Tuesday, July 28, 2009

See Your Money Work

A column that I recently wrote in the magazine where I work

Distributors will now, rightly, be paid for the service they give

FROM 1 August, when you go to buy a mutual fund (MF), you will not have to pay upfront commission, or entry loads, as they are called, typically, around 2.25 per cent. These loads are commissions that are presently coming from the amount that you invest with your fund and get passed to your agent. But market regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) has mandated that your agent and you will now have to mutually decide upon an amount that you would like to pay him and he will also have to disclose his commission.

A sweeping impact...Understandably, agents are finding this tough to swallow. A senior manager of one of India’s largest distributors said that if customers don’t ask what the retailer’s commission is when buying a washing machine, for instance, then why has Sebi asked distributors to disclose commissions to investors.

He may be right, but comparing a financial product with a consumer durable is a stretch. It is true that as customers we do not, and are not qualified to, ask white goods salesmen pertinent questions about the products and swallow whatever sales pitch they throw. This, however, doesn’t mean that we have to be similarly unquestioning about our financial products as well.

Moreover, there is no doubt that commissions play a big role in any kind of sale. I hear that one of India’s largest private sector banks does not pay any commission to its investment advisors who sell debt funds to customers. It’s quite evident that even when the interest rate scene is bullish, this bank’s investors would hardly be getting the right advice.

MF distributors also claim that their income will drop significantly. That is true. Small-time agents will find the going tough, but only initially. In the new scenario, your agent will have to justify the fees he charges. By writing out two separate cheques, one for investment and one for the agent, investors will be aware of what they are paying for and, more importantly, how much. Discount brokers—those who merely give out forms with insignificant advice, will, and should, be wiped out.

With entry loads curbed, agent commissions could have been shifted to and clubbed with exit loads. But, as a pre-emptive tactic, Sebi has put a cap of 1 per cent on exit loads. This will prevent distributors from arm-twisting MFs into raising exit loads to compensate for the entry load losses, if any.

Value additions. What most agents and distributors fail to realise is that it is not as easy for an investor to make do without agents as it sounds. Picking and choosing the right fund from out of over a thousand available, filling multiple forms all by yourself, going to a Registrar & Transfer agent’s office before the cut-off time with as many forms and copies of PAN card and all the paraphernalia documents, isn’t easy at all. Even if one knows which fund to invest in, the paperwork and physically delivering the forms and supporting documents is itself a task. This last process may not be worth 2.25 per cent, but it sure is worth some charge.

What a discussion between investors and agents over commissions will do is that price discovery for various types of services, rather than a fl at fee for all, will now begin.

Interestingly, India is not the only country where agent commissions are being made transparent. The same week that Sebi passed the order, big changes were also seen in the UK and Australian financial markets where upfront commissions are being banned and agents will be required to clearly communicate their commissions. Finally, fees is replacing commissions.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Week That Was...

After a long and tiring week, a small wrap of things that went by. Some movies apart from the dud Harry Potter I managed to catch. 'New York' (John Abraham, Niel Nitin Mukesh, Katrina Kaif and Irfan Khan) and 'The Hangover'. NY was good, better than I had expected. This is a story of three friends studying in NY and how their lives get into one big mess post 9-11 massacre. It is a story of how racial bias can play havoc with you if you are caught on the wrong side of the law. The story picks up pace after the movie's only song and what seemed to be as long as the movie itself! Nice watch, though it could have been better.

If only our film-makers go the extra mile to make a good film, a great one. Whenever we show movies that place a lot of importance on locations or caste/creed/race, a little of research is required. Authenticity in this regard can elevate the movie by leaps and bounds. 'A Wednesday' could have come across as a much-better researched movie had the director not made the police van take a U-Turn at Chowpatty to go towards Nariman Point and made us believe, at the same time, that the van was proceeding towards Juhu. Remember the Nandita das starrar, 'Ek Din 24 Ghante' (copy of 'Run Lola Run') where Nandita runs from one end of Mumbai to another? Though it was a flop, this is an example I can never forget. I only hope that film-makers could get the road names right, and not pass off Peddar Road, for instance, as Linking Road.

