Archive for India at 60


The Vanishing…And Other Stories of Appearances

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The Vanishing…

And Other Stories of Appearances

Bishal Thapa

One May morning India woke to discover that her middle class had disappeared. Some 250 million middle class Indians by the World Bank’s last count were suddenly gone. The Indian middle class – the shine in India Shining, the class that had supposedly transformed India from an archaic mystery of snake charmers to a contemporary global power house – had vanished. Poof, just like that into thin air! 

I got out of bed, asked the maid for some tea and checked the blackberry. Everything seemed ordinary. I called the trainer next to reschedule our session at the gym. He grumbled about this being the third time. Punk! I had to cajole him into allowing the change. He was overpriced anyway. After a month with him, it seemed the only thing he had taught me was that pushups could be done 125 different ways. The gut still hung loose.

I switched on the news. The 32 inch LCD TV came alive brightly with the usual humdrum for the news. Economic growth racing towards 9%; Maoists burning through the eastern part of the country; regional right wing parties trying to keep everyone else out of Maharashtra; continuing saga of the bumbling politician sparring on twitter with the visionary-later-turned-slimy businessman; long haired godmen caught in compromising positions with dusky long haired beauties; the eternally gifted cricket batsman who couldn’t duck fast enough in the face of a racy bouncer because his big stomach got in the way. A typical morning with my middle class existence very much intact – what then was all the fuss about?

The fuss started with a new study.[1] A new definition of the middle class proposes to include only those people that earn more than $10 a day but are not in the top 5% of the country’s income group. India has nobody in that category. Everybody who earns above $10 a day ($3,650 / yr or approximately Rs. 182,500 / yr) is also one of the top 5% income earners in the country. If these findings are correct, which it appears to be, and if the new definition is internationally endorsed, which it is likely to be, the revelation would present a biting review of India’s glorious two decades of economic liberalization and progress. Who had the all this growth touched? Were a mere 5% sharing the spoils of all that growth?

As an Indian middle class, it is important not to let dour news get in the way too easily.

To begin with, the news was really not all that bad. Though India has no middle class, China, now the global benchmark for everything good or bad, depending on your convenience, only has 3% of its population in the middle class by that same definition. Twenty years ago it had none. India’s absence of a middle class doesn’t seem that far off.  

India’s economic growth has had an impact on the poor. In the ten years between fiscal year (FY) 1994 and FY 2004, some 30-50 million Indians had been lifted out of poverty. And in the years since 2004 poverty rates have been declining much faster, though the recent economic downturn may have reversed or maybe threatening to reverse some of these gains.

Keeping track of India’s poor can be a tough job though. Official figures estimate that in 2004-05 India had 290 million, or 28% of the population, below the poverty line. Under persistent criticism of its current methodology for measuring poverty, changes being considered by the Government would put another 100 million below the poverty line. Approximately 400 million Indians would fall below the poverty line by simply changing the way we count our poor.

That’s not where it ends. India’s poverty line is extremely thin, very porous and dotted along the way. Over 60% of the population – or 630 million people – or 750 million people if you believe non-governmental estimates, have per-capita consumption of less than Rs. 20 per day (less than 50 US cents a day).

While one study erases India’s middle class, another doubles India’s poverty! Hundreds of millions of people are transported seamlessly from one category to the next, unlike the paralysis that in reality binds us down. 

I never did make it to the gym that May morning. The 126st variant of the pushup, if there is one goes unattended – the gut hangs listlessly. We remain in a trance like limbo trapped between our glistening LCD and the clinginess of the less fortunate around us.

India’s paralysis stems from her inability to decide whether she is a rich country or a poor country. It is not merely a symbolic tussle, or an esoteric analysis lost in the counting of the middle class and the poor. It is a paralysis that pervades deeply, plays out daily within our government, in our policies, in our dailies lives and in our traffic.

It was a busy intersection in the evening rush hour in Pune – a sleepy wannabe industrial town that had transformed to become a storied success of India’s IT revolution. I was the passenger and my friend was driving. There was a slight drizzle, the roads were wet. Vehicles jostled for position with pedestrians and cyclists. Nobody gave an inch. Some swore, some swerved and some simply shook their heads. We waited impatiently wiping the fog off the windshield and breathing in the cacophony of sight and sound that had enveloped us all.

Just as we had the signal to go and a bit of space ahead, out emerged from the left a bullock cart tugged by two feeble oxen and an old man atop a bamboo carriage with rickety wheels. The man had a long whip and unmindful of the traffic bade his oxen on through the intersection. The traffic stopped to let them through. For a moment everything was still. The only sounds were that of the oxen bells and the drizzle on the windshield.

