My New Project: “Business in Burma/ Myanmar”

As I mentioned in my recent post, I’m just back from Myanmar and Singapore. I’m working on a book on doing business in Burma.

WHY BURMA?

It’s an exciting new market, having been essentially closed to Western firms since the early 1990s, when political repression drew sanctions from the US, the UK, and a bunch of other countries. Now, with political liberalization, sanctions are being lifted or suspended, and companies are eager to go in.

I’d written about Burma for my clients back in the 1980s, when there were the first glimmerings of what proved to be a false dawn. Those days, I was at Business International, the company later acquired by and merged into The Economist. Burma was part of my South Asia responsibilities. (These days, it’s included with South East Asia, and looks more to Thailand as a model; back then, we included it with India and Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.)

MY MOTHER’S GOLDEN LAND

Besides the business connection, I have a personal one: My mother grew up in Burma in the British era. Her father was a doctor in Rangoon. Then came World War II, and the family moved to India as Japan bombed the city. For her, it was always the golden land of wonderful people and fond childhood memories, and my own childhood was full of her stories. When I went there for the first time in the early 1980s, I found her descriptions precise enough that I could locate the house they’d lived in, between the Zoo and a graveyard that her brothers visited at night on a dare…

So I was fascinated by the country on multiple levels, and very pleased to visit it again and see what had changed meanwhile. A lot and a little, I’d say. I think if my mother was around to visit it now, she’d still have known the place and found it familiar. In another ten years, that may not be true. There’s been a building boom, and another is in the offing.

THE BOOK ON BUSINESS IN BURMA?

I’m hoping to have the book out by year-end or so.

Meanwhile,  IMA Asia published my preliminary draft for private circulation to their clients.

After visiting Myanmar, I went to Singapore and made a presentation to around 80 of IMA Asia’s clients. It was really interesting – the companies present represented a very broad range of industries and services. Shipping and perfumery, consulting and telecoms, food and human resource management.

Some companies are already jumping in. Both Coke and Pepsi are in, Western Union is working out an arrangement with a local bank, many airlines are flying to Yangon (Rangoon) again. Others are more wary, fearing the new liberalization may not prove durable.

A few Indian companies already operate there – Dr Reddy’s Laboratories, Ranbaxy, Essar. India imposed no sanctions, so they were not forced out. Likewise, China didn’t sanction Myanmar and is a major investor and trade partner.

Still, the sanctions limited Myanmar’s ability to engage with the world, and with the changes that have occurred and others that are anticipated, new opportunities are likely to open up.

(By the way: Myanmar or Burma? Like India, Burma decided to change many of its place names back to their pre-British versions. But in this case, it became a political issue, because the revised names became associated with the military dictatorship. The US still calls the country Burma; the UN calls it Myanmar. I use both. I think it’s rather nice for a country to have multiple names. Maybe I’m biased, coming from Bharat that is India.)

Cover of IMA Asia report: Myanmar Opportunities by Rupa Bose

IMA Asia report: Myanmar Opportunities by Rupa Bose

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Was I Chatting with a Bank of America Robot?

I’m just back from a trip to Burma / Myanmar and Singapore, of which more in subsequent posts. But it left me with some stuff to catch up on, including a payment to our accountant. It should have taken me about 5 minutes with online banking. Instead, I found their details deleted from my account. So I tried to re-add the recipient, but it didn’t work.

There was a handy-dandy chat link next to the error message, so I opened the Chat. I got a prompt response, and a chat that was so entirely meaningless that I suspect it might not pass the Turing Test.

You be the judge (the “you” in the transcript below is of course me):

———————————————

Thank you for choosing Bank of America. You are now being connected to a Chat Specialist. For security purposes, please remember to close your chat window when completed.

