Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Children's Day thoughts

Last Sunday, in the apartment complex where I reside, there was a cultural entertainment programme, an annual programme that is held during the Deepavali season. One highlight of that evening was the amazing, scintillating performance of talent and creativity by teenagers, pre-teens and tiny tots. They not only staged dance performances and sang songs, but also took the initiative to organize the event and conduct it so impressively. Though the elders were all around guiding, inspiring and training them, at the end of it all, the youngsters stole the limelight, giving us hope of a bright future.

Yesterday, a group of Mass Communication students from St Xavier's College, Goa, were in my office as part of their educational tour of Bengaluru. As I always do, while interacting with students, I let them ask questions, rather than give a long lecture. Some of the questions they asked showed how bright the new generation is. I have got the same impression during guest lectures at Christ University too. The standard of students today is much higher than, say, some 15 years ago.

Every Sunday, at 10 am, on the India Today TV channel journalist Rajdeep Sardesai conducts an hour-long unique quiz contest for schoolchildren, based on current affairs. It's been running for a few weeks, and those who have access to this channel should watch it. Outstanding, is an understatement to describe the caliber of some of the children. There is a section wherein contestants are shown a video clip, and on a few occasions the kids answered correctly even before seeing the clip, by taking a cue from the question. That one hour gives you an idea of the high standards of children in different parts of our country. 

Children today are growing up with radically different points of references. While one might say that today's advantages that children enjoy have hidden dangers as well. But, I would say that today's children are equally smart to know what is right and wrong for them. They are articulate, expressive, self-confident and raring to go.

This day is a reminder for elders to provide the right environment and opportunities for children, so that they can put their knowledge and skills to good use, and bring their dreams and aspirations to fruition.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The new public transport in town -- Ola Share and Uber Pool -- reducing congestion, pollution

Pic credit: Uber
Hiring cabs for commuting from point A to point B, was considered a sign of luxury. The hoi polloi took the bus, even if it meant waiting for half an hour or even one hour. A taxi was for that rare emergency.

There was a reason: the cost. Cabs were expensive, and simply not affordable.

Then came the technology that enabled a virtual aggregation of thousands of cabs which could be hailed remotely sitting at home, or wherever. One can even see the cab that is on its way to pick you up.

Uber, Ola and a few others, basically technology companies, became cab operators by even not owning a single cab.

The operational pattern changed, and prices dropped. Cabs became preferable.

Then came a tweak to the technology that enabled booking of the same cab by multiple people, who are headed in the same direction.

Prices dropped further, so much so that even if it was costlier than the bus, the convenience combined with the saving of time, made cabs a still more preferable medium of commute.

Besides pricing, cab services took the form of public transport.

Amazing technology

The way passengers are booked on to Ola Share and Uber Pool is a remarkable piece of technology. The algorithm knows the seating capacity of four, and after a ride has begun with the first booking, the remaining seats are filled as and when there is a booking by anyone who wishes to travel in the same direction the cab is headed.

On many occasions, the cab I travelled in had its full quota of four passengers most of the time, with a new passenger being added within minutes of one being dropped. A driver once told me riders were being added continuously for nearly four hours, he switched off the booking option so that he could take a break and have some snacks.

When I use Ola Share or Uber Pool , I get a feeling that the mode of transport loosely resembles commuting by bus. Instead of physically waving your hand at an incoming bus in order to board it, here you book via an app. Like in the case of a bus, there are people getting in and getting out.

However, unlike a bus, I don't have to wait without having any idea of when the cab will come; I can actually see on a map the cab approaching. And secondly, bus routes are fixed, but the cab route is flexible enough: I am able to get off precisely at the point where I want to go.

Don't take your car, book ride-sharing cab

My suggestion is, as far as possible, take a ride-sharing cab instead of either taking your own car or booking one for just yourself. Not only you save money, but you reduce traffic congestion, and thereby pollution too. Of course, an Ola Share or a Uber Pool might take 15 or even 20 minutes extra compared to when travelling alone, but that is a small sacrifice for the many benefits. Remember, it's still a lot better than bus, is it not?

