The Noisy Indian Traveller!

In the last few years, Indians have been travelling abroad like never before. On vacations, for jobs, on business trips, on incentive tours, for studies, to meet their kids and the like. So, travelling abroad is no longer a “class divide” in India as it was a couple of decades ago. So far so good. But along with this, it has also brought to the fore another race called the “Noisy Indian traveler” – one who lacks the basic etiquette.

Last night on my return flight from Beijing to Mumbai via Bangkok, all was well in the 1st leg till Bangkok with very few of us Indians in the flight.  But in the 2nd leg, it was a full house from Bangkok to Mumbai with many returning Indians on the plane. Just as we settled down in our seats, ruckus started with 3/4 passengers from Gujarat talking and laughing loudly non-stop. Quite obviously they were under the influence of alcohol and repeating among themselves the same lines one being – Aap, Mein aur Bagpiper!!! They were refusing to take their seats and finally one of the crew members had to politely but firmly request them to settle down so that the flight can take off. The guys settled down after getting commitment on their share of Whisky and Vodka once the flight takes off!!!  While this was going on, the rest of us were squirming in our seats with embarrassment.

Was this an isolated episode? Nope. Few months ago on a Srilankan Airways flight from Colombo to Chennai, the situation was similar. This time with a few raucous folks who are called “Kuruvis” doing the odd courier jobs. For almost 40 minutes after boarding the plane, a group of 20 guys were stuffing and re-stuffing their bags, littering the cabin, arguing with the cabin staff who were asking them to put the baggage in the overhead cabin and carrying out business transactions loudly literally exchanging notes before they were all forced to settle down by a harried crew.  Once the flight took off and the “fasten your seat belts” sign went off, these guys were back on their feet trying to pack/unpack their stuff once again!!! Followed by the usual haggling for hard drinks and more and more peanuts on that very short one hour flight!!!

Not just in the planes. We Indians are noisy and create a furore everywhere we travel. Like I saw once a group of Indian tourists at Sentosa, Singapore waiting for the elevator among many tourists of different nationalities suddenly starting a loud countdown. Much to the chagrin of those waiting there and embarrassment of fellow Indians!

I can go on and on with more such episodes. You get the drift anyway.

I am now told that in places like Singapore, Thailand, … which are increasingly popular with the Noisy Indian traveler – the local tourist agencies are wary and have started to handout a set of Does and Don’ts to Indians which include of course being on time and being less noisy.  And it seems Airlines have separate training modules on how to handle rogue passengers from this part of the world!

Is this lout behavior – a culture thing? Or a “GDP” thing? Or a literate illiterate thing? Or a combination?? I find it difficult to comprehend and conclude either way.

The Chinese I find also are generally noisy people. They talk loudly among themselves. But I don’t see them behaving like we do while travelling.

I am certain that this behavior has nothing to do with the “Education” thing – for many of the fellow travelers I see are certainly not the illiterate variety. These are all educated folks but with no life education!

Has this got to do with the economic growth of a country? In the sense as a country gets better with economic growth, do these kind of behavior come down?  Probably. But, am not sure.

So in India we have a dual problem. One is to get people to behave well “with” tourists in India so they leave with a lasting positive impression about our country. The other is to get people to behave well “as” tourists when they travel!  I think both are important. In the end, “we the people” are the brand ambassadors of the so called Incredible India! As of now, the brand ambassadors are doing a lousy job for sure!

In any case, it is high time etiquette training is brought in as part of our curriculum in schools and we try to mend behavior while young.  At home we as parents must give equal importance to “up bringing” as much as “bringing up” our kids!!  Lest the world will soon label the Noisy Indian traveler as lousy too and slam the doors!

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Wah, Taj boliye!!!

When I visited Agra and the Taj Mahal last week, it was exactly after 10 years. That was in the midst of a hot summer in 2006. Much water has flown in the Yamuna since then and 10 years is a good time to see for oneself if the so called winds of change blowing across the hinterlands of India is for real. In these 10 years, the “Elephant” and the “Cycle” have got their opportunities alternatively to ride in Uttar Pradesh with the “Lotus” blooming or rather looming large at the centre!

