Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sanmanassullavarkku Samadanam

Latha looked at her watch. She was going to be late to work. Gritting her teeth at the thought of another long night at the office, she grabbed her iPod and stuffed it into her bag. As she ran out, Latha grabbed the tiffin box located strategically on the dining table and yelled in the kitchen's direction,

"Amma…njaan erangunu." (Mother, I'm leaving)
Pat came her mother's advice, "Poyitte varette paraaa, molle." (Say you'll return after leaving)

At the bus stand, Latha did not have to wait for long. A SAFE bus rolled in, its engine purring to a halt. The driver extended its wheelchair lift to let out a disabled lady and her companion granddaughter. The rest of the passengers petered out of the bus before Latha stepped into its cool interior. This particular bus was operated by Safe and Friendly Environment Lines, the brainchild of Abdul Majeeb, a recently returned Kerala expat. Latha had read all about him in a splashy feature story in "Dusky" - a hugely successful periodical in Kerala.

Six years ago, Majeeb had traveled to Masdar to embark on a venture manufacturing luxury boats and yachts for the city's wealthy businessmen and had amassed significant wealth for himself in the process. Yet, as he traveled between Kerala and Masdar, he was continually reminded of the world of difference between his place of birth and place of work. And nothing irked him more than the harassment women received in urban Kerala. At times, he suspected that beneath a largely literate society, lay a seething, frustrated, unemployed body of men who had nothing better to do than harass women on the streets and in every imaginable public place. Majeeb got so obsessed with the problem that whenever he met a fellow Keralite, he steered the conversation in this direction. Yet everyone, men and women, friends and family alike, just shrugged their shoulders and walked away. Then last year, the problem hit home when his sister was pinched and groped on a private bus. Shortly after that incident, he bought her a can of mace and then isolated himself in his office to apply his entrepreneurial instincts to the problem.

For decades, private and public bus lines were unable to provide safe and secure means of transportation for women and children. Surveys revealed the shocking extent of women who had some experience fending off physical advances while traveling. The numbers were lower, but still disturbingly bad for children, primarily because child molestation went largely unreported. It was a problem that left women and children scarred, and in many cases, families reluctant to let their vulnerable members venture outside for work. On the rare occasions that a woman or child complained, retribution was often swift, but the reaction too little too late. Years of building boats and arranging security for celebrity clients at his yacht exhibitions had given Majeeb considerable experience in the tourism and security industries. In his mind, the problems presented by public travel in Kerala were no different. And that is why Majeeb introduced a private protection bus service catering to men, women and children.

Ten kilometers from Latha's bus stand, Majeeb sat in his office with his legs stretched on his desk, a liberty he took on Fridays when the week winded down to a crawl. Flipping the pages of his investment book, he ran through the calculations for his proposed fleet expansion. SAFE had created a tidy profit for him within two years of its launch; now he was going to expand beyond Kochi into Kozhikode and Kollam. Yet, he knew making his figures public to attract investors, was also going to open the gates to copy-cats once competing bus lines learnt just how well he was doing. But then, Majeeb was no stranger to competition. He thrived on devising innovative services and products to differentiate his business.

Majeeb reminisced about his neighbors in Kerala ridiculing him (not to his face, because that would have been impolite) when he told them about his new bus service and his ticket prices which were twice the prevailing rate. Indians, let alone Malayalees, are driven by cost, they said. Charge twice as much, get twice as less passengers, they warned him. Majeeb shrugged his shoulders just as they had shrugged theirs. If there was anything he had learnt about business, it was that you never learn without trying. So he went ahead with his plans to recruit bus "marshals" - able plainclothesmen who accompanied his buses.

In the first month after the inauguration of the bus service, Majeeb did worry. Attendance was poor, and his advertisements attracted just a trickle of passengers, mostly businessmen. Then as word of mouth spread about Majeeb's guard service, he started seeing more housewives and working women among the passengers. Pretty soon, the inaugural bus were running at full capacity and bringing in enough money for Majeeb to justify buying a second, a third, a fourth and even a fifth bus.

