India: Land of contrasts

‘India is a land of contrasts’ – these were the opening words of Indian High Commissioner Mani at his briefing to the group of us, winners of ICCR scholarships in 1965, who were shortly to proceed to India for our university studies. Every time I have visited India since I have remembered and lived this truism in several ways, from my first shock of the whacking humid heat that hit me when I first landed at Santa Cruz Airport in what was then Bombay at 2 in the morning to the dry cold of the Delhi winter that tends to make my lips crack – among so many other equally vivid experiences rooted in realities that can go from one extreme to the other.

The last time I got down in Bombay goes back to about 25 years ago, when during the two days I spent there I was again repulsed by the heat and the pervasive stench in the air. So it was indeed a pleasant surprise when I found myself appreciating Mumbai differently when we reached there during the second leg of the ‘Familiarisation Visit’ organized by the Government of India (April 22 – 30, 2017), and landed at the Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport on Thursday 27 in the morning.

Contrary to what I had dreaded – sticky heat, fetid smell and thick polluted air – there was no bad smell, the heat was tolerable and not unbearably humid, and the air was much cleaner than Delhi’s. As we went around in the next few days, I found evidence of ‘Swacch Bharat’, the cleanliness campaign launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi two years ago, and unfortunately there was less of it in Delhi itself, which saddens me as I consider it to be my second home… There we had two more interesting visits before leaving for Mumbai.

Election Commission of India, the Mint

At the Election Commission of India we were warmly greeted by the Election Commissioner, Deputy Election Commissioner and Directors. We were shown slide presentations that gave a good insight into the functioning of the ECI. The issue of tampering with Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) was being loudly raised then by the AAP of Arvind Kejriwal which had got a thrashing in the Delhi municipal elections, and we requested for some clarification on the issue.

From the explanations given, we could not but accept that with the technical and administrative protocols in place for the use of EVMs, tampering was indeed impossible, more so as they were non-networked, and additional safety features were shortly to be added. For that matter, early this week an AAP parliamentarian, Shri Bhardwaj Agrawal ‘demonstrated’ the hacking of an ‘EVM’ in the Indian Parliament – but analysts in a TV panel discussion demolished the so-called evidence brought by the MP.

What is clear is that ECI is a formidable institution and has all the capacities required – which it keeps updating – for conducting elections in the world’s largest democracy and ensure that the results are reliable and trustworthy. It did so in the 2014 general elections that brought the overwhelming victory to BJP, deploying unparalleled logistics that catered for all regional geographies and demographics. And it is already gearing itself up for the 2019 general elections in India.

Our introduction to the Indian media industry was by Sukumar Ranganathan, CEO of The Mint, an e-paper covering business that was started to rival the Economic Times. It is part of the Hindustan Times group, which also publishes editions in regional languages as well. All three publications total over 60 million a month. That evening in their Delhi office, there were 700 journalists working, and a similar number was to be found in the other major cities where they were present. Mind-boggling by our standards of course. We were told that the Indian media industry is huge, but deeply fragmented, and that digital was taking an increasing share and displacing print media. We also learnt that the press was free and independent, and it was largely self-regulated.

In Mumbai: SEBI, BSE, Port Trust…

Our first stop in Mumbai after we had checked in at the 5-star Trident Hotel opposite Marine Drive and had had our lunch was SEBI: Securities and Exchange Board of India. Again we were very warmly greeted and had a very fruitful exchange with professionals who were fully cognizant with the business environment in Mauritius. They defined their mandate as being a threefold one of: protecting the interest of investors, regulation of the securities market and promotion of investment.

Some of the issues discussed were: the need to balance innovation and regulation, stability and growth in the context of the global financial crisis. The SEBI had set up six Schools of Excellence for training and certification, including of cadres from the neighbouring countries. They also had signed a MOU with the FSC of Mauritius. There was a reiteration of the special consideration accorded to Mauritius by the Government of India.

However, at the Bombay Stock Exchange, it was pointed out that with the setting up of the GITF city in Gujarat, India would be able to offer all the advantages to investors that they obtained in other jurisdictions including Mauritius, and that the FDI flow from such jurisdictions would gradually dwindle. Those who are interested may google for more information on GIFT, and make their own assessment of its potential impact on future FDI flows.

A very pleasant and informative visit was that to the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust, where we were welcomed by a young and charming lady manager who happened to be from Bihar, giving me an opportunity to have part of the conversation in Bhojpuri to our mutual delight. This apart, though, this was a real eye-opener on the way that the Port is preparing for the future. The presentations and the staff oozed professionalism – and kindness and humility -, and our questions were patiently answered. A yummy lunch rounded up the trip.

By far the most memorable visit for a few of us was that to the Naval Dockyard in Mumbai, and several of the officers there had been to Mauritius too. Again here, we saw professionalism and thoroughness on display, and came out with the feeling that it was in such institutions across the subcontinent that resided India’s strength and confidence as it marched ahead towards the future.

Only on Sunday 30th afternoon did we get some free time. I accompanied a few of the newly-found friends of the media, who wanted to do some shopping for spouse and kids, to Dadar, which I had heard about from those who habitually go there for personal and business purposes. It was abuzz and teeming with activity and life, a sprawling shopping locality which to me was the counterpart of Karol Bagh in Delhi. My earlier stops in Mumbai had only been Bandra, Malabar Hills and such places visiting relatives, so Dadar was an entirely new experience.

Afterwards, one of the friends suggested we take a tour of Mani Bhavan, where Gandhiji had resided from 1917 to 1934, and whence he had launched his Satyagraha movement. The place had been converted into a museum, and we travelled back in time on a mini-historical voyage of discovery of some facets of the Mahatma’s life and his struggles. It was too brief though, and deserves a whole day’s attention at least. I do not know if this will ever happen for me, but who knows…

What else can I humbly say but ‘Jai Hind’ from the depth of my heart. And begin to think of my next trip there…

RN Gopee

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