Saturday, July 31, 2010

Games people play

Expectedly, the Equations report I wrote about a few days ago is less than enthusiastic about the Commonwealth Games to be held in Delhi later this year.
And in an intriguing coincidence, the Equations report came just days before India’s Central Vigilance Commission raised concerns about corruption in projects associated with the games. As I write this, the New Indian Express reports: “Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar is understood to have asked the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee to submit details about the delays in the completion of games projects, cost overruns and deals that have attracted adverse media attention…”
Rosemary Viswanath, Chief Functionary, Equations, for one, will not be surprised by the issues the Vigilance Commission seems to have raised. She wrote to me that many of the concerns the report raises came “like worms out of the woodwork as we investigated and went deeper into the issues.”
Much of what the report raises has been spoken of earlier — the opacity surrounding the Games and their organisation including the bidding process; notions of development, identity and belonging; the displacement of people; and the use of public funds. The report also draws attention to how all these issues seem largely to be ignored or sacrificed at the altar of ‘national pride’ and ‘building a world class city’.
The Equations report, Humanity–Equality–Destiny? Implicating Tourism in the Commonwealth Games, is crystal clear on one thing though — mega events like the Commonwealth Games do little to bolster tourism. It marshals data from around the world, to substantiate its arguments. For instance, it talks about how New Zealand withdrew its support for Auckland’s bid to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games because “economic analysis had shown the loss to taxpayers on the games, even after tourism revenues had been counted, could not be justified.”
Viswanath emphasises: “We are not against the Games per se – what we are attempting is to raise issues on the processes that have been adopted and why things should have been done differently.”
One issue that Equations raises is the basis on which India’s Tourism Ministry concludes that the Games will draw 70,000-plus foreign tourists and that 40,000 hotel rooms will be required to house these visitors. “What we are saying is that the methodology adopted by Indian Institute of Tourism and Travel Management (Ministry of Tourism) to arrive at the figures forecasted is flawed on various counts and as this is the sole study that the MoT is relying on we are extremely sceptical of these projections,” she explains.
Yes, October is when the ‘season’ begins; when foreign tourists start arriving in India in larger numbers. But it does seem a bit of a stretch to believe that upwards of 70,000 foreign tourists will come to Delhi just for the games. This seems even more unlikely given that India’s top inbound market is the US, which has no Commonwealth ties. And though the UK and Bangladesh are the two other top inbound markets, I do wonder whether many tourists from these countries will come to India for the Games. In fact, chances are that many foreign visitors will stay away from Delhi during the Games to escape possible problems thrown up by the event.
Another issue the Equations report throws up is the frenzy with which land was allotted to build new hotels and thus create the 40,000 high-end hotel rooms Delhi supposedly needs for the games. Referring to this, Viswanath says: “Remember massive real estate linked decisions have been made based on these ‘projections’.” According to the report, of the 39 hotel sites auctioned for the Games, work on only 4 sites had been completed by April this year.
Equations also argues that the Games’ organisers have focused a bit too much on high-end hotel rooms and almost ignored budget rooms. The real demand, if at all, is likely to be for budget hotel accommodation and not high-end rooms. And not much seems to have been done at this end of the market, the report adds.
It also raises questions about how the Games’ tourism strategy will benefit small and medium tourism businesses. “Also what we argue is ‘who’ or ‘what’ consists of Indian tourism – what happens to the small and informal operators. What do they get out of this?” Viswanath asks.
The report is also fascinating reading for some of the nuggets it has dug up on the smoke and mirrors that seem to cloak the Games. For instance, the original bid documents for the Games apparently declared that once the Games are over, apartments in the Games village will be handed over to Delhi University for its use and also for use during future sporting events. The last I heard, Games Village apartments are to be sold to the public for rather nifty sums.
Similarly, the report says that plans for the Games include dedicated road lanes in Delhi for the exclusive use of those associated with the Games. And, it seems, strict penalties will be imposed on those who stray into these exclusive lanes. I could go on…
Reading the Equations report got me wondering why they’d chosen to publish it now; when little can be done to change the contours of the Games. I put this question to Viswanath and here’s what she says: “It is true we may not be able to create much of a dent in relation to the CWG, but are hopeful that the larger questions we are raising will be addressed at a later date and time, when India bids again.”
Now, that’s not too much to hope for, is it?

