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Journalist: Familyonthemove
Status: Public
Entries: 41 (Private: 0)
Comments: 89
Start Date: Nov 18th, 2006
Last Update: Jul 16th, 2017
Views: 13700
 
Description: My small part in the retail revolution in India and how the family copes

Is India becoming too developed?
Date Posted: Jul 16th, 2017 at 02:04 - Comments (2)
Back in Gurgaon for my annual business trip and to catch up with old friends. Arrived at an airport with functioning air conditioning, shops and an immigration queue that didn't make me think I may draw my pension before I get to the desk. Met my friends after Artivals without being accosted by a million taxi drivers, and was taken to a modern hotel in an SUV rather than a stately Ambassador.

Then after a (cashless) night out in some trendy bars in the Cyber Hub, I began to think that perhaps Mr Modi's India was becoming a tad too modern. But on the way back to the hotel I see a crowd of 200 people lifting a steel pole off the roof of a partly crushed truck, while a camel picks it's way through the Mercedes and Audis in the monster traffic jam. And the next day all the lights go out in the middle of the meeting. I can relax, real India is still alive and well
Indian Supermarket Retailing and the Art of Motorcycle Production
Date Posted: Apr 11th, 2012 at 13:52 - Comments (2)
This may not be a typical IM Journal, but I wrote it for a Blog and some IndiaMikers may find it interesting ..... ?

Indian Supermarket Retailing and the Art of Motorcycle Production


No businessman visiting India for the first time could fail to notice that India is different. The moment you leave the comparative calm of the airport you are immersed in a dusty, vibrant and chaotic world with an insistent back-beat of car horns and the perpetual motion of 1.3 billion busy souls all trying hard to be the next Dhirubai Ambani or Amitabh Bachchan. Every successful business in India from the East India Trading Company to Tata Steel has embraced the unique challenges of the Indian market and used them to gain competitive advantage within the home market and overseas.

There’s no obvious reason why supermarket retailing should be any different to other industry sectors in India, yet despite the heroic efforts of the major Indian business houses, the retail scene in India is still dominated by the small, independent ‘kirana’ who represent 95% of the market. Even the entry of the international supermarket juggernauts, Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour, has not yet had any real impact on the traditional retail sector. Currently the Indian company Future Group with their ‘Big Bazaar’ hypermarkets seems to have the most successful formula and Reliance Retail has managed to create significant scale with a heroic new store opening spree, while Bharti-Walmart is also showing some early promise, especially in the challenging area of supply chain, but it’s still early days and no-one is yet making a profit.

In the late 1990’s the commonly held belief about India amongst international retailers was that the streets of India from Delhi to Visakhapatnam were paved with gold. The statistics were compelling; 1.3 billion people, growing middle class and almost no organized retail. We all naively thought that the only obstacle was the protectionist laws that prevented the entry of foreign multi-brand retailers into the Indian market. Now, after reviewing the early faltering steps of the first-mover modern retail ventures we’ve realized the Indian retail laws were inadvertently protecting the multinational retailers from making a huge loss in a market that few understand and even fewer can make profitable.

But there are other industry sectors in India that have been showing healthy growth that was undiminished by the recession that blew in from the West. Even the automotive sector, which has been devastated in most countries, has sprung back in India with recent sales figures growing over 40% on last year. So to get an indication about how new markets can develop in India, it’s worth looking at one segment of the Indian automotive market which is much further down the evolutionary road than supermarket retail.

The Indian economic miracle rode onto the world stage on two wheels. India is the largest market in the word for motorcycles and up until the recent introduction of low cost cars from Suzuki and Tata they provided family transport for virtually every household in India.

The Indian conglomerate Bajaj provided the first two wheeler for the masses with the Chetak scooter, but the most successful manufacturer in India has been Honda who entered the market twenty years ago with their Indian partner Hero Cycles. At the time of Honda’s entry into India they were already the world’s leading motorcycle manufacturer and in their Japanese home market they were producing sophisticated large capacity sports bikes capable of outrunning a Ferrari. The intense competition in the home and export markets had driven the development of bikes that were now so powerful there were calls for voluntary industry limits on their power output and maximum speeds.

