Transcript of my talk at shakTII

Good morning everyone.

I am going to cheat a bit. It is an Entrepreneur Talk. But I am not going to talk about entrepreneurship. I am going to talk about women, which thankfully is not at odds with the theme of this event.

I grew up in small towns of Bihar, never staying in a joint family, technically, but living a life where the circle of extended family and relatives was quite close-knit.  There were usual family spats once in a while, but overall the family members looked out for each other.  They provided board to a young man, a son of a second cousin, who had come to their town for studies or for the first job, and they kept their eyes and ears open to find out how their nieces could get married well within the budget their parents had. The better off ones would also take up the responsibility for more kanyadaan ceremonies than the number of daughters they had given birth to so that the lesser off relatives were relieved of the responsibility of paying for the mandatory gold gift of kanyadaan.

These people didn’t hate their daughters. They kept having daughters until they had at least one son, but they mostly didn’t indulge in female foeticide. Daughters’ weddings would bring entire extended family together. Quite in the style of Rajshri productions’ movies, even though the homes were usually less glamorous than those in the films. At every family function one would be reminded how only daughters can bring real joy in these functions and how everything would be so dull without the daughters.

They were not even indifferent to their daughters. They wanted to raise them right, just like they wanted to raise their sons right.  So… they wanted their sons to study Science and daughters to study Home Science. They wanted their sons to be smart and their daughters to be gentle.

Cut to present day!

There was a discussion going on among some of the IIT alumni, many of them senior, accomplished people, about this event meant for woman professionals. The possible names and taglines were being discussed. A very senior, soft-spoken, well-meaning IITian suggested and strongly defended a particular tagline, because it was humble and sober. I reminded him that the idea of the event was empowerment of women. Why should the tagline be humble and sober? The tagline should portray strength, confidence, shouldn’t it? I was told that humility along with confidence goes a long way. So then I did a quick poll on my facebook account asking my mostly men friends from IITs how often they have wanted their event names and taglines be convey humility and soberness. You can guess the result. The person suggesting the humble and sober tagline didn’t mean any harm. It was, in fact, he who had originally proposed the idea of this event.

Any Harry Potter Fans here?

Do you remember the wise Dumbledore?


It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.

Most of the women sitting here would not have faced the obvious, brutish discrimination. They wouldn’t have been underfed so that men of the family could have their bellies full, they would not have had to give up their studies so that their brothers could study, they would have gone to the best schools, in fact. They wouldn’t have been neglected or beaten up by their families or husbands. They wouldn’t have any villains in their lives.

And yet! Yet, you feel the need to have a separate event for professional women. Despite there being no villain in their lives, they feel like they are falling behind, they are not achieving their potential, they are compromising.


Because impediments do not always come in the form of a villain with evil laughter ready to slay you at the first chance.

Impediments come in the form of well-meaning people.

Impediment comes in the form of that loving, proud father of an IIT girl, who told her that she should go for a Ph. D. after B. Tech. Why? Not because it was suitable for her temperament or aptitude, but because academia is a better place for women to be in. After all they have to shoulder family responsibilities later. Corporate life will make it difficult to handle.

This is a true story.

Do men not have families?

Impediment comes in the form of those nice friends, not only men, but women too, who post pseudo-empowering messages on facebook like “Women weren’t created to do everything a man can do. Women were created to do everything a man can’t do.”

Ummm, excuse me? Apart from getting pregnant and giving birth, what is that? Oh wait! Taking care of the family, kids, cooking, cleaning, washing, is it? Men can’t do it? Right! That’s why women should run homes, and men should run the world.

Hope you see the problem. Sorry! Messages of those kind do not empower or inspire women. They just try to make them happy and satisfied with wherever they are. So that the world can maintain its status quo and not ask uncomfortable questions.

Impediment comes in the form of their “natural” urge to be caregivers, which is “respected” and “encouraged” by everyone around them?

What is this natural urge? Look around yourself. Even with the constant social conditioning trying to make them otherwise, don’t you come across women who don’t feel maternal urges and men who are great with kids, babies included. If there wasn’t this incessant social conditioning about what you are supposed to feel, what would the situation look like? My guess? Not the opposite, but very different.

Impediment comes in the form of the “myth” of “choice”. Who am I to question if a woman chooses to put her kids and family above her career? I am no one to interfere with what she does. But I have a right to wonder if the choice is real for most people. Was the choice between whether the father will stay at home or the mother? Unlikely. The choice was between whether nobody will stay at home versus whether the mother will stay at home. When only one person has a choice, that is not much of a choice.