Monday, July 26, 2010

Tourism games

The Commonwealth Games to be held in Delhi later this year are, arguably, being positioned as India’s coming of age party. As an occasion to showcase the country’s prowess — in sporting and off the sports field too. Whether the games will actually be able to do this, is still quite fuzzy.
One sector that has its hopes pinned on the games is tourism. At last year’s World Travel Market, India’s Tourism Minister reportedly said that around 100,000 tourists are expected to visit India during the Commonwealth Games. Segments of the hospitality industry, however, don’t seem to share this confidence. Similarly, there are also reports that tourists have not warmed up to the games, at least not yet.
And things are set to get even more interesting. An event that is scheduled to happen in New Delhi on Tuesday, July 27 will in all probability stir the Commonwealth Games cauldron a bit further.
The Bangalore-based NGO Equations and the Housing and Land Rights Network have announced a press conference to release the report ‘Humanity – Equality – Destiny? Implicating Tourism in the Commonwealth Games, 2010’. According to Equations, the report “comes in a series of investigations by civil society groups on the developments and implications” of the games. And it “investigates the links between mega-sport events, tourism and notions of development.”
Now I haven’t seen the report yet, but I expect that it is not going to be very complimentary about the Commonwealth Games-tourism link. Having said that, it will be interesting to see what the report and press conference throw up.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The checklist

Before I started on this piece, I thought it would increase the randomness quotient on Not Too Random. But once I actually got down to writing, it struck me that what I’m writing about, though linked to the practice of medicine, is something that can be used almost anywhere and by anyone. It is about a simple method to get things right — using a checklist. And that certainly is not too random.
I discovered Atul Gawande’s work a couple of years ago. Gopal Raj, a friend and former colleague, lent me Gawande’s second book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes On Performance. I read it and was hooked.
Soon after, I read Gawande’s first book, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes On An Imperfect Science and stayed hooked. Though slightly rawer than Better, Complications was equally fascinating.
Gawande, a practising surgeon, writes about serious stuff, but is a quintessential storyteller. His writing is thoughtful, easy, laced with humour and colour; it slowly reels the reader in and then keeps her interested. But what really makes his work stand out is the candour he brings to the table.
He asks questions — often, uncomfortable ones — about ethical and performance issues that underlie the practice of medicine. Questions that few medical practitioners would be willing to articulate in public. He’s also refreshingly honest about mistakes, his own and those of others. All as part of his quest to create a better understanding of the intricacies of modern medical science. And, perhaps, through this understanding help medicine get better at doing what it is meant to — help people stay healthy.
And that’s part of what Gawande sets out to do in his latest book The Checklist Manifesto. While the book springs from his experiences as a surgeon and his desire to improve surgical performance, it moves pretty quickly on to a macro issue: How do professionals deal with the growing complexity of their jobs.
Searching for the answer, Gawande talks to surgeons and pilots, financiers and the master builders who erect skyscrapers. And the answer, it seems, is to use a humble checklist — simple, crisp, written guides that walk people through the key steps in any complex task.
Of course, the checklists that experts use to address complexity in their professions are not the ordinary ‘to-do’ lists that many of us use. But they are based on the same idea — an aide memoir to ensure completeness in carrying out a task.
Once he freezes on the checklist as the tool to handle complexity, Gawande and a team of researchers work with the World Health Organisation to develop a Safe Surgery Checklist. One that can be used by hospitals across the world. Almost simultaneously, though, Gawande discovers that getting people to adopt a checklist — in medicine or in finance for that matter — is not a very easy task. Pilots, it seems are the only exception; the one profession in which checklists are adhered to, no questions asked.
Gawande, though, has no doubts. Towards the end of the book, he writes:

“Indeed, against the complexity of the world we must. There is no other choice. When we look closely, we recognize the same balls being dropped over and over, even by those of great ability and determination… It’s time to try something else. Try a checklist.”

