Rapawalk: Good Shoes At a Good Price

A couple of months ago, I noticed my Facebook and Instagram feeds flooded with adverts for an online footwear company called Rapawalk. Looking to buy a very specific pair for an event, against the the wise counsel of my wife, I sent for a pair of their shoes. The first pair that I received was a disappointment, with poor workmanship and no finishing at all. I covered the experience in another blog post that caught the eye of the founders.

Jacob from Rapawalk reached out shortly after the article went live, and promised to look into the issue for me.

A couple of days later, he called back and told me that the poorly constructed pair I recieved was shipped as a consequence of a QC failure at their factory. Jacob stated that the shoes I had chosen came from a budget range that was manufactured by a third-party supplier and that’s where the problems had occurred. He offered a store credit for the value of the shoes, and requested me to order a pair from his premium range that is manufactured in-house. Having already had a poor experience with the first pair, I was a little hesitant to throw good money after the bad – but with Jacob’s persistent follow-ups, I relented, and sprang for cocoa and caramel brogue-style derbys with a “half leather” sole.

The shoes arrived fifteen days later,  and were a pleasant surprise.

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The complaints that I had about the finishing in my earlier pair were non-existent in this one. Over the past few weeks, I have worn these shoes in rotation with my other pairs, and have not had any issues with fit or finish.

One key advantage with these shoes is the “Wide” option for fit. With store-bought shoes from Hush Puppies and Ruosh, it often takes three or so months for a pair of shoes to stretch into a comfortable fit for my feet. However, Rapawalk’s “Wide” option gives those few extra millimeters that make all the difference. These shoes were snug and comfortable from the get go, and needed just a week or so of “breaking in” to give me a comfortable fit. The “half leather” sole is comfortable and durable, and works for me even on the polished floors of airports, offices, and metro stations.

In the weeks since, I have also bought a pair of suede boat moccasins from Rapawalk that I’m very pleased with.

In summary, Rapawak makes good shoes at a great price. The pair pictured above is comparable in material and finish to shoes by Ruosh and Hush Puppies that are 50 per cent pricier. The boat moccasins too, are comparable in material and finish to options from Bata, Hush Puppies, and Clarks that are 30% to 100 per cent pricier. The online shoe design system that they have is intuitive and user friendly – the only real hurdle being the way colours are rendered on individual monitors and phones. So unless you’re looking for a perfect colour match (impossible in natural leather IMO) this is a great way to go.

The best part for me, of course, is the attentive customer service. For instance, when a lace on my INR 6,000+ Hush Puppies snapped some time ago, three Bata/Hush Puppies stores in Gurgaon, one in Noida, and one in Greater Noida were unable to sell me a replacement, and the staff couldn’t care less. I’ve been to just one Ruosh store here in Gurgaon, so I won’t comment on their service. Rapawalk, however, followed up persistently by phone and Whatsapp to get this issue resolved, adding a human touch to the online experience that tends to be sterile and impersonal.

Disclosures: This review is based on my personal experience. I have not received any inducements in cash or kind for this review. 

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Review: Bombay Shaving Company

I have been using a straight razor with replaceable blades for the past 18 years. It started during my college days as a private protest against the ludicrous price of Gillette Sensor blades. The habit endured – with my horsehair brush and a straight razor, I could go from Weekend Stubble to Monday Debonair in under four minutes. The added bonus was that a year’s supply of Wilkinson Sword blades cost me less than a single Gilette Sensor cartridge. As I grew older and became a little more plastic conscious, I stuck with the open razor because a tiny sliver of steel every two weeks casts a lesser ecological burden than the blister-packed cartridge-du-jour with six (or whatever they’re up to now) blades in a plastic housing.

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My Old Straight Razor

This Christmas, I received Bombay Shaving Company’s six-part shaving kit as a present. Now I’m usually skeptical of these internet-only brands that “reinvent” the classics for 10 times the price. After all, my straight razors cost between INR 40 and INR 120, and the Wilkinson Sword blades cost about INR 15 for a packet of 5. The tubes of shaving cream and after-shave balm included in the box were fancier than my usual Old Spice shaving cream and after shave lotion.

In the box were two 10-packs of Feather razor blades. Feather blades, made in Japan, are widely regarded as the best wet-shaving blades in the world, and BSC now had my full attention. The included razor is a solid metal item, very well constructed, and impeccably balanced. Also included, is a faux badger brush. I’ve always been skeptical of these nylon shaving brushes, but BSC’s brush does the job and does it well. Goodbye horsehair.