Angelica: Hello! Thank you for being a valued Bank of America customer. My name is Angelica. May I have your complete name?
You: Rupa Bose. Hi, Angelica, I have a problem. I’ve been paying our tax accountant  quarterly for some years now. Today I found [the accountant] was missing from my list, and when I tried to re-add  I could not.
Angelica: Hello Rupa!
You: Hello Angelica! So can you fix the problem?
Angelica: I regret to hear that you were having issues with adding a recipient for your transfers.
Angelica: Let me check this for you.
You: Can you also find out why [the accountant] was suddenly missing after years of glitch-free transfers?
Angelica: I apologize for the delay. I’ll be with you shortly.
Angelica: I do apologize for this inconvenience. However, you can do the adding a recipient for transfers in your online banking page as there are times that the system would have delete the recipients in the list and you just have to do the adding of the recipient process again.
You: Angelica, that is not an answer. What you said is that (1) The system for some unknown reason randomly deletes recipients. (2) It’s my problem, I have to re-add the recipient.
You: I would like to point out that (1) It did not delete *all* the recipients. (2) It would not allow me to re-add [the accountant].
You: An apology is not an explanation or a solution.
Angelica: Thank you for waiting. I’ll be with you in just a moment.
Angelica: I’m sorry for this matter. As I totally understand your point and situation. However, as there would be some additional technical steps involved to help solve this issue instead. That being said, I would need to refer you to our online banking specialists over the phone to be able to look into the best solution.
Angelica: Are you still with me? Please respond so I can leave this chat window open  to answer any questions for you.
You: I think we may as well close this window. It is not helping to solve my problem. Bye.
Angelica: Let me know if there is anything else I can assist you with.
You: Clearly nothing. Thanks anyway.
Angelica: Thank you for choosing Bank of America’s Chat Service! We appreciate and value your business.  Have a wonderful day!

———————————————

We’re sending our accountant an old-fashioned check for now.  I hope the “online banking specialists” will be better trained than poor “Angelica” at handling this, whether she’s silicon or carbon based.

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Surprise Bhangra at San Francisco’s City Hall

Visitors to India often comment on the serendipitous surprises they encounter: an elephant in traffic, a roadside celebration with dancing and music, a clever gymnastics performance during a traffic jam. Well, recently San Francisco held its own.

I’d gone to City Hall for a meeting. For those unfamiliar with it, San Francisco’s City Hall is a beautiful beaux art domed building; inside, there’s a dramatic marble staircase beneath a three-story rotunda.

It’s where marriages are registered, and legal weddings performed. Often the young couple honor the occasion by dressing up themselves, so there’s a certain festive atmosphere to what is essentially a bureaucratic office building. There’ll almost always be a bride or two floating around in fairy-tale white gowns, often accompanied by cute kids all dressed up too.

But Friday last, it was more than happy brides. I entered the building to the sound of a tabla, looked around, and on the steps at the first landing saw a musician sitting at his instrument, drumming away.

I stood around, intrigued. The tabla stopped, and gave way to the energetic beat of a dholak. And half a dozen young women in pink and green salwar-kameez inspired costumes came bounding out to perform a bhangra.

All the bhangras I’ve seen before this were performed by men. It’s an exuberant and energetic dance, originating in the Punjab. These women definitely captured the spirit of the thing, even if they didn’t make some of the acrobatic moves I’ve seen from bhangra performers in India. The pace and energy was awesome.

(Later, while doing some research for this post, I discovered that bhangra has become an international art form, not restricted to men or Punjabis or even to Indians. Cultural globalization at its best.)

Unfortunately, that was the only dance I could watch; I had to attend my meeting. But someone kindly handed me a flyer.  It was a performance by the Duniya Dance and Drum Company, which “performs and teaches traditional and innovative performance pieces from Guinea, West Africa and Punjab, India.”

It’s one of the Rotunda Dance Series. So maybe there are other surprises in store for people who think they’re going to a government meeting.

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Computer-generated Iris Scans?

I’ve spent the last several days looking through information on India’s new Unique Identity (UID) system, which is based on biometrics: ten fingerprints, two iris scans. While there’s broad support for an identification card, there have been questions about the biometrics.

So just today I came across this article that suggested it was possible to computer-generate iris scans that could mimic a biometric reading: Your iris may soon be the target of identity thieves.

“Security researchers have successfully fooled commercial iris-recognition scans with a computer-generated replica of a human eye, raising questions as to the effectiveness of such biometric systems. Generating the fake iris only takes a few minutes, and does not require the original eye to be present.”

This is the result of research at West Virginia University (together with Universidad de Autonoma de Madrid) intended to find out how to defeat a biometric system.  Generating the fake iris needs the biometric data provided by the real iris.

“Right now the research assumes that whoever is trying to beat the iris scanner has access to the codes that scanner would generate from a real iris. (In this case, the team used codes made public for research purposes.) In reality, those would hopefully be carefully protected and encrypted, meaning it would be another security task entirely to get hold of them. But unlike a password, you can’t just scrap your eyeball and get a new one. If a single large user database was breached, this technique could render thousands, or even millions, of irises insecure in an instant.”

I don’t know how easy (or not) this is. But it does suggest vulnerabilities.

Hackers are born in the same environment as IT professionals, and India has the all the preconditions. I can see it now: World class research into hacking biometric systems, being performed in a back alley in Wadala. With practical proofs of concept.

