Posts in "India"

Is it time for middle class India to vote?

I’m absolutely fascinated by the Indian general elections, there is so much controversy, so much colour, so much hatred and so much passion from all sides.

Unlike the UK, where the major parties have sort of morphed in to one giant bubble that is either marginally centre-left or centre-right but basically the same, India has over a 1,600 parties at the last count.

These parties represent everything from castes to languages to religions (although it shouldn’t be explicitly stated in the name of the party) to workforces to states to regions within states to marginalised sections of society (there’s even one for the runaway lovers) and finally to political beliefs – although that’s not always necessary.

Indian lovers party

Generally what’s required is for someone to feel aggrieved and oppressed, find a bunch of people who also want to feel aggrieved and oppressed about the same thing and then form a political party that states that its members are aggrieved and oppressed by the people or party currently in power.

This year the elections have become even more fascinating because there is a huge amount of anti-incumbency sentiment surrounding the current coalition – with the Congress party in particular drawing the bulk of the resentment. The BJP, being the only other capable national party, thought it would sweep to power unhindered, but now there is an upstart party called the AAP (that literally expands to “The Common Man’s Party”) which has more than a few politicians worryingly looking over their shoulders and making contingency plans.

Added to this are the multitude of state level parties which have decided not to tie up with any national party and will possibly play a role in being the kingmaker come results day. This will give them some nice ministries to head up, much like the DMK’s A. Raja did for the Telecoms Ministry a few years back.

Traditionally, Indians will tell you that they love to talk politics, and believe me, it’s oh so true. Mention the ‘p’ word and you’ll have countless tales of how this politician or that party needs to be removed from power.

However, when it comes to actually voting, the urban middle class was always found to be missing. The parties understand that the way to power is to please the masses, and the masses live in hundreds of thousands of villages across rural India. Political parties will give away freebies like food grinders, 14 inch colour TVs, desk fans and more – not to the middle class, but to everyone else who actually decides the elections.

I was curious whether this time around, would things will be different? Had the middle class had enough? Was it finally time for them to walk the walk after talking about what’s wrong with this country day and night for the last five years?

To find out I conducted a utterly unscientific survey of friends, colleagues and acquaintances whom I’ve met in my 6 years here. They represent the (mostly) young, urban working professionals – the future of the nation, if you will.

Gender Ratio

I don’t think this was really relevant to the survey, but since I was asking young (ish) working professionals, mostly from the tech and marketing worlds, it does show a massively skewed gender ratio.

Gender Ratio of this survey

So here we are with the questions

1. Will you be voting in the forthcoming elections?

It was very interesting for me to see so many people saying that they would vote. Many of the people who said No felt the need to qualify why they wouldn’t vote with a lot of them living away from the constituency in which they were born.

Percentage of people who will vote

What I also found interesting was while I asked the question, a handful of people wanted to tell me that they were ‘voting’ for Narendra Modi. For those of you who don’t know, Narendra Modi is the Prime Ministerial candidate for the BJP party. No one said they were voting for the BJP, they said they were voting for Modi.

This also brings up the curious question of whether people are so swept up with the Modi wave (that the media likes to call it), do they have any idea about the MP they are actually voting for – or do they even know they are not actually voting for Modi but for someone else who will nominate Modi as the Prime Minister?

Indeed, it seems as if Modi himself has realised this and is now being projected as Modi vs other parties.

Update 10th March: It was pointed out to me that even QZ did an article on how young people are voting for politicians rather than the policies they represent.

The only other response of note was from the poor person who looked blankly at me and asked “what election?” before declaring, at the age of 20, that they were too young to vote anyway. The voting age in India is 18.

2. Do you follow any politician or political party on social media?

A lot is being said about how the political fraternity is embracing social media. What they mean by embrace is that the social networks have turned in to cess pools of venomous vitriolic as supporters of all sides wage social media war against the other.

