CSR: What you didn’t know about Section 135 and didn’t bother to find out!

Manika works at READ Oceanic Center’s Solar Shop – a social enterprise designed to provide an income to sustain the center while delivering solar lamps as a clean, affordable energy alternative to kerosene lamps for the community.

This post is in response to a column by a media person and friend featured in First Post.

The reason, of course, is to dispel the myths and mythology that seems to be surrounding common knowledge and understanding of Section 135, of the Companies Act, 2013, which makes CSR ( or much criticized  as the 2 percent tax) which companies have to make as part of their reporting.

Not to mention, the complete unawareness of the developments in the space of CSR by the esteemed columnist, and the perpetuation of myths that make the Greek rendition of a Minotaur (Half Man, Half Bull) into complete bull!

Myth 1: 2 percent tax

Reality: there is none. Companies simply have to report that they have spent, or failed to do so, in every financial year, at least two per cent of the average net profits of the company made during the three immediately preceding financial years, in pursuance of its Corporate Social Responsibility Policy. If they haven’t, that’s upto them, but the mandatory part of the law is the reporting, and that’s it. As of now, while there are consultations afoot to make spends mandatory, but that will require an amendment of the law. To put things in perspective, it took 10 years to get this version of the Companies Act out as law.

Myth 2: Companies and their heads, or better halves, can choose whatever scheme they want

Reality: Section 135 lays down that the CEO’s, their wives, or related family members, or even heads of departments like HR, marketing and Corporate Affairs have no role to play. Read that again! You read that right. Nada! Zilch, Kuch nahin! No role, period.

The law clearly states, that the first responsibility of the qualifying entity (companies with net worth of INR 500 crore or more (approx.USD 100 million  or more), or a turnover  of INR 1000 crore or more (approx. USD 200 million or more), or a net profit  of rupees five crore or more (approx. USD 1 million or more) during any financial year,  is to report that a CSR committee with at least one independent member, has been formed.

Why? Clearly to take out the abuse of the system, so aptly described by the columnist quoted. No longer can there be CSR in the form of CEO philanthropy or “Noblesse Oblige”, or political patronage in the name of CSR.

So what will this board committee do? Simply, set out the CSR policy framework for the company. To quote, “This committee needs to formulate and set out the Corporate  Social Responsibility Policy which  shall  indicate the activities to be  undertaken by the company as specified in Schedule VII of the above act, as well as recommend the amount of expenditure to be incurred on the activities referred to in clause (a); and monitor the Corporate Social Responsibility Policy of the company from time to time.”

Somehow, I don’t see the role of HR, corporate affairs, or marketing heads here. And that is by design. The new Companies Act, which drew more debate on this one section than any of the others, has put the onus of responsibility at the level where it belongs, the representatives of investors, read Board members. And that one independent member, has the responsibility of upsetting the whole underlying assumption of crony capitalism, of parking money in local politician funded NGO’s, and CEO’s wives favourite ‘selfie’ moments, and taking the impact of CSR into where it really matters, into the lives of ‘the poorest of the poor”, “Daridra Narayan” as described by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as per the recommendations of the board committee.

Myth 3: CSR funds are another form of buying favour

Reality: do you really need to? Schedule VII gives ample scope for companies to demonstrate their own understanding and imperatives. Have a look at the Schedule:

  • Activities which may be included by companies in their Corporate Social Responsibility Policies:
    (i) eradicating extreme hunger and poverty;
    (ii) promotion of education;
    (iii) promoting gender equality and empowering women;
    (iv) reducing child mortality and improving maternal health;
    (v) combating human immunodeficiency virus, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, malaria and other diseases;
  • (vi) ensuring environmental sustainability;
    (vii) employment enhancing vocational skills;
    (viii) social business projects;
    (ix) contribution to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund or any other fund set up by the Central Government or the State Governments for socioeconomic development and relief and funds for the welfare of the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, other backward classes, minorities and women; and
    (x) such other matters as may be prescribed ( and the latest notification allows setting up technology entrepreneurship cells within academic institutions)
  • If you knew your meat from bull, you would notice the similarity with the UN’s Millenium Development Goals. But, obviously, the pre-meditated notions of people the columnist refers to having spoken with, or his underlying presumptions won’t allow for the need to read anything beyond 140 characters.

If you spend 2 percent of your average net profits, in any of the causes above, any and all politicians will be happy to oblige. Heck, you, your company, the project and people responsible would be touted by the UN, B20 summits, and the WEF, no less.

And now let me focus on the real power and implications of Section 135, which has confounded the columnist, and is the reason why corporate India and its minions are busy at work discrediting this legislation- unprecedented anywhere in the world.

  1. The CSR policy will decide activities which will consume two percent of average net profits of the previous three years. How?
  2. There will have to be a project. A measurable and benchmarkable project. For instance, your company decides to spend INR 100 Crore, or USD 17 Million dollars, at current exchange rates, on Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan, as part of your Board’s CSR policy around say, reducing child mortality, or combating diseases, or environmental sustainability.
  3. The report will need to showcase a baseline assessment survey. Is there a need to sweep a city street which is already well served by the municipal corporation, for which your company pays taxes, or to take it where there is none, and your company’s board believes it is more effective.
  4. Not just a project, but with yearly monitoring and evaluation. For instance, the justification that comes out of spends on #MyCleanIndia program is that more children will be healthy and be able to attend school. The data that will be needed to be monitored by the board is “what percentage of children in the area where our project is, are now, for instance, able to do Class V math”. And this has to be monitored and reported, year on year on year, just like corporate profits. Call it what you may, project or program mode, I call it “mission mode”, and am sorry corporate boards now have to wake up and smell the coffee.
  5. Rupee denominated social projects. This is perhaps, the first time anywhere in the world, that corporates have to demonstrate their social commitment in terms of rupees spent. Most global corporates and a few of Indian origin, have fallen into the trap of compliance reporting, I call it checkbox reporting. Try doing it with PR , or branding but avoiding any mention of any real percentage of corporate profits. After all, corporates and their investors are simply interested in the profits, the market cap and dividends these enterprises provide, right? Now, wake up and smell the masala chai! The country which will be making the highest investment in renewable energy anywhere in the world, in the next 10 years, is India. Is that CSR or a compelling business case for social investment in times of climate change?

But, there’s a caveat. The same telecoms and retail giant quoted in the column ran in to trouble with tax authorities when they tried to claim the signboard at their school toilet project, a brilliant input from their hugely competent marketing team, as part of its CSR spend. And so will a number of others, who think that the advertisement for a tournament for disabled, or monies spent to bring a filmstar to inaugurate a slum cleanliness drive, or even high spends on TV for sanitation will pass off as CSR under section 135. The answer, my friend, is baseline impact. Did that money change any of the metrics the Board set out to monitor, or was it pure fluff?

The questions, that will be asked, as part of the report filling in process will be:

  1. What was the ground necessity for the project at that location? Did you do a baseline assessment of requirements
  2. What is the CSR project expected to achieve? What goals are you shooting for and by when, and what will you report every year
  3. How much money will it cost? How are you monitoring and evaluating your investors’ money being spent (can you afford to be irresponsible with CSR funds carved out of you investors incomes?)

And here’s an example of a large, say, public sector giant with running average net profits of INR 30,000 Crores, or an annual CSR fund commit of INR 600 Crores ( Above USD 100 Million). This is no longer the flower show, or local jagran sponsorship level activity, it’s almost as much as an annual budget of a major product line, and it will be the Key Responsibility Area of the CEO with Board committee oversight.