Impediment comes in the form of outraged question “Are you saying making money is the only worthwhile use of people’s time? Aren’t family and home as important? What will you do with all the money if your family is not happy?” Good question. So long as it is not directed solely at women.

Impediment comes in the form of internalized assumptions about your role.  It comes in the form a women working to empower other women starting her case with “We are women. We have to take care of our families before everything else.”

It comes in the form of harmless jokes that imply men can’t cook and women can’t read maps or that women irrationally have upper hand in the relationships.

Impediment comes in the form of the argument that if there are women who support practices that work against women’s professional advances, there cannot be anything wrong with those practices. No. Just because a woman perpetuates it, a discriminatory practice doesn’t become right.

Impediment comes in the form of all the people you love and who love you, including your family, husband and kids.

What do women need today? More maternity leave? Or more paternity leave? Do they need more time to take care of kids? Or do they need their partners to share the responsibility? Do they need to be deified and installed in well-decorated temples? Or do they need to be treated like real persons who may have the similar career aspirations and similar love for their families as men.

I might already have ruffled some feathers here. Still I will end with a blasphemy. I can forgive Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol for Dilwale. I cannot forgive them for Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. The movie that made lots of money while promoting and elevating the patriarchal custom of Karwa Chauth by giving it a romantic twist. There is nothing romantic about it.

I know that I have only raised questions and not given answers. But that’s all I intended to do. There aren’t any quick answers. There are no 5 steps to liberation. We have a tough fight. With people who matter the most to us.

That’s all. Thank you. I am not sure what questions I can answer. But if there are any, please feel free to shoot.

Can Flipkart be Saved? Can Arithmetic be Altered?

It is no news that Flipkart is faltering. Fighting bravely, but faltering. Struggling to keep up with Amazon in the game that they themselves played against all the Indian players earlier – the game of the last man standing. A game that relies on having deep pockets.

Let me pause here for a moment before going ahead. You cannot take away from Flipkart everything that they have done right. The deep pocket by itself wouldn’t have taken them where they have reached. It was the execution that attracted the money in the first place. And they continued to excel at the execution after the money came. If any Indian e-commerce player deserved the money, it was them.


But life isn’t fair. Even if you have worked the hardest and have access to the best coaching centers, you are not guaranteed to be the exam topper throughout your life. In the form of Amazon, Flipkart has encountered a rival unlike any of the homegrown ones. Amazon has an even easier access to money and a much longer experience of good execution. In Indian market they even benefited from the ground Flipkart had already prepared. When Amazon came, customers as well as sellers were already sold on the Indian e-commerce story. They didn’t have to stand outside distributors’ office just so they could get their catalogs and stock information. They had it all readily available for them. But they didn’t squander the advantage away. They went ahead and built on top of it. Did local things that even the local boy Flipkart hadn’t done. Tight integration with and extensive use of India Post, for example. The stamps tell the story!

There is more. Even now Amazon isn’t standing on its current laurels. They are taking the full advantage of the long staying power the money gives them. They are serious about even a category like books which, at best, has been written off as a marketing cost by their Indian counterparts, and at worst, has been removed from their offerings altogether. They aren’t giving up on Kindle or eBooks in India although it is a given that eBooks in India have a long, long way to go. They do things like incentivizing sellers for listing regional language titles. They have invested in Westland Books. And did anyone notice that they have quietly entered the second-hand book market through Junglee? (Refurbished mobile phone are there too.) They became a formidable force in the publishing industry in the US. In India, they might very well be the one to build a market for books like nobody else has done before.

Given Amazon, can Flipkart do anything right to fix things? Can Flipkart aim to be profitable? Even if it is in select categories? Why would Amazon not undercut them in whatever category they wish to? Can private label really save them? In how many categories? And by what margin? Once you go beyond consulting-speak these are the fundamental questions that must be asked? And unfortunately, they do not seem to have an easy answer. Amazon doesn’t have an obvious weakness. So “not focusing on the competitor” is not going to work for Flipkart, because really! What is the differentiator? When it comes to Paytm and Snapdeal, customer service can be. But when it comes to Amazon, unfortunately not.

I don’t want Flipkart to be decimated. Not out of any patriotic feelings, but for very selfish reasons. As a business where a decent amount of our revenue comes through established e-commerce channels, I don’t want to be dependent on one player. As a customer, of course, one can’t want a monopoly. And in either of the roles, I don’t trust Amazon to be nice. It is a ruthless company. All its nicety is only good business. It can be terrible. For sellers, of course. But also for customers.

