Sunday, December 10, 2023

Nothing "unorganized" about the unorganized sector

Just like we now use "differently-abled", I think it's time we switch to "non-formal" instead of "unorganized". Hence, we would have "formal" and "non-formal" sectors of the economy. Not "organized" and "unorganized".

Of late, in Goa, a ton of roadside tender-coconut vendors have sprung up. It is interesting and ironic - but not surprising - that the vast majority of them are non-Goans ("outsiders" as many would like to call them). Earlier this month, the irony got really "nutty" (pun intended): the local Municipality wanted to put an end to sale of tender coconuts because disposal of the empty tender coconuts was becoming a problem. 

I say "irony" simply because we seem to be doing okay with collecting a ton of junk (literally) and the system of door-to-door collection of segregated garbage has stabilised fairly well and yet, here we are, suddenly unable to deal with refuse that is 100% bio-degradable and has been an integral part of the local ecosystem for generations. Not to mention that it's decomposition does not generate wet discharge or stench like other wet waste. Certainly, it is bulky and adds weight, but so does all the other garbage we are disposing off.

In response, a meeting with held between the vendors and the Municipality. It doesn't matter who convened the meeting. The point is, in a matter of days, a mutually acceptable solution was found and the vendors were back in business. No riots, no demonstrations, no political slugfests. At least nothing in public view.

I noticed that they all now displayed a board that requested customers who take "parcels" not to dispose off the waste in the municipal collection but to bring it back to them. Moreover, they were all having boards that had the exact same size, style and matter.

My curiosity got the better of me, so this evening when I went to purchase tender coconuts, I had a little chat with the guy I usually buy it from. 

What I learnt, astounded me:

  1. The tender coconuts are supplied by people coming from Karwar, Sirsi and Mysore. This raised several questions for me: (a) where are all the Goan bhatkars? (b) what economics are in play here that someone is able to supply tender coconuts from these places and still sell them @ Rs. 40/- each? Sure, there's no municipal tax, no FSSAI license, no GST, no income tax, no KYC, no nothing, but even so, the economics of this confounds me (c) How does a place like Sirsi and Mysore which are not even coastal, generate enough surplus tender coconuts to come supply them in Goa? What is their supply-chain like? What market research did they do? What inventory management do they do?
  2. The vendors got the board made at a centralized location - hence the standardisation of size, matter, font, format
  3. The board they display requests customers to bring the empty tender coconuts back to them instead of disposing them off with the waste collected by the Municipality. So I asked him what they do with the waste given that the Municipality is unable to deal with it - he said they have tied up with someone who stacks it up in a nearby field and then uses it for composting, selling to people who use as fuel for fire, etc. So much for the "organized" Municipality!
  4. Most of them are on carts that are sort of anchored to the ground. I asked him what they do at night. He said they just cover it up with tarp and tie it up with ropes. I asked him whether it is safe. He pointed to two places in the vicinity - one, a tea cart (not a stall or a shop - a tea cart) and two, an eatery. The tea cart is open till midnight and the eatery till around 1:30AM. He says they keep a watch for him and the rest is Ram bharose (or Jesus or Allah, as the case may be)

I walked away feeling incompetent. 

This isn't restricted to the tender-coconut vendors alone - these basic tenets of courage, perseverance, risk-taking and jumping-in against all odds extends to many of the roadside vendors and other players in the non-formal ecosystem that we see.

Woe betide the next person who says they belong to the "unorganized" sector.

The spirit of these folks astounds me. This isn't jugaad - this is just dogged perseverance. This is the spirit of Indian entrepreneurship.

Jai Hind!

Saturday, May 01, 2021

3 Life Lessons I want to teach my kids from fast-disappearing everyday experiences

Our lives today are characterised by constant change. Many changes are driven by technology advances (e.g., mobile, e-governance, e-commerce), while many others are brought about by economic and socio-cultural advances (e.g., nuclear families, urban lifestyles, inter-caste marriages, employee-employer relationships). The technology advances tend to be more abrupt and constant, while the economic and socio-cultural advances are more gradual and are usually iterative - i.e., they'll keep coming full-circle and each time encompass something more. And then there are many that are a mix of the two - i.e., economic and socio-cultural differences brought about technology changes (e.g., how kids spend their leisure time, social interaction within families, role of religion in our lives, mobile device for every household).