It was so shocking to see government in some States (Karnataka, Delhi, Tamil Nadu) either banning carpooling or thinking of it. I hope the government recognizes app-based ride-sharing cab services as a public transport service on a par with buses, encourages it as a matter of policy; and perhaps even launches one of its own.

There will be fewer cars on roads, there will be lesser pollution, and people will be able to travel more comfortably and reach their destinations faster.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Forget e-wallet. What is your UPI ID?

It's quite a few years since e-wallets came. Most of banks and e-commerce players have one. Then there are those like Paytm and MobiKwik.

These e-wallets are like the physical wallets we carry with us. Take money from the bank, put it in the wallets, and spend money from the wallet.

But frankly, I never understood, why one should put money in the e-wallet from the bank, and then spend it, when we can make payment directly from the bank? Why move money twice?

Someone told me, it's more secure. If your bank account is hacked, a lot of money could be gone. But if you wallet is hacked, only the little in the wallet would be gone. True. But even if you have a wallet, nothing stops from your bank account getting hacked.

Unified Payments Interface

Now we are getting hear more and more about UPI. What's that?

It's the abbreviation for Unified Payments Interface. It's a system that connects many banks to one mobile app. When you want to pay someone, you can choose to pay from any bank (where you have an account, obviously) via that mobile app.

PhonePe, a Bengaluru-based company was one among the first to take the lead in bringing in an easy way to link your bank accounts to your mobile app, so that you can make payments directly from your bank, with a few taps on your phone, without having to know the recipient's bank account details. The app was launched in December 2015.

In December 2016, the National Payments Corporation of India, launched a UPI app, under the name Bhim.

And day before yesterday, Google launched Tez.

Why I prefer UPI to e-wallets

The biggest takeaway is the ease of transaction. You can connect more than one bank to the app; and payments go directly from your bank account. No more multiple movements of money from one place to another.

Another reason is in e-wallets, sender and receiver should have same app. I can't transfer money from my Paytm to a MobiKwik user. But in the case of UPI, any two people who have UPI can transfer money to each other irrespective of the app they use. So transfer from PhonePe user to a user of Bhim or Tez is possible if sender knows the UPI ID

PhonePe should have been quite popular by now. Unlike Bhim and Google Tez you can pay for many utility services from the app.

My gut feeling is that UPI is way forward for now. Only that the apps need to have features on them.

What is your UPI ID?

Most importantly, retail stores, pharmacies, utility services, and any other place where people need to make payment, have to publicize their UPI ID, so that payments can be made easily.

It's very easy to get one. It's like an email ID, which I need if I need to send you a mail.

Download PhonePe, or Bhim or Google Tez.

Your phone number is verified. Then you need to link one of your banks. Then, you get a UPI ID for that particular app. If it's PhonePe, it's usually your phone number@ybl; it is if Bhim it's phone number@upi; if it's Tez, it's your Gmail ID@ok(name of the bank which you have linked).

If some one has to pay you money; just provide them your UPI ID, and ask them to open a UPI account.

Money transfer can't easier than this. It's all transparent and accounted. No problem of getting change.

Go digital. Know not just where money is coming from, know also where it is going to.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Why you can't begin a sentence with "Due to"

One of the tasks of journalists is to get facts and the language right.

We need to get the facts right, for obvious reasons. We need to get the language right, because a wrong preposition or a phrase or a punctuation or a word can even alter the meaning of a sentence.

If there is a mistake in language, it might essentially amount to getting the fact wrong.

Even after so many years in the profession of journalism, I keep looking up the dictionary and renowned publications every day with doubts regarding a word or a phrase. It's always a learning experience, and I thought I must make it a practice to put out here in the blog what I learn. The last time I blogged on "Language" was in 2007.

