Exodus of Indian HNIs: Risk to Aspirations

India’s economy continues to be on a path of sustained growth. Especially over the last decade and a half or so, several factors have contributed to this growth. These include globalization, a large domestic market, policy reforms, technology-driven disruptions, and much greater levels of entrepreneurial activity than in the past fifty years. On the back of a robust start-up ecosystem and a flow of risk capital, 44 unicorns were created in India during 2021; the first four months of 2022 have seen 14 more Indian ventures get that coveted status. This is truly a remarkable achievement in the face of the large-scale shocks the global economic system has suffered in recent times.

It is estimated that over the next decade, the number of Indian millionaires and billionaires (in terms of US dollars) will rise by over 80%. This represents a significantly higher growth rate than that which will be seen by the US, UK, Germany or France. While this is undoubtedly good news, there is also some sobering news: an estimated 8000 high-net-worth Individuals (HNIs) are likely to relocate from India in 2022 alone. In 2019, an estimated 7000 Indians left India.

At different points in time, different destinations have attracted Indian HNIs. At this time, Singapore, Australia and the UAE are the top destinations, although European nations such as Portugal and Greece are also seeing a rise in the number of Indian HNWIs relocating to their jurisdictions given the benefits of lower costs, the mobility advantages of EU member nations and less stringent physical residency requirements. Just as important are the tax regimes of these countries vis-à-vis what prevails in India. More HNIs staying in India for an adequate number of days in each financial year is helpful in bringing their global income under Indian tax. However, it must also be kept in mind that even when families stay in India for shorter durations to minimise their income tax liabilities here, they will end up paying GST on various goods and services they consume.           

A growing number of Indian business families are taking a considered view of where their members should be based, what citizenship(s) they should hold and where their companies should be registered for regulatory and tax purposes. The travel bans imposed at short notice to curb the pandemic has provided one more reason for many to reconsider where their home bases should be. While reasons will naturally vary with specific individuals and families, this trend of wanting to move out is more evident amongst first-generation entrepreneurs, compared to more-established business houses. It is also more prevalent in new age businesses that are built on new technology paradigms and require clarity and relative stability in the regulatory frameworks. This is not to say that western countries are automatically better in this regard: the EU recently announced that device manufacturers must move to standard mobile charging ports (for phones, tablets, cameras, earbuds, etc.) in the next 2 years – a decision that is expected to significantly impact Apple.

As governments take more action against climate change, to protect data privacy and to regulate AI, 5G, etc., new regulations will come into existence at a faster pace than before. More changes to existing rules and regulations can also be expected. There’s also a greater likelihood of new trade blocs forming and countries becoming members of multiple blocs. There is also likely to be greater harmonisation of tax rates (the first steps have already been taken). In the face of such changes, families need to more carefully think through decisions such as the location of businesses, holding structures, governance and multi-jurisdictional estates in order to ensure smooth inter-generational wealth transfers.

Image Credits:

Photo by Monstera: https://www.pexels.com/photo/anonymous-person-magnifying-view-of-coins-shaped-in-world-map-7412098/

A growing number of Indian business families are taking a considered view of where their members should be based, what citizenship(s) they should hold and where their companies should be registered for regulatory and tax purposes. 

POST A COMMENT

Layoffs, Contracts and Lawyers: Connecting the Dots

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of news about startups laying off employees. Edtech companies like UnAcademy and Vedantu, used car sales companies like Cars 24 and E-commerce players like Meesho have all reportedly laid off people. As many as 8000 people have been laid off in the first four months of 2022. The irony is that this is happening even as the startup ecosystem raised more than US$10 Billion in capital during the Jan-March 2022 quarter. IVCA-EY data indicates that in April 2022, the capital raised was around US$1.6 Billion- less than half the sum in the corresponding period in 2021. Last year saw a record number of Indian unicorns emerge.

It is not that there is a sudden scarcity of risk capital. What is happening is that VC funds and other investors are taking a long hard look at business models and valuations. Cash burn rates and unit economics, which were always important elements of valuation, have become front and centre again, after a prolonged period of time that saw some investors take their eyes off the ball as they frenetically looked for ventures to invest in. This long bull run for startups also encouraged many executives to throw their hats into the ring; they relied on their personal expertise and experience to attract investors.

There are also external factors whose unfortunate confluence in the last couple of months has contributed to this situation and exacerbated the stressors. The Ukraine invasion has undoubtedly impacted energy prices; the lockdown of large Chinese cities including Shanghai and Beijing has further disrupted global supply chains that were already affected due to the pandemic. These have thrown unit economics out of gear. Inflation rates around the world have soared- in some countries, the prevailing inflation is at the highest level in over a decade or even longer. In response, central banks around the world have raised interest rates; in India too, the RBI raised interest rates more than anticipated and ahead of when such action was expected. Further increases in interest rates are expected, as central banks seek to suck out the money supply to cool inflation. This means that in the short term, growth expectations will need to be moderated. This affects valuations (something that is also visible in how stock prices of listed companies are fluctuating).

