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Observations from Chennai [Mar. 9th, 2011|03:43 am]
Arvind Narayanan
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I see snapshots of my hometown, Chennai, once every 2-3 years. The changes are always stunning.


A sustained period of 8-10% inflation-adjusted GDP growth has extraordinary effects on a country. For one, rapid economic growth has a habit of bulldozing ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ like a mosquito. If you know me you know I consider that to be largely a good thing. More to the point, affluence seems to be eroding what I consider the bad aspects of tradition in Chennai, such as superstition, but not the good, such as Carnatic music.

Living through rapid societal change is weird, even if it is for the better. The generation gap is ridiculous. And it’s a confusing time for everyone. The country is playing catch-up with decades, even centuries of progress in the developed world all at once.

I think several factors have contributed to the pace of Westernization. It seems to me—forgive me for being an armchair economist for a second—that high GDP growth coupled with high inflation makes foreign goods cheaper to buy compared to local ones, and that when people import material products, they will inevitably import a bit of the culture that produced them. Then there is of course the information revolution which is making the world smaller.

In a way, India got the IT revolution before the industrial revolution. Everyone has a mobile phone, but mechanization is still minimal to nonexistent in many areas of life, such as food—whether agriculture or cooking in the kitchen. Many daily activities still involve the use of pre-electric era technology.

On that note, signs of leapfrogging are everywhere. People have laptops but they never had desktops. Mobile phones without land phones. And now I’m hearing of a crazy plan to put high-efficiency solar units with advanced battery storage in villages, eliminating the need for the electric grid altogether. That’s a 100-year leap.

By the way, the 8-10% growth figure I mentioned is only an average; for city dwellers who’ve worked hard, incomes have increased even more than that, perhaps averaging 15%. The improvement in the economic status of my social group compared to two decades ago is just astounding.

Government and the masses

The wealth gap has probably increased—I haven’t checked the stats—but at least in the cities, the trickle-down is in full swing. Cars are replacing motor-bikes and motor-bikes are replacing bicycles. Wages for minimally-skilled and unskilled labor, such as driving and housework, have gone up a lot, although there is still a long, long way to go.

But the progress is encouraging. People can live with dignity, even in the slums. No one is starving. Caste matters less each year, and the crime rate, already low, continues downward. I saw a much lower level of general unrest. I didn’t think this day would come so soon, but I saw a happy people.

Government has had a big role to play. The water shortages and rolling power blackouts are gone. Panhandling is way down; apparently there’s been a rehabilitation drive, and it’s clearly working. There are many areas that need to improve a lot, primarily traffic and pollution/cleanliness, but there are encouraging signs.

The current approach to road traffic congestion seems to be to build flyovers (overpasses) everywhere. This is clearly not sustainable, but the city metro rail (MRTS) is being slowly rolled out, and it remains to be seen if it will make a serious difference.

As for pollution—for those who’ve never been, the city, like most Indian cities, is basically overflowing with garbage, and the air is noxious from vehicle exhaust as well—the near-term outlook is not very rosy. One interesting Government initiative in this area is a big push toward public art. It is easy to pooh-pooh this, but I am wondering if it will make a (small) difference by mending the broken window, thus reducing litter.

One area where Government effort is simply inadequate is the expansion of the city. Cities are the future of the country—there is nothing to friggin’ do in the villages. Agriculture needs to be mechanized and the entire population needs to pour into megacities as quickly as possible.

While Chennai is expanding “rapidly” by first-world standards, it’s not nearly fast enough. There is a huge demand for labor in the cities, and rural people are dying—sometimes literally—to get there, but the bottleneck is infrastructure development and (de-)regulation.

Unfortunately I think this is less a matter of Government inefficiency, although that plays a big role, as Government policy. Our honchos are still set in their socialist-era ways of thinking. I find that depressing. How anyone with any brains can fail to realize that rapid urbanization is vital is beyond me.


The restaurant scene has improved dramatically. A newly affluent middle-class is demanding an end to the idly monopoly, and the city finally, finally has an adequate number of restaurants serving other cuisines. I would have been miserable if I hadn’t been able to get Chinese food regularly.

Foreign cuisines are heavily Indianized, of course, but so what? Most restaurants in America are Americanized as well. I should note though that the majority of (say) Chinese restaurants in America are run by Chinese immigrants, but that’s not the case here. For this reason, we have far more ‘multi-cuisine’ restaurants than those serving a particular foreign cuisine.

Food remains cheap—an entree at a nice sit-down restaurant is $1-$3—but prices are going up quickly. Road-side food remains dirt cheap, but then you’re likely to get actual dirt with it.

There are a few successful chains, but US names have had trouble making an impact. Amusingly, ghetto US chains like KFC set themselves up as exotic sort-of-upscale dine-ins over here.

In one of the more obvious and predictable signs of affluence, coffee shop culture has arrived with a bang. Again the successful chains are local, Cafe Coffee Day being by far the most prominent. No surprise—it is nearly impossible for a chain to enter India without tweaking the model heavily.