There is this endless debate on the difference between "due to" and "owing to". Though many believe that the two are synonymous, many puritans aren't amused if one is used in the place of the other.

Here's what I have learnt:

Due to:
  • It means "caused by"
  • Never begin a sentence with "due to". Actually you can't.
  • The right place where it's used is after variations of the verb "to be", like "is", "was", "are", "were".
For example:
  • His absence was due to illness
  • His success was due to hardwork
  • The cancellation of the concert was due to rain
Notice here:
  • You cannot rephrase these sentences by starting them with "Due to".
  • The sentences are incomplete if you cut off the portion from 'due to'. 
Owing to
  • It means "because of"
  • You can begin a sentence with "owing to".
  • Before 'owing to' you don't have "is", "was", "are", or "were", instead you have a noun, or something that describes the noun.

    For example:
  • He was absent owing to illness
  • He was successful owing to sheer hardwork
  • The concert was cancelled owing to the rain
Notice here:
  • You can rephrase these sentences by starting them with "Owing to".
  • The sentences are complete if you cut off the portion from 'owing to'. 
This is the reason you can't begin a sentence with "Due to".

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

7 reasons for cheer and 7 reasons for worry as India turns 70

Time for course correction
Today, it's 70 years since India won Independence. It has been a creditable journey for a nation like India, unique in many ways. There have been many defining personalities, events and issues in the seven decades. If one were to look at the world around us, the fact that we have survived this long, without any major and long-lasting bruises is itself a singular achievement.

As I introspect, I am proud of: 

Democracy: While it has not been a success in many nations, in India it has worked reasonably well; there is no foreseeable threat. May be we should be careful not to take our democracy for granted.

Technocrats: Our researchers in a variety of fields from agriculture to space and computer science have found indigenous solutions to our problems.

Diversity: India is a continent, in a sense. North, East, West and South have very few things in common - be it local traditions or weather. The vibrancy of variety is truly refreshing.

Tolerance: Our nation has gone through hell during these seven decades. The social fabric has been stretched a great deal. We have withstood it all.

Equal opportunity: In the eyes of the law, fully; and on the ground, to a reasonable extent, all people, irrespective of any differences, are equal. The strides some of the disadvantaged have made is truly remarkable.

Inclusivity: The vastness and diversity of India has meant that there is space for all. Like any society elsewhere, in India too there is social stratification. But this is one country where you have the luxurious and the spartan, or modernity and tradition, or science and faith coexisting side by side.

Indianness: Diversity has not taken away the Indianness from all of us. When the need arises, as it has on many occasion, all Indians have rallied together as one.

However, I am not too proud of: 

Casteism: There was a time when it mattered. We are done with it. There is no place for it in today's society, and we need to move on.

Insensitivity: Big issues bring us all together, but not the trials and tribulations of our daily lives. There is a certain amount of selfishness, and lack of concern for the person beside. This lack of social etiquette is reflected in our daily interactions everywhere.

Indiscipline: I get a feeling that we love creating problems and then taking pride in solving them. There is so much chaos and disorder. While the law of the land has generally prevailed, there are numerous instances of that being breached. The State machinery is weak, because it's the same undisciplined lot who get the power to rule the State.

Lack of accountability: Any society will have its share of disrupters. But here they seem to get away because they is no one holding them to account. That in turn becomes an incentive for that tribe to breed.

Lack of professionalism: Be it any profession, there is a lack of willingness to conform to standards. Rules are bent at will in total disregard to the severe damage our society suffers.

Pollution: Sound, air, water and the general environment around all of us is constantly getting polluted in every way.

Symbolism: We love slogans and labels. We like grand stages and large displays. We make a big show, even if on the ground, there isn't much happening. Cosmetic changes give us the false satisfaction of a mammoth achievement.

The fact that we have reached this far should not make us complacent. The future is more challenging than ever before. Unless we correct ourselves, each of us individually, in our daily lives, we will be saddled with more problems than we can solve.

