In your interest.
Online Personal Finance Magazine
No beating about the bush.
After Rajat Gupta’s exit, the Public Health Foundation of India has a new chairman. This ‘public-private partnership,’ however, has been a sneaky and unaccountable organisation that has a lot to answer. This, the first part of a four-part series, discusses questions on the formation, functioning and accountability of PHFI
On 11th July, NR Narayana Murthy of Infosys, an ardent advocate of transparency, accountability and ethics, agreed to become the new chairman of the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), a 'public-private partnership' (PPP) that does not submit itself to the RTI Act 2005 and the audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in spite of having received hundreds of crores of rupees from the central and state governments.
If you have never heard of PHFI, that is how it is meant to be.
PHFI has no public character even though it has been silently influencing public health policy, such as advising the Centre on how the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) should be run and how the proposed 'universal health coverage' should be funded. PHFI also runs four public health schools-Indian Institutes of Public Health (IIPHs)-in Hyderabad, Delhi, Gandhinagar, and Bhubaneswar.
Privileged and unregulated
Each of the IIPHs was built through the 'PPP model', which required the state government to provide land (at least 40 acres) free of charge and incur 20%-50% of the 'project cost' of about Rs140 crore per institute, excluding the cost of land.
The IIPHs run on public money. They primarily admit "in-service candidates nominated by the government" for flagship one-year, post-graduate diploma courses and charge the government a cool Rs2.5 lakh per candidate.
That there is no merit-based system for admitting students or hiring teachers and IIPH courses are not approved by the Medical Council of India, or AICTE, or any other statutory regulator, are mere matters of small print.
They would probably constitute a big educational scam in the case of an organisation not as privileged as the one that Narayana Murthy now heads.
The PPP autarchy
Since being "launched" by prime minister Manmohan Singh on 28 March 2006, PHFI has received over Rs100 crore in financial support from the central government. Taxpayers are not supposed to know how this "autonomously governed PPP" has spent their money. In over five years of its existence PHFI has never published a report on its finances and functioning.
But then the PPP agreement, presumably signed between the public and private partners, and PHFI's memorandum of association and registration details have never been made public. The citizens are not supposed to know whether the selection of the private partners was made in compliance with the PPP guidelines, such as competitive bidding-not to mention whether granting of subsequent privileges to PHFI was in line with the rules.
They must also accept PHFI's sweeping "charter" (posted on its website: http://www.phfi.org/) which seeks to develop a "vigorous advocacy platform to effectively communicate recommendations to policymakers." That is in addition to setting up "5-7 public health institutes, a national research network of public health and allied institutions, and an independent accreditation body for degrees in public health which are awarded by training institutions across India".
(As mentioned before, it is a matter of small print that PHFI's own courses are not recognised and accredited by any regulator.)
Questions chasing PHFI
1. Since PHFI has been described as a PPP, did the government conduct any competitive bidding to select the 'private partner'? Why are the details of the PPP agreement not in the public domain?
2. Under which legislation is PHFI being run, conducting its courses, and collecting money from students?
3. Where does PHFI draw the authority to conduct consultancy with government agencies? Are consultancy assignments given through competitive bidding?
4. Is PHFI directly accountable to any statutory regulator, CAG, the Parliament, or any state legislature?
5. How was PHFI granted the privilege of receiving a steady stream of government-funded students for its courses? Was any competitive bidding conducted in granting this privilege?
6. Does PHFI conduct any merit-based tests for the admission of students to its courses? What is the role of "recommendation letters" and "bonds" in admitting students and hiring faculty?
7. Since PHFI is itself unrecognised and unaccredited, who gave it the mandate-mentioned on its website-to "establish an independent accreditation body for degrees in public health which are awarded by training institutions across India"?
(Kapil Bajaj is a freelance journalist and blogger based in Delhi. He has worked for the Press Trust of India, Business Today and other organisations. His interests are democracy and public policy. The second part will appear on Tuesday.)
