Sunday, August 31, 2014

Indian Pride and Acche Din


“The time has come to think seriously about whether we have a national character or not,” Today, unfortunately, the atmosphere is that if you go to anybody for work, that person will immediately ask, ‘What is in this for me?’ When he learns that there is nothing for him, he will say, ‘Why should I?”
Narendra Modi 

My father always told me that there is no substitute for good honest hard work. He used to say that what you do is much less important than how you do it. Whether you are mopping a floor or finding a cure for cancer, do your job to the best of your abilities and take pride in doing it. What happened to the work ethic of our fathers and grandfathers? Why do Indians today seem to lack pride in everything we do, including being Indian?

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we all grew up during the license Raj, when graft was just as much a part of our daily routine as brushing our teeth. The postman wanted his baksheesh to deliver our letters, the garbage man to take out the trash, the policeman to file a complaint, and the politician for doing absolutely nothing other than being elected to office. It seemed nobody wanted to do his job, just to sit back and collect money from the same taxpayer who was paying his salary. We could not renew our passports without bribing someone or having a connection high up in the bureaucracy. We could pass our driving test but not be issued a license unless we were willing to grease a palm. In fact, we had to bribe someone for virtually every basic right we had as citizens of the world’s largest democracy; for our water, electricity, to pass through toll booths, to get a telephone line and even to park our car in a free public parking lot.

After we got rid of the license Raj, ushering in an era of liberalisation, instead of ridding us of the disease of graft, we may have just spread it further afield. Today, it has been extended into a willingness to use money as a means to get ahead in every aspect of life. We seem to have become content using our increasing disposable income to willingly pay people to help us cut queues, get our kids into school, to avoid penalties for wrongdoing, and even to help us escape the clutches of the law, after we have knowingly and brazenly broken it. Is this what we want to accomplish with our growing economic prosperity: the ability to buy people and cut corners without earning anything rightfully or on merit? We seem to have become a society of rule breakers for those with means and money, content to apply a different set of rules for those without.  As our new Prime Minister stated in his Independence Day speech, the only thing a growing majority of people seem to care about is what’s in it for them. It has reached a point where people are not willing to perform their paid obligations or help their fellow Indians in need, unless they are incentivized in some way. We call ourselves a democratic society, yet how many times have citizens been assaulted and told that it is better not to go to the police or that it would be wiser to buy justice? I even know of a well-respected surgeon in Bombay who decided to negotiate the amount he would be paid in “cash” (or black money) before allowing the patient to be wheeled into the operating theater for the life-saving surgery he was about to perform. It seems neither education nor upbringing have any effect on this mentality of pure and unadulterated greed. We have become a society that never cares to ask what we can do for our fellow man, woman or country.

Yet, every Indian likes to talk about India becoming a global super power. We yearn for respect on the world stage, and want to stand shoulder to shoulder with America, but we do not feel ashamed to pee on the street or outraged by the fact that 60% of Indians still defecate in the open due to lack of toilets. Nor do we seem embarrassed by the fact that our flyovers and highways, many built a mere decade ago, are already crumbling (or are yet to be completed). It took us almost as long as we have been an independent nation to build one sea-link in traffic-congested Bombay; however we were content talking about building it for more than fifty years. We love to talk, but when it comes to action we don’t seem to care about following through or doing it with pride. The great irony in all this is that this seeming apathy has nothing to do with our lack of talent or smarts. When we put our minds to it and our country first, we can build on time and under budget the world’s best and most advanced underground metro in New Delhi and a smart airport terminal in Bombay. A terminal on the strength of which Bombay (the only Indian city) has made the recently released A-list on National Geographic's list of "smart cities," across the world.  What’s more, people all over the world marvel at the work ethic, brilliance and innovation of Indian immigrants. From high-tech and engineering to the arts and the corporate world, Indians excel in virtually every field that we compete in. Indian immigrants who left India with nothing now own the majority of homes in the affluent suburbs of North London, and rule the boardrooms of Silicon Valley. There was a time when Indians left due to the lack of opportunities within India. This is also no longer true. In fact, India today is one of the greatest lands of opportunity and potential in the world and more attractive than China because we have a stable government and democratic systems that work (for the most part) - so why are we seemingly still unable to unleash this potential we have on paper and fulfill our destiny on the world stage? At the moment it seems like the more we liberalise and open up our economy, the more we seem to encourage a society where the shortest, fastest and least honest and hardworking path to success seems to be the correct one. Success is measured almost entirely by the increased number of zeroes in our personal bank account. What would happen if we spent one decade giving back to our country and helping everyone grow?

