Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The India Growth Story - Did we miss the bus again?

A mail from a colleague in the office started it all. He was on a trip to the south-east Asia and had a lot of wonderful words to say about Korea and China. Enclosed:

From: ABCD
Sent: Wednesday, September 27, 2006 6:24 PM
Subject: RE: KARNATAKA BUNDH ON 04.10.2006

In korea right now..
I tell you this much - SEAsia is definitely the sleeping dragon. Here is my first hand feedback.
Just wanted to let you know how amazing china is. I was in the southern part of china in a city call Xiamen and then today I am in Dalian which is in the northern part of China

I cannot describe how beautiful china is. The airport in Xiamen is actually better than most of the airports in USA. It is as big as the dallas airport and far more pretter. The city is so clean that it is incredible. At nights all buildings have lights on it so it looks a lot like time square.xiamen is famous for it's pearls and of course I did some shopping for my wife cheryl as I need to score some BIG time brownie points.

The food is fantastic. Quite spicy and tasty. I have become very good at handling chop sticks. !! Most of the food is seafood. Big prawns, lobsters, crabs, eels, squid. Did not like the eel and squid but the prawns were great.

I left Xiamen today where I was for 3 days and reached DALIAN.. Dalian is in the north of China. We had to go via Beijing where I was there for 3 hours at the airport.
Dalian is even better than Xiamen. The roads are like the I-35 (in texas), the airport is even better than Dallas and there are so many shopping malls around that it is incredible. Dalian is a lot more expensive than Xiamen. Very upper class, got a lot of money and the people are actually tall, fair and very very pretty/handsome. Very unlike the chinese inthe other parts of the country. Almost like we have the punjabis and kashmiris from India who are from the north.
I was staying in this 5 star hotel called the Shangri-La. I enjoyed eating prawns every day !! And I have become very very good at the chop sticks. I can actually pick one grain of rice at a time and eat it !! Even my colleague from Malaysia was very impressed by my ability. I have even picked up a few chinese words, but the language is very very tough to understand. Each province has a different type of dialect (meaning they speak chinese, but it sounds different) just like how indians who speak hindi in bombay is different from the hindi spoken by the people in delhi.

Today I am in Korea. September 27th

It is shameful that India's infrastructure is so crap.I can tell you this. India will not stand a chance with china within the next 5 years as it is the perception of how easy it is to live and work in a country that will eventually attract foreign investment more towards china. The only saving grace that india has today is that english is widely spoken and there is still the communist threat that will deter full force investment in china.

Just landed in Korea, today, I am telling you INDIA has a lot to catch up on !! Korea, is also well developed. Infrastructure is also amazing but the main difference is that korea is very expensive. China is going to kick ass in the next 5 years. If the overcome the fact that english needs to be widely spoken, india is doomed. Korea is as expensive as japan. Intrestingly enough, korea has perfected the art of 'copy-cat' from japan but I guess at a lower market price.
Korea is a blend of the old and the new. I am staying in an absolutely amazing hotel called 'the shilla' which is gorgeous. But the funny thing is you walk away about 1 km from the hotel, and you find the old korea, just like india garbage on the road, hardware shops selling stuff, woodwork stuff, cutting wood, small baniya type shops, you feel at home with the exception of the language. Funnily enough most koreans in hotels, shops speak good english which is probably why they ar doing better than china.

The hotel room rate is around 200 $, tell you this it is worth every dime. The view from the room the service, is incredible. I called today to ask why the room is so hot, I had three frigging people come.. One the assistant manager, the techincan and the servie person. They took apart the vent, looked at the filter and cleaned it and apologized for the dirt. Could not see a damn thing. Can you imagine this type of service in India ??. They would have told us to take a flying f....k.!!


Am not disclosing the name of the colleague here. I solicited the opinions of a few friends on this. Milan had lived in HK, Shanghai and other places and he was the first to respond.

Milan's take:

Yaar you would have guessed my answer.

We have not missed the bus. In fact we have taken a bus but it's among the last buses to leave. Apan is die hard optimist.

Waise, this fellow's description of china/SE is quite like the way it is. And nothing is exaggerated even if it seems to be. For example, even Shanghai's main square is as beautiful and hep as NYC's times square jaise isne likha hai. Dono jagah mein koi khaas fark nahi hai. Even the bloody roads are major great just like US the way he mentioned. I didn't go to texas but the roads everywhere across the 4-5 states in US that I saw similar to Chinese. Airports are GREAT. The cities are really first world-ish.So basically, in short China/Korea win hands down in infrastructure. Bus that's it.

English to unke baap bhi nahi catch up kar payenge hum se. It doesn't take 5 years to catch up English yaar. It shud be measured in generations. Chinese have just started teaching English compulsorily to kids. But even that is very very basic. Like alphabets and pronounce few words. Basically, I'd say it wud take at least 2 chinese generations for their English to come up to par. Pur opitimist me thinks tab tak we would have rectified a lot of our problems. Fir Chinese know angrezi or not would not matter.

Secondly, my impression having stayed in China was that it's golden cage kind of thing. No democracy. Ekdam bakwaas. Only one candidate contests, who is nominated by the central govt. General junta is not eligible for contesting elections. General kuch bhi karte hain. Govt. protests are crushed ( Tianenment sq, journalist recently whose name 's surrendered by yahoo china recently etc.) . Dreams have a limit there. Too big businesses become controlled by govt I'd rather be a middle class Indian than a rich Chinese.

