.
After setting the foundation for an inclusive and true reflection of progress, the talk moved towards the other two key-words: Justice and Peace.
Views influenced by Amartya Sen who says that Justice must be seen as an 'enhancement of capabilities'. Progress is achieved when all the citizens have been enabled to appear in public without shame or fear. It is the 'widening of choices and the ability to enjoy them'. 'Dominating chance and circumstances'. Expansion of freedom to do what you want to do and be what you want to be. 'Assurance of human rights'. 'Removal of unfreedom'. 
The focus of Justice must be removal of perceptible injustices rather than trying to attain and define the Utopian just society.  
Do rights have meaning if they cannot be legally enforced? Human right surpasses legal rights, irrespective of laws. Its true that legal rights provide a better framework. Formally recognizing these rights builds up a social contract to enforce it. Absence of it removes a collective social conscience towards guaranteeing it. While arguing against some of the recent Right to education and Right to food bills, a common retort has been 'Where is the money?' The answer is that these "Just had to be done. Made into a political and social priority[-Sonia Gandhi?]". Also, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance [Derek Bok]. There is a price [which may not always be apparent] of not putting some of these social contracts in place. The cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of implementing these. 
A sense equity and fairness are central to the idea of justice. There are a lot of invisible inequities. Eg: Sex, Caste, Age, Religion based, Location of birth. Also, there are conscious choices and unfair choices. These disadvantages should be focused on to remove injustice. 
On peace. Is there a linkage between poverty and violence? It is known that peace can co exist with poverty. So poverty alone does not explain violence. Lack of access to resources [poverty] however, has been one of the key reasons in uprisings and conflicts.
In the final part of the lecture, he briefly provided some thoughts on what the way ahead should be, to lead us towards a more inclusive, progressive and a just society:
1. Get much more agitated by injustice.
2. Be deliberately inclusive. When street vending bill was discussed, fees to be charged to then for use of public land was discussed. However, [strangely], no one talks about charging the more affluent for parking on public roads in some of the posh colonies in Delhi with the same conviction!
3. Have a greater accountability in public life.
4. Convert public grumbling into concerted public action.
5. Rethink how as a society we need to look at progress indicators. Ensure that we include things that really matter. Like happiness :)
Quite a lot of things to ponder upon as we get back to our rat-races blissfully blind to the slowly crumbling society around us. It would be great if at least some of us can think and contribute towards a more inclusive, just, peaceful and a happy world!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Story of Tatkal Remittance- Eko

On 17th September 2013, Eko completed six years of its existence as a registered company. While it took over a year to move from a 'pilot' project which started by the end of 2007 to a live one, it was not till late 2009 that Eko discovered a real pain-point its customers faced, and in the process, its (current) primary revenue source. This is the story of Tatkal(Hindi. tatka:l, meaning: instant, right then and there).

Eko went live with the State Bank of India (SBI) through an inaugural transaction at Sumit Gupta's medicine shop in Uttam Nagar on 23rd February 2009.
Invitation to inauguration of the first Eko CSP for SBI
Mugdha's invitation, Barry sir (Retd. Vice Admiral Venkat Bharatan was the CEO of the Section 25 company Eko Aspire Foundation then)

At that point in time, our platform was offline and used to sync up to SBI through transaction dumps and handoff reports sent at the end of day. SBI had been working with ALW (A Little World), a very early participant in the Business Correspondent model promulgated by the central bank. ALW's front end agent device was then an NFC enabled phone and each customer had a card. SBI's Financial Inclusion switch provider Yalamanchili  (YCS) had already created an ISO8583 based transaction interface which was to be used to transfer the card transactions captured by ALW to SBI's Core BankingSystem.

There were a few things that were simply revolutionary about Eko:

1. Eko had a transaction system that simply worked on almost any simple mobile phone; no need for expensive smart cards or NFC enabled devices or add-on devices. Even a Nokia 1100 would do just fine for both the customer and the agent.

2. Eko was based on the pre-paid model. It was the first Business Correspondent who first put funds into the BC account with the bank on day zero and then did customer transactions against and upto the amount pre-funded. Pre-funding was prevalent in the telecom recharge sphere, but Eko had applied it on the BC model. This model de-risked the bank and to an extent even Eko from collection and settlement risk. This is today a norm in the BC world.

3. Eko devised an ingenious strong 2 factor authentication system that used a paper based technique. The system was called OkeKey (we are now using the second generation OkeKey system). This system also acted like an OTP (One Time Password) and ensured that the PIN did not travel in clear text even over an unsecured transport like SMS. Simple, cost-effective, quick and therefore for us, it represented an economically viable method to take secure transactions to every mobile phone that was out there.