With the highly qualified engineering expertise available in India, Honda could easily have set up production of their world leading designs and dominated the top end of the market. The locally produced Bajaj scooters and the Royal Enfield Bullet, with a design dating from the early 1950’s, would have been no competition for a modern 1000 cc 150 MPH superbike. But Honda knew that such a bike would only sell to a very small handful of Bollywood stars and the son’s of Indian industry leaders, they also knew that the condition of the roads in India are not ideal for a bike that is more at home on a race track than a dusty farm track.

To help Honda to understand the market, they first formed a joint venture with a local scooter manufacturer, Kinetic, and then with a successful Indian cycle manufacturer, Hero Cycles and together they developed a bike that satisfied the needs of the Indian majority. Their future customers were not motorcycle enthusiasts, they just wanted a low cost means to get to work, take products to market and ferry the kids to school.

One vital lesson that Honda learned was that the first thing any Indian customer will ask when considering the purchase of a new bike or car is about the fuel economy. I was once standing outside the swanky Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai when a bright orange Lamborghini pulled up at the entrance. As the fashionably dressed young man with his Bollywood starlet arm-candy stepped from the car, I heard the door man say to him ‘kitna mileage hai?’ Indian is an ultra-slim margin economy, which explains the obsession with fuel economy and the fact that the country has the lowest cost mobile phone service in the world.

Although Bajaj took an early lead with their the top selling Chetak scooter their venerable iron horse had one major weakness, it was not very economical. Hero-Honda developed a more conventionally designed motorcycle with a small four stroke engine that could deliver significantly better mileage. Their first advertising strap line for the ‘Hero Honda Splendor’ was ‘fill it, shut it, forget it’ and they’ve managed to sell over 11,000,000 of these sturdy little bikes over the last 20 years making it the top selling bike in the world. By quantity, India is now Honda’s biggest market accounting for 40% of all their sales. But this was not the end of the Honda story in India. After developing the best selling motorcycle with Hero Cycles, they then set up a stand-alone Honda operation and used all their accumulated knowledge of the Indian market to design and build another model that could sell alongside the Hero-Honda motorcycle range.

The Honda Activa scooter was launched in 2000 and at first their new model was dismissed as an error of judgment by the newly independent Honda India operation. Motorcycles had replaced motor-scooters years before, so launching a new scooter onto the market seemed like a mistake, but it’s early sales success showed that Honda had done their homework. An easy to handle, automatic scooter with a lower seat height than a motorcycle was exactly what Indian women wanted, and many Indian men also appreciated it’s tough construction, good load carrying ability and most of all, decent fuel economy. Ten years after it’s launch the Activa is selling over 30,000 units a month and there’s still a three month waiting list in some cities.

What could the retail sector in India learn from the success of the motorcycle industry?

1. Give your local customers what they want.

The first lesson is a strange one for international supermarket retailers who are famous in their home markets for a fanatical obsession with listening to customers. But just because you know exactly what a customer in Birmingham (England or Alabama) wants to buy before she even steps into your store, does not mean that the same understanding can be applied to customers in Bhubaneshwa with equal success. All of the current modern retail formats in India are based on the European or US model. I have even heard the top management of Indian retail companies asking their teams to recreate Tesco or Walmart stores in India. The foreign players are no different in this regard as they have tried to recreate successful formulas form alien markets in the hope that they will work in India.

This strategy would be the same as a motorcycle manufacturer launching their top selling 1000cc sports bike into a market where the ability to carry four children and a crate of mangoes is prized above outright acceleration, top speed and race track cornering ability.

2. Learn from your partner

Your JV partner is more than just a legal necessity to circumvent the foreign investment rules. He will have been running a successful business in Indian for many years and he will have a practical working knowledge of how to run a business in an ultra-slim margin environment.

As a successful international retailer you will have portable skills and knowledge that can be applied in any market, but be aware of the limitations of these skills in a marketplace that is very different to your own. By using the knowledge of their JV partners combined with their own engineering expertise, Honda were able to launch two best selling bikes in India that were totally different to anything else they produced in other markets.

3. Don’t bet on the marketplace adapting to suit your preferred business model.

There’s a compelling argument amongst retailers that if you can develop sufficient scale and launch enough private label products you’ll have the volumes to tip the balance of power in the retailers favor and the suppliers will be required to offer better margins and so the conventional modern retail model will become profitable. There’s also an assumption that the Indian FDI rules will eventually change to allow 100% foreign investment in multi-brand retail and so allow the growth of wholly foreign owned European and US style supermarket operations as in the retailers home markets.

