Sunday, 18 March 2018

The Mole

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"The higher the moving parts, the higher the chance of failure. Unless you have a process set up"

Startled by the shrill sound of my digital alarm, I groped around to hit the snooze button. I thought I had explicitly turned it off, but I was mistaken. Sleep had eluded me for the past few weeks due to the murder case that had kept me awake through several nights at a stretch, and having finally solved it, these few winks of sleep that I had been having were well deserved. As I groggily waved my arms into the darkness trying to reach my clock, I realised by the alternate shimmering of the screen, that it was my phone that had been ringing. Through my heavy eyelids, I tried to concentrate on the name on the screen - It was the Police Commissioner.

The sight of that label jolted me upright. I immediately grabbed the phone and answered it. "I'm sorry to wake you up in the middle of the night, Surya, but there has been a development. How soon can you meet me at the office?", he asked sombrely. "I can leave immediately. I'll be there in twenty minutes, Sir", I answered. "Good boy. We'll be waiting for you" and he disconnected the call.

As I raced through the quiet thoroughfare, I wondered what the new development was. Through the corner of my eye, I observed a pack of cigarettes that had been lying around for a while. I was tempted to reach out for it, and remembering my resolution to quit, decided to ignore it. The cigarettes were tempting me, beckoning me to inhale a lungful of the addictive menthol and tobacco smoke, but my resolution was stronger. It had to be. I am not a slave to a roll of tobacco. I decided to toss the cigarettes out of the window and get rid of the source of temptation once and for all, and suddenly a large banner showing an ad of Swacch Bharat whizzed past me.

The parking lot offered me a buffet of spaces to pick from. I decided to pick the one that was closest to the building and eased my car into it. There were three other cars including the police commissioners. The constable by the entrance gave me a perfunctory salute as he stifled a yawn. I nodded to him and jogged up the stairs to the first floor and reached the commissioner's office. The commissioner's discussion with two other gentlemen abruptly ceased as his eyes fell on me waiting by the door. Introducing me to them, he said "Ah, gentlemen, I would like you to meet Surya, the best undercover agent in Karnataka. He has infiltrated and gathered information for the toughest of cases. In my opinion, if anyone can get this done, it is him. He is the man of the hour".

The rare praises lavished by the commissioner brought some hues to my otherwise pallid cheeks. Slightly embarrassed by the unexpected turn of events, I smiled and shook hands with the two men. "The pleasure is ours, young man. If you are everything that Sharma has assured us, then you are the only man who can achieve this. Let us introduce ourselves. My name is Avinash Gupta and this is my colleague Ravindra Reddy. We have recently received information that there has been an upheaval and complete consolidation of the underworld drug business in Karnataka by men from Maharashtra who have taken the state by storm." Drugs? They woke me up for drugs?

"Naturally, you must be wondering that drugs aren't a big enough problem here. But that's where you are wrong. This organisation is not to be trifled with. The consolidation is nearing completion, and these are people with massive amounts of money, muscle and weapons - Powerful, automatic weapons. If they are allowed to flourish here, they will pump huge amounts of money to recruit low level street corner sellers and pour drugs into colleges, destroying the youth and their future. No, this cannot happen. The organisation is run like a corporate, Surya, and it's driven by one man known as Wazir. The only way to destroy this organisation is to destroy Wazir."

I was carefully listening to the man, waiting to understand what role I was supposed to play. As though sensing my imminent question, he continued, "The organisation works very effectively because arresting low level sellers doesn't work. You see, under normal circumstances, when one perpetrator is caught, the entire scheme starts tumbling like dominoes. They rat on their accomplices in a bid to save their own skin. But Wazir runs his organisation differently and that's why they thrive", he said, as though admiring the man's shrewdness. "In Wazir's drug organisation, people don't know one another. Suppliers don't know who the seller is. They use messaging applications, codes and go through elaborate systems, never having to need face to face contact. Dead drops are the best way to exchange, and the fear for their lives prevent curiosity from creeping in. Wazir runs a tight ship, and only he knows how the entire process is run. It's a very complex network and he has been managing it very well"

His partner took out a file and placed it in front of me. "We got this information from a delivery agent whom we apprehended by a stroke of luck. He was stopped for questioning for a completely different reason, and the man panicked thinking that the police had grown suspicious of him. He pulled out his gun on our men that resulted in an unfortunate casualty. We did manage to gather a lot of valuable information, which we have shared with you thus far. This is a real breakthrough. This delivery agent was supposed to meet Wazir's second in command as his role was being upgraded. This is a singular opportunity, and we want to capitalise on this. Since the two men have never met before, I want to send our man in his place and gather intelligence about their organisation. Well, that's where you come into the picture."

