Monday, December 31, 2018

New York memory



New York is a city of possibilities; infinite possibilities. And for me, nothing captures that feeling more perfectly than a view of the city from up above.
 
Whether it’s a leaden morning, with almost no memory of the sun, or a day stuffed with sunshine and blue skies, the city mesmerises from above. And to round off the year, three favourite aerial views of New York, a city that’s grown on me; well, sort of.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Vital Signs


Turning your own ideas into words that count can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. So it can get really tricky when you need to turn someone else’s ideas into their own words. But for a writer and editor, I think that’s a challenge worth accepting.  
And so it proved to be, working with Dr M.I. Sahadulla on his memoir Vital Signs: Reflections on a Life in Medicine and Management. The most obvious benefit of working on the book was the insight it offered into the process through which a young person from Murukkumpuzha, a village (now a small town) near Thiruvananthapuram, evolved into one of Kerala’s most successful entrepreneurs.
A more important reward was the opportunity to see an outstanding clinician at work; and, of course, the lessons in entrepreneurship, managerial problem solving and professionalism that happened as Dr Sahadulla went about the routine business of running KIMS. And then, there were the master classes in thoughtfulness and warmth as he bumped into patients, doctors, nurses, paramedical staff and others in the hospital’s corridors, leaving each person feeling a little better and happier for the encounter.
All these opportunities to learn and the pleasure of spending time with a leader who is both warm and inspiring were, without a doubt, the best part of working with Dr Sahadulla. And somewhere along the way, turning his ideas into his words stopped being a challenge.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The cheesemakers of Canterbury


Cheese-wise, 2017 was a good year. I returned to several old favourites and discovered a couple of outstanding new cheeses, including a vintage cheddar (strength 5) from Tesco. My cheese discovery of the year, though, has to be Cheesemakers of Canterbury and their range of artisanal cheeses. 
It was impossible to miss the Cheesemakers of Canterbury counter on my first visit to The Goods Shed farmers’ market and food hall in Canterbury. I returned soon, for a chat with George, who manages the counter, and a taste of several of their cheeses including Ashmore Farmhouse, Ashmore Smoked, Ancient Ashmore, Gruff and Canterbury Cobble. While I enjoyed them all, the Farmhouse, Canterbury Cobble and Ancient Ashmore stood out, especially the slightly intense Ancient Ashmore. They were the cheeses that found their way into my bag and the sliver of Kent I took back home with me.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Quintessential Kerala



Just saw A Reading Room With a View, Stark Communications’ recent ad film for Kerala Tourism. And I’m captivated. 
Arguably Kerala Tourism’s best film since Your Moment is Waiting was made seven years ago, A Reading Room With a View is a quiet film; there’s no in-your-face drama, but it deftly grows on you. It captures all that Kerala is — the vividness, harmony, quirkiness, medley, ordinariness, eclecticism, contradictions and enchantment.     