We may have our own human tendencies of resisting change and there's always a certain sentiment, certain attachment and certain matter or habit that contributes to this resistance. But in general, change is inevitable and the quicker we adapt to the change, the smoother our lives will be. 

Personally, although I embrace change enthusiastically, a few of these changes come with a hidden price: life lessons that are getting lost. Many everyday experiences held important life lessons that we used to learn implicitly. As those everyday experiences change - which they will and they must; and change for the better - we have to find new ways to learn & teach those lessons that came with it.

Here are 3 lessons from fast-disappearing everyday experiences, that I hope I will somehow be able to teach my kids:

Car Repair Shop shared under Creative Common License from


In my childhood, purchase of consumer durables - especially appliances and electronics - was a mini-event in itself and a source of excitement. Buying something new wasn't something that was done often. If something went wrong, we took it for repairs. The mechanic (or technician or electrician or tailor or...) rambled out a list of things that were spoilt or had gone wrong, a list things to be done to fix them and what it would cost. If it was an expensive repair, you'd get a comparative quote or try to source the parts directly or negotiate on the price and finally get the repairs done. This was applicable from the zipper of your shorts and your shoes, to the TV & refrigerator in the house.

But that changed -  at first, gradually and then, rapidly. As equipments and appliances became more sophisticated, warranty schemes & service organisations became more structured. Soon, if something went wrong, the technician would come visit and replace the faulty piece. Even sooner, there were no questions to be asked, no price to be negotiated - the deals became more transparent and fairer. And even sooner, things came to a point where it was easier to replace than to repair - either because the cost of repair was more than 50%-60% of the cost of a new purchase or because a replacement part was no longer available or often, merely because the economic circumstances allowed you to upgrade to the latest model. 

And that's where we are today. 

You can get a microwave for about Rs. 7,000/- but the magnetron in it costs about Rs. 4,000/-. So if the magnetron's gone bust - unless its under warranty - you are better off replacing the microwave, even if the magnetron for that model is still available. Earlier, you'd keep a car for 15-20 years, but today, at the first sign of mechanical parts starting to show trouble, you choose to replace the car. Previously, you wouldn't thinking of spending a month's salary on gaming equipment for kids - today, we not only spend it but it doesn't hurt to throw it away in a few months and get a newer model.

While this change is inevitable and in fact helps improve your standard of living, I find that the mindset of "repair" brought with it, two important learnings: (a) the temperament to identify what has gone wrong and work on fixing it. In life, you don't always get a chance to REPLACE; you have to learn to REPAIR - this is especially true of relationships and (b) in undertaking repairs, you learn a lot about things you would never care to learn or no one would even think of teaching you.  

No one ever called out these implications of repairs; these were just imbibed in us naturally because of the way our lives were led. I learnt a lot about cars and anything else that I have had the opportunity to witness being repaired that I would otherwise never have learnt. Today, from a simple cycle pump to an XBox Gaming Console, our inclination is to replace it if it doesn't work. With that, we're diluting the mindset of problem-solving: diagnosis through a healthy investigation into identifying the problem, understanding the different components that come together to make it work AND the mindset of MAKING IT WORK AGAIN.


As kids, we were allowed to use only pencils in primary school. Pens were to be used only after you "grew up to be in Std. 5". So to our innocent minds back then, getting to use a pen was a privilege, a status symbol, a mark of being a grown-up, a symbol of having moved into secondary school. 

Once we "grew up to be in Std. 5" though, we quickly realised that the price we had to pay for this privilege was that we could no longer undo our mistakes. This, combined with the "repair" mindset, taught us implicitly to deal with our mistakes and move on. 

Today, for children and adults alike, the triad of undo, redo and reboot-and-restart is prevalent in most aspects of our lives and provides a significant leeway in recovering from mistakes. Or in (automatically) making things work that don't work the first time. 

In itself, this is great because it provides us with the flexibility to fix the problem. 

But inherently, flexibility and discipline do not go hand-in-hand. 