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India: 1.2 billion Unique Identities

I don’t have a birth certificate. Back then in India, few did. Many people weren’t even born in hospital. I was, so I actually have a scrap of paper on the hospital’s letterhead, stating that “A baby girl was born to Mrs. A.C. Bose,” with a date. That’s all.

How then could I prove who I was? It wasn’t really a question; I was whoever I claimed to be. More important was to prove my age: Indian systems for education or recruitment or memberships of all sorts were full of age cut-offs.

A BUNCH OF WORK-AROUNDS

My Board-issued high school certificate with my name and date of birth was my first actual legal document. (Though I’d traveled overseas, I’d been listed – like most children – on my mother’s passport.)  The school insisted our parents verify both name and birthdate, because it wasn’t easily changed once submitted. In the process, we discovered a classmate we’d known as Sweetie for ten years was actually Rajivi; another had misspelled her name throughout her school years, and now corrected it. Some people discovered they’d always celebrated their birthday on the wrong date.

Indian names transliterated into English don’t have standard spellings, though people who operate in an English-language system do standardize their names.  But I still remember my friend Navin being quite dismayed that somehow his name had been spelled Naveen on his passport. When I registered to vote in Mumbai (then Bombay), my name was transcribed into Hindi or maybe Marathi, and then back again to English. It completed this transformation as Rupas Bhosa (but I was still allowed to vote).

Internationally, the high school certificate didn’t count for much, perhaps because it didn’t name my parents. Instead,  I got a sworn affidavit from my aunt, saying she was present at my birth and could verify my parentage and date and place of birth. Later,  my passport (which by then did list parental names) became my main identity document.

RATIONING IDENTITIES

When we got our first apartment in Mumbai, friends told us we needed to apply for a ration card. “Why?” I asked. We didn’t need subsidized wheat flour or sugar; we could afford open-market goods, and we wanted to leave the rations to those who really needed it.

“No,” my friends said, “It’s not for flour and sugar, it’s for proof of address. You can’t get a cooking-gas cylinder without it.”

After the application, they said, an inspector would make a surprise visit to verify the facts – mainly, that we did actually live at the stated address. Problem? With both of us working full time, there’d be no one at home.

Fortunately, Mumbai inspectors were resourceful. He talked to our neighbors, who vouched for us. A few weeks later, we had our ration cards and then our gas cylinder.

THAT WAS THEN, WHAT’S IT NOW?

Most of India’s children then didn’t graduate from high school and get the readily-accepted Certificate. Proof of identity came from other things. Voter records. Ration cards. Affidavits provided by various people, ideally a government official. Permanent Account Numbers (PAN), issued to income-tax payers. Many older people didn’t know their birth dates by the western calendar, though they might know under which star they were born .  In such cases, faced with the need to provide information in the organized sector – such as getting passports – they guessed.

Now, decades later, the situation in India is only marginally better. Over 40% of births aren’t registered. Most Indians don’t have high school certificates or driver licenses, nor do they hold passports. Not everyone registers to vote – and, as I know from experience, the rolls aren’t necessarily accurate for identification; their job is to ensure that everyone votes only once, not that names aren’t misspelled. Only a small fraction of Indians pay direct taxes and have PAN numbers.

Unlike the US with its Driver’s Licenses and Social Security Numbers, or Singapore with its NRIC, India doesn’t have identifiers for its citizens or residents. So now an ambitious project now underway plans to offer every Indian a 12-digit unique identification number. It’s ambitious, it’s fraught, and it’s got teething troubles – but it seems to have come further than anyone expected.

TWELVE DIGITS AND TWELVE BIOMETRICS

The plan is to issue every Indian resident a Unique Identification number, the UID. It’s twelve randomly generated digits that  deliberately does not contain information about age, caste, or gender. And it’s backed, not by the memories of family members, but by bio-metrics: Ten fingerprints, and two iris scans.

The UID project plans to provide each resident of India (whether a citizen or not) with an Identity document. It’s being managed by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), within the Planning Commission, and is headed by Nandan Nilekani (formerly of computer company Infosys). It was originated by a group of overseas Indians who returned to give the project its start. It’s being called “Aadhaar” (meaning foundation).

Getting a UID requires a proof of identity from other sources (the ubiquitous ration cards, voter enrollments, Permanent Account Numbers for taxes, and driving licenses – a total of 18 acceptable documents are listed on the UIDAI website) and a proof of address (a further 33 documents are acceptable). The idea is that any documentation that a person might have can be rolled into this one number, which will then be forever linked with that person’s name and biometrics. For those without documents, there are “introducers.” These are people who, once they have a UID, can introduce others.

