Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Rich become richer in India's sinking economy

The Union Minister Kapil Sibbal told a TV news channel the other day that the GDP growth witnessed during the 10 years of UPA rule was never seen before. No wonder the government has unleashed a
Mumbai high-rises
barrage of adverts showing the UPA version of “India Shining”. Many will take the statement of Sibbal with fistfuls of salt. At the same time, looked at from another angle it would seem largely true. If one cannot quite lump it one might just read on and look at the kind of growth the country has had.

Arguably, Mumbai is the richest city in India. It has been so for most of the post-independence years. But, the kind of riches its citizens flaunt today was unheard of earlier. Take for instance a recent screaming headline in a national daily. Mumbai, literally, is going to have “castles in the air”. Ten such “castles” of 18000 square feet each are coming up in an ultra high-end apartment complex costing a cool hundred crore, i.e. a hundred million rupees (around 60 million dollars). The complexes come with dog parks, crèche, an elevated jogging track and other thoughtful amenities.

The “uber-luxury” apartments have their own restricted clientele who never seem to have heard the term “slow-down”. Duplex apartments in such complexes come with private pools, sundecks, multi-level automated parking and five-star clubs  and can cost as much as Rs. 1 lakh (a hundred thousand rupees) a square feet (about 100 crores for 10,000 square feet). Sold only by invitation, five Signet residences on the 40th floor of Lodha’s World Tower received overwhelming response and were lapped up for Rs. 75,000 per square feet. Located in Worli it is touted as the world’s tallest residential tower at 442 metres. It boasts of interiors by Armani and a club and a spa by Six Senses among other high-end labels.

Readers will recall a recent controversy over the plan to build super luxury apartments within peeping distance of the President’s House. The project proponent seems to be so powerful as to have had the objections of the security agencies brushed aside. The proposal continues to be alive and it would be interesting to see what eventually transpires.

Residences costing scores of crores are no big deal in Mumbai. Antilia, the house of tycoon Mukesh Ambani, cost him $2 billion, I suppose, more than 10000 crores in Indian money, making it the costliest house in the world. Not to be terribly outdone, his younger brother Anil built a slightly less costly one in Rs. 4000 crores. There
Ambani's $20 billion house
are smaller fries like Amitabh Bachchan, senior thespian of Bollywood, who bought a new bungalow for Rs 50 crores (5 billion rupees) despite having four of them already and Sachin Tendulkar, the legendary cricketer, is going to move into his new Rs. 80 crore (8 billion rupees) house. Paying 10 or 20 crores for a 3 or 4 bedroom houses seems like spending loose change. Bangalore too boasts of such properties that cost multi-crore and claim a pool or a garden in front of every bedroom. Even 3 and 4 tier towns have high-end properties that are worth several crores. People like us, the retired civil servants, cannot conceive of the way such properties are sold and bought.

The country has emerged as the biggest market for business jets in Asia-Pacific region. It has surpassed far richer China as a number of business houses and high net-worth individuals (HNIs) have started acquiring aircraft. According to Beechcraft, a leading manufacturer of business aircraft, India has a fleet of 254 business aircraft against 213 in China, 192 in Japan, 150 in Hong Kong, 66 in Malaysia and only 53 in Thailand – all supposedly richer than it.  A report says that even during the slow-down years of 2008-12 Indians purchased 38% more aircraft than in the preceding five years. Experts in the field of business aircraft are bullish about India. They expect a steep rise in the number of HNIs as surveys have indicated that the Indian economy is going to grow “significantly” in the next five years. Beechcraft, therefore, considers India as a very “exciting market” for business aviation and has committed significant investments for registering its presence in the country.

Another recent complementary report said that the number of indigenous billionaires (in dollar terms) is set to double during the next ten years. With 60 billionaires already in the country it ranks sixth among top ten countries. By 2023 the number is expected to rise to 119 according to the Wealth Report of Knight Frank who runs a global consultancy firm. With the global rise in the numbers of ultra-wealthy in 2023 only three countries, USA, Russia and China will have more billionaires than India. That’s saying quite a lot for the country’s business acumen.

Earlier during the pre-independence years we knew of maharajas maintaining huge garages for stabling their car collections. Maharaja of Gwalior (the grand-father of the Central minister Jyotiraditya Scindia) was called the Prince of Mercedes owning as many as 75 of them apart from assorted Rolls Royces, Bentleys,
A Rolls Royece car
Cadillacs, Packards and sundry high-end European cars like Alfa Romeos and Hispano Suizas. Today, leave alone the business/industry tycoons, even film stars maintain a handsome stable of cars. Amitabh Bachchan has many among which is a multi-crore Rolls Royce and he gifts his son a 2-crore Bentley without batting an eye-lid. An up-and-coming actress acquired a bespoke Rolls Royce. The legendary cricketers like Tendulkar and MS Dhoni, likewise, own fleets of luxury cars, Dhoni even having a battery of high-end exotic motorbikes. 

