My thoughts and experiences about the nuances and hazards of dealing with money

Of all the factors that has divided and fragmented society, money has risen to top that list. Now money is not the same as wealth. It is commonly said that someone is wealthy and prosperous. Wealthy denotes someone who possesses wealth but there is no similar word to someone who possesses money. It is never mentioned as rich and prosperous and there is a reason to it. Wealth adds value to our lives in many different forms and that is how we become prosperous. Money only helps us to buy things and every one of those things are perishable. This is why money does not add value to our lives which in turn never makes our lives prosperous.

Back in 2008 when it was supposedly my “peak age” for marriage, my parents wanted me to buy an apartment in Bangalore where I was working at that time. I was aghast. There was no point in buying an apartment under the assumption that my marriage was going to happen. Then there was the demon of the housing loan to reckon with. I am bemused by how people queue up to take housing loans to buy apartments and houses, especially in burgeoning cities like Bangalore and in exhausted cities like Mumbai. Now let’s say I take up a housing loan for 20 years. I am effectively committing myself to paying back the EMIs every month without a break for 20 years. And how can I be so sure that I am going to be alive and healthy for the next 20 years? The funny part is, people look to reducing the monthly EMI amount by extending loan repayment period. Banks are all the more happy because they know they will end up getting back more money. The sinister thought behind it is, the longer the repayment period, the less likely it is of a proper full repayment which means when borrowers default, banks can easily take over the properties. The ideal way of repayment is to pay almost double of monthly EMIs and close the loan as quickly as possible. The advantage here is, even if we default on payments for a few months, banks will not proceed with any sort of action. But the catch here is, if we try to close off a loan faster, we have to pay some extra money as penalty on foreclosure. This is the best indicator that banks are more interested in what the borrowers have given as security to the bank than the money they have lent.

In cities, parking space for cars are available only in apartment buildings. This means to own a car, we need an apartment that costs may be 5-10 times or even more that of the car. This is how money lures us in into it’s honey trap. The education system trains us to become employees in the corporate world. Then everything that is associated with money takes over our lives. Then social status comes into the picture and social status rises when we start “owning” things. This perception pushes our needs to ridiculously high levels. Own a house, own a car, the list goes on and we embark on our Sindbad journey in the pursuit of more and more money, with little realization that we are being turned into money churning machines. We are simply working hard and enslaving ourselves to the banks to hold on to the things we have bought with money. Add to this the fact that everything we have bought is perishable and may need to be replaced anytime means even more money required.

Money never makes us prosperous because it does not allow us to add value to our lives and without adding value to our own lives, we cannot add value to other’s lives. How Antilla, the mansion of India’s business tycoon Anil Ambani stands out in the extremely crowded and tough living conditions of Mumbai is the shining example. Prosperity reflects on us only when our surroundings are also prosperous. Money keeps us locked to the extent that we actually stop noticing the value of everything else in the world. I was deep in my search for employment in 2013 after completing my MBA when my dad went down with a cardiac arrest. Because he is physically very strong, the experience did not shake him even though he had reached the brink of death. But taking the advice of reducing salt intake too seriously, he literally stopped taking salt. After a few days I noticed strange changes in his mannerism and behavior. On a Sunday evening I insisted and dragged the doctor into the hospital for dad’s check up and that was when we found out that his sodium level was fast declining and he would have had possibly gone into a coma in the next couple of days.

Now what if I had been employed at that time? First of all I would have had been working in a city away from my parents. My mom would have had never noticed the changes I saw in dad. He would have had most likely ended up in coma and I would have had spent almost all the money I was earning on his treatment and my travel. It was a massive learning curve. My keen sense and better understanding of human anatomy made sure I did not have to spend money when I was not earning. If there is a way to earn money there will always be ways to spend the money as well. We can never hold on to money. In a place like India with ever rising inflation and decreasing value of money, the concept of “owning” a house, having a “decent” bank balance and living a “retired” life has taken the biggest hit. We have evolved into a situation similar to that of animals and birds in the wild. They have to seek out their food each and every day regardless of all difficult situations or they will die. If they stop trying they will die. We have also reached that critical state where we have to find ways to earn money till we die. Ironically, as per the Bible, when the “Gods” created us, we were created as beings that were meant to lord over the animals and not live like them.

