Frustrations and Inspirations!

September 1, 2000

We were in India recently as always, every visit evokes strong emotions. Here are the impressions on my most recent journey home. At the outset, I must state that our stay was short, most of it in Chennai and between West Mambalam and T. Nagar (two adjacent localities) and hence cannot purport to be an account of life in Chennai, let alone India.

Our journey from Singapore proved to be mildly difficult, however it was not long before Chennai beckoned us. The immigration hall could not be enlarged but at least they were wise enough to allot separate counters for non-Indian passport holders so that they had the option to get out faster. Small things matter on arrival after a long journey.

To our pleasant surprise, the luggage had been offloaded quickly than we were used to and hence, we waded through the waiting humanity outside, searching for familiar faces. Having found them, it was a relatively small wait to trace the less familiar face of the driver who invariably disappears just as you are ready to jump into the vehicle. The exit from the airport to the main highway is a risky endeavour though. At times, it could border on the suicidal. You may be surprised by this extreme description but the absence of a traffic light makes it a challenge to join the main road with drivers of oncoming vehicles having to engage in a battle with their minds and machines to bring them to a safe halt. But you should not be surprised that this dangerous intersection had escaped the attention of Tamil Nadu politicians. The traffic stops for them. They have no clue that the problem exists. Such is their identification with the normal folks.

It is pretty much the same in most other roads in Chennai and if you are about to throw in the towel and apply for a bed in a sanatorium, I suggest that you make a brief visit to Delhi and you will be ready to garland Chennai drivers on your return. More on that later. Back to Chennai.

It is no mean achievement that the Chennai corporation had finished almost all the fly-over, construction on which began just over a year ago. It is not readily apparent that it has eased Chennai's traffic congestion but it could be safely said that it had slowed the journey to the land of no-hope. The Mayor opined that traffic would henceforth flow smoothly in Chennai forever. Probably, he had not visited T. Nagar at any time of the day in the last several years.

Some laboratory observed that air pollution in Chennai is at its highest in that area. Does not need scientific brains or devices to divine that. It is mayhem there during peak hours. The sight of women with or without helmets gulping vehicle exhaust by the gallon and inching their way through the traffic with one feet on the machine and one on asphalt is downright frightening. A milk vendor with one hand holding a bicycle with four milk-cans and the other hand shepherding two of his cattle flock does not see any irony in choosing the peak hour to navigate his way through the traffic. Amidst all this chaos, most pedestrians choose to stick one hand out to stop the rushing vehicles with the other hand clutching their wallets and heart. It shows that they have not lost faith in humanity and engineering (will the brakes work?) Invariably, their faith is not wasted as men bring their machines to a reluctant halt.

While these would drive someone, whose body and rhythm have gotten used to the seemingly more orderly ways of the West, mad in the initial days, the locals are largely unfazed. They have energy and enthusiasm left for attending social events, catch up with the latest movie release, to shop for the next festival and to exchange notes on the insane yet intoxicating television mega serials.

For those inclined towards the Western culinary tastes, Chennai is increasingly offering greater choices. This, of course, does not include those outlets that offer local fare but sport wannabe names such as 'Quickie coffee' and 'Stop at Sams'. Why would any one come to Chennai and patronise these caricatures of the West and not the authentic local cuisine available in a 'Rayar cafe' or the 'Karpagambal mess' is beyond me.

While we are on the subject of restaurants, one never ceases to be impressed by the growth of Saravana Bhavan - a chain of restaurants in Chennai. We went to a new, upscale but not garish branch near Royapettah. Waiters should, under normal conditions, prefer to work here - it is air-conditioned, not too many customers and good tips are possible. I was curious to know how the proprietor chose to compensate waiters here with waiters in other less cosy branches. Well, they have an incentive system to offset their less favourable environs. The one in T. Nagar with its teeming masses, noise and dust offers a profit-sharing bonus (albeit small) to its waiters there, which is not there in the more upscale branches. A common sense solution. He is also well known for taking good care of his employees' other needs - shelter, retirement benefits, schooling for children, etc.