Investors and company managements are therefore looking for ways to cut costs. Rationalizing the workforce is one way to achieve this goal. During a euphoric phase, businesses tend to hire more than they need, often at higher compensation levels than are sustainable. Many companies that have laid off their people continue to advertise extensively on national television. Logically, cutting down on TVCs and using lower-cost digital marketing will be another cost-cutting lever. As the market tightens, business plans will need to be revised. Growth will moderate, and high valuations will get harder to defend. The lack of clarity surrounding when various events will be resolved adds to the uncertainty around when an economic rebound will occur and what the new operating environment will look like. Indeed, Y Combinator, the highly successful Silicon Valley accelerator has advised founders of the companies in its portfolio to “plan for the worst” and focus all efforts in the next month on extending their runway. They are advising ventures to ensure survival even if fresh funds cannot be raised for 24 months.

Sometimes, there are contractual constraints on implementing cost-cutting actions. While some of these clauses may be legitimate and the result of deliberate negotiations between the parties, I have also seen “cut-paste” clauses in contracts; these are taken directly from other contracts downloaded from the internet or obtained in other ways. Many entrepreneurs succumb to taking this shortcut because it saves them the lawyer’s fees for drafting customized contracts. While some money can be saved, doing so creates risk because the business context in which a contract is drafted varies- and blindly lifting clauses can render the entire contract meaningless, hard to implement or leave entities open to expensive litigation.

Founders and leadership teams need to make better-informed decisions around every facet of their business strategy and operations. This includes the kind of capital to be raised, the timing, quantum and terms. Depending on the nature of business, expensive office space may not be needed; the savings on rentals/lease payments can be deployed elsewhere. Hiring frenzies must be avoided just because someone good is available. If the candidate is indeed likely to add value to the venture, maybe the compensation can be structured differently, so that risk of losing a good resource is reduced. Lawyers and Business Advisors who understand business- especially in the world of startups- can guide entrepreneurs so that they don’t pay a high price later, since a stitch in time saves nine!

Image Credits: Photo by aymane jdidi from Pixabay 

Founders and leadership teams need to make better-informed decisions around every facet of their business strategy and operations. This includes the kind of capital to be raised, the timing, quantum and terms. Depending on the nature of business, expensive office space may not be needed; the savings on rentals/lease payments can be deployed elsewhere. Hiring frenzies must be avoided just because someone good is available. If the candidate is indeed likely to add value to the venture, maybe the compensation can be structured differently, so that risk of losing a good resource is reduced. 

POST A COMMENT

There is a Tide in the Affairs of Men…and Nations too

Three decades ago, the mobile revolution helped India overcome its communication challenges. Today, mobile phones have become a commodity in India. At least feature phones have, even if smartphones haven’t. But if you are old enough to remember India during the mid-1990s, you will know that India’s fixed line telephone density was very low at that time. Getting new telephone connections was tough, and involved waiting periods that often extended to several months. Due to ageing cables, making telephone calls was a challenge, and even when calls were connected, the quality was poor.  

Mobile communication technologies unleashed a powerful revolution that changed all this. Even far-off locations where laying fixed-line cables was a challenge got access to mobile towers and signals. So huge has been the transformative power of mobile technologies that an entire generation of regulatory reforms, business models and lifestyle paradigms all depend on the ubiquitous mobile phone.

Why is this relevant now?

Today, the world is on the threshold of a new breed of technologies such as AI/ML, Robotics, IIoT, Blockchain, Cloud, Analytics, Drones, Autonomous Vehicles, the Metaverse etc. Collectively and individually, these technologies have the potential to transform the world as we know it to a much greater degree. Indeed, the next decade may witness the greatest changes driven by technology in the recorded history of humankind.

The reason why it is important to be cognizant of this and take timely action. There are no established leaders in these areas because the sectors, their impact and tech are still evolving. India as a country has the technical and commercial savvy to harness these new technologies and drive innovations. What is needed is the educational and industrial framework to ensure that students get to acquire and sharpen their expertise in these new areas and start applying them to solving real-world problems. The National Education Policy is one step in this direction, but implementing it in the right way is key. Not just the curriculum, but the whole system of education must change. Internships must become more focused and integrated with the learning process, and not just a certificate-driven activity as it largely has been (and is).

It’s not just the central government that needs to act with alacrity and vision; state governments also need to formulate the right policies and rules to ensure that the country as a whole is able to take advantage of the massive disruption that is occurring all around us. Some states have woken up to this need and are putting in place plans to encourage entrepreneurs and attract investments into key sectors. The initial agreement to set up a chip-making facility in Karnataka is one example- but it’s early days yet, and many more hurdles need to be overcome.