With money flowing in with Sibbal’s growth, the rich are now graduating to luxury yachts. The earliest owners were Vijay Mallya, Gautam Singhania and Anil Ambani. They are now not the only ones; every fat cat wants one and now the country has around150 of them crowding the sea off the Gateway of India. The itch is fast progressing southwards to Goa and Kerala.

All this does not take into account the cash illegally stashed away abroad. Estimates vary about the amount but the Central Bureau of investigations once submitted before the Supreme Court that Indian are estimated to have about $500 billion in banks abroad. That was in 2011. It may well be well above that figure now with all those enterprising people having made far more money in the interregnum. The government has put the lid on the cashe of information so firmly that none has been able to pry it open. After all, its own big guns and other politicians are all reported to be guilty of sneaking away money to foreign lands. One can, however, gauge the ill-gotten riches of Indians by the inestimable wealth of the Hindu temples. An erstwhile mining magnate of Karnataka had made an offering of gold and diamond coronet to his deity in a Southern temple costing around 2.5 billion rupees.

Down below, the middle classes are also doing not too badly. There is a housing boom with luxury apartments in gated complexes coming up all over the country. A hundred thousand today is meaningless money. You have to have in several multiples of it to be able to get going in kind of a middling life. Mercedes, Audis and Range Rovers are in profusion and so are Hondas that clog the lanes and by-lanes with houses unable to accommodate multiple sedans. Tata’s compact car Nanos are a no-no and Maruti Suzuki 800 has become extinct.

Sibbal is, therefore, right! There has been unprecedented growth during these ten years not in the economy but for the tycoons and, of course, politicians many of whom have become crorepaties (billionaires). That the economic growth has dived into the pits, foreign investment is conspicuous by its absence – even the Indian investors have migrated abroad, manufacturing is scraping the bottom with job creation virtually zero and the persistent high retail inflation – all that and many more, taken together is another story. For Sibbal growth has taken place in right quarters. As for the poor, they can wait; years and years of democratic India is ahead of them to play the catch-up game. Where is the hurry?

All photos are from the Internet

Friday, March 21, 2014

Destination China (1982): Xi'an

The "terracotta warriors"
About a couple hours away by a jet Xian is in the North West of Beijing. The airport was non-descript but, I understand, it has now been converted into a swanky international airport.

One of the four great ancient capitals of China Xian is now the capital of Shanxi province. With more than 3100 years of history it is from where the fabled Silk Route took off. It had, therefore, direct linkage with India. It too was a walled city. The wall is still there but unfortunately we were not taken to see it. Xian, in its long history, saw not only a great many dynasties and emperors, it also was named and renamed repeatedly. The current name was given in 1369 during the Ming Dynasty. From then on its name was change twice more. In 1930 it was renamed Xijing meaning the Western Capital, which, one supposes, it has always been. In 1943 it reverted back to its Ming era name of Xi’an. The city is now one of the 13 emerging megalopolises of China.

After the city was devastated in 904 CE not much was left and yet there are numerous temples and pagodas
Cyclists in Xian
and other remnants of the past. Dominating the town, however, is the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. There used to be a Little Wild Goose Pagoda as well but it was damaged in the earthquake that shook Western China in the later part of the first millennium.

 The Great Wild Goose Pagoda was built in 692 CE during the Tang dynasty. Weak construction led to its collapse and it had to be rebuilt in 704. Another massive earthquake in the 16th Century reduced its height by three stories and brought it down to its current 7 stories touching 64 metres. From the top one gets a stunning view of the town. I did go up three or four stories and then gave up finding it hard work climbing all those steps. For us in India it is of interest as it was built by the emperor at the request of a Buddhist monk Xuangsang, whom we know as Huentsang, to store Buddhist sutras (religious texts), Buddha’s figurines, etc that were brought by him from India. His statue stands right in front of the Temple of Maternal Grace close to the Pagoda.

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda
We had read about him in our school history books. Another ancient Chinese traveller whom we knew as Fahiyan is now called Faxian. The latter, too, had set off from Xi’an, then known as Chang’an, at the age of 60 years and trekked over treacherous Taklamakan desert down to India, wandered all over the country visiting Buddhist sites and then proceeded on to Sri Lanka. After 17 years of travels in the sub-continent he got back to China by the sea route. One cannot but wonder how these itinerants travelled all the way over tall mountains, deep valleys, crossed broad rivers facing numerous adversities and persisted through Indian jungles infested by wild predatory animals and yet survived to tell the tale. They all went through the travails as India was the country of origin of their faith. Their travelogues have largely been the basis for recording our ancient history.