Am sure, HR, Corporate Affairs, or marketing heads, will not have these answers, or even the data points or projects to develop and sustain such projects year on year. And yes! Maybe CEO wives and movie stars could look good on annual reports and while inaugurating the programs, but make no mistake, the law as it stands is designed to ask tougher questions from the Board CSR committee, and the quicker they learn to upskill and design their policies for their own growth and sustainability the better it will be.

So, the question is no longer whether the CA, or the CEO, or the auditor can design or drive CSR reporting in India. It will require a completely different level of understanding among company directors, those who are Board members, and also require companies to access or develop the design, monitoring and reporting skills required to comply. And am afraid no traditional MBA program can help with those. As I said earlier, this law is unprecedented anywhere in the world. The speed, skill and scale required to comply will have to be developed in India, for India, and then the world.

Disclaimer: presently, a digital entrepreneur, I have nursed my connections with the CSR space throughout my corporate and entrepreneurial career. I am founder Trustee of READ India ( an NGO which supports rural education projects via local social enterprises), I am also co-author of the then International Business Leaders Forum report on LEADERSHIP IN A RAPIDLY CHANGING WORLD- How business leaders in India are reframing success, and more recently, master trainer with the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, set up by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, having co-authored the courseware for creating a new cadre of CSR professionals, who now will  be better equipped to fill the need gap on CSR policy formulation, project design, monitoring and evaluation, to provide support to India’s corporate boards.

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Road to a Digital Nation starts with building toilets

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first Independence Day Address

Its India’s 68th Independence Day, and the first address by a Prime Minister who was born in independent India.

And while,  Narendra Modi made his way through a speech that would appeal to a new India. An India of the 21st century, and almost a decade and half post millennium, his speech brought out issues that dog the daily lives of common India.

The three themes in Narendra Modi’s address ( full text here in 18 Indian languages) were Clean India, Skilled India and Digital India as a vision for Made in India appealing to the needs, wants and aspirations of a people 50% of whom are less than 30 years of age. Mr. Modi is a practical man, and he knows the linkages between the keywords.

And, there is a personal connect here!

Cut to 1999, when I was the comms head in an MNC Telecom software company. Among the portfolios that landed on my lap, and which I embraced was CSR ( corporate social responsibility).

Enter Mathew Cherian, then CEO of CAF ( Charities Aid Foundation), and presently, the CEO of HelpageIndia and author of book (A MILLION MISSIONS – THE NON-PROFIT SECTOR IN INDIA)

Mathew and I, after putting in place, possibly the first intranet-linked auto-deduct payroll giving scheme in India ( where employees can contribute a part of their monthly salary to a charity of their choice, with the company giving a matching grant) for raising relief funds for the 1999 Odisha Super-cyclone, and the 2000 Rajasthan drought, decided to turn our attention to a project which could be on ground and sustained by the corporate over a long time.

Based on discussions with the CEO and Head of HR, we decided on ‘bridging the digital divide’. In other words, setting up a computer lab in a local village school, so that underprivileged kids from the community could aspire to, and come and work at the MNC software company.

Enter Col. Taneja, the man was all of a sprightly 80 when I first met him. He had been helping out in the neighbourhood villages in and around Palam Vihar with funds from friends and relatives. Col Sahab, as we called him, spoke British English and Haryanvi, and his towering frame commanded respect among the villagers and sarpanches of Carterpuri and Choma villages. The NGO he set up was initially named, Friends of Carterpuri and Choma villages.

Truth be told, the first time I laid eyes on the Carterpuri Village Government High School, I was appalled. I grew up in a steel town in West Bengal, and used to cycle to villages around, but here was a village and a school, right in the middle of a suburban colony, but with only the boundary wall and the principal’s office standing.

There was a large banyan tree in the central yard, but since all the roofs had collapsed, classes were held in the open with the black tar paint on the boundary walls serving as blackboards. I counted about 80 kids, of all ages from toddlers to teens attending class, with 3 classes being conducted on adjacent walls.

The teachers were doing what was then routine, teaching by rote and repetition. So the combined cacophony of Hindi, English and two times tables rhymed into a unique blend of sounds.

But, what was even more startling was the smell from one wall behind the principal’s office, which was the public loo wall. Boys did it standing up, girls squatting, and close by was a tap for washing hands, drinking water, but no water.

We were allocated that wall for the computer classroom we had in mind. Col.Taneja knew the impact this would have on an impressionable mind, and when we returned we changed the plans, completely.

First, while we had the computers ready, this was a software export unit, so we had very high-end PCs which were imported at subsidized customs duty. At that point of time, no piece of equipment was allowed to be taken out of the development centre without the permission in writing from the customs authorities. When the cause was explained, rules were amended to allow donations of PCs to government schools. That process, however, deserves another post.

Second, what do you do about electricity? Haryana, then, had power lines but with very little trickling down to the switch. That was easily solved, the investment plan was updated to account for a generator and fuel, and the air-conditioning then mandatory for old PCs, was scaled down to a locally- made air cooler system with a dehumidifier.

Third, what do you do about the wall? Fact one, there were no loos, or segregated drinking water and washing taps. Teachers and the principal were non-committal about the placement of loos in the original plan. One of them rued the fact, that the fields that were being used earlier, had been allocated for housing plots, and now it had become difficult to defecate in the day. People, men and women had to do their stuff either early morning or late at night.

So, this is what we did.

We updated the plan to build two separate loos on either side of the computer room. One side would have urinals for men and boys, as well as ceramic potty. The other end would have potty’s and a closed wash area for women and girls.

Meanwhile, Col.Taneja found leverage out of our commit to rope in other friends to fund re-building and furnishing classrooms. He personally designed wood top bench-seats, with wrought iron frames, since they were virtually indestructible. “Bakshi, these folks use the school grounds, for all kinds of events, and tie cattle with benches”, he used to say.

The much- awaited computer lab was inaugurated a year later, but the moment the building with toilets and running water was in place, there was a sudden change in the school.

First thing I noticed was the kids started looking smarter. Cleaner clothes, better turned out. Teachers started landing up, beyond the three I first met, we found there were a dozen more, who started taking classes, and the classes started moving indoors, thanks majorly to Col.Taneja’s other funders, who funded the re-roofing of collapsed classrooms.

We created an employee volunteer group: “ReachOut” to go and teach a class of all who were interested on how to use computers, with a special session for the Principal and teachers. 

Eight years later, when I visited the school with Toni, chairperson, READ Global, an NGO I am still associated with. The school was unrecognizable.

Of course, development all around had all but removed all memory of the village shacks around the only “pucca” wall in the place. The school had been fully developed, with class rooms all around the walls, with a yard and tree now at the center. The classes were busy, so we stopped only at the crafts center, where village women were making and selling knitted and stitched household furnishings.

After, the usual round of greetings, namaste’s all around, the tall young woman, who was drawing designs on a PC, came across and started bending down to touch my feet. A gesture that so surprised me that I stepped back with a start. Disappointed, she straightened up, smiled and asked how come I didn’t remember her. And then the penny dropped, the only girl in the first under- 10 years class at the computer lab, had grown up, with her familiar grin, and was standing right in front of me.