People who follow politics on social media

Personally I think it’s misguided. People will already have made up their minds who they will vote for and tend not to follow a party they won’t vote for. The election is so polarising that there cannot be too many undecided voters. Added to this, it’s the large national parties that are making the most noise, the state parties and smaller local parties know that ground roots work pays bigger dividends with the masses that actually vote.

That said, one respondent, Krish, co-founder at Chargebee, said that he didn’t follow politicians but did follow influencers, and specifically mentioned Mahesh Murthy. He felt that influencers are playing a bigger role in getting the message of the political parties across to the social media users than the parties themselves.

3. What is the single biggest challenge for a Government of India to solve?

I’ll be honest and say I think I already knew the answer to this question. Corruption is on the minds of everyone. However, I didn’t want to skew the results so I didn’t give anyone a list to choose from, I simply asked them for whatever was top of their mind.

I didn’t expect the range of issues that were raised. Interestingly, only one person, Nidhi Bhasin, said national security was an issue which was surprising since the media has raised so much fuss about Chinese incursions in the last year.

biggest challenges in India

(note: Accountability means Political Accountability – so many politicians get elected but never actually attend parliamentary sessions or have any accountability on what they’ve actually done – which is probably the same the world over!)

Here’s the full infographic, if you’ve got any thoughts or want to add your answers to this survey, please leave a comment below!

Thanks for reading! Please share your thoughts in the comments below, I’d love to hear what you have to say!

That Devil Called Inflation

To my utter surprise, I’m coming up to completing five years of living in India. Being an expat usually means you are paid more than the local workers, and India’s strict foreigner employment laws almost guarantees that.

One of the things about living in a developing country is that there is incessant, non-stop, almost frantic, growth all around you. Go to any city in India and it’s a maze of glass cladded buildings that are going up or buildings that are earmarked for demolition to make way for a bigger, fancier shopping mall than the previous one.

Growth of this kind helps a lot of people. One thing all upper middle class and some middle-middle class families have is a maid. Some even have drivers. But as one co-worker commented: the luxury of having home help is going to come to an end very soon. The 40 year old maid that you employ has saved every last rupee to send her children to an engineering college; there’s no way those kids will be sweeping floors or driving cars for the middle classes.

The antithesis of growth is inflation. The sworn enemy of the middle class. As fast as wealth can be accumulated, inflation is there to take it all back again. In developed countries, people talk about inflation rates of 3% ruining the middle classes. In India, the official inflation rate is around 8%. In reality, I suspect it is far higher.

For the first few years in India, inflation didn’t even come up on my radar. A few rupees here, a few rupees there, it was barely noticeable. To me, inflation was something that got the daily wage workers and unions upset. There would be a strike or two, but the middle classes could suck it up and carry on. After all, what’s a few hundred extra rupees when you are earning Rs 40,000 (£465 / $745) a month?

Now it’s a different matter though. Even on a salary like mine, inflation has caught up with me. It’s something you see happening month on month. I do a monthly shop at the local supermarket. This time last year I spent around Rs 4,000 (£46 / $74) for the shop. My latest shop cost Rs 5,650 (£66 / $105) – buying exactly the same stuff. Milk has risen from 30 rupees to 62 rupees. A carton of juice has gone from 49 rupees to 99 rupees. Cornflakes from 125 rupees to 200 rupees.

It’s got to the point where the prices they print on the packaging are already out of date by the time they wind up on the shelves. Waiting in line at the checkouts takes longer now because every other item needs a price override to bump it up by another 5 or 10 rupees. Every month the price is going up, it’s inflation that hits you every time.

And yes, before I get flamed, I know spending £66 / $105 per month on groceries is laughably low compared to a developed country (the average UK grocery bill is about £144 for one person – apparently). What isn’t funny, and what developed countries haven’t seen, is the 40% inflation on food prices in the last year alone. I never used to look at prices in the supermarket before, it was all cheap so what was the point. Now it’s got to the point where I’m being a little bit more careful about what I buy.