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My new Bombay Shaving Company kit minus the gimmicky scrub

For many men, the morning shave is a meditative and mindful rite of self-care. BSC’s kit certainly supports this. Having been my daily shaver for the past ten days, I’ve enjoyed the experience with the brush and the razor, and the insanely sharp Feather blades make for a very comfortable shave. BSC includes a second razor head – marked “aggressive”. This piece, visually indistinguishable from the regular head barring the letter “A” marked on it, makes the blade cut closer to the skin. This seems to work best for my mature and somewhat rough growth.

The included shaving cream and after-shave balm are good, and have a pleasant modern fragrance. My wife seems relieved that I’m transitioning away from alcohol-based after-shave lotions and the consequent “white face” dryness that she finds unappealing.

With shaving products, re-supply of consumables is always a challenge, especially if you use uncommon products. BSC is cognizant of this, and all the in-box items – razor, brush, accessories, Feather blades, and in-house cream and balm, are available at competitive prices from the Company’s website.

BSC is not without gimmicks though. They include a scrub – touted as a pre-shave exfoliant to prepare one’s face before a shave. Well, a razor blade is perhaps the most effective exfoliant on the planet. As long as you use a proper shaving cream, you will be taking all the dirt and dead skin off your face with your razor itself. But again, this is more a matter of personal preference than shaving canon.

The only area for improvement is the fragrances. Bombay Shaving Company offers only one fragrance – a contemporary fragrance that will not appeal to all men. In my opinion, the fragrance in the after-shave balm is pleasant, but lacks depth and complexity. They need to diversify their range with at least two additional fragrance types – a ‘spicy’ type  with a musky/woody base such as Tabac or Old Spice; and a citrusy classic eau-de-cologne variety similar to 4711 or Premium. These two fragrance lines will drive customer “stickiness” among a major proportion of wet shavers – else most “converts” like me will return to them only for the Feather blades.

In my opinion, BSC makes the nicest shaving kit that I’ve encountered in ages, and is a must buy for the man looking to drop the hideously expensive and gimmicky multi-blade systems.

Note: This is a review of a kit that I received as a Christmas present from a family member. Bombay Shaving Company has not offered me any incentives for this review.

The Pixel 3 Is The Perfect Phone (for me)

Two weeks ago, I finally got myself the new Pixel phone. While evaluating the multiple phones I was considering, I found that most of the reviews online were written by professional reviewers, so I thought to write up my thoughts on the process to my purchase.

My previous phone was a Samsung Galaxy Note 8. It is a great phone with an outstanding camera, but the lack of software updates has been a constant issue for me, and in recent times, the size was something that I had issues with. However, this was my first flagship phone ever, and the experience let me to decide that all my primary phones hereafter should be flagship-grade.

The phones that I considered were the Galaxy S9, The iPhone XS, and the OnePlus 6T.

My key priorities were:

  • OS upgrades
  • Camera
  • Battery Life
  • Size and Feel

In examining the S9, the feel of the phone was amazing, as was the display. The phone is a little bulkier than I would like, but the real deal-killer was the software. My Note 8 is still running Android 7.1.1 at the fag-end of 2018. The S9 is shipping with 8.0 Oreo. Though Samsung rolled out the Oreo update for Note 8s in Europe and the USA in early 2018, they haven’t done so in India, this is odd, and somewhat reminiscent of Samsung’s earlier practice of dumping lower-spec phones in India – a practice that they still seem to pursue with the Snapdragon/Exynos variants. I think it’s asinine to pay top dollar for a phone that will not receive even a single OS update. Given that I work in compliance, device security is a priority for me – security patches need to be prompt, something that Samsung has failed at.

The iPhone XS is amazing in terms of camera, display, and performance. It seemed like the perfect time for me to switch to Apple, but given that the cheapest XS costs over INR 100,000 (USD 1,430) in India and the other issues around paying for storage, the compatibility of multiple work-related apps, I decided that the moment wasn’t ripe for this transition.

The OnePlus, frankly, was a bit of a disappointment. For all the hype, the Camera is quite passe. The so-called blazing pace is more a factor of the 8GB RAM rather than an efficient OS, and was still sluggish on the display pieces that I looked at. The interface is as cluttered as Samsung’s, and it comes bundled with the usual bloatware. I will buy a One Plus phone at some point, but that would be just so that I can install the Lineage OS ROM for specialized features and apps requiring root access.

The Pixel 3 was impressive.