Right now, the plan is barreling ahead. According to the UIDAI website, 187.6 million “Aadhaar” documents have been issued, of which 46 million are in Andhra Pradesh, 37m in Maharashtra, and 15m in Karnataka. The hope is that all of India’s 1.2 billion people will be covered within the next year or two. The fundamental process is acquisition of the personal and biometric data, followed by “deduplication” – or weeding out duplicates.

There have been questions about the registration process. Press reports indicate very rapid work, perhaps overly so, because the registering organizations are paid for productivity. People commenting on websites, however, report tedious waits and delays in getting registered – and uncertainly as to the benefits.

HOPES AND FEARS

Here’s what the government says Aadhaar will do:

  • Save taxpayers funds by removing “ghost” workers from welfare and job entitlement rolls.
  • Provide a convenient single ID number that allows people to do banking and other transactions without need for further documents to prove identity or residence.
  • Eventually substitute many other identity documents, or be incorporated into them.

(Since the usage framework wasn’t rolled out prior to issuance, most of this hasn’t happened yet, and UID holders are grumbling that it’s useless. Patience may be needed here.)

There’s also the issue of National Security. India has an issue with illegal immigrants mainly from Bangladesh – or it may have one, but since there’s no documentation, it can’t be verified. This is layered with fears that these immigrants, being Muslim, may provide cover for terrorists. (I’m not sure how this works; Bangladesh isn’t exactly terrorist central. And India has its own, completely legitimate, Muslim citizens – in fact, it’s one of the world’s largest Muslim populations.) However, the Aadhaar number is issued to every resident, whether or not they’re citizens or legally present in India. There’s a separate plan to create a National Population Register, which would include citizenship – but it’s not clear now whether these databases will run in parallel or be melded.

CREEPING COMPULSION

Few of the benefits of the UID scheme work unless it is universal. Otherwise, it becomes just another documentation option, joining the PAN number and passport number and Driving license and ration card.

For now, the government permits any agency to require its clients to give a UID number. It’s unclear right now whether this will mean that the field offices will have to keep biometric readers, or if they will be able to query a central database for a name/ number reference.

Eventually, the theory goes, no one will be able to access these services without a UID, and so everyone will get one. This is pretty much how Social Security Numbers have worked in the US (though they have no photographs or biometrics). They’re not compulsory, but it’s hugely inconvenient not to have one. (The National Population Register is compulsory.)

Already, other uses are planned. One is to use it to track Tuberculosis patients, especially multiply-drug-resistant ones that move across districts, to co-ordinate their treatment. There’s talk of merging the tax authorities’ Permanent Account Number with the UID, and of using it to substitute voter registration cards.

Anyway:  Indians quite possibly will have unique ID documents within a few years.  Meanwhile, there are opportunities inherent in the process, which will generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and a market for special-purpose hardware.  Companies can expect the UID to make a lot of commercial transactions easier. But there are still a number of concerns relating to the UID program.

  • Invasion of privacy. A database that includes the biometrics of a billion people will inevitably tempt the government to add information and cross-reference it with other sources of information. There are fears that it could invade privacy, or that security forces could use it for surveillance. (In the US, until 1972, the SSN was specifically forbidden from use as an ID – but it was so convenient that everyone ignored that provision. Now it’s no longer forbidden.)
  • Commercial use. Though the government isn’t collecting the data for that purpose, it could become very attractive to companies – particularly if it’s cross-linked to, say, demographic or income information. Will the government be tempted, at some point in the future, to sell it?
  • Hacking of the database. The more we depend on a centralized database, the more vulnerable we become to its being hacked or disabled – or its data stolen or misused. I have to admit I’m wondering about this. The fingerprints and iris-scans are reduced, after all, to bits and bytes. Let’s say I’m registered with the database. Could someone hack the computer and steal my number, associating it with a different set of biometrics? Presumably the “deduplication” would prevent this at the acquisition stage – but how often will the database be checked? Will it be deduplicated frequently?
  • Mistakes and bad data. The scheme is being rolled out so rapidly that some bad data and fraudulent enrollments have already been caught. Can this process create a clean database?
  • Glitches in the biometrics process. People fear glitches in the biometric process as the UIDs issued run into hundreds of thousands. Others point out that biometric data can be accessed without a person’s consent, using fingerprints left on glass surfaces, and iris-scans obtained through fraud. Even without fraud, problems could arise. Laborers, they point out, may have worn out fingerprints. What about people with damaged irises?  The government says that by using 12 biometrics, and supplementing it with a different process for people with fingerprint/ iris-scan problems,  it reduces errors to extremely manageable levels.

