This restaurant is next to the barber shop I patronize here in Pune. I haven’t mustered the courage to examine the menu.
What you see here is my new, Microtek DoublePOWER 800VA UPS – an uninterruptible power supply. Here in India electrical service is not consistent. Brown-outs and outages are common. For example back when I first arrived in Pune and was recording my lease at the Registrar’s office, power went down there and for a few blocks around, at which point civic work halted and we collectively went out for tea. Power was restored in a few hours and my lease was eventually duly recorded.
Buildings like mine have their own generators which pick up when mainline power fails. However there is anywhere from a 10 to 30 second failover time when that happens – way more than enough to power down my wireless router, not a great thing to have happen when you are in the middle of, say, online banking. So I got this UPS in the hopes that when these brief outages occur I can at least keep internet going for a while. Kim tells me that today we had a short outage and all seemed to work as planned. Bahuta acchā!
An amusing thing about the delivery of this unit … Saturday I received a call. Was hard to make out what the other party was saying, but I eventually understood that there was a parcel for me at the local post office and that I needed to come by and pick it up. So Monday myself and driver Rupesh make our way there and indeed it is the UPS. Rupesh asked, why was the package not delivered to the address? For answer they indicated this label on the package:
So, from a spirit of diligence they decided that “transporting” the package to my flat was forbidden.
I forebore from asking what miraculous agency had gotten the package to the post office in the first place …
Above you see Ishanya Mall from a few months back. Kim and I visited yesterday to make some purchases and then, as all the times I’ve been there before, the place was nearly empty, the goods in the stores scattered and poorly presented, and the buildings themselves half-finished and the finished parts already crumbling. Ishanya is supposed to be Pune’s prime destination for home furnishings. You definitely can get some things there, but as I think the picture shows the place is hardly “prime”. Ishanya does not even have its own website – if you go to ishanya.com you end up at a Facebook page for a fleamarket in the mall.
Our shopping experience was fresh in my mind reading an op-ed by Steven Rattner in today’s New York Times: India is Losing the Race. The article covers a lot of ground but this quote makes a telling point:
Visits to crowded Indian urban centers unleash sensory assaults: colorful dress and lilting chatter provide a backdrop to every manner of commerce, from small shops to peddlers to beggars. That makes for engaging tourism, but not the fastest economic development. In contrast to China’s full-throated, monochromatic embrace of large-scale manufacturing, India more closely resembles a nation of shopkeepers.
Nation of shopkeepers indeed. Everywhere you go you see these 2-3 person operations, from auto-maintenance, to plumbing, to “medicinals” (drugstores), to furniture, groceries and more. The predominant Indian business plan goes like this: Get some stuff to sell; Find an unoccupied stretch of sidewalk; Sit down there and sell your stuff.
Meanwhile large scale efforts flounder. Another example is the mall near my flat, Koregaon Park Plaza (their website was offline when I wrote this). This mall boasts many western brands but like Ishanya never seems to have any customers – Hypermarket is the only store doing business. Now, there are successful malls here, like Amanora Park Town, but Amanora is really its own township where 1,000s of better-off Indians live. Amanora is also very close to Magarpatta City, another self-enclosed township.
From the larger perspective one reason large-scale efforts here are doomed is the transportation. Average people here get around by motorcycle, scooter, bicycle, autorickshaw, and of course walking. You can’t buy a lot when you are on a two-wheeler. You see a lot of this:
I’ve seen a great many ridiculous things being transported by two-wheeler, including ladders, pipes, stacked paint-buckets and more. The bottom-line is the majority of Indians can’t get to a centralized superstore of any kind, and even if they did they could not bring back much. Most people do some sort of shopping every day, getting just enough food, for example, for today and tomorrow.
Wait, you say – doesn’t India boast a number of fast growing industrial conglomerates? What about Tata Group (revenue >$100b in 2011-2012), Reliance Group (revenue >$66b) or Bharti Enterprises (revenue >$10b)? Surely these examples prove that economies of scale are being used in India?
Yes, these are large, successful companies, but it would be incredible in a country of 1 billion persons that there were not some such enterprises. A telling example for me is construction, obviously an important industrial category and one critical for growth. A recent report on top 200 construction firms worldwide includes only 1 Indian firm, Larsen & Toubro, at #43 worldwide, while China has 5 firms just in the top 10 and a great many firms throughout the top 200. India’s worldwide share of construction revenue is less even than Sweden’s, which takes 2.2% of the total. A particular embarrassment for India is that in the neighboring country of Bangladesh, Chinese construction firms are overwhelmingly favored over Indian. A factor here is that China has the cash to extend significant loans to Bangladesh.
One of Rattner’s pictures brings the India/China comparison into focus:
GDP growth is certainly respectable, but look at GDP per capita. An incredible disparity.
Education has to play a key role here. Looking at a comparison of education in India and China some things leapt out at me:
In some criteria India and China are comparable, or India even excels China. But look at the pupil-teacher ratio and primary completion rate; is it any wonder the total illiteracy rate is so high? It is no surprise that buildings and roads seem to fall apart so quickly here – imagine how many of the people building those things were illiterate. And the metrics on females – 39% of school-age girls out of school, and literacy of men nearly double that of women. India is purposefully not educating half of its people.
While there is substantial public spending on education, Indians at all levels with any disposable income look to enroll their children in private schools. Recently on my way to work I saw a queue of 100s of people; I later found they were in line to file admission forms at a school close to my office. My driver, Rupesh – in many things my touchstone for the average guy over here – told me that to enroll his kids in the school he wanted he stood in a queue for 12 hours, beginning at midnight. Paying their fees, after rent and food, is his major expenditure.