Thankfully, NY didn't have such a problem (to the best of my knowledge, atleast), but it got the the thing wrong. The accents of its actors. Though John Abraham's character has been shown to be out and out Americanish in lifestyle and mannerisms, his accent was of quite the Indian college yuppie. Where was the American accent? Katrina fitted the role to a 'T', but that's largely because her real-life accent, I think, is quite American/British. The little kid too has an American accent, so to this extent it wasn't bad. But even Irfan Khan,a NY native and a police officer (presumably then, that's he's been living in NY for many,many years) has a totally Indian accent, in other words, his original. This is why I feel makers like Mira Nair are a cut above the rest. Take Irfan Khan's example again. He had a perfect Bengali accent in 'The Namesake'. So did Tabu. But I found Khan's accent more original and flawless than Tabus' though the latter is one of the finest actors of this generation. Who could tell, after watching that movie, that Irfan Khan is not a Bengali. This is what I call, paying attention to the finer details. The quest for perfection....

But I would still New York. Watch it once.

The other movie I quite liked was 'The Hangover'. Awesome movie, well-made, good performances and a great comedy. Four friends go to Las Vegas for one of the chap's bachelor party. The fun goes majorly awry when after the 'night', the groom disappears and the remaining three friends are left with a baby and a complete memory loss of what happened the night before. If you want a proof of why Hollywood movies are way ahead of desi ones in terms of originality of ideas, here's one more.... I don't think I'll ever figure out why our desi film-makers can't get their heads out of making love stories or partition stories and think of something original like this.


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Two natural events were a no-show this week. I did not catch the Solar eclipse at the Nehru Planetarium, but I think I'm glad I didn't go. It was way too cloudy that morning and I thought we won't get a clear view. I don't know whether Mumbaikars got to see it, but newspapers reported that day that Mumbai views weren't all that great at all.

The high tide spectacle was also a whimper. I went to the Gateway of India (Apollo Bunder) on 24 July (Friday) and today, 25 July (Saturday) at around 2 pm. Yesterday though, the authorities had put up barricades so that we could not get to the parapets. The show was a flop as even though the sea had swelled up a lot, the tides were nothing great. I have seen tides much higher than the ones I saw yesterday and today. But it was good to be at the sea shore and to see the sea all swelled up and angry, tossing and turning. Monsoon by the sea side in Mumbai is always a pleasant sight.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

NOT QUITE THE CHARMS

I had no plans to watch the sixth installment of the Harry Potter series yesterday evening, but circumstances led me to Sterling Cineplex eventually; a personal record for me, I have watched all the editions of Harry Potter here. Plus, of course, a reasonable ticket price of Rs 120 bodes well for me, although I am not such a great fan of Screens 2 and 3 in here (there are a total of three screens). Screen 1 still remains much better than the other two. But a ticket price of Rs 120 and a food court down below makes Sterling a good multiplex deal.

So did I like Harry Potter and the half-Blood Prince? The answer is a resounding 'No'. I do not want to go on a trip of how the makers did not adapt this or that from the book and left out this or that, and so on, but yes if you are adapting an exceptionally well-written book, you had better lived up to the standards. Like it or not, adaptation is crucial. You may take creative liberties from the book- which this movie seemed to have the most so far in the series- but you do not leave out essential threads that help weave various aspects of the story into one smooth-flowing narrative.

The most crucial part of the movie that is the foundation of this story- the Half-Blood Prince- itself was not explained properly. We see Harry and Ron scrambling to get their hands on this book, but how the book impresses Harry and takes him completely over and casts a 'spell' over him, enough to ignore Hermoine's concerns, is not dwelled upon adequately. As a result, when he does come to know of the true identity of the Half-Blood Prince, it's importance is diluted and holds negligible significance to the audience. Apparition- a magical method of transportation from one place to another, a method used so commonly by Professor Dumbledore and Potter in this movie- is not explained. Even though the movie embodies magic as a way of life, I feel crucial details like these if explained well, brings in audience and convinces them that the movie is not just about silly magic that we see only in fairy tales, but something that comes across as believable even though at the end of the day, it's just a story.

