Are we like this only?

Understanding (and shaping) India

My ramblings on understanding needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is used to understand what motivates people. It classifies human needs into 5 levels.
1. Physiosological needs
2. Safety needs
3. Pyschological needs
4. Esteem needs
5. Self Realization needs
Key to this theory is that a person cannot move up this pyramid until his/her needs at the previous level have been taken care of. I can think of several instances where this is not true.
  • Someone who skips their own meals in order to save up enough for their child’s education. A physiological need is given lower priority than a safety need.
  • A person going on a hunger strike until his/her demands are met is abandoning a basic need (survival) for a self realization need
  • A person standing in line in the hot sun to buy an iPhone is abandoning a basic need (being out of the sun) for a self esteem or self realization need
  • A yogi depriving himself of basic needs in the quest of spiritual enlightenment
  • A student who immolates himself for a cause
While some of these examples may be flawed, they serve to highlight two key weaknesses in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  1. It assumes a hierarchy where one may not exist. In each country and culture, there may be differences in groupings and priorities.
  2. It assumes that Man is rational. Firstly, what is rational for one person is irrational for someone else. Secondly, even a person who is thought of by most as being a rational person will act irrationally on occasion.
People will abandon rational behaviour, and consequently Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,  under several conditions. These conditions can be brought about by others through rabble rousing, PR, advertising and news media.
Perhaps, it is best to not apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to individuals (incidentally this is what it is intended for) and individual cases. Instead, it is probably more useful for understanding how groups of people (e.g. the different Indias) are different from each other.

January 27, 2010 Posted by | models, needs, rationality | 1 Comment

India drops to 41 out 130 in Global Innovation Index

I came across this  LiveMint article today that says that India has fallen 18 ranks to a woeful 41 out of 130 countries.

I am not  too concerned with India’s actual rank in such rankings. Others will argue about whether the metrics and methodology were correct or consistently applied. That is not an argument I want to get into because frankly it does not matter if the rank was 15 or 100. The bottomline is that when it comes to innovation, we have miles to go. Maybe someone can do some jugaad and bump up India’s score,  but that won’t make our system more conducive for innovation.

Raj Nair (disclaimer: he’s my dad), when asked in an interview in L!ve (a publication from IIT Bombay’s School of Management) what role he thought the government can play to promote innovation in India said, “it can stay out of the industry and innovation will happen automatically”.  (You can read the whole interview here).

While I agree that government should butt out of  innovation, there is a lot it can do to make sure that innovation is not hurt — like transparent policies, fighting terrorism, investing in energy, infrastructure, education, law and order, and healthcare. Ideas can foster better in an environment where physiological and safety needs are met (see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs).

That’s what the government can do. Meanwhile, private industry needs to be a little more ballsy and try to achieve the untried instead of mimicking the developed world.

Edit: Please see these well written articles on the same subject:

1. The world’s engineers, but not the architects!

2. Can India produce billion dollar innovations?

January 27, 2010 Posted by | india, innovation, needs | Leave a comment

Is jugaad the same as innovation? Are we Indians truly innovative?

Jugaad is Hindi slang for improvisation. And believe me, we Indians are great at improvising. For a number of reasons, like being under British rule, the License Raj and India’s huge population, Indians have had to manage with the scarce resources at hand to find a solution that satisfies their immediate needs.

But is jugaad synonymous with innovation? In my opinion, jugaad is a very narrow form of innovation. Jugaad is about finding ways to make do, while innovation is about creating something new. Jugaad is certainly worthwhile in many situations (like in a recession or in developing nations) where there are constraints on money, time, or manpower. However, to me innovation is something that happens when you try to solve a problem without worrying about constraints. Sometimes, the solution you find satisfies the constraints and other times you realize that the constraints were of your own making.

In their blog, The Innovation Leader, Cap Innovate use the Tata Nano as an example of jugaad by saying “an observation of families of four being fitted onto a motorbike, inspired Ratan Tata to come up with the Nano”. While I like the rest of this article, this example is flawed. A family of four on a motorbike is an example of jugaad, while coming up with the Nano is an innovation.

The key difference in my mind between jugaad and true innovation, is that jugaad is focused on the short term bounded by constraints, while innovation is long term, unbounded. The airplane, the motorcar, the light bulbs, WWW, etc. are products of innovative thinking. They could never have arisen as a result of jugaad.

