Monday, March 15, 2010

India! Like a bird that slips from your hand!

I am back. Back in my dusty overcrowded home town of Pune, the old British Cantonment chaps called it decide which sounds better.

Up to the early 1980s most of Cantonment Pune- (segregated parts of some Indian cities-from British Raj times-run by the military. It involved ensuring a very healthy environment for the garrisoned troops.)- that was given over to non military ownership/use, was populated by colonial houses, bungalows, open green parks and large leafy trees heavily shading roads and houses. Now, except in areas still used for garrisons, military outfits, the rest of Cantonment Pune has 'merged' with mainstream Pune, a cauldron of chaotic buildings, crazy traffic, dust and smog.

I have no choice but to call it Pune, or else the postal guys will not deliver my mail, if I provide Poona as my city in address details!

But first things first. I flew in from my home Auckland on a Cathay Pacific flight with a stopover at Hong Kong and Bangkok.

Their Economy class seats are designed for a midget race, which, I am afraid we humans are likely to shrink to, a side effect of globalization and climate change?

Cathay Pacific- welcome drink, a menu is presented, with choice from three mains and liquor, then generous with fruit juices- on Auckland-Hong Kong sector;
no welcome drink, no menu, on Hong Kong Mumbai sector-why? A very frugal meal of one mains, a fruit salad and a midget sized sealed mineral water cup........who are they fooling? I suppose I got caught in a booked flight, of passengers returning to Mumbai, on a special package and discount tour arrangement. My bad luck.

Mumbai Airport- Mumbai Airport, you go quickly thru Immigration, very impressive. Then, with just 2 luggage conveyor belts, all hell broke loose.

Some of those Airport Authority folks, with ID Cards hung around their collars, sat, where passengers should, and watched, we, the suffering suckers crowd around the two conveyor belts......there are no red colored floor signs that tell people to stay away from the moving's a free for all, with the tougher and pushy folk getting the better of the situation, pushing out the others, sometimes grabbing the wrong luggage which is then left on the floor, like unwanted orphans.

Pushing and shoving through the crowd, my wife (not me) managed to get our luggage, and we were then off to the Customs green belt, again a very quick thing, and out of the main airport building.

With my patience stretched out, I did not find it funny to see the driver of my rental standing almost last in a very long line of this species, holding a small card board placard with my name miss spelt as "Narielwaha.!"

It's just 4.30 a.m., the heat outside is overpowering,like stepping into an overheated oven; there is construction everywhere, their dark grey silhouettes standing out like silent sentinels of a dying city. The car tyres kick up clouds of dust because the roads need resurfacing, atleast a good wash with so much accumulated dust caking the surface. Good wash? Simply impossible, with severe water shortages across major urban centers.

Media hype on India's economic boom not matched with my hands down experience of awful smog, pollution, traffic chaos, dilapidated buildings, power outages and unrelenting bureaucracy.

Ask for a local mobile and wireless internet service, even a TV connection, and you have to give copies of Passport and fill forms......then the ID verification takes around three to four days to come through; I got a couple of phone calls asking me for my name, age and birth date, then, four days later, the mobile, laptop and TV get connected!

Before I left for India, I was told Pune region have almost no power outages, these are now a minimal and not bothersome.

No sir, power is shut off, on thursdays, for the full day, on other days, at any time of the day, for short intervals.

Good to see flashy BMWs, Audis and the more commonly popular Mercedes, but pathetic to see them waddling through some of the worst roads on the planet, potholes, uneven surface,, roads with tyre markings in deep mud along the edges. And expensive cars rubbing shouders with greasy trucks, badly maintained public transport buses, swarms of three wheeler rickshaws, two wheelers, and old doddering bullocks pulling carts. Dodging through this maze are a mass of people, oblivious of the danger.

Funny, I have not found out yet why, but my Credit Cards from NZ don't work at the shopping mall- here, the display on the credit machine shows up "not accepting." Instead of some help, we get suspicious looks.

