Coming back to India after my latest seven-month sojourn in London, I seem to have landed in a country I do not recognise.
Everyone is whining about his or her lot and can only talk about the lack of “development” and “growth” in the past decade. There is an Oliver Twist syndrome that suddenly all Indians are suffering from, and we all “want more”.
Getting out of our badge cars and stepping into the rarefied atmosphere of shopping malls that now dot every city — large and small — we are complaining about how, if Manmohan Singh had managed a better growth rate, then perhaps we would have been able to buy our second Mercedes, never mind the fact that thanks to him we were able to buy our first!
I know it is election time and we are being pounded by the message that a new government and leadership will bring us “growth” but has India really done that badly at a time when there is a world recession?
If you look at India’s growth story in the last decade from outside, it is so enviable that most western countries would give their right arm to boast it. The British economy (one of the western countries which has been least affected by the world recession) grew in 2013 by 1.9 per cent, the highest it has seen since 2007, and Prime Minister David Cameron was so ecstatic that he was ready to celebrate the end of the recession.
During the same period, India’s annual GDP was the lowest it has been in a decade and even then it was high of 4.7 per cent. When I mentioned this to my Calcutta banker, she was quick to reply “but we have got used to 10 per cent that is why we are upset”.
India’s growth hit a high of 10.3 per cent in 2010, at the beginning of Singh’s second term when he is accused of letting the Indian public down, while the UK’s GDP for the same year was a measly 1.7 per cent and even then the British were happy as it had bounced up from the previous year’s disastrous -5.2 per cent.
How does all this translate on the ground? Well first, it means that your money earns interest and your savings and fixed deposits grow. Most savings accounts in India give a base rate of 4 per cent interest and if you invest wisely, albeit conservatively, in fixed deposits you can expect anything between 9-10 per cent.
Compare this to the UK where the Bank of England’s base rate has been a record low of half (0.5) per cent for the last six years. Savings accounts accrue virtually no interest at all, while if you lock your money for five years, you should be grateful if you get a maximum of 2.5 per cent.
“So how do people, particularly the retired and elderly, generate an income from their savings,” I am asked. My answer is “they don’t!” In fact, thanks to low interest and high inflation, they have gone into negative equity.
Every morning in India, newspapers land on the doorstep (something that has stopped happening in the UK because it is too expensive) with a jacket advertisement launching the latest housing complex complete with swimming pool, gym, jogging track, etc, offering a new lifestyle at “attractive” prices.
Thousands of flats are coming up in small towns and cities and the amazing fact is that they are booked within days of the launch. Middle class India is on a buying spree of their first homes. Loans are available to buy them at interest rates of a whopping 10 per cent and more, but young families have enough income to service them.
By contrast, in the UK, first-time buyers are unable to afford or get home loans despite such low interest rates. For a country where the tradition was that a young couple didn’t get married until they could afford to buy their own home, youngsters are forced to live with their parents after marriage — like in erstwhile India.
Quest, Calcutta’s latest luxury shopping mall, opened late last year and despite the fact that only high-end brands find space, the place is generally heaving. My first reaction is how many people in Calcutta can afford Gucci bags and Jimmy Choo shoes? I am told that the store sells around six bags a day, each costing Rs 25,000, no less.
In contrast, footfalls in shops in London have gone down, even at Christmas when maximum buying is done, because people don’t have money. Yes, Gucci bags are seen on the London underground but more often and not they are fakes picked up from street markets.
Those whingeing the loudest are people who have benefited the most in the past decade — the young, upwardly mobile, urban middle class and rich. Their disposable income has grown manifold and today it is they who shout the loudest down their Samsung Galaxy Number Umpteen or post with their tablet on Facebook, “how bad their lot is”. In actual fact, they don’t know how good they have had it!
There is an army of jobless youths in the UK who would trade places. Yes, even British youths have their smartphones and tablets but they come free with their call packages. Once they have used up their free minutes, they dare not make a call or send a text as it is so expensive, while here people call from Calcutta to Kochi as if they are speaking to someone in their own para.
Whether as finance minister or as Prime Minister, this diminutive man has changed the face of India and made it a face envied around the world, and yet he is accused of doing nothing.
(Sajeda Momin is a senior journalist who worked for The Telegraph and now splits her time between London and Calcutta)