And, then in fairly good English told the gathering of visitors from California and the local NGO volunteers. ”This sir, put in the computers, and taught us how to operate PC”, “that was when our school got the toilets with doors”.

Cut to present date, and announcements by many leading corporates committing CSR funds to building toilets, in answer to the Prime Minister’s call, and I am reminded of that journey.

And my personal take-out; The road to building a digital nation starts with toilets with doors and clean water.

Update: Mathew on reading the blog, told me that a number of those students are currently employed at the software company. The circle is complete!

Posted in Corporate, CSR, Jay Vikram Bakshi, Leadership, politics, social enterprise, sustainability, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Leadership Legacy Mindset: lessons from observing leaders

Leadership legacy

leading from the front

Political leaders, social leaders, business leaders, have a decision to make. What after they have achieved all their professional and personal goals? Most try to do more of the same, perhaps in the hope that what worked well before will lead to better results with greater efficiency and execution.

A few, however, reflect on what their success meant in the context in which it was achieved, and deliberate on what can create a sustainable road for their organisation, company, or even belief system.

In other words, what is the Leadership Legacy that remains embedded within the minds, beliefs, operations and Eco-systems long after they have exited.

I call this the Leadership Legacy mindset. And I find many, many successful leaders wondering about the secret recipe to ignite the imagination, drive the execution and create a belief system that sustains organisations, teams and Eco-systems.

Some others, on the other hand, have a well thought out path to progress. Take, for instance, M.K. Gandhi, the mahatma who created the doctrine of non-violence as a collective action for protest. While his execution focus was clearly on winning India her independence from British colonial rule, his conviction in his approach found him commenting on the Russian Bolshevik revolution, Germany’s fascination with Nazis, as well as the means and methods adopted by the Allied powers in winning World War 2.

And while in a famous exchange of letters, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, urged Gandhi to take the world on the path of non-violence, Gandhi, always a practical man, reverted with his belief, that his role was primarily in the context he was familiar with, leaving his doctrine to be followed successfully globally by leaders like Martin Luther King jr. and Nelson Mandela, amongst thousand others.The doctrine and approach is Gandhian, the flavour can be as local and adaptive as possible.

For business leaders, in a corporate context, the legacy mindset is typically surrounded by a set of goals, or value systems which sustain beyond them. For instance, Steve Jobs’ in his biography by Walter Isaacson, is found agonising about the Apple culture, an approach to innovative thinking in personal mobile computing lifestyle, which made the company and him an icon in his life time. I would like to have taken the names of ‘neutron’ Jack Welch or even the original BMOC ( Big Man On Campus) Lee Iacocca in the same breath, but I can’t.

The reason is simple, while both these leaders were iconic in their own way, none of them created a sustainable legacy which took their organisations, teams, or even industry Eco-systems from strength to strength. And the jury is out on Jobs as well!

Closer home in India, we do hear similar stories, but the one which catches the imagination is the leadership legacy of J R D Tata, and the reason is simple. In each and every instance, the key message that stands out is a story of contributing to building a nation. What are you doing today that means something to every life in your context? I wrote a tribute to the Late Russi Mody last week, recalling a series of interviews I did with him in the early 90’s, and what stood out was the footprint that JRD had embedded in the Tata organisations and its impact on the next set of leaders.

When you view legacy from this prism, people such as Charles Schwab, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and J. P. Morgan stand out as folks who envisaged their enterprises contributing to a nation by becoming relevant to the man on the street. Perhaps, the leaders of the computing and Internet era would also be viewed in similar lines. For instance, Bill Gates at Microsoft, or even the partnerships such as Hewlett and Packard, or Page and Brin at Google.

But truth be told, these visionaries will be remembered for, in the application of their doctrines, a set of values, beliefs and behaviours that are applicable beyond the context of their discovery. Bill Gates is already doing that in the world of healthcare and learning, the Google founders have already marked their footprint in home and health space. But am equally certain that without this mindset, founders and CEO’s are likely to disappear into the mounds of public records as the world discovers new ideas to explore and follow.

The next question is the set of behaviours, the meme-s these leaders create which are picked up by folks around them, and the mythology that connects with people.

If Gandhi hadn’t been thrown off a train, would his story of self transformation  and the discovery of non-violence as a protest method been as effective. Similarly, had Gandhi not been a great organiser would he have been able to coax, cajole, convince and corral people around him to participate in the rallies, protests, and fasts?

Learnings,

Firstly, as a leader you need to articulate your doctrine which can be learned by everyone.

Secondly, your success in execution will determine others attempting to follow. 

 And Thirdly, and most importantly, making your success principles easy to imbibe and follow.

what is your Leadership Legacy?

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The Retail Remix

Last weekend was about entrepreneurs! Its become some kind of a habit for me to spend a day each week with startups. Saturdays turn out to be the best days. VC’s, and PE’s are winding down their mad travel schedules…a bad economy is a great time to place medium to long term bets! Entrepreneurs, usually a self-obsessed, jittery lot, try to consciously stop to breathe in intoxicants other than inhaling their own exhaust fumes.

So a friend said, there’s a new chai bar we must stop by. He was impressed with the name and signage, and the fact that a man was wearing the sign- walking signboard style- in the parking lot of the market.

So we went, the place which had opened just a month back had a new paint and furniture smell mingling with the North Indian conception of chai- Karak ( Strong) with a whole load of spices and boiling milk. I instinctively said, this place is gonna rock, noticing the offer of free wifi and a few creative individuals sitting with their Macbooks open.

Question: How do you make out a creative individual? If it’s a man, he’ll either have a shaved top, with a stylish beard, preferably with thick shell spectacles. If it’s a woman, she’ll have tattoo ink peeking out, and neon accessories. Both will carry a backpack.

So, we go over, pore over the menu and decide a few samplers, my friend is a member of the city’s gourmet club, and takes his role seriously, and after the customary Facebook food shot, FourSquare Check-in and Twitter shout out, we start looking around, trying to guess how much this startup might be making. Suddenly, the Barista slides across a sampler, this is a mini-sandwich with bread and Maggi. I detest the wheat on wheat combination, would rather have a straight-laced BLT, but they don’t have it on their menu. So, I invite the young 20-something to join us at the table, and ask him what? How? Why? When?

It seems the coolest thing today at IIT Delhi is to do a startup. Young man here, got into an online education startup with 3 friends straight out of college. The venture lasted less than a year. They had over estimated interest in better results, and hadn’t worked out the gestation period and funding. So, this chai bar is a second venture. Not really! Another college senior had started this concept at another location, our young friend joined in as a founding team member to lead this outlet. And the work description includes,

  1. standing as the billboard man at the parking lot, when business is slow,
  2. Getting behind the counter and helping folks discover their favorite concoctions and snacks
  3. Experimenting with the menu- its all on the blackboard, there is no printed menu yet
  4. Managing the money and orders, and the staff

So you’re the CEO of the Galleria branch? I ask. There’s a sheepish grin, and then follows the spiel, how QSR ( Quick Serve Restaurants) are growing in the down cycle, and how folks are investing, and how they have been speaking to angel investors and VC’s to get a look into a new concept. Tea costs INR 41, in a clean paper cup, with Starbucks kind of markings on the side, with free wifi and climate control airconditioning. The 20-cover outlet does 100 tickets a day, which is good for an outlet less than a month old, and about 20 yards from the nearest street corner chai shop which sells chai, as above, on small plastic ( food-grade?) cups at INR 6, alongwith everything else, you’d expec

Later that night, am at a party with large MNC CEO’s, and other C-suite folks, HR consultants, and the conversation veers around to the economy. How bad is inflation? Are marketers spending? Will things change post ( regime-change?) elections? I notice the two PE’s in the room looking smug. PE One just concluded a valuation discussion, and though he isn’t saying, things probably went very well. A down economy is one where entrepreneurs spooked by the falling cash flows, will happily discount future earnings a lot more to get some investment through the door.