If Honda had adopted the same strategy, they would have launched the Fireblade sports bike in India and hoped that the growth in the Indian economy would eventually create a new wealthy middle class with a taste for 150 MPH superbikes. Of course by the time that happened we will all be riding solar powered flying bikes …. on Mars.

So what is the retailer’s equivalent of the best selling Honda motorcycles that were designed for the local market?

There are many unique facets to the Indian retail market, but the following are probably the most critical:

• Very low margins
• Comparatively low income per head
• Unreliable supply chain with DC fill levels of less than 75% resulting in poor on shelf availability of top selling products
• Multiple middle-men resulting in further margin erosion
• High levels of personal customer service from small local retailers
• Very pronounced monthly buying cycle
• Regular power outages resulting in loss of electricity for up to 60% of time
• Strong tradition of buying from wet markets
• Festival cycles rather than seasonal cycles
• Expectation of home delivery
• Fears about food safety create a resistance to long life, preserved food products
• Limited new product launches due to the low margin environment
• Significant proportion of shopping carried out by domestic staff
• Low, but growing car ownership
• Foreign investment restrictions


A Supermarket Retail Format for India

Any successful supermarket retail format in India must address the unique factors of the market whilst also giving the local customers what they want. Here’s an overview of a format that could be the Honda Activa of the supermarket world.

• Small supermarket up to 20,000 sq ft (2000 sg m) – current food range in India with essential non foods will fill this space.
• Large back room of around 30% of sales area – to allow higher stock holding than would be normal in Europe to provide a buffer to smooth out the poor availability and to cover high volumes needed for the monthly staples buying cycle.
• Predicitive stock ordering software rather than ‘reactive‘ sales based as in Europe – to predict monthly and annual cycles, festivals and weather impacts such as the onset of the monsoon.
• Designed to operate with no air conditioning to cut electricity costs and allow it to be run on a generator. Window shades, ceiling fans, closed chillers and freezers
• High level racking to enable high stock holding of fast selling items
• Locally appropriate ranges of loose staples
• Motorcycle and car parking
• Home delivery with no minimum sales limit
• Produce section franchised to local thela-wallah hand cart sellers – more efficient and higher standards then any modern retailer and this will also prevent a loss making department
• Aim for 30% private label to improve margin mix
• Seasonal/festival non foods and daily essentials
Hang up your kurta and blue tack, modern India has arrived.
Date Posted: Mar 25th, 2012 at 23:21 - Comments (3)
I am now officially old. Last week I did that classic old person thing of giving people 'advice' that was so out of date it left my colleagues wondering what on earth I was talking about.

It's about 4 years since I lived in India, and in the intervening time I've made a few business trips, but that's not the same as living here, as many long term India Mikers will tell us.

India is changing.

Today Ann Hazare is fasting against curruption, I arrived via a thoroughly modern airport, I'm staying in a new hotel and I've just ridden on the Metro after eating Thai food in a new restaurant next to a huge air conditioned mall.

Yes, the power still goes off, but the generator kicks in within seconds and the WIFI stays connected. The traffic is still bad, but it's not the same honking, bustling, contact sport that it was.

And you don't need to carry blue-tack anymore!

I turned up with my trusty power adapter and ball of the sticky blue stuff to keep the plug from falling out of the socket, to find a multi adapter outlet that seems to be capable of anchoring an ocean liner, so strong was it's grip on my plug.

I must try the hotel laundry tonight to see if they still beat your shirts to death on a dusty old rock and bring them back three days late with no buttons. But alas, I suspect it will turn up on time, neatly pressed and in a paper bag (as of course plastig bags are no longer allowed in Delhi).

And as for my guests, they are now wondering why they all brought torches and what they are supposed to do with the blue-tack.
Back in Bombay
Date Posted: Nov 29th, 2009 at 20:40 - Comments (1)
Most Delhi-ites have an understandable pride in the Delhi Metro. Its construction is ahead of schedule and under budget and the service is reliable. Everyone you meet in Delhi is able to quote facts and figures about the engineering features and its future expansion plans. And then it collapsed. But compared to a similar project in Calcutta that’s 10 years behind schedule the Delhi Metro is an impressive achievement.

I'm currently back in Mumbai for a conference and was surprised to see something that looked like the Delhi Metro under construction near the airport. I asked the taxi driver what it was and he said he didn’t know. The hotel receptionist thought it might be a monorail, the barman said it was a road bridge and an auto driver said it was an airport rail link. The one consistent feature was that nobody really cared what it was as they knew it would never get finished. This is Bombay and it’s a long way from Delhi.

