Tag Archives: corruption

Camera Shopping

Daniela and I agreed that the picture quality from our digital camera (a Casio Exilim) was not the greatest quality. Pictures were often very blurry, or heavily pixilated. The camera was nominally an 8 megapixel one, but the pictures were of lower quality than the 2 megapixel Mikon Coolpix 800 that it replaced. I managed to convince her that a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera was a good thing (I myself needed no convincing) and we decided that we’d rather get it sooner, rather than later as there are only a few months left of our India time and India is a very photogenic country.

I went camera shopping.

Now if you are camera shopping in Bangalore, there are the chain stores such as GK Vale – where you can buy a camera – and then there are the professional stores – which amount to temples dedicated to photography. There are two professional stores in town. Together, they service this part of Karnataka and all of the local pros call the shops by the names of the proprietors; not by the store names. The first is essentially a streetside kiosk with a storeroom. A chaotic group of well dressed men stand in front of it and shout orders. Only instead of ordering samosas (a fried dumpling, often sold by street vendors), they are ordering half lakh ($1000) cameras and parts. The other is a quiet shop on a busy street. It is quiet only in comparison to its competitor a few blocks away. Packed into every bit of available display space is tens of thousands of dollars worth of professional grade camera equipment; bodies, lenses, filters, bags, tripods, you name it. Whenever you go in, there is always someone trying out a gigantic lens to add to his lens collection, or trying out a monopod for supporting the gigantic lens that he recently bought. The proprietor is extremely helpful and brimming with advice.

But there is something else about both places. When you ask for a quote on a piece of equipment, you get two prices. You get one price and another (considerably higher one) if you want a receipt. One of the proprietors explained to me that 80% of all DSLR equipment sold in India is grey market.

The first interesting thing is that 80% of the camera equipment market is grey (or even black, what Americans refer to as “under the table”). This is an unfortunate side effect of many “socially oriented” tax and tariff policies; that the higher they are, the more of the economy is driven under the table. This has the twin effects of bringing in less revenue comes in to pay for those policies and turning increasingly large segments of the public into scofflaws and weakening respect for the law. The second interesting thing was that both shops were so open about the dual pricing policy. These gentlemen are not opening trench coats and saying “pssst… want to buy a camera?” or laying out towels with cameras that they can swoop up and run off with if a policeman comes along. They are stand up businessmen and the go-to people for the professional photography community; yet feel comfortable brazenly selling grey market camera parts.

This says so many things about both the economy and the government.

The Facilitation Fee

A friend of ours recently went through a court case. At the courthouse, she was told by her lawyer’s legal assistant that she should give 50 rupees to this man to carry her case from one stack to another, 100 to another to put it near the top of the stack, etc. She paid 250 RS in bribe money to have her case processed quickly. She was telling this story to another family friend, the father of Charlotte’s best friend. He also happens to be an IP lawyer.

He turned to her and smiled:

We don’t call that bribery. We call it a facilitation fee.

The case backlog is so long that by insisting on honesty and not paying the bribe, you would be condemming your case to purgatory for all time. You can either be ethically correct, or you can get things done it seems.

Marketing Lessons

One of the reasons that there were so many foreign fighters at Aero India 2009 was the Indian Air Force Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) Competition. The air show was the coming out party for the Tejas and it was regarded by the hosts as the star of the show; complete with patriotic goose bump fervor. Despite this fact and the fact that it is starting production and due for initial deployment next year; Hindustan Aviation will not be able to meet the total demand for replacing all of the Indian Air Force’s Mig-21s, which are showing their years and developing an alarming habit of turning into lawn darts. So they are planning to buy 126 foreign planes to fill the gap.

These kinds of numbers send the worlds arms manufacturers into a tizzy of avariciousness. With the exception of the Chinese and their J12, everyone who makes current generation fighters is competing for this contract. There were the American firms Lockheed and Boeing with their F16 and F18 Super Hornet respectively. There was Mikoyan with their fancy new Mig-35. The European (but really German) EADS was there with a contingent of half a dozen Luftwaffe Typhoons. (wait! Aren’t the Germans supposed to be kind of pacifistic?) Dassault’s Rafale is in the competition, but did not come. Saab’s Grippen (now wait! I can let the Germans off the hook here, but the Swedes are loudly pacifistic. This is like a militant teetotaler owning a brewery) is also in the running, but came only in the form of billboards plastered all over the highway.

This allowed yours truly to have a ringside seat watching the arms dealer hard sell.

Russian Jet Tricks (RJT) – The Russian companies Sukhoi and Mikoyan are famous for the acrobatic acumen of the aircraft they make. Nothing puts on an airshow display like a Russian jet and the internet is full of rabid Sukhoi and Mikoyan fans who swear up and down that everything else is trash because they can’t do RJT like the real thing. Sukhoi and Mikoyan are not exactly famous for keeping to delivery schedules, sticking to the contract or quality workmanship; but who cares! Airshow tricks are what matters here!

The Mob of Boring Salesmen – EADS seems to really, really, really want this contract, given the number of people they had there. The German government must concur because they allowed a half dozen Luftwaffe Typhoons along with their contingent of support tankers and maintenance personnel (~70 people) to be drug all that way for a week on what amounted to a sales call. The EADS exhibit filled a hangar. The most interesting things in the hangar were not the products on display, but the women there. The female employees of EADS all wore saris; not kurdas and not western dress, but saris.