The startup ecosystem, too, needs to readjust its approach to backing ventures in these new areas. Yes, the risk will be higher and the failure rate may be higher, but these ventures must be seen as proving grounds for technologies and ideas. Our private sector must also be ready to make the necessary investments to embrace these new technologies and lead innovation and adoption. Our large IT services industry must accelerate the shift to provide offerings built around these new areas. A lot is already happening, but the pace must pick up. India’s public sector, long regarded as a white elephant, can also play a key role by absorbing these technologies and innovatively deploying them in sectors of national importance, such as energy, agriculture, disaster recovery, infrastructure development, defence etc.

Achieving all this requires macroeconomic stability: inflation under control, relatively stable exchange rates and an adequate money supply. For a number of reasons that are outside the control of our government or individual companies, these conditions may not be met immediately. But as responsible citizens, business leaders, regulators, teachers and parents, each one of us has a role to play. Of course, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary also have their own roles to play.

To quote Brutus from Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar”,

“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures”.

This is very much the situation that much of the world finds itself in at this time. If we in India can rise to the occasion, our continued ascendancy as a power is assured. But there is many a slip between the cup and the lip, and if we squander time and energy on needless and irrelevant issues, it is just as certain that we will not realise our potential. Let us make the right choice.

Image Credits: Photo by Pete Linforth from Pixabay 

Today, the world is on the threshold of a new breed of technologies such as AI/ML, Robotics, IIoT, Blockchain, Cloud, Analytics, Drones and Autonomous Vehicles, the Metaverse etc. Collectively and individually, these technologies have the potential to transform the world as we know it to a much greater degree. Indeed, the next decade may witness the greatest changes driven by technologies in the recorded history of humankind. The reason why it is important to be cognizant of this and take timely action. There are no established leaders in these areas because the sectors, their impact and tech are still evolving.

POST A COMMENT

New Labour Codes : How to Prepare for the Challenges Ahead?

A couple of years ago, India’s Parliament approved four new Labour Codes that cover important areas such as Wages, Social Security, Industrial Relations and Occupational Safety and Health. Labour reforms have been a long-pending agenda item for successive governments. The creation of these codes was aimed at modernizing, rationalizing and strengthening India’s arguably archaic labour-related laws. The new codes are also intended to attract investments into various sectors and make it easier to do business in India.

Although the Central Government notified these four new Labour Codes in September 2020, even now, a majority of states have not notified rules; less than half the states have even come up with draft rules. There has been some talk in recent days that the government may decide to implement the new codes effective 1 July. While this has not been officially confirmed, the inevitability of the implementation of the new codes makes it important for state governments to quickly come up with their draft rules and allow time for consultation so that loopholes and lacunae can be plugged before they come into effect. There will naturally be protests against the new laws because any change causes pain by forcing people outside their zones of comfort.

Once the new labour codes come into effect, two key changes will occur that will directly impact employees and organizations:

Working hours: It is expected that working hours may increase from the current 9 hours a day to 12 hours a day. The flip side, however, is that employees will need to work only four days a week, instead of the current five.

Take-home salary: The new wage code stipulates that an employee’s “basic salary” must be at least 50% of the total salary. This will cause changes to allowances and other perquisites that are widely used for tax planning purposes. A higher Basic Salary also means that deductions towards retirement benefits such as provident fund and gratuity will increase. In turn, this will reduce the net take-home salary for employees. However, this also means that employees will accumulate a much larger corpus of money when they retire, in effect, trading off current consumption with future security.

Adapting to this change will require companies to revisit policies, employment terms and contracts and even operating procedures. It may require fresh investments in amenities for workers and other employees at factories, construction sites, stores etc. New compliance requirements will arise, which means that business leaders, HR teams and those responsible for compliance must gear up to ensure that the organisation remains compliant with the new set of rules. This task becomes more difficult because the new codes have amalgamated a number of laws. For example, four laws have been amalgamated into the Wage Code, three into the Industrial Relations Code, nine into the Social Security Code and thirteen laws into the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020.

Organizations must also keep in mind that these new codes will need to be implemented in tandem with hybrid ways of working. Even when employees were required to work for only 9 hours a day, there have been many instances of individuals (across industries and companies) working for 14 hours a day in a “work from home” model. Care must be taken to ensure that work-life balance is not further damaged by the extended working hours that the new codes provide for.

Business organizations with offices and production facilities in multiple locations spread across a number of states will need to be extra careful to ensure compliance with every state’s laws. Enterprises considering M&A will need to evaluate the costs of compliance with the new labour codes as part of their due diligence and strategic/financial assessment during valuation. Expert advice will be needed to minimize the pain that will inevitably accompany the transition. But given the intent of the new labour codes, it is fair to say that if they are backed by pragmatic rules, they will surely play a key role in accelerating the country’s economic growth in the years ahead.

Image Credits: Photo by Pop & Zebra on Unsplash

Adapting to this change will require companies to revisit policies, employment terms and contracts and even operating procedures. It may require fresh investments in amenities for workers and other employees at factories, construction sites, stores etc. 

POST A COMMENT

Are Reservations Adequate to Foster Diversity & Inclusion?

                                                   Non-inclusion and lack of diversity are a painful reality that needs to be urgently addressed. 

