Thanks to the civil aviation boom in India, I am spending a lot of time at airports. Not because I am flying more, but because the flights are always late. Despite an unbroken record of being delayed by anything from half an hour to ten hours over the past two years, and on a variety of carriers, I find I am unable to shake off my early phobia about landing up an hour early for check-in.
Last week was no different. My flight had been delayed by a couple of hours and my repeated enquiries with the airline’s staff had only produced assurances that my flight to Mumbai would be “announced soon.” So, when the usual incomprehensible squawking over the public address system came, and I saw the usual contingent of business-suited men with those handy laptop bag-cum-overnighter pull-alongs head for the boarding gate, I rushed to join them. Only to discover, much to my surprise, that the flight was going to Mangalore, not Mumbai!
Surprised, because the line of impatient travellers jostling at the boarding gate could have walked straight out of your regular Delhi-Mumbai shuttle. Like I said, lots of business suits and laptops, many chic young men and women in fashionable casuals, the usual sprinkling of safari suits and ‘political’ handloom silk.
The last time I had looked, Mangalore was a small, sleepy town, with lovely houses and quiet streets winding up and down the hills. The last time I had gone there, it was by bus. The major airlines did not have daily flights to Mangalore, and Deccan & co were yet to happen.
Sometime between reforms and India Shining, the landscape of small town India had clearly changed. After all, the suits were clearly travelling on business. And the young people had not come on shopping trips. So what is the business which is happening there? Where are these kids getting their spending money, and smart clothes, from?
Right where they live, clearly. No wonder players in every sector from agribusiness to education to information technology to retail are making a beeline for what was once dismissed as ‘small town’ India.
In fact, I think late movers will have to drive deeper into the countryside to gain ‘first mover’ advantage. Barista’s outlets in Pune or Ahmedabad are doing roaring business, despite charging exactly the same for a cappuccino as they do in Mumbai or Delhi. NIIT has a training centre on an island in the middle of the Brahmaputra river, which is accessible only by ferry, that too in non-monsoon months. According to Reserve Bank of India data, business centres like Mangalore and Rajkot, and just small towns like Dibrugarh, Dehradun or Rourkela are registering a faster growth (in per centage terms) in credit offtake than major metros.
In 2003, the US office of Management and Budget introduced a new term to the business lexicon: ‘micropolitan’. It was designed to plug the gap between ‘metro’ and ‘rural’. Companies soon discovered that these ‘micros’ — 577 at last count — were hot business destinations. US retailers, for instance, search ‘micros’ first to locate the 4,000-6,000 new stores they open every year.
As for me, I’m seriously thinking of getting into the suit business — in a ‘micro’!