We used to interact with a few really visionary people at SBI. First and foremost, Mr. S Mukhopadhyay, who was then GM-Outreach. For innovation to work, someone has to give a chance to the innovator to atleast showcase. Mr. Mukhopadhayay gave us a chance and we are thankful to him for that. Mr. L P Rai was then the DGM Technology for Rural Business and Mr. S S Jain who was the Chief Manager Technology for Rural Business. Without these people, Eko story would definitely not have been what it is today. I am sure my colleagues Mansi and Abhinav who used interact a lot more with them would agree.

Coming back to the interface that SBI had exposed through YCS. It was designed for card based transactions and therefore for proximate transactions (where the participants in the transaction have to be next to each other by design). Eko on the other hand had no such restrictions: as long as two people had a mobile number (or any other unique identifier), they could simply transact. So, to ensure that we could communicate in the same 'card' language, we designed a wrapper that would simply translate Eko's transaction parameters to what was required by the card based system and vice-versa. The aim then was to just ensure that the customer accounts opened at Eko's outlets would be online real-time and we will not have to do any end of day batch jobs for this.

So, in late 2009, the RB-DAU (Rural Banking - Dedicated Accounting Unit) team at SBI comprising of Mr. Shivaji More, Mr. Anil Trimakhe and Mrs. Shubha Shejale, along with the YCS team sitting there sent us the specs for the online transaction integration. This was basically a list of transaction formats describing what fields were required for each and the response formats containing success and failure indicators. Apart from this there was a process designed to migrate customers from our platform called SimpliBank to theirs through batch files- there was no programming interface exposed to us to do this real-time.

One among these transactions was a pair called FTWithdrawal and FTDeposit. It was essentially designed to power ALW's Fund Transfer system where a customer could come to an agent, keep his/ her card, indicate the recipient account holder's account details, provide authentication and the transaction would enable money to be transferred from the account holder's card to any existing account in SBI. This was also termed 'Tatkal'. This tatkal had little or no traction at that time.

Meanwhile, the then DMD, Mr. Diwakar Gupta and Mr. S. Mukhopadhay wondered if the BC model could solve a problem that was unique to the public sector banks, through its use of technology. The problem that the bank faced in its urban branches was that of over-crowding, congestion and therefore the quality and RoI of service. Abhishek, our CEO believed he had an answer there.

Abhishek always maintained that there was a remittance story that we needed to pursue although at that point in time, it was not clear to any of us how exactly this would play out. An earlier assumption was that we would need to open agents and through them customer accounts on both sides of a remittance corridor (like Delhi-Bihar). Then, a person in Delhi will use an agent to load money into his/ her account and then the customer could send money home to a relative in Bihar. The relative in Bihar could visit an Eko agent there and withdraw a required amount. We did pursue this agenda for quite some time. However, we soon realized that setting up both the ends of the remittance pipe was a huge exercise. It would take a significantly large base of agents on the sending and receiving size, a significantly greater effort to educate people on both the sides and consequently significantly deep pockets to be able to pull this off.

The integration took a long time: almost a whole year! Considering that we had to get the leased line in place, do the integration, development, get a number of permissions from a lot of 'departments', UAT, et al. The initial phase only consisted of migrating the customers to the CBS. Harish had helped a lot in getting some of the permissions and the leased line in place.

In June 2010, we sent out a process document that described 'remittance to core' to Mr. L P Rai and his team after a lot of review by Anand and Abhinav at Eko. Mr. Rai liked what he saw and made some suggestions in the process and transaction that have made this product hugely successful and he eventually drove its implementation. We had made a curious twist to the 'Tatkal' tale (ref: 4 paragraphs above) and that led to the birth of 'Tatkal remittance' as we know of today. This product and its clones and variations have today become one of the primary revenue sources for many BCs apart from Eko. What we did was to map the pre-funded account of Eko the BC to a virtual card. Then we did a fund transfer transaction where the FT withdrawal was made from the BC account and the FT deposit leg was made to any existing account on the CBS.

Thanks to the effort put in by our engineering team (which was then a part of another contractor Anduril technologies), we made the first test transaction on our staging platform on 23rd June 2010. After a bit of code hacking (one of those rare moments at Eko where I personally wrote code), we were able to successfully put this on production on 26th June. Matteo dialed the first ever production Tatkal transaction from Eko's Nokia 1200 phone (pic attached) and the transaction amount was Rs. 27 (we deliberately chose an odd number ;).