“I’m glad I’m back,” I said delighting in the brief transcendental moment. “I would never be able to get these sights abroad.”

“Everything looks good from the safe distance of the middle class,” replied my friend as the bullock cart crossed over and the cacophony resumed.       

9 August 2010.

[1] Nancy Birdsall. 2010. “The (Indispensable) Middle Class in Developing Countries; or, The Rich and the Rest, Not the Poor and the Rest.” CGD Working Paper 207. Washington, D.C.: Center for Global Development. [This paper is forthcoming as a chapter in Ravi Kanbur and Michael Spence (eds.), Equity in a Globalizing World (World Bank).]

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In Search of My Missing Chevy Logo

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India At 60

In search of my missing Chevy logo

Bishal Thapa

I knew that I had to get a new car when on a lonely stretch near Vasant Kunj (a South Delhi locality) a sambar deer darted out of nowhere and landed on the bonnet. In the bustling Delhi metropolis of 15 million people, a sambar deer on your bonnet is like a message from the heavens.  But there was more than a metaphysical reason for wanting a new car – a simple physical reason. The deer had busted my radiator.

My Hyundai Accent, now with a punctured radiator, was eight years old. I had owned it for five. It had faithfully ferried me around the madness in Delhi and bore the scars of the city’s traffic. I had vowed never to repair the dents. You were likely to get a new one faster than you could fix the previous one. Over time I had almost become superstitious about it, fearing that a fix would almost be a dare to the dent gods. A few dents should be par course when you share the road with pedestrians, cycles, rickshaws, autos (three-wheelers), other cars, motor cycles, trucks, tractors, construction equipment, bulls, cows, roadside vendors and a few sambar deer. And when everyone drives with an authoritative sense of impunity from traffic violations you can’t get too sullen about these things.

I decided to purchase the Maruti Swift Dzire – a compact four-door car priced on the Delhi road at just under US $15,000. I was to later discover that half a billion other Indians were also trying to the buy the same car.

More than 30 years ago in 1982, when India was still guarded by red tape and a hostile attitude to foreign investment, Suzuki boldly went on to form a joint venture with Maruti – the company that now manufactures the Swift Dzire. While other international companies viewed India with suspicion, Suzuki’s move turned to out to be spectacularly prescient. Exactly ten years later Suzuki went on to acquire a controlling stake in the company after the Indian Government began to disinvest as part of its liberalization drive. The Indian market is today of one Suzuki’s lifelines. Maruti Suzuki accounts for half of the Indian automobile market.

This January automobile sales in India increased 32% posting the highest monthly sales ever. Even through the recession last year, as vehicle demand plummeted worldwide, automobile sales in India grew by 25%. With 500 million Indians in the middle class and with one of the lowest automobile ownerships ratios in the world, you could probably sell a cardboard box with wheels if you stuck the right emblem to it.

After negotiating the price and selecting the color of the Maruti Dzire, just as I thought we were done, the dealer said it would be a six month waiting period. Six months! They have been making this car for a while now, so why the wait? Can’t they just make more of it? “There is a long waiting list,” he replied and added, as if in consolation, “we could try to push it for five months.” I couldn’t wait that long. The thing about the middle class is that it’s all about instant gratification. And that’s the double edged sword of India’s burgeoning middle class. 500 million middle class – 500 million needs for instant gratification. Great for car sales, not so great if you are trying buy a car.

Further down, I walked into another auto showroom tucked behind a street lined with refurbished second hand cars. The hoarding outside suggested he was a dealer of all makes, not just the Maruti. I asked him if he sold the Dzire. Everything from the Nano to the Mercedes, he replied.

Nano, the cheapest car in the world ($2,200) debuted in the 2008 Delhi Auto Expo to much fanfare. It is being produced by India’s most famous industrial conglomerate, TATA and is half the price of India’s cheapest car at that time, the Maruti 800. When the vehicle had its commercial launch last April, over 200,000 orders were received in the 15 days for which pre-booking was open. TATA had to implement a lottery system to select the buyers. Most people fortunate enough to buy the Nano were simply selling it on for a premium. This was the only second hand car market in the world where the used car price is higher than for a new car.      

This dealer was quick in getting to the most important point about the Dzire. “There is a long waiting list. About 5 to 6 months wait,” he said.

“Is there no way to get it quicker?” I prodded. 

He shook his head. “There is a long waiting list.”

I stared at him not wanting to give up so easily. After a moment’s silence, he offered a solution.

“If you pay twenty thousand Rupees ($400) extra, I could get you one in four days.”     

