Luis Miranda
Luis Miranda
Two of the reasons why there is renewed focus on economic inequality today are the excessive consumption by the rich and fears that the future will continue to be tough

Two of the reasons why there is renewed focus on economic inequality today are the excessive consumption by the rich and fears that the future will continue to be tough

Image: Shutterstock

I was visiting my daughter last weekend and I picked up a book at the F&M College Bookstore – On Inequality by Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University. It is a short book that I finished quickly enough to write this blog on my flight back from America. Frankfurt is also the author of the bestseller On Bullshit.

In his preface, Frankfurt refers to the impact that last year’s bestseller by French economist Thomas Pikkerty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) has on the discussion concerning the growth of economic inequality in our society. Capitalism has been under increasing threat after the 2008 global financial crisis and socialistic ideas are gaining more ground across the world. Obama recently said income inequality is “the defining challenge of our time”. In India, also, the benefits of the ’90s liberalism are being challenged by academics, politicians and some sections of civil society. Having studied at the University of Chicago and being associated with the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), I find this wave of ‘socialism’, or anti-capitalism, distressing. Which is why I found Frankfurt’s book to be a very interesting read: He argues that poverty, and not economic inequality, is the biggest challenge of our time

He starts off with an imaginary conversation:

First man: “How are your children?”

Second Man: “Compared to what?”

This conversation reminded me of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon that I use a lot when talking about happiness. In the first frame of that cartoon strip, Calvin, another great philosopher, is smiling because he is happy and content. But then he realises that he is not euphoric, and becomes no longer content. His day is ruined because he is no longer happy. And in the final frame, he says, “I need to stop thinking while I’m ahead.” The same with the second man in that conversation. Maybe his children are doing well. Maybe they are not doing well. But when he starts comparing them to other children, there is a higher likelihood that he won’t be happy with the way his kids are doing. And the same with economic inequality. Instead of focusing on relative wealth or poverty, we should focus on the shameful levels of absolute poverty that we see around us. (A side note – I am only referring to economic poverty in this blog and not emotional or spiritual poverty).

The biggest challenge today, with all our affluence, is that there is a lot of poverty around, and this is not just in India. In recent months, I have seen so many homeless people sleeping on the streets of London and the US. I have taken doggy bags on my recent trip to give to beggars that I see on the streets in the US. That is the challenge. Why are some people so poor that they cannot get out of the poverty trap? It is not because they are all lazy. Someone from Leaders Quest (LQ), an organisation I am involved with, recently told me about their interaction with a homeless lady in London. She was a reasonably successful person who had fallen on hard times and took to begging. What hurt the most, she told the LQ group, was the look of people who passed her by – they felt that the fault was hers, not society’s. Her challenge was that, despite trying, she just couldn’t get back onto the ladder and no one wanted to help her get back.

But back to Frankfurt… he argues that economic inequality is not morally objectionable. What is undesirable is that economic inequalities sometimes lead to inequalities of other kinds which undermine our commitment to democracy; an example could be undue social and political influence by the wealthy. But these undesirable influences can be managed by proper legislative, judicial, regulatory and executive monitoring. Of course this is tougher to do and hence it is politically easier to talk about reducing economic inequality. Referring to Obama’s comment, Frankfurt says the issue is not about income inequality but that there are too many Americans who are poor. Reducing inequality will not necessarily help the poor get out of poverty. It comes back to the famous argument last year between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati on whether we re-split the same pie or make a bigger pie. Communism did not reduce poverty in the communist countries on a sustained basis and in India, decades of socialist policies helped keep a large part of India in poverty, while other countries leapfrogged past us.

Two of the reasons why there is renewed focus on economic inequality today are the excessive consumption by the rich and fears that the future will continue to be tough. Frankfurt agrees that gluttony is ugly and morally offensive when there is so much poverty around. I am reminded of Marie Antoinette’s alleged quote (it is unlikely that she actually said it) when she was told that the peasants were starving because they did not have bread to eat, “Then let them eat cake.” She ended up losing her head during the French Revolution. This should be a reminder for those who indulge in over-conspicuous consumption – their heads could get cut off!

Frankfurt goes on to say that it is not morally important that everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that everyone should have enough. But the theory of equality is easier to articulate than the theory of having enough – how much is enough? I recall the furore after Montek Singh Ahluwalia, vice chairman of the Planning Commission, came out with new definitions of poverty. What does it mean for a person to have enough?  Frankfurt refers to a doctrine of sufficiency where having enough to get by is not enough since people who are always living on the brink are not content. Hence, having enough means that you should have some comfort that you will be provided for in the future also. A first step for a place like India is of course to make sure that people should have enough for today at least. This is more important than worrying about economic inequality in India. Of course, the rich should be encouraged to share their wealth, but by setting up disincentives for people to seek economic wealth, we run the risk that entrepreneurship will move offshore, tax evasion will increase and we will revert to the low rates of growth that we saw before the 1990s.

Frankfurt goes on to say that evil lies, not in that some others have better lives, but that bad lives are really bad. Experiences of being ignored (like that lady in London) may be profoundly disturbing. Demand for equality is different from demand for respect.

CCS and Friedrich Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF) published a very interesting booklet titled Why is India Poor?. This is also the theme of the popular Freedom Caravan series that we have run over the last two years across campuses in India. In it we argue that institutions and policies determine economic success. The most important institutions and policies that help the poor get out of poverty are those that enable economic freedom.  You can download a free copy from our website –

So let us stop talking about economic inequality and focus instead on policies that remove poverty and ensure that everyone is treated with respect. Let us focus on setting up institutions and policies that enable economic freedom.