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bubbling in KL

Doctor Fish on their rounds
My feet tingled. It felt as if a swarm of tipsy champagne bubbles were bouncing off them. It was a pleasant, relaxing sensation, but there was no bubbly around. There were some bubbles though, coursing through the large tank in which my feet were plonked. Some of them came from a contraption in one corner of the tank; others seemed to be whipped up by the schools of little silver-grey ‘doctor fish’ that were nibbling at my feet.
I was in a ‘cute fish spa’ in Kuala Lumpur’s Central Market and was luxuriating in the attention that my tired feet were getting. So much so that I forked out another 5 Malaysian Ringgits for one more 10-minute session with the fish. Second ‘fish spa’ session done, my feet emerged pink and almost glowing — with not a sliver of dead skin left — ready to face another day of tramping around Kuala Lumpur.
Kuala Lumpur or KL, like many other cities, is perhaps best explored on foot. Though you could end up doing less and seeing fewer sights, you generally tend to pick up some interesting insights when you wander around on foot.
My wife and I, however, worked out a hybrid option. A half-day coach tour on our first morning helped us find our bearings and ‘do’ the major sights. And then we set off on our own, mostly by foot but occasionally by taxi or on KL’s complicated monorail/metro system. It also helped that our hotel, the efficient Swiss Garden, is pretty central with places like the main bus station and Berjaya Times Square a few minutes walk away.
Now there’s quite a bit to do in KL; lots of history and culture. The National Monument, the National Mosque, the King’s Palace or Istana Negara, the Islamic Arts Museum and more modern sights like the Petronas Towers and the KL Tower.
But if KL were to have an unofficially official pastime, mall hopping and eating out would probably be declared joint winners. And our hotel was bang in the middle of mall and eatery central — Bukit Bintang.
Some money and much time was spent at destinations such as Berjaya Times Square, BB Plaza, Imbi Plaza, Pavilion KL, Low Yat Plaza and Suriya KLCC. Every one of these is a temple to the art of retailing; great places to really understand what Paco Underhill talks about in books such as The Call of the Mall – How We Shop. Though in all fairness I must admit that some of the malls were great fun to be in and a couple even had some fabulous bargains.
The real bargains in KL though are, arguably, on food — especially food at the smaller restaurants and from the busy stalls that jostle for space along Jalan Alor and the streets of Chinatown. If you believe the signboards along Jalan Alor, the stalls there offer cuisine from across Asia, but Malay and Chinese cooking tends to dominate. Every evening we were in KL, Jalan Alor was packed, with diners spilling on to the road and a thousand different cooking aromas wafting through the muggy night air.
My own culinary expeditions were limited to a scrumptious dim-sum platter on our first night in KL. On Day 2, my stomach expressed serious reservations about food from the street stalls and from then on it was KFC, McDonald’s and Subway for me. Boring, I know, but my undependable tummy seemed to have no complaints.
My wife, though, had a culinary blast. Each meal was different, as she steadily worked her way down a rather long list of Malay treats that a friend had given her. I of course watched.
So to make up for missing out on those culinary adventures, I decided to treat myself to another session with the doctor fish. Bliss. A pretty good way to end a nice little holiday.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Not another hartal!

It’s frighteningly easy to hurt another person. It’s also called sadism. It’s easier still to hurt someone else when driven by a sense of righteousness. It’s still called sadism though.
Hold that thought for a moment while you digest this:
"If needed, we will hold hartals every day till the Union Government reverses its decision.’’
A line from The New Indian Express quoting a comment reportedly made by A. A. Azeez, a functionary of the Revolutionary Socialist Party in Kerala, during a press conference. And that’s not all; he also apparently said that ‘the burden of the petrol price hike was severe (sic) than the trouble caused by hartals.’
All this to justify the call for another hartal — the second in 10 days — to protest against the recent decision to raise the prices of petroleum products and to let some fuel prices be determined by market forces. His views are obviously shared by politicians of all hues who are backing the call for an all-India bandh /hartal on July 5 as this story in The Hindu says.
Time perhaps, for an enterprising media company to put together a hartal-based reality show.