We left Delhi pretty early (5.30 am to be precise) to beat the morning traffic till Noida. Close to Aerocity the new Airport hub replete with hotels and offices, even in the wee hours the roads were busy. One, with the slew of vehicles ferrying the staff from Call centres and BPOs of Gurugram after the night US shift and two, with the panoply of cars of all hue waiting in the roads for the call from their owners when they land at the airport. Now here’s the dichotomy. Folks who don’t bat their eyelids to write cheques for purchasing cars of the types of Audi, BMW,..  whine to pay the parking fees at the airport! So the drivers just hang around choking the roads leading up to the airports. (This by the way happens in almost all cities in India, I guess). After that initial congestion, the drive through the Lutyens’ Zone was nice. Lutyens’ Zone could be a credible advertisement for Swachh Bharat mission I thought. But then it’s always been that way.

Once we cross Noida, we quickly enter the new Yamuna Expressway which is supposed to make the Agra and the Taj trip more memorable. Earlier also folks from abroad always remembered the Taj Trip very well for the long travel from Delhi to Agra. The Expressway is international class so are the toll fees! But then if we need quality infrastructure and if private guys have to develop the same, you need to pay for it!  Along the Expressway one cannot miss the Buddh International Circuit built for bringing F1 to India. It’s sad that India doesn’t feature on the F1 calendar since 2013! The circuit now is reduced to hosting national races and being a promotional/testing venue for automobile manufacturers.  Blame it on the financial troubles of the promoter Jaypee group or the bureaucratic hurdles around hosting F1. One hopes F1 returns to India soon for the changes in brings in the landscape overall – partly which is even today visible. However just ahead, confirming the winds of change were the surprisingly neat and clean toilets at the 1st break at the food plaza!!!

The Expressway has a speed limit of 100 kmph for cars and 60 kmph for heavy vehicles. The driver of our luxury coach clearly believed that ours was a heavy vehicle and never for once allowed for himself the luxury of accelerating beyond 60 kmph. Never once. Now this discipline of following speed limits on highways must qualify as a big behavioral change!

As the Expressway ended and we entered the city limits of Agra, the dream drive ended. We were back to the early morning hustle bustle of a small town with buffaloes, dogs, hen and monkeys interspersed with a whole lot of people, handcarts, autos, crowded tempos,… on the roads. Busy road side eateries were rustling up morning snacks and the overall “dust bowl look” hardly can pose for Swachh Bharat. The road from where the Expressway ends leading to the Taj is surprisingly still narrow with chaotic traffic. The very impressive guide (impressive with his suave English and worldly knowledge) who joined us at Agra would tell me later that a highway straight from the Expressway to the Taj is ready and would be open to public soon. It was apparently waiting for the UP CM Akhilesh Yadav who has been busy with his parivar war these days!

The guide cautions us of all things prohibited inside the Taj. Well except for cameras, phones and wallets everything else is – looks like.  The 1st sight of the Taj as you enter from the main door is breathtaking and indeed the best sight!

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The guide no longer tells stories of why Taj was built as he knows very well that the tourists are all Google savvy these days. He focuses more on the intricacies of the construction and why it is a Wonder of the World. Talking of Taj being one of the Wonders of the World, at the Great Wall of China you can see an official certificate declaring it as one of the “New 7 wonders of the world”! Wonder why we can’t have a similar plaque at the Taj???

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The whiteness of the Taj has been fading thanks to the excess pollution over a period of time. So the authorities have undertaken a massive job of restoring the whiteness of the marble with surface treatment. We were told that they use what is known as Multani Mitti (mud from Multan). This process is underway and one could clearly see the difference in the 3 of the 4 minarets where the treatment is already over. The main dome will be up for treatment soon next year during which time it may be closed and will be a letdown for the tourists! Considering that Multani Mitti is from Pakistan – wondering if MNS will have a problem with that under the present Indo-Pak rough weather!

The Diana Bench which has now become the best photo-op place or rather selfie spot at the Taj– continues to reinforce what marketing and PR can do to a product. A spot where couples celebrate their love with that enduring pic is named after a person for whom love was elusive for most of her curtailed life!

Compared to the last time, the vicinity of the Taj is certainly neater, cleaner and devoid of general litter. Of course don’t expect us Indians to drop all the disposable shoes only in the bins kept for that purpose. Bins are provided and as is our habit we litter the shoes all over the place!