But it’s still my favorite Indian city and its ‘buz’ has got even buzzier with more bill boards, more traffic, more beggars and even more people. It was great to meet up with old friends but by the end of a week in an airport hotel I was in need of a lift. I’d booked a non smoking room, but forgot to ask for a ‘no hammering on the wall all night room’ and the guy who’s job it was to let fresh mosquitoes into my room each night was particularly diligent. So I jumped into an auto rickshaw and headed to Juhu Beach to get my fix of Pav Bhaji and have my fortune told by a Hindi speaking robot who looks like 3-CPO after an all-nighter at a Goa Full Moon party..

An auto-rickshaw ride from Andheri East to Juhu gives you a 20 minute cameo of Bombay life. The auto wallah revs the engine and plunges into the traffic like a Pamplona bull runner on speed, barging his way past motorbikes, cars and trucks like his life depended on getting me to Juhu in record time. There’s an old quote that travelling in a car is like watching a movie and that travelling on a motorbike is like being in the movie ….. well travelling in a Bombay auto is like being in a 3D action movie with surround sound and smell-o-rama. The close combat driving style means that bike handlebars, car wing mirrors and people’s arms protrude into the open sides of the auto as it squeezes through impossibly small gaps. Even when the traffic lights are on red there’s jostling for position, honking, revving and shouting as this pent up stream of energy is waiting to restart the race to the next junction. It’s the most fun you can have for 30 Rupees and it beats any fairground ride.

As I head to my favorite food stall I collect the usual entourage of shoe polishers, map sellers, coconut wallahs and beggars and we all arrive in a heap at the beach front pav bhaji shop. The price has gone up since my last visit and 50 Rs looks steep when you consider what many of the people packing the beach will be earning. In my now fading Hindi I ask the cook his name and explain that I’m from England but live in Bangkok. It seems that the more Thai I learn the less Hindi I remember, I must have a 256K RAM brain and I need to delete old files before I can save new ones.

But the subtle spices in the pav bhaji work their magic as I watch the beach sellers shoot their LED lit helicopters into the warm night sky. I feel refreshed and ready to catch an auto back to the hotel for one more night of car horns, hammering and fire crackers before heading back home.
Economy Hotel Syndrome
Date Posted: Oct 4th, 2009 at 10:38 - Comments (0)
On my last trip to India I decided to forego the luxuries of the excellent Leela Hotel in Gurgaon and try a new budget hotel that is situated opposite our offices. The Ibis has small but well equipped rooms, it is great value, clean and the staff are excellent. I was a little surprised when I went to hang up my shirts and found the toilet and shower lurking in the wardrobe, and the hard wooden chair at the small desk was punishing, but more of that later.

We had meetings in various places spread across New Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon, so we spent many hours on the road crossing Delhi. Our hire car was a Tavera mini-van which seemed to have the suspension from a wheelie bin. Traffic speeds in Delhi are much higher than Mumbai, where I spent most of my time in India, so this means you hit the pot holes and bumps with much more vigor. After four days of meetings I was beginning to feel like the loser of an Olympic arse kicking contest and was looking forward to the flight back to Bangkok.

Back at the hotel each evening I’d squat on the hard wooden chair catching up with my email and chatting on Skype to my family and colleagues. I think you can see where this is heading.

My father was an RAF pilot and he once told me how he was unable to sit down for a week after sitting on a block of ice whilst flying a Hunter fighter jet. The emergency water bottle that is supposed to be used when surviving in enemy territory after ejecting from a stricken airplane doubles up as the base of the pilot’s seat. When flying at high altitude the water bottle would freeze solid. These were the days before heated cockpits, G-suits or industrial injury claims solicitors.

Now if there’s ever a cool excuse for having a sore butt, it’s sitting on a frozen emergency water bottle while flying a jet fighter. Squatting on a wooden stool whilst checking email in a cheap hotel does not really have the same aura.