(National flag image credit: All India Roundup)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Why we have no time

When we aren't able to do something, the standard reason offered is: "I didn't have time."

I remember a conversation between a senior and a junior colleague of mine a few years ago. The senior had asked the junior to do some task. When it hadn't been done, the junior was asked, why he hadn't done what he was told to do. The response, "I was too tied up; there was hardly any time to do that."

The senior's retort was: "Did you have time to brush teeth? Did you have time for a meal? So, don't tell me, you didn't have time. I won't believe that. Tell me, I didn't want to do it. I will believe that."

A bitter truth, is it not? "I didn't have time, is the most common euphemism to say it wasn't important for me.

It all boils down to priorities. We all have more stuff to do than is humanly possible to do, with 24 hours in a day. We need to prioritize.

So, why we do what we do? Because it is important.

What is less important, can wait; they give way to what is more important.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Unending struggle to link Aadhaar and PAN, even though there is no mismatch of name, date of birth

(There are updates at the end of the post ... Mercifully, the struggle has ended.)

This is a tale of a continuous struggle to link Aadhaar and PAN. The struggle is on going. No one knows why the two aren't getting linked. Worse, no one knows what should be done, to resolve the mysterious issue.

It all began some time mid-June. If you recall, within days of the government mandate to link the two, there was widespread uproar about the problems being faced.  

The most common reason was the individual's name was different in Aadhaar and PAN. In PAN, it was the full name spelt out. That is because the PAN application form requires you to spell out the First Name, Middle Name, Surname. There is no option for initials.

But since the Aadhaar application  form (at least when we filled them up) didn't specify so, many wrote their names with initials. And thus, the way the name appeared in PAN differed from the way it appeared in Aadhaar.

Following the howl of protest, the government simplified the process. Thus, in the Income Tax E-filing site, where the linkage has to be done, there is now a column to specify the "name as in Aadhaar".

This brought relief to many people. So, names like, (a fictitious example) Ravi Madhava Kumar in PAN matched with variations in Aadhaar like M. Ravi Kumar or Ravi M. Kumar or Ravi Kumar M. But still, in many cases, this hasn't worked. And people had to update PAN or Aadhaar to have the names in both same.

No mismatch

But what about cases where the name in PAN and Aadhaar are written the same way, but still the linkage didn't happen? That's what has happened in my wife's case. She just has her First Name and Last Name. No Middle Name, no initials. There is no mismatch of either the date of birth or gender. And still PAN and Aadhaar weren't getting linked.

The message that propped up was: Either the name or date of birth or gender is not matching.  On closing the pop-up box, we see a thin red banner saying: please enter the correct Aadhaar number. 

The conventional wisdom was that it could be a network problem or a server-related issue, and that the linkage would happen, if one kept trying. 

Since the two weren't getting linked, in spite of multiple attempts on multiple days, on July 21, we headed to the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) office. We presented both the Aadhaar and PAN card. They logged in to the Aadhaar data base and checked her details. Everything was in order.

Why then  the two aren't getting linked? 

One official said, "Everything is clear from our side. Just check the PAN details." They said they have logged in a complaint, and asked us to try linking after two or three working days.

So, we headed to the Income Tax office. Presented the case to an official in the Public Relations Department. One official herself tried to link. She failed. Another official logged into the PAN data base and checked her details. Everything was in order.

Why then  the two aren't getting linked? 

No one seemed to know. Just mysterious. We were sent to the Computer Room. There two people (probably engineers) again checked the PAN data base and found nothing amiss. There was no mismatch with Aadhaar details either.

Why then  the two aren't getting linked? 

No one seemed to know. We then met a senior official. We took a while to convince her that we have been trying to link the two for almost a month now, and we have tried all known methods. Then she spoke to an official, who also confirmed, that there is no mismatch, and he couldn't find a reason why the two aren't getting linked.