A good over 2 hours spent at the Taj and post lunch we visited the other monument – the Agra Fort. Agra fort is also impressive and brings a lot of high school history lessons back to memory! The emporium which the guide took us for shopping was expensive even for the foreign visitors in our group. But what was striking was the way they explained the process involved in the making of the marble handicrafts in understandable English. And didn’t do the pushing and shoving to buy! Talking of push and shove, the road side vendors hawking different “tourist targeted” stuff were polite and didn’t really hound us – a change from last time.

As we left Agra for Delhi, again a very pleasant but slow drive on the Yamuna Expressway was fantastic. In the backdrop of the setting sun, the smoke from burning of the agricultural fields create a hazy feel and of course add to the pollution of the capital. I read about this practice of burning the rice stubble by farmers once the harvest is over just few weeks ago in a “Swaminomics” column in the Sunday Times of India. Read here. As pointed out in that piece, it’s high time, they find an alternate to this polluting practice lest any “Odd-even” or other kind of idea is not going to help curb pollution levels in Delhi.

Once we crossed Noida, we couldn’t escape the now notorious evening peak traffic of Delhi. From Noida to the hotel took close to 2 hours! In India we now famously suffer from last mile connectivity! In almost everything. For example in roads, the highways like the Mumbai Pune Expressway or the Yamuna Expressway eases the travel between the borders of the respective cities but the journey from the end of the expressway to the heart of the city is still a nightmare wading through narrow roads and ever exploding traffic.

So to conclude, many positive changes are visible. Few legacy issues remain. As in many other areas, “the elephant” is on the move and we are getting there albeit slowly. Though visiting after 10 years, this is my 3rd visit to the Taj and somehow for the 1st time I really felt like “Wah, Taj boliye”!!!

Postscript: One of the enduring lines of the guide while explaining India’s high population – “In India, in the day time we believe in ‘Culture” and in the night – Agriculture😂😂😂

 

The “Emerging” Mirage !

A peek into any of the corporate board rooms today across continents is more likely to show “Focus on Emerging Markets as a bullet point in their company’s strategy slides.  The reasons are understandable and more than obvious. Developed countries of yore after years of driving consumption and growth are showing fatigue and companies have no choice but to look beyond G5 to get their “G”rowth.  Depending upon the individual companies reach, the scope of “Emerging” markets may vary but it’s almost certain to have ‘Incredible India in its list. This is not surprising though.

  • A population of 1.2 bn., almost 1/6th of the world population
  • 65% of population under 35 years
  • GDP growing at 7-8 % annually in the last decade
  • Ever growing middle class population which is hungry to lap up products and services with a vengeance

The above numbers on India are mouth-watering for any head honcho hoping to take his/her business to the next orbit.  However very few are familiar with the challenges and uniqueness of doing business in India and hence unable to see thro the ‘Emerging’ mirage!

Having cut my career teeth and got my feet wet in India and also having been exposed to doing business in other countries, I’m of the view that India is one of the most complicated and toughest countries to do business and survive and here are some of the reasons why:

  • Though India is one country, it is in fact many countries within a country
    • Every 300 kms. the speaking dialect changes, the food habits and tastes vary and more importantly the taxes govt. charge gets different!
    • As you travel within the country, the cultures are different, different people types emerge
    • There is one New year ( 1st Jan ) as per English Calendar and you have the several regional / local New years spread throughout the year  so much so that many foreign companies having subsidiaries in India are bewildered that they have to follow different holiday calendars for their different branches! ( Even in China there is only 1 lunar New year )
  • The tax structure is never straight forward and is full of complications.  For example for IT peripherals – though the basic customs duty is 0% (India being a signatory of the WTO Trade treaty), the effective duty could be as high as 15 – 20 %!  There are other duties and levies like CVD (Counter veiling duty), SAD (Special Additional duty), CESS on CVD, Higher education CESS on CVD, Customs educational CESS, and Customs higher educational CESS!  The cascading sad story doesn’t end here.
  •  On the same product you pay taxes while producing, pay taxes while moving the goods from one state to another and pay taxes while selling!  If you are a salaried employee, your income which is used for buying such products is already taxed mind you!   So much taxing of the brain isn’t it?
  • Due to federal structure the above taxation rates and structure can be different from state to state.
  • The prevailing legal system in India is supposed to be strong and fair. But everybody in India knows that taking legal recourse is the last resort for settling business disputes.  Considering the time taken to settle disputes in courts companies give up or try to settle them out of court at higher costs.
  • In 1991, India got its 2nd independence i.e. freedom from the license/permit Raj and the country started warming itself to foreign investments.  However reform has become such a bad word today that there has been no re-run of the reforms since then!
  • Add to this, one cannot ignore the Govt’s  recent bungle like deciding to retrospectively change the law allowing it to tax indirect transfers of Indian assets through deals struck overseas
  • Govt.  Policies can be so very unstable that a successful policy initiative undertaken by one regime could become a monstrous scam in the next regime.  The telecom policy turnarounds are a good example of the same.  While the Uninors and the Videocons wind up their mobile business, there have been 1000’s of hapless youngsters who have lost their jobs in the process.
  • Dealing with Govt. agencies to get business done could be a nightmare and I need 100 blog posts to just explain some of the complexities.  The general impression is that the procedures/rules have all been kept deliberately complicated so that they are subject to convenient interpretations.

So any foreign company contemplating to ride into this Emerging market bandwagon may be in for some real shock and awe!

If the environment is so hostile for doing business, how’s that many of the Indian companies manage to do business and also grow and that too for years?

  • They have managers in their ranks who have it in them what I call as the “Indian Instincts of Management” which enable them to precisely think in such adverse conditions
  • Most of the companies over a period of time have developed a core competency mandatory for doing business in India which was famously called as “Managing the Environment” by Dhirubhai Hirachand Ambani (so we hear)

So if a foreign company wants to emerge successful in India it is not impossible if it can follow some simple rules:

  • Population figures, GDP numbers are all fine but the crux is business potential for your product will depend upon whether it is “essential” or it is “desirable” for the Indian consumer in terms of category.
  • Pricing strategy and requirements may completely vary depending upon if the product/service is a utility product or a lifestyle product
    • So if you conclude that you can get away with premium pricing of your highly feature rich product because Indians also are lapping up iPhones and iPads you may be in for some surprise.
    • Between value for money and lower price – lower priced products may sell more ( again could be category dependent)
  • A typical Indian consumer gives a damn to your worldwide presence.  What matters to him / her is the company’s demonstrated commitment to stay long-term in India, produce/sell quality products, provide decent after sales support and keep reinforcing that commitment
  • Between a product of Global quality (“0” defect product) and “Chinese” quality there exists an acceptable Indian quality which is – products functioning properly, not failing so often, and being serviced promptly in case of failures (I would like to believe that this is changing and more and more Indians are beginning to be more demanding. I still reckon that this is just an urban trait as of now)
  • Many of the services which involve manpower which are chargeable in other countries are expected to be “Free” in India.
  • Because of the inherent weakness in infrastructure in Indian cities, the staff productivity in India will be lower than in other countries. So better not to follow global benchmarks while planning headcount.
  • Being flexible is key to survive whether it is in Strategy, Go to Market or in planning
  • Have a solid “Indian” team to manage the business in India since for those most of the above issues are not really issues but realities of doing business in India.
  • Look at India only if you have the staying power and patience is your virtue.  For some of the reasons mentioned above even for a globally strong brand it may take a while for it to make its presence in India.

The above list may not be exhaustive. The bottom line is “In India – think like an Indian” which is to in short “Expect the Unexpected” and prepare yourself for the Incredible Indian Experience. Welcome to jugaad.in!

Post Script:

For its signature edition (next day of budget) Economic Times commissioned the biggest names in Advertising like Piyush Pandey, R.Balki, Prasoon Joshi, Joshy Paul,..to create ads on how they see India in the midst of a global slowdown.   For the same, Balki created this ad and I liked it the most and would like to share. He commented on the ad thus :

“It’s not in any brief for an ad agency to tell the client to change the product. But modern India is a ‘product’ that could do well with some change. The ad highlights the necessity as well as the opportunity to change India— to make it the real Incredible India”