Moreover, not all disciplines have the luxury of affording this flexibility - e.g., try applying the undo, redo and reboot-and-restart to what an architect or a production engineer or worse, what a doctor does! 

The absence of an undo/redo feature meant that we invested time in thinking, problem-analysis and diagnosis before executing - for high school homework, that meant doing some working on a rough-sheet before "writing on the fair book"; for other professionals it meant critically reviewing our own plan/design or consulting with peers before we started executing.

One of the areas in which our workforce is found wanting today, is in problem-solving. It's a welcome move that the New Education Policy 2020 formally includes critical thinking and problem-solving in its curriculum. While both these are of course much larger topics, I'm convinced that the "repair mindset" and the absence of an undo feature are both useful building blocks in addressing this issue of problem-solving.   


Queue outside a shop during the Covid-19 lockdown in April-2020

I have been sufficiently blessed to have had my basic needs always taken care of. But I have experienced a "scarcity economy" first-hand and looking back, I realise I am grateful for that experience. 

In the India of the 1980s, cheese was still in short supply even though Operation Flood had already made India a milk-surplus country. Basmati rice was an exotic idea - one usually queued up for supplies at the ration shop. Rice procured there and also purchased at the local grocery store had to be cleaned to remove stones and other foreign particles before it could be used for cooking. A "Priya" scooter had a wait time running into years and usually became a family heirloom. People booked cars to make some "ON" money on the side (premium paid for transferring your booking to someone else when your turn had come). It was not uncommon to draw water from the well for daily use, because the taps had run dry. Many fruits were truly seasonal and baby-corn and bell peppers were exotic stuff you saw only in imported recipe books. Even road trips for leisure were a measured activity, with fuel economy and fuel prices being a dominant variable.

All of this had a deep impact on my upbringing - and my friends and all kids of my generation. Wasting anything was absolutely prohibited. We learnt to respect resources and we learnt to be grateful to Mother Earth for the resources we took from Her. It made a lot of sense to me during my thread ceremony when the priest taught me prayers we make to the elements of nature, expressing our gratitude.

For sure, the economic liberalisation that began in the 1990s radically changed all this for the better. But with it, came the silent death of the humility with which we used resources. 

When I lived in the US for a few years, the per-capita resource consumption there was the only culture shock I suffered. That was one of the things I truly disliked about the US - from food & packaging materials to space and fuel, wastage was an intrinsic part of life. I quickly realised that it had become intrinsic only because scarcity hadn't been experienced there for generations together. 

With the prosperity that the liberalisation of the 1990s brought in for India, we too now have at least one generation that's completely isolated from the "scarcity economy" experience. Which is a great thing and something to be proud of; except for the inherent loss of regard for resource consumption that it has created. It's a pity environmentalists find it easier to vilify industry than to bring about a mindset change in per-capita resource consumption.

I love technology, I love change and I love the change that technology facilities. But as we change for the better, our conduct must also change for the better. I hope I will find a way of teaching my kids these invaluable life lessons without the pain & inconvenience of the circumstances that taught me these lessons. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Lessons from Adversity

The Covid19-related lockdown hasn't been easy for anyone. Except perhaps Mother Earth, everyone else had it bad. Some had it worse. In that backdrop I consider myself blessed: I was lucky to have to work - physically present at the workplace - all through the lockdown.

One of the lines of the family business is distribution of Nestle products. As part of the supply-chain of essential commodities (packaged food), we were working from 28.Mar onwards and all through the lockdown.

At first, it was unsettling and anxiety was the dominant emotion. This was uncharted territory for everyone: the medical fraternity, the Government, us the people. It was unsettling for a variety of reasons: fear of the unknown, ever-evolving Government guidelines, deluge of fake news and hyperbole in the general narrative. All ably propagated through social media. From conspiracy theories to claims of Covid19 transmission through the ground to advise about gargling with potassium permanganate, the pandemic of human stupidity was as depressing as Covid-19. But above all, it was unsettling because we didn't know how much we were risking exposure by going to work and whether the preventive measures we were taking were sufficient.