My next trip to India will be back to Mumbai. It’s still my favorite Indian city, despite the overcrowding and the traffic, it’s just has such energy and that touch of Bollywood glamour. Although the monsoon will have ravaged the roads, so I’d better take an inflatable cushion.
Indian Auto-rickshaw v Thai Tuk-tuk
Date Posted: Jul 29th, 2009 at 16:11 - Comments (8)
Indian Auto-rickshaw v Thai Tuk-Tuk

The Indian auto-rickshaw is sometimes mistakenly called a ‘tuk-tuk’, but its origins and the user experience couldn’t be further from its Thai relative. Yes, they both have three wheels and are used to carry passengers, but that’s where the similarity ends.

The Thai word ‘tuk’ means inexpensive, which must be an example of Thai humour as the tuk-tuk is the most expensive way for tourists to travel in Bangkok. The Indian auto on the other hand is so cheap that when you calculate the wear and tear on your shoes, it’s cheaper than walking.
So here’s a comparison for fans of three wheeled thrills ....

Historical Origin:

Tuk-tuk –a motorised version of the ‘sam-loor’ (three-wheel) cycle rickshaw
Auto – a motorised version of dragging people around in old steel bucket

Engineering:

Tuk-tuk - Based on three wheel goods vehicle platform with twin cylinder water-cooled 4-stroke engine running on compressed gas
Auto – a cross between a motor scooter and a deranged bumblebee, runs on cooking gas or anything else inflammable and cheap. Comes with 2 or 4 stroke single cylinder engine borrowed from a leaf blower.

Seating capacity:

Tuk-tuk – four Thais or two tourists, or four Thais and two tourists on a night out in Bangkok
Auto – maximum capacity yet to be determined, but thought to be three large villages

Customer interface:

Tuk-tuk – after lengthy negotiations about the price the driver takes the passengers to the nearest tailors, jewellery workshop and snake farm before dropping them off at a girly bar, even if you asked to go to your hotel.
Auto – you climb in and the driver immediately heads into the traffic in any direction chosen at random. Then by pointing, shouting and tapping on his shoulders you hopefully arrive at your destination. Speaking is not recommended as you will not be heard over the din of the screaming motor under your seat and Auto drivers speak a little known local language that mainly comprises grunting and spitting.

Navigational ability:

Tuk-tuk – the driver will know every tailor, jewellery workshop and girly bar on your route and he navigates based on the best commission.
Auto – knows every market, chai stall, bhel-puri cafe, airtel mobile top-up stand and short cut in the city, but has never heard of your hotel. Note that Taxi drivers will always ask the rickshaw-walla for directions ... just before getting lost.

Charging method:

Tuk-tuk – based on your nationality, clothing, accent and girlfriends tattoo quotient
Auto – based on an antique meter that seems to show random numbers, but never more than 20 Rs. so who cares.

Comfort:

Tuk-tuk– loud, fast and with suspension best described as ‘sporting’. If over 65 you should sit on your girlfriend to provide some shock absorption.
Auto – similar to being kicked down the road in an oil drum. Using 20 or 30 Indian school children to pack you in securely can help to minimise the spinal stress fractures.

Conclusion:

The Thai Tuk-tuk is an endangered species. It is no faster through Bangkok traffic than an air conditioned taxi and it cost more per mile than Concorde. Not recommended unless you have an urgent need for a tailor, jeweller etc

The Indian ‘auto’ provides the quickest and cheapest way to get around an Indian city whilst also allowing you to savour the sounds, smells and heat of India. A mini adventure every time you climb aboard. Highly recommended.
Same-same, but different
Date Posted: Jul 4th, 2009 at 00:27 - Comments (0)
There's a busy main road through Navi Mumbai that seems to have a permanent traffic jam. Running over the traffic jam is a two lane flyover, and in the morning the right lane is blocked by traffic and in the evening the left lane is blocked. The only reason that anyone would risk their life riding a motorcycle in Bombay is to cut through traffic jams, so with a wonderful disregard for pesky traffic rules, the biking commuters cut through a handy gap in the central reservation and ride the wrong way over the flyover.



Now it would be a simple job to fill this gap and prevent the bikes riding on the wrong side of the road, but that's missing the point. Almost every day there's an overweight Indian policeman standing just at the entrance (now exit) to the flyover where he collects on-the-spot fines from bikers.



In Bangkok there's a short of section of the main Sukhumvit road where cars and bikes are not allowed to pass. There's no real logic to the rule and the signs are so warn out that only a regular commuter would know it's a no-entry section. It would be a simple job to replace the signs or scrap the rule, but that's missing the point. This section of road is opposite a police post where a skinny policeman collects on-the-spot fines from commuters.