As much as I want Flipkart to be in the game as a strong player, unless a policy change creates some major hurdle for Amazon (I can’t imagine what that would be) or the funding issues are somehow sorted out for Flipkart (for the long term), the situation looks pretty bleak. You can’t alter the basic arithmetic. If the other guy is willing to lose money, and has all the advantages you have, how do you get customers? Become a niche player, an MBA case-study would have pointed out the solution. But can you? Given the amount of money that has gone into making Flipkart the leading generic e-commerce player, the idea of it becoming a niche player sounds laughable. Can it tackle Amazon through some other means? By not fighting head on with it? Using something else? What? Amazon has AWS. Flipkart has? eKart? Now logistics is an industry that can very well be disrupted for good in India. There have also been attempts at making eKart a business in itself, hopefully a profitable one. But can Flipkart, the poster-boy of Indian e-commerce, with billions sunk into making it so, pivot and become primarily a logistic player? I have a feeling I will get worse than dirty looks if I were a consultant suggesting this.

What then? I believe in miracles. I also believe that miracles are made from hard work. But I don’t think you can plan and PR your way into being miraculous. I would pray for the miracle. I am not holding my breath for it, though. Another round of funding could postpone the problem for a year or two, of course. But it isn’t going away.

Don’t You Feel the Need to Defend?

“Don’t you feel the need to defend Bihar any longer?” asked a friend, casually, as the conversation turned to the recent exam-topper fraud brought into light by the media.

“No. Why should I?” seemed like a callous response, so I shrugged non-committally. Unfortunately for me, the friend is sharp and also knows me pretty well; so she concluded correctly, “You don’t.”


Udta Punjab might have won the favor of high court, but the self-appointed keepers of Punjab-prestige are not giving up. They feel the need to defend their state.

Another young friend, usually an unconcerned, easy-going sort of a girl, felt the need to condemn the “wrong” portrayal of “Maratha people” in Bajirao-Mastani.

Deriding and defending IITians is a common theme of threads in startup forums. And some people are hurt that despite being from IITs and IIMs myself I am not defending the students in the Flipkart placement row.

Defending your tribe seems like an expected behavior, even demanded out of you. I am sure that there would even be some evolutionary explanation for it. Being with your people helped you survive. So you defended each other. No universal morality or sense of justice was applicable back then.

But for people like us, increasingly, the universal views dominate over the sympathy for our tribe. And for how many tribes can one keep feeling the belongingness? How many groups can I keep defending without losing my own soul? Bihar, my state? India, my country? Navodaya, IIT, IIM – my schools? Google – my most important ex-employer? Bangalore – practically my own city now? My language? My caste? My family? Women professionals? Women, in general?

And why should I defend any of them?

No, I don’t feel the urge to defend. I do, sometimes, feel the urge to contradict someone who is single-mindedly focussed on one aspect of some issue, ignoring any evidence that goes against their idea. But that issue need not be about a tribe I belong to. It could be, but it could be anything else. Yes, I find myself contradicting the notions of many of my North Indian compatriots that Hindi must be a universally accepted language in India. And then I also find myself contradicting the Kannadigas who think that people who don’t know Kannada don’t have any rights to live in the state.

But I don’t feel the need to defend either Bihar, or Bangalore.

Is there something wrong with it? Not feeling the need to defend?

Flipkart-IIT-IIM row is pathetic on so many counts!


I had difficulty in putting down a coherent response to the controversy. Because it reveals so much that is pathetic and wrong with our systems, with our people, with our mentality, that even writing them down makes me feel enervated. But here is an attempt anyway.

