Tuesday, September 30, 2014

So you think smoking is bad for health?

Smoking has become very socially unacceptable nowadays. We are slowly going the way of the west, and it is difficult to light up in any gathering without getting withering glances from the others, if not face outright hostility. Media is full of messages against smoking. Any health article starts with the injunction to avoid smoking.


Looks like people are all committed to good health, right? A commitment to healthy habits and a healthy lifestyle? If you are one of those self-righteous ones who does not smoke, you also have a smug superior attitude which you wear on your sleeve, on how you are more responsible in taking care of your health.  Anyone I ask is positive that they are concerned about their health and are taking care of it well. Are you though? Whether you are a smoker or a non-smoker, you are very likely slave to a host of habits and lifestyle issues that are worse for your health than smoking.  I am listing a few of them here.


The first is excess of sugar in your diet. The human body is not capable of processing the amount of sugar we dump into it every day. The sugar we consume as part of our tea and coffee directly is bad enough, but if it were only that, the body would still manage. The amount of sugar we consume through soft drinks, breakfast cereals, ready-to-eat foods, and any kind of food that we buy off the shelves is humongous.

 (watch how much sugar in a can of coke:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKZ2ZqBYlrI ; how much sugar in your breakfast cereal:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBhZvVcKvSo )


Do you put that much sugar in the food you cook at home? You don't, right? If you think the "sugar substitutes" like aspartame are the solution, think again. The body cannot be fooled that easily – they are chemicals, and they have long term damaging effects on your health and wellbeing.


The second is table salt. Yes, ordinary salt of the variety all of us eat. The stuff that you buy as "refined, purified, salt" is nothing but a chemical powder NaCl. Natural salt has been a part of human diet for millennia, in fact it is essential to health. Natural salt has about 80-odd minerals and trace elements that make it a complete food easily assimilated by the body. That has been replaced with processed salt, which we have been convinced is good for us, since it is "processed" with "added iodine".  Guess what, the amount of salt in processed food is perhaps more than even the amount of sugar, which is what makes it bad, as anything excessive is bad. What makes it worse is that the processed foods of course use the "refined" variety of salt. Thus a perfectly natural part of human diet has been demonized. Salt is not bad for health, in normal quantities, what we normally use for our home cooking. Use unrefined natural sea salt (yes, that unglamorous stuff which our parents used to buy) and powder it at home. And put up with the fact that it absorbs moisture and becomes lumpy – that is because there are no chemicals in it to prevent that.


That of course brings us to processed food in general. What oil do you use at home? Refined, of course. And what does refined oil mean? To start with, at the extraction stage itself, a lot of heat and chemicals are applied to increase the yield of the press (which is why cold-pressed is much more expensive). A bunch of chemicals is then introduced including detergents to remove the "odors". As with all processed foods, a lot of the processing is done in order to improve the shelf life, transportability, and appearance. Your health, and the fact that you are going to eat this stuff, is of no concern.


Processed food has several chemicals added to it, in fact there is a list of several hundred for use by the food industry.


I can hear you say "But, they are FDA approved!".  Give me a break. The FDA knows nothing when it comes to health. They are here to serve industry, and not our health.  "But, they are within the safe limits for consumption". Is there any safe limit when it comes to arsenic, or radiation? Or for that matter, any other toxin? The body can handle bad stuff thrown at it, up to a point. But the rate at which we are throwing bad stuff into our bodies nowadays, it's a wonder we are still alive.


So you think smoking is bad for health? I don't deny that, but you consume stuff worse than that every minute of the day, which you think are healthy, but are as much or more damaging to your health. Food for thought - ruminate on that!

( this series of articles will be continued – I welcome your reactions – please post in my blog or write  to dinesh.gopalan@gmail.com )

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On Jayalalitha's arrest

It is interesting to note the reactions to Jayalalitha's arrest. The usual protests by AIADMK supporters, and the discussion of the law and order problem is of course present; but they are anyway to be expected.


Whenever a big political figure is threatened with arrest or conviction, there is always the threat that their lawless supporters will cause a total breakdown of normal life. No one managed to do anything to Bal Thackeray in his lifetime, and whenever a figure like Jaya is involved there is always discussion of what their "cadres" might end up doing. This is a threat that is held out whenever these people are involved, and the political figures themselves encourage their supporters in this. At some level they behave as if they are above the law and not accountable to anyone; and messing around with them will interrupt normal life for everyone. This shows contempt for the law and it is a not too subtle attempt at blackmail.