I had looked over a few Indian property websites,, and had noted the price tags of a few properties I thought I would look at. To my utter amazement, my inquiries, confirming these prices returned some bizarre responses, the prices quoted are incorrect, that these are higher. Why, I ask? Some property agents put it down to data input errors(?), and one honest guy told me the prices are so displayed to attract buyers, the actual prices are higher!

As a non resident I have to open a NRO account-"Non-Resident Ordinary account." Additionally, a bizarre stipulation rules I cannot open this type of account in the banks where I have my accounts; My bank is one of the private banks allowed the business of banking, by the Indian government, after they had finished with the earlier frenzy of nationalizing previous private banks. ....a very supportive lady there gives me all the customer care I need.

The next best thing to do was to inquire with the ICICI Bank for this NRO Account. Knowing they will need a pretty long list of things to establish my identity as well as my non-resident status, I started calling up ICICI Bank for some start-up can as well call up the devil, he would give you a better response.
Several calls over the last few days, I draw a complete blank ; I am given more telephone numbers each time, "I will now give you the right contact number, please phone him/her and your inquiries will be answered." The next call, the same rhetoric .......I now have some six phone numbers, the sixth number I have, I will dial on monday morning.......let's see what luck comes my way!

Perhaps some of these savvy folks have learnt to sniff out the very rich, so they can afford to ignore and bypass us middle middle level folks!

Some of the news here is not good; the first thing that comes to mind, why is CNN and BBC ignoring this bad news. Four States in north-east India have been under domestic Maoist "attacks" since the past few days. Rail fish plates removed, Trains derailed, and a few traders at one place kidnapped-the train which was derailed is one with pricy tickets, and good thing no one was injured.

Today, Tuesday, 23rd, we, my wife and I, decided we go along for a long ride in a three wheeler rickshaw.

The rickshaw engine is one more fraud foisted on Indian cities; when manufacturing companies, Indian and western-Piaggo etc, could not sell their huge stock of boat engines for fishing boats, these were cleverly converted to fit these rickshaws, to run them with a capacity to carry a load of 3 to 5 passengers. This type of rickshaws run all across India and Pakistan, and most of South East Asia.

Our driver was a gem of a person, and very capable at maneuvering the vehicle. And, he very quickly sized up that we were not accustomed to taking in the traffic smog, and took us through "lesser" roads with a few stray vehicles! Real great guy.

At the end of my two + hours ride, my cough disappeared, my immunity system given a boost by breathing in the dust and smoke!

Before I continue my writing down my experiences, and express my frustrations, I was prompted, right now, by TV coverage of women pilots in the Indian Airforce, smart, good looking with intelligence written all over their faces, prompted to visualize, inspite of poverty, pollution, slow indifferent attitudes in some ways, India has a shining future, if things go right.

I am sorry to come to a conclusion that somehow, most urban Indians seem to be disconnects, dysfunctional. An important deal, at least important to me, my good friend on this deal, oozing confidence and full of very sweet assurances, ended our meeting with an unconditional guarantee he would turn up on the next Sunday morning to close the sale.

Sunday morning went and so did a couple of days. When I next came across the chap, by chance in an apartment lift, the guy coolly tells me to join him for a cup of tea. No mention of his failure to turn up!

My very good neighbors, a couple with a very sweet eight year daughter, and living with the husband's mother and younger sister, made all the usual noises welcoming us and wishing us the best for our short stay in the country. Few days later, the wife turns up and announces she is an investor counselor and agent for some well known debt and market mutual funds. When, after we gave her a very polite and rather long tedious and patient hearing, we told her we were not interested, sorry, she left with this plastered grin on her face.

A day or two later, we heard noises next door, and found the old lady, the mother, and sister, along with the young child, just back from school, sheepishly waiting outside their door. The key hole lever, of their house door, had dropped inside the metal case, so the key would not work and they were cooling their heels. We invited them in, asked them to make themselves at home, offered tea and snacks, whilst they got the "investor counselor" on phone to leave her office and come home with an handyman who is adept at setting right 'key' problems!