It is beyond dispute that in different parts of the world – India included – discrimination continues to exist, although constitutional provisions and a number of other laws explicitly prohibit such actions. Several factors such as race, caste, gender, economic status, religion, complexion and other aspects of physical appearance, mental abilities, sexual identity, education, linguistic skills, etc., are used to make distinctions between people that lead to various decisions. Sometimes, the inferences made are limited to an individual’s mind, but often they influence decisions that impact someone else’s life. 

In India, this challenge is visible right from the primary school level and continues till the individual’s retirement and perhaps death. Educational institutions have been directed to ensure affirmative actions to reduce the inequalities in access to and the right to education. This takes the form of reservations of seats based on specific criteria. The government as well as public and private sector organisations have reservations based on various considerations. Certain constituencies too have been identified as “reserved”, which means candidates must come from a specified caste/tribe, etc.

There is no doubt that families, organisations and countries can progress on all fronts only if there is broad societal representation. Countries that are able to achieve this will develop faster- not just in terms of economic indicators, but also in equally critical areas such as health, education, justice, environment, women’s safety, child welfare, etc. But are reservations sufficient to achieve this lofty objective?

Reservations do not Account for “Intersectionalities”

 

I believe that our experience so far in India does not support the notion that reservations are adequate or even the best option. They may be necessary, but are far from being an effective solution in practise because of the reality of “intersectionality”. An individual may not qualify for a reservation based on caste, but what if s/he comes from an Economically Weaker Section of society? Which criterion gets primacy between caste and gender? Unless a priority is determined, it is likely that caste-based reservations will benefit men more than women (from the same caste).

Even in the corporate context, reservations largely manifest during the intake of talent at the entry-level. At more senior levels, the talent pool is largely skewed towards males, who benefit from privilege in various forms (including not being impacted to the same extent by parenting responsibilities). In turn, this reduces the likelihood that women will be able to break the glass ceiling. There are shining exceptions of women who have overcome all odds, but that is more due to their individual abilities, hard work and possibly the good fortune of having excellent mentors and visionary leaders than to an environment that consciously recognises and empowers merit, irrespective of other criteria.

Fostering Diversity and Inclusion Needs More Than Just Reservations

 

A multi-pronged approach is needed to address the issue of diversity and inclusion. The central government (and state governments as necessary) needs to formulate national or state policies across sectors in order to consciously recognise and address the realities of the multiple intersectionalities that prevail in our society. While some of these elements may be conscious individual choices, most of them are “historical” or the result of factors outside an individual’s control. This means reservations must account for various elements that can co-exist and not treat them as discrete. This is easier said than done and may require experiments to figure out what works best. But, in order to reap the benefits of our demographic dividends, we must act now!

However, formulating policies is not enough, as is evident from so many other facets of our society. The key lies in ensuring that the policies are complied with not just in letter, but also in spirit. Multiple stakeholders need to be consulted, so that different views are factored in. Indeed, this is where diversity and inclusion must begin.

Private and public-sector organisations are key stakeholders in an attempt to raise diversity and inclusion in India. These organisations must consciously train their people at all levels to value diversity of thought, opinion and lived experiences. This means changing how meetings are conducted (e.g., by giving everyone the opportunity to speak and not pushing the leader’s views and opinions down everyone’s throats). It means coaching leaders to encourage diverse talent pools to make decisions around promotions, key projects etc. It means walking the talk and rejigging the organization’s rewards systems to recognise and reward diversity that translates to business value. 

“Diversity” should not be limited to gender; it must cover as many elements as possible, including, for example, generational differences. This will become an increasingly important area. It means ensuring that offices are built/modified to provide access to people with disabilities and appropriate amenities. Business/HR leaders must rethink their visions to consciously bring out elements of diversity and inclusion. Genuine efforts must be made to eliminate gender pay gaps, even if it means a hit to the P&L account. All this is not something that can be easily legislated, although some indicators can perhaps be brought under the ESG umbrella.

The problem is complex, and so it does not lend itself to simplistic, formula-based solutions. All stakeholders must have alignment in their thinking so that there is concerted action in various spheres. This alone will enable the world to ensure that diversity and inclusion moves from the ivory towers to the realm of daily life.

Image Credits: Photo by Andrew Moca on Unsplash

A multi-pronged approach is needed to address the issue of diversity and inclusion. The central government (and state governments as necessary) need to formulate national/state policies across sectors in order to consciously recognise and address the realities of the multiple intersectionalities that prevail in our society. While some of these elements may be conscious individual choices, most of them are “historical” or the result of factors outside an individual’s control. This means reservations must account for various elements that can co-exist and not treat them as discrete.

POST A COMMENT

Self Reliance: Not Just a Political Construct Anymore

Since independence, Indian political leaders have espoused the need for “self-reliance”. Over the last five decades, we have certainly achieved this goal in areas such as the production of food grains and milk. It is clear that we have not done so in some other basic areas, including education, healthcare and energy. When the government announced “Make in India” and “Atmanirbhar”, some called it “old wine in new bottles” or “mere election slogans”. While there may be some truth in these allegations, it cannot be denied that recent developments around the world (and in our own neighbourhood) are forcing us to rethink concepts such as “national interest” and hence, “self-reliance”.