I turned around and looked at the commissioner who stared back into my eyes. It seemed like he had very high hopes on me, and I was not one to turn my back towards my duty and my country. "When is the meeting happening?" I asked Reddy. "It's happening today" he replied.

"This is crazy.", I ejaculated. "This is too short a notice from me. I have a process. Before infiltrating any organisation, I canvas them for several weeks to understand their patterns and idiosyncrasies,  to know who's who and what the pecking order is like. You don't just walk willy-nilly into a powerful crime syndicate headquarters and take meetings with the boss's right hand man. No, postpone the meeting by at least a week. I cannot do it before that. That would be suicide."

Reddy looked expectantly towards Avinash Gupta with a hint of despair on his face. Avinash Gupta patiently replied, "I fully expected that answer, Surya. This is where we come into picture. The file that Ravi has handed to you contains all the information that we have collected on Wazir and his organisation. Besides, though you are going for the meeting alone, there will be policemen everywhere in plainclothes for your safety. The file even contains questions that you should be asking him. We will have your back all the way through."

I drove back to my house for a change of clothes. The journey back home was completely different from my earlier one. This time, there were a million thoughts running through my head, a file on the seat next to mine and a cigarette on my lips, releasing wisps into the air and tar down my throat, as it calmed me down. On reaching home, I immediately sat down to work. The file was indeed detailed, with a character profile of the man I was supposed to be very elaborately explained, his mannerisms described, his North Karnataka accent among many other things.

I was at the cheap restaurant at the appointed hour. It was a sunny afternoon, and I was in this dingy eatery on the first floor of the building trying to wash down what the waiter claimed to be a paratha with some watered down juice, rather than enjoying a delicious buffet in the fine dine restaurant across the street. Very soon, the plates were empty and I got tired of waiting for the thug. I had worn the leather jacket and red scarf as mentioned in the file, and nobody had approached me. Thinking that the meeting was a failure, I decided to pay off my bill and get the hell out of there. Suddenly a shadow formed on my table. I looked up to see a man with a slick face, oiled hair and a french beard, smiling at me like he knew me. I raised my eyebrows and asked him what he wanted. "The boss is waiting for you in the basement. And don't worry about your bill, it's been taken care of. Take the elevator." A small rat scurried out of my way as I stepped out of the door towards the elevator. A large man with a tattoo stood by the elevator holding it open for me. As I stepped in, I noticed that the button had already been pressed for the basement. As the doors closed,  I could see the slick man grinning at me through the gap. A sudden chill ran down my spine. Had they discovered that I was a policeman? Was I descending towards my death? Before I could contemplate further and press the emergency button, the elevator announced that I was in the basement and the doors opened into a poorly lit space. I walked out and and tried to find my thug when suddenly powerful arms grabbed me from behind, another put a dark bag over my head and a gun was pushed into my abdomen. "Don't make any sudden moves or you are dead. Nod if you understand." I nodded. My hands were tied and I was shoved into a car. I had two men on either side and a third drove the car.

After what seemed to be an hour of driving, the car drove down a slope and finally halted. I realised that we were in another basement, making it impossible for me to determine where I was. I was escorted by the two men through another elevator into a nice building with heavily curtained windows. With the bag off my head, I tried to look around to see if I could gather any clues. They untied me and asked me to sit on a bench outside a door. "It's just like waiting to see the doctor", smiled a goon as he looked at my worried countenance, "except there you could get a shot, and here you could get shot".  He chuckled at his lame joke and walked away as the door in front of me opened and a man in a suit invited me in. This was it. "I hope you were not offended by the way in which you were brought in. You never know when you are being followed. As they say, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. If you want to be free and safe from the police, we need to be vigilant" he smiled.

