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Barter and bargain

punjab Updated: Sep 19, 2013 09:19 IST
Mahavir Jagdev
Mahavir Jagdev
Hindustan Times
Aeroflot plane

The Delhi to Moscow flight in a rundown Aeroflot plane was a precursor of what to expect in the pre-perestroika days of the crumbling Russian Federation. The three wheel touchdown is scary, but is a norm with the Russian pilots to avoid the aircraft from skidding on the slippery snow-clad runways.

The trolley hire at Moscow airport cost one rouble. I had only dollar bills. A porter offered the trolley in exchange for a pack of cigarettes. The immigration officer said, "From India, a friendly country, you may go." After the customs check, I exchanged the dollars for roubles and hailed a taxi for Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel. The cabbie asked, "Pay dollars or roubles?" I said roubles and he was dismayed. The market rate of the dollar was sixteen times the bank rate. The cabbie asked for 100 roubles against the official tariff of eight but agreed at thirty roubles.

The hotel receptionist said, "Sir, you have a reservation, but we have no room." A packet of tea got me the room. Checking my passport, she commented: "India not a socialist republic? Rent is $100 a day," ten times the rate applicable to persons from a socialist republic. There was a notice in the room, "Please keep your tea, razor blades, toothpaste, soap safe." These items were in short supply and I had come to negotiate an order for production machines. There was no room service, and the restaurant served horse meat steak with bread.

The meeting in the Agroprom office started with the cursory introductions. When we started to negotiate on the prices for the machinery, one of their managers raised a toast of vodka shot, "To Indo-Soviet friendship". This was to be followed by 12 more persons, a Russian style of negotiations. After two shots, I told my colleague, "You go ahead with the Indo-Soviet friendship, while I negotiate the prices." We got the orders but with a catch, 10 personal computers to be sent as machine control panels. Costing R 1 lakh each in India, these PCs could be sold in the pre-perestroika Russia for R 10 lakh each.

Audio cassettes of Raj Kapoor songs were a big lure for the workers. The barter trade with goods was a parallel economy.

Later, during the nine months our engineers spent in Kiev to commission the machines, the hotel manager was awarded a medal. After all, we were occupying five rooms and paying the rent for fifty everyday in a hotel that had just fifteen rooms, as we were not from a socialist country. It's because of this lopsided rupee-rouble parity that we have not been able to clear the outstanding rupee deficit trade till date.