Moving on, a Riot Police Vehicle is always parked outside the US consulate. Surely, it was not to control the anxious and ambitious mob that jostles at its gates but as a guard against possible terrorist attacks. An interesting coincidence, nonetheless.

At the same time, alternatives that relieve stress and restore sanity are also available. I was fortunate to attend a lecture by Smt. Sunandaji, daughter of Shri A. Parthasarathy of the Chinmaya foundation who had given lectures on the various chapters of the Bhagavad-Gita. She held a five-day session on Chapter 15 of the Gita and I managed to attend four of them.

They also run a Vedanta centre in Pune, which teaches youngsters a three-year course on Vedanta and Upanishads. The residential programme also grooms them in Yoga and modern sports, etc. Pictures show that it is set in sylvan surroundings. Shorter programmes too are available. There is an office in Chennai and it should be possible to get the telephone number from the general enquiry of Chennai Telephones.

Thankfully my earlier positive experience with Chennai Telephones continues. Chennai Telephones have gone a step further and released a CD-ROM with addresses and telephone numbers. It costs less than Rs.200 and it works. We had forgotten to take our telephone index with us and used to this to trace out the addresses of all our friends and relatives.

It must be admitted that streets of Chennai look cleaner as the Onyx machines and cleaners imported from Singapore go about collecting garbage even from remote back streets of the city. Many attribute it to the upcoming State assembly elections next year but there is no need to be niggardly in praise of a good thing. Who will align with whom in the assembly elections still remains a conjecture especially since both Moopanar of Tamil Maanila Congress and the Indira National Congress Party seem willing to absorb all the insults that Ms. Jayalalitha throws at them. The general perception appears to be that corruption in the state was far more menacing under Ms. Jayalalitha. One hopes that the gods are listening.

Local newspapers were full of the unfolding tragicomedy of the kidnapping of the Kannada actor Rajkumar by the sandalwood smuggler Veerappan. Both state governments (Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) were bending over backwards to satisfy his demands to get the actor released but the matter remains unresolved. Should death befall Mr. Rajkumar while he is still in captivity, many fear the fate of Tamils living in Karnataka. It is a potential threat.

One is reminded of the campaign song of the Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK): 'Achcham enbathu madamaiyada; Anjaamai dravidar udamaiyada' which roughly translates into 'To be afraid is foolish and to be fearless is Dravidian birthright'. Of course, now that corruption and skulduggery have become even more precious birthright, there is more to lose in confronting Veerappan than acquiescing to his wishes.

Similar inconsistency was in evidence in the response of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu to the water problem in Chennai: 'only rains could save us'. Carrying mineral water bottles is not just an NRI fashion in Chennai, anymore. India Today had made a thorough analysis of how the rainfall in the city was enough to satisfy the water needs of the city, had it been properly harvested. The Madras Metropolitan Development Authority (MMDA) is waking up to the problem and is now insisting on rainwater harvesting in apartment buildings before permits are issued. Short-sightedness is not just the prerogative of politicians?

'Kaun banega crorepati' has indeed caught the imagination the TV-viewing public and it has provided a new lease of life to Amitabh. The programme is reasonably intelligently conceived.

Had a glimpse of the property market in Chennai. This is one sector where market forces are at work. Luxury flats in good locations sell for rates that are just about the same that one paid for an ordinary flat in an ordinary location five years ago.

A two-day visit to Delhi offered more interesting insights. It is clear that the capital is the fountainhead of the ills that plague the country. Drivers have no concern for their or others' safety. Their unconcern has to be seen to be believed. It is absolute lawlessness. As a journalist-friend, at India Today put it, South has always been more civil and more orderly and now it has found a winning formula in software - an assessment that was heartily endorsed by Jeffrey Sachs two weeks later in Singapore, after his four-week stay in South India.

The software park that the Tamil Nadu government inaugurated recently has been fully taken up already. ISPs offer bargain basement terms for Internet connectivity while logging on is still not entirely seamless. A submarine optical fibre cable is being laid between Chennai and Singapore. Bandwidth constraints should be history in about 3-6 months time.