The love angles too are told in a hurry. The students are clearly growing up and experiencing raging hormones, but the angles between Potter, Ginny, Ron and Hermoine seemed to have been taken for granted. The climax sounds much better in the book and had a great potential to be told on the big screen, but unlike the fascinating climax fight scene so elaborately picturised in the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (the 5th installment in the series), is reduced to a caricature here, with even a crucial liberty taken in the movie in Professor Snape's depiction. I have not yet read the seventh book so I do not know how Snape would pan out there, but he was treated much more liberally in the Half-Blood prince movie.

A disappointment, but watch it once, just for the sake of a brilliant novel told on screen. Remember though, you'd be lost if you watch the movie without reading the book.

K-Rate: * * *

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Buying Mutual Funds To Get Simpler

A story that I wrote in the magazine where I work...

Get ready to trade in Funds as simply as it is to trade in equity shares

Isn’t it ironical that when you need to invest in, say, five different mutual fund (MF) schemes, you need to sub­mit five forms and five cheques, but when you want to invest in equity shares of five companies, you either phone your broker or log on to the Internet and complete your transaction? You get a con­solidated account statement of all your equity holdings from your depository par­ticipant (DP), but get statements from as many MFs as you have invested in.

Wouldn’t it be easier if MF transactions could happen as they take place for equity shares? Thanks to the Securities and Exchange Board of India’s (Sebi) chair­man Chandrasekhar Bhaskar Bhave, the Association of Mutual Funds of India (Amfi) has appointed a committee of six MF officials to devise a platform for trad­ing in MF units. The objective is three-fold: to make buying and selling of MF units less cumbersome, to increase pene­tration of the product by encouraging participants across India and subsequent­ly to reduce costs.

MF platforms are not entirely new in India. Three platforms already exist, one of which was launched recently. MF dis­tribution and transacting through dedi­cated platforms promises to be the next big wave in the industry. 

What is anMF platform?

Ideally, MF platforms are a common meeting point for MF houses, agents and investors. What you get to see on a web­site has a whole machinery working at the backstage that integrates your data and investments and channelises it to appropriate partners. Typically, agents have to open accounts on such platforms to be able to trade MF units on behalf of their investors. These platforms also dou­ble up as an agent’s back office. So, he need not invest in sophisticated software or spend time manually preparing com­plex reports for clients. He can just use the ample tools available on the platform (like in a website), cull out statements of hold­ings with the latest net asset values (NAV) and other information about the portfoli­os, and send you newsletters or state­ments or even answer any queries.

In countries like the US and Canada, platforms also enable investors to open accounts and trade in MF units directly, bypassing agents. Advanced platforms enable you to trade in MF units electroni­cally and help eliminate or at least mini­mise the paper work.

MF platforms in India, however, are as yet not open directly to investors; only agents can access them. They are simply a link between agents and MF houses. NJ Fundz Network, launched in July 2003, is by NJ Invest, one of India’s largest MF distribution houses. FUNDSNet, launched in 2006, is by Computer Age Management Services (Cams), India’s largest registrar and transfer (R&T) agent. iFast (launched in May) is run by iFast Financial India, a Singapore-based entity that already has a successful platform in Singapore, manag­ing assets of around $1.8 billion.

How does it work?

There are differences in the way the three existing platforms work.

FUNDSNet. When agents join the FUNDSNet network, they get a username and a password. With these they can store their data and information. All that the agent needs is a computer, a printer, a scanner and a good Internet connection. When he gets a form and a cheque, he scans both and the images, as they are being scanned, reach FUNDSNet. Since FUNDSNet is a subsidiary of Cams, it can, therefore, also accept MF applications and attest a time stamp on the application. 

The advantage with this facility is that if the distributor sends in an application at 2.59 p.m., he can still get the same day’s NAV. (The cut-off time for accepting MF applications is 3 p.m., after which the next day’s NAV is applicable). So, with FUNDSNet, the agent doesn’t have to go to the local R&T’s or MF’s offices before the cut-off time to submit the application. For collecting cheques, FUNDSNet has a tie-up with HDFC Bank. 