  • We are talking about (supposedly) some of the best educational institutes of the country, right? (If they aren’t the best, what would all the swagger be about?) Why can’t they produce students who are confident of their competence and ability to provide value, and hence finding a good job? Why are these students okay with being portrayed as a bunch of miserable, starving victims whose last morsel has been snatched away from them? Flipkart was a day zero or day one company at most of these places, right? So these students are supposedly best of even the best, crème de la crème. Are they going to go crying to Mommy every time they face a problem in their careers? Are our best institutions so proud of producing such self-entitled wimps?
  • When they get those ridiculously high salaries, it is all good because — market forces, right? The world must accept that. That world, then, is not obliged to shield them when market forces start working against them. Get it? Market forces?
  • The entire placement system itself is so reflective of the greed and the herd mentality – the slots based on salary numbers quoted, the manipulations to ensure “good placement records”, and then this brouhaha that the compensation of 1.5 lacs is not enough. Go get another job, for God’s sake, if you need money, instead of twiddling your thumbs for next six months. What more? So many of you would have changed your jobs within six months of joining anyway. Your placement committees would not have compensated companies for their loss in that case.
  • IIMs don’t even realize the irony of crying foul, do they? Don’t they prepare their students for an “ever-changing”, “increasingly fast-paced”, “risky” world of business? Aren’t they supposed to train for dealing with ups and downs, including and especially the external factors? When they chose to make Flipkart a day zero or day one company, did they not know that they were adopting a high-risk, high-reward strategy? That Flipkart was not a profitable company despite its size and salary numbers? That it was dependent on VC money and that it could dry out? If I were an alternative employer, I would still hire the “stranded” IIT graduates if they can code. I would definitely not hire these management graduates who didn’t understand what they were doing in picking up  Flipkart in the first place.
  • And now the childish response of “banning” companies. Welcome to History. A year later, when the same or similar companies dangle the carrots of high salary numbers, you will go crawling back to them, even proudly featuring the number of students they picked up in your next year’s placement brochure. Or wait! The students will apply to them anyhow even if you don’t allow them back through the formal channel. If they want they will bypass the campus placements and the placement in-charges will cry foul yet again. So, how about some calm career counselling for your students, ridding them of their sense of entitlement, and instilling the need to do something useful, instead of this playing-the-victim game.
  • I have long maintained and continue to maintain that educational institutes should stop behaving like placement agencies. They should get out of the business of getting jobs for their students. Instead, they should focus on educating students well so that they don’t need such crutches. Have job fairs by all means. Let there be a platform for companies and students to interact. Arrange for counselling and advice. But let the transaction that is a job offer be a business between the individual student and the employer. Stop creating those week-long concentration camps that are known as “placement days” or some equivalent of it. I don’t expect institutes lower down in the reputation hierarchy to do this first. Will the best ones take a lead?

Universal Basic Income – Nobody Should Worry About Basic Needs

SI have been curious about the idea of universal basic income for a while. The idea, by itself, is simple. The government gives a certain amount of money, no strings attached, to all its citizens. The money should be enough to meet basic needs and there is no condition on who gets it. Everybody does. It is different from many normal public welfare government programs or laws we are familiar with.

  • It is not a minimum wage law. Minimum wage is what you must get when you are working. Basic income is something you get irrespective of whether you are working or not. And if you are working, it is apart from, and independent of, anything you are making on your job.
  • It is not a cash to the poor scheme. There is no condition on who gets it. Rich and poor, employed and unemployed, villagers and urban dwellers – everyone gets it.
  • It is not an employment guarantee scheme. You just get the cash. You don’t have to work for it.
  • It is not one among the myriad of food, education or health schemes. There are no conditions on how you spend the money you get as the basic income. Your can drink your brains out and spend the night in the drains if you wish. (You might get caught under some other law, but not because of what you did with your basic income money). You can buy an iPhone (if the basic income is sufficient for that). Or you can spend it on food, education, and health.

If you have not heard of the idea or considered it before, you are perhaps shaking your head at this point. What does that even mean? That’s worse than communism. Who will ever work if they get free money?


If you decide to trash it right away, I can hardly stop you. It so obviously doesn’t make sense, right? The idea is naively misguided at its best.

But you can consider hanging on for a moment.

Will nobody work if everybody was given a basic income?

I don’t think so. If you are an optimist you will call it human ambition, if cynical call it human greed; it is infinite. People are not satisfied with even much higher amounts of money than what a basic income scheme can provide. They want to continue earning more to keep up with, and stay ahead of, Joneses and their cousins. The world is not going to stop working just because they have enough money to feed themselves. They always want more. At least for materialistic gain they will continue working.

But working is not just about earning. Many people find an intrinsic satisfaction in the work they do. A lot of early work in philosophy and science came from the so-called “gentlemen of leisure” – people who didn’t have to work for their livelihoods. Of course, the leisure of this class of people was earned by the exploitation of a much larger part of the population. So nobody wants to go back to those days. But the point here is that good work is not necessarily motivated by livelihood needs. In fact, if you think of  fields like literature and arts, where popularity (economic benefits) and greatness do not necessarily go hand in hand, leisure and basic income will help create more good work. Could it mean not enough of popular work will be produced? Unlikely. See the earlier paragraph about working for materialistic gains. Even in sciences and business, if people didn’t think that the alternative to holding onto their jobs was dying of hunger, we might see less of meaningless or even harmful work getting produced. Perhaps people won’t feel as justified in publishing papers with fudged or wrong data or going along with unethical business decisions if they didn’t fear so much for their jobs.

