Friday, October 28, 2011

Unanswered Questions About The Cheetah Incident

On Sunday, an Indian army helicopter accidentally crossed the Line of Control and landed several kilometers inside Pakistani territory. Within six hours it was refueled by the Pakistanis and allowed to fly back. The super-quick resolution generated much praise. However, there are several versions of what led to this.

One, involving the US, is most troubling. According to this story, New Delhi allegedly requested Washington DC for help in retrieving the helicopter. It wasn't until an Obama administration official placed a few calls that the Pakistanis began to respond seriously.

Why is this troubling?
1. Despite a hotline between the two governments and the DGMOs, a third party had to be called in to resolve what was apparently a minor incident.
2. India's Prime Minister continues to push for dialogue with Pakistan despite very little change on the ground or in official attitudes.
3. New Delhi seems to have temporarily abandoned its stance of keeping Kashmir a strictly bilateral issue.

The incident also raises a military-related question. The landing site was reportedly seven minutes flying time inside Pakistani-controlled territory.
- How long was it before Pakistani air defences noticed the Cheetah?
- How long was it before Pakistan ordered the helicopter to land?
- What sort of air defences did Pakistan activate while attempting to force the Cheetah to land?

The answers to these questions will be fairly interesting for a certain group within the Indian military.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why I think the Indian Express article on Kiran Bedi was legitimate

Many people have criticised the Indian Express for running today's story on Kiran Bedi overcharging airfare to groups that invited her to speak at events. The IE's critics fall largely into two camps.

The first camp believes Mrs Bedi did nothing wrong. They say her explanation suffices. The second camp believes the Indian Express ran the piece solely at the behest of the Government.

To these critics, I propose a test of fairness.

For Group 1
Say you pay a corporate trainer Rs 15,000 to fly business class from Delhi to Mumbai for a session. He travels economy for Rs 7,000 and puts the remaining Rs 8,000 into his housing society's orphans' education fund. Would you consider this ethical?

For Group 2
Would you hold the same objection if the story was run by The Pioneer, a newspaper edited by a BJP Rajya Sabha MP?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

It's here, but can the Formula 1 Indian GP return?

The inaugural Formula 1 Indian Grand Prix is just over 8 days away. Given all the controversy and high costs, can it come back after the initial contract runs out.

The Jaypee Group has invested close to $400mn on building the track and related infrastructure. Annual operating costs & license fees are expected to hit $50mn on the lower side. Over four years, by when Jaypee hopes to break even on operating costs, the total cost of building and operating the Buddh International Circuit would hit $600mn - well over half a billion dollars.

Jaypee plans to make money from two sources:
1. F1 ticket sales (no sponsorship money is given to circuits)
2. Hosting other motoring events at the Buddh International circuit

Let's take these one-by-one.
With 100,000 spectators, Jaypee will at most make $16 mn in ticket sales. It plans to roughly double seating capacity. Let's assume this happens within two years. By 2013, the BIC should earn $32mn in F1 ticket sales. For the moment, I've discounted the small matter of an entertainment tax exemption granted by Uttar Pradesh's Mayawati government for the F1 race. A certain Amit Kumar has challenged this exemption before the Supreme Court. Given the IPL precedent, things don't look good for Jaypee's margins.

Now, let's look at revenues from other motor sports events. The official website for the Buddh International circuit says it hopes to start more international racing events from 2012. None, so far, have been confirmed.
That leaves local events. Motor sport is a very small community in India. Formula 1 attracted just 10 million Indian viewers last year. Cable TV viewership alone for the cricket world cup finals hit 67.6 million viewers. That figure does not account for India's 31 million DTH subscribers and hundreds of millions of Doordarshan viewers.

In a nutshell, outside of the F1 race tickets, Jaypee has no confirmed revenues.

Let's do the math as it stands, then
Fixed and recurring costs over the next four years: $600mn
Income from F1 tickets over next 4 years (Jaypee's breakeven point) = $96mn ($16mn in '11 & '12; $32mn in '13 & '14)

That's a net loss of $504mn

Last time I checked, the Jaypee Group was a for-profit enterprise. They claim they will recoup costs from selling flats in nearby residential plots. But can they really afford a half a billion dollar loss?

P.s. I am a Formula 1 aficionado. I want the Indian Grand Prix to succeed. I just don't see how that's possible in the long run at this stage.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Our Next Prime Minister?

