Thursday, July 30, 2009

Of salad days in Srinagar and lingering summers in Leh

| part II of the kashmir chronicles ...

The bus to Leh takes a slow, winding (and sputtering) route to Kargil, along the banks of the Indus river. I met a couple of American backpackers on the bus with whom I was to share much a friendship later, a couple of Indian travellers with whom I was to share much a smile, a triad of Portugese with whom I was to share hardly a nod, and the bus driver and its conductor who became my guide on the long ride.

Now I have this zest for photography, nothing serious, but a whimsical fancy that comes to the fore everytime I travel. Early into the ride, not content with getting an aisle seat, I managed to secure a place right next to the driver, that gave me an expansive front view of the route. The seat also bought me the cameraderie of the driver and his chummies, who spent the ride explaining the intricacies of the way.

Baltal from Zoji LaThe road to Leh snakes its way up the hill via Sonmarg, up the Zoji La pass and downwards on to Kargil. The route is dry and barren, but with a stunning scenery of exotic grey-brown and enormous mountains and the blue indus river snaking beneath. At many a section along the route, it seems the road is exposed to firing from across the border, something the driver took great glee in pointing out to us grave-faced folk (but of course, these are peaceful times). And at many a point along the route, are memorial stones of Indian soldiers who have laid down their lives in the multiple wars that the two nations have fought.

DrassEnroute Kargil, is the infamous town of Drass, epicenter of the Kargil war that took place a decade back. Today, the town is yet another small township, with a small teashop, a quiet police station and an exquisite J&K tourism board indicating that the town is the 'second coldest inhabited place in the world' - bloddy hot in summer though, I must admit. Outside Drass, and enroute the town of Kargil are military memorials to the decade old war (yes, it occured exactly a decade before - 1999 was the year).

Kargil townThe Kargil township itself is a narrow, though bustling, market intersection with a bunch of shops and houses crowding the hillside. This was our night halt. Interestingly, the place has quite a few decent hotels, cybercafes and restaurants serving everything from Mughlai to Chinese cuisine and playing old Hindi songs.

Early in the morning at 4 am, vary of my keylong morning dog-chase last year, I made my way, with trepidation, in the darkness to the bus. Thankfully, Kargil had quite a few early birds, up to catch buses, none of whom were dogs.

And what a roar the Indus makes in the quietness of the morning twilight!

S-curves enroute LehIt was another day's journey to Leh, a day through dry mountainous passes, through 21S-curved roads, along the edge of tall gorges, with exquisitely shaped mountain ranges colored in red, green, blue and yellow!, through a monasteric Ladakhi landscape and along the omnipresent Indus river. The apricots were sweet, the weather hot, the driver amusing, the company interesting and the ride, unforgetful.

This is a ride people must undertake, if only to realize that beauty exists even in the dry barreness of mountains and in the craziest, remotest of places. As I was to realize later, Ladakh would remind me of this over and over again.


Of salad days in Srinagar and lingering summers in Leh

It was a spur of the moment choice that I decided to hoist my bags and head out to the Kashmir valley. I had a week's alloted vacation, no particular destination in mind and was nursing a loathful grudge against a certain visa officer who chose not to stamp my passport in gay abandon.

The flight to Srinagar took but a passing hour; the cab ride to town with a cowboyish driver, almost half. A hotel on the banks of the Dal Lake, lay roomed beneath a temple hill.

srinagar flower sellerSrinagar seemed so different from other Indian cities. Inherently pretty, the charm of a place still apathetic to the passage of time. The Dal Lake with its innumerous shikaras and multitude of boats, yet so peacefully quiet. The kahwah tea, with its cinnamon, cardomom and saffron scents, that I so fell in love with. The Mughal gardens, so serenly beautiful, wistfully reminiscent of a bygone era. The Shankaracharya hill with its all-encompassing views. The warm kashmiri people - never else across the country have I seen such care and affection for a wandering traveler. And finally, a choking military and police presence, a lingering tension in the air and in words, a smoldering war zone feel to an otherwise incredibly beautiful place.

And yet, Srinagar seemed so similar to other Indian cities. People crib about ineffective politicians. Autos and guesthouses fleece you, unless you bargain. People dump garbage everywhere on the street. People love watching hindi soaps on TV all the time. And all buses belong to the last century.