All records of an agent’s clients, subse­quent transactions, additional purchases, switches and redemptions are stored on the FUNDSNet servers and are accessible by agents. Data maintained on this plat­form is password-protected. 

There are several online tools and calcu­lators also available using which agents can bring out complex reports for their clients. So, the agent doesn’t need to invest in software to handle client information. NJ Fundz Network. Agents who join the NJ platform become NJ Invest’s sub-bro­kers. This platform does not allow scan­ning and electronic dispatch of applica­tion forms. The rest of the process is simi­lar to FUNDSNet’s although the tools offered by the two platforms may differ. 

The advantage with NJ is that it provides schemes from all MFs unlike FUNDSNet which offers schemes only from the 17 MF houses that are serviced by Cams. NJ also has a training program for new recruits and assists them in getting the mandatory Amfi certification. NJ’s platform also offers sophisticated tools that absolve the agent of the need to maintain a full-fledged back-office replete with systems and staff. “We help develop an advisor’s business and train him to handle clients. It is more of a business development platform,” says Jignesh Desai, joint managing director, NJ India Invest. 

Reducing costs 

The existing platforms are more attuned to agents’ needs. A more wholistic plat­form would be able to cut down paper work, make transacting easier, and reduce costs. India’s latest MF platform, iFast, is a step in this direction. It offers schemes in the form of a Portfolio Management Service (PMS). Whenever you wish to invest, your agent will collect your money and invest the entire amount in Deutsche Asset Management’s PMS (DeAM Wrap Portfolio), a division of Deutsche MF which is partnering iFast. 

As against a discretionary PMS where one common portfolio caters to several PMS investors, this is a non-discretionary portfolio where each investor would be able to invest in a unique bunch of schemes across MFs. You need to give only one cheque to DeAM PMS and fill only one form. Depending on the advisor’s choice, DeAM will invest across schemes. 

Apart from the modalities, iFast also dif­fers from the other two platforms on its cost structure which hinges on advisory rather than on sales. So, with iFast, if you want to invest in, say, five schemes, you will not have to pay entry loads on all of them. You can pay a consolidated amount (0.15-2.50 per cent) as the entry load. No entry load is charged on switches though the exit load is applicable. Apart from this, there is the agent’s annual fee of 0.5-1.5 per cent of your prevailing portfolio value. This would include a charge to your agent for using the iFast platform. iFast discourages frequent churning since switches are free and ensures that your money grows. 

In terms of solutions and tools offered, iFast is somewhat similar to NJFundz Network. However, with Sebi having abol­ished entry loads, advisory platforms such as iFast will gain an edge over the rest, eventually. The disadvantage is with iFast’s PMS structure. The minimum investment required is Rs 5 lakh, which could be a deterrent, and, being a PMS, it also attracts a higher dividend distribu­tion tax for all its investors (22.44 per cent, including surcharge and cess). Besides, if your agent gets logged on to iFast, he won’t be able to integrate your current portfolio with the schemes that you would be buying from iFast, for now. 

The next level

The mother of all platforms, the Amfi MF trading platform, aims to remove most of your troubles of investing in funds. Although the Amfi committee refused to comment on how the platform and its modalities would work, sources close to the development say it would be Internet-based where agents would be able to buy and sell units on an investor’s behalf without leaving their offices. 

Sources also say that a tie-up with National Stock Exchange terminals (78,000 at present), is being contemplat­ed. This way brokers would double up as MF agents. Ultimately, the Amfi trading platform aims to switch to a system where investors would have to fill just one form and give one cheque, and would receive one account statement, much like a demat account, irrespective of the number of schemes they invest in. This platform has Sebi’s blessings and is currently being developed by Amfi, an industry body. Sources claim that on account of this, Amfi would hold some ground in convinc­ing Sebi to bring in sweeping changes in its MF guidelines to ensure that the plat­form does not result in duplication. 

Take, for instance, a common account statement. Although all three existing platforms allow agents to get a common account statement for their investors, the latter still continue to get another set of account statements from all their MFs. The present guidelines require all MFs to send statements to their investors. 

