Civic Responsibility

Civic responsibility is something that my mind has been returning to again and again in recent times. I haven’t had the time to think about it because of many other things pressing for time. Then I came across this piece that captures some of what I have been thinking. Here is a Quote:

The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.

David is talking about USA. However, it applies even more to India than USA. Civic responsibility is utterly lacking and it is hurting our country more than the politicians and corruption. More on this later.

 

Why Indians (Don’t!) break traffic law

Today evening, I was involved in an auto accident. A Tata Ace swerved to the left and hit my auto. We were not hurt because both vehicles were going slow due to the traffic. But that also meant that they got stuck to each other. My auto driver cursed the other driver at the top of his voice (which actually wasn’t audible; again due to the traffic) and told him to steer away. The other driver was visibly shaken at the accident and also because he made an error. He raised his hands in apology and then did as my driver has asked him. At the same time, my driver also steered away from the truck ie to our left. And promptly hit a scooter driver by an uncle! It was the turn of the Uncle to scream in anger and it was the auto driver who was folding hands to say sorry and then waving towards the truck driver to blame him. The truck driver played oblivious to the existence of the other two drivers. No real harm done; all three vehicles moved as the traffic moved.

In all this while, I had to bite my tongue to stop myself from screaming at all three of them. I almost pointed out to all three of them that as per traffic rules, overtaking is always from the right. And that they all must be NRIs from USA where overtaking is from the left. If I had said all this, all of them would have looked at me as if I am an idiot and from another country. The Uncle may have even tried to educate me on the correct traffic rules. I am sure because I have been through such situations many times. I know its pointless to tell people about traffic laws in such situations and that is how I have learned to bite my tongue.

But today was different. Today, I realised that most of Indians actually do follow the traffic law. It’s just that its the traffic law they believe in and have been trained in; is not the law that is written down and passed by the Parliament. Most Indians believe that overtaking from left is the correct method and they see everyone doing it. Now everyone can’t be wrong and therefore overtaking from left is the correct way.

While this fits the paradigm of sheep following the flock and the paradigm of social proof; there is more to this. Such behavior is so strong that its actually can be considered a type of law called Custom Law. As per Wikipedia,

Customary law (also, consuetudinary or unofficial law) exists where:

  1. a certain legal practice is observed and

  2. the relevant actors consider it to be law

Overtaking from left satisfies condition 1 clearly as most Indians do it. Almost all of them consider it to be correct and legal. That almost satisfies condition 2 as well. Almost because if the question were to come up before a court, the court would clearly say: overtake from right. Still right because the most relevant actors ie drivers and law enforcement agencies such as traffic police consider it correct. Just think of the many times that a Police vehicle overtook yours from the left side. That is a very “relevant” actor considering it to be a law.

So overtaking from left is customary law of India and Indians abide by it.

As any law graduate will tell you, written law always supersedes the customary law.  The written law says that overtaking is by the right side (Section 4 of The Road Regulation Rules 1989). Also, overtaking by left side attracts a fine of Rs 100. Almost every Indian breaks this law and should be fined. To put things in perspective, if every vehicle breaking this rule was actually fined, Mumbai Traffic Police would earn Rs 20 – 30 Cr on the first day of such an exercise! Delhi could earn Rs 60 – 90 Cr! It would probably pay that month’s salary for every traffic cop!!

But, of course, they don’t do that because they too have come to accept the customary law over written law. They also don’t do it because of obvious logistics problems but that is for senior officials. Junior police men and women accept the customary law over written law because in this they are no different from every other driver.

In short: customary traffic law trumps written traffic law.

This is actually not unusual. There are several other examples: Khap Panchayats, Triple Talaq etc. In some cases, written law is passed to incorporate customary law. For eg, the different Personal Laws on marriage. In some other cases, written law is passed to overwrite the customary law. An example is what is happening with Triple talaq.