As the days passed, the anxiety gave way to acceptance. Acceptance of the stark reality of the pandemic. Acceptance of the disruption it brought in its wake. Acceptance of the new - and hopefully, temporary - normal. As we enter Lockdown 4.0 it is evident that the new normal is going to be the "normal normal" for some time to come. At least, for sure, till a vaccine is found.

The transition to Lockdown 4.0 also gave me some thinking time to reflect upon the following lessons I have learnt - primarily from the current situation and also from a couple of previous instances that presented some sticky adversities and caused a fair deal of anxiety (though of course they all pale in comparison to the current crisis):

1. Adversity is a great - even if cruel - motivator: from little things like making work-from-home work for an otherwise tech-averse organisation and pushing educational institutions to launching open webinars, to unbelievable feats like migrant labourers walking hundreds of kilometers to get home and the stories of Minal Bhosale the virologist (who delivered a testing kit a day before she delivered her baby) and teenager Jyoti Kumar of Harayana (who cycled 1,500 kms with her Dad), it is mind-boggling how adversity can motivate the human mind to outdo itself.

2. Adversity unmasks us: Facades and gloves usually come off in the face of adversity. Adversities are great ways to get to know people and their behaviour. As someone correctly said, "hard work spotlights people; some turn their sleeves up, some turn their noses up and some just don't turn up!"

3. Shared adversity strengthens the focus on a shared objective: During the lockdown, our business operations - like everyone else's - were thrown out of gear. I was pleasantly surprised at how the team rallied around to do what it takes. Except to the extent of restrictions imposed by the authorities the team was committed and focused, with little supervision. No questions or complaints about extra workload, no cribbing about the unpredictable schedules, no slacking on account of the progressing summer.

4. When faced with uncertainty, take it one day at a time: in the face of uncertainty and the anxiety that results from it, it is important to condition one's mind to take it one day at a time. I have found that uncertainty rattles us in three steps: first, we start enumerating and playing out the different possibilities in our minds - i.e., what are the different things that can happen. Often, we start off considering the worst-scenario first. Two, we start speculating about outcomes & eventualities - i.e., we start imagining what - from among the different possibilities - will actually happen. Often, we never objectively assess the actual probability of each of these possibilities. And three, we start extrapolating the implications of the outcomes - i.e., we start playing out scenarios of impact & implications an imagined outcome will have. Often, these extrapolations are exaggerated. These 3 steps are of course one big blurry single thought or emotion. For instance, consider a scenario of someone in the family suffering a heart attack and imagine it is the first time the family is dealing with a situation like that. Its quite natural for the fear of the unknown or the impending uncertainty to generate anxiety. At first, taking it one hour or one day at a time is difficult because of the speed at which our minds work. But a little conditioning is all it takes to shut out a rabid imagination and reject speculations. This is key to remaining calm in the face of adversity; it is only a calm mind that can identify and execute on solutions.

5. When faced with uncertainty, focus on the fundamentals: focusing on the fundamentals helps in not getting overwhelmed by the pressures of what you hear & see around you. For example, in the current situation there were a finite set of precautions to be taken - distancing, sanitizing, wearing a mask. Those constituted the fundamentals. Focusing on those precautions helped defocus on other noise & meaningless suggestions and doomsday predictions. It also helps keep you safe - or at least, helps reduce the risk.

6. Even fear has a novelty value which wears off: beyond a point, fear doesn't intimidate you like it used to. Lockdown 1.0 was marked by doomsday predictions. Lockdown 4.0 is a different story. It's almost like we don't have the time & patience right now to be scared. It's almost like "Once bitten, Twice Bold". As Franklin Roosevelt said, "There's nothing to fear except fear itself". One has to guard against foolhardiness though, and ensure we don't slacken on the precautions we take just because fear doesn't frighten us any more.