PE Two has just invested his own money on a fish retail venture, and is smiling even more broadly. He hands out a card complete with Google map location, and Facebook Page. I ask him what makes a FMCG and Retail honcho decide on opening a Fresh Fish outlet, and he shares the market size numbers. Chicken or poultry is a INR 30K Crore business, while fish is INR 100K Crore. Poultry is highly organized right down to consumer retail, fish is still sold in an unorganized ( ala Unhygienix) way. And I participated in the dream of organized modern retail replacing the neighbourhood fishmonger, just as I heard of the IIT Delhi alumni planning to replace the chaiwala.

If these entrepreneurs succeed in changing the hearts, minds and spending patterns of India’s consumer masses, So what will the chaiboy or the fishmonger do now? A leading newspaper group has an answer. They ran a very high decibel ad campaign on how reading, writing and `rithmetic can make a chaiboy into a server at an organized retail chain. A transformation that could lead to a 10X growth in low-skill income!

So are these entrepreneurs engaging with such prospect employees, and is that leading the change? If the successful experiments of Costa Coffee and now, KFC, in hiring hearing and speech challenged workforce in new retail outlets is an indication, India’s large population of low-skill workforce might just be the beneficiary of this wave.

What does that mean for the traditional street chai vendor, and the fishmonger? As real estate gets more organized, the space for the farmer’s market, the unorganized, mucky space where one would go and test negotiating skills, not to mention, ability to check for freshness of produce via all five senses and a sixth one, reading the retailer behind the counter, is about to become passé. The last time I checked, the street side paratha, sandwich and chai joint had been cordoned off for a fresh block of apartments, and the old fresh produce market is now a swank office complex. One of the chai vendors have become a real estate broker, and served me his special chai at his new office, the fishmonger who hailed from Bengal, I heard has gone home and is now supplying bricks to construction firms.

So finally, just one unanswered question? Why hasn’t education, and its easiest delivery model- online, or its wildly popular version MOOC ( Massively Open Online Course) with brands like Coursera not played out here yet? That way, the IIT Delhi and FMCG Honchos could be adding new layers to the economy rather than trying to replace, at high cost, the old ways of doing things, and impacting traditional livelihoods. Could it be that education in India needs a massive makeover, starting with values, ethics, behaviours first, followed by skills, vocations, and professions?

Posted in entrepreneurship, Jay Vikram Bakshi, Jaywalking, marketing, money, social enterprise, sustainability | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Whose content is it anyway?

Last week, I participated in a twitter poll on A-listers. The question put forth by @anaggh, a social media influencer in India, was ‘who according to you is an A lister on twitter?” and I answered A lister= people with visibility in topic sharing messages which create above average engagement. http://j.mp/1fWbWx8

Earlier, in the week, a fellow journalist-turned-entrepreneur called to ask, how does content syndication work on mobile apps. Specifically, can the content he markets/ distributes through his curated e-newsletters be shared on mobiles, without specific permission, from the publications. His current play is to pay for the syndicated content, he uses on the web. However, the world has moved on, and a mobile app for sharing breaking news updates with his subscribers seems to be the next logical step.

Why these two seemingly unrelated conversations- one online and one over phone, becomes interesting, is because of another conversation, over breakfast with a seasoned digital marketer who was writing a paper for her thesis- “is digitization good or bad for the publishing industry?”

So here follows a longer discussion on what I see to be the shift in paradigm that is about to up-end almost everything we have assumed about content, copyright, and authorship till now.

First things first! Web 2.0 has automated the role of content curator or editor and replaced it with an app- Zite, Flipboard, Vine, etal have taken over the role of the editor/ curator in a world where online content is discovered on a mobile platform. So much so, that the artificial intelligence that allows these apps to learn about a user’s news and reading preference, is now central to the New Google search algorithm- aka Project Hummingbird. That’s the subject of a different post.

So, I agree with Om Malik, of gigaOM, when he says that ‘pure play’ digital publications are not about to succeed, as users seem to be interested in snacking on aggregated content via platform apps, rather than download and read content of a physical or web publication on mobile.

Secondly, and this converges on both my online publishing entrepreneur friend and @anaggh’s question, twitter is today one of the most prominent social media news discovery engines. Content creators, such as bloggers, and media persons, are promoting their content there, as well as content distributors, ( aka social media influencers) who RT, or share opinions, and personalize the debate from, say, the statistics in a news media report, into a lively debate.

For my entrepreneur friend, it seems a no brainer, to build a mobile app around select twitter feeds. However, whether he will deploy a human resource or invest in an algorithm such as Zite, is a call he would have to build a business case around. And that wouldn’t be cheap and quick, given the iterative approach that is required, when all mobile platforms are in a permanent state of development, not to speak of the risk of the platforms banning the app on a complaint from the media houses he doesn’t want pay to syndicate from.

So, finally that brings me to the bigger debate around content. If the business model around content creation is not linked to content distribution, this finally changes the game for authors. This would probably have a long term impact on the publishing industry, which is finding itself shaken and stirred as traditional book buying and reading habits, get challenged by google reader, ibooks store, and Amazon kindle platforms. And all I can do is look at how the music industry has re-invented itself ( or has it?) from the days of Napster to find its mojo in the iTunes store, on YouTube and SoundCloud.

So what are the learnings?

  1. Content creation and distribution may no longer be related. A content creator on Twitter, maybe an author, a blogger, or media person, where as a content distributor, may be an influencer on social media, by dint of his standing among his followers as an expert within the space, without having any publishing interests at all.
  2. Eventhough, Copyrights  for written works of literature, stand for 70 years, where the author earns, at best, a small double digit royalty from that work of fiction, The web, and now the social web, has no respect for original content. In any case, 140-character limits, will change the thought as it passes, simply to add on the conversation to it.
  3. Source of revenues for today’s and tomorrow’s content creators and distributors are not going to be subscription or sales of the original pieces, rather more value is going to be created quicker, and faster in the conversations than at the end of the long tail of copyrights.

Bollywood gets the game.

Take an example: Ever since, multiplexes made a virtue of smaller audiences, and higher ticket prices, the entire game has shifted from the number of seats sold to the number of screens showed on. Over the last 5 years, the entire business case of a movie has moved in such a manner, that in-movie placements, marketing messages and pre-release promotions with aligned brands, net up the money invested in the production, the rest of the money comes from TV premiere shows where networks share a piece of the ad pile, and now increasingly, Google’s Youtube, which with 55 Million users in India, is as big as a Top 10 TV channel.

Popular movie songs are viewed on Youtube, and movie producers who earlier went after pirated versions with a vengeance, have now come to terms with it and are relishing the unpaid promotion power that comes embedded in social media.

End Note: I expect this logic to spread not just in the world of creative content, but go right back, and challenge the primary basis of content sharing, peer review of academic papers. As the stream of consciousness that is social media spreads and gets more power with big data analytics, conversations around content that create or set the context will gain currency. And the business case for protecting content with copyrights will probably transform into ‘monetizing’ attention in the stream. And that could change the game for creators and distributors alike.