She suggested us to raise a ticket (meaning, register a complaint) in the Income Tax E-filing website. We thought we would wait for three or four working days, before we register a complaint.

A glimmer of hope

Thus on July 27, she posted a detailed note on the issue in the e-Nivaran section of the Income Tax E-filing site. Within 24 hours, there was a reply. Status: Resolved.

With so much of eager anticipation we clicked open to view the "Resolution". We were disheartened to see that the reply read like a copy-pasted message from a template. It suggested that we try different name combinations. And we could visit a particular link to make corrections in the PAN card and another to make corrections in the Aadhaar card. 

Very clearly, our problem hasn't been understood, if at all it was ever read.

However, there was an encouraging one last sentence in the Grievance Resolution message: "Note: Now you may file the ITR return without linking of Aadhaar in efiling portal by entering Valid Aadhaar number in the ITR form to proceed further."

That means, e-filing of Income Tax Return can be done, even if Aadhaar and PAN aren't linked. 

That was a major relief. And, no one seemed to know that.

Meanwhile, some people suggested that we should actually update the details in both PAN and Aadhaar, just in case the failure to link was because of possible mismatch in address details or some such thing. However, we were clearly told by officials in both Income Tax office and UIDAI that matching of only three particulars, name, gender and date of birth were critical in the linking of PAN and Aadhaar.

Why then  the two aren't getting linked? 

Our quest for answer continued, while we continued to make attempts to link the two on the website.

Since the message in the Grievance Resolution mentioned that e-filing could be done without linkage, last night she filled up the ITR-1 form, checked all the particulars, and decide to submit the return. 

Failure, again. There is red banner alert saying that the individual has to link PAN and Aadhaar in order to e-file the return. 

What the heck was this?

The error message

So, we went back to trying to link the two again. This time, there was no outright rejection, or proclamation that there was some mismatch of important details. Instead, there was a message to the effect that the request has been forward to Aadhaar data base and the status of the request would be emailed.

Within a few minutes there was an email in the Inbox. "Your Aadhaar-PAN linking request is failed due to the below reason.
aadhar.error.code.map.998."

For the first time ever, there was a clear-cut reason mentioned.

We Googled to find what that error message meant. On a government website that deals with biometric attendance system, error 998 has been described as "Template not in Aadhaar. Try after 15 minutes after first Try".

The whole thing has been so frustrating that there was no energy to repeat the process. 

At Palace Grounds

So, today morning I headed for the Special Counters set up at Palace Grounds to help people file their returns. I was directed to the E-Filing section. I presented the problem, for the nth time. And presented them with the photocopies of Aadhaar and PAN card. 

It was 11 am. I was told to wait for 15 minutes, as the servers were down. After about an hour and a half when the server came up, one officer made an attempt to link the two. He failed. It was a repeat of what happened last night - a message saying that the request has been forward to Aadhaar data base and the status of the request would be emailed. But unlike last night, today afternoon, there was no email in the Inbox.

With time running out to file the returns (today is the last day), I wondered what is the option. No one there had any clear idea of what we could do. One official, finally said, if there is no refund to be claimed, or tax to be paid, then just wait. The problem will get resolved. He sounded like a soothsayer.

Evening, the much-expected announcement by the government on extension of the last day for filing returns came. It is now August 5. Also, the last day for linking PAN and Aadhaar is now Aug 31. The returns will be processed only after that. 

But, what Income Tax officials have missed is that when e-filing is not possible without the linkage, what is the point in making the last day for filing ITR as Aug 5, but the last day for linking Aug 31. Ideally the last day for e-filing too should also be Aug 31.

By night, when the Income Tax servers had stabilized, we made one more attempt to link. The same message: your request is being processed.

Hopefully, someone soon will find a solution to this highly perplexing problem; and the Aadhaar and PAN of my wife will get linked; so that the IT returns can be filed before Aug 5.