Despite having just 4 GB RAM, the phone was blazing fast, and the interface a joy. To be fair, I used the Moto G (2015) between June 2015 and May 2017, and prefer the stock Android experience. Coming from there, both One Plus and Samsung interfaces were too cluttered, busy, or crowded. Compared side-by-side at a Croma store in Gurgaon, the Pixel 3’s camera outperformed the Note 9. The irritating thing about the Samsung Camera is its in-built beauty mode that subtly turns human subjects into wax dolls by smoothing over skin textures – an option that cannot be disabled. Even the OnePlus 6T, despite what its fans will proclaim didn’t come close in performance and output.

While I was still mulling my choices, the #PixelPowerUps offer emerged, allowing me to purchase the 128GB Pixel 3 from Flipkart for about INR 15,000 off the sticker price. I bought it.

I decided on the 128 GB model with an eye to the future. My 64 GB Note 8, despite being used for just about a year, has only 2 GB of space left, with most content on it being photos and 4k video that I’m shooting for a social media channel. The Pixel 3 comes with unlimited cloud storage for all Pixel phone content generated until 31 January 2022. Photos and Videos are stored in their original resolution.

What was particularly encouraging is that the first line of Pixel phones, released in 2016, have received the Pie OS update. Pixel 2 phones from 2017 received the camera software updates. I’m hoping that such updates endure, and I can use the phone for at least three years.

It’s software features aside, the phone’s design is fantastic.

Though the Pixel 3 is an all-glass phone, it follows the design language introduced with the first Pixel phone, with the two-tone back and dual front-facing speakers. I’m very happy with the phone’s size. I’ve always been disdainful of this obsession with screen size which compromises both battery life and the general handiness of the device. I still think the iPhone SE has the perfect proportions, and would have probably switched to Apple this year if they had refreshed the model with a faster processor and a nicer camera. The Pixel 3 feels perfect in my hand and nestles firmly between my palm and the top crease of my fingers. Of course, in the interest of preserving this phone for the next three years that I plan to use it for, I’m using the Spigen case from Amazon.com. This case has some heft to it, but will provide some protection for the three times a year that I seem to drop my phones.

Several online reviews have multiple points of criticism for this phone. The first regards memory management where apps are closed by the OS to conserve memory. Perhaps this has already been patched, but I faced no latency issues at all. To be fair, I have not been using any memory intensive apps or games.

Another criticism that was almost a deal breaker for me is the issue with the camera. Apparently, the camera fails to work properly when used through other apps. This is true. I had issues using the camera via the PayTM app and through Instagram. The latter is not really a problem, since I rarely take pictures through Instagram, and typically post pictures that I have already shot, filtered, and cropped. Google has promised to fix this issue in a subsequent update, and I generally consider them to be more honest than Samsung in such matters. However, if you’re planning to use a third party camera app, or use a work-related app that needs to access the camera, please ensure that this issue is resolved before you buy it.

In summary, if you’re in the market for an android Phone, and would like a long-lived device with an outstanding camera, the Pixel 3 is for you.

Can Someone Please “Disrupt” Agriculture in India?

The latest regional elections in India saw unprecedented promises of farm loan waivers. Representatives of both the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janta Party have made “support” to farmers a key point in their manifestos. According to an article in The Economic Times, farm loan waivers since 1990 total INR 2.22 trillion (USD 31 billion) – a bill obviously paid by the taxpayer. Now farmers in India enjoy kid glove treatment – they pay no income tax, receive free energy, are not subject to controls or restrictions on groundwater use, and are offered a guaranteed purchase price for what they produce. The Indian government seems to have positioned their economic role as a sacred duty rather than a professional pursuit. These privileges and incentives are taken for granted – for instance, just a few months ago, farmers in North India blanketed the region with a toxic smog as they burned biomass in violation of numerous laws and rulings – claiming that it was an essential step for them to be able to grow their crops. Not that nation is well fed – food prices are skyrocketing, and essential nutrition from greens and vegetables is inaccessible to low-income households.

When an industry linked to a vital human necessity finds itself dependent on government handouts for survival, the stage seems set for disruption. Farmers claim that their problems are caused by the lack of water for irrigation, changing weather patterns, and a low support price for their produce. However, looking at the big picture, complacency, apathy, and no incentive to innovate are equally big factors.