Self-Reliance Important Despite Globalization

Especially in the last two years, major events have unfolded that continue to have a significant impact on our lives and indeed, the world as we know it. The pandemic has painfully underscored global interdependence amongst countries. Whether it was PPE kits, face masks, syringes or vaccines, no one country had it all. And if they did, they chose not to share it with others. Inherent inequities in the current global healthcare and socio-economic systems led to many parts of the world remaining without access to resources that were critical to preventing infection and the spread of COVID 19. Many western countries with the financial muscle to place bulk vaccine orders in advance end up destroying millions of expired vials. What a waste! Arguably, political and governance decisions made even a couple of months before the vaccines expired could have helped to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people in less fortunate countries that were not self-reliant.

Russia’s month-long invasion of Ukraine continues even as I write this post. Many countries have united to impose a range of sanctions on Russia; many have stayed away. But in an interdependent world, the impact of such sanctions cannot be localised to just one country. India, which imports more than 85% of its crude oil requirements, has been adversely affected. Many of our young citizens who were pursuing medicine or other courses in Ukraine, have been affected. It is unclear whether they will be able to complete their education in Ukraine if the war continues, and what alternatives there may exist.

Petroleum is a natural resource and we cannot do much on the supply side if we do not have economically exploitable reserves in India (whether onshore or offshore). We have little choice but to look at alternative energy sources and manage demand- which is what we have been doing for some years now. An example is the Electric Vehicle revolution that is beginning to gather momentum. Similarly, drones have the potential to transform many fields, including agriculture, logistics, healthcare and of course, defence- but we need to develop the capacity to design and build them in India.

As the world evolves even more into a knowledge economy, innovation will be a clear source of competitive advantage. Not just through technological advancements in fields like AI/ML, IoT and quantum computing, but also through innovations in creating appropriate legal frameworks to ensure the orderly functioning of the global/national systems. This also means revamping our education system to ensure that it encourages the kind of critical thinking that’s needed in the years ahead. The New Education Policy was introduced in 2020, but many teething troubles remain; steps need to be taken quickly to resolve them if we are to benefit from this new approach to primary, secondary and higher education in our country.

Fostering Self-Reliance Involving Multiple Stakeholders

While the Founding Fathers had a certain perspective when they wrote our constitution, that worldview was limited by what they envisioned at the time. It is reasonable to say that the world has changed drastically in the last 70 years. Indeed, many of these changes could not have been imagined in the late 1940s or even in the 1990s. This is why we, as a nation, must view “self-reliance” in a different way than we have done in the past. The quasi-federal structure that we have given ourselves must not impede progress; the Central and State Governments must work together to formulate policies that complement and supplement each other and are not designed to create face-offs.

Policies and strategies alone are not enough; action is needed on the ground to convert them into actionable plans, projects and measurable goals. This needs everyone to work together. The private sector must play its part in making the necessary investments in building critical capacities and training our youth. The PLI scheme has begun to show some results, and I hope manufacturing of drones, electric vehicles and batteries based on sodium, etc. will also soon take off in a bigger way. Our citizens, too, have an important role to play. The advice to “reuse, reduce, recycle” is not just for environmental gains; it has the potential to conserve physical and financial resources that will make it easier for us to become self-reliant.

The starting point is to set aside ego and ideological differences, make the effort to understand other points of view and work together to build a self-reliant India that becomes a self-contained ecosystem that is more capable of bearing external shocks in the future. We cannot predict what these shocks might be or where they will originate, but we can be better prepared.

Image Credits: Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash 

While the Founding Fathers had a certain perspective when they wrote our constitution, that worldview was limited by what they envisioned at the time. It is reasonable to say that the world has changed drastically in the last 70 years. Indeed, many of these changes could not have been imagined in the late 1940s or even in the 1990s. This is why we, as a nation, must view “self-reliance” in a different way than we have done in the past.

POST A COMMENT

The Metaverse and its Numerous Concerns

There is a lot of buzz being generated around the “Metaverse,” which can be defined as a virtual reality-based shared digital world in which users (through their “avatars”) can enjoy three-dimensional, multi-sensory experiences. This rapidly-evolving, technology-driven paradigm is a huge shift away from the present, where digital interactions are based on text, audio and two-dimensional images/videos. The excitement around the Metaverse is due to the immense possibilities that exist around how it can be used for social interactions, commerce, media & entertainment, education, manufacturing, healthcare, defense etc. Not surprisingly, many companies, even in India, are investing in Metaverse capabilities.

While the potential for metaverse cannot be denied, it is just as important to recognize and acknowledge that there are several grey areas around this paradigm. If timely actions to prevent the misuse of the metaverse are not taken by the global community, we run the serious risk of opening a new Pandora’s Box. And once the proverbial genie is released from the bottle, it is virtually impossible (pun intended) to put it back inside.