Non-banking fiduciary products, whether cash to/from ATMs, or bill payments, or anything else, are still at a stage where you have to be prepared to bend over backwards to work on matters if things go wrong
The menace of unsolicited telephone calls appears to get worse when one travels. It is almost as though telecom providers keep track of the movement of their customers, and then the moment they are out in roaming jurisdictions, the number of calls and SMS messages are notched up, probably as a means of generating additional revenue. In addition, all sorts of new plans for voice, data and text/SMS, add other options like GPS and more, and now mobile payment platforms-and you have a situation where the already incoherent bill is guaranteed to be even more difficult to understand—should you accept.
Broadly, as anybody in design will tell you, if the designers would just play around with the fonts, it would be so much easier for customers to understand things. But no, take a close look at most telecom bills, and you will see that the fonts as well as colours used are chosen to confuse rather than make things easier. And then, in the midst of all this, you will get some random voice asking you to subscribe for more connections, more plans, and pay some more.
As a subscriber and customer, there is, in real terms, not much you can do about it beyond registering with the DND (do not disturb) facility, which in itself is more like a game the telecom providers play with their customers. When a proposal was made to have a simple alternative that worked the other way around—wherein all customers were supposed to be on a DND registry unless specifically stated otherwise—the biggest opposition came from (you guessed right), the telecom providers.
Likewise, as far as the bill is concerned, it helps if you keep your plan as simple as possible. And hold on as far as mobile phone-based mobile wallets or whatever new buzzword they give it are concerned, as the technology is far from stabilised and the billing is far from accurate at this juncture. Sincere advice from somebody who has been in the technology end of this product is, stay away till further notice.
Non-banking fiduciary products, whether cash to/from ATMs, or bill payments, or anything else, are still at a stage where you have to be prepared to bend over backwards to work on matters if things go wrong. And should you end up using your mobile wallet when roaming, the heavens may not be able to help you unless you go back to the merchant for resolution.
And as I said at the beginning, telecom providers appear to keep a very sharp eye on your phone when you are in roaming areas.
Certainly, online payments appear to have stabilised, and for that we have the Indian Railways to thank. The standards they have set online, especially with reference to the usual bugbears of refunds and clarity in showing transactions, mean that the others have to match them, or go bust. As a result, utility bills, for example, paid online are a boon. If your mobile phone helps you do so, all good luck to you; this does appear to be working well and the resolution mechanisms through your credit card or debit card have been finessed over time.
But to start using the mobile phone as a payment facilitator, with a brand new payment processor known as your telecom company? Hang in there. It is nobody's contention that our telecom providers are customer-friendly with their basic telecom services. When they can't implement even a simple DND, would we trust their databases with our bank accounts, and a mandate for them to play around with our life's savings?
The root of the issue that the telecom companies do not address is this bothersome business of unsolicited calls. And be assured that if you get into their databases as somebody who spends with his or her mobile phone, then you could well be a target for more calls to buy this and buy that, mostly stuff you don't need. Sometimes, finding that you have been billed for something you didn't buy either. And they can prove you were there, too.
But the problem of unsolicited calls still remains unresolved.
There are a few ways to counter this. One is to, for example, get hold of the mobile numbers of the senior people at the telecom companies and then involve them in these unsolicited calls by either bringing them into conference mode or by calling them back subsequently. This was what Dhaval Valia did with Vodafone, who initially slapped him with a legal notice and a threat of Rs20 crore, and after a big furore online and elsewhere, had to withdraw.
But one of the methods I have always recommended has been that of becoming a small shareholder in the company that runs your mobile phone. Not only do you remain informed of how and what they are doing as an investor, but you also have certain rights as a shareholder, which are way above that of a consumer. And reminding them does not seem to hurt, as a matter of fact it gets faster resolution. I have helped people do this with Airtel, Reliance and Vodafone-and it always works. Nobody wants a consumer who is also a shareholder to make a formal complaint to the board of directors.
