Observations and thoughts on India, Kolkata

I am visiting Kolkata this week, the Centre for the Study of Social Science Calcutta. It is a great chance to collect observations and cross-check economic theories on India.

What I tend to do when visiting a new country is to assemble lots of preliminary hypotheses I have on a country (usually based on very little data, but more on loose extrapolation of data and theories), and then look on the ground for evidence for and against those hypotheses. It is a very good way to quickly get an independent feel of a place.

So, some hypotheses and related observations after two days:

H1: Is growth in India basically driven by individual cities competing with each other, quite independent of what happens at the national level? This theory has seemed likely as an outsider because it explains the differential development across regions and is a form of growth that needs very little coordination or central oversight. All it needs is something that can be produced at the city level (such as IT services) without help from anyone else, and where the key question is how a city elite emerged that protects the growth from the normal reaction of politicians to grab everything. Observations related to this:

  1. On the ground in Kolkata, lots of things concur: Kolkata has been very slow off-the-mark and is still relatively poor. The local Times of India blames this tardiness on long communist rule in the state (West Bengal). So local infrastructure is not great here, certainly compared to the emerging national highways.
  2. The local political language fits this hypothesis in that the speeches talk about ‘catching up’ and being ‘business friendly’. What other regions do is used to overcome local opposition.
  3. It seems growth is driven mainly by Kolkata in West Bengal, with no other major centres for growth in the state. This fits the ‘development via cities idea’.
  4. The new companies include lots of IT companies but no companies that really rely on a well-functioning national system. Hence little banking and financial services to speak of, despite Kolkata being some 14 million people and hence normally the financial services centre. Both observations fit the notion of ‘growth by things that only need local support’.
  5. Very few large companies: the only large organisation is the state and the political parties. 90% is informal.
  6. Lots of advertisements to learn proper English so one can work in an IT firm. Lots of tutoring offered to escape Kolkata (several Australian universities join in with education fairs).

H2. Indians are status conscious, partly through the old caste system, but also because there is a strong individualism about the culture.

  1. Western-style shops are incredibly popular with the emerging middle class here. Shopping malls, skin bleaching, jewellery, Pepsi cola: people queue up to get into a Western-style shopping mall, where at the entrance they sift out the beggars and put you through X-ray machines.
  2. Status-consciousness transcends into whole neighbourhoods and streets where they ward of beggars or employ street sweepers to keep their streets relatively clean (by Australian standards, even those streets would be clear health hazards with semi-open sewerage, dead animals, and garbage in many corners).
  3. Politicians here do not come from within the political parties, but are famous for something else: political parties operate a bit like extortion rackets, complete with gangs that come and collect dues and who rustle up voters at election times. They get famous actors, cricket players, or television personalities to lead their parties though. In turn, these ‘politicians’ have very little control over their own party and often have little idea what they are doing. They are high-status figureheads whose prime role is to be famous and thus appeal to individual voters. This mainly tells you something about those voters: they are sufficiently unattached to parties or ethnicities such that they do not vote with ‘their group’ automatically but rather for whatever appeals to them personally, often a high-status television show character they like. An amazing set-up really. And colour means something in this environment, with red being communist and blue being conservative (pro-business really) and green Muslim.
  4. Religion is fervent here and highly idiosyncratic: Jains, Christians, Muslims, RhamaKrishnas, worshippers of Kali, Ranesh, Shiva, etc. You name it, there is a temple here for it. And with very devout believers too. The key thing really is that they nearly all seem to believe something different: 330 million gods the newspaper tells me are worshipped in India and after seeing taxis with lots of particular pictures of the deities-of-choice I believe it. Religion here is a small community thing, not a matter of mass-belief as we are used to in Western culture. A bit like every protestant village in the north of the Netherlands has its own take on the bible, so too here in Kolkata does religion seem to vary street by street. It makes for an individualistic streak that of course ties in with their politics but also leads to a large role for common status signals as a means to stand out.
  5. Religious change comes from the high-status people at the top. It is devout gurus, usually from influential families or the top caste (like Tagore or Ramakrishna), that are the famous ones here and that sway communities into switching between brands of Hinduism or other faiths. The Christian and Muslim habit of trying to find followers amongst the poor by directly appealing to them and by-passing the powerful seems resented in much of India, with riots wherein proselytising priests and mullahs get killed.

H3. A quite peaceful country as a result of individual freedoms.