Knowing when to exit the stock market is important

It is important not to get carried away by the euphoria in the markets

Image: Shutterstock

August was an interesting month. Among other things, China devalued its currency—the yuan. Though the devaluation was just 2.8%, it sent a huge signal. And when China finally sneezed, the global equity markets caught SARS.

And now, traders and investors on Dalal Street want to know why the Indian stock markets fell. Being an accidental investor, I have a lot of theories but frankly, the Uber driver I met a few months back would have a better story. Interestingly, discussions on the falling markets stopped when news of Indrani Mukerjea and her extremely complicated family broke.

But, let’s get back to the question of falling stock markets. The counter-question I ask people in response to their question is, “Why did the market go up in the first place?” No one asked me that question over the past year. Because they were all brilliant investors who were masters of their destiny and knew how to invest in an exceedingly smart manner. And there was also the Modi effect.  But when the markets collapsed, it is not because they were bad investors … it was because of China, Obama, Modi … but never because of their greed or inability to take money off the table.

Knowing when to exit an investment is important. One of my favourite stories on exiting is a personal one. It relates to the employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) that I earned at HDFC Bank and IDFC. We were all smart people who learned during our MBA days about diversifying our portfolios to reduce risk. So, whenever my HDFC Bank stocks vested, I sold a part and invested the proceeds in various mutual funds for diversification. HDFC Bank’s shares have outperformed all these funds in the past 20 years. So much for diversification and knowing when to exit!

Having learnt my lesson at HDFC Bank, I decided not to sell any of my tiny IDFC ESOPs when they vested. But, IDFC underperformed the markets. So much for having faith in your own company’s stock and knowing when to exit! The only smart investor on our team was our executive assistant who sold her IDFC stock at its peak.  The importance of knowing when to exit can’t be understated. We exited stocks like GMR Infra and Hotel Leela Ventures near their peaks, but did not do the same with Ashoka Buildcon and Gujarat Pipavav. And our carried interest had a direct correlation with these decisions. Knowing when to exit is very important.

Back to why did the markets go up in the past year or so? You knew that the China story was not sustainable without a correction. You knew that FII inflows can easily switch to FII outflows. You knew that reforms in India would take some time to fall in place. Yet, you did not ask ‘Why are the markets going up?’ Because, if you did, you would have been called a luddite, like RBI governor Raghuram Rajan was famously called by the American economist Larry Summers, when the former raised questions in 2005 about the huge risks lurking in the global financial markets.

The only galloping prices that people questioned in recent times were the valuations of e-commerce businesses.  It is interesting how investor interests drive business models. There was a time when companies added ‘Tech’ to their names and investors chased them. Then they added “Infra” to their names and investors jumped over one another to get a piece of the action. Now they add an e-commerce piece to their business model and investors start talking to them. What a ridiculous situation when entrepreneurs have to modify their business models and dance to the tune of investors, some of whom are as clueless as the Uber driver I mentioned.

Coming back to that Uber driver … he is a very enterprising guy who was doing well and decided, many years back,  to become a day trader in the stock market because stock prices were going up. He quit his job to capitalise on the rising stock prices. He never asked why markets were going up. He is now driving his Uber and staying away from the markets.

In the immortal words of Pitbull, “Where do we go? (Where do we go, where do we go … from here)?” India still looks good… oil is way cheaper, our current account and fiscal deficits continue to decline, inflation is down (though onion prices seem to be outperforming the Sensex) and reforms are taking place, albeit at a slower pace than what we expected after listening to Modi. So the markets will soon be back up.

And then, remember to ask the question “Why are the markets going up?”

MentoringImage: Shutterstock

Over the years I have benefited from the advice of many people. Starting off with my mum and dad (often that ‘advice’ could be termed ‘nagging’ or ‘yelling’; we’ve all been through that). But that helped shape who I am. People ask me why I became a chartered accountant and I reply, “Because my dad told me to do so.” I have the same response for why I pursued an MBA. And I’m happy I followed his advice.

Since then, I have been fortunate to have been advised by the likes of professors Marvin Zonis and Harry Davis, when I was at Chicago Booth and successful professionals like Victor Menezes, Deepak Parekh, Jerry Rao, M Shekar Chandrashekar, Narendra Jhaveri (who passed away recently) and Vijay Kelkar. And for nearly half my life there has always been my wife, Fiona, to be my sounding board when I needed advice—and when I did not need advice—and sometimes that ‘advice’ could be termed ‘nagging’.

Somewhere along the way, I was introduced to a new word to describe all of this—‘mentoring’.

A few years back, I was with one of my mentors, Jerry Rao, speaking at Chicago Booth. Jerry talked about how lonely it can sometimes be, at the top. I remarked that it wasn’t lonely for me since I had surrounded myself with mentors like him, whom I can go to for advice on personal and professional matters.

And all this mentoring has helped me reach where I am today—54 years old and unemployed! Over the years, I have returned the favour by mentoring a lot of younger people who have gone on to do great stuff. And I tell them the same stories that I learnt along the way and add key themes that I picked up, themes like ‘focus on the important things in life’ (thanks, Shekar), ‘be cleaner than Caesar’s wife’ (thanks, Dr Kelkar), ‘leaders have to be both actors and directors to bring about change’ (thanks, Harry).

If you were to ask Khashiff, our son, what he learnt from his dad, he would either say, “The answer lies somewhere in the middle” or “Don’t ever mess with your wife”. And if you were to ask Mihika, our daughter, the same, she would probably say, “We have to face the consequences of the actions we choose”. Sometimes, these mentoring relationships were semi-formal, like for Teach For India and Ashoka Fellows and sometimes I felt that I didn’t really add value.

