Tales From Modern Consumer India

The Economic Times, Mumbai - November 30, 2009


An earlier set of columns discussed how India changes in insidious and tricky ways: it morphs, slowly changing from within, and keeps reshaping itself just like an amoeba. With each bit of outside matter it ingests, it changes shape a wee bit and, before you notice it, there is a whole new shape. The last column reflected on what modern Indian goods and services were looking like. This one is about consumer insights gleaned from a trip through Uttaranchal to Badrinath-Kedarnath, and one to Kolkata and Jamshedpur.

The realisation from the Uttaranchal trip was that religiosity, cell phones and Maggi Noodles are three things that hold modern India together. Since the latter two are not part of our ancient heritage, we can heave a sigh of relief that we are evolving and not stuck in the past! The Kolkata-Jamshedpur trip had flight cancellations on account of an airline expanding too fast on borrowed money and not coping well, and train cancellations on account of Naxalite activity-both being old ills in a new garb. The journey from Kolkata railway station to the airport underscored the fact that even metro Consumer India does indeed live over many decades at the same time.

Deep in the mountains of Uttaranchal where landslides often block treacherous roads and cut off mobility, and where children walk miles and miles to school, the cell signal and the television signal is almost always there, enabling everyone everywhere to be connected with the rest of the country. In fact, it's not the airlines that should be given bailout packages but the cable operators and cell companies, because they have built the network that is a worthy successor to the unifying rail network that the British built to unify this country, and priced themselves so low that most Indians can access it. While on how the British created a more unified India even as they divided and ruled, English immediately comes to mind.

Recently, at Bangalore airport, a clearly North Indian CISF person barked at the Kannadiga chauffeur, gilaas daaun. It took some sign language for the driver to understand and roll down the window. "Kya baat hai, Hindi samajhte nahin ho kya?" asked the CISF person. Not seeing the preposterousness of the question, the driver sheepishly replied. "hann, thoda-thoda". Colonising English and thinking of it as Hindi is modern India too, and it is progress way beyond the "entry from the backside" Indian English, or Hinglish!

Maggi noodles are neither Madraasi, Punjaabi or Bengaali in cuisine; but neither are they Italian, given the myriad masala tastes built into an aata base. A young boy who ran a roadside food shack in the mountains explained that at that altitude, it was the fastest thing to cook in a pressure cooker, and he didn't have to take the inventory risk of cooked food and yet could service tourist cars in a hurry.

Religiosity is what the Sikhs going to Hemkunt Sahib had in common with the two busloads of Tamilians and Maharashtrians going to Badrinath. A massive fallen tree blocked the road and busloads of burly Sikhs got out and pushed it out of the way, cheered on and given expert advice by the other busloads (think cricket game?). The job got done even while the 'official' tree removers were hacking away with their low-tech axes. Who says we Indians are all talk, no action? All we need is the right motivation. A lady was explaining how when she got to Kedarnath after five hours of walking, almost dead with the cold, the priest revived her by holding oxygen-rich camphor to her nostrils. On the Badrinath leg of the journey, she carried a small portable oxygen bottle. It is all about "this as well as that" solutions!

At Kedarnath, commerce flourishes on the mountain: masseuses massaging circulation back into frozen limbs, and readymade Punjabi dresses to replace sodden clothes. And in the Badrinath temple, the priest in the sanctum was unabashedly checking his SMS. The temple had an interesting business model and optimised operational efficiency. A booth outside sold tickets to the prayers held in the sanctum, and gave you a chit with your name, location and gotra on it. Batches of 20 were let into the sanctum for the prayer, repeated for each group. You handed in the chit when you entered and the name and details of those inside was announced over a microphone so that you, and hopefully God, knew that this one was from you! The prayer we bought into usually has three parts-the first part narrates the context in which it was written and the last part is the value proposition-what you get if you say it regularly. So, to maximise 'stock turns', only the middle part, the meat, if you will forgive the metaphor, got recited and both revenue and customer delight got maximised.

On the flip side, communist-run Howrah station was the epitome of operational inefficiency. Plenty of cabs queued up, plenty of passengers queued up, yet the wait is over an hour. Why? Because the whole system is pre-paid, and there is a single person writing out slips and collecting money. Periodically, he would stop and have a slanging match with a gaggle of anxious cab drivers and then return to his seat and sit idle for five minutes to de-stress.

Welcome to new Consumer India, where people experience continuity with change, and the new, the old and the remixed happily coalesce into one complex whole!