It is felt that AIADMK may have to become "closer" to the ruling BJP dispensation at the centre, to mitigate or reverse some of the fallout. Politics is all about this, of course. There are several cases pending in various courts, and several possible cases lying under cover in various forums, and several instances of corruption with proof that can be brought to light. These are not used by the politicians and the powers that be to cleanse corruption from the system, but rather to blackmail each other, thus maintaining a delicate balance of blackmail and counter blackmail. One wonders where Jaya went wrong in this game. If she were savvy enough, the chargesheet would have been full of holes, and the prosecution lawyers incompetent, the witnesses would be contradicting themselves and turning hostile, some of them could have even made an early trip to meet their maker, and the case would have been riddled with holes worse than a swiss cheese in such way that no judge could have handed out any conviction. However, in all this weakening of the case, there would be enough solid evidence still available with someone to nail the person in future, the proverbial sword of Damocles which always hangs by a thread but is not supposed to snap. Of course, this is just a special court. There are several layers of appeals possible – all these could still happen if Jaya plays her game well.


If it is a way of cutting its potential threats down to size, then it is a masterstroke from the BJP.  It is rumored that the Saradha case is being used to keep Mamata in check. There are cases pending against Mulayam and Maya which could turn nasty; no doubt their emissaries would be reaching out to the centre to fix things before they turn nasty. All kinds  of electoral and political considerations will come into play in deciding on the quid pro quo.


 It is also true, say commentators, that DMK will get a shot in the arm with this verdict. Not because they are honest. No, everyone knows no one is. It helps them to prove to the TN public that the other person is equally bad; after Kanimozhi and Raja they badly needed this. 


They are discussing which puppet Jaya will seat on the throne while she is away, and already talking about how she will rule her empire from jail. When Ram went to exile, Bharat ruled in his place keeping Ram's slippers on the throne, refusing to sit on the throne himself. Ram went for noble reasons, and he didn't interfere in the kingdom from his vanvas,  but that is hardly the point. We have our own traditions to guide us; when the leader is in exile, or jailed, his / her puppet will rule. The last time around, Panneerselvan apparently refused to sit on the CM's chair when he was playing the role; I am not even sure if Rabri Devi stepped out of her kitchen to tend to her state. Akhilesh is slightly better – he is a younger puppet with a better accent.


In all this, the point to really note, is that no one is lamenting the fact that she is corrupt. No one is talking about cleaning up the system. There is no mention of sweeping the stables clean and starting afresh. There is no figure with a high moral standing who is an alternative to any of these people. Everyone is talking about how she is now in trouble because she got convicted, meaning of course, she was stupid enough to leave enough evidence lying around. No one is talking about how shocked they are that their leader let them down, no one seems to have been disillusioned that their leader is proven to be corrupt.


We know all that. There is nothing this case tells us that we don't know. Disproportionate assets? Of course. We would be extremely disappointed with our leader if she were still poor. We only look up to people with wealth and power. Either we worship them after they become wealthy, doesn't matter how, like Jaya, or we make them wealthy because we worship them, like Lord Balaji. That is the moral compass of this nation. We should be proud.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Real Estate Investment Trusts

After delaying for several years, SEBI has just approved the draft regulations for Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). There has been some hype of expectancy around this product and the market has been eagerly awaiting it. So have the HNI's (High Net Worth Individuals).  Such products appeal to the HNI's since they seem to be an avenue to invest in high-yielding real estate without actually getting their hands dirty by going and actually purchasing some real estate. And HNI's, especially of the salaried variety, don't want to get their hands dirty. They want to get high returns while ensconced in their offices, trusting the money managers who, they are assured, are there just for that purpose – to ensure that they get good returns while being inured from all the hardships such investments entail. And therein lies the rub. We think that since it is a structure that works fine in the developed western economies it will work fine here too.


But first the structure. SEBI has mandated that all these funds should be closed-ended, with an initial asset size for each fund of at least Rs.500 crores. Each unit in the initial issue will be at a minimum of Rs. 2 lakhs; follow-on issues at a unit size of minimum one lakh, thus ensuring that only the wealthy invest in it. In other words, it is risky, so don't blame us if it turns sour – you wealthy can afford to lose money! There are no great entry barriers for becoming a sponsor, and the sponsor can of course appoint his own "manager" who manages the fund. The trustees, needless to say, will be appointed by the sponsors, thus ensuring that there is no real "independence". But so far, it is no different from any Mutual Fund. These funds have to be compulsorily listed, but mere listing does not ensure liquidity as we all know. The manager has to invest at least 80 percent in completed and revenue generating properties. The balance can be invested in under-construction properties, or mortgage backed securities, or debt or equity of real estate companies. This whole bucket of the balance of upto 20 percent looks scary. This money will basically be invested directly with the builders and we know how honest and transparent they are reputed to be in India.