Electricity prices is another area where inflation has crept up and made me gasp for breath. The other day, the latest electricity bill was waiting for me in my letterbox. For the same period last year, it cost me Rs 1,250 for 630 units. This year, I used virtually the same amount of units (yay!), but the price is now Rs 2,600. Again, it’s not much when you compare it to developed countries, but as I recently pointed out on Facebook, this is a staggering 115% inflation we’re talking about here.

To add salt in to the inflation inflicted wound, the state electricity board is only able to generate 70%-80% of the power required by the state. Remarkable, given that only a few years ago, the state was able to sell surplus power to other states in India. The result is that in Chennai we are now at a mandatory two hour power cut every day (it used to be one hour). Elsewhere in the state, it can be as much as 4 hours. So not only are we getting less power per day, we’re paying 115% more for it than we were this time last year.

I used to enjoy going out for lunch and dinner. It would cost about 300 rupees for lunch at the coffee shop and 800 rupees for dinner. Now lunch is around Rs 600 and dinner is a success if it comes in at less than Rs 1,400.

It’s got to the point now where restaurants have to republish their menus every six months to take in to account rising prices. I half dread seeing a new menu at my local restaurants because I know the prices will have gone up again.

To be frank, there is almost nothing India can do about inflation. Like any other country, it’s at the mercy of the international commodity and currency markets. The Indian oil companies alone are losing $36bn per year subsidizing fuel to try and keep a check on inflation. They can’t keep it up. When they run out of money – and they will very soon – petrol, diesel and LPG will have to rise to market prices, potentially triggering hyperinflation. Domestic LPG (used for gas cookers), for example, would have to double in price.

I’m not sure I want to be around when the fallout from inflation happens, because it won’t just be the daily wage workers and unions protesting on the street.

Crumpled Up T-Shirt Day

I have almost reached the age now where doing the ‘smell test’ to see if a t-shirt is still wearable is frowned upon. If I wear a t-shirt, it should be fresh out of the cupboard and neatly pressed. Which is what happens most days.

Last night saw quite a big storm hit Chennai in only the second bit of rain we’ve had this year (jealous much, England?). The thunder isn’t like the wussy stuff you get in England which rumbles around like an old man, it’s the make you cover your ears and hide under the duvet thunder. Lightning does the very best job it can to rip the sky apart from the seams, probably doing to particles what it took humans $10bn and a Large Hadron Collider to do.

So around 5am this morning, my room started lighting up like an action sequence in a Spielberg sci fi movie and the thunder virtually knocked me out of bed. “3-2-1” I said to myself and right on cue and almighty explosion (probably from the same action sequence) signaled that the transformer outside my apartment had blown up and my a/c promptly died. It’s raining, what do I need the a/c for, you might ask. Well, this is the tropics, it’s still 30°C outside and the rain just means the humidity is pushed up to 99%. Uncomfortable? You betcha.

Even by the morning, the power wasn’t back on which not only meant a cold shower (mmm, invigorating), but a return to days of yore by doing the ‘smell test’ to see if a crumpled up t-shirt was still wearable since I couldn’t iron anything. Colleagues are keeping their distance from me this morning, I can’t think why?

Taramani Station After The Rain
A pic from outside Taramani Station this morning after the storm hit last night

My name’s Peter and I’m a…

Alcohol is quite a contentious issue in India for a number of social, political and religious reasons. Some states go as far as outright banning it, others, like Goa, take a more laid back approach. Both policies bring their own set of problems. Mumbai has taken the decision to force anyone who wants to go to a bar to get a permit from the police which has to be shown each time you buy a drink.

Chennai, a deeply conservative city, has had a love-hate relationship with the stuff. Successive governments first restrict the licensing laws to much fanfare before quietly relaxing them later on.

Today, after firstly restricting the sale of alcohol in the state, the ruling party allowed the licensing hours to be extended to 12 midnight for some places and completely relaxed to 24 hours for 5 star hotels in the city, giving customers to opportunity to get a drink any time they feel like it.