I smiled back, shrugged it off and followed him into the room. I looked around to see if I could figure out where I was. The fully carpeted room was plainly furnished, with a few pictures adorning the walls and a large rosewood table at the centre. There were neat looking wooden cabinets along the walls and a large bookshelf behind the chair on which the suited thug was seated. I noticed he had been intently observing me. "Is everything alright?" he asked. "I am just a little shaken by the escort service, that's all", I answered. "Ah, put that behind you. Look, you've been working with us on a contractual basis for some time now. Wazir is extremely impressed with your deliveries. The reason we brought you in is to invite you to join us full time." He pushed a small notepad across the table. I looked at the large number scribbled on it. There were many zeroes following the first digit. I turned up questioningly towards the man. "That's per week, of course" he answered. This was a ton of money!

"Well? What're your thoughts?" he asked me. "The amount is, of course, quite satisfactory. However, before I accept the offer, I would like to meet Wazir", I said. "You're joking, right? Nobody meets Wazir. That's the way it's always been", he replied. "Look. I like to know whom I am working for. My services, as you have seen, are not cheap. I can take my talent elsewhere. It's not like I need the money."

The man thought about it for some time and pressed a button under his table before answering "Alright, let me check with him." Two men, dressed in full black, walked in looking like bouncers from a local pub. "Escort him to his room and make sure that he is protected", he said, smiling at me. I understood what he meant.

I was pondering over my next move. My phone and wallet had been taken away from me. The clock on the wall showed that I had been waiting for about seven hours. Suddenly the door opened and the suited thug walked in with a briefcase in his hand. "Wazir has agreed for the meet. However, you have to deliver one last time. Here, take this." I accepted the briefcase and lay it on the table and said to him, "Give me the delivery information". He looked at me with some surprise and said "The delivery information is inside the case, as always." I immediately realised that I had made a faux pas. Could this blunder raise suspicion in his mind? I opened the case and was expecting to see it filled with drugs. But what I beheld before me made me realise that my faux pas was nothing compared to the blunder of the gentlemen I had met in the morning. The styrofoam casing inside had an imported handgun, a silencer, a key and a photograph of a distinguished looking man. "It's been loaded. We leave in an hour. Deliver him and you earn a meeting with Wazir". I asked him who he was. "Soldiers never question orders. Just get it done." he said and shut the door.

This man, the man I was pretending to be, was supposed to be an assassin, not some drug supplier. I felt like a complete idiot, and I was stuck in this situation. There was no way for me to escape, no way to communicate with my fellow officers, and even if I could, no way to tell them where I was. The hour was up and the suited man and his bouncers entered the room. One of the bouncers handed me a black bag and asked me to put it over my head so that I couldn't see. I was led to the basement and seated in a car, just like earlier, with a bouncer on either side. After a long drive, the car finally stopped. "You can take it off now", said the voice of the suited man. I took off the bag and breathed in a lungful of air. The deep breath calmed me down. We were in a dark alley and all the houses on this road seemed to have very high walls. "That's the house", said the suited man, pointing to a house with a car parked in front of it. "It's simple, go in, finish the job and come out."

With the gun firmly in by belt, I tugged the jacket closer to myself and calmly walked towards the gate, looking around to see if anyone else was watching me besides the suited man and his crew. There was a deafening silence. Though I seemed extremely calm while opening the gate, a hundred thoughts were racing through my mind. Should I kill this man? It would definitely get me deeper into the organisation. But I didn't even know this man. What if he was an innocent man? A law enforcer even? Is the mission that saves hundreds of lives in the future more important or the life of some man? But wait, what this was no innocent man? What if he was a rival drug lord and this was part of the final consolidation? No, he was no drug lord. The man looked far too distinguished. I pulled out the key from my pocket and silently slipped it into the keyhole. Before I turned it, I tried to recollect the layout of the house from the profile provided behind the photograph. The man lived alone, according to the profile, so I didn't have to worry about additional deaths. These were no ordinary thugs. They were as organised as my own bureau. I suddenly realised that my bureau and being organised was an example of an oxymoron.

I turned the key slowly and grabbed the handle of the door and pushed it in. The door opened, noiselessly, and I walked into a small room. I could hear the sound of the TV from the drawing room inside. I carefully walked to the edge of the door and peered inside. The TV was tuned to a channel that showed a cricket match and a glass of scotch was on the table. The match was suddenly interrupted by an ad. The man picked up his phone and started mindlessly scrolling through it, occasionally tapping on it. He was probably browsing through Facebook. He was just a regular guy. As I was planning on my next move, my eyes fell on the refrigerator in the adjacent room.

