Friday, February 29, 2008

Of credit cards, cash and India's growth story...!

Every thought of how paying telephone bills either in cash or by credit card can actually be a reflection of India's growth story? I never could have imagined the connection between a regular telephone bill payment and India's GDP growth rate, till recently!

My internet connection at home was misbehaving and I had to land up at Airtel's customer service centre in Noida last Tuesday. I reached this centre at around 1.30 p.m. , just after lunch. As I walked into the crowded service centre, the first thing I noticed was the change in the layout since I last went there around 6 months ago. The service centre was cleaner, more spacious and had an air of class about it. I had only 20 minutes to wrap up my conversation about my faulty internet connection at this service centre. I went straight to the enquiry counter and explained that my internet connection at home was not working properly at times and that there were issues with it. The service agent checked up the status on my bill payments and noticed that there was on bank transaction that had not reached the phone company in time- so much for online banking! I told him that it was not my problem, as I had paid the bill on time.

Eventually, I managed to cancel that old bank transaction and asked the service representative to fix the issue with my internet connection immediately. He suggested that I make an on-the-spot payment for my old bill and that he would immediately put in a request for speedy resurrection of my internet connection. I did not have time to argue and agreed.

When I then asked him about the billing counter, he pointed me to the far end of the service centre, where I noticed two queues - one for credit card payment and one for cash payments. And the queue for the credit card payment option was at least 3 times longer than that of the queue atthe cash payment counter. That sight had a message for me, that was loud and clear. And it hit me hard(positively and brought a smile to my face!).

Although it may seem like a mundane billing counter, I thought that the longer queue for credit cards clearly demonstrated the kind of growth India is growing! I am not anywhere close to being grey-haired, but in all my growing years, when there was no internet, no mobile phone, no credit card in the country, it was cash all the way. And to see that the number of people owning credit cards far outscored the number of people lined up for cash payments at a remote customer service centre of a famous telecom company, made me realise how much this country has progressed. Not only was the ownership of mobile phones increasing, but also, the ability to pay bills using hitherto high-end products was a revelation! I don't live in 300 B.C., don't mistake me!

These indices of a larger number of credit card owners than cash payers may never hit the headlines of any newspaper. But for somebody who has seen the upward migration curve of India, the sight of those two queues at that service centre was a huge statement. It was an attestation of the new India that is ready to take on the world and live life, king-size!


Saturday, February 09, 2008

A trip to the Wagah Border

Its the closest I ever got to Pakistan. Its the first time in my life that I felt the palpable excitement of Pakistani presence, beyond a cricket field. This was when I went to the Wagah Border on Republic Day this year and to the Golden Temple just hours before getting to the Indo-Pak border.

My first impression on seeing a Pakistani soldier, inches away from the Indian border, was one of toughness.I felt that they were immaculately dressed in dark green army outfits, with sharp noses and incredibly piercing eyes.Their posture in "attention" position, was one of "I am ready to take on the world".Their style of marching was incredibly aggressive, yet classy.I will never forget the moment when I saw this smart soldier march towards the Pakistani flag, make a right turn and slam his foot into Pakistani soil with a thud. I was a few hundred feet away from him, but the reverbrations of that foot slamming the ground was felt quite a distance away! I shudder to think what he would have done had the gates been open!!:)

I also think that the concept of a retreat in possibly one of the most patriotic spots in the world - what with Pakistanis and Indians screaming at the top of their voices with passion for their countries- is a remarkable thing.With practices of a lovely march by the Indian Border Security Force followed by a similar exercise on the Pakistani side, the national anthem on either side of the fence being played one after the other, the opening of the gates for a few minutes where the Indian and Pakistani soldiers meet, the playing of hot Bollywood numbers such as Kajra Re to up the tempo,and with the lowering of flags of both the countries in tandem(& with immense respect) were a treat to watch!The highlight of course, was the fever pitch patriotism on either side of the Wagah Border, what with the few hundred Indians who had assembled into the stadium screaming Jai Hind and Vande Mataram, and the Pakistanis trying to match the decibel levels in the vicinity, if not exceed it. All in all, an immensely patriotic place and one of the most unique places I have ever been to. Would love to go there again!.