Now here is what I have learnt through these experiences. First of all, we need to find our balance with nature again. No living being has the ability to destroy nature for it’s own needs except us. We cannot cut the same branch of the tree we are sitting on. The branch will take us on it’s way down. More money is alarmingly proportionate to more destruction of nature now. Bangalore’s geography is dotted with numerous lakes. Almost all the small lakes have been covered up for construction and many of the bigger lakes are being openly used to drain human waste. Then people keep complaining about lack of drinking water. Why? Bangalore has been taken over by the migrant community from all over India who come in search of jobs in the IT industry. Now these people are in Bangalore to make a living and have no time to understand and solve environmental issues of the city. The result is, as per reports, Bangalore is set to become the first unlivable city in India very soon. When we make nature unstable for our needs, nature will take course corrective action to bring back it’s stability and the consequences can be disastrous as we found out with the recent floods in Kerala. More people move into cities like Bangalore every year, creating more need for living spaces and water further depleting the city’s already stretched and dwindling natural resources. We have to stop our war with nature because we can never win it and will only lead to our own destruction.

It is funny how so much is spoken about finding work-life balance without any proper understanding of it. We wake up in the morning at a particular time so that we can finish n number of chores and activities and leave for work at a particular time so that we can reach our work place at a particular time. In the night, we sleep at a particular time so that we can wake up at a particular time next morning. So essentially when we become corporate employees, the corporate takes possession of our lives and time. Our entire 24 hours gets sucked up into our jobs and we get paid only for 8 hours. The balance we need to find is not in work and life but in our need for money. If we learn to find contentment in what we have and look at our needs sensibly, our need for money will decrease considerably. This, in turn, will free our time and energy and help us to focus on creating value in our lives. IT industry in India is notorious for the fact that as employees gain more experience their value decreases. Plenty of IT professionals have become stagnant in their jobs or have lost jobs and are not able to find employment again because they simply do not know anything else to do and did not consider learning and mastering new skills.

It no longer makes sense to “own” anything. This has given rise to business opportunities like renting cars, bikes and even household items. The amount we spend on renting a house or apartment will invariably match up to the amount we spend on maintaining our own. Back in 2008, a colleague in the Netherlands was refusing to own a car because of traffic and parking space issues. Our population has only increased in 10 years. From owning a house the challenge has shifted to living in a decent neighborhood with the availability of drinking water and proximity to essential outlets and services. But paramount now is to not get stuck in a single source of income. Develop skills that would open up potential opportunities for several streams of money. Chasing money should be just like how our body reduces fat when we start working out. Our body instinctively knows how much fat we need based on our daily requirements and burns only what it understands is excess fat. Similarly, if we have a fine understanding of how to simplify our life, we will automatically seek only the money we need to live that life.

I never chase money because money destroys human values and relationships and maroons us in our own little islands. Money clouds our judgement and makes us take wrong decisions. I make sure not to judge anyone in terms of money. It only takes an hour of madness in the stock market for a millionaire to become a pauper. Not having to focus on the money I was earning was what helped me focus on my dad and save him. I seek skill development, self improvement and building good relationships with people. Money, wealth, prosperity, everything will come but there is one question that always keeps bothering me. When all of it comes, will I be ready to use it in the best possible ways? This is what keeps me on my toes and always alert to every potential opportunity. Understanding the nuances of money and it’s potential hazards is the only way to not get enslaved to it.

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The relationship and disconnect between business and projects

In an interview a few years back for a project management role, the interviewer asked me what project management was. I was taken aback a bit. First of all that’s too generic a question to ask an experienced candidate. Second, project management is such a vast area that it is not possible to explain in a minute or so what it is unless I were to record and playback what is known as industry standard definitions. So I replied that project management is the management of execution of business strategies. The interviewer looked lost for a moment and for a very good reason.