The Potential Dangers of the Metaverse

 
What are the biggest fears surrounding the Metaverse? Concerns have been expressed from different quarters around issues relating to the privacy, safety and well-being of people who are active in the metaverse. In the current scenario, people use social platforms to connect with each other. If someone with whom I do not wish to engage seeks to connect with me in a basic digital world, I can easily deny the friend request. Even after having granted them permission initially, I can choose to block such persons. During the time they have permission to engage with me, the worst that can happen is that they send unwanted texts, audio messages or images and videos.

This is bad enough, but in the metaverse, the kind and nature of obscene or harmful content will change drastically; consequently, so will the impact of such material and experiences on vulnerable segments of society. 

For example, in the metaverse, it is quite possible for complete strangers to enter someone else’s personal space – without the latter being aware of who the former is. Given the multi-sensory capabilities of the metaverse, which includes haptic technology (the sense of touch), the experience and impact can be far worse. Arguably, the metaverse (as it exists currently) lends itself more easily to bullying, sexual abuse or intimidation. Indeed, there have been recent media reports that some VR-based games that are accessible to young children contain inappropriate content. 

AI-driven deep fakes can further muddy the waters by creating and distributing patently false content that is almost impossible to detect as fake. There is enough fake information circulating on Whatsapp as it is, think of the danger of content that purportedly shows politicians or others saying things designed to inflame emotions.

NFTs will be key to the evolution and growth of the metaverse, providing owners of physical assets such as paintings and IPR such as rights to music, movies etc. new avenues to monetize them at scale. Cryptocurrencies and tokens are likely to form the principal currency in the metaverse, powering commerce and payments. As of now, cryptocurrencies are anonymous and independent of mainstream banking and financial systems. 

In the absence of regulations that are uniformly enforced globally, such parallel payment systems can be easily misused for illegal and immoral activities and transactions, including child sexual abuse. It is likely that fraud and crimes will increasingly crisscross between the current digital world and the metaverse (and perhaps the physical world), making them harder to detect and bring the perpetrators to book.

Addressing the Issues Surrounding Metaverse 

 

A multipronged approach is key to addressing the potential dangers of the metaverse. It is vital to frame appropriate legislation and arm various regulatory agencies with the power to catch and punish violators is vital. The basic premise around legislation has to be this: if something is illegal or against the law or generally accepted social mores in the “real”, physical world, it must be treated the same way in any parallel “virtual reality” based universe.

However, legislation alone cannot secure the metaverse. It will be essential to hold creators of content and platforms that enable distribution and access responsible for violations. The metaverse infrastructure needs to be designed with more intent to put in place appropriate safety mechanisms right at the beginning. As a global society, we must learn from our experiences with the downsides of social media platforms (false information, cyber-bullying, digital fraud etc.) and take preemptive actions that can prevent problems before they become common. This is significant because changing processes after people have grown accustomed to them is never easy; also, some damage may have already occurred. It may also be necessary to think of ways to incentivize good behaviour in the metaverse.

The metaverse is expected to surge ahead quickly on its evolutionary path. Its trajectory cannot be predicted in advance, therefore, what is needed is constant vigilance and for global action to be taken in a concerted manner. The UN system is supposed to be the primary keeper of international order. A number of events over the past couple of decades have painfully driven home the point that the UN architecture needs an urgent and major overhaul. As part of this exercise, it may be useful to establish a new global body tasked with the responsibility of overseeing and governing the metaverse. Regional political/economic blocs must be encouraged to ensure that their members comply with rules and regulations related to the metaverse.

The metaverse is expected to surge ahead quickly on its evolutionary path. Its trajectory cannot be predicted in advance; therefore, what is needed is constant vigilance and for global action to be taken in a concerted manner.

POST A COMMENT

Why Businesses Should Focus on ESG?

The world has changed in many fundamental ways especially in the last 25 years. I am not referring to technology-led transformation or geopolitical shifts, this piece is about Environmental, Social and Governance criteria – collectively referred to as “ESG”.

Environmental Criteria

 

Environmental costs, which were for long viewed by economists as “externalities”, are now an important consideration in decision-making by governments and business leaders. Given the devastating effects of widespread environmental degradation and climate change, countries around the world are taking concrete actions to limit further damage; many are setting “net zero” emission targets for individual sectors over the next couple of decades. As a result, new legislations are being enacted that require businesses to act in certain ways and desist from other kinds of actions. Arguably, this is the biggest facet of change globally.

Social Criteria

 

The second area of change is that various forms of social injustice are no longer being tolerated. While there were always rules against such inequities, there is now a greater cost imposed on organizations that violate these rules- not just by governments and regulators, but also by consumers, who choose to shift loyalties towards brands that exhibit greater sensitivity to social causes. By definition, social injustice covers a broad range of issues that includes exploitation of children, women or certain races (e.g., the Uighurs); not providing employees good working conditions (physical environment, denying employees time for bio-breaks and rest, harassment at the workplace etc.); discrimination against people with disabilities, gender, age or marital status; even selling goods that are not safe or bad for health arguably fall under this category.