One coffee shop I went to had a designated make-out area. I mean, it’s not marked as such, but everyone understands that that’s what it’s for. It’s brilliant if you consider the prevalent cultural factors, and has become my favorite example of tailoring businesses to local conditions.


I will be blunt—it is hard to overstate how badly people dress in Chennai.

The older generations are the worst. For this group there is little distinction between formal and casual wear. For men, it consists of half-sleeve “dress” shirts, slacks, and sandals. I will leave you to picture that abomination for a minute :-)

For women, traditional attire begins and ends with sarees. Ugh, sarees. They are so ridiculously uncomfortable that I can’t help thinking they must have been invented by men to keep women in the kitchen. At any rate, there is no reason to keep wearing them now that textile technology has advanced beyond the ability to make rectangular pieces of cloth.

Things are somewhat better among the youth. Men’s wear is gradually reaching parity with the West (with some oddities: polo shirts are called “t-shirts”; actual t-shirts aren’t worn much). Women’s wear shows no such inclination. Thankfully, though, sarees have been replaced by salwar kameez. Perhaps in one more generation, social norms will have relaxed enough to allow women to be proud of their bodies rather than having to hide them with baggy attire.

My complaint is more than that. People seem generally oblivious to what they’re wearing and whether it looks good. When I was growing up I never thought about it, because I hadn’t been anywhere else much and because fashion doesn’t matter when everyone is poor. But you’d think affluence would change things. It hasn’t.

Physical culture is also essentially nonexistent. A few young men seem to be taking up weight training, but by and large physical activity is simply not seen as part of everyday life. The vast majority of women, in particular, get no exercise whatsoever (other than walking and housework, if those even count).

Assorted differences from America

The big things are of course all different, but it’s relatively easy to get used to them. It’s the little things that make you pay attention to the differences between Indian and American life and go, “huh.” Here’s a random selection of examples.

Intellectual property laws haven’t caught up, and are poorly enforced. You can find stores carrying internationally recognized brands such as PUMAA and “Converge All Star”. It's not as extreme as China, though. For the record, I'm opposed to most forms of intellectual property in a normative sense; trademark is one that I'm marginally in favor of.

The huge differences in relative costs can result in some pretty bizarre situations. Buying a microwave oven or a chapati maker (tortilla press) can be a major event. Get this—there’s a salesperson who visits you at home to give a demonstration. It only adds a little bit to the cost of the machine, and it seems to be necessary because people are still so wary about mechanizing their kitchen. I bet millions of housewives are silently terrified about becoming unwanted if cooking gets easier.

My haircuts cost Rs. 70, which is 5x what they did a decade ago, but still only about 6% of what I pay in the US. Insane.

Surprisingly, there are still hardly any foreigners around. On the plus side there are now a large number of immigrants from other states, and they seem to have a monopoly of new businesses in certain sectors, such as restaurants.

There still isn't, and it is doubtful if there will ever be, a notion of privacy or personal boundaries similar to the West. An example: I was shopping for shirts and asked a salesperson for help locating my size. I said I was a 42, to which he responded, “Are you sure? I think you’re a 44.” The guy next to him—remember, stores are teeming with salespeople because labor is absurdly cheap—chimes in: “no, I think he’s right, he’s a 42. Look, he doesn’t have a big belly or anything.” I want to emphasize that this is a perfectly normal conversation to have in India.

OK, I’m done. Is there anything in all these changes that I consider to be a negative? As someone who considers modernity good per se, I have to say no. My only quibble is that some things aren’t changing fast enough. For example, there are still manual rickshaws, although they are very rare. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next decade will bring.


[User Picture]From: Mohit Singh
2011-03-09 03:03 pm (UTC)
Maybe you should have a taken a trip to Delhi/Gurgaon to see where things are headed. The metro has had a great impact on traffic congestion. The government recently stopped 2000 buses without much of an impact. The only sit-down place which will serve you a meal for 1-3 dollars is an idli place. Rest all cost $5-50. Of course, the street food is still dirt cheap. Less than 10% females wear a sari. But that was true even 10 years back. Salwaar kameez is by far the most popular dress. You can easily find places which charge $5-$20 for a haircut. Pollution took a huge dip when all industries close to the city were closed and all public transportation became CNG about 10 years back but it is back up due to the large number of cars being sold. The city has expanded in many directions (NOIDA, Gurgaon, Dwarka) and some of these have become cities among themselves and now get most of the immigrant population from villages and second tier cities. On the other hand, poverty and hunger is still quite rampant (maybe this is a north Indian phenomenon). Superstition and religion play a much more public role in people's lives than it used to. It might be the case that they are privately less religious.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-03-09 08:25 pm (UTC)
Ah, yes, Delhi, I'm definitely planning to visit next time.

It's true that in many ways the city is several years ahead of Chennai, but Delhi is also unique in that the Delhi government has an unusual degree of power and autonomy and isn't afraid to exercise it. Sheila Dixit in particular has flexed her muscles a lot, I've heard. Most of the transportation initiatives in Delhi simply couldn't be pulled off anywhere else in the country.