In the beginning, there was a security guard on every ride. As expectations rose, he dispersed the guards among his buses. With his higher ticket prices, he was able to add more buses to the same routes and restrict the amount of passengers on each ride. Majeeb had long ago reasoned that the shortest distance from point A to point B in Kerala was not just a straight line. It was a line with bells and whistles. He was not interested in selling a commodity. He was not selling space. He was selling a service. He was selling comfort of a watchful pair of eyes. Not the kind of eyes that women were seeking to avoid. But the protective kind his meticulously-selected and screened guards offered.

Yet, Majeeb took pains to draw the fine line between regulating and liberating interaction between strangers. He had no desire to run a police state aboard his buses. He wanted men and women to converse and act decently towards each other. He didn't want to segregate the two sexes as some clerics and priests in his home town would have liked. Was he in the business of teaching decency? No, he believed such behaviours could not be forced, just internalized.

And what of the criticism leveled at him by a major daily that his rates were beyond the ordinary person's reach? He wrote an emphatic letter to the editor quoting first hand evidence that his bus was actually more affordable. Despite his relatively expensive bus fare, many of SAFE's passengers were switching from more expensive means of transportation including two-wheelers. In the cases of women who were confined to their homes, the opportunity cost was much higher. Majeeb's most cherished possession was a letter from a young lady named Latha, who had written to his office to express her appreciation for his bus lines. Latha was frequently called upon to work for long hours at her office. As such instances grew more frequent, her parents despaired and called upon the daughter to quit. Latha knew she could not heed their warning, which while well-meaning, ignored the hard facts of their circumstances. Her father was confined to the bed after a paralyzing stroke; between his medicines and her mother's care, she was the sole breadwinner in the family. Any other job would force them to live from hand to mouth. It was in the midst of this crisis, Latha wrote to Majeeb, that SAFE "rolled into her life".

Majeeb liked to think that SAFE was a social experiment, but he knew that it was a business like any other. It existed to satisfy an unresolved need like any other successful firm. Only time could tell what long-term changes his entrepreneurial abilities could shape. For now though, he would be happy just to provide law and order in the void that was Kerala's traveling experience.

A knock on the door pierced Majeeb's thoughts and he sat up. His assistant came into his office and said, "It's Minister Balakrishnan."
Majeeb raised his brow, "what does he want?"
"Something about booking a bus for his son's wedding in June." After some hesitation, she said, "Oh and Bhaskaran is on the other line."
Majeeb asked, "Bhaskaran who?"
"Union Bhaskaran…the one who's in the papers about getting you to sign an agreement for your security staff."

Majeeb took in a deep breath and weighed which call was worse.


Sexual harassment is a widespread problem in Kerala. Volumes have been written here and elsewhere on the hellish experiences women face while they travel and work in our state. According to the 2007 Kerala Economic Review report released last month, atrocities against women have increased three-fold over the past 15 years. 2,078 cases were recorded against women in 1992. In 2006, this figure had risen to 9,110 cases. Despite greater public awareness, little has been achieved as tangible results. Successive governments have failed to provide us with better law enforcement agencies. But blaming the government for everything from the lack of standards in our civic life to our economic problems is becoming more and more a convenient cop-out.

Latha's experience and Majeeb's story need not be relegated to the dusty confines of Indian science-fiction. These are very practical applications of existing business models. A little private initiative and lots of common sense can resolve many of Kerala's modern social and economic problems without resorting to charitable or publicly-funded institutions including governments. We have all seen how the latter have fared. I'll let Milton Friedman explain the power of open markets more eloquently, "The great virtue of free enterprise is that it forces existing businesses to meet the test of the market continuously, to produce products that meet consumer demands at lowest cost, or else be driven from the market. It is a profit-and-loss system."

Note: All characters in this article are fictitious. Any similarities that these characters may have to any person living or dead are unintentional.
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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Why Do We Need Kerala Airways?

Or will it be "Air Kerala"? It certainly cannot be "Kerala Air" since it will invoke a series of protests and hartals against corporate forces trying to plunder and take undue advantage of Kerala's virginity and supposedly clean air, leading to lesser air for the people of Kerala, especially the "saadharana-karan" (common man of Kerala), who will then have to breathe in vacuum - just like it happened in Plachimada because of Coca-Cola, who allegedly drained of all the water there, while 30 other factories there did not affect the environment. Some say this is because Coca-Cola is not consumed by the saadharana-karan since it contains, again allegedly, pesticides, but only by the "spoilt fat rich kids". The saadharana-karan drinks only arrack brewed with pests, and pesticides can spoil the flavor.