I see several problems with this structure.


1.       How independent are the managers, trustees and sponsors going to be? Who will be setting up these funds, and who are the entities that will control them?


2.       When you invest in real estate directly, even if in an under-construction property, you have more skin in the game. What kind of oversight and control over the builder will be exercised by the money managers? They are more into managing money; are they going to manage all the problems that come with being a landlord? They will leave it to the builders to manage, and send them periodic reports, preferably already in ppt form, so that they can present it to their bosses and investors.


3.       The primary problem in my view, is that this is a highly unregulated, opaque, non-transparent, not very honest, black-money prone, unstructured industry in India.  Things, especially with regard to valuations and cash flows, are never as they seem to be. There is a great incentive for the money manager to cut side-deals with the builder. And the investors will never know.


4.       SEBI has not mandated that any building regulations should be followed or checked for the investment properties. There is nothing in the guidelines pertaining to real estate; SEBI is treating this like any other mutual fund. The money managers who enter this game may not be experienced in the real estate industry, and the builders, as we know, are very experienced. The managers will be like new fish entering into a pool full of sharks.


5.       Valuation for NAV calculations will be an issue. In equity mutual funds there is a ready liquid market with daily quotes. Here the fund will appoint "experts" to determine the value. Since the assets are illiquid, and the valuations depend on assumptions, they can be manipulated to show a steady increase in NAV. Or a sudden drop as a prelude to some insider purchases. Or very aggressive valuations not providing for long-term repairs and renewal. The potential to play around with the numbers is enormous, and we as investors, are going to be investing at these NAVs.


6.       The upto 20 percent that can be invested in "under construction" projects is actually another conduit to lend money to the real estate industry.  Anyone who knows the Indian real estate industry will be worried.


7.       Exits from investments, both for the funds for their investments in projects, as well as for investors, is not going to be without cost. There will be a heavy illiquidity premium built into the price.


So where does that leave us? To invest or not to invest? Those of you who are not "HNI's" don't have to bother, this product is not for you, even as per SEBI's definitions.  Those of  you who are HNI's, remember all those PMS schemes you put your money into? The odds are you didn't make too much on it – as to the problems with PMS, I shall reserve that for some other time. You are going to trust your money to someone who may not know much about real estate, to invest it with builders who are not known for their honesty and fair dealings, in a market that is illiquid and full of "cash" transactions, in expectation of a higher return.


I would advise caution. At the very least, invest only if the sponsor is HDFC or something.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Ganesh Chaturthi in New York - The importance of social and cultural context

 The following account of Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations in New York looks at the whole thing so differently from what we are used to - so many things that we take for granted seem very quaint and exotic when viewed by an "outsider". 

 All rituals have meaning because of the social and cultural contexts with which they are intertwined. What is an "arati" to us is a "corpulent man waving a plate with lamps in front of a stone image" to someone else. Shorn of their context, most things lose their meaning. Conversely, we can invest meaning into our daily activities by converting them into rituals, and adorning them with a lot of context. Would a prayer be as effective if it were not done after a bath, facing east, to our favorite deity, at a particular time of the day, with the same mantras repeated every day? None of these things is strictly required in order to pray, but they help in creating an atmosphere that aids mindfulness, and the associated meanings that we impose on this daily act through various social and cultural means adds to the significance of the daily act.

If things attain significance once they are rooted in context, and if that context is so easily destroyed when taken into a different time or a different place, is it any wonder then that the world is getting more and more dissatisfied and stressed? The last few decades have seen a massive erosion of context with people moving away geographically, contextually, and culturally from their roots. Of course, people create new contexts and rituals, and nowadays most of these revolve around the social media and other forms of "virtual" communication. But then, by its very nature, the essential context, that of meeting people in person, and knowing others "whole" is lost; what we now know of any person is only a "part" based on the context in which we interact. 

And we wonder why the world is not getting any happier...

(article on Ganesh Chaturthi as seen  through the eyes of a Westerner attached)

With Bells and Coconuts, a Time to Worship

Sivakumar Swaminatha pours milk on a Ganesh statue in Queens. (The New York Times) 

 Dr. Uma Mysorekar lifted the coconut above her head and dashed it against the gray granite floor of the temple, shattering it into pieces. 