A few years back, a few of us (Roger Pereira, Anthony D’Souza and Leslie Lobo) got together to see how we could help young Catholics in Mumbai. With the support of the Cardinal and a larger group (the G-20) we started a mentoring programme in Mumbai called ‘Take Charge’. In our search for partners to support us, I came across mentoring organisations like Mentor Me India and foundations that were looking to support mentoring like Rosy Blue Foundation.

New words get coined to reflect new trends or rebrand old ideas… like ‘life coaching’. I strongly believe that mentoring is a great way to engage employees, especially as CSR engagements want to involve ‘volunteering’. Mentoring is a more impactful way to volunteer because you are trying to help a younger person be a better, more successful person by drawing on all your own experiences.

Mentoring helps the mentor also become a better person. Mentoring is not just career counselling. It involves a lot more—building a relationship of trust, helping the mentee identify her strengths and weaknesses and work on them, helping the mentee discover a passion that’s worth focussing on, etc. And when I look back at all the mentoring that I have received, career guidance was only a tiny part. Mentoring is not lecturing … our children and youth get enough of that. Mentoring is not transactional. Mentoring is a process of building up a relationship with someone you can go to for advice, to let off steam and, often, to be told the hard truths.

Running a proper mentoring programme is not easy. And there is so much to learn by sharing experiences, both globally (like Big Brother) and locally. If you are interested in learning more about the power of formal mentoring programmes, that are scalable, and want to be a part of the ecosystem to build out mentoring in India, sign up for the 1st National Mentoring Conference in India on August 7 and August  8 being put together by Mentor Me India and Rosy Blue Foundation. For more details send an email to


On some remote stretches in Ladakh, we never came across another person for stretches of over an hour


Image: Natalia Davidovich / Shutterstock

Our family recently did a one-month road trip from Mumbai to Leh and back. Before you ask, yes, we still talk to each other after the trip! Our daughter, Mihika, pushed for the road trip and we dropped off our son, Khashiff, in Leh where he spends three months with 17000 ft Foundation. We drove 7,800 km, covering nine states – Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat. This reminded me of the road trips we took as kids, packed in an Ambassador, where we saw all the temples and hill resorts of South India.

We had amazing roads for most of the trip… the roads in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat stood out. Driving on four-lane highways (sometimes six-lane) was a great pleasure. And I thanked former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee and his team led by Major General Khanduri and the NHAI chairman Deepak Dasgupta. The Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) kick-started the highways revolution in India and is a great example of how enlightened leadership at the top, backed by superior execution (both in the public and private sectors), can create world-class infrastructure in India. There is a lesson here for Prime Minister Narendra Modi as we fix the other sectors in India. The Congress government from 2004-2014 unfortunately blew away the opportunity to build on the GQ success. We paid about Rs 4,000 in tolls, mainly in these four states, and it was worth every rupee. It was great driving on some of the roads we had invested in when I was at IDFC through L&T Infra, Ashoka Buildcon and GMR. The best road was NE-1 between Ahmedabad and Vadodara.

Some roads were bad, especially in Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, but this was because of the heavy snowfall in these states. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) of the army does amazing work to ensure that the Sonmarg–Leh and Leh–Manali roads are open for half the year. We passed through some mind-blowing terrain in these areas and in some places, we had no roads to drive on. It was pure nirvana driving on our own, even when we were off-road. On some remote stretches in Ladakh, we never came across another person for stretches of over an hour. And driving our Toyota Fortuner 4WD over some of the mountain roads where the BRO had to cut through ice was amazing. We had no puncture on the entire trip.

What did we find painful? Cows all over the highways in Madhya Pradesh and people driving on the wrong side of the road at many places. It was frustrating getting stuck in rush-hour traffic in Sagar with tractors all over the place. Driving at night is not easy-some heroes drive without their headlights on and most truckers do not believe in having rear lights. And truckers and other idiotic drivers drive slowly in the fast lane. A frustrating experience is to be stuck behind two huge trucks struggling to climb a hill and all you can do is patiently wait behind them. This highlights the need for proper training of drivers and proper policing of highways. Roads Minister Nitin Gadkari tried but blames vested interests for not being able to push his reforms through (a flashback to Manmohan Singh’s complaint about coalition politics). We got stuck often in Jammu & Kashmir because of migrating sheep and goats… but at least they had a purpose to be on the road; the cows just hung around highways without a purpose. And the Himachal Pradesh tourist car drivers are the worst we came across – no wonder the Supreme Court had to step in to protect the Rohtang Pass. There was only one place we were totally disappointed with – Manali. When we saw a line of cars waiting to enter the old town, we simply decided to skip Manali and found a lovely place on the way to Kulu.

Another great experience was to do with telecommunications, another success story that the Congress government failed to capitalise on. We had mobile connectivity every day, except when we were in remote parts of Ladakh (BSNL is needed there). As a result, we could use Google Maps for our entire trip. The only time we had absolutely no connectivity was when we were in South Ladakh getting to Tso Moriri  and then getting back to the highway.

There are other benefits of good telecom technology. We stayed at so many charming small hotels, havelis and guest houses thanks to TripAdvisor and other websites. The internet has clearly helped small entrepreneurs in the tourism industry. And you don’t need to carry a whole load of money when you start your trip. ATMs can be found everywhere. State Bank of India had the most number of ATMs in rural India, but most of them did not work. It was a sad reflection on public sector banking since the private sector bank ATMs next door would be working. Our phones were on Vodafone and Airtel, which was helpful as in many places, one of these service providers couldn’t connect. We couldn’t get data services in a few places in the mountains, but Wi-Fi was available at most places we stayed at.

