IF IT were true, though the veracity of it I cannot vouch for since our school history book was written by our school Vice Principal who, while known for his piety, had created no flutter in the corridors of scholarship, that the boom in Mesopotamia was obvious from the bustling bazaars of Babylon, then India certainly is booming.
Last week, when my British Airways flight from London landed me but not my suitcase in Bangalore, I was compelled to do what I rarely do — go shopping. From Bangalore, I took a flight to Kolkata. And immediately on arrival in my mother’s home, I set out to get myself some essential clothing.
The crossing of Rashbehari Avenue and Gariahat Road was like I had never seen before. The shops were spilling over with wares and shoppers. Close to the crossing, the ever-reliable Gopal Store seemed to be in the midst of a bull-run of customers. Entering the store, I asked for cotton vests, adding “combed yarn,” to impress upon them that I was no green horn. “Would Mormor do?” the shopkeeper asked, no doubt to test the depth of my knowledge. I had no idea what Mormor was, but was saved from embarrassment by a plump, middle-aged lady who entered in a huff and demanded attention — she needed underwear for her husband.
She did not know the size in numbers but would be able to choose if some samples were brought out, she assured them. So a mountain of underwear was pulled down from the shelves. She held up one at a time, mentally sizing up her husband getting into it. I was impressed by the participation of the shopkeepers — India truly is a democracy. “Didi, why not take a Y-front; jamaibabu will be very comfortable”. “I am thinking this may be too tight” (this, as she momentarily picked up one meant for boys). “Underwear must never be extra loose,” cautioned another salesman, in case she now erred on the other side.
My next stop was a multistorey, open-shelf clothes store, where a lady was screaming into a microphone: “Special offer. Two shirts for the price of one.” Evidently, the sales strategy was working. There was mayhem. With people falling over one another, the weak elbowed out by the strong, and shirts piled high on outstretched arms, I saw no reason to doubt Montek Ahluwalia’s recent assurance in Mumbai that India was firmly on course for 9 per cent growth.
My two days in Kolkata were over soon; I reached Ahmedabad for meetings with activist-groups, SEWA and Disha, and to visit NREGA sites in the districts (I hope to write about this later), when I got a call saying that my suitcase was now in Kolkata. On my remonstration, the caller assured me that it would be sent to me soon. Three days later, in Delhi, I was informed that it would be sent to Ahmedabad. It was exasperating. I had told BA in Bangalore my entire schedule of travel, but clearly communication within the organisation was not working well.
I pondered how the concept of the firm had changed in this age of IT. The employees of a firm are today connected only through computing networks, and few have an overview of the entire organisation. When the system falters, there is very little that a junior staff can do. The flaw in this case was clearly with the senior management, the person in charge of designing the system for tracking baggage, collecting information, and instructing junior staff on what to do. This also partly explains why senior corporate salaries have risen so high. In today’s hi-tech world, the best and the worst job done by a senior manager can be hugely consequential for the corporation’s customers and therefore for the corporation. Evidently, BA needs some infusion of India’s business school graduates to tone up the ‘system’.
With no baggage in sight, the time had come for me to visit the bazaar once more; so I headed to Delhi’s Khan Market. Again, the boom was evident. The same brand names that one would find in up-market American stores were here, as were the flocks of customers. I joined the rush but was taken aback by the high prices. I decided that it would be an affront to a Delhiite to buy at such a fancy place, at a fancy price.
I was happy that the economy was doing well but, as for me, I decided that a little bit of washing powder is what I needed to get on with my life while waiting for my absconding suitcase.
(The author is Professor of Economic Director, Center for Analytic Economics, Cornell University)