The evolution of the IT industry has created mayhem and consternation in the understanding of business and projects. The mid section of the IT industry has swelled up with managers and is bursting at it’s seams. The hierarchy and designations are complicated and ridiculous. Even more confusing are designations that are total mismatches to the roles. I have worked with the designation of Senior Consultant and the role had got absolutely nothing to do with consulting. Then there are companies with Project Manager designation but the role would be as an individual contributor. What would make sense is that a project would have a team and the manager of the project would also manage the team. The designation of Business Analyst is even more bewildering. Fundamental requirements are to have in-depth knowledge of some software applications.

In one of the case studies during my MBA program I had read about a company whose founder and CEO had approached a venture capitalist (VC) for investment. After due diligence, one of the conditions put forward by the VC was to appoint a new CEO for the company. The founder refused and walked away. Six months later, he came back to the VC and agreed. The VC had wanted him to focus on the products and services his company was offering and let someone else handle the business and financial aspects. So every company has a top management team that walks, talks and breathes only business and money.  It is here that business strategies get created with the objective of better financial outcomes.

I use a simple analogy when talking about business strategies. If I get stamped on my foot, my foot doesn’t cry. The sound comes from my mouth. Similarly if there is a problem in business the red bulb may not necessarily be flashing from the problem area. This is why understanding the business problem is so crucial. Business problem could also be a new venture for the company without proper understanding of moving ahead. Digging deeper into the business problem has direct impact on the quality of business strategy development. But having the best business strategy amounts to nothing without taking action on it and execution of business strategy is a different beast altogether.

One critical aspect of having different functions inside organizations comes into focus during execution of business strategies. The business strategy could have a strategy for the sales team which in turn could result in a strategy for the finance team and so on. Once strategies for different functions are established, then comes their execution. It could be as minimal as a small change without any consequences. But where there are financial outcomes then there would be accompanying risks as well. This is where the whole premise of project kicks in. So projects are essentially execution of business strategies with the objective to create positive financial outcomes. The execution of a business strategy can be broadly visualized as a change management program with several projects managed and executed within its boundaries.

Every project is intended to create a positive financial outcome so I visualize every project manager as having a small cloud of money over his/her head. A senior manager who manages several project managers would then be having an accumulated bigger money cloud over his/her head. Scale this up and the CEO will have the biggest money cloud over his/her head. The divide between creation and execution of business strategies has given rise to the concept of outsourcing. MNCs develop the entire premise of projects before shipping out to their factories and back offices where the projects are executed to create products and services.

Better understanding of business strategies and organizational requirements has a direct bearing on project management. But project managers usually do not get their sights that far and are not expected to stretch their understanding beyond the boundaries of their projects. This is why I believe projects either fail or project outcomes do not result in positive business outcomes. Outsourcing has only complicated and compromised the purpose of projects. A project manager in another corner of the world may not have any idea about the intended outcomes of the business strategies which has given rise to the project he/she is managing. Early in my career I had to resolve a problem with an IT application of a client and according to the SLA with the client I had 3 hours, so I worked on other more important issues. When I finally reported the resolution, the client’s staff lamented about how their work was stuck and the amount of business they lost in those 3 hours. Poor understanding of client’s business environment and requirements coupled with poorer understanding and communication were the reasons.

The relevance and importance of projects and project managers should never be undervalued. In India business degrees are not required to manage and execute projects. This in itself shows the disconnect between business strategies and projects. This is why the growth of project managers gets restricted to the project and program management levels and very few get to break into the top management. This can be observed from how companies hire for executive level positions from other companies rather than their own employees growing through the ranks into those positions.

Employee layoff is organizational consolidation

Layoff is probably the most feared, vile and despised word in the corporate sector. It has synonyms such as getting fired, terminated and getting the pink slip. There is plenty of misconception flying around presently about how IT companies in India are being perceived as abandoning their employees and are dumping them out.