Governance Criteria

 

The thrust on “governance” is the third major driver of change. It is not as if rules and regulations did not previously exist to prevent breakdowns in governance. Yet, there are a number of examples from around the world that showcase bad governance: from companies in South Korea, Japan, the USA and Europe to the ongoing matters at the NSE and BharatPe in India.

 

Why ESG Adoption is Crucial?

 

In recent years, various members of business ecosystems worldwide, including enterprises, investors, regulators and the general public have become far more aware of the importance of compliance with “ESG” norms and standards. They are much less willing to tolerate breaches in an organization’s “ESG” conduct.

At one level, companies that do not do well on “ESG” parameters are more likely to face explicit financial penalties (e.g., carbon taxes). But just as important are the hidden costs that will increasingly need to be borne by ESG laggards. Perhaps the most important is the reduced access to capital because both banks and PE/VC firms are incorporating ESG criteria into their funding/ portfolio strategies.

On the demand side, many consumers (especially from the younger generations) are more conscious of brands that fare better in terms of their commitment to ESG and this, in turn, shapes their purchase decisions. Brands can quickly lose market share if they do not raise their ESG game.

As shown in the chart below, data over the past decade reveals that companies that have successfully implemented ESG strategies have consistently performed better than other global companies that have not paid as much attention to ESG.

 

Source: Stoxx.com quoted in https://sphera.com/spark/the-importance-of-esg-strategy/

This out-performance can be attributed to a combination of factors, including faster top-line growth, sustained cost reductions, higher employee productivity and reduced employee attrition and of course, fewer instances of fines/penalties for non-compliance. Investment decisions and technology choices that are guided by ESG considerations will drive a more efficient allocation of capital; in turn, this will boost ROCE (Return on Capital Employed).

While it is convenient to look at the three strands of ESG separately, in reality, they are closely intertwined. The sooner business leaders acknowledge that ESG is not a fad or a feel-good factor, but in fact, makes sound business sense, the better it is for the world as a whole.

 

Start Your ESG Journey Right Away

 
Someone quipped that the best time to plant more trees was years ago, but the second-best time is now! It’s not too late for you to begin your ESG transformation. But make sure you do it as a well-structured program, and not merely a hotch-potch of initiatives that have no clear owners, goals or measures and therefore cannot be sustained.

 

To report ESG performance, you can take the help of commonly used frameworks such as the following:

  • UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
  • Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)
  • Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB)
  • Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB)
  • Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD)

Image Credits: Photo by Photo Boards on Unsplash

While it is convenient to look at the three strands of ESG separately, in reality, they are closely intertwined. The sooner business leaders acknowledge that ESG is not a fad or a feel-good factor, but in fact, makes sound business sense, the better it is for the world as a whole.

POST A COMMENT

Beyond the Pandemic: Are we Recovering with Integrity?

This morning, I came across a news report about an autorickshaw driver in Bangalore who returned Rs10000 that was erroneously transferred to his account. He had just dropped off a passenger, who had paid the fare via UPI. Sometime later, the auto driver received a payment of Rs10000 from the same passenger’s mobile phone. Turns out that soon after getting off the auto, that passenger had received a request from his friend to transfer Rs10000, but by mistake, he had transferred the amount to the auto driver’s account. The honest auto driver called up the passenger and returned the money. The grateful passenger wrote a letter of commendation to the police authorities.

While the above news report gladdened my heart, I have also, in the last few days, read news reports about independent directors of various companies resigning from their respective Boards for various reasons. While honesty and integrity have not altogether disappeared, it is saddening that there seems to be a dearth of these values in the corporate world- where, arguably, they are needed the most. I therefore write this piece with mixed feelings.

E&Y’s Global Integrity Report 2022 reveals that a third of the respondents from India reported that their organizations had suffered a “significant incident of fraud” in the last 18 months. In itself, this is a grave concern but what’s worse is that India ranks second worst in this survey, which polled business executives from 54 countries. The survey’s other findings about Indian executives and companies are cause for worry too. Almost two-thirds of the respondents from India have acknowledged that to benefit their careers, they would be willing to indulge in patently unethical conduct such as falsifying information, paying/receiving bribes or ignoring misconduct in their teams/organizations.[1]

The economic disruption that has occurred in the wake of the pandemic has undoubtedly increased challenges for organizations across industry sectors. Owners, business leaders and employees at all levels have experienced the impact in many ways- cost cutting, job losses, scaling down, longer working hours, greater difficulty in closing deals through virtual channels etc. The magnitude of the impact has been varied but some sectors have bounced back faster than others and depending on the nature of their business, have been able to adapt better to hybrid models of working. But to me, nothing gives anyone the excuse to compromise on one’s integrity and ethics. It is better to work smarter and harder, have honest conversations within the organization and with clients or reach out for help than to succumb to the temptation of short cuts. Once we fall prey, it’s a slippery slope, and there’s almost always no going back.

