poverty | Of Mind and Money

poverty


Scrap the MBA

Posted on December 28, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in The Big Idea, Writing. 10 comments

What we need are Masters in Enterprise Building (MEBs)

Ask MBA (Masters in Business Administration) students what they want to do after they graduate and the answer is usually a variant of ‘Get a good job’. A good job, they will explain to you, is a job with a good salary, good personal growth opportunities, good work environment and good facilities. Large multi-national corporations will top that list. At the recent IIM-A Confluence, Satish Pradhan, executive vice-president, Tata Group likened business school placements to the Pushkar Mela. wherecandidates, like camels, are dressed up, paraded and sold to the highest bidder. . A student countered that they were ‘trained’ to find jobs.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask. For a country, where less than 10 per cent is employed in the formal economy and where the college capacity extends to less than … Read More »


One World, One (Giant) Language

Posted on November 7, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Physics of Poverty, Writing. 5 comments

Take a risk. Use your imagination. Transform your world.

Try to say this in any Indian language. I challenge you. You will fall short. Short on comparable, easily accessible vocabulary, short on that easy feel of flow and short on memories of when you last heard something like it said. English is the language of progress and possibility. English is the language of technology. English is the language of change.

To be progressive, therefore, one of the most powerful things we can do in this country is make English mandatory curriculum in every school, and then in the next generation just switch to English as the sole medium of instruction. One world. One language.

OK, I hear the critics. Some of our languages are so beautiful. So much of our culture will be lost. Then quick, start translating. English is one of the … Read More »


Cigarettes and Swans

Posted on November 7, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Physics of Poverty, Writing. 1 Comment

In my last post, I mused about who actually knows what something is worth? Beyond survival, ‘value’ is simply collective perception, a construct of our collective mind. So what do we mean when we talk of ‘value’? What is our mind ‘valuing’ and for what purpose? For an entrepreneur this is a fundamentally important question. On a very simple level you could claim to be creating value so long as someone sees it as valuable enough to pay money for it. However, there are people willing to pay money for all sorts of destructive things like drugs and cigarettes and exorbitant amounts of money for completely worthless things like crystal swans. Of course that is my value judgement I’m imposing on it. I have friends that would argue me down that the drugs help their creative process and the cigarette … Read More »


The Picture of Poverty

Posted on October 27, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in OpEds, Writing. Comments Off on The Picture of Poverty

What is poverty? Having less money, living on less than Rs.90 a day or not being able to afford basic human needs?. Look at it this way and money is the problem. Solution: financial inclusion, microfinance, guaranteed employment schemes. But is it? Really?

In India, distribution of income differs from the popular imagery of a pyramid. With only 4% citizens paying taxes and only 10% employed by the formal economy, the prospects of solving this problem through simple redistribution schemes are abysmal. But perhaps it is not about money at all!

The more I encounter poverty, the more I realize that it is actually about the lack of power to change one’s circumstance. If tomorrow I lose all material wealth, no one will call me poor because I am empowered to do something about it.

Generally, you draw your power from the knowledge … Read More »


What is it worth?

Posted on October 10, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Blog, Writing. 3 comments

In 1989 as a 17 year old college student I had a childish view of what it took to get by in the world. Foolishly, I thought that $150 (7,500 Rs.) was sufficient to spend a month in Greece (it was my own hard earned money and seemed a lot to me at the time). $150, I found out, is not a lot of money. It worked out to about $5 a day. In purchasing power parity terms it was somewhere below $2 a day in an India. What followed was hardly a sightseeing tour but an exercise in subsistence living. For $1 there were hostels that would let you roll out your sleeping bag on their roof. If it rained they would accommodate you in the corridors by the bathrooms. In Athens I could not afford the entrance fee … Read More »


Relationships Not Productivity?

Posted on September 26, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Physics of Poverty, Writing. 6 comments

Some weeks ago I received a rather acerbic email from a reader lambasting me for my relentless focus on productivity. Life is not just about productivity, he said. It is about relationships. Have I thought about this? Maybe people don’t want to be working day in and day out in factories or offices. People derive happiness from relationships not money and being poor doesn’t mean being unhappy. Our country will suffer because of people like me who come with western ideas to spoil the fabric of our society. And as I have come to realize, this particular reader’s opinion is a fairly common one.

Last week I was going through the Kerala backwaters in a small boat with my kids and I almost could see his point. Life expectancy in Kerala is 78 compared to the 55-65 range in the rest … Read More »


The Glitter of Gold

Posted on September 12, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Blog, Writing. 1 Comment

A couple weeks ago my newly married maid came asking me for a loan to pay the rental deposit on her flat. I knew she had saved up much more than the amount she needed so I asked her what she had done with the money. She told me she had bought gold jewellery with it.

With all of it? I asked her. Why did you do that when you knew full well you had this expense coming up?

I had to she said, without gold they won’t let you get married.

Who is ‘they’? I inquired.

Everyone, she told me. All my relatives in my village

At the time I told her she was foolish. Now I’m not so sure.

Back in the old days money used to be linked to something of physical utility – typically gold. For every note issued, the government … Read More »


What do you know about village life?