Anyway, coming back to Air Kerala. The political fraternity is coming together in support of the proposed new airline, forgetting color, race, party, corruption history, and bank balance. Since most of them, mainly due to the lack of education, failed to understand the technical and economical advantages of having the new airline, they decided to draft their own 10 point memorandum, based on their experiences and aspirations of a "new Kerala", to be submitted to the Minister of Civil Aviation. Here is a preview of the draft.

Why we need Kerala Airways - Submitted by the politicians of BJP..nadakkilla!! CPM.. poda pullay! Congress..pulikkum!!..okay okay..namakku onnikkam and make the public a donkey.. Kerala, representing the saadharana-karan(s)

Saar, our on plane yair-line is needed very mach and it is argentt, bekkos...

1. the pilots wont act smart anymore..pannanmaar! ("bad people" - produced by privatisation) and will wait for all the representatives of the saadharana-karans..we can even transfer them at our will even if the other passengers have to wait, its okay saar..they are waiting for the representatives of the saadharana-karans. as one of our great leaders said recently after one of our MP classmate was thrown out of the plane for coming late (he was only 5 hours 2 hours late saar! and there were only 180 other passengers), "this is a country!!". yes saar, we are countries, so what is the problem?

2. by the by...we can sit in the cockpit and fly..and not just in the front row of the first class cabin..we are servants of the people after all and deserve to be treated better than this. our leaders can also then transport their guns and bombs very safely.

3. saar, we can grab women travelling alone safely and more often if it is our own yair-line, and worry less about getting slapped it still hurts saar or investigations. nobedy will dare to question us then since it is a democrazy. it will also encourage politicians to fly more frequently, and earn more miles.

4. it will also help our PAs and supporters also travel more comfortably..we can have an emergansy quota for all of them, just like we have in the trains. and if our friends need tickets, we can release EQ for them too, just by dialling the yair-line office - we can post one of our boys as the manager so he wont be very smart or educated, and will listen to us this is my party idea.

5. once we have our airports in all the 14 districts, kerala yair-line will provide better connections in kerala. we can have more meetings and our payyanmar saadharana-karans can attend more dharnas and our goons party workers can be flown to wherever there is shortage.

6. saar, nowadays we are facing lot of problem. the air india and other private airlines (who are not for the saadharana-karans) dont allow us to drink alcohol or smoke beedis inside the plane. where is justice? in kerala yair-line, we can do all that and more..

7. one more problem our malayalis face is in using our mobiles. we are 100% literate and because of that we need to switch on our cellphone and talk to our friends and party people even while the plane is taking off, or just as the plane lands or taxis into the parking area. we are not able to do this now, and every time our malayali saadharana-karans talks on the phone while the plane is moving, the arrogant airhostesses announce and ask as us to switch off our phones. this is humiliating saar! injustice. what do these airhostesses think of themselves!?!

8. your owner, our saadharana-karans who chew paan and others who like to spit frequently are now facing problem in the plane. where will they spit? the windows are sealed. in our own yair-line, we can feel free since its our own yair-line.

9. saar, its very bad in yair-lines of nowadays..we have to wear soot-and-kuppayams and appear to be decent..why? for what? why cant we travel comfortably in lungi and shirtless? why should we pretend to be decent when we are not?

10. last but not the least..actually most important..our malayalis are used to rushing and creating confusion. but in the yair-lines we have now, we are facing lot of problem. every time our saadharana-karans stand up immediately after the plane touches down on the runway, the airhostess shouts at us for standing up and forming a queue to get out. saar, why cant we rush to the door once the plane touches down? isnt this our right? isnt the yair-lines there to serve us? we have example sir for you. recently, just as the plane touched down, one of our classmates (who is a senior party leader) jumped up and started taking out his bag. so the airhostess announced again asking everyone (we know who she meant!stupid oversmart!) to be seated till the plane comes to a halt and seatbelt signs are switched off. our class-mate got so angry and shouted at her "are we going to take-off again?..dont play with me".

saar, we are sure you fully understand why we need a kerala yair-line for our 100% literate saadharana-karans. it is arggent saar. give us permishan very soon. otherwise... otherwise we will perform hartal! ha ha ha..pinne nee endho cheyyum..please look into the matter saar.
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