In Oxfordshire, England, there's a section of rural dual carriageway that for some illogical reason has a 50 MPH speed limit when 60-70 MPH is the norm for dual carriageways. It would be simple to reset the speed limit in line with all the other roads in the UK, but that's missing the point. A police officer or indeterminate weight sits inside a white van with a speed camera so fixed penalty speeding tickets can be posted out en-mass from a local office set up just for that purpose.



All three of these examples have the tacit approval of government because either it helps them to justify under-paying police officers or because it generates extra tax revenue.


Anyway, I've just returned from a trip back to the UK to visit family and friends and to top-up the points on my driving licence when I was struck by some other similarites between my 'homes'. There's been a heatwave in the UK, some freak rainstorms and it seems that some polticians are on the take. There are however some significant differences between the UK and Asia, India for example has just re-elected their Prime Minster in a democratic vote and Thailand's Prime Minister is a fit young man who was educated in England.


The Joys of Marital Feedback
Date Posted: Feb 17th, 2009 at 12:58 - Comments (1)
Feedback is one of those things that years of politically correct training from corporate HR professionals have conditioned us to say that we welcome. That is of course a lie. We all value feedback and may even use it to make us better people, but unless it is entirely positive, we welcome it about as much as an unexpected tax demand.

My long suffering wife gave me some feedback recently. This feedback was not in the same league as the feedback I received from a girlfriend in the early 80's on my disco dancing ability. That feedback was so destructive that to this day I've been unable to walk onto a dance floor without alcoholic assistance. It was also not the same as the feedback from a good friend on my early attempts at Hindi. "That sounds like nothing at all" he said with characteristic Indian bluntness, "is it supposed to be Hindi"? No, this feedback was more of an observation bourne out of our long standing partnership. And the nature of the feedback highlighted the gulf between, if I may make some vast generalisations, male and female attitudes to work and Asian v European expectations of work life balance.

My wife said that for as long as she's known me, I've always allowed my job to totally absorb my life. She didn't mean it as a compliment, but there will be many men reading this, especially Indian men, who will be thinking "yes ... and what's your point"?

I've met Indian businessment in the Gulf who only see their wife and children once a year when they fly home for Diwali. There are also many Asian wives and mothers who travel overseas to work on contracts that allow no flights home until the end of the three year contract. So in the context of working in India or anywhere else in Asia, my wife's feedback was more a reflection of the high expectations we have in the West for some sort of work life balance. But on reflection, I don't think that the six and half day working and 12 hour days we all put ourselves through in India achieved any better results than a more Westernised 5 day week. I think we all need some time for our brains to recover, and we'll take that time in or out of the office. That's my excuse for writing this journal in the office anyway. That's also why the working hours in the new NSF-CMi operations that I'm setting up in India, Thailand and China will be based on 5 day working. Of course I also know that when I phone any member of the team at 10:00 p.m on a Sunday, he or she will take my call. That is just one of the many benefits of recruiting an excellent local team.

But back to that feedback on my disco dancing .... it was the 80's and we all danced like that ... really!
Heat and Dust .... without the heat.
Date Posted: Feb 7th, 2009 at 22:44 - Comments (3)
I’ve heard that the Eskimo have fifteen different words for ‘snow’, so on a recent trip to Delhi I asked a friend how many different words there were in Hindi for ‘dust’. It turns out that there are four different phrases commonly used to describe dust. There’s the regular street dust or ‘mithi’, then there’s the sticky dust of the monsoon, the dry dust of summer and the red dust more commonly found in the South. I was disappointed to learn that there’s no special word for the fine layer of dust you always find on the top of orange juice cartons.

The dust in some Indian cities is so bad that drivers need to put their headlights on in daylight and every motorbike has a duster tucked behind its screen so the rider can clear his visor every few hundred yards. I reckon we could use the prevalence of dust in cities as an indicator for the level of corruption amongst city politicians and officials. To control dust you need to build proper concrete roads, pave the pavements, plant and maintain grass verges and water the bushes in the highway central reservations. So if you funnel all the public funds into your own pocket, none of the essential civic dust control measures will happen. Most Indian cities are notoriously dusty, except in the areas immediately around the Corporators homes of course, but some cities in Punjab and Gujarat seem to fare a little better. Singapore has no dust of course, and even thinking dusty thoughts is illegal there, Kuala Lumpur generally seems to have licked the dust issue and it’s pretty well controlled in Hong Kong. I was in Shanghai recently and there was no dust at all, but it was raining incessantly so that’s not really as fair comparison, but I bet most Chinese cities have dust pretty well under control. The whole of Africa is of course a huge dust bowl.