“How will it work,” I asked.

“You have to pay twenty thousand extra,” was all I got back in return.

“Yes, but how will it work,” I insisted.

He was silent a moment, then looked directly at me with the sincerity of the Buddha himself and said, “You just have to trust me.” I left instantly.   

I had been in Delhi for five years, long enough to know that the two words you absolutely stayed away from were “trust me,” especially when loaded with Buddha’s look of sincerity. These were not the only words you stayed away from, but were certainly close to the top.

In anguish and frustration, I walked into a Chevy dealership that incidentally was next door. An hour later when I emerged, I had by then bought a Chevy Aveo LT that was to be delivered within a week. This was better – much closer to the instant gratification that the middle class desires. Not a six month wait. The Aveo LT was much like the Dzire, compact and similarly priced.

Two odd things happened a month after I had acquired the Chevy Aveo.

First, I got through a whole month in Delhi traffic without a dent. Touch wood. Perhaps the sambar deer was indeed some sign from the heavens. Maybe I was the chosen one to have a dent free car in Delhi.       

Second, somebody flicked the Chevy logo from the back of the car. Took a screwdriver (I assume) and ripped out the Chevy emblem clean from the centre of the trunk door. It did leave a little scar but the whole thing was quite professionally done. I was surprised by how easily it appeared to have come off. Perhaps the Chevy engineers hadn’t really been tested in this department.  

Why would someone want to steal a Chevy emblem? I can understand if it were a fancy luxury car – a Porsche, Mercedes, BMW or any of those. I had seen plenty of cheap cars with emblems of luxury makes stuck on them. BMW and Porsche were particularly popular. Sometimes stickers instead of the actual emblems were used. I have often wondered why sticking a different logo would appeal to the car owner – did they believe that onlookers would mistake the Nano for a Porsche? Could it fetch you a better price in the second hand bazaar?

As I searched for the meaning of my missing Chevy logo, I spotted within the week a Ford Ikon – another similar compact car – with the same fate. Its emblem appeared to have been removed just as effortlessly. Recognizing that both Chevy and Ford were American brands, I reckoned it might be a political statement in opposition to the US.  

That seemed unlikely though. Even at the height of Bush’s unpopularity, surveys showed Indians had almost a 70% favorable rating for Bush. The communist party of India lost badly in last year’s general elections partly because they took a hard line anti-US stance when the Indo-US civilian nuclear pact came up in parliament. It didn’t seem likely that there might be communists loose in Delhi stealthily removing logos of American brand cars as a political statement. This anti-US hypothesis was not going to hold.

I would like to get the logo back if I could. I am still on the lookout for a misplaced Chevy logo. But how do I begin searching for a lost Chevy logo in a nation of a billion and half, where everyone is in need of a car, where every global auto producer has come to town and where a second hand car can cost more than a new one? If you do happen to spot a cardboard box with wheels and a Chevy logo, let me know, that emblem is probably mine.     

With love from Delhi on Valentine’s Day 2009.

Heavy traffic in New Delhi

Photo by Shruti Narayan

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Bishal Thapa – India At 60

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India At 60

Chilled Beer for Grandma

Bishal Thapa

On a recent flight back from Kathmandu to Delhi on Indian Airlines, I was seated across the aisle from an Indian family seemingly returning home after a vacation in Nepal. They weren’t loud but clearly audible across the aisle and enough to keep me distracted. Their mirthful banter held steady and they seemed to be in no despair that their holiday was coming to an end.

There was nothing particular about them. An ordinary middle class Indian family holidaying in Nepal was not an unusual sight. Before India began liberalizing in earnest in the nineties, Indians flocked to Kathmandu to purchase foreign products which were not available back home. A holiday in Nepal in those days was about everything from Levi’s jeans to Wrigley chewing gum.

These days it was different. India had liberalized. Glossy glass façade shopping malls now spread across Indian cities and towns offered every foreign product imaginable. Last year when India put into operation its trade pact allowing import of Harley motorcycles for export of its mangoes, it became clear that India had emphatically moved on beyond Gandhi’s austerity and Nehru’s socialism.

The family was spread across three rows, starting two rows behind the emergency exit next to the wings. On the last row, the men sat with an empty seat between them. Seated by the window was the father who appeared to be in the late forties, graying slightly but with well kept hair, a thick black moustache and a grey Polo golf T-shirt that made no effort to hide his belly. He fiddled with his phone, spoke diminutively almost with a bow to the other man, who seemed to be his father and kept a steady watch on the two rows ahead even as he peered occasionally out of the widow.