7. Stimulus hunger & structure hunger: in his book "Games People Play", Eric Berne, the Canadian psychiatrist who explains human behaviour using his "Theory of Transaction Analysis", introduces the concept of "Social Intercourse". The 3 pillars of social intercourse are "stimulus hunger" (the need to interact with people), "recognition hunger" (the need to be recognised and accepted by one's near & dear ones - this has nothing do with Maslow's Need-Hierarchy theory) and "structure hunger" (the need to structure one's time during waking hours so as to have some activity to do). I had read this long back but never understood it as fully as I did now. The significance of stimulus hunger is quite evident and needs no explanation. Structure hunger has to do with time utilisation and is the reason why I am so grateful for having got to work through the lockdown. Eric Berne explains why structuring our time with activity goes beyond merely keeping the mind busy and how inability to structure our time can create problems for the mind. It would seem that the many philosophical, motherhood posts we kept seeing on social media were directly related to structure-hunger :)

8. Don't wallow in self-pity; there's always someone who is having it much worse than you: in the initial days of anxiety during the current lockdown, my thoughts were instantly with the countless folks at the frontline working in harsh conditions - garbage collectors, doctors, nurses, policemen, security guards, truck drivers and many more. And once I thought of their circumstances, my anxiety instantly turned to relief and gratitude that my situation was so much better-off. Add to them of course in the current context, the migrant labourers and train-engine drivers. A little perspective goes a long way in diluting your anxiety. In an earlier high-stress project I was working on, I used to travel to Mumbai every week. Dharavi - which I had to cross from the airport to Lower Parel (this was before the sea-link days) - turned out to be a source of inspiration for me! As my taxi passed through Dharavi, I got a brief glimpse into all the tiny houses along the footpaths. The vibrancy with which they went about their lives gave me pause and made me wonder what I was cribbing about.

9. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security: much too often, we think "that can't happen to me" or "that won't happen here". When the first rumblings began about Covid-19 I thought it would be like SARS - a small epidemic in some far-removed corner of the world that will fade away as quickly as it emerged. I have had a similar experience with a bunch of other problems that began as a little rumble somewhere and I assumed it will quietly go away without affecting me in any way. The lesson learnt is to be objective in assessing how a situation may develop and focus on the fundamentals. My most recent lesson - learnt the hard way - about assuming "that can't happen to me" was when despite being an otherwise prudent person, my hard disk crashed and I had no backup. All the while the hardware engineer was telling me I had a dead disk on my hand, one part of my mind was still in fantasy land screaming "This can't be happening!". But it had. It did. The Rs. 35,000/- I paid for recovery pinched really hard, but was worth every paisa for the tons of work-related stuff I retrieved as well for the 20+ GB of years of memories captured in my photo collection.

10. The world is a good place - help, kindness & support will often come from unexpected quarters: I often wonder if I live in a fool's paradise but concluded recently that I'd rather do that and have a cheery disposition & outlook than be sucked into the negativity that is so prevalent today. Just yesterday morning, I had the opportunity to help raise funds for food for migrant labourers put up at a local indoor stadium. I reached out to my network of classmates & friends as well as my general contacts. Rs. 60k was what was needed and about Rs. 40k is what I figured we would be able to raise. By late afternoon we had been able to raise just over Rs. 80k! The first two contributions amounting to Rs. 15k came from two former colleagues who have absolutely no connection with Goa. Another 35k came from two school friends who no longer live in Goa. On the second day - i.e., today, we were able raise another 48k thanks to another set of generous donors.

EDIT - late June, 2020: the group helping the migrants raised close to Rs. 11L - I was most blessed to have been able to marshall close to 3L of that, all thanks to the generosity of good samaritans.

11. Learn from every adversity: to me, this is the most important of all the lessons adversity has taught me. Many years ago, a colleague and I were hunched over the conference room table at work, having just extricated ourselves from a minor mess and having also received half-a-earful from our boss and our boss's boss. As the dust settled, my colleague - several years my senior - suddenly turned to me and asked "So Suhas, what lesson did you learn from this?". "Is there one?", I asked. "There's always a lesson - you have to just look for it", he responded and proceeded to tell me two lessons from that episode that were so obvious, I should have thought of them myself. That interaction somehow left a deep impression on me. Every time I go through any untoward situation I always ask myself: what lesson did I learn from this? I don't always come up with answer but very often, I do. I've found this to be an extremely useful exercise - it helps build a catalog of mistakes & learnings alike, it helps you not get intimidated the next time you wade into trouble and it makes you wiser & stronger.

As the days unfold - one day at a time :D - I continue to be optimistic while I also continue to be fascinated by how much there is to learn.

Stay safe!