The post office for 'small town' Xian as it was then
Another site not quite developed then but appeared extraordinary was that of the “Terracotta warriors” who were uncovered in 1974 to the east of the town. They were discovered accidentally by a few farmers who were out to tap sub-soil water. What their find led to was one of the remarkable discoveries. Thousands of terracotta warriors in their battle dresses complete with arms and other finery standing in battle formation were buried underground. When we saw it was like an on-the-spot museum exactly where the figures were unearthed. We could only see about half a dozen or so warriors and a couple of horses in their terracotta finery. Later when the Chinese archaeologists concentrated on the site they uncovered thousands of figures of warriors, hundreds of horses and scores of chariots.

It is a form of funerary art that was buried with Emperor of China Quin Shi Huang in 209-210 BC for his protection and wellbeing after his death. Researchers suggest that the figures were assembled in sort of an assembly line, only the facial features, tunics and other details were added later to give them a semblance of uniqueness. About 700000 workers are estimated to have been engaged in the work. Only a section of the site is open and photography is prohibited.

Later archaeologists seem to have discovered that there are four main pits and the army is placed in a manner so as to be able to protect the tomb of the emperor. Pit one has 6000 figures; pit 2 has cavalry and infantry units and chariots; pit 3 was apparently a command post with high ranking officers and a war chariot; pit 4
Postal workers of Xian. Note their tunic
was empty, probably left unfinished. Reports also say that swords, spears, battle-axes, scimitars, shields, crossbows and arrowheads were also found and some of the swords had great sharpness at the time of discovery. It must have been a mindboggling effort for the Emperor to fix it all in his lifetime.

Xi’an today is a thriving metropolis and not a provincial town. It has become a hub of education with numerous universities and institutes of scientific importance. It is now a modern city with well laid-out roads, metro and is well-connected by rail, road and air.  

Photograph of “Terracotta warriors” is from the Internet

Friday, March 7, 2014

Sakon Nakhom (Thailand): Installation of a Buddha statue

The monks at the installation ceremony
The recently concluded 2nd Dharma and Dhamma Conference organised jointly in Bhopal by the Centre for Study of Religions and Society and Sanchi University of Buddhist and Indic Studies prompted me to mount these photographs of installation of a statue of Buddha near Sakon Nakhom in North-east Thailand close to the Thai border with Laos. During our visit to Thailand in 2012 a friend of 30 years, Akkhardej Chaiyabutr, popularly known as Deji, who now addresses me as uncle, was to install a bronze statue of Buddha donated by him to his village off the Great Asian Highway that passes through Sakon Nakhom. While Deji carried the statue in his Toyota Corolla in an overnight drive, his wife and we, that is my wife and I, took a flight from the Bangkok’s old Don Muang Airport next afternoon. Deji was there to receive us at the natty little Sakon Nakhom airport well decorated with beautiful Thai artefacts.   

Next morning we all travelled about 20 kilometres off the Great Asian Highway to Deji’s impressive village for the Installation. Extensively ritualised, it is virtually like installation of an image of Hindu gods and goddesses. Instead of pundits it was monks who invested the statue with holiness and sanctified it to convert it into a living deity. Naturally very important in conducting the rituals, there was a battery of them who were honoured and feted and showered with gifts. They too reciprocated and with Deji and others my wife and I were also recipients of their gifts of cushions symbolic of those used by the Buddha at the time of his Mahaparinirvana. Food being somewhat central to Thai life, enormous platters containing a variety of delectable dishes beautifully arranged were served to the monks

The photos of the event are in the album. All were taken by Bandana Bagchi except the one in which she figures

The statue
Details of the statueAdd caption
The assemblage
Another detail
Seats arranged for monks
Food for monks
Making offerings to monks

Self and Bandana with Deji and his wife

Indian government's baby-steps towards sustainable transport

Articlated bus used in Bogota
Almost every city in India is being choked today with traffic. There has been an automobile revolution since the economy was opened up and infestation of automobiles in Indian roads has progressively increased to an alarming extent. While before 1991 only a few thousand vehicles used to be manufactured, that number went up to 3.9 million in 2011. Almost all major producers have descended on the country to establish manufacturing facilities. Despite a claimed slow-down in off-take in the succeeding years a few more lakh vehicles must have been added in 2012 and 2013.

People had to take recourse to personal vehicles for want of adequate, decent and dependable public transport. With generous help from banks the numbers of four and two wheelers saw an exponential growth swamping all urban centres with motor vehicles. Traffic jams have become commonplace in bigger towns and have also been occurring in even smaller towns.