I walked out hurriedly, not bothering to lock the door. As I opened the gate to exit the building, I saw that the suited man had started walking towards the house with a gun in his hand. "What took you so long?" he asked in an irritated voice. "It's done. Let's get out of here", I replied, walking towards the car. "No, I need confirmation. Show me." he said, grabbing my arm and pulling me back. "Look, it's not a good idea to hang around a dead body. The job is done. Let's get out before someone sees us." I tried to convince him, but it didn't seem to have an effect on him. We both walked back to the house. I pushed open the door, coughed and cleared my throat. We walked into the drawing room and stopped at the door, because the suited man didn't need much evidence beyond what he saw. The man lay dead, face down, in a pool of his own blood. The blood spatter around him was a clear indicator of what had passed on some time ago. Satisfying himself with the gory scene, he said, "Alright, let's get out of here"

I sat quietly between the bouncers on our way back with the bag on my head. I smiled at my ingenuity. I had walked in quickly, held the gun to the man's face and asked him to keep quiet and not panic. I told him that I was a policeman and he had to do exactly what I told him if he wanted to stay alive. Assuring him that I wouldn't hurt him, I had sprinted to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of tomato ketchup, some beet juice and added some water to get the consistency right. I asked the man to lie on the floor, face down, and had set to work. Having worked on several homicides throughout my career, I knew exactly how murder scenes looked. By the time I was done, the masterpiece looked realistic. I told him that I would warn him with a cough in the unlikely chance I had to come back, and that he would have to hold his breath for as long as he could and remain motionless. The man had complied, following which I shot twice into the couch and everything had worked out exactly as planned.

The car finally stopped. The suited man asked the bouncers to stay back in the car. He held my arm and helped me walk. As I struggled to walk on the uneven surface of a muddy trail, occasionally stumbling, I thanked my good fortune for not being blind. We finally stopped. The suited man took the bag off of my head. I looked around and saw that we were in the middle of a strange wilderness. "Wazir will meet you in a few minutes. Wait here, and don't move", he said, and walked back a few steps. He then turned to me and said "You know what? I didn't trust you when I first saw you. You have a certain quality about you which made me uncomfortable. I thought you were a cop. But Wazir, he had no doubts about you. He said that you were the number one assassin in the market. I told Wazir that I didn't think it was a good idea. I wanted to give you a test and see the proof for myself. So I hope you don't think less of me and certainly don't think less of Wazir. It was my idea, and I am sorry for not trusting you.", he said, rather sheepishly. He then turned around and walked back towards the car. A few moments later, I could hear the sound of the car driving away.

I was in the middle of nowhere, standing alone, in the starless night. I suddenly realised how tired I was. However, I was close to the end. It was time. Suddenly a deep voice came out from behind a nearby tree, "You know what makes me successful? Hiring the best people". I turned towards the tree. The silhouette of a man appeared next to it. "He didn't trust you from the beginning. And though I told him that it was his choice to test you, it was organised by me. I was the one that sent you the briefcase and set the parameters of the test..." The man stepped forward with a gun in his hand, "and you, my friend, have failed the test!"

I saw a sudden flash of light in his hand and felt a searing pain in my chest. As I fell backwards, I felt my energy draining out of my body. The man appeared in front of me and the light of the moon illuminated his entire body, highlighting the deep red stains of tomato ketchup and beet juice on him. He pointed his gun at me, and I saw one final flash of light...

[Parts of the story were inspired by TV show Castle]

You may also like to read:

Other short stories that I wrote

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Make My Trip Customer Service Sucks

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"Make My Trip Customer Service Sucks! Period"

About ten days ago, I wanted to book a couple of rooms for my parents for a visit to Mangalore. As a regular user of online services like Make My Trip, Cleartrip and Go Ibibo, I decided to open three tabs in my browser and check prices across all three portals (Something that we all do). I was, obviously, signed in as I wanted to redeem my wallet points. After seeing that Make My Trip was the cheapest, I decided to go ahead with it.

I saw that the cost of the room in Make My Trip in the booking page was Rs 3162. The screenshot shows the price breakdown. As per this, the room originally costs Rs 4366. They then added their own charges, applied some coupon automatically and also reduced my wallet money. The final bill, inclusive of taxes, came up to Rs 3162.