We left Mumbai on May 25 with a rough idea of our route but with no hotel bookings. As a result, we could explore places that people suggested en route. And these ended up being the highlights of our trip … the Tribal Museum in Bhopal, 10,000-year-old rock paintings in Bhimbetka, admiring the ruins of Orchha while rafting down Betwa River (all thanks to suggestions of our friend Tino DeSa, the chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh), spending time with farmers in Barmer who are being helped by TechnoServe/Cairn, the Golden Temple at 4 am, the sound of the roaring river during the night in Sonmarg and the amazing Chittorgarh Fort (India’s largest fort). We stayed at some amazing places, which we discovered driving by or on the internet. These include Orchha’s Bundelkhand Riverside, Jodhpur’s Ajit Bhavan, Gajner’s Palace Hotel, Sonmarg’s Ahsan Mountain Resort and Chittorgarh’s Padmini Haveli. We were the first guests at Minerva Hotel in Keylong, which was an interesting experience at Rs 1,200 a night. And we ate some exceptional food at roadside dhabas… and at the dhabas of Amritsar… and the thalis at Club Mahindra Jaisalmer, Gajner’s Palace Hotel, Jaipur’s LMB and Ahmedabad’s Agashiye… and delicious fresh trout at the Himalayan Trout Farm. We travelled in temperatures ranging from 45 degree centigrade to minus two. We also spent some time with small farmers and did not see the poverty that the media keeps writing about. These farmers are really happy people.

Our advice to you is it to do the same as we did – explore India by driving yourself. It is the best way to experience India and our changing infrastructure. My wife, Fiona, and I shared the driving and that helps a lot. Mihika pitched in occasionally. Seven thousand and eight hundred kilometres and one month later, we returned home. We never felt unsafe even once on this trip. We never had a problem finding a place to sleep at night. We met some amazing people and heard some amazing stories. This was clearly our best road trip ever. And it left us even more proud of our country, its diversity and its people. India is clearly changing for the better.

NArenra Jhaveri_BGOn Saturday morning, my friend and mentor passed away. I am on a family road trip currently where the telecom signals are not great. So, I learnt about Narendra J Jhaveri’s passing away only in the evening from his daughter, Manisha, who had tried to call me earlier in the day. I do not write obituaries, but in this case I had to do so because ‘Mr Jhaveri’, as most of us knew him as, was special. I got to know him in 2003, when Nasser Munjee (who was CEO of IDFC at that time) introduced me to him. I invited him to join the Investment Committee (IC) of our first fund at IDFC Private Equity and he was the longest serving IC member of IDFC Private Equity, right up till today when he breathed his last. I quit the IC in 2011 after leaving IDFC, but Mr Jhaveri carried on.

I remember him always being there when we needed his advice. He would come thoroughly prepared for every IC meeting and would read the entire book before the meeting. He would know what hot buttons to press and at the same time, would not want to belittle us by trying to poke holes in our arguments. He would never strongly push forth a point of view because he wanted us to feel that we were a part of the argument or decision. He taught us the importance of relationships and the importance of working with all parties to move forward. Darius Pandole, who partnered with me to start IDFC Private Equity, wrote to me on hearing the news, “I remember him vividly. He was so humble, knowledgeable and helpful, and a thorough gentleman.” Shyam Sundar, who was also a co-founder of IDFC PE, said he learnt a lot from him. Shyam first came into contact with him when Mr Jhaveri was executive chairman of ICICI Securities. Nimesh, the fourth musketeer of our team, said, “He was a good man.”

For those of you who did not know Mr Jhaveri, he was a long-time banker at ICICI and rose to be joint managing director. He started his career at the Reserve Bank of India after studying economics at the London School of Economics. He was a banker before bankers made a lot of money from bonuses and stock options. After retiring from banking, he served on the board of many prestigious companies, including Siemens, Indian Aluminium, Hindalco, National Securities & Depositories, Afcons, Voltas, Usha Martin, SKF, Pidilite and Edelweiss. Every large business house wanted him as an advisor. Mr Jhaveri was always keen on helping entrepreneurs grow, especially if they were young. I guess this kept him young also. And he was indeed young in spirit and attitude. I learnt from him how to use the iPad more effectively… how to read magazines and books on it. And how to do so in a cost-effective manner; after all, he would remark, “I am a Gujarati!”

Over the past 13 years, our families got to know each other well. Even after I left IDFC Private Equity I would still meet him regularly, invariably at the Grand Hyatt, on whose board he was. I will miss those meetings with him there. He was so proud of his kids and grand kids. Mr and Mrs Jhaveri loved to travel and they had a group of friends with whom they would travel all over. And he looked forward to his annual summers with his children and grand children.

He was a man of strong principles. When the government of Gujarat insisted that GoG companies contribute a part of their profits to schemes of the government, he quit the board of Gujarat State Petronet because he felt it was not in the interest of minority investors.

A few months ago, I realised I had not spoken to him for a while and called him up. He told me that he had been in hospital and sounded tired. A few weeks later, I went to Ahmedabad with a former colleague, Rupa Vora, to spend one morning with Mr and Mrs Jhaveri. We had a lovely time and a splendid lunch at their home. He took care to ensure that we returned home laden with delicious khakras.

But all of this is not why I am sitting up writing about Mr Jhaveri. Yes, he was a great man. Yes, I often ran to him for valuable advice. Yes, he was very smart. Yes, he was very modest. Yes, I learnt a lot from him. But the main reason I am writing this is because I never came across anyone who had a bad thing to say about him. That is why he stands out tall.

