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.

This advisory is not exhaustive, and is not a substitute for a detailed risk assessment and needs-based security plan. It contains information excerpted from risk advisories prepared by Hill & Associates India Private Limited. The below information is provided free of charge for informational purposes only, and neither the author nor Hill & Associates Limited and its associated entities assumes any warranties or responsibilities for inclusions, omissions, or the consequences of the use of this information. 

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 on file is proactive protection against malicious claims. You may 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 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 “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. Avoid traveling alone at night, particularly on foot, even if in commercial or entertainment districts.
  3. With an election year looming, expect an increase in political demonstrations and protests, especially in Delhi. 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 in extreme cases – deadly force. 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.
  4. Do not accept food or beverages from strangers under any circumstances.

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.
  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 it 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 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. Most 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.
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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.

The Vilification of Subjectivity

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A few days ago, I read about a stand-alone coffee shop run by a person with a passion for coffee. Instinctively, I looked this place up on a popular restaurant review website, and saw that people who had been critical of their experience at the establishment received a rude response from the proprietor who encouraged them to take their business elsewhere. He seemed genuinely offended that his “best” was “not good enough” for certain clients. While I understand though not condone such pettiness from a person who has devoted an unnatural amount of time to the “art” of grinding and boiling roasted seeds, “coffee snobs” abound. Just check Tinder, where self-confessed coffee snobs are the third-largest population – next only to sapiosexuals and Murakami fans.

Such arrogance is somewhat new among coffee lovers in this country, but has been quite prevalent among the self-proclaimed wine and whiskey/whisky aficionados I have encountered over the years. In fact, public humiliation by a “single malt connoisseur” was the reason I steered clear of single malts in my early 20s. Thankfully, about five years after this incident, a celebrity bartender sorted me out. As a professional, he explained that we’re wired differently for taste based on our genetics, body chemistry and food habits, and he thought that many of the “rules” around whiskey consumption are absurd. He added that nearly every whiskey connoisseur he had encountered in his 20-year career was “full of shit”. “Drink it the way you like it” he proclaimed, and treated me to a Manhattan made with a 30-something year old Single Malt. His view is not new by any means: the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976 – better known as the Judgment of Paris – placed underdog Californian brands above popular European labels such as Mouton-Rothschild, Roulot, and Montrose in a blind test. This triggered an expansion in consumers’ taste for wines.

Since my encounter with the bartender, I have made it a point to understand where the “rules” and “traditions” related to products and experiences actually come from. Sadly, most of these are created as a marketing campaign to justify an overpriced and often unappealing product. Mass media and social media are used to make people think what they should feel about products and experiences, and many people toe the line to conform. Though individualism and personal identity have been key social phenomena since the mid-20th century, subjectivity of experiences is becoming increasingly vilified.

Today, there are templates for everything – the ultimate cup of coffee (even if made with rodent excreta), the perfect whiskey, the ideal romantic relationship, the perfect marriage, the ultimate vacation – you name it. Social media bombards us with selective portrayals of what these should be, and many people with good lives are pushed into a sense of inadequacy despite their satisfactory subjective experiences. There are those who insist that people with a strong sense of “self” are immune to these influences but this is not true. Decades of psychological and social research tell us that happiness is relative and it is likely that current levels of anxiety and unhappiness have atleast something to do with the vilification of subjectivity in favour of the Instagram ideal.

There are social consequences too. Religious beliefs, political views, and personal ethics are all the product of an individual’s subjective experience of life. Judging people along these lines often leads one to overlook the intrinsic good in them. With the world increasingly splitting into echo chambers, it would help to embrace the subjectivity of experience and by extension, the differences between us brought about by our individual experiences in life.

 The next time a wine connoisseur rattles off memorized tasting notes, roll your eyes and sigh contemptuously: Click here to know why.

 

Chemical Lessons

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My body reminded me of something important today. Due to unusual circumstances I ended up drinking two cups of coffee (double stovetop Moka Pot and a large mug of French Press) this morning. Today is a busy day – I’m traveling on business, and will be in the air for much of the day. I was trying to get as much done between 0700 and 0900. Within 20 minutes of the second cup I was in a near panic – dealing with things that are routine for me in the course of my work. What the hell was going on?

Sitting at my (home) work desk, I tried my three minute mindfulness meditation. It did centre me mentally, but I could feel the panic in my limbs – a scary sense of detachment very similar to being severely drugged – when your body does not feel the way your mind expects it to. I managed to get out of the house and to my cab with that lingering sense of dread. I did more breath meditating in the taxi – then it struck me. Caffeine. The jumbo overdose of caffeine.

