Friday, 24 September 2010

Famous Last Words

Two months ago I wrote that it would not be the end. It would appear that I was wrong.

Now, upon the eve of starting an MA in Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester I feel that it may be time to, tentatively I might add, resurrect the blog. I still have stuff about India to write but the promised pictures of Cachu never arrived. Shame. It was going to be a funny post.

What I'll write about now that there is no India funny business to be had is another matter entirely. Musings perhaps would be a broad enough term to cover what eventually follows.

For now I think I'll follow up on the many, now apparent, fake promises that were made over recent months. Brace for a storm of moderately interesting information.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Home is where the heart is

So nine months, three new phones and 13 new books later I am back in the United Kingdom (and have been for a little over a week actually). It's been quite a trip and to sum it up in a few words would be a dis-service. It's not the end, however. Not only do I still have to finish the job I went out to do but there are plenty more amusing stories that I have saved up to be posted over the coming weeks. What happens after that though is yet to be decided. End the blog? Maybe, or change the focus, it's possible. Time will tell, but for now sit back and wait and some more tales should be appearing on a blog post soon...

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Sorry, we're closed

India closed on Monday. Actually, that's a little unfair. Parts of India closed on Monday, and Bombay was one of those. Opposition parties across the country called for a Bharat Bandh ('Bharat' meaning India and 'bandh' essentially close, as in, 'Close the door please.'). As Bombay currently has a strong BJP coalition (and Shiv Sena influence), as opposed to the country as a whole, which is governed by the Congress Party, it meant that the city decided not to open.

The street was the quietest I've ever seen it (or should that be heard it?). Buses stopped and shops were closed. I was told that the trains were running but it was hard to verify as the nearest station is a half hour walk away. Apparently it was a general strike called in response to the governments decision not to subsidise petrol prices any more (BBC link). India has a forecasted budget deficit of 5.5% of GDP for the 2010-2011 financial year and has plans to bring this down further over the coming years.

It's a messy situation. Running a deficit is not sustainable in the long-term without running into the sorts of issues that many European countries are facing now but some say the strike is just a political manoeuvre by the opposition to cause havoc and spread discord.

All I know is that India closed for the day. I'm glad this wouldn't happen in the UK. It would be most inconvenient to arrive home in a little under two weeks time (yikes!) and be told at the airport, "Sorry, the UK's decided to close today. Please come back tomorrow."

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Hari Potar Hai!

Harry Potter and Andrew Bailey, separated at birth?

Not everyone thinks about identity, but for some it is a major part of their being. I think this is especially true for minorities, as for those who are so visibly different, it is so much more obvious to those around you. You are then inevitably confronted with the question of your role in society. For instance one person I know was born and brought up in America, but is born to Indian parents. They talk like an American, look like an Indian, and culturally are somewhere between the two. For this individual the question of who they are is important and certainly not an easy one to answer.

For me it's simple. I'm Harry Potter. I know this because everyone I meet tells me so. Rarely a day goes by without someone calling out, in Hindi, हैरी पॉटर है (Hari Potar hai!). This essentially means, "Look! It's Harry Potter!"

At least it makes a change from the more common, though also more annoying, गोरा है (Gora hai!). This could be translated as, "Look, it's a white person!"

Ergo, for me identity is easy, I am Harry Potter and I'm white.

Or so I thought.

More recently I have been asked more and more if I am Indian. Whilst sitting at the Birla's Lakshmi Narayan Temple in Jaipur with my friends on holiday (all from the UK, though admittedly one has an Indian-born parent) one guy came up and asked if I was from Manipur.

Manipur is a state in the north-east of India. Some friends of mine from church are from there and in fact two feature in a picture in an earlier blog post. Quite how I was mistaken for hailing from that province I do not know.

It's not just Manipur though, I have been stopped several times and asked if I am from India in general or am Indian. I think I'm going to start having to reply with yes.