There is an organizational level word for layoff: consolidation. Everything in our world works on the principle of sinusoidal wave. What goes up has to come down and vice versa. When there is more work companies need more people so it is natural that when work becomes less, companies wouldn’t need a lot of people. Up-sizing and downsizing are cyclical processes followed in every organization. IT is an industry that is particularly vulnerable to this. The entire IT industry thrives on the simple concept that all IT environments can be improved continuously and that is how IT service companies get increasing revenues every year. IT product companies make their bread and butter through software support and licenses. When companies decide to consolidate, the first mantra they adopt is the age old “Don’t fix what ain’t broken” and they apply this first to their IT environment. Companies do consolidation of their environment from time to time and cutting back on employee numbers during this time is not unusual.

There are important reasons why IT companies in India are gearing up to lay off a significant amount of their work force. One, IT companies hire many people anticipating more work to come in the near future and keep them on what is called as bench. A significant bench size is a huge liability for the company because these people are consuming money without generating any money so they are either assigned to whatever projects company gets or are let go from the company. The skill sets and aspirations of people who are assigned to projects may not be in line with the work in the project, so over time the number of unhappy employees increases. These employees have to be either retrained and absorbed into more relevant projects or let go from the company. So two levels of layoffs happen at the base of the corporate pyramid.

Then we get to the middle of the pyramid, the layer of the managers. When more people are hired, more managers are required so what can companies do with managers when people are being let go? Now there are two types of managers in every organization. The ones who join as lateral hires and ones who grow through the ranks of the organization. Where do managers grow from there? The pyramid narrows as we try to ascend it. It’s not just the underperforming managers but the best ones are also at the risk of being let go, for the simple reason that there is no scope for growth in the present organization so they are asked to look for growth elsewhere.

Letting people go is a very painful process, especially when it comes to employees who have been working for companies for many years and even decades. This is why I believe IT industry in India is jinxed and cursed in a way because thousands of people abroad have believed that their jobs were forcefully taken away and given to Indians. Companies avoid letting people go as much as they can unless they are pushed against the wall and are struggling for existence or they find specific reasons to lay off someone. I came across an audio clip recently in which an employee in one of the previous organizations I worked with has recorded her conversation with the HR. She was on bench for 7 months and finally she was assigned to a project in a different location than her current one. She hesitated and asked for more time to search for other opportunities. All companies require their employees to work from different locations if found necessary and it is made as a clause in employee offer letters. That employee had her family in her current location and it was very evident why she hesitated to move out. Irony is, she would have had lapped up the offer if she had been assigned to a foreign location rather than to another location within India. The best way out I believe is to quit the job rather than create a hassle about it. So companies already have built in a way of laying off employees in the offer letters itself if required.

Companies fire people only in extreme circumstances such as sexual harassment, financial irregularities, etc. Then there are companies that put the additional clause of handing the fate of the employees to their managers by giving them the right of termination in the employee offer letters. Being part of the corporate world is no easy game and we have to be well aware of all factors that can possibly affect us to the point of taking away our jobs. But I don’t see all badly about companies letting people go. The company I mentioned above at one point in time was letting go of people from one building while hiring for the same positions albeit lesser numbers and possibly lesser pay in another building. The Indian IT industry is only shelving up to 15% of it’s workforce which means companies are ready to gamble with the majority 85% which I believe is a huge number and there is no need to panic. I believe layoff is the constant reminder to everyone to retrain themselves continuously and keep themselves relevant enough to continue being part of the industry.

 

 

Is the “Trump”et about to burst the Indian IT bubble?

When Mr. Trump blew his war horn on the outsourcing of jobs from the US, I believe it did not send any major tremors through the market and certainly did not surprise me one bit. I saw this coming way back in 2010 and the fact that it took 6 more years is quite a wonder. It wouldn’t be of any surprise to me either if the accumulated resentment of losing local jobs to foreign professionals start rearing it’s face in the coming times. It is easy to blame Mr. Trump but it is the same resentment that drove people to vote him to power and he has to uphold his poll promise to protect the job interests of fellow Americans.