August 04

My wife gets an email - seemingly in response to the attempt we made on July 31 to link. It said, "Your Aadhaar-PAN linking request is failed due to the below reason.
Invalid Aadhaar Number. Please enter valid Aadhaar Number."

This is so strange, and the whole effort seems to reaching a ridiculous extent. This reply is like the final blow to our attempt at linkage. What more you want ... The Aadhaar number itself is invalid!

Tomorrow is the last date to file the income tax returns. I have decided that may next week, we will make another visit to the UIDAI office, present the case; and hope someone will realize the seriousness of the whole effort and help us set the problem right.

August 05

She logged into the income tax e-filing website and for one last time, on the last date to file the ITR this year, and decided to see if the tax return can be submitted. The filled up data were checked once again, and the Submit button was clicked.

Ten seconds of wait; expecting that very same thin red banner to appear again across the screen, saying the return can't be submitted without linking Aadhaar and PAN.

But most surprisingly, the tax return got submitted.

We couldn't believe this.

The likely possibility is that the Income Tax Department is now allowing e-filing of tax returns without linkage of Aadhaar and PAN. After all, the government has now allowed time till August 31 to get the two linked; and has said that the processing of tax returns will begin only after that.

Anyway, what are relief!

However, the battle isn't over; the efforts to the link the two will resume next week.

August 11

As suggested by many friends, she repeated the process, by keying various permutations and combinations of her name: like, one word, three words, all capital letters, all small letters, first letter small and the rest capital etc.

But all of that failed. She kept getting automated reply saying:

Your Aadhaar-PAN linking request is failed due to the below reason. 
Invalid Aadhaar Number. Please enter valid Aadhaar Number .

What is amazing about this is that the message says, it is invalid Aadhaar number. How on earth that can be?

August 12

She gets a reply to a mail she had sent to Aadhaar help desk. It is clear that no human being has gone through the mail; or even if a human being has gone through, he or she hasn't understood her problem; or that person has chosen the easier option of copy/pasting a standardized reply.

Here it goes:

Dear Resident,

Thank you for bringing this matter to our notice. 

Your case (20170812019928) has been registered with us. Please find below our response against your query:

Query 1(Subcase Id :2017081201992801)
In order to Link Aadhaar with PAN, Ideally your demographic details (i.e. Name, Gender and Date of Birth) should match in both the documents. 

In case of any minor mismatch in Aadhaar Name provided by taxpayer when compared to the actual data in Aadhaar, One Time Password (Aadhaar OTP) will be sent to the mobile registered with Aadhaar. Taxpayers should ensure that the date of birth and gender in PAN and Aadhaar are exactly same. 

In a rare case where Aadhaar name is completely different from name in PAN, then the linking will fail and taxpayer will be prompted to change the name in either Aadhaar or in PAN database. 

Post updation you may try to link again. 

They haven't simply understood that there is no mismatch at all. How frustrating this is!

August 22

We decide to have her particulars in both Aadhaar and PAN updated, according to what is in passport. So, there will uniformity.

We go to the General Post Office. There the official uses my wife's fingerprint to log in. But it doesn't work. All 10 fingers were tried. Failed.

The official said that the biometric will have to be updated. And directed us to Bangalore One centre.

August 28

11.30 am

We went to the nearby Bangalore One centre. Paid Rs 25 to get an application form to get particulars changed in Aadhaar. Details were freshly filled in. Photograph freshly taken. Iris scan and fingerprint scanning freshly done.

The official gave us an acknowledgement and said it would take 40 days for getting the new Aadhaar card.

8.30 pm

Yet another attempt made to link. Lo, and behold ... Aadhaar and PAN successfully linked.

Since there was no change in the the way the attempt was done today, I don't think it had anything to do with particulars that were changed.

I guess there was so problem with biometric data in the database. Because at the GPO her fingerprint didn't work at all.

Anyway, all is well that ends well.

She will soon visit a designated centre to update the particulars in the PAN card as well.