Both Delhi and Mumbai have banned plastic bags now and new buses to be introduced by the Delhi Transport Corporation to their existing fleet would run on compressed natural gas. There are not many yet but it is a start. Some 20+ flyovers are under construction in the capital while Mumbai had finished nearly 50 of them and the Pune-Mumbai toll expressway is now open for traffic.

I was in the capital to deliver a lecture at a seminar organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) on the impact of China's accession to WTO and its impact on India. While most of the speakers talked with a fond but naïve hope that China and India could form an axis against the West, Dr. Bibek Debroy of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation reminded them that there were no permanent allies in the world of global trade.

I talked of the increased competition for capital that India would face as China opens more sectors for investment. If China succeeds or falters under the weight of its own financial sector's accumulated bad debts, India should prepare to present itself as a viable alternative. As usual, there is no time to lose. Not many seemed to care. However, a Senior Vice-President from Ranbaxy Chemicals spoke a lot of sense - a talk that increased confidence in this company. The stock in India is surely a buy, in my personal opinion, at current levels.

A visit to the CRY office in the slums of Kotla Mubarakpur convinced me that not a single paisa of our contributions to this organisation is wasted. After four weeks, it had rained in Delhi on the day I had landed (I claim no credit!) and the place was slushy and muddy. Walking was treacherous. I was about to give up after about 15 minutes when a cycle rickshaw appeared by my side from nowhere. I jumped in gratefully. Imagine the young girls who do it every day to come and work in a building where the temperature inside is about five degrees more than it is outside. Is the country floating because of the men and women of such commitment and motivation?

Newspaper classified ads. invite people for intimate chats through 1-900 numbers. Jet Airways offers to inform you of flight departures on your WAP phone while the traffic is held up for a has been (Narasimha Rao) and a never-to-be (Sonia) to pass through the roads.

The country of contrasts had more to offer, however. On the way back to the ring roads, I saw a sight that would have won many an award for a western photographer. Near a garbage dump of unbearable stench, people were going about their daily lives and a gleaming SANTRO was parked next to it.

If this was brooding, the visit to the office of a friend cum CBI officer in the official quarters of Delhi was inspiring. He had set his sight on joining IPS even while he was in Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) and had turned down invitations from friends to come and join them in the US. Served for nearly 12 years in the Rajasthan Cadre in several districts and had never once been politically interfered with.

Three ingredients of such a feat, according to him, are: (a) a spotless career (no skeletons in one's cupboard) (b) thorough and watertight investigations (he laminated his documents to avoid tampering) and (c) public support which comes from (a) and (b) above.

I am not sure if it would be appropriate to recount here all that he shared. However, it was inspiring to listen to him. He says that, at official levels, the government does take good care of people and absent greed, it was possible to lead a good life on one's salary and perks. All the corruption that he saw around him has not made him waver and he feels that the satisfaction that he derived from the affectionate esteem with which people held him wherever he served him could have had no match wherever he worked. I pleaded with him to share more of what he had told me to more people so that they would be motivated to serve. He was good and he had succeeded in government - more such examples need to be brought to public light.

Such lofty sentiments were soon brought to the ground in the Delhi airport domestic terminal business lounge where many were smoking with impunity despite streaming warnings of a stiff penalty for smoking. When brought to the attention of the lounge manager, he said that many warned him of their connections at high levels. At lower levels of one's anatomy, mosquitoes had begun to feast when, mercifully, my flight was announced.

One of the passengers on my flight back from Delhi to Chennai was Mr. Karthikeyan of the Special Investigation Team that went into the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Interestingly, he is writing his autobiography in 'Dinathanthi' (Daily Telegraph) - a Tamil tabloid newspaper. He has chosen that medium since he wants the message of his successful professional and personal life from normal beginnings, even to the semi-literate readers of that newspaper - a wonderful thought.

Like in the past, India did not fail to frustrate but it also did not fail to inspire.

- Dr. V. Anantha Nageswaran, Singapore

Dr. V. Anantha Nageswaran is the Regional Head of Investment Consulting in Credit Suisse, Asia-Pacific. He currently resides in Singapore and writes here in his personal capacity)

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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