Posted in communications, content, entrepreneurship, India marketing, Jay Vikram Bakshi, marketing, social media, social media marketing, Social networking | Leave a comment

Is the News Room dying?

The Me Generation news room- for representation purpose only

I didn’t blog a year back when Instagram, was valued at One BILLION dollars and acquired by Facebook, about the same time when Kodak filed for bankruptcy. I thought enough has been written already about how Instagram, which allows people to share pictures, as opposed to Kodak which allowed people to store memories in an album, has a wider appeal in a generation which seeks identity in a stream of digital consciousness, with ‘likes’ holding higher value than the memories the camera captures. I also thought that 18 million users being valued at a billion dollars was a bit much, when the tech giant which had a nuclear reactor in a basement for testing X-Ray film was worth squat.

I didn’t blog when Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, went and acquired Washington Post on August 5, 2013 for USD 250 Million, though I did comment on the fact that Ariana Huffington got better valuation from Steve Chase’s AOL when Huffington Post was acquired on Feb 7, 2011 for USD 315 Million. The fact that newspapers and news organisations are having a trying time coping with a world which went digital ( as in content for FREE) and social ( as in anyone could report a news story) is not news!

What is news, however, is what that means for so-called “editorial standards”, and that’s the subject of my post. For some one who learnt the English language, reading and writing summary and precis from edit page articles, while in grade school, and someone who chose a career in financial journalism instead of a career in finance and accounts, in the heady days of India’s economic liberalization, “editorial standards” means a lot more to me than choosing what news to feature on page one, and what would the readers/ viewers (since most writing now is trans-media) want learned opinions about.

Language- as my later career in corporate communications and marketing taught me, is not about being spell check perfect, but about getting the right message across for the right call to action, and it starts with knowing who your current and prospect readers/viewers are. With SMS, and email, the need to convey thoughts and events in long form became obsolete, and now with the 140-character limit specified by Twitter, language and articulation is all about #hashtags and short URL’s. Editorial standards in terms of language correctness stands negated and relegated into the bins of history.

A friend reminded me of a newsdesk editor, ranting at a reporter for using the word “allegedly” in a number of breaking news copies. “Either you allege, and you have proof, or you don’t, and you don’t have a story”, go back and do the research”.

Opinion-
what social media and platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have flipped the paradigm of news reporting. In 140- characters, you either have an opinion or you don’t. And guess what, the more interesting (or rabid/vapid/ weird – take your pick!) the opinion, the more followers you have. Small wonder then, that there are more micro-celebs in each micro-interest area and there are more trolls, who will jump onto any keyword which remotely looks like an opportunity to belabor their argument.

The editorial angle-
The slant of the story- has now become the Achilles Heel of “editorial standards” of standing by a story. Since, stories are developing in real time, newsrooms have to run with whatever half-baked facts that are available, and reportage is overwhelmed by a barrage of noise from social media, with little or no means to establish a fact. Now, since editors on TV and print are being led around by social media, they have to go with the flow. And hence, a stance taken one day can, and should, be challenged the very next. The gentle reader, then led by breaking news on social media, shared by friends and family, or opinions shared and re-tweeted on twitter, can and often does avoid referring to media at all.

In any case, the celebrity TV anchors, and influential editors are on social media hawking their views, opinions, and breaking news updates. And the last nail, of course, is technology, which now allows aggregators like Flipboard, Magster, Zite to throw up the articles from across news media and blogosphere according to the tablet users interests, and last cached surfing behavior.

Small wonder, then that news organisations are downing shutters across the world, and the business of news is raising its hands up to enable new owners find a value proposition that works. The ones that continue to make profits, long realized that they were in the business of advertising and access to their readers, and went onto build walled gardens around reader/viewer experience, and transitioned their model into “paid” media, building business cases around almost all news reported on their publications and channels.

So what happens to all those laid off from news rooms, and reporting bureaus? Here’s a word of advice!

There are two more emerging categories of media- “owned” and “earned” which are now becoming a business model. In the case of “Owned Media” Coca-Cola, for instance, has upended its online presence to make it a crowd-sourced engagement platform, other experiments which have gained ground are niche aggregation platforms such as American Express Open Forum. In my opinion, there are viable options to profit from contributing news stories, articles, if not, ghost-ed authored pieces.

“Earned Media” is the model that developed out of traffic to blogs, aggregated by crowd-sourced news engines such as Huff Post. If you have a blog, which attracts readers/viewers, and gets mentioned in these publications, the ad revenues can be enough for sustaining the blogger, though it takes great effort to get the audience in place.

So finally, what happens to news? The role of guided discovery that newspapers played in the 20th century, and TV in the last few decades is now in the hands of the smartphone wielding instagram app powered socially networked citizen. The role of editorial control is being debated in law courts around the world, where Google, Twitter, Facebook, the new platforms for content that makes news, are hauled in for hosting content which their servers do not have access to read and edit. Even if there was a technology solution, un-touched by human hand, is the zeitgeist of the times.

And unless people powered with the same devices, vote for “editorially curated content” and “opinions they are willing to pay for”, the news organization, as one knew it, is almost at the verge of closure.

The NEW, news organization will emerge when “editorial standards” includes one more question to the 4W+1H for a news story, and that is,

“How does this content and opinion connect with the expressions, interests and ‘like’s of the readers/viewers?”

End note: Kodak emerges from bankruptcy protection as a print solutions provider for businesses.

Posted in communications, Jay Vikram Bakshi, social media, social media marketing, Social networking, social networking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are you M positive?

Lincoln on money power

Today, I heard another pitch from an ‘entrepreneur’, and I was reminded of a similar exchange which I walked away from, some six years back.

At that time, I had just put in my papers at Nokia, to start my entrepreneurial journey. And the person, with excellent skills of persuasion and pester power, had cornered me into meeting at a coffee shop. The following discussion, though unimportant, hinged around me, my personal network, and how with just a few hours of work- read display of skills admired above, I could create an income source which grows even when I don’t work.

Today, I heard the same spiel, albeit more tech-savvy. Apparently, there are companies out there which pay people to click on their site and earn from referrals. So, all you have to do is create a network of “believers” online, and as they and you click and buy, you get a commission which pyramids into something substantial, even when you can’t put in an hour.

The catch: as in the previous episode, is you got to put in 3-5 years of hard work, creating, mining, and then exploiting the network. The bait, people like you are doing this, throw in a few big names, make sure you don’t really know them, to build credibility, and the hook, you need money, and your need your own time. If you had money, would you do what you are doing now? And life’s uncertainties are such that money will always be required.

That last thought got me thinking enough to blog about it. In the process, I am getting clearer about why I exist, and why I think the specious arguments in books such as “rich dad, poor dad”, “the secret” and all other self-motivational books are a load of horse manure, which benefits no one but the authors and publishers who laugh their way to the bank, while incredulous buyers and “believers” who subscribe to it, develop into a cult-ish following.

So, here’s what I asked the “entrepreneur”, since, you’re doing so well in terms of network income, what do you do with your time? I got some story about how I spend quality time with family and friends. Felt like saying, ‘been there, done that’, ask any retired person, and they will tell you how they miss the daily routine of doing something, anything. Even friends and family get tired of your ‘quality time’, and with all the money in the world, you will still run out of places to check off your ‘bucket’ list.

