Category Archives: Columns

Cyberattacks emerge as real threats in digital world

In an increasingly digital world where organisations and individuals store more data virtually, cyberattacks and misuse of data have emerged as real threats.

Last week, a global cyberattack affected nearly 200000 machines in 150 countries. Computers running on the older version of Microsoft operating system were impacted. Users were locked out of accessing their files and the hackers demanded $300 in ransom for providing access, resulting in disruptions and delays at workplaces. Imagine being locked out home of your home and being asked to pay up to access your belongings.

cyberattacks may 2017In the UK, healthcare services were affected as the ransomware locked up computers and equipment storing patient data, which means doctor appointments and routine operations had to be cancelled or postponed. This was such a severe event that the highest government authorities held crisis meetings that take place during national emergencies. In other countries, telephone giants, carmakers, universities or even police services were disrupted. We don’t yet know how much data was accessed and stolen by the hackers but thankfully no such reports have emerged yet.

At the individual level, newer dangers have emerged. We are living our lives increasingly in the virtual world and hence leaving a massive footprint that can be misused to manipulate us. In what seems like the plot of a thriller, there are reports that political parties rely on analytics based profiling and manipulation of user data to target their messages and gain voter support. For example, if you are profiled as a blue collared worker, you might end up seeing both real and fake news about spoils of the rich or a nationalist might be bombarded with messages about the perils of globalisation.

Apparently, the seemingly harmless and fun quizzes on Facebook that reveal your personality traits or even your ‘likes’ help analytics firms to draw a personal profile of the user, which can then be used for targeted campaigns. The danger of such messaging is that it only reinforces your beliefs without making you aware of the other points of views, thereby altering your reality.

Imagine how uncomfortable it would feel if someone were to stalk you all day and make a record of everything you did ranging from where you went, how you went there, how well you slept, what you ate etc. The nearly 30 apps on my smartphone do precisely the above and strangely enough I have given them access trusting my data is safe.


Study abroad loses sheen due to employment hurdles


Studying in foreign universities and building a suitable career abroad has long been the dream of the aspiring and ambitious middle class. A degree from a leading university in the US or UK has been seen as a sure shot ticket to a better life. But not so anymore.

It all started after the global financial crisis in 2008. Stories about lay-offs and hiring freezes had replaced news about strong economies and global workplaces. Recent world events such as a vote for Brexit and Donald trump’s election have indicated that many perceive increasing global mobility (of foreigners) as a threat.

Amid economic certainty about the future of UK in a post Brexit world, recruiters have been shying away from hiring people who require work sponsorship. College students reveal that whether one requires a work visa is a qualifying question for nearly all the companies they aspire to work for.

UK higher education Brexit Indian studentsMy brother-in-law who is pursuing a Masters’ degree from a prestigious London-based university recently interviewed for a global technology firm. Despite having a great work experience and strong grades, his discussion with the recruiter lasted all of three

minutes and ended abruptly when he mentioned he required visa sponsorship. Closure of post study work route since 2012 aimed at curbing the abuse of student visa category had already made it difficult to find jobs in UK after completing studies and last year’s Brexit vote has made things even more uncertain.

A one year degree from a university in England can cost up to Rs 50 lakh (including living expenses and tuition fees) and undergraduate would cost even more given the longer duration of the course. But for most Indian middle class families, spending on education is seen as an investment for securing a professionally successful life. According to a global survey published by HSBC Retail Banking and Wealth Management in 2015, most Indian parents ranked professional success for their children over being healthy or happy.

After investing substantial sums of money on a coveted higher education degree, hoping to work in the host country is not a totally unreasonable desire to have, but in an increasingly closed world, fulfilling that dream is likely to be more difficult. That said, all is not over.

These countries need skilled workers as much as the workers need jobs. It also helps to think beyond finding a job (difficult if you have a huge loan to repay) view studying abroad as an opportunity for cultural exchange and exposure.

It is also time to re-evaluate one’s choices and look for alternatives. For long we have focused only on building skills in IT to support the booming requirements of overseas firms. Perhaps it’s time to explore other subjects, build different skills and focus on working in India. Becoming an entrepreneur and creating jobs for others might also be the way to go.

Rote learning makes way for interactive lessons

When I went to school a couple of decades ago, learning was a largely passive and linear experience where the teacher instructed and the student listened. Intelligence was mainly measured on how much information we could memorise and reproduce on paper. Nowadays, hands-on and practical teaching that encourages one to observe and question has opened up endless possibilities for acquiring knowledge, making rote learning methods seem outdated.

My 4 year old daughter is yet to perfect her reading and writing but can be quite chatty while explaining how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly or what Saturn’s rings are made of. “A caterpillar turns into a chrysalis, and not a cocoon, before it becomes a butterfly,” she corrected me when she was only 3.5 years old. I later learnt that she had seen the process of a real caterpillar growing into a butterfly in her preschool classroom.

Concepts of mathematics and science are now taught through games and play, more so during the early years before children start formal schooling. For instance, young children aren’t expected to remember the names of different seasons but explore them through activities like nature walks and learn about capacity during sand play.