First tatkal end-to-end
The beauty of the whole system was its sheer simplicity, the ability to make a real-time credit into any of the existing 200 million or so accounts of the State Bank of India (rightfully called the banker to every Indian) and the fact that all that the agent (also called the CSP- Customer Service Point) required was a simple basic mobile phone. Unlike the corridor based remittance that we were earlier trying to pursue, the receiving end of the pipe had already been put in place by the bank and its existing BCs. All we had to do was to serve the source locations of migrants- essentially, urban financial inclusion. In the process, what we also achieved was decongestion of hundreds of bank branches. Customers who had to earlier forfeit their day’s work to travel to the branch, wait for hours in a queue there (most branches work only for a few hours of the day, say 10 AM to 3 PM), now had a great option – an Eko counter at the neighborhood grocery store. Unlike the branch, the store was conveniently open even after their work hours, there was no queue and the customers were at ease in a familiar environment.  The customer handed over cash to the agent along with the recipient’s account number, the agent dialled in the transaction and the money moved in real-time to its destination followed by confirmation messages on their mobile phones. This was Tatkal as we had redefined it.
Tatkal flow

The system ran on a trial basis for a month or so and then it went full steam. The rest is now a part of the history of remittances in India. In the first 10 days, we hit a remittance volume of Rs. 1 crore and by the end of August it touched 5 cr. In the entire year before, we would not have done these volumes! The only marketing we did was to tell a few of our CSPs "Don't tell anyone!". Actually! Today Eko, through its platform SimpliBank has handled over Rs. 6,000 crore (6 billion rupees) in cumulative transaction volumes (all included). We still hold the distinction that almost all of these transactions were done using mobile phones. Not only that; today, there are atleast 5 other companies in India doing more or less the same thing.

While there are a hundred challenges before Eko today and we may only have a few answers as yet, the experience of having gone through the grind, having figured atleast some things out, having built something that real customers really needed, being able to earn a revenue out of it, having done all that on the foundation of technoogy innovation and having seeded an entire industry on its precepts, that has been quite a journey!

Monday, June 24, 2013

I wish 6. Parking the homeless

I wish all the covered parking spaces/ multi-level parking places (malls, office complexes, metro stations) would become paid sleeping areas for the homeless in our cities.

Most of these parking areas shut down for cars and vehicles around 1 PM (movie theaters) and around 10 PM otherwise. These places re-open for public by around 9 AM the next day. They say that on an average 10 people die on the streets of Delhi (dated) due to the extreme cold in winter and the harsh heat in summer while the rest of us enjoy a good night's sleep in the comfort of our homes, our cars sleep well in our garages and the glitzy shopping center parking areas are simply locked down.

I wish for a paid service where those who don't have a home can walk in to a parking lot, pay 50 rupees, get a parking ticket, rent a mattress, a blanket and park themselves at a spot where a car would have. Volunteers and social workers could co-ordinate basic amenities, cleanliness, law and order. Morning alarms  would wake them up and help them leave and clean up. This could be CSR for the property owners and a lifeline for thousands of homeless. The least our society can do is to treat them on par with our cars! No need to waste money trying to build the so called 'night shelters' 40 miles outside the city. Here's a bonus; should one of the rich-drunk-bmw-driving kids 'accidentally' miss the road and drive over a footpath, they would most likely end up killing their own motors and nothing else.

Further reading:


The 'I wish' series will be short posts highlighting simple, interesting, innovative and useful twists to daily random routines and objects. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

On the job, waiting...

It is said that India will surpass China in terms of the number of 'working-age' population sometime in the next decade. That would be a whopping billion (mostly the next generation) from India and another billion from China alone!

While this phenomenon is being hailed as the 'demographic dividend' by many, a few foresee this as 'demographic disaster'. They say it is a potent mega-ton-arab-rising building up. The sad part is that nothing seems to be evident at this point which tilts the outlook in the favor of a dividend rather than a disaster. Neither are strong actions being taken to strengthen and retain the fundamentally agrarian nature of this populace nor are adequate steps being taken to create industries (what will actually kick-start this demand-supply cycle? factories? who will fund these industries? government?) that could provide a suitable employment opportunity. One facet of this problem is that most (70 to 85%) of the 'jobs' that seem to be getting created are in the so called 'informal sector' (read: plain wage earners, no papers, no security, short-term)

Lets zoom in a bit more here. Two 'jobs' that seem to have a huge demand in the rapidly 'urbanizing' India are: drivers/ chauffeurs and security guards. Informal, mostly. Most of their time on these jobs are spent waiting. A driver spends a couple of hours every day actually driving and the guard spends the entire day sitting on a chair 'guarding', which is again waiting (and watching their employers who seem to be from a different planet altogether). Hundreds of thousands of youngsters in India today thus spend hundreds of thousands of hours just waiting. An idle mind, they say, is the devil's workshop. And some of these people are even graduates! I can only imagine that a graduate devil's workshop will be scarier!

