Posts in "India"

Life in Chennai is Now Uber

Taxi services. Little has changed in the last 50 years. You call up the taxi company, ask for a taxi to pick you up and you wait patiently for them to arrive.

Only it’s not always that simple in Chennai, especially for a foreigner (although I consider myself more of an almost-PIO nowadays).

You call up the call-centre, wait patiently to be connected to an operator, explain where you want to be picked up from, explain where you want to go, request the car type, listen to stupid special offers and finally, the taxi is booked. Then the fun really begins. Under normal circumstances, the driver calls you up 30 – 60 minutes before hand to know from where he needs to pick you up.

This will forever be a mystery to me because you’ve just told the call-centre where you want to be picked up from so how hard can it be to pass this on to the driver? Based on experience, it’s apparently impossible to do.

Taking the time to be the wingman to the hapless driver as you guide him in can be a mild inconvenience in the evening, but if you’ve got a 7am flight to catch, getting a 4:30am phonecall isn’t really what you need – unless you’re the type of person who takes an hour to get ready.

The biggest problem is that explaining the directions to a local driver is nigh on impossible for a foreigner in Chennai. Locals barely see more success. It doesn’t matter if the conversation is in English or Tamil, it always goes a little something like this…

We are in T-Nagar, no tee, tuh, not dee. No T-Nagar, like Pothys and Saravana stores. Yes, Pothys, no no, wait I don’t want you to come to Pothys. T-Nagar, yes, near to Gardenia Hotel…Gar-den-ia, err, oh, the old name is Empire Residency, ok? Good. After Gardenia Hotel…what? Yes Empire Residency, take the third right next to the bike garage, then keep going until you reach the chicken shop and take the next left after that and find the Homely Nest apartment block which is opposite the flower lady. How much time?

It’s always five minutes, so there’s no point in asking. There will be an exchange of three or four more calls as the driver iterates his way ever closer until finally you get the call that he is there and would you mind awfully hurrying up.

Even when you are not the one trying to give the directions, it’s still utterly exhausting just listening in on someone being the wingman. This is why I’m so happy that Chennai has gone Uber over the last month.

Uber is an American company looking to radically change the way we book taxis and give you awesome rides in Mercs, Jags and Beemers for a fraction of the price. Having ubered (yes, I’m verbalizing Uber, move on) to the office a few times and used the service to get around the city, let me tell you: it rocks!

Instead of spending countless phonecalls explaining your location, Uber uses this amazing piece of technology called GPS, which everyone in the world knows about except Chennai taxi companies.

You fire up the Uber app (available on Android and also some fruity phone) and GPS (or cell phone tower triangulation if you are inside) locates your exact position in the city.

Uber Pick Up Location

Of course, if you want to have a different pick up point, you just move the pin to location you want. The process does assume some degree of map reading ability, but I’m not here to point fingers.

Once the pin is set, you can then see the location of all the available Uber cars in the city (err, zoom out if you see no cars) and it tells you how long you need to wait to get your driver (Uber doesn’t call them cabs). If you are happy with everything you tap the confirm button and the driver is alerted.

Now here’s the clever part, Uber drivers are not given fare meters. Wait? What? Shock! Horror! Instead they are given an iPhone with – wait for it – GPS! Hhomygod. Srsly? The innovation we can do nowadays with 40 year old technology, it clearly baffles the minds of Chennai’s current crop of taxi companies.

The location of the pick up (ie. you) is marked on the driver’s map so they simply drive to the pin and you are told exactly how many minutes away the car is on your phone.

uber driver coming

Once picked up, a quick tap on the driver’s phone app tells Uber that the meter has started and GPS tracks the route along with the time.

Now after the base fare of Rs 50 (with a Rs 100 minimum fare), Uber charges just 15 rupees per km which is really cheap compared to the other taxis in the city, even compared to autos! There is a small catch though, they charge 2 rupees per minute so if you are gridlocked at Gemini Flyover or at the Tidel Park junction, you might feel the pinch, but hey, you’re in a frickking Jag so quit your whining already.

The pricing structure means I can take a Mercedes car home from office and pay less than what I would for an Indigo from NTL. Clearly there are massive cost savings from not having a call centre and all the staff that are required to run it 24 hours a day. If I was any of the traditional taxi companies I would be petrified of my business becoming irrelevant like, right now.

At the end of the journey, the driver taps his app again and the meter is stopped. There is no exchange of money, your credit card (which you entered earlier) is charged automatically and off you go on your happy little way.

For corporates, a full email invoice is sent with the route shown on a map, the number of minutes used and the distance travelled. For data nerds like myself it’s a little bit of nirvana from your ride home.

Uber Receipt

Uber Chennai is finally a taxi service that any expat can use and at a price point that beats regular taxis.

Hello Uber, good bye NTL, Milliondots, Fastrack (and Calltrack, and Taxitrack, and Metrotrack, and every other taxi service in Chennai that thinks ‘track’ means taxi or something).

There are of course a few limitations with the service. Uber is an on-demand service. You can’t pre-book a taxi to pick you up at a specific time and there are no package deals available. In addition, during times of great demand, like after Dublin or Pasha kicks out on a Saturday night, Uber employs what’s known as price surging where the fare can be double or triple the normal cost (you are informed about this before hand though).

Shameless plug: Listen in, if you want to try out Uber for yourself, use this promo code when you book your first Uber and you’ll get Rs 300 credited to your account: 4sk9w (I also get Rs 300 credited to my account if you use it, just so you know!).

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

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

They Call Him King of the Golden Nuggets

In my apartment we have a cat. King of the Golden Nuggets is his name. A fearless predator, an alert hunter, a father to half the local feline population, stalking through the night for his next victim, he answers to no man…unless of course you have some delicious curd to give him. The relationship between the apartment dwellers and Golden Nuggets is thus: you feed him whenever he’s hungry and in return he’ll guard the steps of the apartment against any trespassers and ne’er-do-wells*.


* Provided the trespassers scurry on four legs, go squeak and come at a convenient time when he’s not sleeping.

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.