Tuesday, February 04, 2014

India's Tryst with Change

If we comb through all the households in India, and dig out the 2s, 5s, 10s and 50s, we may be able to arrive at a potential rationale. But for the longest time for unknown reasons, there has been an apparent crisis of change in India. And no I don’t mean change in the RaGa ‘system’ sense :) I am referring to loose change (or ‘chhuta’).

In general, we Indians collectively have a (justified) level of distrust for transactions.  And one manifestation of this is in the barter of loose change. The scale has changed over time (from Rs 1s to Rs10 or Rs50s now), but the premise remains the same – ‘I don’t have change with me. You please provide the requisite change to complete the transaction’. Lack of change leads to friction in every transaction – leading to delays (modern retail), stress (toll booths), arguments (autos) and embarrassment (airlines). This can be distilled into this simple cycle:

Cycle of distrust: Nobody wants to let go of their change!

This behavious is something chronic and peculiar only to India. Since the country hasn’t yet moved majorly to plastic/online transactions, the lack of liquidity in micro transactions is puzzling. One good benchmark is Indonesia, where economic factors are similar to India. When seen through the lens of FMCG industry, the usage of cash is still high compared to plastic currency. But in all my visits to the country, lack of change never seems to appear as a problem.

If we look at factors impacting change in transactions, they are mainly # of customers per day as well as systems managing cash flow. So I’ve crudely split our interactions based on Volume of Transactions & Scale of Organization. A few examples are given below:

If type D is without change (low volume of transaction, not scaled up in size), I can understand if there are change issues. But for the other 3 quadrants (A,B and C), the situation is odd and requires intervention. We can bring about a positive transformation by modifying the systems in managing the transactions. And over time the distrust from customers would come down. It would be naïve to combat human behavior first, as it’s incredibly hard to move that at a macro level.

Big Scale organization: system improvement examples
Modern Retail: Have each payment counter start operations in the morning with change for Rs.1,000, instead of hoping that they’ll generate their cash flow along the way, or handing over melody toffee instead of change!
Toll Booths: Rationalize toll charges to be only in multiples of 5. This way the operators have to only deal with Rs. 5 coins.
Airlines: Enable and encourage in-flight transactions via plastic (credit / debit card) by removing any additional charges from the transaction. 

Small Scale Organization: 
I am not really sure how this can be sorted for these transactions (Autos, Kirana stores), since it’s in their favour if there is lack of change. For Kirana stores it leads to an increased purchase basket and for autos they usually pocket the balance amount.

What are your thoughts? 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

So what do you call him?

As I have interacted with my Father-In-Law over the past year, I have gotten to know him better. We have grown closer bonding over deep philosophical topics ranging from cricket to property prices, Congress bashing to restaurant dosai quality.

What's astounded me is that I've spent the last 15 months without ever directly addressing him. I don't know what to call my father-in-law.

This hasn't been easy. On Day 6 after marriage I was lounging around at my in-law's home dressed appropriately with covered legs and wearing non-college, non-ragged t-shirts. As the new maapilai (son-in-law) at home, the attention being showered was overwhelming. However with a mature 'chance pe dance' attitude, I had shamelessly started accepting every offer of 2nd/3rd/4th round of filter coffee, opening crisp newspapers before the family got access to it, fiddling with the TV remote and other perks.

However the cumulative guilt goaded me to do something for the family. Hence, that evening when the phone rang I shed my lethargy and volunteered to pick it up.

"Thiagarajan sir irukara ?" ("Is Mr. Thiagarajan there?")
"One sec", I said and walked over to my FIL who was busy perusing the tampered newspaper.

I opened my mouth and failed to come up with an appropriate word.

1 Mississippi
2 Mississippi
3 Mississippi
4 Mississippi

Clearing my throat would have been too filmy, Uncle too distant, Pops too DDLJ, Daddy too familiar a name from my own family.

Finally I accepted my destiny. He was 'Appa' in my life now and this was the moment to give him that stature.

So I peered over the newspaper till the shadow caused mild inconvenience to him. He looked up, smiling.

"Phone..", I gruffed, handed the instrument and escaped.

A few months passed. Home phone calls were conveniently name free, where an innocuous "Namaskaram" hid all predicaments. All conversations involving him were filled with phrases 'your dad', 'Swetha's dad' that obviated any potential name struggle.

In that period, I did extensive research by speaking to a lot of couples facing this predicament. The discussion became an obsession. " So, what do you call your father-in-law ?" became my pet party question, which made husbands queasy and left respective wives amused. It turned out that wives managed to conquer this task with less hassle, less ego and much less thought. Maybe we men just made a big deal about it.

Soon the in-laws visited Singapore. A pleasant trip got freckled with awkward name moments. "Appa, do you want coffee?" became "DO YOU WANT COFFEE?", the decibel level forcing him to look in my direction. Soon I began to plan my location with him as the origin point of my 3-D complicated universe. A week long trip to Chennai this December made absolutely no difference. I treated the newspaper with more care, gulped more coffee than before, but FIL continued to be treated to awkward starts to our cricket, dosai conversation.

The hope still remains. If I can restart this blog after a 2 year crazy writer's block, maybe the hope for calling my FIL Appa isn't that bleak.

Meanwhile, THIS IS PLAN B. OK ?