People in the financial world love to drag others down. I have had the good luck to be mentored by people who have been more illustrious than Mr Jhaveri. But there was always someone who would have some axe to grind, some criticism to make, some jealous comment to make. But not Mr Jhaveri. It is amazing that over the thirteen years that I have known him, everyone only had good things to say about him. This is how I will remember him… a good man, who was loved, respected and admired by everyone he came across. I am fortunate to have had him as a mentor.

Mr Jhaveri, rest in peace.


Take delegation to the next level–to a level where you make yourself totally redundant so that you start looking at new things to do for the firm and the industry Image: Shutterstock 

A lot of managers that I know love to be involved in every decision. Their team members need to get their clearance for many issues, including minor matters like travel permissions. As a result, these managers are snowed down with work and often find themselves to be the bottleneck in their organisation. Some time back, I wrote on the importance of delegation. This time, I want to talk about taking delegation to the next level–to a level where you make yourself totally redundant.

Many years ago, when I was at HDFC Bank, I had a great team and found myself totally redundant by 1999. I could, therefore, spend time on other activities and look at opportunities that we hadn’t looked at before. Similarly in 2009, when I was at IDFC Private Equity, I had a great team and found that I had made myself pretty much redundant. As a result, I started looking at new things to do for the firm and the industry. In both situations, I found myself not involved in day-to-day matters. I had a lot of free time. The rest of the team was empowered to handle most of the decisions until it came to the Investment Committee.

The flip side was that in both these situations, I left the organisation after a few months. But it was this feeling of redundancy that created the opportunities for me to consider doing something else. At HDFC Bank, it created the opportunity for me to move to the PE and infrastructure industry. At IDFC, it created the opportunity for me to step away from a full-time job.  Looking back, making oneself redundant is such a liberating feeling that I fail to see why managers want to immerse themselves in every decision their team has to take. Life becomes so boring and tedious as a consequence. It also leads to unnecessary stress and health problems.

Now, as I have morphed into the role of an advisor, I work hard to make myself redundant so that I can give up some of my current assignments and get involved in more interesting and new activities. In my earlier blog, I had also written about the need to ‘manufacture time’. We all need to list three activities that we do not want to continue with after six months and ensure that we pass them on to someone else to do. This way, you will find yourself doing new things every six months, even though you may be in the same job. The ability to manufacture time was one of the key tools that I learnt from Ram Charan last December at the Isha Institute in Coimbatore.

This concept of making yourself redundant came back to me as we started getting ready to spend a month on the road, driving from Mumbai to Leh and back, via some of the hottest areas of India at this time of the year–Khajuraho, Jaisalmer and Amritsar. It was with immense joy that I wrote to the various organisations that I am involved with that I won’t be accessible during this month since we do not know where we could be as we let the road dictate where we stop over for the night. That’s because I am not really needed. Some of my friends would be very scared to find themselves in a position where they are not needed. On the contrary, I find it extremely liberating; the same position that my wife and daughter find themselves in this evening after shaving their heads earlier today before we hit the road–a feeling of total freedom.

So go ahead, and make yourself redundant at work… instead of worrying that you will be fired, you will find that the world will throw up a host of new opportunities for you, either at your current job or at a new place. My only concern today is that the air-conditioning in our Toyota Fortuner doesn’t give way in Rajasthan. And since I have no control over that, there’s no point worrying about it. Central India, here we come… a family of totally redundant people!

Employees from various departments collect brooms before a cleanliness drive at an Indian Railways office in Mumbai

(Photo: Danish Siddiqui / Reuters)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced with much fanfare the Swachh Bharat Mission on Gandhi Jayanti last October. The aim is to ensure a Clean India in five years. A lot of staged photos were taken across the country of ministers, celebrities and bureaucrats cleaning streets. What was remarkable is that the new PM told the world that we are a filthy nation and we need to fix it urgently. So far, the previous governments never admitted that we have a serious problem and not much was being done about it on a large scale. A lot of money was being spent, but the impact wasn’t much. And Indians want a Swachh Bharat. A recent India Today survey found that 41 percent believed that the initiative was a very good one that will make India cleaner. Twenty-nine percent felt it was a very good idea, but impractical. That’s a 70 percent vote for the cause seven months later.

But what’s happened so far? Yes, it has only been seven months and the data is still trickling in. The fear is that we will see a repeat of what we have seen over the past decades. Live Mint recently carried an article titled ‘Accounting for toilets, but no accountability for sanitation’. The focus has so far mainly been only on building the infrastructure and not much is happening on getting people to use them. Companies are jumping over each other to build toilets and this summer, at any AGMs, chairmen will brag about the number of toilets they have built. This is a great leap forward. However, I have three large fears.

First, we will succumb to the Great India Infrastructure Model – ‘Build, Neglect, Rebuild’. The toilets will be built (yes, we can tick that box), but they will be built badly. As a result, few people will use them and they will hence get neglected. And a few years later, in another frenetic burst of activity, they will be rebuilt. We have seen this happen time and time again across the country and there is a high likelihood that this will recur. The attitude of many players – both in the government and in the corporate world – is that we have infrastructure targets to meet and we will meet them. But not many are talking about building them properly. I was introduced to this challenge by Supriya Jaan Sonar of the Right to Pee campaign, where she said we need a change in attitudes to build proper toilets (click  here for my earlier blog on ‘Intent is important to Bring About Change’, where this initiative of CORO also highlighted the gender biases in the toilet situation in India). Samhita Social Ventures, which advises companies on CSR strategies and helps them implement them, has had many companies approach them to build toilets and when they discuss some of the softer issues needed to do it properly, the companies run away. Of course, there are some firms who understand the need to build toilets properly.