Sitting here in the boarding lounge, it all came together. I recalled a period of three months last year when I went off all stimulants. This had been an intensely painful time for me, as I was dealing with a devastating life event. Life at that time was just work, exercise, yoga, and meditation. No sugar, no alcohol, and no coffee. The daily meditation kept me centred and functional – important when a desperate sadness is hanging over your entire life like a dark cloud. The sugar free diet kept my energy levels constant throughout the day – nice when you’re living a high-stress consulting industry lifestyle. The yoga and exercise gave me killer fucking abs.

So now I think back – perhaps that is a good way to be. Minus the chemical stimulants, perhaps I’ll be more focused and thus able to vanquish the distractions that mock my plans to study and write. There is the social impact of not drinking alcohol and coffee – but as with that time, people get used to it rapidly.

Context, and the Perils of Bullet-Point Wisdom

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A few years ago, while studying Rabbinical commentary by a 20th century Hasidic rabbi, I came across a line that resonated with me quite deeply. It seemed to point me to direction, a sense of purpose, and a new perspective to human existence.  Ecstatic, I phoned a friend in Israel to tell him about my breakthrough. This friend, a US-born businessman, converted to Orthodox Judaism in his late 40s, after a secular Jewish upbringing stateside. He is an interesting mix of worldliness and pragmatic spirituality, despite the rigours of his Orthodox Jewish observances. For about a year, he had followed my studies – more out of amusement than the joy of seeing the Tribe increase. With patience born of experience, he listened through a forty minute soliloquy.

“Nate, if you change the context, they’re just hollow words.”

He went on to explain, that the concept in question was a key responsibility of orthodox Jews that included liturgical duties, matters of observance in terms of Jewish law, and crucially, the application of Orthodox Jewish morals in interacting with the world. While the words themselves would ring relevant to anyone who grappled with complex questions of existence and purpose, my interpretation was no longer faithfully conveying what the sage intended. My friend was right. Though I had read several hundred pages in the lead-up to the line, I had conveniently dropped the entire context at the aha moment. I knew what the Rabbi was advising; in fact, I was critical of most of his exhortations – which were delivered to Eastern European Jewry at a terrible time in their history. This realization was the beginning of the end of my interest in religious commentary. At that moment though, I had been a heartbeat away from proclaiming a profound insight to the world via Facebook.

In the years since, Bullet-Point Wisdom has exploded – catchy sayings flood Instagram, Facebook, and Whatsapp. Jalaluddin Mohammed “Rumi” is probably more read in 21st Century than ever before in history – his esoteric concepts of divinity flogged lifeless by nation-hopping trust fund brats and the miserably single. “Listicles” – articles in the form of a list – have emerged as a new class of content with titles such as “seven signs that you’re dating the right man”; “ten signs you’re in an abusive relationship”; or even “seven ways to lose weight now”. These articles offer bullet-point guidance on dealing with complex emotional, spiritual, and worldly crises. This form of content is outrageously popular. Each morning a bunch of usual suspects flood my Facebook and Instagram feeds with their fix of the day. I also receive links to such articles that senders perceive to be relevant to my personal circumstances.

While social media has just made such content ubiquitous, the bullet-point approach has been about for a while. Physicians I know have expressed their exasperation with patients who demand a line of treatment that they saw on WebMD or Wikipedia; fellow Krav Maga instructors complain about students who have been experimenting with fancy but ineffective techniques seen on youtube; qualified fitness trainers I know kvetch about the latest fads that’s affecting their clients’ progress.

Bullet Point Wisdom is dangerous. It almost always lacks context. More than ever, with increasing tools for communication, anybody with a keyboard can ask a question, and anyone similarly equipped can answer. Looking at sites like Quora, it is clear that many people dealing with challenges in areas such as workplace politics, relationships, money, and sexual identity are turning to the anonymity of the internet for answers. The answers, unfortunately, are largely from people out to prove that they are “holier than thou”, and holding the “seeker” in judgment. Also, people who lack the credentials to give qualified advice seek out patterns in their own past and apply the half-baked wisdom of hindsight to the other party’s predicament – this is unwise, ineffective, and in the worst cases, condescending. It can increase one’s emotional burden to be told that the solutions to their problems are simple, and that they just don’t “get it”. With issues like weight loss and health, this advice can be factually incorrect or even harmful. As a secondary consequence, bullet-point wisdom has killed our respect for specialists. Physicians, therapists, physical trainers, and other trained experts are flippantly dismissed in favour of the internet experts at Quora.

“Why are most people broke”? was a question asked on Quora a few days ago. The answers were from scores of holier-than-thou people who claimed to acquired and retained a fortune through astute investing and frugal living. Nearly every answer to the question was a clear or veiled boast of how someone had “made it”. No one even bothered to ask for more information about the question. Was the person posting in despair about the situation of his family or community? Was he desperately trying to find direction to improve his circumstances? Another question by someone who had fallen out of love with a partner had responses full of judgment and condemnation – nary the trace of an answer. This probably has as much to do with the questions asked as the irrelevance of those who answered, but I pity the person who would have to read through those answers – especially in the latter case.