An acquaintance who was associated with programs run by the Israeli charity MASHAV once told me about the gross structural issues in the Indian agricultural system. He stated that the Green Revolution was right for its time in staving off hunger among the rapidly growing Indian population, but innovation and transformation has been completely halted since then. Commenting on the lack of water for irrigation, he said that most farmers in India use surface irrigation, the most wasteful method – that loses water to evaporation. Furthermore, the rice, wheat, and pulses prioritized by the Green Revolutionistas sidelined the millets and other crops more suited to regional soil types, water resources, and weather patterns. Another acquaintance with a professional understanding of the public distribution system told me that government support to certain industries such as sugar and brewing created systemic imbalances that affected soil health at the farm and food prices at the table.

One thing that stands out about the Indian agriculture sector is low technology use. E-commerce players have superceded India Post in efficiency in terms of transporting shoes, books, and cellphones to consumers in remote corners of the country. Grocery delivery services use analytics and Just In Time inventory management to deliver a wide variety of milk and eggs to households each morning. Can these technologies be used to disrupt agriculture? What about other factors such as climate change and politics?

Climate Change is real – Crop Choices and Food Habits need to change

Over the past few years, unseasonal rain or storms have destroyed large portions of standing grain crops. Such events have increased in frequency, and if this trend endures, crop choices will have to change. There is nothing that we can do about this – farming must evolve to thrive in the changing climate. An hour of un-seasonal rain a few days before harvest can devastate an entire wheat crop. However, a hailstorm on a potato-field will still leave produce fit for harvest. A good option would be to switch from grains as a primary carbohydrate to tubers such as potatoes, cassava, yams, and jicama. For those aghast at the suggestion that your fulkas and alou-paranthas will go from being breakfast to a delicacy, remember that post the Green Revolution, traditional breads made from maize and millets such as bajra and ragi were relegated to ethnic delicacies by the emphasis on wheat and rice. In fact, a change in emphasis from calories to nutrition – calling for more vegetables and greens in the diet – may improve national health and well-being.

Supply Chains need to evolve

The Mandi system needs to die. Period.

On a day that a farmer in Nashik reportedly sold 750 kilos of onions for INR 1,064 and made headlines by sending the proceeds of the sale to the Prime Minister, a supermarket near my home was retailing them for INR 35 per kilo. This obscene price increase is driven by middlemen, who in most cases have a 100 per cent mark-up on everything that passes their hands. Obviously, the logistics and distribution systems developed by E-commerce, fast fashion, and modern trade can resolve this – if a fast fashion brand can buy a dress from a factory in Bangladesh and yet sell it at a London store for GBP 20, I’m sure we can find a way for a farmer to be paid INR 20 per kilo for onions that sell for INR 35 in a supermarket.

Farming itself needs to change

In speaking to people from agrarian communities in India, it appears to me that a key factor affecting viability of farming is the increased fragmentation of land holdings. The profit from traditional crops – however efficiently grown – is still limited by one’s land holdings. For this reason, as land holdings split by inheritance with each generation of a family, many farmers just quit. Therefore, farmers with small holdings need to grow high-value crops to keep their farms viable.

About fifteen years ago, I had a brief conversation with a farmer from southern India. He’d had an acrimonious falling out with his family, and was given (unfairly by his account) two acres of fallow land in settlement of his inheritance. Having always been an enfant terrible by his own admission, he experimented with growing exotic vegetables, rearing rabbits, and finally settled on Vanilla. He claimed that his two acres of vanilla yielded substantially more revenue than the 60 acres of paddy planted by his estranged relatives.

Another approach is to leverage technology to boost productivity. Institutes such as Hyderabad, India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and Netherlands-based Wageningen University have led pioneering research into improving the yield and resilience of crops. Wageningen, for instance, conceptualized programs that turned the Netherlands – a nation roughly the size of the state of Haryana – into the world’s largest exporter of tomatoes. The knowledge behind industrial farming on one hand and organic cultivation on the other is growing, with productivity growing by the day. Collecting this wisdom and designing programs is easier than ever in our new connected world.

A possible business model

Since we live in the era of the “collaborative” economy, here’s one possibility.

Suppose we have an enterprise that empanels “farmer partners” who “associate” their land holdings with the company. The company conducts tests on soil and uses meteorological data to identify appropriate crops, soil additives, and farming cycles for each parcel. Then, based on the ability of farmer partners to invest in their land, the company deploys a growing program. For instance, a farmer lacking the ability to invest may end up with a basic program for growing onions, but a farmer able to invest in sun protection for his field may be given a program to grow lettuce that would bring him higher revenue. The farmer handles sowing, growing, and harvesting per the program while the company would manage sale and transportation of the produce, and would be paid a percentage of the profit above a pre-decided rate.

