Can Aadhaar Curb Corruption?

When I first heard about Aadhaar I figured it was just another Government of India project that would go nowhere. (For a quick refresher on Aadhaar I put together a quick 10 slide summary.) As the program is starting to gain traction, many people are starting to challenge the claims and veracity of the projects purpose.

One of them is Sucheta Dalal, who is a highly acclaimed journalist who broke the story on India’s largest insider trading scandal in 1992 involving Harshad Mehta (he was the first person in India to buy a Lexus LS400). I’ve actually had a chance to meet Sucheta and she is a straight shooter. I’ve commented in the past that I feel Aadhaar will help to ease corruption. On Twitter, Sucheta had a more direct question for me:

@mrjain  please enlighten me how a number allotted to you will curb corruption? I am all ears

One of the misconceptions about Aadhaar is that it will solve every problem that affects India, it won’t. The other misconception is that it will be 100% fool proof and rock solid from day one, it won’t.  Aadhaar is a technology startup that happens to be ventured backed by the Government of India. As with any startup or government program there will be teething and integration issues that will have to be dealt with in real-time.

My answer to Sucheta’s tweet is “yes, but probably not for Sucheta and me.” It would benefit people that suffer from the “poverty tax”, which is a large percentage of the Indian population. If you receive a pension, you might have to pay a “fee” to the clerk to speed up the transaction. Same issue with food, subsided kerosene, government jobs, etc…if you want something you have to pay a fee.  That fee hurts more if you earn less and hence it’s called the poverty tax or you can call it what it really is…corruption. With an Aadhaar number the government would directly deposit the money into your bank account. No middle man to slow down the transaction or take money from you to speed up the process of getting YOUR money.

Fear, uncertainty and doubt are the 3 things that critics raise when talking about Aadhaar. Fear of what the Indian government will do with the data. Uncertainty about how much money is being spent on the project. And lastly, doubt of whether the program can achieve anything impactful.

The other complaint I’ve heard from several people is they feel it’s just a large technology project to benefit system integrators like Infosys, Wipro and TCS. In particular, a friend of mine questioned why Aadhaar was so keen on using iris and fingerprint scanners to authenticate people. Was it because that would force new hardware sales for iris and fingerprint scanner vendors. Why not use voice verification via cell phones that are so readily available? Granted, there might be issues with voice pattern recognition but why not open it up to a college competition for the top technology schools (read IIT’s) to try and solve the problem.

Personally, I think that’s where the Aadhaar team has done a rather poor job of openly communicating and should really improve in that department. I still firmly believe Aadhaar is a step in the right direction and will eventually benefit a large percentage of the Indian population.

Bombay – The Perfect Bubble

It’s been a week since several bombs tore through South Bombay like a hurricane and already the city is getting back to normal. Some say it’s the strength, courage and/or resilience of it’s people that allows Bombay to move forward. I would simply say, we have created the perfect bubble to live in. This bubble has been created out of necessity since the political infrastructure of this country has simply lost its moral compass. Everything I read about government in India revolves around two basic issues: money and disregard for life.

Safety in this country is a joke. The police patrol the streets with nothing more then a stick and a fat belly. Money that should go towards police issued revolvers, CBs and police cars has surely been pilfered by the higher ups. When a terrorist attacks, the police are clueless and powerless as they don’t have the tools to deal with this type of threat. In the end, people die.

About two years back my parents visited Bombay and they had an extra suitcase which we had no place for. Since real estate is a premium in Bombay, I had the brilliant idea of sticking the empty suitcase in the trunk of my car. For 5 months we visited pretty much every hotel and/or mall that had security and NOT ONE person questioned what was in the suitcase. They opened the trunk looked at the suitcase and then proceeded to shut the trunk. If the government was truly concerned about it’s citizens it would not let private companies conduct security checks and instead use the military as it does for the airports. This decision allows the government to save money but puts the public at risk and in the end, people die.

A politician first and foremost should be doing everything to take care of people in his/her district, but in reality they are more worried about taking care of themselves first. Another great example are the roads in Bombay. Building roads is a fairly simple thing and is done around the world and other parts of India without an issues. However, for some strange reason the roads in Bombay are always in a state of disrepair, of course corruption plays a part. If the cost of the road is Rs. 100, by the time the road is completed only Rs. 5o might have been spent on sub-standard materials, the rest is classified as “leakage”. When roads are so badly constructed it could be a death trap or lead to a serious injury for someone that is riding on a motorcycle and happens to hit a pothole. If you hit that pothole and are taken to a government hospital, let’s just say I wouldn’t even send my worst enemy to a government hospital for treatment. Yet again, the mixture of money and disregard for life creates an environment where government hospital facilities are on par with hospitals from when dinosaurs roamed the earth. In the end, people die.