Second, we are not doing enough to create a demand for toilets. The precursor to the Swachh Bharat Mission was the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. Arghyam, founded by Rohini Nilekani, is working closely with the Karnataka government to build the demand for toilets in rural India. Just building toilets will not mean that people will stop open defecation. The government had reserved 15 percent of the NBA budget for Information, Education and Communication (IEC). Only 5.65 percent of that budget was used in 2012-13! In the recent budget, the allocation for IEC was dropped further, from 15 percent to 8 percent, highlighting the government’s fascination for building infrastructure without focusing on creating a demand for this infrastructure. Organisations like Centre of Gravity and Final Mile are working on changing behaviour patterns to create this demand. Dasra, with support from Forbes Marshal, did a study on urban toilets and referred to this problem as the silent killer; in India, more than 1,000 children under the age of five die each day due to diarrhoea caused by lack of sanitation – that is 3,65,000 kids a year! We need to make people realise that building proper toilets actually helps improve their health, and by consequence, their earning ability.

Third, we are not doing enough to build ‘proper’ toilets. Given the pathetic state of toilets today, it is no wonder that people don’t want to use pokey, smelly and filthy cells that masquerade as toilets. A few years ago, my son and I were returning from Purushwadi, a village near Akole (an interesting programme run by Grassroutes Journeys). On the way back, he wanted to go to the toilet and we got off at Thane station. What a disaster that train station toilet was, despite charging people to use it. Many organisations are, therefore, looking at ways to build better toilets, keeping in mind the needs of the local environment. For example, 17000 ft Foundation is building a few toilets in Ladakh for a corporate sponsor. They are working with designers in Ahmedabad to improve on the traditional Ladakhi toilet. A lot more work has to be done in this area to build useable toilets.

Keeping all this in mind, the Social Enterprise Initiative of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, together with Toilet Hackers and Samhita, is hosting a Convening on Sanitation in Delhi this week to stimulate behaviour change and usage. We are bringing together the government, NGOs, corporate India and academia to see how we can ensure that Swachh Bharat actually delivers what Prime Minster Modi set out to do. We will start off with Prof Richard Thaler of Chicago Booth talking about the need to change behaviour. Thaler wrote the best seller, ‘Nudge’, a few years ago and set up a ‘Nudge Unit’ under Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. We then have a panel to take stock of where we are on Swachh Bharat. This will be followed by detailed sessions of behaviour change, gender issues and building systems.

One of the speakers at the convening is John Kluge. John is committed to improving sanitation across the globe and has set up Toilet Hackers to drive this (I love his title – Co-Founder and Chief Disruption Officer). I recently caught up with him and discussed briefly his four-year journey in this space. He admits it is a tough task across the world and it needs strong partnerships between the government, NGOs, citizens and donors (including corporate) to ensure that sanitation improvement is done in a sustainable manner. Academia also has a large role to play by providing cutting-edge research and analysis. This week’s convening on sanitation at the University of Chicago Centre in Delhi aims to achieve precisely this.

Disclosure: I am connected with CORO, Samhita and 17000 ft and studied at the University of Chicago.


Image: Shutterstock

I recently spoke at an event that focused on CSR in Education. It was a well run event, with some amazing discussions organized by Educational Initiatives (EI) and Samhita Social Ventures. And I nearly got booted out for challenging three basic issues – the under-spending on overheads, the high cost of submitting proposals and collecting data and the short-term strategies to fix the education challenges in India. I feared I would be politely escorted out by the security before I spoke more rubbish.

Let’s look at the first point – the 10% cap on overheads. It is amazing how these numbers get cast in stone. I spent 10 years in the PE industry where the 2/20 rule (i.e. 2% management fee and 20% share in the profits) remained fixed for decades. No one dared to challenge it until recently; so too with the 10% cap. I am reading a very interesting book, “Give Smart”, written by Tierney (the co-founder of Bridgespan Group) and Fleishman. One of the traps in philanthropy they write about is ‘nonprofit neglect’ – the ‘widespread resistance to providing general operating support, which grantees can use to develop their organisational capacity.’ As a result NGOs cannot spend scarce resources on bringing in more professional advice or resources (I am not arguing that it is needed in every case). Nor can they spend on proper training and facilities … because donors don’t like funding this, probably because they consider this a waste.  In 2009 Gregory and Howard of Stanford wrote about this problem, calling it ‘The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle’. One of the NGOs I am connected with was grilled recently by a donor on every cost item (the Board, on the other hand, felt we need to actually spend more). On the other hand another NGO was told by a donor that the team should not scrimp so much and start spending more on overheads to improve efficiency. These are two very contrasting views on overheads and expenses.  Tierney and Fleishman compared this to airlines – would we prefer to fly on an airline that had the lowest maintenance cost? Or go to the hospital with the oldest, depreciated equipment? They differentiated between good overheads (e.g. hiring a great chief operating officer) and bad overheads (e.g. excessive rent or lavish entertaining). I think the time has come for donors to relook at this artificial cap on overheads and instead focus on the nature and need of the expenses to make the NGOs more sustainable.

The second point was on the excessive cost of applying for grants and collecting impact data. Don’t get me wrong – we need data. But we have swung from one extreme of not looking at outcomes (the RTE still ignores outcomes) to getting over-paranoid about it. Tierney and Fleishman write about grant makers who require grantees to annually fill out 50-page reports that are probably never read in their entirety. This annual exercise is disruptive and unproductive if not done properly – it is a bad overhead.  We need to focus on lowering the cost of preparing grant proposals. One of the organizations I am involved with is trying to do this by harnessing the power of technology. There is so much scope to reduce costs by standardising proposals and sharing data.  We also need to focus on lowering the cost of data collection to measure impact. Another NGO I am involved with did a spectacular job of reducing costs to a fraction of industry standards and significantly increasing the success rate of the intervention. Skeptics did not believe their numbers and so they had to spend a fortune (funded by another donor) to get the numbers validated. EI has successfully developed technologies to measure impact and collect data at a low-cost. We need more initiatives in this area.