How about it, any takers from the Private Equity world?

India Security Advisory for Foreign Workers

This is a security advisory for Foreign Workers moving to India. It covers basic information on safety and security while setting up residence in the National Capital Region that includes the city of New Delhi and surrounding towns of Gurugram (formerly Gurgaon), Noida, Ghaziabad, and Faridabad.

Disclaimer: This advisory is not exhaustive, and is not a substitute for a detailed risk assessment and needs-based security plan. The below information is provided free of charge for informational purposes only, and the author, his employer – Hill & Associates Limited, and its associated entities assume no warranty or responsibility for inclusions, omissions, or the consequences of the use of this information.

The author can be reached by email at ajit.nathaniel [at] hill-assoc.com. 

Air Quality

Air quality in the National Capital Region has been a major issue over the past several years, and has received global publicity since Delhi has been named among the world’s most polluted cities for several years running. Air quality in the National Capital Region is generally poor, with AQI persistently above 150. Pollution surges in September, and air quality remains in the “hazardous” range until the end of February.  It is generally accepted that persistent exposure to AQI over 100 has adverse health effects and can be particularly damaging to infants, young children, and anyone with a history of respiratory problems or immunodeficient conditions.

  1. Conduct an air quality audit of the home you plan to occupy.
  2. The highest level of indoor air quality management is provided by a whole-home Positive Air Pressure air purifier system. The costs associated with design, procurement and installation, can exceed INR 2,500,000 for a three-bedroom home. In addition, monthly running expenses on energy and replacement HEPA filters can be substantial.
  3. Free-standing  Air purifier systems available from global brands such as Honeywell, Sharp, and Philips, and local players such as SmartAir are effective in controlling pollutant levels, but must be used in conjunction with an AQI monitor such as those marketed by Kaiterra.
  4. AQI monitors are essential to track indoor pollutant levels and troubleshoot for air leakage or ineffective HEPA filters.
  5. Claims on social media that certain potted plants “absorb pollutants” or “purify the air” have no scientific basis, though adequate foliage can help lower temperatures and marginally improve oxygenation in small areas.
  6. Follow media updates on Air Quality and data generated in real time by sources such as aqicn.org.
  7. When pollution levels are high, use masks compliant with the N95 or N99 standards when outdoors.

Engaging Domestic Staff

  1. Ensure that the staff you engage comes with adequate references and testimonials.
  2. Verify all employer testimonials or references via a phone call or an official Email address. Do not take these at face value, as there are frequent instances of letterheads and other credentials being forged.
  3. In Delhi it is mandatory to conduct a police verification of all domestic staff. This is often facilitated by landlords or the management teams of housing projects.
  4. When engaging a domestic worker, obtain proof of age (Voter ID / 10th Standard Certificate / Aadhar etc) for your records. Engaging a worker aged under 14 years is a serious crime and can attract fines and imprisonment, and having such evidence  of age on file is proactive protection against malicious claims. You will be held responsible for an underage worker on your premises even if not directly engaged by you – for instance – if part of a work crew provided by a construction or sanitation contractor.
  5. Drug screening through a reliable service provider is advisable for sensitive roles.

Safety in Public Places

  1. Individuals with physical features that may identify them as foreign tourists (light -coloured skin, light-coloured hair, dreadlocks, visible tattooing, certain eye colours etc.) tend to attract attention from touts, illegal moneychangers, and ushers for shops that sell cultural curiosities. If you are approached by such a person, terminate contact with a firm “no thanks” or “not interested” and ignore further attempts at a conversation. Engaging, even to be polite, will be interpreted as encouraging. Do not feel compelled to enter a shop or business establishment just to be polite.
  2. Do not accept food or beverages from strangers under any circumstances.
  3. Avoid traveling alone at night, particularly on foot, even if in commercial or entertainment districts.
  4. Being the national capital, Delhi is often the venue for political protests and demonstrations. Many of these tend to be event-driven and occur in response to policy announcements, news reports, or high-profile crimes. Avoid areas where a protest is in progress, as these have been known to unexpectedly escalate into violence. Police in India are legally empowered to respond to protests with baton charges, water jets, rubberised bullets, and live ammunition. All vigils, demonstrations, and gatherings that may be perceived as a protest, require prior permission from police which may or may not be forthcoming. Monitor local media and risk advisories for details of ongoing protests, and plan travel accordingly.