That is, nobody other than Idea Cellular Ltd and Pankaj Kapdeo, who is something or the other with a fancy title at Idea.
Here's my first message to him:-
"Good morning and Jai Hind, This is to inform you that I am receiving telephone calls from 0-98914-62227 claiming to be from Idea Cellular, despite my placing my number 09xxx-xxxx4 on the DND list. Please take suitable action and advise. I am a shareholder as well as subscriber to Idea and will escalate this to the board of directors at the next AGM/meeting/as required. Sincerely."
The reply I got is this:
"Gentleman, Being a shareholder and being a subscriber are two different things and have nothing to do with AGM of the company where only the business relating to the agenda contained in the AGM notice is taken up. However, u have raised an issue relating to DND facility and rest assured that it would be handled by correct person to your satisfaction, in case your complaint falls into that category. Thanks. Pankaj Kapdeo."
What do you do in such cases?
By the looks of it, it does seem that farmers, landowners and builders in the Noida Extension area will come to some sort of an arrangement, eventually. But this will cost money, which will be passed on to the customer
About three and a half years ago, my wife and I started looking for an apartment in the NCR area (National Capital Region) around Delhi, from the perspective of actually living in it at some time in the foreseeable future. The initial search was limited to Central/South Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida, and the budget was around Rs1.5 crore.
The parameters we fixed, while researching, were:
At the outset, barring one DLF project in Delhi which also was closer to West Delhi, pretty much all the other prospects in Delhi "proper" did not meet our parameters. The cash-to-cheque ratios were amazingly high, most of the prospective properties were what is known as "builder floors" which were made using techniques not improved on in the last 50-75 years, and moreover, there was no cogent clarification on the legality of many of the properties.
However, we must be different from most other potential customers, because apparently this is the one segment where the "market" has seen good growth and appreciation. The price increase here in the last 3-4 years, all other things being equal, would be around 15% to 40%, for most properties, though here too, these are simply anecdotal figures which cannot be re-confirmed. Add to that the number of properties popping up inside "lal-dora" (urban villages) matching the prices of the properties in the "colonies" next door, and you get an idea of how it moves in Delhi "proper".
All the same, boom or bust, permitted or banned, the rampant re-construction going on all over Delhi bears out one simple fact-there is apparently no dearth of buyers willing to pay a couple of crore or even more for the privilege of living in whatever, as long as it has a Delhi address. What used to be single family two-storey bungalows on 300-400 square metre are now being torn down rapidly to typically build a basement and two tiny three-bedroom apartments on each of four floors, with ground floor on stilts all set to become "commercial" in due course.
Next, we were, like thousands of others, certainly taken in by the bright lights and hype of what is known as "new" Gurgaon. However, we had lived in Gurgaon in the not too distant past, and despite connectivity improving in the period ad interim thanks to the Metro, we knew a few things about Gurgaon which made us hesitate.
One was the fact that due to a lack of real city planning, much of the development was haphazard, with bits and pieces left out in between that stood out like ugly sores, with potential to cause chaos. Next, there was hardly anything by way of proper mixed land use planning, and no public transport to speak of. And finally, here in Gurgaon too, the cash-cheque monster reared its familiar head.
Gurgaon also has a problem which is never discussed - due to the way it has been developed, the water table has gone way deep down, and there is something happening to the land over there which has the larger builders worried. Trying to build something with, for example, more than a third basement, simply does not seem to work. And existing second/third basements are showing some signs which are, to put it bluntly, not very happy.
Also, on a per-square-foot basis, Gurgaon was and is cheaper than Delhi, but costlier than our final choice-Noida. And Gurgaon has a cost of living that is higher than Delhi's, and way above Noida's.