The defining moment for me actually came after the retreat, when people on either side of the border were allowed to right up to the gate of the border(see pic) and meet each other, shake hands with each other, speak to each other with the barricade on, and indeed see the other side of the fence up,close and personal. This is allowed for just 15-20 minutes, but it was sight to behold! I also saw many Pakistanis walk along the gate at a far end that did not have a barricade, touching the small fence that divided the 2 countries, and smiling at many Indians.This was a far cry from the acrimony that usually exists on the sporting arena,when the two countries meet or when the political games are played out in Delhi and Islamabad. This was reality on the ground with people meeting each other - I guess this is what politicians mean by 'people-to-people' contact. It was phenomenal to see and I would like to do it again. And maybe one day, even cross the border using the bus that plies between Delhi and Lahore, given that Lahore was just 23 kilometres away from where I was standing on that wonderful January 26 evening!

Of course, there are a few things that I did not like there - such as special seating for women such that they had chairs and benches to sit while we guys were left standing and jostling for space, a VIP seating arrangement for people with "access" to be seated right next to the gate that divides the two countries and the sad planning (on the Indian side at least) in accommodating people. There were tons of folks who could not even sight the retreat in full, and were pretty much seeing the entire 30 minute show through handycams and digital cameras of people around. Anyway, as with many things in life, this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, I guess, because, the larger picture of patriotic fervour was something else!!

Jai Hind!!

Why I think Sania Mirza is right?

So much has been written about India's tennis ace, Sania Mirza deciding to skip the Bangalore Open in March 2008. Experts have even written obituaries of her sizzling career with almost no future. Veterans of the game have ridiculed her for having taken the stand that she will not play tennis in the near-term within the country. Commentators of the game have gone on record saying that she should reconsider such decisions, as ATP tournaments rarely come to India, players like Venus Williams are coming home for the first time ever and that Sania has a great opportunity to defeat the top 10 players in her own backyard, given the crowd support and momentum.

But well, hang on a minute! Has anyone ever seen the champion's point of view? She just says that she finds it so difficult to focus on the game, given the innumerable distractions and "imposed" controversies, none more than the one to do with the Indian flag and her feet. Call it the mastery of the cameraman to have brought in that controversy to the front pages.

I genuinely feel that Sania is standing up for herself, for her values.She is just saying to the world that she may love the country immensely and will do anything to represent the country and win,but, she will not accept such demeaning behaviour by people instigating such controversies.

In my mind, s
he has demonstrated enough by going all out in the Fed Cup despite nursing an injury.How many times have we seen the other tennis ace, Leander Paes go out and do it for India in the most extenuating circumstances? But, the difference is, he was never ridiculed for anything and rightly so. Similarly, its just not right to accuse Sania with mundane things such as short skirts,because that is how the game of tennis has been played for decades. Alright, connoissuers of the game can argue that back in the early part of the last century, girls played tennis with full trousers,but unfortunately, they need to remember that Sania Mirza is a reflection of the generation next.She is a core part of the new breed of achievers emanating from Indian sport.She is the next big hope of a country to win the coveted Wimbledon crown, down the line, which means she needs to play on grass like in the upcoming Bangalore Open. However, the current environment is not letting her build that expertise.

She is ranked in the top 30, which is no mean feat for an Indian sportsperson.So, why stop the juggernaut with such "imposed" controversies? I just hope she gets back on track soon and shuts out all the negative vibes going around.We have had a Prakash Padukone get us an All England Championship many years ago;we have had a Geet Sethi give us crowning glory in billiards many times;we have Olympic bronze medals from shooting and weightlifting.We have had Leander and Mahesh bring us many a doubles championship for us.Let's not stop Sania from getting us great glory in individual sport,for our country!