Well, some employment is anyway better than no employment. Right? Agree :-). My only wish is that someone comes up with a better way to utilize their 'bench' times. Here are the key ingredients: lots and lots of people. Almost all of them have mobile phones. And a lot of idle time. Imagine if all the complex human jobs could be divided into snack sized sachet jobs? Now put all of these together to create a solution.
Another way to look at this is to take an inspiration from the way a computer works. There are many layers of abstraction here. The web-browser that you are reading this very blog on is at the top-most layer in the stack. As you go a level deeper, you will hit a standard instruction set that tells the microprocessor to store something, move it, add it etc. Dig down and you will find that everything boils down to an immense array of transistors switching as logic gates. Your computer is just an orchestrated machine with millions of identical and individually simple (and microscopic) electronic toggle switches that can together be instructed to perform seemingly complex routines.
I am not sure what the solution should exactly be :(. I don't even know if it is even possible to actually develop one! However, I do know that it could make a (huge) difference for both the employed and the unemployed and their nations. To rephrase the challenge:

Create snack-jobs; reduce the unit definition of a job from a month/ week/ day to maybe a couple of minutes. Create a platform to automatically break down seemingly complex problems/ jobs/ tasks (which are best done by a human) into a very large set of smaller but simpler tasks (that do not require any specialized skill or education to execute), orchestrate a massive distribution of these jobs using mobile phones and an aggregation of the results using technology in real-time or near real time, featuring necessary error corrections through crowd-sourcing. Present the output to the systems that require it. Provision some form of incentive to each of the human contributors. Also, possibly allow for people to move up the skill chain to handle more and more complex abstraction layers.

Perhaps it would pan out as puzzle games that are simple at first but get more and more difficult on level ups?   A micro way to perhaps address a macro problem? Any takers?

Read more:

India’s demographic challenge: Wasting time | The Economist

Saturday, February 23, 2013

I wish 5. Satellite set-top-boxes and dish antenna

I wish all the TV Satellite STB (Set-Top-Boxes) would lose their dish antenna. Its a pain (and a cost) to drill holes through walls, get mounting permissions, point and mount the dishes outside with thick co-ax cables sneaking (especially while shifting residence). Increase the surface area of the STB itself and build in the antenna on its surface or maybe come up with some new array based antenna design.

The 'I wish' series will be short posts highlighting simple, interesting, innovative and useful twists to daily random routines and objects. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I wish 4. Throttle controlled ignition and engine shutdown

I wish there would be a retrofit gadget which would automatically turn off (not just 'idle') my vehicle engine when I take my foot off the pedal (and the vehicle is stationary) and give a silky smooth ignition as soon as I put my foot back on the pedal (and the car key is still in the on position ;). Will save us all a LOT of fuel (and money) especially on urban roads with stop-and-go traffic.

The 'I wish' series will be short posts highlighting simple, interesting, innovative and useful twists to daily random routines and objects. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I wish 3. Lights auto-off

I wish all the electric and electronic indoor and outdoor light sources like florescent lights, incandescent lights, led lights and halogen lights would have inbuilt ambient light sensors that would automatically turn them off when not required (when the ambient light is brighter than a threshold).

Just screw a light bulb in and it should simply work as described with nothing else required. Would save a lot of electricity and obviate the need for people to turn off lights in the morning ;)

The 'I wish' series will be short posts highlighting simple, interesting, innovative and useful twists to daily random routines and objects.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

I wish 2. Tata Nanos & Auto-rickshaws

I wish Tata Nanos would replace all auto-rickshaws in India. I wish some intermediary would get into the business of putting up some replacement offers. I know many people who wish this were true!!

The 'I wish' series will be short posts highlighting simple, interesting, innovative and useful twists to daily random routines and objects.

I wish 1. Motor-bikes & helmets

I wish bike manufacturers would consider and design helmets as natural extensions of the bikes they make and sell it as a part of the bike. It is a natural means to extend the bike's design identity, to stress that the bike considers rider safety important and will result in helmet innovations.

The 'I wish' series will be short posts highlighting simple, interesting, innovative and useful twists to daily random routines and objects.