Monday, September 11, 2017

Along the Crab & Winkle Way


A section of the way in Clowes Wood
A version of this was in Mint Lounge

It’s quiet but for the rhythmic crunch of gravel beneath my boots. There’s a nip in the air, partly offset by the spring sun on my face. The monkey in my mind decides to take a nap. Suddenly, a portly squirrel waddles across my path and the spell is broken. I’m back to earth on the Crab & Winkle Way, somewhere between Canterbury and Whitstable in England.  
Canterbury is famous for its cathedral and, of course, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the cathedral is certainly the centre point of any visit to Canterbury. But the city is also an excellent base for exploring the surrounding countryside, with many walking and cycling routes. And though I don’t usually venture into the great outdoors when I travel, I was drawn to the English countryside I’d read so much about. With several options to choose from, the Crab & Winkle Way, at around 12 km, seemed the most doable and intriguing, because of its history.
The Crab & Winkle Way gets its name from the railway line that once ran between Canterbury and the nearby seaside town of Whitstable. Inaugurated in 1830, the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway was among the earliest in England and was engineered by George Stephenson — considered the ‘father of the railway’ — and his son Robert. The Stephensons also designed the Invicta locomotive initially used on the line, and now on display in the Canterbury Heritage Museum. Arguably the world’s first to run regular passenger services and issue season tickets, the railway was operational till 1952. It was nicknamed the Crab and Winkle Line in honour of the seafood Whitstable was famous for.
In October 1999, the abandoned railway was reborn as the Crab & Winkle Way, a mostly traffic-free cycling and walking path between the two towns. Part of England’s national cycle network Route 1, it uses only about a third of the course of the old railway line, of which little remains. In Canterbury, the path begins from the Canterbury West railway station, a listed building, and wends its way through the town’s suburbs and the University of Kent campus from where it enters the countryside. I cheat a little and begin my trek from the university, skipping the rather steep climb out of Canterbury.
I pause at the 13th-century church of St Cosmus and St Damian in the Blean. The Salt Way Seat — a bench and one of several artworks along the path — outside the church is perfect for taking in the view: fields and orchards, a young stoat scurrying through a patch of early bluebells and the occasional cyclist whizzing past. I’m mildly paranoid about losing my way but I soon realise that following the cycle network’s markers will see me through. The colourful, intricately carved Crab & Winkle signposts at strategic spots bolster my confidence.
Along the way, I pass meadows with grazing horses and cattle, barns, greenhouses and farms with names like Walnut Tree. Signs ask cyclists to give way to horses, a reminder that farm animals are part of everyday life in the region.
Then, I plunge into the mysterious-sounding Clowes Wood. There’s a stillness punctuated only by the burbling of unseen pigeons and the intermittent knock of a woodpecker. Deep in the wood is the Winding Pond picnic area. I catch my breath at the Winding Wheel seat fashioned out of what appear to be old wooden railway sleepers. Water from the pond was used by the steam engines that pulled the train up the gradient in Clowes Wood.
In fact, most of the line was powered by two static, steam-driven ‘winding engines’ that hauled carriages using a cable system. The Invicta locomotive was not powerful enough to cope with the gradients and was used only on a section of the line, till it was replaced in 1836 by a third winding engine. And by the late 1840s, the winding engines were replaced by more powerful locomotives.
The Crab&Winkle mosaic in Whitstable
From the Winding Pond, it’s straight on through the wood and down a gentle slope. Soon, I’m in Whitstable’s suburbs, keeping a wary eye out for vehicles since part of this on-road stretch of the route has no pavements. I trudge along, making my way towards the harbour where the railway ended. My journey though ends at the Crab & Winkle mosaic where Albert and Harbour Streets meet. A little over two-and-a-half hours after I started out, I’ve made it to Whitstable.
As I tuck into succulent, battered fish and chunky chips in the Tudor Tea Rooms on Harbour Street I feel content. For I’ve ventured out of my comfort zone for a slice of the English countryside.
Vitals
Access: Canterbury is well connected by rail to London and other parts of England. There are frequent buses between Whitstable and Canterbury, with one-way adult fares starting at around £4.7 (www.stagecoachbus.com).
Route: The Crab & Winkle Way can be accessed from both Canterbury and Whitstable. It takes about one hour to cycle the entire route without stops and about three-and-a-half hours to walk without stops. For more, including detailed maps and events, check out Explore Kent (http://explorekent.org) and the Crab and Winkle Line Trust (http://crabandwinkle.org).

Sunday, December 4, 2016

If we are to go cash-light…


Credit: Street art in Fort Kochi by GuessWho!
An India that uses no cash; as ideas go that’s pretty seductive. And viewed from the corridors of power, it’s probably even more captivating given the possible rewards, especially the political and reputational capital that will accrue to whoever helms the desertion of cash.
But the thing is, cash has evolved over centuries into an almost perfect instrument for the exchange of goods and services because it is instantly valuable, widely accepted and convenient. And that’s the sort of utility it would be injudicious to discount while imagining a cashless world.
The other thing to remember is that grand ideas often ignore or gloss over the devils that lurk in the details. And if experience is anything to go by, we in India appear to have a congenital ability to believe that the details will take care of themselves. Mostly though, they don’t.
Given how many Indias exist, sometimes in parallel, sometimes intersecting, it would be imprudent to embark on a single sweeping move to a cashless economy. Instead, adopting a strategy of aggregation of marginal gains through small but continuous improvements could get us there just as quickly, but without the trauma and uncertainty that will obviously accompany a forced move.
It’s also probably premature to talk about a cashless India at this moment, given how many of the more evolved economies, with fewer people, still use a fair bit of cash. Instead, it would be more sensible to aim for — at least in the medium term — a cash-light India where cashless transactions overtake ones that use cash. Getting there will, itself, be a pretty significant accomplishment.
The government has created a committee to look at how India can go cashless, and that’s a welcome step. But as someone who uses both cash and e-payment options, what concerns me is that a move to a cashless economy or even a cash-light one should benefit all Indians. And if we are to make that transition to e-payment relatively painless we may want to address some of these issues.  

Scrap minimum limits and transaction charges
Very often in India, you have to either spend a minimum amount to use a debit or credit card or pay a transaction charge. And sometimes, no matter how much you spend, you still have to pay a transaction charge if you use a card.
If we want e-payments to dominate, these constraints on electronic transactions have to go, permanently. Of course banks and card and e-wallet companies need to earn their bread. So perhaps some of the bright people in Delhi’s North Block or at the RBI can figure out a way to scrap transaction charges on e-payments while also ensuring that the companies’ revenues aren’t hit; government subsidies or tax breaks, perhaps? And while they’re at it, could they look at banks removing transaction charges on online and offline bank transfers for non-premium customers too?