I was happy as any regular customer would be when they see the original price struck off and a new price shown next to it. Rs 4662 Rs 3162. Wow that is a savings of Rs 1500!

I proceeded to click on Pay Now in order to complete the payment. In the next screen, I was supposed to provide my credit card information, just like any other online portal.

I went ahead and punched in all the relevant information, waited patiently for my OTP and completed the transaction. On noticing the final amount billed in the SMS that I received, I was surprised to see the final amount was not Rs 3162. Instead, it was Rs 3552.

Incidentally, I had to book another room a couple of days later, and proceeded to book the other room. It was then that I paid careful attention and observed that the price actually changed in the checkout page.

If you observe this screenshot, the amount has changed! This time I realised that it must be some bug on their portal.

Having used several online portals in the past, I was confident that Make My Trip is an honourable organisation that would refund the difference because it was clearly an error on their side. Some sort of a bug, I assumed and went ahead and completed the transactions.

Immediately after the transactions were completed, I called up Make My Trip Customer Service and informed them about the issue. As any courteous customer service representative, I was informed that they would take care of the problem. "We will be sending out an email to you, Sir. Kindly send us the screenshots, and we will look into it". I was assured - You know, it's Make My Trip!

Excuse 1: Only Mobile!

A couple of days later, I received a call. The customer service representative told me that the offer was applicable only on mobile devices. Since I booked from a desktop device, the coupon is not applicable, I was told. Any regular website clearly indicates that in the booking process. "Avail additional 5% discount by booking through the app" is a standard type of message that we have seen in the past.

I told them that this was not the case. I even told them that the problem was that my wallet amount was not redeemed. The solution was simply to reduce the amount from my wallet and refund that difference into my card.

"I'm sorry, I can give you MMT cash, not refund" I was told. I was furious and told them that that was not an acceptable solution. They told me that they would get back to me.

Excuse 2: You are not signed in!

A couple of days later, I received another call. This time I was told that the wallet amount was not applied because I was not signed in. "But I was signed in. That's why you are showing that wallet amount was applied, right? Otherwise, whose wallet did you show? You can also see from the screenshot that I was signed in" The representative said that they would get back to me

Excuse 3: Are you a scammer?

The next time I received a call, I was told that the screenshot did not have information about the time at which I took the screenshots. Perhaps you took screenshots at different intervals of time.

I was obviously livid at the insinuation, and yet calm in my response. Is the accusation that I am running some sort of a scam for a measly couple of hundred bucks? Alright, I will send you a video recording. Just for your information, the issue continues to exist. Did you even try to reproduce the matter? The representative said that they would get back to me.

Excuse 4: We cannot give you partial refunds!

By this time, I recorded my entire flow and uploaded a video onto Google Drive. The video is available at I sent them an email with the link.

Another call - Sir, unfortunately, we cannot give you partial refund. What we can do is, we can cancel the entire order. You can then go ahead and book the order again.

I asked him - Did you have a look at the video that I had sent to you?

No. However, our system does not have a capability to give you partial refund. We can cancel the entire order and give you a complete refund. After this, you can book the rooms again.

What if the rooms are not available after cancellation? What if the prices have changed from the time that I have booked? What will you do then?


No, I cannot believe that Make My Trip has been around since 15 years and you don't have tech ability to give me partial refunds. I want the partial refund - I am not even asking you for extra money, I am just asking you for money that I am supposed to get. Redeem the wallet cash and refund that into my card.

The representative said that they would get back to me.

Excuse 5: This is our terms and conditions!

Please note that though I was irritated, I never raised my voice nor spoke rudely.

However, this was by far the most irate CSR call. The lady at the other end told me that she checked with the tech team. As per the conversation that she had, according to their terms and conditions, no two offers can be clubbed. Since a coupon code was applied (by them only, I didn't apply anything), wallet cash could not be redeemed.

I told them that that was not the case. I explained the problem to her (mentioned below) and she flatly refused to do anything about it. I told her to give it to me in writing (since none of the previous representatives gave me anything in writing, and each of them tells me fantasy tales), which she agreed... and sent me some junk line some time later. I have escalated the issue and am patiently waiting for them to get back.

I also made it a point to ask if partial refunds was possible, and she told me that it was definitely possible if they see that they were at fault. Which means the previous guy lied to me.