So is India innovative? I think we are capable of true innovation, as has been proved by numerous Indians who have inventions and patents to their names after moving abroad. But which of the major inventions of the last 200 years or so can be attributed to India? Clearly, as a society innovation has not been top of mind, and how could it be when getting by was a struggle?

But as India becomes more developed the focus should be less on jugaad and more on true innovation. There has to be greater focus on a changing the education system so that it encourages free thought and imagination instead of mass producing automatons that feed India’s outsourcing business.

Our companies have to focus more on R&d (spelt with a big R and a small D) instead of just playing catch up with the West. Which is why I was disappointed with the focus on jugaad at 2009”s TiE summit  instead of on true innovation. The good thing was that there were some good examples of innnovation at the summit like Reva, India’s first electrically powered car.

BusinessWeek calls jugaad India’s Next Global Export. For any export to be successful, there has to be demand. Who says that the world will be interested in jugadoo solutions in the long run? Jugaad is what we’ve been forced to do so far, but now that the constraints are vanishing, let’s turn towards true innovation and leading India forward.

January 25, 2010 Posted by | india, innovation | 1 Comment

Why is dowry prevalent in India?

I think we can all agree that dowry deaths are  a social stigma that India should get rid off. We cannot be seen as a progressive society if so many young women are killed because their husbands and in-laws are unhappy with the dowry they have received (some chilling statistics here and here on the number of reported dowry deaths).

Even if the  real numbers are significantly larger, they would still represent a tiny fraction of India’s population. But, it would be incorrect to conclude that this a practice that affects only a few. For the effect of dowry is not felt solely by the victims (and families of victims) of dowry deaths and harassment, but by the entire society.

Dowry is a manifestation of a greater social evil, one where women are thought of as a burden first on her parents and later on her husband and in-laws. Hence, the groom’s family is supposed to be compensated by the bride’s parents for taking this burden of their shoulders. Such a practice that stems from a belief that roughly half the population of the country is not equal to the other half is definitely detrimental for society, both from humanitarian and economic points of view. From an economic perspective, it is high sub-optimal when one half of the population is not allowed to contribute to the country’s economic growth.

Why then is dowry prevalent in India despite being illegal since 1961? This practice seems to ignore the borders of religion, caste, state, education and wealth. There might be an inverse correlation between education levels of the bride and likelihood of her family giving dowry (or like Levitt and Dubner suggested in Superfreakonomics, between spread of cable television and domestic abuse in India). But there are enough cases in each of our personal lives that show that television and education alone are not enough to do away with the practice of dowry.

Not convinced, then ask yourself how you react when you hear of someone in your family or friends circle, asking or giving dowry. Do you cajole, berate and threaten until we convince them or do you choose to look the other way and say, “We are like this only”? Most of us (if we are being honest with ourselves) will answer that we turn a blind eye to dowry when we see it happening in front of us.

The reasons that I can see for dowry being so prevalent are that:

1. Indian society continues to view women as a liability. People who take dowry believe that it is their right because they are taking on someone else’s liability, and people who give dowry feel they need to pay compensation for passing on their liability to someone else. At the heart of this is the feeling that women are not breadwinners.

2. People, who ask for dowry, are sure they can get away with it from the law and that there will be no societal sanctions imposed against them.

3. People, who give dowry, do so because they don’t want to be seen as rebelling against traditions or because they feel that it improves their social stature.

4. People who see it happening will look the other way even if they disagree with the practice. This is because they don’t realize that dowry is an externality for which they too are sharing the cost.

Getting rid of the scourge of dowry requires a multi-pronged approach. Here are some conventional approaches that many are trying:

i. More opportunities for women of all strata and education backgrounds to become financially independent.

ii. More awareness campaigns on how the entire society suffers if one family accepts dowry.

iii. Better enforcement of the law.

And here are some unconventional ideas that might be a little tougher to implement:

a. Increasing the minimum age of marriage for men and women to 24. This will do wonders for our population growth rate as well.

b. Encourage more youngsters to date and find their own spouses (preferably outside their own community) instead of relying on arranged marriages.  Marriage is a union of two people and not a contract between families. There could be some government subsidies given to people who marry outside their community.

c. Encourage young couples to move out of their joint family house after marriage. This way, they are not a burden on anyone but each other. This can be done by offering cheap housing to those starting out in life.

d. Neighbourhood watch programs (like in the US to keep crime and drugs out of the neighbourhood) could help law enforcement agencies by  educating their neighbourhood on the evils of dowry and reporting anyone who indulges in dowry.