Safety in Your Hotel or Residence

  1. Keep exterior doors locked at all times, and ensure professional grade CCTV coverage of all access ways. If your home does not have a security guard, install high quality door locks and a videophone.
  2. Ensure that CCTV systems, Videophones, and Burglar alarms are functional and connected to wiring that is distinct from that used to operate appliances and lighting. Security and surveillance systems should have adequate power backup through a UPS (uninterrupted power supply) system.
  3. Build a ready reckoner with the phone numbers of the local police station, fire department, hospitals, and physicians treating chronic or recurring illnesses in family members. Educate household staff on how to deal with specific emergencies.
  4. Take walks around your neighbourhood at various times of the day to identify gate closures; peak-hour traffic congestion; and hazards such as open drains, or manholes that are indiscernible in low light conditions.

Public Transportation

  1. While the Delhi Metro is secured by armed guards and tight video surveillance, protection ends at the station gates. Children should not use public transport unescorted.
  2. Delhi has a bus service with well-defined routes, but buses are frequently crowded and most lack climate control.
  3. Public taxis in India often have faulty or tampered meters, and drivers are known to charge extortionate rates. It is advisable to use taxis engaged by your hotel or through an official vendor engaged by your workplace.
  4. Despite a handful of highly publicized crimes, app-based taxi services such as Uber and its home-grown competitor Ola are considered to be safe. The availability of services is generally good in well-populated parts of the city, though drivers may occasionally decline trips that involve crossing state lines.
  5. Uber and Ola Drivers are known to ask for extra money citing “toll” or “tax” charges. Do not pay extra as these charges are already included in your fare.

Road Safety

  1. Traffic conditions in India are substantially more challenging than in the western world – avoid driving unless you have prior experience, special training, or are accompanied by a local who speaks the local language.
  2. GPS Navigation works satisfactorily within most cities, however, poor data networks affect accuracy in certain pockets or while driving cross-country
  3. If you are involved in an accident avoid a verbal confrontation – if you feel threatened, leave the scene and report to the police (after obtaining medical attention if necessary).
  4. Accidents that involve children are almost certain to escalate to violence against the driver and the vehicle perceived by witnesses to be the offending party.
  5. Seatbelts are mandatory for front-seat occupants in cars – non-compliance attracts a fine.
  6. Don’t leave valuables in the car; if you must, kept them out of sight and locked away in the glove compartment or boot.
  7. Avoid parking your vehicle in the street overnight; if necessary, try to park in a well-lit area.
  8. Never pick up hitchhikers – not even women.
  9. The Drink-driving limit in India is 0.03 BAC – however, since breathalyzers are rare (and infrequently calibrated when available), if you are stopped by police you are certain to be detained if you smell of alcohol – regardless of your BAC. The law prescribes a fine, imprisonment, and impounding of your vehicle and driver’s licence.
  10. In the event of an accident, being intoxicated can result in compounding of charges up to culpable homicide.

Food & beverages

  1. Tap water is NOT potable in India.
  2. Install Reverse Osmosis filters at home and demand sealed water bottles at restaurants.
  3. The bottled water and beverage brands owned by Coca Cola and Pepsico conform to international quality standards and are considered safe.
  4. In budget restaurants, avoid salads and dishes with raw vegetable garnishes.
  5. Most traditionally grilled meats are “well done” but be judicious.

Socialzing

  1. Build your social circle through trusted colleagues, alumni associations, and well-vetted social groups. There are multiple activity groups specifically for foreign workers posted in India.
  2. Be wary of approaches in bars and restaurants – if you are not interested in talking to someone, be emphatic in ending the conversation. Continuing a conversation, even to be polite, may be interpreted as encouragement.
  3. Online and app-based dating is generally considered safe. However, avoid using a primary mobile number on online platforms. Make sure someone knows the name and phone number of the person you’re going to meet, as well as the planned meeting point and your expected time of return. Meet in a public place and make your own arrangements for transportation back from the date, especially if you expect to have a drink.
  4. Be judicious about inviting a date home or accepting such an invitation. Set expectations appropriately and have a contingency plan in case your date becomes difficult.
  5. Men must set expectations explicitly. There have been claims that consensual sexual contact been construed as rape out of malice or for blackmail.

This note was originally written in August 2018 and has been updated in June 2019.

India’s Safety Crisis is Just Beginning

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Alternative title – why moving to Switzerland makes financial sense for wealthy Indians.