Now, I’m not sure whether to feel a great sense of pride or rapidly go and check myself in to the nearest Alcoholics Anonymous group because this afternoon I get phone calls from two different hotels inviting me to come and enjoy extended drinking hours at their respective bars!

Chennai’s Concrete Super Highway In The Sky

Every morning I have to take the train to south Chennai. The Mass Rapid Transit System, or MRTS as it’s known, is a marvel in concrete. Soviet Russia style concrete monolithic stations are dotted every few KM and are so brutal in design, it would make Joseph Stalin himself give a nod of approval. Rather surprisingly, it’s also a triumph of punctuality and reliabilty too, something Network Rail would do well to study. Trains that actually run on time? How can it be?! The MRTS gets a lot of flack from the media and the local population but actually I think it’s pretty bloody fantastic for what it is.

Since the elevated track runs along about 4 stories high, the plan was to use the first level of the stations as a car park for commuters and the 2nd and 3rd level as huge shopping malls, like the big stations of London. That was the plan. 10 years later and many of the stations still resemble building sites with scaffolding and construction detritus littered around the platforms. Where the thriving shops were supposed to be are instead cavernous halls, serving as shelter to dogs, goats and the occasional cow, the odd homeless person and not to mention a place for hapless souls to drink away their troubles in the cold darkness.

This photo shows the station where I catch my train. If you turn up before 8:30am then the platform is virtually empty like it is here and the journey is relatively pleasant. After 8:30am is when Chennai goes to work and 6m people mobilize at once…the journey is then pretty far from pleasant!

Chennai MRTS station

Bus Anxiety

I’ve discovered a time investment fear disorder during my daily commute too and from work. My new office is actually closer to the south pole than it is to my apartment so the daily journey is one of the toughest aspects of my job (16 hour days are a cinch by comparison).

The commute has got all the more harder recently because the temperatures have started to soar and even the nightime temperature doesn’t dip much below the mid-30’s. Add to that, 85% humidity and you have yourself a free outdoor sauna.

In the evening my commute involves a 15 minute power walk to the station, with a laptop strapped to my back. The end result, as I stagger up the 40 steps to the platform can only be described as the drowned rat look. Marathon runners probably produce less sweat in a two half hour race that I do in that 15 minute walk. I then take a non-ac train to central Chennai where I disembark and my bus fear rises.

By this stage of the commute my hair has afro’ed out from the sweat and humidity, my shirt is sopping wet and my shoes are making scquelching noises because they’ve filled up with the sweat cascading down my legs. Frankly it’s a mystery why my girlfriend is still with me when she sees me like this.

There is an air conditioned bus that runs on the route I take. The catch is that it only runs once an hour and they don’t appear to run at a fixed time each hour. Given the sodden state I’m in by the time I need to catch the bus I’m longing for that little bit of luxury an a/c bus can bring. The problem is, I don’t know if it’s coming or already been because some days it will turn up at 6:20, others at 6:45 or sometimes it doesn’t turn up till gone 7.

Of course, there are plenty of regular buses I could take, but I think I’d rather have the back of my eyeballs scraped out with rusty razor blades than be rammed up against someone’s armpit in the suffocating heat.

And so, in an attempt to relieve the bus anxiety, I have taken to turning up at the bus stop as early as possible. I plonk myself on the seat, fire up Angry Birds and wait and wait and wait and wait for a bus. Will it come in the next 10 minutes? Will I have to wait 40 minutes? What if it doesn’t come at all? As the minutes go by, stress levels tick upwards.

At this point I should point out that in the last 4 months I’ve compiled what could possibly only be described as Chennai’s most comprehensive database of bus timings from my stop. Over the months I have been diligently noting down the times of every bus that I could take. Essentially I have found that this was a rather pointless task, given the traffic in Chennai, no bus can run to a schedule once it departs the bus station.

That said, I have discovered that 6 times out of 10, the A/C bus will turn up between 6:30 and 6:40. Occasionally it shows up much earlier, sometimes a bit later, or, with some depressing regularity, not turn up at all.