Finally my last point was on our impatience to see results. I remember speaking on a panel organize by iDiscoveri a couple of years back where Pasi Sahlberg spoke on the Finnish education system. I asked him what lessons can India, which has 300 million kids in a broken educations system, learn from Finland, which has only 5 million people. He said two things – (1) right from the start there was equity in the system where everyone had access to quality instruction (the much-debated 25% reservation under the RTE was a major step forward in this direction) and (2) Finland took 25 years to reach where they are today. A few weeks back Bill Gates said the same when he was in Mumbai – education reform takes a long, long time. We therefore cannot dramatically change the system if we cannot think long term. We are only offering band-aid solutions.

Unfortunately governments and CSR teams want quick results. So we focus on building toilets and classrooms, instead of focusing on how we can improve education outcomes over the next generation. Of course in many parts of the country, like in the Northeast, school infrastructure is so pathetic that the basics don’t exist. Samhita recently mapped the education initiatives of 100 companies in the BSE 500 with the largest CSR budgets. 54% of the companies spent on infrastructure and learning material but only 9% spent anything on systemic change.  Of course we need milestones to track on-going progress. Yes, we will see one-off examples where excellent people will create excellent impact in the short term – but the challenge is to make these more widespread. Technology can play a large role here also.

So let’s start thinking really long term, invest in overheads to help us get there and reduce unnecessary transaction costs to help us focus on outcomes more effectively.

This is my 25th blog for Forbes India. I have enjoyed writing for them over the last three years. I have been slammed, ignored and praised. Thank you for convincing  Forbes India to stick with me. Yet!

One of the biggest challenges managers face today is the inability to delegate. I have come across some bosses who have done a fantastic job of delegating. One is Aditya Puri at HDFC Bank. His view has always been that if he needs to make decisions for his subordinates, he doesn’t need them around. Another example is Arvind Sethi at HSBC. We have had some real big fights, but he would not interfere unless I asked for help. And another was Nasser Munjee who gave me a free hand to build IDFC Private Equity.  And there is my dad, Mario de P Miranda, who mastered the art of leaving office on time and not bringing work home. He is convinced that I am a totally incompetent manager because I still take calls at all times of the day and night. Delegating never comes easy.

A couple of months ago, I came across a couple of great quotes on delegation. The first was by Vellayan Subbiah. He said that his father, MV Subbiah, often remarked, “Remember that the bottleneck in a bottle is always at the top.” This is such a great statement! By not being able to delegate, the boss becomes the bottleneck and slows down decisionmaking. I have seen so many versions of this over the years.  Organisations go into analysis paralysis because the guy at the top can’t take a decision and becomes the bottleneck.

GV Prasad of Dr Reddy’s Labs was once speaking at the Isha Foundation’s Insight programme for entrepreneurs. He was asked how he learnt to delegate and to let go. He responded by saying, “In reality, you make more mistakes by not delegating.” This was such a powerful statement too. By not delegating, he had realised that he made bigger mistakes and his team did not learn to take their own decisions.  He added that he had a great team and that one cannot tell good people what to do.

These two statements on bottlenecks are deep. If all bosses followed them they would find that they suddenly have a lot more free time to pursue other interests. And when you reach my age you realise that your most valuable commodity is time. Management guru Ram Charan, at the same Isha Foundation event, went on to talk about how one can manufacture time. He quoted the lessons he learnt from one of his former students. First, recruit people better than you. Second, make up your mind not to do three things after six months – find the people who can take this over from you. This way you create time for yourself and you can scale up your ability to perform.

So, here am I talking about manufacturing time and writing this blog in the middle of the night… how does one manufacture time so that one is asleep by midnight? I still have so much to learn from my father!

ideaImage: Shutterstock

Every year, for about 3 days, the local media writes about think tanks and their role in society. This is, thanks to the University of Pennsylvania’s annual ranking of think tanks (under their Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program).  The latest rankings were released recently and it is great that many Indian think tanks appear on that list, including two that I am personally involved with – Centre for Civil Society (CCS) and Gateway House. CCS has, once again, remained at the top of the heap amongst Indian think tanks, and remains the only Indian one in the top 50 global list. Gateway House jumped into the rankings for the first time and also featured high on the rankings of think tanks that use social media and the internet well.  Soon, all of this will be forgotten and think tanks will continue their struggle to survive and get criticized for only being ‘thinkers’ and not ‘doers’.

So, what does a think tank actually do? Across the world, decisions are being taken by various people – politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, social activists etc. Quite often, these decisions are being made based on sentiment or incomplete data. Think tanks help bring expert knowledge to decision-making.

They provide decision-makers with reliable information. They analyze current events in a comprehensive manner and help policy makers make informed decisions about public policy. CCS has, for the past 17 years been doing just this – championing the cause of free markets, school choice and the right to livelihoods. Gateway House was set up 5 years back in Mumbai to create a platform to inform and influence foreign policy in Delhi by acting as a bridge between business (Mumbai) and foreign policy (Delhi).