Talking of Shanghai, it is currently suffering from a chronic taxi shortage. The city authorities decided to clamp down on the unlicensed cabs, and as the issuing of new taxi licenses is tightly controlled there’s no longer enough taxis for the peak periods. I wasn’t aware of the problem ‘till I tried to hail a cab in the rain. After ten minutes of frantic arm waving I managed to snag a cab, only to have it stolen from me by surprisingly quick old Chinese lady who nipped under my raised arm and into my taxi. After a fruitless further 30 minutes of arm waving I headed back to the hotel to ask the concierge for some help. He was honest enough to admit that at peak time it can take him an hour to get a taxi for a guest, but he offered his insiders secret to cab catching in Shanghai. First you have to stalk your prey by hanging out in the areas where taxis will be dropping off there fares. Metro stations, hotels and shopping centers are good hunting grounds. When you see a cab slowing down, you sprint towards it and as the passenger gets out, you dive in and shut the door.

The first time I performed this manoeuvre the startled passenger hadn’t yet removed his case from the trunk, but over three days I saw many commuters using the same technique, and on one occasion a Chinese lady even jumped into the front seat of my cab as I was paying the driver.

There’s no such problem in any Indian City. You just have to think that you may want a taxi and about six will appear, covered in dust.

<Click on the Journal link at the top to see the whole story>

Beginners Guide to Mumbai Taxis
Date Posted: Dec 10th, 2008 at 12:41 - Comments (3)
It's been said that the back seat of the Hindustan Ambassador, the classic North Indian taxi and politician's preferred means of transport, is the most comfortable in the world.

The opposite has been said of the back seat of the FIAT Premier taxis used in Mumbai.

However, the Ambassador has the turning circle of a supertanker, so when navigating Mumbai roads you need to drive five miles out of your way to find a large enough space to turn around .... and 5 miles in Mumbai takes about an hour and half.

The FIAT Taxi can turn on a Rupee and as they don't have any brakes you arrive at your destination even sooner.

Taxis in Mumbai congregate in huge numbers at airports, street corners and outside hotels. But your first challenge will be finding a taxi driver who is willing to take you.

The oversupply of taxis means that the driver will have spent the last 4 hours slowly moving up the queue to enter the area where he may pick up a fare. So if you only want to go a short distance, he will suddenly forget how to speak English, or Marathi or Hindi and go back to sleeping at the wheel. The trick is to ask him to go a long distance, then change your mind when you get near to your actual destination.

The next challenge is getting him to put his meter on. It's a matter of honour amongst taxi drivers that they never use the meter (unless it's been fixed to show excess fares) and they can accurately estimate the exact fare using your standard of dress, skin colour and the type of watch you are wearing. So to get a metered fare you need to be willing to try several taxis.

The conversation usually goes like this: You: "Bhai, Churchgate Station Jhanna Hai". (Brother, I want to go to .... ).

Driver: "100 Rs" ..... You: "No, meter" ..... Driver: "No" (resumes snoozing). At this point you either get out and try another taxi or pay up. This brings us to the next challenge. Getting out of a FIAT taxi requires special skills.

Yoga was invented in India as a means of achieving the required state of total limb flexibility to extract yourself from the rear door of a FIAT taxi.

First you need to bring your knees up to your chin, then you need to roll sideways whilst extending a leg to prevent an undignified fall into the gutter.

Practice at home by climbing in and out of a your washing machine before trying the real thing.

By around your third attempt you will find a driver with a sufficiently tampered meter to accept your proposition.

For the duration of the journey you need to adopt 'the position'. This involves stooping your head to avoid contact with the velvet embossed low roofline and pushing your elbows out of the windows to give you some space and a pleasant, if dusty, breeze..

After an entertaining period of honking, swerving, shouting and more honking you will arrive at your destination where the driver will demand "100 RS", having not put the meter on after all. There's a move to replace the old FIAT taxis with modern a/c cars, but where's the fun in that?

I'm currently in Bangkok where the taxis are new, bright pink, air conditioned Toyotas. They always use the meter, but the typical fare would keep an Indian Taxi driver in chewing tobacco for a year.

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