Korea/Japan bahut hi tech hain yaar. Pur theek hai koi to aage hoga hi. Ismein khamkha pareshan hone wali baat hi nahi hai. Hum ab chal chuke hain. And we are gaining confidence. Even politics is changing slowly. RTI act has not been curtailed. Reservations implementation is staggered. High profile guys are being arrested. Service level in India is poor but not as poor as it used to be. idhar sons of middle class fellows can dream of dreaming. And know what , Chinky's are shit scared of India's ability in IT and English. Aur saare continents mein apan bolbala hai maloom. Bus only people who don't respect Indians in the world are Indians.

Kul mila kar, I would have shared ABCD's implicit displeasure but its so eighties and so pre-liberalisation. I think we have not missed the bus but have taken one.


Vaibhav also reacted in a similar vein

Vaibhav's take:

No doubt that China has improved a lot in the past two years in terms of infrastructure, but if you look at the other aspects of their growth, things are not as rosy.

For example, economic disparities in China are way higher than they used to be 2 decades back. There are continuous protests from farmers whose lands have been grabbed in the name of industrial development. Coal mining accidents claim about 6000 lives every year. China may have some clean cities but as per a recent survey, 7 of the top 10 most polluted cities are in China. Apathy towards environmental issues had led China to a situation where significant proportion of their population is facing fresh water scarcity. Imagine 1.3 billion people with limited fresh water.

Having said that, it would be unfair to not give credit to China for its fast paced economic growth and world class infrastructure. Democracy has its pitfalls and China has been spared those owing to the political set up that they have. However, it has also stymied the growth of private enterprises and entrepreneurship culture (I think gujjus and marwaris amongst us can pat themselves :) ). If China has state directed development, India has a host of business houses driving the growth that it has seen.

In the near term, the biggest impediment in India's growth is its infrastructure or the lack of it. Agreed that IT and IT services are not as dependent on infrastructure as manufacturing or industry (they dont have to use ports, highways, basically no problem of managing logistics). However, until and unless India improves its overall infrastructure, it would be impossible to prosper as fast as China. A country as big as India can not grow entirely on the back of services. Secondly, for long term sustainability of this growth, social equity, health indices and education levels have to improve. China has got a headstart but I think our democratic setup, entrepreneurial culture and English speaking population should help us reach our rightful place. Like Milan, I too believe that we have taken the bus..

And what follows is my view:

Pessimist that I am, I do believe that we have missed the bus. However, the good part is that there is an intent to take up the journey [unlike in 80s and early 90s when we gave up and industrialists acted as heroes of Greek tragedies]. So while there might not be the bus, we have hired a truck/auto etc is there are people making a move!

All the problems that we think are impediments in China's growth plague us even more. Around 40% of our population is functionally illiterate. We continue to spend progressively lesser amounts on education and public health (as a % of GDP). Infrastructure is non-existent. Reports from trusted sources are that Jakarta and Ho Chi minh city sport better infrastructure than Delhi, the city with undoubtedly the best infra in India. We manage to scrap the bottom of most of the rankings anyone ever cared to publish - Roads, Ports, Water, Power, Housing & Sanitation, you-name-it. Water riots are very common in India (Though the well-heeled are not affected). Disparity in wealth distribution has increased over time. It reflects in the increasing petty crimes across the country. It is an accepted hypothesis amongst economists that petty crimes are a good reflection of the disparity in society as in most cases they are prompted by economic necessity and not by pure malafide intent. And people do die of starvation in India (The number compares well with the Somalias and Rwandas of the world)

Security situation in India is week. Country is more volatile than ever. Naxalites, communal tensions, terror attacks, caste-based flare-ups are no strange words in India. We have grown up with them and probably have become numb to them. But they are here and they do pose serious threats to any sustained growth. Every time any of these occur a lot of potential investors are scared. An excellent point-in-case would be Gujarat, an state that was growing at excess of 10% growth rate & an the leader in FDI in the mid 90s has stumbled to 4-5% since the riots and the other natural disasters hit it.

SEZs, the commerce ministry's show-baby, are being touted as the big land-grabbing scam. Capacity build-up in Power remains a chimera, we will continue to lag behind demand in a big way. We do not have an energy security policy (Just read the present one, its available online). Corruption pervades all levels of life in India. There is no running away from it. Though I am of the belief that there might have been some merit to it during the license raj, it is a big albatross round the neck now. There are more road-blocks on the road than the road itself.

Nobody (Not even Sharad Pawar) gives a damn about agriculture. Productivity is just a notch above the african counterparts. Farmers prefer to gulp pesticides than to see the end of another crop cycle. No social security/support mechanism exists for these hapless souls. Bank credit is still scarce - a soodkhor mahajan still manages to lend at high rates of 50-60% here. The interest suckers are in the city as well. (The citifinancials and gemonies lend at 40-50% to the sub-prime segment)

We as a country have scant respect for rules (which secretly I believe works to our advantage), productivity losses due to this urge of cutting corners are huge, especially so in the unorganized sectors. If China sports the 7 of the top 10 polluting cities, we have an equal number to add in the top 20. Ahmedabad was recently rated the most polluted city in Asia!

With all the bad news, we still have a chance. Yes, the culture of entrepreneurship is there. We have the highest entrepreneurs in the world as a proportion of graduating population. Does the number indicate a lack of opportunities as well? We have the best telecom framework in the world. Tariffs are almost the lowest and policies the most robust! Services have shown progress that nobody would have dreamt. The money multiplier effect would take its time to set-in but the goodness will definitely spread.

We have the intent. We have the confidence. Not the bus though, we are perched on one of those CNG autos that the Delhi drivers can drive haplessly at speeds of 70kmph. I just hope that the road blocks are removed in time!

Meanwhile, pay taxes and hope that it is used for something better than Lalu's next daughter's wedding!


Milan said...

I was thinking of adding that intelli-conversation in my blog too...u beat me to it.

Prateek said...

You can link this up on it