What is unusual is that the cost of enforcing the written law in this case doesn’t lead to great measurable benefits. Imagine the efforts that need to be made by the Police. Imagine the cost of accidents and delays as drivers adapt to this “new” rule. Can you imagine any benefits from enforcing this law? I can’t. Indian Parliament might as well change the written law to say overtaking shall be from the right. No one will even notice the change. Some may argue: bus stands would need to move to the right side of the road if this is done. But why?  We have a functioning system. Very few people try to overtake a bus from left when a stand is visible ahead. Similar response would work for almost all objections.

Seriously, let’s just do it. Law should reflect the popular belief.

But while we are at this discussion, let’s also look at why such a custom has come up. I think its because no one has tried to train drivers for overtaking from left side. Most driving license holders don’t even know the traffic rules like this one. It is because they are not really required to. Most got their license from a tout. And then they looked at others to see what is right. What began as the advantage of a smaller vehicle such as a bike over a larger vehicle such as a bus, has become a custom. Bike riders turned car drivers over time and continue the same habit. And now the momentum is too big to stop.

But, there are other patterns of breaking traffic rules that are still emerging and can be stopped before Traffic Rules become something that feature only in whatsapp jokes and standup comic routines.

For eg, look at the vehicles that stop a few meters after passing a Red traffic signal. They do that because the lines that used to show where the first vehicle should stop have disappeared. For some reasons, they are not being drawn on Mumbai roads. So, some vehicle or the other overshoots the signal. Then another nudges ahead until their noses align. Still another is not happy to just match and nudges until its got a few centimeter on the rest. In doing all this, all these vehicles come in the way of incoming traffic. Put a traffic cop there and the extent of misses and nudges reduce but they are still there. Also, for every vehicle missing the line there are many which stop well behind the signal. Its a habit of a few which hasn’t become a custom yet. But if we don’t act, it will become a custom over time. And all it would take is to bring back that line that says S T O P.

Another example is bike riders driving on pavements. A few do it and get away with it. It encourages a few more to do it. Whenever you see it, you see social proof in action. One rider does it. Then another. And then many just follow them. Many more still stay on the road. Some of them are also tempted the next time. After all, who doesn’t want to reach a few mins earlier? In this case, enforcement of law can still stop a menace.

In short: making the rules clear and easy to follow plus enforcing fines on violations can still stop our traffic laws from being irrelevant. They already are when it comes to overtaking.

Image credit: Pristyles

 

 

Recommendations for Maharashtra State Innovation and Startup Policy

Maharashtra Govt recently came out with a draft policy for supporting innovation and startups in the state. Govt invited a few experts to comment on the policy and it was my privilege to be one of them. The recommendations drew upon my experience of being a witness to and a participant in the Indian Innovation ecosystem for the past 15+ years. I spoke very frankly and without any agenda. Therefore, it was a surprise to receive compliments from govt officials. Most of the points that I made apply to govt policy in other states as well and therefore bear repeating.

Workshop on Maharashtra State Innovation and Startup Policy

I made three recommendations to the Maharashtra government.

Focus

The first thing I requested the government was to cut down the size of the draft to half. It is trying to do too many things and at too many levels and all at the same time. It is the surest recipe to fail. History has shown that focusing forces on one or two areas has been the hallmark of winning strategies. There are hardly any instances of someone winning fights on multiple fronts. This holds true in military, business and government domains. So, Govt must focus if they want to have any chance of success.

Focus won’t be easy to do. Govt is beset by multiple stakeholders asking to resolve all kinds of their problems. It is also natural as govt has a massive size and power. Also, it has a public duty. But in order to focus, Govt must say “No” to 9 out 10 requests that they receive. A simple gauge of focus is to measure how many No were given and how many parts of the draft policy were cut out.

There is a recipe in focusing too. The focus has to be build further upon strengths. Maharashtra is the leading state in terms of economic muscle. Some industries such as financial services, automotive, agriculture etc are national leaders. Govt should build upon these strengths and promote innovation to take these areas to global levels. For e.g., why shouldn’t we focus on making Pune the hub of electric vehicle innovation globally and leave out every other industry? A thriving global hub through its secondary effects will spawn more business, increase its own competitive advantage and create far more employment than 10 fledgling me-too innovation centers. A large national market and the existing lead of Pune can create a base for such a focus.