Then I asked how do you see yourself as an ‘entrepreneur’? this threw up a bunch of cookie cutter answers, probably inspired by the books and quotes above. The answer formulated itself something like, “I was an employee, want to move from other people owning my time for money; didn’t want to become self- employed and chase people for buying my time and collecting money; entrepreneurs have money because they have a system to get them the money from other people’s time, ala Ambani, Tata, etc. ( quoting big names, shows your benchmarks), and Venture Capitalists and bankers make money on other people’s time and money.

At this point, I think my eyes glazed over, one other person at the table called me ‘intellectually arrogant”, and when I said,” if you really know how to do it, come work for me, I promise you double the money, in half the time”, he actually walked away.

But this exchange helped me clarify in my mind what these words, “time”, “money”, “entrepreneurship” mean to me, and here’s what I understand. And this goes beyond “think, feel, believe”; words which somewhere lose their meaning when constantly examined under life’s shifting lens.

Time: is not linear, period. Sure, I live in India and am totally inured in the “kaalchakra” -cycle of time- philosophy, so the understanding of time in the context of life may be warped. I see time stretching when waiting in queues, and whizzing past when deadlines come up- somewhere that resonates with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. But, I learn a lot more from the under-privileged, and from them I understand, time and life are a privilege, not an endowment, or a right. Life’s misfortunes are just a mis-step away! So, time is an annuity, only when compounding interest. And that is an assumption to enable compounding of interest. Life has a way of holding a mirror up, and throw you experiences, that invert in reflection. If you were once up, you will be down, and if you were down, vice versa. Nothing prepares you, deal with it!

Money: is a marker. All notions of money, wealth and income are a construct. The value of what you do (taking orders from a boss as an employee) or the skills you sell ( to individuals or organisations as a self-employed person) or the product or service you deliver ( as an entrepreneur) or the way you connect money, teams and markets ( as an investor or banker), is what is marked as money. So, a lot of money earned, means you are doing something, producing something, creating a connect which people value NOW. But make no mistake, value is transient, and money moves easily to find the next NEW thing to chase. Money chases value as a marker. And all notions of money making money, are also dependant on someone or something deploying that money in areas where the rewards are so much greater than the risk, that Ponzi schemes are floated somewhere in the world, each day. With disastrous consequences, for the folks who get lured in, when the pyramid collapses or the kite flies out of control. Google up the sub- prime crisis which created yet another financial meltdown, or if you’re interested, follow the mis-fortunes of the poor in India, who bet their savings on high-yield chit funds, which turn out to be “cheat” funds.

I had an interesting discussion on this with an iconic banker, who in many ways, shaped the way the banking industry changed and grew in India, in the post – liberalized economy. And he opined, “personal wealth loses meaning after a point, then you are just competing to see if your value proposition is better than the rest”, flip the thought, and you will notice, as another friend shared on social media, how a minimum wage earning driver practices his singing voice every morning before going to work. Again, even at the bottom of the pyramid, once the daily bread and rent has been paid for, money has no meaning, as all other aspects of life are access controlled. As the character Rancho played by Aamir Khan, put it in the movie “3 idiots”, “you don’t need to pay fees, to attend school, you just need to wear a uniform”. As the middle classes across the world discover, the poor are poor not because they have no money, but because access is denied based on identity or lack of a “place of residence”, or a “place of birth” to put on official documents. The rich, on the other hand, have these handed across to them, in the hope they hand out their money to worthy causes and institutions.

But, all this is changing. Even money can’t justify itself, in the face of greed, which creates pyramid schemes that start from sub-prime crises, and end in almost wiping out all notions of national wealth, ranging from Iceland, Spain, Cypress and so many others. Incidentally, India went through this gut wrenching change almost 20 years back.

As I keep repeating at various fora, India’s economic growth story was never a planned narrative. As a business journalist, I watched up close and in my face, the First Gulf War, that pushed up oil prices, and in consequence, India’s oil import bill to such an extent, that it tipped over the balance of payments, and brought the country to financial collapse. The next few steps, administered by IMF, included shipping all of India’s gold, held in store to guarantee currency, to London.

What happened next is a story of human endeavor, aspiration and effort, which was suddenly unlocked. And industries such as IT, mobile telephony, and IT enabled services, which no one understood at that time, not enough to regulate anyway, boomed. Money and valuation moved from bricks to clicks, till it corrected itself as value and expectations balanced out in the first dot-com bust.

And that brings me to “entrepreneurship”. When I started my career, 20 years back, respectability attached itself to stable jobs in careers around engineering, medicine or accounting and academics. In the early to mid-90’s, the world I exist in, was hit by a severe stroke of “MBA-it is”, which again unraveled  and was quickly followed by careers in IT, BPO, bio-tech, analytics. For the last 5 years, I have witnessed the power of the French word, “entrepreneur” used in every context, so much so, that anyone, without a formal job label, can call himself or herself one. There is one BIG difference! And it’s not about money or time.

It’ about value creation. Am sorry, you may be the largest franchisee of the biggest Ponzi scheme in the world, you are still an agent, not an entrepreneur. You may have the largest organized retail chain, where you sell cheap and buy cheaper, you’re a retail giant, but you’re still not an entrepreneur. You may be the biggest integrated producer of a commodity or product or service everyone buys, you’re an industrialist, but not an entrepreneur.

In my opinion, to be an entrepreneur, you need to be displaying the following behaviours:

  1. You have a view of the world, no one around you envisages. When Bill Gates thought of shrink wrapping and selling software, in a world where both were bundled, everyone thought he was a fool. But, software as a product owes its origins to that disruptive world view.
  2. You have deep insights and empathy with your customer set. I heard an interesting story about Steve Jobs. A bunch of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed telecom executives went from India, to meet and stun him with what they thought was a “killer idea”, an iPhone for India, complete with Indian fonts, scripts, and designs. They came back totally shaken, first because Jobs used language they hadn’t heard outside the playing fields of Bahadurgarh, and secondly, he said, “I build things for my friends in Cupertino, if you like your friends in India, build something they like yourself, stop messing with my stuff”. Others will read this as “intellectual arrogance”, I saw a canny entrepreneur, completely focused on delivering the next NEW thing to fans and admirers, who stood by Jobs even when Apple was down in the dumps.
  3. You have the ability to build teams. Look around every successful ‘entrepreneurial’ venture, and you will find a team, that stood by the vision and worked their butts off, even when there was no money to pay salaries. And that happens, when money and time are not on the table. Ordinary people inspired to work together, can and do achieve incredible things.
  4. You are able to listen intently. The key difference between a Thomas Edison and a Nikolai Tesla, both icons in their thought process and inventions, was just the way they were able to articulate the vision that inspired them and got people on board. That comes from an ability to listen HARD.

So does that make you M ( money) positive? If entrepreneurship is your way of making money, just forget about it. The road is too long, lonely and fraught with risk to even consider it as an option. Is the quality of time you spend at work, and your worries about the future, making you jump in? change your job, or profession, you will be happier. Entrepreneurship needs you to devote your time, energy and money in the pursuit of a vision that you hold, in the belief that if you succeed, you will have stories to share and battles to recount with the folks who fought on your side, and on your behalf, when it seemed too challenging. It also means that you can choose your battles and find new frontiers to work on, for example, Gates’ work on healthcare, Azim Premji on education. And you do it, because you can’t imagine a day without waking up to create value.