Creating the infrastructure for e-payments 
Some months ago, I was settling a large-ish bill at a hotel in a slightly remote location. But my card just wouldn’t work despite being swiped through three different machines from three different banks. Finally, a hotel staffer gave the machine with my card in it a hard whack and voila, the transaction went through. I’m not sure if the problem was with my card, the hotel’s card machines or its Internet connection. But I shudder to think of what would have happened if I’d found myself in a similar situation over the past few weeks and whacking the card reader hadn’t worked.
While the use of e-payments has steadily grown over the past few years, it’s clear that the infrastructure required to ensure these systems function flawlessly hasn’t grown as quickly. And over the past few weeks, e-payments have shot up but anecdotal evidence indicates that incidents of card or e-wallet failures have also increased possibly because of the high levels of stress on the networks. In several instances, outlets that claim to accept e-wallets weren’t actually ready to do so.
Another aspect of going cashless is the need to address quality levels in our banking and financial infrastructure. Given how iffy e-payments often are, we need to have laws that prescribe and enforce minimum standards for all technology, material and other elements — cards, electronic chips, card machines, network gear, Internet connections and so on — used in our banking and financial infrastructure.
Yes, the RBI does have guidelines on certain aspects of electronic transactions, but it’s unclear if they are legally binding and what happens if banks don’t follow them. And yes, India’s Information Technology Act has some general provisions that can be applied to electronic financial transactions. But what we need is a law that specifically and comprehensively covers issues related to electronic financial and banking transactions, including oversight, processes and systems, technology standards and equipment and material standards.

Better consumer education
A few months ago, several people in Kerala were tricked into parting with their debit card information, including the PIN, to someone who claimed to be calling from the victims’ bank. In each instance, the victim was defrauded of several thousand rupees. What was disturbing about these incidents was that all those who were defrauded were mid-level government officials who should have known better than to reveal sensitive financial and personal information to an unknown caller.
At first glance this seems to be an instance of people being careless with personal information, but that’s not the entire picture. For instance, I often get a call, ostensibly from my bank, a few minutes after I have used my card. The caller usually wants me to confirm using the card and then insists I authenticate my identity by revealing more personal information — just the sort of thing banks warn customers against doing. Occasionally, I’m even told the transaction will be cancelled if I do not confirm my identity by answering the questions put to me.
It’s in these spaces where banking and technology intersect that people, including otherwise careful people, seem to throw caution to the winds possibly driven by the fear of losing access to their money. And given that many of us are still not entirely comfortable with technology, though we may use it, there’s room for things to go awry.
The RBI and individual banks frequently highlight the need for exercising caution, especially while revealing personal information or using debit cards or conducting online transactions. But obviously, this isn’t enough. While there’s certainly an element of individual responsibility involved, it’s also important to invest in much more effective and widespread initiatives to promote awareness of safe banking practices.

Information security and privacy protection
In India, we tend to be very blasé about privacy. The general approach seems to be ‘what’s the big deal’, which is reflected in the existing patchwork of guidelines, rules and laws on privacy and data protection. We’ve even had public figures quip about privacy being dead since people use social media, without realising that using social media involves an element of choice that doesn’t really exist when it comes to banking and similar transactions.
Then, there’s the issue of data security, which has become particularly urgent over the past few months after a series of fraudulent transactions using stolen debit card information. There’s so much of opacity around some of these incidents that it isn’t yet publicly clear just where and how the breaches occurred and what their impact is.
Given that researchers at Newcastle University seem to have hacked Visa credit cards in just 6 seconds can’t help wonder how secure all these e-transactions and digital transactions really are. And I really don’t think biometric protection offers any sustainable answers either.
What all this highlights is that it’s time for us to get serious about protecting personal financial information, especially if we want to promote electronic transactions. Of course there are certain circumstances under which financial data will have to be accessed and shared; credit reports, for instance. So what we need is to spell out very clearly who can access an individual’s personal financial data, for what, to what extent, what such data can be used for and what happens if there is a security breach. And this will be possible only if we have coherent and comprehensive privacy and data protection laws that match the best in the world.

Ensuring inclusive banking
Quite a bit has been done over the past several years to reach out to those on the margins and improve financial inclusion. But for many, banking is still extremely unfamiliar territory. So any move towards a cashless economy needs to be preceded by meaningful efforts to help people on the margins get comfortable with modern banking and help them learn how to use banking and e-payment technology safely. In addition, banking technology infrastructure across the country needs to be bolstered and those who work in banks and financial institutions need to be trained to be more empathetic and inclusive while attending to less-affluent customers.