  1. It is really quite astounding how safe the streets of Kolkata feel, even the slum alleys. There is an incredible degree of inequality living side by side, beggars and merchants, street vendors and car salesmen, but yet this does not translate into the kind of armed violence one sees in South Africa or the US. The have-nots are really very passive.
  2. No one bothers with each other’s gods. Not just is everything imaginable worshipped, but everyone else allows it too. Churches next to Mosques, next to meditation centres (funnily enough called ‘maths’) are entirely normal. Proselytising is very much frowned upon, with the attitude being that if you want more believers in your religion you should have more children and not steal those of others.
  3. Land-owning property right is more a matter of politics than official ownership. This may sound a little weird to Western ears, so bear with me. It turns out that here in Kolkata at least, selling land is not an enforceable arrangement: farmers who seem to own something could sell that land to a developer one day, but can the next day simply return to that land and keep working on it as if it is theirs. Developers basically have no real recourse to the law because politically speaking, the numbers are always with the farmers: in order to buy enough land to do something substantial, the developer would need to buy out thousands of farmers. That is thousands of votes who would, with some justification, claim later on that they were tricked out of their property and the politicians will side with them and indeed refuse to enforce the property rights, using whatever legal technicality it takes (and legalese is the language of the bureaucracy). One can imagine the difficulties this leads to when it comes to new infrastructure or new industries. As a result of this fluid property right, the only real entity one can buy land of is the state itself for only the state here seems to have the pre-commitment possibilities of not disowning developers, at least for one political cycle.
  4. Jobs are for life. This does not just mean that jobs are safe and that, within jobs, people have a strong incentive to stick to the letter of their job contracts, but also that everyone hoping to get a job wants to look as calm and reliable as possible. Many things come together in this job tenure hence: the system of life-long employment makes for a very inflexible civil service, but at the same time is what guarantees that civil servants to what they are supposed to do which is of vital importance when it comes to the electoral commission and many judges. The lifelong employment system also permeates the general culture in that it gives everyone with some hope of getting enough education to make it to such jobs an incentive to be very docile, which works as a tremendous pacifying force. And the meritocratic element in this means that even in the slums you can see families here and there that invest a huge amount into the education of their son (or particularly gifted daughter) in the hope of advancement via that person. It makes for a pacified, though highly legalistic culture. On the other hand, it means that private enterprise based on employment contracts (big firms) are very hard to get going and to maintain: you cant get rid of bad workers unless there is provable dereliction of duty and you cannot get them to do something they have not been hired to do, neither of which is conducive to Western-style large firms.
  5. Lots of charities. Kolkata is the city of Mother Theresa and there are plenty of new mother Theresa’s here. Apart from the overseas do-gooders, there is also a lot of local philanthropy, with free medical help and some food handed out on a regular basis. This too helps keep a lid on unrest.
  6. No alcohol or other signs of major drug use. Quite inexplicably, the poor here do not seem to be drawn into drugs. Their religion seems to be enough for them. I am told that only slowly do you see alcohol making an entrance, but then oddly enough at the higher middle class level where they are copying the Westerners.
  7. Lots of open festivities: singing dancing, music, etc., can be seen in many a neighbourhood and park. Hence there is entertainment, even for the poorest. For the richer people, movies with very white looking (and short!) boys and girls seem to be a main source of entertainment.
  8. The individualism comes out most clearly as road behaviour, which seems to operate by three rules: look ahead, beep all the time, and don’t kill anyone. As my eldest son describes it, Kolkata traffick is like looking at the final chase scene of a movie but then seeing everyone doing it. Having people go against the traffick is normal, lane swapping is continuous, any small gap is immediately filled, traffic light are often ignored, goats and cows regularly go through the streets which of course double up as cricket fields.

H4. Marriages are arranged as economic affairs because of the strong cross-interests of the family in getting it right, mainly in the form of the parents expecting to be taken care of by their sons, ie the wife of the son.

  1. You see newspaper advertisement wherein parents will advertise the qualities of their sons and daughters. Of clear importance is a steady job on the side of the men and youth and education on the side of the women. Indeed, the way that families try each other out is quite hilarious, with men having to dress up and present themselves at the homes of the family of the girls, to be inspected like pieces of meat by the whole family who will extensively gossip about him afterwards. Love is clearly seen as getting more and more desirable (even by the parents who have an interest in a stable marriage). So, generically, the boys are in their twenties and have found a job after they finished their education, whilst the girls are either busy with their education or have also just finished.
  2. The arranged marriage business is a middle-class and higher thing. Poor people clearly do not have the time or the resources to go through all the hassle. As a result, there is the phenomenon of ‘mass public marriages’ in which particular charities (you can guess of what kind of religious denomination) offer to marry a lot of people in one go, offering them something to eat and presumably clothing. These mass marriages mean the unofficial marriages get registered. At the very poorest level, where they cannot read, I doubt even these public marriages are used. Indeed, you only see posters about these mass marriages so it’s unclear how prevalent they really are.

H5. Cricket is king due to the colonial period.

  1. Lots of evidence for this one. Even in the dirtiest and poorest of slums, you will find the kids playing with tennis balls and carved wooden clubs defending three bricks on top of each other, ie street cricket. They whack the balls over 5 streets and have a great time retrieving it from open food pots.
  2. Nearly every public park is used mainly as a cricket ground, with the richer people playing in full colonial regalia (white). Interestingly, soccer is also rising, but still a clear second to cricket.
  3. In General, lots of sign of appreciation of the colonial period. Appartment blocks that are for ‘the officers of the department’; polo clubs; botanic gardens; the signs of the English colonial period are everywhere and they seem to be embraced.