I am proud to be an Indian. I am prouder yet to be part of a civilization whose origins date to before Christianity; but that is the past. I want to be proud of our present and future through tangible successes, not just words and chest beating. I want to be proud of the great public institutions we build, of world-beating product innovations and brands we create, of our indigenous missile defense systems that become the envy of the world. I want to be proud of our space program and 23rd century urban infrastructure and transportation systems. I want footpaths in every city, toilets in every home, educational institutions that rival Harvard and Cambridge, attracting the brightest and best student minds from every corner of the globe. I want clean city streets and paved rural roads. I want teachers and parents to once again instill a civic sense and pride in the next generation of children. I want us to take pride in what we can accomplish, collectively as a nation, if each of us were to put his mind to it, point his heart in the right direction. If we can see put aside just a small amount of our selfish needs and desires and think for a moment about how we can contribute to building a better, stronger and more developed India, then we will all see Acche Din...

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Value of Privacy

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

There has been much furor and attention in the news regarding the NSA’s blatant overreach and invasion of privacy but the reality is that the manner in which the private sector has been invading our personal lives is far more intrusive and concerning. What’s more, nobody really knows how much is actually being collected, which companies are doing the collecting or the methods they are using. In this regard the internet remains the Wild West. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, “A digital Magna Carta is required if we are to stand any chance of halting the Internet’s steady infringement of our right to privacy.” What is scarier is that the information being collected, on each of us, is also being compiled and sold to third parties without our knowledge or consent. 

For many years we were assured that the information we shared via online searches, sites we visited and ads we clicked was being collected and stored in a non-personally identifiable manner. And that it was being collected with the intention of improving our online experiences and adding a greater degree of personalisation for marketing to us. It turns out that this is far from the truth. Today, there are numerous companies compiling dossiers on us; gleaned not only from our online behaviours and habits, but then supplemented with information from the real world. Frighteningly, these dossiers are not anonymous. They identify us by name and contain comprehensive profiles that include everything from political and religious affiliations to medical and criminal histories to shopping and surfing habits. These dossiers are being openly sold to everyone from prospective employers and research companies, to marketers and financial institutions. Watch 60 Minutes report: “The Data Brokers” 

The argument used by marketing companies, internet firms and these so called data brokers, to defend this gross invasion of privacy, is to say that anything we disclose on the internet (as well as data that exists in the public domain) should be considered fair game. They argue that people are fully aware of the information they are sharing online, doing so willingly, and free to read the terms and conditions on each website about how their data is being handled. In their estimation, consumers are willingly parting with all this personal information. They further contend that the internet is a marketing medium, so people need to accept that information gleaned off it can and will be used not only to personalize experiences, but also to better advertise and market to us. Based on this flimsy argument they also staunchly believe that there is no need for government regulation to prevent anyone willing to pay money to know more about us, than a spouse or parent ever would. Then there are those who argue that if we have nothing to hide, why should we be concerned?  They ask why we care if every term we search, product we buy, page we visit, prescription we fill and gift we send is tracked by companies or sold on to third parties. To me this is a totally false argument because an individual’s right to privacy has nothing to do with having something to hide. Everyone has a reasonable expectation to privacy in a democratic society. It is a fundamental right. 

Think about a really simple analogy in the real world. Imagine you walk out of your house to run some errands on a beautiful Saturday morning. You stop at Starbucks on the corner for a latte and doughnut. Next you cross the street to go over to the pharmacy to pick up the prescriptions your doctor called in. The pharmacist asks you to verify your home address. On your way home you decide to run a few more errands. First, you stop at another drugstore to talk to their pharmacist about recommending something for a nasty rash you have on your inner thigh (Note: you choose not to ask your regular pharmacist who knows your whole family by name, because you are feeling embarrassed and not because you have something to hide). Then it’s a stop at the local grocery store, where you use some email coupons on your phone. You then make a quick stop at the wine store to pick up a nice bottle of wine for yourself and a few bottles of bubbly for the party you are attending this weekend. You spend some time browsing at your favourite local boutique, on your way to the final stop at the dry cleaner. The clerk at the dry cleaner asks for your home phone number to look up your account. Arguably, you have been in what can be described as the 'public domain' while running all your errands. Much like if you had stayed home and transacted entirely on the internet. In both cases, you were required to divulge and share various bits of personal and private information, including your home address, phone number, medical history and credit card information in order to complete your transactions. 

Now imagine that you are running through the same schedule, except that from the moment you leave your home, you have a dozen random strangers physically following you around and secretly take down all the little bits of information you are legitimately required to and willing to divulge along the way. These strangers would be doing this without your prior consent or knowledge. These shadowy figures are simply leaning in closer as you give the pharmacist your insurance information and prescription list, or peering over your shoulder to look at your grocery cart, trying to determine if you are gluten intolerant. In fact, they are keeping track of everything you say, see and do. Now imagine that these strangers follow you around every day for months or even years collecting, storing and then combining this data with every other bit of information they can find from public records. They include your past employers, home addresses, credit history, political and charitable donations, etc. and then they put it all together to create a file on you that they can legally sell to any third party willing to pay for it.  