India has been the chief recipient of most of the IT jobs from the US. In fact, US IT jobs have become the monopoly of Indian MNCs. Not only have these companies set up shops all over the US and are fiercely competing with one another, on the fringe, body shopping companies have sprung up in thousands that hire people and contract out to other companies. This has resulted in Indians swamping the US job market in every possible ways. The US themselves needs to take blame for creating this situation. For the jobs that Indians have been lapping up, a similarly skilled American worker costs 4-5 times what an Indian gets payed. The difference in currency value between the USD and the Indian Rupee has been the biggest reason why outsourcing to India went into overdrive. After recession brought the world market down on it’s knees in 2008 and the supposed turnaround never materialized, it was quite evident that Americans would want to have those jobs back at any cost someday. Just commonsense and matter of time.

Add to this has been the blatant misuse of US work visas by the Indian MNCs. The work visas were designed with the interests of the US MNCs in mind. The objective was to do “brain drain” from India, get the best talents from India and move them to the US with the promise of lucrative jobs, big money and the fancy American lifestyle. The strategy worked big time till the Indian MNCs and contractor companies entered the fray. It was through them that Indian workers started flooding the US market. The strategy of hiring the best Indian talent got lost in the melee. At its zenith, employing people using visas defying the US labour laws and using forged documents and fake experience to get jobs in the US were the common norm. Work permit requirements keep increasing exponentially but visa utilization has been decreasing significantly, primarily because the overhead cost of Indian visa holders who travel to the US are made to be borne by the clients and post the meltdown of 2008, clients are increasingly wary of bearing any additional or unwanted costs. Moreover with the advancement in technology, even knowledge transfer is possible over mediums like Skype. I had thought of joining the exodus to the US briefly, but the main reason that held me back was I did not want to get lost in the midst of average and below average workers and the scamsters.

All of this outsourcing frenzy created a bubble in India called the IT industry. It was the next big thing when I was finishing my engineering and got sucked into the gold rush. When I got into the first outsourced project, it looked a little crazy because after working in IT datacenters, it is difficult to understand how the same work could be done remotely. But lots of work, more money, there were enough reasons to enamor and entice people. It took me a while to remember that all that glitters is not gold. Long hours of work started taking it’s toll on my health. I realized that in the long run, I would have to spend a lot more money on my health that what I was earning. Then, it was the same as driving through heavy traffic. Growth became stagnant and even a crawl became possible only with begging, fighting and most importantly by getting into the good books of the managers and bosses. To top this off there is a huge hidden trap. Get married then take housing loans to buy apartments, car loans and every other possible types of loans, then keep going in circles for the next 20-30 years to pay off the debts. People end up being slaves to the banks and to their jobs and strangle themselves with the debts. Companies are aware of this and treat employees with disdain by paying demeaning salaries and making them do irrelevant jobs which negatively impacts their careers.

Lastly, there is a big underlying problem with the IT industry. IT is another business enabler, just like finance, sales, marketing and other aspects of an organization. The key differentiation is in the fact that IT can be used to improve the functionality of every other aspect of organizations. Financial softwares, CRMs, etc are examples. But IT was never intended to grow beyond the business needs of clients and become an independent industry and it never did. Indian MNCs quickly learned to make more money by extending project timelines and by thrusting improvements and new features to existing software applications and IT infrastructure on to the psyche and budget of clients. The strategy worked but every time a client goes into consolidation mode, spending on IT is the first investment to be stopped. After 2008, this has become increasingly pronounced.

Identifying business problems are like getting kicked on the shin. The shin hurts but the mouth cries out in pain. Business problems require smart, quick and effective solutions. IT cannot solve all business problems but that is how it has been made out to be. IT professionals believe they know how to solve business problems but they invariably speak the language of IT and think in terms of IT. This is what a life in IT does to people. I saw through this early but even after doing MBA, I am finding that some of the IT connections are still wired and are alive in my brain. One of the case studies I learned during MBA was about IT major Infosys trying to foresee their future. One of the strategies they came up with was to invest their huge cash reserve into India’s infrastructure. But ultimately, they chose not to and decided to focus on their existing clients and finding more clients from abroad. For me, this is akin to owning a farmland, not working on it, expecting to find work on the neighbour’s farmland and live off it my whole life. Times change and change is the only constant in the midst of all the chaos of the cosmos. Everyone questioned my logic in leaving the “lucrative” IT industry in 2010 to take up MBA. It has taken 6 years but none other than the President of the United States has answered to my detractors. Not bad at all. Is the Indian IT bubble about to go poof? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure. Nothing lasts forever and what goes up has to come down sometime. Business needs will be perpetual but IT needs may wane because after all, the sum is always greater than the individual parts.

