Friday, February 29, 2008


A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – February 2008

‘Time ….. I’ve been passing time, watching trains go by
All of my life ….. Lying on the sand, watching seabirds fly’[1]

Introduction: What does the future hold for us? What’s hot, what’s not, what’s going to be in, what out, what’s moving up, what down – we are subject to a kaleidoscope of punditry on trends. As a laid back observer to life, I have my own views. The following paper contains my take on five trends that will shape life in the medium-term future.

Changing agriculture: There has been much lamenting on the travails of Indian agriculture, especially with farmer suicides and a growth rate that has, for the first time since the 1960s, fallen below the rate of increase of population. But it looks like one of the (many) causes of this situation – that food is cheap – is going to change. Worldwide, food prices in grain markets fell by three-quarters in real terms between 1974 and 2005, they have jumped 75 percent since despite good harvests, and the indication is that this trend is likely to continue[2].

What does more expensive food really mean in India? It could mean an opportunity to re-vitalise agriculture, wean rich farmers off subsidies, and reduce rural-urban inequalities. It could mean that the economic rationale for converting agricultural land into SEZs and producing for bio-fuels may require rethinking. It will certainly mean an inflationary threat and trouble for urban consumers and landless labourers. There will be pressure upon governments to get the public distribution system working, and temptation to indulge in price controls to wave off a political backlash.

A sociological phenomenon: ‘Where are the nice men?’ is an increasingly common refrain. Unattached women tend to think that all the good men are already taken. And most married women, deep inside, think of their husbands as assholes[3]. And while this does cast aspersions on the male half of humanity, this is not the purpose of this paper. I would instead like to draw your attention to two observations. One, that the number of unattached women in most metros has increased significantly, especially so in the above-35 age group[4], thus possibly rendering the refrain as more to with the laws of supply and demand than with any male disorder. Two, that these women are not unattached for the traditional reasons of being ugly, broke, been dumped or having sacrificed their chances to look after an ageing relative – many combine beauty, intelligence and success.

So how has this state of affairs come about? I see three prime causes. The first is that serious careers require focussed concentration from the initial years onwards, and while men can get away with focussing and maintaining a relationship, women have more difficulty with their balancing acts. The second is that these women have high standards, and the pool of men meeting them is not significant. And the third is that early courtship rituals tend to be demeaning for women with a modicum of intelligence, and these ones chose not to hang around in bars or allow some idiot to be masterful in their youth.

What’s going to happen? As they approach an age that brings on biological barriers and a need for companionship, these ladies are looking around – and dropping their standards while doing so. And if you age the characters a little in that obnoxious Axe-effect advertisement, you depict the real-life situation of unattached forty-plus men. There aren’t nearly enough of them to go around (and as they are having such a ball they are loathe to change their status). There are good times ahead for the otherwise unsuitable – the married, the toy boys, the lotus-eaters and the greedy.

The rise and rise of the extreme left: They had their highs in the sixties and seventies! They were dormant for a long time after that, and restricted to pockets. They are back, and they are different! And they have finally been recognised for the threat that they are, what with the PM identifying naxalism as India’s biggest challenge, with coverage in the mainstream media[5], and with rapidly expanding geographical reach. Who are these people, and why are they sitting in jungles and blowing up police stations? On the first, those of you who have been lamenting about the youth – career-minded, mercenary, self-oriented, desperate to get to the USA, where are the one’s who want to make the world a better place and end poverty – well, this is where some of them are. As to the second, I can cite the usual reasons – economic policies whose basis is that the rich are not rich enough and the poor are too rich, corruption and injustice at levels that make people numb with anger, a political system that is a pyramid of family businesses, and tools of the state whose sole purpose is to enable the few to have a good time. And some of those at the receiving end have not lain down and died or hung around to live off the crumbs.

Where is this going to lead? It is unlikely that the causes that have led to their rise will abate – all indications are the opposite. The state sees them as problems rather than symptoms, and policy veers towards exterminating them rather than addressing the issues creating them. I see them extending beyond their traditional bastions, and into Karnataka and Delhi in the medium term future. Will this die out, like last time? This lot are not from the elite and will be unable to integrate back into the corporate sector, government, and academia when they get bored. We might just have to learn to live with them.

The growing irrelevance of NGOs: I have written about this several times and would prefer to avoid the temptation of regurgitating. Organisations that survive the purge of irrelevance will require combinations of the following virtues. One, they will need to be well governed – in that ownership is separate from management, a second (and third) line of leadership exists, and the tenements of honesty, answerability, transparency, rigour and adherence to systems are internalised. Two, they will need to have a base in the community within which they work. Three, they will need to move beyond the foreign institutional donor and begin to attract financial support from within India and from people who have earned their money. And four, they will need to identify tomorrow’s problems and gear up to work on these rather than those of yesterday. The rest? They can run their parallel tourism industries, they can cut ‘HIV/AIDS’ and paste ‘Climate Change’, they can continue pontificating at seminars in Lutyens Delhi – but – they will die. And the space will be claimed by private sector social responsibility initiatives.

Travel: My generation would remember sending telegrams to make onward journey reservations, spending time in general compartments, and indulging in slimy practices to sleep on a train[6]. Things have changed for travellers, and inshallah our children will never see the inside of a general compartment toilet (let alone have to sleep in one with four other people). Some changes have been well documented; the movement of the railway platform crowd into airport waiting rooms, the increased use of private vehicles for inter-city travel, and the use of the Internet to enhance convenience. Others have escaped attention, such as the segregation of dhabas[7] and the movement of the highway prostitution industry on to bypasses[8].

One key trend I see is that the airline industry will consolidate and the very cheap fares will be a thing of the past. Those indulging in landing up at airports and purchasing tickets on current will not get the great deals that they used to, and will need to start planning their journeys. Those for whom airfares are elastic will return to the railways and will be pleasantly surprised. Another is that we will have many more road accidents – driving habits show no signs of change, the on-road numbers have increased exponentially (this will continue with the Nano), and public transport remains the pits.

[1] I can’t quite remember the 1980s movie with Richard Gere and Debra Winger (“An Officer and a Gentleman”?) that had this as a soundtrack.
[2] “The End of Cheap Food”, The Economist issue of December 8-14, 2007.
[3] Please be honest here, ladies, and if you actually don’t please get back to me – I’ve got to meet the guy and get a few tips.
[4] This may, of course, be because of biases in the direction of my observation.
[5] I have recently seen front page headline coverage in the Indian Express and India Today, as well as read the book ‘Red Sun’ by Sudeep Chakravarthy.
[6] My favourite was to pick up sweets from the station and then get into a compartment with plenty of children and start plying them with the sweets. Small children would have a berth of their own, but would always sleep with their Mothers. I was usually very nicely told to use the free berth.
[7] The one’s catering to middle class travellers looking for an experience, with chairs, toilets, potato chips and refrigerators are quite different to the one’s at which truck drivers eat, sleep and wash their underwear.
[8] The deal is that you can pick up the lady at one end of the bypass and drop her at the other. And if you need more time, you will notice many motels on the bypass that charge on an hourly basis. But – if you choose to exercise the latter option – you might find that you are a star in a Pallika Bazaar CD.

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