Now, more than ever, this world needs expertise. Human existence is increasing in complexity each passing day. Doctors spend more time than ever studying. Even lawyers and engineers have to turn to super-specialization to thrive. Unfortunately, with easy access to superficial information on almost any subject, anyone can proclaim themselves an authority.

It’s unclear what the future of expertise will be. 50 years from now, will your doctor speak your symptoms into a smartphone app, that will draw up a prognosis and line of treatment? Will we receive legal advice from a text message bot?

Crucially, and this is scary – will we ever again have insightful, compassionate, and objective advice to life’s questions from people who understand the importance of context?

ICOs: Venture Capital for Mere Mortals

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An Initial Coin Offering (“ICO”) is a method by which entrepreneurs raise money via cryptocurrencies. In the typical ICO, a company floats a proprietary digital token on a network such as Ethereum and accepts Bitcoin, Ether, or another cryptocurrency in exchange. These new tokens represent either shareholding or participatory privileges in the fledgling business. Ethereum has been a game changer for such enterprises, having served as a platform for most issuances.

These ICOs represent the beginning of a fundamental shift in how high-technology businesses are funded. In the past four decades, angel investors and venture capitalists got behind great ideas and funded them. Private equity funds then took up the gauntlet in second stage funding and ran to the IPOs. By the time these companies listed on stock exchanges and shares made their way into the hands of individual investors, the venture capitalists and the private equity funds had locked in massive returns on capital. Few individual investors could hope to match the kind of profits that early investors generated. Well, one could certainly invest in a Private Equity fund, but in most regulatory jurisdictions, you would need about a million dollars to join.

The game is changing. Today, lay investors with a rudimentary understanding of how Cryptocurrencies work have the opportunity to make early-stage investments with as little as USD 100. The ICO revolution puts early-stage investing and its profit opportunities within the reach of ordinary investors. For instance USD 1,000 invested at Ethereum’s ICO in 2015 would today be worth USD 230,000!

There are risks though. Venture capitalists are high risk takers, and are comfortable with the possibility that their entire investment in a particular company may be lost. Even Private Equity funds, though somewhat more conservative, play similar odds. For an individual investor with a focus on capital preservation, this may be a poor thesis on which to build one’s retirement portfolio, but this does offer a credible and low-cost opportunity to add some high-reward risk to a conservative portfolio.

The fraud risks are immense. Information on internet directories suggests that the time of writing, there are over 100 companies at various stages of the ICO process. Naturally, performing adequate due diligence on these is a huge challenge. The only resources that investors have are the LinkedIn profiles of the principals of these companies and a webpage that contains information about the supposed product. As the frenzy kicks up, it is entirely possible that fraudsters conduct an ICO and divert the proceeds. The decentralized nature of Blockchain enterprises will make such fraud impossible to investigate or prosecute with the current state of Law, as investigative agencies lack jurisdiction across international borders.

Regulatory risks abound too. Though multiple governments are warming to cryptocurrencies, these are largely considered to be a fad among technology enthusiasts. As interfaces with the traditional financial systems increase and cryptocurrencies become more influential in moving markets, the possibility of stronger regulation increases, and “investments” in these tokens may be challenging to liquidate.

The biggest risk though, is that most Blockchain startups are based on arcane concepts that are beyond the understanding of the average person. While these systems and platforms represent engineering genius, as a utility, they are irrelevant to 90 per cent of the world’s population. Furthermore, many of these projects are conceptualized and executed by young and passionate entrepreneurs. While their technical skills and intentions are beyond doubt, it remains to be seen if their business skills are up to the mark in riding the wave of disruption that they are about to unleash. Browsing through these ICO Prospectuses (or white papers as they’re called), it’s obvious that most of them are aimed at solving fundamental problems related to service delivery, financial inclusion, and even healthcare – however, whether these platforms will actually make the change that they envision is up for debate.

Cryptocurrencies, as an asset class, have delivered outstanding returns in what seems to be blowing into a bubble. Thankfully, newer digital assets such as Ether, Gnosis and Aeternity tokens have a functional aspect that will add fundamental value to them as time passes. For instance, Bitcoin has notional value like paper money, and there is a possibility that the currency will collapse once mining it becomes unprofitable. Conversely, Ether is the sole mode of payment of transaction fees for a growing number of applications on Ethereum. As these apps increase in number and grow in user base, the fundamental value of Ether will increase.

In conclusion, if the idea of owning a piece of a high-potential technology business is appealing to you, looking up ICOs may be worth your time.

Start your Cryptocurrency journey by buying Bitcoin via Unocoin