Prices, palaces and politics

An encounter with a member of the Delhi parliament the other day produced a stunning prediction. Growth in India, he believed, would be significantly quicker than even the remarkable predictions made at the start of the year. 12-14% was his hunch, based on discussions with economic advisors in the capital. There were so many tiny variables, he said; if India can get on the right side of these, supersonic growth is, he asserted, a racing certainty.

But even an economic dunce like me can see that controlling inflation in a fast growth economy is a significant hurdle. And right now, India is in danger of falling on the wrong side of the fence.

With food bills taking up close to half the monthly expenditure of the average Indian, the recent spike in the price of onions (virtually indispensable to the average mouthwatering preparation) as well as the predicted price inflation in other foodstuffs for 2011 could have significant consequences – even if the growth prediction of 12-14% is wildly optimistic.

Back on my feet again

If managing the Indian economy is going to require a sleight of hand, walking the backstreets of Calcutta needs equally deft footwork. With eyes focused on the floor it is certainly possible to dodge most of the hazards – particularly the “organic” ones –but the traffic is harder to negotiate.

With little to no rules of the road, the quick way to the next life is to stand dumbstruck and/or petrified as buses and rickshaws swerve in and out across the pavement-less road. Better to take a leaf out of the locals’ approach – they have perfected perpetual motion. They have finely honed their understanding of Newton’s laws so well that mass and acceleration on the roadside are miraculously combined to maximize force without (seeming to) hurt anyone. Some might see a metaphor for 21st century India.

The footwork pays off in interesting ways though. At 3 rupees a pop, the chai stalls providing endless opportunities for brief contemplative stops; and Calcuttans have a habit of providing assistance (solicited or otherwise) at every turn. Most of all walking around Calcutta allows stolen glimpses of the hidden architectural gems that exist across the city. At present, with rent controls heavily in favour of tenants (and unlikely to change even if new politicians emerge in forthcoming state elections), there is no prospect of an end to the fading of the grandeur. But neither is there any prospect of the old buildings being pulled down, even if they are increasingly obscured by concrete box structures.

It makes for a city that rewards curiosity and perseverance.  I love it.

The cream always rises to the top

With the incredible growth in the success of the Jaipur Literary Festival, Kolkata has seen an opportunity to get in on the act. The 2011 Japiur festival takes place next weekend; this weekend it is Kolkata’s turn.

British-born author Patrick French was here yesterday to launch his latest book India: an Intimate portrait. As with all book launches he is on a punishing schedule. Nevertheless, on the morning flight from Chennai into Kolkata he’d found the time to strike up a conversation with the man in the next door seat who turned out to be Anupam Kher, a Bollywood old-timer. As is the way here, Anupam promptly offered to assist with the launch, much to the delight of the assembled audience in Park Street’s Oxford Bookstore.

The launch of the book is accompanied by the website www.theindiasite.com where you can read a fascinating analysis of the way India’s politics runs along nepotistic lines. The stats make for challenging reading for the Indian political system.

The site also aims to consolidate the top stories on the web relating to India. The issue of food price inflation, not surprisingly, features. Twice.

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