The number of think tanks in India has grown in recent years, whereas globally the tribe is shrinking.  The U Penn Report blames a global hostile political and regulatory environment for this.  Governments across the world, not just in India, do not like criticism and therefore try to place restrictions on think tanks.  As citizens challenge the right of governments to have a monopoly on decision making, think tanks have an even larger role in ensuring that correct information is made available to public. We recently saw how social media played a large role in getting Narendra Modi elected as Prime Minister after the general elections that concluded in May. Think tanks have a lot to gain from growth and traction on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms, because it enables them to disseminate information faster and more efficiently. Both CCS and Gateway House host discussions on Twitter, Google Hangouts, etc.

One challenge think tanks have to deal with is fund raising.  It is easier for an NGO to raise money to feed hungry children, treat AIDS patients and teach kids. But, it is more difficult for a think tank to raise money to analyze the reasons on why do so many kids go hungry, why AIDS continues to be a threat and why our youth are not getting educated properly, despite enrollment rates being very high.

Fund raising is an even bigger problem in India, where funding for most think tanks comes from large philanthropists, government grants or international donors. The source of funding always throws up concerns about the independence of think tanks. Last year, Brookings, which consistently tops U Penn’s rankings, faced a lot of criticism about their independence because of funding from donors like the Qatar government.  In 2013, Brookings managed to set up shop in India owing to donations from many rich Indians cutting large cheques to gain a seat on the Brookings India Initiative Founders Circle. Most of these donors will not support a domestic think tank.

Today, think tanks are also caught between Action and Ideas. The U Penn report talks about how think tanks are “forced to abandon traditional methods of operation, such as dialogue and debate, and consider new methods as funders and other stakeholders in the policy process have grown impatient with conferences, forums and seminars on public policy issues.” Hence there is a need for more advocacy in effecting change, something that CCS has embraced.

For example, CCS helped set up the ‘National Independent Schools Alliance (NISA)’ to fight for the rights of 400,000 budget private schools. Many of these schools face closure because of the irrational fixation of the government on input norms under the Right to Education Act 2009 (RTE), totally ignoring educational outcomes at schools. Earlier this month, we won a significant victory when the Haryana High Court passed a judgment that no school can be shut down without the State following due process. The writ petition was filed by members of NISA. CCS also recently published a report, The 100 Laws Report, together with Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy and NPFP, outlining 100 laws that need to be repealed.  40 of these recommendations were included in the report by the Law Commission of India.

CCS also conducts a series of interactive dialogues in campuses across the country, branded Freedom Caravan. And this year, the theme was ‘Why is India Poor?’ Sometimes, think tanks have to support good ideas that many people do not like. One such example is the RTE’s 25% reservation rule for children from disadvantaged groups. CCS initiated ‘Coalition 25’ to help develop workable models to implement this rule and the first step is ‘Patang’, a project being implemented in 3 private schools in Delhi.

Last week, Gateway House hosted a Google hangout on the role and challenges of think tanks. One of the participants was Jim McGann, who is Director of the Think Tank and Civil Societies Program. Their 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, which is available online, has some very interesting insights into the world of think tanks.

There is cautious optimism about how the Modi government will look at think tanks. NITI Aayog, the successor to the Planning Commission, has been set up as a policy think tank to the central government. If we need to have a strong and thriving democracy, we need to invest in the generation of ideas and encourage the proper use of data in decision-making.  Only then, will we able to achieve what Rabindranath Tagore wrote about – “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high … where knowledge is free … into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.”  This is why we need more think tanks to help focus on the power of ideas, so that the Government and Corporate India can operate better.

Disclaimer – I am Chairman of Centre for Civil Society and Advisor to Gateway House

Luis Miranda
Luis Miranda connects dots. He started investing in India's infrastructure a long, long time ago. He started IDFC Private Equity and was earlier a part of the start-up team of HDFC Bank.

Luis has invested in and has been on the boards of companies like GMR Infrastructure, L&T Infrastructure, Delhi International Airport, Gujarat Pipavav Port, Gujarat State Petronet, and Manipal Global Education.

Luis today spends most of his time, together with his wife, on non-profits. He is Chairman of CORO and Centre for Civil Society and Managing Trustee for Nadathur Trust. Other organisations include 17000 Ft Foundation, SNEHA, Muktangan, Sunbird Trust and Samhita Social Ventures.

Luis graduated with an MBA from Chicago Booth and is a Chartered Accountant.
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November 25, 2015 15:47 pm by Vivek
Hi Luis, I realize this is an old blog post, but I felt compelled to add a personal observation. It is not just the attitude of the unemployed/youth that needs to change. The attitude of the employed also need to change, to incorporate the mindset of giving their best to the job. I have spent severa...
November 17, 2015 15:57 pm by christy
The actual spirit of RTE is to ensure quality education to children up to a minimum of 14 years. Education along with other basics need to be definitely provided by government through public neighbourhood schools. Privatization of education has converted education as a serviceable commodity to be so...
November 13, 2015 10:35 am by Aditya Prakash
Interesting artiecle, but is a little biased. "But the theory of equality is easier to articulate than the theory of having enough – how much is enough?" People always think in relative terms . Dan Ariely explains the power of context in his book Predictably Irrational. Acording to his theory, ...
October 30, 2015 18:29 pm by Hdfc Bank In Avinashi Road Coimbatore | approve - bankingadvice
[...] Being redundant at work is liberating – Many years ago, when I was at HDFC Bank, I had a great team … at the Isha Institute in Coimbatore. This concept of making yourself redundant came back to me as we started getting ready to spend a month on the road, driving from Mumbai to Leh and ...
October 22, 2015 08:22 am by Luis Miranda
Nandita, you should connect with the National Independent Schools Alliance (NISA) which is challenging schools closures. Check out their website - Where is your school based?