Although with iFast, you need to fill just one form and submit one cheque for mul­tiple MF investments, the PMS structure and lack of integration of new and exist­ing portfolios are not user-friendly. Further, though FUNDSNet allows your agent to scan and transmit your forms and cheques, you still have to hand over the physical forms and write out cheques. 

Things would change once Amfi’s plat­form goes live. Paper work, and, therefore, cost, are expected to go down. Also, once transactions take place online, advisors would be able to focus more on giving advice and less on transacting and data maintenance. To an extent, the changes are already starting to happen for small-time advisors who are unable to set up their own infrastructure. But, once the Amfi platform gets launched, transacting in MFs would become much easier and penetration would get a further boost.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Monsoon Magic in Mumbai





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No Fx Coins, We're Banks, Please

The level of services in Indian banks need to improve by leaps and bounds. Although some of the facilities offered by some of them are quite good and offer lots of conveniences, some of their policies can be very strange. For instance, exchanging foreign currency. I went on an international trip last year and again, last month. Both these times I took foreign exchange (fx) from my bank, ICICI Bank. Both the times they did not give me coins, even though I wanted coins. Whenever we travel abroad, its always advisable to carry some coins with you, to give lose change to be able to buy small items, like say under a dollar, or to make telephone calls from public telephone booths.

Upon returning back to India, most of us usually give away the left-over fx in exchange for Indian rupees. Now, it's quite natural that when we go abroad, we're bound to accumulate coins. The longer you stay, the more the number of coins, both in quantity and denomination, you tend to accumulate. But when you go to exchange your fx back to your bank, they do not take back coins. ICICI Bank refused to take back coins from me. Now what am I supposed to do with these coins? I asked ICICI Bank the reason for not accepting coins, but they were not able to give me any satisfactory answer. Aren't coins legal currency? If a bank is authorised to deal with fx, the banking regulator, the Reserve Bank of India should make it mandatory for them to not just give coins to customer who want them, but to also take them back when customers come in to return them.

Budget 2009 and mutual funds

There was nothing much for mutual funds (MF) in this year's budget. One small change though. Customs duty on gold bars increased to Rs 200 per 10 grams, up from Rs 100 per 10 grams, earlier.

Impact: The net asset values (NAV) of gold exchange-traded funds (ETF) will increase (it did so on Tuesday 7 July; a day after the budget was announced) by Rs 10. Since one unit of most Gold ETFs is equivalent to one gram of gold in a majority of gold ETFs, the increase of Rs 100 in customs duty per every 10 grams of gold would translate to an increase of Rs 10 in the NAV of an average gold ETF.


Apart from the marginal rise of the gold ETFs, there’s not much impact. The reasons for holding gold ETFs still remain true. There’s nothing more to it. Since customs duties of such nature are not in the hands of funds managers and are imposed universally on all gold ETFs, it does not alter your gold ETF holdings. The benefits of holding gold ETF in your portfolio still remains. Stay invested.



What about other MFs?

Budget 2009 brings no change to your MF portfolio. If you have a time horizon of atleast three years and upwards, equities is the way to go. Stick to large-cap schemes, such as DSP BlackRock Top 100, Birla Frontline Equity, Benchmark Nifty BeES and so on if you wish low volatility and steady returns. Mid-cap schemes such as IDFC Premier Equity and Birla Mid Cap Fund would do well for risky investors. Beware of a mad rush for infrastructure funds. Because of the mad rush thanks to the potential of the sector for the next five to 10 years atleast, you'll see a lot of new fund offers (NFO) coming up. These are high-risk, high-return funds and only one or, maximum two, of such funds in your portfolio should be more than enough. And from the looks of it, existing ones like DSP BR TIGER, ICICI Prudential Infrastructure, Tata Infrastructure and so on are good enough.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Solace In The End

I am a deeply religious man. No,I do not believe in forwarding all those chain emails requesting me to forward to several dozens of people, failing which bad luck would descend on me. I simply throw such emails in the trash. I can't fathom why people believe in such emails. If you are reading this and if you still keep sending me such emails, I will soon block you completely, on my email. But yes, I believe in prayers, even though I never proclaim my beliefs to the world. But yeah I feel prayers heal and I also feel that miracles do happen, time and again, if you are sincere in your heart and if you have the faith.