And why not? After all it turns out I may have a stronger claim than first thought. My manager professes that she is a Keralite, i.e. a native from the southern Indian state of Kerala. She was born and brought up in Bombay, in the state of Maharashtra, to parents who were also born and brought up in the city of Bombay. However, their parents, her grandparents, are native to Kerala. By that logic I can claim Bangalorean heritage. My parents were both born in the UK, as was I, but my maternal grandfather was born and brought up in Bangalore. Therefore I am indigenous to Karnataka. I am south Indian through and through!

So that may be slightly warped logic, and as much fun as it is to pretend to be south Indian, I'm not. But then neither is my manager. When she gets rid of her little white Maharashtrian cap and stops supporting Shiv Sena (or MNS, whoever is doing better at the time) I'll accept the argument that she's from Kerala. I find this unlikely though, she has a habit of beating up those north Indians who keep coming in and stealing all our jobs.

It's decided then. I am white, I'm Harry Potter and I go by the name of...

...bless his efforts but one staff member spelt my name (Andrew) as Endrow. Still, I prefer that to Anju or Andreen, especially as the former is the sort of name you might give a Muslim girl. Unless I'm a Muslim woman? Well that just throws everything into question. I am repeatedly told that I have a gentle, womanly spirit, and that some staff members even think of me as a woman!

Identity eh? It's a tricky one.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Hello Money!

I have recently returned from a brief but (largely) pleasant trip around what is known as the Golden Triangle. It's a popular tourist destination that involves seeing Delhi, Agra and Jaipur (conveniently arranged in a geographic triangle of sorts). I am planning on adding a few posts regarding this trip and will be inviting my fellow travellers to share their experiences too. First I'd like to start with one short story:

It's the middle of the day. The sun is at its zenith and, being mid June in north India (pre-monsoon), it's also the hottest part of the year. As you amble through the forest you realise that you're short of money. You'd quite like a drink of water. The sweat is pouring from your face. As you begin to consider returning home you suddenly spot a handy cash dispenser.

"Excellent", you think, "walking cash machines are rather hard to come by at this time of year."

So off you trot and, as you draw near, call out to the mobile ATMs, "Hello money!"

The foreign tourists don't look too impressed. In fact they're walking off. Why? Was it the fact you only put on half your clothes this morning? Were you meant to say 'please'? Maybe giving a figure will help.


It doesn't work. Could upping the amount will help.

"150! 200! 250!"

Alas, despite you best efforts the goras are walking quickly away, leaving you destitute and penniless until you stumble across the next group of Western tourists.

I should add that some of this story is fictional. The kids may not have been that thirsty and I don't recall that much sweat being present either. But the story is meant to lead into some thought about a subject that most people have to confront when coming to India: money.

At this moment in time I have yet to make a judgement on the situation. At times during the trip though it did seem that most of the people we came across saw us as little more than dispensers of cash from which you should try to make the largest withdrawal possible. In fact, during the entire ten days there were only three people we talked to that were not after our money.

An almost inevitable debate that occurs amongst foreign tourists visiting India will centre around the disparities in wealth that are visible, almost from arrival. This is especially in the case of the Golden Triangle circuit, which is a hotspot for people going on holiday, Indian and foreign alike. How we should react to such situations is a very individual matter and will be swayed by many factors but for now all I can say is that even after having stayed in the country for almost eight months I have yet to reach a consensus.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Swimming in the Rain

To keep in touch with multiple spectrums of political thought I have taken to reading the Daily Mail along with BBC online. A recent article on the completely impartial and balanced (if you're a fascist) Daily Mail website concerned the return of the Speedo, a rather revealing swimming garment.

What better time I thought than to recount my experience of swimming in India.

It is quite safe to say that India is a socially conservative country. Modern Western concepts such as casual dating or social drinking are experienced and embraced by only a small minority of the growing middle class. On the whole even a man wearing shorts is a fairly rare sight and a woman wearing a skirt that comes above the knees usually means that she's probably either a Westerner or a very, very liberal Indian.

So swimming was always going to be an interesting, and potentially hazardous, activity from a culturally sensitive point of view.

The first two occasions on which I went swimming were quite similar and the question of modesty was answered with a simple and obvious response: wear all your clothes.

Of course! It makes perfect sense does it not? Dressed in one's full regalia one can practically glide through the water, much like an agile otter or a fish.