So, where does that leave money and time? See above. Money is a marker and time is what you do with it, right here, right now.

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There’s a library at the heart of the global village

Deborah Jacobs (@djlibrarian) was quick to pick up the comment I made, at the last board meet of READ( @READglobal), celebrating seven years of operations in India.

Deborah and a bunch of others are part of a small and significant movement that has been, over the last 20 years, bringing a model of learning that connects with rural communities in far flung parts of the globe.

The story begins with this lady, Dr. Antonia Neubauer, a Lake Tahoe- based travel entrepreneur, who was stumped when one of the sherpas who had accompanied her through a trek in Nepal refused the customary “baksheesh” and made a strange request.

He asked for books, so that his kids could read, remembers Toni, many years later. So she, and her friends, pooled together their resources, and the next year came back with a box of books, but she wanted to see where they would be used.

A visit to the village, convinced her that a book without a way to protect and share it, would soon be destroyed, or sold by the kilo. And that brought in the next play, how about a library? But then, this was Nepal in the ’90s, forget about making a building, who would maintain a library, or pay for electricity or even a person to clean and sweep. There was a war on between the royal forces and Mao-ists raging.

Turns out quite a few were ready. When I first met Toni and Senator Omer Rains, not only had they figured out a way to convince un-lettered sherpa’s to set up libraries for the books they wanted, but also business models to sustain the libraries in the middle of their communities.

The model was elegant in its simplicity. READ would propose to set up the library (aka CLEC- community learning centers) if the community partnered with it. How? Split the cost of the building, the land, the computers, power and other infra. So, READ would provide seed funding, while the community would provide the land, the hands, and other local inputs, the cost sharing 50:50. Then, the community would choose a project which would pay for the READ investment, and also sustain the library and pay for training and salaries for the librarian and others involved with the project.

The first such model in India was at Ullon, a remote village in Sunderbans, where the project scaled and is now The Oceanic Library, and a community hub for education, healthcare and livelihoods, and then a few others strung out in Manipur and Mizoram. In the last 7 years, the movement has slowly but surely gathered steam, has found eager communities finding a sustainable business model to support a library and learning center in their midst.

So, if it’s a dairy farm project in Mewat that supports the library and school, it’s a beautician training center at Badshahpur near Delhi, and then again, a mobile hospital in remote areas in Coorg. Here’s more!

Why do I find it interesting? 3 good reasons. Firstly, it is “inclusive“. Not in the jingo-istic “have’s looking down at have-not’s” way, but right from initiation, the model expects the village to agree on and commit to their project and their activities around it. So, at Geejgarh, in Rajasthan, the women of the village chose a sewing school as the sustainability project, and that’s what they got. The women of Badshahpur, chose a grooming school and beautician training center, with an eye to India’s wedding market and that’s what they got.

For years before this, when handling the CSR roles as part of my many corporate jobs, I would be struck by the top-down approach that seemed to be in vogue when invoking corporate philanthropy. You, mister corporate, tell us what cause you’d like to spend your money on and here we have an option, was what most fund-raising NGO’s would talk about. As if, you could de-link children, from malnutrition/trafficking/ women/ education/ sustainability/ livelihoods/ men/anti-corruption/ environment.

And frankly, my first project, a village school computer learning center at Carterpuri, started with building loos, and putting up a water tank. I couldn’t imagine going to a school which didn’t have drinking water and separate toilets for boys and girls. So, if you start at one place, you automatically impact all others. But, if you build walls, as in, this is only for this community, that age group, other gender, and put locks on doors, you’ve lost the participation that is so central to rural communities.

It’s “bottom up” from start. If the community on ground isn’t ready to put in its own sweat and tears, the engagement doesn’t start. And the time spent in building consensus, which can be acted upon, as I saw at Geejgarh, is time well spent. In India, when folks buy in, and contribute their own land, their own furniture, and fittings, it becomes something they are emotionally tied in to.

And finally, it has “impact“. A well maintained space which the community has invested in, created its own rules, works that much better, than something set up as part of a Five-Year Plan, or with bureaucratic red tape surrounding its usage. At Geejgarh, the women are now making cloth bags that are sold at the Bharti-Walmart EasyDay stores, and are interested in marketing and selling their ethnic handicrafts globally. Here are a few pix!

So what does it mean from the context of the global village where an idea for change can transmit across the world and unite or divide opinion in nano-seconds? Let me summarize; a traveler from Lake Tahoe, meets a Sherpa in Nepal, who wants books for his kids, which need a library, and a librarian from Seattle comes across, and helps with training communities across Nepal, India and Bhutan to manage their rural libraries, and sparks off the need for social enterprises in the local context, in the process enabling corporate sponsors to do well by doing good.

As the saying goes, telecom, internet, social media have brought us closer and we are now residents of the global village. Now, thanks to a few remarkable folks, across the world, there’s a library at the heart of it!

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It’s Complicated!- Media, Messaging, Sustainability and Development

#DSDS2013

This week, I spent some time attending the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit. TERI’s flagship event with marquee names as sponsors and heads of states as speakers, I had expected to be overwhelmed by the quality of thought leadership and statesmanship on display.

I am disappointed. Not merely because I was hoping the Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to go beyond hyphenating Global Development with Global Sustainability, a quote which was RT-ed all over, including by yours truly.

I am disappointed, because Minister Jean- Francoise Lisee, of Quebec is. According to him, the ship has sailed, and the last opportunity that the world of global statesmen had to hold the rudder of creating a sustainable agenda of balancing development in the world of climate change, was in Copenhagen 2009.

It’s been 3 years since, and as Minister M. Shakila of Maldives, put it “are we going to travel around the world, from summit to summit, with nothing to show for it?”

The problem according to the Heads of states, of the Indian Ocean and Pacific Rim nations is clear and present danger. Not of rising sea levels, which is what the scientists expected from the melting polar ice caps, but from unprecedented erosion and unexpected changes in weather patterns.

And the problem, is that big growth economies, such as China, which is not part of the debate, India which is, and US which waffles along the sidelines, California being a very sustainability conscious state, while Texas holds the flag for oil-burning growth; are not
addressing the problem.

I believe the problem was actually a footnote in the questionnaire a young TERI volunteer put across. Do GNP and GDP truly represent development indicators or do new indicators like Gross National Happiness, or Gross National Sustainability need to be adopted? and old incremental models junked!

That’s what got me thinking! and I realised that all possible popular approaches are fundamentally designed around the rich nations paying for their consumption and bankrolling poor nations. Robinhood Romanticism is where the problem lies.

And the roots go as far as the Spanish Conquistadores, and the Dutch stock exchange bubbles. History is a bad teacher. The world saw the two approaches of wealth creation almost 600 years ago. The Spaniards rampaged through Latin America to bring in gold to mother Spain and make her the richest nation in the world, while the Dutch created the first venture capital bubble by selling and trading on paper Tulip stocks, where
Tulip prices went so far up, that a bulb could buy whole month’s food. Both economies are a footnote in history. Now, especially, with Spain on the verge of bankruptcy, and Holland with its dykes and dams facing more than its share of climate change.

On the other hand, simple hands at work; building homes and carrying water, brought about a climate of invention and innovation that created the industrial revolution and 200 years of British supremacy and last century’s American leadership.