In his novel “The Time Machine”, HG Wells tells of how an English inventor builds a Time Machine and travels to the year AD 802,701. By this time, the English countryside is inhabited by a tribe of naive vegan beings called the Eloi. Spending some time with them, he begins to believe that mankind has evolved into a homogenous and peaceful society. However, he can’t help but notice that on moonless nights some Eloi disappear – never to be seen again. He soon discovers that the earth beneath them hides a subterranean city inhabited by the Morlocks – a brutish and violent species that operates machinery that ostensibly keeps the world of the Eloi running. Though he initially speculates that the Eloi are a superior race – evolved from the upper classes of Victorian society, he soon discovers that on moonless nights, Morlocks steal to the surface and abduct Eloi – whom they devour. His view shifts and he decides that the Eloi are actually akin to cattle – raised and slaughtered by the Morlocks for food.

Though the beginning of liberalization ushered India into a new age of prosperity and consumption, people’s fortunes have differed. A small portion of the population that had access to an English Language education found it easy to rise in the IT industry and elevate their fortunes significantly. A larger portion of lesser qualified people, stuck in industrial jobs with negative wage growth (accounting for inflation) and shrinking opportunity – due to automation – have seen their standard of living and quality of life plunge. Even in the IT sector, which was the driver of middle-income bliss in this country; things have taken a turn for the worse as entry level salaries have failed to keep pace with inflation. Millions of India’s youth, clutching their worthless degrees, seethe in rage at the lack of opportunity and the social and economic inequity that they see. It is no surprise then that this anger frequently erupts in violence.

Whether the vicious sexual assaults by car-borne rape gangs reported in major Indian cities; the random lynching of cattle transporters; or the violent mobs that politicians seem to be able to summon at will, there seems to be clear divergence in our social evolution. Drawing a parallel to the Eloi and the Morlocks of The Time Machine may seem to be a crude and obscene oversimplification, but it seems clear that Indians inhabit two different worlds, and these worlds are becoming increasingly distinct.

There is the world of the gated colony and the high-rise condominium, and there is the netherworld of the shanty-town. Such polarity extends from the city to the countryside, where access to economic opportunity, education, and healthcare, is subject to the privileges of wealth and caste. Furthermore, people from these two worlds reckon life differently. Urban low-income Indians live in a tit-for-tat world, and often exhibit little more than contempt for law of the land and the social order of the urban privileged. The latter’s social customs – social drinking by women, and hugs as a greeting for instance – are considered to be a shameful adoption of western ways. The urban affluent on the other hand, thrive in a world of good intentions and gestures. Brutal rape of an infant? Oh – candle-light vigil. Someone got lynched for eating something that someone thought was beef? Aha! Silent protest. Someone got shot for standing up to a bully? An articulate Facebook post powered by a Gin & Tonic will do. The urban affluent live in a fragile illusion – in granite islands of comfort with fancy names that evoke images of Californian creeks, regal English country estates, or idyllic European towns. The minions that clean their homes, water their lawns and tend their offspring live in wretched shanties, where potable water and electricity are a luxury.

Crucially, the low-income groups are a larger vote bank than other income groups, and the political establishment understands this. No wonder then that political leaders across the country have the courage to stand before crowds and utter xenophobic, misogynistic, and communally inflammatory statements. Every time this happens, it offends the urban affluent – who take to Facebook and type their fingers raw; the masses however, rejoice that someone in power shares their views, and go out and vote for them. This is going to get worse, as recent moves in the telecom industry will take social media and curated content to over one billion citizens via inexpensive data services. With Social Media behemoths like Facebook creating ideological echo chambers, mind control of the masses will become a real thing.

Automation is already killing manufacturing jobs, and this is rapidly spreading to technology and services too. A fresh engineering graduate would be better off driving an Uber than seeking a job at an IT company. It is entirely likely that within a decade, the global workforce will comprise largely of angry gig-economy hustlers who will barely get by. Things will be worse in India, where the poor educational system will preclude all but the brightest from getting by in the new Economic order. Indian cities are already known for their lawlessness – this will get worse. Climate change is already wreaking havoc in agriculture – the largest provider of employment in the country. The imminent real estate bust will devastate opportunity in the construction sector, throwing millions of desperate, starving people out on the streets. This will be a windfall for leaders, as years of political outcomes have proven beyond doubt that impoverished Indians can live on illusions of nationalistic grandeur and delusions of piety.

As has been the case numerous times in history, people who have nothing to look forward to materially are easily motivated by bad ideas. This is the principle that drives religious fanaticism, violent nationalism, and other herd behaviour that takes the hard work of critical thinking and decision making out of human existence. If you look closely, these are the forces that drive the political agenda in India today. Are we evolving into a society of Eloi and Morlocks?