It is said that even the best financial traders fail to maximize their profits because of fear. A fear of missing out on the bigger rewards if they stay in the game just a bit longer. If these hot shot bankers came and stood at a bus stop in Chennai and waited for the A/C bus to come, then they’ll understand the true meaning of the fear of missing out.

The fear arises because the longer I’ve been standing there, the more time I’ve invested waiting for the A/C bus. As each passing normal bus goes by, my investment increases. As each bus passes that clearly has available seats, and I let it go on by, my stake has increased. I’ve given up the opportunity to get the normal bus in the fear of missing out on an even greater reward, or, in this case a pleasant A/C bus with comfy seats and where you are not being intimately acquainted with the arm pit of a stranger.

If I were to simply get on a normal bus now, all that time, all that sweat, that I’d invested would be in vain.

So how long is too long to wait? I know that more often than not, the A/C bus comes at 6:30ish. But what if it hasn’t come? What if it’s coming in the next 5 minutes? What if there was traffic at the start of the route? What if…I get on a normal bus, full of armpits, and the A/C bus rolls up just behind it?

These my friends and random readers, are the troubles that plague me on a daily basis and form the basis of my new theory on bus-time investment fear, but you can call it Bus Anxiety.

Democracy For Sale

When it comes to interviewing for jobs in India you never really know what you’re going to get (which is probably the same the world over but I’ve never interviewed anyone in England so am in no position to say!). Often candidates haven’t been taught how to handle an interview, say the wrong thing, don’t say enough, say too much, don’t let the interviewer speak, cut the interviewer off in the middle of a question or worse they have read a “how to ace your interview” guide on and come up with answers like “my biggest weakness is that I’m a workaholic.”

My company is currently doing interview rounds as we look to expand our team and as usual the process has thrown up a number of anecdotes. My favourite one so far went like this…

A young man enters the office. He’s from a small village in rural Tamil Nadu and visibly apprehensive, nervous and uncomfortable in the surroundings. His answers are short and he’s got no conviction in what he says. Determined to bring the young man out of his shell the interviewer tries a number of light conversation topics like films, food and family until she hits on one topic where his face lights up light a 1000 watt bulb. “actually it’s my life’s dream to be an MP for my village” he tells her, then continuing, “I will bring development and jobs, make electricity come and make sure everyone has healthcare. Then I will campaign for Tamil rights in Sri Lanka and bring the Sri Lankan government to justice.”

Suitably impressed with the eloquence and passion with which the young man has described his ambitions the interviewer asks him how he plans to get elected. The young man brushed the question aside and said “I will join whichever party gives me the most money then I will pay everyone in my village to vote for me.”

And that is south Indian politics 🙂

I’ll Have A Boot Please

I was sitting in a bar in Delhi the other day where they brew their own German style beer on the premises and after 4 years of Kingfisher it’s like liquid gold in a bottle. The beer wasn’t the only thing unique about this bar though because I noticed one of the waiters carrying this boot of beer to one of the tables. I couldn’t let it go by without taking a quick snap of it – it’s not something you see each day!

I'll have a boot of beer please

Creative Packaging From Indigo

Indigo is a budget airline that operates in India in much the same vein as EasyJet or BMIBaby. The budget airline sector in India is pretty crowded and with rising fuel costs forcing up the prices getting customers is harder than ever. Indigo have a unique style that permeates every part of their business, it’s the little things that separate them from all the other carriers. On the flight just before we landed the hostess requested everyone to turn off electronic devices, but part of the speech also included a note about making sure you save your work before you shut down your laptop. Very small, but it sticks in your mind. Airplane food also gets a tough time from many frequent travellers but Indigo has made a big effort to bring something unique to the food as well. The picture below is the box the sandwich comes in. It’s in the style of a matchbox because the sandwich contains a lot of chilly. Simple, smart and stands out enough for someone like me to mention it on my blog. A great marketing effort by Indigo!