Bangalore – Epitome of urban destruction

The growth and development of humanity in the modern age kick started from the time of Renaissance. The hub of all new thoughts and ideas was Europe and it was the Silicon Valley of sorts back in the days. Colonial powers carried the ideas and the mindset with them as they traveled and took control of lands across the world. It intensified as we made rapid advances in technology in the late 19th and 20th centuries. But something else also happened at that time. Humanity went completely out of sync with nature and we declared war on the ecosystem that had nurtured us from the time we were created. The consequences have been nothing less than disastrous and no place can exemplify this better than Bangalore.

My tryst with the city started way back in 1997 when I made an impromptu visit to meet an alumni from college to get ideas about the project I had to do in my final year of engineering. It was raining heavily that morning and after I reached my friend’s house and removed my shoes, I couldn’t keep my feet on the floor. It was that cold. I was in the city only for a day and the little bit I saw of the city was all lush green. One thing I remember distinctly is, M G Road, one of the busiest roads of Bangalore was a two way road. Millennium kids would say, impossible. From then on, I have been in the city every year till I moved and stayed here for 6 years. Through those years, I have seen and felt the city starting to change and lose it’s pulse. When I eventually moved out of the city, I had the inkling that the city was starting to become unlivable. Now I am back in the city after 5 years and what I foresaw was not wrong.

Before I go into the forlorn part of my story, let me relive the glory days of the city. From my childhood, I had heard of people going on honeymoon trips to Ooty, Mysore and Bangalore. As I  dug deeper and spoke to more people, I was blown away into bits. Everything about the past of Bangalore converged on to one fact in my mind. The peak summer temperature in Bangalore used to be 17 degree Celsius in the 1960s and 70s and people used to sit in their porches and balconies hoping to get some sunlight. I will never be able to wrap my mind around this. A black sweater used to turn white with snow flakes after riding on a scooter for some distance. Bangalore used to be a no fan zone in those times. All these stories come from people who used to work with the armed forces and were stationed in Bangalore during the 1970s. Now, the peak summer temperature is hovering around 40 degree Celsius. The fact that temperature has rocketed up by more than 20 degrees in 3 decades is astounding. But what is incredible to me is the reality that human beings can tamper with nature to such extremities.

It all started in the early 1990s when the central government decided to open Software Technology Parks (STPIs) to promote India as the new Silicon Valley for software companies and sought Kerala as the destination. That plan did not materialize and the state government of Karnataka welcomed the initiative with open hands. Bangalore being the capital city got chosen by default. This is how the whole saga of mindless destruction of the city began. When I came to Bangalore to meet my alumni in 1997, his work place was a house that was used as office space. That is how it started. IT companies started moving in and started to function out of any available buildings and real estate went into overdrive. The vast swathe of agricultural land in the south part of Bangalore was the prime target. It swung the state government machinery into frenzy as well to provide roads, water, electricity and other amenities to the new office spaces.

The primary problem of Bangalore is that from a calm and peaceful city for honeymooners, it has become a totally unplanned city of chaos in such a short period of time. People from all over India have moved into the city bringing with them their unique culture and way of living and the city has had to imbibe all of it in such a short span of time. And the result? Booming business, from food to attire to everything else to cater to all cultures, adding more chaos to the situation and piling on more pressure on the city’s resources. Land and trees had to go to make way for roads and when roads couldn’t manage traffic any more, flyovers had to be built. Now that even flyovers are not able to manage the ever burgeoning traffic, metro rail is getting built. That in a way has been the final nail in the coffin. Whatever greenery was remaining on M G road had to be cleared for the metro. As the work keeps expanding to connect all corners of the city as per plan, it will devour most of the feeble natural resources the city has left in it’s belly. There are two more significant issues. The cost of land has shot up so astronomically, most local residents of Bangalore have chosen to sell off their properties and move out of the city. Migrant people will never have the love or respect for a place that it’s local residents will have and I believe this is a major factor in the wanton destruction of the city. The other one is the exodus of fresh graduates who finish college and move to Bangalore every year. Government has sold education to the private sector and neither government nor the private sector is able to keep up with the increasing demand for jobs with each passing year. Bangalore has become the de facto place to hunt for jobs for all graduates now and every year the city is getting stretched more at it’s seams.