For the women in particular this is the done thing. I was surrounded by women wearing full salwar kameezes to the water but I couldn't help but feel that it was just a little impractical. Not that it was a huge issue it turns out because most of them couldn't swim anyway. Having had lessons at school it had never really occurred to me but there's not an abundance of public pools around here. In fact the city has substantial issues of water shortage and pools seem to be the preserve of the wealthy or hotels.

One consequence of this that did prove a little frustrating was the insistence on wearing a life jacket. There was a chronic fear of what could happen and because a few people drowned in a lake some years ago we were all forced to don restrictive life jackets before entering the water, irrespective of an individuals swimming ability. Indeed in one pool that I visited the lifeguards reprimanded me for straying too deep, despite the fact that at its deepest the water didn't go above my chin.

I couldn't help but feel that their rebukes were a little absurd.

So having got into this swimming-fully-dressed lark, when some friends invited me to Water Kingdom in Gorai I naturally came armed with a full repertoire of clothing items with which to take a dip.

What a surprise I was in for.

Water Kingdom is rather strict on their dress codes. This is a place that is, after all, 'Not for swimming' (a sign claimed that there were no such facilities on site). Anything that had zips or was of a fabric other than nylon was simple not allowed. No worries though, you are able to hire a piece of swimwear.

Now, putting aside the uncomfortable thought of how many other men had worn the garment before me, I approached the hiring stand to assess the options. To say I was scandalised would be an understatement. For a country that has a strong aversion to nudity the three options available were quite surprising!

The first item was a Speedo type piece. I politely declined.

The second and third options were both quite similar. The choice was thus between the enticingly named, full- or half-tight (fortunately 'full' and 'half' corresponded to the length of the leg rather than closeness of the suit).

I opted for half-tight as shorts seemed a better option than wondering around in what looked like a goalkeeper's trousers from the 1920s, but oh my! I spent the rest of the day walking around feeling like I was creating scenes of gross indecency. For a conservative country it seemed very bizarre that we were forced into wearing shorts that left very little of the human anatomy to the imagination.

It transpired that I was in good company though. More or less everyone else turned out wearing uncomfortable little shorts that weren't exactly flattering. At least I could take away from the day the realisation that I am a socially active, gregarious, outgoing and open person, though alas not a student as that seems to be important and worthy of note.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

The joys of market value exchange rates and purchasing power parity

Apologies all but this post is in a more serious vein than usual. I'm intending to get a bit of a mix going between humour/satire and some looks at other issues regarding development/economics and suchlike. So here goes:

There was a BBC on-line article on Sunday (link) regarding an area that Oasis India does a lot of work in, that namely of street children. Now whilst I haven't finished digesting the article fully yet and intend to return to it at a later date I did want to comment on one section as it concerns something that crops up with regularity, that of daily earnings.

For those who are keen economists this will probably be both an unnecessary and inadequate comment but I've been getting a bit frustrated with some of the figures that are bandied around. Now it may be done in some cases for simplicities sake but I think it can be quite misleading.

What I refer to in the aforementioned article is the reference to the children earning between $1 (60 pence) and $6 (£4.16) per day.

The World Bank stated that the international poverty line is to be measured at roughly $1 a day (although that was subsequently revised up in 2008 to $1.25 at 2005's purchasing power parity).

Most people in the West will hear the figure of $1 a day and be shocked, especially by the fact that there are millions who live below this line. This was also the line I used to take.

It's true and it is shocking that people are existing on so low a figure but it does lead to a slightly inaccurate view of the extent of the poverty. I finished the novel Shantaram in March and there were several statements that demonstrated the sort of thinking I mean. At one point, fairly early on in the book, the author gets on a train to go to a village in Maharashtra. His guide hires a man to help them board for the sum of 40 rupees. The effort of boarded involves a great amount of physical strain and the author (it is a partly autobiographical book) is in disbelief that the cost of this job was a mere $2.