One of the most important lessons I have learnt from my father and grandfather is to never compromise ethics and integrity no matter what the reasons or potential payoffs. This is one of the core values that our firm holds dear. Every individual who is part of our organization understands the importance of honesty, personal and professional integrity and ethics. To me, leadership is not just about vision, strategy and execution or delivering financial success; it is as much about being able to hold one’s head high and look at anyone in the eye because there is nothing to hide in our conduct or speech. And this is what my colleagues and I strive hard to practise every single day.

 

The economic disruption that has occurred in the wake of the pandemic has undoubtedly increased challenges for organizations across industry sectors. Owners, business leaders and employees at all levels have experienced the impact in many ways- cost-cutting, job losses, scaling down, longer working hours, greater difficulty in closing deals through virtual channels etc.

POST A COMMENT

From Assembly Elections to Industry the Need to Address Change is Universal

Along with announcing the schedule for elections in 5 states a few days ago, India’s Election Commission (EC) also imposed certain restrictions on how parties and candidates can campaign during these elections. The limitations on rallies and gatherings- the most popular platforms for all political parties- were the result of the continuing spread of Covid cases across India. It was also partly in response to the criticism of the EC for not preventing large gatherings and political rallies during the previous round of assembly elections held in 2021. The EC has said it will review its restrictions after a period of time.

Expectedly, some murmurs have begun about how such restrictions will create a non-level playing field against smaller and regional parties. This concern is probably not entirely invalid; the EC’s action will definitely have an impact on how different parties campaign (and possibly, the results too, in some cases). However, I prefer to see the bigger picture. Specifically, I see two key messages in the EC’s recent action. The first is the acknowledgement that even in our country, political processes are not immune to change. The second is that while many forces of major change are unpredictable (e.g., the pandemic itself), the human race is by and large equipped to adapt to them.

Responding to changes takes time, and these timelines vary with the context of the change. For example, climate change related actions have taken much longer than ideal. Also, not all solutions will be ideal. And as solutions are deployed, newer problems may emerge (e.g., the virus mutating to new strains). It will therefore be interesting to see how different parties and individual candidates utilize digital tools to reach out to the people in their constituencies and convey their poll messages. In some sense, election campaigning is a lot like marketing, so a mix of physical, electronic and digital avenues will need to be used. The restrictions on rallies will tip the scales in favour of electronic/digital and hybrid channels will emerge.

It is just as important for parties to keep track of which of these channels gives them the highest RoI, so that they can refine them and build on them for future use. There is no point in adopting campaign channels that do not deliver. All change must be looked at in the context of its impact on consumer behaviour. In elections, the voters are the consumers of the political messaging; elsewhere, it is the paying customer.

In the world of business, as in life, it is tempting but naïve to look for one-to-one mapping of cause and effect. Consider the example of disruptions to global supply chains that have adversely impacted certain industries more than others. The automotive industry, for instance, has been affected because customers are keen on buying a certain model of car/SUV with certain preferences- and if those are not available (because carmakers do not have the chips or other components), they defer their purchases.

The emergence of Electric Vehicles (EVs) as a distinct industry with its own ecosystem is another major trend. The high price of fossil fuels, government policies, reducing cost of EVs, availability of charging infrastructure and rising environmental consciousness around the world are all contributing to a shift to hybrid/EVs. This is a threat to conventional carmakers whose products run on internal combustion engines. Unless they pivot, they will find it difficult to stay relevant in the years ahead. I do not expect conventional petrol/diesel powered cars/SUVs to be replaced by EVs in the next decade. But players will need to transform themselves to meet the challenges posed on both the supply and demand side.

The rise of the Direct-to-Customer model in FMCG may well provide a template for carmakers as well. Rather than mass-producing a large number of cars of a certain model/colour etc. and shipping them to dealers around the country (where they remain as inventory), the industry may evolve to a model where customers can pre-order vehicles of their choice and get it delivered on a certain day/date. This has already started in India, with Ola adopting this approach for its electric scooters. But as with anything new, teething troubles are inevitable. Just as companies have to get used to not having the cushion provided by dealers, customers too will have to get used to the absence of the middleman- the dealer- whose neck is the first one to catch if there is a delivery delay or problem with the vehicle.

I cite the above example only to illustrate my point. Multifaceted change and the consequent need to respond to these forces is not limited to any particular industry. While the underlying drivers of change or the pace may vary, enterprises in every industry will need to transform to remain relevant. Even the professional services industry (lawyers, accountants, consultants etc.) is not immune, simply because the kinds of problems they will increasingly be called to help solve will not be similar to the ones they have dealt with in the past.

Image Credits: Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

Multifaceted change and the consequent need to respond to these forces is not limited to any particular industry. While the underlying drivers of change or the pace may vary, enterprises in every industry will need to transform to remain relevant. 

POST A COMMENT