Gulmarg GondolaIn such a bus I made the trip to Gulmarg (and later to Leh). Gulmarg is a small hill-station, some 50 odd kilometers from Srinagar. The slouching bullock-cart of a bus sputtered its way to Gulmarg over a leisurely 4 hour period. Slow enough, for us to savor the white-daisy studded green meadows and the tall deodar trees covering the route.

Gulmarg has a two stage Gondola that goes all the way up to the snowline and to the edge of the Line of Control of India. The top was all snow, even in the summer heat. The LOC, an unseen border between two nations, with military huts on either side. The first Gondola stage is in fact, more pretty than the second, with lush green, horse grazed meadows and tall verdant deodar trees beneath the snowy mountainous peaks, as if out picked out of a pretty painting. Stood I, staring there, for many an hour.

... part I of the kashmir chronicles |

Monday, July 13, 2009

Leaving money on the table

Pricing perfectly is a science, nay an art.

I just realized how difficult it is to price something well and not leave money on the table when I paid my laundryman. The guy charges the lowest prices per piece I have ever seen anywhere in the country (and by extention anywhere in the world). His prices are atleast one-tenth the prices I would pay if I took it a professional shop thats a 10 min drive from here. And the poor guy ends up borrowing money in advance to tide over his expenses during the month.

Clearly, he could easily raise his prices without losing customers.

Or can he? Now, he is one of the two laundrymen who service the apartment complex where I live. And both of them charge the same rates. If he raises his prices, there is a good chance customers could switch.

So whats his way out?

He has two basic options. One - collude with the other laundryman to raise prices. Or Two - start differentiating, for e.g. offer a premium service at a higher price point and attempt to move customers up.

Again, how much could he raise prices?

Pricing theory says one could raise prices all the way to the point till customers see value, capped by prices of comparable alternatives. In this case, if I were a representative customer, he could raise prices almost 10-fold (assuming he could match the professional service shop) or atleast 2-3 fold at his current service level. I'd imagine that the money he's leaving on the table could solve most of his monetary problems. But does he realize it?

One factor in this is the availability of quality information. A lot of pricing that happens in practice (even in large firms) is through benchmarks. For the laundryman, the only comparable is his competitor. And this makes him leave money on my table.

This underpricing is something I've noticed in a lot of the unorganized labor in the place where I live. And this is quite sad for it feels almost exploitive to be keeping back money from people who are more in need.

Finally, it is interesting to look at professional services available in this town. Quite a opposite to the unorganized, they seem to follow the maxim 'when in doubt, price up'. With scarcity on their side, they rule the roost. To cite the contrast again, I've never seen professional services priced so high anywhere else in India.

Gurgaon is an interesting city.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The firm of the future

Warning: Idle rambling ahead.

Outsourcing is today, a nascent phenomena, atleast to the general public. Beyond the standard hulla-balloo that is heard in the media on outsourcing and the loss of jobs in the US, most are largely ignorant of its play.

What is interesting about outsourcing is its impact on the structure of the firm. For something that started out as a means to delegate fringe services (non 'core', as they used to be called some time back) to third parties as a cost and headache reduction measure, its interesting to see how widespread its impact is, today. From running entire IT setups to large parts of firms - I've even heard of new firms being setup from scratch in a totally outsourced manner - outsourcing is today an integral part of the structure of the firm.

In effect, outsourcing service providers are turning into service factories - that can take any proven business operation/process and industrialize it to run it faster, better and cheaper.

The only thing that's not yet been ever outsourced is the conceptualization or the ideation of the firm. Entrepreneurs still need to figure out business models and prove their worth - however, once they have done that to a reasonable extent, the operations and management can be very well parcelled out to an outsourcer.

So what will the firm of the future look like? One extreme view is that firms of the future (excluding, of course, the service provider firms themselves) will just consist of the ideators - who will conceptualize, design and initiate service offerings - and a bunch of service managers, who will govern delivery relationships with outsourcers. Therefore, a much leaner and more agile firm.

The other view is that outsourcing service providers will not be able to competitively perform every task that an internal firm environment can; that the marginal costs of outsourcing will someday catch up with its marginal benefits and stop it in its tracks. But nothing we know currently seems to point in this direction - if anything we have a long way to go till we get to that point of equalization.

It would be interesting though to see what ultimately happens - hopefully the options would play out in our lifetime. Or maybe, like the theories of contracting and expanding universes, we would just need to be content with conjectures.