Now technically that is true, at market exchange rates at least. Herein lies the issue. Market exchange rates give an inaccurate idea regarding the value of a currency (and is why the World Bank figure is given at PPP). As of this moment £1 will purchase 68 rupees, but £1 in terms of goods bought in the UK is not equivalent to 68 rupees of goods bought in India. For example £1 in the UK would probably buy you one bottle of water. In India a bottle of water will cost between 12 and 15 rupees. Therefore for one bottle of water in the UK you could purchase around five bottles in India.

This fact is largely overlooked by people. They will talk about how cheap it is in India but that is because they are experience the market exchange rate rather than PPP. Whilst teaching at Blue Edge many of the students will ask me how much various clothes or personal items cost. My shoes for instance cost about £25. In Indian rupees that's 1700 units of their currency. 1700 rupees is a hefty sum here. In theory the national average wage in Indian is about 3000 rupees per month. My shoes cost over half an average Indian's monthly salary! This contributes to us Westerners appearing ridiculously wealthy but it is a skewed conception. My average monthly wage post-tax in my previous job was £1100. That means my shoes cost 2.3% of my average monthly earnings. A far more manageable sum.

It goes a bit deeper than that though. Just because my shoes cost £25 here it doesn't mean that they will cost Rs 1700 in India. In fact a similar pair of shoes will cost around Rs 500 and that is inflated because of the branding and taxes. If I reply to one of the students with the figure of Rs 1700 I am misleading them because the shoes will only cost Rs 1700 if they come to the UK and buy them. Therefore it is actually more exact to give a figure that is revised down. I worked out that for the goods that I buy in India we are looking at roughly one fifth of the cost. So if someone asks the cost of my shoes for instance I divide 25 by five and then covert that number (£5) by the current exchange rate. In this case we have Rs 340.

The way I worked this out is fairly arbitrary but I find it roughly works out. To illustrate this further, each month I receive £280 to live on. If I was to receive £280 a month in the UK to live on, then, depending on my location, I would be living a very frugal existence. Even in a cheaper area such as Swansea it would only just cover rent. In Indian rupees that £280 amounts to 19,040. If I use the five-times rule it would mean the equivalent of living on £1400 post-tax in the UK. Which is more or less correct. It's a comfortable lifestyle and monetarily my standard of living here is higher than before I came out.

To go back to the poverty line of a dollar a day this means that you could be led to believe that people are even worse off than they really are. $1 at the moment will buy 47 rupees and 47 rupees will buy you a lot more in India than $1 in the USA. 47 rupees in fact could stretch to three meals a day. So rather than being able to buy absolutely nothing people can survive on this amount.

But that is the real issue: surviving. 47 rupees might buy you food for a day but that's it. It won't pay for accommodation, utilities, transport or entertainment. And what is also crucial is that the poverty line is described as people living on less than $1 a day. In Bombay you can buy a wadapow (a sort of fried potato burger) for six rupees. But living on a couple of these everyday would be neither a healthy or balanced diet.

I recently tried to live on 100 rupees a day to see how it would be like (ignoring things like rent as that is paid for in advance). It was definitely possible but it did mean having only one proper meal a day if I was to pay for transport to work (my bus ticket costs 20 rupees a day). What's more I had the option of going back home and relaxing to pass the time. For most of the poor the reality will be that if they live on 100 rupees a day it will be 100 rupees that they have spent the day earning and at the end of that day they will probably end up sleeping on the street.

Therefore when talking about the scale of poverty in somewhere like India then raising the living standard to $10 a day is actually a huge difference. A cursory glance could come to the conclusion that $300 a month to live on and pay for rent and utilities is still shockingly low, but in reality it would lead to quite a comfortable existence over here and those 14,100 rupees a month would mean an individual could lead a relatively affluent lifestyle.

So there we have it, a brief (though it may not feel like it!) overview of exchange-rate economics. It misses off things such as the factors behind the rates of exchange and differences between the currencies (the Indian rupee is restricted for example which means it cannot be bought or sold outside of the country unlike the pound sterling) but it hopefully highlights some of the reasons for why we are viewed as so wealthy and clears up any misunderstandings.

For more a in-depth look at some of the issues see the UN's Millennium Development Goals and the indicators of how they measure poverty.