Clearly, the basic lessons about money and wealth are still to be learnt by humanity.Money grows in its circulation and wealth in the number of people it touches. That should have made a business case for wiping clean the loans of Third World economies, and enabling local populations, with access to micro-credit, to create their own wealth indigenously.

But global governments, are driven by PR, and the need to be benchmarked by the same human development indicators that work for sub-saharan Africa as it does for North
America, even when the baselines in terms of society, security, and aspirations are different.The point made by Minister Gadgil of Norway ( Yes! he is of Indian-origin) is telling. The inequity is not just between nations and their ability to sustain, but within societies. The gulf between those served, and those under-served is growing. It’s NOT about energy, water and food, but basic human rights, and security.

My argument here, is that neither ( rich or poor nations) has vision. If the rich are benchmarking among themselves to get richer, or show their wealth in building unsustainable anthills and naming them “antilla”, the aspirations of the under-served are simply to get rich and display their wealth similarly.

The opportunity, then, is to up-end the argument. And I am disappointed that the statesmen of the land of Gandhi could not imagine or articulate such a discourse.

Gandhi, made it cool to spin yarn at home, grow his own food, and build self-sustaining communities in India and South Africa, nearly a century before the world made sustainability, local produce and ‘forage’ buzz words.

Wealth and currency thought through those lines, would change the benchmarks for growth, development and sustainability. That’s a challenge that has been in front of all the statesmen and their economic advisors, at these summits .

It would probably also be useful for them to examine spiritual texts from all across the world, the basic thought that comes across is – the more you evolve, the less you need.That’s like motherhood and apple pie, and knowing teenagers eat more than older adults. By that logic, US, China and soon India and all the G-20 nations are way, way down the scale of evolution, creating obese and self-obsessed ageing
populations and slipping even faster on the path to sustainability.

Maybe, it’s time to re-examine and change the messaging in the media. Wall Street and Main Street press are not designed for sustainability and happiness- they are designed to shock and awe.

Bhutan with its Gross National Happiness has been a sole advocate of the alternate messaging, maybe its time to make it cool. I believe India in this hall of nations has just the right credentials to own and make the change. Not because the realities of business, and
global laws need it to be so. But I believe it has had all the excesses of falsehood and experiments with truth, for its thought leaders to imagine and live the change we would like to see around us.

 

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Social Media and Censorship- When Private becomes Public

I interrupt the series on Millennial Marketing to share the debate and raise a few questions on the unfolding drama of Social Media censorship. For those interested, you can check out the post on Marketing to Millennials here.

Time magazine put a mirror cover and made YOU, the person of the year and in charge of the Information Age on Dec 25, 2006.

Ever since, governments, traditional media, ISP’s have been grappling with the challenges of regulating content. Till recently, governments controlled all access to media- post and telegraph establishments were privatised after the Cold War in most parts of the world. Internet access, fixed and wireless, is still controlled either directly or through holdings in corporates that serve up bandwidth.

That, however, doesn’t stop or change anything. The Arab Spring phenomenon happened across Tunisia, Qatar, Egypt and Libya ( now in Syria) in spite of the respective governments shutting down cell towers, stopping SMS/ MMS and internet access. A friend in the Gulf just recently shared the spoofing software that she uses in Saudi Arabia to update her Facebook page ( Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries in the Gulf, restrict access to social media).

The US faced by #Occupy Wall Street floated the SOPA and PIPA legislations. Luckily, wikipedia and others saw through the ruse of online piracy and protested, I quote, thus, “SOPA and PIPA would put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites. Small sites won’t have sufficient resources to defend themselves. Big media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for their foreign competitors, even if copyright isn’t being infringed. Some foreign sites would be prevented from showing up in major search engines. And, SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression.”

How much of the above is linked to the #Occupy wall street movement, or the continuing embarrassment of CIA tapes leaked via Julian Assange’s wikileaks isn’t clear, but one thing is certain, the world of social sharing, networking and media is about to face some major challenges, and perhaps, massive regulations.

Cut to India and last week’s knee-jerk reaction of the Indian Government. It instructed ISP’s to block access to websites, and social media providers such as WordPress and Blogpost. social networking platforms such as Twitter and Facebook were instructed to remove accounts of a few identified for inciting the mass exodus of Northeastern Indians from cities across India, in the wake of communal violence in Assam. Not only did this bring about a massive reaction from twittering classes likening the ban to India’s Emergency in 1975, it also had the US Government swinging in to support Google, Facebook and Twitter on the issue of Freedom of Expression. Read more here!

That brings me to the crux of the debate – when does Private become Public? It is well understood by most, that in democratic societies, there needs to be a large space for debate and discussion, but there is a basic code that is followed, to remain within the framework of governance and citizenship. When forums for Public discussion are squashed or removed, dissent takes new forms and goes underground. On the other hand, Open platforms, especially, in the nano-second push-button world of micro-blogging, are fraught with the threat of being taken over by rabble rousers, bullies and trolls.

Contrast this, with the ethos and intent of social media and networking. At its core, social media technologies create a virtual space for ‘people like us’ to interact and engage with each other.  In a way this makes your ‘virtual’ drawing room conversations go viral across all your followers and friends creating at its extreme, two behavior types;

  1. The exhibitionist, who leads the show with Facebook Vacations and events mainly to post pictures and tags across cyberspace
  2. The voyeur, who watches and ‘like’s and comments sometimes, re-tweeting or sharing the above content.

I over-simplify, but among over 100 shades of grey, these two behaviours stand out.

On the other hand, there are “people like them”, who gravitate to take extreme positions and make the ‘virtual’ drawing room debate into a ‘vicious’ one, hounding out all contrary opinions, and through sheer bludgeon power, and bullying tactics nullify any and all attempt at moderation. The conversation then, quickly moves from issues to personalities, from commentary to rumor mongering and through cheap and ubiquitous mobile internet and SMS access into fear psychosis.

Expecting Facebook’s 50 million users, and twitter’s 15 million in India, to behave more in line with ‘people like us’ is a wishful fantasy. There is no psychological profiling that is done before YouTube allows users to upload videos of suicide attempts, and/ or mass violence against communities.

In these so-called empowered times of instant sharing and collaboration, the fact of the matter also remains that, driven by SMS’s, videos, and tweets, over 50, 000 people from North eastern India, left their jobs and homes across India to return to their home states, due to fears of reprisal attacks.

Is there a solution in sight? Not when the Indian government finds a conspiracy to de-stabilise the country. This could be as debilitating as the Anthrax letter threat that followed 9/11 in the US.

Will there be similar exuberance of social networking and media usage going forward?Perhaps! But then Big Brother, will be watching. The lesson here for social netizens is very clear. You cannot exhibit ‘extreme’ behavior in public even if you may be doing it in the privacy of your on-ground drawing-room.

In all democracies, as well as in India, forums for dissent are in-built. Traditional media has a strong and protected role in sharing information that can create influence and opinions. And this responsibility is assumed by media, by verifying facts and sources.

And even though, TV debates trade the space for facts for TRP’s , in high-decibel verbiage, online and social media have so far escaped from carrying this responsibility, almost in toto.

In the absence of any effective self- regulation or content cleansing by most popular social media platforms, perhaps, in their drive for users, this is where regulation will come in.

It could be draconian, and it will in many cases, hamper freedom of expression, but when private becomes public, the rules of public discourse will apply.

What are your views?

tx-j

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