And on top of that, my issue keeps getting marked as resolved despite my insistence that it is not!

So, what's really the problem?

Here's the problem - Make My Trip has, perhaps, the world's shittiest interface when it comes to coupon redemption. Despite being signed in, users are expected to sign in again, for a second time, in order to redeem the wallet. People who see wallet applied, don't pay attention to signing into wallet again (because it is unheard of, signing into the same system twice!)

Even if you sign in, if you press the back button and come to the screen again in the same session, you are signed out again!

This is horrible user experience.

This video is available at If you observe this video, you will see that the terms and conditions reason is absolute BS. It is a tech issue on their side.

The resolution is simple - Just redeem all the applicable wallet points for each of my orders and refund that much to my credit card. I can't understand why they are acting like I am asking them for something unreasonable like their kidneys!

On a side note, I think I should be paid some kind of bounty for pointing out such issues on their website!

I have now decided to continue fighting this to see how far I have to push till I get that refund. I am pretty sure I am going to approach the consumer court for this.

Meanwhile, this should serve as a lesson to others - Login to Make My Trip wallet in order to use their crappy interface or avoid them completely and use Cleartrip (which has always been smooth)

Please help me by sharing this so that my voice can be heard by the heads at Make My Trip

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Of Selective Mutism and Double Standards

Swami Gulagulaananda quoted Animal Farm:
"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others"

In the month of January, 2015, there was an attack on the offices of the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo in which 12 people died. This sparked an international outrage with people everywhere saying 'Je suis Charlie' (I am Charlie) to show solidarity with the families of the dead as well as the rattled survivors. The cowardly attack was executed by fanatics and is definitely condemnable and deplorable. People on Facebook protested by putting the French flag overlay on their profile pictures. I saw my Facebook feed filled with strong words against attacking freedom of expression, some sharing cartoons of how a pen is mightier and expressed outrage in the strongest of terms.

A couple of days ago, there was a deadly attack in Somalia in which 500 people died. There has been no outrage, nobody on Facebook putting up Somalian flag overlays and nobody saying "Je suis Somali"...

And this brings me to the central point of this post - Why the double standards?

People worldwide seem to have developed a way of looking at things - Perhaps consciously, perhaps subconsciously. It appears that some lives are more important than others. Some attacks are vehemently condemned while others are dismissed as routine.

People have made movie after movie about the Holocaust while we don't hear much about the the great Bengal famine that resulted in millions of deaths - As many, if not more deaths when compared with the Holocaust, though it happened at the same time. And what we see in the macrocosm, we also see at microcosmic levels of countries and states.

In India, for example, an attack on a man called Akhlaque for holding/consuming beef received wide coverage with people blaming the central government for emboldening attackers. Why? The victim was a Muslim man, while the ruling party is considered to be a Hindu right wing party. Has the Modi government done anything to appease the Hindus or create problems for non-Hindus? Not a thing. And yet, the government was widely criticised. Meanwhile, a techie and animal rights activist in Bangalore was attacked with bricks for requesting police assistance to close down an illegal slaughterhouse and save cows. Her vehicle was heavily damaged and she herself has sustained pretty major injuries.  This time, the victim was a Hindu and attackers were Muslims. There has not been much outrage.

This selective outrage and mutism is quite baffling to me. Why is it that some random journalist like Gauri Lankesh receives a funeral with full state honours while others like RSS workers who were lynched barely receive mentions in newspapers? Is it because one is a left leaning journalist while others are right leaning? Does ideology define the value of life?

And this argument is not restricted to attacks and killings. Every year, during Deepawali, we see some people crawl out of the woodwork talking about a pollution free Deepawali with slogans like "Say no to crackers" and "Our animals will get scared". These arguments would have been fine had they been consistent in their protests. Yes, pollution is a major problem and animals are perhaps affected by sudden loud noises. However, I don't find this concern for the environment in the rest of the year. People continue to purchase bigger cars that guzzle fuel, keep their air conditioner running all the time and drive individual vehicles rather than opt for public transport because they are inconvenient. How many of these people have opted for electric vehicles? There are quite a few in the market right now.

The Supreme Court overreached and went to the extent of banning the sale of firecrackers in Delhi. To quote a comedian on WION, "Banning crackers on Diwali to curb pollution is like fasting for one day to cure obesity".