Please share your own ideas.

January 21, 2010 Posted by | dowry, gender equality, human rights, india | 7 Comments

Why do people in Mumbai honk excessively?

Horn OK PleaseIn Mumbai and most parts of India, it is considered by some to be mandatory to horn. You horn to show your annoyance,  or to indicate to the person ahead to get out of your way or to generally announce your presence.  Most trucks have a sign painted on their rear that says “Horn OK Please”, basically instructing the vehicle behind to let the truck driver that you are behind them by horning.

It is worth thinking about the effect this horning has on other drivers and pedestrians. How often do you get out of the way when someone blares their horn at you? Not so often, right? And with the realization that no one is making room for you just because you honk, we would expect that man being a thinking animal, would learn that this behaviour does not yield any reward. So why do drivers persist with blaring their horn at the slightest excuse?

For one, it is not considered a serious offense to horn. The biggest response it elicits is a frown of irritation or a quick rebuke. How about doing what they did in Thailand? They made horning illegal. And it worked. I was surprised when on a previous trip to Bangkok (a city not so different from Mumbai), my taxi driver giggled when the person in front of me cut him off instead of blaring his horn at him.

But making something illegal does not mean that people will stop doing it. It is illegal to horn in “No horn” zones in Mumbai but that does not stop anyone. The reason is simple. There is no enforcement of the law. The traffic police are understaffed and underpaid. They are unlikely to waste their time on horn offenders when there are bigger fish to fry, for instance they have a greater incentive to catch no parking violators than those who horn in a no horning zone.

One idea is to have each horn installed with a simple counter that counts the number of times you blare you horn. If you exceed your daily quota, the horn automatically switches off and turns back on only the next day. Though great in theory, it could lead to accidents when horning was really warranted.

To solve this problem, one can start a market where people can buy and sell noise credits much like a carbon credit system. If you have exceeded your horn quota you can recharge by buying noise credits from people who have not used up their noise credits (SMS BUY 10 CR to 55555).

If you rarely honk, you can sell your saved up horn credits to others who have exceeded their quota.  This can act as a great way where by the market forces will end up regulating the amount of noise pollution. May be the saved noise credits can be used for people who want to have their party extend beyond 10 pm or by the local Ganeshutsav pandal, who want their music above a certain decibel level. This can greatly incentivise people to not horn since they will be rewarded for their good behaviour.

Any takers?

January 19, 2010 Posted by | honking, incentives, india, noise pollution | 2 Comments

Idea: RFID for traffic rewards and penalties

In my previous post, I suggested a technology-enabled idea for rewarding good behaviour at traffic lights. The basic idea is to use RFID to detect which vehicles stopped at red lights and reward them for their good behaviour with reward points which they can redeem at toll booths and in public transport. My wife (and sounding board) had one pertinent question: Who would pay for all this equipment and rewards?

I thought it would be worthwhile to elaborate on the idea some more. Firstly, the reward should only go the vehicles at the head of each lane and not to those stuck behind the guy who decides to stop for the light. The next thing to do is to impose a fine for each violation. This results in a reduction of your accumulated points by the fine amount. But what happens when your reward balance is negative?

Collection would be a problem in India because the RFID needs to be mapped to a genuine address. To overcome this, I propose that RFID readers are installed at each fuel station and that you get automatically billed to clear your negative balance the next time you go to a gas station to fill fuel.

To answer the question about who would pay for it. Well it would be paid for through road taxes, much like we are paying for the police force and for traffic lights. The penalties collected would offset the rewards. Initially I expect that the penalties collected would be much greater than the rewards but with time (if the incentives are well designed) people would violate traffic lights less and penalties would not be enough to pay for the rewards. Once people have been conditioned to obey traffic lights the rewards can be lessened.

These RFIDs can serve multiple other purposes too like automatic payments at toll booths, paying for parking and tracking stolen cars (much like a Lo-Jack). The main downside that I see is that RFID readers cost quite a lot (by my guess about 10,000 per RFID reader if bought in bulk) and installing it at every traffic light might get quite expensive.

January 19, 2010 Posted by | incentives, india, mumbai, traffic | Leave a comment

Breaking traffic lights

When I first moved back to India, I religiously obeyed every traffic light irrespective of the time of night or how desolate the neighbourhood was (Yes, I’m also the sucker who will wait for his turn in a queue). Often I would be the only person waiting at the light and it would give me inner satisfaction to be a law abiding citizen although I would feel a little foolish and not a little annoyed when I watched other cars zoom past me. With time, I started making exceptions like it became okay to jump the light after midnight (even earlier in desolate areas) because the lights should not have been on in the first place.