Yes.

With violence increasingly becoming a standard part of political discourse in the country, and the convergence of political, economic, and ecological factors, India is on the brink of a security catastrophe. Though complex technological systems – engineered social media – would drive political and behavioural compliance, there will be physical risks, for which the Eloi will pay dearly. There will be times when the security of their urban sanctuaries will be breached, and Eloi will be taken, like they are even today, but these will be accepted stoically and forgotten the way today’s hideous crimes are.

As a resident or security professional, understand that the already high costs of security are going to rise substantially in India. If you live in Gurgaon for instance, renting a home with secure access to water and energy (read an RWA that keeps the water tanks filled and diesel generators for when government supply fails) costs a minimum of INR 45,000 a month in base expenses. Bills for these services will add a further INR 15,000 to your outflow each month. Foreign workers from prosperous nations often spend upwards of INR 500,000 per month on just rent and utilities to maintain a standard of living close to what they would have in their home countries. In comparison, an indulgent three bedroom apartment off Route de Pregny in Geneva rents for about CHF 3,500 – about INR 240,000 a month. So for those living in three million dollar Delhi homes – it’s cheaper to live in Switzerland – up the road from UN Headquarters. Compared to Delhi, the clean air and fabulous dining should make that a non-decision.

The fresh air that you have for free in Geneva (AQI 28 as on 17 May 2018) can be had in your Delhi home with a positive pressure air purifier, which will set you back about INR 2,000,000 in equipment and engineering costs for a three bedroom home. Energy costs for running this system will be about INR 10,000 a month. Do you want drinking water on tap? A whole-home reverse osmosis system will be about INR 1,000,000, with monthly energy costs of another INR 5,000 and yearly maintenance bills of INR 200,000. Of course you’re back in the haze the moment you step out of the door and you’ll get sick if you happen to swallow in a hotel shower. We haven’t even factored in women being free to walk around in shorts without being whistled at, groped, or raped because they were asking for it by dressing that way. Consider also the privilege of being able to totter out of Le Roi Ubu at 1 AM without the fear of being mugged or worse.

Is India getting better, the way so many people claim?

No.

Will it get worse?

Given the socioeconomic trends so far, Yes.

Swiggy The Eco-Villain

I frequently use Swiggy – a food delivery app. My usage surged in the week after shifting to a new home as my kitchen was not quite ready for use. It just struck me that the amount of plastic cutlery in the house has shot up, on account of items received along with my Swiggy orders.

I just wondered – since these deliveries are coming to a home, why do they need to include the plastic cutlery? Even when I lived by myself, I had a reasonably well-appointed kitchen, and most people have at least a spoon and plate available. I’ve seen Swiggy deliveries to people in my office on occasion, and in most offices, metal cutlery and non-disposable plates are made available to all employees. So why does Swiggy need to unnecessarily deliver hundreds of kilos of plastic flatware?

Problems like this occur when businesses focus too much on a “model” and completely ignore important areas such as sustainability and social responsibility. This is quite surprising, as Swiggy’s founders are all graduates from top management or technical institutes. But well, the Indian educational system is not known for sullying students’ minds with matters as squalid as morals, values, or social responsibility.

There are three super-simple fixes.

Solution One

Add a “cutlery not required” checkbox to the order page. The restaurant gets an alert on this order, and they don’t include cutlery in the packaging. This is the simplest solution, but I think many users would just ignore it (getting it free, so might as well…). Perhaps a few people like me would use it, but I do think there are better solutions.

Solution Two

A negative incentive is certain to fare better than Solution 1. Have a “cutlery required” checkbox and charge people INR 25 per set. I think this is just like what supermarkets here do with their fake biodegradable bags, only it will be more effective, as people ordering on Swiggy from home are not subject to the same pressures as the person with eleven kilos of veggies waiting at a Spencers’ checkout.

Solution Three

A sugarcoated negative incentive. Swiggy should tie up with a provider of biodegradable flatware and plates. Order these in large quantities and have them branded. Distribute them to all their “restaurant partners” or maintain stocks with “delivery partners”. When the Customer punches “cutlery required”, this special flatware will be included in the order at an extra charge.

This approach, though requiring more effort and expense, does have the most positive outcome in my opinion.

First, it solves the issue of unwanted cutlery.

Second, any cutlery obtained through Swiggy will be sustainable/eco-friendly.

Third, it has Swiggy branding on it and will give Swiggy’s promoters bragging rights for being “environment conscious” when they approach investors for their next round of funding.