To cut a rather long story short , this one had a happy ending, with the neighbor's door opened by the key specialist, and the whole neighbor family trooping out of our apartment. But no thanks, not even a decent thank you or word of appreciation. Now, when I chance to be at my door, entering or leaving my home, I get a good response from these neighbors, a rude thud as they bang their door on me. It will take me a few years to figure out where I went wrong!

I finally got to open my bank account with a multi national bank, very flashy and arty interiors, and smart lady managers, oozing the usual "we love our customers" body language. I was assured I would receive my customer welcome pack in some four or five working days. On the fifth day , my inquiry got the rather abrupt and matter of fact response, on the phone, that there was some delay from their regional office. I got my Customer Welcome Pack, my debit card, cheque book, and some codes for operating the ATM and similar stuff, a full fortnight later.

I went on a Monday to collect my CWP and got the usual warm welcoming smile and we love our customers attitude. This lady manager is a nice person, seemed genuine and friendly. But I could not figure out why she very nonchalantly told me she had received my CWP the last Friday, but somehow it slipped her mind to call me up on the same day!

I've got this Net Connect Wireless Broadband Internet connection that you slip into the computer port and get to browse the internet. I had got mine for a month, when the thing began to go 'disconnect' and no amount of effort got it to work. The 'connect' window would not open and a message would appear 'no device found-device does not respond.'

I called up the Help Line of the Service Provider, who asked me to try out a number of things, like shut down and restart the PC, remove and reinsert the wireless device with a few minutes of wait, reenter the password and user ID, finally shut down the PC for at least forty five minutes, there are some technical hitches they are sorting out.

Nothing worked, not for the next few hours. Finally, on the Help Line advice to try out the wireless device on another PC, I requested my neighbor (not the one who bangs their door on me) to allow me to see if the device works on his computer. It did, to my utter dismay.

When I called back the Help Line they now adviced I get my PC ports checked out for malfunction.

That night, on a hunch and some intuition, I opened my PC's Control Panel, clicked on Internet Options, then opened internet connections and selected wireless connections available, and Viola, found my InterConnect window and clicked on 'connect' and got my internet back, working!

I have not bothered to call up those Help Line chaps to tell them their 'connect' window does not function on my PC, never mind why. Or, waste my energies telling them they should have helped me through the other option of activating the connection through my PC's Control panel!

I find this ironic, India is slowly setting records for a high usage of mobile phones, every urban middle class, all of the rich farmers and middle class in small towns own a mobile phone. Besides, there are cost schemes where the service provider charges one paisa per second-that would work to 60 paisa per minute which is roughly equivalent to one US cent per minute! Sadly, almost all work where the government and nationalised (government controlled banks) banking is involved, there are no paperless systems.....endless visits and filling in endless forms is still the order of the day. Sorry, sir, you have to visit us and fill in required forms and submit them at the right counter, never mind the very long queques!

I do not live in India, but its looming presence is always omnipresent. For my monthly miserly pension, I have to prove I am still 'alive'........still around every two years. If I were living here, in India, it would mean visiting my bankers, presenting myself, filling a wretched form, countersigned by a bank officer, which is then forwarded to the local pension office.

The skull drudgery starts when you live abroad. Before the required mandatory two years expired, I sent a memo by my NZ bank, confirming I am alive and ticking.

No sir, no foreign bank is recognized for this purpose, the application stands rejected. This kind of 'I am still alive' certificate should be countersigned by a government officer in the Indian embassy in the country you live in! Foreign institutions and foreign banks? Not recognized!

The first time I visit my bank in Pune, for this purpose of proving I am alive, the concerned guy was on some sort of holiday..........come the next day, please.

I go back a few days later and am asked to fill in one of those badly printed forms that no one will look at again.........and asked to trudge with this cheap paper to the Pension office to present myself of those dour pen pushing clerk looks you up and down, satisfies himself there is a human person in his blinkered view, stamps the paper several times, and tells you your banker will receive the pension credit in time! And all this after I managed to jump a long queue, feigning I am a tired senior citizen.