Historical evidence also supports this. Silicon Valley is called silicon valley because it was a hub of semiconductor innovation to begin with. Biotech innovation had its home in Boston. Israel started out in security and network technologies.

Evangelize

The biggest impact of Govt Policy is not on areas that it chooses to spend on. A bigger impact is on the area that it chooses to talk about. The biggest impact so far of Prime Minister Modi’s Startup India thrust is not because of the investments it has made. The biggest impact has been that the PM has chosen to talk about startups and talk about it so much. It was sexy to do startups in small pockets until then. After Startup India, doing a startup is the thing to do across the country.

There is a lesson for policy makers in this – you can bring a change in how the entire state thinks about innovation and start ups. And that change will have a bigger impact because many many more people will put in efforts in alignment with their beliefs.

A great place to attack is on how innovation is done. Innovation is done by making things, figuring out what worked and what didn’t and then making another prototype. This is learning by doing. Sadly, we don’t have a culture of it. We are content with a theoretical understanding of concepts. We talk a lot more about innovation than actually doing it. This needs to change dramatically if India is to stand a chance in the global sweepstakes of the innovation game.

My second recommendation is to hold Grand Challenges. Announce a prize money of Rs 5 Cr (could be a bit less or more as well) for the winner of the grand challenge. Preliminary stage could be at district level leading to a state level competition. Only working prototypes should be allowed at any stage. Judging should be on the basis of objective performance parameters. For e.g.; maximize the area irrigated by 1,000 liters of water.

The design of the challenge is very important. For this, please get the globally best innovators and researchers in the focus area you have chosen. Ask them to set the challenge. Get them and practitioners in that area to judge the applicants. It is important that people of such caliber and background do this work. It sets the benchmark for success. A challenge set by politicians and bureaucrats will give us winners who have a higher chance of winning at politics and bureaucracy than at innovation! It would be difficult to get such innovators to put in their time into such an activity as the best people are focused and are always short of time. This is where being Govt increases the odds of success of such an endeavor.

The crux of Grand Challenge is to celebrate the process and the winners. Getting ministers to award prizes at District level and getting the Chief Minister to award the prize at the state level would draw attention. An exhibition of all state level participants will draw in crowds. The state government inviting competitors over FM channels and bringing out front page advertisements to publish pictures of winners would have a massive impact on how innovation is done by everyone.

Fund

A big part of the policy is regarding funding of startups. It is important to understand the background of startup funding before we get to the policy.

Startups are of two types. The first one is defined by the statement startup = Growth. These startups operate in large markets and look to grow fast. These startups have funding options in form of angel funds and VC funds. My own startup SwitchMe falls in this category. Govt must not fund such startups as there is no problem for the govt to solve.

One problem that the Govt could look to solve in this area is a problem that VC funds in India face. VC funds operate on a 7 – 8 year cycle within which they promise to get returns for their investors. This cycle is too short in India as there are bottlenecks in our economy that slow down businesses. The cycle time for India is probably around 10 years. Govt can invest in VC funds as a patient investor and become the anchor around which VCs can get other investors to join in for the 10 year cycle. Govt could also cap its own returns and thereby allow other investors to earn a higher return in spite of a longer investment horizon.

The other kind of startup is a startup which has innovative products but is not operating in a large market or in a market structure where fast growth is not possible. This startup struggles to get attention from VCs.

One example of such a startup is one being supported by NSRCEL at IIM Bangalore where I serve as a mentor. This startup is working on a platform for buying supplies for bio/pharma research. By bringing transparency into this small niche, this startup is speeding up the research process. Until now, procurement of supplies would take longer than the actual research. The platform is shortening the procurement cycle. It is too small to get VC attention but must be supported for the impact it is creating for a fairly large industry and for the innovation ecosystem.