Like today evening, work was at its chaotic worst. A fund manager ditched me last minute for a column he had promised to write in my magazine and my editors were hopping up and down. So was I. I had plans for the evening- more of that, later- so it was important that I get out of the office. Just when it seemed like I was trying to move an immovable mountain, my colleague comes and tell me: "Pray from your heart and the door shall open." She said that God asks us to lean against the mountain and He'll push it for us. And here are we who try and push the mountain ourselves. She added, as if she was made to say that, help would arrive in five minutes. And would you believe, help did arrive. Well, not in five minutes, but in around two minutes. Job done, I was out.

Late dinner evening was with Mother India at 'The Pearl of the Orient'. Today is her birthday, as per the Parsi calender. This is Mumbai's first, and to the best of my knowledge, only revolving restaurant. It's right at the top of The Ambassador hotel, on Marine Drive. You don't go to this place just for good food, you go here to soak the views that no other restaurant can offer you in Mumbai. Imagine you're sitting at the top of the building near Marine Drive. It was high tide so the sea was looking fierce with tides lashing in at the coast. The views from this restaurant are incomparable. It takes approximately an hour for the restaurant to make a full circle. Though I think today the service was a bit faster than usual. Not only did we have more than what we normally have, the service was fast and quick. We started when we were right opposite the Braborne stadium. By the time we just crossed Jai Hind college, we were through. Dim-Sums were good, though nothing compared to The Banker's Club of Hong Kong. The Peking promfret and Thai green curry rice were nicely prepared. Now time to go to sleep....ZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzz................

Sunday, July 5, 2009

15-LOVE-FEDERER

Tennis is a cruel sport. Star tennis writer Jon Wierthem was right. Isn't it ironic that in a match that lasted four hours and 16 minutes, despite Roddick holding his serve wonderfully for most of the match, serving from behind all throughout the fifth and penultimate set, the one time he lost his serve was that final game that handed Roger Federer the Championships? For most part of the match, Roddick was the better player, yet a few points here and there turned around the match and gave us the result of a lifetime. True, Roddick had four set points in the second set tie-breaker when he led 6-2, but Fed came back to win it and level the match at one set a piece. Tennis is a cruel sport when after four hours and 16 minutes, only one of the two players has to emerge a winner and the other a loser. And sorry, the cliche 'there are no losers' don't make things any better, okay? Try telling that Andy Roddick!

But Roddick is back as a better player than he was five years back when he made it to a couple of Wimbledon finals and won his first and till-date only Grand Slam at Flushing Meadows. He has fixed his mind and his temperament. It only goes to show that the best way to get anywhere near Federer when the guy is playing great tennis is to get inside his mind. Look at Nadal. Today, Roddick came so close...

All said and done, Roger Federer has come back remarkably in 2009. Who would have thought that after breaking down and absolutely inconsolable losing this year's Australian Open to his chief rival Rafael Nadal and then later going in this year's French Open, the Fed would not only win his first French Open and complete a career Grand Slam, but would also soon follow it up with a Wimbledon title, surpassing Pete Sampras' record of 14-Grand Slam titles. To top it all now, the guy is going to be a Dad. Whether or not his priorities will change or not, only time will tell. For now, RF intends to continue to play tennis. Great for the game and his fans.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

SLOW SPEED

Another rail budget went by and nothing significant for the average Mumbaikar.

While the full list of stations to be upgraded to a world-class standard is awaited, it looks like both Sealdah and Howrah stations (both stations in Kolkata; capital city of the rail minister's home state) are included, but Mumbai gets only Mumbai CST. Mumbai Central seems to have been left out, despite its prominence. Stations like the Bandra Terminus and Kurla Terminus, which were built to decongest Mumbai Central and Mumbai CST stations, respectively, seem neglected. My friend Prashant Mahesh recently caught a train from Bandra and was quite distraught on seeing the conditin of the station complex there. Imagine getting out of a Meru Cab and getting in the Bandra Terminus; that is some irony.