Bangalore is in the rush to adopt two issues that are plaguing the major cities of India. Water and garbage and issues with both are in direct correlation to the fact that Bangalore has become an unplanned city. When I say water, it is not just access to clean drinking water. Most of the lakes Bangalore used to be proud of till 2 decades back have disappeared. I remember one particular bout of rain on a day in 2004 when I was in office. The city was clogged everywhere. Why? The water bodies to where the water could have drained were all gone. There was no earth left to absorb water. Concrete and tar do not absorb water. Where else will the water go? This is what caused the flood in Chennai last year. The memorable part was when the lakes surrounding the office premise of Infosys overflowed and water was flowing down the stairs of the building like waterfalls.

The amount of garbage humanity produces in a single day is mind boggling. Add to it the fact that a lot of the garbage is not bio degradable which means nature cannot or will take considerable time to recycle them.  Near the banks of the lake where I go for my morning walk now I see waste bags floating around with foul smell emanating from them. I don’t know how much time is left before the fishes and birds disappear from the lake. People throw their garbage openly near the pavements on streets and everything lies scattered for the corporation employees to come and clean up the mess every morning. People don’t even stop to think for a moment that the city is being maintained with the same money they are paying as taxes. But then what happens to all the garbage? It gets dumped on the outskirts or some other parts of the city, thereby spreading the dangerous affliction of the city and polluting those areas as well.

Time has proved my decision to not buy an apartment in Bangalore as correct. Recent reports suggest that this place is hurtling towards the notoriety of becoming the first dead Indian city in the next 5 years (http://share.safe3g.com/h5/news.html?r=3&lan=en_IN&pid=3&id=12506759&detail=1&ch=0). I am having to cover myself up completely including my face every time I step out now to get some respite from dust and pollution. Repercussions from nature is not so far away. Unless the government takes firm measures to offload business to other places and water down Bangalore’s reputation as job seeker’s paradise, the situation will only keep deteriorating. Any further inaction and they can get ready to rule the first dead city of the country.

Alleviating the trauma of speaking in English

English, probably the most intriguing language in the world. Quirky, yet nightmarish. One word can have multiple meanings based on context and even a comma or a semicolon can turn the intent of a sentence upside down. Even then, unofficially the language of our planet. According to Trevor Noah, a superlative comedian from South Africa, English is the best outcome of British colonization done right. His laugh riot on the British and English is worth listening to (https://vimeo.com/130619176). Plenty has already been written in English and about English, yet when it comes to speaking in English, people go through brain freeze and paralysis especially in India.

