Monday, September 28, 2015

India's lifestyle talk cannot shift climate debate

India’s political leadership is facing a climate dilemma. While it is promoting India’s position as a leading emerging economy (more so after the Chinese dip) across the world, at the climate negotiations the messaging focus seems to be on taking the discussions back to 1992, with emphasis on lifestyles and climate justice. ... MORE ...

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Is it time for Kerala?

There is a harassed housewife-mother on our television screens nowadays. There have always been tired mothers on televisions screens, but this one is different. By the looks of it she is a career woman trying hard to balance her work and life. She is always on her mobile phone – talking, giving instructions. In fact she does all her housework while talking on the mobile, resting between her left shoulder and cheek. She has a moment of epiphany though, when she almost deposits her family’s clothes into the fridge. Eureka, she needs a break!

Then there is this young boy, not yet into his teens, who is always on a smart-phone, tablet or computer. His parents worry about his behaviour. They try to wean him off his devices, but cannot. 
Then one day it happens – he looks at a wildlife picture in a wildlife magazine (glossy print) and tries to enlarge the picture with his fingers. Eureka again, he too needs a break!

Needless to say, both the woman and the boy know where exactly to go for the break. Kerala it is, ‘God’s own country’. 

It has been two decades since Kerala has been making systematic efforts to attract tourists. It started as a well thought out, concerted campaign in the mid-1990s. The effort then was to attract the high- and middle-end international tourists. It wanted to shake off the image of being the backpacker destination, along with Goa, in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I don’t want the tourists to come and eat my ration rice and drink my tap water,” the tourism minister had confided to journalists informally then. “We want the tourists to bring in money for the State.”

In the mid-1990s the Kerala economy was slackening and the choice was between promoting tourism or industrialisation in the State. Even the critics of tourism who talked about cultural pollution admitted that it was better to opt for tourism rather than heavy industrialisation in the State.

The tourism machinery got its act together quickly. It fired on all cylinders, and Kerala was promoted slickly at international tourism fairs and exhibitions. The State was called God’s own country, when ironically it prided itself in the reign of the Asura king Mahabali. 

Though the thrust of the God’s own country campaign started with foreign tourists, over the years it was realised that it was the domestic tourists that were bringing in more numbers and earnings. Even Keralites travelling within their State to tourist destinations generated revenue for hoteliers, restaurant owners, vehicle operators, etc. 

In 2014, Kerala Tourism published the compiled tourist numbers from 2003. The numbers tell a story. While in 2003 one in three tourists was from outside the country, in 2014 it was one in 12. 

Foreign tourists
Domestic tourists

The number of foreign versus domestic tourists in Kerala

Even in terms of earnings, the money that the domestic tourists spent was much higher than that by foreigners.

Total revenue generated from tourism in Rs crores
Revenue from foreign tourists in Rs crores
Revenue from domestic tourists in Rs crores

Earnings from foreign versus domestic tourists in Kerala

Earlier, in 2013, Kerala Tourism published detailed disaggregated information on earnings from tourism for the years 2013 and 2012. 

Foreign tourists

Number of foreign tourists
Per day per person expenditure in Rs
Average duration of stay in days
Foreign exchange earnings in Rs crores

Domestic tourists

Number of domestic tourists
Per day per person expenditure in Rs
Average duration of stay in days
Earnings in Rs crores

The comparative figures speak an interesting story. The domestic tourists not only bring more than three times earnings to the State, but also spend close to half of what a foreign tourist spends in a day. 

Most of the domestic tourists travelled during their children’s summer holidays from April to June, and some in August-September. The foreign tourists, on the other hand, come to India between November and February. Thus, the domestic tourists also help in increasing the occupancy rate for the hotels and home-stays. 

Considering these hard facts, it is natural for Kerala Tourism to invite the harassed housewife or the distracted child to take a break and come to Kerala. After all there are houseboats to be occupied and tuskers to be bathed. 

However, where the TV commercial errs is in projecting Kerala as a kind of paradise different from the hustle and bustle of other parts of the country. On the contrary, Kerala is a highly consumerist state. According to a recent study by the School of Management Studies of Science and Technology, Cochin University, the State consumes more than 28% of the nation’s basket of high value speciality goods. This is despite the State’s contribution to the national GDP being only slightly more than 1%. The study defines these high end goods as high-value cars, fridges, television sets and mobile phones. 

The life of the people in Kerala is no different from the life that is being portrayed in the TV commercial. So where is the question of a break?

Interestingly, when Mikku the young boy tries to expand the picture of an elephant in a glossy magazine, his father sitting next to him is busy texting on his mobile phone. It is not difficult to guess where Mikku got his obsession for gadgets. Obviously, what should be the break has to have an entirely different explanation.

Till then, welcome to Kerala, God’s own country.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Let go and live

I drive the highways often. It allows my body and mind to find spaces that I have lost in the city. It allows me to explore the fourth and the fifth gear in my car.