The ban itself is ridiculously myopic. When the Yogi Adityanath government started closing illegal slaughterhouses (remember, they were illegal), a lot of people came out protesting the move saying that it had a communal tinge. The main argument was that the livelihood of these people was affected. However, isn't the livelihood of people who have stocked firecrackers to sell in Delhi getting affected? What about them? Why was this hastily implemented at the last minute? Why not regulate instead of outright banning? More importantly, why not an equal outrage?

Why is it that I don't see this animal lovers during Bakr'Id? Why are they animal lovers during Diwali? And why are some animals more equal than other animals?

Celebrities, especially, like to come out and show that they are hip. Shraddha Kapoor and Yuvraj Singh are fine examples of this hypocrisy by requesting for no pollution via crackers - and yet, they celebrated their movie release and wedding respectively with a fine display of crackers. And please don't go into matters of scale :)

And it's the same with all Hindu festivals in India - with some claiming that Dandiya should be banned for noise pollution and Holi is a waste of water. But I don't hear these people talking about mosques blaring prayers causing noise pollution. Anyone who spoke against these celebrities were labelled trolls by left leaning media outlets.

Another observation that I have made is with regard to the different approaches when it comes to handling Rohingyas, Kashmiri Pandits and Yazidis. All were driven out of their homes and thousands displaced. And yet, the media coverage on the Rohingyas has been extensive while we don't see similar support for the Kashmiri Pandits and the Yazidis.

It is important to note that the arguments posted here are not Hindu vs Non Hindu, but more against a lack of consistent approaches to the same problem. People who find fault with one don't seem to find fault with another doing the exact same thing, thus, double standards.

People who are serious about the environment will take clear, decisive actions to curb pollution, rather than resorting to mere tokenisms such as Earth Hour. These have to be sustained efforts by one and all. Let us work towards rain water harvesting and replenishing ground water.

The media clearly knows what sells and what doesn't. In India, an attack against a Muslim is guaranteed to generate TRPs while others don't matter as much.

We as individuals and as groups have to consciously think about every decision that we take, rather than following the hype. All lives matter - The death of 12 Charlie Hebdo journalists is not more important than the death of hundreds of Somalians. The killing of a left leaning journalist is not more important than the murder of an RSS worker.

If you wish to feel or display your outrage, do so equally... unless you truly believe that some animals are more equal than others

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Micro-loans for funding small enterprises

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
"It is amazing that a tiny seed can grow into an enormous tree"

India lives in its villages - We have heard this many times. And while steps are being taken to 'Make in India', India is not considered to be a manufacturing hub yet - especially when compared to her giant neighbour, China.

Manufacturing is a challenge, and for that matter, entrepreneurship is a challenge. While there are many challenges in starting and building your own enterprise, from hiring and retaining good people, purchasing raw materials and paying for other overheads, the challenges generally have one common denominator - Money.

You need money to hire people, money to purchase raw materials, money to pay bills etc. And getting money is the biggest challenge. Once you have a certain amount of money, that money can be put in to generate more money through the business - use a bit of it for operations, a bit of it for purchasing more equipment or hiring more people that generates more revenue subsequently and so on (The usual CapEx and OpEx).

The main question, however, is - How do you get that initial seed money? This is especially a problem when you are not well connected. There are many people from villages and tier 3 cities who are interested in developing small scale industries. Villagers and uneducated people find it very hard to raise funds. They may have the entrepreneurial drive but without a certain amount of credit rating and connections, raising funds becomes impossible considering that they are also from poor backgrounds.

Another interesting aspect to notice is the amount of money that these people usually require. The amounts are generally under Rs 50,000 with many people needing around Rs 10,000. These amounts are not very high when you compare it with the salaries of IT Professionals in tier 1 cities, for instance. Single outings to an upscale restaurants cost about the same.

This is where crowd funding comes into picture. Lenders who have a certain amount of surplus money can pump it into this system. Entrepreneurs who are interested can sign up with this system. This money is not charity. The money from the lenders are given as loans to the entrepreneurs. This money is divided into a large number of small amounts and each chunk is given to an entrepreneur. The entrepreneur is able to raise the requisite amount of money and utilise it for their business. Every month, they repay a small amount of money to the crowd funding organisation.

