Observations from India

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“India happens to be a rich country inhabited by very poor people.”
– Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh

PUNE INDIA – India is overwhelming. Shocking. As soon as we venture outside of the hotel, we are stalked by beggars. We brush them off…we ignore them…but they stick like mud. They seem nice…not at all threatening – but they are annoying. You cannot walk along in peace. One little girl followed us around for blocks, tenaciously. A cute little thing; we would have adopted her on the spot if the opportunity had been offered.

We took a plane down to Pune on Friday morning. Pune is a town of about three million people, not far from Bombay. It is more open than Bombay, at least the part of it that we saw. But it is just as squalid. People live in shacks, tents, crumbling buildings…and in gaudy new apartment complexes. There are people everywhere…no matter where you look there are always dark figures moving around. What are they all doing, you wonder? How do they all stay alive?

But when you wander through the open-air food markets, you find a lot of very good-looking vegetables.

“The government is rather free-market,” our host explained. “But not completely. It still controls the prices for many basic things, because there are so many desperately poor people who can’t afford to pay market rates. This globalization has certainly benefited Indians who are educated. But it’s not clear that the poor are better off. They now have to pay higher prices…and there’s not much work for them.”

Oddly, housing and office prices have soared, but there is little available supply.

“I’d like to buy more space, but there aren’t any sellers,” we were told. On the other hand, developers are said to be adding so much space that in some cities there is a 10 to 20 year over-supply. What is going on?

“I don’t know, but it looks like speculators have forced up prices…even though there are not really that many people around who can afford to pay the prices. I’d be very careful before buying anything here now.”

Our plane from Pune back to Bombay was cancelled, so we got one of the last seats on the train. We were in a train car that looked as though it should have been decommissioned about thirty years ago. The cushions were torn and worn. Many of the metal parts were broken, and often rigged up in an amateurish way. This was first class. There were two classes lower – including one with wooden seats that looked like a cargo cabin.

Our car was packed.

We got to our seats and found them already taken. But we gladly gave them up; the woman in the seat next to ours was clearly mad. She spoke in a witch-like voice in Marathi, the local language, to no one in particular. The couple sitting next to her seemed to be taking care of her and thanked us for letting them have the seats. Later, they offered us a piece of fruit.

People in India typically speak two or three languages. They speak the local language – there are 21 official local languages. Plus, to get along together, they all learn Hindi. And in addition, most people now encourage their children to learn English.

When we finally got to Bombay, three hours later, we were shocked again. There were thousands of people living in the station…cooking on the platforms, squatting as they ate their dinners, sleeping…not on benches, but on the hard concrete. Some of the sleepers looked dead. Thin as the rails themselves, they looked as though they had been there for weeks. Maybe they were dead; no one seemed to notice.

On Sunday, we passed Bowen’s Memorial Methodist Church and went over to the Catholic cathedral. Bowen’s was open…a very modest place…dark and dirty…from which we heard the sounds of Christmas carols. The Catholic Church, by contrast, was as gaudy as any we have seen. With a rich combination of Portuguese and Hindu colors, it was like an ad for a paint company. Mauve, purple, lavender, rose, lime, maroon – we saw colors we hadn’t seen in years.

The mass was conducted in English. But as our ears were not yet attuned to the Indian accent, we missed most of the sermon, but at least we knew how the story turned out.

The definition of Hinduism given by Sathya Sai Baba, one of Hinduism’s best known gurus, was “Help Ever, Hurt Never” a friend explained. Not so different from the Golden Rule, we realized.

“But Hindus have never been a proselytizing group,” our friend continued. “That’s why you don’t find Hindus anywhere except India, except when Indians have emigrated. Instead, we don’t mind anyone practicing his religion. We’ve always been tolerant of other religions. We have Christians here…and many Muslims. In fact, we now have two leading figures in our government – one of whom is Muslim, the other, Sonia Gandhi, is an Italian Catholic.”

Saturday night, we took a cab up Marine Drive…along the waterfront…to a restaurant called the “Salt Water Grill.” It was built out on the beach, with sand floor and umbrellas over each of the tables. It was the sort of restaurant you’d expect to find in Miami.