Rahul Gandhi, by many accounts, will succeed Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister before the latter's term is up. Given the position he may soon enjoy, I thought it would be interesting to compare his parliamentary performance to that of the opposition's highest-ranking Lok Sabha MP, Sushma Swaraj. 

All data has been gathered from PRS Legislative, which does an absolutely outstanding job of tracking our elected representatives. (Data is up-to-date for the 2011 Monsoon Session)

Rahul Gandhi (click name for detailed record)
Attendance: 43%
National Avg: 77%
State Avg: 80%
Debates: 1
National Avg: 18.7
State Avg: 22.7

Questions: 0
National Avg: 144
State Avg: 115

From the data, Rahul Gandhi is way below the national and state average in every single aspect. He participated in just one debate in the current Lok Sabha, where he proposed his now infamous "game-changer" to make the Lokpal a Constitutional body. He has not asked a single question in his entire time as an MP in the 15th Lok Sabha. Compared to his peers, he has seriously under-represented his electorate in Parliament. He does not serve on the Council of Ministers and has no other constitutional responsibilities.

Sushma Swaraj (click name for detailed record)
Attendance: 94%
National Avg: 77%
State Avg: 81%
Debates: 60
National Avg: 18.7
State Avg: 21.7

Questions: 42
National Avg: 144
State Avg: 114

Sushma Swaraj's weakest relative performance is the number of questions she has asked. It is below the national and state average, but incomparably better to Rahul Gandhi (0). Her attendance - at 94% - is exemplary. Debates are clearly her forte. Her participation is more than thrice the national average. And it's not just the numbers but her oratorical skill and content that have also won praise. She has also tabled a private members' bill to modify the Indian Penal Code (national average is 0.4; Rahul Gandhi has tabled none). The amendment, if passed, would introduce the death sentence for people convicted of kidnap/murders or rape/ murders. Like Rahul Gandhi, she does not serve in the Council of Ministers (obviously), but has the added responsibility of serving Parliament as Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.

The data speaks for itself. I have nothing further to add.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tales From The Wild - a review

As a kid, I spent countless hours devouring the books my parents stocked my library with. I particularly enjoyed science books. Ones on nature were my absolute favourite.

Most of what I read was non-fiction. I never really thought about this until I read Tales From The Wild by the father-daughter duo of Raza and Arefa Tehsin. Yes, we have our Jataka Tales, but these are moral allegories and don't delve deeply into the realm of science. That's why the Tehsins' book caught my attention. Consider it a cross between Gerald Durrel and Jataka tales/Aesop's fables.

It is an admirable effort. The Tehsins tackle real world conservation problems using the wonder of fiction and hard facts of science. Young readers will learn of diclofenac - the chemical that's wiped out tens of thousands of vultures and, in turn, has upset the delicate balance between man and nature.

They will also be introduced to the desperately sad tale of a tiger cub who witnesses the deaths of both his mother and sibling at the hands of poachers. These stories are handled sensitively. Thankfully, they don't ever seem preachy even as they broach important topics many young readers would be unaware of. This is greatly appreciated. Children love to discover. They don't often like being taught.

Not all of the Tehsins' stories are sad. The tale of bat (or is it a boy dreaming of being a bat!) is fun and educational. The story of the two dholes is a good lesson in teamwork and family. The story of the stag in the forest is an important one on self-belief. There's also plenty of science. For example, you'll learn what chemicals are responsible for making a firefly glow and even of the diet of a bear. 

I only wish the authors picked more Indian names for their characters. Monarch - perhaps inspired by the famous painting - is a grand name for a stag. Snarls and Stripes are hyper-cute for tiger cubs. But these tend to jar for an Indian storybook. The biggest let down though, is the shoddy copy-editing. While the language is erudite, typos show up far too often.

What I do appreciate is the authors' deep love for nature that jumps off each page. It is infectious. Raza Tehsin is one of India's better-known naturalists. Ironically, his love for nature began during his youth as he wathced his father go on hunting trips (T.H Tehsin later became a conservationist himself). Arefa, I suspect, played an important role in making the language more accessible to a younger audience.

Mr Tehsin writes in his introduction that today's children spend far too little time in the Great Outdoors. If nothing else, this book will make them want to get out more often and explore. This would be his single-greatest contribution.

Note: Arefa Tehsin, the co-author, approached me three weeks ago to review this book. I agreed on the condition that I buy my own copy, as I was writing in my personal capacity.