Sandwich box for Indigo

The Plastic Road Campaign

During the monsoon season, which comes at different times of the year depending on where you are in India, the deluge of water inundates the the drainage system and turns the roads in to shallow canals. I’ve posted my fair share of pictures and videos on this blog of roads that are completely submersed after days of non-stop rainfall. It’s not so much that the drainage system is poor, it’s pretty extensive, it’s mostly because of the volume of water that can fall in such a short period of time and the drains can get blocked by the detritus of the city. Every year before the monsoon season starts you see frenzied activity as the authorities clear out and prepare the stormwater drains.

During and after the monsoon season, many roads in Chennai look like this as the water washes away the surface

All this water turns the roads of Chennai in to a labyrinth of pot holes as the upper surface is washed away. The effect it has on the traffic, not to mention what it’s doing to private and public vehicles is pretty horrendous – which is of course the only reason I haven’t bought myself a car yet; it would cost too much to maintain! (seriously!). Pot holes have also caused injury to pedestrians and in one extreme case last year a young girl lost her life because the storm water drains that run along side the roads had collapsed and as the girl was walking along the submerged road, fell in the hole and unfortunately drowned.

I can’t confirm that this happened in Chennai but many websites say it did!

There is a solution to the pot-holed roads though which is to use recycled plastic and mix it in to the bitumen compound. This creates roads that are harder and far less susceptible to water damage – pretty awesome when your roads are submerged for three months of the year! The results have been so successful that in several test roads around the city with some having lasted several years without damage. Thanks to these successful trials the Corporation of Chennai decided that it was time to finally solve the road problem and roll out plastic roads across Chennai.

There was one problem though: The Corporation of Chennai has a reputation slightly better than the ebola virus and PR skills taken from the book of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster mitigation team. Simply put, even if the Corporation is able to put out a message the public are not likely to listen it it.

Step in the Stella Maris MA Public Relations class of 2010. They have taken up the cause and put in place a PR campaign to raise awareness on the importance of segregating and recycling plastic across their ward (the city is divided up in to wards and zones). Named Plastic Salai (salai means road in Tamil), the campaign has been so effective that it has not only taken their own faculty by surprise but has won the accolades of the Chief Commissioner of the Corporation of Chennai who heaped praise on them during a recent live radio interview.

Before the PR students started their campaign the Corporation was having to import plastic from other states to use on the roads since 1 tonne of plastic was required to lay just 1KM of road. This is pretty insane because walk along any road in India and you’ll see plenty of discarded plastic bags, plastic pouches and plastic packaging material. The Corporation was collecting around 7.5 tonnes of plastic a week but the latest figures suggest that now well over 50 tonnes has been collected – probably in no small way thanks to the awareness that has been raised by the Plastic Salai campaign.

The students have created a Facebook page with all the details of their campaign so far and have engagement rates that would make every social media manager in the world salivate and turn green with envy. There is also the Plastic Salai blog which has indepth analysis of everything the students have done so far (and is far better at explaining how great plastic roads are than I can) and a regularly updated Twitter account.

As well as doing some pretty amazing social media work and organizing the rally pictured above, the students have also created some very professionally produced videos like the ones below:

There is also this educational animated video that has apparently gone down a treat with school children and corporates alike and businesses have donated money to the cause based on seeing this video alone!

Finally, what’s a holistic PR campaign without a brilliant catchy tune? Several of the students put together this amazing song which got plenty of air time on the Chennai radios and has notched up well over 1,000 listens on

The campaign has the secondary benefit of getting more people to think about recycling their plastic. Most rubbish that is thrown out is actually recyclable and one of the reasons the stormwater drains are not as effective as they could be is that they are clogged up with – you guessed it – plastic.

All in all, this has been one of the best campaigns the city has seen in a long while. It’s getting citizens to be more involved with the civic authorities, getting people to think more about segregating waste and improving the infrastructure of the city so that the roads become safer and longer lasting.