It must be a popular spot. By 10PM it was full – with a mixture of Indians and Westerners. And it wasn’t cheap. The least expensive bottle of wine was $50.

India is a resource- rich, poor country with a lot of very rich people. On the way to the airport there is a Rolls Royce dealership, and luxury apartments are said to sell for $5 million. Meanwhile, it will cost only 50 cents to take a wild cab ride all the way across town.

Bill Bonner

Bill Bonner

Best-selling investment author Bill Bonner is the founder and president of Agora Publishing, one of the world's most successful consumer newsletter companies. Owner of both Fleet Street Publications and MoneyWeek magazine in the UK, he is also author of the free daily e-mail The Daily Reckoning.
Bill Bonner

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Comments

  1. the author has picked up just the tip of the iceberg of what is india( to give him his due, he may not have spent much time in the country). however being an Indian (and a proud one at that), i have found certain comments of the author rather racist. india, has not had the advanage of totally free markets for almost for 40 decades which resulted in mass poverty and a huge mismatch in the classes(ie the rich became richer and the poor,poorer.) but during the last 16 years since liberalisation, india has risen up and is moving towards the path of economic prosperity.
    the educated, english speaking classes of the metros and sub metros are booming with it and it enabled jobs and this forms a trickle down effect. the banking,real estate,retail,logistics,education industries primarily are benifited by it. Similarly since we have put major emphasis on infrastructure development(this may not seem to be so for a westerner as he is used to much more development)and logistic and cold storage management and the conituning commodity boom,the rural economy is undergoing a massive change and this will naturally increase the standard of living…
    on a final note, i would like the author to consider this….. keeping aside that 1945 to 1990 was a dead period for the indian economy due to the socialist government and you could say that the indian economy is really only 16 years old…. what was the state of the u.s or australian economy when it was 16 years old….

    russell lobo
    December 16, 2006
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  2. The curious, non-academic and naturalistic enquiries and observations of a foreign traveler can have their own validity. They can, in their fresh and naive way, sometimes get to the heart of matters. However, they can also lead to a breathtaking superficiality.

    Bill Bonner says: “The definition of Hinduism given by Sathya Sai Baba, one of Hinduism’s best known gurus, was “Help Ever, Hurt Never” a friend explained. Not so different from the Golden Rule, we realized”.

    Could there be a better example of the dichotomy between precept and practice that is the sad lot of members of any Faith or ethical persuasion than that of Sathya Sai Baba? He has millions of followers in India and far beyond, but is by no means regarded by far many more millions of Hindus as reflecting broad Hinduism. It is a pity that the superficial notion gained by many non-Indians that he does. The subject of many months careful investigation in a number of countries by BBC television, Sai Baba has been called by the BBC (which found extraordinary evasions) ‘the secret swami’ in its documentary of that name, seen my millions in many countries. See my article: The BBC’s ‘The Secret Swami’ – A Revision http://barrypittard.wordpress.com/2007/04/04/the-bbcs-the-secret-swami-a-revision/
    Two well-informed and carefully researched blogsites are receiving very large numbers of daily ‘hits’. These are: http://robertpriddy.wordpress.com and my own: http://barrypittard.wordpress.com

    Robert Priddy is a retired academic in philosophy and social science from the University of Oslo, and formerly headed for some fifteen years the Sathya Sai Organization in Norway, and I am retired from government service and education, and formerly taught at Sai Baba’s prestigious college at Whitefield, via Bangalore, South India. Both of us are consulted by leading world media, academics doing research, etc.

    Barry Pittard, Australia

    Reply
  3. Barry Pittard is going around the internet spamming blogs and websites with his extra-legal, anti-Hindu propaganda. Anybody who stands up to Pittard and his thinly-disguised racist slop is, according to the very paranoid attention-seeking Pittard, a “stalking” him. Pittard and his partner in crime, Robert Priddy are hiding out on the internet because they dare not try his lies and childish drivel in a courtroom. This is Pittard’s last ditch attempt to whip the general public into a frenzy since the tide has turned against Pittard and his cadre of whining fools who belong in a circus. At some point, sixty-some year old Pittard will have to realize his whining on the internet is going nowhere but into the dustbin where it belongs and he will have to get a life.

    Reply

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