|THAT SAME SINKING FEELING? Delhi is not yet dry for Americans but the import regulations may have reminded some about the 14-year prohibition in the US in the 1920-30s. The 80th anniversary of the repeal of the prohibition was toasted just a little over a fortnight ago in the US on December 5. A picture from the US Library of Congress, circulated by Reuters in the run-up to the anniversary, shows the then New York City deputy police commissioner John A Leach watching agents pour liquor into a sewer following a raid during the height of prohibition
Dec. 22: The Sudeten German guest in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi’s charmed diplomatic enclave, caressed the neck of the Franziskaner Hefe Weissbier bottle with the same tenderness with which he would caress the slender neck of his beloved.
The Bohemian’s host, a middle level Central European diplomat accredited to the Indian government, shook his head and said ruefully: “Not even $2 a bottle. If we went to a five-star hotel, we would pay five times this money. And no hotel has this Weissbier.”
In another embassy compound next door, a family of diplomats was savouring Oscar Mayer Bologna Sliced bought from the commissary of the American embassy in New Delhi at an unbelievable price of just $2.61 a package. Cheaper than in New York!
For those familiar with the innards of diplomatic life in India’s capital, these are familiar scenes that have played out for decades, so long that those posted to foreign missions in New Delhi have taken the US commissary for granted.
Devyani Khobragade and Sangeeta Richard have upset this tranquillity of diplomatic life in New Delhi at the worst time possible: the Christmas season and the week of New Year parties.
The long shadow of a termination of duty-free, “bonded” imports for the commissary following the arrest and mistreatment of India’s deputy consul-general in New York has dampened year-end celebrations by the large community of foreigners in Chanakyapuri this week. Not just Americans, but across the capital’s diplomatic community because the American commissary meets the gourmet needs of several embassies and their households in New Delhi.
The import curbs, according to protocol officials of the external affairs ministry, are slated to go into force from Monday, the eve of Christmas-eve.
“I took away the Nabisco Triscuit packet from my son,” said the wife of a diplomat who lives on Nyaya Marg. “Otherwise, he would have finished it all in one go and then what would I do if imports are stopped?”
Her joy that the road on which she has her residence is now open with the removal of security barricades for the Americans is tempered by the dreadful prospect that the US embassy commissary where she shops may soon be left with empty shelves.
In this case, the mother has secretly stocked up, and has not told her husband or the son. She stocked up not because Khobragade was anywhere on her horizon when she visited the commissary last, but only because the triscuits and Starbucks Frappuccino were selling at 40 per cent below normal prices. Such discounts are normal when the expiry dates on grocery packages are nearing.
American grocery rules and regulations apply to the commissary, where the freshness and the shelf life of products are strictly monitored. Besides, full container-loads of every product in demand during the Christmas season arrived in mid-November. So, the older ones had to be cleared by cutting prices to allow space for new shipments even though those were not past expiry dates.
Luckily for those like the Sudeten German and his Central European host, a full container of beers from all over the world was delivered to the US embassy on December 14.
The former is not a diplomat and has no access to the American facility. He has to depend on the generosity of the latter who is a second-class member of the commissary. The Americans describe the likes of him as pre-approved “TCD” or third country diplomats.
At the last count, some 15 third countries were members of the American embassy facility and their diplomats could shop duty-free at the commissary for products from around the world. But their transactions are on a “cash and carry” basis: they have to pay upfront for all purchases with the US dollar or rupee cheques or in cash.
On the other hand, American diplomats get a line of credit of up to $100. The British and Australian commissaries, similarly, allow a limited number of third country members at their facilities.
The inclusion of TCDs as members of their commissary is not a favour done by American diplomats in New Delhi to their counterparts from friendly and allied countries although it was sought to be portrayed as such when the commissary was thrown open to non-US personnel.
A larger customer base reduces costs and makes imports cheaper because of higher turnover. All the same, diplomats from former socialist countries in Eastern Europe were delighted when they became TCDs eligible for western products about two decades ago.
Those were the years when import restrictions were so strict in India that smuggled goods were the only imports available through under-the-table transactions. And back in their home countries, the hangover of socialist shortages perpetuated by decades of centralised planning had not yet lifted. So the American commissary on a posting in New Delhi was a godsend.
The commissary, a large supermarket, is run as a cooperative and is part of the American Community Support Association (ACSA), set up for the welfare of US government personnel posted to India and their families as well as other American citizens living in India. At its launch, the then US ambassador to India described it as a “home away from home” for his compatriots.
But over the years, it has become more than a slice of America within India and a lifeline of sorts for its members. In diplomatic parlance, India is a “hardship posting” for Americans. Vegetable imports from Bangkok through the commissary, mineral water shipments from Europe, dairy products from New Zealand, rack of lamb as well as lettuce and celery from Australia and frozen bread from the US help mitigate those hardships.
At last count, the ACSA had a turnover of more than $5 million a year, making it one of the largest American community support organisations in the world with more than 1,000 member families.
Its role has increased exponentially with the growth in Indo-US engagement at all levels in recent years. That status is now under threat because of the diplomatic spat in New York.
In addition to the commissary, the ACSA runs a restaurant, a video club, a beverages and snack bar, a sports field with special equipment, a swimming pool, a bowling alley and a gym on the embassy premises.