You get the point, I could go on and on with examples. So what do we do? We create our own bubbles. Who cares if the building we live is filthy, as long as your home is clean. Who cares if people are begging on the street, you are sitting in an air conditioned car. Who cares if someone’s office got bombed, you and your staff are safe.

The problem with bubbles is that they can pop at any moment. When it pops who will help you? The government or will your strength, courage and resilience pull you through.

Volkswagen's India Strategy

For all the talk about companies coming to an emerging market like India and setting up shop, no one has been more passive aggressive then the Volkswagen Group. VW is most famously known for its Beetle – one of the best selling cars of all time at over 21 million units. In a bid to move beyond the Beetle, VW in the 90’s started to acquire many brands and their complete portfolio is quite impressive: Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, SEAT, Skoda and VW. The VW Group also owns 49.9% of Porsche and set to take 100% ownership in the near future. The linkage between VW and Porsche goes way back, VW was founded by Ferdinand Porsche. Then Ferdinand went on to start Porsche where his son created the iconic 911. Even today the bonds are strong, the Porsche Cayenne and VW Touareg share the same chassis (platform in car speak).

Long Term Commitment
Enough of the history lesson, back to VW’s big bet on India. VW’s foray into India started in 2001 when it launched the Skoda brand and started selling the Octavia. Around 2007, the VW Group also added Audi, Bentley and VW to their Indian product line. These cars were available by importing them individually, however servicing was always an issue since they didn’t have official dealers on the ground in India. In another sign that VW is here for the long haul it opened a massive manufacturing facility in Chakan (near Pune) in 2009 and spent USD $500 million in the process. Towards the end of 2011, VW will add the high-performance brand Lamborghini to the mix. They will most likely unveil the first Lamborghini showrooms when they ship the highly anticipated fire breathing 691hp Aventador to India.

Breakout Hit
In the 4 door mid-luxury segment, the market leader for years has been the Honda City. The break out hit for VW has been the Vento which was introduced in 2010 and already has beaten the Honda City as the number 1 selling car in that segment. The Vento’s success is a combination of Honda lagging and VW bringing the right product to the market, namely a diesel engine. With petrol prices only going up VW was right to tap into the Indian psyche of affordability. The Honda City has been around since 1998 and all the brand loyalty it built up went down the drain once the Vento was launched and petrol prices started to rise. Honda hit back in early June 2011 with price cuts by attributing it to “cost reduction efforts in the supply chain” which sounded like public relations speak then reality. But it didn’t matter, by then the damage was done and the Vento took the top spot.

Audi’s Rise
Around the world Audi has always been number 3 when compared to the more well known German brands of Mercedes and BMW. However, that is changing in India partly because Audi was able to capitalize on the new designs featuring the “LED eyelids” that are now copied by every other car company. In addition, the Japanese strategy of not bringing their luxury brands of Acura, Lexus and Infiniti to India was a missed opportunity that Audi used towards its advantage. Toyota which has been in India since 1997 has built a large distribution channel and could have easily used that existing network to seamlessly introduce the Lexus brand but failed to do so. Lastly, Audi got some great mileage with their feel good advertising campaign featuring cricketer Ravi Shastri. Ravi was shown sitting on an Audi 100 on the cricket field when India won the World Championship of Cricket in 1985 where he was selected as the man of the match (most valuable player). Obviously it was unplanned and Audi capitalized on the imagery.

Market Segmentation
Possibly the only issue with the VW Group’s arrival into India is their market segmentation for their brands. When Skoda first came to India, it’s reputation in the Western European countries was not very high and thought of as a sub-standard product. However, under the VW umbrella it slowly upgraded its perception and in India it’s often thought of as a premium brand. Many consumers gravitate towards the  Skoda Superb who want luxury but want to “fly under the radar” and not appear to flashy. With the arrival of Audi and VW the lines of market segmentation have started to blur. The Audi A4, Skoda Superb and VW Passat are all very similar and in fact share the same chassis. And therein lies the problem, if a consumer wants to spend Rs. 30 lakhs on a car which one – A4, Superb or Passat?

Overall, the timing of VW’s entry into India couldn’t have been more perfect as other competitors have been busy with their own problems. The American automotive giants are dealing with their domestic demand issues. The Japanese automakers are taking a very slow approach to India when it comes to their luxury brands – Acura, Lexus and Infiniti.  Lastly, the German automakers Mercedes and BMW have been battling for the top spot for number of cars sold in India. BMW took the crown with over 6,200 cars sold in 2010, which is a very small piece of the overall Indian car market. Since the VW Group has many brands and able to target a much wider audience it will most likely lead overall sales in the years to come.

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