Posted on August 29, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Physics of Poverty, Writing. 2 comments

A couple weeks ago we surveyed readers like you to see what your perceptions were of rural India with regards to mobility and connectivity. We also wanted to get a sense for how different your own behaviour and access is from the villagers. We asked you to guess different parameters about infrastructure and behaviours in the region of Vadipatti (i.e. Vadipatti Taluk excluding the town) which is in central Tamil Nadu. Whoah! you guys were way off. Most of you guessed that the villagers had less access, mobility and connectivity compared to you but you just didn’t realize HOW MUCH less. Here are the results:

Who answered the surveys

125 people answered this survey online. 75% were from the major Indian cities. Of this half were from Chennai which is the closest major city to Vadipatti Taluk and the rest spread out … Read More »


A Different Species

Posted on August 1, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Blog, Writing. 1 Comment

There is this strange sense of duality that India seems to bring upon you. On one hand there is this feeling of being on the cusp of something extraordinary. The giddy experience of watching something once so far removed from the developed world morph so rapidly and palpably into a modern society. The sense of possibility, the sense that something big is about to happen is now regular dinner party conversation.

The journey of one generation to the next has been so fast that parents often have little context for the lives of their children. Particularly for the lives of the children who have been abroad and returned speaking, dressing and acting differently. This new India is English speaking, moves easily from one city to another, sometimes one country to another. It is hyperconnected and watches all the same TV shows … Read More »


Productivity Line

Posted on July 18, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Blog, Writing. 8 comments

When tackling any sort of problem, it matters immensely how you frame it. The construct and language you use to describe the problem will inevitably direct and guide how you formulate solutions. Let’s take a look at the economic topography of the world – there are places where a great deal of innovative products and services are created that many have access to and other places where much less is created and fewer people have access to the little there is. The medium of exchange for these goods and services being money, the issue of this global inequity among human beings has been constructed in the context of money. It has been framed as an issue of ‘poverty’, the lack of money and therefore the ability to acquire. With this framework lack of money becomes the central issue and we … Read More »


Gross Domestic Poverty

Posted on July 4, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Physics of Poverty, Writing. 3 comments

For those of us with a memory of India in the 1980s and before there is no doubt at all that this is a country moving forward economically. From my schooldays when there were only two or three sub-standard brands of everything from soft drinks to soap to chocolate to cars, today’s India is remarkably different. It’s not just that there is every major brand available today. There is construction everywhere and sleek glass buildings are slowly but surely replacing old concrete structures. And there is a palpable feeling of change and a growing national pride. Incredible India. Every so often I get caught up in it and then I look at the numbers and I realize how easily we can distort our self-perception.

Here are the facts. India and China are often compared as the Asian giants, both with over … Read More »


Like a Diamond

Posted on June 20, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Physics of Poverty, Writing. 1 Comment

About 200 years ago it was discovered that diamond, like graphite, was made entirely of carbon. One brilliantly reflective, the other black; one hard, the other soft. How was it possible that two things with properties so contrasted could be made of the same thing? With this discovery came an extraordinary insight: what mattered was not the element itself, for the single carbon atom in isolation had no particular properties. What mattered was the bond structure.

So what does this mean? A chemical bond is simply a probability of how much time electrons from one atom spend hanging around in the space of another. In the case of the diamond the carbon atoms are strongly bonded to each of their four closest neighbours giving it the property of hardness. And so closely engaged are these atoms that when light energy enters … Read More »


Learning to Organize

Posted on June 7, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Blog, Writing. 1 Comment

Back in 1996 when I was in business school we used to sit around and make fun of our organizational behaviour classes. Soft stuff. Not hard core like finance. Now I know better. Finance is the easy stuff. Organizational behaviour on the other hand is complex and can profoundly change socital outcomes.

So what is organizational behaviour about? If you really think about it, it’s about how human beings come together to share their knowledge and abilities to create, build and get things done. And why should we do this? Because when it is done well, the outcome can be far greater than the sum of the parts.

Paradigms of progress are exemplified by large scale organization. In the United States and most European countries, for instance, somewhere between 5 and 10% of working adults are entrepreneurs. In India it is almost … Read More »


Branded by Poverty

Posted on April 27, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Blog. 2 comments

Over the last ten years, with the publishing of CK Prahalad’s book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid and with inclusion gaining ground as a national buzz word, companies have been looking in larger numbers at rural markets for all sorts of products. Yet for every success in rural India, the marketplace is littered with many, many failures. What has been the problem?

From my vantage point inside a company that operates predominantly in villages, I have a first-hand view. Not a week goes by when we are not introduced to a company with a product opportunity that they would like us to help them market in rural areas. It is an innovative product they tell us, specifically designed to solve a problem, meet an urgent need. And it is affordable. Shouldn’t that be enough? People from the villages … Read More »


Wikiwhat?

Posted on April 11, 2011 by Tara Thiagarajan in Physics of Poverty, Writing. 3 comments

The greatest differentiator of humans and our triumph as the alpha species on the planet has been our increasing ability to record and share our collective knowledge. With this ability, each new generation, rather than reinventing the wheel, can stand firmly on the shoulders of those before to reach further. Today with the internet we can do this better, faster and among more people than ever before. Wikipedia is an incredible example of this. Today Wikipedia has over 15 million articles contributed by several hundreds of thousands of people and is one of the largest and most actively accessed public repository of human knowledge. These articles are in 281 different languages. Yet almost 30% are in a single language – English. No surprise. The top ten languages – all western European with the exception of Japanese and Russian, account for … Read More »