The crowd funding organisation can then repay the money to the lender who can choose this chunk to further invest in another entrepreneur. Remember, this is a loan - and the lender is expected to get his principal amount back. Think of it as a 0% loan - So, the only charity that you are losing is the interest.

And since a very small chunk of your money is going to each entrepreneur, a default is going to impact you very little. All your eggs are not in the same basket.

This is where I would like to introduce Milaap - Milaap is an online crowd funding platform that bridges the gap between lenders and people who seek money for various causes; entrepreneurs, medical, education, etc.

About a year ago, I invested a very small amount of Rs 2500 into it since I was not very confident of the platform. I had lent the money to some small scale village entrepreneur. As time progressed, I started receiving notifications that my amount was repaid. I had signed up for 'Auto Lend', and this repaid money started getting circulated to other entrepreneurs. Though it was just Rs 2500, the total money that got lent after repayment became over Rs 8500 and more.

I have now pushed in some more money into the system; because some small pieces of statistics had a pretty nice impact on me. Their dashboard showed me that they had made 28 loans and impacted 432 lives. They have also provided information about all the people to whom the money was lent.

Of course, there is an amount of risk involved here. I am trusting Milaap and their associated organisations to ensure that my money is not swindled and lost. There is a certain amount of faith that you need to have, and a certain amount of risk that you have to be willing to assume. But if it works out - There is a huge satisfaction of having played a role, however minuscule, in improving small scale industries in India.

Remember, you can pull out your money at some point in the future and this is a loan. So, please take a moment out of your busy schedules and explore Milaap or any equivalent organisation. Or if you have more time, try to invest in some small scale industry.

After all, Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas should be applicable across the board. What is the point of growing alone - We should be taking everyone along and grow together...

Jai Hind!

External Links
Visit Milaap -

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Monday, 14 August 2017

Ethical Machines

Swami Gulagulaananda said:
Teaching ethics to a human being is hard. I wonder if machines are easier"

There is an old psychology question that we used to ask as kids:
There is a railway track on which trains typically pass on, and another track on the side that is not supposed to be used. There is a sign that indicates walking on the main track is dangerous. Walking on the side track is not a problem because trains are not expected to pass on it. A group of ten young boys are playing on the main track while a lone boy is playing on the side track. You notice the train approaching rapidly and are standing beside a lever that can be used to control whether the train continues on the main track, or switch it to the alternate track. Assuming that the side track is not risky for the train and that you cannot shout to shoo the kids off the tracks because they are too far away from you or do anything else - and given only the two following choices, which would you go for?
- Let the train continue on the main track and allow the ten kids to die?
- Or send the train on the alternate track and let only one kid to die?

The reason this question is interesting is because it allows us to choose between saving many lives versus a single life, but at the same time between saving the lives of those who broke the rules versus the one who followed the rules. While you can save many lives, you are making the rule follower pay the penalty for following rules. Or let many people die… Which would you go for?

Now, imagine that a program had to answer this question. I remember seeing a similar question on Twitter long back, though I don’t remember the source - where self driving cars have a similar dilemma. Imagine a self driving car in which you are seated. It’s driving rather fast down an empty street when suddenly some boy comes running across the street. It’s too late to stop the car. The car can do one of three things:
- Continue going straight and run over the kid
- Swerve left into a group of five boys
- Swerve right into a pole that may kill you

What should the car do?

Whose life is more valuable? How do you measure the value of life? Are all lives equally valuable? What if it is between the lives of an old man versus that of a child? Can we say that the child should live since the old man has already lived most of his life? These are very hard problems to solve.

Person of Interest is a wonderful TV series, a fast paced action filled show that has machine learning at its core. At one point of time, the machine (the central computer that uses ML is called ‘The Machine’ in the show) decides that a key politician has to be eliminated for peace. This is when the creator of the machine ponders over this decision. Is a machine equipped to take decisions that humans find hard to take? If the death of a single person can bring peace, should that single person be killed? The answer may seem simple - Yes, kill Hitler, save thousands of Jews… But can a machine reach that level of human thinking? As the creator continues, “What if the machine indicates that a large number of people have to be killed in order to reduce world hunger?” Of course, if there are no people, then there cannot be hungry people - Simple logic for the machine.

The idea of teaching ethics to a machine seems to be very interesting to pursue. I wonder if this can be taught. Perhaps then, we may not have to worry about Skynet… #GoAsimov