In England, mandatory guidelines regulate all schools which means all children can benefit from a similar approach to learning, irrespective of whether they attend state sponsored free schools or fee paying ones.

Practical learning is not limited to classrooms and places of interest also cater to children with fun activities that introduce concepts. Last week, my husband and I took our daughter to the planetarium in London at the Royal Observatory Greenwich where the famous Prime Meridian is also located. We had booked tickets for a show that was aimed specifically at children of my daughter’s age and revolved around a teddy bear’s journey to find the Big Bear in the sky. The interactive show was led by an astronomer and involved singing and rhyming as it talked about the sun and various planets in a simple yet engaging tone relevant for young children.

There are more chances of children retaining some information about the solar system through an engaging story of a teddy bear rather than having to learn the names of planets in order, as we did in our days.

London’s world famous museums with their vast collections of artifacts from across the world are also full of exploratory activities for children. According to an official statistic, nearly 4 lakh young people (11% of total visitors) visited London’s science museum alone in 2015-16 as part of a school or educational group.

During a recent visit to the Science Museum, we were fascinated to see flight simulators and Apollo’s command module. There was also a 3D animation about Apollo’s lunar missions that brought alive the feeling of rocket take off, landing on the moon and even enjoying a bumpy ride on its surface. Now a 3D movie is hardly innovative but using it to experience science concepts definitely is.

Brightly lit-up London dispels wintry gloom



Christmas has just gone by and one can’t help but admire the beauty of Christmas lighting that brings cheer to the cold and dark winter days. December marks the onset of winter and the days in UK are short with darkness setting in from even earlier than 4 pm. The days can feel particularly gloomy in the absence of much light and near zero degree temperatures requiring one to stay indoor. Thanks to the festive season, excitement starts building up a few weeks in advance as people start readying their homes with lights and other decorations that brighten up the otherwise dark days.

You can see Christmas tree decked with baubles and fairy lights peeking at you through room windows or more extensive outdoor lighting. During my childhood days, mainly my Christian friends and neighbours would keep a decked up Christmas tree adorned with string lights in their living rooms. But now, it is common for people across religions to put up Christmas decorations in their homes as they try to embrace different cultures and celebrate the festive spirit.

in vey elaborate displays by putting up tens of thousands of lights and other embellishments such as an illuminated reindeer, handmade sleighs, fake snow and so on in their gardens. Walking or driving past such homes is a treat to the eyes. People with quirky light displays are covered well by the local and national media. I read about a house that has over 50000 light bulbs on. There was another story about a 22 year old who spent nearly £15000 (Rs 12 lakh) to create a snow scene (among other things) in his garden where children could be pulled by a sleigh. Across the country, there are many families that not only brighten up their neighbourhoods through their glittering displays but also raise money for charities through donations given by visitors.

Towns and major shopping streets also come to life with fancy fairy-tale light displays. For instance, the lights adorning a popular area in Central London are powered by a biofuel based on cooking oil collected from London’s restaurants. There are reportedly 750000 LED bulbs lighting up the snowball-like decorations on the popular shopping destination Oxford Street. No wonder then, the switching on of Christmas lights is an event in itself across the country. The switching on is marked by lantern parades, fireworks displays and musical and dance performances by local children or even popular artistes.

With so much creativity and lighting on display, it is hard not to feel warm inside even when it’s freezing cold outside. It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.


Does grocery shopping confuse you? You are not the only one

Having too much choice defines our lives in 2016 but when simple chores like grocery shopping feel like complex decision making exercises, you really begin to wonder. My first grocery shopping experience in the local supermarket in UK was overwhelming (and unforgettable) and this chore remains a mental exercise even till this day.

Picture this. I wanted to buy eggs and went to the relevant shelf and what I found was varieties that I had never seen or heard of before. Barn eggs basic, Free range eggs large, Golden Yorked free ranged eggs, Free range eggs rich grocery-shopping-column-sep-2016in Omega and so on. Add to this multiple brand options and pack sizes to choose from. For a person like me who was used to simply buying eggs worth Rs 10 (irrespective of their brand, background or colour) from the neighbourhood shop before multi-brand retailing took off in India, this was and still is nerve wracking. I am almost tempted to move on without buying but then I pick up the one offering most value for money.

The mind boggling ‘choice’ extends to all household products you can think of. Yoghurt comes as 0% fat Greek, 0% fat natural, fat free Greek style, low fat Greek style and plenty more. I feel like little Alice in Wonderland, going around supermarket aisles instead of a rabbit hole, far from having an adventure. Supermarkets with their multi-brand offerings provide lots of choice to their customers but the effort required to make a sensible purchase outweighs any potential benefits of having that choice in the first place.

Online shopping is supposed to make the experience more convenient and cheaper at times but by offering even greater variety than the store it simply adds to the confusion. As I write this, a browse through one supermarket chain’s website throws up more than 100 options for bread, 90 for milk and nearly 200 for shampoo. Then there are also marketing led deals and you are tempted to buy more quantity than you need or worse be tempted to spend on things you never intended to buy. There goes any saving. It can easily take me a few hours to browse through the options for all the things I need. My only solace is that there are people out there who spend so much time each day thinking what to wear.

