Impressions of India

 

Jayant, a native Indian residing in Canada, is a friend and affiliate of the Casey Research team. Here are some interesting notes from his recent journey to India.

I am in Bhopal, visiting India after almost three years. Here is a glimpse of today's India; thought you might like to hear about it...

I arrived very early in the morning of 27 January, taking the train from Delhi to Bhopal. At Delhi train station, I stood at the front of the counter in the cold in the middle of the night for 1.5 hours to buy my ticket; the seller was there the whole time, chatting away and drinking tea with others, without recognizing the presence of those lining up. When he got around to selling the ticket, he found several mistakes in my (train-ticket) application form. I smiled and did what he wanted.

(I will no longer be traveling by train and for sure, I will be using "servants" at my parents' for all outside work that I can avoid doing myself. Indeed, food, tea and water is automatically coming to my desk as I write this.)

At Delhi train station, heavily armed, uncivil para-military personnel with their dirty hands were checking everyone's bags at the entrance. I went in unhindered through the "exit" gate. Really, I think terrorists don't achieve much because they are even more stupid than state employees.

Through my train window, the countryside looked as wretched as ever, if not worse. Absolutely nothing positive seems to have happened since I last took a train on this route more than a decade back. I saw garbage and rotting water puddles everywhere. Plastic is more a part of the landscape than greenery is. The air is much worse today, mostly I guess because vehicles on the roads have multiplied. I did not see any sign of increased manufacturing activity.

What was once the nicest city in India, Bhopal, is now a complete madhouse. Its train-station, which once got a prize for the best in India, smelled of a sewer--everything from trains' lavatories drops straight onto the tracks. So this is what you expect when the army of men that clean the tracks slack off. The station was ridden with literally millions and millions of flies. Many people grumble about the loss of Bhopal's eminence and beauty, but as usual, fortunes made based on vagaries of bureaucrats/politicians in power, are unsustainable. Bhopal was the favorite city of Indira Gandhi. When she died, Bhopal started to die.

For an article I am writing, I went straight to the nearby Union Carbide site from Bhopal train station. The chaos on the roads in this part of the city is so bad that I preferred doing this despite my close to 40-hour travel, rather than return another day. The factory is badly rusted. The site was never cleaned up properly. I don't think there is any way to stop people from trespassing into that plant, as I partly did. The walls have crumbled. There are squatters everywhere. This area should be out of bounds for people for a few centuries, because of toxicity in the earth. New cases of victims keep coming up, because the state, having confiscated the factory from Union Carbide, has failed to secure it. There are dozens of massive petrol storage tanks nearby, owned by state-owned companies, with residential buildings all around them, starting barely a few meters away. The state should have moved these tanks. It never did, even after such a big disaster. India is always a micro-millimeter away from another catastrophe.

The state, as the self-appointed trustee of Union Carbide's payments to victims, owes me compensation money from the 1984 gas tragedy. As I refused to grovel, I never got my money. I thought on this occasion, I would do a sting operation in association with a TV company. But now I realize I might harm my career this way--I might end up doing some work in India, and do not want to create a "nasty" name for myself.

Moving on...

There is certainly more money in India--a result of development taking place in certain pockets in Bangalore, Gurgaon, and Hyderabad. And also as a result of the bubble created by irrational speculative activities of people.

Prices of properties in Bhopal and stocks have gone to the moon, without much fundamental support. Stocks have gone up partially because there is no longer any long-term capital gains tax on them, but mostly because some people think that India has become invincible and that stocks will now always go up. Property prices in an area near Bhopal has gone up six times within the last month, for the simple reason that the state declared that it was going to "encourage" IT investment there. People never lose trust in the state! A property my dad bought in an obscure location 10 years back has gone up 15 times (dollar to Indian rupee ratio has stayed comparable). And its appreciation is showing no signs of slowing down. The same is happening with property all over this area. I think (economic) structural defects in India are increasing horrendously. I wonder what will happen if--or rather, when--this bubble bursts.

People in Bhopal, mostly a city of bureaucrats and politicians, show off their money by creating tremendous noise and pollution, and by being rude. Girls, it seems, have started to think that this is the way to behave to show off that they are free. A house five houses away from my parents' place has been converted into a wedding reception house. I have closed all the doors of our house, but the music is deafening. Fireworks are falling on our roof. Perhaps a thousand people will attend the reception tonight. Tomorrow morning all the leftovers will be unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road.

Most of the people around here are very "powerful" people. They have complained, but nothing happens. Not necessarily because the owner of the wedding house is even more powerful. It is the way the system works--it pretty much always pays to be a crook. Despite all this, if I were the owner or the host, I would worry about the bad impression such a conduct would leave on my guests. For sure such a thought does not cross anyone's mind. I have always found most Indians lacking a very basic sense of fairness and respect for other people's space and property. This is why I emigrated and, in my opinion, the fundamental reason why India is so wretched. I was sick and tired of fighting all the time--I always ended up looking like a fool.

Educated Indians (who in general are pro-Western) are getting arrogant. They have a habit of comparing how much better India is in relation to America. In yesterday's Hindustan Times, a top Indian newspaper, there was a poem which said something to the effect: you are white, when sun shines on you, you go pink, we are black, when sun shines on us, our skin sparkles, and blah-blah-blah. A top headline said that Goldman Sachs believes India will be ahead of America by 2050. They don't realize that all drivers of India's present growth are in America. And GDP is a useless figure; they should compare GDP per capita. The landing, when it takes place, will probably be hard--financially and I really hope psychologically.

The lives of the very poor--perhaps 75% of India--seem to have taken a turn for the worse. Maybe the poor people have found no avenue to increase their earning power, while at the same time the small minority that has started making more money (in some cases, as much as a good Western salary plus hardship allowance and a possibility of not paying taxes) has created inflation in everyday commodities. A daily wage female worker in Bhopal still gets about $1 per day--nominally not very different from what it was 5 years back. A male gets about 20 cents extra. The minority that have improved their fortunes has piggybacked on IT revolution. The remaining 75% or more of Indians are eagerly waiting for a sweat-shop/manufacturing/ mining revolution, the only way their lot has any chance of improving.

Ironically, what is substantially contributing to controlling inflation and improving the quality of lives is imports from the much-maligned China. Yes, even India is importing big volumes of Chinese goods.

At the margin, India is creating ripples in the world market and opportunities to make money, but holistically viewed, I don't think India is booming, as the media says.

There is tremendous police and military presence everywhere, mostly because January 26 was a national holiday. When I look at what these guys do and get away with, Canada looks like heaven to me. A few days back, I wrote to my Indian university Yahoo Group that among the worst terrorist organizations in the world is the Indian army. Even from me they did not expect this. I don't think there are too many people eager to meet me in Bhopal.

Now something positive...

There is a hugely positive undercurrent in India, in the long term the most important one in my opinion. A small section of society is becoming aware of its rights and is aggressively fighting for it. There is a growing number of business people who are extremely clever, doing an absolutely marvelous job and are very conscientious; despite all odds. Earlier, you had to be a complete crook to be a businessman.

Here is a bit on gold...

Until a while back, whenever the international prices closed low in NY, it recovered slightly in India, as Indians rushed to buy. These days, however, I hear that when prices go up, people buy even more. I have also heard that there has been a significant increase in trading.

I will soon be traveling to learn about investment potential for a Canadian company. I am looking forward to getting a deeper appreciation of the changes taking place in India.

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Posted 02-20-2007 4:35 PM by JayantBhandari