Even today, I derive great pleasure when the person stuck behind me cannot pass until the light turns green even though he wants too so desperately and I am positively bubbling over with glee if he starts honking in annoyance. And if someone else follows my lead and stops at the red too, I feel great because I’ve been a positive role model.

So what makes someone like me (usually) want to follow the traffic signals and someone else break the light with impunity. The answer is not that I’m a better person because I derive great pleasure when my auto rickshaw breaks the lights. The answer I think is that I have been conditioned because of my upbringing and circumstances to obey the law. To start breaking the law would require that I take the effort to change my mental value system, something that I am too lazy or scared to do.

But what if I was offered a 100 rupees for each traffic light that I broke.  This certainly makes it more interesting because I encounter about 6-8 traffic lights each day that I could break with very little chance of getting caught. And even if I did get caught, the fine is quite low (I was recently fined 120 rupees when I accidentally jumped a red). So if I was being completely rational, I would jump every red light where there wasn’t a high likelihood of getting caught by the traffic cops. There is of course the value I place on my integrity. I probably wouldn’t jump red lights for Rs. 100/light but at 100,000/light… hmmm… I don’t know. Perhaps that is the price of my integrity :).

Consider the following simplistic equation that I think holds true for all of us. A Person will jump a red light if:

(1 – Probability of getting caught) *Value gained for jumping the light + Probability of getting caught * Value of getting caught >  Value gained for not jumping the light

Simply put, this states that a person will jump the light if the total value obtained by jumping the light (after factoring the probability of getting caught and the price to be paid for getting caught) is greater than the total value for not jumping the light. This equation gets more complex when one considers the individual parts. For instance, the value obtained for jumping the light would depend on how much the person values the time saved by jumping the light, whether the person gets any thrill from the act of breaking the law and whether or not the person places any price on the effect this may have on their conscience.

The value for not jumping the light would depend on how much the person values the self satisfaction of doing the right thing  after subtracting the cost of feeling foolish for being the only one doing it. For someone like me when I just arrived in Mumbai, the value for not jumping the light was much higher than the time I would save and the thrill I would get out of jumping the light. In the right circumstances like a medical emergency, the value for jumping the light would be high enough for me to break the light.

Clearly each person will place a different value on their time, their conscience and on the thrill of breaking a red light. And as shown above it will depend on the circumstances. So how can we play with the above equation so that more and more people obey traffic lights.

The first thing one could do is to increase the fine for violating a traffic light. But how high is high enough. If it is very high, there is a greater incentive to try and bribe the cop who catches you. I will talk about corruption in India in a future post.

The second thing that can be done is to associate a social stigma to jumping a red light, much like has been successfully done in Mumbai with smoking in public places and with drinking and driving. This can only happen if we can show how everybody gets affected when one selfish person breaks the traffic light.

The third thing to do is increase the probability of getting caught. This can be done by increasing the number of cops or by installing cameras at traffic lights to catch violators. The former will be expensive for the city while the latter is very tough to enforce in India because license plates are issued by district RTOs and as far as I know there is no central database mapping car license plates to car owner’s driver licenses and addresses.

Additionally, once people figure out where the cops usually stand or the traffic cameras are installed, they will be selectively obedient. Fortunately, for this there is a solution out of the University of Southern California. Prof. Milind Tambe and his students have come up with algorithms that can tell you how to place surveillance resources like policemen (and may be cameras) in a random position each  day so that any observer would not be able to predict their location based on observing the past. Although this may sound far fetched it has already in use in LAX airport, Los Angeles, and I understand that there are plans to install in other airports and ports that face a potential terrorist threat. Can we use similar approaches to position traffic cops around the city?

The final possible direction is to increase the reward for being a law abiding citizen. For instance, you get points for every time your car stops at a red light. The points you gather can be used by you to pay your toll at toll booths , say over the sea link, or even to buy tickets on public transportation like buses and local trains. This can act as an  incentive to always follow traffic lights. Anyone has any ideas on how this can be implemented? Maybe an RFID on each vehicle and an RFID reader on (randomly chosen) traffic lights.

The correct solution is probably a combination of the carrot and the stick but with most “stick” approaches failing, may be its time to use the carrot.

January 18, 2010 Posted by | incentives, india, mumbai, traffic | Leave a comment