A bit more than a decade ago, the highways were outside my comfort zone. It is not as if I didn’t drive from City A to Town B then, but then that was only when I really needed to.

Those were the days when the highways belonged to the taxi, bus and truck drivers. In short, the terrain outside the city, then, belonged to the professional drivers – the guys who sat at an angle behind the wheel in Ambassador cars and drove with one foot on the accelerator and one finger on the horn. Those were the days when the highway dhabas were patronised by professional drivers, and they had not become travel destinations reviewed in Zomato and Burrp. Rocky and Mayur had not made their television presence.

The Golden Quadrilateral, along with the arteries connecting the north and south, east and west, changed it all. In September 2004 my Maruti 800 quivered with excitement as I raced her along the as yet incomplete arm of the Quadrilateral between Vijayawada and Chennai.

These new highways allow us to find space that we have lost in our cities
The neatly laid out four-lane roads have opened a new getaway opportunity for many like me. No booking train tickets in advance, or searching for the budget seat in a budget airline. No anxious wait facing the tatkal webpage. Just pack up and drive.

The divider separating the traffic flow gives wannabe rally drivers like me adequate protection. We don’t need to dodge the accelerating car heading straight for us before squeezing itself back into its lane. We don’t need to worry about the truck lights blinding us at night.

However, there is something that I worry about all the time driving on these four-lane roads. I check my rear-view mirror far too often. I feel more like a historian rather than a futurologist driving the highways nowadays. I am especially alert when going past a slow-moving vehicle in the adjacent lane. I check the mirror once, twice, to see if there is a smart driver trying to weave through the shrinking space between my car and the other vehicle.

On the highway I am reminded of the amusing title that Rama Bijapurkar gave to her book describing the choices of the Indian consumer – We are like that only. The smart driver does not want to slow down for those few seconds to allow me to pass. It is a dangerous game of get-ahead-at-any-cost. The cost, in this case, can be the lives of all of us in the three vehicles.

In today’s world we love not to wait. Waiting is for misfits, failures and laggards. We are impatient and successful. We want progress – here and now.

Bijapurkar’s book title may need some change if we are to describe our social behaviour in the recent years. It would be more appropriate to describe it by saying We have become like that only.

In 1987, I had moved to the metropolitan New Delhi from the sleepy, laid-back town (then) of Thrissur. The size, scale and intensity of the city hit me on arrival. The peppy Maruti 800 had started scampering on the Indian roads a few years ago and the agile squirrels were slowly replacing the staid Ambassadors and Premier Padminis. Every Kapoor, Thomas and Kidwai who could own one had one.

Having gone to Delhi from the quieter Thrissur, there was something that surprised me those days. And this was at the red light of the traffic signals. After the traffic had stopped and backed-up on the broad roads, there would invariably be at least one M-800 that would squeeze its way and go and stop ahead of everybody else.

What provoked this almost obsessive one-upmanship behaviour?, I used to wonder. Living the city and its social, cultural and economic environment for the next five years gave me an understanding to this question.

Those were the years when Delhi was breaking the boundaries of economic growth. It was building and consolidating on the kick-start of the development activities initiated for the 1982 Asian Games. Enterprise was oozing from every street.

Those who were driving this growth were men and women whose grandparents had been stripped of their property and dignity and had to move to Delhi as refugees. These families worked hard to survive and grow out of poverty. And in the process it was perfectly acceptable to get that one step ahead of the others. What if that business deal or contract that you have worked hard for is only for one person? You certainly would want to be ahead of everybody else. Yours had to be the lone M-800 ahead of the others at the traffic signal.

From metropolitan Delhi I moved to metropolitan Madras (it was not Chennai yet) in 1992. Change again. There were less M-800s in Chennai, which was still in the Ambassador, Bajaj Chetak and TVS 50 age. There was no upstart trying to get ahead of the others at red lights. In fact, the Chennai drivers wanted to be safer than safe and slowed down even as the light turned amber.

The highways I drive today are located south of Chennai. But the behaviour that I see on the roads is similar to that I had seen in Delhi decades ago. At tollgates all too often there would be a car who would come from the side and squeeze into the lane right in the front.

Delhi has spread to all parts of the country. In the past 25 years, the game of one-upmanship has been promoted. This is a result of the very premise on which economic liberalisation has been built on – promoting consumerism. The way to a person’s wallet, or credit card, has been by reaching to him as an individual. Exclusivity sells.

This premise has its benefits. When everybody in the country takes care of himself/herself then the country takes care of itself, is the argument in its favour. Growth and mobility brings in energy into people’s lives. Growth also brings a belief in being in control of one’s lives, adding impatience when something small goes away from the script. It also brings a sense of insecurity – will one be able to continue on a trajectory of growth, always.

So when the smart driver sees my car closing the space between the slow moving vehicle and me, he wants to squeeze through. I could slow him down. Or, I could reach before him at the tollgate. 

My rear-view mirror is my protection. I do not want to be a collateral damage in his impatience.