Sucheta Dalal :Indian Reckoning
Sucheta Dalal

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Indian Reckoning  

December 14, 2006

The editors of The Daily Reckoning were in India last week. Here is an unvarnished look at how our richest cities appear to foreigners. We are carrying this piece as a wake up call to all of us ordinary Indians to do something about it. Lets start by questioning our elected representatives who collect fat allowances but do not attend parliament (please check out the empty benches in every telecast of parliamentary debates) even for important debates. Or ditch the Assembly to celebrate Sharad Pawar's birthday. It is up to us to make a difference because our policy makers will not. There is no point criticising The Daily Reckoning, most of us know that their descriptions are accurate, barring the last bit about 50 cents giving you a wild ride through Mumbai -- I would challenge them to prove that.

Mumbai and Pune in December

By editors of The Daily Reckoning.

"India happens to be a rich country inhabited by very poor people."
- Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh

There is a worldwide boom going on. We see it in Paris...and here in India, too.

"Four years ago, you could have bought as much of this stuff as you wanted for $200 a square foot," said a friend from Bombay, waving his hand towards a block of old buildings near the Taj hotel. "Now, you'd have to pay two to three times that much."

Even at $200 a square foot, looking at the dilapidated buildings, we wondered how it could be worth it. But we took his point; things have gone up.

*** We came; we saw; we almost conked out.

India is overwhelming. Shocking. As soon as we venture outside of the hotel, we are stalked by beggars. We brush them off...we ignore them...but they stick like mud. They seem nice...not at all threatening - but they are annoying. You cannot walk along in peace. One little girl followed us around for blocks, tenaciously. A cute little thing; we would have adopted her on the spot if the opportunity had been offered.

We took a plane down to Pune on Friday morning. Pune is a town of about three million people, not far from Bombay. It is more open than Bombay, at least the part of it that we saw. But it is just as squalid. People live in shacks, tents, crumbling buildings...and in gaudy new apartment complexes. There are people matter where you look there are always dark figures moving around. What are they all doing, you wonder? How do they all stay alive?

But when you wander through the open-air food markets, you find a lot of very good-looking vegetables.

"The government is rather free-market," our host explained. "But not completely. It still controls the prices for many basic things, because there are so many desperately poor people who can't afford to pay market rates. This globalization has certainly benefited Indians who are educated. But it's not clear that the poor are better off. They now have to pay higher prices...and there's not much work for them."

Oddly, housing and office prices have soared, but there is little available supply.

"I'd like to buy more space, but there aren't any sellers," we were told. On the other hand, developers are said to be adding so much space that in some cities there is a 10 to 20 year over-supply. What is going on?

"I don't know, but it looks like speculators have forced up prices...even though there are not really that many people around who can afford to pay the prices. I'd be very careful before buying anything here now."

Our plane from Pune back to Bombay was cancelled, so we got one of the last seats on the train. We were in a train car that looked as though it should have been decommissioned about thirty years ago. The cushions were torn and worn. Many of the metal parts were broken, and often rigged up in an amateurish way. This was first class. There were two classes lower - including one with wooden seats that looked like a cargo cabin.

Our car was packed.

We got to our seats and found them already taken. But we gladly gave them up; the woman in the seat next to ours was clearly mad. She spoke in a witch-like voice in Marathi, the local language, to no one in particular. The couple sitting next to her seemed to be taking care of her and thanked us for letting them have the seats. Later, they offered us a piece of fruit.

People in India typ ically speak two or three languages. They speak the local language - there are 21 official local languages. Plus, to get along together, they all learn Hindi. And in addition, most people now encourage their children to learn English.

When we finally got to Bombay, three hours later, we were shocked again. There were thousands of people living in the on the platforms, squatting as they ate their dinners, sleeping...not on benches, but on the hard concrete. Some of the sleepers looked dead. Thin as the rails themselves, they looked as though they had been there for weeks. Maybe they were dead; no one seemed to notice.

On Sunday, we passed Bowen's Memorial Methodist Church and went over to the Catholic cathedral. Bowen's was open...a very modest place...dark and dirty...from which we heard the sounds of Christmas carols. The Catholic
Church, by contrast, was as gaudy as any we have seen. With a rich combination of Portuguese and Hindu colors, it was like an ad for a paint company. Mauve, purple, lavender, rose, lime, maroon - we saw colors we hadn't seen in years.

The mass was conducted in English. But as our ears were not yet attuned to the Indian accent, we missed most of the sermon, but at least we knew how the story turned out.

*** The definition of Hinduism given by Sathya Sai Baba, one of Hinduism's best known gurus, was "Help Ever, Hurt Never" a friend explained. Not so different from the Golden Rule, we realized.

"But Hindus have never been a proselytizing group," our friend continued.
"That's why you don't find Hindus anywhere except India, except when Indians have emigrated. Instead, we don't mind anyone practicing his religion. We've always been tolerant of other religions. We have Christians here...and many Muslims. In fact, we now have two leading figures in our government - one of whom is Muslim, the other, Sonia Gandhi, is an Italian Catholic."

*** Saturday night, we took a cab up Marine Drive...along the a restaurant called the "Salt Water Grill." It was built out on the beach, with sand floor and umbrellas over each of the tables. It was the sort of restaurant you'd expect to find in Miami.

It must be a popular spot. By 10PM it was full - with a mixture of Indians and Westerners. And it wasn't cheap. The least expensive bottle of wine was $50.

India is a resource- rich, poor country with a lot of very rich people. On the way to the airport there is a Rolls Royce dealership, and luxury apartments are said to sell for $5 million. Meanwhile, it will cost only 50 cents to take a wild cab ride all the way across town.

-- Sucheta Dalal