Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Muddling through chaos

For the past few weeks, I've been getting used to the chaos that is India. Our return to the US has been temporarily delayed, but we hope that issue is taken care of soon enough. Till then though, I'm having as much fun here as possible, while shuttling between Bangalore and Chennai. It has been a few years since I last visited India, and all I can say is that years of pathetic administration continue to run down Bangalore. Chennai, while also bursting in its seams, seems to have better order within the madness. Exchange the bus drivers and climate of Bangalore with Chennai, and you end up with a city that wins hands down over Bangalore. It is amazing how quickly weak administrations can ruin something that is good.


While I try to get back to regular blogging (with perhaps some observations from India) here's a story I'll leave you with.

I happened to sit in an autorickshaw in Chennai that was being driven by an extremely chatty driver. Never someone to resist conversation, I probed him on with questions, which he was only too happy to answer. Now, there are thousands of autorickshaws in Chennai ferrying passengers across town, and fleecing them without ever bothering to turn on that meter. I usually consider them to be rogues and thieves. But there are stories behind their lives as well. Only some of the autodrivers actually own the auto that they drive, with most of them renting the auto from auto owners for a large sum. The ones that do own their own autos though don't have it easy. This driver was particularly happy that day because he had just finished paying the entire cost for the auto, and was now an independent auto owner. To prove it, he showed me his freshly minted receipt of payment.

So I asked him how he could afford to buy me an auto, and he told me his tale. He used to be a vegetable seller (as proof we whizzed past some vegetable vendors, he yahooed them, and then told me that was his brother-in-law and family, who still continued the family trade), and then decided to buy an auto. He first wanted a bank loan, so opened a savings account in the bank. He had some 5000 rupees in it, and thought that was good enough to get a loan. But the bank wanted collateral (or at least a minimum savings balance of rupees 60000). So he said goodbye to the bank, and found a money lender, who willingly gave him the money (with the auto itself taken as collateral). Now this poor guy has to pay some ridiculous amount as interest. He didn't know the exact percentage, but said that his total loan was about rupees 120000, and he would have to pay around rupees 175000 back to the money lender, over a period of some 5 years. That was his scratchpad calculation, though if he didn't pay that up in 5 years, even that sum would skyrocket.

No wonder, he said with a smile, that he would never ever put that meter, but charge me whatever he thought I could pay (which, apparently, was quite a bit). I wonder though, can't there be any better way for someone like him to raise capital to buy an auto? I understand the banks have a need for collateral, but if money lenders can lend the money (and I'm sure they are more careful with their money than banks are), can't banks do it? Economic gurus, what ideas do you have?

That said, auto drivers in Chennai remain thieves, and I curse them all with a lifetime of indigestion for their dishonesty.