These exact dossiers compiled by data brokers are now being used by many financial institutions to gauge your 'social' ranking and credit-worthiness, based on who your Facebook friends are. Such compilations are even being used by prospective employers to determine your character. This gross violation of trust is actually happening today, completely in the shadows and without our consent. I understand that technology has reshaped our lives in many ways and with these conveniences there is a reasonable and necessary loss of privacy. With this I don’t believe anyone has an issue. However, to say that if we are bothered by the extent to which we have lost control over our private information, and the solution is to simply stop using the internet or sharing personal information on it (which is impossible) – it is akin to saying we should not leave the house if we are worried about getting mugged. It is a totally nonsensical argument and an unrealistic expectation in a world that has become completely dependent on technology. The point is not to have zero, or even total, privacy, but that information gathering should not be done surreptitiously. It should be conducted in a way that clearly informs us, gives us the choice to participate or not, and allows us to limit the amount of information we are willing to share.

It is an absolute right to expect privacy and be aware of how our information is being used and by whom; especially when sharing information in a specific situation for a very specific purpose, e.g. at a pharmacy to get a prescription filled. It is not unreasonable to expect that the same pharmacy will never share this information or start to combine it with other habits, behaviours, etc. and then sell the information to a third party. Equally, it would be ludicrous to try to regulate the entire internet by creating even more complex and detailed privacy laws that cover every possible situation or transaction; not to mention trying to do this globally in some uniform way. 

The solution is to make the whole process completely transparent and allow people to make the choices regarding information they are willing to share. Make it simple and clear about how and for what purpose our information will be used on every site. For example, if you shop on Amazon. then the baseline should be that this site alone would have access to only the most basic information required (name, address, credit card) for someone to complete a transaction; and this information would never be shared or sold to a third party without our prior consent. Amazon should also allow us to delete personal browsing and shopping history, if I choose not to save it or be marketed to more accurately. Further, Amazon could build incentives for people who are willing to share more of their shopping history, or even more detailed information about themselves, their habits and behaviours; even around the rest of the web. The same should hold true for tracking companies; they too can create incentives for people willing to sign up and give them permission to follow them across the web, on their mobile phones, etc. 

Finally, every company that sells and profits off individual data should also share that revenue with the individual; creating a sort of human-information exchange. However, the default on the web and every site should always be that people are opted out and not the other way around, as it is today.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Cricket, 464 yrs; Demise of a Gentleman’s Sport


Born: 1550 (approx.) in Surrey, England
Died: 26th June, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia

On a sunny afternoon of June 26, 2014, the great sport of Cricket passed away after a long battle with corrupt administrators. In her last hours she was surrounded by the three men responsible for her demise: Narayanaswami Srinivasan, Giles Clarke and Wally Edwards, as well as extended family from the various governing bodies. The families, whose avarice led to their selling out without so much as putting up a fight to save the sport that they had sworn to uphold, protect and serve.

Cricket is said to have had her beginnings in the town of Guildford, Surrey in England, as early as 1550*; thought to have been originally conceived as a game for young children. From these humble beginnings she grew into a great global sport often referred to as a Gentleman’s game. The same sport that has now been consumed by three corrupt old men who stand against all that she once represented: fair play, integrity, honour and chivalry.

In India, the current mecca of cricket, she held greater sway than religion and was one of the few things that united the entire country. Indians cricketers are held in higher esteem than Bollywood stars and Gods. Cricket pitches were the only places where caste, religion, language, education and wealth never mattered. Such was once the power of cricket and that is why her demise should concern us all, greatly.

Her rich and storied life includes Articles of Agreement being written as early as 1727* to guide the conduct of matches between teams. The first recorded women’s county match was played in 1811* between Surrey and Hampshire at Ball's Pond in London. England in what was still otherwise completely a man’s world. Over the centuries cricket has produced legendary figures from the likes of WG Grace, Sir Donald Bradman and Sir Garfield Sobers to modern day heroes who have been great ambassadors of the sport, both on and off the field, like Brian Lara, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar. These men inspired generations of young impressionable minds to strive for greatness through integrity, dignity and the ethics of hard work. (*sources: ESPN cricket and Wikipedia)

Today, a few wealthy men have hijacked our great love and turned it into their personal fiefdom. One where a ruthless, unethical few will now be able bend the rules with complete impunity to enable their thirst for power and single-minded pursuit of money. Cricket, who once nurtured the souls of the young, all over the world, will now feed the hunger of three corrupt boards at the expense of the sport and all her adoring fans.

In lieu of flowers, comments and support may be offered at Save Cricket in India