Always tardy in developing infrastructure, the country was utterly unprepared to deal with this surge in number vehicles. It has been the same all over, whether in a metro or II or III tier cities or for that matter, even in a mofussil town. The existing roads were unable to cope with the burgeoning traffic. Apart from want of
Bike path in Utrecht
infrastructure or, in some cases, even lack of it the cultural factors have also affected smooth movement of traffic. Governance being weak in almost every sphere, it has impacted traffic management as well. Added to perfunctory traffic management is the lack of discipline and self-restraint of commuters – whether driving or driven in plush Jaguar or riding on a lowly Vespa scooter. Everyone wants to go ahead leaving every other person behind. The frenzied traffic ends up in numerous accidents, often fatal. About 140,000 died in India in road accidents

A most undesirable fall out of this excessive growth in the number of vehicles and the resultant chaos on the streets is deprivation of cyclists of their rights to use even a narrow slice of the road that they used to hitherto feel comfortable in. There is always a dread of somebody hitting one from behind – as happened not too long ago to the well-known environmentalist Sunita Narain. Likewise, pedestrians have seemingly been banished from the roads as coming out for even their constitutional is virtually suicidal. Either the sidewalks are just not there or have been appropriated by shopkeepers and casual purveyors of sundry goods forcing walkers on to the roads that are fraught.

 In many metros and other cities informal organisations have cropped up to once again popularise bicycles. The Delhi Metro has come up with a “rent-a-bike” system and it is proving popular. Such an initiative was taken in Paris too by its Mayor where a more sophisticated “public-bike initiative” has come up that allows sharing of bikes provided by the government or its agencies. The system, after a faltering start, caught on with the people and bicycles have become a popular mode of transport. The initiative has now spread to numerous other cities in Europe and America.

India, perhaps, is not yet fully ready for such an initiative. The government, however, seems to realise the seriousness of the problem and, hence, Doordarshan, the government telecasting agency, has taken the initiative to encourage people to walk, cycle or use public transport. Door Darshan (DD), with the support of Ministry of Urban Development, has launched this February a TV series on “Sustainable Transport” anchored by the film actor and social activist Rahul Bose. This is part of the Ministry’s campaign “Traffic? Ab bus karo” (Traffic? Stop it now) that has been initiated with the objective of promoting sustainable transport in India. The name has a pun – suggesting to commuters to use buses.

Vienna pdestrianised road
The TV series telecast on DD (News) is in four episodes – the first builds up the case for sustainable transport, the second is on cycling, the third on walking and the fourth is centred on the use of public transport. Eminent environmentalist Sunita Narain is also among the panellists. Through videos, the TV campaign shows the example of Delhi where pedestrians and cyclists have to risk their lives while crossing roads and Kolkata where cycling has been banned from 174 major roads as they allegedly caused traffic jams.
As a result of the ban poorer people in Kolkata were the worst hit. Stressing that the need of the hour is to promote cycles and eco-friendly modes of transport, one of the videos says that Kolkata seems to be moving in the opposite direction by promoting polluting vehicles.

Nanded Township in Maharashtra has come in for some appreciation. Here the authorities took inspiration from Netherlands where cycling became a national passion as a result of a social movement against numerous child-deaths in road accidents in 1970s. The change in Nanded occurred in 2005 when the roads were redesigned to provide separate lanes for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists – a measure that has, perhaps, not been adopted anywhere else in the country.

But, it seems the left hand of the government does not know what the right hand is up to. The efforts of Door Darshan and the Ministry of Urban Development may get undone by the last budget proposals of the Minister of Finance. His budget has effected a hefty cut on the excise duties on cars in an effort to fuel demand as lately the sales had slackened and the companies piled up inventories. True, in early 1990s largely riding on the growth of the automobile industry the Indian economy picked up which eventually made the country sixth largest producer of automobiles. The automobile penetration in the population has since increased appreciably (about 15 per thousand), though it is nowhere near several industrialized countries. One, however, shudders to imagine the conditions in the country if, given the state of our infrastructure, it reached the level of US or Italy where the figures are more than 400 per thousand. It is indeed an inopportune moment to encourage more people to buy vehicles.

 Cheaper cars would mean more cars on the roads, more congestion, longer jams, higher oil import bills and more carbon in the atmosphere (with 40% of vehicles being diesel-driven). Any amount of widening of roads or creation of parking facilities is not going to improve matters. World over this has been the experience since these are basically short term measures. The newly-created spaces are soon filled up and the roads start choking again. The Finance Ministry, therefore, seems to have caused a huge setback to a sensible campaign of its sister ministry of Urban Development.

Hopefully, the well-conceived campaign will not suffer and will soldier on against this and other odds. Currently the campaign is supposed to run for a month but, one imagines, the episodes would be frequently repeated to bring home to the viewers the virtues of using public transport, cycling and using one’s own legs.  

___All photos are from the Internet

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