India became a hub for outsourcing, especially in IT primarily because of our skills in English. Educated from schools in English as the primary medium of language in the British system of education, we are ideally expected to breeze through anything in English, be it in writing or talking. The best part is, even students who learn subjects in their mother tongue in schools pick up English and start writing well in no time. So the question is, if we can write in English why can’t we speak in English? What I find ridiculous is, a thriving business environment exists in the name of teaching people how to speak English. Why would anyone have to “learn” to speak in English when they are already good in writing in English? There was a time when the BPO industry had started to flourish in India and there was a massive demand to speak English the American way so that BPO employees can speak to clients in the US.  I met a couple of people who were working in BPO companies and was left bewildered. These people must have had reasonably good English speaking skills before they were trained to speak in American accent. Why would anyone want to lose their natural speaking ability just to earn some money? Then came a time when I was part of a training program for improving communication with clients and we were advised to speak English without accent. Made perfect sense to me.
So what is holding us back from speaking in English? We grow up listening to our mother tongue language at home and that language becomes the easiest way to express our needs and emotions, just like kids who are born in homes where English is the mother tongue language would learn to express themselves in English. Even in schools where children are forced to converse in English with each other and with teachers, they would relapse quietly into their mother tongue language in their personal space. One simple example is, watch yourself as you count a bunch of currency notes. Do you count in English or your mother tongue language by default? The problem rears it’s head only when we enter a professional work environment. The first reason why speaking in English becomes tough is, we are thinking what to say or respond to questions in our mother tongue language and translate that directly into English when speaking. So thinking in one language and speaking it out in another language will never work, it will only stifle and stunt our conversational ability. I had a colleague who was working as a Dutch translator. The documents she was translating always used to have some words that had no direct translation to English words. I used to tell her to interpret the meaning or intent of the entire sentence in Dutch and then frame the sentence in English. This was something I came across when I was in the Netherlands. My Dutch colleagues would suddenly stop talking in between and start thinking. I quickly realized that they were searching for words that were English equivalents of Dutch words they were framing in their minds. This is far more pronounced in China.
The second reason is more stark and visible. We all have this inherent need to drive every conversation we have in the way we want it to go, even meaningful discussions and friendly banters. Job interviews are the best example. The first thing that the interviewer and the candidate will try to do implicitly is to take control of the flow of conversation. I know many cases where people who are skilled in their jobs are not really good communicators and are short on confidence because of this, so when they are being interviewed by people whose English is better according to their perception, they start trying to mimic the speed at which the interviewer is speaking. Thinking and analyzing in the mother tongue language, translating that into English, trying to match someone else’s rate of speech, all of this together can become an excellent recipe for disaster.
There is a problem with the educational system as well. Too much emphasis is laid out on grammar which prepares people to write well but does not guarantee to make them good speakers or good communicators. I don’t know anything more than what a noun and a verb is. I couldn’t wrap my brain around anything else in grammar. Then I realized that as long as I am able to frame sentences correctly while speaking and writing, I am good to go. The gap between the education sector and employment sector is widening now. There was a time when educated people were less so the employment sector was ready to take them in and train them in the aspects of effective communication. With the rapid advances in technology, availability of internet and an exploding number of qualified candidates available in the job market, companies do not have to bother anymore to train people to communicate well. This is one reason why we see unemployment rising among fresh graduates.
So, how do we overcome our draconian fear of speaking English? By speaking English. Simple. But primary to that and of utmost importance is to realize that no one in the world is perfect in English. The proof of this is, no one gets a perfect score in any English language exam. If we listen to David Lloyd or Geoffrey Boycott (both are cricket commentators from England) or the way some of the Afro-Americans speak, we won’t even know at first if they are speaking English at all. English, without the influence of an accent will be very hard to find, anywhere in the world. I was working on a project for a Norwegian client a few years back and there was an urgent task that had to be done at 5 am IST which meant 1:30 am local time in Norway. We had to call up someone at the client’s office to inform about the task and get his approval. The way he used to speak English during normal hours was in itself hard to understand and what he mumbled in his sleep none of us in the team could figure out. So contrary to popular perception, Indians speak much better English and can improve significantly if we consciously work on reducing the effect of our mother tongue language on our English. So in a nutshell, to become proficient in speaking English,
1) Start speaking in English, especially in professional environments. Do not develop the habit of keeping company with only those colleagues who belong to our own state/city or with whom we share our mother tongue language.
2) Do not get bogged down by anybody’s expertise in English. Rather, take it as a challenge and focus on improving our own expertise in English.
3) Work towards eliminating our default method of thinking and analyzing in mother tongue language and trying to translate that into English during speaking. Start thinking in English, frame the sentences in our mind and then speak.
4) Do not get worried about how fast someone is speaking English and if that person is trying to control the conversation. Think well, form the sentences and speak slowly. The objective is to present our opinion or give an answer with maximum clarity.
5) Work diligently and consciously on reducing the influence of our mother tongue language from the way we speak English. Do not try to ape anyone’s way of speaking. Be unique in the way we speak and express ourselves. It will help us in creating distinct personalities as well.