At the Mumbai Central station, for many years I had seen policemen wonderfully manning the taxi stand there. No more of that now. What do we have instead? Rude and greedy taxi-drivers lining up their taxis outside platform no 5 soliciting only those passengers that would yield them a handsome return. They do not entertain short-distance passengers even if they have luggage. With the police gone, its chaos out there. I once saw a couple being rejected, ignored and refused by several taxis outside platform No 5 of Dadar railway station despite the husband being clearly physically handicapped. Shame on such taxis.

Some Suburban stations are worse. For instance, it's a nightmare getting a rickshaw outside Andheri station, especially its East side. I shudder every time I have to go to Andheri for a meeting. There is no rickshaw stand there. Empty rickshaws run past us and we have to say out loud to them where we want to go to. Politeness is a virtue that most of them have never heard of, one gets a sense. If they feel like taking us, they stop, else they don't even look at us, even if they are running empty. The worst part is we have solicit rickshaws in the middle of the road jostling several BEST buses at the same time. One eye on the rickshaw and the other on running buses. I tell you, catching a rickshaw outside Andheri (E) is a life-threatening exercise.

I feel there should be police manning taxis and rickshaws that pick up passengers outside all railway stations, across India , or atleast the more important and bigger railway stations, just like at the airports.

The East-West corridor of Mumbai is hugely under-developed. Except for the Vasai-Diva and Mahim-Wadala harbour line connection, the east-west corridor has nothing else to rely on. The harbour line connection is very slow and is in one corner of Mumbai. The other option is changing trains at Dadar, but changing trains is hassling. There is a pressing need to connect Borivali and Thane, along the lines of Ghodbunder Road; one of this belt's upcoming areas. Infact seamless and round-the-clock connectivity is required from the far-end suburbs of western line such as Virar, Vasai and so on to the far-end harbour line suburbs of the Harbour Line such as Panvel and Belapur. I shudder to think of the guy who lives in Virar and has a job in Panvel or vice-versa.

Another Achilles heal is the Mumbai Metro. We are already many, many years late on this count; developed countries have a large and an extremely-efficient underground rail, but Mumbai has still to see its first Metro line. On top of it, we have to endure the agony of the Metro line construction over the ground, in crowded and jam-packed areas. They may be trying to save the costs, but an underground metro should be the way to go forward, not an over-the-ground. Maybe in some areas they can, but certainly in a significant majority of areas. Maybe in another 20 years we will? .....after all, we just got our Bandra-Worli sea link after all these years, didn't we?

The idea of non-stop trains ('Duronto'), mooted in this year's Rail Budget, is a myth and cannot be a reality. When you call a train a non-stop train, it means it won't stop at stations, but that doesn't mean it just won't stop at all between the start and end stations. Long-distance trains need to be refurbished and locomotives need to change. Besides, India does not have the necessary infrastructure to facilitate the running of non-stop trains. Special high-speed corridors are required to facilitate a smooth running of these trains and where punctuality can be practically achieved. You can't have the same set of tracks that run these type of trains and also, say, Virar-Dahanu Shuttle. Besides, passengers travelling on really long distances (take for instance, one of the proposed routes of Ernakulum-Delhi) would need to get off at stations to stretch themselves. Imagine being confined inside the train from Delhi and Ernakulum, all the way! And if trains have even three to four of such stops, the idea of a non-stop train is lost. There is, then, hardly any difference in the speed of these trains and the Rajdhanis. Unless, these non-stop trains are introduced for shorter, inter-city routes, like say Mumbai-Pune or Mumbai -Surat.

I have always wondered why the height of the railway platforms of India cannot be the same as the height of the coaches. Internationally, isn't that the standard? You just, sort of, walk in the compartment from the platform; in India you climb in the compartments. This puts the senior citizens and women at great risk.

Canadian Rockies: Day 11-13 (Vancouver highlights)

On day #11, I took the ferry and came to Vancouver. Much of Vancouver is filled with Asians. The whole 36 km distance between Tsawwassen Fe...