The Typhoon put on a so-so acrobatic display. Ok, it had all the typical rolls, loops, high G turns, etc that you would expect; but the F16 and Tejas did exactly the same thing. The problem is that when you fly right after an acrobatic display by a Sukhoi performing the full range of RJT and you don’t (or can’t) do these things, you look a little boring; tastefully dressed in your sari, but boring.

The Politician – Boeing wins the best marketing award. They took member of the Indian Parliament, named Naveen Jindal, for a spin in an F18. That’s even better than bribery! The Hornet could do RJT and put on an impressive display. Perhaps an aficionado would point out all the ways that it was inferior to a Sukhoi or Mig, but it certainly close enough for my untrained eyes. Then at the end, they casually announced that that the plane had been carrying two 500 kilo bombs while doing its acrobatics. Now there is slick marketing.

Happy Politician

Happy Politician

The Celebrity Endorsement – Lockheed takes the prize for the most over-the-top marketing there. The F16 is an old design and can’t do RJT. So they corralled up Abhinav Bindra, the Olympic shooting guy, and flew him around for 45 minutes at the air show. Now I can understand letting an MP (member of parliament) who has a private pilot’s license (and presumably a clue) and may have backroom influence tool around in your jet. But no! Lockheed does not go that way! They go for the full on celebrity endorsement!

What really amazed me here was not that one of the American companies involved would think of something as outlandish as a celebrity endorsement for a fighter jet. (though they’d never try such a stunt in the home market) What really amazed me is that instead of rightfully mocking what was obviously a blatant PR stunt, Indian newspapers took it at face value.

Here is a marketing tip for EADS. Next time, leave five of the six planes at home and leave the army of salesmen at home while you are at it. Take Shahrukh Khan for a spin and the contract is yours.

Marketing Tip for EADS

Marketing Tip for EADS

The drama of the collapse

The plot seems to have thickened in the Prestige Group building collapse story.

I’ll start with a correction – The collapse did not happen at the mall under construction, but rather at a large complex of a half dozen or so apartment towers under construction a few minutes up the road from that. First, the company was never willing to help with regard to interviewing the workers, one of whom is still missing and possibly under the rubble.

Then it got even better. A security guard from the site was found dead on the railroad tracks the next day. The police commisioner said that the guard had a history of drinking and ruled out foul play.

We have also verified the duty register where Shivanna had signed around 8 pm, after completing his duties. We have eye-witnesses who had seen Shivanna manning the people after the building collapse, so there is no doubt over the reason of his death. The city Railway Police who have registered the unnatural death, are continuing with the investigation.’

Gee… the company is impeding an investigation and suddenly this guy turns up dead on railway tracks. I wonder how many lakh (100’s of thousands of Rupees) it took for city police commissioner Shankar Bidari to come to that conclusion so quickly.

There have been arrests in this case, but something tells me that these people are scapegoats.

A Culture of Mistrust

When we bought our piano, I saw something strange. We had paid for it and were going to walk out of the shop (to await delivery and begin the saga of the piano guys) when the security guard at the door did something interesting. He asked to see our receipt. He then wrote down the product ID and amount. I found this strange. This information is already in the point of sale system. Why task the security guard with making a manual tracker?

I’ve noticed that this is a pattern. Every single time that I go to a local supermarket/department store, called Big Bazaar, they have an extremely complex checkout system. The cashiers bad my goods up, then they sign the receipt, along with the number of bags. When I leave, the security guards scrutinize my bags and the receipt before stamping the receipt. I did not ship my half dead computer speakers from Germany. Instead, I bought a set at a local computer store. They cost all of 350 rupees. Still the process was the same as with the piano. The cashier put the invoice into the envelope after stamping it that I had paid. The security guard – less than ten feet away – took the invoice out of the envelope, examined it and the bag, then stamped it, put it back in the envelope and signed a log with the product code and price before sending me on my way.

I wondered aloud to Daniela about whether they were double checking the sales staff. She disagreed. Her argument was that corruption was rampant here (a post for another time) and that there was nothing to prevent the sales and security people from being in cahoots; which would render such a system pointless.

So I asked our driver. He is rapidly becoming our guide to all things Indian. He mentioned that the guards – nearly always being Nepalese – either speak only Hindi, or Hindi and English. Language is highly politicized here and the sales staff are Kannada speakers.

“Why do you speak Hindi? You are in Karnataka! You should speak Kannada!”

So there is a gulf between the sales and security people that managers can exploit to keep everyone honest. It is not simply that they don’t trust me as a customer and worry about shoplifting, they don’t trust their own staff either.

My wife’s work involves customizing ERP software for legal compliance outside of Germany and the US. She tells me that India (along with Brazil) stands out as having particularly arcane tax systems. She says that a clear thread in the regulations is a lack of trust on the part of the government towards the populace. One could argue of course, that this only encourages people to avoid doing things officially; which is something that I often see and it even further encourages distrust, but I digress.

On a related note, our third floor apartment in a guarded, gated community has bars on the windows and the bedrooms can all be dead bolted from the inside. The culture of mistrust here seems to be at all levels and run in all directions.