"Superstition and religion play a much more public role in people's lives than it used to."

I find this rather weird and I'm not sure what to make of it. Perhaps there's a wave of commercialization of religion, like the megachurches in the US?
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From: fixious
2011-03-09 08:48 pm (UTC)
I've noticed that about superstition too. My parents have become more religious than before (in a doing-a-million-pujas way, not a spiritual way), and I thought it was just a consequence of getting older, but then realized that they're a lot worse than my grandparents. And from what I can see, the temple attendance is skewed heavily towards people in their twenties and thirties. My mother thinks it's because life has become a lot riskier than before, but I don't really buy it.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-03-09 09:10 pm (UTC)
I don't know. Among my family and friends, superstition and religion—whether belief or practice—are down greatly among the younger generation. I'm going to avoid this argument until I come across some stats.

Of course, life has in fact become a lot safer and that's backed up by a mountain of evidence, although we're probably deeply hardwired to believe the opposite no matter how good it gets.

Edited at 2011-03-09 09:10 pm (UTC)
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From: fixious
2011-03-09 09:24 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I just thought of this, but I wonder if it's a caste thing? Perhaps the divide in how religious you were used to be more along caste lines (Brahmins and perhaps some other groups being very religious, and the rest not), and the divide is breaking down now.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-03-09 09:26 pm (UTC)
Ha! Might very well be.
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[User Picture]From: Mohit Singh
2011-03-14 03:09 am (UTC)
I am not sure why religion is playing a bigger role now but uniformity of urban culture certainly plays some role in it. The economics of it is also very interesting. See http://schott.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/08/abcd/ for an example.
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From: statictype.org
2011-03-10 09:58 am (UTC)
My complaint is more than that. People seem generally oblivious to what they’re wearing and whether it looks good. When I was growing up I never thought about it, because I hadn’t been anywhere else much and because fashion doesn’t matter when everyone is poor. But you’d think affluence would change things. It hasn’t.
You say that like it's a bad thing :)
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[User Picture]From: Rahul_Gauti
2011-03-10 10:42 am (UTC)
Interesting to read your account of how much India has changed.
I read it quite curiously to see what all present things look new/nice/weird to you and you did mention a few minute things which caught my attention.
I felt a bit odd reading your comment on 'Saris'. We have fashion super models wearing them(remember Liz Hurley) in newer ways - so why do you think its that bad?
Also, it will be interesting how "inclusive growth" takes India along and what happens to the class of rickshaw pullers, which job they all will migrate to? All these questions will be answered by Growth dimensions in the coming years.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-03-10 02:26 pm (UTC)
I believe I adequately explained my reasons against saris in my post, and feel no need to elaborate.

Liz Hurley wearing a Sari as a reason to wear them is ridiculous. She wore one because:

1. Her husband was Indian and she saw it as a good opportunity to establish some goodwill with her Indian fans, and

2. She wore a see-through sari with no top—to show the world, I'm guessing, that her tits were still bouncy even though she was 44. Here, knock yourself out; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/02/23/elizabeth-hurley-dons-she_n_474257.html

Has anyone ever willingly picked a sari as an item of everyday wear? I don't bloody think so.
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From: littlelotus79
2011-03-10 10:37 pm (UTC)
People can live with dignity, even in the slums. No one is starving.

Really? I am very surprised by this; not my experience at all based on Kolkata. Do you have any data about how the slum-dwellers in Indian cities are doing?
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-03-11 06:09 am (UTC)
Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me if what I said were not true of Kolkata. Not only does the city seem to lag behind economically, the Government is much less effective. But my knowledge is a decade out of date, so I don't know if things have changed in relative terms since then (I'm sure they have in absolute terms.)

Anyway, I don't have stats, but I did go to the slums and talk to a lot of people. It looks like you can make somewhere between Rs. 200 and Rs. 400 a day for unskilled/minimally skilled labor. And on that kind of income you can even send your kid to school, especially with some financial assistance which seems to be getting easier to come by every year.
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From: littlelotus79
2011-03-15 05:39 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I am still not completely convinced. This is not my experience at all in Delhi either, and Delhi doesn't have many of the problems that Kolkata has. I wonder if there is some data on this somewhere.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2011-03-11 06:44 am (UTC)
I'll take your word for what things were like in the past, but I'm not sure about the extent of your disagreement with my claims with respect to present-day Chennai. To be clear, what I'm saying is that people in Chennai are a lot less fashion-conscious than in other cities in India with a comparable level of affluence, say Bangalore.
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[User Picture]From: Mohit Singh
2011-03-14 03:23 am (UTC)
More than the infrastructure, one of the biggest changes that is happening is in education. Private schools are essentially taking over primary education in urban areas. They already had a very large share of the technical education sector. It is an interesting experiment since I do not know any major country which has such a large private presence in primary education. Though I have my doubts that the experiment will go in the right direction.
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