It’s not just laborers. The other day, I went to have my finger-prints scanned. (In San Francisco – not for Aadhaar.) The machine tried, and gave up. I damped my finger-tips, dried my finger-tips, and tried different angles as the operator suggested. Nothing worked. And back when I used to visit Dubai frequently, I had a biometric card that should have allowed me rapid processing based on my fingerprints. Nope. The reader could never match my scanned prints with the ones on my card.

Too much time at the keyboard, I suspect… my computer ate my finger-prints.

Posted in Doing Business in India, General, Regulations | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Morse Code, Mobile Phones, and Multiple Disability

Consider someone who’s deaf, using a mobile phone. They can’t hear, but they can certainly text-message. A blind person, once they’ve learned the key-pad, can talk on a cellphone though they can’t text-message (or rather, they can’t read text-messages, even if they can send them).

Now consider people who are blind and deaf… like Helen Keller was. All communication is extremely difficult. If they learn a keyboard, they can type messages — but how do they receive information?  In Helen Keller’s case, someone would have to finger-spell the letters into the palm of her hand.  Nowadays, they may use modified sign language, but again relying on touching.

Now there’s an Android cell-phone app for that. It allows people who have limited or no vision and hearing to “text” each other with Morse code. The phone vibrates the signal. Essentially, the app converts incoming text messages into vibrations in Morse code.

Deaf-blind people who are familiar with the keypad of the phone, and know Morse code can use it to communicate with anyone who has a smart-phone. (It would also allow a deaf people to use text-messaging.)

But how does a deaf-blind person learn Morse? Well, there’s an app for that, too, which makes the phone vibrate in Morse when you input a letter.

DOWNLOAD THE APPS

Anmol Anand, the developer of this application, is a graduate student in computers in India. His advisor was my friend Arun Mehta of the Bi-directional Access Promotion Society (bapsi.org). The BAPSI website carries both apps, and they’re downloadable for free.

The vibrating text app can be downloaded HERE. (It’s called PocketSMS for Android.)

The Morse Trainer, together with instructions, can be downloaded HERE.

And HERE is a video about the app as well as further plans – like making Wikipedia available as Morse vibrations.

NEEDS FIELD-TESTING

This app should prove an excellent way for deaf-blind people to communicate with people who are simply deaf, or with people who are neither deaf nor blind. But… it needs testing, ideally by people in its target audience.

Anmol and Arun (and BAPSI) are looking for deaf-blind people who would be willing to field-test it. If there’s anyone interested, e-mail bapsi.org (or me).

[Edited to Add: I’m proud to say that BAPSI won a grant from the Information Society Innovation Fund (ISIF Asia) in 2013.]

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Flying Coach in India, Part 2

Okay, maybe I was being too positive about flying in India in my last report. Not that the rest of my experience was bad, it just wasn’t as pleasant as the first leg. From Bengaluru (Bangalore) to Kolkata (Calcutta), and from there to Delhi, I flew JetLite, Jetair’s budget airline.

Bangalore’s relatively new airport is already too small. There’s construction going on to expand it. Meanwhile, it’s crowded – at least it was early in the morning, when I was catching the first flight out. Each airline was checking in all its flights in one line, which would be fine if they had enough time – but they didn’t, and so they were calling the passengers for the earliest departing flights to come forward. People with luggage carts tried to wend their way through the crowd, adding to the confusion. Once checked in, though, I went through security fairly quickly. It’s separated into Ladies and Gents, which seems to work reasonably well.

Everywhere in India, sparrows – once the commonest city birds — are in decline. I was delighted, therefore, to find a flock of them have taken up residence in Bangalore airport. The maintenance people may be less delighted; the glass partitions have wire spikes along the top, presumably to discourage the birds from perching on them and streaking them with their droppings.  This sparrow clearly didn’t get the message.

Jetlite had less legroom than Jetair, but was tolerable. They served no meals, but had sandwiches for sale for Rs180 (about US$3.5) –  tea sandwiches between crustless slices of bread, not the American-style monsters.

Kolkata airport looked old and tired. Unlike Delhi, the ladies’ loo was appalling. Most of the stalls had squat-toilets, and none had any toilet paper. I believe the airport is due for a re-model, and it could certainly use it.

So I’d say it was a mixed experience. However, loos aside, not much different from the experience of flying in the US. With fewer security hassles, and added sparrows.

A couple of days later, I flew out of Delhi to return to the US. The only remarkable thing was two levels of security. We went through general security. Then we went through security at the gate all over again (the main difference seemed to be shoe-removal – not normally required by Indian security). Then, as we boarded the aircraft, they checked our passports again.

I flew United. The flight was packed, the food was ordinary, and my seat didn’t recline. I thought wistfully of Jetair.

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