A riotous orchestra of ringing bells, thumping drums and the oboelike shehnai reverberated in the cool predawn air. A piercing call emanated from a silver-tipped conch shell. And a semicircle of onlookers, draped in magenta, saffron, violet and burgundy, clapped as if in chorus. 

At the Hindu Temple Society of North America, in Queens, this week is time to worship Ganesh, the elephant-headed, many-armed deity who is believed to remove obstacles. Here, as at temples in over a dozen countries, Hindus are celebrating Ganesha Chaturthi, which marks the god's birth (and rebirth). 

"The coconut shell is like the human ego," said Mohan Ramaswamy, who teaches at the temple. "You have to crack it open before you can let in the lord." 

In Queens, which has one of the largest Hindu populations in New York, more than 10,000 people will pay homage during the jubilee, which started Friday and ends Sunday. More than 400 gallons of milk, 100 boxes of apples, 50 crates of bananas and 5 kilograms of sandalwood paste will be used. 

And each day, dozens of liters of ghee, clarified butter, will be ladled into the fire pit for the homam, or fire ritual, which is believed to carry offerings to the deity. Visitors will consume some 50,000 prepared meals, according to the organizers. 

At the Ganesh Temple, ancient traditions are carried out with a relentless, New York-style efficiency. 

On Saturday, volunteers and staff members wearing laminated "May I help you" name tags and white T-shirts bearing the temple's logo used iPads to check the schedule, which was detailed on the temple's website. In the courtyard, rows of devotees repeated hypnotic hymns asking the lord for his protection as they faced a large fire pit. A bare-chested man with a clipboard and a counter was on hand to ensure that the requisite 400,000 mantras were offered. 

Inside the main hall, flat-screen televisions broadcast live-streaming video of each ceremony. Devotees sat cross-legged on the polished granite tiles as a corpulent priest wearing only a maroon lungi, or sarong, poured plastic jugs of whole milk into a silver cup before splashing it on a 3-ton black stone effigy in the center of the room. 

Roman Garcia, who has been a janitor at the temple for 11 years, moved about the room with a bucket and a broom. The refuse will be taken away in a specially ordered sanitation truck, he said. 

"The goal of all of these rituals is to gain the power of the vibrations," said Mysorekar, a gynecologist and the temple's president. "A temple is not just brick and mortar. It's filled with energy." 

Lakshmi Sundararaman, 75, from Queens, who volunteers on the decorating committee, said that in the past women would spend hours with a needle and thread making garlands to adorn the hallways and statues. But two years ago, they opted for a more modern option. 

"We outsourced to India," she said. 

Last week, a shipment of 400 custom-made garlands, some 12 feet long, made with yellow, white and red roses, purple pompoms and white jasmine, landed at Newark, New Jersey. Twelve priests and musicians were also imported. 

According to Mysorekar, the temple spent about $100,000 on last year's events, and individuals donated money or materials. Each prayer ritual, or pooja, has a suggested offering ranging from $11 for one day of chanting to $3,500 for the ceremony in which the large stone statue will be cloaked in gold armor. 

In the food distribution area, where plastic containers of tamarind or yogurt rice, sweet carrot paste and pickled lemon were on offer, tables were set up to advertise temple activities: Sanskrit lessons, a march for breast cancer, math and spelling bee classes. Banner advertisements for the Bank of India hung on the walls. Over the loudspeaker, a recorded announcement reminded attendees how to donate. 

For the closing ceremony Sunday, a silver chariot bearing a 3-foot effigy draped in garlands will tower above the crowds as it wends its way down Kissena Boulevard and Main Street in Queens. 

Like Easter for Christians or the High Holy Days for Jews, Ganesha Chaturthi can be as much about the community as it is about worship. 

"Of course it's a religious thing," said Sumanth Murthy, 29, who works for a hedge fund. "But it's also a chance to see people you haven't in a while." 

Murthy was wearing a white lungi trimmed with elephants, and a blue polo shirt on top. Since moving to America from Bangalore, he said, it had been hard to stay in touch with his Indian heritage. Temple activities are a way for him to "balance two different lives." 

For the next generation of devotees, they are an opportunity to practice religious duties. At a special chanting ceremony for children, 9-year-old Siddhaarta Venkatesh clasped his hands and shut his eyes tightly as he recited the mantras. 

"Ganesh is my favorite god," he said before explaining how he learned the mythology behind the deity's elephant head, and how Ganesh saved the river goddess by tricking a dwarf. 

He said, "I Google 'Ganesh stories in English.'" 

© 2014, The New York Times News Service