The grandfather seated in the aisle seat, well built though slightly frail with age reminded me of the family patriarch that they used to show in old Bollywood movies – an older man on his reclining bamboo cane chair in the verandah surveying the lush green fields as if proud of what he had accomplished. He would appear either at the start or the end of the film depending on whether he was being cast as the good or bad guy. The grandfather seemed no different, except he was in a plane seat instead of a reclining bamboo cane chair in the verandah. He sat there with the hint of a smile following the chatter in the two rows ahead of him.

 The women were in the middle row, directly across the aisle from where I was. The grandmother had the middle seat, the mother the window seat. The aisle seat was empty. The two women looked very similar separated only almost by age and a bit of bright lipstick that the mother had on. The grandmother looked to be in her early sixties and wore a neat brown plain kadhi saree. They spoke softly but were animated in conversation that was interjected with giggles and interrupted frequently by the children who spoke more loudly.

A boy and two girls were in the row ahead of the women. The boy perhaps 16 or 17 with headphone hooked to his Sony portable playstation was fully occupied with his game. When his sisters nudged him once or twice to ask something, he removed his headphones but answered with a shrug or a nod. I didn’t hear him say anything during the flight except the word “Veg” when asked for his meal preference. The two sisters in the middle and window seat may have been 12 or 13, sat up with their knees on their seats leaning to face their mother and grandmother for the conversation that was underway.

                “How much did you lose, papa?” the younger one asked excitedly. The older sister quickly slapped her gently on the arm to remind her not to speak so loudly.

                “Nine,” he said.

                “Mama lost 4 thousand ($80),” she retorted.

                “And would have lost more if I hadn’t showed her how to play the roulette. Can’t keep betting on individual numbers,” he interjected quickly. Mama smiled and the sisters giggled. Must not have been a victorious visit to the casinos but no one appeared to be complaining.

The air hostess arrived to ask the girls to be seated and to buckle up. Indian Airlines, perhaps because they were state owned, still had the old-school stewardess. Full bodied middle aged women draped in sarees and who appeared to fit in more easily in the middle row between the mother and grandmother rather than the aisles of the contemporary Indian skies. Several of the private carriers that arrived after  India liberalized the aviation business had opted to use smarter, sexier younger woman in modern outfits. Jet Airways, one of the larger private airlines, dressed their stewardesses in long bright yellow slim fit jackets. Kingfisher, the other dominant private carrier, perhaps echoing the flamboyance of the owner used bright red short skirts an inch above of the knees with matching red shoes and shirt. Indian Airlines was boring and outdated by comparison.

We took off on time and as we headed over the mountains the drink cart was out immediately. That’s the nice thing about state owned airline. While other carriers, for all their sexiness on board struggle to offer complimentary water, state airlines even with all their financial distress – Indian Airlines was in the midst of a bankruptcy – feel that it diminishes national prestige not to offer a full bar and menu even on the shortest flight.

The men ordered apple juice. When the air hostess asked the grandfather what he wanted he would not look at her straight. Instead he asked the son what they had, the son asked the stewardess then told the father and the whole conversation carried on this way till the juice was served. It didn’t seem to bother the stewardess.

It was the turn of the women to order drinks. The mother and grandmother went into a huddle as the air-hostess waited. By then the two sisters had propped up on the seat as before intently listening to the selection being made. It was a whole minute before the grandmother looked up from the huddle and announced, “Beer.” An unusual choice, I thought. 

The stewardess stood completely still almost a bit stunned by what she heard. “Beer? We’ll be landing in an hour.” she fumbled.

Grandmother didn’t reply but had an unwavering look in eyes as she peered at the airhostess. Everyone – the sisters, mother and grandmother – stared at the airhostess.

                “We only have Foster’s,” the airhostess said at last and plopped down one large 500 ml can with two plastic cups. She didn’t wait to hear further and turned immediately to ask me what I wanted. The little sister glanced at me and smiled.

A few minutes later when the beer had been poured into the two plastic cups, the mother rang for the air hostess. The same one arrived.

                “The beer is not chilled,” said the grandmother.

That did it. The stewardess had held her cool till then suddenly turned blazing red as if ready to explode.

                “Why did you open the can then?” she asked in a loud voice without hiding her rage.

                “Because we couldn’t tell that it was not chilled till we put it in the cups,” replied the grandmother in a matter of fact of tone without breaking her smile.

                    “We have no chilled beer,” the stewardess replied, turned and left without waiting for a response.

The grandmother turned to look at mother and two daughters. In an instant, all four spontaneously burst out laughing. They chugged it like two fraternity boys at a college party.

Cheers Grandma.

26 January 2010.

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