In Pune the city government has a set-aside for poor children to attend private schools. But that is only for 7,300-some places – this is a city of 5 million people. Even with that, the program is not being used, with only 3,000 places actually filled. The article tells why:
According an official from the school board, one reason for the seats remaining vacant was that the schools were not being approached by children from the economically and socially weaker sections.
Only by being here can you know what this means. Many people here in low positions can barely look into the face of a rich person. It is an incredible act of courage for an Indian of lowly estate – a child, especially – to put themselves side-by-side with their social “betters”.
Once again, I have no answers. India is a peculiar mix of social democracy – it has an ambitious plan for direct welfare payments – capitalism – Mumbai, India’s financial and entertainment hub is South Asia’s richest city – and libertarianism – private townships and private schools. Corruption is backdrop to it all, but no worse than the surrounding parts of Asia. One thing I can say, looking at this picture gives me a new perspective on the needs and challenges of education here. I would love to do something about this in my work. I shall have to think …
No, Kim is not scrutinizing the posture of a literally statuesque Hindu dancer. She is instead looking up at this unexpected feature of the Karla Caves, namely, beehives:
Yesterday we decided to do some sight seeing and the Karla Caves seemed like a good destination. Since reading about the rock-cut architecture of India I have wanted to visit one of these caves. Karla, at 50 kms or so away, is a convenient destination, so we set out early and arrived at 10:30 am or so.
Before saying more about the actual caves, for the benefit of fellow visiting foreigners let me say a bit about guides, helpers and touts. India is fraught with such characters and tourist destinations especially so. As soon as an obvious bunch of Westerners arrive you will be accosted by “guides” who offer to help you with local knowledge. Their usefulness is marginal, but by knowing the details of these places they can save you a bit of aimless wandering. For me the main appeal of these fellows are the ridiculous prices they will ask and the opportunity for bargaining. At these times, if you want the help of a guide, be prepared for something like this:
“Sir! I am expert on the caves! I show everything, only 700 rupees.”
“700? For that price I expect you to carry me up to the temple.”
“700 is too much. How about 50?”
“Sir! With all my knowledge? For you I give special price, 500 only …”
And so it goes. The amounts really don’t matter to Westerners. But there are many hard-working Indians who are lucky to make Rs. 500 (or less) in a 12-hour day of actual labor. For that reason I’m loathe to give the same amount to some fast-talker who will spend 30 mins telling me stuff I already know from my wikiPedia reading. Yesterday after a few minutes of haggling I engaged a man for Rs. 200. Ultimately he didn’t have any special insights to impart, but it helped the local economy I suppose.
On to the caves. Karla is at the top of hill. You go most of the way by car, but then there is a winding path of steps that takes you the remaining few hundreds of meters to the top:
The way up is lined with stalls like these:
Many of these sell refreshments and souvenirs, but a great many sell marigolds, spices, coconuts – the necessary materials for a puja that Hindus will perform at the temple at the top of the hill.
Karla is a very old place, dating from the 2nd century BC. Here is the outside of the caves:
The upper galleries you see are closed off from visitors. Anyway 2,000 years ago this space in front of the caves was a village-like affair, a stopping point on the Buddhist trade-routes that criss-crossed ancient India.
There are 2 main features of the caves, the first being the prayer hall:
At the far end is the stupa, a dome-like stone housing relics and adorned with inscriptions. This hall magnifies sound; the favorite activity of the many school children visiting was to shout slogans and hear them echo. Again, it was intriguing to imagine 2,000 years ago, the hall full of seated monks and their prayers reverberating.
The second feature are the smaller caves with meditation cells for individual monks:
These spaces inside are only a few feet across. Seated in such a place I can see how there would be little distraction – assuming one could get over the distraction of sitting, that is.
Hearing of these cave-cells I jokingly asked our “guide” if I could see Bodhidharma’s shadow in this place. The guide replied that indeed many Chinese people visited these caves. Sigh.
Between the prayer-hall and the meditation cells it’s rather amazing to consider these vast spaces were mainly cut by hand out of solid stone. As I read here, the main technique used was to create small crevices in the stone, push in dry wood, then apply water – the expansion of wet wood fractures the stone.
In the centuries since its founding Karla has become more of a Hindu destination than a Buddhist one. Outside the prayer-hall is a small temple to Ekveera, a goddess revered by Koli people who live mainly in Mumbai. We all went inside and while we could take no photos, for Rs. 40 we all received a ceremonial dab of red dye on our foreheads together with, presumably, the goddess’ blessing.
Finally it was time to go, but not before obtaining a souvenir of our visit. At the bottom of the path was a man selling minerals. I selected these 2 pieces:
Minerals seem an appropriate keepsake for visiting a cave. The piece on the right is calcite, perhaps two pounds in weight. On the left is what I think is an apophyllite, a common crystal found in Maharashtra.
Once again it was time for bargaining. The shopman started at Rs. 2,500 – “These minerals come from this very mountain!” he confidently declared. I was very happy to see his consternation when I suggested 400. I walked away from the booth two times – in one of those cases remarking “I had plenty of rocks back in the US” – only to return to hear more offers. Walking away the 3rd time the shopman came after holding the minerals and we agreed on Rs. 600. As is usual in these cases you have no idea how well you really did – he probably got these pieces for 5 or 10 – but the experience is half the fun.
All in all, a very engaging visit. We’d very much like to go on a longer trip to a place like Ajanta Caves, one of the foremost cave temples in India.
This helpful sign we saw at Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park, here in Pune. Based on the detailed description, we all assumed that perturbing, enticing, needling, nagging, riling and rankling probably would be Ok.
Of course, when the representative animals are like this:
it is probably best to leave sleeping snakes lie un-rankled, as it were.