But poor people will become lazy and their men will only use the money to drink.

Many among the rich do not know how to manage money. Many among the poor also, perhaps, do not know. And we are misdirected in taking this paternalistic approach specifically towards the poor. For the most part, people on the brink of hunger will buy food first and that will be a good thing. Besides basic income is not a one-time dole out. It is a long-term, ideally lifelong, assurance of basic dignity. Once the direness of life stops killing you, positive ambitions are more likely to take its place in your mental space. Maslow’s hierarchy may not be as neatly hierarchical as its diagram tends to suggest, but there is an essentially correct idea in there. There will always be some lazy, useless people in the society – poor or rich. But overall I have more hope of poor people becoming upwardly mobile and living more meaningful lives than all of them becoming lazy drunkards.

What we do really fear (but won’t say out loud) when we express worries about poor people becoming lazy is that we won’t get cheap labor. In India, you don’t have to be super-rich to hire a maid or a cook or even a full-time driver. That’s because we can find them cheap. With the basic income, they won’t have an incentive to work too cheap. Already with schemes like MNREGA, in some parts of the country, people are complaining about not getting labor easily for farming or household work. I will read that “easily” as “cheaply”. But middle class losing some convenience (I will be one of the losers in this case) of the cheap labor is no reason why a whole population should not live with more dignity. And with universal basic income, the maid-hiring middle class is also eligible for it. Perhaps we can use that to pay the higher salary demanded by our domestic help!

This introduces another reason to consider universal basic income. The increasing automation and less need of human labor. We can celebrate it or we can denounce it, but we can’t deny it. A lot of basic tasks do not need as much human labor as they used to need (With washing machines many of us don’t need maids to wash our clothes!). How many kinds of jobs have disappeared in last two centuries? And how many more are on the brink of disappearing? Oh yes, yes – I hear that – reskilling, upskilling, so-many-employers-can’t-find-employees etc. But firstly, even reskilled jobs will continue to succumb to automation. A significant part of Infosys kind of “software engineering” may be automated sooner than we would ever have thought. Secondly, perhaps so much work is really not needed. In the beginning of the industrial age, hopeful people had dreamed of lesser working hours in a more industrialized society. That hasn’t come to pass. Why do so many organizations want to hire skilled sales people? To increasingly push products on the consumers who aren’t interested enough in them? Why? Why can’t we do with less production? Why do we need overproduction of clothes to be sold at 70% discounts online or in the malls to the people with already overstuffed wardrobes, when our garment workers are paid paltry sums and when there are still others who are dying of cold in want of sufficient clothes? For good or for bad, our production systems are becoming so efficient that we may not need all the human labor available to produce enough for everybody. But people need to eat, to wear clothes and to live. Hence basic income. And then let them work on things they desire whether or not it pays. Let them create poetry, art or organic gardens nobody pays for. Or perhaps enough people do and they become the next bestselling author or the next hot artist or the next unexpected business success. Let both the possibilities exist.

Back to earth. Universal basic income is by no means an idea that is ready to go. Especially not in India. In the countries that are considering such experiments (Canada, Switzerland, Netherlands etc.), to decide how much the basic income should be, people start by looking at the public welfare spending of the government and dividing it by the total population of the country. The idea is that all other kinds of welfare programs may be replaced by the single one of universal basic income. When I tried doing that for India with the numbers I found online, the result was laughable.

Besides that India specific problem, even if one were to experiment with it on a small scale, it will have to be a leap of faith. You can argue about the possibilities – good and bad – but to predict the real effects is impossible unless a long-term experiment is successfully conducted and analyzed. There are too many variables involved. Obvious technical issues of administration, inflation, labor market changes aside, the human behavior – especially when a whole population is involved – is nothing if not unpredictable. Some earlier attempts at experiments in other countries either did not survive long enough to get a result or the analysis never came forward or what came forward turned out to be faulty. Long-term experiments by governments seem to become the victim of political vicissitudes. Perhaps an NGO trying the experiment will fare better.

What I wonder about is if it would be possible to do an experiment of giving a basic income to people in some small, relatively isolated part in India. If the experiment is not universal (for the entire country), we have to deal with the conditionality which is not there in the original idea. Who all get the money? We don’t want it to be on the basis of income. So all residents of a relatively isolated place would make a good choice. Small and isolated will help in administration. We don’t want people shifting to the selected place surreptitiously just to get the money. If the place is small we should be able to identify the residents in the very beginning.I am still thinking about it.

To sign off, here are some articles related to universal basic income that you can read