Some open questions:

  1. Where are the prostitutes? They are quite prudish here in an odd way: women are not supposed to show knees or shoulders, but bellybuttons are fine. This means public bathing in the Ganges happens with full attire, leading to very heavy wet clothes that have to dry on their own. This prudishness also carries over to television and newspapers wherein movies are hilarious because all the swearwords and all the highly violent and saucy bits are taken out, leading to odd sequences with whole scenes missing. In the newspaper, you will thus not find official prostitution services, though it is clear that ‘massages with full relaxation’ must be a code for the same thing. Conspicuous by their absence though are the street prostitutes. You don’t see any women recogniseable as such. Still, human needs are human needs so there can be little doubt that there must be plenty of them, particularly in a city with many rich men and many very poor women. Where are they then? Do they dress in a way that singles them out in a way too subtle to see for the occasional visitor? Are there particular places and streets with them? Even though I walked around a lot with the family, there was nowhere obvious. The organisation of extramarital sex is hence still a bit of a mystery here. I am told that there is lots of actual supply but that it is in particular streets and often privately organised (apparently the websites to Kolkata prostitutes often go through Mumbai!)
  2.  How bad is crime? You see lots of police, lots of locks, lots of private security guards, and lots of segregation. But you don’t openly see the crime, so where are the criminals and what do they do? Most crime is probably not reported here as the police is not held in great esteem, but one does wonder just how much of it is there. They clearly do not bother the tourists and murders are rare but with all those enforcers there must be plenty of law-breaking somewhere. I am told there are few organised gangs.
  3. Why don’t they eat the dogs? The streets are full of street dogs eating garbage and god-knows-what. They do not seem to have any obvious function in an urban environment apart from maybe a warning\protection system, but still the question is why some people do not simply eat them all. There are lots of hungry people here and lots of stray dogs so what prevents supply meeting demand? Or does this in fact happen but no-one tells you that ‘chicken curry’ means ‘dog curry’? There are not many goats and cows on the streets and they are a bit too conspicuous to take down, but dogs aplenty so a few more or less would not be missed. I am told it’s a religious thing but there is something fishy about it. These dogs must provide some service if they allow so many of them to remain alive.
  4. How can one actually invest in this place? Not clear at all how foreign money could make its way to new businesses here in India despite the obvious returns to be made. What are the barriers?


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Nicholas Gruen
11 years ago

Thanks Paul for an interesting post. I don’t have any bright ideas about your questions alas.

11 years ago

Nice observations — In terms of crime, when I was in Nepal some years ago, they used to think India was a dangerous place despite what was then a minor civil war going on (which later escalated), and they’re even poorer. I was amazed at this too, especially because the average tourist would have been carrying perhaps a year or two of their wages on them. As for dogs, perhaps they’re really performing a social service since the garbage they eat might be worse than their poo.

john r walker
11 years ago

Paul good post,are also you going to south India?
Re cricket, I think the Indian fondness for cricket is a bit deeper than a colonial legacy. .

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago

“The local Times of India blames [Kolkata’s] tardiness on long communist rule in the state”

Perhaps, but then you have to account for Kerala. One way to square the two is to think that the ideology of a state government matters less than its degree of corruption – as one former World Bank president said when asked why Botswana had so much less poverty than its neighbours “they had two honest Presidents in a row”.

11 years ago

The Kerala difference is easy: (relatively) fantastic beaches, the backwaters and thus tourism, both foreign and domestic. A big chunk of the economy is also dependent on foreign worker remittances. Kerala thrives in spite of the predominantly socialist government which, since the 1990s, has been liberalising anyway.

Patterns of crime vary hugely across India. Delhi and Mumbai are considered off the scale relative to the rest of the country, as the recent high-profile rape case demonstrated.

john r walker
11 years ago
Reply to  Fyodor

Fyodor, Kerala – Cochin in particular – benefitted from having a fairly enlightened sultanate and some of the differences also come down to a very high level of education, and another factor is that Kerala has been for centuries a trading culture and a rice-farming culture. Trading needs a willingness to bargain, and honour bargains and rice-farming requires a fair bit of co-operative skilled labour. Another advantage is the excellent malabar fish curry and cold Kingfisher beer!

derrida derider
derrida derider
11 years ago
Reply to  john r walker

Kerala has been for centuries a trading culture …

And Kolkata wasn’t? It’s Bengali, ferchrissakes – as Wikipedia notes “After independence .. Kolkata—which was once the centre of modern Indian education, science, culture, and politics —witnessed several decades of relative economic stagnation”.

And beautiful beaches don’t seem to help economic development much – ask any Pacific micronation.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
11 years ago

Paul. Having just got back from India last week here is some good advice: stop analysing and start experiencing!