Market research confirms that people are bewildered by so much choice. According to an extensive research about food trends conducted by British retail chain Waitrose last year, most people who participated in their study said they felt overwhelmed by the choice available to them in different aspects of their lives.

The next time an interviewer asks me how I navigated a complex situation or what kind of decisions I find difficult to make, can I describe my grocery shopping experience, I wonder.

UK varsities now more affordable for Indians

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Did you know that studying at a British university now has become more affordable to you than it was a month ago? Since many years, the UK has remained one of the top preferred higher education destinations for many aspiring Indian students. I remember frequenting the British Council in New Delhi as a high school student many years ago, in search of gathering more information about British universities, scholarship programmes and so on and so forth. In the English speaking world, Britain was not the only country with prestigious universities, but to be honest, no other name stuck a chord like Oxford and Cambridge, which remained the aspiration for many.

Official historical data on student numbers indicates that India has continued to be among the top 10 origin countries of students enrolled in British universities. During recent years, however, the number of higher education students coming to UK has declined. According to the UK-based Higher Education Statistics Authority, the number of Indian student numbers in 2014-15 were 46% lower than in 2008-9. Falling rupee combined with stricter visa rules and fewer post study work options for students have been cited as some of the main reasons for this shift. Recent turn of political events in the UK might make UK financially attractive to Indian students once again.

Brexit vote and the plummeting pound
In a historical vote held on 23 June 2015, a majority of the British public voted to leave the European Union, a membership of nearly 28 member states that the UK has enjoyed for over forty years. The results that were announced on the day following the election, shocked politicians and people not just in the UK but across the world as most had hoped for an outcome to remain in the EU. The ‘leave’ vote also hurt the value of the pound, plummeting it to a seven year low. Within a day, the value of the pound dropped from Rs 100 to Rs 88, a 12 per cent decline.

While the impact of Britain’s exit from the EU, or so called Brexit, on UK’s economy and future prospects remains uncertain at this moment, one thing is clear. The drop in pound value in the short term can be a boon for aspiring students wishing to study in the UK as they now have to pay fewer Indian rupees compared to what they would have paid a month ago. They would also have to spend less in rupee terms on their living expenses. For instance, for a one year Masters course at a London based university one would have to pay nearly £22,000 towards tuition fee and £12,000 on living expenses, a total of £34,000. Prior to Brexit vote, this would have meant spending roughly 34 lakh rupees. At today’s exchange rate, this amounts to nearly 30 lakh rupees. Applications for most courses are closed by this time of the year but it might be worth keeping an eye on the admission sites of your top choice universities.


Desi groups keep culture alive in foreign land

HT 2016
It has been nearly six years since I moved abroad and in these years my desire to learn more about India’s heritage, traditions and culture and celebrate them have only deepened. My discussions with friends reveal that I am not the only one who feels this way. Thankfully, there are Indian community groups across the UK that bring people of the Indian diaspora together through cultural celebrations and meet-ups and provide them with a sense of familiarity in a foreign land.

Apparently, there are hundreds of such local groups across the country and these are either run voluntarily by members of the community, or as a charity. Some charge a membership fee while most collect a small amount only for attending events. Almost all major festivals, from Durga Puja to Holi are celebrated by community groups with great zeal in the same way as cultural fairs are celebrated in India, complete with stalls selling Indian food, jewellery, dresses and handicrafts. Chants, Indian music and dances complete the show.

Connecting with your roots
Most of these groups were formed several years ago with the simple aim of bringing together Indians living in their local areas. Where I live, a voluntary group of local residents aptly named Prabashi to symbolise an Indian living outside his country, recently organised its seventh annual saraswati puja (a ceremony to worship Goddess Saraswati who symbolises knowledge and learning).

In the run up to the event, one of the members kindly hosted Bollywood dance practice sessions for children at her home. This reminded me of my growing up years in India where one of my mother’s friends in the neighbourhood would teach us kids to perform at local cultural gatherings.

The actual event saw participation from hundreds of Indians living in my locality and surrounding towns and made me feel festive and connected with my Indian roots. With a priest performing the religious ceremonies, women decked up in sarees and children performing saraswati  vandana, dancing on Bollywood songs and playing Jan Gan Man (India’s national anthem) in front of an audience, I forgot for a moment that I was in London.

By organising cultural events, community groups such as Prabashi play a pivotal role in passing on the knowledge of Indian culture to the children of first generation migrants.

Recreating India’s communities
Several groups go beyond celebrating festivals and serve a larger role in the community. For instance, there are groups that organise meetings for the elderly where passages from the Bhagvad Gita (Hindu scripture) are read and language related assistance is provided in filling forms. There are others that host monthly gatherings for women. Activities like yoga and meditation workshops are fairly common too.

To my mind, such initiatives help one feel at home in a new country. The greatest pleasure is simply in knowing that there is a familiar community that understands your culture, your yearning and will always be your home away from home.

(First published in Hindustan Times on 19 Feb 2016)