So we zeroed in on Noida, and right away, all other things being more or less equal, the options opening out were:
Main Noida, around Rs4,500-Rs5,500 per square foot. (Full cheque possible)
Greater Noida and the Expressway, around Rs3,500 to Rs4,500 per square foot. (Full cheque possible)
Noida Extension, around Rs2,500 to Rs,3000 per square foot. (Part cheque, part cash)
Please appreciate, with all the time taken for research, we were by now into 2009. And all the quotes mentioned above were for "projects" which envisaged two-four years to delivery. The big difference also was that many of the Noida Extension projects were from relatively little-known builders, though there were a few known ones too. But why was the price so low? This struck a red flag immediately.
Now if you look at a map of the area, it becomes apparent why Noida derives a premium over the Greater Noida and Expressway properties on grounds of proximity to Delhi/Noida, and also because Noida is already fully developed. However, by the same logic, Noida Extension should have been the same price as Greater Noida/Expressway, if not slightly higher.
The reason Noida Extension was selling at a discount, compared to the neighbouring areas-and let me assure you that it was hard-sell from the full-page ads to the extremely persistent sales push with even salesmen literally jumping into our cars-was because even then the whisper was out, the whole Noida Extension (a name given by the builders, by the way) was still not totally, how does one put it, kosher.
So, to place the facts as they existed then, people who chose to go in for what looked like an amazing bargain in Noida Extension, compared to other projects in the vicinity, either knew the risk they were taking, or had simply not done their homework. Cut it any way you like, that's the simple truth, and the fact remains, that we invested in Noida at a higher cost and are likely to take delivery soon; hopefully, without any problems. And with a sudden 20% spike in prices in the last few weeks, too.
So where does that leave those who have booked apartments and properties/land in Noida Extension, and are now at the mercies of not just their builders, but also the farmers who own the land and the judgement due in a few days? By the looks of it, it does not seem like this is going to be the last word on anything, but a catalyst for a national re-look at land acquisition that could impact other projects nationally too.
By the looks of it, and after having gone over the ground in the last couple of days, it does seem that the farmers/landowners and builders will come to some sort of an arrangement, eventually. Especially where there has already been some amount of construction, and where the landowners have already been through the money they got the first time around, which has given them a taste for more.
This arrangement will, obviously, cost money. And no builder is going to deliver a project with these additional costs as charity; the costs will be passed on to the eventual customer. Who, when he sits down and does his maths, and compares it with the price of other projects in the Noida and Greater Noida areas, will realise that he is back to what the number was in the first case. And that the amazing discounted price for Noida Extension was, simply, yet another example of the old truism, that there is no such thing as a "good deal".
What that does in terms of timelines, other litigations, sales and re-sales, changes of builders, and similar variables, is of course, not known. But on the ground, the word is out-if you want to protect your investment, then please keep your head down, and wait for an additional call for an additional amount.
Noida Extension at those prices, despite all the endorsement by cricketers and others, was too good to be true. And buyers surely knew this when they walked in with their eyes open in the first place. Sold only on lowest price, without any solid back-up on the fundamentals, it was bound to stumble at some stage or the other. In a way, it is good that it happened at this juncture, before things became worse.
There is a case for a fundamental change in the way properties and projects are sold in India. Today, you can take out some full-page ads, plant a hoarding in a piece of land somewhere, and start collecting money from potential customers, as well as take credit from banks. What happens to the "project" eventually is a risk that seems to be growing wider.
By right, builders should have the financial strength to organise their own funds for land acquisition and construction, and then offer apartments or land for sale ONLY after all the work as well as paperwork is done. Likewise, banks may or may not choose to extend credit to builders on commercial terms, but should simply not give loans to individual customers till the property is completed and ready to occupy.
Is this feasible? Well, this is how it is done in some parts of the world. In addition, closer home, builders like DLF are already doing it, with selective projects being offered only after they have been completed and are ready for possession.
Maybe we need to add that to our list of parameters-buy only when ready? Or be prepared to take the risk, of anything, including the reversal of land acquisition.