The Shatabdi - A Metaphor for the New Middle Class India

Economic Times - March 30, 2009


A recent trip from Delhi to Rishikesh on the Shatabdi was a “eureka” moment. The Shatabdi is definitely the perfect metaphor for the middle class. Santosh Desai of Future Brands wrote once that the autoricksha is a metaphor for India. It can weave its way in and out of utter confusion, is ugly, noisy and inconvenient, but it serves the purpose quite well, at an incredible low price. Unlike an amusing bumper sticker on a Volkswagen that said “when I grow up, i will become a Mercedes”. the autoricksha will not grow up to become a car. It will - and is - becoming a much better autoricksha. But after seeing the Shatabdi, the thought occurs that the autoricksha may be a metaphor for the lower SEC (Socio economic class) C and D Urban India (roughly the second and third income quartiles of urban India); but the Shatabdi is definitely a metaphor for upper middle India : SEC B, the lower end of SEC A2 and the top end of SEC C (the 5th to 25th or 30th percentile by income of urban India). Roughly that is about a 75 to 100 million people, and is the middle class that we think about.

The Shatabdi is a higher being than the regular train, even if it uses the same old railway station. Even the non executive, coach class, is quite steeply priced, demand is greater than supply. It comes with an e-ticket, and a certain “culture class” of customers that fits marketer’s definitions of “The Middle Class”. The chair car is definitely like an upper middle class drawing room, and though the air conditioning works well, there is a cocktail of many strong smells in the air. Some of them you soon get used to, even welcome, partly because the strong smell of the cleaner assures you that cleaning has actually been done. Having not been on a Shatabdi for many years, one was struck by how “upwardly mobile” it had gradually become. And yet, how it has stayed the same on many counts too. Looking at the overhead baggage racks (open racks still), it is clear that a luggage revolution has happened. Smart suitcases (when compared to what we used to see earlier), lots of soft luggage, nylon backpacks - but the same old coolie system, even their uniforms unchanged! The luggage rack definitely made a statement about what progress Consumer India has made and the attitude it now sported, based on what luggage they were ‘wearing’. No uniformity here, no herd mentality, lots of individualism. No boring single brand here, this was the full blown variety of the gray market, importing from around the world! (The same, by the way, can be said for the winter wear of the passengers. No more aunt knitted hand made sweaters. Wind cheaters of all hues, and machine made sweaters and caps. And also of the closed footwear. No cumbersome heavy leather shoes in sight anymore.)

Then came the newspaper boy, in uniform, with an entire range of newspapers. As one clumsily reached into the wallet, after having picked four newspapers, the paper boy says with a cheeky “don’t you know” grin that it is free - on the house, just like in airplanes! The seats actually recline smoothly and the age old train feature of a ring to place the water bottle in still exists, but now has bottled water, on the house, not carried from your house.

Breakfast comes - same old sad looking contents - in fact much worse quality because it is pre packed, but the packaging has improved in leaps and bounds. The chana was in a sealed foil container and the batura was actually more a kind of bread-batura than a conventional batura, folded in the shape of a cone and in a wrapper that made me think it would definitely grow up to be a croissant beater. But the “separate tea’ is here, tea bag, low grade plastic hot water flask, dairy creamer, packed sugar on the side.

The toilet were filthy. Some things never change. But on the other hand they had a roll of toilet paper - a definite evolution in sophistication from the past. However the toilet paper was dangling from an improvised holder comprising a plastic string. The metric this writer uses to see the state of evolution of a society is the cleanliness of its public toilet and the number of people who light a cigarette under a no smoking sign. By these metrics, both Russia and China are not so great. Our airport toilets are cleaner now but train toilet are not yet so. When will Hindustan Unilever, the messiah of mass consumption, collect some consumer insight on how we use dirty toilets, and give us individual use products that can help us on this count? But that is the subject of yet another article.

The highlight was the customer satisfaction survey that was handed out. It not only was a very well designed questionnaire by a leading market research agency, it had to be self filled, and small disposable plastic ball point sticks, no doubt made in China, were handed out with each. The dimensions of evaluation also reflected the more evolved, higher order needs the new middle India has - cleanliness of compartment floor, windows, and uniforms worn by the staff, as compared to a general cleanliness question that we would have asked earlier; aesthetic appeal of the compartment (definitely a higher order need!), temperature of the meal and body language of the serving staff.

Of course everyone was on their mobile phone either working or socially networking throughout the journey and a few young salesmen were also on e mail. When I got off at Haridwar, and was looking for the car that was supposed to pick me up, my coolie said to me impatiently, why don’t you phone the driver, how can he not have a phone!

This is middle class India, morphing and sneakily changing, but in its own way, using its own logic. Just like the Shatabdi.