Still, Govt has only a limited role to play here. It is limited because of two reasons. First, no amount of funds provided by Govt can quench the entire thirst for funds in this category. Second, if the Govt decides to select only a few, it will distort market forces without understanding how market is operating in the business where the investment is being made. This can have disastrous consequences for that industry.

There is a sub-category of startups in this category that must get Govt support. This is a startup that removes or reduces capacity blockages. Capacity blockages are like traffic chokes points. They slow down everything and waste time. They lead to situations like VC returns taking 10 years instead of 7 years in other parts of the world. Removing them makes our economy grow faster. Some of these are huge ones like Octroi which got removed by GST. Many others are small ones that Govt isn’t even aware of. Innovators and startups see them and look to remove them. Such startups should be supported by Govt in public interest.

My third recommendation is that the govt should fund startups in this category of startup not equal to growth. The funds should be provided via incubators which are better positioned to select who gets funded and who doesn’t. To ensure that the right kind of startups are getting funded, govt should provide grants only if there are matching grants from industry.

To summarize, Govt initiatives to support startups and innovation are welcome and much needed. But, steps must be taken to ensure that money is spent in a focused manner and for the right kind of goals.

Biases in Biographies

The book next on my reading list is Ravindra Kavita Kanan by Suryakant Tripathi Nirala. Its a book length essay on poems of the Nobel Laureate Ravindra Nath Tagore. Its very interesting as Nirala was a great poet himself.

He isn’t afraid to express his own opinions and that comes as a joy. Sample this:

अंकुर को देख कर उसके भविष्य-विस्तार के सम्बन्ध में अनुमान लगाना निरर्थक होता है | क्योंकि प्रायः सब अंकुर एक ही तरह के होते हैं | उनमें होनहार कौन है और कौन नहीं, यह बतलाना जरा मुश्किल है | इसी तरह, वर्तमान के महाकवि को उनके बालपन की क्रीड़ाएं देख कर पहचान लेना, उनके भविष्य के सम्बन्ध में सार्थक कल्पना करना, असंभव है | क्योंकि उनके बालपन में कोई ऐसी विचित्रता नहीं मिलती, जिससे यौवन-काल की महत्ता सूचित हो | जो लोग वर्त्तमान के साथ अतीत की श्रृंखला जोड़ते हैं, वे वर्त्तमान को देख कर ही उसके अनुकूल अतीत की युक्तियाँ रखते हैं |

I posted that in original Hindi. To translate, he says that it is impossible to look at a child and to predict the later greatness. There is a selection bias at play when people extrapolate the current greatness to events in childhood. He also says it poetically: All seeds are similar.

This is very different from the usual biographies written by journalists. There is an examination of the early years to show how the great person was different even in early years. Nirala clearly didn’t feel the compulsions that a Journalist does.

Review: Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

 

 

I cringed many times as I read through this book – there are parts which are more of a hagiography than a biography. It was expected as some of the reviews pointed out that book is written by a fan boy. However, by the end of the book, I came to a different conclusion. Vance is playing to the galleries. Elon Musk is an awe inspiring figure for many. Vance is looking to sell his book to the same crowd. So, he paints the picture that his audience wants – with some warts.

However, there is sufficient information in the book that can allow a reader to draw her own conclusions. I particularly love the appendices. Vance needs to be credited for leaving Musk’s statements as they were.

This book does a good job of painting a picture of how Musk is – Driven, analytical, hard working, brusque etc. It also does a good job of unearthing details of his childhood which had a bearing on how he came to be.

However, it does a poor job of telling us how he made SpaceX and Tesla to their current positions. There are hints throughout: hard work and hard drive, working from basic physics up, setting up clear targets, focus on what to do with setbacks rather than allocating blame, hiring and retaining great talent etc. But that is not the main narrative. The narrative is that of the person rather than his amazing work. In that, this book is a bit disappointing. It still doesn’t explain well enough why Musk succeeded where others failed. It doesn’t come anywhere near explaining how he did it two times – simultaneously!